Monday 24 May 2021

Review - The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology


Written by Camilla Royle and first published at Science for the People

The Return of Nature is a genealogy of ecological thinking. The word ‘ecology’ was not in common usage until the twentieth century, leading many to consider ecological thinking a fairly recent development. However, in this impressive volume, John Bellamy Foster convincingly identifies a materialist ecological sensibility within works dating back a century prior to ecology’s popularization.

Starting with the funerals of Darwin and Marx in 1882 and 1883 respectively, the book traces how socialist thinkers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were integral to developing an outlook that acknowledges the complex relationship between human production and the rest of nature. 

The scientific discipline of ecology is sometimes assumed to have developed from a series of scientific studies, free from social and political influences. By the same logic, some also suppose that the socialist thinkers of the nineteenth century had little interest in ecological concerns, and consequently that the left were latecomers to the environmental movement in the late twentieth century.

 Foster’s work, both here and in his earlier books, has been driven by a desire to counter these views and therefore demonstrate the importance of Marxism for today’s radical ecological movements. His aim is to show that Marx adopted an ecological worldview throughout his writings; Marx saw humans as part of nature but also able to actively relate to nature through their labor.  

The Return of Nature was published at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (which is briefly mentioned in the prologue), yet much of the discussion is relevant to how we might analyze its origins and effects. Victorian cities such as London suffered terrifying epidemics of diseases including typhoid, typhus and cholera. As with COVID-19 today, these disproportionately affected the poorest residents with the worst living conditions. This is something Marx was also familiar with, especially as the Marx family was living in Soho in central London during a particularly deadly cholera outbreak in 1854.

The story of how the source of the cholera epidemic was identified is well known. The physician John Snow convinced the authorities that cholera was a waterborne disease, rather than one spread through the air, and located the source at a water pump on Broad Street. When the handle of the water pump was removed such that people couldn’t drink the water, the epidemic subsided. 

Less well known is the mutual influence of science and socialism among some of the other protagonists of the story. After the epidemic, further investigations carried out by Edwin Lankester found that the well feeding the Broad Street pump was contaminated by a cesspit at 40 Broad Street, the site of one of the first cases of cholera. Lankester was part of a struggle against the conditions in which nineteenth century workers lived and worked, including crowded homes, overwork, and poor sanitation.

In the discussion of Victorian working conditions, Marx, in Volume 1 of Capital, cites Lankester’s investigation into the case of a dressmaker named Mary Ann Walkley, who died after being made to work more than twenty-six hours without a break.

Although not a revolutionary, Lankester had radical views and talked about being on the side of the masses. His son, E. Ray Lankester, was a similarly impressive figure, a member of the Royal Society who directed the Natural History Museum in London between 1898 and 1907 — although he was apparently dismissed from this role for his attacks on the museum establishment. The younger Lankester was also a close associate of Marx and one of the few people to attend his funeral.

Stephen Jay Gould, in “The Darwinian Gentleman at Marx’s Funeral,” referred to him as “a basically conservative biologist” and suggested that he saw in Marx’s friendship little more than an opportunity to discuss art and philosophy with another brilliant intellectual. However, Foster has a different take on their relationship. He accepts that Lankester did have some conservative views in later life. Depressingly, he did oppose women’s suffrage on the basis that he thought women did not have the same intellectual abilities as men.

But Foster also highlights Lankester’s critique of the way in which a capitalist system driven by the needs of the market would have dangerous ecological consequences, including the spread of new disease epidemics and the increasing extinction of species. Lankester once wrote that “the capitalist wants cheap labour, and he would rather see the English people poor and ready to do his work for him, than better off.”

Foster also makes much of Lankester’s views on degeneration. In essence, Lankester was critical of the assumption that biological evolution was a story of continual progress towards more complex forms and argued that it could also result in less complex organisms. This form of what he called “degeneration” could be said to apply to human civilizations when humans undermine the ecological conditions of their own existence.

So for Lankester, human history was, like the evolution of species, not simply a case of linear progress. Instead, he followed Marx in stressing the agency of humans to make their own history, though not under conditions of their choosing. Seeing the association between Marx and Lankester as a mere curiosity overlooks the radical implications of some of Lankester’s views as well as Marx’s own deep interest in Darwin and evolution. 

According to Foster, there are two lines of influence that can be detected by examining the thought of ecological socialist thinkers. One goes from Marx to Lankester and subsequently to figures such as ecologist Arthur Tansley and H. G. Wells, a Fabian socialist as well as an author. The other line runs from Engels via the 1930s generation of “red scientists” and into the late twentieth century.  

Engels was indeed one of the most important Marxist figures in the development of an ecological materialist worldview; a substantial portion of this book is devoted to “Engels’s Ecology.” Engels set out to produce an account of how the dialectical processes Marx had uncovered in his study of society could also be observed by studying nature.

