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Climate Eco-cide and Democratic Eco-Socialism in South Africa

Climate Eco-cide and Democratic Eco-Socialism in South Africa

By Vishwas Satgar | Amandla Issue 61/62 | 09 January 2019

The end of the human race is a very real prospect in the context of climate change and ultimately a heating world. Global warming at increases of 3, 4 or 5 degree Celsius means planet earth will no longer be habitable for human and most non-human life. There is scientific evidence that this has happened to other planets like Venus but was caused through natural processes. Our end is not inevitable and neither can it be prevented by false solutions. As a scientific process, climate change is the result of the sun’s rays (energy flows) being trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere by greenhouse gases (such as carbon and methane). This is creating a heating planet. This article engages with this challenge from a climate justice perspective.

The making of climate eco-cide

There is a history to why Earth is heating. For the past 150 years, capitalist societies have been at the forefront of extracting, burning and emitting carbon through coal, oil and gas. Over the past fifty years there has been a “golden spike” and what climate scientists call the “hockey curve feature of carbon emissions”. This means that there has been a consistent and intensive increase in carbon emissions. The scientific consensus is simple: human beings are a geological force shaping the planetary conditions that sustain life. We are causing climate change. This is now known as the age of the Anthropocene.

While we can accept at a general level such a scientific conclusion, it is misleading in terms of the actual political economy of carbon emissions and carbon capitalism. For the past 150 years of emissions the industrialised countries of the global north carry a climate debt as the main contributors to carbon emissions. In addition, about seven oil companies (Shell, BP, Exon, Saudi Aramco etc.) have also profited from extracting and supplying fossil fuels. Various countries are also part of extracting and burning oil, gas and coal. These carbon corporations and states constitute carbon capital which is a key contributor to climate change.

The US has the largest per capita carbon footprint on the earth. Today, through fracking and support from Obama and Trump, the US is the leading fossil fuel producer in the world. The US imperial state is preventing the world from addressing the climate crisis in any meaningful way. This has been happening for more than two decades, under every US President, and this has meant the UN-led process to secure a climate deal has never been successful. The Paris Climate Agreement (2015) is a failed solution, with a weak pledge and review mechanism, married to green capitalist solutions that have not worked and will not work.

The capitalist Anthropocene reveals that rich industrialised countries, carbon capital (including in the global south like South Africa), the US imperial state and the lack of a climate justice agenda within the UN multi-lateral system are the vanguard destroying the conditions that sustain life of human and non-human nature. Climate eco-cide, the destruction of all of us through climate change, is being led by these forces.

South Africa’s carbon capitalism

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world according to any measure. Ironically, this is a conclusion of the World Bank in its recent 2018 report. The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) have made these observations since 2014. Their research has shown that the top 10% gets two thirds of South Africa’s income. Half of all South Africans are chronically poor, living in households with a per capita income of R1,149 or less per month.

With South Africa’s drought, our first major climate shock, these inequalities have been made worse through high food prices, for instance. In addition, new climate inequalities have been created through the privatisation of water. The working class, unemployed and poor have borne the brunt of the drought. Alongside racialised and gendered super exploitation, high unemployment and increasing poverty, South Africa is a carbon intensive economy, based largely on coal. It is the 14th highest emitter of carbon emissions in the world, and despite energy inequality has a per capita carbon footprint higher than China, India or Brazil.

Carbon capitalism was the bedrock of apartheid and has been part of ANC hegemony, and then dominance, in the post apartheid period. With the climate crisis, South Africa is a carbon criminal state, contributing to the greenhouse effect and the extinction of the human species and other life forms. It is an ‘eco-cidal’ capitalism, destroying the conditions that sustain life.

Limits of historical socialist alternatives: a Marxist ecology critique

South Africa has had a diverse socialist imagination which has included Sovietised socialism (even Trotsky’s minimum program), revolutionary nationalism and social democracy. The ANC Alliance is shaped by all three versions of 20th century socialism. These socialisms have not come to the fore in South Africa in the post-apartheid period. But they lurk in the national liberation imagination. They have been theorised in a manner that grounds them in particular assumptions about nature and historical experience of these socialisms.

From a Marxist Ecology perspective these socialisms have the following problems:

1. A blindness to the fact that Marx was an original systems thinker, who connected human social relations with nature. Marx understood that the labour process mediated the relationship with nature. Further, the human-nature relationship underpinned a “metabolic relationship” with nature as a whole. This means that the more capitalism undermined natural cycles and eco-systems, the more the antagonism with nature deepened.

