What would a sustainable society look like?

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The ecological changes proposed by socialists are all eminently feasible — if we build a society whose objective is human and natural sustainability through the co-development of na­ture and human society.

Chapter 8 of Chris Williams’ recent book, Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, outlines the kinds of changes that are needed, without engaging in “grand utopian schemes.” Chris and his publisher, Haymarket Books, have kindly granted us permission to post the full chapter here.

Climate & Capitalism highly recommends this book as a powerful weapon in the fight to save our planet. 


“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please;
they do not make it under self-selected cir­cumstances, but under
circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare
on the brains of the living.” —Karl Marx

He was first and foremost a materialist. Above is one of Marx’s most famous aphorisms. In his time, one of the biggest ecological problems was the depletion of the soil from the intensification of agricultural practices. Before the manu­facture of artificial fertilizer, Britain had already pillaged the Napoleonic battlefields of Europe for the gruesome undertak­ing of digging up human bones to fertilize the fields of Eng­land. Naval expeditions were sent to scour the earth for more sources of soil nutrients from bird guano. Marx talked of how capitalism robbed both the worker—in this case, even the dead worker—and the soil, which were equally in his words “the original sources of all wealth.”[1]

But Marx and Engels were mostly preoccupied with the analysis of capitalism in order to overthrow it and replace it with workers’ democracy. They did not simultaneously have to worry about impending planetary ecocide as we do. This is one reason why we cannot backdate global environmental concerns onto their shoulders. Despite this, as shown in the previous chapter, Marx and Engels illustrated a genuine concern for ecological degradation based on their analysis of the short-term profit motive at the heart of capitalist indus­try and agriculture. But it’s not just their critique of capital­ism and its relationship to the environment that is pertinent. Their ecological insights form a useful basis for understand­ing our interrelation with the environment in a positive sense.

Based on where we are now, however, even if the revolu­tion were to occur tomorrow, capitalist ecological crimes are vast. We may well be too late to prevent or reverse all of them. According to a UN-commissioned report due out in full in late 2010, the combined environmental despoliation resulting from CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, water and air pollution by the three thousand largest public companies accounts for one third of their profits. From these unaccounted-for costs, the 3,000 corporations make over $2.2 trillion per year.[2]

Because of these technological and historically determined limits on what we can do, and because I don’t want to engage in grand utopian schemes for what exactly will be done after private property in the earth is abolished, I will sketch only in outline what I regard to be some of the most important as­pects of what a sustainable society might look like. More fun­damentally, changes need to be made as part of a fully democratic process carried out by the people who will be affected by the decisions taken, not by some preplanned design into which they had no input.

The proposals that follow are all eminently feasible with so­cial relations based on cooperation whose objective is human and natural sustainability through the co-development of na­ture and human society. None of them will be implemented under capitalism except in an ad hoc, piecemeal manner—most likely too little, too late to avoid setting off a chain of en­vironmental tipping points that will quickly cascade out of our control and result in calamitous climate change along with a host of other negative impacts.

Every single facet of industrial life—energy production most urgently, but also transportation, housing, trade, agri­culture, manufacture of commodities, and waste production and treatment—all require gigantic systemic change and complete structural reorganization. It will be nothing short of totally remodeling the world on a social, political, technologi­cal, cultural, and infrastructural level. As pointed out earlier, we cannot make these changes as individuals. The recon­struction of agriculture along sustainable lines, along with the expansion of alternative energy-harnessing technologies is a social project. These are the kinds of changes that need to occur to actually make a difference on the required socio­ecological level.

Some of the proposed changes could be carried out in a rel­atively short period of time. For example, over the next twenty to thirty years there is no technological barrier preventing us from moving to an almost totally carbon-free world energy sup­ply, particularly with regard to electricity production. Some changes to agricultural practices, transportation, urban plan­ning, and distribution of human settlements would take more detailed planning, design, thought and a longer time period be­fore fully implementing, but large and significant incremental shifts could happen immediately after a social revolution and take us toward long-term sustainability.

