Eco-Socialism & ‘Green New Deal’ Pipe Dreams
For Humanity to Live, Capitalism Must Die!
“Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing. Attempts to ‘green’ capitalism, to make it ‘ecological’, are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth.”
—Remaking Society, Murray Bookchin, 1990, p 93-94
The developing global ecological crisis, after steadily gaining momentum over the past half century, is now approaching the point of no return: over the next few decades humanity will be faced point-blank with a choice between socialism and barbarism (or worse). A habitable planet with diverse life forms requires an end to the system of production for profit in favor of one based on rational planning on a global scale. The notion that a “Green New Deal” (GND), inspired by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s much-ballyhooed, but ultimately ineffective, New Deal of the 1930s, might successfully induce global capitalism to fundamentally change its modus operandi in order to avert impending disaster is a dangerous illusion. Capitalism can’t be fixed: it must be abolished.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman coined the phrase “Green New Deal” in a 2007 article suggesting “a broad range of programs and industrial projects to revitalize America” which could “change the very nature of the electricity grid—moving it away from dirty coal or oil to clean coal and renewables.” Friedman’s proposal to rescue capitalism by transitioning to a post-fossil fuel world was echoed later that year by Britain’s Green New Deal Group which advocated “Green Keynesian” spending as the means to simultaneously generate economic growth and fend off the looming ecological collapse. Richard Walker, a professor emeritus of geography at the University of California who has been documenting the legacy of the New Deal, is optimistic about the GND:
“The Green New Deal resolution is in line with the original New Deal’s ambitious aims. The New Deal introduced a wide array of programs that addressed a broad spectrum of the country’s problems. The Green New Deal tries to do a similar thing. It doesn’t just attack climate change, but also social justice, jobs, wages, infrastructure, modernization, and more. That’s what the Roosevelt administration tried to do.”
—jacobinmag.com, 26 March 2019
Green Party activists in the U.S. have joined “progressive” Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders in promoting the idea of a “Green New Deal.” In Britain, the Labour Party has joined the Green European Foundation in advocating a “Green Industrial Revolution.” Despite differences in some of the details, all these plans are based on the illusion that through some sort of magical Keynesian market intervention, global capitalism can avert ecological catastrophe and simultaneously end poverty and inequality by generating tens of millions of “green jobs.” As climate activist Greta Thunberg observed, this sort of green-capitalist day-dreaming does “more harm than good”:
“Recently a new scientific report was published by scientists from Uppsala University and the Tyndall Centre in the UK. It shows that if rich countries like Sweden and the UK are to fulfil their commitments to the Paris Agreement’s well-below 2°C target they need to reduce their total national emissions of CO2 by 12-15% every year, starting now.
“Of course there’s no ‘green recovery plan’ or ‘deal’ in the world that alone would be able to achieve such emission cuts. And that’s why the whole ‘green deal’ debate ironically risks doing more harm than good, as it sends a signal that the changes needed are possible within today’s societies. As if we could somehow solve a crisis without treating it like a crisis.”
—time.com, 10 July 2020
Marx and the metabolic rift
John Bellamy Foster, perhaps the world’s leading eco-socialist, was the first to describe the wedge that modern capitalist agricultural production inserted between human civilization and nature, as a “metabolic rift.” Foster’s concept is informed by Karl Marx’s observations that, even in the 19th century, intensive capitalist farming was beginning to degrade soil fertility, a problem that since then has been vastly exacerbated. In 2014 an official with the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation, speaking on World Soil Day, projected that erosion resulting from the combination of deforestation, droughts caused by climate change and chronic overuse of chemical fertilizers could effectively destroy the entirety of the world’s top soil within 60 years (scientificamerican.com, 5 December 2014).
Human beings currently account for roughly 36 percent of the biomass of all mammals, while the cows, pigs, and other animals being grown by commercial agricultural enterprises make up 60 percent. Wild mammals constitute a mere four percent of the total. The severe distortions created by capitalist intensive livestock production have occurred in parallel with the spread of monoculture farming in many “developing” countries. The production of palm oil provides an extreme example: in Malaysia 70 percent of all arable land is used to produce this single commodity for the world market.