As Foster explains, dialectics takes “as its fundamental reality the ever-changing character — as well as resulting contradictions, negations, and qualitative transformations — of both the material world at large and the human condition within it.” It is a philosophy that sees dynamism as inherent to the way the world works rather than assuming that things remain static unless they are influenced by an outside force. 

Engels’s notes were published decades after his death as The Dialectics of Nature with the help of JBS Haldane, one of the founding figures of modern evolutionary biology and a sympathizer of the Communist Party. From the early twentieth century, there has been a protracted debate among Marxists surrounding this text and, more broadly, whether Engels was right or wrong to argue that dialectical processes exist in nature — where human subjectivity does not play a role.

This is not helped by the fact that The Dialectics of Nature was not published in Engels’ lifetime and the various published editions have been translated and edited posthumously by others. Therefore, it is difficult to know what a final text from Engels would have looked like or whether he would have expressed his ideas in the same way if he had been able to finish working through his ideas.  

However, this does not mean that we cannot learn much from Engels. He developed an account of nature that recognized that it could be understood in historical terms. Processes of change and development, and sometimes abrupt or qualitative leaps, are inherent to the natural world. In the nineteenth century, this would have been demonstrated most strikingly by Darwin’s account of the evolution of new species.

Key to Engels’s thinking was the recognition that humans are a part of nature but are also able consciously to manipulate the environment around them and, in the process, change themselves. Engels’ dialectical materialism was at odds with the prevalent mechanical materialist views of the late nineteenth century, which tended to reduce the natural world to passive matter and treat it as fixed rather than dynamic.

As Foster demonstrates, if we want to address Engels’ ecological thought, we should also turn our attention to his other works, including The Condition of the Working Class in England, a much earlier book in which he describes the effects of water and air pollution and disease epidemics, and analyzes how capitalism has created the conditions for these environmental hazards. 

A later chapter, “A Science for the People,” discusses the organization of that name in the 1970s and 1980s (whose magazine, also called Science for the People, was a forerunner of this publication) and the nearest thing to a British equivalent, the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science. Foster rightly points out that the original Science for the People was influenced by the 1930s generation in their critique of the idea that science is separate from social relations.

But they had some key political differences. As part of the New Left, they were less likely to be sympathetic to greater state control of science compared to previous generations. Several members of the organization were associated with developments in biological and ecological thinking. For example, Science for the People member Richard Levins was part of developing an ecological critique of the assumption that there is harmony in nature.

He described a co-evolutionary relationship of humanity and nature where processes of change are inherent to both. Foster also points to a 1973 editorial in the original magazine, “Ecology for the People,” in which members of the organization called for revolution as the solution to the social inequality and ecological devastation that is typical under capitalism. 

The example set by the likes of Levins or Lankester shows how scientific enquiry has often been influenced by the philosophical viewpoints of scientists and their concerns for social and environmental justice. It demonstrates that we cannot treat science as a neutral activity carried out by apolitical thinkers.

Indeed, as Foster argues, the politics of these scientists informed their ecological worldview and “it is this method of ecological critique arising out of the socialist critique of capitalist society that is seen here as most important, since it provides the indispensable means for a revolutionary dialectical ecology.”

Most of the key thinkers described in the book are men. However, Foster does point to some fascinating examples of women in science going back to the nineteenth century, whose work has not been so well known. For example, it is likely that the biologist Phebe Lankester (the wife of Edwin) was part of the investigation of the water from the Broad Street well. But as a woman, her work would have been carried out “behind the scenes.” Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England was first translated to English by an American woman, Florence Kelley, in the 1880s.

Kelley was the chief inspector of factories in Chicago, who investigated the brutal conditions of child laborers in the city and campaigned for an 8-hour day. She played a major role in the social history of the United States. 

The Return of Nature is focused on Britain, with a few exceptions including the section on Science for the People. This has allowed Foster to trace a coherent narrative, drawing out the influence of Marx, Engels, and Darwin in the country where they spent most of their lives.

Of course, any project of this type is bound to be limited in the amount of ground it can cover, but it is worth acknowledging some of the gaps as readers may want to consider how their own research could add to our knowledge of the contributions of women or thinkers from other parts of the world. The book also leaves open the question of whether we are now seeing the start of a new generation of scientific radicals in the twenty-first century. 

Rather than providing a conclusion, Foster ends the book with a short chapter on the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the subject of Marx’s doctoral thesis. It seems that Foster would prefer to let the thinkers whose work he discusses speak for themselves, rather than try to provide an overall summary of their varied thought — which would also be impossible to attempt in this short review.

Perhaps what we can say is that one of the central contributions of dialectical thinking is its rebuke to the assumption that “nature” is a fixed or stable realm separate from human society. This dualistic way of thinking so often results in the environment being treated as an afterthought in our understanding of social relations — or worse — as an externality to the economic calculations of capitalists.

