Toward Ecological Socialism

— Chris Gaal

SINCE ITS RISE to public prominence in the 1970s, the United States environmental movement has struggled with the creation of its own ideology. Yet ecological thinking has not spawned a uniform world view regarding the relationship between humans and the natural world. Rather, several conflicting political directions have since emerged.

Among the competing visions are eco-ideologies which mirror political divisions already existing in the world. Examples of these include liberal environmentalism represented by spokespeople such as Vice President Al Gore, as well as right-wing "free market environmentalism" which finds adherents even among some grass-roots organizations.

New directions have emerged as well. Radical eco-ideologies are found in new Green political parties and expressed in the philosophical outlooks of deep ecology, biocentrism and bioregionalism. Many of these approaches describe their political vision as neither left nor right, but something new. These outlooks popularize ecological value systems rooted in a land ethic which challenges the anthropocentric humanism found in traditional politics.

Often these ecological visions are filtered through a biological rather than social understanding of the world. Especially in the politically homogeneous United States, it becomes easy for radical ecologists to reject traditional politics and focus their critique of human activity through the lens of a biological "natural law."

During the last two decades activists rooted in a biocentric perspective made important contributions to the environmental movement through their uncompromising and spirited defense of the last remaining wilderness remnants. Consequently, a biocentric moral vision which placed intrinsic value on the non-human world won many adherents in the movement.

Limits of Biocentrism

Nonetheless, serious shortcomings also soon became evident, as shown in the critique of "deep ecology" by social ecologists such as Murray Bookchin (a long-time radical ecologist and more recently a leader of the Left Greens). Rather than transcending the traditional politics of the day through direct appeal to nature, many biocentric authors had simply ignored them, or worse yet uncritically adopted reactionary positions by default.

Social Darwinist-like biological justifications were erected in support of famine in Africa, AIDS, and anti-immigration fervor. These calamities were often applauded as forms of eco-Malthusian "natural" population control to keep in check the high population growth of the poor in the Third World—in actuality a target responsible for only a small fraction of the resource use and environmental destruction emanating from the smaller "stable" populations of first world countries.(1)

Yet biocentric thought has not merely been tarnished by the historic support of a few badly misguided positions. There is a more fundamental weakness at stake, often resulting in a sort of apolitical radicalism—willing to defend vanishing ecosystems through militant direct action, yet unprepared to effectively confront, or for that matter, understand the economic system producing the harm. Self-styled "eco-warrier" Dave Foreman famously remarked that biocentrism was not directed against any particular economic system.

While the results of an inherent contradiction between human society and nature may be more or less clearly described as a biological crisis, the economic workings of human society itself cannot be sufficiently explained through biological principles. Capitalism does not reduce to biology, but requires some independent understanding of human society.

The central organizing principle of human society in the late twentieth century is the global market. Many radical ecologists, realizing that something is dreadfully wrong with the global economy, emphasize self-sufficiency and draw lessons from indigenous cultures which existed in apparent harmony with nature.

Yet global market pressures continue to liquidate the few indigenous cultures remaining outside the system of trade and consumption. Like the enclosure movement in Britain during the early industrial period, those enduring self-sufficient indigenous cultures are today made landless and thus forced to sell their labor or perish. While a return to self-sufficiency may be a moral option for a small number, it is no longer a choice for the landless mass of humanity now dependent upon a wage in order to meet basic needs.

Though often incorrectly regarded as a "natural" system by right-wing theorists, the market is in fact an institutional system forged as the result of humanly created political and social forces. There is nothing natural, such as the law of gravitation, which requires the existence of the multinational corporations which currently dominate trade and production, and hence resource use and consumption.

Those concerned with environmental destruction must eventually confront the question of the global capitalist market system of production—is it to be embraced, regulated, or replaced? That biology alone offers little guidance in this area is shown by the contradictory responses among biocentric activists, the most common response being to ignore the problem altogether.

