Developing Analysis and Strategy for Revolutionary Ecological Work; or, How to Be an Ecosocialist in Ten Easy Steps! (Pre-Convention Document)

by Nick D. and Sara M.

Posted June 18, 2013

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It is difficult to overstate the depth and urgency of the ecological crisis. Although the most widely publicized aspect of the crisis is climate change, the crisis involves the unbalancing of nearly every subsystem of earth’s ecology. In addition to the widely-publicized claims that global CO2 emissions will have to be dramatically reduced within ten years in order to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change within this century, scientists also believe that there are several other critical ecological tipping points which humanity is either approaching or has already reached. An extensive listing of ecological problems is available in the first section, “Elements of the Ecological Crisis”, of the FI’s 2003 resolution Ecology and Socialism; for a very thorough discussion of climate change, see Daniel Tanuro’s 2009 Report on Climate Change .

The capitalist class is completely unprepared to deal with the ecological crisis. “Green” capitalism is a fantasy, as the structural causes of the ecological crisis are deeply embedded in the capitalist system. At the surface level, a shift away from fossil fuels would entail the destruction of the enormous quantity of capital already invested in fossil fuels, making a solution to the climate crisis contrary to the profit motive of a large section of capital. More deeply, the commodity form distorts production in capitalist society, embedding an extremely large amount of waste into everyday products which is necessary to the function and profitability of our consumptive economy (see J.B. Foster, The Planetary Emergency ). Others have argued that capitalism’s need for growth makes it fundamentally anti-ecological (for a thorough debunking of green capitalist arguments on this basis, see Richard Smith, Green Capitalism: The God That Failed). Even if capitalism could transition away from fossil fuels, it would inevitably continue to breach ecological limits in the quest for products and profit.

Although socialists by now are fairly good at explaining why capitalism can’t solve the ecological crisis, there is still considerable debate about how to understand the relationship of Marxism to ecology. John Bellamy Foster has argued at length that ecology is at the heart of Marxism (see Marx’s Ecology). On a more critical note, the Fourth International’s Daniel Tanuro has argued for “an ecological reconstruction of Marxism.” Some have argued that major parts of Marxism must be substantially revised in order to deal with the ecological crisis—in our own organization, Steve B., Gene W., and Jessica L.’s document “Programmatic Challenges of Ecosocialism” puts forth this position. We believe it is important to articulate and discuss different positions on how to integrate an understanding of ecology with Marxism, but we do not believe such differences are definitive of our political approach.

Instead, we hope that this document will deepen our political discussion in another way. If we desire to understand the ecological crisis in context and link ecology with other arenas of struggle, it is not sufficient to assert that capitalism, in general, is unable to solve the ecological crisis. We need to develop analysis of specific political developments in ecology and how they are related to other developments such as austerity. This document offers some suggestions for how to go about developing such analysis. Secondly, it is not sufficient to discuss what Solidarity alone should do with respect to the ecological crisis—as Solidarity is a small organization, this will necessarily produce a circumscribed perspective. We must understand ourselves as part of a broader left. Therefore, this document suggests an outline for a strategic perspective for the left as a whole in ecological work, and puts forth tasks for Solidarity in that context.

This document, along with “Programmatic Challenges” and Dianne F. and Jan C.’s “On the Ecological Crisis and Solidarity’s Role in the Movement as Ecosocialists,” emerged from a process of discussion within the Ecosocialist Working Group. The presence of different documents doesn’t necessarily imply disagreement (or agreement) amongst the authors, although it does demonstrate different emphases. We hope that this document will be helpful in motivating Solidarity to develop its political and strategic thinking on ecology.

How Should We Understand the Ecological Crisis?

We think it’s clear that socialists need to integrate an understanding of the ecological crisis into all aspects of our work. To do this, we need ongoing development of political analysis of the ecology of capitalism (as well as the ecology of socialism). We originally intended this document to provide an example of such analysis, discussing various ecological developments in the United States and around the world in political context, but our plan proved overly ambitious. Instead, we offer some suggestions for what kind of ecological analysis we need to be producing.

