Can Marxism strengthen our understanding of ecological crises? The author of Marx’s Ecology replies to a critic on metabolic rift, sustainable human development, degrowth, population growth, and industrialism.
In classic capitalist fantasy, the “private” marketplace is a land of liberty and the state is a dungeon of oppression. Modern social democrats have tended to invert the formula, upholding the state as a force for social protection against the tyranny of the capitalist market.
The truth is more complex than either narrative allows. As Marxists and other leftists have long known, “free market” relations and the state combine to impose class oppression on the working-class majority under capitalism. Both the market and the state are under the interrelated and overlapping, mutually reinforcing control of capital. This is especially true in the United States, where government’s social-democratic functions – and the popular movements that have historically fought to install those functions – are much weaker than they are than in other “developed” capitalist nations.
The common worker and citizen faces a double whammy under the U.S. profit system. She must rent out her critical life energy – her labor power – and subject herself to the despotic, exploitative (surplus value-extracting) direction of “free” market-ruling capital to obtain the means of exchange required to obtain basic life necessities sold on the market by capital. To make matters worse, she must contend with a government that functions not so much to protect her and the broader community from capital (including capital as employer) as to deepen capital’s political, social, and market power over and against her, other workers, and the common good.
THERE IS A growing suspicion among many people involved in movements against war, for social justice, and for an ecologically sustainable society that capitalism can only create a world of war, injustice and environmental destruction. There is widespread and growing understanding that the current social order cannot continue without catastrophe occurring —yet we lack a vision of what might replace it.
During 2015 and 2016, a number of significant public and political figures have made statements suggesting that the world is “moving away from fossil fuels,” and that the battle against greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and climate change is therefore being won. Such statements are frequently accompanied by assurances that the transition to renewable energy and a low-carbon economy is both “inevitable” and already well underway, and that economic growth will soon be “decoupled” from dangerously high annual emissions levels. This optimism has also been accepted by a section of the environmental movement, and even by some unions.
Renewables and Reality
If the “green growth” optimists are correct, the political implications for trade unions and social movements are profound. For unions, it would mean focusing aggressively on the need to protect the livelihoods of the tens of millions of workers around the world who currently work in fossil fuels and rallying around the principle of “just transition” encoded in the preface to the Paris Agreement. But it would also mean that the need to wage a determined and protracted political struggle against fossil fuel expansion and “extractivism” would immediately become less urgent. In this scenario, trade union efforts would rightly focus on working to shape the next energy system as it rises from the ashes of the old.
But what if proclamations of fossil fuels’ demise are wrong? What if the “momentum” has not shifted, and the transition to renewables-based power is neither inevitable nor well underway? In that case, the struggle against the current model of ownership that drives the growth of fossil fuels and extractivism—that is, the struggle for democratic control and social ownership of energy—remains vital. This would demand redoubled effort and commitment across all sections of our movement. It would mean the level of urgency in the struggle for energy democracy must be increased, activism stepped up, and fresh approaches embraced, encouraged, and endorsed.
Their Optimism, and Ours
In this ninth TUED working paper, authors Sean Sweeney and John Treat document the recent claims of the optimistic, “green growth” narrative; examine the evidence frequently used to legitimize and sustain it; and then consider this evidence in context of the broader trends in the global energy system, drawing on a range of major recent data sources.
What the paper’s analysis shows is that, unfortunately, the world is not “moving away from fossil fuels”; far from it. The recent “we are winning” optimism is misplaced, misleading, and disarming. It must therefore be rejected, and replaced with a more sober perspective that draws hope and confidence not from a selective and self-deceiving interpretation of the data, but from the rising global movement for climate justice and energy democracy, armed with clear programmatic goals and a firm commitment to achieve them.
Unions are urged to circulate the paper and use its contents to stimulate debates on energy policy and political action. Please send comments, additional data, and requests for more information to Irene Shen (ireneTUED@gmail.com).
The aligning interests between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s choice for U.S. president (Donald Trump), and Big Oil represents the gravest threat to humanity (and democracy) since the rise of the Axis powers in the 1930s.
That’s because while Trump may not be able to destroy global climate action and the landmark 2105 Paris climate deal all by himself — as he pledged to do during the campaign — he probably could do that with help from Russia and the trillion-dollar oil industry.
In 2015, a major study of 24 indicators of human activity and environmental decline titled ‘The Great Acceleration’ concluded that, “The last 60 years have without doubt seen the most profound transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind”. We have all seen aspects of these trends, but to look at the study’s 24 graphs together is to apprehend, at a glance, the totality of the monstrous scale and speed of modern economic activity. According to lead author W. Steffen, “It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. In a single lifetime humanity has become a planetary-scale geological force.”
Every indicator of intensity and scale of economic activity — from global trade and investment to water and fertilizer use, from pollution of every sort to destruction of environments and biodiversity — has shot up, precipitously, beginning around 1950. The graphs for every such trend point skyward still.
The Great Acceleration is manifest everywhere, including many areas not covered in the study. It is impossible to directly, humanly appreciate the ghastly scale of change. Only statistics can do that. For example:
Humans now extract and move more physical material than all natural processes combined. Global material extraction has grown by more than 90 percent over the past 30 years, reaching almost 70 billion tons today.
