Ecosocialism: For a Society of Good Ancestors (Part Two)

Green ecocapitalists

One of the greatest weaknesses of the mainstream environmental movement has been its failure or refusal to identify capitalism as the root problem. Indeed, many of the world’s Green Parties, including the one in Canada where I live, openly describe themselves as eco-capitalist, committed to maintaining the profit system.

Of course this puts them in a contradictory position when they face the reality of capitalist ecocide.

In Canada, as you may know, oil companies are engaged in what the British newspaper The Independent accurately called “The Biggest Environmental Crime in History,” mining the Alberta Tar Sands. If it continues, it will ultimately destroy an area that is nearly twice as big as New South Wales, in order to produce oil by a process that generates three times as much greenhouse gas as normal oil production.

It is also destroying ecosystems, killing animals, fish and birds, and poisoning the drinking water used by Indigenous peoples in that area,

It’s obvious that anyone who is serious about protecting the environment and stopping emissions should demand that the Tar Sands be shut down. But when I raised that in a talk not long ago in Vancouver, a Green Party candidate in the audience objected that would be irresponsible, because it would violate the oil companies’ contract rights.

Evidently, for these ecocapitalists, “capitalism” takes precedence over “eco.”

But as capitalist destruction accelerates, and as capitalist politicians continue to stall, or to introduce measures that only benefit the fossil fuel companies, we can expect that many of the most sincere and dedicated greens will begin to question the system itself, not just its worst results.

Greens moving left: Gus Speth

An important case in point, and, I hope, a harbinger of what’s to come in green circles – is James Gustave Speth, who is now dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Gus Speth has spent most of his life trying to save the environment by working inside the system. He was a senior environmental advisor to US President Jimmy Carter, and later to Bill Clinton. In the 1990s he was Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and Chair of the United Nations Development Group. Time magazine called him “the ultimate insider.”

Last year, after 40 years working inside the system, Speth published a book called The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Stability. In it, he argues that working inside the system has failed because the system itself is the cause of environmental destruction.

My conclusion, after much searching and considerable reluctance, is that most environmental deterioration is a result of systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today …

Inherent in the dynamics of capitalism is a powerful drive to earn profits, invest them, innovate, and thus grow the economy, typically at exponential rates …

That’s exactly correct, no Marxist could have said it better. Nor could we improve on Speth’s summary of the factors that combine to make contemporary capitalism the enemy of ecology.

An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at almost any cost; enormous investment in technologies designed with little regard for the environment; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; markets that systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred by a worshipping of novelty and by sophisticated advertising; economic activity so large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet; all combine to deliver an ever-growing world economy that is undermining the planet’s ability to sustain life.

Speth is not a Marxist. He still hopes that governments can reform and control capitalism, eliminating pollution. He’s wrong about that, but his analysis of the problem is dead-on, and the fact that it comes from someone who has worked for so long inside the system makes his argument against capitalism credible and powerful.

The socialist movement should welcome and publicize this development, even though Speth and others like him, don’t yet take their ideas to the necessary socialist conclusions.

Greens moving left: James Hansen

Similarly, we should be very encouraged that NASA’s James Hansen, one of the world’s most respected climate scientists, joined in the March 20 demonstration against a planned coal-fired electricity plant in Coventry, England. Hansen is another environmentalist who has worked inside the system for years.

He told the UK Guardian that people should first use the “democratic process” by which he means elections. He went on:

What is frustrating people, me included, is that democratic action affects elections but what we get then from political leaders is greenwash.

The democratic process is supposed to be one person one vote, but it turns out that money is talking louder than the votes. So, I’m not surprised that people are getting frustrated.

I think that peaceful demonstration is not out of order, because we’re running out of time.

In the same interview, Hansen expressed concern about the approach of the Obama administration:

“It’s not clear what their intentions are yet, but if they are going to support cap and trade then unfortunately I think that will be another case of greenwash. It’s going to take stronger action than that.”

Like Speth, Hansen is not a socialist. But he condemns the most widely-promoted market-based “solution,” and he calls for demonstrations and protests, so ecosocialists can and must view him as an ally.

Why ECOsocialism?

Which brings me to a question I’ve been asked many times, including during this visit to Australia. “Why ecosocialism?”

