Red Environmentalism

A low-carbon socialist future is possible.

Capitalism is wreaking havoc on the world we live in. Climate change threatens to alter our planet beyond recognition, drowning coastal settlements, intensifying droughts and heat waves, and strengthening extreme weather.

The most harmful effects, of course, are falling on the world’s poorest people. Overfishing has pushed fisheries to the point of collapse; fresh water supplies are scarce in regions that are home to half the world’s population; fertilizer-intensive factory farming has exhausted agricultural land of nutrients; forests are being leveled at staggering rates to make way for cash crops and cattle ranches; extinction rates compare to those of prehistoric meteor-induced apocalypses.

These aren’t issues that can be fixed by changing a light bulb. Human activity has transformed the entire planet in ways that are now threatening the way we inhabit it — some of us far more than others.

But if you point out that it’s not humanity in the abstract but capitalism that we should hold responsible, you’ll hear a familiar retort: socialism is bad for the environment too! Production in the Soviet Union also ran on fossil fuels, degraded agricultural land, polluted rivers, and deforested vast expanses.

It’s true that the USSR’s environmental record doesn’t inspire much confidence. But that doesn’t mean that capitalism can solve our environmental problems, as bright-green entrepreneurs declare, or that modern industrial society must be abandoned altogether, as some deep greens would have it.

Capitalism can certainly survive worsening environmental conditions, at least for a while — but it will survive under conditions of increasing eco-apartheid, with safety and comfort for the wealthy and growing scarcity for the rest.

Yet the twentieth-century socialist dream of maximizing production in the pursuit of abundance and equality seems increasingly untenable. Marxists held that communism would arise amid post-capitalist conditions of superabundance: once the capitalist engines were roaring, they could be seized and put to the benefit of all.

But those engines can’t run on fossil fuels any more, and contemporary consumer capitalism isn’t the abundance we had in mind. We need not only to seize the means of production, but to transform them.

We also need a different vision of the future than has been put forth by the Left more recently. Environmental leftism of late has tended towards an anarchist bent that’s distrustful of large-scale production and concentrated power, whether private or public. This shouldn’t be surprising — because environmental problems are so place-specific, they often prompt small-scale local solutions.

But climate change and other environmental crises arising from global systems of production and consumption are systemic issues of political economy; addressing them will require more than just pockets of alternative practice. And environmental problems don’t respect political borders: ecological interdependence is another reminder that sustainability will come only through global solidarity.

To what future should twenty-first-century socialism aspire? How can we achieve a just society without relying on fossil fuels or exacerbating other forms of environmental destruction?

In figuring out an answer, socialists should look to socialist-feminist traditions concerned with the work that makes life livable. Socialist feminists have long called attention to the labor of social reproduction — the activities necessary to replenish wage laborers both individually and across generations, such as education, child care, housework, and food preparation.

Struggles over social reproduction have focused on the demands and possibilities of life outside the factory, and they have much to teach us about organizing new ways of living. We also need to value the work of ecological reproduction — to recognize that the activity of ecosystems keeps the earth viable for human life, and care for them accordingly.

While some socialists aspire to a superabundance of everything for everyone, environmentalists tend to point to over-consumption as a primary culprit of environmental degradation. But not all consumption is equivalent.

Capitalism relies on cheap inputs in the form of labor and nature to make its cheap goods. As a result, the system consistently drives down both environmental and labor costs and standards.

Inexpensive goods aren’t necessarily bad, but they shouldn’t come at the cost of working people and ecosystems. The goal of a socialist society is not to clamp down on popular consumption, but to create a society that emphasizes quality of life over quantity of things.

We need to find ways to live luxuriously but also lightly, aesthetically rather than ascetically. Instead of an endless cycle of working and shopping, life in a low-carbon socialist future would be oriented around activities that make life beautiful and fulfilling but require less-intensive resource consumption: reading books, teaching, learning, making music, seeing shows, dancing, playing sports, going to the park, hiking, spending time with one another.

Robust provision of public goods makes it possible to enjoy communal luxuries while decreasing wasteful forms of private consumption.

That means public housing that’s affordable for all; free, extensive transportation systems both within and between cities so that people can get around without owning a car; spacious parks and gardens that offer respite from daily life; support for arts and culture of a variety of forms; and plentiful spaces for public educational and recreational use, like libraries, basketball courts, and theaters.

