The Case for Ecosocialism


MST Rally in Brazil.  April, 2013. by Fotos GOVBA/Flickr).

By Colin Kinniburgh 

In her editorial in the last issue of Jacobin, Alyssa Battistoni makes an eloquent case for a more ecologically-minded left politics.  “It’s ridiculous that we still bracket climate change and water supplies as specifically environmental issues,” she writes: “the questions at hand are ones of political economy and collective action . . . things the Left has plenty to say about.” It’s an obvious point but one that remains under-acknowledged on the Left, especially among socialists; “Environmental leftism,” as Battistoni notes, “tends to have an anarchist bent.”

Still, an increasingly coherent left environmentalism is beginning to take form under the banner of “ecosocialism,” a school of thought that has advanced critiques not unlike Battistoni’s own for some three decades now. But Battistoni herself rejects the label in favor of the provocative “cyborg socialism.” The notion of ecosocialism, she complains, is “too earth-toned."

Is it? Battistoni is of course right to suggest that an environmentalism aiming to preserve “an idealized concept of pristine, untouched nature” is not likely to resonate with many on the Left, let alone with the working poor. It’s hard to get too worked up about trees when you’re struggling to put food on the table, especially when the dominant narrative tells us that preserving those trees — at the expense of, say, building a new pipeline, dam, or mall — might mean sacrificing all-important Jobs.

But perhaps there’s something to be gained from a more “earth-toned” left politics. Some of the most important environmental movements around the world today —  although they might not call themselves that — are claiming their constituents’ rights precisely to live and work on those few patches of earth that have escaped the ravages of corporations, urban sprawl, and mega-development projects. In Brazil, there are the landless peasants of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) — a movement comprising an estimated 1.5 million members who fight for agrarian reform primarily by occupying large, uncultivated latifundios (estates) — and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, who have been waging a formidable struggle against loggers, ranchers, and the Belo Monte dam. In India, indigenous or adivasi communities have won important victories against major mining interests — even without machine gun–toting Maoists at their sides — while peasants have held their own against steel plants, nuclear power stations, and Special Economic Zones. Across sub-Saharan Africa, small farmers are fighting land grabs and asserting their right to their traditional livelihoods. And the list goes on. From Haiti to Honduras to Mali to Indonesia, peasants and indigenous peoples are on the front lines in resisting the spread of neoliberalism and ecological devastation.  Together, they constitute two of the four “mass formations” that Göran Therborn, in the most recent New Left Review, argues are the best positioned to challenge capitalist development today.

Teasing out the themes of her Jacobin editorial in a longer piece on environmentalism and its “old stumbling blocks” later in the issue, Battistoni argues that averting the worst of the climate catastrophe will require reclaiming a “job-killing environmentalism.” Creating “green jobs,” she notes, will not challenge capitalism’s fundamentally flawed premise of infinite growth on a finite planet; most visions of a “green economy,” she writes,

reveal a hope that climate change will be our generation’s New Deal or World War II, vaulting us out of hard times into a new era of widespread prosperity.  But the Keynesianism underpinning that vision was the answer to a problem that was identified as underconsumption rather than overproduction: it was intended to jump-start demand rather than reduce supply. If overconsumption is actually the problem, we can’t fix it by consuming more, however eco-certified the products.

Rather than trying to put a few more people to work in a gas-guzzling economy, then, we need to “explicitly shift toward working less . . . and share the work that remains more evenly.”  We also need to ascribe more value to the kinds of work that pollute less — “caring for people and ecosystems; building communities; learning and educating” — and that will equip us to ride out the climate catastrophe we can no longer fully prevent.

The mechanism Battistoni proposes to support this radical restructuring of the relationship between labor, production, and consumption is a universal basic income, which she hopes would provide “an alternative to dependence on destructive industries” and remove “the threat of job blackmail from communities desperate for livelihoods.” A basic income, in Battistoni’s rendering, serves as a stepping-stone toward a post-work future — in short, “the good life.”

From an environmental perspective, this is a novel and important proposal — a crucial intervention in the “undertheorized” domain of the green Left. And it actually has support, to some extent, from one of the most prominent climate scientists in the world today, James Hansen, who proposes to tax carbon at the source and redistribute the revenue through direct, equal cash transfers to all citizens in a strategy known as “fee and dividend.” Still, this approach is so far removed from mainstream political debate — and even from the discourse of most of the Left — that it’s virtually impossible to imagine organizing around. We have a long way to go before the notion of a “job-killing environmentalism” will be palatable even to progressives.

Meanwhile, the peasant and indigenous movements of the global South (and, to a lesser extent, the North) are already fighting tooth and nail to defend their lands, communities, and lifestyles from assimilation into the global race to pollute. These battles have cost many activists their lives — 908 of them, to be precise, over the last decade. If, then, “sustainability will come only through global solidarity,” as Battistoni argues, perhaps we on the Left should put a little more energy into supporting these movements. And though I’ve so far focused on examples from the global South, we could start by throwing our weight behind indigenous movements much closer to home — Idle No More, for example, and now the Cowboy-Indian Alliance here in the United States.

We might also want to hang on to what patches of “wilderness” we have left in this country, even if they were stolen from Native Americans. We should keep fighting for public lands like those in Utah that Tim DeChristopher helped prevent from being auctioned off to oil and gas companies, in an act of defiance that helped spark one of the country’s most radical local climate justice movements. We should stand with farmers in Texas as they resist construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. And we should rally around green spaces in our cities — community gardens and public parks (like the one that sparked Turkey’s Occupy Gezi movement) and all the other spaces where people can gather and talk and perhaps even appreciate the trees turning the carbon we pump out into air we can breathe.

Of course, those battles can only be one facet of a much larger societal transformation. But we shouldn’t leave them out of the discussion as we work towards a more just, more peaceful, more livable planet. If that’s what a more earth-toned socialism would look like, count me in.


me-theodosianwall-bw-crop2.jpgColin Kinniburgh is an assistant editor at Dissent and a member of System Change Not Climate Change. On Earth Day, he will be joining a rally and march on Wall Street as part of the Global Climate Convergence.



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