Saturday 31 July 2021

Building Ecosocialism - A review of Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal


Written by David Camfield and first published at Tempest

There’s nothing more important today than the politics of climate change. How societies respond to global heating will increasingly shape all political life.

A People’s Green New Deal by Max Ajl, an associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and a postdoctoral fellow with the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, gives us some insightful analysis of different political approaches to global heating (a term I prefer since it packs more punch than global warming) and many good ideas about how society should be changed to respond to capitalism’s ecological crisis. However, the book is much less helpful for thinking about the political strategy we need to make these changes.

Although some hard right-wing politicians are still intoxicated by the climate change denial nonsense that organizations funded by fossil capital have been spewing for years, smarter ruling-class strategists are planning for what Ajl calls “Green Social Control.” This “aims to preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worse consequences of the climate crisis.”

The European Commission’s announced measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union are an example of this approach. It’s what Joe Biden had in mind when he appointed John Kerry as a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. It’s also the vision of the Climate Finance Leadership Initiative, a group of finance capitalists headed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s a vision that Ajl skewers.

Ajl notes “Because there is no capitalism that exists apart from the violent hand of the state, such plans emphasize the national security sector” (it’s no coincidence that in his new role Kerry serves on the National Security Council). It’s very much an imperialist project for which using “the physical land bases of Africa, Asia, and Latin America as carbon farms and for biofuels will allow for CO2 offsets of whatever cannot be decarbonized and may allow for the continuation of a fuel-based modern and hierarchical order, at least for a few of the planet’s people.”

A People’s Green New Deal demolishes ecological modernist thought (ecomodernism). Ecomodernism treats technology as politically neutral and imagines that global capitalist growth can be “decoupled” from greenhouse gas emissions. The book takes on both ecomodernism’s right-wing version—for example, the ideas of the Breakthrough Institute and the EcoModernist Manifesto—and the left-wing variant defended by people such as Aaron Bastani, the author of the book Fully Automated Luxury Communism and (not mentioned by Ajl) Leigh Phillips.

Ajl cuts through the confusion about degrowth—a loose current of ecological thought whose supporters call for less energy and natural resource use in rich countries and reject the growth of Gross Domestic Product as a goal—rightly arguing, “Some sectors, such as agroecological food production, public transport, primary healthcare, and renewable energy, need to grow incredibly fast” in decommodified ways, while “others must disappear: the military, non-renewable energy production, chemical fertilizers.”

He makes a strong case that transitioning to renewable energy generation isn’t enough: in the Global North, energy use also needs to be reduced for the sake of global justice, to allow people in the rest of the world to use more energy while moving away from fossil fuels. When faced with the need to limit global heating as much as possible, and in keeping with the precautionary principle, which calls for taking action to prevent problems even when there is uncertainty about them, we must “put all human energy to work in a just transition, and… move as fast as possible.”

A People’s Green New Deal doesn’t spare the most influential kind of climate justice politics. It poses the question “Green social democracy or eco-socialism?” and looks critically at the version of the Green New Deal (GND) championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez among others, which it accurately characterizes as a program for “domestic anti-racist green Keynesianism,” and at the more left-wing politics of Naomi Klein and the multi-authored book A Planet to Win.

Ajl argues that GND reforms won’t be won without mass social struggle, that green social democracy is pro-imperialist (Ajl’s best example is plans to produce millions of electric vehicles in the United States using lithium mined in South America), that the GND legislation drafted by Ocasio-Cortez and others shouldn’t be called ecosocialist, and that we need a movement for ecosocialism, not green social democracy.

The second part of the book lays out the alternative that forms the book’s title, “building eco-socialism.” The book lays out a range of ideas for radical reforms of work, urban life, construction, transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture (discussed at greatest length). It argues emphatically for anti-imperialist internationalism, and that the imperialist countries owe the rest of the world a massive climate and ecological debt that must be paid. It insists that countries of the Global South must have the right to determine their own futures, and that settler colonialism must be dismantled.

A People’s Green New Deal gives us a good ecosocialist critique of important currents of climate politics. Its argument for reducing energy use in imperialist countries as well as transitioning from fossil fuels is valuable. Its anti-imperialist orientation pushes people in the United States  and other advanced capitalist countries to avoid the common mistake of ignoring or not thinking seriously about most of humanity when thinking about climate politics.

The book’s insistence that capitalism with green social reforms would still be capitalism, even under “democratic socialist” governments, is important. Its broad vision of alternatives is generally persuasive. All this makes it worth reading.

Yet readers also need to understand that Ajl’s politics are a kind of ecosocialism from above in the Maoist tradition of Samir Amin. It’s right to reject green social democracy, but unfortunately the way the book argues its case can be an obstacle in persuading people who need persuading.

European social democratic governments have shown that social democracy is no threat to the most violent imperialist domination of the Global South, but saying there’s “latent fascism even in halcyon social democratic models” smacks of how in the late 1920s and early 1930s Third Period Stalinists dubbed social democracy “social fascism.”

