To Be or Not to Be: Ecocentric Ecological Socialism as the Solution to the World Social and Planetary Crisis
If man draws all his knowledge, sensations, etc., from the world of senses and the experience gained in it, then what has to be done is to arrange the empirical world in such a way that man experiences and becomes accustomed to what is truly human in it and that he becomes aware of himself as a man. If correctly understood interest is the principle of all of morality, man’s private interest must be made to coincide with the interest of humanity.
Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, 1845
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese, 1986
Creemos en los sueños (We believe in dreams)
Slogan painted on a wall in Havana, Cuba, 1996
This essay is motivated by two current debates. The first is about the feasibility of a complete transition to a post-carbon economy in the United States by the mid-century that has generated many interests not only in the science and technology communities but also among the climate justice activists. The second is the intense interest in and the debate about David Wallace-Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth” in the New York Magazine, a long essay in investigative journalism about the devastation that can result from a runaway climate crisis. The article has been read by well over two million people and has been criticized by some scientists and others as too alarmist. I do not agree with such criticism as will become clear below. If anything, I think Wallace-Wells has done us a service by sinking the illusion perpetuated by mass media that the climate catastrophe would simply cause a moderate rise in sea levels sinking under some coastlines. I also think Wallace-Wells’ essay does not fully account for the climate crisis as just one key element of the planetary crisis and its root causes. That is why he hinges his hopes on a technological resolution of the crisis.
The essay will have three part. In Part 1, I will argue that to deal with the crisis we must significantly reduce production and consumption in the U.S. and the rest of the Global North and show how this radical transformation will improve the lives of almost all of the world population especially in the Global South and in the in-need populations in the Global North while averting ecological collapse. In Part 2, I will outline institutional obstacles to this transition and outline significant parts of a transitional program to transcend them. Part 3 will be a summary conclusion.
Part 1. The Need for and Benefits of Fundamental Downsizing and Restructuring the Economies of the Global North
Let’s begin with the energy transition debate between Mark Jacobson of the Stanford University and his colleagues and Christopher Clack and his colleagues. Clack, et.a., Jacobson's projections are unrealistic. As Richard Heinberg (2017) has pointed out, a problem with the technical debate is that both sides assume growing consumption of energy in the U.S. He correctly argues that the U.S. energy use is unsustainable and that we must “powerdown.” From a systems theory point of view that should be obvious. According to the World Bank, per capita energy use in the U.S. was 7,766.4 kilogram of oil equivalent (KOE) in 2007 (EconStat, accessed July 21, 2017) For the same year, High-Income countries per capita energy use was 5,321.0 KOE and the same static for the Low-Income countries for the same year was only 423.18 KOE, a mere 8% of the High-Income countries' use. Given the current climate and planetary crises, clearly, the energy usage in the U.S. and High-Income countries, which is largely countries of the Global North, cannot be emulated by the rest of the world or the humanity will risk extinction. As Heinberg says, we must significantly reduce per capita energy use in the Global North.
But energy use is both a requirement for and a consequence of economic growth as more goods and services are produced and consumed with the rise in per capita income. Accordingly, the less economically developed a country its energy use is likely to be lower and the more economically developed countries consume more energy per capita. Of course, there are variations due to other factors such as climate. Both Iceland and Kuwait have higher per capita energy use than the United States because the former has much colder climate and the latter has much hotter one. Thus, from the standpoint of ecological suitability and social justice, the Global North must downsize and fundamentally restructure their economies if humanity hopes to avert existential threats posed by the planetary crisis.
The good news is that such downsizing and restructuring while massive in scale and radical in nature will improve the quality of life of the immense majority of the humanity, including in the Global North while averting ecological collapse. Let me explain why.
According to the latest Credit Suisse report (2016) the richest 3.5 million people worldwide (o.7% of world population) control $116 trillion, or 45.6% of the world’s wealth, or more than $1 million each (of course, even in this group a tiny minority controls much of the world’s wealth). The poorest 3.5 billion people (73% of the world population) control only $6.1 trillion of wealth, or less than $10,000 in wealth each (Of course, a majority in this group have no wealth or even have negative wealth, debt).
There are two points to take away from this statics. First, if we stop accumulation of wealth by a tiny fraction of people on the planet and provide this ruling elite with all they can consume for a very comfortable existence for the rest of their lives, we can use the bulk of this wealth to improve the lives of the 3.5 billion people whose basic needs are not met. Second, the simple act of refusing to produce in order to accumulate immense wealth for a tiny fraction of the world population will reduce the ecological footprint of the humanity radically and immediately, a giant step towards ecological sustainability.
