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Climate Change Brings Socialism and Science Together

Only when socialists and scientists work together to combat fossil capitalism do we have a good chance of avoiding ecocide.

(Image: Monthly Review Press)

Thanks to climate change, science and socialism have become entwined in ways previously unimaginable. Science brings the news that, unless we act swiftly to control climate change, we will inhabit a dying planet. Socialism traces the causes of this catastrophe to the destructive and chaotic growth model of capitalism and advocates for a different system. Meanwhile, sensing the source of danger to their profits, corporate and government reactionaries fuel disinformation campaigns to discredit science and confuse the public. This has been going on for years, with disastrous results.

Ian Angus’ new book, A Redder Shade of Green, (red for socialist revolution, green for ecological revolution) is about the prospect of ecosocialism in the face of capitalist ecocide. Angus has written previously about the “Anthropocene,” a name for our era that emphasizes the centrality of human-influenced climate change. He does not accuse humanity as a whole of environmental destruction, but only a small sliver of humanity — the capitalist class, which has left a gigantic, planet-sized carbon footprint. Angus repeatedly stresses that billions of people have a negligible impact on climate change and that the overpopulation argument — which blames humanity as a whole for climate change — has been used to distract and undermine an effective, ecosocialist movement. The US military has a hugely destructive impact on the environment. So does ExxonMobil. The many citizens of Bangladesh, reeling from climate-change-exacerbated flooding, do not.

So, what about the many environmentalists who believe a primary cause of climate change is that there are too many people on earth? Angus tries to persuade them otherwise. He observes that in the 1960s and 1970s, overpopulation was used to explain environmental degradation as well as poverty in the global south, thus providing a solution to two problems at once in a way that does not question capitalism. It took the likes of Rachel Carson, Murray Bookchin and Barry Commoner to initiate an environmentalism rooted in radical social critique, he writes, adding, “Their analysis was rejected by the traditional conservationists, the wealthy organizations and individuals whose primary concern was protecting the wilderness areas for rich tourists and hunters.” Indeed, it was the Sierra Club that financed Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, a book heavily promoted by “liberal Democrats who correctly saw it as an alternative to the radical views of Carson, Commoner and Bookchin.” Angus adds that Ehrlich’s book “became a huge best-seller, and it played a central role in derailing radical environmentalism.” The population bombers faded away, but now they are back, shifting the environmental threat focus from corporations to people.

“The populationists’ error,” Angus writes, “is that they assume there is no alternative” to capitalism. They assume more people means more food means more modern agriculture, which is hugely ecologically destructive. But, Angus argues, there are other agricultural models; moreover, working with the food supply we already have, there are other ways to do things. “Existing food production is in fact more than enough to feed many more people.” Without current waste, it could feed billions more.

Angus observes that “too many people” is in fact “code for too many poor people, too many foreigners, and too many people of color.” According to Commoner: “pollution begins in corporate boardrooms, not family bedrooms.”

Socialism has not always been ecologically conscious, and for much of the 20th century it wasn’t, with disastrous results. “The socialism practiced by the countries of the Socialist Camp replicated the development model of capitalism,” said Cuban official Oswaldo Martinez in 2009, who, Angus reports, considered this competition, a la USSR, China and East European socialist countries, a mistake. A Redder Shade of Green is a very serious attempt to bury that past once and for all, and to ground socialism in scientific environmentalism. This, fortunately, has been socialism’s direction for several decades. Not so for capitalism. “Pouring crap into the environment is a fundamental feature of capitalism, and it isn’t going to stop so long as capitalism survives,” Angus writes.

Since the 1990s, socialism has become much greener. Cuba and Bolivia have led the way. Bolivian President Evo Morales is quoted: “Competition and the thirst for profit without limits of the capitalist system are destroying the planet. Under capitalism we are not human beings but consumers … It generates luxury, ostentation and waste for a few, while millions in the world die from hunger … ‘Climate change’ has placed all humankind before a great choice: to continue in the ways of capitalism and death, or to start down the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.” Or as Barry Commoner is quoted: “The present course of human civilization is suicidal.”

Angus writes that how we build socialism “will be profoundly shaped by the state of the planet we must build it on.” This idea that, in order to create a socialist future, we must recognize how much damage capitalism will do to our planet dates back to Marx’s concept of a “metabolic rift” between capitalist society and nature, writes Angus. The damage is already severe. “Without radical economic change, it’s more likely that we will have a three degree [temperature] increase by the end of the century and maybe four,” Angus observes. “That … would be catastrophic … substantial parts of the earth … would be very difficult, even impossible to survive in.”

