Sabrina Fernandes and first published at Taylor
& Francis Online
revolutionary change requires urgent climate action now. The energy transition
must be as radical as possible to ensure the conditions for future struggles to
century is a century of crisis. Capitalist economic collapse dovetails with
dire inequality, international and civil wars drive displacement and
humanitarian catastrophe, xenophobia creeps into laws, and rising biodiversity
loss imperils the planet’s equilibrium. Climate change threatens to worsen
every other aspect of these interlocking crises, making decarbonization the
most urgent task on our to-do list. It’s hard to fathom successfully tackling
all other socioeconomic problems—let alone the gargantuan undertaking of
overcoming capitalism—without coordinated international action.
civilizational change, as Michael Löwy puts it, is needed to craft a truly just
and free society within the ecosocialist paradigm. Such a transformation will
not be possible unless we guarantee the material conditions on which to build
any and all revolutionary prospects. Ecosocialists are well aware that only a
revolutionary path can take us beyond the capitalist system. But they also
understand that other clusters of change and reforms must garner support in
their radical forms before a pre-revolutionary scenario appears on the horizon.
scientists agree that we must take radical action by the end of this decade to
prevent global temperatures rising over the 1.5°C limit. Leftists organizing
around ecological issues share a similar consensus, but the situation changes
when we consider the Left more broadly. As I write from Brazil, it is evident
that the far-Right’s recent gains in the continent put everyone at risk of
sinking deeper into climate emergency. The Bolsonaro government is openly
anti-environment—he is even intent on allowing industrial mining in Indigenous
When nature is
perceived only through the lens of exploitable natural resources, biodiversity
becomes easily commodified. It is no coincidence, then, that the largest and
most impactful social movements in Latin America are tied to land and
territory, environmental protections, food sovereignty, and a strong opposition
to multinational corporations, foreign investment, and their history of harmful
dealings with right-wing—and sometimes moderate left— governments. These
movements demonstrate that ecosocialism must be based on praxis. Those
suffering the most from capitalism’s exploitation know all too well that full
commodification of nature means private profits and socialized impacts.
projects rooted in developmentalist and productivist ideologies are still
common in socialist circles. Many in the progressive and even socialist Left in
the countries at the periphery of capitalism, or the Global South, perceive
their development and lifting millions out of poverty as antithetical to a
rapid, clean energy transition and climate action. Current resources only
enable one or the other, their logic suggests.
if developed countries take the lead by zeroing out their carbon emissions and
helping finance an energy transition in the South, a true great transition
depends on fostering and organizing peripheral countries’ will to change as
well. Those who have contributed the least to the crisis are most likely to
suffer the deepest impacts. This contradiction makes social movements,
collectives, unions, and political parties at the margins of capitalism
important voices in the call for change. It is paramount that we listen.
Ecosocialism in and from the South
recent development in socialist history, first emerged to tackle modern
environmental issues, as articulated since the 1970s. It promoted a critique of
productivist perspectives and experiences within socialism, proposing that the
socialist view of abundance prioritize quality over quantity. Later, in what
political economist Kohei Saito calls the second stage of ecosocialism, the
tradition incorporated the foundations of Marxist Ecology and Karl Marx’s
critique of capitalism’s metabolic rift. This perspective offers a Marxist
analysis of the profound way the current mode of production has altered nature,
explicitly identifying that it is impossible to confront the ecological
crisis—also a crisis of human society—within the capitalist system.
Now, the third
stage of ecosocialism is being built from praxis that deals with the
contradictions from the current system, pushing for alternatives to begin right
away. Within this conversation, dispossessed peoples at the margins of the
system have a lot to teach us in terms of values and organizing practices. As
the far-Right advances in Latin America, it is valuable to understand how
grassroots campesino, Indigenous, and ecosocialist movements have boldly
denounced human exploitation as inseparable from the exploitation of nature.
Pushing for radical alternatives, these marginalized groups ought to be
protagonists in constructing ecosocialist praxis.
the ecocapitalist way, also known as “green economy” solutions, proposes a
false path for protecting the environment. It aims to reverse some of the
impacts of climate change while maximizing profits through the creation of new
markets and the generalized commodification of ecological transition.
Institutional spaces tasked with negotiating the terms of climate change mitigation
have normalized ecocapitalism, including by promoting the market-friendly REDD+
approach to forest management and carbon trading as solutions, by encouraging
the participation of business and industry NGOs in UN climate change events,
and by supporting the idea that the private sector ought to be a crucial—if not
the crucial—partner in reducing emissions. The result has been a very slow
crawl toward decarbonizing energy, amounting to less of a proper transition
than a diversification of the private and public infrastructure of energy
particularly evident in countries that have promoted new investments—both
public and private—in renewable energy sources while continuing to exploit
dirty fuel in the name of trade and economic growth. For example, in January
2020, Germany announced a plan to phase out coal, but the end date is 18 years
from now. China has grown its solar and wind capacity steadily for years, but
investment recently dropped due to cuts to public subsidies. China also has
invested in hundreds of new coal plants at home and abroad.
private sector is eager to market itself as the provider of “clean” energy, a
variation of what anticapitalist activists have long slammed as greenwashing.
