Ecosocialism: the strategic debate

Those of us who inhabit planet Earth in the 21st century face a huge problem. Our own species, homo sapiens (modern humans), are trashing the planet at an ever increasing and more destructive rate.

If this continues the ability of the planet to sustain life (human life in particular) could be gone within decades. We are the first with the information to understand the full depth of this crisis, and we are likely be the last with the chance to do anything about it. No other generation has faced such a challenge or such a responsibility.

Science is telling us that we have 10 years to hold the global temperature increase to a maximum of 1.5°C. After that dangerous and irreversible feedback process could take control.

Temperature records continue to be broken with frightening regularity. Floods, droughts and wild fires are more intense and more frequent. At the time of writing the West coast of America was facing catastrophic wildfires that had consumed over 3 million acres – described by a Senator from Oregon as “apocalyptic”. A similar catastrophe is taking place in the Brazilian Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, where thousands of wildfires are burning out of control.

Artic sea ice will soon be gone. Parts of Antarctica are warming 5 times faster than the rest of the planet. Both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are destabilising – the melting of which would raise the sea level by up to 20 metres. This would obliterate swathes of the most densely populated parts of the globe. The worlds permafrost is now melting 50 per cent faster than was previously thought – with the potential to release vast quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas (GHG). Here in Britain, this summer, we have seen a record number of days in excess of 34°C.

The starting point for addressing all this is an ecosocialist world view. But there is a long way to go. Whilst the concept is more widely accepted today than ever before, there is, as yet, no common view as to what exactly it implies. To some it simply means taking the environmental struggle more seriously, to others (including us) it redefines the socialist project. We are no longer engaged in a struggle ‘simply’ to end capitalism and replace it with a democratic and socially just society. The task today is to replace capitalism with a society that is sustainable for the long term and capable of constructing a new, and none-exploitative, relationship between human beings and nature.

Meanwhile a major opportunity to decarbonise the global economy is being squandered as we speak. It is a crime against humanity. Trillions of dollars are set to be spent by governments to rebuild from the Covid crisis. Instead of grasping the opportunity to start to build a sustainable low-carbon future, with a new relationship with nature, this money is being used (scandalously) to replicate the same disastrous paradigm with growth as the central objective. As the global economy grows – assuming it survives Covid 19 – so does global warming and environmental destruction. Natural resources are over-exploited to the point of exhaustion. More waste is being dumped into the biosphere than it can absorb leading to dysfunction and collapse.

The nature of the crisis

Some on the left argue that we face a triple crisis: i.e. the biggest economic crisis for 300 years; an existential ecological crisis; and a medical crisis arising from Covid-19. There are, however, two important caveats to such an analysis.

First, if we have just 10 years in which to reach zero carbon, after the revolution will be too late. You can’t build socialism on a dead planet. Our task, therefore, is to force the elites to make major structural changes, in the here and now, whilst capitalism still exists – including the complete decarbonisation of the global economy and its replacement by renewable energy.

Second, we must insist that Covid-19 is not in a separate medical category but is a fundamental part of the ecological crisis itself. The definition of ‘ecology’ is, after all, the relationship between living organisms.

Such an approach allows us to locate the increasing danger of zoonotic spillover pathogens from other species where they belong. They are a product of the trashing of nature, on an industrial scale, by both Western industrialised agriculture – not least intensified meat production and deforestation – and by Asian wet markets and the bushmeat trade. These factors are compounded by rising population density – particularly urban density which increases at twice the global rate. This is further boosted by unprecedented levels of global connectivity that now exist – particularly air travel.

This approach also allows us to recognise that such pandemics can only be prevented, ultimately, by a completely different relationship between human beings and the natural world than exists at the present time. Whilst the current relationship continues (or anything like it) there will be no solution. Scientists estimate that we could soon be facing up to 5 potentially deadly pathogens crossing over from other species ever year any one of which could escalate into a disastrous pandemic.

Multi-dimensional

The complexity is compounded by the multi-dimensional nature of the ecological crisis itself – which cannot be reduced to climate change, important as it is. The ecological crisis takes the form of a series of parallel crises each capable of threatening life on the planet in its own right. These threats have been identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre as ‘planetary boundaries’ – the crossing of which can do irreversible damage to the ecosystems of the planet.

Other species are becoming extinct at a rate of between a 100 and a 1,000 times faster than the ‘natural’ or ‘background’ rate. This is now recognised as the ‘sixth mass extinction’ – the biggest extinction event since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The World Wild Fund (WWF) 2020 Living Planet Report, published in April this year, reveals that mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have suffered a two-thirds decline in less than half a century. 

The demand for fresh water has long outpaced replenishment. By 2025 (according to the UN), an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas facing serious water shortages, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions. As rivers dry up, conflicts over water become more intense. In just three countries – India, China and Pakistan – farmers pump out around 400 cubic kilometres of ground water a year.

(At the time of writing, in Mexico, farmers are throwing petrol bombs, setting vehicles ablaze, blocking highways, and attacked highway toll booths, over the diversion of water from the La Boquilla dam to the USA whilst Mexico is itself is experiencing severe drought.)

The problem of feeding todays 7.6 billion people, and potentially10 billion by the end of the century, without destroying the biosphere of the planet in the process, remains unresolved. Industrialised agriculture uses 70 per cent of all available fresh water and is responsible for 60 per cent of global biodiversity loss and 70 per cent of deforestation. It is also using ever greater quantiles of nitrogen fertiliser with ever diminishing efficiency. As a result a greater proportion than ever before is being washing into rivers and oceans with catastrophic results.