But much of this wealth is in the form of capital goods and other economic and financial assets that are used by the capitalist elite to extract even more wealth from nature through the exploitation of the labor of the working people worldwide. The ecologically sustainable and socially just policy would be for the working people who maintain or operate these assets to appropriate them in public trust for the benefit of the humanity and manage them through democratically run working class councils on the local, regional, national and international levels. Such working class councils will pursue an alternative mode of production where the object of labor is human development not the accumulation of wealth for the sake of more wealth and power over others.
I know of no one who explained the difference better than Karl Marx.
“We have seen what significance, given socialism, the wealth of human needs acquires, and what significance, therefore, both a new mode of production and a new object of production obtain: a new manifestation of the forces of human nature and a new enrichment of human nature. Under private property their significance is reversed: every person speculates on creating a new need in another, so as to drive him to fresh sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence and to seduce him into a new mode of enjoyment and therefore economic ruin. Each tries to establish over the other an alien power, so as thereby to find satisfaction of his own selfish need. The increase in the quantity of objects is therefore accompanied by an extension of the realm of the alien powers to which man is subjected, and every new product represents a new potentiality of mutual swindling and mutual plundering. Man becomes ever poorer as man, his need for money becomes ever greater if he wants to master the hostile power. The power of his money declines in inverse proportion to the increase in the volume of production: that is, his neediness grows as the power of money increases. (Marx, 1844, p. 306, emphases in the original)
“Society, as it appears to the political economist, is civil society in which every individual is a totality of needs and only exists for the other person, as the other exists for him, insofar as each becomes a means for the other.” (ibid. p. 316, emphases in original)
Once the working people are in control of the capitalist economy, they would quickly decide through their democratic councils which of such economic activities serve only the capitalist class interest and should be phased out as quickly as possible. Often such economic activities are also hazardous to the humanity and life on Earth. Let me suggest a few such economic activities taking the current U.S. economy, which in 2014 employed about 142 million persons out of a population of 330,000 million, as an example. We can classify the U.S. economy as consisting of three sectors. The primary sector includes farming, fishing, forestry, mining and the activity of turning nature (“natural resources”) into primary goods. It employed about 2.25 million wage and salaried employees and 750,000 self-employed persons. The secondary industrial sector dominated by the manufacture of finished products employed approximately 18.4 million wage and salaried employees. Finally, the tertiary services sector employed some 120.6 million wage and salaried employees. (Source, Bureau of Labor Statics, Employment by Economic Major Industry Sectors, accessed July 22, 2017)
Restructuring, downsizing, and repurposing
In the sphere of production large sections of manufacturing industries that serve U.S. militarism (The War Machine) or its arms trade (which makes up for half of the world market), chemicals and petrochemicals (for a sober critique, see, Latham, 2016), and petrochemical industries (includes most fossil fuels), coal mining, nuclear energy, hydraulic energy, power plants that use polluting sources of energy, and industrial agriculture will be phased out as quickly as possible. In the service sector, financial, insurance, and real estate industries will be drastically downsized and what is left as necessary would be run by workers and consumer councils. This will eliminate the management services industry. Wholesale and retail trade and international and national transportation will be reduced to the minimum as the economy will become increasingly local and regional and people will be rooted in their local communities where the bulk of what they require is produced locally. Marketing, including advertisement, and much of the sales force would become unnecessary and phased out. The food system, as well as housing, health, education, clothing, food, and transportation industries, will be radically restructured, transformed and repurposed in line with making the economy work for human needs, not profits, ecologically sounds, and largely local and regional.
Likewise, state bureaucracies that are detrimental to peace, social justice and ecological health of the planet will be closed down or downsized and radically restructured and repurposed. These include the so-called Defense Department and the armed forces, spy agencies (“The Intelligence Community”), and domestic repressive forces such as the F.B.I., Homeland Security, I.C.E., the police, etc. that would be shut down. The task of public security and administration of justice would be taken up by the working people’s militias and people’s courts. Other federal agencies (and their state level counterparts) such as Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Labor would no longer serve a function as they are instruments of the capitalist class. Other federal departments dealing with education, energy, health, housing, justice, transportation would be downsized and radically restructured and repurposed.
