Open Letter To Unions: UKSCN Stands in Solidarity

Like all ecosocialists, RedGreen Labour supporters have been inspired by the growth of environmentalism amongst school students and the combative and witty protests that have been taking place up and down Britain – and internationally – over the last six months. Many of us will be marching in solidarity next Friday, June 21.

But the labour movement has now been thrown a welcome challenge by young people now – calling for more involvement for the Earth Stike action on September 29. We are thrilled that the Baker’s Union has already supported this call – lets see what the rest of us can do.

UKSCN understands the power of protest. We understand the power of global collective action, and the necessity for economic and civil disruption. We understand the necessity for real, immediate, radical systemic change.

But as it stands, our generation has no future. We, the next generation of workers, will face not only an increasingly insecure job market, zero hour contracts and falling living standards, but also the destructive impacts of the climate crisis. Climate breakdown will bring food shortages, a lack of resources, and will displace millions, and we know that this system will pass on these burdens to working people. This catastrophe will increase inequality on an extreme scale.

The great tradition of unions and workers striking is one UKSCN have already begun to follow. The youth have shown a radical consciousness and international solidarity, striking to make our voices heard, striking to remind those in power that we are worthy of a future, a world, a planet on which we can not only survive, but can live, and breathe, and work.

That future is being held back from all of us – youth strikers and workers alike. Those at the frontline of the UK’s political dramas have taken their farce ever further, entrenching themselves so deeply in their fantasy world that they are blind to the fact that the stage itself is crumbling. The longer they pretend that our future is a vague concept, rather than a very real and tangible deadline, then the longer they fail us and sell us out, day after day after day, as we count down those 11 years we’ve been given, before a chain of events is set off that will totally and inevitably destroy the industries that working communities rely on.

We, the youth strikers, thank you, workers and unions for the workers across history who went on strike, and struggled for the rights we have today. Now is the time to see through the lies that they feed us to keep us – workers and young people, the most powerful forces, the real creators of change in our society – apart.

Our struggle is your struggle. Your fight is our fight too. The rights of one are the rights of the many, and that equity – social and environmental – is what we will continue to fight for, until we get justice.
The same bosses who cut wages are polluting the air. The same bosses who tried to stop workers fighting for their rights are heating up the planet. The same bosses you fought in the past are the ones we will defeat together. You forced politicians to take action and so will we.

This is not only a show of our and a plea for your solidarity, but also a warning. We must totally decarbonise our economy and create a new, unionised, well paid workforce in green industries, or face the devastating impact on working communities that the climate crisis will bring.

So join us. Let us unite our struggles and work together. We ask you to pledge that you will:
1. Invite us to your branch meetings to speak.

2. Pass motions to end support for high carbon sectors, industries that send our generation’s future up in flames.

3. Join us in calling for Green New Deal, making sure that the inevitable change is worker-led, and that not one job is lost but millions are created. Stand with us as we call for a just, worker-led transition from a self-destructive capitalist system into one that prioritises social equity and climate justice.

Let us demonstrate together, recognising that the struggles for climate and worker justice are one and the same. Take industrial action and we youth strikers will stand there with you in solidarity. And where unions mobilise, let us look to coordinate with the youth strikes, to strike together for our collective cause.

We know that the proponents of fossil fuel capitalism, those bosses who simultaneously exploit working people and the planet, will respond to one thing only – profit. Youth strikers have shown the power of collective action, now is the time to challenge those in power through a general strike. Because the struggle for climate justice is a workers’ struggle, the workers of today and the workers of the future must mobilise now to challenge the system that threatens us all.

Our call for a general strike will be heard by politicians because that is a testament to the power of workers. That power is our government’s greatest fear. So be a part of that general strike. On the 27th of September, we will reclaim the streets together. Not just for our economy, or for our politicians. We will fight for our jobs, for our families, for our traditions. Together, we will fight for the future.

In solidarity,

UK Student Climate Network.

The Green New Deal: Realistic Proposal or Fantasy?

The Green New Deal: Realistic Proposal or Fantasy?

The Green New Deal (GND), drawn up by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, is the most ambitious and comprehensive program to deal with climate change ever made by political representatives to Congress and the U.S. public, writes Peter Hudis. It calls for making dramatic changes within the next ten years to end our reliance on fossil fuels that are warming the planet at an alarming rate. But it is not only about curbing carbon dioxide (CO2)emissions: it is most of all a proposal to set us on a path of creating an ecologically sustainable society.

The GND lays out seven major proposals for ending U.S. society’s addiction to fossil fuels—the most destructive form of addiction known on this planet:
• Dramatically expand existing renewable power sources and deploy new production capacity with the goal of meeting 100% of national power demand through renewable sources.
• Building a national, energy-efficient, “smart” grid.
• Upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety.
• Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing, agricultural and other industries.
• Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and other infrastructure, and upgrading water infrastructure to ensure universal access to clean water.
• Funding massive investment in the draw-down of greenhouse gases.
• Making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries bringing about a global Green New Deal.[1]

These seven policy prescriptions are ambitious enough. Yet the GND goes further, by stipulating it “Shall recognize that a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” It spells this out with eight specific proposals:
• Provide all members of society the opportunity, training and education to be a full and equal participant in the transition, including through a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one.
• Diversify local and regional economies to ensure workers have the necessary tools, opportunities, and economic assistance to succeed during the energy transition.
• Require strong enforcement of labor, workplace safety, and wage standards that recognize the rights of workers to organize and unionize free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment, and creation of meaningful, quality, career employment.
• Ensure a “just transition” for all workers, low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, rural and urban communities and the front-line communities most affected by climate change, pollution and other environmental harm including by ensuring that local implementation of the transition is led from the community level.
• Protect and enforce sovereign rights and land rights of tribal nations.
• Mitigate deeply entrenched racial, regional and gender-based inequalities in income and wealth (including, without limitation, ensuring that federal and other investment will be equitably distributed to historically impoverished, low income, de-industrialized or other marginalized communities).
• Include measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs and any others as the select committee may deem appropriate to promote economic security, labor market flexibility and entrepreneurship.
• Deeply involve national and local labor unions to take a leadership role in the process of job training and worker deployment.

These eight proposals regarding full employment, universal health care, support for unions and marginalized communities, opposition to racial and gender-based discrimination, etc. may seem, on the surface, to have little to do with the GND’s central aim of radically reducing greenhouse has emissions within the next ten years. But in fact these eight proposals have a great deal to do with the seven that address ending reliance on fossil fuels. They are not some throw away meant to sneak a radical political agenda into an otherwise technical discussion of how to lower CO2 emissions. They are needed to wean U.S. society away from its addiction on fossil fuels.


Here is why: Climate justice can’t be achieved without changing the structures of U.S. society that make it hard to break from our reliance on fossil fuel. Over 1.4 million Americans directly work for the fossil fuel industry. It makes no sense to propose scaling back and eventually eliminating this industry unless those displaced from it are assured of jobs that pay decent wages and benefits. As Jedediah Britton-Purdy recently put it, “In the twenty-first century, environmental policy is economic policy. Keeping the two separate…is an anachronism.”[2]

Moreover, innumerable parts of our society depend on fossil fuel in addition to the gas we put in our cars. This includes building construction, packaging, and agriculture (most pesticides and fertilizers are made from fossil fuels)—even shampoo (yes, almost all of them are oil-based). Just look around you: almost everything, from the plastic tables and chairs to the Formica panels and light fixtures, are by-products of petroleum. These and many more products and the industries that make them will have to be reconfigured to drastically reduce CO2 emissions. Clearly, this cannot be done unless there is buy-in from the mass of the U.S. public—which needs affordable housing, health care, free education, and the elimination of racial and gender-based policies that maintain the status quo instead of fostering the common good. In sum, global warming is a social justice issue. If we don’t address the social injustice that is the main condition for the possibility and even the necessity of the addiction to fossil fuels, we are left without an approach to making even a dent in the problem.

Social Justice

This is already obvious from some recent events. In France, Macron’s government imposed a carbon-tax on gasoline as part of its effort to meet the international accords reached several years ago to lower greenhouse gas emissions. But it did so at the same time as reducing tax rates for the rich and cutting social programs. As a result, the Yellow Vest movement arose, initially united around a demand that the gasoline tax be revoked (their demands have have since exceeded that). It isn’t that they don’t care about global warming—many participating in the protests are farmers who see evidence of it every day. But they don’t want those already subjected to austerity measures and social marginalization to be the only ones to pay the cost of redressing climate change.

It is one of the virtues of the GND that it doesn’t include a carbon tax in its lists of proposals. The aim should not be imposing regressive taxes on the consumption of fossil fuels but rather restricting their production through a comprehensive program that can transition U.S. society from its currently ecologically unsustainable energy policies.

Although the GND does not mention how much it will cost to achieve this transition, it will clearly cost trillions of dollars. Is spending that much realistic or an utter fantasy? It is surely necessary, given that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently reported that we have 12 years to transform the global economy away from fossil fuels it we expect a livable climate for human beings. Twelve years! The clock is ticking and we cannot wait until the effects of global warming become so dire as to be irreversible. Moreover, the trillions that it will cost to transition from carbon-based to sustainable energy systems pales in comparison with the many trillions more that will have to be spent dealing with mass migrations, loss of habitats and farmland, and the need to rebuild entire cities and even countries as sea levels inundate coastal areas. It is worth keeping in mind that the global energy infrastructure is today worth $30 to $40 trillion and turns over every three or four decades. That’s a huge sum of money needed just to reproduce the carbon-based energy infrastructure we already have. Why not spend a commensurate or even greater amount to eliminate it altogether with a new system of producing energy, given that the continued use of the one we have now may spell the end of civilization as we have known it?

Lessons from history?

For these reasons, the GND is an important starting point for conceiving how to take effective action now to halt and reverse the impact of climate change. But it is only a starting point, since it has its limitations. The problems begin with its name. The Green New Deal obviously harkens back to the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, the comprehension program born in response to the Great Depression that produced the modern welfare state. While many praise its beneficial social impact, the New Deal actually did not lift the U.S. out of the Depression. World War II did. By 1944, 70 cents of every dollar spent in the U.S. went to the military. The size and role of the state expanded enormously, enabling the U.S. to marshal the power and resources needed to defeat Nazi Germany and fascist Japan. In doing so, the New Deal introduced important legislation that improved the lives of much of the populace, especially workers, and including African Americans (which is one reason Blacks switched their long-held allegiance to the Republican Party to the Democrats during the New Deal).

