What is ecosocialism and how do we get there?

ON FEBRUARY 17, 40,000 people marched in Washington, DC, to demand that the Obama administration reject the Keystone XL pipeline and act now to confront the threat of climate change. Sponsored by Bill McKibben’s 350.org, this rally marked the largest protest on this issue in US history. Along with the rapid spread of student fossil-fuel divestment groups on campuses around the country, the February protest signals an environmental movement that is on the rise.

More and more, people in the US are coming to realize that direct political action is necessary now to prevent runaway catastrophic climate change in the future. Crucially, the movement has united around a basic demand to curtail the political and economic power of the enormously profitable fossil-fuel industry. Included in the February 17 demonstration was an ecosocialist contingent of several socialist and radical green groups marching under the banner “System Change, Not Climate Change.” Spearheaded by Solidarity and the International Socialist Organization, the contingent marked the beginnings of an attempt to cohere a revolutionary left wing within the growing environmental movement.

This effort took a big step forward on April 20, as the ecosocialists came together again to host an EcoSocialist Conference at Barnard College in New York City. Cosponsored by twenty-nine groups and publications on the far Left, the conference was attended by 250 people and provided a space to debate and discuss the connections between capitalism and today’s ecological crises. Workshops on “Race, gender, and climate change,” “Labor and the climate justice movement,” and “The fight for indigenous rights,” helped shape the conference.

The conference was also driven by a vision of climate justice that includes within it struggles against ecological degradation, racism, sexism, and all oppression, and for a more equitable, democratic, and sustainable world. Discussions were informed by participants’ experience within the movement today, drawing out lessons from the student divestment struggle, fights against tar sands and fracking, and the grassroots relief and resistance that emerged in the wake of super-storm Sandy.

Chris Williams, the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, spoke at the final plenary of the EcoSocialist Conference.” What follows is a transcription of his presentation. More information about the conference, including audio and video recordings of the sessions, can be found at System Change Not Climate Change.

Zach Zill

IT’S BEEN a quite remarkable day. When we first proposed this idea about six weeks ago—a small group of people from different organizations—based on the fact that there had been an enormous resonance for the ecosocialist contingent at the Keystone-XL demonstration on February 17, we thought: maybe there is enough interest in trying to discuss more things both from an activist perspective and from a historical and theoretical perspective, in order to try and draw out some lessons and generalize about where we’re going and where we need to go and how we got into this mess in the first place. That was six weeks ago. We didn’t even know whether it would work, actually, and we were hoping for maybe a hundred people, and we would count that as a success. But I was just told that 240 people registered today. We have people from all over the country, and from other countries as well, and so this both a national and an international gathering. I think this is the first step along the road towards building a genuine left wing of the climate-justice movement where we can start to influence the movement as a whole.

I’ve learned tons of things already today in the various workshops from the panelists and from the audience members, because I think we all have something to give, but we also have a lot to learn, not just from people in this room, but from all of the movements that are going on around the world and in this country already. We need to be humble and open to other ideas and ways of working together, and part of the idea of this conference was to get together all groups and organizations and publications who agreed with the ecosocialist statement that said we need to be independent of the Democrats. We need to organize independently together and the more united we are around some core concepts, the stronger we will be. We know that divide and conquer is the strategy of the ruling class, and the reason for that is because there is way more of us than there are of them. So the more united we get the more chance we have of getting what we want, and ultimately living in a completely different world.

I want to talk a little bit about what our vision is for an alternative world. I want to throw out a couple of questions, one of which is: What do we mean by a good standard of living? What do we actually mean by that question? Because we know what we are told—that it is supposed to mean the accumulation of more things, more stuff. But what do we mean by having a bonvivir—a good life? Secondly, when are we happiest? When you think about your life, what actually makes you happy (which relates to the first question)? And then finally, what does it mean in the current age that we live in to be utopian?

