Leslie James Pickering (LJP), former Earth Liberation Front spokesperson and current owner of the radical, independent bookstore Burning Books in Buffalo, NY, was recently invited to give a talk by the Boston DSA PEWG and Ecosocialism WG. The event was co-sponsored by the Grassroots Infrastructure Charitable Foundation and was held in the Cambridge Public Library (Central Sq branch) on April 9th. A video recording of the event is available here.
Leslie has been giving lectures across the US about government surveillance/repression of leftist/environmentalist social movements. He has been giving talks about his experiences as an activist and bookstore owner being surveilled, and how he has used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain the FBI files on his bookstore and fight back against the surveillance of activists in Buffalo. PEWG blog followed up with Leslie after his talk to discuss further the surveillance state and its effect on the communities, and how to dismantle it.
PEWG blog: Hannah Arendt had famously described “the banality of evil” – your experience with the state surveillance apparatus seems to reflect a similar pattern in post-9/11 USA. Can you comment a bit on whether you think this is the case? If not, then what do you consider to be the ultimate motive behind surveillance programs?
LJP: The ultimate motive behind the surveillance state is repression of efforts towards social change.
Social movements that struggle to change society in ways that challenge the power structure, and/or the ability for private profiteering at the expense of the public good, tend to be primary targets of the surveillance state. While there are variants, and personal motives/vendettas, the surveillance state tends to mostly operate mechanically, defending its power and interests.
Traditional law enforcement, even while selectively executed, is only one tone in a spectrum of ways to repress these social movements, which means that surveillance has many powers beyond solving crime and aiding legal prosecution. Surveillance provides intelligence essential for every form of state repression, even becoming a form of repression in and of itself at times.
While there should be disgust and outrage in response to the existence and intrusions of the surveillance state, it’s much more important to recognize that the ultimate purpose it serves is to prevent social justice movements and activists from gaining success – to thwart efforts for social change initiated by citizens and grassroots organizations. In this context, surveillance is intended undermine “by the people, for the people,” “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and similar notions which are said to be foundational to America, and indeed even the common perception of American democracy. More significant and universal, surveillance is an essential tool oppressors use to subjugate the oppressed.
PEWG blog: In the last decade or so, the extent of surveillance carried out on US citizens and residents are coming to light thanks to whistleblowers. However, it appears that these violations of privacy are not taken seriously by the general public after a short period of outrage. Why do you think that might be the case considering how much the Americans favor privacy? And how can you make people care more about such issues?
LJP: Innovations in media and technology, including social media, link acceptance of surveillance with fulfillment of social and emotional needs. In order to resist surveillance collected by cellular phones and social media platforms, individuals largely need to abandon these technologies. This is a challenge, because our social lives have become increasingly tied to these technologies. To give up your cell phone and social media accounts for many is to be, if unintentionally, increasingly left out of social networks and interactions, and socially isolated.
People don’t tend to appreciate their personal lives being spied upon, but largely seem to be willing to accept it in exchange for the fulfillment of social needs that these technologies tend to provide. A convenient (and thoroughly flawed) settlement is reached in many people’s minds that if you’re not doing anything wrong then you don’t have anything to worry about. This concept is only logical under the circumstances of a benevolent surveillance state. In America, with its countless false and malicious prosecutions, its history of frame-ups and covert violence against social justice movements and activists, surveillance provides intelligence needed for repression.
If more people were aware, concerned, and active on social justice causes there would likely be more pushback against the surveillance state. Privacy would then have a value worth fighting for. As it stands, social justice is the realm of a marginalized minority and therefore privacy loses much of its worth in American society.
PEWG blog: After your experience, do you think your views on state security and surveillance apparatus have changed? If yes, how so?
LJP: My experience has mostly sharpened my views on the surveillance state. The basic concepts about surveillance and state repression that I learned at the early stages of my activism, and before I was involved in activism in several cases, have largely held true and solidified. The experiences of being personally targeted over many years, and learning many of the particulars, has fine-tuned my understanding.
Surveilling and repressing movements for social justice is simply wrong. A just society would put its resources towards bringing about positive social change rather than spying on and attacking activists. The more I’ve learned about the surveillance state and state repression, the more blatant the injustice of this system has appeared to me, and while at times frightened, the more determined I become to struggle against it.
