Ecosocialist Debate

Memo to Jacobin: Ecomodernism is not ecosocialism

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Ian Angus challenges a left-wing magazine that promotes geoengineering, nuclear power, carbon storage and other techno-fixes as solutions to climate change. 

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“To say that ‘science and technology can solve all our problems in the long run,’ is much worse than believing in witchcraft.” — István Mészáros

This summer, the left-wing magazine Jacobin published a special issue on climate change. The lead article declares that “climate change … has to be at the center of how we mobilize and organize going forward. From now on, every issue is a climate issue.”

That’s excellent news: a magazine that calls itself “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture,” ought to be a leader in the fight against capitalism’s deadly assault on the earth’s life-support systems.

Unfortunately, if the special issue is any indication, Jacobin is heading in the wrong direction. Although the term eco-socialism appears from time to time (always with a hyphen, which may indicate some uneasiness with the combination) there is nothing in this issue resembling an ecosocialist analysis or program. There’s not a word about stopping coal or tar sands mining, and no mention of shutting down the world’s biggest polluter, the US military. Instead we are offered paeans to technology in articles that advocate nuclear power, geoengineering, new power grids, electric cars and the like.

But despite their technophilia, the authors display little understanding of the technologies they support. Take, for example, the piece by Christian Parenti. He has written elsewhere that the U S government can resolve the climate crisis without system change by supporting clean technologies, so “realistic climate politics are reformist politics.” This article says much the same, that “state action and the public sector” can solve climate change by implementing carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). He tells us that removing CO2 from the atmosphere is “fairly simple,” because it has been done in submarines for years, and because Icelandic scientists recently developed a safe method of injecting CO2 into underground basalt, where it becomes a limestone-like solid within two years.

That sounds impressive, but is it credible?

The idea that removing the CO2 exhaled by 150 sailors in a closed system is comparable to removing billions of tonnes from the open atmosphere is more than a little absurd. Parenti should have checked with the US Navy: last year it issued a request for proposals for new CO2 capture systems in its submarines because the systems now used “are relatively energy intensive,” and “the material has a short lifetime, requiring replacement underway, and hazmat wastes are complicated to handle.” Obviously, expanding that technology to cover the globe is not in the cards!

There is only one commercial plant in the entire world that captures CO2 directly from the air. According to the journal Science, it takes in just 900 tons of CO2 a year, roughly the amount produced by 200 cars. The company that built it says that capturing just one percent of global CO2 emissions would require 250,000 similar plants. “Fairly simple” just doesn’t apply.

As for the Icelandic experiment in storing CO2 in basalt, Parenti doesn’t seem to have read beyond the gee-whiz headlines. Geophysicist Andy Skuce reports in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the experimenters only buried 250 tonnes of CO2, and the gas had first to be dissolved in “almost unimaginable amounts of water” — 25 tonnes of H2O for every tonne of CO2. Not only is that unsustainable, “it is unknown how well the results in Iceland can be applied at large scale in other locales.” As Joe Romm of Climate Progress says, “CCS simply hasn’t yet proven to be practical, affordable, scalable, and ready to be ramped up rapidly.”

In his eagerness to promote a technical solution to climate change, Parenti fails to consider whether the technology will do the job, not to mention how we might convince governments to spend the 24 trillion dollars (133% of US GDP) that he thinks it will cost. Unfortunately, such lightmindedness is a common failing in this issue of Jacobin.

The views expressed in this issue of Jacobin are similar to those promoted in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which claims that “meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge,” and that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.” Clive Hamilton describes this as “a form of denial or at least evasion, one that selectively permits certain facts through the optimo-filter while blocking or downplaying others.” We see it, in different forms, in the pronouncements of the anti-green Breakthrough Institute in the US, which wrote the Manifesto, and in Spiked-Online, an even more vehemently anti-environment group in the UK.

Is Jacobin becoming a voice for ecomodernism with a leftish veneer? I hope not, but the signs aren’t good. The first book in the new Jacobin Book Series, Four Futures, by Peter Frase, offers future scenarios based on science fiction movies and books: as Antony Galluzzo says in a review, this approach allows Frase to ignore “the technological, ecological, or social feasibility of [his] predictions.” The forthcoming second book in the series is co-authored by Leigh Phillips, who works with both the Breakthrough Institute and Spiked-Online and who wrote Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts, an appalling anti-green screed that includes chapters titled “In Defence of Stuff,” and “There Is No ‘Metabolic Rift’.”