I would argue that to expect this system to solve the crisis that it manufactured is utopian. The only rational way out of this crisis is to get rid of the system, and this slogan—“system change, not climate change”—has resonance all across the world; it originated in Copenhagen in 2009 as a way of expressing the fact that whether you’re anticapitalist or not you recognize, particularly after 2008, and the ongoing economic crisis that there are deep, structural, fundamental problems about this economic system, which are not just destroying our lives individually, but destroying the entire planet on which we ultimately depend. This is something that evades completely the thought processes of mainstream economists.

I picked this up just the other day, wasted some money, but the National Review—the cover of the National Review —is “Wonderland: The Miracle of Canada’s tar sands.” It’s not a joke. Where do you go with that? Because clearly the power of the oceans, the power of tides, the power of scientific rationality is not enough to get capitalism to change course. In fact, you can bury one of the most iconic cities in the world under a thirteen-foot wall of water, and you still don’t get the problem mentioned by the two people running for president. In other words, Hurricane Sandy does not get mentioned, climate change does not get mentioned, even though New York City was under several feet of water, people were homeless, there’s no running water, there’s no transportation system, but we can carry on. We can continue to extract fossil fuels, etc.

The distortions that go on under capitalism are so obscene it’s hard to wrap your head around it sometimes, on a micro level as well as a macro level. I was riding on the subway and I took a couple of trains and I was looking at the ads. The average American sees about 3,000 ads a day. One ad was for a credit card, and this is the slogan for the credit card—“Less plastic, more human—Discover it is human.” Discover is the card that they were advertising. In other words, you can actually be more human by having this type of credit card. Another ad, and this gets to the quality of life, that I pass by was about online delivery of food—how you can order online instead of having to phone somebody—and the ad read, “You’ve perfected the odds of getting to third base faster. Food delivery date night.” The obscenity and depravity of capitalism knows no depths to which it will not plumb.

This is something that Karl Marx talked about quite a bit. He was speaking at the anniversary of the People’s Paper in 1856, and I think this resonates far more with us now than it did even in his time.

On the one hand, there have started into life industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire.

That kind of sense of decay pervades our world as it is currently structured. He goes on:

In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary: Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it; The newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want; The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character.

At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.

This antagonism between modern science and industry on the one hand, and social misery and disillusion on the other hand is the epoch that we are currently living through. Actually there’s a debate going on that has been going on for a little while among scientists and geologists about whether we have entered a new geological epoch. This will take a while to resolve, but scientists are starting to lean towards the idea that the answer is yes. This is a big decision for science, because a geological epoch is measured in tens of thousands of years. You have to have a way of measuring the impact of human society over not just a few hundred years, but hundreds of thousands of years. What would be the impact on that kind of scale? Civilization collapses, all the buildings disappear under sand and dirt and erosion and whatever else, and what’s left?

We are currently living in the Holocene, or have been since the last ice age. It is being argued that we are now entering a new epoch of the Anthropocene—the age of man—because we cause such a level of disruption to the environment. How are we going to measure where we start the Anthropocene? Geologists and scientists congregate around the year 1945, because that’s when the atom bombs dropped and the testing started and we will be able to measure the difference in the isotopic fractionation of the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years. So the most long-lived legacy of this so-called civilization might be the irradiation of the atmosphere. How despicable is that as a testament to the human race.

Clearly we have to have a real alternative. Can you guess who the only ones planning for climate change in this country are? The Pentagon. The Pentagon is actively planning for  climate change and they’ve got answers. Major General Michael Lehnert, who was part of the Marine Corps and who operated on a few different bases (he has worked at Guantánamo—he must be a nice guy), he says, “A country worth defending is a country worth preserving.  Environmentalists need large open expanses of space where endangered species can recover and thrive. The military needs large open expanses of space so they can train.”