However, the aim of the New Deal was to save capitalism from collapse—not to transition to a new social order. Here is where the comparison with our situation today ends, since we cannot effectively deal with climate change without transitioning to a new social order. This is because capitalism has been hooked on fossil fuel for over two centuries. It is endemic to the very structure of the capitalist economy. Capitalism is a system defined by the drive to increase monetary wealth, especially in the form of profit, as an end in itself. Every business exists to make a profit; if profit rates for a particular enterprise decline relative to others, it is only a matter of time before it will be driven out of business. Fossil fuels are highly conducive for economies driven by the profit-motive since it packs an enormous amount of energy into a relatively small volume that is easily transportable from one location to another. Capital’s abstractive logic of domination, which seeks to liberate social life from natural spatial determinations for the sake of augmenting value as an end in itself, is almost inexorably drawn to fossil fuels that can be transported anywhere. It is therefore extremely unlikely that it will be possible to wean capitalism off of its addition to fossil fuel without undermining the economic principles that govern it. The GND implicitly points in this direction this, by calling for a series of changes that get in the way of the business-model pursuit of profit (such as its insistence on full employment, paying workers a living wage, providing free health care and education to all citizens, etc.). But this fits uneasily with the model of the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s, which was trying to save capitalism.

When the GND was being drafted, Alexandia Ocasio-Cortez initially didn’t want to call it “the Green New Deal,” perhaps for some of these reasons. But others thought it has a catchy ring that would connect with the public. But as a result, most critics as well as supporters of the GND take the phrase literally, by thinking the same principles and policies that drove Roosevelt’s New Deal can save us from the grave threat of climate change today. But there are at least three major problems with this viewpoint.

Narrowed horizons?

The first problem is that is narrows the horizon of the debate over global warming to private interests versus government intervention, or corporations versus the state. Private industries and enterprises operate according to the profit motive. For this reason, it is argued, they lack an incentive to produce goods and servies in an ecologically healthy way. If profit rates can be maintained or increased by using carbon-based fuels, they will use them—unless prevented to do so by some outside force. That outside force is the government or state. Since government is based in the collection and distribution of revenue, it is not driven, many argue, by the profit motive. It has no inherent incentive to produce goods and services in a manner damaging to the environment—at least when it is subject to the needs of the citizenry instead of corporate interests that manipulate it to serve its ends. Since the entire economic model is based on carbon-based emissions, it will take an outside force like the state to compel businesses to act otherwise. And they need to be compelled to act very soon: otherwise, we will reach the tipping point beyond which dealing with global climate change will be outside of our reach.

Furthermore, the amount of economic resources and political power that even the largest corporate entity can muster, let alone private individuals, is minuscule compared to that of the government. The world’s largest multinational corporation, Apple, has a valuation of $800 billion—far smaller than this year’s Federal Budget of $4.5 trillion (state and local government budgets account for $3.1 trillion more). No private or business interest can match this level of resources. There would never have been a U.S. highway system without government spending (little of it came from private sources); and there would never have been the Internet, personal computers, or smart phones without government spending (the microprocessor was a product of hundreds of billions of dollars devoted to research and development by the Defense Department and NASA). And so it is when it comes to climate change: when it comes to such a huge and complex issue as moving our society away from its addiction to fossil fuels, a massive degree of government intervention in at least some form will be needed.
There is much to be said for this argument. If we face a 12-year deadline to seriously reduce carbon emissions, it isn’t going to happen by relying on the market or private individuals. Yes, we can take individual steps to reduce our consumption of meat (79% of the land devoted to agriculture in the U.S. is devoted to animal feed, which produces a huge percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions), we can use less plastic when we shop, and we can try to recycle more. But such actions, welcome as they are, cannot stop the impending catastrophe on their own. They are drops in the bucket. As Benjamin Selwyn argues, “What we need, to avert climate catastrophe is a systemic approach to comprehending and transforming the current global economy.”[3]

Transformation needed

However, it is a major mistake to frame such a transformation in terms of uncritically embracing the power of the state. First, governments are readily prone to being used by corporate and oligarchic interests for their own ends. They are not neutral formations devoid of class interests. That has always been the case, but it has never been truer than today. To give but one of many recent examples, the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United has allowed a flood of corporate money—including much from the fossil fuel industry—to shape government policy. Therefore, relying on the state to curb carbon emissions won’t work with the kind of political system we have today; it will instead require a radical transformation of the entire structure of American governance. It will require nothing less than a political revolution in which the U.S. and other countries become genuine social democracies (in the original sense of that term) that serve the needs of its citizens instead of the corporate elites that preside over them. In a word, the goals of the GND require transitioning from the partial and flawed democracy we have today to a genuine or true democracy.

This is where the comparison of the Green New Deal to the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s is quite misleading. The New Deal did not transform the structure of American politics; in some respects it further entrenched it. One reflection of this is the way in which Congress passed the New Deal with the support of Southern white segregationists who used it to solidify their power at the expense of African Americans. Roosevelt’s housing policy, which was a central component of the New Deal, gave federal support to racially segregated housing, which prevented blacks from buying or renting property in many parts of the country. The authors of the GND are aware of this, which is why one of its points calls for “a ‘just transition’ for all workers, low-income communities, communities of color, [and] indigenous communities…” However, far too many supporters of the GND seem to naively presume that such goals can be accomplished with the framework of existing power structures. They assume that the state is more powerful than civil society can ever be. There is no doubt that the state appears to be powerful—even infinitely powerful. However, it is not as powerful as it appears, since it is ultimately dependent on the structures of civil society. Where the latter remain unchanged, the limits of policy changes at the level of the state become evident.

Bureacratic impediments

Second, governments are notoriously bureaucratic institutions that tend to defer, delay, or indefinitely postpone implementing even the most well thought out and valuable plans and initiatives. Whereas private businesses pursue money as an end-in-itself, the state and governments promote bureaucracy as an end-in-itself (obviously this also applies to non-state entities as well, as in academia). One enthusiastic supporter of the GND, the acclaimed labor historian Jeremy Brecher, has become so enthralled of its presumed connection to Roosevelt’s New Deal that he recently proclaimed, “Government initiative is necessary to cut through inertia, bottlenecks, and bureaucratic red tape.”[4] I confess to finding it very strange to call upon government bureaucrats to cut through bureaucratic red tape; it’s sort of like asking the foxes to guard the hen house.

For these and related reasons, although the Green New Deal quite understandably originated as a legislative initiative, it cannot be allowed to remain one. If it stays as a purely legislative initiative it will die a quick death, since there is very little chance that Congress will approve it anytime in the near future—and none at all so long as Trump is in power, since he cares not a whit for the future of the planet; his only concern is the future of his and his friend’s financial investments. Climate change deniers are so much in love with their pocketbooks that they seem not even to care about the future of their own children; the live by the motto, “after me, the deluge.” However, the barrier to the GND being taken seriously in Congress isn’t limited to Trump or the Republicans, since many congressional Democrats are likewise beholden to big business; a case in point is Nancy Pelosi, who has dismissed the GND as a “green dream.”

She is wrong about this; the GND is not a mere fantasy. It sets forth a valuable series of goals that should be actively promoted with as much enthusiasm and force as we can muster. But doing so will require that we take the GND beyond the confines of its legislative origin by advancing aspects of it in our communities, social organizations, and other institutions of civil society. It must become taken up, revised, developed, and radicalized, as part of a mass social movement that is not simply an arm of one or another government agency.
Third, and most important, confining the response to global warming within the parameters of the dichotomy of private versus government, or market versus state, misses a fundamental determinant: the growth imperative that is endemic to capitalist societies. Since capitalism is based on a drive to increase monetary wealth as an end in itself, capitalist enterprises face a constant urge to grow and expand—regardless of human or natural limits. This is why efforts to control capital (either through legislative initiatives or changing administrative policies or personnel) always prove quixotic: they all rest on the assumption that capital’s growth imperative is generated by the personifications of capital instead of by capital itself. It is not the system’s representatives that drives the growth imperative, but the growth imperative that drives the representatives.

The New Deal was a clear expression of this: it aimed to redistribute greater amounts of wealth to workers and the poor as a way to pump up consumer demand as a way to achieve greater economic growth. In other words, government was used as a catalyst to spur greater capital accumulation—and it worked, at least by the time World War II came around. Not surprisingly, however, the New Deal was not aimed at protecting the environment (except when it came to fostering policies of soil conservation, but even there it was with the aim of increasing the productivity of agricultural labor). The GND is a form of ecological Keynesianism, in that it uses the power of the state to redistribute resources from the fossil fuel industry to renewable-energy industries. But it does not address how to slow down, defer, or eliminate capitalism’s growth imperative. On the contrary, it seeks to harness that imperative by using state power to encourage investments in ecological sustainable industries as against ones dominated by fossil fuels.

That may all seem well and good, but let us not forget that retrofitting every building in the U.S. to become energy efficient—as called for in the GND’s stated goals—will require an awful lot of steel, cement, and yes, petrochemical-based products. It is not so clear that this would not add to the global carbon imprint even as carbon emissions come down in other areas. Moreover, if companies can grow their businesses by earning higher profit rates with materials and technologies that are less environmentally beneficial than others, they are likely to do so. But it is not so obvious that we can blithely assume that the government can be used to block such tendencies, since the state is bound up with the logic of capital in a myriad of ways. An economic as well as political revolution will clearly be needed to wean society away from its capitalistic growth imperative. As Ashley Dawson has recently argued, the goals of the GND often seem at odds with the means that are singled out to achieve them: “Proposals for genuine ecological and social reconstruction, therefore, cannot simply substitute renewable energy for fossil fuels while leaving the current global system of spiraling production and consumption untouched. Instead, the growth based presuppositions of the New Deal and environmental Keynesianism must be challenged. What we really need, in other words, is a crash program to shrink those sectors of the economy that are environmentally destructive, while in tandem sectors that do no environmental damage are expanded.”[5] She adds, “At the end of the day, environmental Keynesianism is predicated on economic expansion; since new growth means that fresh resources need to be exploited, any environmental benefits of more efficient technology and a transition to renewable energy will ultimately be undermined, and the biocrisis will intensify.”

