Written by Fernando Marti
Freedom Road Socialist Organization
2. Catastrophic climate change will affect the fate of millions of humans, with the greatest impacts on the poor and most oppressed;
3. As the ecological crisis sharpens, the ruling class will attempt to contain the crisis, exploit it for more profits, and maneuver globally for national and ruling class survival (ecological imperialism);
4. Ecology represents new terrain for the traditional Left, which is not clear on how (or whether, or how strongly) to engage with it;
5. The urgency of the crisis, and its effects on the poor, working class, and oppressed people of color, demands that the Left begin engaging the ecological crisis as one of its core projects, coequal with economic and racial justice;
6. The radical ecological approach, while sharing a similar critique of capitalism as the traditional Left, uses a framework that is very challenging for those from Marxist left traditions;
7. Nonetheless, incorporating aspects of the radical ecological and eco-feminist approach offers a necessary voice in developing a socialism of the 21st Century, that, while maintaining the class struggle at the fore in overcoming capitalism, can develop a new vision and strategy for change that encompasses the survival of the human race.
1. The emerging global ecological crisis is the next fundamental crisis of capitalism.
Capitalism is characterized by recurring crises of overproduction. Capitalism constantly seeks more profits by producing more stuff, but it drives down wages so consumers are no longer able to buy the stuff. Mainstream economists call this the business cycle. Since the 70s, this crisis has been forestalled through finding new markets in developing countries through globalization, in the US by keeping consumption up through personal debt, despite falling real wages, by military Keynesianism (i.e., government spending), and by putting profits into new forms like derivatives instead of real production.
James O’Connor identifies a second fundamental crisis, what he calls a crisis of rising costs of production, the crisis of capitalism hitting the ecological limits of the earth, either limits in available resources for extraction (i.e., oil), limits of no longer being able (politically) to “externalize” costs such as pollution, or limits imposed by catastrophic climate change. Sections of the ruling class (globally and in the U.S.) are aware of this contradiction and are very concerned, from the Club of Rome that drafted “The Limits to Growth” in the 1970s, to the framing of UNCED in 1990 and subsequent Kyoto agreements, to Al Gore’s movie, and finally to the current Copenhagen round of talks. As in the contradictions caused by overproduction, the ruling class will tinker with solutions to minimize and forestall the ultimate crisis, but never be able to deal with the fundamental problem inherent in capitalism itself: in the first case, exploitation of labor, and in the second, exploitation of the earth.
2. Catastrophic climate change will affect the fate of millions of humans, with the greatest impacts on the poor and most oppressed.
By most accounts, we are well past the point of no return in terms of major sea level rise and major climatological changes (floods, hurricanes, etc.). Global warming is the prime indicator for atmospheric changes, and current changes in global temperature are the result of human-induced changes in atmospheric content from decades ago – meaning that the changes caused by the last few decades of emissions will not be felt for decades yet. The question is not can we reverse the tide, but how bad will it get.
Globally, major metropolitan areas, including much of south and southeast Asia, will be displaced by rising sea levels, causing massive migration. Deforestation and loss of wetlands is exacerbating annual flooding, again causing misery and displacement. Changes in sea level and ocean temperatures mean changes in wind patterns, including occurrence of typhoons and hurricanes – the increasing number of hurricanes per year is thought to be a consequence of global warming (i.e., Hurricane Katrina is only the first of many to come). Loss of glaciers and snow melt (along with depleted or salinated aquifers) will mean millions of more people without access to clean drinking water. Locally, it is probable to contemplate that Los Angeles will have no drinking water within a few decades. Industrial agriculture (heavily irrigated and fertilized) is gradually destroying the capacity of soils to support it by increasing the salt content of the soil, and (as in many ancient cultures dependent on irrigated farming) creating deserts. Deforestation is further impacting our ability to deal with climate change by destroying the “lungs of the earth.”
