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Capitalist and Socialist Responses to the Ecological Crisis

Victor Wallis teaches in the liberal arts department at the Berklee College of Music (in Boston) and is the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy ( He writes frequently for the ecological journal Capitalism Nature Socialism and for the multi-volume Historisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus. For their valuable suggestions, the author thanks Fred Magdoff, Greg Meyerson, and the members of his Boston-area reading group.

The global ecological crisis sprang forth full-blown at roughly the same historical moment that global capital—welcoming the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the decay of the revolutionary process in China—was claiming a definitive victory over socialism. The irony of this historic convergence lies in the fact that there could be no more decisive a refutation of capitalist precepts than their long-term incompatibility with species-survival.

Unfortunately, the steamroller effect of capital’s short-term political triumph has shown itself in unexpected places. Corporate hype about technological fixes has meshed conveniently with certain applications of the postmodernist “production of nature” thesis to lend credibility, even in leftist quarters, to the idea that while we might reject and challenge capitalism in matters of democracy and social justice, there is not much that we have to offer when it comes to decisions about production and consumption.

The ecological crisis is a complex mix of dangerous trends. Capitalist ideology characteristically views the components of this crisis piecemeal, thereby obscuring its systemic nature. The buildup of greenhouse gases and the consequent specter of a climatic “tipping point” have been widely if reluctantly acknowledged within the U.S. ruling class, although for the most part without any matching sense of urgency (witness how little serious attention is paid to this prospect in mainstream campaign discourse). But the other—not unrelated—dimensions of the crisis tend to be viewed either as local problems or, more alarmingly, as opportunities for future profit. I refer here to the spread of toxins, the depletion of vital goods (notably, fresh water and biodiversity), and the increasingly intrusive and reckless manipulation of basic natural processes (as in genetic engineering, cloud-seeding, changing the course of rivers).

An adequate response to the crisis will ultimately involve addressing all these dimensions. Given the range, widespread acceptance, and presumed normality of the existing power-patterns that this would call into question, however, such a response will require an unprecedentedly thoroughgoing process of mass political education. We are still only in the earliest stages of the necessary awareness. This means that we must first address convincingly the arguments of those who would downplay the depth of the transformation that long-term species-survival will require. One part of this task—responding to those who deny human agency in the climate crisis—is a matter of pitting straightforward scientific reasoning against assertions made principally by representatives of corporate capital.1 But another challenge to socialist ecology comes from those on the left who, out of a misplaced sense of what is politically “realistic,” put forward the view that the only feasible “green” agenda is a capitalist one. We need to examine (in context) some of the more recent expressions of this view before returning to address the larger practical challenges that capitalism of whatever hue is incapable of meeting.

Green Capitalism?

Among the many possible illustrations of “green capitalism” in practice, a small news-item in the financial section of the March 7, 2008, New York Times provides a useful lead. Captioned “Gore Gets Rich,” it reports that former Vice-President Al Gore, fresh from winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his cautionary filmed lecture about global warming, “recently invested $35 million with Capricorn Investment Group, a firm that Bloomberg [News] says puts clients’ assets into hedge funds and invests in ‘makers of environmentally friendly products.’” The article also notes that Gore has flourished from his business ties to Apple and to Google, and that “he was recently made a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the top-tier Silicon Valley venture capital firm.” A visit to the Capricorn Group’s Web site leads to stories about the various projects in which its funds have been invested, one of which is Mendel Biotechnology Inc., which is working with BP and Monsanto—supported by a $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy—to “find a way to propagate miscanthus [a potentially more efficient fuel-producing plant than corn] for quick plantings and maximum yields.”2

This is quintessential capitalism. Its only green attribute is the notion of crop-derived fuel as offering (in the words of the Web report) a “clean and green” form of energy. Core aspects of the ecological crisis, however, remain unaddressed if not aggravated in this scenario:  (1) Although biofuels may produce less greenhouse gas than petroleum, their aggregate impact—in terms of air and water pollution, soil degradation, and food prices—may be more severe.3  (2) No recognition is given to the need to reduce the total amount of energy-consumption or of paved surfaces.  (3) Large-scale use of cropland as a fuel source impinges on food-crops without reducing pressure on the world’s water supply.  (4) Agribusiness practices, whatever the product, have a negative impact on biodiversity.  (5) Monsanto is implicated in the coercive imposition of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  (6) Silicon Valley (Gore’s other reported financial interest) is at the cutting edge of capitalist hyper-development (accelerated innovation and obsolescence; generation of vast quantities of toxic trash).  (7) The U.S. government continues to provide subsidies to corporations rather than supporting efforts directly to address long-term human needs.

Of course, the more familiar image of green capitalism is one of small grassroots enterprises offering local services, solar housing, organic food markets, etc.  It is true—and promising—that as ecological awareness spreads, the space for such activities will grow. We should also acknowledge that the related exploration of alternative living arrangements may contribute in a positive way to the longer-term conversion that is required. More generally, it is certainly the case that any effective conservation measures (including steps toward renewable energy) that can be taken in the short run should be welcomed, whoever takes them. But it is important not to see in such steps any repudiation by capital of its ecologically and socially devastating core commitment to expansion, accumulation, and profit.

