Published in the hope of stirring some conversation
By Jasper Richardson
Jasper Richardson is a member of the Green Party of England and Wales. He submitted this article to Climate and Capitalism in order to “stir some conversation.” Comments are encouraged.
A recent public meeting in London entitled ‘ecosocialism’, featuring prominent speakers from Socialist Resistance, Left List and the Green Party established that ‘ecosocialism’ is not capitalism and ecosocialism is not Stalinism. However there was little said about what ecosocialism is. Starting from these statements about what ecosocialism is not, this article intends to draw up a positive definition which has the potential to guide the movement. Thus, if capitalism is an ideology based on free markets, economic growth, private ownership and self interest, I propose that ecosocialism is exactly the opposite. If Stalinism is a top-heavy, authoritarian incarnation of socialism, then I conclude that ecosocialists must find ways to avoid this happening.
Private Property vs. Global Commons/Open Source
At the base of capitalist thought is a commitment to the protection and promotion of private property. For some this is the key to environmental sustainability. Famously Garrett Hardin argues that overgrazing would occur if common land was not owned privately and extends this to explain the degradation of the environment. A few even advocate the privatization of the air. Such an argument falls on two fronts. Firstly, private ownership of commons resources has led to environmentally destructive activities such as tree felling, because people feel they have the right to do what they like with ‘their’ property. If it were actually possible to privatize the air, then capitalist accumulative greed would lead to inhumane consequences.
Secondly, to quote two activists from the Climate Action Network, what we face is “Not face a tragedy of the commons, but a tragedy of unregulated open access resources.” They advocate the adoption of the ‘Contraction and Convergence’ model, which proposes that each person having equal access to their rightful share of the earth’s climate is the only socially just solution to the climate crisis. This would not be possible under private ownership.
Another alternative to private property is open source, and the extension of the library principle wherever possible, with car and bike pools for example.
However a limited role for private property and private businesses, preferably small scale, co-operatively owned and democratically regulated is compatible with sustainability. It is likely that for a sustainable future, more local, distinctive, shops and microbreweries would be more environmentally friendly, (and tastier) than nationalized supermarkets and beer companies.
Economic Growth Vs. Steady state economics
Some argue that capitalist economic growth is needed to solve social and environmental problems. For example ‘Kuznets’ Curve’ supposedly demonstrates that environmental degradation increases as a country starts to get richer, but is reversed as a country becomes rich enough to clean up its act. However Kuznets’ curve does not measure CO2, which has been shown to increase as consumption grows. Whilst there is a link between reduced deforestation and income, growth does not necessarily decrease poverty.
With respect to the first objection to Kuznets’ theory, CO2 emissions leads to global warming. A rise in temperatures of just two degrees above pre industrial levels could be enough for ‘positive feedbacks’ to kick in, and climate change to start accelerating itself with very serious effects. In the context of climate change, a rising tide could make all boats capsize. A sustainable future must recognize the earth’s limits, promote efficiency increasing (instead of than throughput increasing) technology and ensure that emissions do not exceed the capacity of the environment to absorb them.
Regarding the second objection to Kuznets’ theory, numerous studies show a failure to translate GDP growth into reduced unemployment and poverty reduction, whilst it has increased inequality. Indian Ecofeminist Vandana Shiva believes this is because so called ‘economic development’ so often consists of ordinary people being removed from the land and forced to become labourers. Thus there is economic growth despite increasing real poverty. In addition, climate change caused by economic growth hurts the poor the most. This shows that economic growth is a poor measure of poverty reduction.
Yet, trade can, and does, reduce poverty — as the growing Fair trade movement shows. Yet this is trade based on more than simply self interest, and a definition of profit which includes welfare gains as well as financial returns. This can be seen as trade without capitalism, at least in its current form. For just trade however, either democratic regulation or public interest is required — both counter to capitalist ideology. This will be addressed below.
Free Trade vs. Democratic Regulation
The next pillar of capitalism is a belief in ‘free trade’. This requires decreasing all barriers to trade, be they social and environmental regulations, border tariffs or corporation taxes. Yet, social and environmental regulation is necessary for preventing the worst effects of capitalism. Indeed, this is accepted by all except the most extreme social Darwinists. A complete lack of regulation would justify trading in people. I contend that it is only common sense that this should be extended to prevent abuse of human rights and the environment. Indeed even the US accepts this — as the passing of the Clean Air Acts in the 1970s and 1980s shows.
Advocates of unregulated capitalism also believe that it is a route to poverty reduction. Yet without the hard won fights for the right to collective bargaining, minimum wages and welfare systems, born of universal adult suffrage, it is likely that capitalism would be as unsustainable for humans in the west as it was in the Victorian Britain that Dickens describes. Indeed, in countries that have not yet won such concessions today, NGOs such as Action Aid and the World Development Movement report people working under appalling conditions and pay, for almost all of their waking hours in order to simply have the means to stay alive.
‘Ecological modernisers’ propose that the environmental costs of transactions (externalities) can be incorporated in to financial costs through taxes on polluters and tradable permits. Firstly, it must be pointed out that this is a first step away from pure capitalism and as such should be welcomed. Yet, it is sufficiently close to capitalism to retain many of its flaws. Eco-taxes and tradable permits, can, if not thought out carefully, act as a license for the richest to pollute. Also, as Derek Wall points out, by not questioning the “systematic construction of dissatisfaction through branding, advertising and marketing,” any gains in ecological efficiency could be quickly outweighed by consumption led growth. It is this latter point that the following section will deal with.
Some ecosocialists have taken a somewhat state-heavy eco-authoritarian approach to how an ecosocialist future might look and continue to confuse the distinction between capitalism and trade. In my view, the state certainly has a role to play — in breaking up large corporations, providing free and universal health and education, running cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly public utilities and transport and upholding a bill of environmental and human rights. However, an ecosocialist future will necessarily practice subsidiarity — that is decisions being made at the lowest possible level, to ensure that the people likely to be worst affected by environmental degradation have a say over their fate and to guard against the authoritarian tendency of previous state-heavy socialist projects.
One of the few things about which the majority of political scientists are in near consensus, is that a necessary pre-requisite for democracy is an autonomous economic power base outside the state, to fund dissident movements should they arise. Whilst I have shown how a capitalist power base outside of the state has negative consequences, it is possible for societies to develop non-capitalist power bases, with networks of social enterprises and co-ops. Trade without capitalism can also distribute resources according to people’s preferences, it can provide tax revenue for the aforementioned public services, trade can contribute to environmental innovation, poverty reduction and provide for the sociological and psychological needs associated with trading — such as pride in a profession. Community owned business can in turn fund autonomous democratic politics — much in the way that student union bars fund student politics. It can do all of this in an environmentally sustainable manner, but only with democratic control and steady state economics, which can lead to changed visions of entrepreneurialism and incentivize action in public rather than selfish interests.
Whether you call this ecosocialism, Radical Communitarianism, a new form of Owenism, Green thought or the new common sense, this is a workable and winnable system which would put power in to the hands of the people worst affected by capitalism, to win an equitable and sustainable future.