Interventions Towards Ecosocialism
by Bruce Baigrie | Amandla! Issue No. 66 | October 2019
The Second Contradiction: Capitalism and the Environment
We are firmly in the anthropocene, a term coined by scientists to highlight humanity’s domineering influence on the planet. This dominance continues to have a devastating impact on the earth’s ecological systems. Most critically, we are crossing the threshold of irreversible climate change. We are careening towards climate catastrophe and with it a sixth mass extinction. Despite near universal scientific consensus and understanding of the processes that are causing this, the annihilation of nature and the life that it sustains continues unabated.
In confronting this period, socialists and environmentalists must come to grips with the systemic nature of why things continue to get worse. Environmentalists seldom realise that it is because of the dominant economic system. Capitalism needs to endlessly accumulate through the exploitation of labour and the expropriation of the environment. On a planet with natural limits, this cannot continue.
There is a different system that can break this terminal path to extinction. Ecosocialism is resurgent. It is an ideology that seeks to dismantle the inherent social injustice and ecological destruction imposed by capitalism. Ecosocialists, such as John Bellamy Foster, have reinvigorated an ecological tendency in Marxisism. It is one that has long been submerged under productivist readings of Marx that emphasised domination over nature.
Marx spoke of the natural social metabolism, through production and labour, between humans and nature. Marx saw the economy and nature as interconnected, but the laws and processes of nature, the universal metabolism, had to be observed. Instead capitalism, Marx argued, divorces the economy from nature. Through reducing labour and nature to commodity status, the social metabolism is alienated. Through this alienation, nature is conferred on capital as a “free gift”. Marx termed this alienation of the social metabolism the metabolic rift. When this metabolic rift occurs on a mass scale, for example through the fossil fuel and fertilizer industries, the universal metabolism is disrupted.
Ecosocialism is, conversely, an economic system that re-embeds us within the limits and laws of nature. It also has the side-benefit of democratising society and banishing class oppression! This has led to some ecosocialists being described as “watermelons” – green on the outside, but red on the inside.
The social, climate and ecological crises make the task of building ecosocialism ever more urgent. However, given neoliberalism’s current hegemony, ecosocialism is more likely to be realised through a series of “revolutionary reforms”, rather than through an abrupt revolution. Revolutionary reforms in this case are those that confront and contradict the logic of the system of accumulation as well as democratise political and economic power. Ecosocialist reforms must erode the power of capital and expand the public sector, removing capital’s prerogative over investment. This would ultimately rein in both the expropriation of nature and exploitation of labour. It would also begin to halt the destruction of the planet. Those on the left should thus immediately advocate for a series of interventions that seek to achieve this confrontation.
Meeting the Climate Crisis
2019 has seen soaring heatwaves, droughts and floods, tropical cyclones and hurricanes, as well as rampant wildfires in the coldest part of the earth. The climate crisis is firmly underway. The solution to this crisis, whilst it remains available to us, is straightforward (albeit politically challenging). Fossil fuels must be left in the ground.
However, the transition to economies powered by renewable energy cannot be left to the market. The market simply can’t bring us the rapid transition required (zero net emissions by 2050) in a global economy in which burning fossil fuels remains profitable and renewables are not profitable enough. Instead it will require the state to invest in renewables on a mass scale, as well as discipline and eventually abolish fossil capital altogether.
Ecosocialists must capture this process. A just transition, as outlined by current radical plans for green new deals and climate jobs campaigns, can deliver workers decent employment whilst preventing irreversible climate breakdown. Critically, the ownership of energy, the means of powering production, will be contested. The United Steelworkers said: “We can’t choose between good jobs or a healthy environment. If we don’t have both, we’ll have neither.” This is why ecosocialism should be so appealing to the left: there is a politically feasible path to it alongside labour and the working-class. So, the transition can either be an insufficient one that leaves renewables in private hands, or it can facilitate the public ownership of renewables through state utilities, municipalisation, or direct worker and community control. The possibilities are simply revolutionary.
