Monday 30 May 2016

Capitalism’s Steady March Towards Irreversible Ecological Tipping Points

Written by Kelly Reed and first published at Revolutionary Ecology

All of the world’s ecosystems experience small changes on an ongoing basis, but over time have relatively stable characteristics. For example, in a given year a prairie may receive more or less precipitation, more or less nutrient input, or more or less grazing by herbivores, but over time it maintains a relatively consistent suite of organisms and nutrient cycling. However, changes can build up until a threshold is reached whereby the ecosystem undergoes a substantial shift in the character of organisms and functioning: this is termed an ecological tipping point. Once reached, it is often very difficult, or even impossible, to return the ecosystem to its former state. For example, a savannah may be increasingly grazed by cattle until the point where the compacted, bare soil can no long retain sufficient moisture. At a certain point, the feedback cycles cause the savannah to shift to desert with little hope of return.

Ecological tipping points can occur naturally or through human actions. Natural changes in aspects such as shade or diseases can cause shifts. Many trees have a hard time taking hold in open meadows because they thrive in shadier environments, but if a few trees do make it, other trees can grow in their shade, and eventually the entire meadow can been turned into a shady forest where the meadow grasses cannot compete. A recent example of natural disease causing an ecosystem to cross an ecological threshold occurred in parts of the Mediterranean when large amounts of sea urchins were killed by a pathogen. The urchins feed on brown algae, and when they declined the algae started to overgrow coral on coral reefs. At a certain point, the coral could no longer survive and died underneath the algae. With the coral dead, the habitat it provided is gone, leaving the coral reef fishes and recovering urchin populations with few places to live, and making it difficult to shift back to the coral ecosystem.

Although natural causes of crossing ecological thresholds are not uncommon, rapid changes in ecosystems due human activities are causing large numbers of thresholds to be crossed rapidly, most of which would never naturally occur. The desertification of savannahs described above through human-controlled cattle grazing has occurred over large expanses of Mongolia1, Australia2, and the Sahel region of western Africa3,4. Another example is dead zones throughout the world caused by nutrient inputs from farming. The most prominent of these is in the Gulf of Mexico. Excess nutrients from agricultural fertilizers in the Midwestern US wash into the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf of Mexico where they cause huge blooms of phytoplankton. When the large amount of phytoplankton dies, the decomposition process uses up most of the oxygen in the water. The zones of very low oxygen kill most animal life that is in them, causing more decomposition and even lower oxygen levels. Another example occurs in coastal mangrove forests throughout the world where areas are often cleared for shrimp farming. Mangrove forests help protect coastal areas from storm damage and erosion. The cleared areas often experience large amounts of erosion during storms, further destroying mangroves on the edges of these clearings, making them more exposed and vulnerable. Even if shrimp farming is abandoned, the mangroves often cannot reestablish because new seedlings cannot survive in the exposed areas. Over one hundred examples of human actions causing ecosystems to cross ecological tipping points have been documented5.

While ecological tipping points may be reached under any economic system, capitalism’s focus on short-term gain and profits over long-term stability lends itself to ignoring the warnings of ecological shifts. Threats of future changes are often not considered in the short-sighted race for growth and expansion. It is easy to imagine how climate change alone, largely driven by the carbon emissions produced in search of profits, will cause many destructive shifts due to crossing various ecological tipping points.

Several small-scale ecological tipping points have already been crossed, such as those described above, largely fueled by the search for short-term gains. Scientists around the world are warning of major ecological tipping points that we are quickly approaching—such as the melting of permafrost in the arctic and the acidification of the oceans—and that will cause substantial shifts in human and non-human livelihoods if drastic changes are not made quickly. One of the most severe and rapidly approaching tipping points is the drying of the Amazon rainforest.

The heart of the Amazon is a lush tropical rainforest that hosts a plethora of biodiversity and indigenous cultures. Rapid deforestation paired with increasing droughts due to changing climate will likely shift this ecosystem from a tropical rainforest to a dry savannah and turn the region from a global carbon sink into a source of carbon emissions, further exacerbating climate change. This change would cause numerous species and human cultures to go extinct while also degrading the regulating ecological functions of this area.

Much of the rain that falls on the Amazon basin comes from the trees themselves. Water is pulled up through the roots and transpired through the leaves during photosynthesis; the process of water being released from plants during photosynthesis is termed evapotranspiration. This water then condenses into clouds and falls as rain on the forest. The trees in the Amazon are highly adapted to this ultra-moist environment and depend on this constant cycling, having very little tolerance for drought. More than half of the rain falling on the Amazon comes directly from evapotranspiration of the forest6. As trees continue to be felled to make room for agriculture and mining and are killed by flooding from new hydroelectric projects, the remaining trees are starved of the water the dead trees would have produced through evapotranspiration. Once enough trees are removed, the forest will reach a tipping point where cascading tree death will cause the entire ecosystem to collapse. Recent analyses have predicted this tipping point could be a low as 20% deforestation7. The Amazon is currently ~18% deforested.

The profound long-term destructiveness of this process is overwhelmingly recognized by local residents, governments, scientists, and most people who have taken a few minutes to lean about the situation; however, deforestation of the Amazon continues at an alarming rate because the current global economic system focuses on short-term gains and profit.

To add to the urgency, droughts have become more frequent in this region due to changes in climate, and major droughts in 2008 and 2010 killed large numbers of trees in the Amazon. When trees are alive they act as a carbon sink by taking in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and incorporating it into their woody structure. However, dead trees either burn or decompose, releasing the carbon that has been stored for decades. This release is not trivial. The amount of carbon released in the Amazon due to dead trees during the 2010 drought (8 billion tonnes of COs) was greater than the total annual release of carbon from China, the largest carbon emitting country in the world8. The nearing ecological shift is turning the Amazon rainforest from a carbon sink into a source of carbon emissions.

