What Might an Ecosocialist Society Look Like?
Before describing possible features of a future ecosocialism, it is worthwhile to consider why such a system is even needed. Why can’t the problems that ecosocialism would solve also be remedied within the current global capitalist system? Part I of this essay addresses that question by summarizing recent scientific reports on the state of the climate and extent of the ecological crisis; reviewing available methods and technologies that could be used to address the climate and ecological crises; and briefly describing capitalism’s structural inability to provide solutions at the scale of the crises. Part II then takes up the subject of the title, ecosocialism, along with strategies to move in that direction.
Part I: Context and Background
The threat to life on Earth posed by the climate and ecological crises can hardly be overstated. A 2019 Nature article warned that up to a million species of plants and animals are on the verge of extinction, and a United Nations study the same year identified global warming as a major driver of wildlife decline. Much of the devastation to date was catalogued in the 2020 WWF Living Planet report, which recorded a 68 percent decline in the population of vertebrates around the world, in just the past five decades. More succinctly, scientists report that Earth is experiencing a sixth mass extinction. (The previous mass extinction, 66 million years ago, ended the dinosaurs).
The scale of the environmental crisis is unprecedented in human history. At stake are human civilization and billions of lives. An article last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicted that for every additional 1̊C rise beyond the 2019 global average, a billion people will be forced to abandon their locations or endure insufferable heat. The paper warns that under a scenario of increasing emissions, areas now home to a third of the world’s population could experience the same temperatures as the hottest parts of the Sahara within 50 years.
Summing up the findings of some 150 scientific studies, a 2021 paper authored by 17 scientists warned that the “scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms –- including humanity –- is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp even for well-informed experts.” Adding further urgency, 101 Nobel laureates released an open letter in April 2021 in which they wrote, “We are seized by the great moral issue of our time: the climate crisis and commensurate destruction of nature.” The laureates called for a worldwide fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.
Global heating is driven by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and yet emissions continue at high levels despite the chorus of promises by “climate leaders” in governments. In 2020 global emissions decreased by a meager 5.8 percent due to Covid-19 lockdowns, but they were already on the rebound by the end of the year. For the current year, 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts the second largest annual increase in history of greenhouse gas emissions, as global economies recover from the Covid-19 recession. In May 2021 a record-breaking monthly average concentration of 419 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 was measured in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, breaking the previous May 2020 record of 417 ppm.
The drivers of ecocide, more generally, include not only climate change, but also habitat destruction, toxic dumping, plastic pollution in the oceans, radiation poisoning, and other customary byproducts of the global capitalist economy. All of this destruction continues unabated despite the flood of warnings from scientists, lobbying by environmental activists, and even warnings from institutions deeply rooted in the capitalist economy.
Consider, for example, that in May 2021 the IEA released an unprecedented call to the world to rapidly reach zero emissions in its report, Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector. Widespread news coverage and expressions of optimism followed. Yet from February to the end of April 2021, the Biden administration approved nearly 1200 drilling permits on federal lands, along with more than 200 offshore permits, and defended in court the ConocoPhillips Willow project in Alaska, which is expected to emit 260 million metric tons of CO2 during the next 30 years, the equivalent of 66 coal-fired plants. And Biden is far from alone among world leaders in his support of fossil fuel expansions.
Is Global Sustainability Achievable?
The current trajectory toward planetary suicide cannot be attributed to a dearth of technology for sustainable energy, agriculture, transportation, and housing. The means to achieve zero emissions by midcentury, as called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2018 special report, already exists, thanks to the superabundance of available energy from the sun.
The sun radiates far more energy to Earth in one hour than all of humanity uses in a year. The Carbon Tracker Initiative is a London based think-tank that advises investors on climate threats to their portfolios. The group released a report demonstrating that with current technology, and in a subset of available locations, it is possible to capture energy from solar and wind energy alone that is more than 100 times the current global energy demand. In fact, the land required for solar panels alone to provide all global energy is 0.3% of the global land area, which is less than the land area currently used by fossil fuel structures.
Research and detailed plans for the world to achieve zero emissions were pioneered by Mark Jacobson at Stanford University. Jacobson and his collaborators developed “roadmaps for 139 Countries and the 50 United States to Transition to 100% Clean, Renewable Wind, Water, and Solar Power for all Purposes by 2050 and 80% by 2030.” In congressional testimony, Jacobson explained that “the main barriers to a conversion are neither technical nor economic; rather, they are social and political.”
