Ecological Civilization and the Road to Socialism

For more than 50 years, theologians, scientists, environmentalists, scholars, and activists have sounded the alarm over the dire consequences of continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels and the massive increases in production and consumption that have threatened the well-being of soil, air, water, and all living species on Earth. Until recently, those warnings were largely ignored or undercut by huge global corporations and billionaires protecting their profits and wealth. Even now, when there is a widespread agreement among scientists that we have only seven years to reduce carbon emissions enough to prevent the most horrific effects of climate change, no nation is on track to make the necessary changes in time. 

The ecological crisis we face, left unchecked, will lead to social, political, and economic chaos and civilizational collapse leading, ultimately, to the extinction of the human species, along with most life on earth. Simply put, we cannot wait for a transition to socialism to force the five nations that are the biggest emitters to take the drastic steps required. We need stop-gap compromises such as the 2022 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and we need to continue to advocate for a Green New Deal, among other measures.  

Even if we could get the capitalist U.S. government to pass a Green New Deal, the results would fall far short of what is required. Moreover, it might serve to prop up the capitalist economic and political system for a while longer. There is no doubt that capitalism and a living Earth are incompatible.

Replacing fossil fuels and reducing carbon in the atmosphere won’t be enough, because climate change is only the most pressing threat among many. We must shift the aims of social, economic, and political systems from ever-increasing Gross Domestic Product (increasing wealth for the wealthy and impoverishment for the majority) to focus on promoting the common good, a radical redistribution of wealth, and living in harmony with the rest of the natural world. We need to end the destruction of topsoil and restore soil to health, where possible. This would help to promote the natural absorption of carbon from the atmosphere. We will have to shift food production away from industrial agriculture that focuses on growing one or a small number of crops and relies on pesticides that poison the soil and kill off the pollinators. We must protect the remaining forests of the world. (Links — by no means exhaustive — to possible resources and examples can be found at the end of this article.)  

We will need to reorganize society–especially urban areas–so that fewer people want or need automobiles and more food is produced and distributed locally. We will need to provide incentives for people to move out of sprawling cities and into small cities, towns, villages, and rural areas. We will have to shift to local food production and distribution, as much as possible. This requires much less energy, shortens supply chains, and promotes community resilience and self-reliance. Therefore, we need, also, to make power and decision-making much more local and regional. 

We need a new kind of human civilization in which we humans live in loving community with the rest of the ecosphere. That work cannot wait. We need to begin now to promote the vision and establish the foundations for a new kind of civilization in which humans see ourselves as part of a living earth community. Alongside of this, we will begin to grow into a new consciousness and a transformed philosophical grounding that undermines anthropocentrism. The rise of capitalism greatly accentuated a human-centered ideology and provided the justification for human exploitation of the rest of nature as well as the exploitation of most human beings for the benefit of small ruling classes. 

Justin Heinzekehr and Philip Clayton argue that the alternative to rapacious and destructive capitalism is not a more “humane” or “green” capitalism, but “a hybrid system that limits market forces within the context of socialist communities structured for the common good.” They call this an “ecological civilization” and describe it as follows in Organic Marxism:

It is inevitable that global climate change will produce social and economic collapse on many parts of our planet. Out of the dust of that collapse, a new ecological civilization can arise. It’s far better for humans and for the planet, however, that we act now, rather than waiting for the full force of the calamity to strike.

Ecological civilization will, undoubtedly, be implemented in a variety of ways according to local and regional conditions, cultures, and sensibilities. Heinzekehr and Clayton note that this raises the probability of the rise of “local socialisms” and “local Marxisms,” adapted for varying local and regional conditions.

Whatever you might think about the exercise of power by the Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Republic of China is the only nation in the world that has adopted the goal of ecological civilization, and both the party and the government take this very seriously (while still implementing this vision haltingly and inconsistently). Both the government and the CCP include the goal of ecological civilization in their constitutions. The fact that ecological civilization is even seriously discussed is an opening for more fundamental transformation to happen and is a source of hope. A 2021 report by the International Energy Agency asserts that China has a roadmap to achieving carbon neutrality by or before 2060.  In a 2022 speech published simultaneously in the United States and China, socialist scholar John Bellamy Foster stated, “The notion of ecological civilization is inconceivable in any meaningful sense outside of a society engaged in building socialism, and thus actively engaged in combating the primacy of capital accumulation as the supreme measure of human progress.” 

Even as we fight for reforms within the undemocratic political system of the United States, we are compelled to look to the future, to imagine, and to prepare for what will come next. We know there is already deep distrust of capitalism and openness to socialism, especially among youth and young adults. There is also a deep passion for radical solutions to address the ecological crisis. If we can make the connection between economics for the common good (of humans and beyond humans)–i.e., socialism–and ecological civilization, we can provide a vision and worldview with which millions of people will resonate.



Rainforest Organizations:

Worker Cooperatives:

Compassionate Communities movement: