Defining ecosocialism

A year on, that’s still right. London demonstration, November 2022. Photo by Steve Eason

Making ecosocialism a reality is obviously a huge, many-sided collective task and here I just highlight three aspects of it. First, the ways in which the war in Gaza, that has taken up so much of all our attention in recent weeks, is relevant to it. Second, about capitalism’s impact on the environment, specifically with respect to global warming. And third some points about how we might develop ecosocialist ideas.

1. War and climate change

The connections between war and climate change are complex and go to the heart of the way the society we live in works. Thinking about these is a collective task we need to work on over time. Here are some points for discussion.

It has been suggested that a key cause of the war in Gaza is for control over fossil fuel resources. I do not agree with this: I think it’s a related, but secondary, issue. Gaza was occupied by Israel in 1967, more than 30 years before gas was discovered in the East Mediterranean. Even in 2007, when Hamas took over in Gaza and the territory was blockaded by Israel, no exploration work had been done on the major gas fields. Although one undeveloped field is in Gazan territorial waters, the larger, producing fields are in Egyptian and Israeli waters.

The war is much more about land and water, than about gas or oil. It is driven by political factors: the Israeli government’s determination to pursue ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population, and the western powers’ determination to use Israel as a strategic bulwark in the Middle East.

The connections with climate change are deeper and more complex than a simple resource grab, in my view. I will highlight two of these.

One is that the war brings home the frightful reality of the United Nations and other institutions of so-called international governance. All the decisions by these institutions and the peace agreements of the 1990s, that pointed towards a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, have effectively been junked in the last two months.

The war in Gaza, like the Russian war against Ukraine, is a symptom of the deep crisis of international governance. And it is these same institutions that are supposedly coordinating efforts to prevent dangerous climate change.

Those efforts supposedly started with the Rio treaty in 1992; since then, the rate at which greenhouse gases are being poured into the atmosphere has risen by about 60%.

The discourse around the annual climate talks, centred on technofixes, on the fraudulent concept of “green growth” and on misuse of the idea of “net zero”, is used to facilitate ecological destruction: this is a failure of statecraft on a world scale. The latest scandal, of this year’s talks in the United Arab Emirates being used as an opportunity to discuss new oil and gas production deals, is the outcome.

All this has political implications. Many organisations focused on climate frame their policies in terms of demands on the UN and the nations participating in the climate talks. We need to think about this.

A second connection between war and climate crisis has to do with the modern form of imperialism. Israeli aggression against the Palestinians, and western support for it, is part of a broader complex of political and economic relationships, by which the rich countries of the global north exercise control over international trade and the economy.

The war in Gaza is a shocking reminder of the violence that is central to those relationships. Climate change is already producing conditions in which that violence will be exacerbated: it has made disasters such as last year’s floods in Pakistan, and recent floods and droughts in sub Saharan Africa, far, far more likely.

All this, too, has political implications. We need to think about how we understand these connections, how they are manifested in our lives, and how people like ourselves in the global north can forge alliances with those who confront these conditions more directly.

2. Capitalism and the environment: global warming

The emission of greenhouse gases, mainly from fossil fuel burning, is the main cause of global heating. It is the most immediately threatening way that capitalism is rupturing humanity’s relationship with the natural world. This rupture is also destroying biodiversity, disrupting the nitrogen balance and doing other damage; I will not cover those things in this short article.

The point I want to underline about fossil fuels is that while we can and should denounce oil, gas and coal companies for producing them, and for their disgusting profiteering, our political efforts to tackle global warming need also to focus on consumption of fossil fuels.    

We need to develop an understanding of consumption counterposed to mainstream analyses, that focus on consumption by individuals and households – and, by doing so, take attention away from the systems by and through which most fossil fuels are consumed.

These are technological systems – such as electricity networks, built environments, transport systems, industrial, agricultural and military systems – that are in turn embedded in social and economic systems.

Take transport systems, for example. While it’s right and proper to target aviation in general and private jets in particular, which are such egregious examples of luxury consumption that can not in any way be categorised as meeting human need, the much bigger challenge is the car-centred urban transport systems of the global north. These are more present in all our lives, and account for a much greater chunk of emissions.

We need a politics of transport that counters the technofix of electric vehicles, a centrepiece of the ruinous climate politics that is driving the world to disaster. This is about how we live in cities, and what all those journeys – often to “bullshit jobs” – are for in the first place.

In south-east London I have been involved in a campaign to stop the supposedly climate-conscious Labour mayor building a new road tunnel under the Thames, which is the sort of project that should be forbidden by any local or national government that pretends to care about climate change.

