Monday 31 August 2020

Where the Pandemic Leaves the Climate Movement

As the entire globe is in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic, with great economic, social, and environmental consequences, it is worth recalling mass mobilisations like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future which took the global scene in spring 2019. A year on, it is time to examine their claims and impact on public awareness of the climate emergency as well as current political discourse and policymaking.

Paolo Cossarini spoke with three scholars from different European countries who highlight fundamental themes these movements helped bring to the fore. What emerges is a nuanced theoretical and practical debate about citizens’ mobilisation, green transition, and the prospects of climate action.

First published at Green European Journal

Paolo Cossarini: A year ago, Extinction Rebellion (XR) shut down London’s streets, as did Fridays for Future (FFF) in cities across the globe, making headlines worldwide. In 2020, streets have been shut down once more to prevent a health crisis. One year on, how have these movements shifted the debate on climate change?

Manuel Arias-Maldonado: In my view, these movements have not been as important as the increase in extreme weather events that have shaken public opinions in the last years, creating a feeling of urgency the movements themselves can profit from. It is the sense that something is palpably changing that propels public awareness. Protest movements are relevant, among young people especially, but they would be helpless in the absence of such material conditions which are, admittedly, as much objective as they are mediated by mass media.

Susan Baker: The climate movement is positive. However, the emphasis on “listen to science” is potentially problematic in that it fails to grasp that science does not reveal the truth but aspects of what is known. Climate science is narrow: it defines the issue in the language and framework of the natural sciences, ignoring the main causes of and solutions to climate change which lie in the social world in general, and in our economic model in particular. Neither of these groups have a critical grasp of the fundamental causes of climate change.

While XR and FFF have promoted public awareness, both are very moderate voices and have, consequently, shrunk the space for radical ones. On climate action, their focus on transition favours technocratic responses as opposed to radical transformation. It is therefore likely that transition management (transition to low carbon futures that allows for business as usual), as opposed to transformation, will take centre stage in climate action.

Where do you think the Covid-19 pandemic leaves the climate movement? 

Anneleen Kenis: XR and FFF are remarkably absent in the current crisis though they seem to be slowly becoming more active again. The coronavirus pandemic might give the feeling that there are more important things to focus on now, but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the Covid-19 crisis is instructive because it has unveiled how societies deal with emergencies, the place of science in the public debate, and human-nature relationships. Furthermore, the pandemic could nudge us in the direction of a radically different, much more sustainable society, but it could also lead us to a society characterised by authoritarian control, moralisation, and securitisation.

There is no neutral answer to the coronavirus crisis, just as there is no neutral answer to climate change. What’s more, the pandemic continues to raise crucial questions: who will foot the bill? Will large economic sectors like the airline industry be saved with taxpayers’ money? What conditions will these sectors have to meet? Will generating even more profit and growth be an indispensable mission? Will the coronavirus-induced economic crisis be used to demarcate certain sectors as crucial and others as not? Will we invest in healthcare and public schooling instead of (polluting) companies? 

Manuel Arias-Maldonado: Nobody knows. There are reasons to think that climate action may be encouraged after the pandemic – or even during the pandemic if it doesn’t end soon – as well as to fear that the return to normality will prioritise economic growth over sustainability concerns or climate mitigation. Mobilising the public all depends on how people will feel after this is over. 

In the meantime, it may be possible to seize temporary feelings to rally support for climate-friendly coronavirus response legislation as a way to ensure a cleaner exit from the crisis. The climate movement can play a role in this mobilisation process by framing the pandemic as the first true catastrophe of the Anthropocene. However, this card should not be overplayed since the link is not always clear. Alternatively, the pandemic can be portrayed as an expression of careless modernity, one that does not take into account, for example, food security. This depiction brings globalisation and the call to make it more sustainable centre stage.

Susan Baker: It is clear that government-imposed restrictions on social gatherings have impacted the activities of climate activist groups. So far, FFF has stopped their street presence and XR have ceased their highly visible forms of public protest. They nevertheless continued their activism online throughout the lockdown. These groups relied heavily on civil protest to raise public awareness, believing that this would force governments and other key stakeholders to act. It is harder to credit posting a selfie with a placard during lockdown with the same impact. Digital activism can be easily dismissed as an individualised activity while the marches that took place in the streets, often noisily, can hardly be written off. 

In the public arena, there is a danger that the voices that speak for nature and that seek climate action will once again become marginalised. There continues to be a great deal of attention paid to how to manage the pandemic, as we would expect. At the same time, there is a lack of discussion on the underlying causes – which lie in the destruction of ecosystems for trafficking of species – and how the problem will be addressed at source. 

Despite these challenges, the quietening of our streets and the cleaning of our air during lockdowns have allowed people to see and hear nature again. Here lies the hope that people can carry this experience forward to form a new political consciousness about the environmentally destructive nature of our economic activities and the possibility of an alternative future. 

Do you think an overhaul of the relationship between our economic systems and the environment is possible in the current moment? How can we make a green transition attractive to the economic and political forces desperately trying to stay afloat and return to business as usual?

Anneleen Kenis: I would start by questioning this question: do we really have to make sustainability attractive to economic forces and industry? Or should we rather put economic forces and industry under pressure to change? The environmental movement has bought too much into the idea that we can get everyone on board if we come up with an “attractive” vision. It reinforces the idea that we can save the world with technofixes, that nothing really has to change, and that air transport does not have to be fundamentally questioned after all. We need to apply pressure now that it is possible. Or refuse to rescue them: we should simply say “no” and take proper measures to ensure that future companies do not have all the tax and other advantages that the aviation sector has. 

While a certain level of “greening” the capitalist economy is possible (capitalists can make money selling solar panels just as they make money selling coal or oil), there is a fundamental clash. This clash has several aspects and dimensions, but the huge cleavage is between pursuing economic growth and reducing pressure on the ecosystems we are fundamentally a part of. 

Manuel Arias-Maldonado: Before the pandemic, I would have answered that winning the support of economic and political forces is possible by making a green transition both unnegotiable and profitable. The transition could be framed as something unavoidable but a possible source of innovation and value. 

Now, the world has stopped for some time and I think that public perception will be impacted for two reasons. Firstly, the dangers associated with the Anthropocene have been highlighted. Secondly, lockdowns have shown that life can be better: cleaner, healthier, slower.

Additionally, the economic situation may provide governments with the opportunity to foster new energy technologies, thus giving some unexpected momentum to the green transition. Emmanuel Macron has hinted that polluted air will not be tolerated anymore. Well, this is the time to start. 

There is no one way to stop climate change but several. Some are more capitalist-friendly – by way of technological innovation and productivity and efficiency gains – while others are more community-based and depend on reducing the size of the economy. 

