Mish-Mash Ecologism

Things seemed to be looking up in late 2020. After yet another catastrophic season of fires, floods and heat, the US elected a president with the most ambitious climate plan of any candidate in history, directly shaped by the Sunrise Movement and the campaign for a Green New Deal. Yet here we are in 2022, and it’s all gone awry. The fossil fuel industry is earning windfall profits, and asset manager titans have reversed their efforts to shift the financial sector away from such enticing returns. Joe Biden’s breakthrough climate legislation, the misleadingly named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), includes major concessions to the fossil fuel industry and has been met with their approval.

The IRA greenlights offshore oil and gas leases in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico for the next ten years and backs the bitterly contested Mountain Valley pipeline. At its core, it aims to ‘derisk’ private capital investment in the green transition, in line with what Daniela Gabor calls the ‘Wall Street Consensus’. Its major policy tool is its tax-credit programme, available for mostly middle-class homeowners looking to buy EVs or new appliances and private companies that develop and manufacture electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels and batteries. (A direct pay provision might open the door for expanding publicly owned clean energy, but it will have to compete in a largely private market).  

Such measures have been hailed as the largest climate investment in US history – but that is not saying much. It is estimated that decarbonizing the US power grid alone will cost $4.5 trillion. Biden’s Act offers a mere $369 billion to be spent over a decade. Most of it will be handed to the private sector, including the fossil-fuel industry itself. The tax credit programme does contain prevailing wage and domestic content standards that aim to reinvigorate domestic industrial policy toward solar, wind and EV manufacturing, but it’s not clear if such standards can be met or how they will be enforced. Optimistic models suggest the IRA will lead to 40% reductions in carbon emissions by 2030, but they also admit that doing nothing at all would lead to reductions of between 24% and 35%. The wager for the planet thus appears to be that state-supported green capital can beat fossil fuels on the free market.

Meanwhile, fossil capital continues to win. In June, it was reported that of the top ten best performing stocks of 2022, three were coal producers and five were linked to the oil and gas industry. If it wasn’t clear already, it should be now: those who profit from the production of fossil fuels will continue to do so unless forced to stop. Market-based solutions such as the IRA neglect basic questions of political and economic power. As such, it is worth pausing to consider what answers eco-socialism can offer in the present conjuncture. Two new books – The Future is Degrowth by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan and Andrea Vetter and Half Earth Socialism by Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass – both embrace utopianism as an Archimedean vantage point from which to imagine a reconfiguration of the world, beyond the narrow confines of mainstream climate policy.

Co-authored by an economic historian (Schmelzer), a political ecologist (Vansintjan) and a journalist (Vetter), The Future of Degrowth argues that the global economy must be scaled down to align with its natural limits. The book offers a broad overview of the degrowth movement and its critique of the postwar Keynesian paradigm – along with the colonialist, capitalist and patriarchal ideologies that underpinned it. Though the authors acknowledge ‘overlaps and similarities’ between their framework and the Green New Deal, they argue that the latter is fundamentally flawed. Not only is it hitched to a fantasy of ‘progressive productivism’, it would also require a neo-colonial mining regime for its build-out of renewable-energy infrastructure. Against this trend in climate policymaking, The Future is Degrowth articulates a form of utopianism rooted in the here and now, based on what Engels once called ‘model experiments’. Engaging with the work of Erik Olin Wright, the authors describe a series of ‘nowtopias’ – community-supported agriculture, communing, cooperative economies – which they see as an antidote to climate ‘megaprojects’ (on which they propose a blanket ‘moratoria’).

While defining degrowth in bland terms – ‘a fair reduction of production and consumption that encompasses both human well-being and ecological sustainability’ – Schmelzer et al. also lay out a concrete agenda: the ‘Global North’ must lower consumption while switching to renewable energy and more localized production. How will this ‘fundamental political and economic reorganization of society’ be brought about? The authors admit it may require ‘confrontations with private ownership structures’. Historically, they write, such transformations ‘have always been marked by fierce controversies, public disputes and, up to now, (violent) conflict.’ Yet their main strategy for enacting this green transition is borrowed from the well-worn post-1968 playbook of turning the Leninist Antonio Gramsci into an ecumenical pluralist. They predict that degrowth alternatives will add up, one by one, into a powerful ‘counter-hegemony’ able to simultaneously offer alternative lifestyles, pass ‘non-reformist reforms’ via the state machinery, and build revolutionary ‘dual power’ ready for ruptural crises.

