Marxism and Climate Change: An Exchange

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Paul York, an organizer of Students Against Climate Change at the University of Toronto, recently submitted the following comments on Ian Angus’s article Confronting the Climate Change Crisis. Ian’s response follows Paul’s comments

Ian, this is a great article. It really sums up the problem. The one point of difference is the solution: modern capitalism has caused this problem through a combination of the ideology of unlimited economic growth AND high carbon-emitting technologies.

Cuba does not emit a high amount of CO2 per capita because most people there use sustainable decentralized intermediary technologies to survive. This is not an original argument: several critics of massive, centralized technologies such as Ursula Franklin and Jaques Ellul make the same point.

Simone Weil makes the point that you can have a Communist society with dehumanizing production-oriented factories if it is driven by a production-oriented ideology such as historical materialism. She was looking at the Soviet model when she wrote Oppression and Liberty, her seminal critique of Marxism.

She wrote this treatise as a committed socialist dissatisfied with what she perceived as an emphasis within Marx’s work (and its practical applications) on production at the expense of “thought” (the ability to think and act freely within the workplace), which she equated with liberty.

The solution is whatever system can best give people power over technology, which excludes cars, massive factories, computers — mass-produced highly technical things which are production-oriented and wasteful.

To a great extent, a certain type of socialism compliments the anti-technology movement (through bio-regionalism, which is communitarian and decentralized); I do not disagree with a socialist perspective but wish to suggest that we need to include an strong critique of centralized technology in addition to that perspective, especially in light of the emphasis on nuclear technology and re-sequestration by the Bush Administration. They are acting as though high-end technology (which caused the problem) will solve it.

As for Marxism, the effect of Marx’s thought (in practice through production-oriented factories) is virtually indistinguishable from capitalism as it affects workers and the environment. By “Marx’s thought” I mean his emphasis on historical materialism and its strong emphasis on production goals. In practice, this was translated into faked production quotas under Stalin.

Of course, Stalinism must not be confused with Marxism, but my point is that there is an element in Marxism which lends itself to environmental abuse, and this needs to be analyzed. Marx’s later though must be distinguished from his earlier thought, which emphasized the welfare of the workers, the environment, and did not focus on production goals as did the later work. Here I am paraphrasing Simone Weil’s Oppression and Liberty (1934).

Historical materialism in combination with prescriptive technology is deeply problematic, just as the unlimited economic growth of capitalism and prescriptive technology is deeply problematic for the same reason — it emphasizes production at all costs. Those costs include the welfare of human beings and the natural world.

The better type of technology is decentralized, simple and holistic and within the control of workers. This type of technology (largely pre-industrial, but could include new inventions such as solar technology) tends to be more environmentally friendly, simpler and provides local solutions — the very emphasis of the bioregional movement.

It is holistic technology that promises to revolutionize society and bring it into a sustainable green future by placing the “means of [energy] production” in the hands of consumers, effectively liberating them from the tyranny of centralized energy-producers working in concert with capitalist governments.


Dear Paul:

Thank you for your positive comments on my article, and for taking the time to lay out your disagreements. You won’t be surprised that I’m not convinced by your criticisms.

Last month, when we first started corresponding about Climate and Capitalism, you referred me to Simone Weil, Jacques Ellul and others. I wrote that Marxists have much to learn from non-Marxists, but …

“In general, I’m uncomfortable with analyses that attribute the ecological crisis (or any other social problem) to bad ideas or bad ideology. …

“In particular, I think some Marxists do a much better job of asking ‘why?’ Why is a damaging approach to nature so dominant in our society? Why do our governments almost universally refuse to do anything, or limit themselves to superficial fixes that don’t really work?

“The Marxist conclusion — that the dominant ideas in any era flow from the nature of the dominant social order — makes sense to me.”

Your recent comments reinforce my concern. Your approach, like that of Simone Weil and others, begins with ideas and ideology.

“modern capitalism has caused this problem through a combination of the ideology of unlimited economic growth AND high carbon-emitting technologies.”

Of course an “ideology of unlimited economic growth” exists — but the critical question is where that ideology comes from, why it is so pervasive. Many people have proposed alternative ideas, some of them excellent — why do they remain marginal?

The answer is that growth isn’t just an ideology — it is a fundamental feature of the capitalist system, deeply encoded in the system’s DNA. The capitalist system cannot survive without profit, which is just a word for the incremental growth of capital. If capital doesn’t grow, it dies.

