Friday, March 11, 2011

Capitalism, climate change and the Left

Can we solve the daunting problem of climate change within a capitalist system? This is no academic question - a wealth of scientific evidence points to the potentially catastrophic scale of climate change.

Alex Snowdon
March 11. 2011

Rise of the Green Left and Ecology and Socialism covers


Chris Williams, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket 2010), 284pp.   |   Derek Wall, The Rise of the Green Left: Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement (Pluto 2010), 192pp.


There remains a huge gulf between what needs to be done to stop climate change wreaking destruction and the solutions offered by political and business leaders. While seemingly everyone proclaims their ‘green’ credentials - except of course the ‘climate sceptics’ who deny climate change - the dominant solutions are superficial, trapped within the logic of the very system that has generated such terrible problems in the first place.

Ecology and Socialism, by US-based environmental activist and science academic Chris Williams, scrutinises the mainstream arguments and offers a more radical alternative, as indicated by its subtitle: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. Derek Wall, an activist in the Green Left current of the UK’s Green Party, is similarly concerned with outlining an alternative to capitalist remedies. His book, The Rise of the Green Left: Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement, locates the causes of climate change in the unchecked expansion of the global capitalist economy and outlines a manifesto for change.

As both titles will make apparent, the authors are united by wishing not only to re-assert the relevance of the socialist tradition but also clearly establish it on a twenty-first-century basis: a socialism relevant to an age of ecological destruction on a scale unimaginable to Marx 150 years ago. The term ‘ecosocialism’ is increasingly used by left-wing activists in a number of countries and across a range of organisations, whether (like Wall) as a minority current inside a sizeable and broad-based green party or (like Williams, a member of the International Socialists in the US) as an independent Marxist organisation.

They build on the work of a number of socialists, like John Bellamy Foster, Joel Kovel, Ian Angus and Michael Lowy, who have in recent years sought to relate anti-capitalist critique to ecological concerns. Writers like Bellamy Foster have stressed that they are renewing a long tradition, going back at least to Marx, of examining humanity’s relationship with nature and developing a version of socialism that takes ecology seriously. Yet such radical approaches have remained marginal to climate debate - unsurprisingly, perhaps, when we consider the wider marginalisation of Marxism and the left politically.

Williams deploys apocalyptic language: ‘Capitalist society threatens the breakdown of the basic biogeochemical cycles of the biosphere as we have come to know them’. But he’s right to do so - and a well-informed chapter on the science of climate change demonstrates why. Elsewhere he explains exactly why ‘capitalist society’ is responsible, drawing creatively on the Marxist tradition of political economy. It is not simply a question of growth per se - as many environmentalists appear to think - but the nature of the anarchic, competitive capitalist market which inevitably promotes growth as the goal.

As well as outlining carefully why capitalism is responsible for the problem, Williams uses this as the basis for taking apart the system’s supposed solutions. These ‘solutions’ have in common an unwillingness to challenge the workings of business. They fail to address the scale of the challenge - not due to a failure to recognise how serious our predicament is, but because doing so would challenge the system itself.

This is important because even many fairly radical environmentalists often act as if the difficulty is simply one of awareness: if only people with wealth or power recognised what is going on, they could be pressured into instigating more radical solutions. Williams shows conclusively this is wishful thinking; the systematic problems of capitalism always foil any individually-based good intentions. A more radical social and economic challenge is needed.

Williams is very good at outlining what he calls ‘socialist sustainability’ would look like. This is very refreshing, offering an inspiring vision to counteract the gloom that can easily paralyse us when considering the future of our planet, and benefits from using our present situation as the starting point - far preferable to nostalgically harking back to pre-capitalist utopias. It is a strong example of using the Marxist tradition not as an end point, or as a collection of dogmas, but as a basis for getting to grips with new social realities.

The book also benefits from the chapter called ‘Real Solutions Right Now: What We Need to Fight For’. I found this rather dry - perhaps unavoidable considering the subject matter - and it could have gained from being a little more concrete and specific. But it is still helpful as a means of launching demands and campaigns that move beyond limited and phoney market ‘solutions’, challenging the social and economic basis of climate change.

Williams does not evade the question of political organisation either - he makes it clear the Democrats cannot be any kind of meaningful political avenue for those passionate about the environment in the US. Frustratingly, though, he fails really to develop the more general implications of this for what should be done, how we might organise and the strategies we need.

Derek Wall's book is more concerned with practical campaigning, strategy and organisation, as well as providing some similar analysis to Williams (though generally not in such detail). It is a useful complement to Williams’ work and especially recommended for anyone active in the movement. Wall even offers a potted history of Marxists and others on the left who have written about the environment. I especially enjoyed this chapter - it shows that ecological concern is not new on the left and, while I do not agree with all of his assessments (e.g. his mostly dismissive attitude to Lenin), the overall picture is very welcome.

It could be argued that ‘ecosocialism’ is problematic as a concept - who is in and who is out when it comes to defining an ‘ecosocialist’ movement? Isn’t all socialism concerned with ecology? But - with this caveat in mind - I think it’s useful for Wall to foreground ecological issues and stress their centrality to any relevant modern-day critique of capitalism. He is also completely justified in arguing that an alternative ecological vision - as with Williams’ ‘socialist sustainability’ - is integral to how we formulate socialism in the twenty-first century.

I am not, however, entirely convinced by every aspect of Wall’s ecosocialism. His stress on ‘the commons’ is too open to interpretation - he seems to be suggesting that there is more space within capitalism for ‘reclaiming’ public or shared space and resources than I think is plausible. The issue here is precisely the global nature of the massive problems we face, which means challenging global structures and institutions. ‘Local’ solutions - Wall sometimes leans towards versions of ‘localisation’, while being too shrewd to ever entirely lose sight of the bigger picture - are no solution, and I feel the author gives them rather too much credibility.

That should not distract, though, from the strong internationalist politics running through the book. As the title and subtitle suggest, this is consciously a contribution to strengthening connections across borders and increasing co-ordination. It is an emphasis which stems from the widespread recognition among socialists that we have common cause globally, with links between developed and less developed countries especially vital.

Wall is keen to be pluralistic, recognising contributions that can be made by different political currents and insisting there can be no single ‘right answer’ or ‘correct line’ when it comes to ecosocialist strategy. This is a strength - in its openness and desire for unity - but I think also a slight weakness, as the chapter on strategy (‘Slow the Train!’) suffers from being too vague. There are still, nonetheless, inspiring and practical ideas and examples, with the author’s wide-ranging knowledge of real struggles to defend the environment and for social justice (especially in Latin America) shining through here.

Both of these books are welcome additions to the socialist literature on climate change: why it is happening, why it cannot be resolved without fundamental social change, and what we can do about it. Williams is especially powerful in analysing the problem - and also the flaws in the market solutions offered by the mainstream of the movement - while Wall gives activists a lot of ammunition, ideas and inspiration. Both are worth reading for the insights they offer.

1 comment:

  1. Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of “Green” environmentalism, animal rights activism, eco-friendliness, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, “dumpster diving,” “buying organic,” etc.). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms.