Movement building

The fires this time: Implications for ecosocialist strategy

A call for public discussion of the role of deindustrialization in building an alternative to the catastrophic course of 21st century capitalism.

Our World Is On Fire

A call for public discussion of the role of deindustrialization in building an alternative to the catastrophic course of 21st century capitalism.

Richard Smith is a founder of System Change Not Climate Change and a member of the Climate and Environmental Justice Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America.

An earlier version of this article appeared on the System Change Not Climate Change discussion forum. To join that discussion, click here.

by Richard Smith

“Deindustrialization.”That’s a word you virtually never hear in the debate around global warming.

Not surprising. It’s a word that’s loaded with negative implications: economic collapse, mass layoffs, falling living standards. Who wants to think about those, let alone think about this as a strategy of suppressing CO2 emissions? Imagine suggesting to the next oil driller, auto worker or airline flight attendant you run into that the only way to stop global warming is stop producing oil, park the cars, and ground the airplanes. Even the word “degrowth” is beyond the pale of thinkable thought in mainstream discourse.

Yet we had better start thinking and talking and organizing around this strategy because, as is becoming more and more apparent, deindustrialization is the only means to avert global ecological collapse. If we do not organize a rationally planned partial but very substantial deindustrialization of the over-industrialized nations of the North including China, Mother Nature is going to do it for us in a much less pleasant manner and we will face the prospect of the collapse of civilization in this century.

If humanity had taken serious steps to reduce emissions decades ago in the 1980s when climate scientists began warning us (as the New York Times magazine reminds us) then perhaps we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in right now. But we didn’t and haven’t and so now scientists tell us we face a climate emergency.

For decades the developed economies of the world and the rogue party-state of China have ignored the threat of global warming and kicked the can down the road on the assumption “dangerous” global warming is not imminent or not much of a threat to them at least in the near future. After all, we in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere have not suffered so much because the heating is more extreme at the poles than the temperature latitudes. The Arctic and Antarctica are melting very fast, with immediate and dire implications for the whole world. And global warming is hitting the neo-tropical Middle East, India and Africa very hard.

But in the U.S. all the media talks about is increased flooding along coastlines, more frequent droughts in the West and Southwest, more fires in the west and so on.

But this summer, the belt of furious fires all around the northern hemisphere from California to Greece to Japan which cost the lives of hundreds has finally  grabbed public attention, even the media. I don’t know if this is the first time that the NY Times even published an article on global warming on the front page (above the fold) but I believe this is the first time it has explicitly blamed global warming for the fires this time in a top-of-the-page headline. And this is only the beginning.

As climate scientist Michael Mann is quoted in the lead editorial of the New York Times of August 10th: “What we call an ‘extreme heat wave’ today we will simply call ‘summer’ in a matter of decades if we don’t sharply reduce carbon emissions.”

Yet from the first warnings of scientists and the first efforts to come up with plans to restrain emissions, all efforts to reduce emissions have been subordinated to maximizing economic growth: Whatever we do, we must not slow economic growth. Or, as G.W. Bush put it: “We will never sacrifice the American way of life.”

So instead of simply imposing rationing of fossil fuels, suppressing vehicle production, grounding civilian aircraft (all of which President Roosevelt did during WWII), all mainstream efforts from the voluntary curbs of Kyoto in the 1990s to the cap & trade schemes of the 2000s to the carbon tax schemes of today, have been explicitly premised on the assumption that they must not impede growth. In other words, they were all designed to fail. Which they have. In result, as global economic growth soared since the 1980s, so have emissions. So now what?

We certainly can’t expect any change from the powers that be. So long as we live under capitalism, governments, industries, industrial unions, as well as most workers and consumers will continue to prioritize growth over saving the planet because, given capitalism, what else can they do? The planet may collapse tomorrow but degrowth or deindustrialization would mean I’m out of a job today. This is how we drive off the cliff to collapse — “unless” (as the Lorax said) …

Unless we change the conversation. Unless we get people to start thinking about and talking about and working for a viable alternative to the market-driven collapse of civilization. Our job, as ecosocialists is to put forward a practical plan to slam the brakes on emissions, an emergency response to the climate emergency. This plan has to begin with brutal honesty:

