Ecosocialist Debate

The ‘eco’ in ecosocialism must mean climate, or we are lost

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Jonathan Neale argues for serious changes in ecosocialist activity and policies

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Jonathan Neale is a long-time climate activist in Britain, and an editor of the ecosocialist magazine Fight the Fire. Climate & Capitalism welcomes constructive discussion and debate about the issues he raises in this article.

by Jonathan Neale

We need to make some serious changes in the ecosocialist project.

It’s good that we have the idea of ecosocialism. Because the words stand for a basic idea that ecology and socialism go together. Linked, they are the hope of the world. But we have to make some changes in the way that most of the left have been using the idea of ecosocialism. We need to redefine the ecosocialist project, because now climate changes everything.

We – humanity, not the left – have to stop climate change before we hit horrific consequences. That means a lot of things, but mostly it means we have to replace all use of oil, coal and natural gas with renewable energy instead. So everything runs on electricity, and all of that electricity is produced with renewable energy. There are some other things we need to do too. But stopping burning fossil fuels will make at least 70% of the difference.

It looks like that is not going to happen in the kind of society we have now. So in the next generation we are going to have to build a new kind of society. That’s the only definition of the ecosocialist project that makes any sense now.

Now, the eco in ecosocialism has to mean climate. Or we are all lost.

No more niche ecosocialism

Many socialist or Marxist parties have used the idea of ecosocialism as a sort of niche part of party business. The ecosocialist part of the party is given the task of arguing with the greens and the anarchists. In practice, this means producing propaganda saying nuclear power is not the answer, capitalism is the cause of the environmental crisis, and we are not in favor of growth.

In other words, tokenism and abstract argument. But not trying to build a mass movement to save the world here and now.

There are parties, socialist or Marxist, that do better than this. Many do not. I don’t want to point fingers, but you know who you are. And I understand. I started out like that. In a lot of ways the climate crisis has snuck up on the left, and we are changing. We need to change more, and faster.

Not the general environmental crisis

For some time many environmentalists have been saying that there is a general environmental crisis and we have to solve all of it. Some even say that there is no point in halting climate change if we do not solve all the other crises.

This is not true. From the point of view of humanity, the threat of climate change dwarfs the other environmental threats. To deny this is a form of climate denial for environmentalists. You can only say it if you have not taken on board what climate change will mean.

Halting climate change means stopping greenhouse gas emissions

The only way we can halt climate change is to bring greenhouse gas emissions to a halt. That means we stop almost all use of fossil fuels. It means destroying no new forests and covering the world with new forests. It means cutting emissions from agriculture, about 14% of the total, in half. It means cutting emissions from sewage and landfill by about half, and banning the use of CFC gases entirely.

I have written a book, Fight the Fire, showing in relentless detail how all this can be done. Many other studies confirm the same thing. It is not perfect, not 100% cuts, not net-zero, which is a fantasy, but it is good enough.  That is what ecosocialists have to fight for, because that is what all humanity needs.

We cannot do stop emissions without replacing all fossil fuel with electricity made from renewable sources.

That is a real world task. The only way that will happen is if mass movements put people into power who will hire the many millions of workers we need to rewire the world, and do all the other work that is needed to stop greenhouse gas emissions. That is the eco part of ecosocialism now.

Stop worrying about Marx

A lot of the intellectual work of the ecosocialist movement has been devoted to arguing that Marx understood a great deal about the environment. Much of this work is interesting to people interested in Marx and the development of his thought. It is useful in defending Marx against the charge that he did not understand the limits to society posed by nature. But that work is not useful in building a movement to save the world.

I will put this very strongly. I don’t care what Marx said about the environment. This does not mean I don’t care what Marx said. One of the two most important things he ever said was in the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” We won’t be able to stop climate change without the mother of all class struggles. What Marx had to say about class struggle was his life’s work, and is very useful in understanding the task ahead of us.

