Sunday, 7 December 2014

Stories of Tomorrow - Ecosocialism and the World To Come

Politics & The Planet - to the left, Haiti under Duvalier deregulated land use and developers destroyed the lush forests once shared with more conservationally minded Dominica on the right.
Where are we now and why?

Our world now is faced with several major crises, each of them existential in their nature. Any one of them has the potential to overwhelm human civilisation and even the means for humanity to continue to exist in any meaningful way on our planet.

We face:
-         Climate change in the form of global warming: 98% of scientists agree that this is a result of human activity and, as things stand today, at the end of what is likely to have been the warmest year in history, we are on target for a climate increase on 1990 levels of between 4 and 5 degrees centigrade by the end of this century. To put this in context, long before 5 degrees, we would face the collapse of much of the agriculture that feeds all of us, along with hundreds of millions, even billions, of climate refugees and all the attendant conflict and misery you might expect.

-         Resource depletion: especially in respect of carbon fuels, where we are around now at the Peak Oil point, where the majority of the oil on the planet has already been extracted. Water and food resources are similarly under intense strain.

-         Mass extinctions: human activity is now destroying other species at a record level. WWF estimates the extinction rate to be somewhere between one and ten thousand times the natural rate.

-         Gross record levels of human inequality: earlier this year, we saw this powerfully illustrated by the Oxfam double-decker bus demonstrating that if the 85 richest people of the planet got on board, the passengers on that one bus would own more than than the poorest 3.5 billion people combined; and later on we heard about how just 5 families in the UK are wealthier than the poorest 12.6 million people put together. Wealth is concentrated in the hands not of the top 1%, but about one tenth of the 1%. This is infinitely greater than at any time in human history – even in the feudal age

These crises, from an ecosocialist perspective, as from the perspective of all socialists I imagine, are very much driven by capitalism. As we know, capitalism is predicated on:

-         Theoretical infinity of supply and demand, with the ever-changing equilibrium point between these two forces setting the temporarily prevailing exchange value, or price.

-         Scarcity is inherent in this model, so the prospect of a resource crisis which would concern most humans leaves the Lords of the Universe rubbing their hands at the prospect of higher and higher profits. This is because anything that is scarce, anything that is not freely available (such as, for now, air) can be commodified - in other words, it can be owned and sold. The scarcer any commodity is relative to demand, the higher the price that can be expected to be paid by the consumer to the supplier and the greater the profit made. For example, if water is scarce, whoever owns it can make far more money out of this essential for our life than if it were in abundance.

Left to continue as it is, we face a future of environmental degradation and growing human conflict over things as basic as water and food. One prediction by John Beddington, UK Chief Scientist in 2009, sees a “Perfect storm” of population growth resource depletion and climate change as early as 2030. As the world's population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions.

As the ecosocialist thinker Joel Kovel has written:
“Having beaten back the spectre of communism, the ideologues of capital even proclaimed that not just Marxism, but history itself had come to an end. A generation later, the tables appear to be reversed. We are now compelled to recognize the distinct possibility that history may indeed come to an end thanks to capitalism–not in triumph, however, but through the generalized ecological decay it causes.”

Why Ecosocialism?

So what is ecosocialism, how is it different to socialism and why does it matter now?

There has long been significant co-operation between greens and socialists given a shared agenda in many areas – in the peace movement, in some aspects of social justice and civil rights. We have seen Red-green coalitions in some European states and it was a Green Left/Left Socialist coalition that delivered Iceland from the bankers’ crisis of 2009 in a radically different way to the rest of the world, refusing to pay all debts and jailing bankers and financiers as opposed to underwriting their bonuses.

But significant differences remain.

Among greens, so-called deep ecologists do not always see markets as inherently hostile; some talk of reforming and even saving capitalism from itself; to my mind a bit like hoping to talk sense to Hitler, but there you are.