One objective of the surveillance state and state repression is to frighten off activists and to make us feel that our cause is hopeless. If we fall for that, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth is that the state puts such enormous resources into managing dissident movements because we have a such strong potential to topple existing power structures and bring about more equality and justice. Rather than reacting with fear we should struggle to react with intelligence and bravery. What’s wrong is wrong, no matter how powerful those perpetrated it are.
PEWG blog: What does your vision of a world devoid of state surveillance look like and how do we move towards such a future? Are laws like FOIA adequate to reach that goal?
LJP: The existing Freedom of Information and Privacy laws on state and federal levels are extremely inadequate. Under the federal Freedom of Information Act, numerous exemptions exist to block our access to federal documents (including an exemption that essentially states that if we don’t have proof that a file exists then the government can act as though it doesn’t exist to keep it secret from the public), and there is literally no oversight. So if the FBI says it only has a few pages of files on you, or that a large percent of the pages you’re requesting are exempt from release, there’s nobody looking over their shoulders to prove that they’re not lying. By filing a federal FOIA lawsuit, you may succeed in motions to have the presiding judge look at sample of exemptions that the government is claiming to verify their validity, but that’s it.
If it weren’t for whistleblowers and leakers, and especially the 1971 burglary of an FBI office by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, the thin layer of transparency that exists in America would be painfully thinner. We freedoms that we do have aren’t “self-evident” and aren’t ours because of any altruistic nature of this state, but rather because of the long line of people and organizations that have struggled and sacrificed for justice, equality, freedom and autonomy against an inherently authoritarian and exploitative state. We need to follow in that tradition and take it to the next level.
On Wednesday, August 22nd, about 50 people gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to hear four members of Boston DSA speak on an introduction to ecosocialism.This article is a recap of the concepts discussed at the panel and discusses the central tenets of ecosocialism, and ongoing ecosocialist struggles within DSA nationwide.
Basics of capitalism, socialism, and ecosocialism
Marx described society as divided into two classes – the bourgeoisie who own and control the means of production and the proletariat (worker) who sell their labor in exchange for wages (source). The wages paid to workers are always less than the value of the labor provided to ensure capitalist accumulation on behalf of the owner. While today, many of us cannot imagine a society without capitalism, this system of economic and social organization hasn’t been around for most of human history.
Capitalism was, in part, pioneered by the Spanish and Portuguese through their genocidal colonization of the Canary and Madeira Islands in 1400s. Madeira was uninhabited, but the Canary Islands were home to the Guanches people who were either killed or enslaved by the colonizers. These islands initially served as sources for timber that would be sent to European mainland; in late 1400s, African slaves were brought to Madeira for sugarcane farming. Madeira quickly became the leading sugar producer for Europe, peaking at 2,500 tons in 1506. However, by 1530, output had dropped by 90% due to the depletion of the island’s natural resources (wood, soil), indicating the boom-and-bust nature of capitalism. Madeira served as one of the earliest examples of capitalist exploitation, and this model would be repeated by colonial powers in the New World (source).
So how do we fight modern day capitalism that is driving us towards extinction? According to Michael Lowy, one of the leading proponents of the school of thought, ecosocialism is defined as “a current of ecological thought and action that appropriates the fundamental gains of Marxism while shaking off its productivist dross. For ecosocialists, the market’s profit logic, and the logic of bureaucratic authoritarianism within the late departed “actually existing socialism”, are incompatible with the need to safeguard the natural environment.” (source)
Simply put, ecosocialism envisions a transformed society that is in harmony with nature, and the development of practices that can attain it. Such practices are also aimed at dismantling socially and ecologically destructive systems such as fossil-fuel based economy, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and ableism among others. An ecosocialist strategy recognizes that “a future reconciled with nature and the essence of humanity requires a radical change of perspective, a radical democratic change in certain means of production and consumption which puts in the central position of life the people’s basic needs, which should be determined democratically and in accordance to the biophysical limits of the planet.” (source).
Examples of ongoing ecosocialist struggles
From North Dakota to Puerto Rico to Palestine, communities are rising up in ecosocialist struggles to protect their environment.For example, Standing Rock was a indigenous-led resistance against the construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, whose planned route was half a mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Standing Rock was more broadly a movement to oppose neo-colonialism and extractivism on stolen land that lasted from April 2016 until February 2017. Coordinated efforts between Energy Transfer Partners, the North Dakotan government, local police, private security forces suppressed the movement, including the usage of militarized “counterterrorism” tactics (source). Since the movement began, there have been over 50 anti-protest bills introduced across the country, including ones painting/tampering with infrastructure facilities as domestic terrorism, introduced by Republicans and Dems alike. The fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure continues in the US, Canada, and abroad including fights against the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana which is part of the greater DAPL system.
