Friday 30 April 2021

Remembered - Joel Kovel - A Giant of Ecosocialist Thinking

Three years ago today, Joel Kovel, passed away. Some have said that he was as important to ecosocialism as Karl Marx was to socialism. This is a repost of what I wrote at the time, after hearing of his death.  

Joel Kovel died in New York City on 30 April 2018 at the age of 81. A radical psychiatrist, academic, writer and political activist, he will be best remembered as one of the most influential ecosocialist thinkers of modern times. In 2001 he co-wrote, with Michel Lowy, the first ecosocialist manifesto, a call for an end to the destructive capitalist system and demand it is replaced with ecosocialism, before capitalism completely destroys the planet.

His book The Enemy of Nature first published in 2002, and updated in a second edition in 2007, is a must read for socialists, greens and anyone concerned with environmental degradation. It was this book in particular that brought Joel to my attention in 2004. It is simply brilliant in its line of reasoning, placing the blame for our ecological ills firmly at the door of the dominant world system of endless growth, capitalism.

I had always considered myself to be a socialist, but by the early 2000's I was also becoming increasingly alarmed by environmental problems, especially climate change. Kovel blends a critique of capitalism with both a red and green angle, in the most compelling way I have yet come across. This, despite much fine thinking and writing on the matter, before and since.

Kovel edited the pioneering ecosocialist magazine, Capitalism Nature Socialism, where he worked with another leading ecosocialist from 1980's, James O'Connor. He wrote other books including White Racism, Red Hunting in the Promised Land and Overcoming Zionism.

One stand out thing from The Enemy of Nature is Kovel's use of the term 'usufruct' which Karl Marx had theorised about in the third volume of Capital. The word is from the Latin, and goes back as least as far as the Roman Empire, and is part of many countries law. It refers to the legal right to use and derive benefit from property that belongs to another person, as long as the property is not damaged.

Kovel highlights Marx's use of the word when he quotes that "human beings are no more than the planet’s usufructaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.” Kovel said in an eco-socialist society, “everyone will have... rights of use and ownership over those means of production necessary to express the creativity of human nature.”

He was an unsuccessful candidate for the US Senate in 1998 from New York and ran again unsuccessfully for the US Green Party presidential nomination in 2000, when he lost out to Ralph Nader. He commented that if he had a dollar for every Green Party member who told him they liked his ideas, but he should drop the socialist tag, he would have been a very rich man. He thought Nader was a populist with no real understanding of ecological matters.

He fell out with Murray Bookchin, the anarchist founder of Social Ecology, though I don't know why, since their ideas were very similar, which was a pity. But they were certainly equals in terms of developing the thinking that links ecological and social exploitation with the capitalist world system. To my mind social ecology and ecosocialism are pretty much the same ideology.

I had the pleasure of meeting Joel when he came to London in 2007 to speak at the London School of Economics, to promote the release of the second edition of The Enemy of Nature and to talk about ecosocialism generally. I was in small group that went to the pub with him afterwards, and he was charming and interesting in equal measure. I did hear that Kovel was planning another visit to London, but I guess he was not well enough to make the journey in the end.

Despite the looming ecological crisis and 'force-field' to use his expression, of global capitalism he remained hopeful, cheerful even, about the prospect of ending capital's rule over humanity. In the afterword to The Enemy of Nature, Kovel writes that when he was asked why he didn't despair about the ecological crisis and all powerful capital, "I do not despair; for whatever reason, I actually find myself in good spirits as I studied the crisis further and devised the ideas that have gone into this work."

Kovel believed that if his logic was wrong, and capitalism managed to reform itself into a truly eco-friendly system, then fine, all will be well. But if he was right, at least his line of reasoning offered hope of overcoming the system and crisis. This perception, Kovel suggested was liberating in itself, and can help us "to meet it actively instead of passively submitting to the terms of understanding dealt out by the dominant system."

I think that kind of sums up Joel’s legacy, as a giant of ecosocialist thinking who will be sorely missed.   

Monday 26 April 2021

Beyond the Growth Imperative


Written by Olaf Bruns and first publish at Green European Journal

For 30 years, environmental economist Tim Jackson has been at the fore of international debates on sustainability. Over a decade since his hugely influential Prosperity Without Growth, the world is both much changed – reeling from a pandemic and with unprecedented prominence for environmental issues – and maddeningly the same, still locked in a growth-driven destructive spiral. What does Jackson’s latest contribution, Post Growth, have to say about the way out of the dilemma?

Tim Jackson’s new book, Post Growth: Life after Capitalism (Polity Press, 2021), follows his ground-breaking Prosperity without Growth (2009, updated in 2017). Whilst the previous work reflected, partly, the austerity-driven answers to the Great Recession, Post Growth falls into a different world. It is a world where the recognition of climate change as the greatest challenge facing humankind is moving towards consensus. In the United States, even the Republican Party’s younger members are looking for ways out of the corner into which the party has manoeuvred itself.

It is also a world where the Covid-19 pandemic has not only taken many lives and destroyed many livelihoods, but – via the need for state intervention – has also dealt a blow to the gung-ho neoliberalism that is one of the main culprits of financial chaos and the looming breakdown of planetary life-support systems.

US President Joe Biden’s rescue plan as well as the EU’s Next Generation pandemic recovery fund are questioning the free-market paradigm that has held sway the since the Reagan-Thatcher area, and that had trickled down into centre-left politics as well. In parallel, from the Paris Agreement to the European Commission’s European Green Deal, environmental concerns that were condescendingly smiled upon until recently have now moved centre stage. The newly discovered role for the state and the emerging environmental consciousness might not be discussed at length in Jackson’s new book, but they are the backdrop against which it is to be read.

The good life

True to the idea of “post growth”, Jackson does not author a completely new book to join others in trapping dust on overburdened shelves. Rather, he deepens, fleshes out, and extends thoughts that were already present in his previous works. Post Growth is a next step, not away from the economy, but certainly closer to a host of other disciplines: from medical science, psychology, sociology, and anthropology to philosophy.

In that light, the subtitle of the book, Life after Capitalism, is chosen carefully: it is a book about life, about the good life, and how the “myth of growth” – the title of the first chapter – has led us astray from what actually matters in life.

But are philosophers the ones to turn to when the wounds of an economic crisis are still raw, when a health crisis has just struck with unknown vehemence, and another crisis, unimaginable in all its consequences, looms on the horizon?

Well, following Jackson, the figures we have turned to for the past decades – mainstream economists – are the very ones who brought us to the current conjuncture of multi-layered crises. In the early pages, he quotes the standard bearer of neoliberalism – and, let us not forget, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics – Milton Friedman’s infamous bon mot, “the business of business is business”. Much of the book is dedicated to untangling the anthropological lunacy of an economy that serves profit rather than the people, their subsistence, and, ultimately, their purpose in life.

Limits to growth

Capitalism, to get the other word in the subtitle out of the way, bumps into another problem: the limits of what planet Earth can take, what the Club of Rome already called “the limits to growth” back in 1972. It relies on growth and, to keep the wheel turning, on constant expansion into new territories, commodifying whatever lies in its path. Jackson trails, with a pinch of scepticism, Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Karl Marx here. Capitalism’s claim to social progress depends on high growth rates to finance the redistribution of wealth.

