Why we need an ecosocialist revolution (with video)

This is the text of Ian Angus'  talk at the Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago, June 29, 2013, organised by the international Socialist Organization (USA). The video and audio of Angus' talk is also available, thanks to Wearemany.org.

"Think about that. Every 210 seconds, a small child dies because greenhouse gas emissions are out of control. No society that permits that to happen deserves to be called civilised. No society that causes it to happen deserves to continue."

July 2, 2013 -- Climate & Capitalism, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- I’ll start with two quotations. The first is the opening sentence of Chris Williams’ excellent book, Ecology and Socialism.

There is a giant death sentence hanging over much of our world.

If you’ve read Chris’s book, you know that is not an exaggeration: There is a giant death sentence hanging over much of our world, and only a mass revolutionary movement can stop the execution.

My second quotation is the slogan that has appeared on the masthead of Climate & Capitalism for seven years. We borrowed and paraphrased a famous statement by Rosa Luxemburg:

Ecosocialism or barbarism: There is no third way.

Today, I want to make two arguments that are implicit in Chris’s sentence and in Climate & Capitalism’s slogan.

My first argument will be that the environmental crisis we face today is not a simple extension of capitalism’s centuries-old war with nature. In the last half of the 20th century, what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels called the “metabolic rift” became qualitatively wider, qualitatively more serious.

My second argument will be that because the metabolic rift has become a global ecological abyss, socialists today must be ecosocialistsNot because the word itself is particularly wonderful, but because in our time the fight against environmental destruction is central to the fight against capitalism.

It’s not enough to say that socialism is the solution. In the 21st century, fighting capitalist ecocide must be at the heart of our vision, our program and our activity.

A century ago, the founders of the Communist International had to deal with a new phenomenon – imperialism – and had to make the fight against imperialism central to their work or be doomed to irrelevance. To make that change very clear to everyone, they rewrote one of the most time-honoured of all revolutionary slogans: They changed “Workers of all countries unite!” to say “Workers of all countries and all oppressed peoples, Unite!”

As I’m sure you know, revolutionaries are often pretty conservative people. Inevitably, some comrades objected to that change. Lenin himself replied:

Of course, the modification is wrong from the standpoint of the Communist Manifesto, but then the Communist Manifesto was written under entirely different conditions.

The Bolsheviks knew that a truly revolutionary program must respond to reality. When reality changes, our program must change too.

Today we are in a comparable situation. We face a global environmental crisis that is qualitatively more serious than anything socialists 50 years ago could have imagined. We must adjust our thinking and our actions to respond to that reality.

We need to take the beginning points that ecosocialism offers today, and to build on them using the method of Marxism, using the best scientific work of our time, and using the lessons we learn in struggles for change. We must apply our new understanding in a wide variety of places and circumstances.

So please consider this the beginning of a discussion, not a final declaration!

From The Closing Circle to the Great Acceleration

The idea that humanity’s relationship with the biosphere changed qualitatively during the 20th century isn’t new, although it has not been widely discussed until recently.

To my knowledge the first person to argue it explicitly was the radical biologist and ecologist Barry Commoner. His analysis of the environmental crisis, published 40 years ago, stands up very well today.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when the modern environmental movement was being born, most environmentalists held that environmental problems were a result of a permanent conflict between humans and nature, so the only way to stop pollution and environmental degradation was to reduce the number of people.

That view is still very common today. The defenders of that view frequently point to past societies that cut down all their trees, exhausted their farmlands, or otherwise undermined the natural basis of their existence.

Barry Commoner didn’t deny that human activity damaged or even destroyed ecosystems in the past. But in classic his 1971 book The Closing Circle, he argued that the modern environmental crisis is qualitatively different.

In the second half of the 20th century environmental destruction went from gradual to rapid, from short-term to long-term and often permanent, and from local to global.

In Commoner’s words, “most pollution problems made their first appearance, or became very much worse, in the years following World War II.” It was then, he said, that “the fabric of the ecosphere begin to unravel”.

The unravelling, he showed, was closely associated the spectacular expansion of the petroleum and petrochemical industries, which produced immense volumes of products and wastes that nature could not recycle, and at the same time stimulated a huge expansion in the amount of energy used in production and transportation.

Much of his book was devoted to documenting that transformation, and showing that it could not possibly be explained by population growth. He argued, very convincingly, that the worldwide deployment of destructive technologies and products was driven by capitalism’s inherent need to grow.

The new technologies were adopted because they were more profitable – but they only more profitable because corporations didn’t have to pay for the environmental damage they caused.

“The environmental crisis”, Commoner wrote, “reveals serious incompatibilities between the private enterprise system and the ecological base on which it depends”.

Sadly, Barry Commoner lost the battle of ideas in the green movement. The advocates of population control became dominant in the environmental movement and in mainstream ecology.

