Welcome to my new ecosocialist blog
I have launched this blog in order to archive the articles I have written on ecological and environmental crisis over the past 15 years, and make sure that they remain a part of the ongoing debates on both the crisis and the ecosocialist alternative. The articles reflect the positions I have argued in my 2019 book Facing the Apocalypse- Arguments for Ecosocialism.
Those of us who inhabit planet Earth in the 21stcentury face a huge problem. Our own species (modern humans) is trashing the planet on which we live at an ever-increasing and destructive rate. If this continues, the ability of planet Earth to sustain life – and human life in particular – could be gone within decades. We are the first generation able to understand the full depth of the crisis, and could be the last with a chance to do anything about it. No other generation has faced such a challenge or such a responsibility.
The crisis takes the form of a series of parallel global crises, or ‘planetary boundaries’, the breaching of any of which can destroy life on the planet in its ‘own right’. They include climate change, fresh water depletion, the melting of the ice caps and rising sea level, oceanic and terrestrial pollution, soil fertility depletion, and a massive crisis of biodiversity.
Today, extreme weather events inflicting death, disease, and poverty on billions of people around the world, are become more frequent and more severe. The temperature in parts of India has reached 51°C and the world is edging ever closer to the 1.5°C maximum global average surface temperature increase agreed in Glasgow. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a dash back to oil and gas that puts COP27 at the end of the year under serious threat.
What is ecosocialism
Yet there is still no common view, on the radical left, as to what is meant by ecosocialism. I have long argued that it involves a lot more than attaching the prefix ‘eco’ onto the 20th century model of socialism – which often seems to be the case. In fact it should inform everything we do, from our analysis of the crisis, the strategy and tactics of the struggle, and the kind of society we look to after capitalism has been abolished.
It is no longer enough for such a society to aspire to social and economic justice. Today such a society would have to be capable of forging a new none-exploitative relationship with nature, at all levels, capable of giving ourselves, and the millions of other species we are privileged share this planet with, a viable long-term future. Ending capitalism would be crucial but not enough. The ecological struggle would have to continue if future is to be secured including the continuation of an independent environmental movement. This means accepting that humans are unique as a species when it comes to environmental impact. We had already done extensive damage to the ecosystems of the planet long before capitalism existed, and will continue to do so after it is gone unless a fully sustainable alternative society is established.
Some of these issues I have referenced are controversial. Where should we stand on economic growth, for example? What do we mean by the Anthropocene and the ‘anthropogenic’ nature of the crisis? Can the ecological crisis be reduced to the role of capitalism? Is there an individual (as well as a governmental) responsibility for defending the planet? Should we make the polluters pay for the pollution? What should an exit strategy from fossil energy look like? Does the size of the human population of the planet matter? And, as mentioned above, what would a future ecosocialist society look like and on what principles should it be based.
I make no apologies for raising controversial issue. These are all discussions we need to have if we are to play a material role in the direction the struggle takes. Denying these issues resolves nothing, and ignoring them resolves nothing. It would just leave major existential problems unresolved which would eventually frustrate everything else we do.
The limits to growth
The issue of growth – both economic and demographic – has been at the heart of the discussion on ecological crisis since before the rise of the modern ecology movement in the 1970s.
The launch of this blog coincides with the 50th anniversary of The Limits to Growth Report by Donella and Dennis Meadows – and other young scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA – which was published in 1972 by environmentalist group the Club of Rome. It was, in my view, one of the most important books on the ecological future of the planet ever written.
The (very powerful) conclusion Meadows Report (as it became known) came to was that it is impossible to have exponential economic growth on a finite planet without eventually driving it to ecological and social breakdown.
It pointed to two parallel (and complementary) processes as the twin drivers of exponential growth – economic growth and the growth of the human population. Exponential growth means that with a global growth rate of 3 per cent per year (that has been the average for the past 60 years) the world economy doubles every 23 years. Which is self-evidently unsustainable.
The impact of the Meadows Report was spectacular. It sold a remarkable 12 million copies, was translated into 37 languages, and remains the top-selling environmental title ever published. It was influential – along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring 10 years earlier – in facilitating the emergence of the modern environmental movement.
What gives The Report – and its 50 anniversary – such significance today is that it not only analysed the processes involved in economic growth but it put a timeline on when to expects the consequences. The major impacts from such processes, it predicts, would start to be felt in between 50 and a 100 years-time – in other words now. The Report not only got it right – it got it spot on.
Its conclusions are also fully borne out by the situation we face today. The global human population has doubled since the Report was published, the global economy has more than doubled, and the breakdowns it predicted are now staring us in the face.
There is another measurement available today that vindicates their work, which is the ‘anthropogenic techno-mass’. This measurement was not available to them though they pointed strongly in its direction. This is a measurement of all the ‘stuff’ that human beings churn out in order to live on this planet – roads, factories, houses, vehicles, railways, and all the other infrastructure of 21st century daily life. This now weighs in at a gigantic 1.1 trillion tonnes and is now equal to the total natural global bio-mass of the planet, flora and fauna – it also doubles, every 20 years or so.