All activities hostile towards other species such as part of the food system that raises farm animals and fish for food (for a discussion, see, Nayeri, 2014), “sports fishing and hunting,” “pet” trade, dog and cock fighting, abuse of animals in the name of science and medicine, etc. will be banned. All manners of ownership of animals will be phased out through public education as quickly as possible (for a discussion, see, Nayeri, 2017). Hunting and fishing would only be allowed for human survival.
Jobs for all
What would happen to the workers in those sectors that would be phased out? First, the affected workers will be key participants in the democratic discussion of why such economic restructuring is necessary and how to proceed. Second, affected workers will receive their wages and benefits to be part of a “jobs committee” that look for a socially useful and ecologically grounded alternative employment for them and ensure they are adequately trained to take it up. Third, workers councils discuss and reduce the work week and the working day to ensure employment for all as well as increased leisure time for human development. Fourth, the dismantling of undesirable economic sectors will coincide with a massive restructuring of the food system as well housing, health, education, clothing, food, and transportation industries. For example, currently, the agricultural sector employs a mere 1.6% of the total employment in the United States because it is dominated by a handful of massive agribusiness companies using high input industrial methods to grow food. The result has been horrendous misery and death of billions of farm animals, and exploitation of farm workers, poisoning of the population and the environment. In the new economy, plant-based food production will become localized through organic farming using permaculture and agroecology. Every able bodied person will contribute at least through home or community food gardens. Thus, the new economy will imply many more people in these socially useful and ecologically sound economic activities. There will be massive effort to provide environmentally sound, modest but comfortable, housing for all. There will be a massive expansion of health care focusing on well-being and prevention. Education, culture and the arts will expand and locally and regionally centered. Technology, historically used to dominate and control nature and labor, will be scaled back leaving only what is needed for human development that is not harmful to nature. In all such decisions working people’s councils will be guided by an ecocentric worldview, a love of Mother Earth and all species that make up the web of life. Adoration not fear of wildness will become universal. In fact, new ecocentric humanity will be proud to be part of the animal kingdom and the rest of nature, not opposed to it and above it. Finally, and equally importantly, the working people’s councils and their government will immediately extend a hand of friendship to the peoples of the Global South with material and moral internationalist solidarity, including countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen that most recently have been subject to the American imperialist war effort. What if instead of Washington spending more than two trillion dollars to bring death and destruction to these countries, American people would have helped build homes, schools, clinics, hospitals for them? Would it not have helped the world instead of tearing it apart?
In tandem, working people and their council movement and other grassroots organizations will work to reduce the world human population that has been growing exponentially since 1800 through education and empowering women and democratic family planning. The world working people’s councils will immediately set aside at least half of the planet that is home to over 80 percent of the world species as wildness reserves as suggested by eminent biologist and conservationist E. O. Wilson (2016) As the population declines human settlements will shrink making more land mass available for re-wilding.
Lessons from the Cuban revolution
The working people’s councils will have a wealth of historical experiments to draw upon as well a large theoretical and historical literature in dealing with such massive and radical change. As a longtime student of the Cuban revolution, I like to draw attention to some of its achievements that can serve both as examples of what is possible as well as what is necessary to do in order to move in the direction of an ecological socialist society.
After the July 26th Movement came to power in January 1, 1959, it began to implement its program formulated in Fidel Castro’s 1953 courtroom defense speech, History Will Absolve Me. Given that the movement’s base was among the peasantry and it had already initiated giving land in the liberated regions of Cuba to those who worked during the revolutionary war (Law Number 3), the revolutionary government began to implement what turned out to be the first of a series of four agrarian reform law on May 17, 1959. The most recent phase of the agrarian reform began in 2008 (Valdez Paz, 2011; Brent, 2013). Although Cuban agriculture has been historically dominated by the large-scale industrial model because of the influence of the U.S. agribusiness before 1959 and because of the Soviet-style large-scale industrial farming, since 1990 a massive grassroots organic farming movement has been underway initially in urban centers during the economic depression that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc but now across the entire country. Even before the crisis of the 1990s, Cuba had a small but well organized and very active agroecology and permaculture movement (Funes, et. al., 2002; for a review see, Nayeri, 2007). Since the 1990s, Cuba has moved away from large-scale high-input farming in favor of small farms and cooperative farms giving more room for agrarian producers to market their own produce after selling a certain percentage of the output to the state at a predetermined price. Small farmers in Cuban are well organized and strongly supportive of the revolution as they have also benefited from other achievements of the revolution noted below.
