Hi is concerned for the desperately dysfunctional scientific and ethical models that currently inform politics and development in all parts of the world.
He also considers that “the size of the capitalist system matters more than its name” if it “operates on a massive scale, and all considerations except profit are neglected in favour of cutting or externalizing costs”.
According to Curry the current globalization process is running out of control and amplifying the problems caused by corporate and political corruption and by Big Science.
For this reason he advocates a small-scale neighbourhood approach to food production as well as politics.
His hope is that as the crisis inevitably intensifies and the system breaks down these networks will be ready to form the basis of a sane society based on respect for nature, and the rights of the whole world population to a decent standard of living.
In the first part of his interview with The Prisma Patrick Curry talked about his new book “Ecological ethics” and the intellectual journey that led him to write it. Now he considers the problems of putting political change into practice, making clear that he favours small-scale local initiatives.
He favours this as a more ecological way to feed ourselves, and because he believes that it is empowering to resist the system even in small ways.
You say that small local agriculture is the answer. But in Africa cash crops are exported to sustain over-consumption in Europe, and at the same time African countries are forced by the IMF to privatize essential services and prevented from competing in the open market. It’s an interlocking system that isn’t going to be changed easily. And because of their poverty they have to have large families.
There is a very good book by Raj Patel called “Stuffed and Starved” that shows that obesity in the developed countries and hunger in the developing world are part of the same dynamic.
So, it requires massive political change, how and by whom ?
I’ve borrowed from 2 thinkers, Saral Sarkar an eco-socialist and Ted Trainer an Australian theorist, and I discuss how in this seemingly hopeless situation of David vs. Goliath, the best we can do is create local networks such as community agricultural initiatives, allotment growing, and farmers markets, that will slowly build structures underneath and alongside the capitalist economy. A Marxist assault on capitalism isn’t a serious or desirable option, as history shows.
I am advocating developing these non-capitalist market economies, for 2 reasons. One is that it’s a more ecological and social and humane way to do things, and secondly, it is hard to see any improvement until enough people become sufficiently inconvenienced and distressed by the increasing failures of the current system. Then the danger is that reactionary and populist authoritarians will seize the chance to take over. So greens and other progressives need to be ready with alternatives, already working on the ground. The recent riots revealed greed, stupidity and immorality among the underclass mirroring that of politicians, bankers, and the top police themselves.
One heartening thing was the way lower-middle-class immigrants spontaneously came out to protect their livelihoods and neighbourhoods, and middle-middle-class communities, including many young people, rejected violent opportunism and came out to clean up afterwards. We need the same spirit and actions in defence of the Earth, animals, and humans.
Most farmers markets sell imported French cheese and meat, at high prices to middle-class consumers.
A real farmer’s market is local. Agro-ecology means more than just organic food, which is now being colonized by corporate interests. It’s as important to grow and eat locally – and seasonally – using local methods of pest control, as it is to grow food organically.
Another problem ecologically is that the cost of cheap food is artificially low, because its real ecological cost, the damage caused to the natural capital by agribusiness methods is discounted, so the consumer doesn’t pay for the damage they do. I know that what I’m advocating is easier for an idealistic middle class, but when enough of it is happening then economies of scale will make it more generally affordable.
Globalization is a fact, but it’s very uneven, and my feeling is that it can be safe and even life-enhancing, as long as you are sufficiently locally rooted. But if you are part of a rootless global workforce, buffeted by globalization you really don’t stand much chance of resisting the worst aspects of it. In Europe we have social-political structures which although they are bastions of conservatism, also offer resistance to globalization in ways that don’t exist in North America.
The last time I went through Winnipeg, it was as if a neo-liberal hurricane had swept through and left this detritus of used car lots and fast food joints and nothing else.
In developing countries, Indigenous cultures are stronger, so there is more potential for resistance, but there greater pressures coming from the history of colonialism and imperialism.
What about the politics of the countries of the Amazon Basin?
Lula is an instructive example of how socialism, broadly speaking is not a solution to the ecological crisis, because it has bought into the industrial paradigm almost as much as neo-liberal capitalism. Socialists want to divide the cake more fairly and use it better, but the assumption that nature is there to be exploited is the same.
Lula gave his personal backing for the huge Delamonte dam in Brazil, which will be enormously damaging to the environment and to the indigenous people, and that’s not just an aberration, it’s a consequence of the socialist world view. The other instructive example is Evo Morales, and his declaration of the rights of Mother Earth 2010. That was very encouraging, because it openly recognized an ethical dimension to how we organize ourselves economically. But the Bolivian Government has recently approved a new road which (1), straight through undeveloped territory, where more than one un-contacted tribe lives. It will be the thin end of the wedge for so-called development. He is under pressure to cope with difficult situations but this is just gross hypocrisy!
Where do NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth stand on this spectrum?
The first test I would apply to an NGO is “Where do they get their money from ?”
If it comes from corporate sponsors, they are in a fatal conflict of interest, and cannot be taken seriously. If they get their money from individuals, or other non-corporate sources, as Greenpeace has always been very careful to do then there is some hope. The Environmental Investigation Organization does excellent work protecting animals, while the WWF is much more compromised by corporate interests and has become like a mini-government. Friends of the Earth are pretty good as well.
Can the capitalist system be reformed?
The size of the system matters more than its name. If it operates on a massive scale, and all considerations except profit are neglected in favour of cutting or externalizing costs, forcing people to work longer hours for less, I would call that capitalist. A smaller-scale mixed economy, locally based, where there isn’t the pressure to scale up – Body Shop being bought by L’Oreal is just very typical – is what we need. If you call that reformed capitalism or a mixed socialist economy it really doesn’t matter.
I’m not advocating a return to the Stone Age – even if there is a risk of it happening involuntarily – I question the assumption that, say anaesthetics and good dentistry, are a closely knit package with nuclear power and advances in military technology. Can’t we unpick the package and get rid of the bad things ?
If you say it’s hopelessly romantic and unrealistic, in a sense it is, but this question of realism is interesting because the measures that books like mine advocate in the medium to long term are intensely realistic. What is really unrealistic is to imagine that things can go on in the way they are indefinitely.
And if you take the view that it’s all hopeless, of course that is a decision too, the decision to do nothing, and it contributes directly to the possibility that there will be a crash. Resistance is important, even if you don’t have a ready-made alternative, there is a virtue in resisting in small ways. You’re going against the flow, and maybe in ways you’ll never understand, you are contributing to something better emerging.
The model of government that I favour, – given the vulnerability of democracy to corporate corruption, which the mass media is hand-in-glove with – is civic republicanism, which is a subterranean form of political thought based primarily on the Italian City States, that favours active political participation, not just voting for indistinguishable parties every 5 years. There are two problems though – A people are lazy, which I understand – and B given the huge population, how do you retain a meaningful scale?
The only possibility I can suggest is trying to build up from local to county to state government and extending up from the grassroots without completely losing the perspective that you as a citizen are an active participant and have a vested interest in the outcome. It’s an enormous problem – but I think the weaknesses of the democratic system are so glaring that we’ve got to think about alternatives.
It goes back to citizens’ initiatives, voluntary organizations, – the sort of thing that the Big Society is supposed to be doing, if they weren’t so busy trying to feed the bankers.
And because people see it as a cover for the cuts.
I understand why people are cynical but I think that is self-defeating too, because participating in local groups, running an allotment, or fighting a new development in your neighbourhood, can be very fulfilling. It does presume that your basic needs are being met. But there are a lot of people whose basic needs are already being met, who could do a lot more if they were encouraged to. But as long as the government is deeply influenced by neo-Liberal economics that cynicism will continue.