Volume 41, Number 6: November/December 2007

Five Challenges for Ecosocialists in 2008

The growing worldwide interest in ecosocialism is reflected in two political trends:

  • Many people in the green movement are turning to Marxism to understand the ecological crisis and are concluding that only socialism offers a way out.
  • Many on the Left believe that socialism will succeed only if it is based on sound ecological practice - and that the fight against capitalism’s destruction of the environment (especially through global warming) will play a central role in the fight for socialism.

As these parallel developments illustrate, “ecosocialism” is not separate from the existing left and green movements, and it is not a structured movement on its own. Rather, it is a current of thought within existing socialist and green-left movements, seeking to win ecology activists to socialism and to convince socialists of the vital importance of ecological issues and struggles.

In Canada, ecosocialism is new, and still a distinctly minority current. Most progressive movements address ecological issues from time to time, but few have made them a key focus of their activity. And while socialist views are beginning to get a hearing in green circles, few ecology activists advocate anything more radical than the market-based “solutions” of the Kyoto Accord.

We might say that the central goal of ecosocialism today is to make the greens more left and the lefts more green. The path to this goal is still being worked out – we are learning as we go – but the time to accelerate the process is now.

Ecosocialists in Canada should place the following challenges high on their agendas in 2008.

Get Out of the Ivory Tower. In North America, the development of ecosocialist ideas has occurred mostly in academic circles. An impressive body of rigorous, well-argued ecosocialist theory has been created – but academic writing is rarely read by anyone except academics.

Into the Streets

We must learn to explain ecosocialist concepts outside the academy, in the forums that are heeded by green and socialist activists. Canadian Dimension is one such forum; websites and blogs like rabble.ca and Climate and Capitalism are others.

An early priority should be the publication of popular articles and pamphlets that make the case for ecosocialism. We don’t need to water down our views, but we do need to explain them in plain language, unburdened by scholarly apparatus.

Get Involved in Action. Most socialist writing about climate change does a good job of analyzing the nature and causes of the problem, and a terrible job of explaining about what to do now. All too often, a stirring condemnation of capitalism is followed by a simple assurance that socialism will solve the problem. How socialism will come about and what socialists should do about climate change, now those are unexplained mysteries.

We need to bridge the gap between today’s problems and the socialist future – we won’t build mass opposition to capitalism by repeatedly intoning, “Production for use, not for profit!” We need to be active participants in actions that protest and expose both the corporate polluters and their parliamentary representatives.

For example, various groups in Toronto have been organizing protests against Barrick Gold and its record of environmental destruction in the Third World. Such actions are an essential steps toward a mass anti-capitalist movement, and ecosocialists should be directly involved whenever possible.

More generally, we must be partisans of all forms of action that enable people to work together to challenge the powers that be, to protest the anti-environment policies of corporations and governments. These actions may take traditional forms like demonstrations, strikes and rallies – but we should also expect and welcome innovative forms of action, as new activists come to the fore.

Defend Workers’ Rights. A key feature of the Tory campaign against action on climate change has been demagogic warnings that stopping greenhouse-gas emissions will kill jobs and hurt the economy. They hope that fear of economic hardship will prevent working people from listening to the green Left.

Make the Rich Pay, Not Workers

Unfortunately, green radicals often feed that sentiment by appearing indifferent to the fate of the people who will be directly affected by economic change. Again and again I’ve heard speeches calling for shutting down the tar sands, or for immediately closing coal-fired power plants. Rarely is anything said about the thousands of men and women who will lose their jobs if those demands are won. What’s worse, some greens – especially among those who stress personal lifestyle changes rather than social change – are often openly hostile to the labour movement and to working people’s desire for decent jobs and a reasonable standard of living. This approach simply alienates people whose support is absolutely essential.

One of the most important contributions that ecosocialists can make to the broader green movement is a clear focus on the rights of working people to useful jobs that don’t destroy our planet. The workers in the tar sands and power plants are not responsible for greenhouse gases, and they should not lose one penny when their bosses are forced to clean up their acts. At the very least, we must insist upon comprehensive retraining programs and fully subsidized relocation programs – at full union pay, with no loss of benefits or pensions.

At the same time, ecosocialists can play a critical role in persuading organized labour to join the fight against climate change, to give the lie to capitalist claims that working people have no stake in saving the world.

Indigenous Movements at the Forefront

Ally with Indigenous Movements. There is a major exception to my previous statement that the Left in Canada rarely focuses on ecological issues: the movements for Aboriginal rights. It is no exaggeration to say that Indigenous peoples’ groups are far ahead of the rest of the Left in initiating and supporting campaigns against capitalist ecocide. Just two recent examples:

  • The successful Inuit campaign, led by Sheila Watt-Cloutier of Iqaluit, to persuade the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hear an unprecedented challenge to U.S. policy on greenhouse-gas emissions on the grounds that climate change is destroying their way of life.
  • The Ardoch Algonquin First Nation’s occupation of land near Sharbot Lake, Ontario, to block uranium mining.

Supporting such campaigns – and learning from the people organizing and leading them – must be a central feature of any ecosocialist program that deserves the name.

Promote Global Justice. The president of Uganda has accurately called global warming “an act of aggression by the rich against the poor.” Front-line battles against global warming are being fought in Nigeria, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh – and dozens of other countries where global warming isn’t just an inconvenience or a matter of concern to future generations, but an immediate, life-or-death threat.

Recognizing Northern Responsibility

There can be no question about which side we are on in these struggles. A central feature of our work must be publicizing them, building solidarity campaigns and demanding that Canada’s government provide concrete aid. Canadian corporations that participate in the plunder of Third World resources and the destruction of Third World ecosystems must be exposed as ecological criminals.

Ecosocialists must begin, as the Cuban Ministry of Science and Technology recently stated, by “recognizing the responsibility of the highly industrialized nations for their historic emissions of greenhouse effect gases – an important component in the ecological debt of the North.”

Paying that ecological debt must be tied to ecology activist Tom Athanasiou’s insistence that we must “spare the South from any compulsion to make an impossible choice between climate protection on the one hand and ‘development’ on the other.”

The Time is Ripe

It is far easier to write socialist essays about climate change than to actively build movements against it. But, as Marx wrote, interpreting the world is not enough – the point is to change it.

The time is ripe for ecosocialists to move beyond criticizing capitalism – to supporting, building and learning from real movements for change. If we don’t do so, all of our words and theories will be irrelevant.