CLIMATE CHANGE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
TOWARDS AN ECOSOCIALIST PERSPECTIVE
Some writers think that the origins of today’s global ecological crises are to be found in the unusual response in
What followed was either immediately or eventually the rise of capitalism. Regardless of one’s specific interpretation, it is clear that the centuries after 1450 marked an era of fundamental environmental transformation. It was to be commodity-centered and exclusive, it was also an unstable and uneven, dynamic combination of seigniorial capitalist and peasant economics.
This ecological regime of early capitalism was beset with contradiction. In the middle of the 18th century,
By the middle of the 18th century, however, this world ecological regime had become a victim of its own success. Agricultural yields, not just in
The Industrial Revolution retains its hold on the popular imagination as the historical and geographical locus of today’s environmental crisis. It was a view that co-existed with the profound faith in technological progress. It can be viewed that the industrial revolution as the resolution of an earlier moment of modern ecological crisis and a more expansive, more intensive reconstruction of global nature. The industrial revolution offered not merely a technical fix to the developmental crisis that marked capitalism's ecological regimes, but within this revolution, was inscribed a vast geographical fix, which at that time was as limiting as it had once been liberating. Such a perspective of world ecological crisis offers a more historical name and a more hopeful way of looking for a pro-people approach for thinking and acting about the problems of ecological crisis in the modern world. While the technological marvels of the past two centuries are routinely celebrated, it had become clear in the 1860s that all advances in resource efficiency promised more aggregate resource consumption. This is how the modern world market functions, towards profligacy and not conservation. The technological marvels have rested on geographical expansion neither more nor less than they did in the formative centuries of capitalist development. The pressure to enclose vast new areas of the planet and to penetrate even deeper into the niches of social and ecological life has continued unabated. Now we are witnessing the imperial process of new enclosures, with a partnership with the ruling elites, and the corporate sector of the
It is from this standpoint that an accounting of earlier crises may help us to discern the contours of the present global ecological crisis. At the outset, it seems capitalism’s preference for externalizing its crisis through colonial expansions, plunder and conquest of new territories for resources and markets, has reached its definite and destructive geographical limits. As long as fresh land existed beyond the reach of capital, the system's socio-ecological contradictions could be managed. With the possibilities for external colonization foreclosed by the 20th century, capital has been compelled to pursue strategies of internal colonization, among which we might include the explosive growth of genetically modified plants and animals since 1970. Drilling even deeper and to even more distant locales for oil, water and minerals; converting human bodies, especially those of women, people of color, workers and farmers into toxic waste dumps for a wide range of carcinogenic and other lethal substantives.
There has been lots of critical analysis of different dimensions of contemporary environmental degradation, of government policies, and the role of multinational international agreements. What is needed is sufficient care given to the task of situating these factors systemically and historically.
There is a certain urgency to the present ecological crisis. Now it has been proved that the world economy has been driven to the limits, and in some cases beyond a whole range of ecological thresholds. The global ecological crisis is not impending, it is already here. To understand the structural logic of this crisis, we have to have a historical perspective on globalization and distinguishing the new from the old, in the present juncture and trying to situate the contemporary dynamics of the world historically. Our response to the fate of human civilization depends on how we deal with this age of ecological catastrophes. By locating today's ecological transformations within the long run and large-scale patterns of recurrence and evolution in the modern world, we may unravel the distinctiveness of the impending ecological catastrophe. This means that we have to situate ecological relations internal to the political economy of capitalism and not merely placing concepts of ecological transformation and governance, alongside those of political categories of political economy from the standpoint of the historically existing dialectic of nature and society. Once ecological relations of production are put into the mix, one of the chief things that come into view is the production of socio-ecological regimes, both regional and on world scale. These initially liberate the accumulation of capital, only to generate self-limiting contradictions that culminate in renewed ecological bottlenecks to continued accumulation each time the cycle starts anew; historically, this has been more expansive and intensifies relations between capital labour and external nature. The task before us is to identify the different forms and kinds of the unfolding ecological crises.