Although local groups, non-profits, and regulations are working hard to protect small pieces of the Amazon rainforest, it is unlikely that these efforts will be sufficient to avoid the tipping point. They are making progress in the right direction, but the current efforts are progressing too slowly to reverse the trend before we lose the Amazon rainforest forever and produce another great source of carbon emissions.

For this reason, it is necessary to look beyond viewing capitalism as a given, and to work towards a system that recognizes the reliance on healthy land-bases and long-term, stable-state planning that allows for continued use and coexistence.


1 Zhao, H-L, X-Y Zhao, R-L Zhou, T-H Zhang, and S Drake. 2005. Desertification processes due to heavy grazing in sandy rangeland, Inner Mongolia. Journal of Arid Environments. 62(2): 309-319.

2 Ludwig, John A and David J Tongway. 1995. Desertification in Australia: An eye to grass roots and landscapes. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. 37: 231-237.

3 Kandji, Serigne Tacko; Verchot, Louis; and Mackensen, Jens. 2006. Climate Change and Variability in the Sahel Region: Impacts and Adaptation Strategies in the Agricultural Sector. United Nations Environmental Programme and World Agroforestry Centre.

4 Weber, Keith T and Shannon Horst. 2011. Desertification and livestock grazing: The roles of sedentariazation, mobility and rest. Pastoralism: Research, Policy and Practice. 1:19.

6 Victoria, Reynaldo L, Luiz A Martinelli, Jefferson Mortatti, and Jeffrey Richey. 1991. Mechanisms of water recycling in the Amazon Basin: Isotopic insights. Ambio 20(8): 384-387.

7 Vergara, Walter and Sebastian M Sholz (eds). 2011. Assessment of the Risk of Amazon Dieback. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank. Washington, DC.

8 Lewis, Simon L., Paulo M Brando, Oliver L Phillips, Geertje M F van der Heijden, and Daniel Nepstad. 2011. The 2010 Amazon drought. Science 331(6017): 554.

Photo credit: World Wildlife Fund

Saturday 28 May 2016

The EU Referendum Campaign Debate is Dismal

As we enter the final four weeks of the European Union (EU) referendum campaign, the public must be in despair at the ridiculous arguments espoused by both sides of the debate. Hardly a day passes without one of the camps claiming that the sky will fall in if we leave or remain in the EU.

The Leave camp put out the untruth that we spend £350 million a week to be in the EU, and that this money could be spent on the NHS, i.e. one new hospital a week, blah blah blah. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) criticised the amount quoted, saying it did not take into account the rebate the UK gets from the EU. 

The net figure for our contribution to the EU is £110 million per week. On top of that, do they expect us to believe that the likes of Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith and Boris Johnson would spend this money on the NHS? Fat chance, they are more likely to make cuts to tax for their wealthy chums. And then there are tales of being overrun by migrants from Turkey and elsewhere in the poorer parts of Europe. Turkey isn’t even in the EU.

The Remain camp, serves up all manner of establishment backing, including the IMF and assorted world leaders to tell us that Brexit would cause a major world recession and the UK would be in poverty, again with spurious financial forecasts. It is fair enough to point out the economic uncertainties of Brexit, but to paint as bleak a picture as this as fact, is dishonest.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, was quite right last week when she criticised the Remain campaign for too much negativity and outrageously catastrophic economic forecasts. She said it was turning the voters off. Of course, she has the experience of the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, where these same tactics were used. It was ultimately successful, so Sturgeon should not be surprised.   

Today, with all of the fanfare of the cavalry charging over the hill to save the debate, the Remain side was joined by the Another Europe is Possible campaign group. Launched in London with a rally at Logan Hall, the publicity says:

The biggest rally of the In campaign, hosted by Another Europe is Possible, DiEM25 and OpenDemocracy, is coming up this Saturday.

The rally was addressed by Yanis Varoufakis, DiEM25, Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, Owen Jones, author and activist, Clive Lewis, shadow climate minister, Anthony Barnett, OpenDemocracy, Sirio Canós Donnay, Podemos and Neal Lawson, Compass.

I’ve already written on this blog that I intend unenthusiastically to vote to stay in the EU, but I really don’t buy this idea that the EU can be refashioned into some kind of socialist Utopia. 

Yanis Varoufakis writes in an opinion piece in The Guardian “The two campaigns are infantilising voters in a rather cynical and astonishing fashion. We on the other hand rely on investing in reasoned debate.”

He has previously said that Brexit would lead to a 1930s style recession in Europe, so I think we can take what he says with a pinch of salt. 

I met up with a couple of ecosocialist comdrades from the French Parti de Gauche in London a couple of months back. Interestingly, they didn’t have much time for Varoufakis generally and were very sceptical of his DiEM25 movement. They agreed with me that the EU would never be what Varoufakis proposes, and thought he was just capitalising on his new found fame, and unemployment. They also wanted France to leave the Euro, although stay in the EU, and thought Varoufakis should have taken Greece out of the Euro when he had the chance.

So there you have it, and four more weeks of it too.

Luckily the public are not fooled by all of this nonsense from both sides of the debate. Whilst having a hair cut the other day, I discussed the EU referendum with my barber. He said he has weighed it up, and concludes that no one knows what will happen if we leave the EU, it could be good or bad, but on balance he will probably vote to stay.

I think a lot of people will take a pragmatic view at this referendum, there are not many super Europhiles, but I think we will end up voting to remain.

Friday 27 May 2016

There could be a General Election this Year

The Guardian reports that the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has ordered an internal party review to make sure that Labour is ready for a snap general election this year. Corbyn has asked a former head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, to look at the party’s machinery to make sure it operates as smoothly possible. A report is expected to be written in the next few weeks.

This is the back drop to the European Union (EU) referendum campaign, the result of which could trigger a political crisis in the UK, and lead to a general election in the autumn. This is because of the affect the campaign is having on the ruling Conservative government, which is pretty much split down the middle on the issue of whether we leave or remain in the EU.

If the UK votes to leave, then the Prime Minister, David Cameron, will be forced to resign by his party’s MPs, and he would have lost all authority since he is so closely associated with remain campaign. I think he would be gone within a matter a days, whatever he is saying in public now.