The way the book is argued is also disconnected from the actual existing climate movement in the United States. Instead of thinking in terms of what demands are best-suited for building a mass movement for climate justice in which ecosocialists are a constructive radical wing—an important question socialists should ask when assessing proposals for climate justice reforms—Ajl asks the movement to embrace his ecosocialist politics.

His approach to other proposals for a GND is similar to dismissing the demand to end legal restrictions on access to abortion in the United States because that demand isn’t a radical program for reproductive freedom for persons of all genders (it isn’t), or like rejecting the call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam because it wasn’t a call for victory to the National Liberation Front.

This is a sectarian method. In contrast, the politics of socialism from below focuses on how to fight for reforms, not which specific reforms we demand, as what most distinguishes ecosocialism from green social democracy in the here and now.

Ajl doesn’t lay out much of a strategic approach for fighting for what he advocates or a clear conception of socialism. Yet a campist socialism from above—one that treats the conflict between the “imperialist camp” (the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Israel etc.) and the “anti-imperialist camp” (China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria etc.) as the most important political division in the world—is evident in passing comments about “anti-systemic states of Latin America” and elsewhere.1 

Consistent with these politics are a flawed theory of imperialism and an exaggerated emphasis on the role of “Communist” states and movements in achieving broad welfare states. (Ajl uses the term social democracy for what I call broad welfare states. I believe social democracy is better reserved for a specific kind of reformist politics.)2

A striking aspect of A People’s Green New Deal is how it says almost nothing about the rising capitalist power of our time—China—which the book describes as a “semi-peripheral” country rather than one locked in inter-imperialist rivalry with a declining United States. Without question, the main enemy is at home, but not acknowledging the role of China and its greenhouse gas emissions—which aren’t limited to those generated by manufacturing goods in China for export to the West—in the global climate politics of our time is a political mistake.

Unfortunately, this book will encourage some supporters of anti-capitalist ecological politics to think they have to choose between left ecomodernism of the kind often published by Jacobin and anti-ecomodernist and campist ecosocialism, which Monthly Review promotes. But there’s also an ecosocialism from below that isn’t ecomodernist and whose anti-imperialism isn’t campist.

When read critically, A People’s Green New Deal is a useful resource for people who want to practice this kind of ecosocialism but readers would also do well to read Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System as well as articles by Gareth Dale and Simon Pirani.


  1. Ajl’s outspoken campism is visible in his interviews and Twitter posts.
  2. Ajl’s discussion, which relies a great deal on Amin’s theory, suggests a misleading picture of global patterns of capital accumulation and does not recognize China as an imperialist power. For a classic critique of an important aspect of Amin’s theory, see Anwar Shaikh, “Foreign Trade and the Law of Value.” For an excellent start on developing a better marxist theory of imperialism see Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber, “Complex Stratification in the World System: Capitalist Totality and Geopolitical Fragmentation,” Science and Society 84:1 (2020)
 You can by the book from Pluto Press

Wednesday 21 July 2021

The Three Tribes of Political Ecology


Written by Pierre Charbonnier and first published at Green European Journal

The decade that ended in 2020 was the decade of global climate inaction. Without a doubt, our inability to transform our economic systems into models compatible with planetary boundaries will define the beginning of the 21st century.

This failure can be explained by the chasm that has opened between existing political structures, geared to competitiveness and productivity in the name of jobs, and the environmental and climate imperatives determined by Earth system science. Overlooking the negative externalities of the cheap energy that allows global supply chains to function is nowadays impossible.

More radically, the economic effort that seeks to answer our demands for social justice and material wellbeing threatens these same objectives. Our era is marked by the disconnect between what we have inherited and what we see, somewhat stunned, on the horizon.

Today, we find ourselves prisoners of technical and ideological systems passed down from a largely destroyed world characterised by a stable climate and the cornucopian ideal. The world we are going to live in, which we already are living in, has different physical characteristics to that of previous generations, yet much of the thinking informing politics still stems from that lost world.

In particular, the current system of property rights and the quest for productivity gains are relics of an already distant past. Contemporary subjectivities, encapsulated in the domestic sphere and driven by technologies of individual mobility, appear strangely distant from the imperatives and possibilities of the present. The world born of this modern project has also made large parts of that very project obsolete.

Part of the problem is that we overestimate how much we depend on these ways of thinking and acting. History teaches that growth-based societies are not built without conflict, that they are the product of a fragile accommodation between science, technology, and politics and that these always contain elements of a counter-movement. The inertia of large technical systems and ideals of progress should not be confused with inevitability: our relationship with the future and the tools at hand can be re-examined.

One of the difficulties, both politically and intellectually, is determining exactly what we have inherited, what we should keep, and what we should discard or reject. The answer depends on your starting point. For that reason, political ecology is closely associated with thinking about time, because the climate crisis completely turns our political time horizon on its head.

Placing our predicament

At least three timescales are relevant to thinking about the political task at hand. Over the long term, the greening of societies can be understood as a subversion of the structures that shape our collective relationship with nature. According to that time frame, the goal is to return to the roots of the modern project and renegotiate our relationship with the living and our place in the world.