Even more sadly, the socialist left did not take up Commoner’s arguments. His most important book, The Closing Circle, has long been out of print.

But today, although he isn’t getting credit, Barry Commoner’s view that there was a radical environmental turning point after World War II is gaining widespread acceptance.

In 2000, the Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen made a convincing case that the Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of a new geological epoch, a time when humans and human society are the dominant force shaping our planet. He proposed to name this epoch the Anthropocene – the New Human epoch. That proposal has not been officially adopted yet, but it has won wide support in scientific circles.

More recently, Crutzen joined with ecologist Will Steffen and historian John McNeill to make a further proposal, to divide the Anthropocene into two eras – the Industrial Era, from 1800 to 1945, and the Great Acceleration, from 1945 to the present.

After World War II, they write, “the most rapid and pervasive shift in the human-environment relationship began.” On almost every possible measure, “the human enterprise suddenly accelerated.”

They’ve published graphs showing increases in water use, greenhouse gas emissions, paper consumption, motor vehicles, urban population and more, since 1950. Some show no activity at all before 1950, others show slow increases prior to 1950 — all show a sudden shift into high gear after 1950. The graphs suddenly go almost straight up.

In short, scientists today are rediscovering and documenting the radical environmental transition that Barry Commoner described over 40 years ago. We can only hope that they will eventually adopt his radical social conclusions, as well.

Interlocking crises

With the Great Acceleration, capitalism’s assault on the biosphere entered a new phase, one defined by, as John Bellamy Foster says, “a qualitative transformation in the level of human destructiveness”.

As a result, we face what is usually called the global environmental crisis. A few months ago, Monthly Review justly suggested we call it a planetary emergency.

The emergency comprises an interlocked set of crises in the fundamental natural processes that have made Earth habitable for millions of years.

In 2009, a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists associated with the Stockholm Resilience Center identified and quantified nine planetary boundaries that define what they call a “safe operating space for humanity”. Crossing any one of those thresholds, they wrote, could have “deleterious or even disastrous consequences for humans”.

In fact, we have already crossed three of them, and we are getting close to the red line on four more. Seven of the nine critical planetary boundaries are close to or in the danger zone.

Climate change is the best known and most critical case. The Stockholm study says that once the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passes 350 parts per million, the climate system becomes increasingly unstable and catastrophic tipping points become possible.

As you probably know, the level is now at 400 parts per million, so that boundary has been passed, and we are now solidly in the climate danger zone.

We are also over the red line for interference with the nitrogen cycle, which results primarily from overuse of artificial fertilisers, and for loss of biodiversity caused by the highest rate of species extinctions in tens of millions of years.

The crisis is now

There is a tendency in discussing these environmental crises, to say that catastrophes will happen if we don’t act soon, in 10 or 20 years. In a sense that is true, but it is misleading.

In reality, catastrophic change has already begun.

According to the Global Humanitarian Forum, a think tank headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, there are already 300,000 deaths every year that would not have happened without climate change.

Nearly half of those deaths are children aged five years or younger, dying in agony from diarrhea or malaria, diseases whose frequency and intensity has been massively increased by global warming.

Think about that. Every 210 seconds, a small child dies because greenhouse gas emissions are out of control.

No society that permits that to happen deserves to be called civilised. No society that causes it to happen deserves to continue.

Another study shows that in 2012, over 30 million people were forced out of their homes by climate- and weather-related disasters. By way of comparison, in 1945, after six years of total war, there were about 40 million refugees in Europe. Now, three-quarters as many are displaced by climate disasters in one-sixth of the time.

But temporary displacements caused by storms and floods are only a small part of environmental refugee story. The United Nations estimates that one-third of the people who live in urban slums in Africa are there because advancing deserts and failing farms have made their traditional homes uninhabitable. In Asia, in Bangladesh alone, over 400,000 people move into the capital city, Dhaka every year. Most are environmental refugees.

And this is only the beginning. I don’t intend this talk to be a list of disaster stories, but it could well be. The point is that a global environmental crisis is already here. It is already killing and displacing millions of people. It requires action now.

The planetary emergency is already upon us. If we delay, it will get much worse.

A four degree world

International agreements say that the global average temperature increase should be less than 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial level, to avoid disastrous climate change. Many scientists say the limit should be lower.

But if current trends continue, there is no chance of staying below 2 degrees, and there is a strong possibility that the increase will be twice that level.

Recently the World Bank warned that even if all countries meet their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C. If they don’t, global warming could exceed 4°C as early as the 2060s.

The World Bank report has a provocative title: Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided. In it the World Bank’s president writes:

The 4°C scenarios are devastating: the inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.

And most importantly, a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs.