This is not to mention the loss of biological diversity, including the incredible storehouse of genetic knowledge in the world’s ecosystems, closely related to the loss of cultural and language diversity. And lastly, the destruction of human health through toxins (some very visible and most invisible and global in proportion).
3. As the ecological crisis sharpens, the ruling class will attempt to contain the crisis, exploit it for more profits, and maneuver globally for national and ruling class survival (ecological imperialism.
In terms of containing the crisis, the solutions proposed by the ruling class include an emphasis on “market-based” solutions, including creating new markets for pollution (essentially the first step in privatizing the air we breathe), and in technological fixes, not just at the consumer level, but at large scale, such as proposals for desalination plants (being explored by various municipalities in California).
The capitalists have found in the growing awareness of the ecological crisis a new niche market, though this is in fact, the less insidious aspect. Water privatization, for example, is the most obvious endeavor of capitalists to exploit the crisis of scarcity created by its own ecological impacts. Homeland Security already makes climate-induced migration one of the “national security” threats that it tracks. National governments and corporations are already buying large tracts of land in developing countries for their own “food security,” leading to new kinds of ecological crisis motivated imperialism.
4. Ecology represents new terrain for the traditional Left, which is not clear on how (or whether, or how strongly) to engage with it.
The jobs vs. environment continues to be a wedge issue, as seen, for example, in Chevron’s framing of community and environmental challenges to the expansion of their refineries in Richmond, California. The alternative, joining labor and environment in proposals for alternative “green economy” industries, such as through the Apollo Alliance and Green for All, rest primarily on supporting private-public partnerships and job training programs, which many on the Left do not see as very useful in either raising the stakes or directly dealing with the urgency of the situation. Nonetheless, the right has been bloodthirsty in its attacks, as seen with the recent Van Jones episode.
Engaging in climate change issues at the policy level has also been problematic for the Left (at least much of the environmental justice movement), as it means taking as a starting point “market-based” solutions of one kind or another, and leaving a confrontational regulatory approach off the table (let alone raising issues of consumption directly).
In the face of other more visible and visceral issues, such as the economic crisis and in the US the racial oppression through which capitalism operates, the ecological crisis too easily takes a back seat to major discussions, even when leftists are aware that it is out there, or that it is a much more potent Left issue in other countries.
5. The urgency of the crisis, and its effects on the poor, working class, and oppressed people of color, demands that the Left begin engaging the ecological crisis as one of its core projects, coequal with economic and racial justice.
New working class organizations of the most oppressed, such as those involved with Right to the City, as well as people-of-color based EJ groups, are beginning to take seriously how climate change will be impacting their communities, and, for example through the Movement Generation work, developing an ecological critique and vision. The Third World is already deeply engaged, from Via Campesina to Evo Morales, and we as internationalists need to put this on the front burner of our internationalism. An enormous number of people, especially young people, are already engaged in the debate, and developing critiques of capitalism from an environmental lens, but thirsting for alternative proposals, and any approach to real change will necessarily involve this wider segment of the population, beyond the most oppressed.
The question for the Left is: is this simply another arena of action that Left organizations should be engaging in, or does engaging deeply in ecological issues challenge some fo the core traditional conceptions of socialists. In other words, is ecology simply another issue to be subsumed within socialism, or is an ecological socialism fundamentally different from what socialists have imagined in their discourse on socialism?
6. The radical ecological approach, while sharing a similar critique of capitalism as the traditional Left, uses a framework that is very challenging for those from Marxist left traditions.