Weaknesses of the Left

Yet if a biocentrist understanding of the world must be amended by a social understanding, why has this not occurred? There are both objective and subjective reasons for this failure.

The U.S. political system maintains a well-rehearsed charade in its ideological spectrum with both liberal "left" and conservative "right" beholden to corporate interests. It is no wonder that radical environmentalists in the United States reject traditional political categories, since these have become, for the most part, indistinguishable in practice.

Corporate values permeate all the major institutions of the society, including education, politics, the media and culture. Genuine radicalism, barren of the resources necessary for inclusion in the mainstream, has had to carve out an independent space from the larger society.

Thus socialists have been marginalized, discredited and unable to penetrate the mainstream debate. Thanks to this ideological vacuum, socialist democracy is popularly seen as indiscernible from the authoritarian debacle witnessed in Eastern European "communist" countries.

Yet even if the left lacks mass influence, it continues to have its fair share of intellectuals. Unfortunately, the traditional left—with laudable exceptions, including some well-known figures in the environmental movement and a number of important recent books and journals—was slow to incorporate ecological analysis into its body of theory.

Among the socialist left, environmentalism was for too long dismissed as a middle-class preoccupation. Often environmental issues were ritually tagged onto the laundry list of demands without much need for ecological analysis; or environmental destruction was attributed in knee-jerk fashion to the workings of capitalism. This view too often assumed that environmental problems would disappear as socialist production for need replaced production for profit under capitalism (as in when the workers gained control of the auto or nuclear power plant).

Some theoretical contributions, which did seek to overcome the traditional left’s theoretical reductionism and dismissal of ecological categories, were presented using excessive jargon, making them inaccessible to non-adepts in Marxist theory. For the most part, then, the left’s core strength—its critique of capitalism and methodology of class analysis—remained irrelevant to mainstream ecological thinking.

Yet socialist analysis has a great potential not only to explain the economic processes leading to environmental destruction, but to change them. In the current backlash against the environment, a healthy dose of criticism and self-criticism is in order.

Ecological Thinking

While vastly increasing productive capacity of the economy as envisioned by traditional Marxists, the forces of capitalism also leave us in a modern world of growing environmental scarcity. Equality between rich and poor areas of the world, on the terms of a first world industrial model and its perceived "good life" standards of consumption, would now require unthinkable environmental destruction.

For example, the developed industrial countries with about one fifth of the world’s population now use about four fifths of the world’s energy. Since 1950, energy consumption increased seven fold, far outstripping population growth which itself doubled during the same period.(2)

Any attempt to generalize current first world industrial patterns of energy consumption to include the rest of the world’s population would result in suicidal levels of pollution, irreversible damage to ecological systems already brought to the brink of collapse, and lead to increased political conflict over limited resources.

Fossil fuels now represent the greatest portion of energy consumption. Oil reserves are expected to last for another forty years, gas for another sixty years, and coal for another six-hundred-and-sixty years.(3) Reaching these remaining reserves will increasingly require the opening of environmentally sensitive areas.

Third world coal use has increased dramatically over recent years, with the trend expected to continue into the next century. The United States with 5% of the world’s population uses 26% of the world’s oil and generates 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.(4) The industrialized nations with only one-fifth of the world’s population have created two-thirds of the greenhouse gases, three-fourths of the sulfur and nitrogen oxides causing acid rain, and almost 90% of the chlorofluorocarbons destroying the ozone layer.(5)

Since the burning of coal releases great concentrations of greenhouse gases, there are growing possibilities for serious environmental conflict between rich and poor nations. While many in the first world will want to prevent atmospheric deterioration due to greenhouse gases, they will not want to do so at the expense of their accustomed standards of energy consumption.

Less developed countries in search of a higher standard of living may oppose global environmental agreements which will prevent them from "modernizing." While moves toward sustainable energy technology may mitigate the severity of environmental impacts and their attendant conflicts, technological change is not likely to remove the global ecological constraints on profligate industrial energy consumption.