The other really important thing he said was, “Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.” That means ecosocialist organizing – and writing – about the environment should now focus how to stop climate change. Not just in theory, but where we are now.

It’s no good proving that capitalism causes climate change. The important question is not about the origins of the problem. Instead, start with the question of who stands in the way of climate action, why, and how do they do it. Start asking those questions and you get into the mechanism of how capitalism works in these situations, and which capitalists do what.


We also have to change how we think about growth, degrowth and ecosocialism.

Let’s go back twenty years, to 2002, when Joel Kovel published The Enemy of Nature, and Kovel and Michael Lowy published a shorter Ecosocialist Manifesto.

Kovel was a longstanding Marxist and anti-racist intellectual, one of the generation of 1968. By the end of the century, with the fall of the Soviet Union and peak neoliberalism in the United States, Kovel felt the dreams of his youth turning into ashes. But then Kovel began reading about the environmental crisis, and about climate change. As he read, one strand of ecological thought began to seize his imagination. This strand said that the environment for living things on Earth could not tolerate endless growth. And in particular, stopping climate change necessitates a reversal of economic growth.

But Joel understood Marxist economics. He knew that competition and growth are the lifeblood of capitalism. Reversing the logic of growth is incompatible with capitalism. That’s just basic to the Marxist understanding of capitalism. It’s actually basic to the understandings of most right-wing economists too. The incompatibility of capitalism and degrowth is not a long-term matter. It kicks in almost immediately.

If a government decided to limit growth to a steady state, then in fact the country will go into recession, and stay there forever. Employment and incomes will fall – which is the point of degrowth. But so will investment. That national economy will be unable to compete with other national economies on the world market. Quite rapidly, the stock market and the job market will go into free fall.

On the surface it looks like most degrowth environmentalists don’t know this. But on some level they sense it. That is why there are no political parties or candidates anywhere, in any country, campaigning for government to cut total national income and employment by 3% next year, or 4%, or 5%.

But Joel Kovel understood the issue very clearly. If the ecologists were right, and an end to growth was necessary, then there had to be a socialist revolution to end capitalism before we could stop growth. So he proposed an ecosocialist movement to stop growth and stop environmental crisis. The idea appealed to many Marxists.

The way it caught on reminds me of the way Marxists talked about the falling rate of profit more than a century ago. Way back then, many Marxists used to say that there was a law of the falling rate of profit. And that law meant that capitalism was bound to enter terminal crisis and be replaced by socialism.

So the future was on our side. Capitalism would eventually collapse. Socialists just had to wait and clean up the morning after. The argument about growth and capitalism is like that. It says we are bound to win, and you don’t need to fight now.

But the problem with Kovel’s argument about growth is the same as the problem with the people who were waiting for the collapse of capitalism. It tells people nothing about what do, or worse, it tells people not to do anything. This is important. There are no detailed plans for stopping growth among degrowthers.

By contrast, there is now a very large literature on exactly what an almost 100% cut in greenhouse gases would look like. I have been associated with some of these studies, but there are thousands of people now working on them, and hundreds of studies.

These studies are really detailed, for dozens of countries. They say which industries will have to be closed down, where, in how many years. They say how many new jobs will have to be created how quickly and where, doing what. They estimate how much cuts in greenhouse gases will result from their different proposals. Of course the different experts disagree about their numbers. But the numbers are what they are arguing about. They are arguing about what can be done, and what has to be done.

There is a very large literature on degrowth. None of it deals with such numbers. There is no argument over which industries should be closed. Golf courses? Yachts? All sailing? Car manufacture? Jewelry? Fast fashion? More than one set of clothes per person per year? Trainers? Boots? Psychiatric medications? Graduate school? Personal laptops? Streaming videos? Table service? Fast food? Slow food? Bottled water? Social workers? All plastics? Weapons?

And where? How do we achieve 3% cuts in Britain each year for ten years? Which jobs go? Where? How do we do it in China, where per person emissions are higher than in Britain. What about South Africa, or Brazil, or Russia? No cuts in employment? Stand still?