Elites are cashing in on the renewable energy market— expected to hit a global
value of $1.5 trillion by 2025—by selling technology to governments and private
criticizes market-based solutions, but it also condemns the slow pace of
transition—if any—set by governments that still prioritize traditional, dirty
industries as sources of GDP growth. This entails critiquing developmentalism
and productivism as national ideologies. Ecosocialism breaks apart the meaning
of development in order to rid it of its capitalist and colonial facets and
enrich it with qualitative—rather than merely quantitative—notions of a good
life. It also aims to scrap productivism—whose influence may limit socialism to
a change in the ownership of the means of production without changing the
paradigm of production—by eliminating planned obsolescence and by fostering
democratic planning of production around the questions of why, where, what for,
how much, and for whom.
of the theoretical development around ecosocialism has taken place among
intellectual-activists of the North. Although there are ecosocialist
organizations throughout the world, the majority of the Left, including the
socialist Left, remains far from an ecosocialist synthesis in the South. Even
discussions around buen vivir and Pachamama in Ecuador and Bolivia must
simultaneously consider these concepts’ limits and political appropriation.
Indigenous social movements, whose values are deeply linked to the metabolism
of nature, are well-respected and can be great leaders for change. Yet, when it
comes to the economy, most of the Left in peripherical countries continues to
rely on the separation between humans and nature in order to secure an image as
the representative of the urban proletariat, champion of industry, and master
of local natural resources.
dependency theory shows us that perceiving nature simply as a source of
commodities makes workers in places such as Brazil and Bolivia more vulnerable.
Worse yet, movements that stand up to large, socioeconomically destructive
projects led by leftist governments—as is the case of the Belo Monte
hydroelectric dam in the Brazilian Amazon— are commonly vilified by leftist
parties and unions that promote a productivist perspective of progress and job
creation. Coal and oil continue to be major elements in leftist depictions of
social and economic development, which is unsurprising when underdevelopment
still deprives millions of working-class people around the globe of
electricity, sanitation, and other basic infrastructure and services.
developmentalism and productivism remain the norm, the impacts of the climate
crisis push the dispossessed to confront how the global economic system has
pressured nature to an unprecedented level. Suffering the bulk of the negative
consequences, the working classes at the margins of capitalism have the most to
lose from ecological collapse—and the most to gain by leading the world towards
a braver stance. The Left must pay attention and give enough room to groups
that have long denounced the impending disaster. Certainly, there can be no
socialist struggle without Indigenous struggle.
So far, most
underdeveloped and developing countries have tried to catch up with developed
ones through the rules of the capitalist system. This has produced a
continuously dependent relationship. A radically different,
ecosocialist-driven, development program that focuses on quality of living,
full employment, carbon-free activities, and economic autonomy can rescue these
countries from the margins and set an example for the big players that continue
to pit their financial targets against the planet’s future.
for the third stage of ecosocialism is to lead the way by developing through
decarbonization while strengthening public sector and working-class
organizations to create the material foundations for overthrowing the
capitalist system once and for all.
ecosocialist discussion revolves around Karl Marx’s concept of the metabolic
rift, which demonstrates how the inherent logic of the capitalist mode of
production is unsustainable. The true “realm of freedom,” ecosocialists argue,
must overcome this dynamic through the rational regulation of nature’s
metabolism. It is impossible to really grasp capitalism’s impacts on the global
ecosystem without deep consideration of colonial extraction and plunder.
To take Brazil
as an example, the rise of the far-Right, embodied in Jair Bolsonaro’s
presidency, clearly is entangled with agribusiness and industrial mining. As
soon as he took office, Bolsonaro reduced the budget for climate change
mitigation by 95 percent. The Ministry of the Environment is headed by Ricardo
Salles, previously convicted of environmental fraud. Deforestation is on the
rise, and environmental officers struggle to do their jobs without proper
of barrels of oil from an unknown source contaminated beaches across 11 states
in 2019, the Brazilian government largely neglected the disaster. Bolsonaro
even tried to blame the spill on a Greenpeace boat, alleging sabotage. The
government only took action when most of the damage was done, leaving response
efforts up to local volunteers who risked their own health to remove oil and
rescue animals. It is also well-known that Brazil’s 2006 discovery of its rich
offshore pre-salt oil reserves has affected geopolitical pressures, especially
around the national oil company Petrobras.