Marx observed that the process of production, not consumption, shapes any social order:
“Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”
—“Critique of the Gotha Programme”, 1875
Like the “vulgar socialists” Marx describes, contemporary leftist GND enthusiasts tend to focus on the sphere of distribution, implicitly accepting the indefinite continuation of the global capitalist framework. The “Green Industrial Revolution” put forward by Labour lefts Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, for example, proposed “a windfall tax on oil companies,” and promised that “the costs of the green transition fall fairly and are mostly borne by the wealthy.” They also proposed “increasing direct support for R&D and reforming the innovation ecosystem to better ‘crowd in’ private investment” while “exempting new capital [invested in targeted sectors] from business rates.” Like the GND advocated by Sanders and other “progressive” Democrats in the U.S., Labour’s Green Manifesto was designed to operate within the confines permitted by the maintenance of private property. But because the impending ecological disaster is a direct, and inevitable, result of the mechanism of production for private profit, preventing it requires overturning capitalism and replacing it with a system based on collective ownership and rational socialist planning.
John Bellamy Foster’s stageism
In The Robbery of Nature, John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark observe:
“Capitalism’s inability to engage in social and economic planning is reflected in decades of failed environmental policy. Although there have been some relatively minor environmental improvements, all attempts at comprehensive planning and action of the kind needed to avert what the scientific community is pointing to as a sure path of destruction have been systematically repulsed by the system.”
“In order to avoid catastrophic climate change, it will be necessary, science tells us, to find a way to keep the fossil fuels in the ground…At the same time, it will be necessary to reverse the other planetary rifts, such as species extinction, the rupture of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, ocean acidification, the depletion or overuse of freshwater, the elimination of natural vegetative ground cover, and the degradation of the soil—in order to not close off the future. Here too we are forced to confront the nature of our social system.”
“The really inconvenient truth is that there is no possible way to accomplish any, much less all, of these things other than by breaking with the underlying logic of the accumulation of capital…the grim reality is that climate change and other planetary rifts demand urgent action, within a timeline of a generation or less, leaving virtually no options other than revolutionary social change.”
In a November 2019 Monthly Review article, Foster observed that “none of the Green New Deal proposals are anywhere near to conceiving, much less tackling, the immensity of the task that the current planetary emergency demands.” This did not prevent him from endorsing the GND proposals put forward by Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders as well as the slightly different version advanced by the Green Party’s Jill Stein and Howie Hawkins. His rationale was that they:
“constitute what in socialist theory is called revolutionary reforms, that is, reforms that promise a fundamental restructuring of economic, political, and ecological power, and that point toward rather than away from the transition from capitalism to socialism.”
Why endorse plans that are not “anywhere near to conceiving, much less tackling” the core problem posed by planetary emergency? Foster’s answer is that perhaps:
“they are sufficiently grounded in necessity that they could spark a global revolutionary struggle for freedom and sustainability, since the changes contemplated go against the logic of capital itself and cannot be achieved without a mobilization of the population as a whole on an emergency basis.”
The idea that reformist incrementalism might somehow, some day, semi-automatically result in a revolutionary social transformation will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the social-democratic/Stalinist two-stage theory of socialism which Rosa Luxemburg famously critiqued in her pamphlet “Reform or Revolution?” Foster is quite explicitly advocating a “two stage” process:
“…it is important to recognize that an ecological and social revolution under present historical conditions is likely to pass through two stages that we can call ecodemocratic and ecosocialist. The self-mobilization of the population will initially take an ecodemocratic form, emphasizing the building of energy alternatives combined with a just transition, but in a context generally lacking any systematic critique of production or consumption. Eventually, however, the pressure of climate change and the struggle for social and ecological justice, spurred on by the mobilization of diverse communities, can be expected to lead to a more comprehensive ecorevolutionary view, penetrating the veil of the received ideology.”
The “ecodemocratic” stage would presumably unfold over the course of multiple four or five year electoral cycles. While Foster does not speculate on how long it may take for an “ecorevolutionary” moment to arrive, his own analysis of the depth and urgency of the crisis makes clear the irrationality of wasting precious time passively waiting for the masses to see through radical-sounding “green” doubletalk and come to the realization that the shell game of parliamentary manoeuvres and legislative compromise will only ever produce ineffective cosmetic half-measures. Surely it is obvious that Marxists have a responsibility to try to find ways to accelerate what Foster terms the “penetration of the veil of received ideology,” and thereby hasten the day when “ecorevolutionary” consciousness grips the workers’ movement. This has to begin by telling the bitter truth that all the various “Green New Deals” are fatally flawed because they presume that the problems generated by the cancer of capitalist accumulation can somehow be cured without cutting out the tumor of a social system based on maximizing private profit.