In terms of energy production, we need to quickly switch our sources of energy away from fossil fuels and immediately concentrate on ways to bring down levels of CO2 already in the atmosphere by a massive internationally coordinated re­forestation program. As soon as the words “internationally co­ordinated” appear in print, it should be obvious an immediate problem jumps off the page. Achieving real international co­operation on profit-related issues under this social system is just not possible; capitalist nation-states would sooner go to war over a disputed oilfield than come up with a joint interna­tional plan for planting trees. When reforestation does make it onto the agenda, it is often not as real forests but tree planta­tions. Reforestation cannot mean simply planting high growth rate monocultures with limited biodiversity just to chop them down to turn into agro-fuels.

Sustainable energy generation will require a mix of solar, wind, wave and geothermal, sources. As stated earlier, the en­ergy coming from the sun each day is more than 15,000 times greater than humans consume—four orders of magnitude larger—meaning that we only need to harness a fraction of 1 percent in order to satisfy our energy needs. The EU has cal­culated that covering just .3 percent of the desert area of the Sahara with solar panels could supply the entire electricity needs of Europe.[3] Furthermore, waste heat could potentially be used to desalinate saltwater and the shade underneath the mirrors or PV cells used to potentially grow crops. Storing en­ergy as compressed air in underground caverns, hot salt in insulated containers, pumped storage, or geothermal power, a continuous supply of base-load electricity would be possible without resorting to nuclear power.

Fluctuations in solar and wind can be accounted for by ge­ographical distribution of wind farms and solar arrays. A new network of high-voltage DC power lines would be required to minimize transportation losses and make transcontinental and regionwide distribution networks possible. There are concerns about how much water would be needed to keep solar arrays clean, especially when located in dry regions, and this needs to be examined. However, fossil fuel and nu­clear plants all require huge quantities of water for the gener­ation of steam and cooling, so closing these down would significantly reduce overall water use, among many other benefits. An additional benefit of photovoltaic and wind sys­tems is that they generate electricity directly, unlike conven­tional power plants that emit large quantities of waste heat that contribute to global warming.

For transportation, the switch to low-carbon alternatives, particularly electric trains, light rail, and trams would need to be carried out in conjunction with changes to urban planning and human distribution on the planet to reverse a situation where we are more and more permanently bifurcated be­tween town and country, urban and rural communities.

Private cars are incredibly wasteful and use three-quarters of the gasoline poured into them simply heating the car and the surrounding environment. Car traffic, often with a single occupant per vehicle, is a large component of the heat island ef­fect in cities, not to mention air and noise pollution and acci­dents. Radically reducing world car production from its current seventy million/year figure would lead to huge reductions in the need for steel, concrete, and asphalt, all industries with major greenhouse gas emissions and water requirements. At optimum conditions (i.e., when full) high-speed trains are twenty-seven times more energy efficient than a car, a diesel-powered bus or a trolleybus are around thirteen times more ef­ficient, and underground trains at peak times are eighteen times better than cars.[4]

Certainly, if there is no profit incentive, then we can elimi­nate pointless air travel for business trips, which are a large percentage of all short-haul flights. Indeed the majority of intra-continental flights can be made much more efficiently by electric train, using electricity generated from renewable sources. We can make beautiful and super-efficient trains, and for shorter journeys have clean, efficient, reliable buses, light rail, underground and tram systems. For very short journeys there will be bikes and electric cars. All these measures around energy and transportation would radically improve air quality so that we can actually breathe clean air and make large cuts in the incidence of all kinds of respiratory ailments, which are becoming ever more prevalent as we transmogrify the at­mosphere into a toxic soup of life-threatening chemicals.

