- Book Review: Valerie Lannon says the new book is “an accessible summary of revolutionary theory and practice related to the climate crisis and how to overcome it.”
- Video: Martin Empson, Sarah Ensor, Ian Angus and others speaking at the book launch meeting held in London on July 4, 2019. Ian calls it “an important contribution to the fight to stop capitalism from destroying the planet our lives depend on.”
- List of essays in the book.
Martin Empson, editor
SYSTEM CHANGE NOT CLIMATE CHANGE
A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis
reviewed by Valerie Lannon
If you’re looking for an accessible summary of revolutionary theory and practice related to the climate crisis and how to overcome it, System Change Not Climate Change is a must-read. As the movement grows, so do debates about causes, solutions, strategies and tactics, and we need deeper understanding of what changes are needed.
In 13 essays by ecosocialist activists from three continents, this book contributes to that understanding by exposing the dead end of capitalism and pointing to the socialist alternative. The writers build on recent literature highlighting the essential contributions made by Marx, Engels and others about both ecology and the unique, revolutionary role of the working class.
The opening chapters provide plain language summaries of essential works by Marx, Engels, Foster, Saito, Malm and others. Amy Leather’s “Hopelessly Devoted to Fossil Fuels” summarizes Malm’s Fossil Capital, which describes the origins and continuation of capitalism’s love affair with fossil fuels.
The book does not shy away from tackling important debates happening in the climate justice movement. In “Marxism and the Anthropocene,” for example, Camilla Royle summarizes debates about the Anthropocene, ranging from when it began, to the role of human agency, and even to the word itself, drawing on authors as diverse as Jason Moore and Andreas Malm.
Another debate — taken up by both Kohei Saito’s “Karl Marx’s Idea of Ecosocialism in the 21st Century” and Ian Angus’ “The Discovery and Rediscovery of Metabolic Rift” — considers whether Marxists have anything useful to say about environmental issues. The experiences of some states that have called themselves socialist has made many greens skeptical. In fact, as Angus and Kohei show, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels developed one of the first ecological critiques of capitalism, writing that it “disrupts the metabolic interaction between man and the earth [and causes] an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism.”
In “Natural Capital: A Neoliberal Response,” Ian Rappel takes issue with the concept of natural capital, where “nature and the ‘natural world’ [are] approached in terms of asset values.” This controversial approach is commonplace with the conservative end of environmental NGOs and the corporations and governments with whom they like to negotiate.
Martin Empson’s “Food, Agriculture and Climate Change” connects the book’s more theoretical pieces with grass-roots campaigns. He debunks claims in the film Cowspiracy about the CO2 emissions caused by role of meat. Empson notes the success and limitations of peasant agriculture and movements for land control, but argues wholesale change “will require the development of wider alliances that can directly challenge the capitalist agriculture system.”
Building on the concept of mass action, the last third of the book looks at specific climate issues and campaigns, the state of the climate justice movement, and steps for building a sustainable society.
“Capitalism and the Biodiversity Crisis,” by Sarah Ensor, examines “the sixth extinction”, and notes “what links biodiversity crisis to industrial meat production, deforestation, overfishing, rising temperatures and extreme weather events is capitalism’s drive for profit.” She states that current campaigns for “rewilding” are much more likely to succeed under socialism, where “we won’t force other life forms to compete with capital and its profit motive.”
Amy Leather’s “Why Capitalism Loves Plastic” comments on companies like ExxonMobil and Shell, which produce both fossil fuels and plastics, with this memorable quote: “Perhaps nothing sums up the irrationality of capitalism more than this – materials that can last practically forever are used to make products designed to be thrown away.”
“Canada’s Tar Sands, Indigenous Sovereignty and a Just Transition for Workers,” by Canadian activists Carolyn Egan and Michelle Robidoux describes how the fight to stop pipelines carrying the world’s dirtiest oil is led by indigenous peoples. The authors insist that fossil sector workers be given a just transition from their current employment, and the discussions around the Green New Deal (GND) — that link labor, indigenous sovereignty and equity demands — are part of the way forward.
Suzanne Jeffery also discusses just transitions in “Up Against the Clock: Climate, Social Movements and Marxism”. While celebrating Extinction Rebellion and the student strikes, she argues that mass working class participation is essential to the movement. But her claim of popular union support in the US for the Green New Deal fails to consider unions in the fossil sector and building trades that oppose the GND because the just transition strategies are too vague.
Empson’s “Can we build a Sustainable Society?” exposes the limits of some climate activists, like Naomi Klein, who build their hopes on a rational form of capitalism. Empson shares Marx’s perspective that class struggle is needed not only to replace capitalism, but to ensure workers “put themselves back in their rightful place, as a part of nature, laboring and changing the world around them in the collective interest of people and planet…”
Of course, no book can cover these complex subjects completely, so editor Martin Empson concludes with a valuable guide to other books that should be on every radical environmentalist’s reading list.
System Change Not Climate Change is an important contribution to building the red-and-green movements that are so necessary today. Read it — and put it to use as soon as you can!
BOOK LAUNCH MEETING
JULY 4, 2019, LONDON, UK
System Change Not Climate Change
Table of Contents
- Martin Empson: Introduction
- Amy Leather: Hopelessly Devoted to Fossil Fuels
- Camilla Royle: Marxism and the Anthropocene
- Ian Angus: The Discovery and Rediscovery of Metabolic Rift
- Kohei Saito: Karl Marx’s Idea of Ecosocialism in the 21st Century
- Ian Rappel: Natural Capital: A Neoliberal Response to Species Extinction
- Martin Empson: Food, Agriculture and Climate Change
- Sarah Ensor: Capitalism and the Biodiversity Crisis
- Amy Leather: Why Capitalism Loves Plastic
- Carolyn Egan and Michelle Robidoux: Canada’s Tar Sands, Indigenous Sovereignty and a Just Transition for Workers
- Suzanne Jeffery: Up Against the Clock: Climate, Social Movements and Marxism
- Martin Empson: Can we Build a Sustainable Society?
- Martin Empson : Further Reading