“No socialism on a dead planet”: Ecosocialism, an overview

Piha banners on beaches action against deep-sea oil drilling.

Piha banners on beaches action against deep-sea oil drilling.

By Bronwen Beechey – from notes made for a talk to the Fightback Capitalism: Not Our Future conference, Wellington, NZ, June 2014

Why ecosocialism? For most socialists the reasons are pretty obvious. To quote Alexandre Costa, a Marxist and Professor of Atmospheric Science in Brazil:

“We insist that seeking answers to the central question of the ecological crisis in general (and in particular the climate crisis) is crucial to the struggle of the working classes and the poor in the 21st century. After all, the fight to avoid a catastrophic outcome to this crisis engendered by capitalism is the fight to safeguard the material conditions for survival with dignity of humankind. … Socialism is not possible on a scorched Earth.”

However, not all socialists are convinced by this, and it would be fair to say that many environmental activists are suspicious of socialism, with some justification. It has become obvious to many that neo-liberal capitalism and environmental destruction go hand in hand. But the mainstream environmental movement, and most Green parties, including NZ’s, are only challenging the worst aspects of capitalism, believing that some form of “greening” capitalism is possible. Ecosocialism has developed as an alternative to the mainstream environmental movement’s emphasis on “greenwashing”, middle-class consumer activism and acceptance of the profit motive.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. While we bicker, the global environment is in crisis. In the last few weeks, it has been reported that according to two independent studies by climate scientists, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing twice as much ice now as the last time it was surveyed, and its collapse may now be irreversible. It would cause a sea level rise of three metres. This is a climate tipping point – a critical point in the Earth’s system that when crossed, will mean the climate can spiral out of control, beyond the point of no return. This doesn’t mean it is all over. It does mean we have irreversibly and dangerously changed the climate, and that we, and future generations, will live with the consequences.

Marx and Engels: green before it was cool

Ecosocialism is not so much a “revision” of Marxist theory as a reinstatement of elements that have previously been downplayed or ignored. In the words of British ecosocialist Derek Wall, “unlike 20th century interpretations of socialism, ecosocialism places Marx at the centre of its analysis.”

While Karl Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels are famous for their analysis of capitalism and call for social revolution, they are far less known for their ecological thinking, which held that capitalism inevitably tears apart the natural conditions that sustain life.

This can be seen from Engels’ early concern with river pollution and his analysis in The Condition of the English Working Class of how industrial pollution harmed workers, right through to Marx’s writings at the end of his life where he plunged into the study of indigenous societies.

Marx’s two most important ecological insights were “the treadmill of production” and “the metabolic rift”. The treadmill of production refers to capital’s impulse to unlimited expansion, its relentless drive to increase profits, regardless of the ecosphere’s natural limits.

In nature, there is no such thing as waste. Nature is a circular system where everything is recycled. This is the opposite of capitalism’s linear, treadmill economy, which overloads natural systems with ever-growing amounts of waste products: waste gases into the sky, waste pollutants into water, and waste chemicals and toxins into the soil.

The metabolic rift refers to Marx’s theory that capitalist production for profit creates a sharp break in what Marx called the metabolism — the crucial interdependency of nature and human society. Marx arrived at this conclusion from his research into how industrial agriculture tended to reduce fertility, depriving the soil and the workers of nourishment and sustenance.

But Marx also understood the concept of the metabolic rift on a global scale, as colonies in the global South had their natural resources and soil fertility plundered to support Western capitalist development — an imperialist project that continues today.

Healing this rift and building a truly sustainable society was a central goal in Marx’s vision of a democratic socialist future. In the third volume of Capital he said:

“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the Earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].”

Engels, in The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, said that capitalism helped destroy the natural world because “in relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result”.

Another important concept of Marx’s was that of democratic property rights, the commons. Communities, including indigenous and peasant farmers, have collectively regulated resources including land, forests and fisheries for thousands of years. Under capitalism. these resources were seized for private ownership and exploited for profit, resulting in waste and destruction.

Derek Wall has written extensively about how the concept of “the commons” provides the basis for an alternative, ecological economy that is democratic, resource-efficient, decentralised and sustainable. He says:

“To me, ecosocialism is about defending, extending and deepening commons. Cyberspace is to a large extent commons. The wiki principle is commons. Collective, creative solutions are possible. While commons work at a community level, with the web we can nest commons and use wiki principles to democratically plan regional, national and international economies.”