Half Earth Socialism shares some features with the degrowthers: it too focuses on natural limits and calls for lower consumption, renewable energy and deindustrialized agriculture in the Global North. But the books differ in their focus and ambition. While The Future of Degrowth envisions a ‘pluriverse’ of diverse and localized alternatives, letting a thousand degrowth flowers bloom, Half Earth Socialism is much bolder, imagining nothing less than planetary-scale ecological planning. Co-authored by an environmental historian (Vettese) and an environmental engineer (Pendergrass), the book rejects the standard solutions to climate change – bioenergy, carbon capture, geoengineering and nuclear power. Instead, it combines the socio-biologist E.O. Wilson’s proposal to leave half the planet’s habitable surface to wild nature with Pendergrass’s computer models of a world defined by 100% renewable energy.

Whereas The Future of Degrowth avoids ‘indulging in the euphoria of expert-led planning’ and attempts to ‘give space for many different visions for the future’, Half Earth Socialism wants to resuscitate the socialist planning tradition. It draws on the work of Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath and Soviet mathematician Leonid Kantorovich to mount a trenchant critique of Hayekian planning-scepticism. Yet Vettese and Pendergrass explicitly reject Marxism as part of a Hegelian-Promethean thought-system marked by the ‘humanization of nature’ – ‘the process by which humanity overcomes its alienation from nature by instilling the latter with human consciousness through the process of labour.’

By contrast, the authors’ vision is almost as austere as Pol Pot’s. Their core claim is that nature should largely be left to itself, free from human manipulation. Citing Morris’s News from Nowhere, they imagine a world 25 years in the future, run on the principles of cooperation, democracy and ecological restoration. With Pendergrass’s algorithms to guide them, the ecological planners of the 2040s develop a variety of land-use models and let people democratically choose which scenario they prefer – some with more/less energy per capita, some with more/less land left to wilderness. The energy quotas range from 2,000 Watts per person to as low as 750.

One of Half Earth Socialism’s merits is that its authors take the land-use needs of different energy-production systems seriously. But their penchant is for the most land-hungry options – solar and wind power – even as they accept that the intermittency of these energy sources is likely to lead to regular blackouts. Their models also include land-intensive biofuels which, in one scenario, are estimated to cover 26% of land surface. And their plan to rewild half the Earth’s habitable surface would require perhaps the most preposterous proposal of all: the imposition of universal mandatory veganism (otherwise the numbers would never add up). They also reject the energy source that could free up space for biodiversity by using less land than all the others: nuclear power.

Vettese and Pendergrass invite us to imagine that ‘the Half-Earth socialist revolution happens tomorrow’, but they do not explain how this might occur. Though they gesture towards a pro-Half Earth political coalition, its members are vaguely delineated: ‘there should be animal-rights activists and organic farmers there, as well as socialists, feminists and scientists’ – constituencies that make up miniscule fractions of the eight billion-strong population they hope to corral. As for broader layers such as social classes, Half Earth Socialism is largely silent. Like The Future is Degrowth and much of the left for the last half-century, the authors assume that a ‘movements of movements’ – uniting various disparate and subaltern groups – will eventually gain enough power to confront capital.

Is there a Marxist alternative to this 21st-century utopianism? In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels saw the emergence of 19th-century utopian socialism, signalled by the work of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, as a reaction to the defeated aspirations of the French Revolution. By the early 1800s it was already clear that it had failed to deliver the kingdom of reason and justice promised by the Enlightenment; instead, the triumph of the big bourgeoisie had brought corruption, war and the poverty produced by super-abundance. Industrial production was barely developed, and the proletariat, wrote Engels, appeared to these radicals as ‘incapable of independent political action’ – ‘an oppressed, suffering order’ which required help from outside. In these conditions, the utopian socialists attempted in idealist fashion to evolve the solution to social problems ‘out of the human brain’:

Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.

Two hundred years on – and in the wake of the defeated aspirations of the 20th-century revolutions – utopian eco-socialists appear to be repeating the same pattern. A new ecological order will be conjured up out of their brains, trialed in micro-experiments – as in The Future of Degrowth – or, as in Half Earth Socialism, ‘imposed from without by propaganda’. What is missing here is any analysis of the concrete class relationships that both inhibit such transformations or might bring them about. For Engels, winning real socialism hinges on class struggle: ‘Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.’

As idealists, 19th-century socialists saw their mental adumbrations as the expression of an absolute truth – although, as Engels pointed out, the absolute truth differed for the founder of each school; each was mutually exclusive and hence the sects were in permanent conflict with each other. As a result, nothing could come of the early-socialist movement but ‘a kind of eclectic, average socialism’ – ‘a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion’:

A mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook.