Susan Baker: At present, there is a dynamic interplay between pressure for change and the return to old ways. Climate change has shown that it is no longer possible to see our economic activity in isolation from its ecological and social consequences. This realisation calls upon us to question equating human progress with the domination of nature. 

Economic actors need to take responsibility for their actions. It is not a question of “making it attractive to them”. Attractive, in the traditional economic sense, means that the activity can be the source of profits. This model that allows some in society to generate excessive wealth at the cost of others, including nature, needs to change. We must change what is produced, how it is produced, evaluate who benefits, and at what cost. It would be a moral hazard to make a green transition attractive when what we need is a green transformation of society.

Do you think that there’s the potential for a paradigm shift away from an economy based on growth? What about the balance between collective and individual action?

Anneleen Kenis: There are many consumer goods with huge ecological costs for which it cannot be sincerely argued that they are essential to lead a healthy and comfortable life. The global fashion industry contributes more to climate change than shipping and aviation together. This is no surprise considering that, in the UK for instance, 300 000 items of clothes are thrown away every year [read more on the impacts of fast fashion]. A first step to promoting degrowth is banning advertisement. People are told on an almost continuous basis that they need all this stuff.

Everyone who has the capacity to make personal changes should consider doing so. However, as Giorgos Kallis argues, it is much easier, much more motivating, and more impactful to do so collectively [read about Kallis’ insights on limits and autonomy]. I decided 10 years ago not to fly anymore, but what difference does it make? If we were to make a similar commitment collectively, the impact could be huge.

Manuel Arias-Maldonado: There is no consensus on degrowth as the way to go in terms of building a particular kind of society. It would be an accepted model if it was the only way to prevent planetary collapse – which it is not. There are alternative ways to promote decarbonisation and sustainability and governments should focus on those. What’s more, economic growth still matters as a way of producing welfare and wellbeing. Degrowth must, therefore, be defended as a morally valuable choice. If it were to persuade a majority, it would be the blueprint for a new way of living.

As I see it, relying on such collective sacrifice is utterly unrealistic. Nevertheless, people should be made aware of the fact that human habitation of the planet depends on the planet’s conditions, which in turn depend on how people behave. This understanding could bring our planetary impact into focus and potentially lead to better policy and technological innovation.

Susan Baker: The growth-oriented model of development pursued by Western industrial societies cannot be carried into the future, either in its present forms or at its present pace, as evidenced by climate change. We cannot have continuous growth in a system characterised by resource limits and planetary boundaries. Climate change has been caused by a growth-orientated model, achieved through ever-increasing levels of consumption. This artificially stimulated consumption brings untold wealth for the few and impoverishment for the many. Many now also reject the idea that consumption is the most important contributor to human welfare. This new value is not compatible with capitalism. Degrowth is no longer a radical alternative, but a necessity.

A healthy society and the wellbeing of its members rests on acts of services and the sense of community rather than on consumption. Adopting this model requires changing our values so that one’s social standing is not determined by what they consume and put on display, but by how they engage in society to protect the interests of others, including those of other life forms, in ways that promote justice and equity. 

While personal change is important, structural factors can make them unsustainable. To move to a new model of economy and society, everyday actions would need to be accompanied by structural changes. As we rethink, for example, the way we travel, our food and energy consumption, the structures underlying these – trade, financial, food systems and our economic system overall – must be transformed as well. 

Anneleen Kenis is a post-doctoral research fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), affiliated with the Division of Geography and Tourism at KU Leuven and the Department of Geography at King’s College London. Her work centres around political ecology focusing in particular on processes of politicisation and depoliticisation in relation to climate change, air pollution and genetically modified organisms.

Manuel Arias-Maldonado is an associate professor in political science at the University of Malaga, Spain. He has worked extensively on environmental issues, from a sociopolitical as well as from a philosophical standpoint. His latest book is Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene (2019), co-edited with Zev Trachtenberg.

Susan Baker is a Professor Emerita in the School of Social Sciences and former co-director of the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University. Her research concerns environmental governance in the European Union, ecofeminism, gender and the environment.

Friday 28 August 2020

Why Greens must be Red and Reds must be Green

Ecosocialists see the problems of ecological justice and social justice, as profoundly linked in our economic system, capitalism, and no amount of tinkering with capitalism will ultimately resolve the ecological and social problems caused by this unfair and destructive system. 

More conventional socialists and greens tend to see these problems as largely unconnected, with greens believing that somehow capitalism can be reformed and made more eco-friendly. Socialists, all too often see ecological politics as an add on issue, at best, which will somehow cease to be a problem when we move to a socialist system. 

This thinking is wrong on both sides of the argument. Socialist governments that we have seen around the world, have often had an even more dismal environmental record than capitalist countries. It is true that these states, the USSR and China, and their satellites, were not truly socialist, but the perception of it as being socialism, has lodged in the general public’s minds. Changing those perceptions, is not easy, but I see little from more traditional socialists in even trying too much. 

A healthy environment is essential to humanity’s well-being, and the effects of climate change, for example, impact much more on poorer people. The rich countries can build defences against the worst effects of volatile changes in the climate, at least for now, but the poor ones cannot. Things like incinerators and toxic dumps, tend to be located in poor neighbourhoods, in the richer countries, as well poor ones.   

The British Labour party, under previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, did move in a green direction with their plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ which was the basis for a start on a ‘just transition’ of the economy. It is not yet clear whether this will survive under Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, although my bet would be that if it does, it will be watered down, so as not to scare British capital. 

When the pandemic lock-down rules were relaxed over the summer, I took the opportunity to meet up with some old friends. One friend is a traditional socialist, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party, who now accepts that there should be a push for renewable energy (and nuclear power). When I pointed out that finite precious metals are needed for wind and solar generated energy, he suggested that we could ‘mine the moon.’ 

I wasn’t entirely surprised by this suggestion, as my friend is a fan of Leon Trotsky, who notoriously wanted his ‘socialist superman’ to ‘move mountains and divert rivers.’ This kind of thinking is far too prevalent in socialist circles, the idea that man can overcome nature, is surely discredited by the current climate crisis. Socialism as the ultimate techo-fix. Economic growth is an addiction of the left, as well as the right. 

For greens, especially in more recent times, social justice issues have been accepted as part of the changed society that they want to see, but attempt to treat the symptoms caused by our economic system, rather than the root cause itself. How can you make a system ecologically rational, when that system is predicated on exponential growth, on a finite planet? 

Some greens, for example, still see population issues as the main issue affecting ecological destruction, but fail to see that the poverty that is inherent in capitalism, forces poor people to have larger families, to generate income, particularly when the parents become too old to work. On top of which, the ecological footprint of people in developing countries, is tiny compared to that of your average consumer in the richer nations. 