Similarly, ecological limits can be seen in agriculture where the arable land available for the production of foods and fibers has tended to decrease. Any increases in agricultural production would thus "be possible only at the expense of forests or grasslands, jeopardizing other resources, particularly water, topsoil ... . (and would) have to come from different growing techniques, pest controls, irrigation, the use of fertilizers, plant breeding and genetic engineering."(6)

These techniques of increasing agricultural production have proven less and less successful while giving rise to new environmental threats. An estimated 14.8 million acres of new desert are formed every year due to land overuse. More land becomes poisoned every year due to salts deposited from irrigation, the overuse of pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals. Meanwhile growth in total world grain production has actually slowed, and adjusted per-capita for population growth decreased.(7)

In a further illustration of ecological limits, the United States now imports one third of the shellfish and a quarter of the fresh and frozen fish available on the world market.(8) To bring the rest of the world’s population up to this standard of consumption would require more than a doubling of the current world fish harvest. Yet according to marine biologists, the current catch in the fishing industry is already at an unsustainable level.

Similarly, the United States devotes 1.4 million square miles to raising livestock in harvested acreage, grazing and range land. For the rest of the world to eat as much meat as the average U.S. consumer, assuming the same level of productivity per acre, would require that half the land mass of the planet be devoted to livestock production.(9)

The meat-based diet of the richest quarter of humanity consumes nearly 40% of the world’s grain indirectly through livestock production, necessitating much of the strain caused by industrial agriculture—from soil erosion to overpumping of groundwater.(10) Thanks to current levels of human activity, 42 million acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed each year, leading to a rapid and permanent loss in biological diversity.

Challenging Our Visions

A serious critique of capitalism is essential to adequately address the current world environmental crisis. The environmental movement can no longer afford to adapt traditional "liberal" or "conservative" views of the market to its concerns, or ignore the issue altogether by claiming that understanding the market as the central organizing principle in modern society is irrelevant to the "new paradigm."

Yet the destructive impact on the natural world from human industrial and agricultural activity can no longer be afforded secondary concern in leftist theory. There are now clear environmental limits which will affect the lifestyle possibilities of any future society—socialist or otherwise.

In response to environmental crises the left must now rethink its vision of a future society. The categories brought to the discussion by the environmental movement must be included in this revaluation. Though concepts such as "industrialism," "technology," and "carrying capacity" clearly must be conceived in their capitalist economic context, not operating beyond history and class, they do not simply reduce to a class analysis.

A petro-chemical industrial model of development cannot be reproduced in a socialist world and generalized to include the entire population without devastating consequences for humans, the natural world and the very biosphere.

As argued by Barry Commoner, the only truly effective method of pollution control is to avoid production of toxic materials in the first place. This requires a fundamental shift away from the post-World War II industrial petro-chemical based economy—in other words, not just a redistribution but a rethinking of the means and methods of production.

A change in the ownership of the means of production does little to alleviate the inherently destructive features of many products such as chemical pesticides, automobiles and fossil fuels. The very notion of the "good life" must now be redirected from the destructive levels and methods of production and consumption made possible by industrial society.

Socialism’s traditional promise has been an egalitarian distribution of all the productive wealth capitalism has to offer plus a more meaningful democracy, social justice and liberation from social alienation. The task of the future will be the difficult one of making "all this and less" an appealing slogan.

A synthesis between ecological thinking and the left’s critique of capitalism offers the most useful guide to understanding and confronting environmental destruction.

Missing from the liberal view of the market is an adequate appraisal of the inherent logic within capitalism that necessitates environmental destruction. Economic liberalism assumes that the basic system of corporate production functions more or less efficiently, needing only the enlightened management and regulation of the state to curb its excesses and mitigate its shortcomings.