To remind ourselves of this core commitment is not to claim that capital ignores the environmental crisis; it is simply to account for the particular way it responds to it. This includes direct corporate initiatives and measures taken by capitalist governments. At least in the United States, however, the former thrust predominates. The accepted self-designation of this approach is “corporate environmentalism”—defined in an authoritative text as “environmentally friendly actions not required by law” and thereby signifying explicitly that the corporations themselves are setting the agenda.4 The most tangible expression of corporate environmentalism is a substantial across-the-board jump, through the 1980s, in the numbers of management personnel assigned to deal with environmental issues.5

On the basis of both theory and performance, and viewing the corporate sector as a whole, we can say that this new emphasis has made itself felt in two ways. On the one hand, corporations have been alert to opportunities for making environmentally positive adjustments where these coincide with standard business criteria of efficiency and cost-reduction.6 On the other hand, more importantly, corporations have acted directly on the political stage, with an exceptionally free hand in the U.S. case. Both by lobbying and by direct penetration of policymaking bodies, they have molded regulatory practices, censored scientific reports, and shaped a defiant official posture in the global arena (exemplified by U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto accords). In addition, they have undertaken vast public relations campaigns (“greenwashing”) to portray their practices as environmentally progressive.7 From outside as well as within the United States, they have attempted—with considerable success—to define in their own interests the internationally accepted parameters of “sustainable development”: initially, through the World Business Council on Sustainable Development driving the agenda of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, and subsequently, through the continuing activity of the World Trade Organization as well as via corporate partnerships with United Nations development agencies.8

None of these efforts embodies the slightest change in basic capitalist practice. To the contrary, they reflect a determination to shore up such practice at all costs. The reality of green capitalism is that capital pays attention to green issues; this is not at all the same as having green priorities.9 Insofar as capital makes green-oriented adjustments beyond those that are either directly profit-friendly or advisable for PR purposes or protection against liability, it is because those adjustments have been imposed—or, as in the case of wind-turbines in Germany, stimulated and subsidized—by public authority.10 Such authority, even though exerted within an overall capitalist framework, reflects primarily the political strength of non- or anti-capitalist forces (environmentalist organizations, trade unions, community groups, grassroots coalitions, etc.), although these may be supported in part by certain sectors of capital such as the alternative energy and insurance industries.

As this whole current of opinion becomes stronger, advocates of green capitalism pick up on the popular call for renewable energy, but accompany it with a vision of undiminished proliferation of industrial products.11 In so doing, they overlook the complexity of the environmental crisis, which has to do not only with the burning of fossil fuels but with assaults on the earth’s resource-base as a whole, including for example the paving over of green space, the raw-material and energy costs of producing solar collectors and wind-turbines, the encroachment on natural habitats (not only by buildings and pavement but also by dams, wind-turbines, etc.), the toxins associated with high-tech commodities, and the increasingly critical problem of waste disposal—in short, the routine spinoffs from capital’s unqualified prioritization of economic growth.

Proponents of green capitalism respond to this by saying that economic growth, far from being the problem, is what holds the solution. Environmentalism, in this view, is a purely negative response to the ecological crisis, giving rise to unpopular practices like regulation and prohibition. Hence the singular “green capitalist” caricature of environmentalists: “All of them direct our attention to stopping the bad, not creating the good.”12 The “good,” from this perspective, is a scenario of jobs, material abundance, and energy independence—understood, however, within a characteristically capitalist competitive framework. While the need to cut greenhouse gases is recognized, the challenge is posed in narrowly technological terms. Attempts to resist consumerism are belittled, on the assumption that innovations, along with massive public investment, will solve any problem of scarcity (the vision is emphatically centered on the United States, with China invoked to signify that the drive to growth is unstoppable). The very existence of an environmental nexus is called into question, on the grounds that the category “environment” can only be conceived either as excluding humans or as being synonymous with “everything,” at either of which extremes it is seen to make no sense.13 The biological understanding of the environment as a matrix with interpenetrating parts is not entertained.

Ultimately, “green capitalism” is a contradiction in terms—the one pole referring to a complexly evolving equilibrium encompassing the ensemble of species-life, and the other, to the unchecked or cancerous growth of one of its particular components.14 Ironically,  the core capitalist response to ecological crisis is a further deepening of the logic of commodification. Capitalist practice has come to pose not just a material threat to ecological recovery, but also an ideological threat to socialist theory and, by extension, to the prospects for developing a long-term popular movement with an inspiring alternative vision.