Having been a member of the Green party of England and Wales for almost fifteen years now, I can certainly confirm that greens all too often put individual ‘lifestyle’ actions, such as having a vegan diet or using and promoting renewable energy sources to the fore, whilst believing that our economic system, capitalism, can be made ecologically rational. There is also the rather depressingly vacuous mantra of ‘not left or right but forward’ from some of these greens. They can’t see the wood for the trees, so to speak. 

One of the candidates standing for the leadership of the Green party, voting closes on 31 August, claims to take a ‘pragmatic’ approach to policy making, even apparently being open to consideration of nuclear power as an option for tackling the climate crisis. There are many problems with nuclear power, in terms of danger, cost and nuclear weapons, but it is being supported by this candidate on the basis it is a vote winner. Nuclear power is seen as an easy to sell option it seems, but how can greens support it? 

Clinging on to the same greenwash techno solutions largely put forward by the forces of capital is a dead end, and frankly is a waste of precious time. Why attempt to save our economic system, when it has brought us to this sorry pass?   

The point of ecosocialism, is not to try and make the capitalist system run better, but to smash the system altogether and start afresh with a new system. Indeed, ecology is the system's Achilles heel, since infinite economic growth is irrational, and therefore a threat to the logic of capitalism. Once this concept is grasped, the inevitable conclusion is, that capitalism is unsustainable. It needs to be replaced by ecosocialism.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

The Climate Crisis – What do I tell my Grandchildren?


Written by Allan Todd 

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”


For several decades - through the years of Cold War, the start of neoliberalism, the collapse of the degenerated and deformed workers’ states of the Eastern bloc into rampant capitalism, and the growing signs of environmental and ecological degredation - I’ve always tried to follow Antonio Gramsci’s maxim: “Pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will.”  

Farewell Gramsci 

But, right now, I have to confess: that increasingly-fragile ‘optimism of the will’ has just about gone. What has prompted this collapse in optimism is news about recent developments in the Green Party’s Climate Campaign Committee. 

In 2017, whilst still a member of the Green Party, I was co-opted onto the Green Party’s national Climate Campaign Committee. The aim of those of us on it was to prepare the launch of a national Green Party campaign on the Climate Crisis. However, after several months of growing awareness that the leadership were not that keen on a radical national campaign on the climate, I gradually stepped back, and instead put all my efforts into continuing the organisation of the anti-fracking Green Mondays at Preston New Road in Lancashire. 

In the meantime, whilst the Green Party remained largely inactive on the Climate, Extinction Rebellion came along the following year - and really brought the Climate Crisis to the media’s attention, thus pushing it up the political agenda. Something the Green Party could have done, almost a year earlier. 

Nonetheless, as one always to have doubts about whether I’m doing the right thing, I occasionally wondered if I should have remained active on that Climate Campaign Committee. But, just recently, I learnt that one of the main co-leaders of that Committee has decided to step down, because of…growing frustration at the way in which radical suggestions for climate campaigns were regularly blocked or watered down by the leadership and the executive. 

This, of course, chimes with recent posts on London Green Left’s Blog about developments within the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW). In particular, the news reminded me of a post by Dee Searle in July, in which she commented on how the leadership had prioritised: 

“…electoral success over radical environmental campaigning… At an internal review of the 2019 snap General Election manifesto, it was revealed that genuinely radical climate mitigation policies developed by the party’s Climate Change Policy Working Group had been removed by a small group around the leadership team and Caroline Lucas’s office because they weren’t vote winners. Yet the election was being held against a background of almost daily revelations about the gathering pace of climate-related environmental calamity. A squandered opportunity to step up campaigning pressure if ever there was one.”  

However, what for me has pushed sadness into despair are the group discussions amongst members of the Climate Campaign Committee that have taken place around the decision by that leading Committee member to step down. 

Trimming to the right 

The most depressing contribution was one that seemed to suggest that, given that most voters are currently voting Tory, any radical left-sounding parties or policies have “no chance of influencing or getting momentum” from voters. To argue that nothing radical can be elected now - or can manage to push changes through by pressure from social movements from below - is defeatist. But even to hint that we should tail-end any Tory/rightwing political trend in order to be more 'successful’ with voters is far worse than defeatist - it is downright dangerous. 

Given that Boris Johnson successfully pushed for Brexit, does that mean parties such as the Greens should have abandoned Remain and backed Brexit instead, in order to get ‘momentum'? And, given the current level of xenophobia and out-right racism over refugees, which seems to resonate with so many Tory voters, should the Greens now join the calls for ‘taking back control of our borders’? There was even a dismissive suggestion that issues such as feminism (and presumably racism?) were “big turnoffs” as regards voters.  Words failed me.

This idea of ‘trimming’ to fit in more with a temporary Tory majority reminds me of why I left the Green Party. It wasn’t just over the ‘Unite to Remain’ pact with the LibDems - a party so clearly on the other side of the barricades - but much more to do with the growing rightward drift within the Green Party: which is, it seems, precisely why Climate policies have been watered down or vetoed. 

Arguments that radical policies for social and economic justice should be ditched were very much to the fore on the GPEW Members’ on-line discussion site before and after GE2017 - often, from the right, put forward in a personally-abusive way. In case it has been forgotten, the early origins of what eventually became the Green Party - first the People’s Party & then the Ecology Party - were from the centre-right, and it seems that things are returning to that position. 

And, in case this too has been forgotten, that right-of-centre approach did NOT result in a massive growth in membership or in elected representatives. That all came AFTER the Green Party - recognising, with the help of members of Green Left, that environmental destruction and the Climate Crisis AND growing social and economic inequalities were BOTH the results of the same ‘System’ - had made a conscious decision to move to a more leftwing position. 

That drift to the right within the Green Party has led to the stance amongst many members that ‘Labour has to be hurt to make it see sense’ over the issues of making election pacts and supporting Proportional Representation (PR), by standing Greens in every seat - including in those key marginals Labour needed to hold or win in order to defeat the Tories. 

Though, of course, the only people who are really hurt by a Labour loss/Tory win are those who’ve already been ‘hurting’ since at least 2010: those forced into food banks and/or onto the streets, the growing number of children living in poverty, and those whose life-expectancy has either stalled or even declined. Prof King of Cambridge University, one of those involved in a recent study that concluded there had been at least 120,000 austerity-related deaths, referred to this as “economic murder” 

This rightwards drift was particularly typified most recently by last year's ‘Unite to Remain’ pact with the LibDems. Just because Labour - wrong-headedly - remains against electoral pacts and PR is no reason to go holding hands in a pact with a party like the LibDems which is still led by unrepentant neoliberals. Amongst other things, that ‘Unite to Remain’ pact - essentially pushed by the leadership - was so unprincipled. 