The movement and the problem today

However, it is with good reason that French Marxist Michael Lowy has said the “ecological question … poses the major challenge to a renewal of Marxist thought”. Typically, Marxists in the 20th century, even of the anti-Stalinist variety, held to a “productivist” vision of change, whereby increasing the level of the productive forces inherited from capitalism was considered the path to social progress. Technology was wrongly assumed to be class-neutral, rather than historically and socially determined.

This history makes the concept of ecosocialism doubly important. Canadian ecosocialist Ian Angus has said that “ecosocialism begins with a critique of its two parents, ecology and Marxism.” It seeks to combine the best insights of ecology, which says human actions can undermine the basis of life, with Marxism’s critique of capitalism — a system based on the dual exploitation of labour and nature.

Published in 1962, Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring is often hailed as the inspiration for the contemporary ecology and environmental movement. Carson’s work demonstrated that synthetic pesticides widely used in agriculture could cause cancer and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly to birds. Years after Carson’s death in 1964, the use of DDT and other pesticides was banned in the US. The first Earth Day was held in the US in 1970. Since then, governments and international bodies have been forced to place environmental issues on their agendas.

In New Zealand, the modern environmental movement started in the late 1960’s with the campaign to save Lake Manapouri, and continued with successful campaigns against nuclear power and visits by nuclear warships, preventing logging of native forests, and halting the growing of genetically engineered food crops. More recently, there have been campaigns against proposals to open up national parks to mining exploration and against deep sea oil. The New Zealand environmental movement was responsible for the formation of the Values Party, one of the first political parties to campaign on around environmental issues, and later the Green Party.

The environmental movement that grew in the late 1960s was part of the radicalisation of young people that included challenged many aspects of capitalism – war, racism, sexism and so on. Many of these activists became part of a growing socialist movement, and these young ecosocialists struggled against the regressive ideas which sometimes emerge in ecological thought.

For example, many of the writings that helped spur the early environmental movement, such as The Limits to Growth and the Population Bomb, saw population growth, particularly in underdeveloped countries, as the cause of environmental destruction. This argument has been around since Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principles of Population in 1798 and is one of the fundamental points of difference between ecosocialism and other forms of environmentalism. Barry Commoner’s 1971 book, The Closing Circle, was a left-wing rebuttal of populationist arguments, arguing that capitalist technologies, rather than population pressures, were responsible for environmental degradation.

In 1979, Australian Marxist Alan Roberts published The Self-Managing Environment, which suggested that consumerism was fuelled by people’s unfulfilled needs. Derek Wall, in an interview in 2011, credits this book as being his first introduction to ecosocialist ideas. A key development in the 1980s was the creation of the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism with the first issue in 1988, and still published today.

The 1990s saw two socialist feminists, Mary Mellor and Ariel Salleh,address environmental issues within an eco-socialist and feminist framework. Both posited a materialist form of ecofeminism which showed how women’s unpaid reproductive and domestic labour was an essential part of maintaining capitalism, rather than idealist versions of ecofeminism which projected an essentialist view of women as being “closer to nature” due to their role as childbearers.

From the 1990s onward, ecosocialists engaged enthusiastically with the growing anti-globalisation movements of the global South, which later spread to the metropolitan centres of the North with mass protests at meetings of the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and IMF. These protests combined ecological awareness and social justice, focusing particularly on the effect of globalisation on the poor and workers.

In 2001, Joel Kovel, a social scientist, psychiatrist and former candidate for the US Green Party Presidential nomination in 2000, and Michael Löwy, an anthropologist and member of the Trotskyist Fourth International, released An ecosocialist manifesto, which has been adopted by some organisationsand suggests possible routes for the growth of eco-socialist consciousness.

The manifesto states:

“We believe that the present capitalist system cannot regulate, much less overcome, the crises it has set going. It cannot solve the ecological crisis because to do so requires setting limits upon accumulation—an unacceptable option for a system predicated upon the rule: Grow or Die!”

In 2007, the Ecosocialist International Network was founded in Paris. The meeting attracted more than 60 activists from Europe, Latin America, the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. A committee was set up by the Paris conference to draft an ecosocialist declaration, which was signed by more than 400 individuals and organisations from around the world . It was distributed as part of the official launching of the Ecosocialist International Network at the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil, in 2009.