Struggle over the Meaning of ‘Nature’

The ideological response of capital to the environmental crisis has been to reaffirm faith in the market. At the most immediate level, this entails arguing that as any kind of good becomes scarce, its price will go up and the demand for it will consequently shrink. A problem arises, however, when the goods in question are, like air, water, soil, or forests, essential to survival. But the logic is relentless: supposedly there is nothing on which a price cannot be set, and price in turn implies ownership—a good thing, in this view, since only with ownership comes a sense of responsibility (never mind what the goals of the owner might be). The field of application for this principle is unlimited. Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal thus proposed that whales “be ‘branded’ by genetic prints and tracked by satellites, providing another way to define property rights.”15 Once prices are set on so-called “natural capital” there follows a market in “rights to pollute,” which, among other effects, allows for offsetting any technological improvements with production increases.

One extension of this whole market-driven approach has been the idea that the way to preserve tropical forests or natural wetlands is simply to offer compensation for their being kept untouched. A cash value is thus apparently placed on “nature.” It is from this observation that the leftist ecological debate has now been joined by arguments questioning the effectiveness of a socialist approach to species-survival. In the words of Neil Smith, “If still incompletely, the market has now retaken and recolonized environmental practices….This represents a sweeping political co-optation and victory for capital and a defeat for environmental-cum-socialist politics.”16

The core assumption that is supposed to underlie this assessment is signaled by Smith in the preceding paragraph, where he writes, “The explosion of ecological commodification has significantly deepened the production of nature.” It is this “production of nature” concept that Smith considers to be insufficiently recognized in ecosocialist thinking. He characterizes the latter as adhering to an oversimplified dichotomy between society and nature, where “nature” is viewed in quasi-mystical romanticized terms as something pristine, untouched by the human imprint. In an earlier essay, Smith summarizes the superiority of his own position in these terms: “The argument of the ‘production of nature’ has the advantage, in that it gets beyond the powerful fetishism of ‘nature-in-itself’ to focus on the social relationship with nature.”17

In fact, of course, the latter focus is no different from that of ecosocialists; it flows logically from recognizing, with Richard Lewontin, that “the environment,” insofar as it is imagined as being untouched by any of its constituent organisms (notably, the human species), “does not exist.”18 Marx already made the same point when he noted that pure nature untouched by human beings “no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral islands of recent origin).”19

Why then should Smith have jumped, however, from an incontestable acknowledgment that the environment is generated (in part) by humans to an implicit assertion that the only available framework for remedial measures is the one imposed by capital? This can only derive from a one-sided emphasis on the “production of nature” by society (in this case capital) and a failure to understand Marx’s more complex dialectic of the human metabolism with nature, according to which human beings do not create nature, but only transpose it from one form into another, often with unforeseen consequences. Thus Marx quoted Pietro Verri as saying, “All the phenomena of the universe, whether produced by the hand of man or indeed by the universal laws of physics, are not to be conceived of as acts of creation but solely as a reordering of matter.” For this reason nature can only be “produced” by means of nature itself and in conformity with natural laws. The failure to understand or to follow these laws leads to ecological crises, with nature, as Engels observed, thereby taking its “revenge.”20

What Smith appears to have done, in rejecting the notion of a pristine nature, is to have gone to the opposite extreme: if “nature” as such is a figment, then the only real nature is what has been “produced” by humans; as he says at one point, “universal nature is every bit as much a capitalist as a pre- and post-capitalist project.”21 In other words, there would appear to be no qualitative difference, in his view, in the claims of different social formations to represent natural relations. Any objective process that might occur within a natural ecosystem independent of society is thus equally obliterated by all societies—pre-capitalist, capitalist, and post-capitalist. The environment is thus mere grist for bourgeois economics, which is seen as holding the cure to all its ills. Hence Smith’s remarkable statement that “the central use value of the restored wetlands is precisely their ability to garner exchange value under the new conditions of created scarcity.”22

This view of nature as having no existence apart from that which has been conferred upon it by the human species is in the tradition of a long line of idealist thought whose most recent expression has been postmodernism. Smith signals his intellectual debt to this mode of thought with a pertinent quote from Michel Foucault: “In fact, power produces: it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.”23 In the present context, the capitalist market assigns value to natural resources and processes, and this alone determines the degree to which they will appear and function as needed.

And yet it is precisely the non-commodified substratum of life which governs the processes by which soil is renewed, aquifers replenished, botanical diversity maintained, insect species and their predators nourished, and hillsides protected from erosion.24 Money values are as little applicable to any of this as they are to the life of a particular person or community. To affirm otherwise is to reject the basic sinew of resistance to ecological devastation. It is almost to deny that ecological devastation is real. The currently fashionable form taken by such denial is the contention that so long as a massive program of energy-conversion is carried out (with or without nuclear power as one of its components), productivist assumptions can remain unchallenged. Smith largely buys into this approach. While he opposes GMOs and calls for “a truly democratic production of nature,” he indicates his affinity with the capitalist approach by urging us in the same passage “to think how nature ought to change”!25

