The following are principles that unify our organization as we embark on this new arena of struggle:
- Capitalism, its growth imperative and search for ever-expanding markets, is fundamentally detrimental to and incompatible with the health of our people and planet.
- The United States was set in place by conquest and settler colonialism. It is held in place by modern versions of the instruments of death that slaughtered the First Peoples. There can be no solution to the ecological crises caused by this system unless we come to terms with the totality of this ecological history.
- Dialectical and historical materialism can help us as Marxists understand the current ecological crises, how and where we must intervene, and how to begin to lay the foundations for a fundamentally different society that resolves the metabolic rift on which capitalism is based.
- The earth’s planetary system is in crisis. US capitalism, or as it is commonly known throughout the world, US imperialism, is at the center of interconnecting crises of toxics and waste, biological and cultural extinction, food and agriculture, clean water, and energy and climate.
- It is our revolutionary obligation to expose and oppose capitalist “false solutions” that are marketed to address climate change and to benefit the community, but are actually short-term “fixes” and ecologically unsustainable.
- A revolutionary collective solution including the seizure of state power must be a part of any real answer to the ecological crises. The US ruling class will not stop destroying air, water and soil unless we make them do so, and until we bring about a system whose imperative is meeting the needs of people and of the earth, rather than maximizing profits.
- While we are organizing to achieve a truly fundamental and revolutionary social transformation, we must work for reforms that advance the interests of the working class and oppressed nationality communities and that begin to redress the worst effects of the ecological crises. Fighting the fossil fuel industry and cultivating our resilience to the worst effects of climate change are key examples.
- During the period of socialist transition the state must play three key roles: protecting natural resources, redressing and preventing the impacts of pollution, and monitoring and planning industrial processes that recognize ecological boundaries. This includes developing an ecologically sound approach to the development of productive forces, rectifying errors committed in the course of 20th century socialist experiments, and prioritizing the long-view of integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems.
- The society we want to build must reverse the growth imperative and system of private ownership upon which the capitalist economy is predicated, make work life affirming and restorative, and create an economy based on community, cooperation, sharing, and a system of production that takes into account our impact on ecological systems. Technology will inevitably be part of our solution, but we must use and re-purpose science and technology to serve these revolutionary priorities.
- Millions of people and countless communities around the world–particularly women, land-based peoples, indigenous peoples, migrants, poor people in the Global South, communities on the front lines of extraction, production, and waste disposal, and working class oppressed nationality communities in the Global North–are not only on the frontlines of these crises but have also taken leadership in confronting them. We must learn from them, build with them, and celebrate their leadership.
The ecology of North America, the variety, complexity, beauty and unpredictability of this planet, is history writ deeply in its air, land, and waters. For thousands of years, that ecology — that history — developed largely in accord with its own imperatives and in its own time. The peoples who populated the Americas taught themselves to survive and often to thrive by integrating with these rhythms and imperatives.
But that history was diverted from its evolutionary path little more than half a millennium ago when colonialism landed its jackboots on the shores of El Caribe, first the Spanish, and then the British. History then took a much darker turn as what is now the United States scribed the new historical period in the genocide of the indigenous inhabitants — driven by the strictly economic imperatives of acquisition, conquest, and commerce. Genocide was followed by enslavement as millions of Africa’s peoples were stolen to create the wealth of cotton, textiles, sugar, and tobacco, to construct the early economic infrastructure of the British colonies, and then the southeast of the new United States Republic. Enslavement was followed by annexation (from Mexico), colonization (Hawai’i and Puerto Rico), and the super-exploitation of Chinese and Filipino labor.
This entire history, shrouded in the horrendous “cowboy” mythologies of white supremacist individualism and patriarchy, was accompanied at every painful step by the conquest, enslavement, and exploitation of the earth. There is no understanding today of the loss of our forests, the contamination of the soil, the pollution of the skies, or the poisoning of the waters, without understanding the mass murder, the slavery, the destruction of hundreds of cultures and languages that became interwoven with the new ecology of the Americans five centuries ago.