Frase and Phillips both advocate massive technology deployment in this issue of Jacobin — the former supports geoengineering, the latter nuclear power. Neither discusses the environmental, social and financial costs that such megaprojects would entail. If these are Jacobin’s advisors on climate change, it is definitely on the wrong track.

Ecomodernism is incompatible with ecosocialism. If Jacobin recognizes that and changes course, it can make important contributions to the fight against climate change.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but I’m not holding my breath.


UPDATE, Nov. 2: See John Bellamy Foster’s in-depth critique of Jacobin‘s left-ecomodernism.


AFTERWORD: Andy Skuce, whose work I mention in this article, died of cancer on September 14. I never met him, but I learned a lot from his articles and videos on climate change, especially his trenchant critiques of science deniers, on the invaluable website Skeptical Science and elsewhere. He will be much missed.



  • Sorry to leave a silly reply, but what’s the source of that wonderful István Mészáros quote?

    • It’s from his 1971 Deutscher Award talk, “The Necessity of Social Control.” Available in many editions, but the most accessible is probably the book of the same name, published by Monthly Review Press in 2015. It’s also in his “Beyond Capital.”

  • I find myself wondering what it means that (it would seem) not one woman has commented on this article by Ian Angus or engaged in the disputes among the commentators. Reminds me of my response to the debate over Anthropocene vs. capitalocene: enough, fellas. We need to get on with changing the world.

    • This discussion is about the way in which we think the world needs changing. Surely that’s a reasonable thing to debate? Possibly even necessary before/while we change the world?

      P Ward (BA, MSc, PhD)

    • I’m curious about how gender factors into the discussion of how the left deals with the role that technological responses to the climate crisis ought to play. Some on the left argue that we can make a transition to 100 percent renewable energy and thereby bring future GHG emissions into safe operating territory without having to replace capitalism. Others argue that the incessant material growth hard-wired into capital’s DNA means that we are a collison course with the biosphere’s carrying capacity and that system change is required to address change change, as well as the host of other ecological crises unending growth on finite planet is causing.

      While the current debate about the Jacobin article does have some “academic” aspects to it regarding what Marx or Engles did or didn’t say or mean in respect of capitalism’s ecological impact, there are some very important and practical issues embedded in the debate – like what the role of intentional “degrowth” or reduced consumption ought to play.

      Why have all but one of the comments on Ian’s article come from men? I don’t think it’s because the issues being discussed are only of interest to males. Is the way those issues are being discussed? Maybe I’m drawing some stereotypical conclusions about the gender idenfication of those commenting based on the posted names.

      In any event, I’d appreciate hearing some other-gendered voices on this issue.

  • Early on in the tech world performance (speed) was solved by introducing better hardware. This pattern was repeated each time hardware met the limits of inefficiently written code, data size or language limits. The problem was never addressed rather, masked. This practice has for the most part changed, Replaced by fixing root cause.

    Ecoengineering masks the problem much like tossing more hardware to speed up DBs did, creating a hardware intensive solution when addressing the root cause proves a wiser decision (financially and environmentally). development and progress aren’t mutually tied. Economist Fred MaxNeef commonly points it out.

    Geoengineerijg Instead of addressing legacy energy consumption, uses technology (that itself adds a footprint by using more resources) to allow inefficient use of limited resources. The underlying RC of resource abuse needs to be addressed before improved technology can make sense. At this stage it represents a societal ideology where we are unable to realize that abuse by our need to grotesquely consume can’t be addressed by more efficient means to mask the problem. It’s just so much a belt can keep the pants on until it bursts.

    I can’t understand how Jacobin is heading down this direction. The science of it is fun, but the application seems overkill.

    • Well, as I could have explained in my response that Ian will not allow to be published, no one in the magazine has suggested CCS be used ‘instead of addressing legacy energy consumption’. Anyone who says CCS instead of retiring of fossil fuels has no idea about the scale of what this would entail.

      Rather, CCS should be used on a smaller scale *in addition to* decarbonising electricity, heating, transport and industry in order a) to help with those difficult-to-decarbonise sectors such as steel, cement, potash and aluminium, and b) to allow us to go carbon-negative sometime later this century, which we will likely need to do even if we stopped combusting all fossil fuels tomorrow.

      Further, precisely because there is no obvious way to make money from CCS, it will likely have to be primarily or entirely a public sector endeavour, something one would have thought that people who call themselves socialists would be interested in having a conversation about.