Over the medium term, the timescale defined by industrial capitalism and its critiques, political ecology can be seen as a renewed call for social justice based on the disciplining of capital. And, finally, over the short term, the timescale of the post-war Great Acceleration, or even Asia’s economic catch-up, a more technocratic view essentially sees it as a question of ending global superpowers’ escalating use of fossil fuels by financing a decarbonised productive sector.

Depending on the scale used, different political imaginaries, different levers for change, and different movements emerge. The success of the great green transformation depends on an alliance between these three projects and their ability not to hold each other in contempt.

The intermediate phase probably holds centre stage today. The main ideological thrust for building political ecology now comes from the traditional left, with its roots in the labour movement and its need for a new rallying call after the failure of left-populism. Various versions of the Green New Deal form the common foundation for a coordinated welfare state response to the environmental imperative.

Behind the Green New Deal lies the idea that the power of capital can only be limited by the intervention of a government attentive to demands for equality, and that these demands are inseparable from curbing the fossil fuel economy. Just as the ills of industrial development were met with labour law and social protection, today’s socialist programme must address environmental ills.

As recently outlined in the manifesto A Planet to Win [read our interview with the co-authors], the marriage of environmentalism and socialism relies on reactivating the traditional language of class struggle. Its central tenet is that growing economic insecurity goes hand in hand with growing environmental insecurity and that conflicts around social inequality will eventually become environmental conflicts too.

In a period when working­-class electorates have been won over by the conservative neo­liberalism of Trump and the Brexiteers, who successfully hacked the narrative of protection and community (now associated with identity), the challenge is to win back the political imaginary of that social class.

It is clear how this strategy is born of the industrial legacy of the 19th century: deeply constrained by its past faith in growth and technological development, social justice now depends on a system reset and, through a job guarantee, the end of the employment blackmail by economic elites.

Green socialism now appears to be the most credible platform in the US and is starting to gain traction in Europe. It has two main limitations. First, it is largely based on a form of statism. Once passed on to the state via the ballot box, demands for environmental justice are addressed by regulation and redirecting investment. Besides the fact that resistance within the state apparatus to such transformations should not be underestimated, nor should the flight of private capital, this political imaginary is one of total mobilisation, as usually used in wartime.

In other words, it implies a declaration of war against an enemy who we are not sure is domestic (fossil fuel capital) or foreign (petrostates, like Saudi Arabia) – a declaration of war that entails a foreign policy. The second drawback to green socialism is that, just as the post-war welfare state, it would rest on the privileged position of the Global North over the South, which lacks the means to finance such an energy transition but will be hit hardest by the climate crisis.

Statism and the (relative) lack of global thinking are two aspects of green socialism that arouse criticism and distrust from the second ecological project. This stems from thinking that purports to be more radical when it comes to the relationship between nature and society and intends to tear down the structures that reduced the environment to a productive partner.

The timescale here is not that of industrial society’s crises but scientific modernity, or the disenchantment of the world. It dates back to at least the 16th century, a period of scientific revolutions in astronomy and physics that established the centrality of human reason in the cosmos, and a period of great discoveries that became the basis for Western domination over the rest of the world.

This critique is shared by many, including strands of thought that are geographically and culturally peripheral, such as those of Amazonian, Arctic, and Native American communities whose social relationships with the living world cannot simply be reduced to appropriation and exploitation. But it also comes from movements born of modernity who want to break with dominant paradigms. Regional fightbacks against a state sovereignty generally subservient to the goal of growth echo this fundamental questioning of modern history.

In France, the ZAD (zone à défendre – zone to defend) in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a longstanding but now dismantled protest camp against the building of a redundant airport, has come to symbolise a connection with the land based on the radical autonomy of its users and guardians. These movements are turning against sovereignty, property, and extraction, all different components of the modernist matrix.

The strength of these movements, their radicalism, is also their weakness. They reclaim islands of autonomy one after the other and bet on a slow cultural and legal paradigm shift. They are expensive in terms of personal investment and generally inaccessible to those who, out of necessity, must seek work in today’s overly competitive labour market and cannot risk leaving the structures of the welfare state behind.

Placing this fight on a metaphysical plane means placing it within the long time frame that brackets the structures of human and ecological co-existence. Each type of critique has its own speed and rhythm, and this particular critique appears extremely slow in light of the deadline set by climate science.

Finally, a third sphere of mobilisation is based on a seemingly less radical, but much faster, environmental praxis. It is possible to view the climate deadlock not as the consequence of a deep and long process going back to the founding of modern cosmology, nor even as the consequence of industrialisation in general, but as the result of the Great Acceleration.

That is to say, as a later phenomenon bringing together the energy abundance of oil, the construction of a technosphere based on individual mobility and mass consumption, and welfare-state institutions founded on GDP growth and its measurement.

The physical characteristics – the pipelines, airports, and real estate – of this acceleration mean that it is controlled by a technological and economic elite concentrated in a small number of companies, especially in the energy and agri-food industries, and in a handful of seats of power and knowledge, most notably the supranational regulatory bodies that shape the free market, as well as, of course, the main sovereign geopolitical players.

While the iron’s hot

What the climate movement has revealed is that these decision-making structures are extremely powerful, yet much more vulnerable than we think. Effective divestment campaigns targeting the most destructive sectors, particularly if taken up by central banks, could paralyse the structures of fossil capitalism, and with them the inefficient and unequal supply chains that govern our existence.

The empowerment of civil servants and civil engineers freed from budgetary pseudo-constraints to drive the environmental transition of cities, transport systems, and housing infrastructure would go in the same direction. Shaping a new art of government uncorrupted by the demands of growth and supported by expertise appears as a most reasonable goal. All this sounds less romantic than idealistic calls for civilisational shifts and unconditional generosity towards a revitalised natural world.

The test of power will be the obligatory next step, one that will probably be less exciting than the foundation of a renewed cultural paradigm, but surely quicker to implement.

This new green elite does not recruit the same type of people as the other two movements described above. Yet it is clear that there is animosity, real or imagined, between the post-colonial autonomist utopians, the eco-Jacobins of the Green New Deal, and these champions of the technocratic revolution.

From a theoretical perspective, we might insist that each problem be addressed on an appropriate timescale, be it that of the cosmological structures of modernity, the ills of industrialisation, or the Great Acceleration. But just as these three underlying historiographical assumptions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, neither are the three critical counter-movements and the forces driving them necessarily destined for rivalry. They must learn to win each other over and establish common ground on which to build.

In reality, their objective interests are aligned – what we call in France the “convergence of struggles” – despite different political identities, tactics, and practices of power. This alignment is without doubt partially momentary, but as Machiavelli said, politics is the art of seizing the right moment to act.

Pierre Charbonnier is a philosopher and a researcher fellow at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and Ecole des hautes études en science sociales in France. He is the author of La fin d’un grand partage (2105, CNRS) and Abondance et liberté (2019, la Découverte).

Friday 9 July 2021

From the Depths of the Pandemic towards an Ecosocialist Utopia

Written by Martin Aidnik and first published at ROAR

In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need bold and imaginative thinking — it is time to embrace the utopianism that is implicit to the Marxist tradition.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging our carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

— Arundhati Roy

Socialism is one of the great visions of a society in the modern era. Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the early days of industrialization, socialism is about achieving freedom and equality in real, practical terms. Socialism envisions a society based on cooperation, which meets the needs of all of its members. It recognizes that everyday practices, especially work, need to be democratically organized and freed from necessity in order for people to find fulfilment in social existence. Emancipation — the liberation of social life from structural constraints — is the task that sustains socialist aspirations.

How does the wisdom of socialism, both in its Marxian and ecological forms, apply to our own time — the time of COVID-19 and climate emergency?

COVID-19, a deadly virus wreaking havoc across borders and continents, has put the capitalist world under a magnifying glass. It has amplified structural deficiencies and inequalities and showed us how systematic efforts to maximize wealth have undermined the health of society as a whole. Under the reign of neoliberalism, this has led to neglect of the resilience of health care systems as well as a steady shrinking of the entire public sector. With its seismic impact, COVID-19 underscores the need for socialist transformation.

At the same time, there is the planetary and existential issue of climate emergency. A recent United Nations report states that “despite a brief dip in the global carbon dioxide emission as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the planet is still heading for a global temperature in excess of 3 degrees Celsius this century.” It has thus become clear that only a radical transformation can save humanity and the planet from the ruin. Changes within the capitalist system will not suffice. Instead, a transition to socialism is necessary as it is socialism which can establish the conditions in which both human and non-human life can not only survive, but also thrive.

A convergence between Marxian socialism and ecosocialism can help us envision a remedy to the deep troubles of our time. In this essay, I take utopia as that convergence. As articulated by the maverick philosopher, Ernst Bloch, the Marxist tradition is implicitly utopian. In this “warm stream” of the Marxist tradition, utopia provides orientation and explores the realm of the possible. It is first and foremost a catalyst for social change. It propels agency in the form of forward-looking thought, critique and engagement with the status quo. In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is called for is bold and imaginative thinking. In order to live up to this task, ecosocialism should embrace utopianism.

The Scientific Socialism of Marx and Engels

The Marxian critique of capitalism remains unsurpassed and is more relevant 150 years after its invention than it should be. In Capital, Marx argues that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction and undertakes an extensive investigation of these contradictions. By turning labor into a commodity, capitalism erodes the difference between things and human beings. Capitalism creates unprecedented wealth but degrades the proletariat. Along with his collaborator Engels, Marx also sought to contribute to the formation of a working-class consciousness. Their theory is decidedly partisan to bringing about social change.

In contrast, earlier utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier, Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon were idealists. They believed that society can be changed by appealing to all classes on the basis of reason and justice. They did not appeal directly to the working class, in part because they feared inciting unrest. But for Marx and Engels, political struggle was the only viable way.