The wheel must turn ever faster. However, as Jackson writes, “the peak growth rates of the 1960s were only possible at all on the back of a huge and deeply destructive exploitation of dirty fossil fuels, something that can be ill afforded […] in the era of dangerous climate change”. Hence the dilemma: growth either stops fulfilling its meagre promise of prosperity for all, or it destroys the planet. Or both.

Jackson, for one, is doubtful that economists can shepherd us out of the impasse. He only slightly caricatures when he writes, “their message is that only growth can deliver us from the mess growth itself has brought us in” – but, this time, a “green growth”, where technological innovation will allow us to “decouple” from environmental destruction.

Green growth hubris

While Jackson does not deny that the destructive intensity of a given economic output can be lowered, he reminds us that the planet does not care about relative efficiency: what matters is humanity’s overall footprint. The equation is simple: if GDP grows faster than emissions per given output decline, then the emissions keep spiralling higher regardless. Hoping for a technological miracle to solve the problem means betting on technological “efficiency” outrunning scale faster than it has ever done in the past, and doing so indefinitely into the foreseeable (and unforeseeable) future.

There is a call for “ecological investment”, but altogether, Post Growth is a little light on the question of whether another growth is possible – one driven by health, education, culture, and community work rather than the increasing production of stuff. Notwithstanding, Jackson’s equation is the yardstick against which the EU’s Green Deal – sold as a “growth strategy”, and essentially one reliant on green tech – needs to be examined.

Rather unsurprisingly, fresh data concedes the point to Jackson. Recent research has shown that meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals requires that carbon emissions fall every two years by an amount equivalent to the shrinkage caused by recent lockdowns. However, the world seems to be heading in precisely the opposite direction.

The International Energy Agency has shown that as soon as the first lockdowns were lifted, emissions returned to their upward trajectory. In December 2020, carbon emissions were already higher than in December 2019. For Jackson, green growth is more hubris, comparable to former US President Ronald Reagan’s principled refusal to even envisage such a thing as limits to growth.

Dead and kicking

Perhaps prematurely, the chapter analysing the overarching economic system asks, “who killed capitalism?”. Jackson’s straightforward answer is capitalism itself. Its downfall is “the result of its own obsession with growth”. Unbound neoliberalism, untethered from rules, unbothered by purpose, oblivious to limits, has driven us to the verge of social and ecological disaster.

Here Jackson follows economist Wolfgang Streeck, arguing that capitalism, to the extent that it is still around, is a dead man walking. The point, however, is that even in intensive care, it continues to give a severe kicking to the planet and humans alike.

This reflection takes us to where Post Growth is at its very best: if capitalism and its growth addiction were only trashing the planet, it would be bad enough. But it gets truly vertiginous upon realising that capitalism also fails to achieve its original purpose: generating happiness.

Chasing unhappiness

In times of shortage, more is generally good. But when there is too much, more becomes a recipe for disaster. States pursue GDP growth based on the “assumption that money is a good proxy for happiness”. Yet sociology and psychology tend to corroborate the popular wisdom that “money cannot buy happiness”. Only in a few well-defined circumstances does GDP growth trigger an increase in happiness.

However, the evidence that happiness increases and decreases with equality in societies is solid. Closing the equality gap should therefore be what societies pursue, precisely for utilitarian reasons. With a host of scientific disciplines and data, Jackson exposes how capitalism structurally creates unhappiness. How, for example, the food industry has gamed our in-built dopamine response to sugar and fat, resulting in a world where “more people die of obesity than they do of undernutrition”.

But capitalism not only makes us fat, sleepless, burned-out, addicted to consumerism, lonely, unhealthy, and unable to concentrate. It also hits precisely what links most of us to the economy: work and our connection to what is produced.

Bullshit jobs

Over a long stretch, Jackson follows Hannah Arendt, who wrote in The Human Condition that “there is no lasting happiness outside the prescribed cycle of painful exhaustion and pleasurable regeneration. Whatever throws this cycle out of balance (misery as well as great fortune!) ruins the elementary happiness that comes from being alive.” Arendt’s distinction between “labour” (roughly, the continuous activity necessary to secure our biological maintenance), “work” (the creation of durable human artifice), and “activity” (our social role) speaks to the anthropological need for physical work, for an impact on the world of things and people.

Capitalism, however, denigrates labour, undermines craft and creativity, and trashes the intrinsic anthropological worth of objects that last. It needs to sell, always more, and is therefore inimical to values like durability. As Jackson points out, “the enormous success of the advertising industry has been to persuade us that physiological needs are the very least of the functions delivered by clothing.”

Despite all the clapping in the early lockdowns, we still have precarious, underpaid, and disregarded labour on the one hand, and on the other what the late anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” that provide neither satisfaction to the individual, nor benefit to society.

Automation will not save us either: instead of being a way to realise the economist John Maynard Keynes’s dream of a 15-hour working week, it is, as Graeber argued, the very reason for the existence of bullshit jobs. Automation could scarcely replace the labour-intensive activities that were recognised as the backbone of society in the early Covid period.

Care work does not generate enough profit to attract investment – certainly not courtesy of the markets – or pay decent wages. Returning to Hannah Arendt, Jackson reminds us how excessive automation has deprived us of the deeply human need for grasping and changing the world with our own hands.

Turning Kant downside-up

Immanuel Kant’s philosophical concept of the categorical imperative asked people to act only according to principles they can reasonably want to become “universal law”. Today, as sociologist Stephan Lessenich has reasoned, capitalism has turned this imperative on its head. Industrialised societies live and consume in such a way that they cannot hope to become universal: if it did, the breakdown of Earth’s life-support systems would become all but certain.

Post Growth can be read as a playbook of how to turn the categorical imperative back on its feet again, how to build a world where equal rights to production and consumption do not ruin the planet, and how to subordinate the economy to a broader reflection on its purpose.

“State intervention” may no longer be a swearword, but economic stimulus to boost growth and redistribute wealth will not achieve social progress unless paired with a deeper reflection on work, labour, and their place in society. Society is beginning to understand the environmental challenge, but greening the economy will not be enough if current consumption patterns persist. On this point, Post Growth shows the way, by placing Keynesian economics within the limits of what the planet can take.

Neoliberalism might have taken a hit, but it is still standing. Environmentalism might have made some inroads, but it is still only budding. Radical questions, radical answers, and radical policies are a historical responsibility towards the people and the planet. It is categorical imperative against growth imperative.

Olaf Bruns is a trained anthropologist, and has been a journalist in print, online, radio, and television for over 20 years. After 5 years as deputy chief of Euronews’ Brussels office, he is now – amongst others – deputy editor-in-chief of the Progressive Post.

Tuesday 20 April 2021

Climate Crisis - Which Transitional Demands Should Ecosocialists Campaign For?

The concept of transitional demands will be familiar to traditional socialists, particularly those followers of Leon Trotsky’s theories of socialism, although, I hasten to add, Trotsky was no ecosocialist. These demands are designed to appear to sound reasonable to the average citizen, and not directly lead to the overthrow of capitalism, but instead to create a pathway to socialism. They are more than just asking for reforms to the capitalist system, although they would be reforms, but they are not ends in themselves.

Much as I would like to see the overthrow of the capitalist system, and as an ecosocialist, I believe that this is necessary if we are to solve the climate crisis and the many other bad effects, both ecological and social, that capitalism creates. But there just isn’t enough time left.

If we are brutally honest with ourselves, a revolution to replace capitalism with ecosocialism is not on the horizon, and the well-being of the earth and all those (human and non-human) who inhabit it are in such deep peril now, we really can’t afford to wait until those conditions arise, as they surely will at some stage. We need mitigating action now. 