The Writing on the Wall
Ecology: The Moment of Truth
Explaining the magnitude of the crisis and the urgency to deal with it, John Bellamy Foster in his note “Ecology: The Moment of Truth" says: "It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem facing humanity in the twenty-first century.” Nearly fifteen years ago he observed (John Bellamy Foster, “This Vulnerable Planet”, 1994): "We have only four decades left in which to gain control over our major environmental problems if we are to avoid irreversible ecological decline.
1. Today, with a quarter-century still remaining in this projected time line, it appears to have been too optimistic. Available evidence now strongly suggests that under a regime of business as usual we could be facing an irrerevocable “tipping point” with respect to climate change, within a mere decade.
2. Other crises such as species extinction (percentage of bird, mammal and fish species “vulnerable or in immediate danger of extinction” are “now measured in double digits”).
3. The rapid depletion of the oceans’ bounty; desertification; deforestation; air pollution; water shortages/pollution; soil degradation; the imminent peaking of world oil production (creating new geopolitical tensions); and a chronic world food crisis - all point to the fact that the planet as we know it and its ecosystems are stretched to the breaking point. The moment of truth for the earth and human civilization has arrived.”
To be sure, it is unlikely that the effects of ecological degradation in our time, though enormous, will prove apocalyptic for human civilization within a single generation, even under conditions of capitalist business as usual. Normal human life spans, there is no doubt that considerable time is still left before the full effect of the current human degrading the planet comes into play. Yet, the period remaining in which we can avert future environmental catastrophe, before it is essentially out of our hands, is much shorter. Indeed, the growing sense of urgency of environmentalists has to do with the prospect of various tipping points being reached as critical ecological thresholds are crossed, leading to the possibility of a drastic contraction of life on earth. (See “Ecology: The Moment of Truth” by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, Monthly Review, July-August 2008).
Capitalist and Socialist Response to the Present Ecological Crisis
Under capitalist conditions, the environment is more and more transformed into a contested object of human greed. The exploitation of natural resources, and their degradation by a growing variety of pollutants, results in man made scarcity, leading to conflicts over access to them. Access to nature is uneven and unequal, and the societal relation of man to nature therefore is conflict-prone. The ecological footprints of people in different countries and regions of the world are of very different sizes, reflecting severe inequalities of incomes and wealth. Ecological injustices, therefore, can only usefully be discussed if social class contradictions and production of inequality in the courses of capital accumulation are taken into account. The environment includes the energy system, climate, biodiversity, soils, water, wood, deserts, ice sheets, etc., the different spheres of planet earth and their historical evolution. The complexity of nature and the positive and negative feedback mechanisms between the different dimensions of the environment in space and time are only partly known. Therefore, an environmental policy has to be made in the shadow of a high degree of uncertainty. This is why one of the basic principles of environmental policy is that of precaution. The effects of human activities, particularly economic activities on natural processes and the feedback mechanisms within the totality of the social political and economic systems, constitute the so-called societal relation of man to nature. Only a holistic attempt to integrate environmental aspects into discourses of political economy, political science, sociology culture studies, etc., can make possible a coherent understanding of environmental problems and yield adequate political response to the challenges of the ongoing ecological crisis.
Green Capitalism and Capitalist Response to the Ecological Crisis
Mainstream environmentalists seek to solve the ecological problems almost exclusively through three mechanical strategies: (1) technological solutions, (2) extending the market to all aspects of nature, and (3) creating what are intended as mere islands of preservation in a world of almost universal exploitation and destruction of nature habitats. In contrast, a minority of critical human ecologists have come to understand the need to change our fundamental social relations.