In 1960, the revolutionary government enacted the urban reform law which eliminated ownership of multiple properties. The government then sold these newly acquired properties from the landlord class to families without housing at low prices with long term cheap mortgages. Subsequent updates to the law have brought home ownership to 85 percent of the population. Those who do not have homes pay no more than 10 percent of their wages for rent (Kapur and Smith, 2003). In the 1990s as the economic depression hit Cubans, the black market for housing expanded as families with a need for money illegally transferred their home to those with money usually from relatives in the U.S. More recently, the government has instituted a housing market to do away with the black market. Still, there is a housing crisis in Cuba as incomes lag requirements to repair old houses and build new ones. Nonetheless, the principle pursued by the revolution to eradicate landlordism and to provide decent housing to all Cubans is laudable and exemplary.
A key achievement of the revolution is the highly successful literacy campaign of 1961 (Morales, 1981; Gomez and Webster Hare 2015). This was a necessary and empowering movement which was led by 100,000 young volunteers who taught mostly adult students across Cuba, especially in the countryside, essentials of literacy.
Education and healthcare
The revolution also radically changed access, equity and quality in education (Carnoy, 2007) and health care (Nayeri, 1995; Nayeri and López-Pardo, 2005; World Health Organization, 2008). Education and health care are free, easily accessible by all, including in the countryside, services are equitable and of high quality. The family doctor program put a primary care physician in each neighborhood to care as many as 140 people. Imagine how much better health care delivery would be if a doctor and a nurse team know every patient as their neighbors and vice versa. The Cuban health care system has been the ambassador of the Cuban revolution across the Global South where hundreds of thousands of Cuban health care professionals have served for decades, including those who were affected by earthquake in Pakistan, those fighting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and the effort by the Venezuelan government to institute a program of health care for all. With the establishment of the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana in 2005, Cuba has trained free of charge international student students from disadvantaged areas in the Global South and in-need population from the Global North, including the United States. The only requirement for the students is a promise of returning to their communities to practice medicine.
Culture and sports have also flourished as they became free of charge and accessible to far corners of the country (Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and depression conditions that it caused the Cuban economy integrated into the COMECON, there have been modest fees for such cultural services).
The Cuban revolution has been under attack from U.S. imperialism and Cuban counter-revolutionaries it cultivates since the beginning. The task of military defense is central to its survival. Still, Cuba has a small army of about 50,000. The key defense force in the 1 million strong (out of a population of 11 million) Territorial Defense Force first established in 1980 on the basis of the strategy of the War of All People made up of the volunteer from the civilian population. In the earlier years of the revolution Committees in Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), essentially neighborhood committees, took up the local defense of the revolution against the counter-revolutionary bands backed by the United States. With their defeat, CDRs turned their focus to dealing with neighborhood issues from the distribution of goods to sanitation to providing a forum for discussion of local or world problems or world event.
Downsizing the sugar industry
It is well known that before the 1959 revolution Cuba was a mono-crop economy famous for its sugar industry. However, the sugar industry remained the dominant industry in the Cuban economy until the 1990s. The Cuban State relied on sugar exports to COMECON countries to import what it needed from them in exchange. However, agricultural commodities suffer from price gyrations and sugar industry was in crisis worldwide. In the 1960s, a ton of Cuban sugar was exchanged with eight ton of oil with the Soviet Union. By 1990 every two tons of sugar were exchanged with one ton of oil. In additional, Cuban sugar production faced an internal crisis because more sugar production was hampered by farming less suitable land, which increased the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and use of more fuel and machinery all of which became inaccessible to Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the COMECON. Thus, beginning in April 2002, a massive downsizing of the sugar industry was undertaken that included closing down of 70 of 155 sugar refineries, reallocation of 1.38 million hectares of sugar farming land to other crops and animal husbandry. Some 120,000 sugar industry workers were retrained for jobs elsewhere in the economy with income no less than their previous job. They received their wages as sugar workers until they began working in their new job. The union helped them to relocate to another part of the country if that was necessary. What is more important is that the entire effort was organized in collaboration with the sugar industry union beginning in 2001. As a result, the Cuban economy progressed with development of new or growing sectors including international tourism which brings much needed hard currency, biotechnology, and information technology (Silberman, Koppel, Waters, February 9 and 16, 2004; Nayeri, 2005)
Despite these and other achievements, the Cuban revolution continues to face existential challenges (See, Nayeri, 2015, Part 1 and Part 2). The key point to take away is that for the working people to undertake as radical and broad transformation of the existing anthropocentric capitalist world economy to resolve the social and planetary crisis we face, it is absolutely necessary to overcome the power of the capitalist and landowning classes. If a small island nation can do as much under the constant military and economic threat and with meager resources, couldn't the working people of the Global North be even more effective in advancing the humanity forward to an ecocentric ecological socialist future?