Cities are often touted as a key part of green futures on account of their energy-efficient density. But green cities require more than just urban planning and tall buildings. Socialism must reclaim the city as a space for struggle and solidarity in pursuit of needs and wants — to provide public resources as a means to emancipation and flourishing, and to insist on public places as spaces of beauty and pleasure.

Capitalists promise that technology will solve environmental problems. Technological solutions aren’t a panacea, but we can’t surrender technology to venture capitalists either: utopian socialist projects have long imagined a better world built from the combined abilities of humans, nature, and technology. And a host of current technologies, from clean energy sources to biotechnologies, promise to be part of a more sustainable future.

But as long as they’re privately controlled, produced only when profitable, and accessible only to those who can pay, their potential will be exploited only as it serves capitalists. A socialist society would support research into problems whose solutions aren’t profitable and ensure that resulting technologies are put to use for public benefit.

Energy in particular is of central importance — energy use accounts for half of all carbon emissions and underpins modern life at every point. Renewable energy technologies, and solar power in particular, promise to be bountiful sources of clean energy.

But while solar power is often touted as inherently small-scale and democratic, private companies are also assembling giant solar farms, positioning themselves as the conduit for a clean energy future. Meanwhile, deregulation and privatization of electric utilities in the neoliberal era has crippled the public’s ability to build the new interconnected electric infrastructure that would make a major clean-energy transition possible.

A socialist society could choose which energy sources to use and how quickly a transition should occur on the basis of knowledge about environmental and health benefits and social needs, rather than profit margins. We could produce clean energy on a large scale and build the infrastructure necessary to make it available to and affordable for all.

At the same time, new technologies don’t in themselves constitute progress, tech companies’ self-serving claims aside. New medical electronics, for example, don’t always translate into better care; iPads don’t translate into better education — in fact, the opposite is too often the case.

A socialist society would make decisions about producing and implementing new technologies based on democratically chosen aims, rather than producing and consuming wastefully in order to keep various industries profitable. We could make sure everyone had access to clean, cheap electricity, for instance, before devoting resources to making electronic toys for the wealthy.

There will still be extractive activities, large-scale power plants, and industrial factories in a sustainable socialism. Some of these will be unsightly; some of them will disturb local ecosystems.

But instead of dumping the harms of modern production on the people with the least power to resist them — such as workers, communities of color, and the indigenous — we will make conscious decisions about what harms we’ll accept and where and how they materialize, prioritizing the perspectives and needs of those who have long suffered from them.

We could treat working landscapes as more than wastelands and recognize that the presence of machinery and industry doesn’t have to mean devastation. We could pay the costs of minimizing environmental damage rather than cutting corners to beat the competition.

Capitalism began by enclosing public and common resources for private benefit and dispossessing their previous users. Collective ownership of the means of production should include common ownership of the land, oceans, and atmosphere. That would mean not only sharing in the resources that those spaces generate, but deciding together how they should be used.

A socialist society could use scientific knowledge about ecological capacity to manage and regulate use of those spaces rather than ceding to industry whims: we’d listen to the 98 percent of scientists who say that anthropogenic climate change is happening, for example, rather than the lies of fossil-fuel lobbyists.

Under socialism, we would make decisions about resource use democratically, with regard to human needs and values rather than maximizing profit. An ecologically sustainable socialism isn’t about preserving an idealized concept of pristine, untouched nature.

It’s about choosing the world we make and live in, and about recognizing that we share that world with species other than humans. A world that’s livable is a world where everyone can have a good life instead of just scrambling to make a living.

That world will need forests as well as factories, wilderness refuges as well as cities. We’ll seek to provide people with good work, but we’ll also work less; we’ll think about what work really needs to be done instead of creating jobs just to keep people employed.

We’ll choose to keep some spaces free of obvious human use, and to protect spaces for wildlife while also making it possible for people to escape city life to spend time in restored ecosystems. We’ll aim to produce enough for everyone to live lives that are rich and full, rather than hoping for a long shot at accumulating private riches.

With our needs provided for, we can realize our human potential in the context of leisurely social relationships to other humans and other species, with enough for everyone and time for what we will.