Meadows Report was ignored by the bulk of the socialist left, however. During the rest of the 20th century the whole of the left, including the Bennite left, along with the entire labour and trade union movement, was strongly pro-growth and productivist – as was Stalinism globally. Although this has changed somewhat in recent years, with the collapse of Stalinism and the rise of the Degrowth movement, for example, many on the radical left remain unconvinced and growth remains a no-go subject in the unions and the Labour Party. The most effective advocate of degrowth theory, in my view, is Giorgos Kallis and in particular his 2018 book degrowth.
Of all the issues I have addressed in these articles (and indeed in my book) – despite the powerful case made by The Meadows Report on the subject – the one I have found most perplexing has been the refusal of the radical left – or the vast majority of it – to accept that the rising global human population presents any kind of problem for the ecology of the planet. In fact even discussing the rising human population of the planet has long been a taboo subject on the radicle left, and it is getting worse. I rejected this argument 15 years ago and I continue to reject it now. In fact, we have a responsibility to discuss and consider this problem because we are a part of it and have agency in it.
We are still living, unfortunately, with the 200 year aftermath of the out-dated (and reactionary) strictures of Thomas Malthus, on population, in the 18th and 19th centuries that continue to influence the radicle left today. last year I was compared to Pol Pot when I raised the issue of population density in relation to the Covid pandemic. Later, in a discussion on The Dasgupta Review at an ecosocialist discussion group a leading member resigned when I agreed with the Review about the rising human population. He described my position as ‘border-line reactionary’. (My own assessment of The Dasgupta Review is on this site below).
Yet for the past 50 years the global human population has grown by a massive 83 million people every year (equal to the population of Germany) and is likely to reach (according to UN figures) 11 billion people by 2100 – after which it may or may not tail off. This means that the global population has grown by an additional 1.2 billion since I first raised it.
The idea that this has no detrimental impact on the ecology of the planet makes no sense. Everyone on the planet has an impact (i.e. an ecological footprint) though not of equal size. Everyone needs space and shelter in which to live, water to drink and food to eat. Collectively increased numbers mean a greater impact such as soil erosion, deforestation, and the human impact on other species – the decline of which roughly mirrors the increasing human population.
A factor which has perpetuated this confusion on this has been the distorted way that population figures are presented by those who seek to minimise them. In this the rate of increase is confused with the absolute increase – which produces very different pictures. The former implies that since the rate of increase is now falling that the problem is resolved, the latter tells us that whilst the rate of increase is indeed falling the population in absolute terms, i.e. the figure that actually impacts the planet, is increasing by 83 million people a year.
Rising population numbers are highly popular with ruling elites, of course, who see in it expanding markets, higher profits, workers for the factories and services, and soldiers for the battlefields. It also allows them to routinely distort their ‘achievements’. This is ‘a record’ and that is ‘a record’ which is only the case because the population has gone up.
The Green Party (of E and W), in my view, has a good position on population. They fully recognise the planet’s ‘limits to growth’ and put it this way: “There is a limit to the level of ecological impact the Earth can sustain. The number of people on the planet, their levels of consumption and their local and global impacts are key factors determining how far the Earth’s ability to renew its resources and to support all life is compromised. Even within this limit, high rates of population growth, as well as local depopulation can have a damaging effect on sustainability, equity and justice.
They rightly reject any form of coercion in this and see the empowerment of women to control their own bodies and their own lives – i.e. a woman’s right to choose – as the agency for change. They put it this way: “The Green Party acknowledges that poverty alleviation and education are crucial for women in poor countries to be able to exercise their reproductive health rights and take control over their own family planning. The UK and other rich countries should do more to support initiatives – both globally and locally – which uphold women’s rights over reproductive health, increase education and which address poverty and potential pressures on the global environment.”
It is true that they don’t appear to publicise it very much, but who can blame them given the reception they would likely yet from the radicle left.
No ecosocialism on a dead planet
The ecosocialist theoretician (and comrade) Michael Löwy, in his 2015 book Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe, says that: “The ecological issue is, in my opinion, the great challenge for a renewal of Marxist thought at the threshold of the twenty first century.”
Löwy is right. The ecological emergency does indeed demand a renewal of Marxist thought if Marxism to meet the challenge of the 21st century – particularly at the strategic level. There is little evidence, however, that such a renewal is taking place. What continues to dominate the line of march proposed by the radical left is what I have long called the ‘one solution revolution’: i.e. capitalism is the problem and its global overturn the solution, and not just as a longer-term perspective which is a different matter, but as an immediate solution to global warming and climate change here and now. This is maximalist at best, and anyone who thinks that such a proposition is remotely feasible should go and have a long hard look at the current global balance of class forces.
Comrades have insisted that ‘you never know’, that ‘anything can happen’, that ‘revolutions can spring out of nowhere,’ and ‘what about 1917 in Russia? In my view all of this is delusional in 2022. We are not in early 20th century Russia in the middle of the first world war. Even if it is a theoretical possibility that a global ecosocialist revolution could spring from nowhere to base the future of the planet on it would be irresponsible in the extreme. Bluntly, if the overturn of global capitalism in the 10 years remaining is the only solution to global warming and climate change, then, ultimately, there is no solution to global warming and climate change.