So, which sort of demands should ecosocialists be making? Given the urgency of the situation on climate change particularly, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest assessment saying that we need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, to avoid catastrophic changes to the environment, this is the main goal that we need to pursue. But not the only one. 

The IPCC is infamously conservative in its estimates though, so I would suggest that we need to be more ambitious than the 45% reductions by 2030 recommended. A more effective target would be something like a 70% reduction within the same timeframe. 

The symptoms of the ecological crisis are likely to be more: drought, floods, increasingly strong hurricanes, species loss, deforestation, rising sea levels, bleached coral reefs, ocean acidification and pollution of the air, land and sea, with plastic waste becoming an even greater problem than it is now. 

The knock on effects that all of this will have on the earth’s delicate ecosystems is incalculable, but is likely to be severe, and maybe lead to the extinction of much of life on the planet, including human beings. The stakes are high.

A starting point for a transitional demand is the Green New Deal, which found favour first with Green Parties in the US and UK, and has now been a adopted in the UK by the Labour Party, and there are moves in the US for the Democratic Party to take the idea on board. 

The exact nature of the plan may differ in the UK and US, especially if elements of the Labour party and Democrats manage to water down proposals, but basically it calls for massive investment in a move to build renewable energy capacity and an equally massive programme of insulating homes and workplaces. The practice of carbon trading used in the European Union should be ended and replaced with real reductions, alongside the Green New Deal. 

The Green New Deal, on its own, is not enough to get to where we need to be. Nevertheless, it would lead to a cut in the burning of fossil fuels, which is needed, with the added advantage of providing well paid employment, which is likely to gain the support of the public. As ecosocialists we know that if we are to be successful we need to take the people with us, and the Green New Deal has the potential to do this. 

Our problems do not end with producing clean energy for homes and workplaces though, we need to tackle the carbon emissions from transport, specifically private cars and trucks, air transport and shipping. The solutions in this area will be most easily achieved by a kind of back to the future plan. With shipping for example, we need to return to using wind power together with solar power, and perhaps an emergency engine to be used only when strictly necessary. This could quite easily be done. 

Aviation is more problematic in that simple solutions are not readily available, but a return to propeller planes, maybe electrically powered, could be used for all short haul flights, but long haul will need to be rationed, with more use, particularly by business of video conferencing. Airport expansion should be stopped completely. This is a more difficult sell, but with the environmental crisis worsening, can probably be achieved. 

Cars and trucks can instead be electrically powered relatively easily, but it is doubtful enough power can be generated from renewable sources for the numbers of vehicles currently in use, so a massive public transit programme is needed to get people out of cars and onto public transport. Again an added advantage to this is it will provide jobs. 

We also need to campaign against imperialist wars, where the US military in particular is a huge user of fossil fuels and the resultant carbon emissions that are produced. This, of course, is a big ask. I have campaigned myself for years against these imperialist interventions without success, but it has only been in more recent times that I've made the connection to climate change. Might that be a game changer, perhaps it will with our very existence at stake? 

The problem of plastic pollution also has a solution from the past. The current vogue, if we can call it that, for recycling needs to be increased, but some plastics are unrecyclable. We need to use less, certainly of these types of plastics. In fairly recent times, such as my childhood, there wasn’t anywhere near the amount of packaging used. This needs to be reduced significantly, and deposit returnable glass bottles need to make a comeback. That plastics are made from oil or coal exacerbates this problem. 

We need a massive reforestation effort, to enlarge habitats for wildlife and to take existing carbon out of the atmosphere. Farming should be returned to organic methods, and we should stop the use of pesticides which are over used at present. We need to eat much less meat, especially beef and dairy products, and fish, and to eat more vegetables and fruit. This would need to be voluntary though, as I can't see legislation on the issue working. 

All of this has to be done on a global scale to have the required effect, and quickly, but is not that difficult to achieve, once the will is there, or forced to be there. These are eminently reasonable demands, but will it set us on a pathway to ecosocialism? I think it may well do so. 

Even though this is all feasible, there will be resistance from the capitalists, at which point it will become obvious to most people that it is the system which is obstructing progress and therefore will increasingly be seen as the villain here. If they were to comply, it would be the beginning of the end for capitalism, because it needs ever increasing amounts of energy to fuel the growth it needs to survive, so they won’t.

Once this realisation dawns on the mass of the population who do not do so well out of the system anyway, we will have arrived at our revolutionary moment. It will be fertile ground for the toppling of the regime of capital and the move to ecosocialism. The logic of the system will be exposed, and logic of replacing it unstoppable, if we want a future worth living.   

Thursday 8 April 2021

Eco-socialism & ‘green new deal’ pipe dreams

First published at

For Humanity to Live, Capitalism Must Die!

“Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing. Attempts to ‘green’ capitalism, to make it ‘ecological’, are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth.”—Remaking Society, Murray Bookchin, 1990, p 93-94

The developing global ecological crisis, after steadily gaining momentum over the past half century, is now approaching the point of no return: over the next few decades humanity will be faced point-blank with a choice between socialism and barbarism (or worse). A habitable planet with diverse life forms requires an end to the system of production for profit in favor of one based on rational planning on a global scale. 

The notion that a “Green New Deal” (GND), inspired by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s much-ballyhooed, but ultimately ineffective, New Deal of the 1930s, might successfully induce global capitalism to fundamentally change its modus operandi in order to avert impending disaster is a dangerous illusion. Capitalism can’t be fixed: it must be abolished.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman coined the phrase “Green New Deal” in a 2007 article suggesting “a broad range of programs and industrial projects to revitalize America” which could “change the very nature of the electricity grid—moving it away from dirty coal or oil to clean coal and renewables.” 

Friedman’s proposal to rescue capitalism by transitioning to a post-fossil fuel world was echoed later that year by Britain’s Green New Deal Group which advocated “Green Keynesian” spending as the means to simultaneously generate economic growth and fend off the looming ecological collapse. Richard Walker, a professor emeritus of geography at the University of California who has been documenting the legacy of the New Deal, is optimistic about the GND:

“The Green New Deal resolution is in line with the original New Deal’s ambitious aims. The New Deal introduced a wide array of programs that addressed a broad spectrum of the country’s problems. The Green New Deal tries to do a similar thing. It doesn’t just attack climate change, but also social justice, jobs, wages, infrastructure, modernization, and more. That’s what the Roosevelt administration tried to do.”, 26 March 2019

Green Party activists in the U.S. have joined “progressive” Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders in promoting the idea of a “Green New Deal.” In Britain, the Labour Party has joined the Green European Foundation in advocating a “Green Industrial Revolution.” Despite differences in some of the details, all these plans are based on the illusion that through some sort of magical Keynesian market intervention, global capitalism can avert ecological catastrophe and simultaneously end poverty and inequality by generating tens of millions of “green jobs.” As climate activist Greta Thunberg observed, this sort of green-capitalist day-dreaming does “more harm than good”:

“Recently a new scientific report was published by scientists from Uppsala University and the Tyndall Centre in the UK. It shows that if rich countries like Sweden and the UK are to fulfil their commitments to the Paris Agreement’s well-below 2°C target they need to reduce their total national emissions of CO2 by 12-15% every year, starting now.

“Of course there’s no ‘green recovery plan’ or ‘deal’ in the world that alone would be able to achieve such emission cuts. And that’s why the whole ‘green deal’ debate ironically risks doing more harm than good, as it sends a signal that the changes needed are possible within today’s societies. As if we could somehow solve a crisis without treating it like a crisis.” , 10 July 2020

Marx and the metabolic rift

John Bellamy Foster, perhaps the world’s leading eco-socialist, was the first to describe the wedge that modern capitalist agricultural production inserted between human civilization and nature, as a “metabolic rift.” Foster’s concept is informed by Karl Marx’s observations that, even in the 19th century, intensive capitalist farming was beginning to degrade soil fertility, a problem that since then has been vastly exacerbated. In 2014 an official with the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation, speaking on World Soil Day, projected that erosion resulting from the combination of deforestation, droughts caused by climate change and chronic overuse of chemical fertilizers could effectively destroy the entirety of the world’s top soil within 60 years (, 5 December 2014).

Human beings currently account for roughly 36 percent of the biomass of all mammals, while the cows, pigs, and other animals being grown by commercial agricultural enterprises make up 60 percent. Wild mammals constitute a mere four percent of the total. The severe distortions created by capitalist intensive livestock production have occurred in parallel with the spread of monoculture farming in many “developing” countries. The production of palm oil provides an extreme example: in Malaysia 70 percent of all arable land is used to produce this single commodity for the world market.

Marx observed that the process of production, not consumption, shapes any social order:

“Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”
—“Critique of the Gotha Programme”, 1875

Like the “vulgar socialists” Marx describes, contemporary leftist GND enthusiasts tend to focus on the sphere of distribution, implicitly accepting the indefinite continuation of the global capitalist framework. The “Green Industrial Revolution” put forward by Labour lefts Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, for example, proposed “a windfall tax on oil companies,” and promised that “the costs of the green transition fall fairly and are mostly borne by the wealthy.” They also proposed “increasing direct support for R&D and reforming the innovation ecosystem to better ‘crowd in’ private investment” while “exempting new capital [invested in targeted sectors] from business rates.” 

Like the GND advocated by Sanders and other “progressive” Democrats in the U.S., Labour’s Green Manifesto was designed to operate within the confines permitted by the maintenance of private property. But because the impending ecological disaster is a direct, and inevitable, result of the mechanism of production for private profit, preventing it requires overturning capitalism and replacing it with a system based on collective ownership and rational socialist planning.

John Bellamy Foster’s stageism

In The Robbery of Nature, John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark observe:

“Capitalism’s inability to engage in social and economic planning is reflected in decades of failed environmental policy. Although there have been some relatively minor environmental improvements, all attempts at comprehensive planning and action of the kind needed to avert what the scientific community is pointing to as a sure path of destruction have been systematically repulsed by the system.”

“In order to avoid catastrophic climate change, it will be necessary, science tells us, to find a way to keep the fossil fuels in the ground…At the same time, it will be necessary to reverse the other planetary rifts, such as species extinction, the rupture of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, ocean acidification, the depletion or overuse of freshwater, the elimination of natural vegetative ground cover, and the degradation of the soil—in order to not close off the future. Here too we are forced to confront the nature of our social system.”

“The really inconvenient truth is that there is no possible way to accomplish any, much less all, of these things other than by breaking with the underlying logic of the accumulation of capital…the grim reality is that climate change and other planetary rifts demand urgent action, within a timeline of a generation or less, leaving virtually no options other than revolutionary social change.”

In a November 2019 Monthly Review article, Foster observed that “none of the Green New Deal proposals are anywhere near to conceiving, much less tackling, the immensity of the task that the current planetary emergency demands.” This did not prevent him from endorsing the GND proposals put forward by Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders as well as the slightly different version advanced by the Green Party’s Jill Stein and Howie Hawkins. His rationale was that they:

“constitute what in socialist theory is called revolutionary reforms, that is, reforms that promise a fundamental restructuring of economic, political, and ecological power, and that point toward rather than away from the transition from capitalism to socialism.”

Why endorse plans that are not “anywhere near to conceiving, much less tackling” the core problem posed by planetary emergency? Foster’s answer is that perhaps:

“they are sufficiently grounded in necessity that they could spark a global revolutionary struggle for freedom and sustainability, since the changes contemplated go against the logic of capital itself and cannot be achieved without a mobilization of the population as a whole on an emergency basis.”

The idea that reformist incrementalism might somehow, some day, semi-automatically result in a revolutionary social transformation will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the social-democratic/Stalinist two-stage theory of socialism which Rosa Luxemburg famously critiqued in her pamphlet “Reform or Revolution?” Foster is quite explicitly advocating a “two stage” process:

“…it is important to recognize that an ecological and social revolution under present historical conditions is likely to pass through two stages that we can call ecodemocratic and ecosocialist. The self-mobilization of the population will initially take an ecodemocratic form, emphasizing the building of energy alternatives combined with a just transition, but in a context generally lacking any systematic critique of production or consumption. Eventually, however, the pressure of climate change and the struggle for social and ecological justice, spurred on by the mobilization of diverse communities, can be expected to lead to a more comprehensive ecorevolutionary view, penetrating the veil of the received ideology.”

The “ecodemocratic” stage would presumably unfold over the course of multiple four or five year electoral cycles. While Foster does not speculate on how long it may take for an “ecorevolutionary” moment to arrive, his own analysis of the depth and urgency of the crisis makes clear the irrationality of wasting precious time passively waiting for the masses to see through radical-sounding “green” doubletalk and come to the realization that the shell game of parliamentary manoeuvres and legislative compromise will only ever produce ineffective cosmetic half-measures. 

Surely it is obvious that Marxists have a responsibility to try to find ways to accelerate what Foster terms the “penetration of the veil of received ideology,” and thereby hasten the day when “ecorevolutionary” consciousness grips the workers’ movement. This has to begin by telling the bitter truth that all the various “Green New Deals” are fatally flawed because they presume that the problems generated by the cancer of capitalist accumulation can somehow be cured without cutting out the tumor of a social system based on maximizing private profit.

As is usual in such scenarios, Foster’s initial “ecodemocratic” stage sidesteps the problem posed by the commitment of the capitalist state to defending the interests of those who benefit from the status quo. If the advocates of a Green New Deal ever gained enough influence to threaten the imposition of any serious regulatory restriction on profit-making, powerful corporate interests would respond with a barrage of legal and political tactics aimed at avoiding, or at least indefinitely delaying, any significant concessions. Foster acknowledges this, but treats it as a problem that can be postponed until the ecological revolution has reached its “full development”:

“Ecological revolution faces the enmity of the entire capitalist system. At a minimum it means going against the logic of capital. In its full development, it means transcending the system. Under these conditions, the reactionary response of the capitalist class backed by its rearguard on the far right will be regressive, destructive, and unrestrained…Ecological barbarism or ecofascism are palpable threats in the current global political context and are part of the reality with which any mass ecological revolt will need to contend. Only a genuine revolutionary, and not a reformist, struggle will be able to propel itself forward in these circumstances.”

There is no way to calculate in advance the speed at which political consciousness will be transformed, nor the exact course it will take. But it is obvious enough that the illusions promoted by all the various Green New Deal schemes can only retard the development of “ecorevolutionary” sentiment. Those “Marxists” who back any of the various iterations of the GND on the grounds that half a loaf is better than none, just obscure the simple truth that only the establishment of an entirely different, i.e., socialist, political and economic order can avert ecological catastrophe.