Ecological thinking. Ecology must be understood as a system. (For this reason, we use the word “ecology,” which connotes a dynamic system of which human society is a part, rather than “environment,” which suggests something “out there” in a subject-object dichotomy.) The first consequence of framing ecology systematically is that we must understand the ecological crisis as a totality. As suggested above, climate change is not the only aspect of the ecological crisis—others include ocean acidification and the decline of marine life; the loss of biodiversity due to habitat destruction, insecticides and chemical fertilizers; and general pollution with toxics and non-biodegradable waste. Moreover, the climate crisis itself is more complex than just emissions from burning fossil fuels—it also involves the loss of soil carbon in agriculture, destruction of carbon sinks, and release of carbon from ecosystems (“tipping points”), as every aspect of earth’s carbon cycle is disrupted by capitalist industry and agriculture. Understanding ecology as a system helps us identify the deep roots of the ecological crisis and its complex set of linkages with social systems.

Second, we need to understand ecological systems as existing in dynamic relation with social systems. Every human activity, including production, consumption, reproduction, and leisure, occurs in relation to ecology—the earth’s systems provide inputs, receive outputs, and provide context. Hence, ecological concerns are in no way external to social issues—the two mutually condition and shape one another. To illustrate this at the global level, we could look at the links between destructive agricultural practices in the developing world (like monocropping for export), the climate change and social devastation that it contributes to, and the neoliberalism and imperialism which push it. Nationally, the political push for expanded domestic fossil-fuel production coincides with capital’s urgent search for short-term profit in a context of constricting opportunities for new investment. Similarly, the undermining of public investment in transit and upholding of privatized transportation comes hand in hand with other forms of austerity. At a local level, in most any given eastern U.S. city, we could investigate and discuss the linkages between lead paint poisoning, toxic waste dumping, housing segregation, and the prison-industrial complex. Such thinking is an important tool for linking ecological struggles with other (perhaps more classically “political”) struggles through our practice and the politics we put forth within our activist work.

Internationalism. It is critically important to understand ecological politics in international context, since the crisis is international and its solution must be as well. No understanding of the failure of UN climate talks, for example, is complete without a discussion of the imperial rivalry between capitalist states and the desire to force the developing world to pay for the ecological destruction caused by the developed countries. We also need analysis of the push for intensified resource extraction worldwide, including the land grabs by the United States and China in Africa and South America, which stems both from an expansion of resource needs for production as well as need for new investment opportunities for capital in the context of worldwide economic stagnation. (Of course, these struggles over resource extraction are also tied up with miners’ strikes and other forms of working class resistance in which Solidarity is more conversant.) We should also explicitly analyze both “hard” imperial warfare in the ecological context of the struggle for global control of resources, as well as the “soft” imperialism of trade policies. IMF-backed structural adjustment, for example, forces monocropping for export on poor countries, undermining food sovereignty and furthering ecological and social destruction while opening their export markets for imperialist capital and weakening those states, opening them to further resource exploitation.

Further, our politics and visions of an ecosocialist society must be infused with an affirmation of the right to self-determination and food sovereignty. Global resistance to the capitalist ecological crisis is manifold, with communities around the world mobilizing to defend self-determination, indigenous ways of life, and their right to economic development. We should learn from and support struggles such as indigenous and farmers’ movements and the movements of extraction industry workers. We must also grapple with the question of how to ensure the right of development to the world’s peoples in a sustainable way—an aspect of the ecological question which has been underdeveloped in Solidarity’s discussion so far. Engaging with the ecology discussions going on in the Fourth International might be one opportunity to remedy this underdevelopment.

Gaps in our understanding. Of course, our politics are never complete, but we wanted to point out a couple of important gaps in our understanding of ecology which we think it’s important to remedy. First, we think it’s become clear that we have an underdeveloped understanding of the relationship of indigenous struggles to socialism. All of us understand that the United States was built on genocide and stolen land, but most of us (including the authors) don’t have a developed understanding of what this means for our politics with respect to contemporary ecological movements. Further, we need a more developed analysis of the relationship of ecological struggles to racial/national liberation struggles. We’re able to articulate the relationship between these issues at a local level (what’s usually referred to as environmental racism) and at an international level (the ecological and social destruction wreaked by imperialism and neoliberalism), but how does ecology play out with respect to national oppression at intermediate levels? This question seems highly relevant to the development of a strong ecological movement in the United States.