Town and city planning would have to be examined to mini­mize commute times to get to workplaces on subways, trams, and light rail. Indeed, there would need much examination of how to better connect urban population centers with crop growing and animal husbandry. How can we better integrate farm animals, crop land, and humans to maximize the use of natural fertilizers and biological forms of pest control while en­suring that all humans are better connected to the land?

With energy, resource, waste, and toxic materials mini­mization and human comfort as primary objectives rather than minimizing economic costs as the bottom line, buildings can be retrofitted and beautiful new ones built. We need to take advantage of architectural design features for energy minimization and examine established techniques for limiting the need for external heating and cooling systems.

Utterly pointless industries producing useless things, ad­vertising, marketing, and much of the packaging industry, along with the military, will be abolished. This will lead to huge energy and waste savings, not to mention reductions in all kinds of other social negatives. A lot of land previously off limits for military war games and weapons testing will be re­gained as wilderness or agricultural land. We can examine the practices of the Bolshevik ecologists as a starting point, along with all the more recent research, to rejuvenate over-grazed and otherwise degraded land to increase the carbon and nu­trient content of soils.

No product will be made without its meeting the highest standards of use value—the questions will no longer be how quickly can it be made, at the lowest possible cost, and how quickly we can get it to wear out before someone has to buy a new one. Instead a whole set of new questions will be asked: what need does it serve, how little energy can it be made with, are the materials adapted to its purpose, how can it be made to last as long as possible, how much waste is produced in its manufacture and how we can best deal with this.

Recycling is pushed not because it’s the most effective solu­tion to the mountains of waste—indeed quite the opposite—it justifies waste as okay as long as we put it in the correct recepta­cle. One of the least likely phrases you’ll ever hear from a capi­talist is “please consume less.” The problem of the generation of vast quantities of unnecessary industrial and commercial waste is shifted to the consumer and away from the producer. The idea is it’s perfectly okay to generate all this waste if we just “recycle” it. The real solution is to reduce and reuse—a much more effective remedy that will be in full force in a sus­tainable democratic society based on production for need.

Agriculture is a huge topic by itself. Some general points: Capitalist agriculture is self-evidently not just bad for animals and humans, but it doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to—which is safely feed people. It is creating a homogenized and genetically impoverished world much more susceptible to super-bugs and epidemics of all kinds. There is only a single breed of pig used by all the industrialized farming corpora­tions—apart from having massive haunches, which almost break their backs, they are now bred with only vestigial ears and tail because the animals are so distressed by being kept in such close proximity, wallowing in their own manure. They thrash around so much that not having ears and tails leaves them less damaged when they come to be culled. Whether they are sick or not, all are dosed with. antibacterial agents. All these factors create the ideal incubator for the evolution of all kinds of new and more virulent strains of disease.[5]

More industries that we can essentially abolish or drasti­cally reduce: the pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, and fertilizer industries. It wasn’t science that drove the need for them, but the vast fields of monocultures required by capitalism. Agribusiness can cope with and indeed co-opt and buy out a niche organic movement—though note there are no real reg­ulations on what “organic” really constitutes—but they cannot deal with going back to something as simple and effective as three-crop rotation cycles or growing legumes alongside non­nitrogen-fixing crops, having a diversity of crops, or pouring research funds into examining biological forms of pest con­trol. It’s far more profitable to apply fertilizers and pesticides to monocultures and let them run off into the rivers. We could feed all the people on the planet by practicing sustainable large- and small-scale agriculture. Currently we practice non-sustainable industrialized agriculture, which continually promises to feed all the people and yet doesn’t. As several studies have shown, if all the produce of a small-scale sustainably managed farm is taken into account, it is more efficient than a field of monoculture.[6]

To move to sustainable agriculture means removing the triple metabolic rift that’s been created between plants, vari­eties of plants, animals, and humans. Marx wrote at some length on the need to heal this metabolic rift in order to over­come the break in the nutrient cycle that transports all the goodness of the soil to the cities. It is complete insanity to have monocultures of one crop geographically separated from ani­mals that could provide manure—and to have the crops and an­imals themselves geographically separated, by an average of a thousand miles or more, from the humans who are going to eat the crops and animals. Not only is there the huge waste and pollution as artificial fertilizers pour into our rivers and seas, not only is there the same thing going on with the pig and chicken waste in a different area of the country, but there is the enormous waste of all that excess transportation.