In this century “global economic output expanded roughly 20-fold, resulting in a jump in demand for different resources of anywhere between 600 and 2,000 percent”.
For more than 50 years, global production of plastic has continued to rise. Today, around 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. “About two thirds of this is for packaging; globally, this translates to 170 million tons of plastic largely created to be disposed of after one use.”
The global sale of packaged foods has jumped more than 90 percent over the last decade, with 2012 sales topping $2.2 trillion.
“In the last 50 years, a staggering 140 million hectares… has been taken over by four industrial crops: soya bean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugar cane. These crops don’t feed people. They are grown to feed the agro-industrial complex.”
Not only are the scale and speed of materials extraction, production, consumption and waste ballooning, but so too the scale and pace of the movement of materials through global trade. For instance, trade volumes in physical terms have increased by a factor of 2.5 over the past 30 years. In 2009, 2.3 billion tons of raw materials and products were traded around the globe. Maritime traffic on the world’s oceans has increased four-fold over the past 20 years, causing more water, air and noise pollution on the open seas.
2016 has been a chaotic year. Twice in the space of 6 months, we have been left reeling by a political event of global significance, with both the Brexit vote in June and the election of Trump in November. In both cases, we knew of the dates in advance, and the possibility of the outcome. And yet in neither case has the left been fully prepared for these moments. We are, as always, on the back foot.
In the weeks following Trump's victory, many arguments have broken out over what is the best way for the left to move forward. Do we put all our energies into supporting radical electoral candidates like Jeremy Corbyn, or is the rise of fascism the final nail in the social democratic coffin? Do we focus on building egalitarian economic alternatives in the cracks, or smashing the state head-on? Or maybe we just ride it out, just try our best to build a culture of care for each other, to help us survive in this terrifying world before a better one comes along.
These various ways of approaching social change tend to correspond to broad divisions on the left. For some, like certain revolutionary socialists, direct action to disrupt or destroy systems is the way. Others stay away from the state, creating their own economic alternatives which aim to take over in the future – in workers cooperatives, Transition towns, or creating the 'digital commons'. A more interpersonal approach is taken in the formation of communities of care, such as among LGBT people, disabled people and people of colour, to try to create spaces and practices which enable marginalised people to survive in the here and now. And of course there's the electoral route, currently en vogue among the radical left in Britain, aiming to support a social democratic candidate to take power through mainstream electoral means and reform its way to socialism. Drawing on and altering Erik Olin Wright's typology of strategic logics, we might refer to these as Smashing, Building, Healing and Taming. Whilst these rarely occur in complete isolation from each other, the categories are useful for focusing our minds on the pros and cons of different approaches.
Taken alone, all of these strategies have failed. But all of them have also had their successes. An alternative is to combine their strengths and weaknesses into a coherent meta-strategy, aiming to unify the left around a common strategic framework whilst maintaining the autonomy of groups within it. This is not simply a vague 'diversity of tactics', but an analysis of how those different tactics and broader strategies can feed into one another. What follows is a proposal for such a framework; not a blueprint to be dogmatically followed, but an initial idea to be tried, tested, and adapted.
The vehicle for this meta-strategy is an ‘ecology of organisations’.
The industrialized food system, studies have shown, is linked to greenhouse gas emissions, algal blooms, pesticide pollution, soil erosion and biodiversity loss, to name a few ecological troubles. Add to this a long list of social ills, from escalating rates of obesity to the demise of the family farmer and deadening of rural landscapes and rural economies across much of the U.S.
In 2010, the National Academies of Science updated its seminal 1989 publication “Alternative Agriculture” with a fresh look at the state of food and farming in America. Its expert panel concluded, “Growing awareness of unintended impacts associated with some agricultural production practices has led to heightened societal expectations for improved environmental, community, labor, and animal welfare standards in agriculture.”
Yet that growing awareness and those heightened expectations haven’t led to alternative agricultural systems becoming the norm in the U.S. Organic has made some headway, but many organic growers have been forced to imitate industrial farming: grow bigger, resort to monocultures instead of truly diversified fields, and sell to large supermarkets — forgoing many of the benefits alternative agricultural systems offer, such as natural pest control, pollination from native bees, and a smaller production scale conducive to family farmers and local food economies.
So, what gives industrialized agriculture such staying power despite its adverse impacts, even as alternatives offer such benefits? And how can more wholesome food production methods such as agroecology become conventional instead of alternative? To achieve real change in how food is produced and eaten, we need to change people’s expectations of what “normal” agriculture should look like.
In this short paper I am taking as a starting point the ecological rift, or metabolic rift in Marx’s own phrase, at the heart of the way in which capitalism appropriates the natural world and alienates humanity from its species being and from nature in the process. This is elaborated at considerable length by John Bellamy Foster and Brent Clark (but not exclusively by them) and what I hope to do here is while accepting their recovery of ecological balance and its disturbance in Marx, give an overview of an ecological praxis related to that theorization.