Tasks for the Left in the Ecological Crisis

Working in the ecological movements. The situation is extremely urgent. The ecological movement is growing, but it is not yet strong enough to force reforms which will buy time, let alone to overthrow capitalism and create a new society within the time frame we have. It is critical for socialists to contribute to the building of the ecological movement.

Ecological activity takes heterogeneous forms, ranging from groups which take lobbying and policy-oriented approaches, militant direct action, localism, and prefigurative institutions like co-operatives and gardens. (We leave aside here the large, top-down nonprofits which are often more involved in greenwashing than in actual advocacy, and which seem largely irrelevant to ecosocialists.) Indeed, until recently it would have been difficult to refer to these heterogeneous, largely local groups as a “movement” at all, but a sense of a movement with common aims and program has developed through shared demands such as an end to fracking and rejection of Keystone XL, put forth at the relatively large recent ecological demonstrations. We should support such political offensives which can further cohere and grow the movement.

We should not restrict our ecological movement activity to one particular area. We should be involved in all the various forms of ecological activity, including those that may be somewhat uncomfortable for us as socialists. We agree with Gene W., Jessica L., and Steve B. that ecosocialists should be involved with prefigurative projects, for the reasons they mention. We need further discussion about how to be involved in such projects as socialists. There is a body of socialist experience in such projects which we can learn from. Some Solidarity members have experience in prefigurative projects such as gardens and workers’ cooperatives; it would be helpful for those members to write up their experiences for our internal discussion. We can also learn from the experience of socialists involved in alternative economies in history (such as the mutual aid networks that arose during large strikes) and from the experiences of other organizations (e.g. the “solidarity economy” in MXGM’s Jackson Plan).

Building an ecosocialist current. Like other movements, working within the ecological movement catches us in a contradiction: we must engage in struggle for ecological reforms, but the problem cannot be reformed away. Building to the movement is necessary, but it is not sufficient. While contributing to the overall movement, we should also work to build an ecosocialist current within the movement which argues for a strategy and program based on explicitly revolutionary, ecosocialist politics. In this way we can simultaneously build the struggle for reforms while working to win activists to a revolutionary vision.

Building an ecosocialist current means making the word “ecosocialist” widely understood as a particular position in the movement, one associated with a particular program and strategy. Such a current will be broader and looser than any particular organization, such that people in the movement can begin to identify with ecosocialism even if they are not part of a socialist organization. It will be rooted in the ecological movement, with a real presence in activist groups. It will be politically heterogeneous enough to include ecosocialists of different political traditions, but will have enough political clarity for its positions about what the movement should do to be widely understood. Some promising work has been done toward these goals in recent months through collaboration at the national level, including the formation of System Change Not Climate Change: The Ecosocialist Coalition.

Ecosocialist strategy. An ecosocialist current will argue for a revolutionary strategy within the movement. Such a strategy will include:

  • Recognizing the systemic and interrelated nature of the ecological crisis. Reformist versions of environmentalism tend to focus on individual problems and to isolate them from social context. Revolutionary ecosocialist strategy will address the ecological crisis as a whole and will look at the interrelationships between social systems and ecological systems—for example, the links between lead paint poisoning and toxic waste dumping, housing segregation, and the prison-industrial complex.
  • Confronting the ruling class and the capitalist state. Reformist strategies tend to sectoralize struggles—for example, focusing only on one particular issue or a specific corporate target. We should participate in such struggles, as they often provide an opening for activists to begin looking at problems more systemically, but argue for placing demands on the state and on capital as a whole.
  • Building democratic, liberatory forms of struggle, looking for forms of activity that can burst beyond the bounds of bourgeois politics, and promote collective democracy in movement organizing.
  • Promoting alliances with the movements of oppressed communities, such as indigenous, Black, and immigrant struggles, since these strike at the very heart of the US accumulation machine.
  • Building alliances from below with workers’ struggles. Some mainstream environmental organizations are attempting to ally with the labor bureaucracy, but an ecosocialist strategy would promote bottom-up alliances with militant workers’ struggles.
  • Internationalism. Ecosocialism argues for international solidarity against the inter-imperialist rivalry that sabotages climate agreements and other attempts at controlling the ecological catastrophe.