The starting point for any renewal of Marxist thought for the 21st century – within an ecosocialist framework – in my view, must start from the dynamics and the constraints we face in the 21st century. This means recognising that we now have just 10 years in which halt global warming and before the planet goes into irreversible meltdown – and that changes everything. It changes not only the urgency of the situation but the strategic approach as well. How could it not? Ecosocialism cannot be built on a dead planet. Nor can global capitalism be ended and replaced by global ecosocialism within 10 years. Today the struggle to save the ecosystems of the planet from short-term collapse and the struggle for longer-term fundamental change are indivisible.
The actual strategic challenge we face today is not immanent global ecosocialist revolution but an all-out struggle to force the elites to make the structural changes needed to halt global warming in the 10 years we have left as an integral part of a longer term struggle to an ecosocialist alternative.
Reforms need not be reformist. The most effective road to revolutionary change is via the struggle for partial and transitional demands – zero carbon by 2030 being a prime example. The struggle for such demands generates both self-organisation and ecological consciousness and can take the struggle to a higher and more radical stage. In any case, if we are unable to build the kind of movement capable of forcing capitalism to make big changes, how are we going to build a movement capable of its expropriation by revolutionary means? We cannot end capitalism just by calling for it to end – however often we repeat ourselves.
Another major no-no on the left has been any notion personal environmental responsibility for our own carbon and ecological footprints: i.e. paying more attention what we eat, particularly meat, the means of transport we choose, and the amount of energy we waste, and the amount of waste we generate. This was called for by the IPCC Report that recognised that whilst the main responsibility for such change is institutional and governmental, there is also an important personal responsibility involved – in the rich countries in particular.
An exit strategy from fossil fuel
Today the radical left still has no exit strategy from fossil energy that goes beyond appeals for a global ecosocialist revolution within the next 10 years, often expressed as ‘system change not climate change’.
Imposing an exit strategy from fossil fuel on the ruling elites against their will, it is true, will not be easy. It will need a powerful mass movement§ that can be most effectively generated by high impact demands that can command mass support, not just amongst environmental activists but amongst the wider population as it is impacted by the crisis.
The key to this is to make fossil fuel far more expensive than renewables by means that are socially just, that redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, that can bring about a big reduction in emissions in the time available, and (crucially) is capable of commanding popular support. This means heavily taxing the polluters to both cut emissions and to ensure that the polluters fund the transition to renewables.
One proposal on the table in this regard is James Hansen’s fee and dividend proposition. It provides the framework for very big emissions reductions, here and now whilst capitalism exists, and on the basis of a major transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor in order to drive it forward. It would need, as he recognises, to go alongside a crash programme of renewable energy production to meet the demand that his incentives would create.
It would also need a major programme of energy conservation, a big reduction in the use of the internal combustion engine, the abolition of factory farming and a big reduction in meat consumption.
Most on the radical left oppose carbon taxes with a ferocity that is hard to understand. Yet cutting emissions this way is, in the end, the only progressive/democratic way of doing it since it allows such taxation can be carried out within a framework that is heavily progressive. Any action taken has to have mass support – and be seen as such. The other alternatives, often advanced by the left, such as production cuts by government decision or rationing do not work, indeed can have serious consequences such as a popular backlash along the lines of the yellow vests.
Nor is it right, as many on the left say, that nothing significant can be changed whilst capitalism still exists. This is not only inaccurate but it inhibits the struggle.
There have been many important victories for example against nuclear power in Germany and Japan – also against airport expansion. The hole in the ozone layer was repaired, for now at least, by an 80 per cent reduction in the use of CFCs since the signing of the Montréal Protocol in 1987. Fracking in Britain has been halted after a long campaign. The recent decisions to impose charges on plastic bags can make a huge difference in terms of plastic pollution. Even the inadequate level of renewable energy now being generated would not exist but for decades of campaigning by environmentalists. In fact, the chance to make fundamental change is created in the course of the struggle for partial and immediate change.
Any mass movement demanding such change must be broader than anything we can envisage today. It must win support not just amongst environmental activists but amongst the wider population as it is impacted by the crisis. It must include those defending the forests and the fresh water resources and those that are resisting the damming of rivers that destroy the existing ecosystems. It must include the indigenous peoples who have been the backbone of so many of these struggles along with the young school strikers, and those supporting them who have been so inspirational over the past 2 years. It should include the activists of XR who have brought such new energy into the movement in recent years.
It’s up to us to force the pace. If capitalism is faced with the destruction the planet’s capacity to sustain human life, and with increasing environmental disasters in rich parts of the world, they might finally act to resolve it. The problem is that they will leave it until it is too late to avoid massive destruction; and they will carry it out by dictatorial means and at the expense of the most impoverished people on the planet. The struggle to save the planet, therefore, can be defined more precisely as a struggle to save the planet in a way that is democratic, socially progressive, and ecologically sustainable.
Alan Thornett June 2022.
Some passages in the above text were taken from the document adopted at the October 2020 conference of Socialist Resistance of which I was the original author.