Thirteen Theses on the Imminent Ecological Catastrophe

Paris, the 24/02/2014. Portrait by Michael Lowy .Photo Pierre Pytkowicz

The imminent (ecological) catastrophe and the (revolutionary) means of avoiding it

By Michael Lowy*

With less than two meters of sea level rise, vast regions of Bangladesh, India and Thailand, as well as the main cities of human civilization – Hong Kong, Calcutta, Venice, Amsterdam, Shanghai, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro – will disappear under the sea.


The ecological crisis already is, and will be even more so in the coming months and years, the most important social and political issue of the 2100st century. The future of the planet, and therefore of humanity, will be decided in the coming decades. The calculations of some scientists about scenarios for the year XNUMX are not very useful, for two reasons: (a) scientific: considering all the retroactive effects that are impossible to calculate, it is too risky to make one-century projections; (b) politics: at the end of the century all of us, our children and grandchildren, will be gone, so what is the point then?


The ecological crisis has many aspects, with dangerous consequences, but the climate issue is undoubtedly the most dramatic threat. As the IPCC explains, if the average temperature rises by more than 1,5° above the pre-industrial period, it is likely that an irreversible process of climate change will be set in motion. What would the consequences be? Just a few examples: the multiplication of mega-fires like the one in Australia; the disappearance of rivers and the desertification of land; the melting and disintegration of the polar ice cap and the rise in sea level by up to tens of meters.

But with less than two meters of sea level rise, vast regions of Bangladesh, India and Thailand, as well as the main cities of human civilization – Hong Kong, Calcutta, Venice, Amsterdam, Shanghai, London, New York, Rio de Janeiro – will disappear under the sea. How much will the temperature rise? From what temperature will human life on this planet be threatened? No one has an answer to these questions...


These are unprecedented risks of catastrophe in human history. We would have to go back to the Pliocene, a few million years ago, to find a climate condition similar to what might occur in the future as a result of climate change. Most geologists believe that we have entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, in which conditions on the planet have been altered by human action.

What action? Climate change began with the Industrial Revolution of the 1945th century, but it took a qualitative leap after 2. In other words, the modern capitalist industrial civilization is responsible for the accumulation of COXNUMX in the atmosphere and, therefore, for global warming.


The responsibility of the capitalist system for the impending disaster is widely recognized. Pope Francis, in Encyclical Laudato Si, without uttering the word “capitalism”, denounced a structurally perverse system of commercial and property relations, based exclusively on the “principle of profit maximization”, as responsible for both social injustice and the destruction of our common home, nature.

A slogan raised universally in ecological demonstrations around the world is: “Change the system, not the climate!” The attitude of the main representatives of this system, defenders of business as usual – billionaires, bankers, “experts”, oligarchs, politicians – can be summarized by the phrase attributed to Louis XIV: “After me, the deluge”.


The systemic nature of the problem is cruelly illustrated by the behavior of governments, all of them (with very few exceptions) at the service of capital accumulation, multinationals, the fossil oligarchy, general commodification and free trade. Some – Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison (Australia) – are openly ecocidal and climate deniers. The others, the "reasonable" ones, set the tone at the annual meetings of the COP (Conferences of the Parties or Periodically Organized Circuses?), which have been characterized by vague "green" rhetoric and total inertia. The most successful was COP 21 in Paris, which resulted in solemn pledges to reduce emissions by all participating governments – unfulfilled, except for a few Pacific islands; if they had been met, scientists calculate, could the temperature still rise up to 3,3° more?


“Green capitalism”, “emissions credit markets”, “offsetting mechanisms” and other manipulations of the so-called “sustainable market economy” have proven to be completely ineffective. While “greening” is being done at every turn, emissions are skyrocketing and catastrophe is fast approaching. There is no solution to the ecological crisis within the framework of capitalism, a system entirely dedicated to productivism, consumerism, the fierce struggle for “market shares”, capital accumulation and profit maximization. Its intrinsically perverse logic inevitably leads to the disruption of ecological balances and the destruction of ecosystems.