In the latter half of the 19th century two factors converged to establish the foundations for an energy system capable of fueling the transition to industrial capitalism, two world wars, and subsequent US imperial hegemony. First in 1848, Indian lands were stolen when the Southwestern US was annexed from Mexico. These Southwestern territories contained enormous and seemingly endless deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas. Approximately twenty years later, after the Civil War’s conclusion early industrial capitalists from the Northeast, Midwest, and South descended on the Southern Appalachian region in droves establishing the highly destructive coal-mining industry. The cycle of fossil fuel consumption established during this period–extraction, production, transportation, combustion and waste disposal—is a central aspect of the current ecological crises we face.
What this history tells us is that capitalism, its growth imperative and search for ever-expanding markets, is fundamentally detrimental to and incompatible with the health of our people and planet. The global ecological crisis is centered in the United States, the superpower of endless consumption and accumulation, the center of a world empire set in place by conquest and settler colonialism and held in place by modern versions of the instruments of death that slaughtered the First Peoples. Consequently there can be no solution to these ecological crises that now threaten the very life of our planet, unless we come to terms in the deepest and most profound way with the totality of this ecological history.
If we have learned anything from US history it is truly that “power concedes nothing without a demand.” A mass movement for revolutionary socialism, one that holds resolving the great blood debt of this white supremacist capitalist system as central, is necessary. In the US, this includes ensuring genuine sovereignty for the Native American nations, guaranteeing African American self-determination and reparations, recognizing the national rights of the Chicano-Mexicano people in the Southwest, ending the colonial status of Puerto Rico and other occupied territories, and restoring the national rights of the Indigenous people of Hawai’i.
As Marxists we base our practice in a scientific view of our world, dialectical and historical materialism. Dialectical and historical materialism is an important theoretical tool that can help us as Marxists understand the current ecological crises, as well as how and where we must intervene.
Marx and Engels arrived at their major theoretical contribution – a critique of the capitalist political economy – through an application of the theory of dialectical change to the material world and then by applying dialectical materialism to human history. This laid the groundwork for understanding both the capitalist system and its potential undoing. The dynamics of class struggle in many ways mirror processes of tension and change in the natural world. While capitalism requires ever-increasing inputs, uniformity, and accumulation, the earth’s ecosystems function through regenerative cycles, a fundamentally incompatible logic. Ecosystems adapt to change and flourish through diversity and interdependence and recurring processes of restoration (water cycles, nutrient cycles, and energy flows).
John Bellamy Foster, a leftist who has long written about the ecologically destructive impacts of capitalism, coined the term “metabolic rift” to refer to Karl Marx’s identification of the origins of modern ecological degradation in his systematic critique of capitalism. Marx specifically wrote about soil exhaustion under capitalist agriculture as an example of the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism.” The origins of capitalism were based in large part on severing people’s ties to the land, and therefore their ability to provide for their own social reproduction. Today an example of an unchecked metabolic rift is evident on a global scale in the form of our current climate crisis.
CURRENT PERIOD –PLANETARY CRISIS
The interconnected environmental crises of toxins and waste, biological and cultural extinction, food and agriculture, clean water, and energy and climate together make up the ecological crisis which literally threatens all life on the planet. Quantitative changes we see now are heading towards ‘tipping points’ after which we will experience qualitative changes including rapid desertification, mass extinctions, famine, and widespread displacement. Consider that:
- We are losing plant and animal species at the greatest rate in 65 million years.
- Eleven of thirteen global fisheries are either depleted or near depletion.
- Global warming has increased since the Kyoto protocol was initially adopted by the United Nations in 1997 (with the US as the only UN member country that has still not signed onto it).
- The majority of the world’s forests are gone — devastated by relentless industrial consumption.
- Every new climate study indicates that the crisis is moving on faster and a broader scale than all previous scientific studies had predicted.