If the referendum result is to remain in the EU, by a smallish margin, I still think he will be forced out by his MPs, perhaps half of whom support leaving the EU, because they dislike the way Cameron has campaigned to remain and are increasingly unhappy with his premiership. It only takes 50 Tory MPs to write letters to trigger a vote of no confidence in the party leader, which I think he will struggle to win.

In the event that the remain campaign wins big, he will be on safer ground, but all of the emotions that this issue has stirred up can’t be easily contained now, in a party that has a history of division on matters European. I think a challenge could still come in these circumstances, and Cameron may not survive it.

If Cameron is forced out, that in itself doesn’t mean that we will have a general election, whoever takes over as Prime minister could just serve until 2020. We have seen this happen before, John Major after Margaret Thatcher and Gordon Brown after Tony Blair, where if the opinion polls are poor for the governing party, the urge is to hang on, hoping things will improve. In these two examples they didn’t appear to, and the governing party carried for as long as possible. Brown of course lost in 2010, but Major did win in 1992.     

The Brown example, after his infamous ‘bottling’ of calling an election when Blair stood down in 2007, has made an impression on the next leadership hopefuls in the Tory party, and they don’t want to make the same mistake. Brown would have probably won narrowly in 2007 and this would have given him his own mandate, and the likes of Boris Johnson may decide that this is best course of action.

We do now have the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which only allows general elections every five years, unless a two thirds majority of MPs vote for it. This is possible I think in the scenarios outlined above, but will need the backing of over a hundred Tory MPs, and all of the opposition parties. The other option might be to abolish the Fixed Term Act, but that is a tricky route to take with the Tories only having a small majority, it could be blocked by a handful of Tory MPs, if the opposition parties didn't support it. 

It is certainly hard to see the Tories re-uniting after this referendum, whatever the result is. A vote to leave the EU will cause a constitutional crisis as well as political one. The Scots will certainly demand another independence referendum, as they will argue, quite rightly in my view, that the UK they voted to stay in, has changed fundamentally, so a huge upheaval is pretty much guaranteed, and a general election could be part of that.

But I wouldn’t bet against a general election even if we vote to remain. Boris Johnson’s decision to join the leave campaign is a naked grab for the Prime Minister’s job, more than anything to do with the EU itself. Perhaps the Green Party should be thinking about readying ourselves for the fall out from this referendum too?  

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Whatever being English is, Labour’s Tristram Hunt has another Agenda

With the publication yesterday of a collection of essays by Labour Party MPs, edited by Tristram Hunt, the former Labour shadow Education spokesperson, entitled Labour’s Identity Crisis, the issue of English nationalism is in the news.

The essays give largely anecdotal examples of conversations with potential, and in many cases former Labour voters, in the general election campaign last year. They try to explain why Labour lost the election, and mostly blame Labour for being out of touch with the English working class culturally.

Whenever I hear politicians claim that the evidence ‘on the doorstep’ backs whatever their particular argument is in an interview or such like, I always think they are probably making it up. If the facts don’t back your argument, the final retreat is always, ‘but on the doorstep things are different’. The loathsome new Labour toady Hazel Blears was a past master of this approach, but even she couldn’t use this reasoning when the tyres of her car were slashed in her constituency, after news broke of her MP expenses claim behaviour. It didn't help when she arrogantly waved a cheque around on TV for several thousands of pounds, to pay back her ill-gotten gains.  

So, I would treat this publication with caution, but I have to say, that some of it does ring true to me. I always used to say that I was British, rather than English, but have in more recent years started to think of myself, and refer to myself as being English. After all, I’ve Irish and Welsh blood in me as well as English, so I’m not quite sure where all of this came from, but it has been a steady progression over the years.

I was at one time pretty disinterested in the England football team, preferring the club game over the national game, and this is still true to some extent, but I do like watching England play now. I like to watch the big games in big tournaments in the pub where I feel a sense of community in the air. It could be that moving from Manchester to London has brought this on, but on the other hand there is no shortage of supporters for my club team, Manchester United in the capital.

I’m certainly opposed to nationalism generally, but I view a bit of flag waving during the big international football tournaments as pretty harmless, as long as it doesn’t cross the line into xenophobia and racism. I do think that with Scots increasingly defining themselves as Scottish as opposed to British, this has perhaps had some subliminal effect on me.      

I did some work on electoral registration in my borough a couple of years back. The form asks for the person’s nationality, quite reasonably, and one woman on the doorstep, said ‘English….oh am I allowed to say that these days’. I told her that for electoral purposes she was British, but I did reflect on this. Where I live in north London, is a metropolitan lefty liberal area by and large, so for one of the residents to react in this way surprised me.

Opinion pollsters regularly ask those surveyed how they define themselves nationalistically. Over the past decade there has been a big shift, with the English-only group expanding as the British-only group shrinks. More people now feel English-only than British, with more than 70% choosing English either as their preferred or shared identity.

So there might be something in this generally, and Labour has perhaps become alienated from the English white working class, but to suggest that all Labour needs to do is a bit of St George’s flag waving, as most of contributors appear to do in this book, is hopelessly wide of the mark.

Labour has become detached from white working class English voters for much more complicated reasons. There was a time when many Labour MPs came through the trade unions, the people (men it has to be said, largely) who had worked down mines, in factories, in transport and so forth. There are hardly any now, and this started under Tony Blair’s leadership. It became very difficult for trade union people to get winnable seats, which were saved for the Oxbridge graduates who then became researchers for Labour MPs and Ministers. A bit like Tristram Hunt.

The trade union sponsored people of the past knew what it was like to be working class and it all fostered a solidarity of community spirit. Council housing also fostered the same kind of solidarity, which Labour to their credit in the 1960s and 1970s provided with a huge number of new homes.

Of course, the kind of industries mentioned above have now largely disappeared from Britain and the best council stock has been sold off, increasingly to private landlords. But people still need to live somewhere decent and affordable and millions work in the service industries, mainly on low pay.

