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Birdsong, wilderness and bio-fuels

By Peter Vintila - posted Thursday, 29 October 2009

By chance, these few words from a piece in Eurekalert, recently caught my eye: “… wildlife habitat, particularly that of the birds who call this country's grasslands home, is threatened” - threatened by the rapidly expanding production of crop based bio-fuels. The article is at once richly informative and suggests imaginative solutions. Look it up if you’re interested: “In search of wildlife-friendly biofuels: could native prairie grasses be the answer?

I was reminded of two older books - one published almost 50 and the other 150 years ago. Both are pioneering works that all green activists should know a little about.

Silent Spring

Rachel’s Carson’s now classic Silent Spring has an evocative and beautiful title that laments the disappearance of birdlife from rural America wherever a chemical intensive modern industrial agriculture exists poisoning wildlife habitat. The disappearance of birdlife means the disappearance of birdsong: silent spring follows. Worldwide bans and restrictions on the profligate use of DDT and other agricultural chemicals found their inspiration in this book.


Older activists recognise a foundational presence in Rachel Carson. No Hollywood icon like Erin Brockovich, Carson was a retiring figure in the hostile pro-growth America of the 1960s, full of grand plans for the conquest nature. Yet, and whether they know it or not, toxics and food activists are hugely indebted to her. She has inspired such contemporary classics as Our Stolen Futures and Fast Food Nation. Carson is also credited with kickstarting the state’s serious involvement in environmental protection - and the establishment of the US EPA.

Rachel Carson, from the opening pages of Silent Spring:

Along the roads, laurel … and alder, great ferns and wild flowers delighted … countless birds came to feed on the berries and seed heads … The country-side was famous for the abundance and variety of its birdlife … There was a strange stillness. The birds - where had they gone … the few birds seen anywhere were moribund. They trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices … only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh … The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials.

We look at state environmental protection agencies today and think “weak” or “compromised” and then we lean against them with all of our weight and shout at unyielding ministerial doors in an attempt to shift them just a little. How hard is that? Well, imagine creating them in the first place. Rachel Carson kept doing the only thing any of us can do: she kept leaning and metaphorically shouting no matter what … and no matter how difficult public and private life both were for a female dying from protracted cancer in middle age and widely rumoured to be a lesbian in a homophobic society.

In a posthumous essay, she referred to the "lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world … available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life.” For harbouring such un-American thoughts, the US Secretary of Agriculture accused her of "probably being a Communist". It always hides a multitude of sins!

Principles of Political Economy

The second book is J.S. Mill’s Principles of Political Economy and in particular the chapter entitled “The Stationary State”. Mill would have been hauled before the House of un-American Activities Committee had he lived in the mid 20th century as a liberal turned socialist. But he lived in a more tolerant 19th century Britain. His Principles was published in 1848 just as classical political economy was becoming a much more inward looking neo-classical economics - the form liberal economics takes today.


Whatever the continuities, at the heart of this transition lay the abandonment of a question that had pre-occupied classical political economy and its socialist critics from beginning to end: what value did things have that lead us to pay particular prices for them? Classical political economists had sought the answer in some combination of capital, labour and land. Marx criticised them harshly and said it was all labour. Neo-classicals then came along and essentially dismissed the question, arguing that value was disclosed in price and simply reflected an inner appreciation located mysteriously within the consumer him or herself.

This was deeply regressive. It was no longer possible to argue that prices deviated from value - including those prices called interest, wages and rent that we paid for the capital, labour and land. Conservatives loved this because it demolished any case suggesting the exploitation of labour.

There was another critical consequence: economic theory rendered itself incapable of grappling with questions of objective environmental value or importance. The possible abusive exploitation of labour and nature disappeared together from the horizons of liberal economic thought. The stage was ideologically set to let a still infant industrial economy rip. But Marx, too, missed the boat here. His labour theory of value supported a critique of human exploitation but not of the exploitation of nature. The shocking environmental abuses of later socialist states were partly, and almost unreflectively, legitimated in this way.

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About the Author

Peter Vintila is currently completing a book called Climate change war or climate change peace to be published early in 2010. An exploratory essay under the same title is available on his website.

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