While the science behind understanding these planetary systems is very complicated it is increasingly clear and pretty widely accepted at this point that if we continue on this path, humanity will experience a series of cascading and devastating consequences. To make matters worse these consequences are exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible, to predict because of the interdependent nature of the systems under threat and the dialectical nature of change.
What is clear however is that these interconnected crises are felt in an acute and ongoing way by millions of people and countless communities around the world, particularly women, land-based peoples, indigenous peoples, migrants, poor people in the Global South, communities on the front lines of extraction, production, and waste disposal, and working class oppressed nationality communities in the Global North. In the United States, they are the reality for the Indigenous nations, and working class communities of color, as well as poor whites. Their neighborhoods, communities, villages, or towns are enveloped by a stream of toxins from freeways, rail yards, ports, power plants, oil refineries, factories, meat packing plants, giant warehouses visited by hundreds of diesel trucks around the clock, waste dumps, land-fills, auto and shipping container graveyards. In Southern Appalachia it’s the toxic sludge and massive destruction of mountain-top coal removal. For indigenous territories in the Southwestern US it’s the poisonous rubble from uranium mining. Recycling operations spew glass, aluminum, or metal particulate matter into the air supply. Farm workers often absorb a steady barrage of pesticides and herbicides, agents that poison the land, waters, the air and the people who harvest our crops.
The language of life and death is not poetic rhetoric — it is the reality of cancer clusters, of miscarriage, of choking asthma attacks. This is capitalism in its naked essence — willing to destroy both the natural and human source of its obscene super-profits. This should not only cause us to despair but rather should motivate all of us to join the struggle to solve the ecological crisis in the only way it can ultimately be resolved — through the revolutionary transformation of our society.
CAPITALIST FALSE SOLUTIONS
Unfortunately for most of humanity, the US capitalist ruling class is more concerned with maintaining its position at all costs than with ensuring that the planet can still sustain human life. The United States is home to many false solutions to the crisis: cap and trade pollution trading, carbon sequestration, offsets, nuclear power, “clean coal”, natural gas, and the super-hyped “green economy”. Each of these prescriptions is defined by its reliance on individualism, market-mechanisms, and a short-sighted desperation to maintain the US consumer lifestyle. They are based on the assumption that capitalism– which caused, sustains, and drives the crisis– can “invent and invest” its way out of this mess. These are the only “answers” the capitalist system is willing and able to accept, and they are nowhere near adequate for the task at hand. It is our revolutionary obligation, then, to expose these proposals as false solutions, marketed to address climate change and to benefit the community, but actually doing more harm than good.
A SOCIALIST RESPONSE
While it is true that the individual behavior of US consumers must change as part of our solution, given the scale of these crises, a revolutionary collective solution including the seizure of state power must be a part of any real solution. The US ruling class will not stop destroying air, water and soil unless we make them do so, and until we bring about a system whose imperative is meeting the needs of people and the earth, rather than maximizing profits.
The United States has played an obstructionist role, blocking the adoption of any binding international climate treaty. Socialist planning can work to rectify historical injustices and begin to transition our systems to more participatory, genuinely democratic and ecologically viable. This will include significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, paying ecological reparations for the tremendous environmental damage caused throughout the world, and transitioning to a more sustainable system through redistribution of resources. The Cuban response after “peak oil’’–mobilizing agronomists and other scientist alongside average Cubans to move away from fossil-fuel-intensive monocultural agriculture towards organic food production–offers a powerful example of the possibilities for re-directing human, scientific and other resources towards more ecologically sustainable practices.
While we are organizing to achieve a truly fundamental and revolutionary social transformation, we must work for reforms that advance the interests of the working class and oppressed nationality communities and that begin to redress the worst effects of the ecological crises. Fighting the fossil fuel industry and cultivating our resilience to the worst effects of climate change are key examples. Given the urgency and scale of the impacts we are facing in the next 50 years we cannot retreat into small-scale prefigurative projects, but must work to ensure that those projects are integral and connected to a larger strategy and program. Nor can we afford to spend all of our energy in resistance battles, elevating resistance work as more important than other aspects of strategic direction and program. We must operate on multiple scales, with short and medium-term goals, a long-term vision, and perhaps most importantly scenarios to help our communities adapt to the coming transitions.