The only effective alternatives capable of avoiding disaster are radical alternatives. “Radical” means attacking the roots of evil. If the root is the capitalist system, we need anti-systemic alternatives, that is, anti-capitalist – such as ecosocialism, an ecological socialism that is up to the challenges of the XNUMXst century. Other radical alternatives, such as ecofeminism, social ecology (Murray Bookchin), André Gorz's political ecology or anti-capitalist degrowth have much in common with ecosocialism: in recent years, reciprocal influence relations have developed.


What is socialism? For many Marxists it is the transformation of the relations of production – through the collective appropriation of the means of production – to allow the free development of the productive forces. Ecosocialism claims Marx, but breaks explicitly with this productivist model. Of course, collective appropriation is indispensable, but the productive forces themselves must also be radically transformed: (a) changing their energy sources (renewables instead of fossil fuels); (b) reducing global energy consumption; (c) reducing (“degrowth”) the production of goods and eliminating unnecessary activities (advertising) and pests (pesticides, weapons of war); (d) putting an end to planned obsolescence.

Ecosocialism also implies the transformation of consumption patterns, forms of transport, urban planning, the way of life. In short, it is much more than a change in the forms of property: it is a civilizational change, based on values ​​of solidarity, equality-freedom (egaliberté) and respect for nature. Ecosocialist civilization breaks with productivism and consumerism to favor the reduction of working time and, therefore, the extension of free time dedicated to social, political, recreational, artistic, erotic activities, etc., etc. Marx called this goal the "realm of freedom".


The transition to ecosocialism requires democratic planning, guided by two criteria: the satisfaction of real needs and respect for the ecological balance of the planet. It is the people themselves – once freed from the propaganda and consumerist obsession manufactured by the capitalist market – who will democratically decide what the real needs are. Ecosocialism is a bet on the democratic rationality of the popular classes.


Partial reforms are not enough to carry out the ecosocialist project. A real social revolution would be needed. How should this revolution be defined? One can refer to a note by Walter Benjamin, on the sidelines of his theses About the concept of history (1940): “Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. Maybe things are different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which humanity traveling on a train pulls the emergency brakes.”

Translated into XNUMXst century terms: we are all passengers on a suicide train, which is called modern capitalist industrial civilization. This train is approaching, at increasing speed, a catastrophic abyss: climate change. Revolutionary action aims to stop it – before it's too late.


Ecosocialism is as much a project for the future as it is a strategy for the struggle here and now. It is not a question of waiting until “the conditions are ripe”: it is necessary to stimulate the convergence between social and ecological struggles and combat the most destructive initiatives of the powers that be at the service of capital. This is what Naomi Klein called blockade. It is within mobilizations of this type that anti-capitalist awareness and interest in ecosocialism can emerge in struggles. Proposals like green new deal they are part of this struggle, in its radical forms, which demand the effective abandonment of fossil fuels – but not in those that are limited to recycling “green capitalism”.


What is the theme of this fight? The worker/industrialist dogmatism of the last century is no longer current. The forces that are at the forefront of the confrontation today are young people, women, indigenous peoples, peasants. Women are very present in the tremendous uprising of youth launched by the call of Greta Thunberg – one of the great sources of hope for the future. As the ecofeminists explain, this massive participation of women in the mobilizations is the result of them being the first victims of the system's ecological damage.

Unions are starting to get involved too, here and there. This is important because, ultimately, the system cannot be defeated without the active participation of urban and rural workers, who make up the majority of the population. The first condition is, in each movement, to combine ecological objectives (closure of coal mines or oil wells, or thermoelectric power stations, etc.) with the guarantee of employment for the workers involved.


Do we have a chance to win this battle before it's too late? Unlike would-be “collapseologists” who proclaim loud and clear that catastrophe is inevitable and that any resistance is futile, we believe that the future remains open. There is no guarantee that this future will be ecosocialist: it is the object of a wager in Pascal's sense, in which all forces are engaged in “working towards uncertainty”. But, as Bertolt Brecht said, with great and simple wisdom: “He who fights may lose. He who does not fight has already lost”.

*Michael Lowy é ddirector of research Center National de la Recherche Scientifique and author, among other books, of What is ecosocialism (Cortez).

Translation: José Correa Leite.

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