Part 2. The road to the working people’s power and the transitional period
We know from the current world political situation that the working people in any given country, let alone a critical minimum set of them such as the G-7 or G-20 countries, are far from ready to tackle the opportunities and challenges I outlined above. To begin to consider and work for such radical and vast transformations, the working people must have achieved two requirements. First, through their own struggles and life experiences the working people can gain the knowledge and confidence necessary to organize and act independently of the capitalist class and its politicians, ideologues, and institutions, eventually taking on the task of holding our future into our own hands. Second, as we gain political power we must initiate and continue the process of transition from the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization to ecocentric ecological socialism, a self-conscious movement.
In real life, of course, the working people radicalize at a different speed and in different sectors and geographical regions and sometimes we take small steps in the direction of the transition to ecocentric ecological socialism within the capitalist civilization. In such situations, both the power we gain and the steps we take toward the ecological socialist future are limited and temporary unless we are joined with others in struggle and the movement grows strong enough to challenge and bring down the capitalist state and replace it with the working people’s power organized and expressed through their democratic grassroots movements.
There are many obstacles to this process. Let me suggest the most fundamentals ones. The ecocentric ecological socialist revolution would be a world-historic cultural and social break with five thousand years of anthropocentric civilization. Such civilizations arose on the basis of the Agricultural Revolution which began about 10,000 years ago when some bands of hunter-gatherer began to use domesticated plant and animals to farm. The transition from foraging to farming is the most significant world-historic event as it replaced foragers ecocentric worldview, their place in the world, with the anthropocentric worldview of early farmers. The anthropocentric world view has institutionalized in various civilizations consistent with their particular mode of production as they increasingly placed humans at the center of the natural world, and in the current eco-modernist capitalist ideology, separate and above it.
Although early farmers were forced by external events, including climate change, to take up farming, and they lived a less pleasant existence than the forgers for a long time, eventually they turned up an agricultural surplus and began expanded reproduction. It was on this basis that social stratification occurred and all kinds of oppression and exploitation arose which have been institutionalized in the anthropocentric civilizations. The ecocentric ecological socialist revolution requires a fundamental break with this cultural and social legacy.
Still, it is important to realize that the entire 10,000-year-old anthropocentric detour is merely 3.3% of the history of our species which as we recently learned emerged in Africa about 300,000 years ago. During the previous 290,000 years, humanity lived and prospered as ecocentric hunter-gatherers. While it is true that successful life of hunter-gatherers which led to population growth sometimes caused ecological damage, including extinction events, by-and-large they lived in relative harmony with the rest of nature. There was no systematic attempt to dominate or control nature, something that became the cornerstone of every civilization reaching its zenith under industrial capitalism in the past 250 years. The combination of the anthropocentric world view, advances in science and technology, and capitalist drive for ever more accumulation of capital has brought us the Anthropocene (Age of Man) and the existential planetary crisis.
Ecocentric ecological socialist politics is the wisdom and the art of undoing power relations that have been thrown up during the past 10,000 years, relations of subordination, oppression, and exploitation among humans and between humans and the rest of nature. Thus, class relations and class struggle that Marx and Engels correctly placed at the center of their theoretical and analytical concerns must be supplemented with non-class struggles against the subordination of various strata of people and with a cultural revolution that aim to end anthropocentrism in all its manifestations. Some of these, like the struggle for gender, racial, sexual-orientation, and national origin equality must be seen as essential for fostering the essential unity of the working people. Others like the fighting to stop and reverse the climate crisis, the Sixth Extinction, and end the nuclear war are existential struggles. But struggle against the subordination of other species and all manifestations of anthropocentrism must be seen as the core struggle because it is anthropocentrism that helped to create the material basis of social alienation and has served as the ideological basis for the Anthropocene. The fight for ecocentrism, like the fight for human emancipation, is a fight for a universal value. Without ecocentrism, there will be no human emancipation. They are one and the same fight, the fight to overcome human alienation.