And just last month the International Energy Agency said that even if current promises are kept, “the long-term average temperature increase is more likely to be between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C … with most of the increase occurring this century”.

But no one expects the worst polluters to keep their promises. Emissions aren’t slowing down, they are speeding up, and the world is speeding into climate hell.

What’s worse, the climate crisis is only part of the story – even if by some miracle, emissions were cut to zero tomorrow, six other planetary boundaries would still be in danger.

What humanity faces in this century is not just deterioration of the conditions of life in one area or even one country.

The metabolic rift is now global, and there is now a very real possibility that it will throw all of humanity into a new dark age, that all our dreams of a better world will be replaced by unending nightmares.

Socialists and the crisis: theory but not practice?

I think most socialists and socialist groups would agree with what I’ve said so far, at least in general terms. Capitalism is destroying the Earth, socialism is the solution.

And yet, when I compare the socialist literature on the environmental crisis with the actual socialist response in action, I am struck by the gap between theory and practice.

I have a shelf full of books that offer Marxist perspectives of environmental crises, especially of global warming. All show clearly that capitalism is the cause, and all say socialism is the solution. But very few of them, almost none, offer concrete proposals for actually making the necessary change.

It’s as though Marx wrote: “The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways … and that’s good enough.”

As Nick Davenport wrote recently in an article we published in Climate & Capitalism, socialists have tended to treat the environmental crisis as a stick to beat capitalism with, as another proof that capitalism must go, but not as an arena of the class struggle to which we must be fully committed.

There have been some significant exceptions. The Socialist Alliance in Australia for example, defines itself as ecosocialist and has played an important role in building environmental movements there. There are other examples in Europe. Closer to home, I have been impressed by the growing involvement of members of the International Socialist Organization in the fight against capitalist ecocide across the US, and I see that the Solidarity is discussing ecosocialism in its current pre-convention period.

But in general, environmental action has not been treated as a strategic priority by organised socialist groups in the global North.

That needs to change. In the 21st century, socialists must be ecosocialists. To stop capitalist ecocide, we need both the scientific insights of modern ecology and the revolutionary social analysis that only Marxism provides.

That’s why I am very excited about the recent formation of System Change Not Climate Change – the Ecosocialist Contingent, and about the reports I’ve heard this weekend on the growing activity of ISO members. I hope we are seeing a turn in the North American socialist left towards environmental activism, and towards ecosocialism.

What does ‘being ecosocialist’ mean?

The word “ecosocialism” isn’t copyrighted. Just like the word “socialism”, it means different things to different people. I can only present my own perspective, and I won’t be at all surprised if some ecosocialists disagree with what I have say.

For me, ecosocialism is not a new theory or brand of socialism — it is socialism with Marx’s important insights on ecology restored, socialism committed to the fight against ecological destruction.

Ecosocialism is not a separate organisation, it is a movement to win existing red and green groups and individuals to an ecosocialist perspective.

It is socialism that recognises, in John Bellamy Foster’s words, that “there can be no true ecological revolution that is not socialist; no true socialist revolution that is not ecological”.

And it is socialism that is actively engaged in peoples’ struggles against capitalism’s assaults.

Increasingly, the planetary emergency is directly affecting the lives of working people, farmers, Indigenous communities, and all of the oppressed. As capitalism continues its relentless drive to expand no matter what damage it causes, we will see – we are already seeing — increasing resistance.

Many of these struggles will focus on narrow issues, and many of the participants will have huge illusions about what can be done within the system. That’s inevitable.

The worst mistake socialists can make in such circumstances – unfortunately it’s a mistake that many socialists do make – is to stand on the sidelines because a given campaign isn’t radical enough, or because it doesn’t fit someone’s preconceptions of what a movement ought to look like.

We need to remember Marx’s great insight that people in large numbers don’t change themselves and then change the world – they change themselves by changing the world.

As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, class consciousness and organisation aren’t created by simply by pamphlets and leaflets, but “by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight”.

In Rebuilding the Left, the Chilean Marxist Marta Harnecker puts it this way:

Being radical is not a matter of advancing the most radical slogans, or of carrying out the most radical actions….

Being radical lies rather in creating spaces where broad sectors can come together and struggle. For as human beings we grow and transform ourselves in the struggle.

Understanding that we are many and are fighting for the same objectives is what makes us strong and radicalizes us.

Only through and in struggles for change can we reach and win the many people who today find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

We need to be patient – as another famous Marxist said, we must “patiently explain”. Contrary to the liberals who think we should place our faith in Democratic Party politicians, and contrary to the advocates of guerrilla attacks on infrastructure, there really is no shortcut to “creating spaces where broad sectors can come together and struggle”.

But we also need to be prepared for unexpectedly rapid shifts. Let’s learn from Turkey, where a mass movement against the regime exploded from what at first seemed to be a very modest environmental protest, a fight to save a park.