As is usual in such scenarios, Foster’s initial “ecodemocratic” stage sidesteps the problem posed by the commitment of the capitalist state to defending the interests of those who benefit from the status quo. If the advocates of a Green New Deal ever gained enough influence to threaten the imposition of any serious regulatory restriction on profit-making, powerful corporate interests would respond with a barrage of legal and political tactics aimed at avoiding, or at least indefinitely delaying, any significant concessions. Foster acknowledges this, but treats it as a problem that can be postponed until the ecological revolution has reached its “full development”:
“Ecological revolution faces the enmity of the entire capitalist system. At a minimum it means going against the logic of capital. In its full development, it means transcending the system. Under these conditions, the reactionary response of the capitalist class backed by its rearguard on the far right will be regressive, destructive, and unrestrained…Ecological barbarism or ecofascism are palpable threats in the current global political context and are part of the reality with which any mass ecological revolt will need to contend. Only a genuine revolutionary, and not a reformist, struggle will be able to propel itself forward in these circumstances.”
There is no way to calculate in advance the speed at which political consciousness will be transformed, nor the exact course it will take. But it is obvious enough that the illusions promoted by all the various Green New Deal schemes can only retard the development of “ecorevolutionary” sentiment. Those “Marxists” who back any of the various iterations of the GND on the grounds that half a loaf is better than none, just obscure the simple truth that only the establishment of an entirely different, i.e., socialist, political and economic order can avert ecological catastrophe.
Socialist pretenders and ‘eco-Leninist’ Kautskyism
The “Eco-socialist Working Group” within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) “demand[s] solutions” and asserts:
“The ineffectual gradualism and corporate obedience demonstrated by the U.S. government’s climate response has proven to be a dead-end for humanity. We need rapid, systemic transformation that heals the stratification of wealth and power while putting decarbonization and justice at the forefront.
“We need a Green New Deal. We demand a Green New Deal, and we demand that it serve people and planet—not profit.”
—ecosocialists.dsausa.org, 28 February 2019
The DSA’s “radical” Green New Deal is projected as being achievable within the framework of capitalism:
“We must warn all politicians that we will not accept a watered-down Green New Deal that they exploit as a mere electoral slogan. They will either fight for the radical Green New Deal that emerges from our coalition or be exposed as collaborators with the ecocidal elite who have no concern for our future.
“Our role is to help build a militant mass working-class movement that is powerful enough to secure human flourishing for all beyond the critical next decades, not just survival for some. Together, we can break the power of capitalists and guarantee the regeneration of a vibrant natural world that is home for humanity—and all forms of life—for many generations to come.”
The tough talk about breaking the power of the capitalists is just leftist window dressing—the nub of the DSA plan is revealed in the salute to Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal policy plan as “ambitious yet achievable,” (ecosocialists.dsausa.org, 23 August 2019). Bernie’s plan clearly presumes that capitalism will remain in place for generations to come; it does not once mention anything about “socialism” and projects a “progressive” president being able to direct things from the White House:
“The scope of the challenge ahead of us shares similarities with the crisis faced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940s…As president, Bernie Sanders will boldly embrace the moral imperative of addressing the climate crisis and act immediately to mobilize millions of people across the country in support of the Green New Deal. From the Oval Office to the streets, Bernie will generate the political will necessary for a wholesale transformation of our society…”
In a May 2019 article, “Plan, Mood, Battlefield—Reflections on the Green New Deal,” Thea Riofrancos, a leading member of the DSA’s Eco-Socialist steering committee, ridiculed the idea of any future “revolutionary rupture” and counterposed the creation of “a new terrain of politics” through a combination of popular protest and “creative experimentation” with rejigging capitalism’s state machinery:
“Waiting for [sic] ever-deferred moment of revolutionary rupture is functionally tantamount to quiescence. In an extremely asymmetric conflict against fossil fuel executives, private utilities, landlords, bosses and the politicians that do their bidding, we need both extra-parliamentary, disruptive action from below—taking inspiration from Standing Rock, the teachers’ strike wave, Extinction Rebellion, the global youth climate strikes—and creative experimentation with policies and institutions. The battles to come have the potential to unleash desires and transform identities. We will learn, screw up, and learn again. The Green New Deal doesn’t offer a prepackaged solution, it opens up a new terrain of politics. Let’s seize it.”