The ecocentric ecological socialist movement, therefore, must bring together all such struggles and view each of them as necessary for the realization of its vision and resolution of the existential social (nuclear war) and ecological crisis (the Sixth Extinction and climate catastrophe) we face today.
The state and the market
Of key importance for the struggle for working people’s power and the transition period is the problem of transcending the state and the market. The state is the institutionalized power of a ruling class, a form of social alienation that subordinates other social classes and strata via ideological control such as legal codes and a system of ruling class justice, and when necessary, the use of naked force. Any radical social change will require taking on the state in all its manifestations. That is why an ecological socialist transformation must begin with building the alternative power of the working people from the bottom up through their self-organized and self-active movement in opposition to the capitalist state. The goal is to dismantle the existing capitalist state apparatus and institute the workers’ state as a transitory institution that comes to life simply because the power relations among social classes and strata has not yet diminished enough to make it possible for a minimal and democratically run administrative apparatus to manage societal affairs. At least in the early phases of the transition period, which can begin in one or more countries, the capitalist class with its state will remain present and hostile in the rest of the world. Thus, a key task of the working people’s state is to defend the transition to ecocentric ecological socialism. As the power of the capitalist class diminishes the need for the working people’s state also decreases resulting in the withering away of the state and its replacement by a democratically run administration (which has become hugely simplified with the advent of information technology).
Of course, as long as the movement remains a minority within the society, ecological socialists, while never relying on the capitalist state and its institutions (legislative, executive, and judiciary) to further our goals, place demand on them in the course of the struggle in order to expose their class character for the broader movement and help develop working people’s political consciousness to assume more of their own power in opposition to the capitalist economy and state.
The generalized market is a more recent phenomenon but has a more powerful hold on the consciousness of the working people. Marx identified capitalism with the development of generalized markets for wage labor, capital goods, consumer goods, and production for profit. (Marx, 1857, pp. 463-4) These prerequisites for the capitalist mode of production emerged out of the historical process of primitive accumulation (Nayeri, 1991, pp. 514-33). A central task of the ecological socialist revolution is to transcend the market as the main mediation among people and between people and the rest of nature. As Marx saw it, market relations are alienated relations among people whereas the associated producers' mode of production (socialism) will be based on meeting human needs for human development (Burkett, 2005). Ecocentric ecological socialism views self-conscious reintegration of humanity with the rest of nature as essential to human development.
Finally, there two other key areas, beside mystification of exploitation of labor in the capitalist market which Marx’s theory of surplus value unmasks, where the market mystifies our relation with the rest of nature. While the price of a cattle or a chicken is included in the cost of production of meat, there is no accounting for the suffering and loss of life of farm animals with billions of them slaughtered each year, a horridness crime that the anthropocentric civilization has closed its eyes on. Further, what in economic theory is called externalities, such as emission of greenhouse gases, are not captured by the capitalist market. Thus, something as essential as the life-support systems of the planet can be destroyed without any accountability by the capitalist ruling class and the larger anthropocentric capitalist civilization that again ignores the problem in our daily lives. These issues must be taken heads on by the ecocentric ecological socialist movement.
Regulation and taxation
Thus, both the state and the market are historical institutions that have emerged and evolved as alienated mediations between social classes that subordinate, oppress and exploit human beings and other species. Yet, they cannot be “abolished” at will as we know from Marx's theory of socialism and the historical experiences of revolutions aiming for socialism. Any truly emancipatory project must work to replace them with the free association of direct producers as self-conscious and self-acting mass organizations of the working people who plan for human development consistent with the ecological health of the planet.
However, as Richard Smith (2016) catalogs, a host of currents within the ecology movement, including climate justice activists, pursue what he criticizes them as Green Capitalism. The illusion in the state and the market is rampant under capitalism. How can we ever move beyond Green Capitalism to ecocentric ecological socialism?
Again, we can turn to the rich history of theorizing such questions and in some cases like the Russian revolution, which lasted only a few years, and the Cuban revolution, learn from their experiences. A key lesson from the experience of the Bolsheviks and the first four congresses of the Communist International which they helped found was later summaries by Leon Trotsky in the Transitional Program (1938). The full title of the document that became the program for the World Party of the Socialist Revolution (Fourth International) that was founded in the same year is “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International: The Mobilization of Masses Around the Transitional Demands to Prepared the Conquest of Power.” I think the transitional demands are key in terms of helping the working people in their struggle to find their way forward by shedding their illusions in the capitalist state and market. I return to this with a short discussion about regulation and taxation of greenhouse gases emissions in a moment.