In order to avoid the charge of being seen as daydreamers who were merely building “castles in the air,” Marx and Engels were keen to label their socialism “scientific.” According to Engels, one of the key theoretical innovations that turned Marx’s socialism from utopian to scientific is his materialist conception of history or “historical materialism.” Historical materialism postulates that different realms of society are interconnected and determined by the economic structure. The possibilities of social transformation depend on the material conditions of each epoch.

Yet Marxian socialism also has its own a utopian character. This consists chiefly in the transcendence of alienation through a classless socialist society. In such a state of freedom, human beings can develop and flourish as fully-actualized individuals. A socialist society would be both free and equal, built on a bedrock of meaningful labor. In sum, Marx’s utopia, encapsulates human freedom as a precondition for creativity and cooperation in a society where economic antagonisms have ceased to exist.

The “Warm Stream” of Marxist Thought

In the 20th century, German utopian philosopher, Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), re-theorized Marxism to add a spiritual, forward-looking dimension in the form of utopia. Bloch contended that Marxism ought to go beyond the mere analysis of capitalism — dubbed “cold stream” — and speak of a better world: the “warm stream.” Bloch’s three-volume magnum opus, The Principle of Hope (1986), frames utopia as an integral part of autonomous and creative human being-in-the-world. To be human means to construct utopias against the status quo.

As the book’s title suggests, the subjective disposition of hope is essential for Blochian utopia. Hope transcends the drudgery of our everyday lives. Liberating us from resignation to the status quo, hope requires people to throw themselves actively into what is becoming. Human beings exist in history but can also make their own history. Fusing hope and critique, utopia functions as a catalyst for human aspirations in the name of a liberated humanity.

Instead of giving rise to utopias, hope may of course take the form of “building castles in the sky.” But even in these self-deceptive acts, for Bloch it is the longing for a better world that shines through. In a highly idiosyncratic style making ample use of biblical language and drawing on in-depth knowledge of the German Idealist philosophy, he writes: “in all these utopias, these voyages to Cytherea, there came to expression the expectant tendency that permeates all human history.”

For Bloch the work of Marx constitutes a milestone in the utopian aspirations of humanity. Marxist socialism provides a theory with which utopia can be turned into a reality — achieved practically and collectively for the first time. Furthermore, a Marxist utopia is grounded in economic and political theory. Societal struggles coalesce around the project of post-capitalism. In other words, Bloch develops the program of Marxism in the form of human freedom and a classless, socialist society. As Bloch himself writes:

This road is and remains that of socialism, it is the practice of concrete utopia. Everything that is non-illusory, real-possible about the hope image leads to Marx, works — as always, in different ways, rationed according to the situation — as part of socialist changing of the world. The architecture of hope thus really becomes one on to man, who had previously only seen as a dream and as high, all too high pre-appearance, and one on to the new earth.

Bloch only disagrees with Marx and Engels concerning the nature of utopianism. In his estimation, they were correct to criticize abstract utopianism as mere wishful thinking, but they also made a mistake in equating all utopianism with abstract utopianism.

Bloch is adamant that concrete utopianism is part and parcel of emancipatory consciousness, which complements Marx’s theory of economic contradictions. A concrete utopia is the “what for?” of the inherent vision of social struggles. Bloch’s philosophy continues to be relevant as it illuminates the potential of a world yet to be realized.


Ecosocialism developed mostly starting from the 1970s as an attempt to reconcile human society with nature, thereby healing the wounds inflicted by capitalism. Influential exponents of ecosocialism include Raymond Williams, Rudolf Bahro and Andre Gorz. According to ecosocialism, nature has inherent value and human society coexists with the natural world, rather than outside it.

Much like earlier utopias, ecosocialism contains a spiritual dimension. The non-material interaction of humans with nature is seen as an integral part of human being-in-the-world. Ecosocialism does not posit that humans are a “surplus” on this planet or guilty of hubris, greed, aggression or other savageries. There is no unchangeable genetic inheritance or inherent corruption like original sin.

While it would be an exaggeration to state that ecosocialism is unequivocally utopian, some of its most influential representatives have taken a positive stance towards utopia. For example, ecosocialist thinker Michael Löwy is in agreement with the understanding of utopia as a catalyst for social change:

Utopia is indispensable to social change, provided that it is based on contradictions found in reality and on real social movements. This is true of ecosocialism, which proposes a strategic alliance between “reds” and “greens” — not in the narrow sense used by politicians applied to social democratic and green parties, but in the broader sense between the labor movement and the ecological movement — and the movement of solidarity with the oppressed and exploited of the South.

For such a red-green an alliance, forging a new equilibrium between the Global North and South is a significant challenge. The injustice suffered by the Global South is a direct result of neocolonial resource extraction and exploitative relations of production. Due to the impact of climate change on the Global South and the disintegration of the working class in the North, the solidarity between workers across the North and South is increasingly important.