  • It is unfortunate that Ian Angus has refused to publish responses from the authors he is critiquing. It does suggest a fear of open debate. A shame, as it is only through debate where ideas are clarified. I hope other readers and writers of Climate and Capitalism encourage Ian to take a more comradely approach.

    • Oh come on, Leigh, here’s what really happened:

      My 972 word article included just two sentences, 62 words, mentioning you. You submitted a “reply” that was over 3700 words long, most of which had nothing to do with the subject. I replied that was too long, but you could post a shortened version in our Comments section, or, you could publish it elsewhere and post a link to it. You refused and submitted this instead.

      My offer stands: if you want to post a Comment or a link to your article, you may do so, just as any reader who abides by our Comments Policy can do.

  • Not knowing who Mr. Wolf is or, for that matter one “John” who also commented, I will still comment on this having familiarized myself with at least Bellemy’s work on Marx and ecology.

    I tend to disagree with the *emphasis* JFB places on this issue. That Marx was *concerned* (proven by the extensive quotation he places in his work(s) on this question) JFB fails, IMO, to have actually prove that there were *any* serious limits placed by Marx on the what is essentially the main contradiction in capitalism: it’s inability to provide for the labor side of the productive forces with the capital side of it. I actually discussed this a bit with JFB at the Socialism2017 Conference in Chicago this last summer.

    There is no doubt Marx’s concern about the the division between the worker and his products; his removal from the land to the factory and being “alienated” from the product he produces is parsed nicely by Marx and Engels. But that the huge expansion of the productive forces to achieve socialism is with out doubt the biggest hurdle that JFB and others have failed to square with their ecosocialist perspective and it’s one I’ve been grappling with as well.

    The fact is that when one talks about a society based on abundance it means “more stuff” (factories, production, logistics, distribution, energy, etc). Was Marx for this? Of course. No doubt in a wider, ecologically friendly way (given his views on agriculture for sure!). But it was growth anyone one parses it.

    • Is it really about “more stuff”? Surely Marx knew the difference between exchange value and use value?

      • By “more stuff” i mean an expansion of the productive forces and the moves to the elimination of scarcity. The biggest single contradiction for ecosocialists or, perhaps “ecomarxists” is this seemingly contradictory positions of opposition to any and all development projects and the fact that even to have a socialist society we need…well…lots and lots of development projects, run as part of a planned economy and under democratic control. This is what needs to be addressed…especially as Marx was *for* the ‘liberation’ of the productive forces to achieve this.

        We know now, more so than back then, what this will entail. The idea of a ‘steady state economy’ for example, means *growth* not stagnation, but done so in a rational and wise way. There is no getting around the truly massive amounts of *extraction*, recycling and the use of far more massive amounts of energy than we use today in order to achieve that socialist society AND tackle climate change.

  • Herr Angus’ cult of nature… is a peculiar one. He manages to be reactionary even in comparison with Christianity. He tries to restore the old pre-Christian natural religion in a modernized form. Thus he of course achieves nothing but Christian-Germanic patriarchal drivel on nature…[T]his cult of nature is limited to the Sunday walks of an inhabitant of a small provincial town who childishly wonders at the cuckoo laying its eggs in another bird’s nest, at tears being designed to keep the surface of the eyes moist, and so on, and finally trembles with reverence as he recites Klopstock’s Ode to Spring to his children. There is no mention, of course, of modern natural science, which, with modern industry, has revolutionized the whole of nature and put an end to man’s childish attitude towards nature as well as to other forms of childishness. But instead we get mysterious hints and astonished philistine notions about Nostradamus’ prophecies, second sight in Scotsmen and animal magnetism. For the rest, it would be desirable that Bavaria’s sluggish peasant economy, the ground on which grow priests and Anguses alike, should at last be plowed up by modern cultivation and modern machines. (MECW 10, pg. 245)

    • Readers who are puzzled by Mr. Wolfe’s comment may be interested to know that he has copied out a paragraph that Marx and Engels wrote in 1850 about a historian named Georg Daumer, replacing Daumer’s name with mine. This is a leading contender for our 2017 “Most Obscure and Least Relevant Comment” award.

      • Getting criticized by a reactionary like Wolfe should be seen as proof that you are doing good work. Ross is every bit as bad as Leigh Phillips. Wonder is that Jacobin didn’t ask Wolfe for a contribution.