Vice President Al Gore, advocating this view in his book Earth in the Balance, won over many in the environmental movement who were willing to believe such green tinkering was enough, or at least the best for which they could hope. Yet the market enforces its own logic of production. Facing competition from other producers, each firm must minimize or externalize its costs while maximizing profit and market share. Like labor, environmental protection appears as a cost in the corporate balance sheet which must be minimized.

This fact operates independently of the personal views or ethics of corporate managers. If concerned managers implement costly environmental controls, they either sacrifice profit or lose market share to the competitor who can undersell at a cheaper price in the marketplace.

Thus managers must either offer rationalizations for their environmentally destructive behavior—’if I don’t do it someone else will’—or, if they choose to act on their ecological convictions, they are quickly replaced by someone more willing to play the institutional role. For this reason, pressures from the competitive market inevitably impede voluntary "green business" initiatives.

Of course, corporations are still willing to pander to the environmental consciousness of consumers if such a venture is profitable. Thus great sums—far in excess of what managers are actually willing to expend on cleaner production—may be earmarked for advertising the allegedly green aspects of a particular commodity, even if such features must be fabricated as in the case of products such as many plastic "recyclables."

Regardless of any green accounting system which allegedly puts "natural capital" into the balance sheet equation, corporate managers know that to maximize profits environmental concerns are best kept on the product label and out of the production process.

The prevalent strategy of green consumerism promotes the idea that individual decisions in the marketplace can influence corporations—"vote with your dollars for a clean environment." Apart from the problem of corporate greenwashing of products, the environmentally conscious consumer market appears to be a thin and volatile demographic.

Despite the fact that surveys show consumers are willing to spend significantly more for "green" products, the Wall Street Journal reports that retailers haven’t been successful in marketing this bandwagon.(11) For the vast majority of consumers, price is likely to remain the determining piece of information influencing their choices, particularly as real wages continue to fall for over 70% of the workforce.

What’s more, unilateral corporate decisions over investments limit the choices available to consumers. For instance, one cannot choose to consume mass transit if a corporate/state promoted infrastructure of automobiles, petrochemicals, and highways are all that is available.

Finally, consumer boycotts are difficult to organize and make effective—even around a single product and in conjunction with a social movement such as the farmworkers’ grape boycott. Consumer resources are not likely to match those of corporate advertising dollars.

Indeed, rather than confronting deeply entrenched corporate interests, many of the large environmental organizations depend on funding from the very corporations whose behavior lies at the heart of the problem. So for example, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, and the National Wildlife Federation have received funding from polluters such as ARCO, Exxon, British Petroleum, Waste Management, Westinghouse, Weyerhaeuser, Dupont and General Electric, among other notorious offenders.

It is not surprising then that mainstream environmentalism as expressed in large public events such as Earth Day has tended to refocus attention away from corporations and place the blame for environmental destruction back on individual consumption habits—"reduce, reuse, recycle."

While it is important to examine the role our individual decisions play in fueling the environmental crisis, this focus also distracts attention from the institutions most responsible. Households produce only a small portion of the nation’s solid waste. For every pound of waste created by the consumer, industry generates twenty-five pounds.(12)

Industry dumps an estimated 4.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals a year into the air, water and soil, while the military produces more than 500,000 tons of hazardous wastes a year. Industrial plants annualy emit more than 281 million pounds of known carcinogens into the environment a year.(13)

While it is popular in both the environmental movement and among political leaders to blame government agencies for the failure of environmental regulation, an analysis of corporate influence over "public" decisionmaking receives less attention. Agencies such as the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, as well as the EPA have historically experienced a "revolving door" with industry.

For example, Ronald Reagan appointed John Crowell Jr. as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, formerly a corporate lawyer for Louisiana Pacific, one of the largest purchasers of federal timber. His deputy was Douglas MacCleery, an analyst for the National Forest Products Council—a timber industry association. Under their influence the Forest Service dramatically increased the amount of timber sold from public lands, with many sales at a loss subsidized by tax dollars.