What is necessary is a reparative agenda that places the responsibility on historic emitters in the Global North, who have to contribute their fair share to planetary sustainability. This includes measures such as striving for zero carbon by 2030, scaling up climate financing, opening borders, rethinking land access and providing clean technology to countries that need it. Only then is global change possible.

Socialism in the Depth of the Pandemic

COVID-19 has caused great damage to human social life across the globe, giving concrete and tangible meaning to Ernst Bloch´s otherwise speculative notion of “darkness of the lived moment” (Dunkel des Gelebten Augenblicks) in the form of anguish and isolation. With social distancing and quarantine, what is palpably missing is a “we,” even the limited human contact of everyday sociability under capitalism.

Consequently, “the social question” — concerning the organization of social life — has emerged anew. If returning to pre-COVID-19 normalcy is the sole aim, then much of the world likely faces a decade of malaise due to austerity-driven recovery, the specter of nationalism, and — for those without wealth and privilege — diminished life opportunities. Instead of temporary crisis measures, what is needed is post-capitalist ecosocialism. But what would that look like?

Firstly, hostility towards socialism as a radical alternative needs to be sufficiently addressed and overcome. Challenging as that task is, in recent years, younger generations in countries like Spain, France, England and the USA have been warming to the idea of socialism. For many disillusioned with capitalism, Podemos in Spain, the socialism of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the UK Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders’s passionate plea for democratic socialism in the US have undoubtedly touched a nerve. Thanks to these valiant efforts, “capitalist realism” is no longer insurmountable.

Secondly, 21st-century socialism needs to hold fast to another idea that characterized 19th-century socialists: work should not be done at the cost of one’s health or well-being. COVID-19 may not discriminate, but we do. Hence, the virus has had a disproportionate impact on the less privileged. Frontline workers of the care economy such as medical workers, food workers and social service workers whose contributions were celebrated through last year’s state of emergency, were at the same time some of the most endangered people in society.

And although capitalism is increasingly digitalized, it continues to deny workers dignity and self-realization. The flexibility demanded of workers by the so-called “gig” economy has transferred risks and insecurity onto those workers and their families. The lack of control over one’s employment also leads to alienation.

This alienation is arguably best captured in Amazon, one of the biggest winners in the pandemic who employ workers in low-paid and precarious positions across the globe. Amazon utilizes “digital Taylorism,” which entails the small-scale and standardized division of labor, digital surveillance of labor, and direct control of employees in their work. Digital Taylorism gives rise to atomization and excessive performative pressure, widespread dissatisfaction and, where possible, dissent. Utopia needs to be about a different kind of work.

Thirdly, the socialism of the 21st century has to be ecological. Because society and environment are dialectical, social emancipation necessarily entails a non-exploitative relation to the planet. The following are a set of key ecosocialist demands:

  • Rejection of the debt system and neoliberal “structural adjustment.” Imposed on Global South countries by the International Monetary Fund     and the World Bank, this system has dramatic social and ecological consequences including massive unemployment, dismantling of social protections, and destruction of natural resources. Rejecting this system thus entails massive global increase in welfare activities to secure food, water, health, education and suitable physical and social infrastructure, especially in developing countries.
  • Global deployment of renewable energy technologies, public transportation systems, carbon neutral production systems and alternative products as fast as possible by redirecting global surpluses and by openly sharing knowledge and technology. This may reduce the speed and severity of onset of future climate change.
  • Curbing global production of mining-based materials and energy like iron and steel, cement, thermal coal, oil and aluminum, both for reasons of climate change and to prevent further destruction of land. Reviving life in the oceans by curbing the use of oceans and seas for material dumping (be it solid or liquid or radioactive) by any entity whether state or private, including armed forces.
  • Public regulation and democratic planning in investment and technological change as well as the application of social, political and ecological criteria to the price and production of goods. No public financing of technology for private profit.

Taken together, these demands constitute a real and concrete utopia — a radical but possible transformation. The impact of such a transformation would be — analogously to 19th century utopian socialist aspirations — a re-integration of the economy into the ecological and the social world. The seeming contradiction between the ideal and the attainable is the generative tension inherent to concrete utopias. Such a utopia is only limited only by the natural world itself.

Eager to grasp the historical moment, socialists have been attentive to the crises of capitalism, socialism’s perennial nemesis. With a looming ecological and social crisis, the moment, at least in theory, is propitious for socialism. But what are the current prospects of humanistic and democratic socialism?

Susan Watkins´s words about dissent and social struggles across the globe at the dawn of the new decade in New Left Review are instructive here:

Alongside France, the US has become a world leader in social tumult. In early March [2020], it was widely believed that lockdown would put an end to protest. Instead, the ferment has intensified. […] The question in prospect is not so much the disappearance of populism, but rather what new political forms these often inchoate protests may take in the 2020s.

Inchoate as the protests may often be, their demand for popular social and economic justice is a common thread. This thread is at odds with the capitalist status quo and its regime of heavy-handed policing and labor commodification. If not stopped in their tracks or reconciled with capital, these demands — and the struggles which accompany them — will give human social life a new and more just, ecological and socialist direction.