Trade unions though find it hard to operate within this disparate a workforce and the Tory anti-union laws handicap them further. Something new Labour did little to change.

Surely Tristam Hunt’s collection of essays could have considered all this? A waste of a good opportunity really, but that wasn’t what he trying to get at here.

What he is doing in trying to propagate the idea that Labour is seen as a metropolitan lefty middle class party, is to attack the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s constituency, Islington North, is the archetypal lefty metropolitan seat and so what Hunt and his contributors are saying is Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer, he is the problem. Invoking Emily Thornberry’s infamous tweet (the Labour MP in the other Islington constituency) with a mocking photo of a house draped in England flags, he tries to prove his point.

I seem to remember reading a piece by Roy Hattersley, a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, written during the new Labour years in the early 2000s and I’ve always remembered it. Referring to the then new Labour government’s policies on asylum seekers, he said that Labour of old always played to the best instincts of the working class, the solidarity and community of cooperation and self help, but new Labour played to their worst. It seems all Hunt is suggesting is a return by Labour to those type of policies.

He has nothing new to say, and the thinly veiled attack on Corbyn is pathetic.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Nature and Ecosocialism

Written by John Bellamy Foster and first published at Monthly Review

This article is adapted from John Bellamy Foster, “Nature,” in Kelly Fritsch, Clare O’Connor, and AK Thompson, ed., Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2016), 279-86,

“Nature,” wrote Raymond Williams in Keywords, “is perhaps the most complex word in the language.”1 It is derived from the Latin natura, as exemplified by Lucretius’s great didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) from the first century BCE. The word “nature” has three primary, interrelated meanings: (1) the intrinsic properties or essence of things or processes; (2) an inherent force that directs or determines the world; and (3) the material world or universe, the object of our sense perceptions—both in its entirety and variously understood as including or excluding God, spirit, mind, human beings, society, history, culture, etc.

In his Critique of Stammler, Max Weber suggested that the intrinsic difficulty of “nature” as a concept could be attributed to the fact that it was most often used to refer to “a complex of certain kinds of objects” from which “another complex of objects” having “different properties” were excluded; however, the objects on each side of the bifurcation could vary widely, and might only become apparent in a given usage.2 Thus, we commonly contrast humanity or society to nature while, at the same time, recognizing that human beings are themselves part of nature. From this problem arise such distinctions as “external nature” or “the environment.” At other times, we may exclude only the mind/spirit from nature.

Science and art are two of the preeminent fields of inquiry into nature, with each operating according to its own distinct principles. As Alfred North Whitehead noted in The Concept of Nature, natural science depicts nature as the entire field of things, which are objects of human sense perception mediated by concepts of our understanding (such as space and time).3 Consequently, one of the two leading scientific periodicals carries the title Nature (the other is Science). Within the Romantic tradition in art (a direct influence on modern environmentalism), nature is often perceived in accordance with notions of “natural beauty” (Percy Bysshe Shelley’s skylark and William Wordsworth’s Lake District); however, the validity of the concept has frequently been challenged within the field of aesthetics.4

As a concept, “nature” gives rise to serious difficulties for philosophy, encompassing both ontology (the nature of being) and epistemology (the nature of thought). Since Immanuel Kant, it has been emphasized that human beings cannot perceive “things in themselves” (noumena) and thus remain dependent on a priori knowledge, which is logically independent of experience. It is therefore customary within academic philosophy today either to take an outright idealist stance and thus to give ontological priority to the mind/ideas, or to subsume ontology within epistemology in such a way that the nature (including the limits) of knowledge takes precedence over the nature of being. In contrast, natural scientists generally adopt a materialist/realist standpoint by emphasizing our ability to comprehend the physical world directly. Concerned with growing ecological crises, most ecological activists today take a similar stance, implicitly stressing a kind of “critical realism,” as in the work of Roy Bhaskar, that rejects both mechanical materialism (e.g. positivism) and idealism.5

Reflecting a similar division of views, many contemporary social scientists (particularly postmodernists) emphasize the fact that our understanding of nature is socially or discursively constructed and that there is no nature independent of human thought and actions. For example, Keith Tester writes, “A fish is only a fish if it is socially classified as one, and that classification is only concerned with fish to the extent that scaly things living in the sea help society to define itself…. Animals are indeed a blank paper which can be inscribed with any message, and symbolic meaning, that society wishes.”6 In contrast, while recognizing the role of thought in mediating the human relation to nature, most ecological thinkers and activists gravitate toward a critical materialism/realism, in which nature (apart from humanity) is seen as existing prior to the social world, is open to comprehension, and is something to defend.7

With the advent of nuclear weapons, the world came to the sudden realization that the relation between human beings and the environment had forever changed. The human impact on nature was no longer restricted to local or regional effects; conceivably, it extended to the destruction of the entire planet in the sense of constituting a safe home for humanity. Subsequently, modern synthetic chemicals (with their capacity to biomagnify and bioaccumulate) and anthropogenic climate change brought the human degradation of nature to the forefront of society’s concerns. Book titles like Silent Spring, The Closing Circle, The Domination of Nature, The Death of Nature, The End of Nature, The Sixth Extinction, and This Changes Everything reflect a growing state of alarm about ecological sustainability and the conditions required for human survival.8

Compared to earlier centuries, the question of nature in the twentieth and twenty-first century has been radically transformed. No longer is nature seen as a direct external threat to humanity through forces like famines and disease. Instead, emerging or threatened global natural catastrophes are viewed as the indirect products of human action itself. We now live in what scientists have provisionally designated the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which humanity has become the dominant geological force, disrupting the biogeochemical cycles of the entire planet. This new reality has compelled a growing recognition of the limits of nature, of planetary boundaries, and of economic growth within a finite environment.