The other relevant and very important theoretical lesson comes from the 1963-65 public debate in Cuba on the transition to socialism documented in the Man and Socialism: The Great Debate (Silverman, ed., 1972). The debate was occasioned as three Cuban political forces united on the initiative of Fidel Castro and his close associates to form the Communist Party of Cuba (not be mistaken by the pro-Moscow Communist parties). The three forces were the July 26th Movement, Popular Socialist Party, and the Student Directorate. The July 26th Movement headed by Fidel Castro arose outside the Stalinist tradition on the basis of the Cuban and Latin American revolutionary traditions. The Popular Socialist Party was the pro-Moscow party in Cuba that was originally hostile to Castro. The debate of transition to socialism arose because after Fidel Castro declared the socialist orientation of the Cuban revolution the key question was how to get there. There were two opposing views, not just in theory but also in daily practice, that was aired publicly in what was called The Great Debate that took a somewhat international dimension with contributions from Ernest Mandel and Charles Bettelheim. Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, a leader of the former Popular Socialist Party, who was also a leader of the new Communist Party of Cuba essentially put forward a market socialist position which was favored in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at the time that viewed material incentives as key to the transition to socialism (for a critique of market socialism see, Nayeri, 2005). Ernesto Che Guevara disagreed. While he did not dispute the need for material incentives in the transition period as the law of value (the market) continued to exert its influence on the consciousness of the working people, he strongly argued that key to the transition to socialism is to advance moral incentives to help build socialist consciousness. Unsurprisingly, the very concept of socialism was also in dispute. Guevara’s view of socialism was expressed in Socialism and Man in Cuba (1965). Socialism, he wrote,
“is not a matter of how many kilograms of meat one has to eat, or of how many times a year someone can go to the beach, or how many pretty things from abroad you might be able to buy with present-day wages. It is a matter of making the individual feel more complete, with much more inner wealth and much more responsibility.” (ibid.)
Guevara’s theory and practice of transition to socialism while not continued in Cuba for any sustained period of time has been subject of research and is essential reading for anyone interested in the socialist transition (Tablada, 1987; Yaffe, 2009; for a review, see, Nayeri, 2010; for brief discussion of the relevance of Guevara’s view for Cuba today, see, Nayeri, 2014 ).
Guevara was probably closer to Marx than any other theorist since Marx because he focused attention on the need to weaken and gradually overcome the law of value in transition to socialism.
The basic point is that ecocentric ecological socialism cannot bypass the present state of consciousness either in the climate justice movement and the greater ecological movement or in the labor movement and the greater social justice movement. What is required is to fight for regulatory and market reforms without placing any confidence in the capitalist state or the market or technological solution to end the climate crisis or the planetary crisis while advocating a transitional program of demands to educate, organize and mobilize broadest layers of the working people who are in motion in the direction of transcending the anthropocentric capitalist civilization.
Raising the idea of an emission tax (Nayeri, 2015) is important because the often noted dichotomy between transcending capitalism vs. life-style changes is largely a false debate. As Guevara and before him Marx pointed out the transition involves nothing less that development of socialist (in our discussion, ecocentric ecological socialist) humans. Clearly, as our consciousness elevates in the direction of ecocentric ecological socialism our lifestyles change accordingly. The change becomes society-wide as we come to the inflection point when working people’s self-organization and self-mobilization reaches out for taking the state power and began the transition to ecocentric ecological socialism. The idea of emissions tax is nothing more than the recognition of the cost of greenhouse gases caused by economic activities the society engages in from production to consumption. As I formulated it in my proposal noted above, it is also a reminder of the unequal responsibility of the historical Global North creating the conditions that are threatening life-support systems of the planet. There is an ecological cost for much of what is produced and consumed in the anthropocentric capitalist civilization. To understand that is a prerquisite for overcoming it.
Part 3. Do we dare to fail?
David Wallace-Wells concludes his essay with a hopeful message from some of the scientists he interviewed. The paleontologist Peter Ward, he says, "is an optimist.”