Like many other
developing and underdeveloped countries, Brazil experiences a dependency
dynamic. Resource extraction accounts for a large share of the economy and
attracts superpowers looking to profit off cheap primary goods, from crops to
oil. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, and even the previous
Workers’ Party (PT) government in Brazil have had contradictory approaches to
environmental issues, pursuing economic growth through extractivism and tying
social redistribution to the influx of commodity revenues.
perspectives, common across the Pink Tide, fluctuated between a greater respect
for nature compared to right-wing governments and an unbalanced focus on an
idea of sustainable development that treated environmental costs as an
after-thought to large projects and economic production. This type of
negotiation with extractive interests can keep traditional national elites in a
comfortable position of economic power while compromising national autonomy due
to the economy’s overreliance on commodity exports.
are uniquely positioned when it comes to resistance and the construction of
radical alternatives. In most cases, if not for their dependence on the
resource extraction that fuels the economic superpowers, these countries would
contribute little to climate change. This dependency—the root of their
contribution to climate crisis—impedes real development that moves away from
environmentally degrading practices and builds resilient, climate-ready
infrastructure. In a country as unequal as Brazil, the cities are not made for
the people, but divided by class and the interests of each local elite.
The result is
too many cars, precarious public transit infrastructure with expensive
individual fares, and so much concrete that rain inevitably leads to flooding,
illness, and death. Business as usual means that as long as the multinational
mining company Vale can extract iron ore, the economy is relatively safe, and
the social and environmental impacts— including dam collapses unleashing floods
of mining waste—are just the expected externalities.
Thus far, the
Left in such countries has taken the wrong approach to overcoming dependency by
thinking it possible to challenge capitalism while maintaining its logic of
production. Some have intensified extraction to take advantage of commodity
prices but have failed to make the necessary gains in domestic industrial
capacity. Others have invested in such a capacity, but they still fall prey to
a few dire consequences of continuous reliance on extraction: the continuous
enrichment of old elites, over-specialization that maintains dependence and
conflicting geopolitical relations, and the perpetuation of the metabolic rift,
whereby the unregulated use of nature leads to an array of short-, medium-, and
approach to development—focused on autonomy and the creation of favorable
ecological conditions for further organizing working-class interests—could help
overcome dependency while leading the way towards a global ecological
transition. This transition, then, could have the power to reconcile and unite
all oppressed people around the ecosocialist paradigm.
Ecology is a
pivotal point of convergence for the world’s oppressed and dispossessed.
Environmental impacts fall disproportionately on the poor. Women are more
likely to take on extra social reproduction burdens after environmental
disasters. Cities designed around capital lack infrastructure in their
peripheries and are very racialized. Ecological connections foster not only
solidarity, but deep syntheses between struggles.
The banner of
food sovereignty, for example, connects landless workers to healthcare
professionals to animal liberation activists. Climate activists, policymakers,
and every labor union interested in full employment, training, and better jobs
all share a concern for radical change in the energy system. Ecosocialists
understand the power of organizing the working class in a metabolic way—that
is, through an understanding that if class and oppression are inseparable from
ecological conditions, then struggles must act accordingly.
different struggles simply marching alongside each other, the horizon calls for
making connections around the ecological underpinnings of the material
conditions for survival—and even revolution. We can no longer separate labor
organizing from feminist, anti-racist, LGBTQI+, animal liberation, prison
abolition, anti-imperialist, and self-determination struggles. The metabolic ecological
view shows that they don’t simply share similar interests, but root causes.
environmental concerns become ever more pressing, a few sectors of the Left
have finally realized their importance. We must be strategic. Higher
sensitivity to environmental issues presents an opportunity for politicization
so that we can, at the same time, reject inherently flawed “green” capitalist
proposals and learn to build the conditions for a radical horizon.
At some level,
this requires ecosocialists to consider reform and revolution. Ecosocialism is
a revolutionary perspective, yet it must be aware of the mediations required to
guarantee the ecological conditions for a revolution. The urgency of climate
change calls for decarbonization while still under capitalism. This does not
mean, however, accepting such a plan on capitalist terms. The logic must be to
decarbonize fast, with a focus on the public system, fighting privatization at
all costs, and strengthening popular movements and organizations. A decarbonized
mode of production is necessary to ensure that when workers are ready to
overthrow capitalist structures, there is still a healthy planet on which to
This is why
projects aimed at outstripping the carbon economy, such as the Green New Deal,
propose a transition from a carbon-based economy to renewables. This transition
requires change in many areas, but it is not what socialists call a
transitional program, let alone a socialist revolutionary endeavor.