Ecosocialism is thus increasingly a necessary way forward amidst and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an attainable utopia which represents a hospitable world beyond the world of capitalism we have known so far.

Martin Aidnik is an Estonian sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at Nottingham University, UK. His scholarly interests include social theory and European studies.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

Is AltE Truly the Best Solution to Climate Catastrophe?

Water Protectors Occupy Work Sites and Lock Down to Line 3 Enbridge Pipeline. Thanks to Unicorn Riot.

Written by By Don Fitz

Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!... Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production: this was the historical mission of the bourgeoisie in the period of its domination …”  Karl Marx, Capital, Vol 1, Ch 25 

The world is threatened with environmental disaster and capitalists hope to make a killing off of it.  Fossil fuel (FF) companies claim they are “environmentally friendly.”  Other corporations promote nuclear energy, hydro-power (dams), and solar and wind power as the best energy alternatives. 

Yet environmentalists have known for decades that reduction of useless and harmful energy is the “greenest” form of energy available.  Over 50 years ago, the first Earth Day recognized this with the slogan “Reduce; Reuse; Recycle.”  Today, corporate “environmentalism” chants “Recycle; Occasionally Reuse; and, Never Utter ‘Reduce.’”  Even mentioning the word “reduce” can be met with howls of derision that “Reduction means ‘austerity,’” as if any type of collective self-control would plunge the world into depths of suffering. 

This can lead to a belief that supporting “alternative energy” (AltE) allows everyone on Earth to pursue a lifestyle of endless consumerism.  It avoids the real problem, which is capitalism’s uncontrollable drive for economic growth. 

Overproduction for What Purpose? 

Acceptance of consumerism hides the twin issues that AltE creates its own disastrous outcomes and that lowering the amount of harmful production would actually improve the quality of life.  Simply decreasing the amount of toxic poisons required for overproduction would cut down on cancers, brain damage, birth defects and immune system disorders. 

No one would suffer from the massive toxins that would be eliminated by halting the manufacture of military armaments or disallowing the design of electrical devices to fall apart.  Very few would be inconvenienced by discontinuing lines of luxury items which only the 1% can afford to purchase.

Food illustrates of how lowering production has nothing to do with worsening our lives.  Relying on food produced by local communities instead of food controlled by international corporations would mean eliminating the processing of food until it loses most nutritional value.  It would mean knowing many of the farmers who grow our food instead of transporting it over 2000 miles before it reaches those who eat it.  It would cut out advertising hyper-sugarfied food to kids.

When I first began studying environmentalism over 30 years ago, I remember hearing that if a box of corn flakes costs $1, then 1¢ went to the farmer and $.99 went to the corporations responsible for processing the corn, packaging it, transporting the package and advertising it.  Reduction does not mean “doing without” – it means getting rid of the crap. 

Closely linked to food is health.  My book on Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution points out that the island nation’s life expectancy is longer and infant mortality lower than that in the US while it spends less than 10% per person of what the US does.  Reducing energy devoted to health care does not mean less or worse care.  It means getting rid of the gargantuan unnecessary and expensive components which engulf health care in capitalist society.

Electric vehicles (EVs) embody collective environmental amnesia.  Once upon a time, not too many decades ago, people wrote of walkable/bikeable communities and some even put their dreams to the test.  Well … crush that dream.  Since AltE has become a fad, the idea of redesigning urban space is being dumped so that every person can have at least one EV.  Memory of environmental conservation has fallen into oblivion. 

Not Getting Better All the Time 

Despite the hype about AltE, capitalist use of energy is expanding, not contracting.  We are constantly told to buy the latest electronic gadget – and the time period between successive versions of gadgets gets shorter and shorter.   AltE exacerbates the crisis of capitalist energy by distracting society from practicing conservation.

The Bitcoin Ponzi scheme reveals the expansion of energy in the service of uselessness.  Jessica McKenzie describes a coal-burning power plant in Dresden, NY.  The plant was shut down because the local community had no use for its energy.  But Bitcoin needed energy to compute its complex algorithms.  So, like Dracula, the coal plant rose from the dead, transformed into a gas burning plant. 

What, exactly, are Democratic Party politicians like Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and even Bernie Sanders doing to put the breaks on this expansion of FFs in programs like the Green New Deal (GND)?  Actually, nothing.  As Noam Chomsky points out in his forward to Stan Cox’ The Green New Deal and Beyond, “… the GND does not challenge the fossil-fuel industry.”  Congressional proposals leave out the most critical part of reducing FFs – limiting the total quantity that can be produced.  Instead, they rely on the fantasy that increasing AltE will somehow cause a decrease in FF use.  This is a myth that we know all too well: corporate politicians toss around empty phrases like “net zero” as they further proposals to add AltE to the energy mix in. 

Are Problems with AltE “Minimal?” 

Despite stated goals to “end” FF production by such-and-such a date, the high heat they generate is essential for producing (1) silicon wafers for solar panels, (2) concrete and steel used in construction of windmills and dams, and (3) plastic coverings for industrial windmill blades.  Every type of AltE requires FFs.  Supporters of AltE often say that it is so much smaller as to pale by comparison to direct use of FFs.