The meteoric rise of “ecology” (along with derivatives like “ecosystem,” “ecosphere,” “eco-development,” “ecosocialism,” and “ecofeminism”) stems from these rapidly changing interactions between capitalism and its natural environment. The concepts of ecology, ecosystem, and the Earth system have become central both to science and to popular struggle. At times, they even displace the concept of nature itself.

Attempts to address the enormity of the ecological problem have, however, been complicated by a resurrection of essentialist conceptions of human nature. By subsuming the social under the “natural,” such views often downplay or altogether deny the importance of a social-historical dimension in the human interaction with nature. This outlook has recently gained ground through the social Darwinist pronouncements of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. E. O. Wilson’s 1978 On Human Nature, for instance, professes to be “simply the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization.”9 An inevitable struggle thus arises between ecological radicals who demand that society be historically transformed to create a sustainable relation to nature and more establishment-oriented thinkers who insist that possessive individualism, the Hobbesian war of all against all, and a tendency to overpopulate are all inscribed in human DNA.10 Accompanying this revival of biological determinism has been the presumption that capitalism itself is a product of human nature and of the natural world as a whole. Such views deny the historical origins of alienation. In contrast, most radicals view the alienation of nature and the alienation of society as interconnected and interdependent phenomena requiring a new co-evolutionary social metabolism if the world ecology as we know it is to be sustained.

Contemporary conflicts over the relationship between nature and society can be traced to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the rise of capitalism and modern science. The seventeenth-century scientific revolution witnessed the emergence—most notably in Francis Bacon, but also in René Descartes—of calls for the “conquest,” “mastery,” or “domination” of nature. In The Masculine Birth of Time, Bacon metaphorically declared: “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”11 In The New Atlantis, this ambition was tied to a program for the institutionalization of science as the basis of knowledge and power.12 Descartes also linked it to a mechanistic worldview in which animals were reduced to machines. Following Bacon, the conquest of nature became a universal trope to signify a vague mechanical progress achieved through the development of science. Nevertheless, as Bacon himself made clear in his famous statement in Novum Organum, “nature is only overcome by obeying her.” In this view, nature could only be subjected by following “her” laws.13

The domination of nature espoused by Bacon was subjected to critique during the nineteenth century through the dialectical perspectives associated with Hegel and Marx. In his Philosophy of Nature, Hegel insisted that—while Bacon’s strategy of pitting nature against itself could yield a limited mastery—total mastery of the natural world would forever remain beyond humanity’s reach: “Need and ingenuity have enabled man to discover endlessly varied ways of mastering and making use of nature,” he wrote. Nevertheless, “Nature itself, as it is in its universality, cannot be mastered in this manner…nor bent to the purposes of man.”14 For Hegel, the drive to master nature generated wider contradictions that were beyond human control. In the Grundrisse, Marx treated Bacon’s strategy as a “ruse” introduced by bourgeois society.15 In his Theses on Feuerbach, he rejected essentialist views of human nature outright. Human nature, he argued, is “the ensemble of the social relations.”16 In The Poverty of Philosophy he stated: “All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.”17

In his later economic writings, Marx developed an analysis of the human relation to nature as a form of “social metabolism.” The social metabolism was part of the “universal metabolism of nature,” which found itself increasingly in contradiction with industrial capitalist development. The soil was being robbed of essential nutrients (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium), which were being shipped hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to the new urban centers. “Instead of a conscious rational treatment of the land as permanent communal property,” Marx charged, “we have the exploitation and squandering of the powers of the earth.”18 In response, he introduced the notion of an “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” imposed by the very nature of accumulation under capitalism. This break with the “eternal natural condition” underlying human-social existence, he argued, demanded a “restoration” through the rational regulation of the metabolism between humanity and nature.19 In Capital, he advanced what is perhaps the most radical conception of ecological sustainability yet propounded: “From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias.”20

Today, radical ecologists tend to fall into two broad camps. The first consists of those who—from a deep-ecology, radical-green, or “ecologism” perspective—simply counter Baconian anthropocentrism with ecocentric philosophies.21 Such views retain the society-nature dualism but approach it from the side of external nature, life, or some kind of spiritualized nature. This general perspective has played an important role within the ecological movement. Ecofeminist thinkers, for instance, have highlighted the link between the mastery of nature and the subordination of women (often by taking the critique of Bacon as their starting point). Nevertheless, the one-sidedness of radical-green or deep-ecology perspectives often encourages misanthropic views (especially when human population growth is seen as the principal problem) and anti-scientism, where the critical role of science in understanding ecology is misunderstood.

The second broad camp consists of those who have adopted more dialectical perspectives.22 Here, the problem is conceived as one of social metabolism (how capitalist society interacts with nature). From this vantage, the goal is to transcend the “rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” to create a more sustainable form of human development—inseparable from the struggle for human equality.23 This outlook critically builds on ecological science with its emphasis on the ontological interconnectedness of all living and nonliving things. Conflict arises between a social system geared to endless accumulation and growth and everlasting, nature-imposed, conditions of ecological sustainability and substantive equality. It is along these lines that critical scientists, ecosocialists, socialist ecofeminists, anarchist social ecologists, and many Indigenous activists have coalesced to take a stand in defense of the earth. As Frederick Engels wrote in the Dialectics of Nature:

Let us not…flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us…. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all of our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.24