This is why we need to examine, apart from how we grow the crops and raise the animals, the location of crops, farm ani­mals, and human population centers. The aim would be to de­crease the separation of urban and rural humans and put people more in touch with the earth and where things come from as a way of healing the metabolic rift. As Marx remarked when commenting on this split, all the capitalists could think to do with the bodily excretions of four million Londoners was to poison the Thames.[7]

It also means examining what crops are grown where. Of the world’s fresh water used by humans 70 percent is used for agriculture. Crops are no longer grown in a certain re­gion based on climate or soil suitability, but purely on where the most profit can be made. Hence vast quantities of extra. irrigation are needed in areas unfit for certain types of crops or in areas that lead to massive soil erosion, increased aquifer salinity and depletion, and accelerated deforestation and desertification.

Apart from the virtually unregulated and voracious logging industry, deforestation is further accelerated by forcing mil­lions of landless peasants to constantly move to new plots of land, particularly marginal land, to clear-cut and farm.

Under socialism, no one would have the right to privately own pieces of the earth for their own private gain. There would be a rational plan for its sustainable use. This would have to be developed by and with the people who farm the land. Initially, land reform would mean giving the land to the peasants and farmers who grow the crops and raise the ani­mals. This would immediately reduce deforestation and im­prove crop yields as technology is made freely available to do so. If the countryside in the developing world was no longer a place of extreme poverty, many millions living in the giant mega-slums in cities of the South would be encouraged to mi­grate back to the countryside to improve rural agriculture and return countries to food self-sufficiency.

Hundreds of millions of people still use wood and animal dung for heating, cooking, and lighting. India alone has four hundred million people who live without access to electricity. Poverty is a major part of the reason there is such vast defor­estation in India, Africa, and parts of Asia. This also contributes to extremely poor air quality. Thousands die of smoke inhalation every year from inefficient indoor stoves burning biomass. Renewable electricity provision for the en­tire planet—and the eradication of poverty—would have to be part of any move to living sustainably with the earth.

It should be clear that there will no longer be nation-states after the abolition of the completely artificial lines on maps that we call borders. This will be necessary so that regional planning of resource use doesn’t lead to the kind of interna­tional conflicts that characterize capitalist nations. Rational plans can be constructed for use of water resources that pre­viously spanned multiple countries and led to friction between states using common water sources in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Rather than several countries battling over con­trol of the life-giving waters of the Nile, for example, how can people of the region develop a rational plan for water conser­vation and use that ensures an adequate and sustainable sup­ply for everyone and that doesn’t degrade local ecosystems? There will be a true globalization—worldwide integration of natural and human resources in the interests of all life—human and non-human.

Under capitalism, it is entirely rational for individual fish­ermen and nationally based industrialized fishing fleets to try to catch the most fish in the shortest amount of time utilizing the most destructive fishing methods. In 1968 when Garrett Hardin wrote his infamous “Tragedy of the Commons” piece, he erroneously posited this as a reason everywhere had to be privatized, because any ecosystem that was public—such as the oceans—would be fished to the last fish by an ever-growing population. But it is the economic system that dic­tates that nonsustainability is rational, not people. Take away the dog-eat-dog, economic imperative of capitalism, and an international plan can be developed and implemented for re­plenishing declining fish stocks that doesn’t depend on devel­oping more industrial fish farms where all the fish are genetically altered and identical.