The radical ecological approach has a rich history, dating back to anarchists like Kropotkin and socialists like William Morris. It is often informed by anarchist, utopian socialist, social ecology, deep ecology, eco-feminist, and “fundie” green party principles, emphasizing, for example:
•The rights of nature and of land as equal to humans, humans being seen as a part of nature;
•A critique of the exploitation of land and resources being as essential for capitalist profit as the exploitation of labor;
•Localism, with an emphasis on local governance and solutions, and the bioregion as the appropriate highest level of governance due to the interconnection that assure local ecosystem and human survival;
•An emphasis on appropriate scale of production and decentralized “small is beautiful” community technologies;
•A critique of consumerism and materialism, including an emphasis on a return to use-value over exchange-value, and a critique of right livelihood over simply workers' rights;
•A strategy based on non-violent “non-cooperation,” prefigurative practices, delinking, and voluntary “removal” from engaging in capitalist relations;
•A “utopian” emphasis that successful (and necessary) local solutions, and a compelling narrative and ecological values, will build towards a “paradigm shift” and “psychic break” among people, leading to a deligitimization of capitalist ideology;
Outside of environmental justice groups and indigenous peoples (for example, Winona LaDuke’s writings), which sometimes share overlapping frameworks, the radical ecologists are often white middle-class activists, neither the working class or oppressed nationalities that the left traditionally engages with or rises from. Indigenous groups have long had a deep ecological critique of capitalism, but have not been able to engage directly with the left due to the left’s Eurocentric origins and utilitarian attitude toward nature and spiritual traditions.
Fundamental points of difference make it difficult for Marxist leftists to engage directly with these frameworks: their critique of industrialization as being co-equal to capitalism as leading to the ecological crisis (citing the many ecological disasters in socialist countries as examples), their emphasis on localism and autonomy over any form of central state planning, and what leftists see as their lack of revolutionary strategic thinking in terms of class struggle as the motor of change in societies.
7. Nonetheless, incorporating aspects of the radical ecological approach offers a necessary voice in developing a socialism of the 21st Century, which, while maintaining class struggle at the fore in overcoming capitalism, can develop a new vision and strategy for change that encompasses the survival of the human race.
An ecological socialist theory will also be a feminist socialist theory and a humanist socialist theory. An ecological socialist theory will not be afraid to be visionary and talk about the future, and to deal with the question of appropriate human-centered scale in terms of units of governance, of workplaces and technology, of community, etc., while not forgetting the scale of what it is up against. An ecological socialist theory will have to confront the legacy of industrialization and the exploitation of the earth, and develop a framework for human systems (economic, industrial, agricultural, etc.) that add to the vitally of the local (and global) ecosystem, rather than destroying it. An ecological socialist theory should be able to incorporate biocentric and anthropcentric viewpoints as separate tendencies in its development, as long as concepts of the interrelated health and survival of humans and/within nature are taken to heart.
An ecological socialism would move beyond orthodox left emphasis on the workplace as the central site of struggle, and even the community as the site of struggle, by understanding these as elements in the land (the original site of primitive accumulation) and now the earth as a whole, as the encompassing site of global (and local) struggle by the exploited against capitalism. Drawing from its critique of industrialization and its feminist framework, an ecological socialist theory would draw from Marx’s humanist writings to develop new understandings of livelihood apart from utilitarian labor.
An ecological socialist theory would not be afraid to develop as an ethical value-system, learning not only from the work of liberation theology and third world socialists who incorporated culture as central, but also from indigenous traditions and women’s ways of knowing and interacting with nature.
An ecological socialist theory would incorporate “local solutions,” not just as utopian visions but as necessary steps for dealing with crisis at a local level – but it would always situate these local solutions in the context of national and global context that limit their effects, and the necessity of deeper levels of change to bring these visions to the necessary scale.
In every step, ecological socialism would keep central the struggle of the most oppressed as they are impacted by capitalism and the capitalist created ecological crisis. While incorporating many aspects of radical ecology, an ecological socialism would always maintain its focus on strategic thinking about the steps, alliances, coalitions, and demands on the system necessary to bring about revolutionary change.
Fernando Martí is a community architect, printmaker, installation artist, writer and poet. Originally from Ecuador, he has been deeply involved with neighborhood struggles in San Francisco’s Mission District and SoMa since the mid-90s, creating art for and with many local organizations, working on housing and environmental justice, teaching political postermaking with the SF Print Collective, and facilitating classes with the Center for Political Education. One of his biggest frustrations is keeping his houseplants happy.