Eco-divide: this changes everything

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Eco-divide: this changes everything

The environmental crisis is a challenge to capitalism. And it is also making resistance movements think again about their politics.


by Volker Straeter

The title of this article is from Naomi Klein’s excellent book on climate change. Klein says we need to move the world in a different direction – if we continue in this direction, climate change will destroy us, but capitalism does not accept this. And some of the historic alternatives to capitalism have also not accepted this. Before the 1960s, the Left agreed with capitalism that economic growth was the most important thing. This idea of progress depends on people using and destroying the natural world, and thinks that science and technology will save us. This idea began in the Enlightenment – they believed that the future of humanity must overcome nature to give us a good life. But different groups had different ideas on how best to do this -through the state or through the market, by rich people or by poor people.

People learnt more about ecology. Rachel Carson published a very important book in 1962 Silent Spring about the effects of agrochemicals. In the 1970s, people talked about limits to growth. And so these ideas grew. Is it dangerous to us and other animals and plants to use so many chemicals in industry and agriculture? Will we have no energy if we depend on non-renewable resources – because they are running out? Are we using too many resources (soil, fish, water, forests – even air) in ways that are dangerous to the environment (eg. building very big dams and making the water level go down; using many boats and very big nets to catch too many fish; letting chemicals used in agriculture go into the earth; letting the soil become so dry it becomes a desert; cutting too many forests)? Is it now dangerous to live on the coast or near rivers because of extreme weather and global warming – because we use too much carbon?

These questions are getting bigger. And we have to ask them of capitalism and the alternatives to capitalism. Communism is not good for the environment - we can see this in the dried-up Aral Sea between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the radioactive protection zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine, and the big water and energy crisis which will affect China soon. In Stalin’s communism, very big projects like redirecting rivers, huge hydroelectric dams, very tall grey apartment blocks meant progress.

Global climate change slowed down when all the Soviet polluting industries ended. Now there is only Cuba – with alternative energy and organic agriculture – which is different from destroying the environment to get more economic development. But even in Cuba, it is not clear if they are doing ecological projects because they believe in them, or because they had to because of the Soviet collapse and the US embargo (no trade). We will see in the future.

In other countries, for example the petro-socialism in Venezuela, getting short-term benefits seems to be more important than long-term ecological plans. The post-colonial Global South has had many nationalist governments, that often say they are socialist, but want development even if this is bad for the ecology.

Greening the Left

The Left must accept that socialism used to encourage a lot of production, and then they can criticize capitalism better. The Left needs to reorganize to protect the environment and fight against the fast, unsustainable growth. Everyone knows that inequality and growth will always be part of the capitalist system.

Capitalism can never sell us less, make us live more simply or cut inequalities so we can share in the world, or even in our own societies. Capitalism is ‘me first’. This is the opposite of how we need to work together to find how to live in a sustainable way.

We need a more basic challenge to the social and ecological destruction of capitalism. People are now getting desperate to grow. And this growth could destroy everything. First, growth in industrial world has been going down for decades. And this will continue. So it is a good idea to find a different way to see how good our economies are – not growth. Second, there are more and more negative effects of growth - ecological and social. We would need five or six planet Earths if the whole world consumed and polluted at the same rate as US citizens (or about three planets by European rates).

There are many other problems eg. with soil and water. Of course, it is true that rich people use and destroy far more resources than poor people. Many large African villages have the same ecological impact as one richer family in New York or London with many cars.

So we get more inequality from capitalist growth. The Occupy movement protested against the one per cent and how little tax they pay. People are not happy with these unfair differences. And Left and Green groups often do not agree on what to do.

For eco-socialists, we need to balance the slowing of growth in an equal way. We need to look at the basic needs of all people. First, the rich must cut. It will be easier if there is a plan first. But we have to stop the growth. Will this be equal and democratic? Or will rich people live in areas with gates, low paid workers serving them, with guards to protect them from the many environmental refugees around?

The future after the growth

An alternative to capitalism needs to look at what the future will be after this growth. Many Left ecological groups are thinking about this. A degrowth movement is beginning – first in France and Spain and is now moving to North America. There is a social ecology movement based on Murray Bookchin’s writing. Several groups are trying to link the socialist tradition with environmental problems eg. political theorists James O’Connor and John Bellamy Foster write about this. Ecological economics is growing, eg. Herman Daly and Joan Martinez-Alier. And there is a lot of climate and environmental science that tells us how dangerous growth is.

In the Global South, we have indigenous groups fighting to protect the earth (Terra Madre), part of the Latin American Left. There are resistance groups in Africa and Asia trying to help poor people by fighting against deforestation and big projects like cities in the desert and protecting water levels. For a long time, people have been thinking seriously of a different, more equal, way to develop. Now, we cannot take alternatives to capitalism seriously if they do not put the ecological survival of humanity at the centre.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).