By contrast, ecology as a scientific discipline addresses the relationships between living things and with their abiotic surroundings. This emphasis has led some ecologists towards an understanding of the role of human activity within such systems.

As Foster therefore argues, the legacy of the nineteenth and twentieth century thinkers discussed in the book is one “that we can no longer afford to do without in our age of combined ecological and social crisis.”  

The Return of Nature shows how — if we want to understand issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, or the emergence of new pandemics today — it will take thorough research into ecological systems that also addresses the influence of human activity. That research will be driven by a demand for transformative societal change.

We can use the analytical tools of the thinkers presented here to start to make sense of the destructive influence of capitalism on the biosphere and also paint a more hopeful picture of what a more rational relationship to the rest of the natural world might look like. 

The Return of Nature introduces us to some of the key figures in the development of an ecological worldview. Some of them, such as the writer and designer William Morris or biologist JBS Haldane, are relatively famous.

Others, such as biologist Lancelot Hogben and the extraordinary British writer Christopher Caudwell are less widely known. Foster has shone new light on their lives and work. The book took years to write (at over 500 pages excluding the notes, Foster describes this as his “big book”) and involved dedicated research from numerous archival resources.

The result is a volume full of biographical detail as well as sketches of the key contributions of the various thinkers to ecological thinking. Readers of Science for the People will be rewarded with many examples of great scientific radicals from previous generations to admire, and an opportunity to find out more about the figures who are, in many ways, the forebears of the producers and readers of this magazine.   

Monthly Review Press


672 Pages


About the Author

Camilla Royle teaches Geography at King’s College London and the London School of Economics. Her PhD research addressed the ideas of Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, and other dialectical biologists. Her work has been published in International SocialismAntipode, and Human Geography.


Erik Wallenberg (Lead Editor)
Cliff Conner (Co-Editor)
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Friday 14 May 2021

The Labour Party's antisemitism crisis: what mistake to avoid in the Green Party?

Written by Les Levidow

Amidst internal conflict over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, some Green Party members have said that we should avoid the Labour Party's mistake on antisemitism.  Indeed, yet ‘the mistake’ has contrary meanings. On the pro-IHRA side, some apparently accept the dominant storyline that the Labour Party tolerated widespread antisemitic behaviour. The anti-IHRA side instead means that the Labour Party pursued many false allegations of antisemitism.  

So, which was the real mistake around ‘the antisemitism crisis’?  And what was its underlying politics?

As this article argues: The socialist anti-imperialist Corbyn leadership posed a threat to the British ruling elite, especially its partnership with the Israeli regime. Hence the leadership’s diverse enemies jointly reinforced false allegations of antisemitism from the pro-Israel lobby. These allegations conveniently displaced the racism problem away from the settler-colonial Israeli regime onto its anti-racist critics. For this racist pro-Israel agenda, the IHRA mis-definition of antisemitism has been a key weapon in the Labour Party and plays a similar role in the Green Party, as promoted by the leadership.  

For the full version of this argument, see my May 2021 journal article, ‘Bad Consciences: projecting Israel’s settler-colonial racist aggression onto Labour Party antisemitism’.

Denying and projecting racism

Like other settler-colonial regimes, the Zionist one has subordinated, dispossessed and expelled the indigenous people. These aims formed the basis of the Israeli state in 1948. It has denied its own racist aggression and projected this onto the Palestinians, increasingly since Israel’s 1967 expansion to the West Bank and Gaza. In recent decades Israel has further promoted itself as a front-line defence against ‘Islamist terrorism’, whereby Israel’s regional counter-insurgency role protects the West from mortal threats. This narrative should be understood as paranoic, i.e. denying unsavoury parts of one’s self or nation, splitting off these parts and projecting them onto one’s victims. 

This paranoic narrative has complemented the securitisation agenda of Western states, supporting allies abroad as ‘counter-terror’ forces against threats to the West. This paranoiac displacement has a long history in UK state-sponsored domestic practices over many years, such as ‘inter-faith’ events suppressing pro-Palestine dissent and the Prevent programme targeting it as ‘extremism’. So-called preventive measures have pursued ‘extremism’ through pervasive surveillance identifying pro-Palestine views. Thus Britain’s domestic practices have internalised Israel’s racist paranoiac projections.

Moreover, state practices have essentialised Jews as a pro-Israel ‘Jewish community’ being victimised by pro-Palestine antisemitism and so needing special protection.  Within the Western elite, this philosemitic narrative has constructed Jews as heroic colonists in the Middle East and pro-Israel model citizens at home. Jews’ essentialization has gained a broad appeal for various reasons. Many Western Jews identify with Israel, while also needing to feel morally special. Their sensibility is offended by reminders of Israel’s institutionally racist practices,  provoking a bad conscience; the offence is projected onto the putative antisemitism of Israel’s critics. 