Remarkably, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (CO2 and methane) generated by meat production are greater than those generated by the entire world-wide transportation system combined: cars, trucks, trains, ships and aircraft!

The run-off from the nitrogen fertiliser used in cattle feed for meat production is creating oceanic dead zones – a frightening new form of pollution. There are now 405 dead zones covering 95,000 square nautical miles in which everything is dead in the lower layers due to lack of oxygen. Add to this the rising sea temperature and oceanic acidification and the scale of the problem is clear. Coral reefs, for example, one of the most prolific echo-systems on the planet could disappear within a few years. The meat industry, we should remember, is not just polluting our oceans, destroying our soil, and damaging our health; it is facilitating the spillover of dangerous pathogens that threaten our very existence.

We have to demand the end of such agriculture and its replacement by “food sovereignty”, a term coined by Via Campesina in 1996, which would empower those who produce, distribute, and consume the food to control the mechanisms of production and distribution.

We welcome the trend towards reduced consumption of meat and dairy products given their impact on the natural world and the level of GHG emissions and water consumption involved. Whilst veganism and vegetarianism, on their own, are not enough we support policies to make affordable, healthy alternatives to animal products widely available eg in schools and hospitals.

Climate change

The Paris COP22 in December 2015 took place in the shadow of the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen. In the run up to it mass mobilisations took place around the world demanding decisive action. London saw its biggest climate demonstration ever, with 70,000 people on the streets. There were demonstrations and protests in Paris itself during COP, despite the imposition of a state of emergency by the French Government following terrorist attacks which killed 130 people the month before.

The main proposition put to the Paris COP was to restrict global warming to a maximum temperature increase, over the preindustrial level, of ‘well below 2°C’. This was an advance over the Copenhagen target which had been to restrict the increase to not more than 2°C’. It was, however, was bitterly resisted by those countries and island states at greatest risk from rising sea level, some under imminent threat of submergence. They were organised into what they called the High Ambition Coalition, which was led by the Marshall Islands. They put up a ferocious fight for a maximum increase of 1.5°C rather than 2°C’around the slogan ‘1.5°C to stay alive’.

In the end there was a fudge and both were accepted, though not with equal status. The main target would be ‘well below  2°C’ with a further limit of 1.5°C accepted as an ‘aspiration’: ‘recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change’. It was still, however, an important gain. Once adopted, even in the flawed way it was, it would not go away.

Paris was also the first time there had been a unanimous recognition of what climate scientists and campaigners had been saying for many years: that anthropogenic climate change is a real and urgent threat and will have disastrous consequences for hundreds of millions of people if the burning of fossil fuels is not stopped. Also for the first time, at a COP, neither the scientific basis of global warming, or its anthropogenic character, was disputed. This was an important step forward and a big blow to climate scepticism.

These gains, however, were not reflected in the practical decisions taken in Paris. The INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) adopted were totally inadequate and would result not in global temperature increase of 2°C by the end of the century – far less of 1.5°C – but in a disastrous 3.4°C from which there would be no way back. Since fossil fuel emissions have risen by a further 4% since then they would have to fall by 7.6% every year from now until 2030 to stay within the 1.5°C ceiling. We, therefore, have a mountain to climb in Glasgow next year when the INDCs are due to be upgraded into something that can actually tackle the problem.

Photo: Terry Conway

The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming

Two years later, in October 2018, the stakes were raised again with the publication of the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming – which officially adopted the 1.5°C target, and concluded, moreover, that we had just 12 years to implement this, since crucial tipping points could come into play as soon as 2030.

Zero carbon by 2030, however, is a major challenge. It means forcing major structural changes at every level of society very quickly. It means demanding massive governmental investment in energy systems based entirely on renewables. It means a major transfer of wealth to the impoverished countries to facilitate their transition and lift them towards western levels of development. It also means major reductions is energy usage/wastage to go alongside the introduction of the new system.

The IPCC Report put it this way: “Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no (or limited) overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems. These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options.”

It also means, it should be said, rejecting the concept of ‘net-zero’ carbon (i.e. taking offsets into account) which is simply an escape clause the get around important targets.

The role of the left

The left, however, will need to raise its game substantially if it is to play a significant role in this struggle. Its current level of commitment is far from a commensurate response to an existential threat to life on the planet. This reflects the disastrous record of the left in the second half of the 20th century, when it not only shunned the emerging environmental movement in the 60s, 70s, and 80s – often dubbing those involved as middleclass liberals – but it fully signed up to the dominant growth and productivist agenda of the day, only starting to break from it in recent years. This applies to both the radical left and the social democratic left in the Labour Party and the trade unions

In the 1976s – 14 years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s game-changing Silent SpringThe Alternative Economic Strategy (AES), the bible of the Bennite left in both the LP and the trade unions, was based entirely on growth and productivism. Its key chapter ‘A Policy for Expansion’ opens tells us that: ‘The essential basis for any alternative economic strategy must be a policy for planned economic expansion’. The environment, on the other hand, was not mentioned once in its 150 pages. There were challenges to this – not least from Raymond Williams whose work through SERA in the 1980’s took a very different tack.  Unfortunately it is the AES approach which is still largely followed when unions like UNITE are confronted today with redundancies in the aviation or cars sector, policies of Just transition don’t get a look in.

Today the radical left remains behind the curve. It still has no exit strategy from fossil energy that goes beyond appeals for global system change. It also continues to shun a transitional approach – which is the key strategic element in the ecological struggle.

A transitional approach would recognise that the prospect of global system change within 10 years is remote in the extreme. The actual strategic challenge we face today – which is implied by the 2018 IPCC Special Report – is not system change within 10 years but an all-out struggle to force the elites (however reluctantly) to make the structural changes needed to halt global warming in the 10 years we have left. It is a struggle that we should, and would, carry out within the context of an overall struggle to end capitalism and establish a sustainable ecosocialist society.