Socialist pretenders and ‘eco-Leninist’ Kautskyism

The “Eco-socialist Working Group” within the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) “demand[s] solutions” and asserts:

“The ineffectual gradualism and corporate obedience demonstrated by the U.S. government’s climate response has proven to be a dead-end for humanity. We need rapid, systemic transformation that heals the stratification of wealth and power while putting decarbonization and justice at the forefront.

“We need a Green New Deal. We demand a Green New Deal, and we demand that it serve people and planet—not profit.”, 28 February 2019

The DSA’s “radical” Green New Deal is projected as being achievable within the framework of capitalism:

“We must warn all politicians that we will not accept a watered-down Green New Deal that they exploit as a mere electoral slogan. They will either fight for the radical Green New Deal that emerges from our coalition or be exposed as collaborators with the ecocidal elite who have no concern for our future.

“Our role is to help build a militant mass working-class movement that is powerful enough to secure human flourishing for all beyond the critical next decades, not just survival for some. Together, we can break the power of capitalists and guarantee the regeneration of a vibrant natural world that is home for humanity—and all forms of life—for many generations to come.”

The tough talk about breaking the power of the capitalists is just leftist window dressing—the nub of the DSA plan is revealed in the salute to Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal policy plan as “ambitious yet achievable,” (, 23 August 2019). Bernie’s plan clearly presumes that capitalism will remain in place for generations to come; it does not once mention anything about “socialism” and projects a “progressive” president being able to direct things from the White House:

“The scope of the challenge ahead of us shares similarities with the crisis faced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940s…As president, Bernie Sanders will boldly embrace the moral imperative of addressing the climate crisis and act immediately to mobilize millions of people across the country in support of the Green New Deal. From the Oval Office to the streets, Bernie will generate the political will necessary for a wholesale transformation of our society…”

In a May 2019 article, “Plan, Mood, Battlefield—Reflections on the Green New Deal,” Thea Riofrancos, a leading member of the DSA’s Eco-Socialist steering committee, ridiculed the idea of any future “revolutionary rupture” and counterposed the creation of “a new terrain of politics” through a combination of popular protest and “creative experimentation” with rejigging capitalism’s state machinery:

“Waiting for [sic] ever-deferred moment of revolutionary rupture is functionally tantamount to quiescence. In an extremely asymmetric conflict against fossil fuel executives, private utilities, landlords, bosses and the politicians that do their bidding, we need both extra-parliamentary, disruptive action from below—taking inspiration from Standing Rock, the teachers’ strike wave, Extinction Rebellion, the global youth climate strikes—and creative experimentation with policies and institutions. The battles to come have the potential to unleash desires and transform identities. We will learn, screw up, and learn again. The Green New Deal doesn’t offer a prepackaged solution, it opens up a new terrain of politics. Let’s seize it.”, 16 May 2019

Social democrats like Riofrancos who reject the idea of the revolutionary potential of the working class, consider that the only realistic option for “actively intervening to shape” the future is through accommodation to the existing social order.

In a 29 October 2020 online discussion with Swedish eco-socialist Andreas Malm, Riofrancos argued that an effective strategy must be based on two factors: 1) the divisions within the capitalist class between advocates of fossil fuels and advocates of green renewables; and 2) the mobilization of sufficient popular pressure to compel the capitalist state to implement measures to ensure a rational, sustainable future for the free market.

Malm, as a prominent radical eco-socialist, rejects such overt reformism. In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, published in September 2020, he points to the Bolsheviks’ emergency “war communism” regime in Russia between 1918 and 1921 as an appropriate model for any serious struggle to avert the looming catastrophe:

“Social democracy works on the assumption that time is on our side. But if catastrophe strikes, and if it is the status quo that produces it, then the reformist calendar is shredded.”

Malm outlines some key steps that should be taken:

“Comprehensive, airtight planning. Everybody knows this. Few say it. One can obviously not rely on spontaneous cessation of demand, or on people just quitting travel; there would have to be a continuous substitution of one kind of energy for another over the transitional period—or, ‘a single economic plan covering the whole country and all branches of productive activity. This plan must be drawn up for a number of years, for the whole epoch that lies before us’, to cite Leon Trotsky. One can of course find this idea so repugnant that one would rather give up on the climate of the earth. And that is indeed the choice the dominant classes and their governments wake up to make every morning.”

He goes on to sketch what he sees as the three main pillars of “eco-Leninism”:

“There has been a lot of talk about ecological Marxism in recent years, and with the chronic emergency over us, the time has come to also experiment with ecological Leninism. Three principles of that project seem decisive. First, and above all, ecological Leninism means turning the crises of symptoms into crises of the causes.”

“A second principle for ecological Leninism can be extracted from their position: speed as paramount virtue. ‘Whether the probable disaster can be avoided depends on an acute sense of conjuncture’, writes Bensaïd, who reconstructs the crisis of September and observes that ‘waiting was becoming a crime’. Or, with Lenin himself: ‘delay is fatal’. It is necessary to act ‘this very evening, this very night’. The truth of these assertions has never been more patent. As anyone with the barest insight into the state of the planet knows, speed, very regrettably, because of the criminal waiting and delaying and dithering and denying of the dominant classes, has become a metric of meaning in politics. ‘Nothing can now be saved by half-measures.’”

“Third, ecological Leninism leaps at any opportunity to wrest the state in this direction, break with business-as-usual as sharply as required and subject the regions of the economy working towards catastrophe to direct public control.”

The third leg of Malm’s “eco-Leninism”—the idea that the capitalist state can be “wrested” into serving the interests of the vast majority at the expense of the propertied elites—is a clear and explicit repudiation of Lenin’s insistence that the capitalist state is a machine for oppression and exploitation which cannot be reformed and must therefore be destroyed. Malm seeks to get around this with the profound observation that “no other form of state” currently exists:

“But what state? We have just argued that the capitalist state is constitutionally incapable of taking these steps. And yet there is no other form of state on offer. No workers’ state based on soviets will be miraculously born in the night. No dual power of the democratic organs of the proletariat seems likely to materialise anytime soon, if ever. Waiting for it would be both delusional and criminal, and so all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state, tethered to the circuits of capital as always. There would have to be popular pressure brought to bear on it, shifting the balance of forces condensed in it, forcing apparatuses to cut the tethers and begin to move, using the plurality of methods already hinted at (some further outlined by the present author in How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire). But this would clearly be a departure from the classical programme of demolishing the state and building another—one of several elements of Leninism that seem ripe (or overripe) for their own obituaries.”

This amounts to an overt rejection of Lenin’s insistence on the necessity to smash the bourgeois state in favor of the ideas of the pseudo-Marxist reformist fantasies spun by his nemesis, the renegade Karl Kautsky, who argued that the capitalists’ machinery of oppression could be transformed into a lever for popular liberation. For all his leftist posturing and dramatic allusions to “war communism,” Malm ends up in the camp of Kautsky, Riofrancos and the DSA, and others who promote debilitating notions about using “the whole spectrum of popular leverage, from electoral campaigns to mass sabotage” to induce the capitalist state to change its stripes.