Underlying this is the undialectical notion of human beings as somehow outside of nature, i.e., existing as independent agents “producing” nature but not themselves subject to it.  Hence the human species is thought capable not only of using and molding natural resources, but also (at least implicitly) of changing or even producing/creating nature’s modus operandi—in supposed defiance of physical and biological dynamics. This reflects a peculiar mix of fantasy, alienation, and hubris. It is at one, however, with the overall current response of capital to the ecological crisis it has unleashed, a response which, in its more extreme forms, has imagined offsetting global warming by such stratagems as shooting heat-reflecting mirrors into the upper atmosphere.26

More immediately, in terms of debates on the left, the notion that we must surrender to capitalist logic tends to foster an accusatory identification of radical ecological demands with a supposedly unwarranted sense of urgency—as in the statement, “it is important to try to avoid an anxiety-driven ecological catastrophism.”27 In fact, one does not even have to be on the left to recognize the accelerated pace—reinforced by feedback loops—at which natural phenomena are spinning out of their accustomed patterns and at which certain species, including the human inhabitants of vulnerable zones, are already paying the ultimate price.28 Yet, given a socialist perspective, we are equipped to match the justified feeling of urgency with a correspondingly radical approach to the underlying causes of the problem. This is something, however, that Smith wishes to deny, declaring that environmentalism “is dead…as an anti-capitalist movement.”29

Green Goals beyond Capital

People arrive at a socialist position from many different starting points or initial concerns. The particular attribute of an ecological focus—whether it comes early or late in a person’s political awakening—is that it addresses basic survival-interests which affect everyone. More specifically in relation to socialism, the ecological theme points sharply to the need for structural changes that are both deep and wide-ranging.30

Our present discussion has indicated that corporate capital is both disinclined and unsuited to pursue an ecological agenda. But we have yet to bring out the full span of ecologically requisite tasks for which capitalism falls short. The economic growth issue requires further discussion in relation to its most recent expression in the form of high-tech innovation and toxic trash. Closely related to this problem are two further requirements for a green economy, both of which go far beyond the constraints of the capitalist paradigm. One is an end to militarism and imperialism; the other is a cultural transformation that would make possible a new consensus as to the social/economic requirements for a good life.

Capitalist Hyper-Development, Toxic Trash, and the Commons

A major issue in challenging the goal of economic growth is that this inescapably calls consumption-levels into question. It is remarkable, however, how little effort is routinely made to disaggregate the “consumption” category. Common parlance, reinforced by the typical framing of cross-national statistics, links consumption to the satisfaction of individual needs or wants, whereas in fact, as an ecological category, it refers to all throughput of materials and energy, for whatever purpose. Much of the appeal of “green capitalism” would vanish if people could focus on how much of its ever-expanding production went into goods and services that are useless if not destructive.

Capital seeks always to produce and sell as much as possible. Ecology posits the need for massive cutbacks in throughput (i.e. ecological consumption), but the market offers no opportunity to target such cutbacks on the basis of any rational assessment of need. Instead, it constantly drives businesses to create new “needs” in order to maintain a perpetual cycle of innovation, obsolescence, and upgrading. Although this has long been a familiar phenomenon, it has accelerated markedly with the new waves of digital and instant-communication devices.31 Hence there has been an extraordinary proliferation of toxic trash (especially heavy metals), which has led to growing recognition that responsibility for final disposal of such items can no longer be simply left with the consumer. The concept of “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) is now gaining wide acceptance, although it is not yet strictly and universally applied, relying instead on modest financial incentives to purchasers, flavored with appeals to ecological civic-mindedness.32

In terms of the “green capitalism” debate, EPR practice can be seen as an outcome of public pressure on the producers, but with the side-benefit to them of promoting conservation of materials and thus reducing their dependence on a constant re-supply of these same materials. Potentially more consequential, however, are the implications of this process for the whole question of private versus public ownership. A rigorous interpretation of producer responsibility would necessarily make inroads on private ownership not just in the sphere of production but also in regard to certain categories of personal consumption, especially those involving land, scarce and/or toxic materials, and high levels of energy-use. Ownership would become more akin to stewardship, creating a much wider constituency of accountability for the earth’s raw materials. While the most immediately compelling examples arise from the need to contain dangerous substances, the same logic would govern the imperative to protect vital resources (water, soil, trees, fish, etc.).

If such reasoning should concern the private individual who is getting rid of an old computer or TV, how much more crucially does it apply to the manufacturer who might wish to render obsolete a whole line of products! Now that awareness is spreading of the social impact of even individual consumption, how much easier it should be to persuade people, finally, of the social—and therefore socially accountable—character of production. And indeed, only a relatively small further descriptive step would now be needed to cast in socialist terms the environmentalist recognition that every “private” act of combustion (of whatever scale) imposes a burden on the atmospheric commons. The parallel argument has already been sharply formulated for the world’s water supply; it could similarly extend to every other natural resource, including not only those which are “consumed” but also those which, whether benign or toxic in themselves, help constitute the necessary substratum for other vital processes, both within and outside the circuit of social production.33