Reforms are not necessarily reformist. The most effective road to revolutionary change is via the struggle for partial and transitional demands – zero carbon by 2030 being a prime example. The struggle for such demands generates both self-organisation and ecological consciousness and can take the struggle to a higher and more radical stage. In any case if we are unable to build the kind of movement capable of forcing capitalism to make big changes how are we going to build a movement capable of its expropriation by revolutionary means? We cannot end capitalism just by calling for it to end – however often we repeat ourselves.

We are not opposed to revolutionary change – quite the reverse. But to gamble the future of the planet on such an unlikely scenario as global revolution within 10 years is reckless in the extreme. There are no signs that such a revolutionary wave is on its way, and there are no proposals from its advocates as to how to bring it about. Politics, internationally, is still moving to the right. Some comrades talk about creeping fascism – there is certainly creeping authoritarianism. Trump could even be re-elected in November, which does not suggest a global balance of forces in favour of global ecosocialist revolution.

Derek Wall puts it very well in his new book Climate Strike, where he says the following:

 “The challenge is that if the economic system, indeed the basic social system, needs to be transformed to protect humanity and the rest of nature, this cannot be achieved easily or quickly. Climate change and less visible environmental threats demand almost instant action, so interventions are necessary immediately. Therefore, the politics of climate change needs to take a seemingly contradictory approach, intervening directly and immediately to slow emissions but working in a more fundamental and long-term way to promote the creation of a different way of life with all the complexities and institutions and practices that this demands.”  (page 2)

Interestingly, the radical left does not propose social revolution as a prerequisite to other major arenas of struggle, so why with the ecological struggle? In the women’s movement, for example, the left engages in the struggle (often successfully) for major change here and now, whilst capitalism still exists. It sees the struggle for reforms as a part of the overall struggle against capitalism itself – including the struggles against poverty wages, racism, homophobia, and for civil and human rights.

Nevergoodenoughism

Some on the left, who call for global system change as the immediate solution, then oppose some of the key demands for radical change in the here and now. Such changes, it is argued, are either greenwash, not revolutionary enough, or have some defect that is unacceptable. We could call it nevergoodenoughism. Many of them would argue that they do support a transitional approach, but just not these specific proposals, whilst failing to put forward demands to illustrate this.

Road transport, which accounts for around 20 per cent of global CO2 emissions, is a prime example. According to the European Environment Agency cars are the biggest culprit, producing a massive 60.7% of such emissions. Heavy vehicles produce 26.2%; light commercial vehicles 11.9%; water navigation 13.6%; civil aviation 13.4%; and railways 0.5%. The WHO has identified motor vehicles emissions as the single biggest environmental outdoor health risk in the world, contributing to 3.7m deaths a year. Yet many on the radical left oppose electrification, a measure that would have an immediate benefit –  even if this means the continuation of the internal combustion engine (ICE).

Even the decision of an increasing number of governments to make the internal combustion engine (petrol and diesel) illegal within between 10 and 40 years – 15 years in the case of the UK. This – despite the proposals at the high end of the scale – has effectively spelled the end of the ICE since the industry is forced to respond to the earliest date and not the most remote because its timescale for retooling for new models is around 10 years. Automotive manufacturers – after decades of blocking electrification in alliance with the oil producers – are now scrambling to introduce electric models. The left appears totally indifferent to the whole thing. An article on electric cars can be found at:  https://socialistresistance.org/the-electric-cars-revolution/19342

Many on the left have also been opposed to congestion charging (i.e. pollution charging) in city centres. SR supports Congestion Charging, as well as Low Emission zones to reduce urban traffic and pollution. SR also campaigns for accessible, free, safe and reliable public transport available 24-hours a day and staffed by unionised and well-paid workers.

Another major no-no on the left has been any notion personal environmental responsibility for our own carbon and ecological footprints: i.e. paying more attention what we eat, particularly meat, the means of transport we choose, and the amount of energy we waste, and the amount of waste we generate. This was called for by the IPCC Report that recognised that whilst the main responsibility for such change is institutional and governmental, there is also an important personal responsibility involved – in the rich countries in particular. Personal responsibility and behaviour is something supporters of for example the women’s liberation movement have always taken seriously – the personal is political – and expect standards of behaviour in people’s personal lives

Opposition to putting demands on governments or governmental institutions – such as the UN or the COP process – is another feature of this, which has recently emerged again in the shape of the Glasgow Agreement in advance of the Glasgow COP.

Make the polluters pay for the solution

Forcing major structural change against the will of the elites will need a mass movement, something that is most effectively generated via high impact demands that can command mass support, not just amongst environmental activists but amongst the wider population as it is impacted by the crisis.

The key to this is to make fossil fuel far more expensive than renewables by means that are socially just, redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, can bring about a big reduction in emissions in the time available, and (crucially) is capable of commanding popular support. This means heavily taxing the polluters to both cut emissions and to ensure that the polluters fund the transition to renewables.

One proposal on the table in this regard is James Hansen’s fee and dividend proposition. It provides the framework for a very big emissions reductions, here and now whilst capitalism exists, and on the  basis of a major transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor (as argued above) in order to drive it forward. It would need, as he recognises, to go alongside a crash programme of renewable energy production to meet the demand that his incentives would create. It would also need a major programme of energy conservation, a big reduction in the use of the internal combustion engine, the abolition of factory farming and a big reduction in meat consumption.