The fight for Gezi Park and Taksim Square is not an isolated case. In our time, when the Great Acceleration is pushing us to the edge, and when capitalism’s ability to maneuvre on even small environmental problems is severely limited, we will see more and more such conflicts.

That’s especially true in the global South, where catastrophic environmental change is a present reality, and where the fight to save the environment and the fight against imperialism are visibly and inextricably linked. But it’s also true here in the belly of the beast.

Lenin famously wrote that revolutionaries must not restrict themselves to a narrow, economic understanding of class struggle. He said we must be tribunes of the people, responding to “every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people”.

In our time, revolutionaries cannot be tribunes of the people unless we are also tribunes of the environment. We must respond, to the best of our ability, to every manifestation of capitalist environmental destruction.

That’s why I like the word ecosocialism. Not because we need a new kind of socialism, but because the word signals loud and clear that we don’t view environmental destruction as just another stick to bash capitalism with.

It is also why I prefer to spell ecosocialism as one word, without a hyphen. Because the “eco” part is not an add on. It is – and must be –  integral to socialism in the 21st century.

We are ecosocialists because the environmental crisis isn’t just a talking point – it’s a planetary emergency that revolutionaries must confront as a top priority.

We need to initiate and join struggles for immediate environmental aims. We need to participate, not as sideline critics, but as activists, builders and leaders.

The world we want

And at the same time, we need to find the best ways to “patiently explain” how those struggles relate to the larger fight to save the world from capitalist ecocide. In our book, Too Many People?, Simon Butler and I expressed the goal of that larger fight this way:

In every country, we need governments that break with the existing order, that are answerable only to working people, farmers, the poor, indigenous communities, and immigrants — in a word, to the victims of ecocidal capitalism, not its beneficiaries and representatives.

Such governments will have two fundamental and indivisible characteristics.

  • First, they will be committed to grassroots democracy, to radical egalitarianism and to social justice. They will be based on collective ownership of the means of production, and they will work actively to eliminate exploitation, profit and accumulation as the driving forces of our economy.
  • Second, they will base their decisions and actions on the best ecological principles, giving top priority to stopping anti-environmental practices, to restoring damaged ecosystems, and to re-establishing agriculture and industry on ecologically sound principles.

We suggest some of the first environmental measures such governments might take. Our suggestions include:

  • rapidly phasing out fossil fuels and biofuels, replacing them with clean energy sources;
  • actively supporting farmers to convert to ecological agriculture; defending local food production and distribution;
  • introducing free and efficient public transport networks;
  • restructuring existing extraction, production, and distribution systems to eliminate waste, planned obsolescence, pollution, and manipulative advertising, and providing full retraining to all affected workers and communities;
  • retrofitting existing homes and buildings for energy efficiency;
  • closing down all military operations at home and elsewhere; transforming the armed forces into voluntary teams charged with restoring ecosystems and assisting the victims of environmental disasters.

Our suggestions aren’t carved in stone, and I’m sure you can think of many other essential changes.

Those are transitional measures, steps towards what Fred Magdoff has called “a truly ecological civilization — one that exists in harmony with natural systems.”

Magdoff lists eight characteristics that an ecological civilisation would have. It would:

  • stop growing when basic human needs are satisfied;
  • not entice people to consume more and more;
  • protect natural life support systems and respect the limits to natural resources, taking into account needs of future generations;
  • make decisions based on long-term societal/ecological needs, while not neglecting short-term needs of people;
  • run as much as possible on current (including recent past) energy instead of fossil fuels;
  • foster human characteristics and a culture of cooperation, sharing, reciprocity and responsibility to neighbors and community;
  • make possible the full development of human potential, and;
  • promote truly democratic political and economic decision making for local, regional and multiregional needs.

As Fred Magdoff says, a society with those characteristics would be “the opposite of capitalism in essentially all respects”.

Today, we must be ecosocialists

Such a profound transformation will not “just happen”. In fact, it will not happen at all unless ecology has a central place in socialist theory, in the socialist program and in the activity of the socialist movement.

There was a time when you could make a case that environmental destruction, though serious, was no more critical than any of capitalism’s other crimes.

That time is long past.

Capitalism has driven us to a crisis point in the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature – if business as usual continues, major ecological collapse isn’t just possible but probable, and that will put civilisation at risk.

There is a giant death sentence hanging over much of our world, and capitalism is the executioner.

That’s why Climate & Capitalism rewrote Rosa Luxemburg’s famous warning, to say that humanity must choose between ecosocialism and barbarism.

And that’s also why, in the 21st century,  socialists must be ecosocialists, and humanity needs an ecosocialist revolution.

[Ian Angus is editor of Climate & Capitalism.]