“So are Broecker and Hansen and many of the other scientists I spoke to. We have not developed much of a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation. But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say because we must.” (David Wallace-Wells, 2017)
Add to this the critics of “The Uninhabitable Planet,” like climatologist and geophysicist, Michael Mann (2017), who believes the article includes some errors all of which point in the direction of making the prognosis more dire. He argues the climate future is not as dire but he himself elsewhere has called the climate crisis existential. It does seem to me that his argument is with the probability of human extinction by the end of the century or sometimes after that not that it will not happen if we stay the current course.
It does not appear that that Wallace-Wells, scientists he cites as “optimists,” or his critique, Mann, have given any consideration to the fact that the climate crisis is only one part of a much larger planetary crisis (Rockström, 2009) with a highly complex interactions of its various moving parts of which the climate crisis and the Sixth Extinction are believed to pose an existential threat the humanity and much of life on Earth. Thus, attention is focused on a technical solution to the climate crisis and all hopes are given to some technological breakthrough, mediated through the existing capitalist world economy and the capitalist world governments, to stop it before it becomes catastrophic. Clearly, this is closing one's eyes to the planetary crisis and its causes.
However, the planetary crisis is linked to what some geologists call the Anthropocene (Age of Man), a new human-induced geological epoch (Gajanan, 2016, Angus, 2016, Davies, 2016) which has suddenly taken off since about 1950 in what that scientists call the Great Acceleration (Steffen, et.al. 2015). If we are indeed in a new, human-induced geological epoch lethal to the humanity how can we hope to return to the civilization friendly Holocene? There is a deafening silence about this.
Furthermore, the Anthropocene is caused by the anthropocentric capitalist civilization. Could any combination of technology, markets, and capitalist world governments transcend it? There is a deafening silence about this question as well.
As Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In this easy, I have tried to offer a realist case for the causes of the crisis we are in and a clear argument admittedly in broad outline about how to overcome it. The reader might object to what I laid out as highly difficult even impossible to achieve given the present world political situation. My response is that the resolution to the planetary crisis is really a question of ecological and political consciousness of the working peoples of the world. The anthropocentric capitalist system and its elite and institutions cannot solve the crisis because it is rooted in their way of life. The quicker millions and even billions of people begin to question the anthropocentric capitalist civilization and organize and mobilize to transcend it the better are the odds of saving this beautiful natural world and its web of life on which we all depend. Elsewhere, I have offered examples both hypothetical and historical of how this can be done if the current climate justice, ecology movement, and social justice movement activists are organized and mobilized, to tell the truth about the crisis and its causes and recruit others in a reasonable period of time, one person per each activists every six months. The movement will grow to millions of activists within a few years who will act as an independent political force to save the world (Nayeri, 2016). As the slogan on a wall in Havana said in the period of deep economic depression, "We believe in dreams." Despite all odds, they survived the crisis despite all odds through their own efforts and so can we, the working peoples of the world, if we shed our illusions in the capitalist rulers and their governments and economy and take our own destiny in our own hand before it is too late.
1. For a popular presentation, see, Chris, Mooney, “A bitter scientific debate just erupted over the future of America’s power grid,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2017.
2. There is an intense debate in energy economics about the directionality of causation and more recently about the possibility of decoupling between economic growth and energy use. However, what I am discussing here is the historical record and the literature by-and-large supports the bi-directionally of causation. The “decoupling” advocates are essentially present-day proponents of capitalist modernity. See, endnote 3 below.
3. I am setting aside the debate about decoupling proposed by ecomodernists who maintain it is possible to pursue economic growth and avoid ecological collapse. For eco-modernist statements see, An Ecomodernist Manifesto, 2015; Blomqvist, 2015; Shellenberger and Nordhaus, 2015; for their critique see, Angus, 2015; Trainer, 2016).
4. The Cuban revolution has been subject to imperialist attacks even before it triumphed in 1959. It is also subject to some controversy among socialists. Aside from incurable ultra-leftist sectarian critics of the Cuban revolution, I am sure other socialist currents would not dispute the progress I have cited in this essay even if they are sharply critical of the revolution for a variety of reasons.
Dedication: This essay has benefited from conversations on the System Change Not Climate Change discussion listserv. It is dedicated to ecological socialists of all stripes.
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-----------------. "The Cuban Revolution and the Decline of the American Empire: Opportunities and Challenges, Part 1." Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. January 16, 2015.
-----------------. "The Cuban Revolution and the Decline of the American Empire: Opportunities and Challenges, Part 2." Our Place in the World: A Journal of Ecosocialism. February 27, 2015.
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