It was made with a party that had (a) blocked an opposition attempt to get a Vote of No Confidence in Johnson and to have a People’s Vote with ‘Remain’ as an option; (b) abstained on an Opposition amendment to stop further privatisation of NHS services; (c) been the first opposition party to give Johnson and Cummings the pre-Brexit election they’d always wanted; (d) totally abandoned the idea of a People’s Vote; and (e) a leader who even said she’d press the nuclear button. 

That’s where ‘accommodating right-of-centre views’ takes you. What was particularly criminal about this ‘Unite to Remain’ pact was that 10 of its 60 seats actually targeted sitting PRO-REMAIN Labour MPs in key marginals - such as Stroud and Warrington South, both of which saw Tories replace those Labour MPs. 

Radicalism isn’t finished 

In fact, claims that radical politics now have no appeal, so the Greens should go more centre-right, do not stand up to any serious examination. In case it’s been forgotten, in GE2017, Corbyn-led Labour got 12.9m votes and 40% of the votes - almost beating May’s Tories, who got 13.6m votes. And that was after 2 years of open sabotage from rightwing Labour MPs and, as we now know from the leaked Labour internal report, of secret sabotage from rightwing Labour officials as well; never mind the hostile mainstream media reporting.   

To put that GE2017 vote into some historical context, Corbyn’s vote then was BIGGER than that achieved by (a) the more ‘centrist’ Miliband in GE2015 (9.3m and 30% of the vote); (b) the even more ‘centrist’ Brown in GE2010 (8.6m and 29%); & (c) the much more ‘centrist’ Blair in GE2005 (9.5m and 35%) AND in GE2001 (10.7m and 40%). And, as we all know, GE2019 was not a normal general election but basically a one-issue election over Brexit.  

What is most saddening is the existence of what could be called the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ syndrome, as the right of the Greens rule out any co-operation with any radical party or group, in order, instead, to appeal to ‘soft’ Tories. Though, to be fair, this PFJ syndrome is one that is also still very prevalent on our centre-left side of the barricades - whether it’s Labour, or many of the smaller groups to the left of them. The idea that any one group or party has all the answers was always wrong-headed - but, in the midst of an ever-worsening Climate Crisis, it is nothing short of criminal lunacy. 

It reminds me of what the comedian Mark Steel said at the launch of the People’s Assembly in 2013: 

“I don’t know what it is with the left. They say: ‘You know, I agree with 99.9% of what you say - but that f-ing 0.1%? I’m having absolutely nothing to do with you!’"

The main thing right now is for all those who see the Climate Emergency as the number one priority to stop slagging off every other group and, instead, to join hands in a broad Red-Green United Front. 

Yet what we currently have are at least three different schemes to set up new parties to the left of the current Starmer-led Labour Party, and now the suggestion from mostly centre-right Greens to set up a separate Climate Party. This at a time when it looks almost certain that 2020 will be the hottest year since recordings began in the 19thC - with the 5 hottest years ever being since 2015:

Quite frankly, as the risks of catastrophic Climate Breakdown increase, we don’t have time to waste building yet more parties or groups from scratch - instead, we need to be using the next few years building bridges to get a broad movement for immediate climate action. 

So what do I tell my grandchildren?

I have just had my first ‘social bubble’ - with my grandchildren, who I hadn’t seen since 11 March, because of lockdown. They have already experienced at first-hand, 5 years ago, the devastation of Climate Crisis flooding.  

So what do I say to them as their world really starts to burn and drown in worsening ‘Hothouse Earth’ conditions? How can I even begin to explain to them how so many people, parties and groups that claim to ‘get’ the Climate Crisis, and who should have known better, insisted instead on ‘doing their own thing’ and stayed sitting in their separate camps, preferring to ‘hang separately rather than stand together’? 

Other than saying it really was ‘The Age of Stupid’, I haven’t the faintest idea - beyond “I’m so sorry”.

Allan Todd is an ecosocialist/environmental and anti-fascist activist, and author of Revolutions 1789-1917

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Why leftists in all US states should vote Green


Written by Peter Solenberger and first published at Solidarity US

Michael Hirsch posted an article explaining his version of the “safe states” approach to the 2020 US presidential election on the New Politics website on August 2. The article is called Why Leftists In Most States Should Vote Green. And Why In Some States We Shouldn’t

Michael lays out his his position in the first three paragraphs of his article.

My late comrade and esteemed New Politics editorial board member Joanne Landy steadfastly insisted she’d never vote for a Democratic Party candidate, preferring a protest vote for the Green Party. “But I’ll never join that party,” she insisted. Hers was always a principled rejection of Democratic betrayals…

To the [Green Party’s] credit, its 2020 electoral platform reads well enough, anticipating much of what a socialist movement would advocate. (For Green presidential candidate Howie Hawkins’ view of Green possibilities, see the smart précis of his campaigning book here.

I was never quite as dismissive of the Democrats tout court as was Joanne, let alone Hawkins, but I always agreed that in my home state of New York the Democrats didn’t need nor deserve backing from any left militant, let alone the bulk of union voters repaid so shabbily by party electeds from the grasping Andrew Cuomo on down. So, I repeatedly vote Green, too, and enthusiastically so for Howie Hawkins, a trade union militant and acknowledged socialist representing the best of the working class left…

I share Joanne Landy’s principled resolve to cast protest votes for Green candidates, rather than to vote for Democrats. In 2020 I support Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker for president and vice president. But I continued reading to see how Michael justified voting for Biden in “safe states.” His main argument seems to be that to do otherwise would risk alienating progressive Democrats.

Biden’s chief virtue is that he’s not Trump. Is there a better reason to wish his candidacy well? Sadly, no, but it can’t be dismissed given the still marginal state of the electoral left as an opposition even with exciting revolutionary ideas percolating and militancy in hundreds of encouraging street protests.

With less than 100 days to go before the November 3 election, the left has an opportunity to consider what many progressives consider heresy: voting for a third-party presidential candidate. To be sure, the political stakes are high. Four more years of a Trump administration conjures dystopian visions of a fascist dictatorship and an unbridled assault on civil and political rights — a prospect that would encourage any sentient being to cast their ballot for Trump’s Democratic challenger. 

Yet, there are circumstances in which support for a third-party presidential candidate is politically appropriate this fall. In particular, protest votes for the Greens in non-toss-up, non-battleground states would both reveal support for a more robust left political agenda and avoid throwing the election to Trump. Alas, making this happen, without alienating labor and community groups loyal to the Democratic Party, requires walking a political tightrope with a tattered safety net.

So, what’s the connection between street heat and electoral action in the less than 100 days leading up to the election? It’s that millions of protest votes for the Greens in non-toss-up, non-battleground states can be a prelude to that fight and a teaching moment for U.S. labor and others. A Green breakthrough could be a marker for what an articulated politics can accomplish. The tough question is where can the breakthroughs occur, and how so without giving the election by default to the kleptocratic Trump. 