Just transition

I should also add that market-based economies based on private ownership of goods and services are not the only ones with a built-in growth imperative. The same was true for statist “communist” regimes, such as the USSR and China, which placed the entire society under the control of the state—while engaging in some of the most egregious ecological destruction of any system in world history. Neither private capitalism nor state-capitalism (both of which are mainly focused on quantitative output, since both adhered to the law of value and surplus value) has succeeded in curbing capitalism’s inherent growth imperative. The world surely needs economic growth and development, but one of a radically different type than has defined modern industrial societies up to this point in time. Leaving this unaddressed poses some major problems when it comes to dealing with global warming. What is making it harder to address this issue at the present moment is the new found love affair many on the Left are currently experiencing with state-directed capital investment.

As the Indigenous Environmental Network recently stated in emphasizing “the fundamental need to challenge and transform the current dominant political and economic systems that are driving forest destruction, social injustice, and the climate crisis,” “The AOC-Markey platform risks being an exercise in futility and could actually allow for increased emissions and global warming. We demand that fossil fuels be kept underground and that the subsidies and tax breaks that keep the fossil fuel industry viable be shifted towards a clear, grassroots-based Just Transition.”[6]

So what would such a Just Transition look like? Time is short, and we need effective policies now—we can’t simply wait for capitalism to be overcome to begin promoting them. So what can be done in the short term to meet the goals of the GND and beyond? I would like to conclude here with a modest proposal along these lines.

As noted, the GND lays out the goal to reduce and ultimately eliminate net carbon emissions within 10 years, and that is all well and good. Building upon but taking the GND further, let’s envision this: Every company and business is required to reduce carbon-based products or CO2emissions within a specified amount of time. If they fail to do so, say after one year, they face a hefty government penalty. If they fail to meet their targets again, the ownership right of the business is denied to the employers and the government hands over control of it to the employees. Please note that this is not nationalization: the government itself does not take them over, as has occurred in many countries over the last 100 years. The employees take them over and democratically run the company as a cooperative enterprise. Of course, these worker-owned enterprises would also face mandatory restrictions on CO2 emissions and use of carbon-based products. If they fail to meet them, the enterprise is hit with a hefty tax penalty. Since the employees now own the company and there is no separate management or ownership structure—which also means no shareholders of stocks that don’t actually work in the enterprise—the penalty can be paid only through a reduction in the workers’ paychecks. The employees now have a built-in incentive to meet the quotas, since otherwise they will earn less wages and benefits. And since every enterprise in the country is subject to the same stipulations, there is no way to evade the limits on the use of fossil fuel.

Challenging growth

Moreover, since these are worker-owned enterprises, in which the proceeds circulate back to the employees, fetters are placed upon capital’s growth imperative. Workers might use a share of the proceeds to expand the enterprise, but it is just as likely that they will use it to shorten the workweek, provide services to workers, or simply give themselves a raise. Worker-controlled enterprises tend to dampen, at least initially, the profit-driven imperative of capitalist enterprises since they are based on a different imperative—meeting the human needs of its members. However, this becomes hard to sustain if such changes are restricted to a single country, since goods traded on the world market at a lower cost of production will tend to drive worker-owned enterprises out of business. For this reason Karl Marx never believed that socialism could exist in one country. Neither can a viable transition to a carbon-free economy. Since it is a global problem it ultimately needs a global solution. Worker-owned cooperatives and enterprises are great ways to begin to get there, but they are not ends-in-themselves. The ultimate end—assuming we can mitigate climate change to the point of living long enough to get there—is the abolition of value production on a global level.

Nevertheless, on the national level, an effective transition from a carbon-based productive system could be achieved without relying exclusively on either privately owned or governmental agencies. The government provides the legal mechanism for transferring ownership of the enterprise from the capitalists to the workers, who have the motivation and incentive to care for the environment that the capitalists tend to lack. But the government is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to controlling the overall process. The people themselves do so, through forms of association and organization they forge as members of civil society. A GND of this sort would transition from a carbon-reliant model of energy production and consumption to a sustainable one based on renewal energy by taking what drives the destruction of nature and natural resources—the growth imperative of the logic of capital. Kali Akuno of the Climate Justice Alliance and director of Cooperation Jackson, a Mississippi group that grow out of the Civil Rights Movement, has referred to this as “a solidarity economy anchored by a network of cooperatives and worker-owned, democratically self-managed enterprises.”[7]

My argument boils down to this: In order to save and preserve what we have in common, the earth, we must transition to a form of society that respects the commons. It is not about passively waiting for such a society to miraculously arise: the commons is already here, although hidden from view by the ideologies and structures of existing society. By fighting to reclaim the commons—which includes not only the land but also the social powers at our disposal to collectively organize our lives without recourse to hierarchical forms of domination—we can transition to a new society, at the same as saving the earth itself. It seems to me that working for this would be worth the effort.

May 26, 2019

Reprinted from New Politicss

[1] See “Draft Text for Proposed Addendum to House Rules for the 116th Congress of the United States” []
[2] “The Green New Deal’s Realism,” by Jedehiah Britton-Purdy, The New York Times, February 16, 2019, p. A21.
[3] Benjamin Selwyn, “The Agro-Food Complex and Climate Change: Veganism or a Green New Deal?” The Bullet, April 5, 2019.
[4] Jeremy Brecher, “The Green New Deal Can Work—Here’s How,” The Bullet, April 2, 2019.
[5] Ashley Dawson, “A Greener New Deal?,” New Politics, Vol. 17, No. 2, Winter 2019.
[6] Indigenous Environmental Network, “Talking Points on the AOC-Markey Green New Deal Resolution.”
[7] See Kali Akuno, “We Have to Make Sure the ‘Green New Deal’ Doesn’t Become Green Capitalism,” Web Only, December 12, 2018.

Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism


This is an important book . One may disagree on some issues -e.g. population, which I do not believe should be a major concern for ecologists – but Alan Thornett arguments are a substantial contribution to ecosocialist thinking – and action. In clear and precise language, without academic jargon, his book is precious tool for the socio-ecological struggles of the future.

First of all Facing the Apocalypse is a powerful civilisational wake-up call : we must act, here and now, to prevent an ecological catastrophe (I prefer this term to « apocalypse », which has confusing religious meanings) of unheard proportions. Climate change, water shortages, mass pollution of land and sea, mass species extinction are some of the dimensions of a global ecological crisis. The consequences for human life can be devastating. Just to give an exemple : if we continue with « business as usual » for a few decades more, the melting of the global ice sheets will be inevitable and the main cities of human civilisation – for instance New York, Nairobi, Shanghai, New Orleans, Venice and Amsterdam -would be submerged by a sea rise of four to six meters. We have now entered , since the mid-20th Century, in a new geological age, the Anthropocene, where some basic aspects of the planet’s environment, such as the climate, are being changed by human activity.

Unfortunately, for most of the left, the ecological issue has been a low priority, often at the bottom of the heap. It is seen as an add-on, an optimal extra, not as a number one issue. The record of the main forces of the left during the 20th Century – Social-Democracy and Stalinism – is disastrous. While during the first years after the October Revolution there existed a strong ecological current in the USSR, Stalinism transformed the Soviet economy into a destructive productivist Juggernaut.

The hope for the future comes from the various movements of resistence against environmental destruction. Often indigenous communities are in the front line for the defense of land, forests and water against oil and tar-sand extraction or pipeline building: they are the most effective protectors of the planet’s ecosystems. Thornett pays hommage to Hugo Blanco, a towering figure of the indigenous struggles in Peru for 50 years, inumerous times arrested, threatened with death, exiled, and now a fierce campaigner for ecosocialism.

There are some important insights in Marx about the metabolic rift between humans and nature caused by the capitalist system. But one can consider William Morris as the first pionneer of ecosocialism, a new development in socialist theory and practice, whose main proponents in the 20th Century were Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Raymond William and Murray Bookchin, as well as, more recently, the ecomarxists John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett. For the moment, the Fourth International is the only international radical left current with an ecosocialist programm.

Alan Thornett defends certains positions which are not shared by most people in the radical left. For instance, he strongly believes in the importance of personal behaviour and individual responsability ; he favors certain kinds of carbon taxes ; and he thinks that the Paris COP 21 Conference, despite its weaknesses, should be defended and reinforced.

While most ecosocialists would agree to the need of immediate measures against CO2 emissions, even in the limits of the capitalist system, many are sceptical of carbon taxes as an efficient method. Alan Thornett believes that James Hansen’s fee and dividend carbon taxes could produce a big reduction in CO2 emissions, here and now.

However, Thornett’s most controversial proposition is that the planetary population growth is a serious ecological issue. In a honest recognition of the polemical nature of this viewpoint, he opens a space for discussion, inviting different pespectives to be voiced, in favour of his approach (Laure Mazur) or against it (Betsy Hartman, Derek Wall).

Is ecosocialism the only solution or is the capitalist system able to prevent catastrophe ? At the conclusion of the book Thornett writes :

“In the end, if capitalism is faced with the destruction of the planet’s capacity to sustain human life (…) they will 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 in the planet “.

Frankly, I do not believe that the capitalist system is able to ’resolve ’ the ecological crisis ; it has consistently shown its unwillingness to do so in the last decades, and the its leaders now elected, such as Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, are the least inclined to take any measures. And soon, when the temperature rise arrives at 2°C, it will indeed be too late to stop the disaster. This does not mean, of course, that one should wait until ecosocialism arrives : mass popular mobilizations can bring about significant measures, opening the way for an ecological transition. As Alan Thornett argues, to force capitalism to make major changes is part of the struggle for ecosocialism…

You can order Facing the Apocalypse from Resistance Books

International Viewpoint

UN Report warns of catastrophic biodiversity crisis.

We as human beings — homo sapiens – have only been on this planet for 200,000 years, which is a blip in its 4.5-billion-year history. Yet we have had a far greater impact on its ecology and ecosystems systems than any other species, writes Alan Thornett. Moreover, it continues apace. Around the globe, we continue to cut down the forests, use too much water from rivers, pollute the land, choke our oceans with plastic, destroy habitats, and push other species into to extinction at an ever increasing rate.

It is this disastrous situation that is addressed by a new Report published in Paris on May 6th 2019 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), entitled Nature’s Dangerous Decline; ‘unprecedented’ Species Extinction Rates Accelerating.

The Report is the most comprehensive ever completed. It is the first intergovernmental Report of its kind and builds on the landmark Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, introducing innovative ways of evaluating evidence. It was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors, the Report assesses changes over the past five decades, providing a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature. It also offers a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades.