Addressing Militarism and Imperialism

Given capital’s sacrosanct commitment to growth, it is understandable that mainstream environmentalist organizations are loath to deconstruct the phenomenon of consumption. To distinguish between useful and wasteful (or harmful) consumption would be to defy the precept that all such determinations should be made through the workings of the market—except where government acts directly on behalf of capital.34

The military sector of production and “service” is of particular relevance here, because it does not arise in response to any kind of direct mass demand. Within the advanced capitalist countries, the military performs an instrumental function which is truly vital only to the ruling class. This is especially the case with the U.S. military, which, since 1945, has been the unrivalled global enforcer of capitalist interests.35 U.S. military operations—including training and weapons-development as well as actual fighting—occupy a distinctive position in economic/ecological terms, in that their very mission of protecting capital releases them from any possible restraint that might impinge on enterprises competing with one another (let alone any restraint arising from organized popular pressure). This applies as much to private military contractors as it does to the official armed forces. What is decisive is that both are underwritten by the “employer of last resort,” which in this issue-area transmits the consensus of corporate capital reflected in the governing political duopoly.

The free rein enjoyed by the military/paramilitary consists not only in the unchallenged funding of its massive worldwide operations but also, more specifically, in the protection it enjoys, grounded in “security” arguments, against political questioning of its toxic practices, such as the pervasive use of dioxin in Vietnam and of depleted-uranium shell-casings in Iraq—not to mention the continuous prodigious consumption of petroleum which prompted the recent observation (by Michael Klare) that a major consideration behind U.S. occupation of oil-rich lands is to assure a sufficient fuel-supply to sustain the military activities themselves.36

The larger imperial drive underlying the acceptance of such a self-perpetuating cycle remains for the most part outside the sphere of public debate. Mainstream politicians who convey disquiet about the Iraq occupation thus speak of “redeploying” U.S. troops rather than questioning their interventionist role as such. This reflects the extraordinary degree to which imperialist assumptions pervade the full bipartisan spectrum of U.S. politics, constituting the central obstacle to any critical rethinking of the goals of production and consumption.

The separation of the growth issue from the question of militarism and imperialism reflects the ideological parameters of U.S. political discourse. Growth is an issue of “the economy,” which is defined as a “domestic” matter; militarism, global projection, and war come under the heading of “foreign policy.” This compartmentalization is entirely spurious; its deeply ingrained status is a major block to working-class/popular awareness. The ecological crisis—as illustrated in the threat posed to all coastlines by the melting of polar icecaps—is at once a global and a “domestic” issue. Its adequate explication could help shatter, once and for all, popular acquiescence in one of the key blinders erected by bourgeois ideology.

Popular Cultural Transformation

To challenge the militarism/imperialism/growth agenda is to call into question not just policies but also emotions—both civic and private—whose resonance extends far beyond the confines of the capitalist class. The civic aspect is associated with the rhetoric and symbols of national grandeur; the private aspect, with the whole mindset of possessive-individualism and consumerism. Mainstream environmentalism, with its emphasis on competitive prowess, has left the civic aspect unchallenged. Insofar as it has addressed the private aspect (as for example in the Al Gore film), it has done so essentially in the form of appeals to conscience.

Where the private and the civic dimensions would merge would be in developing a full-scale class analysis of responsibility for the current crisis and, with it, a movement which could pose a systemic alternative. The steps so far taken in this direction have been limited. Exposés like Gore’s have called attention, for example, to the role of particular oil companies in sponsoring attacks on scientific findings related to climate change, but the idea that there could be an antagonism between capitalism and the environment as such has not yet made its way into general public debate. Until this happens, the inertial impact of the prevailing ideology will severely limit the scope of any concrete recuperative measures.37

The situation is comparable to that surrounding any prospective revolution: until a certain critical point has been reached, the only demands that appear to have a chance of acceptance are the “moderate” ones. But what makes the situation revolutionary is the very fact that the moderate or “realistic” proposals will not provide a solution. What gives these proposals a veneer of reasonableness is no more than their acceptability to political forces which, while unable to design a response commensurate with the scale of the problem, have not yet been displaced from their positions of power. But this very inability on the part of those forces is also an expression of their weakness. They sit precariously atop a process they do not understand, whose scope they cannot imagine, and over which they can have no control. (Or, if they do sense the gravity of the situation, they view it with a siege mentality, seeking above all to assure their own survival.38)

At this point, it is clear that the purchase on “realism” has changed hands. The “moderates,” with their relentless insistence on coaxing an ecological cure out of a system inherently committed to trampling everything in its path, have lost all sense of reality. The question now becomes whether the hitherto misgoverned populace will be prepared to push through the radical measures (by now clearly the only realistic ones) or whether its members will have remained so encased within the capitalist paradigm that the only thing they can do is to try—following the cue of those who plunged us all into this fix—to fend individually for themselves.

