Eco-capitalism is the intellectual rage today. Time magazine has a piece on its April 28, 2008 cover titled "How to Win The War On Global Warming," which recommends "a national cap-and-trade system with teeth coupled with tougher energy-efficiency mandates and significant new public and private investment in green technology" (57) as the primary solution, in an article aimed largely at investor-class audiences. Stuart L. Hart's Capitalism at the Crossroads, published in second edition last year by Wharton School Publishing and with a foreword by Al Gore, promises in its subtitle to be "aligning business, earth, and humanity."
To a certain extent this intellectual vogue is the byproduct of government inattention. America comes off of seven-plus years of a Presidency basically in global warming denial, and its current crop of Presidential candidates appear to be somewhat easily manipulated by the coal industry, a financial entity which ought not to exist at this point, given the seriousness of the trajectory ahead. For instance, all of the politicians are talking about "carbon caps," meaning enforced conservation of fossil-fuel energy of some sort, and of "alternative energy," as a "solution" to the problem of global warming. However, practically nobody in the US is talking about capping the oil and natural gas wells, or even of abandoning the coal mines (though a daring soul such as Bill McKibben mentioned it in public when I asked him). So eco-capitalism can be seen as the byproduct of the government's withdrawal from its role as protector of the environment; people are looking to big business in its absence.
Now, there are alternatives to the "eco-capitalist" intellectual vogue, alternatives that seriously address the environmental situation facing us in 2008. Evo Morales of Bolivia hints at these alternatives of recent: "Eliminate capitalism to save the planet," he opines. One of these calls itself "ecosocialism" - yet there really isn't a whole lot in terms of an explicitly ecosocialist political movement. Sure, there are plenty of ecosocialist writings, but what I can find of movement ecosocialism seems largely encapsulated in a group called "Socialist Resistance." (In this review I am NOT going to get involved in their actual political struggles -- teach me about it in the comments section.)
They put out a volume, Ecosocialism or Barbarism, which is, largely, a collaborative text introducing the main ideas of ecosocialism, and this is my review of it.
This anthology has as its purpose to "stimulate a social ecology that can unite and enrich both `reds' and `greens'" (x). This may be a valid goal for European politics; I don't know. I have my doubts about its efficacy in the American context. Maybe an American introduction to ecosocialism (Joel Kovel's The Enemy of Nature comes to mind, only not so academic or expensive) would address itself to a general audience. Perhaps an ecosocialist movement would develop more readily from the ranks of the uncommitted public rather than by starting with those who have adopted a political position in the American context. It would then be free of the stultifying "orthodox Marxism" of the far left in this country, as well as of the "green capitalism" of the Green Party's orthodoxy.
A couple of the articles in this volume are reprints of journal pieces which offer basic understandings of what ecosocialism is about. John Bellamy Foster's "Organizing Ecological Revolution" is here, as well as Michael Lowy's "What Is Ecosocialism?" and the Ecosocialist Manifesto. Ecosocialism, to answer Lowy's question, proposes socialism as an organizational prerequisite to working solutions to environmental crisis. What is "socialism" for the ecosocialists? Phil Ward has a piece called "Global warming, capitalism, and our future" in which a series of bullet-point demands are made (37-38). These include things such as "curtailing of activities not essential to human well-being, such as the advertising, sales, arms, and many other industries." Essentially, ecosocialism is the provisioning of an economy so that essential needs for all come first, for the sake of more extensive reductions in fossil-fuel consumption than would otherwise be possible. The most meaningful description I've found is in a book by Saral Sarkar titled "Eco-socialism or eco-capitalism?" There is an essay at the end of Ecosocialism or Barbarism titled "Savage Capitalism - the Ecosocialist Alternative," which lays out a summary of the degraded state of the capitalist system at present, and ends with a list of demands.
The articles are what we might expect for a politically-inclined ecosocialist agenda. Here it is in a nutshell. Capitalism is on a collision course with the Earth's capacity to sustain life; the existing society cannot be reformed or regulated so that it will "behave"; thus socialist revolution will be necessary to bring society into conformance with ecosystem stability. Much of the book, taking its cue from John Bellamy Foster's writings for the Monthly Review, deals with global warming, which has attained the status of white-hot controversy in the UK. Over there, global warming is well-accepted as a phenomenon and the mainstream controversy is over what to do about it. It would be nice if we could discuss global warming here in the States like they do in the UK.
The arguments for ecosocialism made in this book are reasonable as it is made here. However, I'm a bit uncomfortable with how well they are defended. If we are to incite dialogues that go beyond "preaching to the choir," we ought to start by anticipating objections to our proposals. By skimping on this sort of argument, in favor of "what ecosocialism is and why we like it," Ecosocialism or Barbarism is a less effective book than it otherwise could be. One admires books such as Mike Cole's Marxism and Educational Theory because they do attempt to anticipate objections. In that book, Cole argues for a rather direct version of Marxist pedagogy (one which I can't quite defend myself); his defense of Marxism as such, however, addressed standard objections. So, in the spirit of constructive suggestion, here I'd like to suggest a short list of objections to ecosocialism, complete with responses:
Objection #1: We will want to preserve capitalism because of its productive efficiency. The problem with capitalist production is not efficiency, but rather ecology. Capitalist production is "efficient" when you disregard the convenience it has made of planet Earth. It gets the lion's share of Earth's "natural resources"; it gets to "externalize" its pollutants after a minor degree of scrubbing. If capitalist production really had to be careful with what it uses of its Earthly endowment, we'd regard it as quite wasteful.