  1. Raymond Williams,Keywords (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 219.
  2. Max Weber,Critique of Stammler (New York: Free Press, 1977), 96.
  3. Alfred North Whitehead,The Concept of Nature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1920).
  4. For criticisms of the concept of natural beauty within aesthetics, see G. W. F. Hegel,The Philosophy of Nature, vol. 1 (London: Allen and Unwin, 1970), 3; Theodor Adorno,Aesthetic Theory(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 68–76.
  5. Roy Bhaskar,A Realist Theory of Science (London: Verso, 1975), andThe Possibility of Naturalism (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press), 1979.
  6. Keith Tester,Animals and Society (New York: Routledge, 1991).
  7. On realism and ecology, see David R. Keller and Frank B. Golley, “Introduction,” in Keller and Golley, eds.,The Philosophy of Ecology (Athens, GA: Univeristy of Georgia Press, 2000), 1–4; John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 289–300.
  8. Rachel Carson,Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962); Barry Commoner,The Closing Circle (New York: Knopf, 1971); William Leiss,The Domination of Nature (Boston: Beacon, 1972); Carolyn Merchant,The Death of Nature (New York: Harper and Row, 1980); Bill McKibben,The End of Nature (New York: Random House, 1989); Richard E. Leakey and Roger Lewin,The Sixth Extinction (New York: Doubleday, 1995); Naomi Klein,This Changes Everything (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014).
  9. E. O. Wilson,On Human Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), x.
  10. On the possessive individualism of capitalist society, affecting its conception of natural-social relations see C. B. Macpherson,The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).
  11. Francis Bacon, “The Masculine Birth of Time,” in Benjamin Farrington,The Philosophy of Francis Bacon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 59–72.
  12. Francis Bacon,The New Atlantis and the Great Instauration (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991).
  13. Francis Bacon,Novum Organum (Chicago: Open Court, 1994), 29, 43.
  14. Hegel,The Philosophy of Nature, 421–23.
  15. Karl Marx,Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973), 409–10.
  16. Marx, “Concerning Feuerbach,” inEarly Writings (London: Penguin, 1974), 421–23.
  17. Marx,The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1963), 147.
  18. Marx,Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 949.
  19. Marx,Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 637­–38;Capital, vol. 3, 959.
  20. Marx,Capital, vol. 3, 911.
  21. Representative works include Andrew Dobson,Green Political Thought (New York: Routledge, 1995); Robyn Eckersley,Environmentalism and Political Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992); Mark J. Smith,Ecologism (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1998); Bill Devall and George Sessions,Deep Ecology (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1985).
  22. See, for example, Murray Bookchin,The Philosophy of Social Ecology (Montreal: Black Rose, 1995); Paul Burkett,Marx and Nature (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014); Stefano Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark,The Tragedy of the Commodity (New York: Routledge, 2015); Ariel Salleh, “Introduction,” in Salleh, ed.,Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice (London: Pluto Press, 2009), 1–40; Naomi Klein,This Changes Everything.
  23. Marx,Capital, vol. 3, 949.
  24. Frederick Engels,Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1934), 180.

Friday 20 May 2016

Should the Greens join a ‘Progressive Alliance’ at the next General Election?

In what is apparently the first of a series of open letters to UK ‘progressive parties’ written by Neal Lawson, Chair of the Labour Party grouping Compassand published at Open Democracy, argues that the Greens should join such an alliance.

Lawson, whilst accepting the UK’s First Past the Post electoral system handicaps the Green Party, writes:

The recent local election results confirm the mini-surge is over. Yes the excellent Sian Berry ran a good campaign in London, but in a Corbyn world you have lost support to Labour in key places like Norwich and Bristol. The moment in the sun on the Brighton council is over. Yes in Scotland under PR you won more MSP seats – but not as many as you thought. 

He goes onto assert:

The only hope, I repeat the only hope we all have in the short term is for a progressive alliance of Labour, SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Greens to defeat the Tories and UKIP.

He says that the Greens can be more of a influencer party, in terms of policies on environmental sustainability and nuclear weapons for example. Presumably, he means influence the Labour Party in particular. Lawson himself may be open to such influence, but is the Labour Party as a whole?

Leaving aside my dislike of the term ‘progressive’ which encompasses the likes of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Nick Clegg, is some kind of electoral alliance of the vaguely left UK political parties workable, and indeed desirable?

Let’s start with desirable. I would dearly love to see the back of this Tory government, which is characterised by nasty propaganda, scapegoating of minority groups, such as those on welfare benefits, tax breaks for the rich and sheer incompetence in economic management.

So, it is most certainly desirable in my book. Even the last majority Labour government was preferable to what we’ve had for the past six years.

The ‘is it workable’ bit, has two parts really, workable in terms of will all the parties agree to it, and then will the voters buy it?

There are a number of problems that I can foresee in all of the parties mentioned agreeing to this. For the Greens, the only likely Parliamentary advantage is if Labour does not contest Green Party MP Caroline Lucas’ Brighton Pavilion seat. Even if Labour agreed to this, and I think that is far from guaranteed, we have won this seat twice now, without any help from Labour, quite the reverse. So it is not a big giveaway, although with Parliamentary constituency boundary changes almost certain before the next general election, this seat may not be as green as it has been.

There is also the problem of not knowing what flavour of Labour Party we will be dealing with by 2020. Corbyn may not last as Labour leader, and even if he does, his radicalness seems to be being steadily stripped from him by his MPs.

Then there is working with the Lib Dems. Let us not forget that they propped up the vicious Tory government for five years, which did immeasurable damage to the most vulnerable people in our society. Should they be helped to get back on their feet by the Greens?

The SNP and PC are perhaps less problematic, in that they are broadly social democrat, but also nationalist, which is something of an anathema to Greens, generally.

And what role, if any, is there for Green Left in all of this? Should we open our membership to non Green Party members or form a kind of open Green Momentum instead, now that Labour’s version is now closed to non Labour members (or supporters, but you now have to sign a declaration saying don’t support any other party than Labour)? We will need to discuss this amongst ourselves in the next few months, but it is possible to see Green Left as something of facilitator in this, particularly with Labour.

Will the voters elect this progressive alliance, maybe? I think the main problem will be with English voters. At the last general election, there was talk of this type of alliance post election, although Labour rejected it, and for good reason I think.

The Tories made capital out of saying that voting Labour in England would lead to us being run by the Scots (SNP), and I’m sure this message was effective in the end. After all, no-one expected the Tories to win a majority, and I think this issue had a bearing on the result.

Having said all of this, without some kind of cooperation between ‘left’ parties, it is hard to see the Tories losing the next general election, from this distance out. That could change though, the EU referendum is tearing the Tories apart and they may not recover from this for years.