2. An absence of thinking about value creation as grounded in both nature and labour. While labour was “priced in”, all these socialisms externalised the costs of nature in the production process. So pollution, climate change, species extinction, eco-system destruction, for example, are not taken into account in how production is organised. Nature must be conquered.

3. These socialisms are all productivist. They copied capitalism’s obsession with growth. This meant that accumulation and wealth creation were based on the assumption of endless resources. There were no ecological constraints.

4. All these socialisms are obsessed with technology as progress. But technology is not neutral. It is embedded in class relations. For corporations, science and research are about profit making. So unleashing the “forces of production” will not necessarily meet the needs of society and, worse, will have destructive consequences for nature. Genetic engineering of seeds is a good example of this.

Beyond Fatalism – the struggle for a democratic eco-socialist South Africa

South Africa’s historical socialist alternatives are limited and inappropriate for the struggle to address ecological crises and, particularly, the dangerous contradiction of climate crisis. Moreover, the dominant carbon capitalism is the real challenge. Many believe that carbon capitalism is too big a problem to solve and hence either accept the end of the human race or a catastrophic future. We are at the “end of times”. This is a fatalism that legitimises that madness and irrationality of carbon capitalism. It undermines any kind of mass working class-led response and is also blind to the science. Such resignation is deeply reactionary.

We have a rapidly heating world, with 12 years left to prevent catastrophic climate change and an overshoot of 1.5°C. According to the UN’s IPCC Global warming of 1.5°C report, massive reductions need to be implemented, much before 2030. At least 40% of reductions must happen at 2010 levels before 2030. By 2050, net zero emissions must be reached. In this context we have to be clear about the dynamics, logic and character of contemporary carbon capitalism.

Carbon capitalism produces class, racialised and gendered inequality. But it also produces climate inequality and “eco-cidal” destruction of human and non-human life forms. Carbon capitalism is anti-life. In this context, democratic eco-socialism is central to the demand: “System Change, Not Climate Change”. It recognises that “democracy” (rights, freedoms, procedures and institutional forms) is about a people’s history of struggle against capitalism and oppression; “ecology”, or the human relationship with nature, is essential for our survival and “socialism” is necessary to achieve the end of exploitation, racism and gender oppression and ensure the rational organisation of society to meet human needs.

Democratic eco-socialism – challenges and tasks for deep just transitions

There are no stages in this struggle to secure human and non-human life. We need to break with the anti-life and climate eco-cide logic of carbon capitalism now. The first challenge in this regard is to overcome old modes of politics and thinking. This means “reformist pragmatism” or “revolutionary maximalism” is not what the historical moment demands.

We are in an uncharted moment in human history which requires a response that brings to the fore what is necessary to sustain life as part of the deep just transition (an idea articulated by trade unions). We need a transformative politics that constitutes power from below, transforms the state into a climate emergency state, builds new systems to sustain life and advances just transitions in every living space so workers and the poor don’t bear the brunt of climate change. The second challenge is to recognise there are two fronts of the climate justice struggle: (i) decarbonisation across society: from extraction, production, consumption, finance, living spaces and the state; and (ii) the pro-active emergency responses to climate shocks: when communities are devastated by fires, flooding, droughts, heat waves and sea level rise.

These challenges affirm the organic and immediate tasks facing democratic eco-socialists today. Democratic eco-socialists have three crucial tasks as part of the deep just transition.

• First, building a transformative climate justice movement – a red-green alliance that can lead society. This means environmentalists have to become socialists and socialists have to become environmentalists to ensure fundamental transformation of capitalism. A new post-carbon bloc of counter-hegemonic red-green alliances led by the working class has to crystalise. This is already happening.

• Second, a programmatic approach to democratic systemic reform including decarbonisation; democratic planning; food, seed and water sovereignty; socially owned renewable energy; climate jobs; zero waste; mass clean energy public transport; solidarity economies; a substantive basic income grant that has to be scaled up now as part of deep just transitions. The Climate Justice Charter process underway is crucial in this regard.

• Third, democratic eco-socialists have to advance a vision and conception of the climate emergency state that is deeply democratic and which builds the relevant capacities to decarbonise and have functional and responsive emergency services and constructs through democratic planning of new systems to sustain life.

Vishwas Satgar has been an activist for over three decades. He is an Associate Professor of International Relations at WITS, board Chairperson of the Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre, an activist in the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and editor of the Democratic Marxism book series. The recent volume he edited on the climate crisis is freely downloadable here:


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