Puerto Rico is a case study in disaster capitalism post-Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in September 2017. The government has treated the post-hurricane context not as an environmental crisis, but as a way of accelerating certain austerity measures, like the privatization of practically all public services (e.g. water distribution, public utilities, education). Additionally, the government has been courting capital investors and entrepreneurs through low taxes. Note that most of Puerto Rico is still in a deep electric power crisis as recovery has been drawn out after the hurricane. In terms of pushback against disaster capitalism, PR residents and unions have been staging protests/work stoppages against austerity. For instance, the UTIER is a radical union operating the electric power authority. They are fighting against reduced pay, safety regulations, etc. and have consistently denounced the ongoing privatization, while calling for public control over energy and water utilities. There are also several anti-capitalist organizations and coalitions based in PR working to fight disaster capitalism (source).
Water in Palestine is almost entirely controlled by Israel, per the (supposedly temporary) Oslo Agreement of 1993, which stipulated that 80% of water from a joint Israeli-Palestinian mountain aquifer would be allotted for Israeli use, and 20% for Palestinian use. However, in reality water usage by Palestinians is closer to 10% due to problems with water infrastructure. The agreement also stated that Palestine can purchase an allotted amount of water from Israel – so water is not a shared resource, but a commodity and a means of control (source). Additionally, the water crisis is exacerbated by Israeli bombings of power plants, which have destroyed (among other things) water treatment capabilities. Israeli authorities often block construction of water infrastructure and sometimes even demolish existing infrastructure. As a result, much of the water that is available to begin with is polluted (source).
There are many more ongoing ecosocialist struggles than there was time to discuss, but it’s clear how environmental issues are extremely political, and used as weapons of oppression and of upholding capitalist interests. The relation between capitalism and imperialism is perhaps best encapsulated by The Belém Declaration, announced at the Ecosocialist conference in Brazil in 2009.
There exists a few different schools of environmental thought that include liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism, ecofascism, and degrowth as a means to ecosocialism. Understanding these schools of thought help contextualize the above ongoing struggles.
Liberal environmental organizations include groups like the Sierra Club, 350, or Audubon and World Wildlife Fund. They typically focus on campaigns with fairly narrow scopes that can be pursued by pressuring officials or passing legislation, with recent examples in Massachusetts that include campaigns to convince Governor Baker (R) to pass carbon pricing legislation, to pass a bill that would protect bees, or to ban the use of plastic straws. The movement to ban plastic straws, which some consider to have originated after a 2015 video showing a straw lodged in a sea turtle’s nose and has recently been championed by Starbucks, is a perfect example of this orientation. Banning plastic straws affects individual’s consumption habits and experts ranked straws 13th out of 20 plastic items in terms of danger to marine life (Wilcox et al, 2016). For comparison, fishing gear was ranked the most dangerous and comprises about 46% of the of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Lebreton et al 2017). This singular focus on a winnable campaign around banning one consumer item has also ignored protest from people with disabilities who frequently have no good alternatives to single use straws and are already marginalized by our society.
In addition to typically favoring market driven and legislative approaches to problems, liberal environmentalists also have the perspective that humans are separate from nature, and pursue species and land conservation that isolates one from the other. In reality, indigenous people who use or manage a quarter of the Earth’s surface are more twice as likely to keep lands “natural” compared to other lands [sources – summary and Garnett et al, 2018]. When enacted as policy, this separation of humans from nature can cause displacement when land that is being used is turned into a conservation area if land tenure had not been established or if access to land is considered part of the commons. Enforcement of these conservation zones may require “special bodies of armed men” or other punitive measures. For example, park rangers shot and killed a man from the Batwa tribe in eastern Congo who had been looking for medicinal plants. The Batwa tribe had used this land for generations but had lost rights when a German-funded national park was put in place for species conservation.
John Bellamy Foster, in his review of the Jacobin climate change issue, wrote the following; “What is remarkable about the contributions to Jacobin‘s special issue on the environment and related works by its writers and editors is how removed they are from genuine socialism—if this involves a revolution in social and ecological relations, aimed at the creation of a world of substantive equality and environmental sustainability. What we get instead is a mechanistic, techno-utopian “solution” to the climate problem that ignores the social relations of science and technology, along with human needs and the wider environment. Unlike ecological Marxism and radical ecology generally, this vision of a state-directed, technocratic, redistributive market economy, reinforced by planetary geoengineering, does not fundamentally challenge the commodity system.”