Why not just say ’socialism’? Marx and Engels were deeply concerned about humanity’s relationship to nature, and what we would today call ecological ideas are deeply embedded in their writings. In the 1920s, there was a very influential ecology movement in the Soviet Union. So why do we need a new word?

All that is true. But it is also true that during the 20th century socialists forgot or ignored that tradition, supporting (and in some cases implementing) approaches to economic growth and development that were grossly harmful to the environment.

Socialist Voice recently published an interview in which Oswaldo Martinez, the president of the Economic Affairs Commission of Cuba’s National Assembly addressed just that question. He said:

The socialism practiced by the countries of the Socialist Camp replicated the development model of capitalism, in the sense that socialism was conceived as a quantitative result of growth in productive forces. It thus established a purely quantitative competition with capitalism, and development consisted in achieving this without taking into account that the capitalist model of development is the structuring of a consumer society that is inconceivable for humanity as a whole.

The planet would not survive. It is impossible to replicate the model of one car for each family, the model of the idyllic North American society, Hollywood etc. – absolutely impossible, and this cannot be the reality for the 250 million inhabitants of the United States, with a huge rearguard of poverty in the rest of the world.

It is therefore necessary to come up with another model of development that is compatible with the environment and has a much more collective way of functioning.

In my view, one good reason for using the word ‘ecosocialism’ is to signal a clear break with the practices that Martinez describes, practices were called socialist for seventy years. It is a way of saying that we aim not to create a society based on having more things, but on living better — not quantitative growth, but qualitative change.

Another reason, just as important, is to signal loud and clear that we view ecology and climate change not as just as another stick to bash capitalism with, but as one of the principal problems facing humanity in this century.

Evo Morales: Save the planet from capitalism

Although he has never used the word, so far as I know, one of the strongest defenders of ecosocialist ideas in the world today is Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, the first indigenous head of state in Latin America.

In a short essay published last November, Evo brilliantly defined the problem, named the villain, and posed the alternative.

Competition and the thirst for profit without limits of the capitalist system are destroying the planet. Under Capitalism we are not human beings but consumers. Under Capitalism, Mother Earth does not exist, instead there are raw materials. Capitalism is the source of the asymmetries and imbalances in the world. It generates luxury, ostentation and waste for a few, while millions in the world die from hunger in the world.

In the hands of capitalism everything becomes a commodity: the water, the soil, the human genome, the ancestral cultures, justice, ethics, death … and life itself. Everything, absolutely everything, can be bought and sold and under capitalism. And even “climate change” itself has become a business.

“Climate change” has placed all humankind before a great choice: to continue in the ways of capitalism and death, or to start down the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.

You know, last year I spent months working with other members of the Ecosocialist International Network, composing a statement to be distributed at the World Social Forum. It was finally published as the Belem Ecosocialist Declaration.

Now I wonder why we didn’t just publish this statement by comrade Evo Morales. He set out the case for ecosocialism, including a program of 20 demands, more concisely, more clearly, and vastly more eloquently than we did. I urge you to read it and to distribute it as widely as possible.

Slamming on the brakes

Writing in the 1930s when Nazi barbarism was in the rise, the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin said:

Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.

That’s a powerful and profound metaphor. Capitalism has been so destructive, and taken us so far down the road to catastrophe, that one of the first tasks facing a socialist government will be to slam on the brakes.

The only choice, the only way forward, is ecosocialism, which I suggest can be defined simply as a socialism that will give top priority to the restoration of ecosystems that capitalism has destroyed, to the reestablishment of agriculture and industry on ecologically sound principles, and to mending what Marx called the metabolic rift, the destructive divide that capitalism has created between humanity and nature.

The fate of the ecological struggle is closely tied to the fortunes of the class struggle as a whole. The long neo-liberal drive to weaken the movements of working people also undermined ecological resistance, isolating it, pushing its leaders and organizations to the right.

But today neo-liberalism is discredited. Its financial and economic structures are in shambles. There is growing recognition that profound economic change is needed.

This is an historic opportunity for ecological activists to join hands with workers, with indigenous activists, with anti-imperialist movements here and around the world, to make ecological transformation a central feature of the economic change that is so clearly needed.

Together we can build a society of Good Ancestors, and cooperatively create a better world for future generations.