Naturally, this is only an outline of some aspects of an ecosocialist strategy—many questions are not yet fully answered, such as how ecosocialists relate to prefigurative projects, and must be clarified through further discussion on the left. Any such strategy should be put forward within the movement as a contribution to the movement, not from outside: ecosocialists should engage with groups and individuals participating in activity that is not yet revolutionary, arguing for elements of a revolutionary strategy as the only way to achieve our common goals.

Ecosocialist program. An ecosocialist current will argue for an ecosocialist program within the movement. Such a program will point towards a new society and would be a tool for action now, helping develop the struggle and develop alliances with other struggles. Such a program needs to be fully developed through discussion on the left, but here are some characteristics it will necessarily possess:

  • It is uncompromising, clearly stating what is necessary to achieve sustainability, including an industrial transformation away from fossil fuels to be accomplished by nationalization of the energy sector, taxes on capital, etc.
  • It aims to bring movements together. Ecology and labor can be brought together around demands such as a reduced workweek, workers’ control of production, and elimination of workplace hazards such as toxics. Alliances with movements of oppressed nationalities must also be fundamental to the movement’s program.
  • It is internationalist, including such demands as an end to the global US military presence and forgiveness of the third world debt.
  • It points in the direction of a more collective society, less centered around production and consumption, through demands such as free public transit, education and childcare.

Not all of these demands have an audience now, and we do not have to raise all of them at all times. However, the presence of an ecosocialist current would make the more radical demands feel more relevant by demonstrating that they are the natural extension of the movement’s aims.

In formulating demands, we should focus on principles, not on policy. Some movement leaders have endorsed particular policy ideas for reducing carbon emissions (e.g. James Hansen’s “tax-and-dividend” proposal), but as radicals we should focus on demanding what we think is necessary, not doing bourgeois legislators’ jobs for them. Particularly because there is no major sector of the movement which is focused on policy (the consensus among the crowd at the February 2013 Forward on Climate demonstration was “No Tar Sands, No Fracking”—not any specific policy), we should not dilute our revolutionary politics with policy proposals.

Tasks for Solidarity

Of course, Solidarity cannot, by ourselves, create a revolutionary ecosocialist current. Fortunately, the elements of such a current are already forming, and, although Solidarity is a small organization with limited resources, we have a distinct contribution to make.

An ecosocialist milieu is forming, between socialist organizations like Solidarity and the ISO which are making an effort to do more ecological work, intellectuals like J.B. Foster and groups like Ecosocialist Horizons who are publicizing the term “ecosocialism”, and increasing numbers of activists who see that capitalism is inconsistent with a solution to the ecological crisis. Ecological activity has proven a fertile ground for left unity, perhaps out of a recognition that the ecological crisis is so large and so urgent that the weak state of small left organizations appears drastically insufficient. We saw steps toward consolidation of this milieu with the Ecosocialist Conference in New York City, the subsequent steps towards a conference in the Bay Area, and the founding of the System Change Not Climate Change ecosocialist coalition, all of which Solidarity members played a role in developing.

This milieu falls short of a movement current: it is primarily composed of socialist intellectuals and members of revolutionary cadre organizations, and has only limited connections with on-the-ground activism. In order for this milieu to develop into a movement force, it must further consolidate and build organic connections with activists, particularly with environmental justice activists and racial/national liberation movements, which were badly underrepresented at the New York conference. We believe that Solidarity can make a unique contribution to carrying out these tasks. Our regroupment perspective and experience can help us build further joint work among the left around ecosocialism, while our experience of long-term involvement in movement work can help us link ecosocialists with movements. Further, our relative openness to rethinking our ideas makes us well-suited to contribute to the development of a socialist strategy in the ecological movement, where the involvement of left organizations has often been inadequate and politically underdeveloped.