Renewables are not the only remedy to climate change. Mass public transport, that is eventually electrified, is a mandatory intervention. Integrated bus and rail systems in urban centres must be complemented by the rollout of high-speed rail that can rapidly reduce the need for domestic aviation. The transformative effect of quality mass public transport systems on the lives of working-class and poor people cannot be overstated. Such systems will not be delivered, nor must they be owned, by private capital.
Over a third of fish stocks are overfished, three times as many as 40 years ago. Protection of these stocks is essential to ensuring food sovereignty and the survival of the oceans’ vast biodiversity. The oceans also provide livelihoods and cultural significance to numerous local communities. These communities have most recently borne the brunt of the “blue economy” framework which has been adopted by most countries.
The concept of the blue economy is largely meant to promote the idea of blue growth, a supposed panacea for the degradation of the ocean. Like the “green economy”, the idea is that, to conserve nature, it must be incorporated into the market and financialised to give it “value”. Aside from the repugnant notion that a price can be put on nature, what happens when that price is less than the profit available from its destruction? Rather than conserving nature, its financialisation simply conserves capitalism, by overturning the focus on its role in driving ecological destruction.
By promoting conservation through growth, the ocean is now more open for business than ever before. There is a new frontier in deep-sea mining and elite eco-tourism. Vast stretches of coastline are annexed through “green-grabbing”, excluding traditional fishers whose smaller returns keep them out of the blue economy discourse.
But it is through small-scale fisheries that ecosocialists should drive our marine agenda. Small-scale fisheries create 32 times as many jobs as mechanised, large-scale fisheries (so they are unappealing to capital). Ecologically, they remove 100,000 times less fish from the sea as by-catch. Finally, they are far more efficient fuel wise, catching up to five times as much fish on the same amount of fuel. Despite all of this, large-scale fisheries receive up to five times the subsidies of their smaller counterparts.
Ecosocialism would promote blue justice, with the re-inclusion of fishing communities and a path towards greater democratic ownership of fisheries and more ecologically sound practices. Support and development of small-scale fisheries offers us such a path.
Towards convivial conservation
Of the earth’s boundaries, it is its biodiversity that has been the most severely breached. Whilst their task is monumental, this is a serious indictment of the impact of conservationists. In their essay Towards Convivial Conservation, Bram Bushcher and Robert Fletcher propose an alternative, post-capitalist or ecosocialist form of conservation that would seek to respond to the core ecological pressures of the day. Their proposals are underpinned by a “living with” nature, rather than trying to exclude humans from it, as is typical in traditional conservationism. When this exclusion occurs (usually of indigenous communities) conflict arises that can result in ecological harm. Poaching is the most obvious example of this. Convivial conservation seeks to subvert conflict by including communities in the benefits of biodiversity.
Two interventions proposed by the authors are particularly appealing. The first is historic reparations for communities. Materially, this would involve communities regaining access to their land and/or receiving an element of ownership over conservation responsibilities. The second is a conservation basic income (CBI) for communities existing in or near important conservation areas. This could relieve pressure on communities to extract resources beyond sustainable limits in these areas, often a necessity in our current market system.
As a final intervention, let us abolish advertising and marketing! Ecologically damaging waste is built into capitalism, more and more driven by advertising and marketing. Consumers are manipulated to continuously buy products that are often not required. Products increasingly have a shorter lifespan and “new and improved” replacements are required. Think smartphones, or compare refrigerators of old to now.
Marketing and advertising would have no place in an ecosocialist world, where production would be geared towards satisfying people’s needs. Ecosocialism would create an abundance of investment in our creative needs and in developing our social relations, rather than an abundance of unnecessary commodities signifying class status. So, curtailing the power of advertising towards eventual abolition is another radical intervention that confronts the heart of capitalism – its dependence on endless accumulation.
Bruce Baigrie is a Researcher at the AIDC and IFAA.