It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but together we can make it happen.

  • Read Part One.
  • Ian Angus is an ecosocialist activist and editor of the online journal Climate and Capitalism. He is co-author, with Simon Butler, of Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket, 2011), and editor of the anthology The Global Fight for Climate Justice (Fernwood, 2010). Read other articles by Ian, or visit Ian's website.

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    1. Michael Kenny said on May 9th, 2009 at 11:12am #

      Whether there is a “universal” ideology remains to be seen, but viewed through European eyes, there is a need for a new progressive ideology for the 21st century to build upon the success of 20th century socialism (now conservative), itself built on the success of 19th century liberalism (now reactionary), the ideology of the French Revolution.

      The weakness of the Green ideology is that it is laughably middle class, hung up on bad smells, riding bicycles, sorting rubbish, not smoking etc. In the working class world, the Greens are regarded, at best, with amusement, more often than not, as annoying, seen as interfering with people’s smokes, cars and booze, and as downright dangerous when they want to shut down (for example!) that coal-fired power station that’s the only employment in the area. In parallel, therefore, a “new left” is developing (the Linkspartei in Germany, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in France, the “Popistes” in Switzerland, for example), which is articulating working class frustration with the broken promises of neo-liberalism and the dumbfoundness of socialism.

      The new ideology will probably emerge from the synthesis of those two currents and the point of junction is sustainable development, which preserves the environment and provides stable jobs. Neither side yet sees that and tends to regard the other with suspicion and, of course, whether such a model is transposible from hyper-orderly Europe to any other part of the world is another debate.

    2. Don Hawkins said on May 9th, 2009 at 12:23pm #

      We still putting CO 2 into the atmosphere at about 10,000 times the natural rate measured back 800,000 years that should be enough for us human’s. We see major changes taking place Worldwide changes that are very bad for us human’s. We have been told over and over the time to act is now. In the States what has been done so far to slow this down, nothing. In the Senate cap and trade that is only a band aid is on hold. James Lovelock a few years ago said what is the biggest problem with climate change and he said the surprises. We don’t keep burning at this rate and not expect surprises. We need to start now and it is not happening. It sure looks like the decision has been made by a few to not try. I don’t think it’s so much a conspiracy as stupidity. Right now the best we can hope for is major weather taking place on the Earth and then act. Like I said stupidity but so far that seems the thinking. Yes a few million to start in front of the Capital could help and how do we do that as it seems the illusion is stronger. One thing for sure as the problem kicks into high gear boring it will not be. Any plans in place for any of this, no. It’s still years in the future? It’s already to late in some way’s and only a few years away for millions not counting those surprises. Then billions. There is still time with total focus and a new way of thinking in many way’s. So far the old way of thinking and active paranoiac thought, to systematize confusion and contribute to the total discrediting of the world of reality. That’s the plan and how is it working, not well.

    3. Don Hawkins said on May 9th, 2009 at 12:36pm #

      It really is quite shocking, what has happened. We’ve lost 50 percent of the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean in the summertime. That’s the same area as all the land in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River. Now in the summer, that darker surface water is starting to absorb more energy. Will Steger.

      In just a few years that ice will be gone and the weather not the climate changes in the Northern Hemisphere as it is now. Food and water.

    4. bozh said on May 9th, 2009 at 12:46pm #

      it may be better to eschew talking about or defining any ideology an dthat wld include al cultish ones as well.

      instead, we shld ask, Does our inheritance include right not be lied to, healthcare, free higher education for all ?
      And who decides that we do or do not? All of us or about 5% of the pop?

      And who decides what is an enlightening education? All people or just a few who have already grabbed all econo-military-political power. tnx

    5. Don Hawkins said on May 9th, 2009 at 1:41pm #

      Say Israel goes into Iran with our help and oil goes to $300 a barrel. We still burn coal not as much and natural gas although not as much and some oil. At this point let’s be nice we only put CO 2 into the atmosphere at 6,000 times the natural rate. Although it might get us thinking about fossil fuels.