Ecomodernism is the theory that our climate and environmental problems may be solved with little to no changes to our behavior because we will invent technological solutions (e.g nuclear, carbon capture and storage, afforestation, geoengineering, etc.), or what climate scientist and IPCC author Kevin Anderson calls a “shameful litany of technocratic fraud”. These technological solutions are purported to “decouple” GDP and carbon emissions, or more generally, GDP and environmental impact. As the Indigenous Environmental Network report on these methods describes, carbon offsetting, “clean development”, and cap and trade are market mechanisms that have not worked yet and often cause harm under capitalism with market forces.
Back in 1798, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus theorized that exponential population growth with a fixed growth of the food supply would result in catastrophe unless preventative measures were taken. These preventative measures include methods of birth control or suppression, which as you can probably guess usually ends up with race, gender, and class based oppression. Karl Marx was a critic of Malthus, calling him a “lackey of the bourgeoisie” who blamed workers for capitalist excess.
The belief lived on as society became dedicated to the idea into the late 1800s to early 1900s, partly thanks to the rise of eugenics and racism against non-white people. The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process that produces synthetic nitrate used in both bombs and fertilizers, and the resulting “Green Revolution” that industrialized our agriculture, cast doubts on the theory of linear food growth. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, “The Population Bomb” revived the idea of population control. Written at the recommendation of the director of the Sierra Club at the time, Ehrlich connects population with environmental impact . He also advocated for forced population control and was one of the influences behind forced sterilization programs. Otherwise, the legacy of Malthus’ concern over population is commonly manifested in “eco-nationalists” or “eco-fascists” who are very concerned with birth rates, immigration, open borders, reparations, or emissions reductions. We should all know this originates from xenophobia and white supremacy, and as socialists that see the connectedness of struggles against oppression and the threat of fascism, we should be in the forefront of countering these eliminationist ideologies [example].
Ecofascism is even prevalent in liberal discourse. The United States, which remains “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, considers climate change to be a “threat multiplier”. Under Obama, the Department of Defense released a report that said climate change will, aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries. In other words, climate change will make it harder to uphold American imperialism that enables our unethical consumption.
Ecosocialism through degrowth
“Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?’” – André Gorz (1972)
In advanced capitalist economies there is a strong correlation between increases in GDP and carbon emissions. Decoupling is the idea that GDP can grow without increased CO2 emissions because of things like increased efficiency. However we can’t just count on efficiency gains, because as the Jevons Paradox [reference] suggests we might simply use more energy/resources as efficiency increases. For first world countries, degrowth means the intentional downsizing of our economy by limiting energy, material, and labor inputs, and by shutting down socially unnecessary or harmful industries. Degrowth means a shift away from growth as a strategy of developing or organizing society.
In her article “Living, Not Just Surviving”, Alyssa Battistoni argues for reorganizing society to promote traditionally feminized type of labor, which also happen to be low carbon intensity, including care, education, and creative work. Much of this work is currently non-compensated or made invisible by gender relations. This means that degrowth in an ecosocialist, feminist society also needs to recognize and re-work gender relations. The vision of a society practicing degrowth is actually richer, with more time to do what you want to be doing (cooking, art, music, dance, seeing family, hiking, etc). For socialists in the imperial core, degrowth is an important component and first step toward climate reparations. For the Global South, degrowth means being allowed to choose their path. Right now global markets forces control their choices to a large extent. Examples like “Buen Vivir” from Andean indigenous culture (Aymara & Quechua) reject development through growth, and envision a fulfilling and radically democratic way of living.
Liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism and eco-fascism all fail to realize the solution to climate catastrophe cannot be individual change alone. Only through system change will we address the root cause of climate change.
How does the DSA practice ecosocialism?
The DSA has several ongoing ecosocialist projects across the country, particularly around divestment, public banking, and energy justice. Divestment and reinvestment campaigns aim to get rid of fossil fuel sponsorships, stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are morally ambiguous from state/union pension funds, university funds and religious institutions that use these funds to generate income to keep operations running. In New York, for example,Mayor Di Blasio announced in January 2018 a plan to divest $189 billion worth of retirement funds from fossil fuel corporations within five years, and to sue oil companies. This only happened with intense pressure from environmental groups, and it remains uncertain what the funds will be re-invested into. NYC DSA climate justice group was a coalition partner on work to divest from Wells Fargo and defund DAPL.