Decarbonization is both an immediate necessity and a material prerequisite for
any transitional program and the very prospect of organizing to abolish private
successful, decarbonization efforts need to be highly coordinated, but in a
bottom-up fashion. Third-stage ecosocialism calls for mobilizing entire
working-class sectors while also growing the Left by attracting those concerned
about the viability of life into the next century.
green capitalists have also tried to present their own version of
decarbonization. This vision revolves around private property and profit
margins, allows for more extractivism, takes a slow pace, and demonstrates a
dangerous optimism for undeveloped technologies that may solve our carbon
problem one day without altering production. Unless matters such as pollution
and biodiversity loss can be commodified, these approaches neglect elements of
the ecological crisis other than carbon.
ecosocialist task in the face of the Green New Deal is to make the proposal—its
goals, speed of implementation, and involvement of workers and their
interests—as radical as possible. This also demands an internationalist
perspective that considers the transfer of financial resources—as an incentive
but also as a kind of reparation—to support colonized and affected countries in
transitioning away from carbon. This process must also ensure local autonomy,
making way for the South’s political contributions to ensure that the system
will indeed change.
is how to bring the whole Left to this understanding—and not just in terms of
convincing arguments, but as praxis. Brazil’s Petrobras offers an important
example. It is paramount that the oil reserves in the pre-salt layers—found
thousands of yards deep in the ocean’s subsoil and very expensive to extract—stay
as put as possible. Foreign, private sector pressure aims to weaken the state’s
role in Petrobras, and this has affected the company’s workers as well as
consumer prices for oil and gas.
perspective, shared by the Petrobras union, argues for complete nationalization
of the company so that the reserves support national sovereignty— rather than
imperialist interests—by guaranteeing Brazil 100 years of energy autonomy. From
a standard developmentalist perspective without any ecological regard, this
sounds like a dream workers’ sovereignty argument. It is, however, unrealistic,
as it puts the whole world in danger of a sped-up climate catastrophe. This
demonstrates the importance of fostering ecosocialism in Brazil and the urgency
of developing a decarbonization program.
evidently would lead to intense extractivism without any rewards for the
workers or the country, so it must be fought on all fronts. Yet, it is also
important for countries like Brazil to produce their own decarbonizing “deal”
so that labor unions in carbon-based industries can become involved. Only a
fully nationalized, worker-controlled Petrobras will be able to posit the
necessary steps for a just transition based on: a moratorium on new
explorations, fast diversification of the company’s activities into renewables,
and job training, compensation, and a jobs guarantee.
This is not
entirely novel—Norway’s national oil company Equinor has expressed a commitment
to bringing the country’s emissions close to zero by 2050. Petrobras invested
in renewables in the past as a way to “prepare the company for a low-carbon
economy future,” but it is currently disinvesting from those sectors, including
by selling its wind power plants in early in 2020. Private interests in the
pre-salt layer and the government’s privatization intentions have set Petrobras
decarbonizing program that includes the national oil company, with new
priorities led by unionized workers, would have the potential to not only
reclaim Petrobras’ earlier renewables plans, but also go even further than
Equinor’s targets. This change would empower other national oil companies in
the region as well and could help to reroute the future of Mexico’s Pemex,
As the authors
of the 2019 book A Planet to Win put it, a just transition depends on seizing
public control of energy resources, and it will only be just if it focuses on
improving people’s lives. Besides averting climate collapse, this kind of
decarbonizing deal contributes to the ecosocialist horizon: There can be no
just energy transition without organizing, and the fruits of this organizing
can move towards overcoming capitalism. Restructuring the economy away from
carbon while centering the working class makes it possible to dream of cities
with efficient housing, better modes of transportation, preventive health care,
an agricultural system built on food sovereignty, industry without planned
obsolescence, and more time for leisure and rest.
decree or simply vote the capitalist system away. To ensure an ecologically and
politically sustainable post-capitalist society, we must build the conditions
to make such a future possible and enduring. A viable revolutionary alternative
takes the conditions it can build under capitalism, preserves the gains,
changes what is necessary, and then transcends the barriers capitalism has
imposed on emancipation.
In sum, to
truly abolish capitalism, we must make it obsolete. A society whose mode of
production attends to peoples’ necessities and quality of life without
exploitation or destruction renders the capitalist way outdated, irrelevant,
from carbon can be a valuable step towards wide, international organizing away
from capital, too. A just energy transition in the South will push us in this
direction by hitting capitalism at the root of extraction, exploitation, and
colonization—none of which have any place in an ecosocialist society.
Coordinated action from the margins may be just what we need.
Fernandes is an ecosocialist activist based in Brazil. She is the lead editor
for Jacobin Brasil, a postdoctoral fellow at the International Research Group
on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and
the University of Brasília, and she runs the radical left YouTube channel Tese