Based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources, the Report also draws, for the first time ever at this scale, on indigenous and local knowledge, particularly addressing issues relevant to Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. It puts it this way:

“Biodiversity and nature’s contributions to people are our common heritage and humanity’s most important life-supporting ‘safety net’. But our safety net is stretched almost to breaking point,” said Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), who co-chaired the Assessment with Prof. Josef Settele (Germany) and Prof. Eduardo S. Brondízio (Brazil and USA). The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast, although we still have the means to ensure a sustainable future for people and the planet.”

The Reports central massage is that disastrous as climate change is, with its melting ice sheets, rising sea level, and expanding deserts, and extreme weather events, the biodiversity crisis poses an equally catastrophic threat to the life support systems of the planet. It confirms, once again, that what we are witnessing during our life-times is the greatest extinction event since the event that brought about the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

It puts it this way: ‘Despite the profound threat of biodiversity loss, it is climate change that has long been considered the most pressing environmental concern. That changed this week in Paris, when representatives from 130 nations approved the most comprehensive assessment of global biodiversity ever undertaken.’

We have entered, the report stresses, an era of rapidly accelerating species extinction, and are facing the irreversible loss of plant and animal species, habitats and vital crops, while coming face to face with the horrific impacts of global climate change’. It goes on: ‘One million species are currently threatened with extinction and we are undermining the entire natural infrastructure on which our modern world depends.’

The number of wild mammals on the planet has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – the vast majority as a result of human impact.

In his review of the Report the Guardian environment editor, Jonathan Watts, points out that two in every five amphibian species are at risk of extinction, as are one-third of reef-forming corals, while other marine animals by down by close to one-third. The picture for insects – which are crucial to plant pollination – is less clear, but conservative estimates suggest at least one in 10 are threatened with extinction and, in some regions, populations have crashed. In economic terms, the losses are jaw-dropping. Pollinator loss has put up to $577bn (£440bn) of crop output at risk, while land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of global land. The knock-on impacts on humankind, he says, including freshwater shortages and climate instability, are already ominous.

He quotes Sir Robert Watson, the chair of IPBES, as saying: “The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. “We have lost time. We must act now.”

The Report tells us that whilst we still have time to do something about it, it won’t be easy. It will require massive changes, from removing subsidies that lead to the destruction of nature and future warming of the Earth, to enacting laws that encourage the protection of nature; from reducing our growing addiction to fossil-fuel energy and natural resource consumption, to rethinking the definition of a rewarding life. Our current agricultural system is broken.

It builds on the important work that had been carried out by the World Wild-life Fund with their Living Planet Reports. Its 2018 Report warned us that “we are the first generation to have a clear picture of the values of nature and the enormous impact we are having on it. We may also be the last that can act to reverse it”.

It stresses that we simply cannot afford the cost of inaction. Change of the magnitude required will mean a different life for everyone, but the costs of doing nothing will be much higher.

The world, it argues, needs to recognise that loss of biodiversity and human-induced climate change are not only environmental issues, but development, economic, social, security, equity and moral issues as well. The future of humanity depends on action now. If we do not act, our children and all future generations will never forgive us.

Fortunately, important new things are happening in terms of the fightback. Both the humbling global eco-strikes by school children and the inspirational actions by Extinction Rebellion have widened the struggle beyond climate change to embrace, in particular the issue of the extinction of species and the protection of wildlife. These are the movements that can give us confidence that serious change is indeed possible and the silent spring Rachel Carson wrote about so stunningly in the 1960 can still be avoided.

Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism

Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism; by Alan Thornett RRP £17. Pub. Resistance Books and Merlin Press.ISBN: 978-0-902869-91-2; 342pages, reviewed by Pete Murry

I’m not sure that Alan Thornett has written a totally comprehensive guide to Ecosocialism as an emerging political ideology in the second decade of the 21stcentury CE, or perhaps, the second or third century of the Anthropocene era. That task may need hindsight, and as argued throughout, that could be something we will not have the luxury to do in future.

Thornett is an important figure in the development of Ecosocialism, so this is a book written from a deep and urgent sense of commitment. It traces the intellectual roots of Ecosocialism in Marxism and other strands of radical thought, such as the work of Murray Bookchin, Hugo Blanco and the emergence of Green political ideologies and movements. To some extent this traces the author’s own journey from the productivism and blind faith in continual economic growth as progress that still characterises both capitalist and orthodox socialist perspectives on the world economy.

Multiple challenges

This book clearly details multiple reasons why such views are not only, no longer credible, but also deeply dangerous to the future of humanity and the interlinked ecosystem that it depends on. ‘Apocalypse’ in the title is not a rhetorical exaggeration and the multiple ways in which an accelerating apocalypse is starting to happen are addressed in this book with a refreshing lack of technical jargon.

Thornett covers not only the threat of human caused climate change, but many other ways in which industrialised human activities intensify ecological destruction. Pollution of water and rapid depletion of water resources, ocean acidification, aggregations of non-biodegradable garbage and other factors leading to species extinctions and dramatic losses of biodiversity; are only some of the areas which this book examines.

Controversial debates

One issue, which is not dodged, even though it is very controversial in Green and socialist discourses, is human population growth. Often any discussion of this issue has led to not always unjustified accusations of Malthusianism, misanthropy and racism. Thornett devotes a lot of attention to this issue, including. as appendices, debates on the issue with thinkers such as Betsy Hartmann, Laurie Mazur, Ian Angus and Derek Wall. Overall the case is made that, even ifpopulation growth, may, as on some projections, trail off by about 2050 to about 9.5bn, it is still a major factor driving the ecological threats that the book details. Therefore, it cannot be ignored, but it cannot be solved by compulsion, and any solution must involve extending the rights of women to control their own fertility.

This is an important book, an invaluable source for anyone interested in Ecosocialism. It is clearly written and thoroughly referenced and would probably make an excellent text to use in teaching ecological politics at degree and pre-degree level.

Suggested solutions

However, that is not its main purpose, it is a major contribution to the political debates and actions that must take to place in the struggle to contain and control the terrible global crisis that it so ably analyses. So, it does not just consider the origins of ecological dilemmas and ecosocialist perspectives, it also examines some suggestions towards solutions.

In Thornett’s view human ecological impacts pre-date capitalism and he also notes the vast, sometimes irreparable, ecological damage done by some productivist industrialising projects conducted by avowedly socialist regimes. ‘Maximalist’ arguments calling for an overthrow of capitalism before tackling ecological crisis are rejected.

Thornett argues instead for: “Reforms which are not necessarily reformist, […], Such as opposing fossil energy and demanding renewables.” (p.98). Amongst those reforms examined are carbon capture and storage, carbon taxes and possible alternatives, lifestyle changes and transportation issues.

Labour movement contests

From a British point of view the section on the contests around environmental politics that are currently going inside the British labour movement is a useful antidote to those right wing Greens who insist on seeing all Trade Unions and all of the Labour Party as completely unreconstructed advocates of industrial productivism and unceasing economic growth.

This review is only managing to scratch the surface of the many issues and arguments covered in the book; which is neither completely definitive nor flawless, but it is not meant to be. It is an important text in the continuing struggle for Ecosocialism. Obtain a copy by any means necessary.

Reprinted from Greenleft

Making the Green New Deal Real

The Green New Deal resolution introduced into Congress by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey is a manifesto that has changed the terms of the debate over the country’s future, writes Dianne Feeley. Cutting through the Trump administration’s denials about who is responsible for the extreme weather we already face, it unites the issues of climate change with that of eroding workers’ rights, racism and growing inequality. (At the end of March, the Senate voted against the GND in what has been called a ceremonial stunt.)

The resolution affirms the overwhelming scientific consensus that these are human caused. Further, since the United States is responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions, it demands that this society must take the lead in “reducing emissions through economic transformation.”

Noting that climate crisis is just one of many crises we face, it points to declining living standards, wage stagnation, a large racial divide and gender gap. It states that we now have the greatest income inequality since a century ago. It then proposes a 10-year national mobilization to tackle these issues comprehensively. But in offering a way forward, the details are nonetheless vague.

Corporate politicians ranging from centrist Democrats to the Republican establishment have commented that the proposal is too broad, too expensive, too utopian. Trump labelled it socialist and therefore “un-American.”

A video posted by Sunrise, the group pushing for passage of the Green New Deal resolution, shows an exchange between Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and a group of 14-17 year olds.

When told that scientists have given us a decade to drastically cut carbon emissions, she replied “Well, it’s not going to get turned around in ten years.”

Feinstein then lectured them about the art of the possible. They responded by pointing out they would be living with the consequences of a devastated planet. The video of their encounter was viewed 1.4 million times within its first few hours online. Most viewers saw a seasoned politician challenged by young people who know only a bold plan has a chance of averting disaster.

It’s clear that a broad political debate has opened. In fact, it is clear that politicians running for office in 2019 and 2020 will be forced to discuss what must be done to drastically reduce fossil fuels and at the same time reduce inequality.

This is a sea change from the 2016 election when Bernie Sanders raised climate change as the most important issue facing the country, the only “major party” candidate to do so.

A People’s GND

Since the introduction of the GND resolution, other manifestos and statements have emerged. The recently revived activist scientists’ network, Science for the People, calls for a “People’s Green New Deal” campaign, issuing a short statement of support but warning that there will be pressure to water down the heart of the resolution. It proposes five points in order to maintain and strengthen such a mobilization:

• “We promote solutions and struggles that educate, organize, mobilize and directly empower working class people, Indigenous Peoples, historically oppressed communities, and migrants displaced by climate disaster, in their everyday lives.

• “We aim to collaborate with all of those who have developed the core ideas of the Green New Deal over the years and decades, particularly to ensure we understand the role of militarism in the climate crisis, and to fight for globally just solutions.

• “We stand with frontline communities demanding equitable solutions to the climate crisis, so that no member of our society will be forgotten or unjustly bear the costs of climate change.

• “We stand with trade unions demanding a Just Transition and the creation of millions of green jobs, so that all people may be able to support their families with dignity.

• “We call for a transformation of the economy which redistributes resources from those who led us into this crisis in the first place.” (See

This statement introduces into the discussion several important issues. First, it emphasizes that change will come through working people and their communities rather than from on high. In fact, it is the corporate elite and their buddies in Congress who have caused this crisis. It is highly unlikely, in the words of the resolution, that businesses will be “working on the Green New Deal Mobilization.”

Second, there is necessary humility about where the core ideas come from — they were not invented by politicians, but come from an environmental justice movement that drew the connections among environmental degradation, the workers who suffer severe health conditions as a result of their unsafe jobs and the communities in which these mines, factories and agricultural industries exist. (See

Third, the statement calls for deepening the GND resolution’s commitment to frontline communities and workers by calling for a serious discussion about the role of the military. It underscores the resolution’s introduction of the idea that there must be a “just transition” for workers and their communities. The economic transition cannot demand sacrifice from workers and communities.

The articulation of these principles broaden the GND resolution and point a way forward by emphasizing the need to deepen the political discussion. It takes us beyond the “art of the possible” to the values of solidarity, equality, justice and democracy. Although the “People’s Green New Deal” doesn’t raise specific demands around immigration or U.S. responsibility to the Global South, the ideas it raises challenge us to do so.

Likewise, it doesn’t specifically call for a drastic reduction or abolishing of the military budget and the militarization of neighborhoods and schools, but calls for a discussion. Many Americans believe the military is necessary, although they are not aware that it consumes the lion’s share of the discretionary federal budget, supports authoritarian rule around the globe and prevents the possibility of social programs.

This can’t afford to be a leisurely discussion because without dismantling the 700 U.S. bases around the world, along with junking nuclear weapons and the military machine, there is no possibility for a transformation. Just eliminating U.S. military production would reduce CO2 by 70-80 million tons a year.

Not only does the military budget hamper our ability to take on a Green New Deal campaign, but military production is where we can begin to whack carbon emissions.

The People’s Green New Deal Campaign notes the danger of watering down the resolution. Rather than pledging to “keep the coal in the hole and the oil in the soil,” the resolution fails to define specific energy sources. It refers merely to “clean, renewable and zero-emission” energy and seemingly suggests that efficiency by itself will bring us close to our goal. Further, the resolution qualifies the goal by stating “as much as is technologically feasible” four separate times.

Making It Real

In contrast, the Green Party’s plan, first developed nearly a decade ago, calls for 100% renewable energy by 2030, with renewables defined as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal, not gas, biomass or nuclear power. Given the United States’ responsibility as a leading industrialized society, eliminating greenhouse gas emission has to be a serious priority. It also means giving preference to the public sector.

Many cities and towns own their own water and lighting systems; these are the basis for moving to 100% renewable energy. In order to accomplish this task, profit-making utilities will have to be quickly phased out. Again, the Green Party plan is specific: a Renewable Energy Administration would treat energy not as a commodity to be purchased but as a public good. (See

Since the Congressional GND resolution is simply a statement, not a bill, watering down can occur by proposing technical fixes, whether through carbon fees or employing carbon-capture technology to solve the problem. But there is no quick fix to greenhouse gases and the broader issue of pollution.

As the Climate Justice Alliance points out, “to truly address the interlinked crises of a faltering democracy, growing wealth disparity and community devastation caused by climate change and industrial pollution, we must reduce emissions at their source.

“Allowing for neoliberal constructs such as Net Zero emissions, which equate carbon emission offsets and technology investments with real emissions reductions at source, would only exacerbate existing pollution burdens on frontline communities.

“Such loopholes for carbon markets and unproven techno-fixes only serve to line the coffers of the polluting corporations, while increasing (not reducing) harm to our communities. Our communities can no longer be used as sacrifice zones.” (See

This means saying “No” to the construction of new fossil fuel systems — pipelines, coal ports, etc. It means moving quickly to build public mass transit and ending production of gas guzzlers. It means prioritizing community and worker participation in redesigning and repurposing our manufacturing capacity.

Such a drastic reorganization of the economy requires a full-throttled campaign. It may involve not only retraining workers to new jobs, but the reduction of the work week to 30 hours for 40 hours pay.

AFL-CIO Labor Councils in Alameda, San Diego and Imperial Counties in California have called for support to the GND along with a few local unions. However, most unions are terrified that that in the transition, workers and their families will get the short end of the straw.

That’s how every other restructuring in U.S. history has occurred. There must be a commitment to compensate for job losses and to extensive retraining. “Just transition” must be a guarantee.

Another issue that is rarely discussed in U.S.-based statements is the reality that we must reject the mantra of “growth.” We do not need more things every year!

Hopefully, through this mobilization of our energy we discover happiness is in having control over our lives. This means not only democratic planning and a guarantee against displacement, but having quality public services — housing, health, transportation and education for starters — available to all.

The Democratic Socialists of America’s ecosocialist statement of guiding principles notes, “The future is a public good, not a private luxury.” (See

Some of these statements and manifestos raise the issue of a radical redistribution of the economy, but while this is certainly true, in fact we must go even further. Capitalism is built on profit, exploitation and growth for its own sake. To change this dynamic, it will be necessary to develop an economy based on new, fundamental ecosocialist principles.

“The capitalist destruction of the environment and the ecosocialist alternative,” a Fourth International statement which Solidarity members participated in writing, was adopted in April 2018. It is a wide-ranging summary of the issues we face: It ends by noting:

“These urgent ecological demands can favor a process of radicalization under the condition that we refuse to limit their objectives by obeying the capitalist market or accepting the ‘competitiveness’ argument.

“Each small victory, each partial advance can immediately bring us to a higher and more radical demand. These struggles on concrete problems are important, not only because partial victories in themselves are welcome, but also because they contribute to the growth of an ecological and socialist consciousness, and promote autonomy and self-organization from below.

This autonomy and this self-organization are the necessary and decisive preconditions for a radical transformation of the world. This means a revolutionary transformation is only possible through the self-emancipation of the oppressed and the exploited: workers and peasants, women, indigenous communities, and all stigmatized because of their race, religion or nationality.

“The leading elites of the system, retrenched behind their barricades, are incredibly powerful while the forces of radical opposition are small. Their development into a mass movement of unprecedented size, is the only hope to stop the catastrophic course of capitalist growth.

This will allow us to invent a desirable form of life, more rich in human qualities, a new society based on the values of human dignity, solidarity, freedom and respect for Mother Nature.”

April 23 2019

Against the Current

The climate is changing – why aren’t we

I’m in my mid-sixties and have been politically active since my late teens, writes Terry Conway. This week I have had one of the most positive political experiences of my life, supporting young people organizing against climate change. Their energy, their political sophistication and their sense of humour is infectious.

It started a week ago when I looked up youthstrike4climate on facebook. I messaged the address to see if there were any flyers for the protest today. I got a reply within a couple of hours and discovered the person answering lived near me and could provide me with leaflets.

I’m involved in Islington Labour Environment Forum and organized with other activists from there and our recently set up Islington Young Labour to leaflet outside our local university. We went in the early morning so also caught a load of young people on their way to school. The response we received was hugely positive and posters we stuck up were largely there 4 days later.

The day before the strike I came out of my flat and discovered a poster tied to a nearby lamp post telling me there was a gathering of local children and parents supporting the action in a park 5 minutes away. I went there on the way to Parliament Square and tapped into a network of people with children at my local primary school and playgroup. There were around 40 of us in that small area. Inspiring.
Together with a local Labour councillor who had also come to the park I made my way to Parliament Square. We changed tubes at Victoria – and it was already clear we were in for a treat. There was a group of maybe 8 young men, probably aged around 16, on the platform with hand-made posters from a school in Notting Hill. They reckoned about 1000 pupils from their school had taken action.

Leaving the tube, it was as if the demonstration was all around us and when we emerged the scene was remarkable. The traffic had been stopped in several directions and dozens of youth had taken over an open-topped tourist bus and were chanting and waving signs from the top as the throng around them cheered and sang in response.

/caption]Almost everyone had their own home-made sign. Some were hastily put together, others had been more carefully crafted. Slogans focused not only directly on climate itself but on other issues – particularly the biodiversity crisis. The wit and imagination behind them was as palpable as the energy of the activists. There were some newspaper sellers and their placards but they were massively outnumbered.


The slogans on the banners and on people’s lips were fascinating. What do we want? Change. When do we want it now was probably the dominant chant – and had many reflections on cardboard. Later I saw a 17 year-old interviewed for the Manchester Evening News telling the journalist that extreme storms were being caused by the climate crisis. Another young man spoke about Trump’s climate denial, that the movement was international and that there would be a world day of action on March 15. Well informed, confident and politically coherent.

Most people were in the road – some sitting down, others milling around. The police were hardly to be seen at that point – just a few blocking us getting nearer to the entrance to Parliament. People climbed onto lamp posts and some onto the tops of buses -with a confidence I wouldn’t have had at their age. Every so often the police moved a group off one bit of road to let a couple of cars through but a new blockade surged behind them blocking the other side of a road.

Some of the police spoke down to the young people who they were trying to persuade to move – telling them they were stupid to climb up for example. When I responded saying it was much more stupid to ignore the threat of climate change I got a big cheer from those around me.
Later I managed to meet up with a couple of people from Islington Young Labour. I heard that people had earlier blocked the bridge and that a couple of people had apparently been arrested. I reckon if most of those present had been older the tally would have been a lot higher.

Eventually I decided to leave and made my way to the tube. But my political discussions weren’t finished. There was a group of half a dozen young women with placards getting on alongside me. They told me they were from a school in West London and that half their sixth form were out. They were being the change we need to see.

And of course it didn’t end even when I got home because I have been reading dozens of messages from across Britain – and some from other parts of the world, about what has been happening elsewhere. They include information from people who stayed in central London longer than I did telling that the police became more aggressive later and did use horses to clear the roads. I am pretty sure this will further strengthen the determination of those involved to be back on the streets very soon.

And as for the Tories condemning pupils being away from school because it creates more work for teachers this will just multiply the number of workers supporting the students – including those planning to demonstrate the same outside the Department of Education next week.

And we all need to work out how to spread the word even further for the next strike on March 15.

Was Marx an ecologist?


Was Marx an ecologist and does Marx’s theory offer a coherent theoretical and practical approach for ecologists in the 21st century? The publication, in the original language (mostly German), of Marx’s excerpts and notes on ecology from the mid-1860s may help to answer that question.

Ecologists have sometimes accused Marx and Marxists of an uncritical attitude towards industrial society and the damage it does to the environment. Marxists need to “break radically”, according to the French-Brazilian socialist, Michel Löwy, “ with the ideology of linear progress and with the technological and economic paradigm of modern industrial civilisation” (Löwy, 2005, 16). Although there are some on the Marxist left who would still agree with Löwy, it would seem that the belief that Marx offered a powerful and coherent approach to ecology has been gaining ground in recent decades. John Bellamy Foster, a prominent defender of a Marxist inspired ecology, claims that: “Few involved in ecosocialist discussions today doubt the importance of Marx’s foundational contribution to the ecological critique of capitalism” (Foster, 2016).

The question as to why this aspect of Marx’s historical materialism was either not known or forgotten for so long has a number of answers. The development of Marx’s thinking on ecology occurred in the last two decades of his life and many of his writings and notes from that time are still not published. The industrial orthodoxy of Second International Marxism as well as the technological optimism of the early Russian revolution and the dogmatism and industrial strategy of the later Soviet Union were also a factor. The Frankfurt School and other Western Marxist writers, very influential after the Second World War, were mainly interested in culture and aesthetics and rejected the idea that the Marxist dialectic could be applied to nature.

Although there were socialist ecologists in the 1960s and 1970s, well documented in Alan Thornett’s recent book, Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism (2019), it wasn’t until the 1980s, with the work of Marxists such as Ted Benton and Elmar Altvater, and the foundation of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, that the idea of a Marxist ecology began to take shape. The charge of “productivism” against Marx was challenged with greater theoretical rigour by John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology (2000) and Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature (1999). Both argued, in these and many publications since, that Marx’s analysis of capitalism was an ecological one. In Marx’s theory, the drive for profit and the accumulation of capital was based on an unlimited appropriation of natural resources which have a natural limit.

More recently, Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism sets out to demonstrate “the immanent systemic character of Marx’s ecology, that there is a clear continuity with his critique of political economy” (Saito, 2017, 12). What gives added interest to Saito’s claims is his use of what then were the still unpublished ecological notebooks of Marx from 1865 to 1868.

We’re familiar with the image of Marx sitting in the library of the British Museum making notes about what he had read and copying text by hand into his notebooks. Most of these notebooks consist almost completely of direct quotes from the books, articles, and newspapers that he was reading. They therefore didn’t attract much interest from Marx researchers. The gradual publication of these notebooks in the critical edition of Marx’s works, Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) throws light on how Marx worked, his sources of inspiration, and new ideas that he was developing.

In the mid-1860s, around the time of the publication of vol. 1 of Capital, Marx began to devote himself to an intense study of natural science, especially in the area of what we now describe as ecology. These ecological notebooks from 1864 to 1872 have now been published in Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe, IV 18 (de Gruyter, 2019). This volume contains 820 pages of notes and excerpts, with an accompanying (separately bound) 470 pages of information and critical comment. Four notebooks, one from 1865/1866 and three from 1868, deal with agricultural chemistry, soil erosion, deforestation, botany, land rent, capitalist agriculture, climate, social relations in the countryside, as well as agrarian relations in pre-capitalist societies and colonialism.

There was intense interest, in the 19th century, in Europe and North America, in the problem of soil erosion and deforestation that was emerging with the advent of large-scale capitalist agriculture. At the same time, there were big advances being made in agricultural chemistry. Before the 1860s, Marx has assumed that modern agricultural science would resolve the problem of soil replenishment. In The Poverty of Philosophy, written in 1846, he wrote that at “every moment the application of chemistry is changing the nature of the soil and geological knowledge is just now, in our days, beginning to revolutionize all the old estimates of relative fertility” (Marx, 1973, 162). These advances in the knowledge of soil chemistry coming from the natural scientists, as well as the increased use of fertilizer, promised big improvements in agricultural production and soil replenishment. But this optimism didn’t last.

A major influence on Marx’s more radical ecological views in the 1860s was Justus von Liebig (1803-1873). Liebig was a professor at the University of Giessen (the university is now named after him) and he is often described as the father of modern agricultural chemistry. Liebig made important breakthroughs in organic chemistry and in 1840 published his Die organische Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie (Organic Chemistry and its Application to Agriculture and Physiology).

The ecology notebook from 1865/1866, 220 pages in the present text, was finished before the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867. As a result of Marx’s reading of Liebig, he added some strong statements on capitalist agriculture. He wrote, for instance, that the “union of agriculture and industry” under capitalism led to greater urbanisation which concentrated “the historical motive power of society” but, at the same time, “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth. … Capitalist production therefore only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker” (Marx, 1976, 637-638). In a footnote in Capital vol 1, Marx wrote that one of Liebig’s “immortal merits” was to have developed “the destructive side of modern agriculture” (Marx,1976, 638). The extracts in Marx’s notebook are mainly from the 6th edition of Liebig’s book from 1862 where he described the destructive aspects of modern agriculture as “robbery cultivation” (Raubbau). And nowhere was this “robbery economy” (Raubwirtschaft) more developed than in North America (141).

Marx’s response to Liebig’s critique of capitalist agriculture was to throw himself into the study of everything that was being written by the natural scientists of that time on agriculture and the environment. He wrote to Engels on 13 February 1866: “I have been going to the Museum [British Library] in the day-time and writing at night. I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particularly Liebig and Schönbein, which is more important than all the economists put together” (Marx and Engels, 1988, 227).

The Swedish Marxist, Sven-Eric Liedman, whose biography of Marx appeared in English in 2018, comments on Marx’s “endless reading and composition of excerpts”. […] above all, no gaps in knowledge could be left open” (Liedman, 2018, 475). In 1866, when Marx was reading Liebig and others on agriculture, his notes which Engels would later assemble to form volume 3 of Capital, were already on his desk.

One of the unanswered questions about Marx has been why he published so little in the 1870s after the publication of vol. 1 of Capital. The notebooks, many of which are still to be published, will probably help to answer that question. Marx, according to Liedman, “continued reading and taking notes as if he himself were immortal” (Liedman, 2018, 475). The German socialist and friend of Marx, Wilhelm Liebknecht, wrote about Marx’s interests in this period: “Especially on the field of natural science, including physics and chemistry, and of history, Marx closely followed every new appearance, verified every progress; and Moleschott, Liebig, Huxley – whose popular lectures we attended conscientiously – were names mentioned in our circle as often as Ricardo, Adam Smith, McCulloch and the Scottish and Irish economists.” (Liebknecht, 1965, 81)

If there was any doubt previously about whether this ecological aspect was in any way central to Marx’s thinking, the now published notebooks, from 1865/66 but especially from 1868, show clearly how important this was for Marx, more important than “all the economists”. And there are still many unpublished notebooks from the 1870s. The ecological problems that concerned Marx were different from but not unrelated to the problems of today. The notebooks suggest that the idea of ecological crisis would have played a more central role in Marx’s theory had he been able to finish publication of the final two volumes of Capital which were edited and published by Engels after his death.

In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx wrote that the “universality of man [Menschen, gender neutral but traditionally translated into English as “man”] manifests itself in practice in the universality which makes the whole of nature his inorganic body” (Marx, 1975, 328). This relation between humans as a species and the rest of nature was a key part of Marx’s thinking from the beginning. He later used the concept of metabolism (Stoffwechsel) in his analysis of labour. Labour is a process by which humans ‘regulate and controls the metabolism between themselves and nature’ (Marx, 1976, 283). Even exchange is seen as a process of “social metabolism”.

The concept of metabolism (Stoffwechsel) was used by Liebig and the natural scientists in the 19th century in the context of physiology and biochemistry and it described biochemical processes of exchange within organisms, for instance the conversion, within the body, of organic matter into energy or the chemical interactions between plants and the soil. All living things are part of this metabolism and sometimes this can break down, for instance, when more is taken out of the soil than is returned, or when plants and trees can’t absorb the amount of carbon dioxide that’s being produced. We then have a ‘metabolic rift’. Marx used the concept of social metabolism in the 1860s in dealing with the ecological crisis created by what some describe as the “second agricultural revolution” of the 19th century.

For Marx, human metabolism with nature was mediated by labour and was therefore linked to the particular mode of production prevalent at the time. He therefore saw Liebig’s “metabolic rift” as a specifically capitalist contradiction. In volume 3 of Capital he states this explicitly: “the moral of the tale…is that the capitalist system runs counter to a rational agriculture, or that a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system” (Marx, 1991, 216).

Another scientist that interested Marx, especially in 1868, was Karl Nikolaus Fraas. What was interesting in Fraas’s approach to agriculture was his strong emphasis on the effect of agriculture and deforestation on climate and climate change. Marx read and copied from Fraas’s 1847 publication, Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit (Climate and Plant World Over Time) and his 1852 Geschichte der Landwirtschaft (History of Agriculture). Between 1837 and 1842, Fraas had been director of the Royal Gardens in Athens and until 1847 professor of botany at the university in Athens. Having returned to Germany in 1847 he taught agricultural chemistry at the university in Munich.

What Fraas attempted to demonstrate was that the environment and the natural conditions of production were undermined by human civilization and especially by agriculture. He condemned deforestation because “in a region which possesses a very acid and sandy soil, or furthermore even calcareous soil, deforestation counts as the most powerful cause of creating heat” (622). He researched plant growth in ancient Greece and Rome and concluded that climate change was linked to cultivation and deforestation and that the latter have led historically to the creation of deserts and collapses of civilizations. Fraas wrote in Klima und Pflanzenwelt that “humans change the world of nature, on which they depend, in so many ways and to a much greater extent than is commonly realized. In fact, humans are able to change nature to such an extent that it is later completely unable to provide what is needed … There is no hope of changing this.” (Fraas, 1842, 59)

Marx was very impressed by Fraas and wrote to Engels on 25 March 1868 that Fraas’s book was “very interesting, especially as proving that climate and flora have changed in historic times. […] The whole conclusion is that cultivation when it progresses in a primitive way and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois of course he does not arrive at this), leaves deserts behind it… ” (Marx and Engels, 1988, 558).

Marx’s solution, of course, was neither reliance on scientific solutions nor pessimism about the future but rather an end to the capitalist system and a socialist society in which “ the associated producers govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control…accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature” (Marx, 1991, 959).

Directly after Fraas, and probably because Fraas had praised him, Marx read Georg Ludwig von Maurer, a jurist and legal historian who taught German and French historical jurisprudence at the University of Munich. Between 1856 and 1871 he wrote an 11-volume legal history of property rights among the early German people. Marx made extensive notes from Maurer’s 1854 book, Einleitung zur Geschichte der Mark- Hof- Dorf- und Stadt-verfassung und der offentlichen Gewalt (Introduction to the History of the Constitution of the Mark, Farm, Village and Town and its Public Authority). Maurer defended the theory that among the early German people there existed a social order in which collective working and collective ownership of the land predominated. The administration of affairs was carried out by communal (mark) organisations. This social system maintained a sustainable agriculture.

In 1876 Marx was still studying Maurer (three notebooks from that year with excerpts) as well as in 1882, the year before his death. Stimulated by Maurer’s work, he wanted to examine the metabolism between humans and nature in pre-capitalist and non-Western societies. Hence his interest in the Russian village commune. In 1870-71, Marx taught himself Russian so he could engage directly in the debates and the research being carried out in Russia. As Marx’s wife, Jenny, wrote to Engels in January 1870: “He has begun to study Russian as if it were a matter of life and death.” A decade later, in 1881, he corresponded with Vera Zasulich on this issue. He wrote to Zasulich that societies in Western Europe and North America were “in conflict with the working masses, with science, and with the very productive forces which it generates, – in short, a crisis that will end with its own elimination, through the return of modern societies to a higher form of the “archaic” type of collective ownership and production” (Shanin, 2018, 1193). Marx, by now, was long convinced that ecological crisis could not be fixed by science or modern chemistry but by fundamental changes in the forces and relations of production.

These are just some of the natural scientists and historians that Marx was studying in the year after the publication of Capital vol. 1 and which are documented in MEGA IV vol 18. Some others were the English agriculturalist John Lockhart Morton, the German economist and philosopher Eugen Dühring, the French economist and agricultural historian, Leonce de Lavergne, the American economist Henry Charles Carey, and many others.

The publication of Marx’s ecological notebooks will be of great interest to scholars researching this area of Marx’s theory and will certainly demonstrate that Marx himself had more than a passing interest in ecology, that he was, in fact, seriously involved in understanding and responding to this “metabolic rift” which he came to see as one of the contradictions of the capitalist system. But how exactly Marx’s concept of social metabolism, his ecological critique of capitalism, fits into his account of labour and his theory of value is still a matter of debate among Marxist ecologists.


Burkett, Paul. 1999. Marx and Nature, a Red and Green Perspective, New York: St Martin’s Press.

Foster John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’s Ecology. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fraas, Karl. 1847. Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit.

Liebknecht, W. 1965. “Karl Marx zum Gedächtnis”, in Mohr und General. Erinnerungen an Marx und Engels. Berlin: Dietz.

Liedman, Sven-Eric. 2018. A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx. London: Verso.

Löwy, Michel. 2005. What is Ecosocialism? Capitalism Nature Socialism (16, 2).

Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital Vol 1. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital Vol 3. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, Karl. 1973. The Poverty of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers.

Marx Karl. 1975. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844), Early Writings. London: Penguin Books.

Marx and Engels. 1988. Collected Works, vol. 42. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Marx and Engels. 1989. Collected Works, vol. 24. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Saito, Kohei. 2017. Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism. Capital, Nature and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Shanin, Teodor. 2018. 1881 Letters of Vera Zasulich and Karl Marx, The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 45, No. 7.

Thornett, Alan. 2019. Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism. London: Resistance Books.

2 August 2019

International Viewpoint

From Marx to Ecosocialism

Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism. Capitalism, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy By: Kohei Saito New York, Monthly Review Press, 2017 and Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism By: Victor Wallis Toronto, Political Animal Press, 2018 reviewed by Michael Löwy

There is a growing body of ecomarxist and ecosocialist literature in the English-speaking world, which signals the beginning of a significant turn in radical thinking. Some Marxist journals, such as Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, Monthly Review and Socialism and Democracy have been playing an important role in this process, which is becoming increasingly influential. The two books discussed here—very different in style content and purpose—are part of this “Red and Green” upsurge.

Kohei Saito is a young Japanese Marxist scholar and his book is a very valuable contribution to the reassessment of the Marxian heritage, from an ecosocialist perspective. It justifiedly polemicises with those authors (mainly but not exclusively German) that denounce Marx as “Promethean,” productivist, and partisan of the industrial domination of nature. But Saito also criticises, in the introduction, what he defines as “first stage ecosocialists,” who believe that Marx’s 19th Century discussions on ecology are of little importance today: this would include, among others, Alain Lipiez, Daniel Tanuro, Joel Kovel and…myself. This seems to me a bit of an artificial construction… Lipietz calls to “abandon the Marxist paradigm,” the three others consider themselves to be Marxists, and whatever their criticism of (some of) Marx views on nature, do not comsider his views as “of little importance.” Since this issue is mentioned, but not really discussed in the book, let us move on….

One of the great qualities of this work is that it does not treat Marx’s work as a systematic body of writing, defined, from the beginning to the end, by a strong ecological commitment (according to some),or a strong unecological tendency (according to others). As Saito very persuasively argues, there are elements of continuity in Marx’s reflection on nature, but also some very significant changes, and re-orientations.

Among the continuities, one of the most important is the issue of the capitalist “separation” of humans from earth, i.e., from nature. Marx believed that in pre-capitalist societies there existed a form of unity between the producers and the land, and he saw as one of the key tasks of socialism to re-establish the original unity between humans and nature, destroyed by capitalism, but on a higher level (negation of the negation). This explains Marx’s interest in pre-capitalist communities, both in his ecological discussion (for instance of Carl Fraas) or in his anthropological research (Franz Maurer): both authors were perceived as “unconscious socialists.” And, of course, in his last important document, the letter to Vera Zassoulitsch (1881), Marx claims that thanks to the suppression of capitalism, modern societies could return to a higher form of an “archaic” type of collective ownership and production. This is a very interesting insight of Saito, and very relevant today, when indigenous communities in the Americas, from Canada to Patagonia, are in the front line of the resistance to capitalist destruction of the environment.

However, the main contribution of Saito is to show the movement, the evolution of Marx reflections on nature, in a process of learning, rethinking and reshaping his thoughts. Before Capital (1867) one can find in Marx writings a rather uncritical assessment of capitalist “progress”-an attitude often described by the vague mythological term of “Prometheanism.” This is obvious in the Communist Manifesto, which celebrates capitalist “subjection of nature’s forces to man”and the “clearing of whole continents for cultivation”; but it also applies to the London Notebooks (1851), the Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63, and other writings from those years. Curiously, Saito seems to exclude the Grundrisse (1857-58) from his criticism, which is not justified, considering how much Marx admires, in this manuscript, “the great civilizing mission of capitalism,” in relation to nature and to the pre-capitalist communities, prisioners of their localism and their “idolatry of nature”!

The change comes in 1865-66, when Marx discovers, by reading the writings of the agricultural chemist Justus Von Liebig, the problems of soil exhaustion, and the metabolic rift between human societies and the natural environment. This will lead, in Capital vol. 1 (1867)—but also in the two other, unfinished volumes—to a much more critical assessment of the destructive nature of capitalist “progress,” particularly in agriculture. After 1868, by reading another German scientist, Carl Fraas, Marx will discover also other important ecological issues, such as deforestation and local climate change. According to Saito, if Marx had been able to complete volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, he would have more strongly emphasised the ecological crisis, which also means, at least implicitly, than in their present unfinished state, there is no strong enough emphasis on those issues.…

This leads me to my main disagreement with Saito: in several passages of the book he asserts that for Marx “the environmental unsustainability of capitalism is the contradiction of the system” (p.142, emphasis by Saito); or that in his late years he came to see the metabolic rifts as “the most serious problem of capitalism”; or that the conflict with natural limits is, for Marx, “the main contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.”

I wonder where Saito found, in Marx’s writings, published books, manuscripts or notebooks, any such statements…they are not to be found, and for a good reason: the unsustainability of the capitalist system was not a decisive issue in the 19th Century, as it has become today: or better, since 1945, when the planet entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene. Moreover, I believe that the metabolic rift, or the conflict with natural limits is not “a problem of capitalism” or a “contradiction of the system”: it is much more than that! It is a contradiction between the system and “the eternal natural conditions” (Marx), and therefore with the natural conditions of human life on the planet. In fact, as Paul Burkett (quoted by Saito) argues, capital can continue to accumulate under any natural conditions, however degraded, so long as there is not a complete extinction of human life: human civilisation can disappear before capital accumulation becomes impossible.…

Saito concludes his book with a sober assessment which seems to me a very apt summary of the issue: Capital remains an unfinished project. Marx did not answer all questions nor predict today’s world. But his critique of capitalism provides an extremely helpful theoretical foundation for the understanding of the current ecological crisis.

Victor Wallis agrees with the ecosocialists such as John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett who emphasize the ecological dimension of Marx. But he also acknowledges that there are illusions in the “technological neutrality” of the capitalist productive forces in some of his writings.

In any case, the object of his outstanding book is not Marx as such, but the Marxist perspective of a Red-Green Revolution. Being a collection of essays, the chapters do not follow a precise order, but one can easily detect the main lines of the argument.

The starting point is the understanding that capitalism, driven by the need to “grow” and expand at any cost, is inherently destructive of the environment. Moreover, through ecological devastation and climate change—the result of fossil-fuel emissions of CO2 gases—the capitalist system undermines the conditions of life itself on the planet. “Green capitalism” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms: it offers only false solutions, based on corporate interests and a blind faith in the “market,” such as “biofuels,” the trade in “emission rights,” etc. A typical exemple of “green capitalism”: the monitoring of global environmental measures has been entrusted, by the ruling class, to the World Bank, which invested 15 times more on fossil-fuel projects than on renewables.…

Radical measures are the only realistic alternative: a revolution is needed to overcome the environmental threat to our collective survival. The aim is an ecosocialist society, without class domination and with life in balance with the rest of nature. Of course there are risks involved in any revolutionary enterprise, but the risk of keeping things as they are is much greater…Long term species survival is contingent upon a nearly 90 percent reduction in the burning of fossil fuels. This requires to a sharp break with capitalist priorities: accumulation, profit-making, commodification, “growth.” A key component of the ecosocialist project is conscious democratic planning, reorganizing production and consumption around the real popular needs, and putting and end to the waste inherent to capitalism with its artificial “needs” induced by the advertising industry, and its formidable military expenditures. Democratic planning is the opposite of the Soviet model of top-down directives: the identification of planning with Stalin is a dangerous relic of Cold War demagogy, which could obstruct ecological conversion.

Ecosocialism requires also some key technological choices, for instance privileging renewable energies (wind, solar, etc.) against fossil-fuels. But there is no purely technical solution: energy use must be reduced, by sharply reducing wasteful consumption.

Victor Wallis insists, and this is one of the most valuable insights of his book, that ecosocialism, as a long-term objective, is not contradictory with short-range measures, urgent and immediate ecological steps: they can, in fact, reinforce and inspire each other. Similarly, to oppose local ecological communities to the global political struggle is pointless and counterproductive: both are necessary and provide mutual support.

Which are the forces that will lead this struggle for social and ecological change? In one of the essays, Wallis insist on the centrality of the working-class—in spite of the present anti-ecological position of most union leaders (in order to “protect jobs”). Is the working-class the “implicit embodiment of ecological sanity” (unlike its present leaders)? Is it the only force capable to bring together all constituencies opposed to capitalism? I’m not so sure, but I think Wallis is right to emphasise that class oppression concerns the vast majority of the population—and therefore a radical change cannot take place without its support.

But there are also other social forces engaged in the process of resistance to the capitalist onslaught on the environment: for instance, the indigenous communities. This is another very important contribution of this book: to show that indigenous communities—direct victims of the capitalist plunder, a global assault on their livelihoods—have become the vanguard of the ecosocialist movement. In their actions, such as the Standing Rock resistence to the XXL Pipeline, and in their reflections—such as their Declaration at the World Social Forum of Belem in 2009—“they express, more completely than any other group, the common survival interest of humanity.” Of course, the urban population of modern cities cannot live like the indigenous, but they have much to learn from them.

Ecological struggles offer a unifying theme around which various oppressed constituencies could come together. And there are signs of hope in the United States, in the vast upsurge of resistance against a particularly toxic racist, mysoginist and anti-ecological power elite, and in the growing interest, among young people and African Americans, in socialism. But a political revolutionary force, able to unify all constituencies and movements against the system is still lacking.

International Viewpoint

Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism

Kohei Saito Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. 2017. New York: Monthly Review, reviewed by Ted Benton.

This exceptionally clear and well-researched book is based on Saito’s dissertation, originally in German, and incorporates the results of his study of as-yet unpublished manuscripts and excerpt notebooks compiled during the last fifteen years of Marx’s life. Saito’s approach is closely aligned with that of Paul Burkett, John Bellamy Foster and their associates (Burkett 1988, Foster et al. 2010), well-known advocates of a view of Marx as an ecological thinker, who developed the concept of ‘metabolic rift’ to explain the contradictions between capitalism and external nature.

Saito uses the results of his own research to strengthen and extend the claims made by those writers. His key argument is that his predecessors in the ‘metabolic rift’ school of thought were able to demonstrate Marx’s ecological critique only through occasional passages of text. Saito’s research into Marx’s later writings, and, most especially, unpublished notebooks reveals the developing pattern of his reading of contemporary natural science, especially agronomy. Ecology was always central to Marx’s thinking, Saito argues, it was integral to his critique of political economy, and was understood by Marx as ‘the’ contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.


It might be necessary to set Saito’s important contribution in the context of the fairly arcane and technical debates among rival positions on Marx’s work and its relation to our own current attempts to understand the connections between socialism and ecology. First, there is a very widespread and long-standing interpretation of Marx’s view of history (shared by both admirers and opponents of Marx) that sees ‘progress’ as the long-run development of human productive powers and growing mastery of the forces of nature.

Capitalism is the culmination of this process, but also reaches its limits, resulting in its own self-destruction, to be followed by a communist future in which all are able to share in the abundance of wealth inherited from the advances of previous epochs. This is referred to by Saito and his associates as the ‘Promethian’ reading of Marx. They attribute this Promethean interpretation of Marx to other eco-socialists, who they refer to as ‘first stage’, by contrast with their own ‘second stage’ eco-socialism, which draws on an alternative reading of Marx as already an ecological critic of capitalism. For these ‘second stage’ eco-socialists, Marx can be drawn upon without critical revision as providing key concepts, and the methodological principles for addressing our own ecological crisis.


Saito’s Introduction sharply opposes his reading of Marx to what he sees as ‘stereotypical’ versions of Marx’s Promethianism, and dismissals of Marx’s value for ecological politics that he takes to have been general among ‘first stage’ eco-socialists. It might be argued that his dismissal of them is itself somewhat stereotypical – see later. Chapter 1 focusses on Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and shows that Marx was already putting the human relation to nature at the centre of his thinking, ‘alienation’ being rooted in a specifically modern separation of humans from nature.

However, the political economic aspects of the manuscripts are subsumed under a Feuerbachian philosophy which Marx quickly comes to abandon in favour of analysis of the dynamics of capitalism. Here, as chapter 2 explains, Marx continues to develop the key ‘formal’ concepts of political economy – abstract labour, value, capital, commodity, but always in recognition of the need to consider them in relation to the material processes and interactions involved in concrete labour processes and the production of use values.

In the Grundrisse and then in Capital itself, the key concept through which Marx designates this material dimension of capitalist political economy is ‘stoffwechsel ’, or ‘metabolism’. Saito points out that this concept, originally belonging to physiology, was widely used in Germany in the 19th century in a wider sense to characterise the interaction between living things and their material environments both at the level of individuals and species. Marx’s version of it was strongly influenced by Liebig (as already shown by Burkett and Foster), but Saito argues Marx develops the idea in a distinctive way – for instance in distinguishing the different reproductive rates of fixed and circulating capital.


This metabolic interaction between economic dynamics and the forces of nature is necessarily disrupted as capital accumulation meets material obstacles (from nature and labour) which it strives to overcome by ever-advancing technological domination. In doing so, however, it becomes mired in ever deeper and wider contradictions. However, thus far the analysis just shows the germ of a contradiction between capital accumulation and the forces of nature.

Saito’s reading of Capital is that it provides the systematic analysis of the concrete character of this contradiction. Chapter 3 provides this analysis, which is based on a hitherto little-known Japanese interpretation of ‘abstract labour’ as not merely a social relation, but also as having material substance as an expression of the physiologically limited labour time available to any society.

On this interpretation, the drive for capital accumulation without limit predominates over, and cannot adequately take account of, the ‘concrete’ labour processes, materials and conditions upon which it depends. This necessarily results in exhaustion and degradation of the labour force and soil, as well as the living and non-living beings and processes that are drawn upon in the expansionary dynamic. Saito argues that the chapters in Capital on the working day and machinery and large-scale industry are places where Marx develops his analysis of the metabolism of capital and nature, but these have been over-looked by most commentators as of little theoretical interest.


Part two of the book, chapters 4 to 7, contains Saito’s distinctive contribution. Here he concedes that until the early to mid-1860’s Marx rejected the view of Ricardo, Malthus and others that investment in agriculture necessarily faces diminishing returns. Malthus had originally argued that the tendency of population to increase would always outstrip increments in agricultural productivity, making premature death from the ‘positive checks’ of disease and poverty inevitable. Though Malthus later moderated this view, both Marx and Engels continued to oppose its key premise, arguing that the potential for increasing agricultural productivity through scientific and technical progress was unlimited.

Saito shows that Marx’s reading of Leibig’s Agricultural Chemistry enabled him to recognise declining soil fertility, not as a general fact of nature, but, instead, as a result of the specifically capitalist form of division between town and country. This results in disruption of the cycles of soil nutrients, as the waste products of consumption are not returned to the soil, but cause disease and pollution in the urban centres. This can only be offset under capitalism by the application of artificial fertilizer, which not only increases costs, but leads to an escalating and ultimately unsuccessful scramble for material resources across the globe.

Intense engagement

Saito’s study of the notebooks compiled during the last 15 years of Marx’s life brings to light his intense engagement with agricultural science, geology and botany, so that from 1868 onwards he had become acquainted with critics of Leibig’s emphasis on inorganic nutrients, and in particular had become influenced by Fraas’s discussion of the role of climate, in the shape of warmth and moisture in the soil. This led him to an appreciation of the combined effects of deforestation through industrial development and intensive cultivation on local climates, and the reciprocal impact of climatic change on agriculture.

So, Marx was increasingly building a recognition of what we can now call ecology into his critical analysis of capitalism as a system whose inherent tendency is to disrupt its own naturally given and human-social conditions. There are passages in which Marx writes of the unsustainability of capitalism’s system of ‘robbery agriculture’ and calls for the rational regulation by the associated producers of human metabolism with the earth from the standpoint of the ‘chain of generations’.


This is a remarkable book which makes its case. I have just a couple of reservations. One is that Saito’s generosity in his reading of Marx is not extended to his reading of the so-called ‘first stage eco-socialists’. His own reading of Marx finds much in the latter’s writing up to the mid-1860s to justify the Promethean reading which he condemns. At the same time, his reading of his opponents is over-generalised and one-sided.

The late James O’Connor, for example, combined a critical relationship to some aspects of Marx with his development of the important concept of a ‘second contradiction’, which has much in common substantively with the position Saito develops out of his reading of the later Marx (O’Connor 1988). Saito criticises my own work for accusing Marx of a Promethean ‘flight from recognition of natural limits’. In fact my argument was that despite the evidence for an un-ecological reading of Marx, there was also a basis for an ecological one which I endorsed: e.g. ‘…Marx quite explicitly advocates ecological sustainability as a ‘regulating law’ which would govern socialist agriculture, by contrast with its capitalist form. This complements and continues a central theme of Marx’s early writings…’ (Benton 1989:83). It is unfortunate that Saito seems to have been drawn into the rather polarising and even sectarian tendency of some in the ‘metabolic rift’ school to dismiss, rather than engage constructively with, the work of others whose analyses are often quite close to their own.

A second reservation I have is that the devotion to exegesis and defence of Marx’s political economy, while valuable in its own right, takes us only so far in thinking about the sorts of alliances that might be put together, and the transitional strategies and visions of a future sustainable and socially just society that might be feasible now. The ‘rational regulation by the associated producers of their metabolism with [the rest of] nature’ is a fine start – but maybe we need to add the material content to complement the abstract form?

None of this detracts from the standing of this book as a hugely valuable contribution to our understanding of the importance of Marx’s legacy for eco-socialist politics. It is a difficult read – but eminently worth the effort.

Benton, Ted 1992 Marxism and natural limits: an ecological critique and reconstruction. New Left Review 198:51-86.
Burkett, Paul 1999 Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s.
Foster, John Bellamy, Clark, Brett & York, Richard 2010 The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review.
O’Connor, James 1988 Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York: Guilford