What can possibly go wrong having a nature reserve that’s also a bombing range? Of course they could coexist. Why is the navy in particular—which is about to sail a so-called great green fleet on the basis of bio-fueled and nuclear-powered warships—why are they so invested in it? Where are naval bases? On the coastline. They know they are going to be under water, so they’ve got to take evasive action, as it were. The navy, along with the army, is taking this very seriously. The navy’s new slogan is “A global force for good.” They found out through some research that trying to sign young people up to “What do you want to do with your life—go kill people in large numbers” was not a good selling point, so they changed it to “A global force for good.”

We need to ask ourselves much broader questions. To quote Carolyn Merchant about how consumer capitalism envisions nature and the environment:

The twentieth-century Garden of Eden is the enclosed shopping mall decorated with trees, flowers, and fountains in which people can shop for nature at the Nature Company, purchase “natural” clothing at Esprit, sample organic foods and rainforest crunch in kitchen gardens, buy twenty-first-century products at Sharper Image, and play virtual reality games in which SimEve is reinvented in Cyberspace. . . . The mall, enclosed by the desert of the parking lots surrounding it, is covered by glass domes reaching to heaven, accessed by spiral staircases and escalators affording a vista over the whole garden of shops. . . . With their engineered spaces and commodity fetishes, they epitomize consumer capitalism’s vision of the recovery from the Fall.

We need a much bigger vision. To quote James Baldwin—he had an argument in the 1950s with William Faulkner about whether they should go slow and be patient on the question of civil rights. He wrote an essay from which I’ll quote:

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.

We need to fight on every front available to us. We are engaged in a struggle to stop the Keystone XL. It’s not like we haven’t won some things with regard to that fight. If we hadn’t already been fighting the Keystone XL in Canada and here, it would already have been approved. We’ve already delayed that decision, and the demonstration in Washington, DC was another way of delaying it further. Obama is trying to get his ducks in a row to make sure they can sell the sellout to enough liberal organizations to get them to hum and hah, and I think that’s where we need to go as a real left wing and argue that we are going to call a demonstration immediately if he approves it, and organize to build it as widely as possible and march on the White House.

The divestment campaign—is it everything we want? Obviously not. But it’s a campaign and we should join it and be involved to the fullest extent that we can. Because, as I mentioned in another workshop, and as people are probably well aware, we need to win some victories to buy ourselves some time. We also need to win some victories to gain confidence that we can win more things and build our organizations. Because if it’s the one thing that we lack, it’s the question of organization and how do we strengthen the networks—in this city, between cities, between countries—to build a better future.

One way of seeing capitalism—apart from insane—is as a global simplification project. What works best for capitalism is massive economies of scale, a huge concentration of wealth, and ever-larger multinational and transnational corporations, to the extent that bio diversity is viewed as an impediment to capital accumulation. It’s much better if they have monocultures, vast acres of monocultures. It’s much better for capitalists if we live off four animals or four grains or four fish. It’s much more efficient from a capitalist perspective, and efficiency for capitalism means only the fastest accumulation of money possible.

I was in the agriculture panel and I learned a lot of things. Take the question of food. I looked up the definition of food, and this is the definition of food: Any nourishing substance that is eaten, drunk, or otherwise taken into the body to sustain life, provide energy, and promote growth. How many of us had food today based on that definition? What they sell us is mostly poison. They have forcibly depopulated rural areas in this country in order to concentrate in the urban areas and replace humans with machines, to the extent that the food that they’ve been selling us has become so toxic they’ve invented a whole new category of food called organic food. What the hell happened to the other stuff? Why do I have to spend more of my money, if I can’t even afford it, on this organic food? There’s all kinds of contradictions that I’m sure we know about.

You think about consumer demand as if we are the ones making the decisions. Would we have created a system where the food is so poisonous that we then have to go grow some other things? Or, if you think about fast food—one in five meals in this country is eaten off of somebody’s lap because you are running somewhere, because you’ve got a second job or a third job or you’re already working twelve hours in the job that you’re lucky enough to have. I’ve been on lots of demonstrations in my time, but I’ve never been on a demonstration where the chanting was “Feed us crap, only do it faster.” Fast food would never have been invented if we were the ones who made the decisions about what should and should not have been produced. When you think about breaking bread with other human beings, it’s one of the most sensuous, fulfilling experiences that you can have as a human being. It is jam-packed full of cultural connotations going back tens of thousands of years to the very birth of humanity 200,000 years ago in Africa. The idea that we would share food and break bread together has been eradicated, because sitting down and enjoying a meal and taking time to do that—there is no time under capitalism, and I think that is one of the key things, one of the key insights that Marx had about where we should go from here.