Equally important, can we militate labor and community groups into doing the smart thing electorally and vote Green or other third-party efforts in the plurality of states where opting to oppose either pro-capitalist candidate won’t throw the election to Trump?

Michael’s argument for supporting Greens in safe states is valid, but it also applies to states he regards as “battleground.” He writes:

If I lived in Ohio or Michigan, for example, and had relations with labor activists sweating blood for Biden, I could not in good faith sit that one out, let alone militate for the Green candidate. As I live in New York, I owe Biden and his pro-capitalist, careerist DNC machine fixers nothing. In the other 35 states, any leftist urging a vote for Biden when the results are foreordained will seem like a naïf engaging in a will o’ the wisp. A Biden vote would add nothing either propaganda-wise or in building a left alternative base. In those 36 states he’s already either won or lost; the outcome’s not looking to be close.

I live in Michigan. It’s not a battleground state. Biden leads by wide margins in polls, even Republican ones. See the July 20 New York Times article Michigan Threatens to Slip From Trump as He Goes Quiet on Airwaves. I see Democratic Party apparatchiks sweating blood for Biden, but I don’t see many activists doing so.

More broadly, Trump is going down. He and the Republicans have failed the Covid-19 test, which has reminded workers of all their other failures.

The two-party pendulum is swinging back to the Democrats. Unless they completely blow the election, the problem we’ll face next year is that the Democrats control the House, the Senate and the presidency and will squander their opportunity, as they did in 2008. Their failure will set up another “Tea Party” in the House, a Republican takeover of the Senate, and another Trump in 2024 or 2028, promising another version of “drain the swamp” and “make America great again.”

Whether large numbers of people cast protest votes against the two-party system matters a great deal. To use Michael’s words, it could be “a prelude to that fight and a teaching moment for U.S. labor and others.” The argument applies equally to safe states and to battleground states.

Revolutionary socialists can’t affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. Trump has failed so badly that Biden should win by a landslide in duopoly terms. If he loses, it will be because he has blown the campaign.

Some left Democrats concede that the 2020 presidential election, like the 2016 one, is the Democrats’ to lose. But they still challenge radicals with the argument, “If large numbers of activists did as you advocate, Trump would win, and it would be your fault.”

The argument is bogus. If radicals were in a position to determine presidential elections, mass demonstrations and strikes would be bringing down Trump, not votes for the likes of Biden.

It’s certainly true that many Democrat’s will be unhappy if radicals fail to support Biden. But that’s as true in safe states as it is in battleground states. Either place, Joanne Landy’s “principled rejection of Democratic betrayals” can win respect now and prepare the ground for agreement over time.

Activists who want to help with the campaign of Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker should go to the campaign website.

Saturday 15 August 2020

Ecosocialism, Global Justice, and Climate Change


I have recently been reading ‘The Emergence of Ecosocialism,’ a collection of essays written by the now sadly departed Joel Kovel. Edited by Quincy Saul, and published in 2018. The book is reviewed more fully here and here.

In Kovel’s essay which goes by the same title as this post, first published at Capitalism Nature Socialism in 2008, he looks into the possibilities that ecosocialism can bring in an age of climate crisis, wrought by a rampant, planet destroying, capitalism. He begins:

So far it is only a word, plucked from the bin of radical possibility to concentrate the mind in this grim age of world-destroying capitalism. We call it ‘ecosocialism’ because the times, as Hamlet put it, are “out of joint.” That which should fit together does not, and events cascade chaotically, threatening unprecedented disaster. ‘Eco’ is the prefix, because the disjointing is of nature. And ‘socialism?’… a socialism predicated on overcoming of capital as nature’s enemy as well as the exploiter of human labor. The path to ecosocialism has to be made by those who will travel upon it. But it also has to be imagined in advance, because the socialism of this present age, if it ever arises, will not much resemble its ancestors from the first epoch of the doctrine.

‘First epoch’ socialism says Kovel, was a project to negate and overcome the effects of capital’s conversion of labour power into surplus value. Workplace strategies, such as strikes were first employed to impede this process until their limitations became apparent and were replaced by aims that put the means of production into the hands of the workers, eventually enforced by the state.

Kovel notes that Marx and Engels called attention to the destructive nature of capital on the bodies of the workers, and later William Morris and Rosa Luxemburg developed this thinking into the realms of environmental destruction, but without a full critique of the ecological effects of capitalist production. This thinking only took hold from the 1970s onwards, with the idea of ‘limits to growth.’ Even though Marx wrote in Capital that the defining the factors of production were land, labour and capital. First epoch socialism retained the capitalist mentality that they had fought, largely seeing nature as a free resource, to be exploited.

Kovel then trains his sights on the philosophy of Deep Ecology, which whether from ignorance or perhaps an excess of bitterness, wants to eliminate what is distinctive about humanity. Humans are entitled to have their corner of nature respected but must respect other species in nature, and work within those limits.

On patriarchy, Kovel says the world view has been that real human beings are masculine, enforced mainly due to violence on the part of men, while nature, dumb, passive and devoid of reason, remained behind as eternal female. Thus gender violence is the template of nature’s domination. Forms of production consigned to women, giving birth and the nurturance of life were devalued, despite their central importance to humanity. Ecosocialism, as ecofeminism, values these forms of work as just as importantly as all other forms of work, something Marx largely ignored in his writings.

Ecosocialism is first and foremost, on behalf of life, and dedicated to life’s flourishing as well as preservation. That is the existential core. The more deeply it is felt, the more widely will it surface into social transformation. In this light, capital is not merely an instrument of economic exploitation, but the angel of death, prepared by the endless fragmenting of ecosystems through the action of the principle of exchange. Ecosocialism struggles against capital, therefore, not only to secure the well being of the underclasses, but on behalf of life itself – and by extension the firmament that sustains life… It puts in place an ethic, ecocentrism, that gives primacy to the healing of nature and the enhancement of life.

Ecosocialism will develop a new communal mode of production, where the Commons is restored, and thus collective ownership and mutual aid ensues, and all in conjunction with nature. But Kovel warns that this system of production can lead to tribalism, where in India, the term communalism has come to refer to episodes of mass murder of Muslims, by Hindus. Kovel suggests the key question is whether collectivity can be imbued with a universal interest?

Kovel says that the ecosocialist revolution, will not be like past revolutions which overthrew the state, by violent means. Although, after the revolution the state will be transformed. The revolution will not be the preserve of any one class, although all producers must be freely associated. Many points of ecological resistance to capital’s domain will arise all over the world.