It might be expected that the left would support such taxation – since it supports taxing the rich – but this is not the case. Most on the radical left oppose carbon taxes with a ferocity that is hard to understand. Interestingly they don’t call for the repeal of the already existing carbon taxes on petrol and diesel, for example. This is presumably because they don’t want to be associated with what is in fact a right-wing climate denialist agenda.

It is sometimes argued that taxation can be regressive – which is indeed true. It they are however, we should oppose them. We should only support such taxes if they are introduced as a part of an overall taxation system that is socially progressive that compensates the poorest people when they are disproportionately affected by a particular tax. It is perfectly possible to do this; it is a political choice.

There is a crucial political point involved in this as well. This is that cutting emissions this way is in the end the only progressive/democratic way of doing it since it means that such taxation can be carried out within the framework of an overall taxation system that is heavily progressive. The other alternatives, often advanced by the left, such as production cuts by government decision or rationing do not work, indeed can have serious consequences. Such action would generate a popular backlash along the lines of the yellow vests, and rationing would create a black market.

Progressive carbon taxes, properly applied, however, can be the driving force that can bring down carbon emissions rapidly and open the door to wider change. We should not  insist on Hansen in all its detail. There may well be other proposals on similar lines now or in the future that could be considered—but let’s have the discussion.

Major carbon taxes already exist in most countries in the form of taxes on petrol and diesel for road usage that is not part of a progressive agenda, or not sufficiently so. It is important that the left defends the need for carbon taxes and presents them in the context of a redistribution of money from the rich to the poor.

Aviation and maritime fuels, however, remain completely untaxed, although they account for a rising share of global energy-related carbon emissions (currently at 4 per cent). These fuels were explicitly excluded from the Kyoto Protocol and they are not subject to the taxes widely applied to road transportation fuels. There have been some important campaigns around this, led by Oxfam and the WWF for example.

Is real change possible?

The notion that nothing significant can be changed whilst capitalism still exists is not only inhibits the struggle but is not historically accurate.

The level of popular consciousness on the environmental crisis has been transformed in recent years.

Many important changes have been won while over the past 50 or 60 that amount to very significant change. There have been victories against nuclear power, for example in Germany and Japan – also against airport expansion. The international campaign to save the whales in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling and massively reduced the slaughter that had been taking place since the middle of the nineteenth century. Currently, Japan, Russia, and a number of other nations continue to oppose this moratorium.

The hole in the ozone layer has also been repaired, for now at least, by an 80 per cent reduction in the use of CFCs since the signing of the Montréal Protocol in 1987. Fracking in Britain has been halted after a long campaign. The recent decisions to impose charges on plastic bags can make a huge difference in terms of plastic pollution. Just look at the impact of BBC TV’s Blue Planet II on the plastic pollution and biodiversity debate. Even the inadequate level of renewable energy now being generated would not exist but for decades of campaigning by environmentalists. In fact, the chance to make fundamental change is created in the course of the struggle for partial and immediate change.

Photo: Terry Conway

The agency for change

Stopping climate change and environmental destruction will require the broadest possible coalition of forces ever built. It should embrace Naomi Klein’s Blockadia, in which she includes what she calls ‘the new climate warriors’– those in the forefront of struggles against the extractive industries in particular, pipe-lines, open caste mining, and fracking.

It must include those defending the forests and the fresh water resources and those that are resisting the damming of rivers that destroy the existing ecosystems. It must include the indigenous peoples who have been the backbone of so many of these struggles along with the young school strikers, and those supporting them who have been so inspirational over the past 2 years. And it should include the activists of XR who have brought new energy into the movement over the same period of time,

It will also need to embrace the more radical Green Parties alongside the big NGOs such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, the RSPB, which have grown and radicalised in recent years alongside the newer groupings that have come on the scene such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees. These organisations have radicalised, particularly in the run up to Paris, and have an impressive mobilising ability. Such a movement has to look wider, to embrace the trade union movement, and also the indigenous peoples around the world along with major social movements, such as La Via Campesina and the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST),

The involvement of the trade unions is crucial, though it remains difficult in such a defensive period. Progress has nevertheless been made via initiatives such as the campaign for a million green jobs in Britain, which has the support of most major trade unions and the TUC, and the ‘just transition’ campaign (i.e. a socially just transition from fossil fuel to green jobs) which has the support of the ITUC at the international level, and addresses the issue of job protection in the course of the changeover to renewable energy. In this way it opens the door for a deeper involvement of the trade unions in the ecological struggle.

The real test, however, will be whether as the impact of the crisis unfolds, Blockadia can embrace a much wider movement drawing in the many millions who have not been climate activists but are driven to resist by the impact of the crisis on their lives and there chances of survival. This means precisely demands, such as outlined above, that can link rapid reductions in GHG emissions to a transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor.

Meanwhile the campaigning focus over the next year has to COP 26 in Glasgow, which has the task of transforming Paris into something that works. We have to mobilise to demand that it does so exactly that, and reject those who argue that governments and international institutions should not be our focus. The COP conferences have been a rallying point for many years and this one is the most important yet. The task for ecosocialists, and indeed for the wider movement, is to demand its full implementation, and to build the movement and advance the struggle in the process. Anything less would be to deny the movement its best chance to take the struggle forward.

The model for challenging the elites on all this has been provided in spades by Greta Thunburg, and the movement she has led. This was to demand that they act to reverse this situation and reject their excuses for not doing so. This is the stance we must take in Glasgow next year – demand that they act. Environmentalists are right to point out that governments can make major changes fast when they decide to do so – for example wage war. They can transform their economies within months. The Covid crisis itself has also taught us is that governments can find vast sums of money when they decide to do so.