The Capitalist Response to Global Ecological Crisis
The ecological crisis is a complex mix of dangerous trends. Capitalist ideology characteristically views only the components of this crisis, thereby obscuring its systemic nature. The build up of greenhouse gases and the consequent spectres of climatic tipping points have been widely, if reluctantly, acknowledged within the
An adequate response to the crisis will ultimately involve addressing all these dimensions. We are still only in the earliest stages of necessary awareness. This means that we must first convincingly address the arguments of those who would downplay the depth of the transformation that long-term species-survival will require. One part of this task responding to those who deny human agency in climate crisis is a matter of pitting straightforward scientific reasoning against assertions made principally by representatives of corporate capital. Another challenge comes to social ecology from those who put forward the view that the only feasible green agenda is a capitalist one.
Among the many possible illustrations of “Green Capitalism”, a small news item in the financial section of the
This is quintessential capitalism; its only green attribute is the notion of crop-derived fuel as offering a clean and green form of energy. The following core aspects of the ecological crisis, however, remain unaddressed - if not aggravated, in this scenario:
1. Although biofuels may produce less greenhouse gas than petroleum, their aggregate impact in terms of air and water pollution, soil degradation and food prices may be more severe.
2. No recognition is given to the need to reduce the total amount of energy consumption of paved surfaces.
3. Large-scale use of cropland as a fuel source impinges on food crops without reducing pressure on the world water supply.
4. Agri-business practices, whatever the product, have their negative impact on biodiversity.
5. Monsanto is implicated in the coercive imposition of genetically modified organisms (GMO).
7. The US Government continues to provide subsidies to corporations rather than supporting efforts directly to address long-term human needs.
The more familiar image of green capitalism is the one of small grassroot enterprises offering local services, solar housing, organic food markets, etc. It is true and promising that as ecological awareness spreads, the space for such activities will grow. We should also acknowledge that the related exploration of alternative living arrangements might contribute in a positive way to the longer-term conversion that is required. More generally, it is certainly the case that any effective conservation measures, including steps towards renewable energy that can be taken in the short run, should be welcome, no matter who takes those steps. However, it is important not to see in such steps any repudiation by capital of its ecologically and socially devastating core commitments to expansion, accumulation and profit.
To remind ourselves of this core commitment is not to claim that capital ignores the environmental crisis, it is simply to account for the particular way it responds to it. This includes direct corporate initiatives and measures taken by capitalist governments. At least in the
On the basis of both theory and performance, and viewing the corporate sector as a whole, we can say that this new emphasis has made itself felt in two ways. On the one hand, corporations have been alert to opportunities for making environmentally positive adjustments, where these coincide with the standard business criteria of efficiency and cost reduction. On the other hand, more importantly, corporations have acted directly on the political stage, with an exceptionally free hand in the
Proponents of green capitalism respond to this by saying that economic growth, far from being the problem, is what holds the solutions. Environmentalism in this view is a purely negative response to ecological crisis giving rise to unpopular practices like regulation and prohibition. Hence, the singular “green capitalist” caricature of environmentalists. All of them direct our attention to stopping the bad, not creating the good. The “good” from this perspective, is a scenario of jobs, material abundance, and energy independence, understood however, within a characteristically capitalist competitive framework. While the need to cut greenhouse gases is recognized, the challenge is posed in narrowly technological terms. Attempts to resist consumerism are belittled, on the assumption that innovations, along with massive public investment, will solve any problem of scarcity; the vision is emphatically centered on the visited states, with
One pole is referring to a complexly evolving equilibrium encompassing the growth of one of its particular components. Ironically, the core capitalist response to ecological crisis is a further deepening of the logic of commodification. Capitalist practice has come to pose not just as a material threat to ecological recovery, but also as an ideological threat to socialist theory and by extension to the prospects for developing a long-term popular movement with an inspiring alternative vision.