I would be prepared to back some kind of alliance, on the proviso that all of the parties of the alliance give an unambiguous endorsement of a change to a proportional election system for all levels of elections in the UK. Not a referendum pledge, it has to be in the parties manifestos and implemented within the lifetime of the next Parliament. Although, as I say, I'm not sure the voters of England will back this.

For the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever, as it says in this blog’s description, this is my opinion, not an official statement by Green Left or the Green Party.    

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Reconceptualising Socialism to Ecosocialism

This is an extract from a longer piece written by Hans Baer. The full text is posted at The Next System Project.

Numerous observers have viewed the collapse of Communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as an indication that capitalism constitutes the end of history and that socialism was a bankrupt experiment that led to totalitarianism, forced collectivization, gulags, ruthless political purges, and inefficient centralized planned economies. What these commentators often overlook is that efforts to create socialist-oriented societies occurred in, by and large, economically underdeveloped countries. Historically, Marxists or socialists have engaged in intense debates as to whether the transition from capitalism to socialism would occur vis-à-vis revolutionary change or more gradual change by way of reforms in various parts of the world. Revolutions involve sudden and radical social transformations and are often associated with varying levels of violence, as was the case with the American, French, Bolshevik, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions.

The efforts of Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolsheviks to develop the beginnings of the process that they hoped would result in socialism occurred under extremely adverse conditions, including constant external threat. Although the Bolsheviks, particularly under the dictatorial leadership of Stalin, managed to transform the Soviet Union into an industrial powerhouse by the 1930s, a variety of external forces, such as World War II and the Cold War, and internal forces, such as a centralized command economy and a political system of one-party rule, prevented the development of socialist democracy. With some modifications, the model of bureaucratic centralism was adopted by various other post-revolutionary societies after World War II, starting with China in 1949. The contradictory nature of Leninist regimes imploded first in Eastern Europe in 1989, particularly highlighted by the opening of the Berlin Wall, and in the Soviet Union in 1991. In the case of China, its Communist leaders embraced capitalist structures as a means of rapid development to the point that some scholars argue that it now constitutes a state capitalist society, entailing tremendous social inequalities and environmental devastation. The collapse of Communist regimes created a crisis for many leftists throughout the world. Many progressives had hoped that somehow these societies, which were characterized in a variety of ways, would undergo changes that would transform them into democratic and ecologically-sensitive socialist societies.

Democratic Socialism

Due to the shortcomings of efforts to create socialism in the twentieth century, the notion of socialism has been discredited in many quarters. This has prompted various progressive scholars and social activists who wish to preserve the ideals of socialism, such as collective ownership, social equality, and representative and participatory democracy, to refer to their visions of a better world in terms such as radical democracy, global democracy, and Earth democracy. Nevertheless, it is important for progressive people to come to terms with the historical discrepancies between the ideals of socialism and the realities of what passed for it. This is so they can reconstruct a viable global socialist system, with manifestations at regional and local levels, that is highly democratic rather than authoritarian, that ensures that all people have access to basic resources, and that is at the same time environmentally sustainable. It is my assertion that what I term post-revolutionary societies or what some term actually-existing socialist societies, exhibited, and in some cases still display, positive features. They also demonstrated, or still show, notable negative features. Unfortunately, all too many of the negative features have been tragic and horrific, to the point that they have discredited the notions of socialism and communism in the minds of many people.

Authentic socialism remains very much a vision, one which various individuals and groups seek to frame in new guises. Numerous Marxian scholars have asserted that socialism is inherently more democratic than capitalist societies could ever be and, thus, democracy is an inherent component of socialism. According to Ralph Miliband in Socialism for a Sceptical Age, three core propositions define socialism: (1) democracy, (2) egalitarianism, and (3) socialization or public ownership of a predominant part of the economy. Although some areas of a socialist society would require centralized planning and coordination, democratic socialism recognizes the need for decentralized economic, political, and social structures that would permit the greatest amount of popular participation in decision making. Socialist democracy would involve not only democracy in the workplace but also citizen involvement in the operation of educational institutions, health facilities, housing associations, and other organizations that impact people’s lives. Miliband envisions three distinct economic sectors:
  • a predominant and varied public sector;
  • a sizable cooperative sector; and
  • a sizeable private sector consisting primarily of small and medium companies that would play a significant role in providing various goods, services, and amenities.
In The Idea of Communism, Tariq Ali argues that twenty-first century socialism should include political pluralism, freedom of speech, access to the media, the right to form trade unions, and cultural liberty.


In the past, Marxian political economy has tended to give, at best, passing consideration to environmental factors, but historically there have been exceptions to this tendency. Various Marxian theorists, including Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, E.P. Thompson, and André Gorz have served as precursors to present-day eco-socialism. Over the past three decades or so, various leftists have become more sensitive to the environmental travesties that have occurred not only in developed and developing capitalist societies but also in post-revolutionary societies. Indeed, John Bellamy Foster argues in Marx’s Ecology that Karl Marx himself recognized that capitalism is in a metabolic rift with nature.

Eco-socialism seeks to come to grips with the growth paradigm inherent in capitalism and to which post-revolutionary societies in the past subscribed and still do today; a case in point is China. Foster, in The Ecological Revolution, asserts revolutionary change entails both political-economic and environmental considerations. Eco-socialism has made some headway among Marxist scholars in China. Ariel Salleh, an Australian sociologist, has served as a long-time proponent of socialist eco-feminism and Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva asserts, in Earth Democracy, that all beings, human and nonhuman, have a natural right to sustenance, and that a just society is based on a living commons and economic democracy.