In the end, if capitalism is faced with the destruction the planet’s capacity to sustain human life, and with increasing environmental disasters in rich parts of the world, they will finally act to resolve it. The problem is that they will leave it until it is too late to avoid massive destruction; and they will carry it out by dictatorial means and at the expense of the most impoverished people on the planet. The struggle to save the planet, therefore, can be defined more precisely as a struggle to save the planet in a way that is democratic, socially progressive, and ecologically sustainable.

Socialist Resistance Editorial Board

This piece has been written for discussion at a conference of Socialist Resistance supporters in November

12 Comments on Ecosocialism: the strategic debate

  1. An excellent and informative article, although I think the main strategic thrust is flawed. “You can’t build socialism on a dead planet. Our task, therefore, is to force the elites to make major structural changes, in the here and now, whilst capitalism still exists – including the complete decarbonisation of the global economy and its replacement by renewable energy.” While I completely agree that we should put forward the transitional demands suggested in the article – basically to completely decarbonise the global economy – it would be utopian to imagine that these demands are achievable within capitalism. The response of the elites at Davis to Greta Thunberg was that capitalism would automatically generate technical solutions to the problem of climate change without the need for any serious disruption to the existing (highly carbonised) system of capital accumulation. The scale of changes that we need are not in any way comparable with eliminating ozone destroying CFCs or saving the whale.

    The elites can act no other way, because they do not control the system. As personifications of capital they are controlled by it. The fact that, despite everything we have learned about climate change in recent decades, states still subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of billions each year, is strong enough indication that they aren’t going to change course. As wealthy individuals they have secured their own bolt holes in New Zealand. As personifications of the system they will continue on their path to ecological catastrophe, which as the article correctly points out, is far wider and deeper than climate change. Because if they don’t, capital will replace them. Ironically therefore, gaining a few years breathing space within a global capitalist economy would prove to be harder than securing the outcome that the article writes off as unrealistic – fundamental systemic change.

    The article sees system change within a short time frame as unrealistic because it is so far removed from existing social consciousness. But consciousness doesn’t change gradually and in predetermined stages. It shifts in leaps and ruptures. As the crisis of humanity deepens – which it will do, in the near future, very dramatically, consciousness will also change, although how it changes is an open question.

    It is of course a truism that “we cannot end capitalism just by calling for it to end – however often we repeat ourselves.” But a working class with a mass socialist consciousness (of which ecological consciousness is an essential element) can overthrow capitalism. So the crisis of humanity still boils down to a crisis of leadership of the working class, as it did in Trotsky’s time. Collectively learning how to resolve that crisis is the most important task facing Marxists. And we certainly do need to learn that “we cannot end capitalism just be calling for it to end”. But we need to learn many other things besides. It is true that our recent record is poor, but that doesn’t mean we can give up and hope that capital can be forced to change direction.

    One thing we should have learned by now is that trying to build a movement to force the elites to decarbonise the economy by pointing out the catastrophic consequences of not decarbonising the economy will not mobilise many people. It hasn’t done up to now and there is no reason to think that will change. Catastrophism is catastrophically demotivating. That is because when workers are completely engulfed in the daily struggle for survival, which 99% of us are, we close our eyes and ears to messages about an impending catastrophe that appears to be distant and abstract (regardless of how close and real it actually is.) And we won’t be able to change that just by calling for decarbonisation, however often we repeat ourselves. Instead we need to combine our transitional demands for rapid decarbonisation with building a positive and credible vision of a future in which we have real and meaningful control over our lives, including our day to day lives, and over our social metabolic relation with nature. As always, it will be the young who will be most open to that vision, and that is where we need to look in order to build a mass party, as the initial embodiment of a mass ecosocialist consciousness, that will lead the struggle for our emancipation from capital and our survival as a species.

  2. Alan Thornett // 18th October 2020 at 8:38 am // Reply

    Roy argues that it is utopian to believe that environmental reforms of any significance are achievable under capitalism. He also argues (remarkably) that such reforms would, in any case, be harder to achieve than the expropriation capitalism world-wide by revolutionary means! He puts it this way: “gaining a few years breathing space within a global capitalist economy would prove to be harder than securing the outcome that the article writes off as unrealistic – fundamental systemic change”.
    This reflects the view, which he is far from alone in holding, is that global socialist/ecosocialist revolution is indeed just around the corner, and one more heave will get us there.
    The SR article, he says, “sees system change within a short time frame as unrealistic because it is so far removed from existing social consciousness. But consciousness doesn’t change gradually and in predetermined stages. It shifts in leaps and ruptures. As the crisis of humanity deepens – which it will do, in the near future, very dramatically, consciousness will also change, although how it changes is an open question.”
    Consciousness does indeed shift in leaps and ruptures. There are, however, huge dangers in such an approach – which snooker players call ‘hit and hope’. This is reflected in the final phrase of the sentence “although how it changes is an open question.” In other words it is just as likely to shift to the right as to the left – more likely to the right in reality since the right feeds on chaos.
    Many environmentalists have rightly concluded we are facing a major societal breakdown, or series of such breakdowns, by mid-century or earlier, triggered by a generalised collapse of ecosystems, if global warming and environmental degradation is not reversed. If by then the left and progressive forces have not established a strong record in defending the planet and have not popularised the progressive measures that will be needed to do so, the initiative will swing naturally to the right.
    Nor is it true, by the way, as the article argues, that capitalism will never act to save the planet however critical the crisis becomes. In the end they will act rather than go down with it. They will, however, leave it until it is far too late and will carry it out by dictatorial means and at the expense of the most impoverished and exploited people on the planet. As the article puts it “the struggle to save the planet can be defined more precisely as a struggle to save the planet in a way that is democratic, socially progressive, and ecologically sustainable”.

    • Alan, we are agreed about how this will pan out under the continued rule of capital. The ruling class will hold out for as long as possible, relying on the invisible hand of the market to come to the rescue with a combination of carbon markets and technical solutions. They are no doubt absolutely sincere in their inability to envisage any other way. When it is too late to prevent catastrophic ecological collapse they will turn to extreme repression, with machine gun posts at borders to stem the flow of climate refugees. What will it take to force them to implement, in time, measures that drastically reduce carbon emissions in a way that is democratic, socially progressive, and ecologically sustainable? Reasoned arguments won’t do it, they have been presented with buckets full of those by their own scientists for decades. Localised direct actions don’t scratch the surface. Several years ago we even mobilised mass demonstrations on the very issue of climate change in cities across the globe, to little effect. The ruling class understands full well that this is an existential planetary crisis. They also know full well that populations are deeply concerned and want measures put in place. But they are powerless to act, because although they are in charge, they are not in control, of what is an inherently chaotic and uncontrollable system. Even when they had the option of implementing a modest green new deal in the U.K. by parliamentary democratic means, what was the response of the state? It pulled out all the stops to stop it happening.

      So what would it take to persuade the ruling class to change direction in time to prevent unstoppable climate catastrophe? This is a genuine question because for the life of me I cannot imagine anything short of mass popular uprisings forcing a change of direction that is adequate to the scale of the ecological crisis. We therefore come to the question of social consciousness. What will persuade sufficient numbers to rise up in defence of habitable planetary conditions? My contention is that such a scale of uprising will only happen if enough people (and particularly the youth, generation z) are persuaded, by a combination of life experience during growing crises and the conscious intervention of organised ‘organic intellectuals’ of the class, to break with the daily reproduction of capital. Focusing on the defensive struggle to prevent ecological catastrophe does not raise consciousness sufficiently, as we know from experience. Firstly because a natural human reaction is to avoid facing up to horror on such a scale; we focus on our immediate daily lives, we look for distractions, we think about other things. And secondly because in the absence of a generalised ecosocialist consciousness, and in the context of not wanting to think about the dire consequences of what is happening, our default position is to trust those in authority, to assume that they will not allow a civilisational collapse that will affect them and their families too, to believe their assurances that technical solutions will emerge in time. This is an existentially dangerous false consciousness. I would suggest that the only way to supplant this false consciousness is not by repeatedly warning about impending catastrophe, but by building, in the context of rising struggle, a positive vision of a viable but radically different mode of life. In other words, by building a mass ecosocialist consciousness. That won’t be easy, and it will necessitate a major reorientation on the part of the radical left. But what choice have we got, other than to begin the struggle for that reorientation.

  3. Lagatta de Montréal // 19th October 2020 at 12:14 am // Reply

    Please, the west coast of the United States, or US, unless you mean everthing from Alaska to Patagonia – also facing these problems. It isn’t a matter of pedantry, but of non-imperialist wording.

  4. Alan Thornett // 19th October 2020 at 3:27 pm // Reply

    Point taken: west coast of the United States.

  5. Alan Thornett // 20th October 2020 at 9:52 am // Reply

    Roy says: “Focusing on the defensive struggle to prevent ecological catastrophe does not raise consciousness sufficiently, as we know from experience.” Counterpoising engagement in the day-to-day struggle to defend the planet with to struggle to raise either popular consciousness or eco-socialist consciousness, however, does not make sense. One flows from the other.
    Nor is it true that the elites are incapable of making changes, or indeed that they cannot be forced to do so. Numerous governments have, as I have mentioned, pulled the plug on the internal combustion engine(ICE) – the biggest single driver of fossil capitalism in the 20 century – which will be now be gone within 10 or 15 years. This major development is partly as a result of pressure from the environmental movement that has long exposed its impact on global warming, but also (mainly) because of the impact of the ICE on the global megacities it is constructing – which are getting even more mega all the time. On the one hand nitrogen oxide emissions (amongst many other emissions) are killing ever more people, and on the other in many such cities you can’t see to the other side of the street for most of the year. With the ICE they are simply not viable.

  6. Alan says, “the internal combustion engine will now be gone within 10 or 15 years.” The European Automobile Manufacturers Association begs to differ: “the internal combustion engine is not going away.” https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/internal-combustion-engine-not-going-away-automakers-say/ For the ICE to be gone within 10 – 15 years they would have to stop manufacturing them within the next 5 years, and there is no sign of that happening. Nor is it feasible or sustainable for electric cars to replace the ICE in anything like the current numbers. So the issue is not just the ICE, but the car per se. The motor car is not just a commodity but an organic system, with tentacles extending deeply into every crevice of the capitalist economy; the only possibility of transcending it as the dominant mode of mass transit is to replace it with a different organic system (based on fully integrated and massively expanded public transport, facilities for bicycles etc.) Think about the rupture with existing social relations that will be needed in order to eliminate the car and all other aspects of the carbon economy. It is unfeasible to expect that level of rupture without making deep inroads into the capital relation itself, again because capital is an organic system, in which ‘every economic relation presupposes every other, and in which everything posited is also a presupposition.’

    I was not “counterposing engagement in the day to day struggle to defend the planet with the struggle for eco-socialist consciousness”, and if I gave you that impression I apologise for not being sufficiently clear. Of course we should do both. We should agitate for day to day struggle (for example against fracking, and for a green industrial revolution) while at the same time propagandising for a radically different social metabolic relation with nature, i.e. ecosocialism. My point is that we can’t credibly agitate for day to day struggle against climate catastrophe in the context of accepting the continued rule of capital, since to do so is to present a miserable and austere vision of decarbonisation; that a focus on catastrophism is demotivating; and that we need instead to popularise a positive vision of a radically different future, a radically emancipated and disalienated future, of which decarbonisation is an essential part.

