Should ecosocialists try to live green?

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This weekend’s conference of the British Campaign Against Climate Change featured a session on Ecosocialism, with panelists Jonathan Neale (Socialist Workers Party), Derek Wall (Green Party) and Alan Thornett (Socialist Resistance).

Liam Mac Uaid, who attended the session, says it included a worthwhile discussion on issues related to labels (should we call ourselves ‘eco’ socialists?) and lifestyles (should we be trying to reduce our personal carbon footprints?). Here are some excepts from Liam’s report:

Jonathan opened his contribution by remarking that he wanted more socialists to get involved in the movement against climate change and observing that at the moment they are a bit of a rarity.  Lobbying does not work on an issue of this magnitude and what is required is an international mass movement involving tens of millions of people. …

Alan’s most controversial remark was to describe himself as an ecosocialist, something he explained by saying that it is no longer enough for socialists to bolt on a bit of ecology to what they normally do. The immensity of the catastrophe which the science is predicting means that ecology has to be integral to all our activity. The scale of the crisis has huge implications for the socialist project because the combination of its economic and environmental impact is going to show hundreds of millions of people that capitalism is unsustainable.

Referring back to his time in the car factory Alan observed that no one at that time in the labour movement eve questioned what they were making. All that mattered was job security, pay and working conditions. The questions were never asked about how socially harmful are these machines, what is their long term effect on the environment, can society do without them? This was one of the ways in which the capitalist need to produce and make profit infected the workers’ movement. Now we have to start challenging the idea that productivism and growth are ends in themselves.

Much of the subsequent discussion swung around two points. The first was the degree to which one’s own lifestyle should be amended to reflect our new ecological understanding. There was one strand which thought that this is largely irrelevant. All that matters is movements, unions, and demonstrations and that what individuals do is of no great significance. The other strand, supported by Derek and Alan is that political action is the most important thing but that we also need to start prefiguring what a sustainable socialist society might look like. The example I threw into the discussion was that socialist men live in a world with a lot of sexism and while we know that our impact on this is pretty small we try as best we can to avoid being sexist.

The other contentious issue was whether or not the “eco” prefix is necessary for modern socialists. A strongly represented view was that what we do is more important than how we label ourselves and that it’s entirely possible for socialists to develop theory and activities on climate change without changing how they view themselves. Again Derek and Alan dissented from this reminding the audience that the impact of climate change on the world’s population obliges socialist to rethink all their basic ideas inherited from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


  • To make a new class politics, don’t counterpoise individual lifestyle action to collective social action – but make the latter flow from the former.

    Masses of people want to live more ecologically – but they try to do this through difficult individual lifestyle choices. The task of (eco)socialists is not to reject this choice as as mere ‘lifestylism’ but to try and make it more possible – by returning the question to mass democratic collective action.

    Therefore we demand (collectively and politically) more neighbourhood allotments and green spaces to grow fruit and vegetables; more cycle paths and public transport; more organic farmers markets; more decent workplace and school organic food; etc etc etc. Thus even these issues and choices that are individualised within neo-liberal capitalism open up new ground for more collective action – but only for aware ecosocialst forces.

  • Socialists can and have always got caught up in ethical consumerism and this CAN be a retreat from political engagement and struggle. I can recall an ex-girlfriend’s CP parents bringing me my first contact with ecover washing products and non-south African groceries etc etc. Likewise I recognise large numbers of individuals whose political engagement wears off with the advent of kids and day to day life, who are often are more conscious of what they consume.

    The point is that ethical consumerism is something colonised by the system and yet something of some small value at the same time. Someone practicising more ethical choices in day to day life are possibly more likely to be brought into the orbit of socialist politics. Our discourse and culture should and does in any case reflect this. Socialists live day to day life and have the same dilemmas as everyone else.

    In the last few years, I have cycled more, eaten less meat and try to make more ethical choices when possible…ironically as someone in their late 30s with kids, I have never been less politically active.

    The prefix eco to socialist IS important I feel. Whilst I am somewhat at odds with the retreat from class politics of some ecosocialists (implicit in Joel Kovel’s view of ‘no privileged agent’) and glorifying of Cuba and Venezuela, discourse are issues of climate and the enviroment is THE question of our era. All politics will and is being shaped around this question. Alan Thornett’s remarks about trade union politics in past years is likewise instructive as despite traditions of tremendous shop floor militancy and cultures of solidarty trade unionism was fundamentally about wages and conditions…the logic of trade unionism in the future should by essence be more political – taking control of the work process itself and determining what is neccessary etc. The new anti-capitalist/ecosocialism and the work of communists in trade unions should be to aid this process.

  • I grapple with this all the time. The way I see it, the danger in “living green” is that you could convince yourself that you are “saving the planet” by simply practicing green consumerism. I know so-called environmentalists who have this attitude so this isn’t a straw-man argument.

    If you work for change, pious actions should not be your main concern. I remember one newspaper columnist excoriating David Suzuki for taking a limo from the airport to a TV studio for an interview. I’m willing to excuse him (or anyone else) for not being perfectly “green” as long as he or she is fighting the fight.