Socialist Response to Global Ecological Crisis: Towards Ecosocialism
Human beings depend on functioning ecosystems to sustain themselves, and their actions affect those same ecosystems. As a result, there is a necessary “metabolic” interaction between humans and the earth, which influences both the natural and social history. Increasingly the state of nature is being defined by the operations of the capitalist system, as anthropogenic forces are altering the global environment on a scale that is unprecedented. The global climate is rapidly changing due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. No area of the world's ocean is unaffected by human influence, as the accumulation of carbon, fertilizer runoff, and over-fishing undermine biodiversity and the natural services that it provides. The millennium ecosystem assessment documents show that over two-thirds of the world’s ecosystems are over-exploited and polluted. Environmental problems are increasingly interrelated. Experts have been warning that we are dangerously close to pushing the planet past its tipping point, setting off cascading environmental problems that will radically alter the conditions of nature.
Although the ecological crisis has captured public attention, the dominant economic forces are attempting to seize the moment by assuring us that capital, technology and the market can be employed so as to ward off any threats without a major transformation of society. For example, numerous technological solutions are proposed to remedy global climate change, including agro-fuels, nuclear energy, and new coal plants that will capture and sequester carbon underground. The ecological crisis is thus presented as a technical problem that can be fixed within the current system, through better ingenuity, technological innovation and the magic of the market. In this view, the economy will be increasingly dematerialized, reducing demands placed on nature. The market will ensure that new avenues of capital accumulation are created in the very process of dealing with environmental challenges.
Yet this line of thought ignores the root causes of the ecological crisis. The social metabolic order of capitalism is inherently anti-ecological, since it systematically subordinates nature in its pursuit of endless accumulation and production on ever-larger scales. Technical fixes to socio-ecological problems typically have unintended consequences and fail to address the root of the problems - the political economic order. Rather than acknowledging metabolic rifts, natural limits, and ecological contradictions, capital seeks to play a shell game with the environmental problems. It generates, moving them around rather than addressing the root causes.
One obvious way capital shifts around ecological problems is through simple geographical displacement. Once resources are depleted in one region, capitalists search far and wide to seize control of resources in other parts of the world, whether by military force or markets.
One of the drives of colonialism was clearly the demand for more natural resources in rapidly industrializing European nations. However, expanding the area under the control of global capitalism is only one of the ways in which capitalists shift ecological problems around. There is a qualitative dimension as well, whereby one environmental crisis is solved (typically only in the short term) by changing the type of production process and generating a different crisis, such as how the shift from the use of wood to plastic in the manufacturing of many consumer goods replaced the problems associated with wood extraction by those associated with plastic production and disposal. Thus, one problem is transformed into another - a shift in the type of rift.
The pursuit of profit is the immediate pulse of capitalism, as it reproduces itself on an ever-larger scale. A capitalist economic system cannot function under conditions that require accounting for the reproduction of nature, which may include time scales of a hundred years or more, not to mention maintenance.
This is where the socialist response to global ecological crisis assumes importance. The social order of capital is characterized by rifts and shifts, as it freely appropriates nature and attempts to overcome, even if only whatever natural and social barriers it confronts. It only makes shifts or proposes technological fixes to address the pressing concern, without addressing the fundamental crisis, the force driving the ecological crisis – that is – capitalism itself. As Istvan Meszaros has said, “In the absence of miraculous solutions, Capitals’ arbitrarily self-asserting attitude to the objective determinations of causality and time in the end, inevitably brings a bitter harvest, at the expense of humanity and Nature itself”. (See Istvan Meszaros, “Beyond Capital”, Monthly Review Press,
The global reach of capital is creating a planetary ecological crisis. A fundamental structural crisis cannot be remedied within the operations of the system. Capitalism is incapable of regulating its social metabolism with nature in an environmentally sustainable manner. Its very operations violate the laws of restitution and metabolic restoration. The constant drive to renew the capital accumulation process intensifies its destructive social metabolism imposing the needs of capital on nature, regardless of the consequences to natural systems. Capitalism continues to play out the same failed strategy.
The solution to each environmental problem further generates new environmental problems - one crisis follows another, in an endless succession of failure, stemming from the internal contradictions of the system. If we are to solve our environmental crisis, we need to go to the root of the problem – i.e., the social relation of capital itself, given that this social metabolic order undermines the vital conditions of existence. Resolving the ecological crisis thus requires in the end a complete break with the logic of capital and the social metabolic order it creates.