We have not stopped the tunnel, but we have not stopped organising either, and we are now discussing expanding our campaign, to demand free public transport in London. This is the sort of sweeping measure that is desperately needed, both to combat climate change and to address the cost-of-living crisis.

This brings us to the question of political strategies to address climate-related issues. I would suggest three priorities:

First, we have urgently to develop policies that both cut greenhouse gas emissions and also address issues of social justice. Free public transport, to cut the volume of road traffic, is an example. “Insulate Britain”, which both cuts unnecessary consumption of gas and cuts people’s energy bills, is another. A third, more long-term, is for the development of socially-controlled renewable electricity networks.

Remember that during the Yellow Vests movement in France, which started around a diesel tax increase that was justified by the government as a climate-related measure, the slogan was coined, “you talk about the end of the world, I worry about the end of the month”. Policies such as free public transport, and for a massive retrofit programme of insulation and heat pump installation, respond to this.

Such policies cut across false claims (from both Tory and Labour MPs) that climate policies will cost ordinary people money, and stories about the rights of individual car drivers (around which the extreme right have tried to mobilise).

Second, we need to acknowledge the role of civil disobedience. I have heard many critiques of the tactics of, for example, Just Stop Oil: I think many of these critiques are valid. But civil disobedience is playing a role, and will continue to do so: in Germany we have seen it organised on a mass scale involving thousands of people.

Third, we in the rich countries need to make real, practical connections with movements in the global south around ecological issues, such as in Ecuador, where many years of campaigning resulted in the recent referendum decision to halt oil production from a part of the Ecuadorian Amazon.  

3. Ecosocialism

Here are four areas of discussion that I think we could prioritise, in order to define more clearly what we actually mean by ecosocialism.

First: ecosocialists are very good at describing the future they are aiming for, but much less good at discussing how we might achieve it, that is, the transition away from capitalism. This point has been made very well in a recent article by Michael Albert (the Edinburgh-based researcher, not the US-based anarchist of the same name), and I think it should be addressed. Albert writes:

Ecological Marxists have succeeded in developing compelling ecological critiques of capitalism and principles for alternative ecosocialist political economies. However, they have devoted relatively little attention to strategic questions, such as: How might ecosocialist transitions take place? What are the challenges, trade-offs, and risks they would likely confront? And how may ecosocialists and allied movements best strategise to navigate them?

Second, I see little engagement by ecosocialists with the vital political debates between climate scientists, for example the current discussion between James Hansen, Michael Mann and others about the extent to which global warming will continue as and when greenhouse gas emissions start to fall.

Right here in the UK, we could engage with those climate scientists who have become politically outspoken, such as Kevin Anderson, the most vociferous critic of the UN talks process and the fraudulent misuse of the concept of “net zero”. His latest article on COP 28 is essential reading, in my view.

There are also energy systems researchers, such as the group headed by Arnalf Grubler and Charlie Wilson, who produced a blueprint for the world economy to move away from fossil fuels in a socially just way.

Third, we desperately need to develop a socialist critique of technology, standing in the tradition established by the Luddites more than 200 years ago, with their programme to “put down all machinery hurtful to commonality”.

The work done by socialist scholars in the 1970s and 80s has been built on, for example, by Les Levidow. Unfortunately such work is overshadowed by an excessive focus on writers who, like Matt Huber, support nuclear, or Andreas Malm and Holly Buck, who advocate geoengineering. Whatever valuable things these people have written in the past, the “techno modernist” politics they now embrace can not be part of any serious discussion.

Fourth and finally, we need to get a handle on how socialist ideas can be enriched by analysis of the unsustainable material throughput that characterises late capitalism, the focus of much “degrowth” research.

Rather than the superficial point-scoring that has dominated some recent debates, I suggest we discuss serious contributions, such as, for example, the book A Social Ecology of Capital by Eric Pineault. He takes the Marxist approach to the economy as production, circulation and distribution of commodities, and, building on research in the field of industrial ecology, presents an analysis of the world economy as: extraction: production: consumption: dissipation.

There is work on the “imperial mode of living”, by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen, which tries to analyse the complex mixture of material overconsumption and inequality that pervades the economies of rich countries. And there is very practical work about unsustainable economic practices in different sectors, such as the research on the built environment by Linda Clarke and others at the University of Westminster.

These are some of the discussions we could pursue, in order to define more clearly what ecosocialism means.

This article is based on a talk at the Ecosocialism conference in London on December 2.