When you read some of what they are talking about—the corporations, the food corporations in particular—they realize that the capitalist system is so productive there aren’t enough people to eat the food, even though people go hungry all the time. So not only are there a billion obese people, but there are also a billion underfed people. Some of those people are the same people, undernourished people. The food corporations fight over what they call “stomach share,” because they’ve run out of the number of stomachs for the amount of food that they produce. Therefore, what’s their option if they are in this death struggle with each other? You have to increase the size of every stomach. That is their active strategy, because it makes much more money from a capitalist point of view to do that, and so lots of effort and time and engineering goes into food science, to create what’s called the “bliss point.” The bliss point is the perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat that does not allow your brain to recognize that you have eaten and that you are full in order for you to keep eating and keep consuming. That is the level of sickness that we currently live in.

What is the alternative? There was a recent article in Scientific American by Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford, which cited a report saying by 2030 we could have the whole world powered by wind, water, and solar power. He has come up with a new plan for New York State for how we can do the same thing by 2030. We would be reducing energy consumption by 37 percent, because it is more efficient to use renewable than fossil fuels. There would be 4,000 fewer mortalities in New York State in a year, because we wouldn’t be breathing the stuff we are currently breathing. There would be more people at work, and we would save $33-billion a year. He was asked in a recent interview what the main obstacles are for achieving this. He says, “I’m not an advocate, I’m a scientist, this is what I do.” But he said the main obstacles are political and social—getting politicians on board. There are always local zoning issues. I am sure there will be a big push by the gas lobby and the oil lobby against this. If society is going to do it, at least we know it’s technically and economically feasible. Whether it actually happens depends on the political will.

I don’t know whether people saw it, there was a recent article in Time magazine titled "The revenge of Marx." They keep announcing him dead and somehow he keeps magically coming back. The article starts off, and this is in the business world finance section of Time, “Karl Marx was supposed to be dead and buried.” That’s how it begins. But then it goes on: “From the floor of the U.S. Congress to the streets of Athens to the assembly lines of Southern China, political and economic events are being shaped by escalating tensions between capital and labor to a degree unseen since the communist revolutions of the twentieth century. How this struggle plays out will influence the direction of global economic policy, the future of the welfare state, political stability in China, and who governs from Washington to Rome.” That’s Time magazine a couple of weeks ago. They quote a couple of different Chinese workers, one of whom says, “The way the rich get money is through exploiting the workers. Communism is what we are looking forward to.” Another worker says, “Workers will organize more. All the workers should be united.”

There is clearly a new mood in the world, and I think we’re heading into a new period. We have really been in one since 2011 with the Arab Spring and Wisconsin and Occupy, and all the things that we’ve been fighting for, in particular since 2009. There is clearly a new era that we’re into, which is an era of revolt, rebellion, and revolution. What is it that we really want to fight for? Going back to that study that I quoted on how New York State could be wind, water, and solar powered in 20 years time. The author takes everything that currently exists and assumes that it will still exist and he still thinks it’s possible. In other words, the transportation will still remain based on private transportation and not public transportation. We won’t be taking any other measures; we will be just changing one form of supplying energy for a less polluting form of supplying energy. I think we need a much, much bigger vision. Because as one of the speakers in the food panel mentioned, what it means to put wind turbines in Mexico is an increase in poverty, because they kick people off the land in order to put in the wind turbines. So we have to talk about not just changing energy systems, but about changing the social and political power in this country and around the world.