21st Century capitalism: Addicted to Fossil-fuel

Fossil-fuel capitalists are not some isolated “fragment” of the global imperialist order—they are at its very core. The plastics necessary in most industrial sectors are all derived from fossil fuels (, 28 November 2019). Petroleum products are also essential in modern agri-business for the production of fertilizers and pesticides, powering tractors and other machinery, as well as for processing, packaging and transportation. A 2020 study carried out by six environmental groups (Banktrack, Indigenous Environmental Network, Oil Change International, Rainforest Action Network, Reclaim Finance and the Sierra Club) revealed the extent of integration between fossil fuel corporations and global finance capital:

“In total, the world’s biggest banks have put US$2.7 trillion into those industries since the 2015 Paris Agreement, according to the Banking on Climate Change 2020 report ( which tracked data on 35 private financial institutions. While investments to the biggest coal, oil and gas producers fell in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Agreement, researchers found that in 2019 those investments shot back up by some 40%.”, 18 March 2020

Maximizing short-term returns without regard for overall, long-term consequences has led some major capitalist players to perversely seek to cash in on the ongoing destruction of the ecosystem:

“Mining companies buy land in Greenland with the knowledge that melting ice will reveal new mineral and oil reserves ( Private security firms prepare to defend wealthy clients from civil unrest caused by droughts, floods, and famines (ibid). Dutch engineering companies sell flood-management expertise and plans for floating cities (ibid). Wealthy investors buy vast swathes of farmland in the Global South in hope of cashing in when droughts make arable land scarce ( Many millions will die from the effects of global warming and capitalists are counting on it.”, June 2020

Even many of the mainstream NGO environmental outfits are themselves linked to big petroleum interests, as we touched on in reviewing “Planet of the Humans.”

The first step in solving any problem is to correctly analyse its origin and its extent. The current climate crisis is clearly extremely dire and well beyond the ability of the existing global political establishment to handle. Anyone who imagines that the mavens of capital can be pushed into ending reliance on fossil fuels soon enough to make a difference is simply engaging in wishful thinking. 

The crocodile tears and empty declarations of intent repeatedly issued at one climate change confab after another have not slowed the inexorable rise of atmospheric CO2, deforestation and most other indices of ecological destruction. The World Meteorological Organization’s “Provisional Report on the State of the Global Climate 2020” opens with the following “key messages”:

“Concentrations of the major greenhouse gases, CO2, CH4, and N2O, continued to increase in 2019 and 2020.

“Despite developing La Niña conditions, global mean temperature in 2020 is on course to be one of the three warmest on record. The past six years, including 2020, are likely to be the six warmest years on record.

“Sea level has increased throughout the altimeter record, but recently sea level has risen at a higher rate due partly to increased melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Global mean sea level in 2020 was similar to that in 2019 and both are consistent with the long-term trend. A small drop in global sea level in the latter part of 2020 is likely associated with developing La Niña conditions, similar to the temporary drops associated with previous La Niña events.

“Over 80% of the ocean area experienced at least one marine heatwave in 2020 to date. More of the ocean experienced marine heat waves classified as ‘strong’ (43%) than ‘moderate’ (28%).

“2019 saw the highest ocean heat content on record and the rate of warming over the past decade was higher than the long-term average, indicating continued uptake of heat from the radiative imbalance caused by greenhouse gases.

“In the Arctic, the annual minimum sea-ice extent was the second lowest on record and record low sea-ice extents were observed in the months of July and October. Antarctic sea ice extent remained close to the long-term average.

“The Greenland ice sheet continued to lose mass. Although the surface mass balance was close to the long-term average, loss of ice due to iceberg calving was at the high end of the 40-year satellite record. In total, approximately 152Gt of ice were lost from the ice sheet between September 2019 and August 2020.

“Heavy rain and extensive flooding occurred over large parts of Africa and Asia in 2020. Heavy rain and flooding affected much of the Sahel, the Greater Horn of Africa, the India subcontinent and neighbouring areas, China, Korea and Japan, and parts of south east Asia at various times of the year.

“With 30 named storms (as of 17 November) the north Atlantic hurricane season had its largest number of named storms on record with a record number making landfall in the United States of America. The last storm of the season (to date) Iota, was also the most intense, reaching category 5.

“Tropical storm activity in other basins was near or below the long-term mean, although there were severe impacts.

“Severe drought affected many parts of interior South America in 2020, with the worst-affected areas being northern Argentina, Paraguay and western border areas of Brazil. Estimated agricultural losses were near US$3 billion in Brazil with additional losses in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

“Climate and weather events have triggered significant population movements and have severely affected vulnerable people on the move, including in the Pacific region and Central America.”

The symptoms of ecological collapse have been widely recognized for decades, but global capital has failed to even begin to make a substantive response. The same is true for infectious diseases, like COVID 19, that can be traced to deforestation and the massive expansion of industrial farming that have combined to create near optimal conditions for animal to human transmission of viruses and parasites. In September 2019, only a few months prior to the eruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Global Preparedness Monitoring Board presciently warned:

“The world is confronted by increasing infectious disease outbreaks.

“Between 2011 and 2018, WHO tracked 1483 epidemic events in 172 countries. Epidemic-prone diseases such as influenza, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola, Zika, plague, Yellow Fever and others, are harbingers of a new era of high-impact, potentially fast-spreading outbreaks that are more frequently detected and increasingly difficult to manage.”

“The world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic. The 1918 global influenza pandemic sickened one third of the world population and killed as many as 50 million people— 2.8% of the total population (16,17). If a similar contagion occurred today with a population four times larger and travel times anywhere in the world less than 36 hours, 50 – 80 million people could perish (18,19). In addition to tragic levels of mortality, such a pandemic could cause panic, destabilize national security and seriously impact the global economy and trade.”
A WORLD AT RISK – Annual report on global preparedness for health emergencies, September 2019

By 2050 an estimated 1.2 billion people in 31 countries could be displaced by the climate crisis—an exodus that would dwarf Europe’s recent “migrant crisis” and create chaos in an already unstable geo-political world order. The 2020 “Ecological Threat Register” highlighted the potential for food and water insecurity (i.e., mass annihilation) to spark military conflict. The report projects that by 2040 a third of the UN’s member countries will likely be “water stressed.” 

Global water consumption has been rising roughly one percent annually for the past four decades, a rate that is expected to continue. In 2019, an estimated four billion people suffered severe water scarcity for at least a month. Today 300 million more people are subject to food insecurity than in 2014. Half the population of sub-Saharan Africa and a third of those living in South Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa face moderate to severe famine.

Socialist revolution or ecological collapse

Reversing the destruction of the global natural order is critically important. As long as the most vital decisions governing the production and distribution of the necessities of life are effectively controlled by billionaires and their lackeys, terminal ecological catastrophe will draw ever nearer. The recognition capitalism is at the root of the climate crisis does not mean that revolutionaries should abstain from actively supporting partial steps in the right direction. 

There are many demands in Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal policy plan, like cutting “domestic emissions by at least 71 percent” and switching to “100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030” that make sense and deserve support. The problem is that the core demand of Bernie’s GND plan is the absurdly utopian call to “End the greed of the fossil fuel industry”: you might as well pass legislation repealing the law of gravity.

Many important reforms are, in theory at least, compatible with capitalist rule—e.g., eliminating products and packaging that cannot easily be recycled. In ideal circumstances, perhaps in Scandinavia, a system of free, easily accessible, electrically powered public transport within and between urban areas could be set up. In some jurisdictions pharmaceutical companies might be prepared to donate vaccines or medicines for some of the impoverished victims of pandemics and parasitic diseases spawned by environmental degradation. 