Socialist production for use, unlike production for profit, would allow for a calculation of the true costs of creating use­ful things and bringing them to the people who need them. To realign regions for growing different kinds of crops based on geographical and climate suitability is an extension of the idea that industry should be situated where it’s needed, not wher­ever makes the most profit. Huge numbers of container ships now ply back and forth between continents; polluting the seas and the atmosphere, and introducing non-indigenous invasive species. The fact that the United States (along with other countries) has moved much of its heavy and light industry to China to keep down labor costs requires China to export all those manufactured goods right back. When those goods be­come obsolete or just break down after two years because they were crap, we dump it in Africa or re-export it to China.

Clearly there is a huge need for real development for countries of the Global South. They have the opportunity to leapfrog over the fossil-fuel age and move directly to clean energy. To do this, technological help, capital, and training will be required. One of the most urgent tasks of a new soci­ety will be to ensure that everyone is fed adequately, every­one receives health care and vaccinations, and massive infrastructure improvements are made to sanitation systems and for the provision of clean water. The UN estimates that around $25 billion per year for eight to ten years would be enough to provide clean water for all of the one billion people who currently don’t have it. This is a tiny fraction of the world military or advertising budget. It’s also far less than an­nual sales of bottled water at around $100 billion—$11 billion in the United States alone, which is another pointless and heavily polluting industry.[8]

The specific solutions to environmental challenges that will be found in a future society can’t be enumerated with certainty here. This limit on our current vision comes in part from the limits that the profit system has put on investigation and even on our ways of thinking. The limit also comes from the squan­dering of ordinary people’s abilities to contribute to solutions because they are weighed down with poverty and overwork. Freeing the minds of billions of people from the stress and degradation of unrelenting poverty and malnutrition will allow those minds to contribute productively to societal questions, fa­cilitating a gigantic unleashing of human potential. The ideas and creativity of seven billion human brains actively and pro­ductively set to work represents an enormously expanded pool of collective knowledge and experience.

Mainstream attempts at conservation of endangered species and habitats have traditionally focused on setting aside natural preserves. This notion of small geographically isolated places where “nature” is set aside to try to eke out an existence in bio-diverse “hotspots,” not in fact sustainable. In­stead an ecologically rational society would expand wilder­ness areas and make them contiguous. Much more time and human resources would need to be devoted to understanding ecosystems, species interactions, and the closer examination of all aspects of the biosphere to enrich human understanding and appreciation for the natural world.

What will be required is an ecologically and culturally rele­vant diversity of agricultural, industrial, transportation, educa­tional, and residential forms based on communal ownership and democratic control by the people themselves. Instead of passive consumers we will become active, educated, and in­volved participants in economic, cultural, and political life. Everyone will be involved in decisions about manufacturing methods, energy techniques, use of chemicals, and so on in order for the whole community to democratically decide the best alternative when toxin, resource, and energy minimization are the goals. Furthermore, with everyone productively en­gaged, the number of hours anyone works will be drastically reduced, leaving ample time for cultural and personal growth.

Things that are made by society will be valuable for their use to society, not for how much they can be exchanged for. How much more fulfilling will it be to design new materials not in order to maximize the shareholder profit of the com­pany you work for, but to minimize resource use and waste production of a product that is socially beneficial?

[1] “All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of mod­ern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, de­velops technology, and the coming together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the labourer,” in Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, (New York: International Publishers, 1967) 506.

[2] Juliette Jowit, “World’s Top Firms Cause $2.2tn of Environmen­tal Damage, Report Estimates,” Guardian, February 18, 2010.

[3] David Adam, “50 Billion Pound of European Investment Needed to Kick-Start Saharan Solar Plan,” Guardian, March 11, 2009.

[4] MacKay, Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air. (Cambridge: UIT Cambridge, 2009) 120.

[5] See Lawrence, Eat Your Heart Out: Why the Food Business is Bad for the Planet and Your Health. (London: Penguin Books, 2008) Chapter 4.

[6] For more details on how sustainable agriculture is more produc­tive—and an awful lot less polluting—than agribusiness, see the July-August 2009 special edition of Monthly Review.