—viewpointmag.com, 16 May 2019
Social democrats like Riofrancos who reject the idea of the revolutionary potential of the working class, consider that the only realistic option for “actively intervening to shape” the future is through accommodation to the existing social order.
In a 29 October 2020 online discussion with Swedish eco-socialist Andreas Malm, Riofrancos argued that an effective strategy must be based on two factors: 1) the divisions within the capitalist class between advocates of fossil fuels and advocates of green renewables; and 2) the mobilization of sufficient popular pressure to compel the capitalist state to implement measures to ensure a rational, sustainable future for the free market.
Malm, as a prominent radical eco-socialist, rejects such overt reformism. In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, published in September 2020, he points to the Bolsheviks’ emergency “war communism” regime in Russia between 1918 and 1921 as an appropriate model for any serious struggle to avert the looming catastrophe:
“Social democracy works on the assumption that time is on our side. But if catastrophe strikes, and if it is the status quo that produces it, then the reformist calendar is shredded.”
Malm outlines some key steps that should be taken:
“Comprehensive, airtight planning. Everybody knows this. Few say it. One can obviously not rely on spontaneous cessation of demand, or on people just quitting travel; there would have to be a continuous substitution of one kind of energy for another over the transitional period—or, ‘a single economic plan covering the whole country and all branches of productive activity. This plan must be drawn up for a number of years, for the whole epoch that lies before us’, to cite Leon Trotsky. One can of course find this idea so repugnant that one would rather give up on the climate of the earth. And that is indeed the choice the dominant classes and their governments wake up to make every morning.”
He goes on to sketch what he sees as the three main pillars of “eco-Leninism”:
“There has been a lot of talk about ecological Marxism in recent years, and with the chronic emergency over us, the time has come to also experiment with ecological Leninism. Three principles of that project seem decisive. First, and above all, ecological Leninism means turning the crises of symptoms into crises of the causes.”
“A second principle for ecological Leninism can be extracted from their position: speed as paramount virtue. ‘Whether the probable disaster can be avoided depends on an acute sense of conjuncture’, writes Bensaïd, who reconstructs the crisis of September and observes that ‘waiting was becoming a crime’. Or, with Lenin himself: ‘delay is fatal’. It is necessary to act ‘this very evening, this very night’. The truth of these assertions has never been more patent. As anyone with the barest insight into the state of the planet knows, speed, very regrettably, because of the criminal waiting and delaying and dithering and denying of the dominant classes, has become a metric of meaning in politics. ‘Nothing can now be saved by half-measures.’”
“Third, ecological Leninism leaps at any opportunity to wrest the state in this direction, break with business-as-usual as sharply as required and subject the regions of the economy working towards catastrophe to direct public control.”
The third leg of Malm’s “eco-Leninism”—the idea that the capitalist state can be “wrested” into serving the interests of the vast majority at the expense of the propertied elites—is a clear and explicit repudiation of Lenin’s insistence that the capitalist state is a machine for oppression and exploitation which cannot be reformed and must therefore be destroyed. Malm seeks to get around this with the profound observation that “no other form of state” currently exists:
“But what state? We have just argued that the capitalist state is constitutionally incapable of taking these steps. And yet there is no other form of state on offer. No workers’ state based on soviets will be miraculously born in the night. No dual power of the democratic organs of the proletariat seems likely to materialise anytime soon, if ever. Waiting for it would be both delusional and criminal, and so all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state, tethered to the circuits of capital as always. There would have to be popular pressure brought to bear on it, shifting the balance of forces condensed in it, forcing apparatuses to cut the tethers and begin to move, using the plurality of methods already hinted at (some further outlined by the present author in How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire). But this would clearly be a departure from the classical programme of demolishing the state and building another—one of several elements of Leninism that seem ripe (or overripe) for their own obituaries.”