Capitalism functions through competition between capitalist firms, each seeking to maximize its own profit. Corporations can survive only by constantly expanding their operations, markets, and profitability. That’s true regardless of the good wishes or desires of individual capitalists. A capitalist who chooses not to grow will soon be marginalized by the capitalist economy, and eventually will have no more capital.

The problem is not ideology but economic necessity.

Similarly, it’s true that modern capitalism depends on high carbon-emitting technologies — but noticing that fact only opens the discussion. Again, we must ask why. Scientists have been warning about the harmful effects of greenhouse gases for two decades: why are GHG-emitting technologies still dominant? Why are rising faster than ever? Why is resistance to change so incredibly strong?

The answer, once again, lies in capitalism’s need for profit. Greenhouse gas emissions are a perfect example of what economists call an “externality,” which my dictionary defines as “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.”

In short, the capitalist economy allows corporations to offload the cost of GHG emissions onto society as a whole. That increases profit, which is the entire purpose of capitalist economic activity.

If one corporation pays the full cost of its emissions, or pays the cost of switching to non-emitting technology, its profit rate will fall below its competitors, and it will be squeezed out of the market. If one country imposes regulations on emissions, capital will move to other countries where the regulations (if they exist at all) are more consistent with high profit rates.

Capitalism itself — not any particular ideology or technology — is the fundamental cause of the problem. The solution, as Marx and Engels wrote 160 years ago, will require “despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production.” In Confronting the Climate Change Crisis, I suggested what some of those inroads might be.

* * *

That brings me to the second part of your criticism. Drawing on Simone Weil’s criticism of Marxism, you argue that:

“the effect of Marx’s thought (in practice through production-oriented factories) is virtually indistinguishable from capitalism as it affects workers and the environment. By “Marx’s thought” I mean his emphasis on historical materialism and its strong emphasis on production goals.”

Simone Weil was a heroic individual who deserves to be better remembered. She became active in the French workers movement in the mid-1920s, while still in her teens. She participated in the French general strike of 1933, joined an anarchist militia in Spain in 1936, and supported the French resistance from exile until her tragic early death in 1943.

But respect for Weil’s dedication should not blind us to the fact that her political and philosophical views were confused and inconsistent. In less than five years in the 1930s, she sequentially embraced Trotskyism, pacifism, anarchism and Catholic mysticism. Trotsky, who had long discussions with her in 1933, described her as a “muddlehead … without any understanding for working class politics and Marxism.” Even one of Weil’s academic admirers, Mary Dietz, says that “Simone Weil is the sort of thinker who stubbornly resists the search for continuity, order or unity in her work.”

The one consistent feature of her thought was philosophical idealism — she saw the evils of the world as the product of bad ideas, and her ever-changing solutions were all variations on the theme that the way to change the world is to adopt good ideas and change personal behaviour.

So it’s no surprise that her critique of Marxism was idealist through and through. Marx’s original sin was historical materialism, and that bad idea inevitably led to Stalinism.

Excuse me for being flip, but I have to say that Weil’s critique of Marx is so misinformed that it isn’t even wrong. She didn’t criticize Marxism — she criticized a caricature of her own invention. The fact Weil’s critique leads you to believe that Marx’s views were anti-ecological and productivist is proof of that. John Bellamy Foster, a very profound student of Marxism, writes:

“Marx’s world-view was deeply, and indeed systematically, ecological (in all positive senses in which that term is used today), and … this ecological perspective derived from his materialism.”

I won’t try to summarize Bellamy’s argument here. In Richard Levins’ words, Bellamy’s book, Marx’s Ecology, “demonstrates the centrality of ecology for a materialist conception of history, and of historical materialism for an ecological movement.” I strongly urge you to read it.

Obviously, the USSR and other “socialist” countries had appalling ecological records. They were transitional societies, no longer capitalist but far from socialist, and they still suffered from many of the worst features of capitalism, including the exclusion of working people from decision-making and power. Understanding why that happened, and why those attempts to build socialist societies failed, requires careful political and sociological analysis.

Blaming the Russian tragedy on Marx’s supposed errors simply doesn’t work — first, because Marx didn’t make those errors, and second because mistaken ideas alone are a grossly insufficient explanation for a social disaster as great as the degeneration of the Russian Revolution.

