Capitalism's conflict with nature
Flourishing through the 19th and 20th centuries, capitalism has caused a global ecological crisis – the only path to healthy survival lays in adopting strategies for green socialism
The warning signs of a planetary emergency abound: Record heat, massive wildfires, extreme weather events, declining agricultural yields, sea level rise, spreading diseases, mass species extinction and a climate refugee crisis. The latest report by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ominously warns that Earth's inhabitants have 12 years to avert the worst climate catastrophes and "must act on a scale that has no documented historical precedent".
Two other scientific reports further illustrate that our planet is in peril, including the US government's 4th National Climate Assessment and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on ice melt in the Arctic. And, no matter what steps humanity takes, the effects of these crises will persist for decades. Life is in the balance and every day counts. Meanwhile, the Trump administration blithely ignores science and dismantles government agencies that regulate polluters when both are essential to combat the climate crisis.
On December 14, governments met in Poland to follow up the Paris Climate Accords. The Trump administration, which already announced US' withdrawal from the pact, allied with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to block recognition of the dire warnings of the IPCC report. But there is hope! It lies in the action of tens of millions of people, a growing eco-consciousness across the planet and the response by civil society, elected officials, federal, state governments and municipalities.
One of the most exciting developments is the call for a Green New Deal, a mammoth national project (potentially without "historical precedent") to transition the US economy to sustainability by 2030, backed by a growing movement with support from elected officials.
This is why Green Strategy: Path to Fundamental Transformation, by American Marxist environmentalist Marc Brodine, is a timely contribution and essential reading. The vast majority of works on the climate crisis only venture a deeper understanding of how bad things are along with its causes to issue a call for urgent action.
But, here we have a work that is also a manual for action which projects the movement needed to overcome the crisis and how to build upon it. Brodine brings insights from decades of experience in environmental, labour and mass democratic movements, including an understanding of Marxist strategy and tactics.
Brodine explains the Marxist methodology succinctly, how it can be employed to gain a deeper understanding of the ecological crisis and its roots in the capitalist mode of production. Marxism helps us understand the interconnectedness of all phenomena, ecological systems and processes, their interrelationship with human society, and how dialectical change happens, or what Steven Jay Gould described as "punctuated equilibrium".
Green Strategy, in clear and compelling words, offers a picture of the climate and multiple ecological crises and their interrelationships. While the accumulation of greenhouse gases is the most tangible and urgent crisis, it is related to other disasters created by capitalism. These include the warming, acidification and changing currents of the oceans; melting of the polar ice cap and Arctic permafrost leading to the mass release of methane; choking toxins and plastics in water, land, and air; deforestation; depletion of soil from industrial agricultural practice; collapse of sea life, bird and bee populations; looming exhaustion of vast aquifers; destruction of wetlands, etc.
Brodine explains how each system and process has its own tipping points, feedback loops with ominous implications and interpenetration with other ecological processes and systems. All these crises must be addressed together.
When humans act on nature to produce the things needed for survival, we alter nature at the same time. That interaction is not abstract. It is governed by the dominant economic system, the capitalist mode of production in which distinct and irreconcilable classes relate to the production process. The capitalist class owns and controls the means of production and exploits the working class. Labour and nature are the sources of all new wealth created in this process.
Brodine explains how capitalism's insatiable drive for maximum profits and wealth accumulation places it in conflict with nature. The capitalist system can only exist through the infinite expansion of production which inevitably collides with Earth's finite resources and capacity to absorb the waste generated by production and consumption. The ecological crisis is also a crisis of capitalism itself.
The sheer concentration of wealth and scale of the exploitation of nature's resources by the capitalist mode of production make contemporary monopoly capitalism particularly destructive. One hundred corporations rooted in the energy sector are responsible for 71 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. And just 25 corporations are the source of over half of all emissions since 1988.
Green Strategy offers a broad understanding of the movement needed to defeat these corporate forces, the relationship between reforms and revolutionary transformation, and strategy which involves stages of struggle, political objectives and alliances, and tactics that result in unity and victory.
Drawing on examples of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, Brodine asserts that every arena of struggle (electoral, political, economic) and every method (voting, civil disobedience, boycott, etc.) must be utilised. All forms of struggle complement each other.
The government can play a dastardly role under the thumb of the energy corporations. But the government also has enormous leverage in mobilising people and resources on a national basis, favouring sustainable strategies, the control of procurement and funding scientific research and public health. Therefore, ousting the fossil fuel-backed GOP from the White House, Congress, state legislatures and municipal government and electing pro-environment governing coalitions in alliance with the Democratic Party, is a strategic imperative.
The climate and ecological crises are common problems of humanity and "require the collective thinking and action of humanity." The path to fundamental transformation, as Brodine sees it, is through a majority movement in the US and globally that vanquishes the corporate interests blocking change and reorganises society from top to bottom.
Calling for a Green New Deal and the creation of millions of new jobs building green infrastructure and adapting the country to the ravages of Climate Change is a project that can unite environmentalists, organised labour and distressed working-class communities.
By identifying capitalism as the chief culprit of the environmental crisis, Brodine calls for a revolutionary reorganisation of society – through renewable energy, an industrial production process minus pollution, agricultural production based on organic, labour-intensive practices and working-class democratic control over the economy, distribution, and transport systems, etc. This means the working class and its allies will direct economic and social development according to the needs of humanity and nature.
Cuba, which was forced onto an alternative development path after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, now leads the world in large-scale organic farming and recycling. Both Cuba and China are engaged in the most substantial reforestation efforts in the world and offer an alternative economic model for developing countries that bypasses capitalist production methods. The lesson, writes Brodine, is that socialist economic development must be combined with ecological consciousness and environmental science.
But Brodine also stresses that humanity can't wait for socialism. "Historically unprecedented" change must be forced on the capitalist system and governmental policies now. This may actually become the point of departure for the transitional path to democratic and sustainable socialism in the US.
(In arrangement with People's World. The views expressed are strictly personal)