This amounts to an overt rejection of Lenin’s insistence on the necessity to smash the bourgeois state in favor of the pseudo-Marxist reformist fantasies spun by his nemesis, the renegade Karl Kautsky, who argued that the capitalists’ machinery of oppression could be transformed into a lever for popular liberation. For all his leftist posturing and dramatic allusions to “war communism,” Malm ends up in the camp of Kautsky, Riofrancos and the DSA, and others who promote debilitating notions about using “the whole spectrum of popular leverage, from electoral campaigns to mass sabotage” to induce the capitalist state to change its stripes.
21st Century capitalism: Addicted to Fossil-fuel
Fossil-fuel capitalists are not some isolated “fragment” of the global imperialist order—they are at its very core. The plastics necessary in most industrial sectors are all derived from fossil fuels (fossilfuel.com, 28 November 2019). Petroleum products are also essential in modern agri-business for the production of fertilizers and pesticides, powering tractors and other machinery, as well as for processing, packaging and transportation. A 2020 study carried out by six environmental groups (Banktrack, Indigenous Environmental Network, Oil Change International, Rainforest Action Network, Reclaim Finance and the Sierra Club) revealed the extent of integration between fossil fuel corporations and global finance capital:
“In total, the world’s biggest banks have put US$2.7 trillion into those industries since the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to the Banking on Climate Change 2020 report (https://www.ran.org/bankingonclimatechange2020/) which tracked data on 35 private financial institutions. While investments to the biggest coal, oil and gas producers fell in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Agreement, researchers found that in 2019 those investments shot back up by some 40%.”
—forbes.com, 18 March 2020
Maximizing short-term returns without regard for overall, long-term consequences has led some major capitalist players to perversely seek to cash in on the ongoing destruction of the ecosystem:
“Mining companies buy land in Greenland with the knowledge that melting ice will reveal new mineral and oil reserves (https://www.vox.com/2014/8/18/6031219/how-to-profit-off-of-global-warming). Private security firms prepare to defend wealthy clients from civil unrest caused by droughts, floods, and famines (ibid). Dutch engineering companies sell flood-management expertise and plans for floating cities (ibid). Wealthy investors buy vast swathes of farmland in the Global South in hope of cashing in when droughts make arable land scarce (https://www.vox.com/2014/11/20/7254883/farmland-trade-land-grab). Many millions will die from the effects of global warming and capitalists are counting on it.”
—e-flux.com, June 2020
Even many of the mainstream NGO environmental outfits are themselves linked to big petroleum interests, as we touched on in reviewing “Planet of the Humans.”
The first step in solving any problem is to correctly analyse its origin and its extent. The current climate crisis is clearly extremely dire and well beyond the ability of the existing global political establishment to handle. Anyone who imagines that the mavens of capital can be pushed into ending reliance on fossil fuels soon enough to make a difference is simply engaging in wishful thinking. The crocodile tears and empty declarations of intent repeatedly issued at one climate change confab after another have not slowed the inexorable rise of atmospheric CO2, deforestation and most other indices of ecological destruction. The World Meteorological Organization’s “Provisional Report on the State of the Global Climate 2020” opens with the following “key messages”:
“Concentrations of the major greenhouse gases, CO2, CH4, and N2O, continued to increase in 2019 and 2020.
“Despite developing La Niña conditions, global mean temperature in 2020 is on course to be one of the three warmest on record. The past six years, including 2020, are likely to be the six warmest years on record.
“Sea level has increased throughout the altimeter record, but recently sea level has risen at a higher rate due partly to increased melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Global mean sea level in 2020 was similar to that in 2019 and both are consistent with the long-term trend. A small drop in global sea level in the latter part of 2020 is likely associated with developing La Niña conditions, similar to the temporary drops associated with previous La Niña events.
“Over 80% of the ocean area experienced at least one marine heatwave in 2020 to date. More of the ocean experienced marine heat waves classified as ‘strong’ (43%) than ‘moderate’ (28%).
“2019 saw the highest ocean heat content on record and the rate of warming over the past decade was higher than the long-term average, indicating continued uptake of heat from the radiative imbalance caused by greenhouse gases.
“In the Arctic, the annual minimum sea-ice extent was the second lowest on record and record low sea-ice extents were observed in the months of July and October. Antarctic sea ice extent remained close to the long-term average.
“The Greenland ice sheet continued to lose mass. Although the surface mass balance was close to the long-term average, loss of ice due to iceberg calving was at the high end of the 40-year satellite record. In total, approximately 152Gt of ice were lost from the ice sheet between September 2019 and August 2020.