Claiming that the amount of FFs used by AltE is trivial ignores both the quantities actually being used now and, most importantly, the uncontrollable urge of capitalism toward infinite growth.  Hydro-power (dams) is currently the greatest source of AltE and is in line to expand most rapidly.  Ben Gordesky describes research showing that “Canadian large-scale hydro projects have an ongoing carbon footprint that is approximately 40% that of electricity generated by burning natural gas.  These emissions do not include the carbon footprint of dam construction.”  This is not a trivial amount of FFs used by dams, especially since hydropower “is expected to grow by at least 45% by 2040.

Estimates are that “Solar and wind have a carbon footprint of 4% to 8% of natural gas.”  For the sake of simpler arithmetic, let’s say that hydro, wind and solar average 12.5% of the carbon footprint of FFs (even though is it probably much higher).  Then, let’s say that healthy capitalism grows at least 3% annually (even though the phrase “healthy capitalism” is highly dubious), which means a doubling in size every 25 years.  If AltE requires 12.5% of the equivalent FFs now, then,

·       in 25 years it will require what is twice that, or 25% of current FF use; 

·       at 50 years, it again doubles (to four times its current size), requiring 50% of current FF use; and, 

·       at 75 years, the economy doubles (to eight times its current size), reaching 100% of current use. 

To put it bluntly, reliance on AltE in no way eliminates FF usage – in only 75 years economic growth would return us to current FF levels.

But would we have to wait 75 years to see current levels of FF restored?  For some parts of the economy, the answer is definitely “No.”  As Stan Cox documents, “… the huge increase in mines, smelters, factories and transportation required for this transition [to EVs] would continue heightened CO2 levels long before any emission savings would be realized.” 

It might be possible theoretically to concentrate energy to reach the extremely high temperatures necessary for production of wind turbines and silicon wafers for solar arrays.  Relying on Cox’ calculations, expanding infrastructure to reach 100% AltE by 2030 “… would require a 33-fold increase in industrial expansion, far more than has ever been achieved anywhere and would result in complete ecological devastation.  One little fact regarding this quantity of build-up is that 100% RE would require more land space than used for all food production and living areas in the 48 contiguous states.” 

Time for Despair? 

Is it time to throw up our hands in despair that the only route to preserve humanity is a return to hunter/gatherer existence?  Not really.  Focusing on local, community-based energy can create sufficient production for human needs. 

Many underestimate the ability of low tech devices.  When in high school during the 1960s, my science project was a solar oven that could cook via medium heat.  When I returned from college a few years later, my mom intimated that my dad, an engineer, thought that a solar reflector device could not possibly generate much heat.  So, one morning he used it as a greenhouse for his vegetable seedlings.  When he returned later that day, the plants were fried.

Solar power does not require high-tech based on massive arrays.  Few techniques are more powerful at reducing energy than a passive house design or use of passive solar for existing homes.  It is even possible to run a website via low tech solar without destroying farmland for gargantuan solar arrays.

The story of wind power is somewhat different.  Kris De Decker edits Low-Tech Magazine which spans a variety of ways to heat, cool and provide energy.  An outstanding article covers the sharp contrast between ancient wind mills vs. modern industrial wind turbines:  

“For more than two thousand years, windmills were built from recyclable or reusable materials: wood, stone, brick, canvas, metal…  It’s only since the arrival of plastic composite blades in the 1980s that wind power has become the source of a toxic waste product that ends up in landfills.  New wood production technology and design makes it possible to build larger wind turbines almost entirely out of wood again… This would make the manufacturing of wind turbines largely independent of fossil fuels and mined materials.” 

A Global Struggle 

The obsession of capitalism with expanding production is a social disease that infects every aspect of exploring, mining, transporting, using and disposing of energy infrastructure.  For decades, this has been painfully obvious for FFs and nuclear power.  Except for those who refuse to see, the opposition rippling through AltE is increasingly clear.

The two key words common to all of these efforts is “Stop it!”  A better life for all begins with rejecting the limitless growth of capitalism by developing technologies that minimize mining, processing, over-producing goods with short durations, and transporting products over long distances.  Instead, we must develop locally-based products that have the least harmful effects.

One of the main problems with tunnel visioning on AltE is that how that approach accepts and perpetuates the ideology of greed, which insists that everyone in the US (and, of course, the world) must adopt the consumerist life-style of the upper middle class.  Core to challenging capitalism would be making demands that capitalism cannot possibly fulfill but which rational people have no problem with.  The demand to preserve our existence by reducing the overgrown production of capitalism is such a demand.  When people say that we must not make a demand such as this, it is time to ask if they are putting the survival of capitalism ahead of the survival of humanity.

Everyone in the world believes in preserving what they hold sacred.  For most of us, these include sacred places and beings, the inorganic world, creatures that sleep in water or on land, and human life.  For others, what they hold most sacred is corporate profits. 

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.