The work of Jacobson et al is consistent with many other independent studies. Among these is Princeton University’s recently released Net-Zero America Report, which charted five pathways to reach net-zero emissions through a rapid increase of the use of solar panels and wind turbines. It should be noted, however, that limited availability of metals and rare earth components points to the preferability of high quality electrified mass transportation, as opposed to single occupant vehicles, electrified or not.
Sustainable agricultural methods are also readily available as evidenced, for example, by Cuba’s adoption of organic composting, crop interplanting, bio-pesticides, crop rotations, and extensive urban gardening, beginning in the 1990s and thereafter achieving worldwide recognition.
Humanity has the means to achieve zero emissions rapidly and live sustainably and well through renewable energy, electrified mass transportation, and agroecology. So, given the looming threat of ecocide, why haven’t governments taken serious steps, at the scale of the crisis, to save humanity and protect the biodiversity of the planet? Why is it only getting worse?
The Culprit: Capitalism
Because of its requirement for unending economic growth, capitalism is the fundamental driver of the climate and ecological crises. A corporation that cannot promise growth is a corporation that will soon be out of business, and the global capitalist system is composed of a multitude of expanding corporations. As David Harvey put it, “Zero growth is a necessity [to avoid ecologial collapse] and zero growth is incompatible with capitalism.”
Capitalism requires perpetual economic growth in order to avoid economic crises such as the Great Depression. More specifically, in order to stave off mass unemployment and economic misery, capitalism requires increasing commodity production, escalating resource extraction, increasing trash and toxic dumping, and ever-increasing energy production.
Capitalist expansion takes three forms:
1) Colonial conquest and imperialism, with the introduction of commodity production to new territories for new markets and cheap labor.
2) Increasing assimilation of public commons into the logic of capitalism; for example, privatization and commodification of healthcare, education, and drinking water.
3) Capitalism’s monotonic secular growth in commodity production and consumption.
It is this third form of capitalist expansion that drives environmental catastrophe most directly. Examples include the exponential growth in plastic production since World War II; the explosive growth in air travel; cell phone proliferation; global energy consumption; blockchained cryptocurrencies (which have enormous carbon footprints), and the rapid growth of weapons industries.
Capitalism, by its very nature, must expand. It has already surpassed the ecological limits of the planet in the sense that global consumption now exceeds the planet’s bio-capacity to regenerate the resources consumed. According to the 2020 World Wildlife Fund report, 1.56 Earths would be required to renewably meet the demands humanity makes on Nature each year. Capitalism is not only incapable of responding adequately to the environmental crisis, it is the very cause of the crisis and can only make matters worse.
But is there a viable alternative?
Part II: Ecosocialism
Building a movement to save the biosphere requires more than just being against capitalism and its ecocidal destruction; it also requires being for something, and communicating a positive vision for the future. Ecosocialism is such a vision.
Let’s recognize from the outset that ecosocialism cannot emerge out of thin air. The viability of post-capitalist social relations will depend inescapably on the extent of the destruction that capitalism leaves in its wake, along with decisions made as an associated revolutionary democratic process unfolds. Thus, implicit assumptions necessarily lie within the speculative and aspirational proposals that follow.
While there is no universally agreed upon blueprint for ecosocialism, general characterizations are widely accepted. Ecosocialism recognizes ecological principles and sustainability as essential to life. Ecosocialism is democratic and calls for sustainable production based on human needs rather than profit. Of critical importance, ecosocialism proposes a steady state economy that does not require growth. While socialism is capable of economic growth, unlike capitalism, it does not require economic growth to avoid economic crises. It is this critical feature of socialism that makes sustainability possible.
The energy needs of an ecosocialist society would be far less than what capitalism demands. For example, it has been estimated that more than 150 billion single-use beverage containers are purchased each year in the United States and 320 million take-out cups are thrown away each day. More than 100 billion pieces of junk mail are delivered to mail boxes every year, which generates 51 million tons of greenhouse gases annually through production and decomposition. Nighttime light pollution that disrupts natural cycles for the sole purpose of advertising and promoting overconsumption is destructive and unnecessary. These and many other wasteful uses of energy would naturally be eliminated in an ecosocialist framework.
Few would disagree that a viable ecosocialism should include free health care, free education, free mass transportation, and many other services. Some capitalist countries already come close to these goals, so ecosocialism should do that and more. Veterinary services, for example, might be added to the publicly funded services, both for domestic and wild animals.
Ecosocialism will be built from what precedes it. So the repurposing of existing structures would play an important role in its development. For example, already existing shopping malls might be converted to community centers that provide gardens, sports and leisure facilities, theater and concert venues, community political meeting spaces, perhaps health services, and more.
