frontline volume 2, issue 7 June 2008

Costing the earth
The challenge of eco-socialism

Later this year the SSP will come together with socialist Greens and environmental activists to discuss eco-socialism and the crisis facing the planet. In this article Liam Young looks at the huge challenges faced by humanity.

It is now clear that humanity is in the midst of an environmental crisis that threatens to engulf the planet in ecological catastrophe. This begs the question whether capitalism, a system that is dependent on continual growth, can find a way out of the deepening crisis, or is it systematically anti-ecological?

If we conclude that Capitalism is inherently anti-ecological then as a system it is incapable of preventing ecological disaster. The urgency of the problem can be overwhelming. It is therefore important that Socialists begin to develop an understanding of the environmental damage being done to the planet, its causes and how we begin to plan a strategy that offers a positive solution.

Environmental Disaster

In a recent paper for Science magazine the director of NASA's Goddard institute for space studies, Jim Hansen, stated that 'if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 parts per million in the atmosphere to at most 350ppm.' He went on to state he problem is that 90% of energy is fossil fuels. And that is such a huge business, it has permeated our government'. The method used in Hanson's calculations unlike other estimates takes greater account of so-called feed back mechanisms. This is a process whereby the planet's temperature reaches such a point that nature takes over in the global warming process. Patches of permafrost melt, releasing huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere, the reduction in the polar icecaps decreases their ability to reflect back heat from the sun leading to ice being replaced by ocean, thereby increasing the speed at which the icecaps will melt.

It is now clear that 90% of environmental disruption around the world is linked to global warming caused by human activity. In the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental panel on climate change) report it was estimated that global temperature will rise between 2oc and 6oc by the end of the century if drastic action is not taken to curb CO2 emissions. Global warming, although one of the most serious problems, is only one of a long list of ecological degradations currently facing the planet. The list also includes desertification, deforestation, over fishing, extinction of species, the drawing down and contamination of ground, destruction of coral reefs, loss of top soil, loss of biodiversity, depletion of the ozone layer, over population, famine, melting of the polar ice-caps, defrosting of permafrost, and so it goes on. When taken together it becomes clear that this is an ecological crisis bigger than just global warming, and with all major eco-systems on the planet declining by the year it is now the most important issue facing our generation.

In the face of this crisis the alarming news is that all attempts to halt the deterioration of the environment have failed in fact the process has accelerated. The change in attitudes amongst environmentalists between the UN organized earth summits of 1992 in Rio and 2002 in Johannesburg is telling. In the late 1980's and early 1990's public awareness of the environment was heightened by concerns about ozone depletion and global warming. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the so-called 'end of history' there was a mood of optimism going into the Rio Earth summit that governments would co-operate and sort out the problems of climate change and world poverty. The main document of the Rio summit was called Agenda 21 and was filled with hope as it set out to launch the age of sustainable development.

Only 10 years later and the contrasts in expectations of the environmental movement emphasise the deterioration in the situation, as John Bellamy Foster said in an interview with Dennis Soron 'By the time we arrived in the Johannesburg summit ten years after Rio, the overwhelming feeling among environmental groups was that we had been losing ground on the environment and that the negotiations weren't going to achieve anything at all. And didn't. However dispiriting the loss of optimism may have been, the pessimism coming out of Johannesburg was in some ways actually a more realistic response to the nature of the problems we're now facing.'

The decade between Rio and Johannesburg saw the globalization of neo-liberalism and an economic offensive against the worlds poor that was accompanied by acceleration in environmental deterioration. The expansion of neo-liberal trade saw organizations such as the WTO rise in prominence with the purpose of ensuring economic growth regardless of social or environmental costs. This process has seen the undermining of national government's ability to protect their people, resources or environment from the rapacious march of neo-liberalism, which has continued unabated since the earth summit in 2002. The Iraq war now resembles a war against the planet as the US and Britain engage in a battle to control the world's oil resources, during a period of environmental devastation epitomized by global warming.