Climate change is no longer a future consequence. It is a lived reality. CO2 levels in the atmosphere, currently at 385 PPM, continue to rise. They need to be reduced to at most 350 PPM to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Human-induced climate change is already causing catastrophic droughts, floods, wildfires, and other natural disasters. We do not have time to waste. This means we must prevent the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and production. No more deep-water oil drilling. End mountaintop removal coal mining, tar sands extraction, and fracking. Stop the building of refinery capacity to refine dirtier grades of crude oil. End the use of petroleum-based fertilizers. All of these are struggles in which the Environmental Justice and Climate Justice movements have taken a leading role.
It is also imperative that we challenge the myth that it’s impossible to have both good jobs and a healthy environment. This false dichotomy is a divide-and-conquer tactic manufactured by the capitalist ruling class to divide our forces pitting mainstream environmentalists and environmental justice communities against unions and workers. In fact, it is both possible and necessary to take the health of both people and the environment into account; however this would require a fundamentally different social and economic system. In that sense, a program that advances these demands has kernels of revolutionary potential because it pushes the limits of what’s possible under the current system.
Such a program of reforms should be centered on creating jobs and an economy aimed at meeting the basic needs of people and restoring our relationship to the ecologies that we are a part of. It should include a plan for a rapid but just transition away from fossil fuels to genuinely renewable energy, and should begin to build a truly democratic infrastructure that gives people the power to make vital decisions about the economy and the environment. We must demand a massive federal climate jobs program centered on repairing environmental damage caused by corporations while also creating this infrastructure for an ecologically sustainable economy.
Twentieth century socialist models failed to recognize the limits of natural resources and the impacts of industrial development at their own peril. This failure was greatest in societies where the theory of productive forces was in command. This theory, briefly, is that effecting changes in production and technological development can cause changes in social relations. It was the basis of Stalin’s Five Year Plans and in China it was promoted by the faction who led the restoration of capitalism. It has resulted in massive deforestation in China and the plan to reverse the flow of the Volga in the USSR so that the tundra could become productive farmland. While this theory operates under a different logic than capitalism, it should be seen as akin to the capitalist accumulation process in causing widespread ecological destruction and can ultimately only lead to economic and ecological disaster.
In order to rectify these errors, during the period of socialist transition our socialist state must play three key roles: protecting natural resources, redressing and preventing the impacts of pollution, and monitoring and planning industrial processes that recognize ecological boundaries. This includes developing an ecologically sound approach to the development of productive forces and prioritizing the long-view of integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems.
Protecting and ensuring access to natural resources
One of the state’s main roles should be to hold and protect natural resources for the benefits of all peoples. These resources include materials (such as water, air, topsoil, mineral and energy deposits), as well as wild ecosystems and biodiversity. Together these form the basis for sustainable human life, and because of their importance in sustaining human life, they must be held as commons for current and future generations—protected from pollution, overuse, and private gain—while also ensuring all communities access to the natural resources themselves. This is no mean feat.
Accordingly as socialists we must fight against efforts to privatize natural resources, and fight to re-public-icize/nationalize the natural resources that have been privatized already. When and where possible we should develop infrastructure for local food, water, and energy sovereignty, recognizing that we will need an intricate balance between local production and centralized distribution and reallocation of resources. Developing less destructive methods for transportation and distribution will be an important aspect of this work.
Redressing and preventing the impacts of pollution
Another key role for the state is to redress the impacts of “externalities” of industry and development, and to prevent future such impacts on human communities. This includes environmental justice issues such as exposure to toxins, displacement of communities to marginal lands, and employment in hazardous industries, as well as the growing impacts of climate change.