But what is not conceivable is that any combination of corporations in the healthcare business will ever be able to (or interested in) protecting all of those who are unable to pay for treatment—to attempt to would be a shortcut to bankruptcy. As a rule, major concessions by capital come in response to social upheavals that potentially threaten the stability of the existing economic order. Capitalism is flexible up to a point, but there are limits: profit-seekers, as a group, will never agree to long forgo a return on their investments for a reason as trivial as humanity’s survival.

Capitalism is a dangerous and historically retrogressive form of social organization which working people have no inherent interest in maintaining. The working class, because of its strategic role as the motor of all economic activity, is the natural lynchpin in the crucial fight to protect and restore the biosphere. Arresting global warming will require a rapid reduction of carbon emissions on a scale that would destroy the profitability of the fossil fuel industry. 

The costs of simultaneously massively expanding renewable energy production—including via the widespread introduction of thorium-based 4th generation nuclear reactors—will involve investment on a scale far beyond the scope of private capital. Ensuring that the world remains habitable in the medium to long term will require a wholesale and dramatic social transformation and the creation of a globally integrated, collectivized economy.

It is impossible to be prescriptive about the schedule or the specific technical and organizational changes that will be necessary. There will be many, as yet unknown, consequences of the ecological collapse that will require innovative responses. Some approaches which were rejected as unrealistic within the capitalist framework, may have application in a fundamentally different, socially responsible economic order. What is certain is that the international workers’ movement can and must be at the centre of the social revolution through which capitalist irrationality is transcended and a system of globally planned, sustainable, socialist production is created in its place.

Marxists have always been prepared to engage in struggles over particular issues alongside others with very different politics; we are confident that participation in a serious struggle to save the planet will soon demonstrate to tens of millions that capitalist property rights must be subordinated to the exigencies of the struggle for human survival. The role of revolutionaries must be, at every step, to demonstrate how each immediate practical demand is connected to the necessity for socialist revolution and the establishment of a government of workers and the oppressed.

In order to win any significant concessions it will be necessary to employ the traditional methods of militant class struggle—mass popular mobilizations, industrial actions, occupations and general strikes. A serious movement engaging in these sorts of actions will inevitably be met by determined resistance from the capitalists and their state apparatus; to counter this will require organized self-defense, through the creation of what have traditionally been known in the trade-union movement as workers’ defense guards. 

The coordination of such localized units into a broader formation, a workers’ militia, would signal an important step on the road to revolutionary eco-socialist transformation. The decisive moment in the struggle to save the environment will come with the overthrow of capitalist rule, the expropriation of the means of production, transport and communication and the dissolution of all the repressive organs historically created to serve and protect the oppression of the many by the few.

The problems of environmental destruction, like those of hunger and poverty, are global in scale. Addressing these issues must begin by recognizing that the “advanced,” i.e., imperialist, countries, which use vastly more energy per capita, have also historically been responsible for most of the damage to the planet. Marxists do not propose to address the ecological crisis by wholesale “degrowth” or reducing popular living standards in the “global north.” 

The enormous economic disparities within the imperialist societies closely parallel even larger ones between the advanced and “underdeveloped” countries. Many of the resources required to redress these inequities and fund the necessary expansion of sustainable infrastructure could be obtained by curtailing some of the useless and wasteful activity built into the system of production for profit which Foster and Clark sketch as:

“(1) a gargantuan and ever-expanding sales effort penetrating into the structure of production itself; (2) planned obsolescence, including planned psychological obsolescence; (3) production of luxury goods for an opulent minority; (4) prodigious military and penal-state spending; and (5) the growth of a whole speculative superstructure in the form of finance, insurance, and real estate markets.”
—The Robbery of Nature

A rational, producer-run, economic order would focus on addressing actual human need, with priority given to those in the most desperate circumstances. It would also make environmental impact a central determinant in planning what is produced, how it is produced and how it gets distributed.

The struggle to avert ecological catastrophe cannot be separated from the necessity to create a political leadership capable of leading massive popular upheavals to create new forms of social governance based on the principle that those who labor must rule. This will require the formation of a mass revolutionary workers’ party—committed to the struggle for socialist revolution on a global scale. 

By freeing the immense productive potential of humanity from the toxic imperatives dictated by the drive for ever-expanding private profit, it will be possible to simultaneously raise the living standards of the vast majority of the globe’s population while beginning to repair the horrendous damage inflicted on the natural world. The question of “socialism” or “barbarism” in our time poses this alternative: act decisively to avert catastrophic ecological collapse or continue to hurtle down the path to the ugly and painful end of human civilization.

Saturday 3 April 2021

Dialectical Ecology


Written by Daniel Saunders and first published at

“If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.” Thus reads one of the Hopi prophecies which echo throughout Philip Glass’s haunting soundtrack for Koyaanisqatsi (1982). As those familiar with Godfrey Reggio’s cult film know, the title itself refers to “a state of life that calls for another way of living,” a sharply polemical framing of what otherwise appears, at first, to be a detached, objective representation of humanity’s technological encroachment upon nature.

What Koyaanisqatsi pioneered still makes for exciting (and unsettling) cinema. Its cinematography, editing, tempo shifts, and music are all marshalled to the end of replicating in art how technology, as a totality of forms and methods, has drawn everything into its domination. (Here is Reggio speaking of this totalizing “environment of technology” as something more or less akin to ideology—the invisible background of existence which “is unseen and goes unquestioned.”)

But as the global climate crisis worsens, with more and more evidence linking ecological collapse to the limitless expansion of growth that characterizes the irrational logic of capitalism (in what has been aptly named the capitalist “treadmill of accumulation”), Koyaanisqatsi increasingly looks like a dire plea for planetary survival—we must urgently turn from the path of capitalist “business as usual,” specifically in the burning of fossil fuels, or face irreversible consequences for the biosphere, perhaps even for human life itself.

Critiquing Ecological Modernization

Koyaanisqatsi’s concerns, read in this way, overlap to a degree with the critical sociological project of John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York—especially in their substantive compilation, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (2010). Foster, Clark, and York (henceforth FCY) have been at the forefront of a compelling project of Marxist ecosocialism, which seeks to revitalize the dialectical-ecological ideas of Marx and Engels in order to develop a robust socialist theory encompassing history, nature, the biosphere, climate change, and the social relations of production.

Many of FCY’s arguments critiquing capitalism as the instigator and sustainer of ecological destruction are becoming an integral feature of socialist discourse. These include their definition of capitalism as a “system of self-sustaining value,” a “treadmill of accumulation,” and (one of the most notable of Marx’s metaphors) a “metabolic rift” in the natural-social fabric of production. Capitalism is, as Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, an “endless and limitless drive to go beyond its limiting barriers,” including especially planetary boundaries. 

Following climate scientists, FCY identify seven such planetary boundaries which serve to maintain an overarching, regulating metabolism conducive to life, only one of which is climate change. To cross any one of these boundaries—and we have already crossed three—”signifies the onset of irreversible environmental degradation.”

Another important component of FCY’s argument is a thoroughgoing critique of an ecological modernization approach, the proposition that the only “way out of the ecological crisis is by going further into the process[es] of modernization” which have led to the crisis in the first place. This is embodied in the weak attempts (or lack thereof) by mainstream economists and social scientists to address accelerating problems of climate change. 

These ostensible experts advocate a variety of dubious solutions, such as sacrificing the future liveability of the planet to maintain current levels of economic growth, waiting for a miracle technological fix that will “dematerialize” the economy from the physical earth, or even working toward explicitly non-socialist, modest reforms (along the lines of Greta Thunberg or the Democratic Party).