  1. We can’t have an infinitely growing economy on a finite planet. This growth-till-we-bust logic “worked” in Adam Smith’s day. But today, this is the road to collective suicide. All mainstream efforts to suppress emissions while maintaining economic growth have failed. The only way to suppress emissions is to suppress emissions: impose firm caps, impose rationing regardless of the impact on the economy. We have to say this, and hammer this point home relentlessly. People and planet have to take priority over profit or we’re doomed.
  2. We can’t suppress emissions without closing down companies. Suppressing emissions means closing down the producers of those emissions – the oil companies, auto manufacturers, power plants, chemical companies, construction companies, airlines, etc. According to the EPA in the U.S. the largest generators of CO2 emissions are transportation (28.5%), energy (mainly electricity generation) 28.4%, manufacturing 22%, construction 11%, industrial farming 9%. We have to say to people, “Sorry, but lots of companies, beginning with fossil fuel producers but also fossil fuel-based companies will have to be shut down or drastically retrenched. It’s either that or your children are going to burn up in an uninhabitable planet.” This is the only way to suppress emissions in brief window of opportunity we still have left. There is no other alternative.
  3. We need to socialize those companies, nationalize them, buy them out and take them into public hands so we can phase them out or retrench them. ExxonMobil, General Motors, United Airlines, Monsanto and Cargill can’t put themselves out of business even to save the planet because they’re owned by private shareholders. Either we save the companies (till the planet collapses) or we take them over and put them out of business or reduce their production to sustainable levels.
  4. If we close down/retrench industries then society must provide new low- or no-carbon jobs for all those displaced workers and at comparable wages and conditions. Corporations, typically limited to one line or field of production, like oil production for example, can’t be expected provide new jobs in an entirely different field for displaced workers and have no mandate to do so. Society has do this. Otherwise those workers will not be able to see their way to joining with us to do what we have to do to save them and their children.
  5. We have to replace our anarchic market economy with a largely, though not entirely, planned economy, a bottom-up democratically planned economy. The environmental, social and economic problems we face cannot be solved individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require national and international economic planning to reorganize and restructure our economies and redeploy labor and resources to those ends. In other words, if humanity is to save itself, we have to overthrow capitalism and replace it with some form of democratic eco-socialism.

This is the public conversation the whole nation and the whole world needs to be having right now. There is no other alternative. It’s up to us ecosocialists to motivate this conversation because no mainstream organization is willing to risk challenging the government, capitalism, unions, workers, and consumers, let alone taking them on all together.

The abject failure of all mainstream approaches opens the way for us to put forward more radical approaches to a mass audience. Awful as things are at the moment, this presents a huge opportunity to ecosocialists. But we really need to get moving on this, develop educational materials of all kinds from videos to bumper strips, organize forums, teach-ins, write opinion pieces, and develop ecosocialist politics within the rapidly growing 45,000-member Democratic Socialists of America, and so on.


  • Richard, my comments here are on your posted piece, not on all your previous books and articles. And please recall that I did address your “Green capitalism: the god that failed” paper in my Green New Deal CNS paper. I agree with much of what you say, however, I stand by my case for a different quality of industrialization, not simply “deindustrialize”, especially the imperative need for a massive creation of a global wind/solar power supply. Even airline travel can be possible in the future with no net carbon emissions to the atmosphere (stored electricity produced by wind/solar or hydrocarbons synthesized from atmospheric CO2 and water). As far as the goal for the global South (and North), not just “hopefully happy”, rather every child born on Earth has the right to a full life of creative fulfillment at the highest world standard of life expectancy, to an environment free of hatred and pollution, and to a world with what is left of our planet’s biodiversity intact. This will require the termination of the present global regime prioritizing capital reproduction over human needs as well as those of nature. I think you will agree.

  • Smith’s invocation of “deindustrialization” remind me of arguments for Degrowth without recognizing the qualitative aspects of growth, what should degrow, what shouldn’t grow.

    By all means, deindustrialize the fossil fuel sector, starting with the highest GHG fossil fuels using the minimum amount of conventional oil to create a global wind/solar power supply, i.e., a systematic reindustralization of the global economy to meet the challenges of dangerous climate change and energy poverty suffered especially by most of humanity living in the global South.

    This global renewable energy supply must supply incremental energy to meet the following new challenges facing humanity, including climate mitigation by carbon sequestration from the atmosphere into the soil and crust, clean-up of toxic metals and other chemical and radioactive waste from the nuclear weapons, energy and chemical industries , plus the as plastic particles in the ocean, repair/expansion of physical infrastructure such as electrified rail, the creation of green cities globally and finally, adaptation to ongoing climate change.

    All will require very significant energy supplies from future wind/solar power. ( These solutions should be part of the agenda of class struggle informed by an ecosocialist vision, starting now!

    (P.S. I am also a member of the Climate and Environmental Justice Working Group of DSA)

    • David, you misrepresent my views, then set up a straw man to attack. This little reprise for Ian’s blog summarizes arguments I have made elsewhere. If you had read any of my articles from my Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism? (2010) to my Green Capitalism: the God That Failed to my (2011) to my Six Theses on Saving the Planet (2016) and also my China’s Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse (2015) you would know that I spelled out in some detail the sorts of industries that we need to shut down and retrench and those include not just fossil fuels but all the industries based on them from autos to airlines, chemicals to construction, disposables of all sorts, the military and others. At the same time I also listed and discussed the sectors that we need to invest in from renewable energy and organic farming to public transit to bicycle highways to all sorts of social services. Further, I discussed the need to abolish or retrench all kinds of industries that have little or nothing to do with global warming but which are nevertheless ecologically destructive. Further, I explicitly argued for the need to “contract and converge” the industrialized global North and the mostly unindustrialized or industrializing global South “around a hopefully happy but sustainable level of material consumption.” And more. So why don’t you read my work before you criticize it.