Objection #2: Capitalism is the best system for consumer demand. The problem with this argument is that capitalist production addresses only "effective" demand, demand backed by money. Production for "effective" demand will work well as long as the consumers have money; in an economy where most of the public is losing its place in the money system, which is what we have now, we run the risk of mass dispossession. The capitalist system will then be producing large quantities of consumer items which nobody will be able to afford. Such a situation would hardly qualify capitalism as the best system for consumer demand.
Objection #3: Socialism was discredited by the Soviet experiment. The Soviet experiment was an experiment in the building of what Kees van der Pijl calls a "contender state" - a rival to capitalism in the competition for capitalist development. In this regard, it would help to look at capitalism as bound together with what van der Pijl calls "capitalist discipline" - which is our work habits and everything we do in order to make ourselves into hirable workers. "Capitalist discipline," then, is the glue that keeps the capitalist machine together, that fits all of the parts into place. It keeps the trucks on the road, it keeps the airplanes flying in the air, it keeps production going, it keeps the distribution networks running, and so on.
The Soviet Union, then, tried to accomplish "Communism" using capitalist discipline. Ecosocialism, on the other hand, will require ecological discipline - the discipline necessary to maintain ecosystem resilience, or ecosystem stability (in a greater sense). We can see ecological discipline in what Joan Martinez-Alier calls "the environmentalism of the poor," in a book which is praised in Michael Lowy's essay at the beginning of Ecosocialism or Barbarism.
Objection #4: There is no existing ecosocialist movement. But there are plenty of movements which could be ecosocialist, if they were only to take the next step and to recognize, more deeply, what it took to be ecosocialist.
Objection #5: The elites will destroy the world rather than give up their privileges. Indeed, this is what the capitalist system which serves them so well is doing to the world right now. Abrupt climate change will create a world in which billions of people (that's right, billions) will have no place to go. Florida will be under water with the rise of ocean levels as such. After the icecaps of the Himalayas melt away, half of China will be without water. That's not going to look pretty. The question at hand is one of whether the rest of the world will allow said elites to get away with total global eco-destruction. From Paul Prew's "The 21st Century World Ecosystem":
The question to be asked, really, is whether we proceed with capitalism until we reach an ecological bifurcation point that leaves the habitability of the earth in question for the vast majority of the population, or we reach a social bifurcation point that leads us to a social system of production that is dissipative, nonetheless, but does not threaten the flowing balance of nature.
Objection #6: There will be no working class revolution. According to this reasoning, the multitudes are too interested in class compromise (i.e. better hours, better wages) and will not attempt to overwhelm the system with demands for ecosocialism. Or, according to another line of thought, the multitudes are too interested in patriotism, and will not provide the necessary global unity for a working class revolution. The first objection will be answered when abrupt climate change really starts to kick in. Will people just hide from the oncoming disaster, or will they take the proactive role that Ecosocialism or Barbarism says they need to have?
The second objection is not a matter of patriotism, but of the role currently provided by the state. In the past, warfare between states was a means of maintaining a class of people which benefitted from it. The capitalist class benefitted from warfare, and from the total economic motivation that the warfare state brought. Even before capitalism, under feudalism, a knightly class made its living off of warfare and off of the looting that accompanied it. In the future, however, the state will have to change its character, to keep any future "warfare class" out of power.
Kees van der Pijl's most recent book, Nomads, Empires, States, describes world-society as regressing into a sort of tribalism. In an ecosocialist future, all "tribes" which develop as such will have autonomy within a decentralized, locally-controlled matrix which encompasses the entire globe. Such a tribalist future will not be incompatible with global ecosocialism.
Objection #7: Revolution will only install a new, oppressive ruling class.
Ecosocialism will attempt to circumvent the problem of new, oppressive ruling classes through economic democracy - decentralizing power, and putting power over economic systems into the hands of people within a democratic framework. This will probably mean democratic control over the money system, so that capital can be redirected to ecosystemically meaningful ends. There will be no abolition of personal property - but the means of production, as capitalism has shown, are too dangerous to leave in the hands of acquisitive oligarchies.
Finally, I think that two major tactical improvements to the standard "socialist" and "green" agenda are in order:
Tactic #1: Examine economic decisions as political decisions.
Our capitalist "democracy" does not serve us because most of the real decisions have been taken out of its hands and placed in the hands of a very few powerful economic actors. In light of the "private" (i.e. oligarchic) control of the economy as such, "democratic" government has been reduced to the role of economic guarantor, to make sure that the economic oligarchy functions "efficiently" at whatever role it chooses to function at, which (for the most part) means keeping the rich swaddled in profits.
We can deconstruct capitalist "democracy" as such if we look at economic decisions as political decisions. If the main political actors are viewed not as Clinton, Obama, and McCain, but rather Exxon, Monsanto, and Halliburton (and the rest of the Fortune 500), then we will be on the way to a clearer picture of what is going on.
Tactic #2: Go after producers, not consumers.
Heather Rogers makes this argument very effectively in her history of trash titled Gone Tomorrow. Why regulate individual littering, Rogers argued, when the real culprits are the product manufacturers who are creating the disposable cartons, bottles, newspapers etc. that become trash. Go after the producers of trash, she argued, rather than pick on the multitudes of litterers.
I would suggest, here, that we attack the problem of abrupt climate change in much the same fashion. Rather than blame the individual consumers for burning fossil fuels, go after the producers of the fossil fuels; shut down their oil wells and natural gas wells and coal mines. That will, in turn, force society to adapt to the post-carbon future.
That's how I'd argue ecosocialism, at any rate.