These must gathered to form a ‘movement of movements’ which is non violent, although violence from the forces of the status quo will occur, and must be endured. For there will suffering to come, but this must be faced in a spirit of renewal and dignity for life rather than, succumb to the cold and dark dead end signified by a dying capitalism.

The unifying force of such movements can only be a conjugation of anti-capitalism with ecocentric valuation of life itself, which is to say…a developing ecosocialism.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Book Review - Climate Strike by Derek Wall


Written by Allan Todd. A version of this piece was also published at Left Unity.

“Cometh the [midnight] hour, cometh the book!” 

Derek Wall’s latest book, Climate Strike: the practical politics of the climate crisis, ‘had me’ from its very first page, with this well-chosen quotation: 

“We are at the midnight hour, and it’s eco-socialism or death.”

Kali Akuno (2019).

Derek is a long-standing and committed environmental activist who, for many years, held leading positions within the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW), first as Principal Speaker and then as International Co-ordinator. My review copy of his book arrived just as I’d finished the 5C chapter Mark Lynas’s Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency - which makes painfully clear why drastic climate action is needed right now. 

And that is precisely what Derek’s book also does in its first two chapters - but what makes Climate Strike so timely and useful is that, in the remaining eight chapters, it also analyses various attempts to build pressure for change, and suggests practical ways in which, via open debate, analysis and increased co-operation, we can try to achieve those changes. 

Before moving on to examine some of the important issues raised and examined by the book, one general strength should be pointed out early on: other than Alan Thornett’s comprehensive Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism (2019), you will not find another book on the current Climate Emergency that introduces you to so many valuable thinkers and positive initiatives on all the most critical issues. It is this aspect makes Derek’s latest book such an incredibly rich - and important - book to read. 

As a companion piece to it, I would also highly recommend reading his Elinor Ostrom’s Rules For Radicals (2017) - particularly useful for considering possible ways in which to organise a post-capitalist future that is based on co-operation, and doesn’t depend on either markets or state structures. 

As the book makes clear, the central dilemma for climate and environmental organisations and activists today is that we need both immediate emergency action to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop the ecological devastation of the natural world, along with a longer-term strategy to create a world that is ecologically sustainable. 

One problem for environmental movements, explored in Chapter 8, is the difficulty in persuading enough people of the seriousness of the Climate Crisis, because of the ability of many individuals to banish worrying or unpleasant things - including the Climate Crisis - from their minds. Derek cites George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It (2014), which deals with this phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. 

Another book which explores this is Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial (2001), which explains how not acknowledging (as opposed to simply knowing) a threat or an injustice allows people to avoid the need to take action. 

Although Derek argues that the ever-worsening Climate Emergency the planet is facing stems from capitalism’s entire economic and social system - based on unsustainable continuous and ever-increasing production, consumption and capital accumulation - he does so in way that is free from any narrow dogmatism. 

What this book does do, exceptionally well, is to analyse, in a balanced way, where we are now, and how successful/unsuccessful the various climate campaigns and organisations have been so far. In particular, as regards the UK, there are useful examinations of the roles of the GPEW, the trade union/labour movement, and of social movements like Extinction Rebellion and the YouthStrike4Climate. 

But first - a digression!

Derek’s chapter on Green parties, in the UK and elsewhere, was of particular personal interest to me, as someone who - reluctantly - resigned from Grenn Party of England and Wales (GPEW) (and, consequently, as a Green town councillor) last December. So, before dealing with Derek’s observations, I will make some of my own. Now seems an especially good time to do so, with internal elections currently taking place within the GPEW. 

As Derek points out, during the late 1990s, the GPEW seemed to be moving towards a more radical ‘left’ position, combining strong environmental and climate policies along with calls for social and economic justice. A further step in that direction was signalled by the formation of Green Left in 2006, which operated as an explicitly ecosocialist and anti-capitalist network within the GPEW. 

So, in 2012 - after having voted Green in several elections - I joined the GPEW precisely because of these two developments. Consequently, I was proud to be the Green Party candidate for Copeland (Cumbria) in GE2015. Especially as parts of Copeland were suffering badly as a result of the austerity being enforced by the Tories and the LibDem Coalition - in GE2015, the GPEW (unlike the Labour Party at the time) was the only mainstream party which was calling for a complete end to austerity. 

Although, in the end, I resigned because of the unprincipled ‘Unite to Remain’ pact with the neoliberal LibDems - and the way it was ‘pushed’ by the leadership - in GE2019, I’d begun to have misgivings as early as 2016. This was over the large-scale overspending by the Tories in 33 key marginal seats in GE2015 - as exposed, at length, by Channel 4 News. These accounting ‘errors/oversights’ resulted in the Tories gaining a 12-seat majority - with 26 of their MPs having won in those key marginals where it was alleged that they had overspent.

 Channel 4 News’ take on the Tory Party’s election expenses issue in GE2015.

The GPEW’s Spring Conference in 2016 took place just after the Electoral Commission had fined the Tory Party a record amount for what they said were “multiple offences.” This seemed to me to be a dangerous development as regards UK democracy, so I moved an Emergency Motion, calling on the leadership to mount campaigns for by-elections in all those seats where there were serious concerns about overspending. 

However, although this EM was overwhelmingly passed by Conference, the leadership - which I know was not happy with the EM - said and did nothing. It’s worth recalling that Cameron’s government then went on to call the referendum on UK membership of the EU - with all the unpleasant consequences which have already flowed from that, with others still to come. 

The next serious concerns came with the internal members’ on-line discussions which took place before and after GE2017, over whether or not the GPEW should stand candidates in the key marginal seats that Labour either needed to hold or win, in order for them to replace the Tories as the next government. Those on the right of the party argued vociferously (and one or two, unpleasantly) that the “leftwing stuff” (ie. questions of social and economic justice) should be left to the Labour Party, and for the GPEW to focus instead on environmental issues only. 

For me, all these concerns came to a head last December, with the deeply-unprincipled pact with the LibDems - a party which by then, it should be remembered, had:

·   along with the Tories, imposed austerity for 5 years, & continued to refuse to apologise for doing so

· blocked an opposition attempt to get a VONC in Johnson

·  abstained on an opposition amendment to the Queens’ Speech to stop further privatisations of NHS services

·  been the first ‘opposition’ party to give Johnson and Cummings the pre-Brexit election they’d always wanted

·  a leader who said she would press the nuclear button

·   reneged on holding a People’s Vote, with ‘Remain’ as an option 

So, yes - a deeply unprincipled pact, with possible electoral gains the main reason for it; gains which Prof. John Curtice was proved right for saying that the Greens would not obtain even one extra seat. 

After I’d made the decision to resign, I became aware that other GPEW members had done the same - or were seriously thinking of doing so. More recently, several articles on London Green Left’s Blog have shown that many members have a variety of concerns about the direction in which the GPEW now seems to be drifting. 