  • Your claim to provide jobs for the millions you would unemploy is, to be kind, unrealistic. And you don’t mention how you would fund it — i.e. the implied reduction of income for all the rest of workers.

    We can reduce GHG emissions AND provide jobs AND reduce income inequality by cutting the
    work week with no cut in pay.

    The US (and most of the world) has repeatedly cut hours in the past, so this can be done. Europeans and elsewhere in the world enjoy much shorter hours of work and would cut more if the US would cut. So this proposal is exportable. It is also scalable. If the four day week doesn’t reduce GHG emissons enough we can move to 3 days, or to Keynes’ 15 hour weeks.

  • So Gene. I think we agree that corporations are driving us off the cliff to collapse by, among other things, during fossil fuels. But you don’t want to shut them down EVEN IF WE PROVIDE OTHER JOBS FOR THOSE WORKERS.

    In that case, what’s YOUR solution?

    • Not Gene here, Richard, but let’s all grant the power and accuracy of your critique and the integrity of your proposals.
      Alas, there’s not a single data point of seriousness to them.
      Why is it so hard to appreciate the dimensions of the power of profit and gain over human affairs?
      There are no solutions, none on the horizon and none beyond, and every single day makes that more and more clear.
      We who know the scale of the horror to come were just fated to become animals aware of the trap around their legs.
      There is no “we” to “provide other jobs for these workers,” there are no mechanisms to expropriate the amount of wealth needed to start the decarbonized, non-corporate global economy, there’s been not even a nod in the direction of incipient socialism or revolution in our lifetime.

      Talk is cheap – humans are governed by their social actions and social institutions.
      Sorry to be nihilistic here, but what other reality do you propose exists for our human condition?

      • Martin, Please read the C&C Comments Policy. “Climate and Capitalism is an expressly left-wing, ecosocialist site, and the discussions here will reflect that. Comments that defend or promote anti-socialist or pro-capitalist views are not appropriate. Please take such arguments elsewhere.”
        If you are not interested in following that policy, please refrain from commenting.

  • Continuing where comment got cut off:

    Plus all the related workers, bankers, insurers, cooks and waiters, etc. They can’t all be installing solar panels while being paid “comparable” wages.

    The last sentence in item # 4 is this: “Otherwise these workers will not be able to see their way to joining with us to do what we have to do to save them and their children.” Exactly.. And if the plan is to shut down businesses employing a significant share of the labor force — half? two thirds? one quarter? — were are the funds to come from?

    Not only will workers not join us, they will oppose us, and violently as I asserted above. As Smith’s plan to shut down everything he mentions is advanced, will those workers go along in the belief that they’ll continue to get the same wages and benefits after the corporation they work for is shut down? Workers won’t believe it. As has been remarked by another on the SCNCC list, incremental steps allowing learning are required. People must learn how they’ll survive and fit in, how their children will fare, and be able to at least glimpse what the new world will be like. Confidence building steps are crucial.
    There isn’t much time, as Richard Smith believes. Perhaps there is no time. But proposing a plan to throw masses out of work while assuring them that “comparable wages and working conditions” will await is a mistake. We can propose a SCNCC demand that will work.

  • On point 3- Canada’s government bought kinder Morgan’s ecological disaster pipeline plan- to push through with extraction that is not profitable… so better than a call for nationalizing existing “power” industries criminalizing them is a more appropriate course of action- especially in light of 40 years prior knowledge of what these industries do to life. This also more accurately frames our debate. Nationalize healthcare, criminalize pollution.

    On point 4- China and Africa are paying people to reforest lands. These are the “green jobs” we need specifically. Again, clarity matters “jobs” is an abstract. We need labor to reforest Desserified land, we need labor to design and execute permaculture and agroforrestry efforts, we need Labor to clean up and detoxify degraded ecological systems, we need labor to de-acidify oceans, we need labor to sequester carbon into soil and to recreate hummus. We don’t need green jobs- we absolutely need air,soil and water. So our move to deindustrialize will take a tremendous about of actual meaningful labor and incredible collaboration which I think we can each embrace and should offer every being hope.

    • Tara, Thanks for your comments. I don’t see how criminalizing the oil companies helps anything. Moreover, not to put too fine a point on it, the oil companies don’t actually burn the oil that’s cooking the climate (except for flaring or transportation). They just sell the oil. WE burn it in our cars, heating our homes, consuming our synthetic fabrics, and so on. So shouldn’t WE be criminalized? The point of socialization/nationalization is that since the oil companies, the auto companies, the airlines, the shipping companies, the industrial agriculture companies and so on cannot commit economic suicide, we have to help them do that to save the planet. That’s why we need to take them into public hands.

      I could not agree more about the need to put people to work in enviro remediation. But as to “clarity,” I didn’t just say we need to create any old jobs. I said “low- to no-carbon jobs.” Those would include the sorts of jobs you suggest. I discussed this more extensively in my Six Theses paper. If you’re interested, google “Six theses on saving the planet.”