Even now, socialists can engage in organizing to challenge and change local laws that control both development and pollution, and also engage in community preparation for/response to storm events.
Monitoring and planning industrial development
A third major role for the state is to monitor and plan industrial processes so that people can benefit from products without destroying natural systems. This is the global parallel to the second role. One example could be honoring the demand for “free technology transfer” by many movements in the Global South. This act would both acknowledge and work to undo imperialism’s intentional underdevelopment of Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. Sharing technologies that can help people in the Global South improve their quality of life while also avoiding the most destructive aspects of industrial development is a form of ecological reparations.
To carry this out a centralized international body will be needed to intervene in regional planning processes in order to address environmental damage and pollution, to settle conflicting needs between regions, and to act as the steward of the earth’s natural systems. There are decisions that cannot be made on local or regional levels since their consequences obey no borders and affect other regions and, potentially, the entire planet; somehow, we must make these decisions centrally.
How decisions are made throughout this period of transition will be a key aspect of the struggle. Developing the ability of the working class to rule is an integral part of the socialist transition. Those who live downstream must be as involved in decision making as those upstream. If it’s truly democratic,those who grow food and have been most impacted by the industrial, capitalist approach to agriculture (which includes, but is not limited to, pesticides and poor working conditions), will be making decisions about how that food is grown, harvested, and distributed under socialism. Thus, our self-interest in preserving and regenerating healthy soil, living and working in a way that does not compromise our health as workers, or the health of our children, will become central in making decisions about how food is grown and all other aspects of getting our basic needs met.
Our ultimate solution, our communist society must reverse the growth imperative and system of private ownership upon which the capitalist economy is predicated. A post-capitalist society would uphold as central the concept of “the commons” and living within ecological limits. Human society must live within a commons of air, land, and water, which we all need to survive, and which cannot be parceled out into private property. “Private property” as a legal concept would become subsumed under the older legal concept of “personal property,” that which we can use personally.
Work should be life affirming and restorative. It should contribute to the betterment of society while allowing each individual to develop to their full potential. A socialist society will begin its work by restoring to the workers the wealth they have created: the land, the factories, the banks, and other primary aspects of production. This economic democracy will create the conditions for building a new type of production system, one based on people’s actual needs, rather than the artificial “wants” generated by a multi-billion dollar advertising industry. We can have housing instead of missiles, true health care instead of bombs, and liberatory schools rather than limos. We can create an economy based on community, cooperation, sharing, and a system of production that takes into account our impact on ecological systems. Technology will inevitably be part of our solution, but we must use and re-purpose science and technology to serve these revolutionary priorities.
Our communist society will be based on a culture (and a value-system) that privileges “use-value,” and particularly psychological and spiritual dimensions, over the accumulation of things, and a concept of well-being over the capitalist concept of “quality of life” which is equated to owning things. A post-capitalist society would reimagine work as meaningful activities, where each could find meaning in the work they do, and take responsibility for the impact of that work on others and the planet.
Our notion of “green jobs” would be redefined to include not only work that builds more sustainable transportation and food systems; but also the critical work of individual, family and community skill-building that we need to live and co-exist through ecological transition. This may include everything from organization building, collective work and living, earth-skills, relationship-building, mediation and healing. Ultimately, we envision a social contract that establishes that no one is forced to do work that harms the earth’s ecosystem or each other, and a collective commitment to ‘just transition’ for workers and communities.
Achieving a society based on a transformation in cultural values and in the economy, to make the commons, meaningful work, and holistic science central foundations, will not happen by itself, by small groups of utopian thinkers and practitioners, or by the self-created implosion of capitalism as it exists today. We must uphold the banner of socialism as we look to transform and recreate society, institutions and relationships, because it demands a collective effort towards that transformation, a revolutionary socialism that is fighting for all of humanity and for the planet that is our home.
Adopted January 2013Download this piece as a PDF