Global capitalism has not only undermined the economic circumstances of the majority of the planets population, it has degraded the basic ecological conditions required to sustain life for many people such as clean air, clean water and food.

New Contradictions in Capitalism

In the journal Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, James O'Connor puts forward a theory which he calls the 'second contradiction of capitalism'. O'Connor argues that having always suffered from a crisis of overproduction (first contradiction), capitalism is now destroying the environment to such an extent that it has created a second contradiction at the source of production. He highlights the three main conditions that capitalism requires for production, these are the conditions for the reproduction of human labour, natural resources (forests, water, oil, fish etc) and the general communal conditions of production (cities, education, health services etc). These qualify as conditions of production as they are not directly produced by capitalism, but are pre-requisites in the production process. The undermining of these conditions O'Connor contends is having a duel effect of squeezing profits and giving birth to radical movements.

As resources become scarce and more expensive to obtain this will see production costs rise and profits fall. This is the subject of some debate and certainly the profits that oil and energy companies are recording could well be used to dispute the premise that capitalism will internalize the costs and cut profits. There is however some evidence to suggest that in order to maintain these profits capitalism will increasingly come into conflict with social movements as it searches for ever cheaper ways to compensate for the rising costs of production. Around the world indigenous peoples are organizing the defense of their land, forests and water rights in a struggle to protect their communities and way of life that capitalisms ever expanding need to make profit threatens. These can be seen in the Indian movements of the Amazon, Bolivia, and Ecuador, in the legal challenges made by the Inuit from the North Slope of Alaska or in the Niger River delta. In China incidents of social unrest have been linked to the increase in social awareness of the effects that growing environmental problems are having on health.

The standard solution offered to the ecological problem is a move towards environmentally friendly technology, such as more fuel-efficient cars, renewable energies and increased recycling of resources. This approach suggests that by simply introducing certain technologies we can maintain 'business as usual' and save the environment. There are two ways in which technologies could assist the environment, firstly by reducing the materials and energy used per unit of output and secondly by substituting less harmful technology.

The first of these has been shown not to have any effect under the accumulative system of capitalism. As a system capitalism has always sought improvements in energy efficiency in the production process. The more energy efficient production becomes under capitalism the greater the scope to make profits. Unfortunately for the environment this leads to an expansion in production thereby creating an aggregate increase in the demand for energy. The problem therefore does not lie with the technology used in the production process but in the motivation behind production. The need for business to continually expand and increase profits is what drives the system forward and forces it to pursue accumulation and growth simply to accumulate and grow.

Cutting Emissions

It would be a mistake to think that the environmental crisis is a problem of technology or fuel efficiency, as the technology has long existed that would cut the build up of greenhouse gases. In transport for instance there is the option to build a public transport system that would drastically cut CO2 emissions and also be a quicker and safer way of moving people around. This is not the most efficient way of generating profits however, and so we have seen instead the growth of the 'automobile industrialization complex' as Paul Sweezy called it in Monthly Review. This includes the rubber, glass and steel industries, the petroleum industry, road building companies, property developers and 'constitutes the axis around which accumulation in the twentieth century largely turned'.

The call for individuals to adopt an ecological morality is often heard in an attempt to solve the environmental crisis. This premises that all will be well if people change the way in which they live their lives, recycle, consume less, drive less and so on. There is nothing wrong with individuals striving to live in a less wasteful way but these calls seldom take into consideration the reality of the system that dominates society and the way in which it penetrates people's lives.

The saturation of public space with advertising designed to manufacture needs and increase the consumption of commodities is more difficult to resist than calls to green your lifestyle. The world economy is geared to accumulate wealth for a small section of society while the majority is forced to seek employment in jobs dependant on the very economic expansion that damages the planet. For most people the poverty that capitalism forces upon them limits their choice of lifestyle. It is therefore a mistake to seek solutions that rely too heavily on the role of the individual and ignore the society that shapes individuals; instead we must seek a collective solution that changes fundamentally the very system that encourages people to behave in ways damaging to the environment.