“Heavy rain and extensive flooding occurred over large parts of Africa and Asia in 2020. Heavy rain and flooding affected much of the Sahel, the Greater Horn of Africa, the India subcontinent and neighbouring areas, China, Korea and Japan, and parts of south east Asia at various times of the year.
“With 30 named storms (as of 17 November) the north Atlantic hurricane season had its largest number of named storms on record with a record number making landfall in the United States of America. The last storm of the season (to date) Iota, was also the most intense, reaching category 5.
“Tropical storm activity in other basins was near or below the long-term mean, although there were severe impacts.
“Severe drought affected many parts of interior South America in 2020, with the worst-affected areas being northern Argentina, Paraguay and western border areas of Brazil. Estimated agricultural losses were near US$3 billion in Brazil with additional losses in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
“Climate and weather events have triggered significant population movements and have severely affected vulnerable people on the move, including in the Pacific region and Central America.”
The symptoms of ecological collapse have been widely recognized for decades, but global capital has failed to even begin to make a substantive response. The same is true for infectious diseases, like COVID 19, that can be traced to deforestation and the massive expansion of industrial farming that have combined to create near optimal conditions for animal to human transmission of viruses and parasites. In September 2019, only a few months prior to the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Global Preparedness Monitoring Board presciently warned:
“The world is confronted by increasing infectious disease outbreaks.
“Between 2011 and 2018, WHO tracked 1483 epidemic events in 172 countries. Epidemic-prone diseases such as influenza, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola, Zika, plague, Yellow Fever and others, are harbingers of a new era of high-impact, potentially fast-spreading outbreaks that are more frequently detected and increasingly difficult to manage.”
“The world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic. The 1918 global influenza pandemic sickened one third of the world population and killed as many as 50 million people— 2.8% of the total population (16,17). If a similar contagion occurred today with a population four times larger and travel times anywhere in the world less than 36 hours, 50 – 80 million people could perish (18,19). In addition to tragic levels of mortality, such a pandemic could cause panic, destabilize national security and seriously impact the global economy and trade.”
—“A WORLD AT RISK – Annual report on global preparedness for health emergencies”, September 2019
By 2050 an estimated 1.2 billion people in 31 countries could be displaced by the climate crisis—an exodus that would dwarf Europe’s recent “migrant crisis” and create chaos in an already unstable geo-political world order. The 2020 “Ecological Threat Register” highlighted the potential for food and water insecurity (i.e., mass annihilation) to spark military conflict. The report projects that by 2040 a third of the UN’s member countries will likely be “water stressed.” Global water consumption has been rising roughly one percent annually for the past four decades, a rate that is expected to continue. In 2019, an estimated four billion people suffered severe water scarcity for at least a month. Today 300 million more people are subject to food insecurity than in 2014. Half the population of sub-Saharan Africa and a third of those living in South Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa face moderate to severe famine.
Socialist revolution or ecological collapse
Reversing the destruction of the global natural order is critically important. As long as the most vital decisions governing the production and distribution of the necessities of life are effectively controlled by billionaires and their lackeys, terminal ecological catastrophe will draw ever nearer. The recognition capitalism is at the root of the climate crisis does not mean that revolutionaries should abstain from actively supporting partial steps in the right direction. There are many demands in Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal policy plan, like cutting “domestic emissions by at least 71 percent” and switching to “100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030” that make sense and deserve support. The problem is that the core demand of Bernie’s GND plan is the absurdly utopian call to “End the greed of the fossil fuel industry”: you might as well pass legislation repealing the law of gravity.
Many important reforms are, in theory at least, compatible with capitalist rule—e.g., eliminating products and packaging that cannot easily be recycled. In ideal circumstances, perhaps in Scandinavia, a system of free, easily accessible, electrically powered public transport within and between urban areas could be set up. In some jurisdictions pharmaceutical companies might be prepared to donate vaccines or medicines for some of the impoverished victims of pandemics and parasitic diseases spawned by environmental degradation. But what is not conceivable is that any combination of corporations in the healthcare business will ever be able to (or interested in) protecting all of those who are unable to pay for treatment—to attempt to would be a shortcut to bankruptcy. As a rule, major concessions by capital come in response to social upheavals that potentially threaten the stability of the existing economic order. Capitalism is flexible up to a point, but there are limits: profit-seekers, as a group, will never agree to long forgo a return on their investments for a reason as trivial as humanity’s survival.