This is the conjuncture that all our efforts have been building for; it will provide the ultimate test of how well we have done our work. In order for the scope of the needed measures to be grasped by sufficient numbers of people, an intense level of grassroots organizing will already have to be underway. However, the measures themselves, if they are to accomplish their purpose, will have to advance further the very process that put them on the agenda to begin with. A characteristically revolutionary mix of persuasion and coercion will necessarily apply—the balance of these two methods depending partly on the effectiveness of prior consciousness-raising and partly on the window of time available for the required steps.

No dimension of life will be untouched. From our present vantage point we can only begin to envisage the specific changes, which will primarily involve a reversal or undoing of the more wasteful and harmful structures bequeathed by prior development. Fortunately, however, it will not be a matter of starting from scratch. Many historical lessons have already been learned, and not all of them are of things to avoid. There are positive models as well.

Green Socialism: Precedents and Harbingers

If “green capitalism” is a contradiction in terms, then one might naturally regard “green socialism” as a redundancy. In the long run, this is certainly the case, in the sense that green policies presuppose the curbing of expansionist drives, which in turn requires that economic decisions be grounded in a wider social (socialist) consensus as to how resources may or may not be used. In the short term, however, there is nothing automatic in the link between green and red policy-measures. Historically, the instances of friction between the two agendas have generated more attention than have the instances of their convergence. I note here some cases which give grounds for hope.

The first example emerged from the Russian Revolution. The Soviet leadership’s continuing focus on growth was partially offset, during the early years of the regime, by an extraordinary interest in creating a more advanced level of mass culture and, with it, an approach to development that, compared to its capitalist counterparts, would be more firmly anchored in an awareness of natural limits. It was in this context that Lenin signed (in 1921) a law establishing, over widely dispersed areas in the Soviet Union, “the first protected territory anywhere to be created by a government exclusively in the interests of the scientific study of nature.”39 Although these areas (zapovedniki) were subsequently dissolved (under Stalin), what is important to us in their brief history is what it suggests about the capacities and potential initiative of socialist leadership, as well as the early sensitivity of some of the Russian Marxists—long before the current crisis—to the fragility of the ecosphere.40

The second example is the Italian city of Bologna during the period of its elected Communist government of the mid-1970s. It highlights a case where power was exercised at the municipal level, within a capitalist framework. It is important, however, for what it suggests about the processes involved in any full-scale ecological conversion. At the heart of Bologna’s urban reform was the exclusion of private automobiles from most of the city’s central residential and business district. This outcome was achieved partly through a relatively cost-effective switch to free rush-hour bus-service and partly through several exhaustive rounds of neighborhood meetings to decide upon zoning.41 Although the capitalist class maintained its hold on the traditional levers of power, setting tight limits on the scope of possible change, the participatory approach to policymaking was shown to be effective. A collective history of such efforts, which work especially well in addressing universally recognized problems such as those having to do with the environment, is part of the preparatory process for eventual popular rule.

The third and most impressive application of socialist ecology is that of Cuba. The initial effect on Cuba of the Soviet collapse (1991) offers a foretaste of the difficulties that will hit many other countries when their resource-base is cut off. Although Cuba would later (after 1999) receive significant oil-shipments from Venezuela, it lacked such a collaborative supplier in the early 1990s. Its immediate predicament then was comparable to that which any oil-dependent country will experience in the post-peak oil era. The country’s response was radical, creative, and, above all, green.42 Confronted with a fuel shortage, the government imported massive numbers of bicycles. Unable to run tractors and lacking chemical fertilizer, the state promoted a full-scale return (but at a scientifically intensive level) to organic farming methods. Its reforestation program serves as an environmental model, and Cuba now offers the only remaining habitat to many of America’s tropical species. Finally, encouraged by appropriate land-grants, planning laws, and seed houses—“the only nationwide infrastructure for urban agriculture in the world”—Cubans planted urban gardens on a large scale (more than 30,000 in the city of Havana as of 2003).43

These examples should give us confidence in affirming that we must not be satisfied with the fall-back scenario of an imagined green capitalism. Of course we should both press for and implement ecological measures without delay—making demands at the national level and acting directly at the local level (where popular control is possible)—even while capital still reigns. But we should not expect to achieve anything close to a long-term environmental solution unless and until a society-wide democratic planning structure, capable of properly targeting and implementing the full agenda of transitional investments (including the reconfiguration of cities) is in place.44

The development of such a structure, like that of the ecological agenda itself, is not an all-or-nothing matter. As the Bologna example suggests, participatory planning for certain dimensions of policy can be initiated prior to the full transfer of state power from one class to another. Further instances of such practice have been offered since the 1970s by a number of Brazilian cities which have instituted participatory budgeting.45 However, as the Cuban experience shows, it is also possible—not only in the matter of urban gardens but also for day-to-day economic decisions more generally—that popular participation can be introduced as a matter of deliberate policy by a revolutionary government.46 In other words, there is no fixed trajectory for the link between instituting a socialist framework and developing the particular mechanisms (and cultural traits) that will allow it to work.