The management practices of such agencies largely reflect corporate priorities and a conception of the public good that is aimed at providing cheap resources and flexibility to industry.

Important environmental gains were won through liberal regulation during the 1970s. At that time profitable corporations were not as resistant to democratic efforts to force them to share in the costs of environmental externalities, so that landmark legislation such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water and Air Acts were passed by Congress.

Yet by the 1980s, the momentum to curb corporate environmental excesses slowed. Like the offensive against labor experienced by unions under the Reagan administration, an offensive against regulation which cut into corporate profitability ended the ability of liberalism to effectively mitigate corporate excess.

Symptomatic of this new period of retrenchment, during Reagan’s first term the EPA’s budget was reduced 35%, enforcement against strip-mine violations declined 62%, hazardous waste prosecutions declined 50%, exposure limits on toxic substances were significantly raised, and emergency exemptions for pesticide use more than tripled.(14)

Despite the lack of positive economic benefits for the majority of Americans resulting from this rollback, the anti-environmental regulation backlash has now entered its second wave in the 104th Congress. Ascendant conservatives place environmental regulation in direct opposition to "competitiveness."

Mere consciousness-raising has proven to be an insufficient strategy. While polls still show a clear majority of the population in favor of strong environmental regulations, the environmental movement with its middle class bias and narrow political focus has largely been unsuccessful in speaking to the economic concerns, so well exploited by conservatives, which motivate insecure working Americans.

This new period characterized by deregulation, privatization, globalization, and the removal of corporate institutions from democratic government controls, calls for a new activist strategy. While the scope of the problem may seem insurmountable, the political system is vulnerable since gutting environmental regulation cannot deliver the economic security promised by conservatives.

U.S. post-war prosperity was premised upon international political and economic dominance, a strong labor movement capable of enforcing a social pact with capital, and an active welfare state. With each of these features besieged in the U.S. today, the removal of environmental, health, and safety regulations promotes a cruel hoax of prosperity through self-destructive competitiveness.

As capitalism proceeds down this path, the resulting society will increasingly reflect vast divisions between wealth and poverty, and growing economic insecurity for the majority of working people. An alternative economic program which serves the interests of the democratic majority is essential.

Alternatives exist in the social movements which arise from the disenfranchised. These include, among others, the labor movement, struggling to adjust to this new global period, and the environmental movement, searching for a society which values and protects ecological systems.

Less and More

Given the ecological constraints which now must redefine our notion of the "good life," the challenge of articulating a compelling future becomes significantly more difficult. Although much scarcity is the result of misguided political priorities such as a bloated military budget and a skewed distribution of income, given ecological limits to global consumption the potential for continued political conflict over environmental scarcity seems inevitable.

A convincing ecological future must put forth a credible vision of abundance. The challenge will be to make some degree of decreased consumption an attractive alternative to current first world practice.

Placing the issue in a larger political-economic context, one solution may be a tradeoff of consumption for increased leisure. In The Overworked American, Harvard economist Juliet Schor describes how the average number of hours worked in the United States has increased dramatically over the last twenty years.

Due to falling real wages, families have only been able to maintain their accustomed level of income through multiple wage-earners and by working significantly longer hours. Yet, increases in productivity make available the potential for increased leisure—and, by trading some levels of current consumption for leisure, an ecologically sustainable lifestyle.(15)

Under capitalism, the constant introduction of new technology is fueled by the need to substitute technology for labor to increase productivity in the competitive market. Eastern European-style societies also faced pressures which led to the introduction of environmentally destructive technologies. Their policies emphasized rapid economic growth and the development of heavy industry—not only as the result of military competition with the West, but an integral part of the ruling bureaucracy’s industrial vision.

Yet the drive to introduce technology for its own sake is not a necessary component of a democratic social<->ist economy. Under democratic planning, labor-intensive as opposed to technology-intensive methods of production may be chosen over the social or environmental costs of a destructive technology.