    6. Kevin Robbins said on May 9th, 2009 at 3:44pm #

      Come out from under the rock you live under folks. It has been proven that our Solar System is entering into a highly energetic part of the Milky Way. This area is causing all of the planets to react in the same manner as Earth. Are humans responsible for those changes also? I agree that we need to take care of the planet but to live in ignorance and believe that people like Gore are going to tell us the truth at all times and not make stuff up like he did in “An Inconvenient Truth” is the same as sticking our head in the sand. Changes are coming, but not at man’s doing.

    7. lichen said on May 9th, 2009 at 5:01pm #

      It is very important to distance oneself from the right wing communism that developed in the 20th century; without the full spectrum of left movements attatched to it–such as environmentalism, gay rights, children’s rights, civil liberties, nonviolence, direct democracy, humane treatment…without all of that it was really scum.

    8. Don Hawkins said on May 9th, 2009 at 5:01pm #

      And that 5% of the population who I have seen close up now for yeas as a whole are a rather pathetic group wouldn’t you say. Why do many want to be just like them? Yes the illusion is strong. More more more. Oh don’t worry more is on the way.

    9. Robbo Nimbin nsw AUSTRALIA said on May 9th, 2009 at 7:35pm #

      Fossil fools are digging up 21 poisonous chemicals 9 of those are carcinojenic to human survival.Birth defects lung damage asthma and lead poisoning are just a couple of other human ailments that coal digging burning and coal ash burial create.If the governments cant change their dirty coal burning habits its up to the people to stop buying their products .We are not children any more and should and can be responcable for our own water food and air that we need for our own survival.So be responcable for your own needs and create the world you want to live in my world is a natural paradise take what you need and always put more back and you will never go without…

    10. bozh said on May 10th, 2009 at 5:50am #

      robbo, well put,
      have deep respect and love for nature, biota, and all life. tnx

    11. Russell Olausen said on May 10th, 2009 at 10:21pm #

      Back in the 50’s when all the great powers where blowing up atom bombs in the atmosphere; they threatened each other and the Aberta oil sands were on the trajectory of the two biggest rivals. We used to joke about what to do if we were targeted for our growing oil capacity.The answer was, stick your head in between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye. Resonate with anyone?Karma.

    12. Muriel Stanley Venne said on May 10th, 2009 at 10:24pm #

      What has this situation, saying that you are absolutely right, to do with democracy? Where does democracy fit?

    13. Mulga Mumblebrain said on May 11th, 2009 at 2:29am #

      Kevin Robbins-thank-you. I haven’t laughed so much since I heard Obama had appointed Rahm Emmanuel as Head of State, or whatever. I had to adjust my surgical appliance. You denialists are a caution, I must say.
      I was a Green Party member, once, for five meetings. Rightwing twits, all splitting everywhere, but already following the German example, where the Greens, after splitting into ‘Realists’ and ‘Fundamentalists’ have sold out spectacularly. They are now further to the Right than even the moribund ‘Free Democrats’. Of course the bourgeoise mentality is fiercely inculcated, and a little happenstance like to collapse of the biosphere isn’t going to change that. I was fortunate enough to be sent to an elite boys’ school, not the very top tier, but the next step below the creme de la scum. My teachers were nearly all Rightwing cretins and thugs, who had no subtlety or compunction in indoctrinating anti-socialist ideas. Their bullying and imbecility taught me good lessons, re-inforced over the years by following the existential tragedy and farce of politics and public life in this country.
      Capitalism is cancer. It eats everything and turns it into necrosis. Its waste products poison its host, the planet. Capitalists are little metastases, spreading death, disguised as ‘progress’. The mentality that capitalism furthers, that of the psychopath, is unprincipled, egomaniacal and utterly indifferent to the fate of everything else. Under capitalism an existential version of ‘Gresham’s Law’ pertains. Bad people drive out the good, often by the simple means of killing them. Bad behaviour drives out good behaviour, and bad psychology the good. It was simply a matter of time before capitalism reached the techno-scientific intensity and extent to destroy the planet, and that time has arrived. I put our chances of success in surviving and establishing an abiding human civilisation as about one in ten. If we have failed it will be evident within a few years, and our one consolation will be that our evil system has died in its crib, having filled it with shit, and not escaped to degrade the cosmos. I simply cannot see how peaceful resistance can possibly prevail, as the Masters are the elect, the most pathological specimens thrown up by a system innately antipathetic to life, and they will never meekly surrender or change. I fear they have other plans in preparation, of a distinctly Malthusian nature.