Elite philosemitism for a UK-Israel partnership

Those practices reinforce a homogeneous social identity, as a basis to demand universal deference to a single pro-Israel ‘Jewish community’, especially as a test of antisemitism. Instrumentalising that narrative, UK politicians justify their pro-Israel commitment along two lines: as crucial for ‘social cohesion’, i.e. reassuring Jews about British support for Israel, as well as ‘national security’, i.e. needing Israel as a front-line defence against the Islamist threat. This elite philosemitism  has helped to shield the UK’s pro-Israel commitment from criticism.

Along similar lines, over several decades the Labour Party leadership has made great efforts to contain and stigmatise pro-Palestine dissent.  The New Labour leadership promoted a more aggressively pro-Israel policy within the ‘war on terror’ securitisation agenda since 2001, complemented by the Prevent programme since 2006. Together these efforts stigmatised Israel’s opponents as security threats, e.g. as ‘extremists’ or ‘radical Islamists’. 

Sponsored by dominant Western states, the IHRA was established in 1998. It has served to sanitise Nazi Germany of its racist colonial legacies and its Western capitalist complicity. This framing helped to legitimise Western states as anti-racist forces and to instrumentalise Holocaust memorial education for this political purpose.

As the IHRA’s next step, its website posted the Working Definition of Antisemitism (with all the examples) from a US pro-Israel lobby group, the American Jewish Committee. This document provided an extra weapon for false allegations of antisemitism by conflating this with anti-Zionism. As the wider context, Palestine solidarity activists had been highlighting how Israel’s institutionally racist character was driving its systematic violations of international law. They could be falsely accused of antisemitism by deploying the so-called IHRA Definition.

False allegations undermining the Corbyn leadership

Together those practices provided a ready-made framework to contain the Corbyn-led Labour Party during 2016-19. When the membership greatly rose to support a pro-Palestine anti-imperialist leadership, this rise jeopardised the Labour Party’s century-long role within the elite pro-Zionist consensus. Members’ pro-Palestine voices aggravated and offended the bad consciences of Jewish Zionist members, who resented the offenders.

Given the Corbyn leadership’s diverse enemies, they jointly mobilised an elite pro-Israel strategy to stigmatise and silence pro-Palestine voices: In the dominant narrative, the Labour Party was tolerating ‘endemic antisemitism’,  creating an ‘unsafe space for Jews’. According to the pro-Israel lobby, moreover, the leadership posed ‘an existential threat to Jewish existence’. The racist aggression of Zionist settler-colonialism was denied, split off and projected onto pro-Palestine critics.   

Antisemitism was more broadly equated with ‘hurt to the Jewish community’ or simply ‘offence to Jews’. Pro-Israel Jewish organisations demanded and gained a monopoly voice to speak for ‘the Jewish community’. The pro-Israel lobby demanded that the Labour Party create a ‘safe space for Jews’, i.e. for a racist Zionist identity beyond debate

The Labour Party’s disciplinary procedure increasingly targeted pro-Corbyn anti-racist members (including Jewish ones) who were falsely accused of antisemitism.  The procedure in turn often accused them of ‘behaviour bringing the Labour Party into disrepute’; this euphemistically evaded the political issue. At the same time, the procedure delayed any action against the real antisemitism of other members; hence the pro-Israel lobby could more easily claim that the Party was tolerating antisemitic behaviour.

The British elite strategy conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism as perceived by pro-Israel Jews, thus inverting racism and anti-racism. The inversion has been put sarcastically by Hajo Meyer, a Holocaust survivor: ‘An antisemite used to be a person who disliked Jews. Now it is a person whom Jews dislike’, especially Israel’s critics.

IHRA mis-definition serves a racist pro-Israel agenda

Given that political context, let us return to the initial question: What mistake of the Labour Party should be avoided?  At recent Green Party of England and Wales conferences the leadership has supported a motion that would incorporate the IHRA Definition into the disciplinary procedure.  According to the motion, it’s irrelevant how the Definition has been used by other organizations. Such a claim is politically naive, disingenuous or both. 

The IHRA mis-definition has already been the basis for external organisations to make false allegations against some pro-Palestine Green Party members, who then had to undergo the disciplinary procedure.  This has ominous analogies with the Labour Party’s procedures. Adopting the IHRA Definition has obvious consequences, namely: to encourage more false allegations of antisemitism, to reinforce them internally and to deter criticisms of Israel’s racist character.

More generally, the IHRA Definition has been widely cited worldwide for false allegations against pro-Palestine events, speakers and comments. In response to such allegations, major institutions have suppressed or severely restricted pro-Palestine events. Such incidents have been well documented, e.g. in a journal paper on the UK, and in the Jewish-led global report, The IHRA Definition at Work

In all those ways the IHRA mis-definition helps to protect Israel’s institutional racism from criticism, thus serving the pro-Israel commitment of the British ruling elite. By promoting the mis-definition, the Green Party leadership has shamefully colluded with this racist pro-Israel agenda since 2017. Let’s reject it and so avoid the mistake of the Labour Party. 