Among socialists, on the hand the environmental agenda has often been viewed as separate from the human.  We can see in the works of some who acted in the name of Soviet socialism a view of the environment as a resource for use and consumption pretty much in a similar way to capitalism. Stalin’s geo-engineering of central Asian waterways and the longterm destruction of the Aral Sea, now barely a twentieth of its original surface area, amply demonstrate that it is not just capitalism that kills nature.

Then & Now - the death of the Aral Sea
Similarly, Trotsky, had this to say.
The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and seashores, cannot be considered final… Through the machine, man is Socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons.” (Wall, Rise of the Green Left, p80)

In the west at the same time, Fabian Social Democracy’s rejection of revolution saw it needing to compromise with capitalism. All it could offer was to somehow outperform capitalism, but on capitalism’s own terms of maximising material output. Sustainability was not a consideration.

The impact of human industry has become more and more evident in recent decades and so the evidence that an approach that is not purely human-focussed is vital has become overwhelmingly obvious from the ecosocialist perspective. But it isn’t simply about the damage and danger of existing capitalist practices.

Dr Derek Wall, a key ecosocialist thinker and former Principal Speaker for the Green Party, has put it this way:
“The ecocentric element of green philosophy stresses that other species – and even the Earth itself – have moral standing; they cannot just be used without regards merely as instruments to benefit humanity. This means that even if…severe environmental problems… did not threaten human society, greens would still seek to combat them, because they would threaten the diversity and beauty of our planet. In essence, greens argue that the rest of nature has ethical status and cannot be used for human gain without thought.” (Wall, The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics, p47)

Dr Derek Wall
So how distinctive is this analysis? Is ecosocialism a distinctive philosophy or do we simply allow labels to obscure an inherent commonality among all socialist viewpoints?

Origins and Evolution of Ecosocialism

There is a long history of thought which sets human harmony alongside harmony with nature. At the heart of this thinking is the concept of The Commons where resources are shared between contemporaries and fostered for future generations. This feature of resource ownership and use goes back millennia – a simple example would be the right to graze cattle and collect firewood on common land which was often seen in feudal society.

Modern examples persist though – for example the harvesting of the Amazon by rubber tappers who extract only small amounts from trees so that they will replenish themselves by the following year, or the sustainable fishing methods of west African communities, sharing the fruits of the sea.

The concept of the Commons is central to most ecosocialist thinking, from ancient forms of land use to modern car clubs. And there is a close linkage between early radical movements from the Peasants Revolt of 1381, through the Diggers, Levellers and Luddites to contemporary ecosocialist thinking.

But it is the more recent thinkers and advocates of socialism that I would like to look at. Long before the term ecosocialism or the tenets that however loosely structure ecosocialist thought were formulated, we can see a concerns for nature and humanity’s relationship with it informing the development of socialist thought.

Ecosocialism and thinkers

Some of ecosocialism’s earliest modern expressions can be traced back to the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This moved on from the Enlightenment which had broken down so many old shibboleths and created new ideas about human rights and equality.

The Romantic thinkers were a reaction of sorts to the extreme rationalism of the Enlightenment – they did not reject the Enlightenment but sought a reconnection with nature, drawing on the ideals of a lost Eden, of a humane past informing the future. They stressed not only the importance of human nature but also the importance of humanity’s relationship with Nature itself.

The German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe was linked to the “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) movement which sought to express the extremes of emotion and nature. His most famous work is like an ecosocialist nightmare – "Faust" tells of a man who sells his soul to Satan in return for temporary possession of the world.

And what does he do with the world? 

He builds and builds and builds. His motives though are not necessarily founded on the evil which Satan represents – Faust wishes to drive tragedy from the world, eliminate human struggle by conquering nature and replacing it with a landscape forged in his own image. Only one small patch of land remains resistant, a sand dune where an elderly couple live by a chapel with a little bell and a garden full of linden trees. In spite of bribes and threats, they refuse to give up their home.

Faust plays for his soul & the world
Faust, driven by the need to overcome nature itself, laments their resistance:
“That aged couple should have yielded
I want their lindens in my grip
Since these few trees are denied me
Undo my worldwide ownership
Hence is our soul upon the wrack
To feel, amid plenty, what we lack.”