Political Power and Ecosocialist Government
The advanced stage of the climate crisis imposes serious environmental constraints on any future post-capitalist society. A democratically chosen ecosocialist government would therefore need sufficient political power to shut down or repurpose destructive industries on national and international scales, including not only fossil fuel industries, but also the industries that depend on fossil fuels. To accomplish this, it will be necessary to socialize virtually all large-scale industry. In addition, large scale carbon capture and sequestration might be necessary to restore parts of the biosphere, and that also would require government coordination.
However, this does not mean that small-scale owner-operated businesses, local crafts, mom-and-pop restaurants, worker cooperatives, or family garden farms would have to be nationalized, though some regulations might be necessary. Such questions would have to be resolved through democratic processes.
It is important to note that some industries and services will need to expand, including energy conservation, renewable energy systems, public health care, public transit, public schools, durable mass transportation vehicles, construction of energy efficient housing, production of long lasting appliances and electronics, repair shops, public services of all kinds, environmental remediation, reforestation, and organic farming.
Money and Banks
What kind of function would money play in an ecosocialist society? Under capitalism it can be used to buy things, but it can also be used as capital, that is, as an investment whose purpose is to acquire more money. That is the function of Wall Street.
Under ecosocialism there would be no Wall Street. An ecosocialist society could restrict the use of money by individuals solely to buy things, and leave publicly owned banks as the sole sources of capital for new developments, e.g. to build or upgrade healthcare centers, energy storage facilities, community centers and parks; remediate environmental destruction; and support agricultural, artistic, and recreational endeavors of all sorts. But banks would be prohibited from making capital loans for the purpose of profiteering from the work of others.
Work and Pay
As David Graeber has famously observed, most jobs under capitalism are pointless or destructive. For example, advertising, corporate law, financial services, fossil fuel extraction, health insurance administration, public relations, plastic production, telemarketing, weapons production, along with much of policing, security, and military employment. The elimination of these and other needless jobs would free up more labor and, if socialized, could lead to a drastically reduced standard workweek with much more leisure time.
But for work that is necessary, how would people be paid? More than a century ago Bertrand Russell wrote The Proposed Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism, and Syndicalism. Some of his proposals might work in an ecosocialist economy.
Consider the question: Should adults have to work if they are able to? Russell suggested, even in the context of the much more limited productive capacity of 1918, that basic needs like food, shelter, and medicine could be supplied without restriction. Basic foods like bread, fruits, and vegetables could be essentially free, and this could be organized through a program of minimum guaranteed income or some form of credits.
But since some work needs to be done, what would be the incentive for people to work? Russell put it this way:
“a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not, and … a larger income, as much larger as might be warranted by the total amount of commodities produced, should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful… We might, for instance, give an intermediate income to those who are only willing to work half the usual number of hours, and an income above that of most workers to those who choose a specially disagreeable trade.”
For those who choose to do work considered valuable by the community (likely the majority of people), credits could be earned for things that go beyond basic needs, such as works of art, high quality racing bicycles or sailboats, rare wines, or vacations to other parts of the world via large sailing vessels, airships, or hydrogen-powered aircraft.
But there could also be nonmonetary rewards for significant contributions. Public recognition and acknowledgment are more valued by many people than money beyond what is required for basic needs. Examples might be scientific contributions (think of Jonas Salk), teaching awards, recognition for art murals, contributions to the well being of animals --- whatever might be valued by local communities, nation states, or the world.
Agriculture, Animals and Cities
Agriculture, forestry and other land use, according to the IPCC, accounts for nearly a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is due in large part to deforestation, the use of fossil-fueled machinery, animal agriculture, petroleum-based fertilizers, chemicals, and soil disruption. Alternative accounting systems give even higher estimates of the current carbon footprint of food production.
On top of that, global shipping currently produces as much carbon dioxide as all of America’s coal plants combined, and much of the world’s food is shipped across oceans and borders. Food production for the global capitalist centers also relies on heavily exploited human beings brought in from poorer countries, and food itself is imported to capitalist centers through the use of highly exploited and abused workers elsewhere.
Industrial farming is not only a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it also imposes commodification and suffering of animals for the sake of greater production efficiencies. Within the food industry, capitalism’s drive for ever greater profits has resulted in a system of animal slaughter and sequestration through factory farms of unprecedented efficiency, volume of production, and unspeakable cruelty. Even so, as noted in Part I, this facet of capitalism is dwarfed by the mass extinctions that this economic system carries out on a planetary scale.