[7] Quoted in John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace With the Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 180.

[8] Stan Cox, Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 62.


  • Some good food for thought. But how can the development of a self-serving bureaucratic elite be prevented? This problem has plagued all forms of socialism that have been attempted.

    Also, a move towards the goal of “to each according to his/her needs” could be done through severing the work/income connection and providing an unconditional income for all citizens, without means testing or work requirement. This could be done within capitalism and without waiting for socialism.

    I’m not a fan of universal vaccination either!

  • It’s one thing to lecture us with “solutions” of the “what-we-must-do” variety to save the world. It’s quite another to actually take action oneself and “do” something tangible that makes a real difference.

    In the latter case, I point to the amazing work of the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (http://www.celdf.org/) an NGO that has embarked on a courageous campaign to change a US regulatory process that treats nature as property and favours corporate over community rights. CELDF is helping hundreds of communities to write local ordinances that will take precedence over federal and state regulations. Moreover, it runs a Democracy School to educate the public on the history of a regulatory systems that locks them in a box.

    Here’s how CELDF’s Thomas Linzey explained the monumental challenge to his Democracy School class of Seattle residents:

    “It’s not only un-American but illegal to move outside of this [regulatory] process. ‘What else is there?’ means doing what the abolitionists and suffragists did, which is massive disobedience to the existing structure of law. There’s going to be a thousand lawsuits. There’s going to be ten thousand lawsuits by the time this is done because the institutions, including the courts, are not going to help build this when people move outside of this [the existing regulatory structure]. They’re going to punish that process. And so if we know that, how do we incorporate that into the organizing to actually build it instead of have it fall apart? Because today when we go into court, and the judge rules against us, the community group dissolves and we go away. How do we capture that residue so that a loss in the court actually energizes and accelerates the organizing to happen rather than shut it down?”

    CELDF’s most recent victory is with Pittsburgh’s city council that unanimously passed a city ordinance banning BIG GAS from operating within its borders — a first for major cities in the US.

    • Frank — It’s one thing to lecture us about the undoubted achievements of these environmental lawyers. It’s quite another to have a clear perspective about what needs to be done to ensure that skirmishes like those fought by CELFD are no longer needed.

      Without comprehensive social changes of the kind described in Chris Williams’ book, we will face constantly escalating assaults on the environment. Important as CELFD’s fights are, ultimately lawsuits will not save the earth.

      As Curtis White wrote recently:

      “There is a fundamental question that environmentalists are not very good at asking, let alone answering: ‘Why is this, the destruction of the natural world, happening?’ … Environmentalism’s analyses tend to be about ‘sources.’ Industrial sources. Nonpoint sources. Urban sources. Smokestack sources. Tailpipe sources. Even natural sources (like the soon-to-be-released methane from thawing Arctic tundra). But environmentalism is not very good at asking, ‘Okay, but why do we have all of these polluting sources?'”

      We need groups like CELFD, but their work will ultimately fail if it isn’t based on an understanding of and determination to transform the society that constantly produces more and bigger polluting sources.

      That’s why Chris Williams’ book is so important.

  • Angus

    In addition to the points you make the potential for replacing journeys with teleconferencing and teleworking is not being fully utilised.

    The scope for reductions in both air and land based travel are probably greatest in the business sector since there are few activities that can’t be conducted by teleconferencing and teleworking, yet there is little evidence that this simple solution is being taken seriously.

    Many corporations enthusiastically embrace high profile projects which present an environmentally concerned image whilst they are content to let their employees spend valuable time travelling to meetings and conferences which could be easily served by teleconferencing.

    Perhaps they perceive a marketing advantage using direct interpersonal communication, or more simply, the allure of the free foreign trip is overwhelming and is used most by those in executive positions who dictate corporate policy.

    One solution would be to require all companies to calculate and prominently display their carbon footprint per employee so their true commitment and environmental credentials can be fairly judged with respect to similar organisations.