In time, they are eliminated by his obliging agents without him needing to instruct them.

The late Marshall Berman, the American Marxist academic, wrote that the couple “are the first embodiments in literature of a category of people that is going to be very large in modern history: people who are in the way – in the way of history, of progress, of development; people who are classified, and disposed of, as obsolete.” (Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, p67)

Left behind - if you don't move, we will surround you
Between 1986 and 1996 alone, the academic Joel Kovel, of whom more later, notes that over three million people were displaced by "conservation projects"; and at an earlier point, some three hundred Shoshone Indians were killed in the development of Yosemite National Park in the United States.

Berman cited Goethe’s Faust in his work, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air”, paraphrasing Karl Marx paraphrasing William Shakespeare. The Faust story predated Marx, but it is a telling illustration of the process Marx identified as “innovative self-destruction”.

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”

Karl Marx
Capitalism’s very nature requires anything predating it to ultimately be commodified, consumed and reconstituted into something new, which will soon enough go through the same process again and again, constantly reinventing itself in the name of supposed progress.

It is a progress born solely of the need for profit, the driver of capitalism. Engels was scandalised that housing in the 1840s was being constructed with a maximum 40 year lifespan – even the houses of the rich were to be pulled down again within a generation.

So even if there is material progress, it is at a terrible cost: 

“All that is solid – from the clothes on our backs to the looms and mills that weave them, to the men and women who work the machines, to the houses and neighbourhoods the workers live in, to the firms and corporations that exploit the workers, to the towns and cities and whole regions and even nations that embrace them all – all these are made to be broken tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverized or dissolved, so that they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever, in ever more profitable forms.” (Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, p99)

Marx called this “a metabolic rift” between humanity and nature and although he did not write directly about the environment, John Bellamy Foster in “Marx’s Ecology” argues that ecological themes were a constant part of his thinking: in Capital, he describes the origins of wealth as “labour is its father, and the earth its mother”, as fine a definition of ecosocialist values as you could get.

Friedrich Engels
Marx's friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels took these themes further.

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature, For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first… 

Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature and exist in its midst, and all out mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.” (Wall, Rise of the Green Left, p73-74)

But perhaps the first real emergence of a distinctively ecological Marxist view point came in the form of William Morris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although starting out as a poet, designer and artist very much rooted in the traditions of the Romantic movement, he grew more political and eventually worked with Eleanor Marx and with Engels himself in the Social Democratic Federation, Britain's first socialist party, and authored numerous tracts on socialist change.

His best known work is "News from Nowhere", not a political tract as such, but a mix of science fiction, political fantasy and polemic. In it, a time traveller goes far into a future England where an egalitarian society lives in a sort of pastoral idyll. Gone are the great smokestacks of Victorian London and in their place people live with nature.
William Morris
 This ideal world is striking in a number of ways – gender equality has been achieved and social class is absent. But Morris’ future society is also one of material sufficiency – where people have adopted the concept of enough. In the absence of the enduring competitiveness and acquisition at the heart of capitalism, his vision of a socialist society is one where humans draw wealth from an inner life of learning and creativity, where there is still competition, but it is around intellectual and physical achievement, not material gain.

These were themes also taken up by John Ruskin and in Sheffield by Edward Carpenter.

Bogdanov & Proletkult
As we move into the 20th century, harmony between humans and their environment featured among many on the Russian Left in the years up to the October revolution. The Social Revolutionary Party under Chernov, was rooted in peasant culture and sought land reform as its primary aim

Feudalism was abolished late in Russia but paradoxically this often led to a decline in the peasants’ condition rather than any improvement. Although small by western standards too, the rise of an industrial proletariat within the larger cities followed the same patterns of exploitation in the factories and overcrowded housing as elsewhere: but with many workers fairly newly arrived and driven to the cities by the endemic poverty of the countryside, nostalgia for a better past however idealised paralleled Morris in England. All that was solid had indeed melted around them and this dislocation was fundamental to fostering the conditions for eventual revolution.