  7. Alan Thornett // 24th October 2020 at 9:43 am // Reply

    Roy’s faith in the European Automobile Manufacturers Association is seriously problematic. Automotive manufacture is a global business and there can be no half measures as to which way it goes in this. This process (the end of the ICE) is now in my view unstoppable. It takes up to 10 years to develop a new model and once a question mark is put over the future of the ICE the rush to dominate EV market opened up. It is a logic that is beyond the industry itself to control. Ever since a date was mentioned in terms of the end of the ICE, the rush to EVs has been remarkable. Every manufacturer is rushing them out, and there is massive investment taking place to improve battery efficiency – with China a long way out in front. In my view the time scale for all this is likely to shorten rather than lengthen, particularly once the value of ICE vehicles starts to drop against EVs

  8. I have no ‘faith’ in the EAMA whatsoever Alan, I quoted them because they presumably reflect the opinions of their corporate members, who appear to be resisting the demise of the ICE. As indeed will the oil industry. There are huge difficulties to scaling electric cars to anything like the volume of ICE cars, (not to mention the astronomic level of demand that is likely to grow in China,) one of which is the global supply of lithium. If you are right, and auto manufacturers do try to switch to EVs en masse, the price of lithium will go through the roof, and imperialist intervention in countries with lithium will intensify massively. William I Robinson referred to Elon Musk’s famous tweet that “we’ll coup whoever we want”, which was a direct reference to his need to control Bolivian lithium. The ecological crisis is systemic not technical, and we should avoid sowing illusions in technological solutions within capitalism. They can’t and won’t be delivered. The sooner we grasp that nettle and start to build mass popular support for a car free organic ecosocialist system the better.

  9. A “transitional approach” to the struggle against climate change – based largely on fighting for reforms – has to be the correct approach of revolutionary socialists. But the article’s proposal to “redefine the socialist project” in the name of ecosocialism seems to entail a significant shift away from the class-based revolutionary socialist politics of The Transitional Programme. My initial arguments against this shift stem from three questions.

    1. Why is there no critique of classless socially liberal politics?
    Challenging the views of those – including some ecosocialists – who believe climate change can only be reversed after capitalism has been overthrown is all very well. But the article makes no mention of the potentially bigger challenge posed by the classless socially liberal politics widespread among the “left” including climate change activists referred to as “Blockadia” – XR, Green Party, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace etc. Often appearing very “radical”, the socially liberal left do not see the struggle on climate change, or anything else for that matter, as fundamentally part of the class struggle of the working class (with its allies) against the capitalist class. Consequently, beneath this superficial radicalism there often lies susceptibility to an essentially reformist perspective.
    Recent histories of failures of the left in the UK and Spain illustrate why it is crucially important to understand and challenge the classless politics of the socially liberal left. In the UK, Corbyn’s base in the Labour Party consisted of a socially liberal left many of whom harboured deep-seated, and often naïve, classless illusions about the nature of the EU. Consequently, it was easy for right of the party, ably aided and abetted by the George Soros-funded Another Europe is Possible, to persuade them to support a misguided and ill-fated campaign to stop Brexit. Its failure allowed City hedge fund managers and their allies to complete a major neoliberal shift within the UK capitalist class. The political consequences were that Boris Johnson took over the Tory party moving it firmly to the right and the Labour Party suffered a crushing electoral defeat after which it too lurched to the right when Starmer replaced Corbyn. In Spain, as explained recently in International Viewpoint, the involvement of Anticapitalistas in the “creation of Podemos in the Spanish state was an important attempt to build an anti-neoliberal and pluralist mass party to the left of social-liberalism”. But a major ideological battleground opened up within Podemos between the class politics of Anticapitalistas and socially liberal supporters of Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias, who advocated “the total autonomy of politics and the denial of the role played by social classes and economic conflict in the capitalist mode of production”. Ultimately, Iglesias and his socially liberal supporters prevailed and Podemos joined Spain’s PSOE-led coalition government in January 2020. Subsequently Anticapitalistas withdrew from Podemos “because we defend another strategy in relation to the social-liberal left”.
    Given the article sees “Blockadia” as the main “agency for change”, it is a real concern that there is little attempt to discuss the potential pitfalls of socially liberal and classless approaches to the immediate struggle against climate change. Success against climate change will require mass mobilisations of the working class in order to bring about a major shift in the balance of class forces in its favour at the expense of the capitalist class. The article fails to emphasise that the immediate struggle against climate change – even based entirely on demands for reforms – is nevertheless part of the class struggle. Indeed the word “class” does not appear once in the article and the capitalist class is referred to almost euphemistically as “the elites”.

