‘We can't save capitalism and save the planet’

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Book Review. Chris Williams, Ecology & Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis.  Haymarket Books, 2010

reviewed by Derek Wall
Green Left Weekly, January 24, 2011

United States activist Chris William’s new book, published by Haymarket Press, is an excellent introduction to ecology and socialism. It is well written and, despite being a long-time ecosocialist activist, I learnt a lot from it.

Williams is a professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University, and chair of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute. He is a green activist and a member of the International Socialist Organization.

The ISO, which formed in 1976, was part of the International Socialist Tendency, the international organisation of socialist groups affiliated to the British-based Socialist Workers Party, until 2001. It is involved in a wide-range of struggles, including against war, for queer rights and environmental campaigns.

The ISO has also been active in the US Green Party. Todd Chretien, a leading ISO member, ran as the Green Party candidate for the US Senate in 2006 in California. The ISO have a reputation for being the largest and most dynamic socialist organisation in the US, an achievement indeed given the difficulties socialists have organizing in that country.

Ecology and Socialism discusses the reality and potentially devastating effects of climate change, noting that we are close to a number of tipping points that could unmake much of the natural world — with devastating effects on humanity.

The worrying and often ignored problem of ocean acidification is also mentioned. As carbon dioxide is emitted, some of it is absorbed by the seas, which are slowly acidifying. This in turn could destroy marine ecosystems and lead to the collapse of fish stocks.

Williams also discusses false solutions to the climate crisis, such as carbon trading and biofuels. His book challenges the notion that capitalist economic growth is environmentally sustainability. But he also shows, in a powerful chapter, why Malthusian solutions based on cutting population levels are authoritarian and will fail to address the root causes of environmental problems.

There is an interesting section on the difficult question of how to build an independent political alternative in the US.

However, a real attraction for me was the way the book, while acknowledging that much has changed since the 19th century, is rooted in the ecological insights of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

I was intrigued, for example, to learn from the book that Marx and Engels mentioned water pollution in The German Ideology. They wrote:

“The ‘essence’ of the fish is its ‘being,’ water — to go no further than this one proposition. The ‘essence’ of the freshwater fish is the water of a river.

“But the latter ceases to be the ‘essence’ of the fish and is no longer a suitable medium of existence as soon as the river is made to serve industry, as soon as it is polluted by dyes and other waste products and navigated by steamboats, or as soon as its water is diverted into canals where simple drainage can deprive the fish of its medium of existence.”

Far from being “productivists” concerned only with raising the forces of production to super industrial levels, Marx and Engels were highly concerned with environmental problems such as air pollution, water pollution and soil erosion.

The myth that Marx only saw value as created from human labour is swiftly dealt with, by the observation that Marx was well aware of the value created by the rest of nature.

The book builds on the work of writers such as Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster, while placing their insights in an accessible and attractive manner. Chris Williams’ scientific knowledge shines through and it is obvious that he has put an immense amount of work into this excellent book.

He acknowledges that technology, far from being neutral, is shaped by the needs of capitalism is well made. He also makes the important point that recycling is second best to making goods to last and cutting waste.

The resource section packed full of suggested books, websites and films to watch is very useful and includes a link to Green Left Weekly.

Like any text, the book is not perfect and a number of criticisms could be made. In particular, I would have liked to have heard more about the struggles for ecology by indigenous peoples, such as the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (Aidesep) in Peru, and workers internationally.

For example, workers in Britain occupied the Vestas wind turbine factory to try to prevent it closing.

It would also have been interesting to include the example of the “green bans” movement in Australia in the 1970s, when the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation refused to build environmentally damaging projects.

Likewise, there is a good discussion of the movements in Bolivia but it would have been good to include more about ecosocialism in Latin America.

Interesting thinkers and activists who don’t slot easily into the IST tradition are sadly absent, such as Peruvian indigenous leader Hugo Blanco or the often splendid, if sectarian, green anarchistMurray Bookchin.

Also lacking is how Cuba created a green revolution to overcome oil shortages after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which would have been informative to readers.

These are ultimately small criticisms. This is a very informative and interesting book that should be read by all greens and socialists. The book certainly was a pleasure to read as well as being highly informative.

As the book’s blurb explains, it is a “timely, well-grounded analysis that reveals an inconvenient truth: we can’t save capitalism and save the planet.

“Around the world, consciousness of the threat to our environment is growing. The majority of solutions on offer, from using efficient light bulbs to biking to work, focus on individual lifestyle changes. Yet the scale of the crisis requires far deeper adjustments.

“Ecology and Socialism argues that time still remains to save humanity and the planet, but only by building social movements for environmental justice that can demand qualitative changes in our economy, workplaces, and infrastructure.”

Derek Wall is an activist in the Green Party of England and Wales. His blog is Another Green World.