frontline volume 2, issue 7 June 2008

Another World Isn't Possible: A case for Eco-Socialism

Jasper Richardson, a member of the Scottish Green Party and Democratic Left Scotland puts his perspective on eco-socialism.

Our planet is slipping into ecological crisis. Methane and CO2 are at their highest for 650, 000 years, and temperatures have risen by 0.6 degrees.1 Already the World Health Organisation is claiming that 150, 000 people a year are dieing as a result.2 We are seeing hurricanes in the poorest parts of America and floods in the UK, a water war in Darfur and a war for oil in the Middle East.

Capitalist ideology and practice is preaching lower environmental standards, increased consumption and selfishness at the very time that we need the very opposite. This is hurting the poorest the most, despite the fact that most of the damage is created by the rich.

But beyond the observation of this naked injustice and exploitation, does Marx or Marxism have any greater insight? Can Socialists claim to be any better when Marx argued that capitalist exploitation of the earth's natural resources is a positive and necessary step in the creation of surplus? Can we still accept this while taking into account what Marx could not have known - that the effects of some environmental degradation can be irreversible? Whilst snippets of Marx's writings imply an ahead-of-his time knowledge of environmental issues3 this has not been reflected in the writings of many subsequent Marxists. Trotsky, for example boasted 'The proper goal of Communism is the domination of nature by technology, and the domination of technology by planning, so that raw materials of nature will yield to mankind all that it needs and more besides'.4

Perhaps it is unsurprising that almost all of the 'Marxist' regimes of the 20th century have been ecological disasters.

The latter point is dismissed by Scottish Socialist Alan McCombes who argues that 'to reject all kinds of Socialism because of one kind is like refusing to eat mushrooms because of the existence of poisonous toadstools'.5
In response to the former points we can only respond that any future vision of Socialism must have ecology at the centre of its vision. The age of the earth's exploitation for profit is here, and the next stage must necessarily be sustainable if any Socialist promises for the emancipation of the poor are to be met.

Derek Wall sums up Eco-socialism with the observation that capitalism 'stops people from producing for them selves, accelerates the creation of waste, and then pushes the waste on the very poorest'.6

This links into a central point of Marx's work - the struggle of the oppressed. Certainly across the world, people worst affected are resisting- take for example the environmental movement led by Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria against the Shell oil drilling which is polluting the water and air of the Niger Delta, or the movement in Kerala against Coca-Cola which is draining local communities of their water. Here in Scotland, we have seen working class resistance to the Lewis Superquarry, the Greengairs Landfill site, the M77 and the M74.7

Such protests are symptomatic of two things - social injustice and over-production. It is ironic then, that poverty is a lack of access to things which we value, but increasing the number of those things hurts the poor. Eco-socialists argue that this can be addressed.

Derek Wall argues that by drawing Marx's notion of use values and exchange values a solution can be found which decreases both poverty and consumption. He writes:
'A capitalist economy is focussed on exchange values. We could increase value by making goods that last longer, by extending the library principle to all kinds of goods. Real prosperity means that we have access to useful things. It is quite different from wasteful increases in gross national product'8

The Green Socialist Peter McColl too, advocates tackling social and environmental injustice at once. He argues that elected governments should abolish poverty through a Citizens Income scheme, regulate against social and environmental malpractice and encourage environmental good practice through state procurement. At the same time economic and political power should be devolved as far as is possible through co-operatives, and increased local decision making.9 By putting political and economic power in to the hands of the people most likely to be affected by environmental injustice it is less likely that the injustice will take place.

Getting There

We have outlined the problems with capitalism, and the eco-socialist alternative. But how will we get there? In this regard it is useful to refer to the seminal political theorist Steven Lukes, who spoke of three faces of power: non-decision making, decision making, and ideology, each of which must be harnessed or overcome to win change.

In the eco-socialist struggle, one of the central obstacles has been the fact that decisions to protect the environment and promote social jsutice have often not been made, or even considered. Thus the first step in campaigns has often been to try and set the agenda. It is perhaps unsurprising that the most effective use of this face of power has been asserted when affected communities have stood up for themselves to fight against environmental injustices. A recent example is the ship to ship oil transfer campaign, in which a quasi privatised regulatory body was to allow the cost cutting measure of the transfer of oil in the middle of the Firth of Forth, despite the risk of oil spills for seaside communities and wildlife. Activists picketed the AGM of the company which was responsible for the moves, then joined with Surfers against Sewage and wildlife conservation groups for rallies on Scottish beaches, addressed by MSPs Mark Ballard and Colin Fox amongst others. Following this, the story received national coverage, and the public and politicians began to take notice, and realised it could be an election issue, as they flocked to have their picture taken by the sea to put in ward newsletters. As a result the Scottish Government has pledged an end to ship to ship oil transfers.