Democratic Eco-socialism

The concept of democratic eco-socialism constitutes a merger of the earlier existing concepts of democratic socialism and eco-socialism. It is imperative that progressives reinvent the notion of socialism by recognizing that we live on a planet with limited resources that must be more or less equitably distributed to provide everyone with enough, but not too much. As delineated in Medical Anthropology and the World), a textbook that I co-authored with Merrill Singer and Ida Susser, democratic eco-socialism entails the following principles:
  • an economy oriented to meeting basic social needs—namely adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, health, and dignified work;
  • a high degree of social equality;
  • public ownership of the means of production;
  • representative and participatory democracy; and
  • environmental sustainability.
Democratic eco-socialism rejects a statist, growth-oriented, productivist ethic and recognizes that humans live on an ecologically fragile planet with limited resources that must be sustained and renewed as much as possible for future generations.
The vision of democratic eco-socialism closely resembles what world systems theorists Terry Boswell and Christopher Chase-Dunn in The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism term global democracy, a concept that entails the following components:
  • an increasing movement toward public ownership of productive forces at local, regional, national, and international levels;
  • the development of an economy oriented toward meeting social needs, such as basic food, clothing, shelter, and health care, and environmental sustainability rather than profit making;
  • the eradication of health and social disparities and the redistribution of human resources between developed and developing societies, and within societies in general;
  • the curtailment of population growth that in large part would follow from the previously mentioned conditions;
  • the conservation of finite resources and the development of renewable energy resources;
  • the redesign of settlement and transport systems to reduce energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • the reduction of wastes through recycling and transcending the reigning culture of consumption.
Democratic eco-socialism constitutes what sociologist Erik Olin Wright in Envisioning Real Utopias terms a real utopia, a utopian vision that is achievable but only through much theorizing and social experimentation. As the existing capitalist world system continues to self-destruct due to its socially unjust and environmentally unsustainable practices, democratic eco-socialism seeks to provide a vision to mobilize human beings around the world, albeit in different ways, to prevent ongoing human socioeconomic and environmental destruction.

While Stalin adhered to the notion of building “socialism in one country,” what developed in the U.S.S.R. for complicated reasons—historical, social, structural, internal, and external—was the creation of a highly authoritarian and draconian social system that made a mockery of the notion of Marxian socialism. In keeping with Trotsky’s notion of the “permanent revolution,” the creation of socialism requires a global process, the beginnings of which we may be seeing rekindled in the guise of the Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America (albeit an experiment with numerous contradictions) and the emergence of new left parties in Europe, particularly Syriza in Greece which came to power earlier in 2015 and Die Linke, the farthest left party in the German Bundestag. As global capitalism continues to find itself in economic and ecological crisis as it lurches into the twenty-first century, humanity faces the challenge of how to shift from an ongoing trajectory of human and planetary destruction. As the existing capitalist world system continues to self-destruct due to its socially unjust and environmentally unsustainable practices, democratic eco-socialism provides a radical vision to mobilize people around the world to struggle for the next system.

Anti-systemic movements are sure to be a permanent feature of the world’s political landscape so long as capitalism remains a hegemonic political-economic system. Various anti-systemic movements, particularly the labor, ethnic and indigenous rights, women’s, anti-corporate globalization, peace, environmental, and climate movements, have an important role to play in creating a socio-ecological revolution committed to both social justice and environmental sustainability. Anti-systemic movements are a crucial component of moving humanity to an alternative world system, but the process is a tedious and convoluted one with no guarantees, especially in light of the disparate nature of these movements.

Transitional System-Challenging Reforms

Reforms, despite the best of intentions, are often problematic in that they may serve to stabilize capitalism, as has repeatedly been the case around the world. In light of this reality, André Gorz in Socialism and Revolution differentiates between “reformist reforms” and “non-reformist reforms.” He uses the term reformist reform to designate the conscious implementation of minor material improvements that avoid any alteration of the basic structure in the existing social system. Between the poles of reformist reform and complete structural transformation, Gorz identifies a category of applied work that he labels non-reformist reform. Here he refers to efforts aimed at making permanent changes in the social alignment of power. In reality, the distinction between these two types of reforms is sometimes hard to distinguish. But one distinction might be whether they are initiated by the powers-that-be or whether they are initiated by the working class, various other subaltern groups, or anti-systemic social movements.

The transition toward a democratic eco-socialist world system is not guaranteed and will require a tedious, even convoluted path that anti-systemic movements will have to play a central role in creating. Marx viewed blueprints as a distraction from the political tasks that needed to be undertaken in the present moment and, indeed, pressing issues are paramount. But history tells us that there always will be immediate struggles that must be addressed. I often find that when people ask me what it would take to make a transition to a democratic eco-socialist world system, they are seeking some basic guidelines on how to move forward beyond merely bumbling along haphazardly a step at a time.

While not seeking to create a blueprint per se for creating an alternative world system, which will be manifested in different ways in the many societies around the world, in this essay I delineate the following system-challenging reforms to facilitate a transition from the present existing capitalist world system to a democratic eco-socialist world system:
  • creating new progressive, anti-capitalist parties designed to capture the state;
  • implementing greenhouse gas emissions taxes at the sites of production that include measures to protect low-income people;
  • increasing public ownership, socialization, or nationalization in various means of production;
  • expanding social equality within and between nation-states and achieving a sustainable global population;
  • building workers’ democracy;
  • creating meaningful work and shortening the work week;
  • achieving a net-zero-growth economy;
  • adopting energy efficiency, renewable energy sources, and green jobs;
  • expanding public transportation and massively diminishing reliance on private motor vehicles and air travel;
  • developing sustainable food production and forestry;
  • resisting the culture of consumption and adoption of sustainable and meaningful consumption;
  • introducing sustainable trade; and
  • building sustainable settlement patterns and local communities.
These transitional steps constitute loose guidelines for shifting human societies or countries toward democratic eco-socialism and a safe climate. But it is important to note that both of these phenomena will entail a global effort, including the creation of a progressive global climate governance regime. My litany of proposed transitional reforms is a modest effort to contribute to an ongoing dialogue and debate as to how to move forward from the present impasse in which the world finds itself today. The application of my suggested transitional reforms will have to be adapted by many countries, both developed and developing, around the world. Furthermore, my suggested transitional reforms are not exhaustive of possible changes necessary for creating an alternative world system.