Ecosocialist strategy and Solidarity’s tasks. We should continue to develop dialogue, joint work, and political relationships around ecology with other left organizations and in left milieux. The Ecosocialist Working Group has already had some success in helping promote left unity around ecology, working with the ISO in building a joint ecosocialist contingent at the February 17th, 2013 Forward on Climate demonstration and playing a role in organizing the subsequent Ecosocialist Conference in New York. We have continued to be involved in the evolving network that emerged from the conference, and Solidarity comrades in the Bay Area have been involved in organizing a parallel conference there. We’ve had some direct discussion with FRSO/OSCL about ecological work. Finally, the working group has developed some independent leftist contacts through this work, whom we have sought to engage in ongoing political dialogue by including them in our email list and phone meetings. We need greater Solidarity involvement in these efforts, particularly in System Change Not Climate Change.

Much of this collaboration has begun around political education and agitation. We should seek to continue these important aspects of ecosocialist strategy, but should argue as well for a perspective of on-the-ground joint organizing work. We should argue for ecosocialists, including members of different left organizations as well as independents, to hold local joint meetings and get involved in local organizing. We should seek to put this into practice ourselves, as our members have done in Baltimore through joint meetings with members of the ISO and other radical activists. We should also argue for bringing together the ecological struggle with other struggles.

Ecosocialist program and Solidarity’s tasks. Solidarity should contribute to the articulation of revolutionary ecosocialist strategy, politics, and vision. To the maximum degree possible, this should be done through dialogue and joint action with other left forces. Many political questions of ecosocialism remain incompletely answered—we should seek to engage in dialogue around those questions at the same time as we put forth ecosocialist politics.

As Solidarity members and as participants in broader ecosocialist coalition efforts, we should raise ecosocialist politics and individual elements of an ecosocialist program in discussions with individual activists, in public meetings, and through literature and statements. The abovementioned collaborations (the February 17th Ecosocialist Contingent and the New York Ecosocialist Conference) were a good beginning to joint efforts to publicize ecosocialist politics, although the politics were underdeveloped and fell short of a program, illustrating the need for further political discussion about ecology within the left.

We have also had some success in organizing branch studies and public educational events about ecology, for example in Baltimore. Our current capacity to produce literature is limited, but there is potential for us to convert our political discussions into statements and literature. For example, an Ecosocialist Working Group discussion on fracking yielded a report on the movement against fracking, which could have become a Webzine article or a leaflet.

Expanding our ecological activity. In order to be better equipped to carry out these tasks, Solidarity should commit to making ecosocialism part of everything we do. We should increase the number of comrades involved in directly ecological activity, and integrate an ecosocialist perspective into other areas of work. To do this requires a political analysis of how the ecology of capitalism interacts with systems of oppression, as we suggest above, so ongoing political discussion is also necessary.

Ecology and General Socialist Strategy

Finally, it’s worth saying a few words about the role of ecology in socialist strategy in general. As ecological theory suggests, human societies exist in dynamic relation with ecological systems, which becomes particularly obvious and problematic under capitalism, as the largest and most resource-intensive economic system in history. As we’ve argued, the ecological crisis is inseparable from the general crisis of capitalism. Therefore, ecological thinking is integral to our strategic response to the crisis as well as our thinking about a socialist alternative.

Secondly and more practically, for many people, especially young people, the ecological crisis is the defining question of our times. Many young people are radicalizing around the ecological crisis. Ecology is perhaps the best opportunity we currently have to popularize socialist ideas, and an organization with a clearly-thought-out practice and a long-term commitment to ecological work will be attractive to radicalizing young people.

To put this more broadly, the magnitude and imminence of the ecological crisis calls for a massive, urgent revolutionary response. Such a response seems only a slight possibility given the current low level of organization of the world working class, and for this reason it can appear, terrifyingly, that humanity’s fate is sealed. However, the other side of the situation is that the ecological crisis presents an opportunity for the revitalization of the revolutionary left, an opportunity which we have no choice but to grasp with both hands.

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