While labor-intensive production may decrease possibilities of a tradeoff for leisure, a scaleback in destructive technologies is also an important goal of an ecological society. With greater democratic control over economic production, and an elimination of the iron-clad rule of profit, the potential for scaleback in destructive technologies becomes a realistic societal possibility.

New technologies may be introduced if the consensus holds that it actually promotes a human or ecological interest to do so. For example, if a technological advance can translate productivity into increased opportunity for leisure or social welfare its adoption will likely be attractive. For those techniques with inherently destructive features, there will be no competitive necessity propelling their adoption, so that an active environmental movement may more effectively advocate for their removal without the constant undermining influence of
institutional pressures.

While such a scheme may not be all that the hardened Luddite desires [Luddites were rebel workers who smashed machinery during the early Industrial Revolution—ed.], the point is to put humans back in control of their institutions instead of being ruled by them.

Finding Common Ground

There is much room for both the Left and the radical ecology movement to find common ground. Although the global environmental crisis does not simply reduce to a crisis of capitalism, a critique of the globally dominant capitalist economic order is indispensable to understand and combat its ill effects.

While it is theoretically possible that capitalism can reform itself to address key aspects of the global environmental crisis, as it did to some extent in the 1970s, it cannot do so without heated conflict between opposed leading sectors of capital.

Any solution to save capitalism from its own ill effects would undoubtedly give rise to fundamental conflicts over resource use, which would further extend deprivation and hardship to millions of traditional losers as problems turn into crises. The potential for authoritarian ecological solutions thus looms on the horizon for the disenfranchised.

Socialists can no longer afford to give secondary concern to ecological thinking. Ecologists, for their part, must not only ask themselves what kind of a planet they want to live on, but in what kind of a society they want to do it. An ecological humanism is not only possible but entirely essential.


  1. Famine in the third world is often caused when international lending institutions force structural adjustment requirements which increase social misery on debt ridden governments. Often these policies require countries to defer local food production in order to grow cash crops for export such as cotton or coffee. If the market prices of such commodities falls, famine may result due to a shortage of foreign exchange. Suffering is then blamed on overpopulation rather than humanly created institutions.
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  2. "Can the World Industrialization Project Be Sustained?" Isador Wallirmann, Monthly Review, March 1994, 47.
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  3. Ibid.
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  4. "More Hot Air Likely From Earth Summit," Michio Kaku, The Guardian, June 10, 1992.
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  5. "Enough is Enough, Assessing Global Consumption," Alan Durning, Dollars and Sense, June 1991, 16.
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  6. "Can the World Industrialization Project Be Sustained?," op. cit.
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  7. Ibid.
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  8. "Life in a Greenhouse," Mike Wunsch, Against the Current, July/August 1989, 13; Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet (New York, Ballantine Books, 1971, 4, 26.)
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  9. "Life in a Greenhouse," op. cit., 13.
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  10. "Enough is Enough, Assessing Global Consumption," op. cit.
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  11. As reported in "It’s Not Easy Selling Green," Dollars and Sense, September 1992.
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  12. Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, eds.; Green Business: Hope or Hoax?, New Society Publishers, 1990.
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  13. Ibid.
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  14. "Life in a Greenhouse," op. cit., 11.
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  15. Juliet Schor, The Overworked American (Basic Books).
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ATC 60, January-February 1996

Thanks for the post - very helpful

Submitted by Anthropology Student (not verified) on March 1, 2010 - 12:48pm.

Hi thanks for this post I am currently studying for an essay regarding eco-socialism and eco-anarchism as part of a course on the anthropology of environment and I found this essay to be overall very good and well balanced

My only tiny point would be to point out that saying that "New technologies may be introduced if the consensus holds that it actually promotes a human or ecological interest to do so" doesn’t really explain what happens if human and ecological interests coincide

but overall great essay, thanks