It is here that the socialist response to global ecological crisis assumes importance. A socialist social order, that is a society of associated producers, can serve as the basis for potentially bringing social metabolism in line with the natural metabolism, in order to sustain the inalienable conditions for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generation. Given that human society must always interact with nature, concerns regarding the social metabolism are constant, regardless of the society. But a mode of production in which associated producers can regulate their exchange with nature in accordance with natural limits and know, while retaining the regenerative properties of natural processes and cycles, is fundamental to an environmentally sustainable social order.
The above clearly shows that to solve the world ecological crisis we should struggle for the creation of a socialist social order.
The transition from capitalism to socialism is a struggle for sustainable human development on which societies in the periphery of the capitalist world system have been leading the way.
The transition from capitalism to socialism is the most difficult problem of socialist theory and practice, the question of ecology magnifies the importance of finding a way out of this global ecological mess. Human relation with nature lies at the heart of the transition to socialism. An ecological perspective is pivotal to our understanding of capitalism’s limits, the failures of the early socialist experiments, and the overall struggle for an egalitarian and sustainable human development.
The real prospects for the solutions of global ecological crisis can be seen in the struggles to revolutionise social relations in the strife for a just and sustainable society, and are now emerging in the periphery of the world capitalism system, that is the third world societies. They are somehow mirrored in movement for ecological and social revolution in the advanced capitalist world. It is only through fundamental change at the centre of the system, from which the pressure on the planet principally emanates, that there is any genuine possibility of avoiding ultimate ecological destruction. For ecopessimists, this may seem to be an impossible goal. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that there is now an ecology as well as political economy of revolutionary change known as ecosocialism. The emergence in our times - the struggles for sustainable human development in various people’s struggle in the global periphery could mark the beginning of a revolt against both world alienation and human self-estrangement. Such revolts, if consistent, could have only one objective – i.e., the creation of a society of associated producers rationally regulating their metabolic relation to nature, and doing so not only in accordance with their own needs, but also in accordance with those of future generations and life as a whole. Today the task of transition to socialism and the transition to an ecological society are one.
The Idea of Ecosocialism
Richard Smith wrote in “The Engine of Eco Collapse”, published in the Ecosocialist journal ‘Capitalism, Nature and Socialism’, Vol. 16, No. 4, 2005:
“If capitalism can’t be reformed to subordinate profit to human survival what alternative is there but some sort of nationally and globally planned economy? Problems like climate change require the “Visible hand” of direct planning. Our capitalist corporate leaders can't help themselves, have no choice but to systematically make wrong, irrational and ultimately – given the technology they command – globally suicidal decisions about the economy and the environment so then, what other choice do we have than to consider a true ecosocialist alternative?” (Richard Smith)
The concept of ecosocialism has been advanced by socialist thinkers like Andre Gorz, James O'Connor, Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster et al.
Ecosocialsm is an attempt to provide a radical civilizational alternative to capitalism’s destructive process. It advances an economic policy founded on the non-monetary and extra economic criteria of social needs and ecological equilibrium. Grounded on the basic arguments of ecological movement and Marxist critique of political economy, this dialectical synthesis attempted by a broad spectrum of authors from Andre Gorz to Elma Aluater, James O’Connor, Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster. It is at the same time a critique of market ecology which does not challenge the capitalist system, and of “productivist socialism” which ignores the issue of natural limits.
According to O’Connor, the aim of ecological socialism is a new society based on ecological rationality, democratic control, social equality and the predominance of use value over exchange value. (See James O’Connor, ‘Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism’, The Guilford Press, New York, 1998). The above aims require: (a) collective ownership of the mean of production by, and (b) democratic planning, which makes it possible for society to define the goals of investment and production, and (c) new technological structure of the productive forces. In other words, a revolutionary social and economic transformation.