It is important to challenge the notion that pre-industrial revolution environmental damage did not exist and that an ecologically sound modern society is not possible. There is a tendency within some circles to blame technology on our environmental problems rather than examining the social system that determines the use of such technology. Such a view can stop us looking to change the social structures we live under and instead seek a technological answer, while perhaps encouraging others to argue for a return to some non-existent pre-industrial past where we all lived in harmony with nature. Environmental destruction caused by the over exploitation of nature has taken place throughout history and played a large part in the collapse of many civilizations such as the Mayan Indians, Easter Island and the Sumerian Empire. Due to the small size of the human population at that time, and their dispersal around the world, these catastrophes although big enough to bring down particular societies were always restricted to being regional events and never threatened in a global scale in the way that our current problems do.


With the onset of capitalism and the development of the world economy the effect that human beings had on the planet and its eco systems changed drastically. As John Bellamy Foster says in his book 'The Vulnerable Planet', 'what distinguishes the eco-historical period of capitalism from the eco-historical period of pre-capitalism is not environmental degradation or the threat of ecological collapse-both of which existed before, at least on a regional level- but two traits specific to capitalism. First, capitalism has been so successful over the last few centuries in 'conquering' the earth that the field of operation for its destruction has shifted from a regional to a planetary level. And second, the exploitation of nature has become more and more universalized, because natures elements, along with the social conditions of human existence, have increasingly been brought within the sphere of the economy and subjected to the same measure, that of profitability.'

It is important to examine the ecological crisis in a historical perspective as this allows us to differentiate between the effects that capitalist and pre-capitalist social systems had on the planet, and to establish if capitalism can solve the problem or whether it is the problem.

As the capitalist world economy emerged the relationship between humankind and nature became increasingly exploitative. As commerce grew so too did the need to make money from commodities, and nature was to be exploited as much as human labour. Wildlife was lost at a rate never before seen in human history as animals were hunted for their furs, which were to be sold as commodities on the market place. The driving force to make money led to the development of a world trade system of cash crops that would enslave whole environments as well as people. This resulted in the destruction of eco-systems as monocultures of sugar, tobacco, cocoa and any other plant that could be made a commodity robbed the soil of its nutrients. Colonialism and environmental destruction went hand in hand. In colony after colony the European invaders would destroy to accumulate, clearing huge areas of land in order to grow indigenous crops for export and introduce alien crops better suited to making money. As Marx said in 1848 during a speech on free trade 'you believe perhaps, gentlemen, that the production of coffee and sugar is the natural destiny of the West Indies. Two centuries ago, nature, which does not trouble herself about commerce, had planted neither sugar cane or coffee trees there.'

The planting of cash crops destroyed much of the local flora and fauna, depleting nutrients in the soil and degraded the land to such an extent the effects are still felt today. One of the tendencies of the capitalist agro-ecosystem is to a monoculture, meaning a part of nature is re-constituted to a point that it yields a single species, which is growing on the land solely because somewhere there is a strong market for it. As Eduardo Galeano writes in 'The Open Veins of Latin America' 'Sugar destroyed the Brazilian Northeast. This region of tropical forests was turned into a region of savannas. Naturally fitted to produce food it became a place of hunger.' He continues 'Fire was used to clear land for cane fields, devastating the fauna along with the flora: deer, wild boar, tapir, rabbit, pacas, and armadillo disappeared. All was sacrificed on the alter of sugarcane monoculture.' This type of environmental destruction is still raging in Brazil except now the sugar is for bio-fuels rather than to sweeten the tea of the Empire, but the motivation to destroy nature in search of profit remains the same.

With the onset of the Industrial revolution came a further straining in the relationship between capitalism and the ecology of the planet. While mercantile capitalism had primarily been expansive in nature and had seen the system span the globe, the development of machine capitalism increased the extent to which labour and the environment were brought under the sphere of the economy. To commodify land and labour capitalism had to undermine the previous conditions of existence and found itself increasingly at war with its environment. This was epitomized with the rise of the modern industrial city as the factory system grew in order to allow for the expansion of machine production along with the need for wage labourers.