A public bank is a financial institution owned by the government, funded with taxpayer money, and is directly accountable to elected officials and civil servants. They offer a transparent alternative to private banks, lower debt costs to city and state governments. There is currently only 1 in the US, the Bank of North Dakota; the bank loaned the state $6 million for law enforcement at DAPL protest site. Public banks are not a radical idea, they are a large part of the financial sector of developed nations like Germany and Switzerland. In Massachusetts, the BDSA Ecosocialist working group did some research around a public banking bill but ultimately decided against endorsing/putting energy and resources towards moving it forward because the bank can fund capital projects including new police stations and there are few transparency measures to keep the bank accountable to the public instead of industry.
More than 90% of Rhode Island is served by National Grid, which serves 3.3 million people for electricity, and 3.4 million for gas (source). The state’s public utility commission (PUC) is the only regulating body that keeps it in check. The PUC is made up of three appointed commissioners and serve to set the terms of debate around utility rates, tariffs, tolls, and charges, as well as the power to approve or reject proposed rate increases and infrastructure projects (source). Essentially, the PUC functions to ensure the profits of National Grid and give green lights to their projects.
Providence DSA started a chapter-wide campaign in 2017 to fight back against National Grid’s atrocious business practices. Providence DSA partnered with George Wiley Center on the campaign, given that the Center has been working on utility justice for over 30 years. Providence DSA and the George Wiley Center began doing research on the RI energy market and started organizing people from low-income communities to show up at town hall meetings hosted by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to protest against National Grid’s rate raises and meter installment plan. Over the past year, the campaign has developed the following short term strategies:address the shut-off crisis due to smart meters by writing petitions to the PUC, joining the Wiley Center’s effort to reinstate Percentage Income Payment Plan, and engaging in militant and disruptive lobbying tactics at the PUC hearings against National Grid’s utility-rate hikes.To achieve this, Providence DSA canvassed South Providence about rate increase and upcoming public hearings to increase participation in the energy system. As a result of these efforts National Grid’s proposed rate increase was reduced by 75% and National Grid will be subjected to closer oversight of their grid modernization efforts (source). National Grid was also compelled to adopt a more robust low-income customer discount (source).
The longer term goal of energy justice work is to decarbonize, democratize and decommodify the energy grid and its generation sources. This would result in a statewide, publicly owned, decentralized, and democratically controlled utility. There is growing interest in energy justice work throughout DSA. Boston DSA’s ecosocialism working group has proposed a similar campaign as a chapter priority, and has been researching the landscape for several months. It is an especially poignant time for a campaign of this style in Massachusetts since members of two United Steel Workers unions’ local chapters have been locked out by National Grid for over three months and the recover from the Merrimack Valley gas disasters is ongoing. San Francisco DSA is currently working against a potential bailout of Pacific Gas and Electric after their inadequacy started the Camp wildfire.
To conclude, it is important to recognize that the struggle for ecosocialism must operate in solidarity with the struggle for indigenous sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and workers’ rights.
There is a widespread problem in capitalist nations within the Global North, of conflating GDP with “standard of living”, and equating possessions and access to technology with personal well-being. Economic growth, in practice, means growth for the few privileged individuals and growing inequality for the rest. It is an obvious moral obligation to mitigate the destruction wrought by growth-induced climate change for vulnerable communities and future generations. We must rethink the modern meaning of the words “needs” and “well-being” in order to imagine a revolutionary post-growth future.
Examples of unnecessary waste caused by the growth obsession are all too common in our daily lives: consider phones that must be replaced every couple of years, single-use coffee cups, endless empty luxury apts, Amazon one-day delivery, and rush hour traffic. Cities, in particular, are centers of growth. With the rise of globalization, the carbon footprint of our collective consumption has grown exponentially, as consumer goods and the raw materials used to create them are shipped around the world. This necessitates a cultural shift as well as an economic and political shift. It challenges our deeply-entrenched Western ideals of individualism, property, and economic prosperity, which we name “success”. It is predicated on resisting the neoliberal “TINA” (there is no alternative) paradigm.