To reverse capitalism’s ongoing extinctions, E.O. Wilson proposed a program of half earth. He calculated that at least 80 percent of all species could replenish and survive with this fraction the planet protected. To carry out such a program it would be necessary to create new cities and locate most humans in them, but the proposal includes leaving indigenous peoples out of that process, as they have been protecting biodiversity for millennia.
With or without a half earth program, transformative changes in food production are necessary for survival under any circumstances, and certainly would take place in the context of ecosocialism. Employing agroecological methods, moving food production to the perimeters of cities, establishing urban and vertical food farms, promoting cuisines based on locally produced foods in season, and making food preservation a part of these systems for areas with short growing seasons would drastically reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture and its transport, and even help to draw down CO2 from the atmosphere.
What would be the labor demands of organic, sustainable food production? Without fossil-fueled farm machinery, petroleum-based fertilizers, and other aspects of industrial farming, more human and humanely treated animal labor (such as oxen and draft horses) might be needed. However, depending on the state of the climate and environment, those labor requirements could be offset by the use of electrified tractors and machines, the discontinuation of extensive unhealthy food processing, ethanol and corn syrup production, and other dubious features of the capitalist model of agriculture.
How Can an Ecosocialist Future be Achieved?
To defeat capitalism, it helps to understand it. At its core is surplus value, the difference between what a worker is paid and the value of her labor. Surplus value is the fount from which all other profits flow (upward) in capitalism. It may be thought of as capitalism’s “on-off switch.”
Turn off surplus value, and capitalism cannot continue. The working class is therefore uniquely situated to lead the struggle to abolish capitalism, because it is the working class that generates surplus value.
Looking at the state of the world today, it would be hard to argue that the postmodernist strategy of the last several decades to focus almost exclusively on identity to the near exclusion of capitalism has been anything but a disaster. Not only is the world at the brink of ecological collapse, but the working class has also never been more polarized. Identity politics has failed even on its own terms, if the surge of white supremacy is any measure.
Fortunately, in the last few years, there has been an increasing recognition that capitalism is not only the fundamental driver of destruction of the biosphere, but also a failed economic system even in its own terms, as it generates unprecedented extremes of wealth inequality and perpetuates institutionalized racism. As Malcolm X explained, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
Perhaps a strategy for minimizing capitalism’s destruction of Nature while building an ecosocialist future is first to push the capitalist system to the (insufficient) limits of what it can accept, and then make the reasonable and necessary demands for survival that it cannot accommodate. At that point the system is vulnerable to collapse. The Green New Deal (GND), together with building unity and power of the working class, is such an approach.
At present, the GND is less a specific set of policies, and more a framework for far-reaching, coherent environmental policies that would:
1) Nationalize the fossil fuel industry and the industries that depend on fossil fuels for the purpose of phasing them out.
2) Launch a national emergency program to jump-start energy conservation programs, renewable power projects, electrified mass transportation, and sustainable agriculture.
3) Institute a federal public-works program, similar to FDR’s 1930s depression programs, to retrain and employ workers from fossil fuel-dependent industries to build a new sustainable economy with high wages and benefits.
The third item is key. Without guarantees of high-paying jobs to workers who stand to lose employment from the elimination of fossil fuels, a viable GND cannot materialize. As to empowering workers, the PRO Act, currently before the Senate, if passed would go a long way in strengthening workers’ rights and opening doors for forming and joining unions — and it would help pave the way for a GND.
An empowered and unified working class is capable of organizing and carrying out national and international general strikes, as part of a revolutionary struggle to overturn capitalism and begin to build a survivable system of human relations. Such actions will be pivotal in the struggle to dismantle capitalism and to create an ecosocialist alternative.
However, such a high degree of organized resistance does not yet exist. So, what can be done under the current circumstances? Much can and must be done. Mass actions at this time are critical. North American organizations such as Black Socialists in America, Democratic Socialists of America, Extinction Rebellion, Food & Water Action, Food & Water Watch, Sunrise Movement, and System Change Not Climate Change, among others, are working to stop the destruction of Nature through elections, legislation, judicial actions, educational outreach, direct occupation, and radical organizing. Join them! There is still time, but only if working people rapidly organize, unite, and militantly agitate for a better world. Survival of life on this planet depends on it.
Acknowledgement. The author would like to thank Maura Stephens for her valuable suggestions and extensive editing.
David Klein is a mathematical physicist and professor of mathematics at California State University Northridge, where he is also director of the Climate Science Program. A longtime member of System Change not Climate Change, he is the author of the ebook Capitalism and Climate Change: The Science and Politics of Global Warming.