Capitalism is a dangerous and historically retrogressive form of social organization which working people have no inherent interest in maintaining. The working class, because of its strategic role as the motor of all economic activity, is the natural lynchpin in the crucial fight to protect and restore the biosphere. Arresting global warming will require a rapid reduction of carbon emissions on a scale that would destroy the profitability of the fossil fuel industry. The costs of simultaneously massively expanding renewable energy production—including via the widespread introduction of thorium-based 4th generation nuclear reactors—will involve investment on a scale far beyond the scope of private capital. Ensuring that the world remains habitable in the medium to long term will require a wholesale and dramatic social transformation and the creation of a globally integrated, collectivized economy.
It is impossible to be prescriptive about the schedule or the specific technical and organizational changes that will be necessary. There will be many, as yet unknown, consequences of the ecological collapse that will require innovative responses. Some approaches which were rejected as unrealistic within the capitalist framework, may have application in a fundamentally different, socially responsible economic order. What is certain is that the international workers’ movement can and must be at the centre of the social revolution through which capitalist irrationality is transcended and a system of globally planned, sustainable, socialist production is created in its place.
Marxists have always been prepared to engage in struggles over particular issues alongside others with very different politics; we are confident that participation in a serious struggle to save the planet will soon demonstrate to tens of millions that capitalist property rights must be subordinated to the exigencies of the struggle for human survival. The role of revolutionaries must be, at every step, to demonstrate how each immediate practical demand is connected to the necessity for socialist revolution and the establishment of a government of workers and the oppressed.
In order to win any significant concessions it will be necessary to employ the traditional methods of militant class struggle—mass popular mobilizations, industrial actions, occupations and general strikes. A serious movement engaging in these sorts of actions will inevitably be met by determined resistance from the capitalists and their state apparatus; to counter this will require organized self-defense, through the creation of what have traditionally been known in the trade-union movement as workers’ defense guards. The coordination of such localized units into a broader formation, a workers’ militia, would signal an important step on the road to revolutionary eco-socialist transformation. The decisive moment in the struggle to save the environment will come with the overthrow of capitalist rule, the expropriation of the means of production, transport and communication and the dissolution of all the repressive organs historically created to serve and protect the oppression of the many by the few.
The problems of environmental destruction, like those of hunger and poverty, are global in scale. Addressing these issues must begin by recognizing that the “advanced,” i.e., imperialist, countries, which use vastly more energy per capita, have also historically been responsible for most of the damage to the planet. Marxists do not propose to address the ecological crisis by wholesale “degrowth” or reducing popular living standards in the “global north.” The enormous economic disparities within the imperialist societies closely parallel even larger ones between the advanced and “underdeveloped” countries. Many of the resources required to redress these inequities and fund the necessary expansion of sustainable infrastructure could be obtained by curtailing some of the useless and wasteful activity built into the system of production for profit which Foster and Clark sketch as:
“(1) a gargantuan and ever-expanding sales effort penetrating into the structure of production itself; (2) planned obsolescence, including planned psychological obsolescence; (3) production of luxury goods for an opulent minority; (4) prodigious military and penal-state spending; and (5) the growth of a whole speculative superstructure in the form of finance, insurance, and real estate markets.”
—The Robbery of Nature
A rational, producer-run, economic order would focus on addressing actual human need, with priority given to those in the most desperate circumstances. It would also make environmental impact a central determinant in planning what is produced, how it is produced and how it gets distributed.
The struggle to avert ecological catastrophe cannot be separated from the necessity to create a political leadership capable of leading massive popular upheavals to create new forms of social governance based on the principle that those who labor must rule. This will require the formation of a mass revolutionary workers’ party—committed to the struggle for socialist revolution on a global scale. By freeing the immense productive potential of humanity from the toxic imperatives dictated by the drive for ever-expanding private profit, it will be possible to simultaneously raise the living standards of the vast majority of the globe’s population while beginning to repair the horrendous damage inflicted on the natural world. The question of “socialism” or “barbarism” in our time poses this alternative: act decisively to avert catastrophic ecological collapse or continue to hurtle down the path to the ugly and painful end of human civilization.