    14. bozh said on May 11th, 2009 at 6:20am #

      mulga, some further observations on- what i call- interpersonal and international levels.
      we’ve been OK once. But at certain point of time, let’s say, 50T yrs ago shamans along with few psychotic individuals began to lead us astray in order to perpetually subjugate us.
      so, what is now happening in US is not a novelty but the same false teachings that had been around for millennia.
      it only seems worse than, let’s say, 7T yrs ago because the deceivers are now thousands times stronger econo-politico-militarily than ever before.
      in short, the difference is not in kind/intent but in degree of control.
      feudal lords have controled us thru private army/police/spies; modern lords do the same.
      even the army/spies/police are led astray and subjugated; exception being higher echelons who are part of the miseducation system. tnx

    15. Monkismo said on May 12th, 2009 at 10:07pm #

      Michael Kenney–
      I live in a working-class neighborhood, and I’m not sure why you chose to lionize the working class’s disregard for environmentalism when the same could be same for their attitude toward women’s issues, gay and lesbian rights, animal welfare, peace, or almost any other progressive/left issue I can think of. Does it make those issues irrelevant too?

      The urban poor and the rural poor alike share a disdain for environmental issues due to high rates of illiteracy, a basic social conservatism based in religion or their desire to possess the trinkets of conspicuous consumption that they see on TV, not out of some righteous indignation. They certainly have no problem sending their children into the military or the police to impose the government on other people.

      While I have little faith in a co-opted middle class’s willingness to be a major force for real change, I have just as little faith in the “revolutionary” potential of the poor, who seem more interested in emulating the rich than changing the system that oppresses them.

    16. Danny Ray said on May 13th, 2009 at 5:07am #

      Monkismo, Could it be that the working poor have a poor view of, not just enviromental issues but left issues in general, due to the fact that the left tends to look down on them and consider them sheep to be told how to think, vote, act, and look. Could it be the unending stream of jokes and put downs that turns the poor off? Maybe it is the automatic asumption that they are ignorant and need to be taught the right way to think.
      Just a thought, I know it sure pisses me off.

    17. bozh said on May 13th, 2009 at 6:32am #

      is it the right thing to limn solely what low[er] classes ARE? Wldn’t it be better also to include saying that they became what they ARE today; or, rather what they do/think now.

      low class, commonly known as working class, learnt to behave as they do now millennia ago. Guess from whom? Who were their teachers?
      potentially the working class cld care/know more.
      not of course by criticism but by education. Not by ‘education’ imposed by advertisers, entertainment industry, clero-political jingoistic lingo, or ‘schooling’.

      it is of utmost import that we do not blame/victimize victims/oppressed; Instead, expose lies by miseducators.
      for if we side with the ruling class- as we surely do when we condemn victims- we are helping to further enserf lower classes. tnx

    18. Monkismo said on May 13th, 2009 at 2:16pm #

      Danny–they don’t seem to have a problem with being told how to think by Rush Limbaugh, preachers, or military officers. Funny how you can only see the left–who have fought for labor rights, better working conditions, a social safety net, better education, and access to health care–as the people who are “looking down” on the poor.

      But if you think jokes are worse than the actual oppression of the poor, I can’t understand your perspective anyway.

    19. Danny Ray said on May 13th, 2009 at 6:33pm #

      A little, condescending maybe? I do not want to argue with you but you really should take a second and read what you just wrote and substitute the word Black or Hispanic for poor and see how that sounds. Maybe we should be more thankful to the left. Please oh great white lefty forgive us ungrateful peasants’.
      Have you ever thought that maybe we don’t want your help? Perhaps we listen to Rush and preachers and army officers because they share our values and from the looks of what I see the left don’t. The left seems to think our God and our country is a joke and our guns should be taken up and out hobbies outlawed. The left says we have to accept their beliefs beacuse we live in a free country and we do ,but the left also thinks that anyone who can’t belive the things the left does is uneducated, stupid, gullible, or just plain backward. And the beliefs of the right are sick and twisted.
      And as for the harmless jokes I just turned off air America they were making fun of hill billys going to church complete with really crappy fake accents and all, again tell those jokes with the words black or hispanic substituted for red neck and see how far you get.