The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970. It was also Lenin’s hundredth birthday. The coincidence was not intentional.
In fact, part of the point of Earth Day was to distance the nascent environmentalist movement from New Left critiques of consumer society, suburban development, and nuclear waste. In an attempt to avoid charges of “watermelon” politics — green on the outside, red on the inside — the message of the early environmental movement, as one Greenpeace slogan explicitly stated, was “I’m not a Red, I’m a Green.” As environmentalism went mainstream, green nonprofits grew rich and powerful on corporate donations and adopted conciliatory strategies aimed at greening the world one brand name at a time.
These days, environmentalism can rival the Left’s big-tent eclecticism: rugged wilderness fantasies, New Age mysticism, and middle-class romanticism exist side-by-side with indigenous anti-nuclear protests, campaigns against urban smog, back-to-the-land agrarian nostalgia, and entrepreneurial green tech. But lately, militant environmentalism is staging a comeback — as are state crackdowns. And even the most mainstream varieties of environmentalism are inching leftward. Climate change in particular has radicalizing potential, as more and more people are beginning to question the prevailing economic system’s destructive effect on the environment. But mainstream environmental groups aren’t going to offer a coherent critique of capitalism’s ecological consequences or do the work of theorizing alternatives.
It’s ridiculous that we still bracket climate change and water supplies as specifically “environmental” issues: the questions at hand are ones of political economy and collective action. That is to say, they are things the Left has plenty to say about. But while leftists are increasingly recognizing the importance of issues once compartmentalized as “environmental,” left perspectives on those issues remain undertheorized and too rarely discussed. That needs to change — we can’t just keep trotting out Naomi Klein whenever the topic comes up.
The Left needs more voices and sharper critiques that put our analysis of power and justice at the center of environmental discussions, where they should be. We can start by supporting and amplifying the work of environmental justice advocates who have long fought the uneven effects of environmental destruction on working communities — particularly working-class people of color and the indigenous — and other marginalized groups. But there’s more to do.
Environmental leftism tends to have an anarchist bent: anti-globalization protesters, direct-action-oriented Earth First! activists, animal-rights liberationists, and bike collectives. And because environmental problems are so place-specific, they often prompt solutions in the form of small-scale local action. Yet climate change and other global environmental challenges are systemic issues that require more than just pockets of alternative practice.
Still, if eco-anarchism doesn’t tend to scale well, sweeping critiques of the “it’s capitalism, stupid” variety aren’t very helpful when it comes to the specifics of what exactly to do about it. Socialists, too, often evade questions of how to achieve worldwide economic justice without relying on existing forms of energy production or exacerbating environmental destruction. Even leaving aside the inevitable retort that the Soviet Union was hardly an ecology paradise, old socialist dreams of maximizing production in the pursuit of abundance and equality seem increasingly untenable. What will replace them?
It’s not that we need to come up with a series of five-year plans for the environment. The exigencies of the climate crisis mean that we’re not going to get the chance to build an ecotopia from scratch. Our situation requires a struggle for non-reformist reforms — projects that buy time and allow societies to adapt to climate change and meet immediate needs, while also setting us on the path to more fundamental transformations. Without a vision and a set of concrete ideas for how to get there, we’re liable to end up with the the kind of bright-green centrism that favors both bike lanes and budget cuts, solar-powered drones and microgrid-powered jails — that is, something reminiscent of Germany’s Green Party, a once inspiring effort now described by a disillusioned co-founder as “neoliberals on bikes.” We’ve already got plenty of those.
And forget socialism in one country — ecosocialism in one country is even less feasible. The fact that ecological problems don’t respect national or institutional borders is often used as an excuse for inaction, leading to the chronic breakdown of global climate negotiations. But that interdependence should be an impetus to reinvigorate the international left — a reminder that sustainability will come only through global solidarity.
At the same time, the consequences of environmental struggles within the US are vital in light of continued American hegemony — not to mention our status as one of the world’s leading polluters. The US has not only consistently failed to commit to international treaties and emissions targets; it has also pushed to replace the more stringent responsibilities and substantial funding proposed by developing countries with market mechanisms preferred by business interests and financiers, who see opportunities for cost savings and accumulation in carbon offsets and trading — often with the support of US-based NGOs that have conceded the terms of the debate.
The failure of the American left to engage more substantially on environmental issues at home has real consequences for the expansion of neoliberalism worldwide.
The history of environmentalism is littered with Malthusianism, ecological determinism, biological essentialism, and neocolonial conservationism. Left skepticism of — or perhaps more accurately, indifference to — engagement with ecological politics is certainly understandable. But we’re not talking about preserving an idealized concept of pristine, untouched nature — we’re talking about the world we choose to make, and the world we’ll have to live in.
Green dominates the environmental landscape, from the light greenwash of “sustainable lifestyles” to the dark green of deep ecologists. But environmentalism is also black lung disease in coal-mining towns and toxic brownfields in urban neighborhoods, the iridescent sheen of an oil spill and the translucent white of melting polar ice caps.
And so I cringe a bit at the term ecosocialism — it’s too earth-toned. What we need is a cyborg socialism that points not to the primacy of ecology, but to the integration of natural and social, organic and industrial, ecological and technological; that recognizes human transformations of the natural world without simply asserting domination over it.
The Left doesn’t need to go green — to save the planet and the people on it, it needs to go red.