Richard Smith to speak on capitalism and the global ecological threat

Photo by Matthew Anderson

Richard Smith is a leading writer on the economic imperatives that are driving the global capitalist economic system and the consequences for planet Earth’s ecology and human society. A resident of New York, he will speak next week at public forums in Vancouver, Victoria and Gabriola Island about his research and his forthcoming book, ‘To Save the Human, Turn the World Upside Down’.

His speaking events are organized by organizations including the Vancouver Ecosocialists Group, the Social and Environmental Alliance (Victoria) and Sustainable Gabriola. The Vancouver Observer caught up with him to preview his visit and talks.

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Richard Smith says the person who most shaped his intellectual development was Robert Brenner at University of California in Los Angeles. “I studied with him for years and he supervised my [PhD] dissertation. Brenner is without doubt one of the most brilliant Marxist historians in the world today and I was extremely fortunate to study under him. “

Smith is among the Marxist writers who are joining other writers on science and ecology in warning that excessive and wasteful production of commodities by modern capitalist society must stop before it’s too late for the Earth. The threat of global warming and resulting environmental and species degradation is increasingly alarming.

In earlier research and writing, Smith examined the development of capitalism in post-Mao China and its effects on that country’s environment. “Growing up in beautiful Seattle I always had a strong appreciation for nature, the outdoors, and so on. But I really got interested in environmental issues back in the 1980s before climate change became a household word, mainly through my research on China's transition to capitalism, which I was the subject of my dissertation in the History Dept. at UCLA.”

He says the publication in 2005 of Jared Diamond's acclaimed book, ‘Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed’, became a “perfect point of departure” to carry forward his research. He penned a lengthy review of the book it that was a big hit in the Journal of Ecological Economics where it was published. He wrote in the review:

Diamond takes us on a sobering reality tour of six societies that committed ecological suicide in the hopes that we can learn from their failures in time to save ourselves,” Smith wrote. While praising much of Diamond’s “history lesson”, Smith wrote that Diamond was hobbled by a “reluctance to discard his own pro-market ‘core values’.

In particular, Diamond’s faith in the free market and the potential for reforming the market system before it destroys us is naïve and unfounded. Furthermore, his assumption that societies are ‘free to choose’ to succeed or fail is dubious, since most modern societies are massively constrained by capitalist property relations, capitalist requirements for reproduction, and the lack of popular democratic control over the economy.

“The widespread interest in the review inspired me to get back to work on the book on global capitalism and the environment that I had begun in 1999.”

In the years following, Smith wrote a series of lengthy articles developing his ideas. Recently, three of them were republished on Truthout and drawn to the special attention of readers by its editors.

In ‘Green Capitalism: The god that failed’, published in March 2011, Smith grapples with what he argues is the pressing need to vastly reduce global economic production and consumption if we are to bring greenhouse gas emissions down to a level to avoid runaway global warming:

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