We’re not going to get positive ecological change without some positive social change, which means putting front and center questions of fighting racism, fighting sexism, and fighting homophobia, along with rearranging the social and political policies. The pendulum of power has swung so far to one side that we need to urgently form a movement to pull it back, and ultimately get rid of the entire pendulum, if that analogy really works.

Marx had quite a lot to say about the lack of time, and about the concept of ownership.  The concept of yours versus mine is one of the most distorting and alienating concepts that we currently have to live with—the possession and ownership of things and the way we see our basic human fulfillment through the prism of ownership of things. I can feel more fulfilled if I can only buy more stuff and get the next generation of iPhone or whatever it is, and I would be feeling more human than I did before once I’ve acquired this. If you have the ability to do that, you very quickly find yourself unfulfilled, empty. As J. K. Galbraith said, capitalism is the production of manufactured discontent. We are continually unhappy in our distorted lives, and we obviously have no idea what it means to be fully human in any real sense.

This is really a 10,000-year struggle the culmination of which is to privatize the entire planet. That’s really what it’s about—to the extent that they have now managed to privatize even words. McDonald’s has a patent on 114 different words and phrases in the English language. Or think about patenting genes and all the rest of it. One of the first things they privatized 10,000 years or so ago at the beginning of civilization, class society, was the female body. So how do we go back and via revolution open up such questions of sexuality, gender, our relationships to each other, and our relationship to nature. These are questions I think, very large questions, that we need to address. What we really are talking about is changing our relationship to each other and the planet. We’re not talking about in relationship to things, which is deeply alienating, we’re talking about our relationship to each other and the planet, and how we form a movement that would be for those things.

So it’s not just a question of energy; it’s not just a question of public ownership or public transportation—although we want all those things. It’s a question of what Marx talked about—overcoming the metabolic rift where we’re completely separated off from nature. In fact there are three real separations, because capitalism has put animals in one place, crops and plants in another, humans somewhere else, and then created this insanely energy-intensive, water- intensive pollution system which is entirely linear: waste comes out at every point. And as far as the capitalists are concerned, that doesn’t really matter.

Do we really need to own anything? I think this is one of the limitations of talking about how we change our consumption patterns, because it’s clearly not about changing just our consumption. If we see ourselves as just buying different things, then we actually fall into the trap laid by capitalism, because we start to see ourselves as consumers as opposed to producers, as opposed to valuable human beings.

I was just in the bookshop recently and there is a new book Raising Baby Green: The Earthy-Friendly Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth and Baby Care. Apparently the book is at the forefront of the green baby movement. So you can totally have a green baby under capitalism. Or there’s a book out last year Eco Sex: Go Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable by Stephanie Weiss. I’ll just quote from the publicity blurb, because I think it goes to the insanity that is the system. They take people’s good intentions to try and do something and turn it into another buying opportunity for the system: “Leaving a smaller carbon footprint in the bedroom is easy with eco sex, a green sex guide that will inspire both sexual and ecological excitement. Renew your passion for the environment while you recharge your love life.” Yes, nothing like thinking about offsetting your carbon credits to get you a little hot under the collar. “With green sex toys, low impact lingerie, fair-trade condoms, bamboo bed linens, hand-cranked vibrators, conflict-free diamonds, and much more.” I may be the first to admit that I may not be as experienced as perhaps I should be with vibrators; however, the concept of a hand-cranked vibrator does seem to something of a contradiction in terms. Yes, maybe that’s just my inexperience shining through.

Moving along to perhaps more serious issues, what do you think about the idea of not owning stuff? We’re all familiar with the idea of a library. On a small scale, what is a library? You get to borrow a book that you don’t own, read things that you’re interested in, and then give it back to the library so somebody else can read it. Radical concept. When was the last time you heard somebody complain about libraries? “God damn libraries, they’re everywhere.”

