by Becca M, Chris H, Michelle Y & Nafis H
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.