For ecosocialists, the problem with the main currents of political ecology represented by most Green parties is that they do not seem to take into account the intrinsic contradiction between the capitalist dynamics of the unlimited expansion of capital and accumulation of profits, and the preservation of the environment. This leads to a critique of productivism, which is often relevant but does not lead beyond an ecologically – reformed ‘market economy’. The result has been that many Green parties have become the ecological alibi of centre left social – liberal governments. (For detailed critique of existing green politics, see Joel Kovel – ‘Enemy of Nature’.)
A critique of the productivist ideology of progress and of the idea of a socialist exploitation of nature, appeared already in the writings of some dissident Marxists of the 1930s, such as Walter Benjamin. But it is mainly during the last few decades, that “ecosocialism” has developed as a challenge to the thesis of the neutrality of productive forces which had continued to predominate in the main tendencies of the left during the 20th century.
Many scientific and technological achievements of modernity are precious, but the whole productive system must be transformed and this can be done only by ecosocialist methods, i.e., through a democratic planning of the economy which takes into the account the preservation of the ecological equilibrium. This may mean, for certain branches of production, to discontinue them - for instance nuclear plants, certain methods of mass/industrial fishing (which are responsible for the near extermination of several species in the seas), the destructive logging of tropical forests, etc.
The list is long. It first of all requires a revolution in the energy system, with the replacement of present sources (essentially fossils) that are responsible for the pollution and poisoning of the environment by renewable sources of energy: water, wind and sun. The issue of energy is decisive because fossil energy (oil and coal) is responsible for much of the planet's pollution, as well as for the disastrous climate change. Nuclear energy is a false alternative, not only because of the danger of new Chernobyls, but also because nobody knows what to do with the thousands of tons of radioactive waste toxic for hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of years, and the gigantic masses of contaminated obsolete planets. Solar energy, which has never aroused much interest in capitalist societies (for not being profitable or competitive), must become the object of intense research and development - a key role in the building of an alternative energy system.
All this must be accomplished under the necessary condition of full and equitable employment. This condition is essential, not only to meet the requirement of social justice, but in order to assure working class support for the structural transformation of the productive forces. This process is impossible without public control over the mean of production and planning, that is public decisions on investment and technological change, which must be taken away from the banks and capitalist enterprises in order to serve common good.
The whole society should be able to choose democratically which productive lines are to be privileged and what percentage of resources are to be invested in education, health and agriculture. The prices of goods themselves would not be left to the law of supply and demand, but determined as far as possible according to social political and ecological criteria. Initially this might only involve taxes on certain products, and subsidized prices for others, but ideally, as the transition to socialism moves forward, more and more products and services would be distributed free of charge, according to the needs and will of the citizens.
The passage from capitalist destructive progress to socialism is a historical process, a permanent revolutionary transformation of society, culture and mentalities. Politics is central to this transformative process. It is important to emphasize that such a process cannot begin without a revolutionary transformation of social and political structures, and the active support by the vast majority of the population of an ecosocialist programme. The development of socialist consciousness and ecological awareness is a process, where the decisive factor is people's own collective experiences of struggle, moving from local and partial confrontations to the radical change of society.
This transition would lead to not only a new mode of production and an egalitarian and democratic society, but also to an alternative mode of life, a new ecosocialist civilization, beyond the reigns of money, beyond consumption habits artificially produced by advertising, and beyond unlimited production of commodities that are useless and harmful to the environment.
This requires a qualitative transformation of the development paradigm itself. This means putting an end to the monstrous waste of resources by capitalism, based on the production, in a large scale, of useless and harmful products: the armaments industry is a good example. A great part of the goods produced in capitalism with their inbuilt obsolescence have no other usefulness; is not excessive consumption acquisition of pseudo novelties imposed by fashion through advertisement and mass culture? A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, beginning with those which could be described as the basic requirement of a democratic egalitarian society – water, food, clothing, housing, including basic services like health, education transport and culture.
Only through an ecosocialist politics we can avoid the impending ecocatastrophe, thus saving the planet and human beings.