Thus, it can be seen that agenda setting can be effective. However, we must hold no illusions, it alone cannot bring results. We can set agendas all we like, but politicians are still at liberty to ignore us. However by getting elected to legislatures we can win major concessions - by providing an alternative for voters if mainstream parties do not include commitments to social and environmental justice in their manifestos, by making sure that those commitments are honoured and by winning further concessions if we hold the balance of power. This can be a way to add strength to community campaigning and win democratic regulation against capitalism's worst environmental and social excesses. With the right parliamentary arithmetic this can be possible with even a few elected politicians.10

This is an important root to decision making - but not the only one. We make decisions in every arena of our lives. Even within our capitalistic society there are beacons of Eco-Socialism at work, and I believe we should work to defend and extend those things. This means supporting the extension of community renewable energy projects and co-operatives, defending the commons that we have- parks, woodlands, seas and the air, extending the library principle wherever possible by organising car, bike and equipment pools and swap shops, setting up community allotments, getting involved with Transition Towns initiatives11 and supporting initiatives such as the Eigg community buy out. All of these are living ecological alternatives to capitalism.

Finally we turn to ideology, the set of values or principles that inform the rest of our beliefs or actions. How can a sustainable future be won when the dominant capitalist paradigm remains wedded to consumption led growth, self interest, and 'free' markets when we need the direct opposite? In this regard Marx and Engels' dialectical view of history is useful. We are faced with an idea, capitalism, which at least in its purest form is incompatible with ecology and social justice. Every time that activists, NGOs or social movements highlight how capitalism is destroying the planet we are challenging it. By supporting workable alternatives, we are working to overthrow it.
Thanks to pressure from citizens and the Green and Socialist MSPs, the current Scottish government has made laudable targets of cutting CO2 by 80% by 2050, which may just be enough to keep us the right side of catastrophe. But it is a humbling thought that once we're at that level, we need to stay there, not for another fifty years, or hundred years, but forever.12 I've long thought it a strange irony, that the rallying cry of the global justice movement has been that 'another world is possible'. It isn't. We need to make the changes on the world that we've got, and we're running out of time.

* With thanks to Keshav Dogra for comments and suggestions.


1 Urs Siegenthaler et al. Stable Carbon-Climate Relationship during the late Pleistiocene, Science, Vol 310, 2005, quoted in George Monbiot, Heat, London: Penguin, 2006.
2 World Health Organisation, Climate Change, 2003:
3 In Capital Vol I pp 637- 638 Marx writes 'Capitalist production disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth all progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil' quoted by John Bellamy Foster, 'Marx's Theory of Metabolic Rift' in American Journal of Sociology 105(2), pp. 366-405.
4 Quoted in Sandy Irvine 'The Prophet Misarmed: Trotsky, Ecology and Sustainability', What Next? 31, 2007, 5.
5 Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCoombes, Imagine, Edinburgh: Rebel Inc, 2001.
6 Derek Wall, Babylon and Beyond: the Economics of Anti-Globalist, Anti-Capitalist and Radical Green Movements, London: Pluto, 2005.
7 As narrated by Kevin Dunion, in Troublemakers: the Battle for Environmental Justice in Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003, and Alastair McIntosh in Soil and Soil: People vs. Corporate Power, London: Aurum, 2004.
8 Derek Wall, Why we need Eco-Socialism, in Socialist Outlook, Spring 2007.
9 See Peter McColl, Is there a Green Road to Socialism? In Gregor Gall (ed.) Is there a Scottish Road to Socialism? Glasgow: New Left Review Press, 2007, and Peter McColl and Mark Ballard 'A Progressive Green Agenda for a Sustainable Scotland' in Vince Mills (ed.) The Red Paper on Scotland, Glasgow: Glasgow Caledonian University Research Collections, 2005.
10 For more on these ideas see Justin Kenrick, Workers and Ecosystems Unite in Scottish Left Review Spring 2008.
11 See Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook, Green Books, 2008 or visit for more information on work going on in Edinburgh.
12 As noted by Patrick Harvie, Public Meeting: The Scottish Climate Bill, 31/01/08, hosted by Edinburgh Young Greens.