AuthorLes Levidow is a member of Green Left within the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW). Since the 1980s he has participated in several Jewish pro-Palestine groups, including many Jews who have faced false allegations of antisemitism by the pro-Israel lobby. His current focus is Jewish Network for Palestine (JNP), loosely connected with the US-based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). 

Monday 10 May 2021

What Would a Deep Green New Deal Look Like?

Written by Don Fitz and first published at Green Social Thought

The Green New Deal has attracted perhaps the greatest attention of any proposal for decades. It would guarantee Medicare-for-All, Housing-for-All, student loan forgiveness and propose the largest economic growth in human history to address unemployment and climate change.

But the last of these hits a stumbling block. Creation of all forms of energy contributes to the destruction of nature and human life. It is possible to increase the global quality of life at the same time we reduce the use of fossil fuels and other sources of energy. Therefore, a “deep” GND would focus on energy reduction, otherwise known as energy conservation. Decreasing total energy use is a prerequisite for securing human existence.

Recognizing True Dangers

Fossil fuel (FF) dangers are well-known and include the destruction of Life via global heating. FF problems also include land grabs from indigenous peoples, farmers, and communities throughout the world as well as the poisoning of air from burning and destruction of terrestrial and aquatic life from spills. But those who focus on climate change tend to minimize very real danger of other types of energy production. A first step in developing a genuine GND is to acknowledge the destructive potential of “alternative energy” (AltE).

Nuclear power (nukes). Though dangers of nuclear disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are horrific, problems with the rest of its life cycle are often glossed over. Mining, milling, and transporting radioactive material to supply nukes with fuel and “dispose” of it exposes entire communities to poisoning that results in a variety of cancers. Though operation of nukes produces few greenhouse gases (GHGs), enormous quantities are released during production of steel, cement and other materials for building nuclear plants. They must be located next to water (for cooling), which means their discharge of hot water is an attack on aquatic life. Radioactive waste from nukes, kept in caskets for 30-50 years, threatens to poison humanity not for decades or centuries, but for millennia (or eternity), which makes nukes at least as dangerous as FFs. Inclusion of nuclear power as part of a GND is not the slightest bit green. The only way to address nuclear power is how to abolish it as rapidly as possible while causing the least harm to those who depend on it for energy and income.

Solar power requires manufacturing processes with chemicals which are highly toxic to those who work with them. Even before production begins, many different minerals must be mined and processed, which endangers workers and communities while destroying wildlife habitat. Additional minerals must be obtained for batteries. Once solar systems are used, they are discarded into large toxic dumps. Though few GHGs are created during use of solar panels, large amounts are created during their life cycle.

Wind power creates its own syndrome of nerve-wracking vibrations for those living next to “wind farms,” along with even larger issues with disposal of 160-foot blades. Like solar farms, wind farms undermine ecosystems where they are located. The life cycle of wind power includes toxic radioactive elements to produce circular rotation of blades.

Hydro-power from dams hurts terrestrial as well as aquatic life by altering the flow of river water. Dams undermine communities whose culture center around water and animals. Dams destroy farms. They exacerbate international conflicts when rivers flow through multiple countries, threaten the lives of construction workers, and result in collapses which can kill over 100,000 people at a time.

Several problems run through multiple AltE systems:

  • Despite claims of “zero emissions,” every type of AltE requires large amounts of FFs during their life cycle;
  • Every type of AltE is deeply intertwined with attacks on civil liberties, land grabs from indigenous communities, and/or murders of Earth defenders;
  • Many have cost overruns which undermine the budgets of communities tricked into financing them.
  • Transmission lines require additional land grabs, squashing of citizen and community rights, and increased species extinctions; and,
  • Since the most available resources (such as uranium for nukes, sunny land for solar arrays, mountain tops for wind farms, rivers for dams) are used first, each level of expansion requires a greater level of resource use than the previous one, which means the harvesting of AltE is increasingly harmful as time goes by.

Taking into account the extreme problems of the life cycle of every type of energy extraction leads to the following requirements for a genuine GND: Nuclear energy must be halted as quickly and as safely as possible with employment replacement. FF extraction should be dramatically reduced immediately (perhaps by 70-90% of 2020 levels) and be reduced 5-10% annually for the next 10 years thereafter. Rather than being increased, extraction for other forms of energy should be reduced (perhaps 2-5% annually).

Since honesty requires recognition that every form of energy becomes more destructive with time, the critical question for a deep GND is: “How do we reduce energy use while increasing employment and the necessities of life?”

The Naming of Things

But before exploring how to increase employment while reducing production, it is necessary to clean up some greenwashing language that has become common in recent years.

Decades ago, Barry Commoner used the phrase “linguistic detoxification” to describe the way corporations come up with a word or phrase to hide the true nature of an ecological obscenity. One of the best examples is the nuclear industry’s term “spent fuel rods” which implies that, once used, fuel rods are not radioactive, when, in fact, they are so deadly that they must be guarded for eternity. An accurate term would be “irradiated fuel rods.”