You have to own your own individual washing machine, dryer, any number of other things—that could all be socialized and, as Joel Koval was saying, held in common. Because the future is about holding things together, in common, and producing things for what we need, not for what makes money. In fact, expanding on that, we don’t even need money. You don’t actually need money. In a society based on cooperation and real democracy, and producing things that you need, then you can cooperate and coordinate in order to exchange those things without the need for money, without the constant expansion that is inherent to capitalism. How can we just make the things that we need so that everybody is satisfied, and we are not working every God-given hour in order to do so? We are actually reversing the equation that is capitalism—replacing people with machines—and thinking about how we can have a much more meaningful way of living by working a lot, lot less. Why do you need lines on maps called countries? Ultimately why aren’t we living in a world where there are no nation states, in fact there are no states as such? Why can’t we organize cooperatively and collectively to solve the problems that are bequeatehd to us by capitalism, and move forward in a way that is truly human and worthy of the kind of immense,­ amazing cultural things that we’ve managed to do even under capitalism or under feudalism, and other forms of class society? How can we take deep ecological insights of indigenous cultures around the world and connect those to some of the technological know-how that we’ve accumulated at the same time, and take the best from both worlds in order to make sure that we can have ecological farming on a human scale, that is putting our species and other species at the forefront of everything that we do?

This was a concept that Martin Luther King, Jr was coming to towards the end of his life. Having won political rights, the next question for him was, what about economic rights? The right to vote obviously is important, and people died just to get the right to vote. But once we’d won the right to vote, where do we go from there? And this is what he said in 1967 in his speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?”:

We must honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are 40-million poor people here [now that’s 50-million], and one day we must ask the question: why are there 40-million poor people in America? And when you ask that question you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And you see my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question: who owns the oil? You begin to ask the question: who owns the iron ore? You begin to ask the question: why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?

Marx talked a lot about how ownership distorts us. He also talked a lot about time, and how one of the major aspects of living in a truly human society—one based on cooperation, real democracy, and production for need—is the immense amounts of time we will have to develop ourselves spiritually, intellectually, and culturally. The word “spirit” from the Latin means to breathe. If we are going to really breathe on this planet, we are going to need every kind of awakening possible in order to fight for a movement, because there’s no sense in which they are going to turn around, the 1%. Warfare is endemic to capitalism; racism is endemic to capitalism; and so is sexism. If we are going to live in a completely different world without those things, we need to get rid of capitalism. We need to fight for reforms right now, but we also need a vision of a completely different world, where we’re living in equality and freedom, and we have the time and the energy to replant our crops, rethink how we live, reimagine what food is and our relationships, not in terms of the things that we can accumulate, but the ways in which we can accumulate friends, relationships, and investigate nature.

Capitalism posits that there is a fundamental separation between humans and the environment. That’s why they use the word “environment,” because it sees the environment as somewhere else and we are humans. If you talk about ecology, then you talk about what humans really are. We are as much a part of nature as anything else is, and our investigation of nature is about uncovering something about ourselves. Our ability to investigate and find things out shouldn’t be just based on, as it primarily is under capitalism: What can we use it for? What is it good for? How much money can I make from it? But purely for the sense of serene beauty that we get from knowing the universe better because by knowing the universe in nature better we actually know ourselves better. That is the dialect of nature.

And to follow off from Epicurus, the kind of age, or epoch, that I would like to go into is the Oikeiotocene, which doesn’t sound too sexy, and is a little difficult to pronounce. It is the “age of conformity to nature,” and that is the age that I think we urgently need to fight for. I’m very, very happy to be part of a movement that is growing, and that there is an emerging left wing as part of it, and I think we can go on to win some victories and slow down the capitalist death train that is leading us over the carbon cliff, to ultimately derail it, and get rid of the idea that we need to be hurtling towards oblivion at a faster and faster place, accumulating more and more stuff. Then we can start to find out years and generations post-revolution how we can recognize and live as fully human beings in a world that we are not exterminating, but of which we see ourselves as beneficiaries, as bona pater familias, tenders of the household, as Marx called it, for future generations. And I think that is the kind of vision that we need in order to go forward