Last month, Dee Searle - who resigned from GPEW in June this year, after 4 spells as a member of the Green Party Executive (GPEX) - identified  what she called theLeadership Clique as one of the main problems, questioning whether the GPEW will be able to be saved from it: 

A more recent article from David Taylor asks the question whether the Green Party change tack to become a real force for change: 

I would strongly recommend that these 2 articles should be read, before people read Derek’s chapter on Green parties.

Green parties 

And now - back to Derek’s book! It is in Chapter 4 that he deals with Green parties: in particular, arguing that there exists a conflict between the (often, but not in all cases, right-of-centre) origins of many Green parties - which were initially concerned with mainly ecological and environmentalist issues, with little or no focus on questions of social and economic justice - and the need for a fundamental political critique of the capitalist system itself. 

More recently however, the GPEW (as with several other Green European parties) seems to be moving back somewhat to its more rightwing/conservative origins, rather than moving on to develop a class analysis of the Climate Crisis, to or build strong links with the labour movement. 

More significantly, the GPEW’s Climate Campaign Committee, of which I was a member in the early stages - despite its members’ great efforts - failed to shift the party into launching a strong national campaign over the Climate Emergency. As a consequence, in 2018, it was Extinction Rebellion that really raised public awareness about the crisis the planet was facing - although, to be fair, several local Green parties and councillors had made significant progress in getting local Climate Emergencies declared. 

In fact, typical of Derek’s fair and balanced approach throughout this book, as well as making criticisms, he also points out that the GPEW, and other Green parties, can still have positive impacts - for instance, by continuing to help raise awareness of the Climate Crisis, and by proposing some useful structural changes. However, at present, the GPEW still fails to support the fundamental transformation of the mode of production which, ultimately, is vital to stopping Climate Breakdown. 

Extinction Rebellion 

As Derek makes clear from the start, Extinction Rebellion (XR)’s main weakness is that, at present, it still frames the Climate Emergency as more of a moral issue, rather than the political and economic one which, at heart, it is.  Consequently, its main focus is on influencing public opinion, so that politicians and governments will then be put under pressure to act. 

Whilst XR’s initial actions (along with the school climate strikes) certainly - and spectacularly - helped push the Climate Crisis up the political agenda as regards the general public, some of XR’s continuing actions have also resulted in the loss of a degree of sympathy (especially amongst sections of the working class). 

XR’s ultimate problem, though, is that it fails to really consider power relations, or to adequately consider the different impacts of the Climate Crisis on different - often marginalised - social groups. As pointed out, XRUK really needs to develop ties with and connections to much wider networks and identities - rather as Earth First! did. 

Several XR activists have been considering/calling for such steps, especially since the Autumn Uprising in October 2019 - including the development of a precise political and economic examination of what is meant by the slogan ‘System Change - Not Climate Change’.  In particular, what ‘System’, and what ‘Change’? 

Encouragingly, XR Scotland is currently considering a Reflection Piece (which apparently originated with XR Edinburgh), with the view to reaching out in precisely the way recommended by Derek’s book. Covid-19 permitting, the plan is to discuss and reach consensus on these issues at a Scottish People’s Assembly, to be held this October: 

In fact, XR Scotland has already made a public announcement in solidarity the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and is aware how the climate and ecological emergencies have been caused, and are still bing driven, by specific capitalist-linked aspects such as colonialism and white supremacy, as well as by capitalism’s ‘normal’ production/consumption/accumulation cycle per se.   


As Derek makes clear in his final chapter, in order to build the momentum needed to force though the changes that need to happen, a range of strategies are required - including the central one of base-building. As the ultimate aim has to be moves to ecosocialism, he highlights the importance of Marxism in understanding today’s global heating crisis created by capitalism. 

Amongst the strategies considered for achieving this are steps for greater co-operation between Marxist groups which recognise the need for ecosocialism. In particular, Derek mentions the work being done by Kali Akuno and others in the US, around Cooperation Jackson (Mississippi), and by People’s Strike, with which Kali Akuno is also involved: 

As many ecosocialists will already know, several books are useful in developing a Marxist understanding of what Marx called the dangerous “metabolic rift” between humans and the natural world which the ‘logic’ of capitalism creates. One which Derek examines is Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm, (2018), which provides a readable survey of the main Marxist attempts to theorise the ecological crisis. Other important Marxist contributions to this debate include both John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology (2000) and Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (2017). 

In fact, there are already early signs of this kind of base-building happening in the UK, with Socialist Resistance and Mutiny currently working together to create Anti-Capitalist Resistance (ACR)- a new revolutionary Marxist organisation, based on the need for ecosocialism:  

Anti-Capitalist Resistance

Plans have just been finalised for an ACR weekend school, from 12 -13 September, on the theme of Ecosocialism or Disaster Capitalism: 


Derek’s well-argued case is that, ultimately, we need a post-capitalist ecosocialist society. From the most recent developments - XR Scotland’s Reflection Piece, moves to create a new revolutionary Marxist organisation based on ecosocialism, and Left Unity’s recent adoption of an explicitly ecosocialist position, it seems that Derek clearly has his finger on the pulse of the environmental movement. This is most definitely a book to read, to discuss and - most of all, to act on. 

The clock IS ticking!

Allan Todd is a member of Left Unity, an ecosocialist/environmental and anti-fascist activist, and author of Revolutions 1789-1917

Thursday 6 August 2020

William Morris and the Art of Dissent

Written by Clare Conway and first published at Writers Rebel

It was a windswept Saturday afternoon in early February this year, as I huddled by the doorway of the Coach House at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith waiting to meet the writer Zakia Carpenter-Hall. “… the wallpaper man.” A snippet from a breeze-snatched conversation interrupted my thoughts. William Morris: Wallpaper Man. Somewhat irrationally the words irked me. Yet, I had to be honest and admit to once sharing a similar viewpoint of Morris’s legacy as supreme craftsman of decorative patterns inspired by a lifelong affinity to nature.

Fast forward to the confines of lockdown when the rumbling roar of traffic and buzz of city life was replaced by the soaring sound of birdsong. People became more aware of the natural world. Across the globe air pollution dropped in major cities. Within the fear and personal tragedies there was a glimmer of hope that life continued, and that perhaps this was our chance to change things—a moment of reflection on how we live, how we work and what matters.

A June article published in Nature—the leading international weekly journal of science—termed this cataclysmic time of grief, separation and ‘unusually reduced human mobility’ as the ‘anthropause’, a period during which we might find that slight adaptations to our lifestyles could potentially produce major advantages for mankind and our ecosystems. Hope in uncertain times? Opportunities for change? Alas, perhaps not. 

The World Economic Forum (WEF) identifies the link between the pandemic, our fast-moving, interconnected world and increasingly ‘dysfunctional’ relationship with nature. The easing of lockdown spurred an unprecedented rise in littering. Throughout the UK, from beaches to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, respect for nature was suddenly and brutally forgotten. Rubbish threatened our wildlife.

Nature reserves were trashed. I witnessed first-hand Turner’s iconic view of the meandering Thames desecrated by spewing bins and the detritus from alcohol-fuelled, ‘socially-distanced’ balmy weekends. In the words of Jason Alexander, founder of Rubbish Walks “… the country has gone a little bit feral.” What would William Morris, described by the late cultural historian Fiona MacCarthy as “the high priest of the countryside” make of this blatant disrespect and indifference?

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think, rather, of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.

Prologue to Morris’s The Earthly Paradise (1868–70), (I: lines 1–6) 

You may wonder why it would matter what a Victorian polymath would think. What is the relevance? Where is the link? For those who recognise the threat and ongoing impact of the climate emergency the answer to this focus on Morris can be found, as I did, in the simplest exploration of the prolific output of his life’s work and collaborations, and in particular his political writings. 

For Morris, beauty and plenitude was rooted in nature. “The earth and the growth of it and the life of it! If I could but say or show how I love it!” There’s a childlike exuberance in the simplicity of this sentiment. Although proclaimed by the character Ellen in Morris’s utopian, time-travelling novel News From Nowhere (1890), they are expressive of Morris’s views, and visually reflected in the vibrancy and exquisite detail of his decorative work. Morris despaired of man’s wilful destruction of nature.

Our ongoing indifference to the significance of the natural environment: our native plants, our noble trees, our dwindling birds and wildlife was, and still is, symptomatic of a materialistic society where we work to live and fill our homes with “useless goods, whether harmful luxuries for the rich or disgraceful makeshifts for the poor.” In a lecture entitled: Useful Work Versus Useless Toil from 1884 Morris expounded:

Wealth is what Nature gives us and what a reasonable man can make out
of the gifts of Nature for his reasonable use. The sunlight, the fresh air, the unspoiled face of the earth, food, raiment and housing necessary and decent…This is wealth.

In her seminal biography William Morris: A Life for Our Time Fiona MacCarthy defines Morris’s sense of place as “… almost a disability. Places clung to him. When one of his places was endangered, in the sense of being demolished or crassly redeveloped, he felt it as a sense of human grief.” The depth of Morris’s despair at man’s wanton destruction of nature and indifference to art is rousingly expressed in the following extract from the talk Hopes and Fears for Art: the Prospects of Architecture in Civilisation delivered in March, 1880 at the London Institution: 

No one of you can fail to know what neglect of art has done to this great treasure of mankind: the earth which was beautiful before man lived on it, which for many ages grew in beauty as men grew in numbers and power, is now growing uglier day by day, and there the swiftest where civilisation is the mightiest: this is quite certain; no one can deny it: are you contented that it should be so? 

In a lecture to the William Morris Society in 1959, the historian E.P Thomson described Morris as a “great moralist, a great moral teacher”, a “revolutionary without a Revolution.” Within a contemporary context the central tenets and ‘pungency’ of Morris’s beliefs possess an undeniable relevance to today. If we examine the damage and destruction wreaked by HS2 on our irreplaceable ancient woodlands, meadows and native flora and fauna, and consider the content of this extract from The Prospects of Architecture in Civilisation we can see why he is considered to be an eco-socialist visionary:

There is one duty obvious to us all; it is that we should set ourselves, each one of us, to doing our best to guard the natural beauty of the earth: we ought to look upon it as a crime, an injury to our fellows, only excusable because of ignorance, to mar the natural beauty, which is the property of all men; and scarce less than a crime to look on and do nothing while others are marring it, if we can no longer plead this ignorance.

The words are an impassioned rally cry; an attempt to shake us from a passive acceptance of the travesties enacted against the natural world; to alert us to the danger of no longer noticing what’s missing until it’s too late. The UK red endangered lists of birds, crafts, and plants are a reminder of what we stand to lose. That the ‘rascally’ Mistle Thrush and Song Thrush, the speckled stars of ‘Strawberry Thief’ Morris’s most reproduced pattern––available now on face mask too––both feature on the RSPB red endangered list of British birds is a forewarning that the familiar can quietly become the forgotten.

The wild strawberry is also categorised as in ‘near threat’ due to our disappearing wildflower meadows. It comes as a shock to discover that since the 1930s, 97% of our meadows have disappeared. Dr Trevor Dines, botanical specialist at Plantlife, the British conservation charity describes these poetically as “petalled paradise”, a “natural tapestry”, and implores us to “love, cherish and protect” them for future generations.

Love is enough: though the World be a-waning,

And the woods have no voice but the voice of complaining,
Though the sky be too dark for dim eyes to discover
The gold-cups and daisies fair blooming thereunder

Love is Enough, (1872)

Our response and support is critical given the positive environmental impact of our ‘species-rich’ grasslands. The UK’s biodiverse meadows provide a myriad of benefits including: crop pollination, flood prevention and carbon storage, while enhancing our sense of well-being. That this could be lost to us seems unimaginable, but without the invaluable work and commitment of charities such as Plantlife it could sadly become a reality. 

And so, we end where we began. I look back in gratitude at that windswept afternoon in February as I stood outside the Hammersmith house that was William Morris’s final home. Gratitude for the once familiar and carefree bustle of daily life; the families strolling through Furnival Gardens; the cyclists, joggers and dog walkers wending their way past the quaint Dove pub that nestles on the bank of the Thames. Gratitude for that overheard conversation that was to provide me with the title for a forthcoming exhibition of work made by a new generation of artists, designers, illustrators, poets and writers, each inspired by the cultural and political legacy of Morris.

From the printmaker and her 4-year-old daughter foraging for oak galls to make natural dyes, to the project using AI to generate new Morris patterns, the diversity of themes and range of responses reinforce the resonance of William Morris’s life’s work today. The essence of the exhibition is perhaps best expressed in the following quote from a letter written by Morris to Georgiana Burne-Jones that are stitched onto a handmade quilt by Graphic Design student Izi Thexton: 

To do nothing but grumble and not to act – that is throwing away one’s life. 

The words serve to remind us that “hope must be ever with us” for we are the makers of the future.

Clare Conway is a designer and educator. She is founder of Storybox Collective, a group of artists, designers and writers who apply a serendipitous approach to archival research through collaborative making. The Collective’s latest exhibition William Morris: Wallpaper Man, a collection of new work inspired by the legacy of William Morris, is scheduled to open in Autumn 2020 at the William Morris Society and online. You can follow its progress on