Perhaps the classic example is the way agribusiness came up with “biosolids” for renaming animal sewage sludge containing dioxin, asbestos, lead, and DDT. As John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton describe in Toxic Sludge Is Good for You (1995), industry persuaded the Environmental Protection Agency to reclassify hazardous animal waste to “Class A fertilizer” biosolids so they could be dumped on fields where food is grown.

Rather than preserving traditions of early environmentalists, many current proponents of AltE use the terms “clean” and “renewable” to describe energy which is neither. AltE is not “clean” due to the many GHG emissions throughout the life cycle of all types of energy in addition to assaults on ecosystems and human health. Though the sun, wind and river power may be eternal, products that must be mined are very much exhaustible, meaning that no form of AltE is renewable.

An honest GND would never refer to AltE as either “clean” or “renewable.” Such a GND proposal would advocate the reduction of FFs but would not suggest a goal 0% of FFs by such-and-such a date because it is unattainable. Every type of AltE requires FFs. While it may be possible to produce some steel and some cement by AltE, it is impossible to produce massive quantities of energy for the entire world with AltE. Instead, a genuine GND would explain that the only form of clean energy is less energy and specify ways to use less energy while improving the quality of life.

A genuine GND would never imply that FFs are the only source of monstrously negative effects. Privileging AltE corporations over FF corporations is stating that environmental problems will be solved by choosing one clique of capitalists over another. This means that (a) if FFs should be nationalized, then all mining, milling and manufacturing processes to produced materials needed for AltE should be nationalized; and, (b) if FFs should remain in the ground, then all components for operating nuclear plants, dams, solar facilities and wind farms should also remain in the ground.

A Shorter Work Week for All

The greatest contradiction in current versions of the GND is advocating environmental improvement while having the most massive increase in production the world has ever seen. These two goals are completely irreconcilable. A progressive GND would address this enigma via shortening the work week, which would reduce environmental damage by using less energy.

It is quite odd that versions of the GND call for Medicare-for-All, Housing-for-All, Student Loan Forgiveness-for-All; but none of them suggest a Shorter-Work-Week-for-All. The absence of this old progressive demand could be due to the incorrect neoliberal assumption that the best way to solve unemployment is via increased production.

Increased production of goods cannot create a long-term increase in employment. (It was WW II and not Roosevelt’s New Deal that consistently increased employment.) US production increased 300-fold from 1913 to 2013. If employment had increased at the same pace, everyone would be working at dozens of jobs today.

Unemployment increases from recent economic disruptions like the 2008 financial crisis and Covid in 2020 were due to the inability to shift work from some areas of the economy to others. A planned shrinking of the economy would require including the entire workforce in deciding to shift from negative to positive employment.

As the work week is reduced, every group of workers should evaluate what it does, how labor is organized, and how jobs should be redefined so that full employment is preserved. The only part of this idea which is novel is making changes democratically – job categories continuously change, with some types of work shrinking (or disappearing entirely) and other types of work expanding or coming into existence. Just as economic growth does not guarantee increases in employment, economic shrinking need not worsen unemployment if the work week is shortened.

However, a shorter work week will not accomplish environmental goals if it is accompanied by an “intensification of labor” (such as requiring workers at Amazon to handle more packages per hour or increasing class size for teachers). This means that a genuine GND requires workers’ forming strong unions which have a central role in determining what is produced as well as working conditions.

Producing According to Need Instead of According to Profit

If a core part of a GND becomes a shorter work week (without speed-up), the question naturally arises: “Will lowering the amount of production result in people going without basic necessities of life?” It is important to understand that production for profit causes the manufacture of goods that have no part of improving our lives.

Current versions of the GND are based on the neoliberal assumption that the best way to provide for necessities of life is through increased payments for purchases (ie, market economics). A progressive GND would advocate that the best way to provide the necessities of life is by guaranteeing them as human rights. This is often referred so as replacing individual wages with “social wages.” For example, the neoliberal approach to healthcare is offering medical insurance while a progressive approach is to offer medical care directly (without giving a cut to insurance companies). Likewise, a neoliberal GND would offer cash for food, housing, transportation, education and other necessities while a progressive GND would provide them directly to people. Green economics must be based on making dollar amounts less important by replacing individual wages with social wages.

Current versions of the GND seek to provide necessities by increasing the quantity of products rather than focusing on creating things that are useful, reliable and durable. A massive increase in production is an unnecessary attack on ecosystems when there is already much more production than required to provide essentials for everyone on the planet. Needs are not being met because of production which …

  • …is negative, including war materials, police forces and production which destroys farmland and habitat (all of which should be reduced immediately);
  • …is wasteful, which includes both (a) playthings of the richest 1%, and (b) things which many of us are forced to buy for survival and getting to work, the most notable being cars;
  • …requires unnecessary processing and transportation, the most notable example being food which is processed to lose nutritional value, packaged to absurd levels, and shipped over 1000 miles before being consumed; and,
  • …involves planned obsolescence, including design to fall apart or go out of style.