  • John Bellamy Foster found one instance of Marx speaking metaphorically about a rift in the social metabolism in Capital 3 and suddenly decided he had “rediscovered” a neglected part of “Marx’s Theory.” Suddenly articles began to proliferate on “Marx’s theory” of the metabolic rift. This while willfully ignoring all the much more prevalent calls to transform material reality and burst through limits.

    Sorry everyone, Marx was a technophilic materialist driven by a promethean desire to conquer nature. The point isn’t that Marx was a Green avant la lettre, but that marxism is incomplete with regards to ecological theory and is in need of having it elaborated from elsewhere.

    • If you really think metabolic rift theory rests on “one instance of Marx speaking metaphorically” then you need to do some more reading. John Bellamy Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology” and Paul Burkett’s “Marx and Nature” are essential reading for anyone who wants to actually understand Marx’s views on the environment and sustainability, rather than just repeating undigested criticisms based on phrases taken out of context.

    • James, your comments show an almost total ignorance of Marx, especially the many new works that have used previously unavailable materials written by Marx. You should read “Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy” by Kohei Saito, published by Monthly Review Press. Saito lays to rest once and for all the slanders about Marx that you have repeated in your comments. You need to take Mother Jones’ advice and educate yourself for the coming conflicts. Then maybe you won’t put your lack of knowledge on public display.

  • I’m not a fan of Perenti on several levels. It’s always a problem when people write outside their area of expertise. Science, for Parenti, is one of those.

    What I like about this issue of Jacobin is that it’s pro-development. The biggest problem in ecosocialism is that it attracts anti- and de-development people to it’s ranks. The “we use to too much” crowd that ultimately means the use of “less stuff” especially in developing countries. Anti-productivism has become something of a religion among those who believe that communism can be achieved by not developing and in fact scaling back development. I am definetly “anti-Green” since no organization with that name attached has a clue about the technological needs in order to even start lowering our CO2 output. Ecosocialists tend to be better about this of course but I still hear it among those that identify as such.

    The issue of primary energy production in it’s non-carbon form still points to nuclear as superior to WWS (water, wind solar). We are STILL waiting for Germany to move to get rid of coal AND natural gas. Seems not to be happening.

    The issue of nuclear energy is not settled, clearly, or perhaps to put it more accurately, what we use to transition to a phase out of fossil fuel burning in generation is not yet settled. More and environmentalists have been coming to see nuclear as literally the only way to remove CO2 effluent from the atmosphere in any quantitative way.

    • I don’t see what the example of Germany proves. One of the world’s premier imperialist, fossil-fuel-economy states is not some kind of example to prove the viability of a truly ecological program of renewable energy. On the other hand, there’s plenty of research that suggests engineering a 100% renewable energy grid is achievable in many countries. Certainly for Australia it is, and also France as I’ve written (

      Nuclear power, where it already exists, can be argued to be preferable to fossil fuels, which is a reasonable argument to make (and I’m somewhat undecided on that one). But there are good technical reasons why it isn’t very practical as something to use to transition out of fossil fuel use otherwise. First, long build times and prohibitive costs. Second, very inflexible output, the acme of the old “baseload power” paradigm, which is difficult to integrate with variable renewable power.

      Last, perhaps only a pedantic point, but nuclear power is not going to “remove CO2 effluent from the atmosphere”, not in any quantity; it may at best provide power without adding more CO2. Unless you shackle it to CO2-removal machines, of course, but they are not proven to work at any reasonably economic scale.

      re anti-productivism: the point of productivism is that it supports economic growth as an end in itself. If you’re a socialist you should be more discerning; not all economies are equal!

    • David Walters wrote: The biggest problem in ecosocialism is that it attracts anti- and de-development people to it’s ranks. The “we use to too much” crowd that ultimately means the use of “less stuff” especially in developing countries. Anti-productivism has become something of a religion among those who believe that communism can be achieved by not developing and in fact scaling back development.

      Anti-productivism is not against development. Walters expresses two confusions: he confuses both pairs of concepts: development with growth, and income redistribution with austerity.

      Development of course can be in many dimensions, including beyond consumption. And rather than austerity, ecosocialists must press hard for income redistribution in the developed countries. It is the affluent, rather than “we”, who use too much stuff. Yes, ecosocialists will decide who, exactly, will use less stuff and who will use more, both within and among countries.

  • Excellent piece, Ian. Jacobin has disgraced itself with this issue. When you get the most important development of our time, the ecological catastrophes confronting us, so incredibly wrong, then you are surely betraying the radical project. And doing a tremendous disservice to the human race.