Decoupling, the eco-modernist idea that economic innovation can overcome the rapidly growing carbon footprint of economic growth, has no basis in truth. It is becoming more and more obvious that resources are finite, and that a few individuals and corporations consume FAR more than they need at the expense of the many. As the environmental justice movement has taught us, indigenous and traditionally marginalized communities are known to suffer the worst effects of this unchecked growth. Truly sustainable development under capitalism is a myth, availability of resources simply can’t keep up with cycle of unending growth and competition demanded by capitalism. Consumption will inevitably overtake any energy resources provided by “clean” green energy technologies, which are not even completely clean and green because they require huge swaths of land to create enough energy to meet current demands, and rely on manufacture, maintenance, transportation, that in turn require mining and fossil fuel consumption. In order to scale up production of wind, solar, and other renewable sources of energy to levels necessary for continued growth, space required for the necessary infrastructure will eventually force displacement of people and may require destruction of forests, which act as carbon sinks. Forests, which mitigate climate change through natural processes that require little to no human intervention, should be preserved and expanded if at all possible. Another possible factor in the energy savings calculation is Jevon’s paradox, which postulates that increases in energy efficiency will drive down cost, and thus increase use in a proportional manner, resulting in no net change in energy expenditure. As of yet, there are no climate change mitigation technologies that can save us from the damage that growth has already created. Solar geoengineering, for example, may seem appealing to some as a potential inexpensive solution, but its merits are unproven, and experts warn that implementation may cause an increase of droughts, flooding, and dangerous natural disasters in areas that are already hardest hit by climate change.
Degrowth, which stands in contrast to ecomodernist solutions to climate change, is an international academic and activist movement. It is also a rapidly growing branch of discourse emerging in popular ecological academic circles around 2001 (though it was first defined by French intellectual André Gorz in 1972) which aims to create a society that consumes less, so that there is more to share with those who already have less, while simultaneously decreasing total consumption. This may be accomplished at a large scale, through government and corporate controls, as well as on small community and individual scales. The Latin American concept of Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay, an idea that incorporates indigenous traditions of living cooperatively, with respect for the surrounding land, has informed the degrowth movement. There have been a number of degrowth conferences in Europe since 2008, and the movement is starting to spread to the U.S. Degrowth emphasizes “well-being” as defined by more equal human-to-human and human-to environment relationships. The degrowth movement can be seen as an ally to the environmental justice movement. Dismissed by some as utopian, because it requires such a dramatic shift of so many established systems in our society, degrowth requires rethinking “needs” as they currently are defined, and realizing which of these are not needs, but desires incubated by the capitalist culture of growth; “Degrowth is a deliberately subversive slogan1.”
Degrowth puts forth the radical idea that we should have more free time, time best spent appreciating and caring for one another, and our natural surroundings, rather than constantly working, driving, or consuming energy as a means of entertainment. Many of us on the left already realize that true happiness may be more easily achieved by decreasing work time, and instead of using all of it to pursue individual pleasures, using a portion to act for the mutual benefit of ourselves and others around us. These are the very foundations of the ideas of solidarity and comradeship. Think about things we do and enjoy that require little to no consumption—playing outdoors with children and animals, backyard gardening, hiking trips, reading groups, playing board games, listening to live music, and creating art. In an ideally degrown economy, we would have more time to participate in these activities because we would need to work fewer hours to meet the consumer needs of others. Degrowth is a voluntary, democratic, equitable set of ideas and practices that will build mutually supportive local communities in order to turn economic growth on its head.
Simply delineating the vision of a degrowth economy is often enough to get other left-leaning ecologically-minded individuals on board, hoping, plotting, and scheming with us. There is no universal consensus on how to achieve these goals, but degrowthers are a democratic bunch, and welcome the sharing of new ideas. In fact, sharing is the main point of degrowth. Advocates of degrowth believe in pooling our resources and sharing them as a community, instead of focusing on individual accumulation and ownership of property. This type of sharing, rather than competing for necessities, could be imagined to have a positive impact on mental health, as the oppressive pressure to endlessly perform and produce would be lifted. A deeper appreciation for our natural resources could develop while getting our hands dirty, through gardening, hiking, building, and expanding the do-it-yourself movement. Learning the skills to create the things we need causes us to respect their value and use them wisely.
There have been various theories about how best to get the degrowth movement off the ground. To begin, there have been proposed changes in the workplace, including universal basic income and/or maximum income, and a jobs guarantee with reduction in each individual’s work hours to help ensure jobs for more people. Some have suggested that job growth be more focused on public services such as education, public transit, libraries, and healthcare. The military and prison industrial complexes, which use almost unimaginable amounts of money and resources that many of us would deem unnecessary, could be slowly phased out. Global corporations, and the advertising industry, may also be scaled down and eventually abolished. We may replace private banks with public banking, and use funds raised by these banks to meet public needs. This could be paired with a widespread debt jubilee to eliminate the interest-as-growth dynamic.