Among the Bolsheviks, Lenin’s rival for leader, Aleksander Bogdanov, advocated a less determinist route for the party and identified environmental science as an important factor in a revolutionary state. Interestingly, paralleling Morris, he used science fiction to advocate some of his views, including a novel about a socialist society on Mars. (Lenin was not impressed.)

Eco-Bolshevik Bogdanov
Although he left the party in 1913, Bogdanov resurfaced in 1917 to lead the Proletkult, an independent body that promoted ideas to "integrate production with natural laws and limits”, but was shut down in 1920 and the Narkompros, the Education Ministry. Subsequently, under Stalin, the Ukrainian agronomist Trofim Lysenko was put in charge of Soviet policy on agriculture and the environment and although he did improve crop yields, his work was very much directed to support Stalinism. Ironically echoing Trotsky, Lysenko "set about to rearrange the Russian map” and conquer environmental limitations.

In the latter part of the 20th century, ecosocialist thinking was developed by the American psychologist and academic Joel Kovel. He was involved for a time with the Green Party of the USA and was an unsuccessful rival to Ralph Nader for the party’s Presidential nomination for the 2000 election. He is now an advisory editor of Socialist Resistance.
In 2001, Kovel and Michael Lowy, a member of the Fourth International, issued “An Ecosocialist Manifesto”, which attempts to set out ecosocialist ideology.

In this, Kovel and Löwy suggest that capitalist expansion causes both "crises of ecology" through "rampant industrialization" and "societal breakdown" that springs "from the form of imperialism known as globalization". They believe that capitalism "exposes ecosystems" to pollutants, habitat destruction and resource depletion, "reducing the sensuous vitality of nature to the cold exchangeability required for the accumulation of capital", while submerging "the majority of the world's people to a mere reservoir of labor power" as it penetrates communities through "consumerism and depoliticization". (Wikipedia)

Kovel is generally very critical of the idea of working within existing political structures. He argues that especially where they do not acknowledge the values of socialism, Greens are easily drawn into and neutralised by the establishment – for him "that which does not confront the system becomes its instrument".

He argues that a truly green transformation of society cannot be achieved by technology and regulation: drawing on Marx, he sees patterns of production and social organisation as central to a sustainable society and planet. So Greens need to be concerned about social change and social justice more than technology alone.
Equally though he is critical of the development of socialism during the 20th century –the Soviet Union’s rejection of Bogdanov and the Bolshevik environmentalists was to him a perversion of true socialism. He sees a continuity rather than a breach between Lenin, Trostsky and Stalin where Lenin’s productivist outlook and Trotsky’s concept of a Communist Superman moving rivers and mountains came into a devastating reality under Stalinist bureaucracy.

Kovel rejected Trotsky's Soviet Superman
So his solutions sit in what he and Lowy called “first epoch socialism”. In this, there is a return to the original socialist concept of a free association of producers and the recreation of the Commons. As opposed to the concentration on the sale or exchange value of products and services in capitalism, the focus is on use-value.

Use-value would eliminate the built-in obsolescence of goods that sits at the heart of capitalism. The pressure on resources would be greatly decreased if everyone shared vehicles and free public transport eliminated the need for car ownership. Similarly with any other product or service that could be shared; so Kovel sees the development of things like Opensource software on the internet, crowdsourcing projects like Wikimedia and public libraries as central to a process he calls prefiguration.

Prefiguration is the mental and psychological preparation of people for the great change from the ethos and values of capitalism to a society where much more is shared and held in common ownership. Where personal material gain is no longer the main objective in life and where concepts of co-operation and sufficiency become the norms of human development rather than viewed as wildly idealistic nonsense.

Joel Kovel
To advance this, he seeks the development of an ecosocialist party rooted in what he calls communities of resistance – this is not a vanguard party like the Bolsheviks, but it isn’t a parliamentary party either. Rather it is a vehicle for expressing the intention to end capitalism through a transformation of social values. It should participate in elections but not engage in power sharing with established parties because here, he believes, it would be fatally compromised and undermined.