There is no detailed debate about these numbers anywhere in the literature, not even the beginnings of an agreement on what has to be cut, much less a more general and international plan. This is because everyone involved actually knows that no political party bigger then a tiny sect is going to fight for such detailed proposals. Because everyone actually knows that no one can win an election on such a basis.

And no one can create a revolution on such a basis either.

No one can win an election in Britain. Or Canada. Or Brazil. Bolivia. Nigeria, France, Poland, India, Bangladesh. Or anywhere. No majority will vote for this. That’s why plans for degrowth remain abstract, and no one fights to make them happen in the real world.

And also, degrowth will not halt climate change. If you reduce the gross product of the world by 50% in the next twenty years, and you don’t stop burning fossil fuels, we are all utterly lost. If the gross product of the world grows by 50% in the next twenty years and we stop all burning of fossil fuels, we will have stopped climate change.

I have been harsh in this article. But reality is harsh. We must change.

Reposted, with the author’s permission, from  Fight the Fire Ecosocialist Magazine.


  • Excellent and important piece. What about the crisis of eco-system destruction, also consequent with capitalism, and the feedback loops that accrue from destroying eco-systems on a global scale? If there is 50% growth in global GDP over the next twenty-years accompanied by a cessation of the burning of fossil fuels, even if it minimized the destruction linked to climate change, what about the impacts of spiraling out of control eco-system devastation (coincident with capital’s expansionist imperative) that is clearly a component of the Sixth Great Extinction?

  • Capitalism and growth are ‘hard’. There’s no difference there.

    The difference is that the people who control the resources and make the decisions at present are not the ones experiencing the real hardship or controlling the flow of information.

    But we are still left with the age-old Marxist/socialist problem of how to make the transition – which I think is the focus of Donald B McDonald III’s article. I reckon I’m pretty well informed about both socialism and the environment and I know where I’d like us to get to (where we need to get to) but I still don’t have a clear idea of how we are going to make the transition to an Ecosocialist society.

  • Ecosocialists and Degrowthers are natural allies. Some are so closely aligned that only the name is different (which is important as a “marketing” strategy, but that’s a separate topic to this essay). I’ve used the term Degrowth in my comments because this article attacks those ecosocialists that are essentially Degrowthers.

    This article is an unhelpful mixed bag that provides lots of ammunition for growthists. It is full of straw man arguments such as Degrowthers are not focussed on stopping greenhouse gas emissions; and Degrowthers are against renewables.

    Yes, there are a few people calling for an unrealistic halt to all renewables. I wouldn’t call them Degrowthers. Similarly, a total halt to fossil fuel is unrealistic. I haven’t done a survey but I suspect most Degrowthers, especially the prominent academics, agree that the energy we use should be renewable wherever possible but we must use very much *less* energy.

    The article is typical of so many environmental advocates. Degrowth is too hard so let’s ignore, delay or denigrate it. Yes, Degrowth is hard, but so-called green growth is impossible. And, Jonathan, you are making Degrowth even harder.

  • A couple points: If “world gross product grows by 50% in the next twenty years” through the profit system, pollution will make life unbearable and millions of species will go extinct through habitat loss. Even if temperatures go down. An ecoSYSTEM means all the planetary boundaries are connected.

    As for Neal’s theory of change, he suggests there is some alchemy which translates “detailed studies” into positive outcomes. This “very large literature” has existed for a very long time and has done little to build the power needed.

    We can grow some sectors and de-grow others, but only when an eco-conscious public is making investment decisions rather than private capital. It is crisis and rupture which will create that public, not studies or literature or articles. The debates we should be focused on concern nuclear power and carbon capture technology.

  • Please send links to substantiate the claim that “By contrast, there is now a very large literature on exactly what an almost 100% cut in greenhouse gases would look like.” I am not trolling, I really want to look at these studies from the point of view of being a degrowth activist. Thanks!