An important step toward strengthening local communities is the reestablishment of the commons, a traditional structure of collective stewardship of resources outside the purview of the state or the capitalist economy. In a commons, resources are managed in a manner that ensures that everyone gets what they need, and no one person takes more than their fair share. The process of establishing a commons is essentially the opposite of privatization or commodification. For example, common goods such as water, seeds, and land could be shared by a community. The commons could then eventually replace industrial farms, creating agricultural spaces that use resource management techniques mimicking self-sustaining natural systems, such as those used by indigenous peoples. Public ownership of resources may make it possible to create local self-reliant communities that render growth even more unnecessary. Building local communities, which function through social connections to ensure the well-being of all members, is much more important than building local economies.
Empowerment of degrowth communities may also include the expansion of public housing, and community child-care associations. Local economic structures may include more worker-owned co-ops that utilize profit-sharing with their worker-owners. Time banks, in which community members trade their skills with others who are in need of those skills without using capital, are another potential facet of a degrown economy.
Less popular, but probably necessary, are individual actions include decreasing the use of cars, which would become easier as most jobs become localized. Another individual degrowth choice would be switching to a less carbon-intensive, more plant-based diet. Degrowthers would likely also encourage use of second-hand clothing and shoe repair. People would not be asked to give up consumer goods altogether, but we would place emphasis on creating goods made to last, and caring for them. These individual actions alone, however, are simply unable to create a significant economic shift of the type we need to combat climate change and loss of biodiversity; they must be paired with community- and large-scale actions.
As we can see, the degrowth transition could combine a number of bottom-up and top-down strategies. Recruitment of advocates and willing participants would be much easier to achieve if anti-capitalist and ecosocialist ideas become widely popular and gain traction. But even among leftists, we must concede that this is not the fully-automated luxury space communism we were promised. A major goal of degrowth is establishing a general sense of well-being and empowerment created by the ability of communities to function autonomously outside of traditional capitalist economic structures. Degrowth must become a large scale movement against the dominant capitalist agenda in order to achieve success. We have the power to seize this momentum, to rethink our collective lifestyles and values now, and avoid being forced to change by ecological collapse.
Successful models of degrowth require complex thinking far outside the proverbial box, which can be very challenging for those who have been taught that such ideas are utopian and unrealistic. If we are utopian, we are also pessimists when addressing the ideas of green growth and technological climate change mitigation, and realists when it comes to the scale of changes needed to achieve our aims. The planning stages of a degrowth transition require input from experts in environmental science, and political science, as well as economists, and anthropologists. Degrowth advocates realize that is is more essential than ever for the intersection of these fields of study to be understood and accepted by experts and lay people, and for everyone to comprehend what is at stake in order to make the truly democratic large-scale changes that are necessary for the transition. Optimally implemented, degrowth will result in true equality, sustainability and prosperity.
For those that know me well, I spent a lotof timeoutside this summer. Although I grew up in Maine, it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve made an earnest effort at connecting to nature. However, at best I’ve only managed to scrounge up time for a few weekend sprints up 4,000 foot peaks, before being called back to work at the job that enables me to sustain my way of life, among other things. However, a certain dissonance rings within me when I attempt to connect with nature. This discomfort stems simply from the fact of how I, and the majority of other folks in our society, tend to treat nature. For most, there is this vaguely romantic idea of “The Great Outdoors” as something of an escape, an event that needs to be “experienced” and documented as an “adventure” on Instagram, Facebook, etc. It’s as if our occasional sojourns lead us to some level of abstraction where we can extract ourselves from the mundanities of modern society to arrive at some profound conclusions about ourselves; a god’s-eye view or Archimedean Point, if you will. However, this is the planet we live on – surely place and experience aren’t commodities from which some value can be extracted? Why is it that we are so fascinated with nature?
The young Karl Marx investigated man’s relationship with nature in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. For Marx, the increased objectification of labor under capitalism leads to a “loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” In other words: the product of a worker’s labor only serves further alienate them from their peers. Unlike in his later writings, young Marx includes thoughts on an estrangement from nature as well. Marx explains,
“The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is realized, in which it is active, from which, and by means of which it produces.”
While man cannot create without nature, he is separated from the immediacy of it by simply acting upon it,
“Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life […] Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body.”