In his previous book, Facing the Anthropocene, Angus reported on the growing scientific consensus that capitalism’s most ferocious and brutal assault on the environment really took off after 1945. This postwar period has been dubbed “The Great Acceleration” and was marked by rising global temperatures, species extinction, ocean acidification and the ubiquity of plastics, which now literally pervade every corner and crevice of the Earth, including almost all tap water. Back in the 1970s, Commoner drew attention “to dramatic increases … in materials not found in nature, synthetics that cannot degrade and so become permanent blights on Earth.” The Second World War, Angus writes in his new book, accelerated “fossil fuel production and use, the automobilization of Western society, corporate concentration and the rise of monopolies, the mass introduction of synthetic petrochemical-based products, the industrialization of agriculture.”

Fighting this array is daunting. Humanity’s success with restoring the ozone, cited by some scientists and environmental activists as a model approach to global warming, is not really comparable to what will be needed to combat climate change. But it is worth noting that that success was achieved not by a chloroflourocarbon (CFC) cap and trade system but “by an outright ban.” That’s what would work: a ban on fossil fuels. But Angus says, if “CFCs had been as central to capitalism … as fossil fuels are, the ozone layer might have been gone by now.”

The International Geosphere Biosphere Program (IGBP), launched in the 1980s by a group of scientists and sponsored by the International Council for Science “coordinated the efforts,” Angus writes, “of thousands of scientists around the world from 1990 to 2015.” It was prompted by environmental concerns. Perhaps this group’s most disturbing discovery was that in the past, when the climate changed, whatever the cause, it did so quite rapidly. “What we experience today as extreme but rare heat waves could become … frequent occurrences,” Angus writes. “If we cross such a tipping point, ecosystems won’t have time to adjust, species won’t have time to evolve, and human societies might not have time to adapt.” It was the IGBP that agreed on the new terminology, “the Anthropocene” and “the Great Acceleration.”

Regarding World War II, Angus observes that mainstream economists “typically treat wars as anomalies, as interruptions in capitalism’s normally peaceful development. In fact, capitalist growth in the 20th century depended heavily on military production and spending. The most destructive war in human history triggered a radical acceleration of environmental destruction that continues to this day.”

Late capitalist agriculture is a major factor in environmental degradation. The chapter “Third World Farming and Biodiversity” argues against industrial farming and for saving biodiversity by means other than nature preserves. It advocates peasant farming enhanced by technological advancements in sustainability. “Some forms of agriculture destroy life, others preserve and expand it,” Angus writes. Third world sustainable farming is much friendlier to biodiversity than large-scale “production of bananas, sugar cane, tea, technified coffee and cacao, soybeans, cottons, pastures.”

The struggle of peasant farmers for human rights, the struggle for sustainable agriculture and the efforts to preserve biodiversity are one. The umbrella organization, La Via Campesina, calls for “the conjoining of the rights of people to consume food to the rights of people to produce their own food.” According to the book Nature’s Matrix, which Angus quotes: “Joining the worldwide struggle of millions of small-scale farmers clamoring for food sovereignty is more likely to yield long-term biodiversity benefits than buying a patch of so-called ‘pristine’ forest.”

In other words, industrial farming is the problem. “Without an agro-ecological revolution,” Angus writes, “the Sixth Extinction cannot be stopped.”

Angus advocates an inclusive approach. Many environmentalists, liberal politicians and scientists are not socialists, and will not share all this book’s conclusions. But if more people can be persuaded of the wisdom of, say, Rachel Carson, instead of Paul Ehrlich, humanity has a better chance of attacking environmental degradation at its root. The neo-Malthusian view — that too many people is the problem — needs to be debated and defeated. So does the corporate-sponsored disinformation campaign promoting climate change denial. Individual scientists who speak up about climate change deserve to be defended from well-funded corporate smear assaults. And socialism’s move away from its 20th century, environmentally unfriendly models needs to be encouraged.

Of course, even if all these steps are taken, the hour is still very late.

“The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized,” Rachel Carson wrote. For socialists, there has always been a focus on what Marxist critic Georg Lukacs called “militant participation in the great human struggle for liberation.” And a struggle for real liberation now includes the planet.

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