Capitalism, Socialism, and Sustainability

Crystal Clarity

By Mark Schaeffer

The global environmental crisis, together with growing inequality, is the great challenge of the 21st Century. Fossil fuel combustion and deforestation are destabilizing the global climate, and extreme weather events are accelerating. Renewable resources such as topsoil and groundwater are being consumed far faster than they regenerate. Species and entire habitats are disappearing at a pace unseen since the extinction of the dinosaurs.  Even the oceans are not immune to oil spills, fertilizer runoff, overfishing, acidification and the poisoning of coral reefs. 

It is already clear that business as usual is leading toward catastrophic collapse of the natural systems that billions of people depend upon for their livelihood. Strategic planners at the Pentagon recognize that climate disruption, causing crop failures and mass migrations fueling violent conflict, threatens US security. Most at risk are the struggling peoples of the global South, who are least responsible for greenhouse emissions.

These problems are not accidental, but are symptoms of fundamental pathologies in our systems of production and consumption. The logic of private profit is to clearcut every tree and move on to the next forest.  Greenhouse gas concentrations will increase as long as our economy depends on coal, oil and natural gas, controlled by some of the wealthiest corporations in history. Converting the whole economy to recycle materials and use renewable energy, abandoning fossil fuel investments, would impose huge costs on corporate bottom lines.

Under capitalism, decisions on what and how to produce are made by corporate executives maximizing profits by increasing sales and decreasing costs to the private firm. Working people and nature are exploited directly and indirectly as external costs are imposed on them. Controls on corporate excess, through regulation, labor organizing or mass boycotts can limit abuse, but tend to be too little, too late as long as the major decisions are made behind the closed doors of corporate boardrooms.

Changes in individual behavior and technology can buy time but are insufficient to save the biosphere as long as “free enterprise” allows huge corporations to continue polluting. The entire production system must be transformed; we must change the way society decides to allocate resources in the interdependent web of the world economy.  Securing an environmentally sustainable production system will require fundamental political and social change on every scale from household to planet.

Human and environmental needs can be brought into sustainable balance only if production takes account of all environmental consequences.  This requires conscious planning and foresight.  But who will do the planning? Scientific expertise is clearly necessary, but scientists and experts brought us the technologies that are threatening the planet. 

For all the impacts to be taken into account, the people affected must participate in planning and decision-making, not just experts and authorities. (The interests of future generations and fellow creatures can only be defended by people in the present with values of empathy and solidarity.)  Polls show that people do care and are willing to pay substantial short-term costs for the long-term benefits of a healthy environment--public concern made possible laws to reduce pollution.  But too often people lack the knowledge and power to make fundamental change.  


A sustainable economy requires a system in which production is democratically planned and controlled by well-informed people. The environment can be sustained by collective stewardship as our material needs are securely met by a fair distribution and sharing of resources, and our psychological needs are met through an ethos fostering cooperation rather than acquisition and competition.  We call such a system democratic socialism.

A socialist society can be achieved by nonviolent struggles, continuing over generations, to expand democratic rights, institutions, and social relations within a mainly capitalist system, until the democratic processes and structures come to predominate.  These centuries-long struggles continue in our time on many fronts--political, economic, social and cultural.

Popular struggles have achieved partial socialization on many levels.  Local public enterprises like sanitation were won by “sewer socialist” mayors; generations of labor organizing lifted millions from poverty to comfort. We share public parks designed by 19thC. Christian socialist and abolitionist Frederic Law Olmsted. Many benefit from islands of direct democracy like food coops and worker managed businesses.  National programs from Social Security and Medicare to EPA and OSHA improve our lives, as do such international agreements as the Ozone Treaty and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  All these embody the principle of production for common need, not private profit.

System change can only be achieved  by uniting movements for social justice, peace, and human rights as well as environmental justice and stewardship. So we work toward racial and gender equality, civil rights and liberties, labor organizing, universal health care, quality education and child care for all, free higher education, livable communities, full employment at living wages to abolish poverty, and the progressive redistribution of wealth. 

Each of these social movements, however just the cause, can make gains but lacks the strength by itself to prevail fully over concentrated wealth and power.  We therefore work for a strategic coalition of all these movements, based on their common interests and shared values, to unite them into a sustainable democratic majority.

Within these movements we emphasize issues that can help build such coalitions.  Environmentalists are baited as "elitists who don't care about workers' jobs and prefer trees to people," by the same corporations that exploit and poison both workers and trees. The divide-and-rule strategy the 1% use to stay on top can be met by choosing intersectional issues appealing both to environmental activists and to the constituencies for social and economic justice, and by choosing strategies that can change the balance of power from corporate plutocrats to the vast majority.

This piece is available in full and avaible for download as a PDF leaflet in the Socialist Strategies section of our website. Click here to RSVP to the DSA section of the People's Climate March.

Mark Schaeffer is an Albany NY DSA member.

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