This preeminently dialectical process will unfold in distinct ways in each national setting, in full awareness of prior worldwide experience. It may be generally observed that first-epoch socialism showed the difficulty of transforming a society without having in place an already existing network and culture of grassroots political participation. It is noteworthy that the current revolutionary ferment in Latin America features a strong emphasis on local popular networks, whether evolving with the encouragement of the state (as in Venezuela) or in the face of its hostility (as in Mexico and in pre-2006 Bolivia).47

The integral link between the ecological and the socialist dimensions of this process lies in the common demand for decommodification. In ecological terms, this requires expansion of the natural commons—the fount of life-giving replenishment. In economic policy terms, it consists of reducing the sphere within which market-exchange (the law of value) prevails and expanding the scope for the direct satisfaction of need—both individual and social.

An emblematic instance of what is currently lacking was reported in a front-page story in the New York Times, headlined, “As Prices Rise, Farmers Spurn Conservation” (April 9, 2008).The price-rise reflects heightened demand for cash crops, including corn for ethanol. The income from sale of such crops greatly exceeds the government subsidies received by the farmers for keeping land out of production for ecological purposes (species habitat, water conservation, etc.). Of course, the government could theoretically increase the subsidies, but the pressure would continue over time, threatening an unending cycle, in which more and more public funds would be allocated simply to offset the farmers’ absolute legal right, under capitalism, to decide how “their” land should be used.

Since the ecological priority will then be expressed in a constantly rising outlay of tax dollars for the subsidy payments, it will become natural to put the question: why shouldn’t ecologically informed management of the land—and therefore the necessary legal power over it—reside directly in the public sphere in the first place? Why should such a vital matter be decided on the basis of acquisitive drives and market pressures?

These questions are longstanding, but here—as with the issue of toxic trash—the ecological crisis has raised them to a heightened level of urgency. By the same token, it has added new weight to the argument for socialism.

In stressing the inadequacy of even the most far-reaching capitalist responses to the crisis, this article builds on the July–August 2008 issue of Monthly Review, especially the demonstration by the Editors that the emissions-reduction target set by the influential Stern Review falls far short of what would be needed to stem environmental breakdown. Major theoretical reference-points are Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics (2006), John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (2002), and Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy (2005). The articles of Neil Smith on which I comment appear in Socialist Register 2007 (“Nature as Accumulation Strategy”) and in George Robertson et al., eds., FutureNatural (1996) (“The Production of Nature”). My criteria for organizing energy-use reduction are examined in more detail in articles in the March 2001, June 2004, and June 2006 issues of Capitalism Nature Socialism.