One important aspect of reducing production is often ignored. Each product manufactured must have a repairability index. At a minimum, criteria for the index should include (a) availability of technical documents to aid in repair, (b) ease of disassembly, (c) availability of spare parts, (d) price of spare parts, and (e) repair issues specific to the class of products. The index should become a basis for strengthening production requirements each year. A durablility index should similarly be developed and strengthened annually. Since those who do the labor of manufacturing products are more likely than owners or stockholders to attain knowledge of how to make commodities that are more reliable and durable, they must have the right to make their knowledge public without repercussions from management.

There will always be differences of opinion regarding what is needed versus what is merely desired. A progressive GND should state how those decisions would be made. A major cause of unnecessary production is that decisions concerning what to manufacture and standards for creating them are made by investors and corporate bosses rather than community residents and workers manufacturing them. A genuine GND would confront problems regarding what is produced by involving all citizens in economic decisions, and not merely the richest.


Perhaps the issue which is least likely to be linked to the GND is reparations to poor communities in Africa, Latin America, and Asia who have been victims of Western imperialism for 500 years. This connection forces us to ask: “Since most minerals necessary for AltE lie in poor countries, will rich countries continue to plunder their resources, exterminate what remains of indigenous cultures, force inhabitants to work for a pittance, jail and kill those who resist, destroy farmland, and leave the country a toxic wasteland for generations to come?”

For example, plans to massively expand electric vehicles (EVs) undermine the vastly more sustainable approach of urban redesign for walkable/cyclable communities. Plans would result in manufacturing EVs for the rich world while poor and working class communities would suffer from the extraction of lithium, cobalt and dozens of other materials required for these cars.

Africa may be the most mineral-rich continent. In addition to cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo for EVs, Mali is the source of 75% of the uranium for French nukes, Zambia is mined for copper for AltE and hundreds of other minerals are taken from dozens of African countries.

If there are to be agreements involving corporations seeking minerals for AltE, who will those agreements be with? Will the agreements be between the ultra-rich owners of the Western empire and its puppet governments? Or, will extraction agreements be with villages and communities which will be most affected by removal of minerals for the production of energy?

Discussions of relationships between rich and poor countries make much of having “free, prior and informed consent” prior to an extraction project. Such an agreement is far from reality because (a) corporate and governmental bodies are so mired in corruption that they contaminate bodies which define and judge the meaning of “free, prior and informed,” (b) no prediction of the effects of extraction can be “informed” since it is impossible to know what the interaction of the multitude of physical, chemical, biological and ecological factors will be prior to extraction taking place, and (c) affected communities are typically bullied into accepting extraction because they fear that families will die from starvation, lack of medical care or unemployment if they do not do so. Thus, the following are essential components of a socially just GND:

  • Reparations which are sufficient to eliminate poverty must be paid prior to signing extraction agreements; and,
  • Every community must have the right to terminate an extraction agreement at any stage of the project.

This is where the other meaning of “deep” comes in. When people hear “deep green,” they often think of how industrial activity deeply affects ecosystems. “Deep” can also refer to having a deep respect for poor communities whose lives are most affected by extraction. Respect is not deep if it is unwilling to accept an answer of “No” to a request for exorbitant, profit-gouging extraction. Peoples across the world may decide that since they have received so little for so long, it may be time for rich countries to share the wealth they have stolen and dig up new wealth much, much more slowly.

A New Green Culture

Just to make sure that it is clear and not forgotten, the fundamental question regarding extraction of material needed for AltE is: “Will rich countries continue to plunder minerals underneath or adjacent to poor communities at a rate that corporations decide? Will they expect poor communities to be satisfied with a vague promise that, for the very first time, great things will happen after the plundering? Or should reparations be fully paid for past and current plundering, with poor communities deciding how much extraction they will allow and at what speed?”

Essential for building a New Green World is the creation of a New Green Culture which asks all of the billions of people on the planet to share their ideas for obtaining the necessities of life while using less energy. Such a culture would aim for one idea to spark to many ideas, all of which strive more toward living together than on inventing energy-guzzling gadgets.

In order to build a New Green Culture which puts the sharing of wealth above personal greed, several things that must happen:

1. To bring billions of people out of economic misery, every country should establish a maximum income which is a multiple of the minimum income, with that multiple being voted on (no less than every five years) by all living in the country.

2. Every country should establish a maximum wealth which is a multiple of the minimum wealth, with that multiple being voted on (no less than every five years) by all living in the country.

3. Global reparations, including sharing wealth and technological know-how between rich and poor countries, is essential for overcoming past and ongoing effects of imperialism. Establishing maximum incomes and maximum wealth possession within countries must be quickly followed by establishing such maximum levels between countries.