The separation of town and country along with a greater concentration of agriculture led to an increased exploitation of the land. In Capital Marx writes 'All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background for its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of wealth, the soil and the worker.'

'Robbery System'

In his book 'Marx's Ecology' John Bellamy Foster outlines an important theory from Marx pointing to the anti-ecological nature of capitalism how it's continual need to accumulate wealth create an ever growing and unsustainable rift between humanity and nature. The works of a German agricultural chemist Justus Von Liebig heavily influenced Marx, Von Liebig had studied the agricultural techniques of Britain, which he described as a 'robbery system' opposed to rational agriculture. The extreme separation of town and country under capitalism in effect created a separation between human beings and nature. This meant the continual reduction in the fertility of the soil as food along with essential soil nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium were transported over huge distances from the countryside to the cities. This disrupted the soil nutrient cycle and inevitably led to a long-term drop in soil productivity, as nutrients rather than being returned to the soil would end up polluting cities and rivers in the shape of human waste. This intensification of agriculture under capitalism was destroying the natural conditions for the reproduction of soil fertility. The declining fertility of the soil led the British to raid Napoleonic battlefields in search of bones with which to fertilize the soil and to begin importing Guano from Peru in huge amounts but this proved unsustainable as these supplies soon depleted. The crisis was only in part solved when synthetic fertilizers were developed in the early 20th century but overuse soon led to a whole new environmental problem.

This process was not only taking place in national terms between town and country but also in imperial terms between nations. Bellamy quotes Marx in reference to 'England' who 'indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.' One look at the food on our super-market shelves will attest that this 'robbery' is still ongoing but in a larger and more systematic scale and not only includes the soil nutrients but also the water that is utilized in the worlds agribusiness industry.

This intrinsic rift between humanity and nature poses the problem of metabolic restoration and the necessity to place sustainable production at the heart of 21st century socialism. As Marx wrote in Capital 'From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in another man. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familia (good heads of the household).'

Social Movements

To enable the maintenance of a planet that is not only inhabitable but can also sustain civilization it is necessary to carry through an ecological revolution. As this is incompatible with the system of capitalism any such revolution needs to be linked to a larger social transformation that changes not only the method of production but also the motivations behind production. To achieved this the classes of society that make up the majority of the planets population will need to be mobilized by combining the struggle to protect the planets environment with the struggles for social and economic justice.

Any socially progressive and sustainable alternative to capitalism cannot attempt to compete as in the past by offering greater riches than capital can in some unobtainable socialist heaven. Instead we must be honest and offer a world where the provision for human need will take priority over the production of commodities that needlessly waste the resources of the planet. The society that we offer must ensure that all the planets peoples have access to clean air, nutritious food, clean water, education, housing, health care and public transport and that as Marx says we take the earth and 'bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations'.

The SSP has a tradition of campaigning and participating within broader movements in an open progressive fashion. The party would not have come into existence had it not been for its component parts behaving in such a fashion. In the course of building the movements required to carry out the transformation of society we will find ourselves again in the position of having to work with forces outside our tradition. The new forces however will not necessarily come from the so-called 'revolutionary left', but instead may be radicalized by other issues pertaining to the degradation of the environment and the effects of neo-liberalism.

It is crucial that we begin to participate in the environmental movement in a positive way as the ideas of socialists and greens begin to converge. There are an increasing number of people within the environmental movement who cannot envision capitalism providing a solution to the ecological problems of the planet. There is also a growing awareness among socialists that sustainability has to be the driving force behind 21st century socialism as we seek to close the 'rift' that capitalism has created between human beings and nature. Socialists need to be linking up with such people in to engage in working out how best we can move the struggle for a sustainable, equitable and democratic society forward.