* * *

For us today, the truly interesting case is Cuba. Since capitalism was abolished on that island in the early 1960s, it has created and maintained a system of peoples’ power that is unique in the world today. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it is an amazing achievement. The recent series of articles by Fidel Castro (a very committed exponent of historical materialism, by the way) are some of the finest statements of humane ecological principles I’ve read. No leader of a capitalist state has even come close.

But you write: “Cuba does not emit a high amount of CO2 per capita because most people there use sustainable decentralized intermediary technologies to survive.” By implication, you disagree with my view that Cuba’s break with capitalism is the critical factor in its ecological achievements.

As you say, Cuba’s emissions are low because of the way its economy is organized. But once again, noticing that fact only opens the discussion. There are many countries that are as poor as Cuba, many that are isolated, many that have limited access to fossil fuels. Why then is Cuba the only country in the world that meets the World Wildlife Fund’s criteria for sustainable development?

I don’t think it’s an accident. It’s because Cuba has abolished capitalism, so it can operate without capitalism’s constant drive for profit.

As John Riddell wrote in Socialist Voice recently:

“Cuba cannot achieve socialism within the confines of a small and underdeveloped island. It makes no sense to condemn Cuba for not achieving the impossible. What Cuba has done, with unparalleled success, is to end the political rule of the capitalist class, resist capitalist economic pressures, win as much ground as possible for socialist principles of human solidarity and production for human need rather than profit — and help open the door for other countries in the region to take the same path.”

Obviously the experience of the 20th Century shows that simply overthrowing capitalism isn’t enough. That’s why I, and some others, have begun using the rather awkward term “ecosocialism” — it’s an attempt to emphasize both that the ecological crisis requires socialist solutions and that socialism can only succeed if it is based on sound ecological practices. The Cuban revolution, small, isolated and poor though the country is, provides a very preliminary and limited example of what is possible.

* * *

Finally, a brief comment on your argument that we need to oppose “centralized technology.” Especially, you write, because the Bush Administration “are acting as though high-end technology (which caused the problem) will solve it.”

I don’t agree that technology itself is the cause of global warming. Humanity’s entire experience of high-end technology has been filtered through and shaped by capitalism. The system, by its very nature, treats profit as vastly more important than people, and so uses technology in grossly anti-ecological ways. It’s that fundamental feature of capitalism — not technology as such — that is rapidly driving the world towards climate catastrophe.

I suggest that we simply don’t know how a global society that puts the needs of humanity and nature first will decide to organize production, or how it will deploy and manage technology. In part it will depend on what shape the world is in when the transition begins. In part it will depend on technologies that don’t exist today.

But above all it will depend on the actions of new generations of human beings, working out their problems in ways that we (who are products of capitalist society) can not possibly imagine.

“Then only will human progress cease to resemble that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.” —Karl Marx

* * *

Paul, I truly wish that global warming was just the result of bad ideology and inappropriate technology. The people who control our governments and the polluting corporations aren’t stupid: if the issue is just mistaken ideas, they could be persuaded to change, though rational discussion and debate. They could be brought to understand that greenhouse gases hurt everyone, that we’re all in this together, and that by adopting more reasonable views they could stop catastrophe.

Unfortunately, in Upton Sinclair’s words, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding.” The ideology of the ruling class isn’t a mistake: it’s a direct reflection and requirement of the capitalist system. Conversation and reasonable debate will not change that.

That’s why groups like Students Against Climate Change are so important. They are part of a growing movement that can — if we do it right! — shift the balance of social forces to make it impossible for capitalism to continue with business as usual. That effort, extended globally, can impose severe restrictions on the corporations’ “right to pollute” — and eventually help to end the profit system that places our planet’s future at risk.

Ian Angus
Editor, Climate and Capitalism



  • hi can some one tell where I can find a very brief and summative overview of marxism/socialism on climate change? Anything in particular any one would recommend. Thanks.

    • I’d recommend starting with The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace With the Planet, by John Bellamy Foster (Monthly Review Press 2009).

      If you want something less than book-length: “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism” in Monthly Review. See

      And of course there are many articles on that subject on this website. Go to “Hot Topics” in the right hand column and scroll down to “Marxism” or “ecosocialism”

  • […] an organizer of Students Against Climate Change at the University of Toronto, recently submitted some thoughtful comments on Ian Angus’s article Confronting the Climate Change Crisis. This is Ian’s […]