All of these “solutions” sought by ecological modernization, however, leave intact the basic structure of capitalist social relations and, by extension, feed into capital’s limitless accumulating drive. In addition, they espouse a view of nature which reduces the environment to mechanism and mere units of input and output to be optimized so that the economy can keep on running as it should. “Sustainability,” write FCY, like the market buzzword green, “is thus defined entirely in terms of economic growth, monetary wealth, and consumption, without any direct reference to the environment” (113).

Theorizing a Dialectical Ecology

But one of the more unexpected and fruitful arguments that emerges in The Ecological Rift out of FCY’s theoretical nexus has to do with the philosophy of science itself, as well as the potential contours of an all-encompassing scientific theory able to bring together the environmental, the economic, and the social—in other words, a dialectical ecology, or what amounts to a Marxist-infused natural science. There is a lot to say about many features of FCY’s project, but this last point is especially worth thinking about, given too how it builds on but complicates Koyaanisqatsi’s central themes.

One way to conceive this kind of dialectical ecology is to situate it against an alternative scientific paradigm, one tied to the processes of modernization. The natural sciences we know today were born concurrently with the philosophies initiating the modern world. As these sciences developed a positivistic form, they came to be associated with general, unchanging laws about fundamentally discrete objects or processes in nature. 

Ironically, although positivism rejected the arguments of metaphysics, the outline of its form remained vaguely metaphysical in this tendency toward universal explanation and categorization. This was the case whether the universe was conceived in terms of a causal, mechanistic contraption or, alternatively, a living vessel propelled by invisible sparks of vitality. 

The evolutionary ideas of Darwin grew out of this paradigm but presented a major route out of it. In part, Darwin’s materialism was a return to an older materialism—that of of Epicurus, in which contingency, rather than determinism or teleology, was the grounding principle of nature’s forces. This contingency at the heart of nature led Darwin in new directions; but, according to FCY, Darwin still veered toward an environmental determinism with his theories of adaptation and niche. For Darwin, evolution proceeds by chance, but the environment provides the more or less static ground for the direction of evolution. 

And so, to refocus dialectical ecology: in between Darwin and the “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, who reductionistically posit the gene, rather than the environment, as a determinative element, FCY bring in evolutionary scientists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould to highlight the dual, interactive evolutionary interplay between the environment and the genetic. As Lewontin argued: “Evolution is not an unfolding but an historically contingent wandering pathway through the space of possibilities.” 

For these scientists, the “organism is both subject and an object in the physical world,” a scientific principle which draws from and extends Marx’s dialectical materialism to evolution itself:

“The dialectical view emerging from ecology is anything but lifeless or mechanical; it has generated a view of nature no longer shorn of life, interconnection, and sensuous realty—no longer deterministic—but a world of coevolution, contradiction, and crisis… Neither mechanism nor vitalism, neither determinism nor teleology, were adequate in the ecological realm—a realm that demanded an understanding that was at once genetic and relational.” (245)

Balance or Dialectics?

FCY’s argument here, following Marx, is that nature has a specific history. This is a history in which organic life, inclusive of humanity, acts on and changes the world, at the same time as the world acts on and changes organic life. The two are enmeshed in an ongoing, dialectical interplay, a “metabolic” relation that is never the same but that has a discernible historical contour. Thus, the best way to understand the world, in both social and scientific terms, is to look at not only social history but natural history, and to look at them together.

This highlights an important feature of the metabolic rift theory, one that differentiates it from the powerful but ultimately less substantive ideas about the environment and human action put forth by Koyaanisqatsi

In centering modern technological development itself as the underlying cause of humanity’s rupture with the natural world, Koyaanisqatsi swings toward an unchanging, idealistic view of nature, one that sees the environment in terms of an “ideal, natural state”—a lost Eden which could be regained with the removal of industrial civilization. Koyaanisqatsi shares this outlook with other trends in environmentalism like deep ecology and the Gaia hypothesis. The ultimate goal, for these proponents, is to achieve a grand balance between humanity and nature.

Such a view overlaps in part, of course, with FCY’s critique of ecological modernization and its mechanizing view of nature. But FCY astutely point out the limitations of this “balance of nature” theory:

“Why would there be a grand balance in nature? Natural history is a record of drastic changes and discontinuities in the biophysical world. The assumption of a natural harmony is not consistent with a critical historical understanding of nature.” (260)

(This, of course, raises some interesting questions for theology, which I can’t get into here, but even the most diehard proponent of Intelligent Design would have a hard time reckoning with the great imbalances nature presents. I think that Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is useful here as perhaps a covert meditation on theodicy in light of the chaos of nature.)

Moreover, rather than investigating the social and material forces that have driven history and environmental crisis—the advent and growth of capitalism, in particular—the balance of nature theory focuses almost exclusively on a moral imperative for change. “Change becomes a matter of adjusting values and developing the proper eco-ethics, and from there, it is assumed changes in the social structure will follow” (emphasis mine). “Life out of balance” must become “life in balance,” and our climate dilemma is solved.

As I mentioned, this overlaps to a degree with FCY and is certainly compelling in its own way. But FCY show how a dialectical, materialist ecological approach—one informed both by Marx and evolutionary biology—is better equipped to understand and address the challenges posed by ecological rupture, precisely because it is not about nature as balance but about nature as change itself:

“A dialectical materialist approach to nature provides the means for understanding the complex interactions throughout the natural world, the ability to explain the world in terms of itself. It involves both the capacity to recognize that contingency and emergence are inherent aspects of a living world, and the capability to study the structural constraints and the inherent potential for change.

In this, a materialist dialectic avoids the mechanistic reductionism of economistic approaches, where nature exists in the background… It also avoids the idealized notion that nature exists in a state of balance and that a return to such a state is simply a matter of developing the appropriate moral-ethical system.” (270, my emphasis)

Dialectical Theory for an Ecosocialist Practice

What does all this mean for ecology and socialism? First, that we confront the world as it is, full of its limitations and as a history of contingencies which have led only to this one, present set of circumstances, with all of its problems and potential. Part of the way human life has acted upon the world includes the development of the capitalist mode of production, which has threatened the planet’s functional boundaries.

But within this contingent reality lies also the possibility to do things differently; the world as it is now contains the seed and impetus of the world to come, not by teleological decree but by the social-ecological relations we politically choose to foster in our relationships of production. Ecology and the biosphere constitute a two-way interaction between humanity/life and nature. And so we are always in a position to shape our trajectory, not just through moral and scientific shifts but through political action.

Notably, this trajectory of change is not linear or progressive, but proceeds in an irregular series of fits and starts. FCY remind us that, for Marx and Engels, “change is not typically smooth and continuous but rather often occurs very rapidly following periods of stasis.” Long periods of inaction, in both the social and natural worlds, can give way to abrupt, decisive moments of revolutionary change, when the cries of the people and the planet meld together to push for an alternative way of life free of capitalist alienation. 

Although the outlines of this alternative path are necessarily blurry from the standpoint of the present, it must take the form of a “society of associated producers” in tune with nature’s boundaries—a vision famously sketched, in the negative, in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program.

In short, FCY’s theories equip us not just with a more accurate understanding of the interconnected physical and social world on its own terms, but in true Marxist fashion, they also enable us to more effectively change it, directing it toward an unalienated future.