We are only able to perceive the natural world through a filtered and processed lens through the labor we undertake. Our organic connection to nature is stripped from us.
Our fascination with the great outdoors is born from the fact that the natural world that surrounds us is as alien to us as the deepest reaches of the ocean or the furthest stars in space. This state of individual alienation is exacerbated by the fact that this condition is shared by all our peers, “every self-estrangement of man, from himself and from nature, appears in the relation in which he places himself and nature to men other than and differentiated from himself.”
With its intersecting alienations, capitalism not only demands competition between our peers, but it demands a contradiction between nature and society or culture.
Could this contradiction, this conflict between man and society contribute to a sense of dread concerning the state of the environment? Perhaps climate justice must not only proselytize the science behind impending peril, but must also lead a project to reconceive the relationship between man and nature to bring an end to this mutual alienation. Unfortunately, Marx pretty much ends his analysis there. Good thing we have Engels! For all the benefits the sciences have to offer, he argued, its microscopic dividing-up of nature has only served to reinforce our anxiety towards it.
As Engels writes in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, “the analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole (emphasis mine); of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life. And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last century.”
For decades, the popular discourse on the environment, thanks to neoliberalism, has been the domain of mechanistic thought, as opposed to the rigors of dialectical thought, which would serve to expose to the natural contradictions between society and the natural world. Examining ecological phenomena from a purely deterministic standpoint, or in purely physical terms, renders the outside world as a great “other” — in one sense, “primitive.” However, it is undeniable that the current state of the world, and its climate, is anthropogenic, chiefly originating from humanity’s exploitation of the Earth. Since humanity emerged we have always been, at least in the context of the development of western civilization, estranged from the planet itself. As Engels brilliantly writes in his Dialectics of Nature:
“Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place […] step by step with the development of the hand went that of the brain; first of all consciousness of the conditions for separate practically useful actions, and later, among the more favoured peoples and arising from the preceding, insight into the natural laws governing them.”
Essentially, the more great scientific discoveries are made, the more we are alienated from nature’s original context as our understanding becomes more microscopic. The more microscopic nature becomes, the more we are callously alienated from it.
The conditions for mankind to flourish require that we have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with nature. In order to survive and thrive, humanity must expropriate its bountiful resources. However, the way capitalism has presented itself, and how quickly it has spread like a virus throughout the world obviates the need for the proletariat to engage in the opposing relationship between the natural world and society through dialectical materialism, to think more carefully about the consequences of our actions. Marx and Engels highlighted the dangerous path humanity has progressed without this kind of dialectic,
“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”
Without a proper dialectic, nature is simply a problem to be conquered. When nature is simply something to be conquered, and when our understanding of it is microscopic and mechanistic, we seek to break it down even more with even bigger displays of expropriation. With the bourgeois firmly in control, a society has been built that subsists on toxic gas spewing automobiles; that is nourished on the sale of even more dangerous weapons. Even so, we can still sense how alienated we are and preserve “artifacts” of nature in zoos, museums, and natural parks. Theodor Adorno laments this in his Minima Moralia,
The more purely nature is preserved and transplanted by civilization, the more implacably it is dominated. […] . The rationalization of culture, in opening its doors to nature, thereby completely absorbs it, and eliminates with difference the principle of culture, the possibility of reconciliation.”
We participate in this grand illusion of uncritical domination through our dates to botanical gardens, our Instagram-worthy hikes, and our family camping trips. So, if we can’t forge a proper connection and respect for what’s natural through the integration of our current culture, does this mean the proper solution is to hike the Appalachian Trail for 6 months? Should we fully capitulateto nature? What I hope we’ve come upon through this analysis is to realize that there were various discrete historical events related to the development and spread of capitalism (from the so-called “enlightenment” and the industrial revolution, to the imperialism of Baconian science) which has brought us to this inflection point in the development of humanity and nature. The very fact that climate change is such a political issue necessarily exposes it to dialectical examination.
However, instead of pushing for milquetoast legislation such as “carbon tax credits” or an encouragement to simply regress to a “primitive” state, we must, as socialists, pursue a radical transformation not only of our social relations with each other, but with nature as well.
What we need is a global revolution which totally eliminates the very concept of “capital.” It is only then we have even a possibility of forging a more collaborative existence with the world around us. When we unite as the proletariat to forge the world according to our “own taste,” then we can have a better shot at saving the planet from climate disaster and finally “connect” with nature.