Hard not to think of Engels when one reads The Future of Degrowth’s evocation of the ‘pluriverse’ or ‘mosaic of alternatives’ which will supposedly overwhelm the tightly defended capitalist interests of the ‘Global North’. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific he insisted, on the contrary, that socialism could only emerge from the historical economic conditions of the age. This did not involve any condemnation of utopianism as such. Rather than crow over the failure of Owenite experiments, Engels wrote, ‘we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering.’

In present conditions, as Mike Davis has put it, ‘utopian thinking can clarify the minimal conditions for the preservation of human solidarity in face of convergent planetary crises.’ But the initial problem remains: those who benefit from their massive fixed investments in fossil fuels seem hell-bent on sustaining them. Does this utopianism yield a strategy to confront the political and economic power of the planet’s opponents – in the first instance, key sectors of the American ruling class?

As Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote nearly four decades ago, the working class has done more to challenge power than any other social force. Where does it stand today? Engels argued that ‘scientific’ – that is, self-critical, rigorously conceptualized and empirically tested – socialism must be rooted in an investigation of historical development: ‘the process of evolution of humanity.’ He himself lived through the epochal ruptures of mass proletarianization and the industrial revolution. The 20th century saw those processes accelerate, in what Farshad Araghi calls ‘global depeasantization’ – a process continuing in China today, in what is probably the largest rural-urban migration in human history. According to David Harvey, global capitalism has added something like two billion people to the global proletariat over the past twenty years. While Marx and Engels thought this mass proletarianization would swell industrial factories, the result has more been the rise of a vast ‘informal proletariat’ deemed superfluous to the needs of capital; a surplus humanity, housed in a Planet of Slums.

Planetary proletarianization should be a central issue for eco-socialism: capitalism produces an urbanized majority with no direct relation to the ecological conditions of existence. The most pressing question of our times is how we can solve ecological problems while restructuring production to provision a society largely torn from the land. If that provisioning requires large-scale democratic planning – as Vettese and Pendergrass rightly assert it does – the ‘demos’ must include the global proletariat. But the eco-socialist penchant for a retreat to small-scale agriculture – Half Earth Socialism’s fictionalized utopia concedes agriculture will require ‘a lot more labor, for sure’ – implies hunger, if not starvation, for the world’s mega-slums (and, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, urban gardens are no substitute for industrial scale grain production).  

The question of the actually existing productive forces poses a further set of problems. Eric Hobsbawm called the Industrial Revolution ‘probably the most important event in world history’. Machines and fossil fuels replaced a good deal of human and animal muscle-power – as he put it, ‘the shackles were taken off the productive power of human societies.’ In the 21st century it is easy to take this transformation for granted, while blaming it for our present ecological predicament. The Future is Degrowth offers a wholesale critique of ‘industrialism’ and proclaims, ‘the goal of degrowth society must be to overcome industrialism and towards a post-industrial society.’  Yet it was only with the development of modern productive forces that it became possible to envisage a standard of life that could allow the free development of all. Solving climate change undoubtedly requires massive new industrial infrastructure in energy, public transit and housing. We do need to develop the productive forces – but ecologically. 

A socialist eco-modernism should make the transformation of production and the productive forces the fulcrum of any new relation to the planet. One of the few thinkers to have explored this problem is Jonathan Hughes, who speculated about ‘ecologically benign forms of technological development.’ Clearly, the productive forces must develop beyond their historically entrenched reliance upon fossil fuel. Yet, the private ownership of energy prevents this from taking place – a contradiction realized through the wider crisis of planetary climate change, from rising seas in Bangladesh to drought in the horn of Africa. All known technological pathways to halting environmental breakdown are ‘fettered’ by the social relations of production: renewable energy might be getting cheaper, but that does not necessarily translate to profits. Other solutions like nuclear fission, green hydrogen, scaled geothermal and carbon removal all present the same key obstacle: they cost too much, and fossil fuels are more profitable. In sum, solving climate change requires new social relations of production that would develop the productive forces toward clean production.

While the utopian eco-socialists would likely scoff at these as ‘techno-fixes’ – technological solutions which don’t challenge capitalist social relations – an eco-modern socialist perspective would insist these technologies will not be developed unless we challenge capitalist social relations. Beyond climate, most other aspects of the ecological crisis hinge on developing new forms of production: greening nitrogen production and consumption and finding less land-intensive production to preserve biodiversity (e.g. lab meat). All of these ecological forms of production struggle to compete with dirtier and more profitable alternatives under capitalism.

In this context, the climate left does not lack for utopian imaginaries, which can make for productive (and enjoyable) exercises. But such utopianism can too easily avoid the material realities of the world as it exists. We need a climate politics that aims outward, beyond the already converted – towards the exploited and atomized working class.

Read on: Kenta Tsuda, ‘Naïve Questions on Degrowth’, NLR 128.