  1. See John W. Farley, “The Scientific Case for Modern Anthropogenic Global Warming,” Monthly Review 60, no. 3 (July-August 2008).
  3. See Fred Magdoff, “The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels,” Monthly Review 60, no. 3 (July-August 2008).
  4. Thomas P. Lyon and John W. Maxwell, Corporate Environmentalism and Public Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3. Andrew J. Hoffman, From Heresy to Dogma, expanded edition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 3. Ironically, this thoroughly corporate-oriented Stanford Business Books publication was awarded a prize in memory of Rachel Carson.
  5. Hoffman (From Heresy to Dogma, 127) cites as emblematic the case of Amoco, whose Environmental Department staffing increased by a factor of approximately eight between 1978 and 1993.
  6. Michael E. Porter and Claas van der Linde, “Green and Competitive,” Harvard Business Review 73, no. 5 (September/October 1995).
  7. Jed Greer and Kenny Bruno, Greenwash (New York: Apex Press, 1996).
  8. Kenny Bruno and Joshua Karliner, (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2002). The corporate tendency to downplay the extent to which atmospheric carbon must be reduced in order to stave off catastrophic climate change is exemplified in the influential Stern Review; see the critique in the editors’ introduction to Monthly Review, 60, no. 3 (July-August 2008): 3-6.
  9. See, for example, the detailed critique of Wal-Mart at; also, “Green—Up to a Point,” Business Week, March 3, 2008. A particularly common expression of allegedly green concerns is the call for greater use of nuclear power. For an authoritative critique, see Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer (New York: New Press, 2006).
  10. On business considerations prompting green practices, see Peter Thayer Robbins, Greening the Corporation (London: Earthscan Publications, 2001), 93. On Germany and wind turbines.
  11. Thus Robert F. Kennedy Jr., in his May 2008 manifesto, “The Next President’s First Task”, says that the United States could be powered entirely by solar, wind, and geothermal energy “even assuming every American owned a plug-in hybrid.”
  12. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, in their Wall Street Journal-praised book, Break Through (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 6. See also Shellenberger, “The Coming Bursting of the Green Bubble,” April 22, 2008. Richard Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion, rev. ed. (Gabriola, BC: New Society, 1999).
  13. Nordhaus and Shellenberger, Break Through, 8.
  14. See John McMurtry, The Cancer Stage of Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 1999), esp. 113.
  15. Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal, Free Market Environmentalism (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1991), 34.
  16. Neil Smith, “Nature as Accumulation Strategy,” in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds., Socialist Register 2007 (London: Merlin Press, 2006), 26.
  17. Neil Smith, “The Production of Nature,” in George Robertson et al., eds., FutureNatural (London: Routledge, 1996), 50.
  18. Lewontin, “Genes, Environment, and Organisms” (1997), in Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Biology Under the Influence (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007), 234.
  19. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 5, 40.
  20. Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 133-34, 647; Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25, 461; Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, “Metabolism, Energy, and Entropy in Marx’s Critique of Political Economy,” Theory and Society, vol. 35 (2006), 109–56.
  21. Smith, “The Production of Nature,” 46.
  22. Smith, “Nature as Accumulation Strategy,” 18. For an in-depth critique of this type of thinking, see John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).
  23. From Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1979), quoted in Smith, “The Production of Nature,” 51. On the political impact of postmodernist thought, see Timothy Brennan, Wars of Position (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
  24. For persistent and eloquent reminders of these “gifts of nature,” see the works of Vandana Shiva, e.g., Earth Democracy (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005). The processes in question are referred to by Marx as “metabolic restoration” (Foster, “The Ecology of Destruction,” Monthly Review [February 2007], 11). For critique of attempts to attribute market-value to such processes, see Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics (Leiden: Brill, 2006), chapter 2.
  25. Smith, “Nature as Accumulation Strategy,” 34. This concluding section of Smith’s Socialist Register chapter draws on Nordhaus & Shellenberger (above, note 13), whose work he cites. For a basic critique of productivism/developmentalism, see Yrjö Haila and Richard Levins, Humanity and Nature (London: Pluto Press, 1992), 162-67.
  26. See William J. Broad, “How to Cool a Planet (Maybe),” New York Times “Science Times,” June 27, 2006.
  27. Preface to Panitch and Leys, Socialist Register 2007, x. This collection also contains a chapter by Daniel Buck (“The Ecological Question”) which is notable for its suggestion that capitalism’s aptitude for sweeping technological transformation equips it to resolve the ecological crisis. Ibid., 64.
  28. Bill McKibben, in Deep Economy (New York: Henry Holt, 2007), offers a biting critique of the growth-obsession but no attribution of responsibility for it; he explains agricultural consolidation by saying that “we [sic] have substituted oil for people” (67).
  29. Smith, “Nature as Accumulation Strategy,” 32.
  30. I have dealt with various aspects of this issue in earlier articles in Monthly Review 44, no. 2 (June 1992), Socialism and Democracy (S&D) (Spring/Summer 2000), and Capitalism Nature Socialism (CNS) (articles in March 2001, June 2004, and June 2006, as well as exchanges in December 1997 and in December 2006/March 2008).
  31. See Jon Mooallem, “The Afterlife of Cellphones,” New York Times Magazine, January 13, 2008; for earlier analyses: Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966), chapter 5; Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1975), 192.
  32. Elizabeth Grossman, High Tech Trash (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2007), 159. On the broader political economy of trash, see Heather Rogers, Gone Tomorrow (New York: New Press, 2005).
  33. Maude Barlow, Blue Covenant (New York: New Press, 2008), 164.
  34. For an attempt to list the major categories of wasteful activities, see my March 2001 CNS article (“Toward Ecological Socialism”), 135.
  35. For a thorough analysis, see John Bellamy Foster, Naked Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006).
  36. See William Thomas, Scorched Earth (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1995), and Seth Shulman, The Threat at Home (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).
  37. As expressed, for example, in Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism, and in Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, 2nd ed. (London: Zed Press, 2007).
  38. Thus, in the Pentagon’s climate-crisis planning, “the U.S. effectively seeks to build a fortress around itself to preserve resources.” David Stripp, “The Pentagon’s Weather Nightmare,” Fortune, February 9, 2004.
  39. Douglas R. Weiner, Models of Nature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 29.
  40. Ibid., 230.
  41. Max Jaggi, “Free Fares Were Only the Beginning,” in Jaggi et al., Red Bologna (London: Writers and Readers, 1977).
  42. See Richard Levins, “How Cuba Is Going Ecological,” CNS, September 2005.
  43. Raquel Pinderhughes, Alternative Urban Futures (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 212, 213.
  44. For wide-ranging discussions of this process, see Science & Society, Spring 2002 (special issue: Building Socialism Theoretically, ed. Pat Devine).
  45. Gianpaolo Baiocchi, “Brazilian Cities in the Nineties and Beyond,” Socialism and Democracy, Fall 2001.
  46. See Peter Roman, “The Law-Making Process in Cuba,” Socialism and Democracy, July 2005.
  47. For detailed coverage, see S&D issues of November 2005 (special issue: The Reawakening of Revolution in Latin America, ed. Gerardo Rénique); July 2007 (special section on Oaxaca); and November 2007 (article by Roger Burbach and Camila Piñeiro on Venezuela). For an overview, see D.L. Raby, Democracy and Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 2006).
2008, Volume 60, Issue 06 (November)
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