The Belem Declaration, which issued from this conference, stated:

“Ecosocialism is grounded in a transformed economy founded on the non-monetary values of social justice and ecological balance. It criticizes both capitalist ‘market ecology’ and productivist socialism, which ignored the earth’s equilibrium and limits. It redefines the path and goal of socialism within an ecological and democratic framework.”

Here in NZ, ecosocialism was first adopted by Socialist Worker New Zealand. In 2009, the SW-NZ central committee collectively signed the Belem Declaration, and set up the Ecosocialism Aotearoa facebook group. In 2010, an issue of SW’s UNITY journal was dedicated to the theme of Ecosocialism, and in 2011 the organisation began the work of establishing a local Ecosocialist Network, just before it dissolved itself in 2012.

SW/NZ member Peter de Waal came up with the concept of the “PERIL syndrome”. PERIL here stands for five integrated crises that capitalism faces at the current time: crises of profitability, ecology, resources, imperialism, and legitimacy.

This combination of crises suggests that the global capitalist order is now fragile in a way it has not been since the Second World War. Some theorists – like the New Zealand socialist Grant Morgan or the Russian-American Dmitry Orlov – have gone as far as to argue that global capitalism is doomed to collapse within a few decades.

However, ecosocialism doesn’t necessarily hold to this apocalyptic scenario. Whether globalised capitalism is sustainable – and what social order or orders might replace it – is a question which has an objective as well as a subjective factor. The crises mean that the global order must change and compensate – but the balance of class forces will determine exactly how that comes about. Building a fightback against capitalism is vital to ensure that the 99% don’t end up paying for the destruction caused by the 1%.

Actually existing ecosocialism

I want to finish by looking at the countries where ecosocialism is being put into practice – Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba.

Following the election of Evo Morales to the presidency of Bolivia in 2005, a new constitution was drafted and adopted in 2009. It was the first constitution in the world to include environmental and socialist principles . In 2010, the government of Bolivia hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in the city of Cochabamba. It was attended by around 30,000 people from 6 continents.

In December 2010, the Bolivian parliament passed the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth, in which Mother Earth (or Pachamama, in indigenous Andean cultures) is defined as “…the dynamic living system formed by the indivisible community of all life systems and living beings whom are interrelated, interdependent, and complementary, which share a common destiny”; adding that “Mother Earth is considered sacred in the worldview of Indigenous peoples and nations. It is the first piece of legislation in which the Earth is given a legal identity.

Speaking at the December 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, the late Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, said: “If the climate were one of the biggest capitalist banks, the rich governments would have saved it.” Under the leadership of Chavez, the Venezuelan government took a number of important environmental steps, including the provision at no cost of energy-efficient light bulbs to all households, and using oil revenue to massively expand the rail system in Caracas. Another important green initiative was Misión Arbol, which in 2007 aimed to collect in five years 30 tons of seeds, plant 100 million plants, and reforest 150,000 hectares of land. When I went to Venezuela in 2011 as part of a solidarity tour, we visited a large organic city farm in the centre of Caracas that is situated on the former carpark of the Hilton Hotel.

In April this year, Chavez’s successor as president, Nicolas Maduro, announced additional funding of Bs40m (around $A6.75m) for Mission Arbol to continue its work, and a new education program, named amed the “Hugo Chavez National School of Eco-socialist Leaders”, will teach volunteers how to better care for the environment.

In the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s 2007 report, Cuba was the only country listed as having an ecologically sustainable economy. Cuba was faced with a crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived it of its oil supplies. According to Cuban permaculturist Roberto Perez, “We needed to live as best as possible with less energy and resources. We learned to do a lot of things with almost nothing.”

Food production was transformed to a low-input and environmentally friendly system which included organic farming, urban agriculture and permaculture. Industries that were not energy efficient were dismantled; workers in those industries were moved to other sectors or paid their previous salary to study. In parts of the country energy was produced from bagasse, the biomass left after the processing of sugar cane. Even after the Venezuelan revolution provided Cuba with reasonably priced oil, the commitment to a sustainable energy policy continues.

I am not claiming that things are perfect in those countries. But if these small countries, still suffering from the effects of colonialism and exploitation, can achieve these things, imagine what could be achieved in the so-called advanced countries if the same commitment by governments existed. What these countries have in common is a system that puts people and planet before profit.

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