    2. Why support the free market approach of carbon taxes?
    It is perhaps not surprising that the article’s climate change strategy centres on carbon taxes. This essentially market-based approach is advocated by some powerful global corporations as well as being favoured by many on the socially liberal left such as the Green Party, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (with reservations). The aim of carbon taxes “is to make fossil fuel far more expensive than renewables” in the belief that the normal operation of market forces would then automatically kick in resulting in reduced consumption and emissions. The article offers no real explanation of why carbon taxes would work when previous market-based approaches of emissions trading and offsetting have failed miserably. More importantly, it is questionable whether a carbon tax strategy would work politically. For revolutionary socialists that means whether such a strategy would be compatible with a transitional approach of drawing working people into the struggle in sufficient numbers to win the necessary changes.
    Carbon taxes, like all taxes on consumption, would be inherently regressive. The article anticipates this objection by asserting that measures could be introduced to ensure that any overall taxation regime would be progressive. However, examples of the kinds of current taxes supported by the article (and SR) are regressive without any mitigation. Congestion charges and low emission zones are seemingly small issues but they reveal something important about the article’s underlying philosophy. Like carbon taxes, these are both market-based measures. They might solve an immediate problem but in so doing they penalise poorer people unable to pay the charges or to afford to buy the latest low or zero emissions cars. Instead of advocating market-based measures, the first priority here should be to call for comprehensive public transport services of the sort that do not exist in towns and cities in the UK except perhaps London. Crucially for socialists, a taxation approach bears little or no relationship to need. And it is even more worrying that the idea of rationing – which is related to need – is dismissed out of hand. Regressive carbon taxes that would adversely affect the lives and living standards of working class and poorer people would demobilise them in the immediate fight against global warming and the broader class struggle – the exact opposite of the transitional approach.
    Instead of carbon taxes, a transitional approach should focus on calls for greater state intervention, regulation and planning. Rather than a strategy that attempts to harness market forces, we should advocate policies – still essentially reforms – whose deliberate purpose is to curb, rein in and control the free market. We should advocate public ownership and popular control of key industries such as water, gas and electricity, bus and rail transport as well as imposing strict regulations on private industry. Government investment in research, development and manufacturing in the green economy should aim to generate large numbers of well paid and high skilled jobs particularly in de-industrialise cities and towns in the Midlands and North of England and Wales. These and similar reforms do not amount to calling for the immediate overthrow of capitalism and they could achieve broad support – even a majority of Tory voters are reported to support rail nationalisation. Unlike the market-based approach of carbon taxes, these policies are consistent with the aim of mobilising the working class in the fight against climate change at the same time as furthering a longer term revolutionary socialist strategy.

    3. Why is there no mention of the Labour Party?
    Central to any class-based strategy against climate has to be fighting for the Labour Party to adopt the right policies and campaigning for the election of a Labour Government. The article correctly emphasises the importance of making demands on mainly bourgeois governments around the world but it has nothing to say about the Labour Party. From a group engaged in the Labour Party, at first sight this omission is difficult to understand. But could it signal that SR has (once again) decided to write off the Labour Party in favour of engagement with “radical” individuals and organisations to be found today in Blockadia?
    This would be the wrong approach for revolutionary socialists. The Labour Party remains the only mass organisational expression of the political independence of the British working class. True enough this has been eroded over the past twenty-five years as increasing numbers of working people have stopped voting for the party – a trend seen vividly in the recent election exacerbated by the party’s disastrous position on Brexit. A few trade unions have disaffiliated, but the majority remain committed to the Labour Party though some have recently expressed reservations about the current leader. It remains strategically important that the working class and labour movement has a party organisationally independent of bourgeois parties. Whether or not the trend for working people and trade unions to abandon the Labour Party continues will depend crucially on the class struggle including the struggle against climate change. The Labour Party offers not only a route for debating climate change policy in the national political arena but also for mobilising its still large and sympathetic membership into action alongside Blockadia. These are some reasons why it is still important that revolutionary socialists engage with and continue to be part of the Labour Party.

  10. I very much agree with Sean’s critique of the free market approach of carbon taxes, and with his advocacy of transitional demands. Although a transitional approach is not incompatible with a recognition that the crisis cannot be resolved within a capitalist economy. My understanding of transitional demands is that they can be understood (and therefore fought for) by the working class even under existing conditions, and even with existing illusions in reformism, but precisely that they cannot be realised without a radical break with capitalism and its state. That is why they are transitional and not merely a more radical variant of left reformism. (Interestingly the reformists understand this distinction very well. During the debates over the Manchester congestion charge, council leader Sir Richard Leese responded at a public meeting to my demand for free public transport by denouncing me as a Trotskyist who raises transitional demands that can only be achieved by overthrowing capitalism.) A transitional approach cannot therefore be restricted solely to advocating reforms, but must also build what Marx describes as a mass communist consciousness, and what we might describe as a mass ecosocialist consciousness. Popularising a positive vision of a radically different future is absolutely essential to combatting the pessimism and consequent apathy of the present. Workers won’t even fight for the most basic reforms if they are mired in a debilitating pessimism rooted in a fatalist acceptance that there is no alternative to the existing order. This is particularly important given that socialism is generally understood to be synonymous either with the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union or with the abject prostration of social democracy. Which is why I am not convinced that burying ourselves within the Labour Party is the best use of our time as revolutionary socialists (and I say that as someone who is still a member of the Labour Party.) Being in or out of the Labour Party is a tactical, not a strategic question. During the Corbyn era it made sense to be in. When Blair was invading Iraq it didn’t. A crucial litmus test for me is, where would we want to take radicalising youth from BLM, the climate strikes, the abortion protests, the Covid protests etc. Would we really want to recruit them to our local branch of the Labour Party? To sit in stultifyingly boring and apolitical committee meetings? Or could we do better?

    One question – why not post this article on the ACR website, to broaden the discussion?

  11. Those who were hoping we would be able to decarbonise the economy without a radical rupture with the bourgeois state got their answer today: a popular, softly spoke political leader who represented a green new deal and an end to wars for oil had to be not only defeated, but destroyed. Even modest reforms against climate change and war cannot be tolerated if they conflict with the imperative of capital accumulation. How much scope is there now for revolutionary socialists to ‘engage with and remain in the Labour Party?’

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