A core problem of current versions of the GND is that they propose to solve employment, social justice and energy problems with increased production, which is not necessary to solve any of these. Attempts to solve problems by increasing wealth feeds into the corporate culture of greed and become a barrier to creation of a New Green Culture. Increasing production beyond what is necessary increases environmental problems that threaten the Earth. It tells those who are already rich that they should grab more, more and more. It tells those who are not rich that happiness depends upon the possession of objects. The survival of Humanity depends on the building of a green culture that prizes sharing above all else.

Don Fitz ( is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought where a version of this article was first published. He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. His book on Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution has been available since June 2020.

Thursday 6 May 2021

More young Japanese look to Marx amid pandemic, climate crisis


First published at Kyodo News

As the global challenge of climate change mounts and the coronavirus pandemic magnifies economic inequalities, Karl Marx, who pointed to the contradictions and limitations of capitalism, is gaining new admirers in Japan, particularly among the young.

The boom has been ignited by a 34-year-old associate professor at Osaka City University who reimagined the theory expounded in the 19th-century German thinker's seminal "Das Kapital" from the perspective of environmental conservation in a bestselling book published last September.

In it, Kohei Saito argued that the realization of sustainable development goals set by the United Nations is as impossible as "drawing a round triangle" under modern-day capitalism.

The success of the book resulted in an invitation from Japan's public broadcaster NHK to present a commentary on Marx's foundational theoretical text, known by its full title in English as "Capital: A Critique of Political Economy," on a program aired in January.

"Many people noticed the contradictions of capitalism when they saw only socially vulnerable people struggling during the coronavirus pandemic," Saito told Kyodo News in a recent interview.

Younger people, who have no memory of the Cold War or the mass student protests of the 1960s, showed a strong interest in the ideas Saito discussed in the program. Letters poured in from those in their 20s and 30s to NHK Publishing Inc., which had released Saito's simplified textbook version of Marx's difficult-to-read work in the lead-up to the broadcast.

One single mother wrote about moving from the city to the countryside, where she now relishes her new life as a farmer. "I wanted to put into practice a transition away from the values of mass consumption," she said.

Saito presents a theory of "degrowth communism" inspired by Marx, in which he argues that society can stop the perpetual cycles of mass production and mass consumption under capitalism by pursuing a more humanistic path prioritizing social and ecological well-being over economic growth.

The book's success has inspired a renaissance of interest in Marxist thought.

The main branch of bookstore chain Maruzen in Tokyo's Marunouchi district has opened a special section entitled "Reviving Marx." Nobuya Sawaki, who is in charge of the Marx book corner, said, "The demands of people shuttered away at home due to the coronavirus are driving them to pick up these difficult titles on humanity."

Mostly young men and women purchased about 1,600 copies of the Marx-themed titles in two months, Sawaki said.

Born in Germany in 1818 as capitalism was emerging, Marx aimed to uncover the economic underpinnings of the capitalist mode of production in "Das Kapital," the first volume of which appeared in 1867.

Marx analyzed a society in which the exploitation of workers and environmental destruction was becoming more and more severe and predicted catastrophe as a consequence.

He makes use of an expression initially from French, interpreted as, "When I am dead the flood may come for aught I care," in cynically describing the arrogance and selfishness of the capitalist who sees before him only immediate profits while caring nothing for the future after he is gone.

In modern times, influential thinkers such as the late anthropologist David Graeber and economist Thomas Piketty point to the growing chasm in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top 1 percent as if it is a sign of an impending "flood."

Others, meanwhile, like journalist Naomi Klein speak of the climate crisis wrought by unchecked capitalism -- all in recent works that have become international bestsellers.

As an ecosocialist with an evangelist fervor, Saito expounded his ideas on Marx on NHK's "A Masterpiece in 100 Minutes," which gives an expert a forum to explain a famous and often difficult work in four 25-minute segments aired over a month.

Over 250,000 copies of his Japanese book entitled "Capital in the Anthropocene" were published, for which he won the "2021 new book award" selected by editors, bookstore staff, and newspaper reporters.

"Maybe many young people got his book because of the influence of Greta Thunberg, who has accused countries and companies of being involved in environmental destruction," the book's editor said.

Winner of the prestigious Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2018 for another book he published in English -- translated himself from the original German -- Saito argues that Marx saw the environmental crisis inherent in capitalism but had left his critique of the political economy unfinished.

Marx, in his later years, Saito argues, was keenly aware of the destructive consequences for the environment of the capitalist regime. Saito describes the ecological crisis tendencies under capitalism using the key concept of "metabolic rift."

"We have reached the limit of passing the buck to the future," Saito said, suggesting that he is an advocate of the "3.5 percent rule" of small minorities bringing about social, economic and political change through nonviolent protests.

"If 3.5 percent of the population rises up non-violently, society will change. I want to encourage action," Saito said.