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The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives, Edited by Vishwas Satgar

The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives, Edited by Vishwas Satgar

Reviewed by: Janet Cherry | Amandla Magazine Issue 59 | 17 September 2018

Africa will be meeting only thirteen percent of its food needs by 2015. Lake Chad has diminished in size to less than ten percent of what it was in 1960. Six million people were displaced by floods in Nigeria in 2012.

Such alarming statistics, as Nigerian climate justice activist Nnimmo Bassey warns, should shock us into action. The problem with many of the books on the climate crisis are that they can so easily lead to depression and feelings of powerlessness in the face of impending catastrophe. Surely they point not only to the end of capitalism as an economic system, but to the end of human society as we know it?

Having read a number of reputable academic works on the subject of climate change, I faced reading this book with some trepidation. I feared it would leave me feeling hopeless and helpless. I was pleasantly surprised, however, and found much that was inspirational, reaffirming human agency in the creation of a different, sustainable and just society.

The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives is the latest in the “Democratic Marxism” series published by Wits University Press. Professor Vishwas Satgar is the series editor. He runs a seminar series with the same title at Wits University. The series “seeks to elaborate the social theorising and politics of democratic Marxism”.

Intense debate

On 15 March 2018, The Climate Crisis was launched at one such seminar, and I attended a packed lecture theatre where some of the authors presented their arguments and invited heated debate from the audience. From students to professors to trade unionists and community activists, the debate raged, with the key argument being around the Numsa position on renewable energy. The seminar was held a couple of days after Numsa’s interdict to prevent Eskom from signing the Independent Power Producers (IPP) agreements. Numsa’s position on renewable energy and the “One Million Climate Jobs” campaign came into question, and it was certainly the most controversial topic of the day.

The debates around energy policy in South Africa are also a core theme of the Climate Crisis book. Brian Ashley of AIDC contributed a thought-provoking chapter to the book on the topic of “climate jobs”. In it he argues convincingly that trade union members “have the most to lose by ignoring climate change” and that “The power of the Million Climate Jobs Campaign lies in taking up the two most compelling challenges of our time in a single campaign, namely climate change and mass unemployment” (p 290). Rather than seeing these two challenges as desperate signs of the collapse of the capitalist economy, they can be seen as an opportunity for creation of decent work in a decentralised energy economy which is controlled by the working class.

Michelle Williams and David Fig also both offer insightful critiques of South Africa’s political economy of energy. Williams’ chapter focuses on South Africa’s historical dependency on coal, and the relationship between coal-based industrialisation and democracy – what she calls the “energy-democracy nexus”. Fig offers a concise and illuminating critique of the nuclear industry and the politics of nuclear procurement in post-apartheid South Africa.

Patrick Bond (with Desne Masie) offers his usual scathing critique of South African government policies, in this instance Operation Phakisa and the “Blue Economy”. They conclude, on a cautiously optimistic note, that “The uncritical market-based philosophy that has resulted in ineffective macro-economic policies and Phakisa-style accumulation could instead by replaced by the logic of the just transition: a decisive move away from carbon-intensive ‘development’, but in a manner that takes seriously the need to protect capital’s victims in poor and working class, female and black, and differently-abled populations from further upheaval. To do so, the prevailing mega-project strategies must have their technological and rhetorical assumptions disrupted, their underlying economic assumptions questioned, environmental risks recalibrated, and leadership displaced by progressive, democratic forces” (page 330).

Existing alternatives

South Africans, being notoriously inward-looking and obsessed with our own problems, will find the chapters referred to above of great interest. They are in Part Three of the book, which focuses on “Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives in South Africa”. Sadly, while the critiques are undeniably valid, they offer little in the way of existing alternatives. These appear in the previous section, where democratic eco-socialist alternatives are explored, with reference to contexts other than South Africa.

Of particular interest and inspiration are the chapters by Pablo Solon on “The Rights of Mother Earth” and Alberto Acosta and Mateo Martinez Abarca on “Buen Vivir”. These chapters expose us to developments in South America, and the principles of the “Earth Charter”: “ensuring sustainable life in all its rich diversity, promoting participatory societies with gender equality, adopting alternative systems of production that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities’.” I particularly appreciated Cormac Cullinan’s (2011:7) articulation of the important requirement for change: “It requires a change in the human relationship with the natural world, from one of exploitation to one of democracy with other beings” (page 117)

Acosta and Abarca’s chapter argues that such alternatives, which invite us to question the growth imperative and mainstream economics, usually emerge from the margins of society (page 133) – an important point for us to explore, as activists and critical intellectuals in the global South. We do not have to wait for the solutions to be developed in the advanced industrial economies or from the well-publicised intellectuals of the North. We should be developing our own alternatives, both in ideas and in action, in our day to day lives. This idea of transforming our own personal practice is also reflected in the thought-provoking chapters by South Africans Christelle Terreblanche (‘Ubuntu and the Struggle for an African Eco-Socialist Alternative’) and Devan Pillay (‘Challenging the Growth Paradigm: Marx, Buddha and the Pursuit of Happiness’). The latter’s particularly appealing philosophical challenge invites us to explore a utopian vision which “seeks short-term tactical victories that are embedded in longer-term strategic visions that can only be guaranteed by a fundamentally democratic project, where power truly resides with the people” (page 163).

Ways forward

How is this to be done? The spheres of democratic control over energy and food are a good starting point. Nnimmo Bassey’s chapter on “The Struggle for African Food Sovereignty” takes the depressing statistics cited in the beginning of this article as a starting point, but ends with a convincing argument for food sovereignty. Andrew Bennie and Athish Satgoor take this argument “down to the grassroots” with their chapter on “Deepening the Just Transition through Food Sovereignty”.

Struggles around food production and consumption are in turn linked by Jackie Cock (“The Climate Crisis and a Just Transition in South Africa: An eco-feminist-socialist perspective”) to social reproduction and the linking of feminism, socialism and responses to the climate crisis into a coherent movement for a just transition. Cock’s chapter also leaves the reader with the conviction that we have the agency to bring about the necessary “radical transformative change in how we produce, consume and organise our lives” (page 210). Many of the concrete ways in which we can do so are mentioned, including socially-owned renewable energy, localised food production, seed saving and food banks, and production and distribution cooperatives. Some of these are being tested in working class and rural communities, although at this point these experiments are limited and isolated.

The potential of macro-level policy interventions to be transformative is ignored, if not dismissed, in the book – with one exception being Hein Marais’ chapter, “The Employment Crisis, Just Transition and the Universal Basic Income Grant”. Marais addresses the critical issue of unemployment and offers an interesting state-led means to address it, which is consistent with the need for a transition away from the current fossil-fuel led growth path.

It would be remiss to omit mention of the introductory chapters of the book, which together with Satgar’s introduction provide some of the most comprehensive and critical reviews of the literature on climate change available to activists and scholars from the social sciences. Dorothy Guerrero’s chapter on “The Limits of Capitalist Solutions to the Climate Crisis” provides an excellent starting point for understanding the climate crisis and the “corporate capture of climate politics” in relation to international negotiations around carbon emissions. Satgar’s chapter on “The Anthropocene and Imperial Ecocide” provides an important summary of the current scientific discourse around climate change.

My own feeling is that capitalism may prove more resilient than either of these authors think – but this does not absolve us of the responsibility to engage in the challenging task of thinking and working towards a just transition. Further, it is our responsibility to demonstrate in practice the ecosocialist alternatives to the current economic system. For this reason, The Climate Crisis is highly recommended reading for progressive scholars and activists alike.

Janet Cherry is an ecosocialist activist and Professor of Development Studies at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth


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