Instead, he wants ecosocialists to work through community organisations and trade unions to establish the new outlook needed for a peaceful ecosocialist revolution where, as attitudes change even among agents of the state such as the police, there will be a spontaneous move to a new paradigm.

Post-revolution, Kovel foresees an assembly of revolutionaries overseeing the transfer of capital into the hands of various self-governing communities – some geographical but others self-governing functional communities, such as health care or education. Money would continue but would be heavily regulated to support user value rather than be a commodity in its own right. An international trade body, democratically selected, would set an ecological value on goods to encourage things like organic agriculture and penalise production that damaged people or planet.

Worker ownership would be a major feature, but so too would be the valuing of activities such as child-rearing and care which are devalued under capitalism. Creativity could be more valued and Kovel foresees a time when many activities currently viewed as hobbies become valued activities in their own right. As people refocus on intrinsic human values, the understanding and acceptance of ecological limits would become a given and society would embrace social justice within a sustainable environment.

Ostrom, Wall and Angus
More recently, ecosocialism has been advocated by writers and activists like Derek Wall in the Green Party and Ian Angus, who heads up the Canadian based Climate & Capitalism web journal. Wall in particular develops on from the works of the American economist and Nobel Prize Winner, Elinor Ostrom. She drew heavily on the examples of Latin American indigenous people in sharing and conserving their environment and its resources as possible examples for wider sustainable living.

Elinor Ostrom
Ecosocialists are present now in a number of political parties and independently. We collaborate and exchange ideas through various bodies such as the Ecosocialist International Network and social media forums like Ecosocialists Unite and Green Left and web journals like Climate and Capitalism. Many came together a few years ago to sign the Belem Declaration, which sets out a manifesto for change and the principles underlying our thinking.

Ecosocialism In Practice

Is any of this possible?
Ecosocialists say yes – and look as a practical example to Cuba as well as to many other examples particularly from Latin America.

Throughout the Soviet period, Cuba was subsidised with food and oil from the USSR, both essential given the longterm economic blockade of the Communist island by the USA. So when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was left reeling as it faced both an energy and food crisis. Washington must have been rubbing its hands in glee at the prospect of the fall of yet another socialist state. But it was not to be.

Instead of decay and final collapse, Cuba embraced a full-on transformation of its society. It carried out a revolution in agriculture, using sustainable low-emissions permaculture to maximise land use in an organic way. It adopted widespread use of renewable energy, fostered local shops and services to reduce the need to travel and promoted public transport. Cuba is the only country in the world recognised by the WWF as having achieved sustainable development.

And this shows in some striking ways – in spite of being blockaded since 1961, Cubans live longer and are measurably happier than citizens of the United States of America.

Now and Tomorrow: The Hope of Ecosocialism

So we face now both crises and opportunity. Even at the height of the Cold War, the existential nature of possible nuclear war was not as pervasive or seemingly certain as the degradation of our biosphere and the exhaustion of our resources we now face. 

But just as the threat is potentially so overwhelming, so too the opportunities have never been greater. We can transform our world by shedding not only the patterns of capitalist society but its mindset as well. With greater equality, co-operation and social justice, our planet can sustain our species and all the others that inhabit it. We can transition to a world where people have enough and where each of us can find the self-fulfilment and happiness central to the needs of every human being. Ecosocialism signposts the way forward to that.

To close, I’d cite the romantic poet William Blake’s poem “The Auguries of Innocence”.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage
A dove-house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro’ all religions
A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
William Morris' "News from Nowhere" described a better, happier world.

NB This piece originally was the basis of a contribution to a discussion on Ecosocialist Ideas at the Wakefield Socialist History Club in December 2014.


  1. I don't like to be picky in response to this useful account, but although I work closely with and greatly admire Australian ecosocialists, I actually live and work in Canada. Climate and Capitalism is a web journal, not a group -- I'm a member of Ottawa Ecosocialists, which is a member of System Change Not Climate Change, the North American ecosocialist coalition.

  2. Thanks for this piece - very useful