You are here


The Long Ecological Revolution

By John Bellamy Foster - Monthly Review, November 2017

Aside from the stipulation that nature follows certain laws, no idea was more central to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and to the subsequent development of what came to be known as modern science, than that of the conquest, mastery, and domination of nature. Up until the rise of the ecological movement in the late twentieth century, the conquest of nature was a universal trope, often equated with progress under capitalism (and sometimes socialism). To be sure, the notion, as utilized in science, was a complex one. As Francis Bacon, the idea’s leading early proponent, put it, “nature is only overcome by obeying her.” Only by following nature’s laws, therefore, was it possible to conquer her.1

After the great Romantic poets, the strongest opponents of the idea of the conquest of nature during the Industrial Revolution were Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the founders of classical historical materialism. Commenting on Bacon’s maxim, Marx observed that in capitalism the discovery of nature’s “autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs,” particularly the needs of accumulation. Yet despite its clever “ruse,” capital can never fully transcend nature’s material limits, which continually reassert themselves, with the result that “production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.” Its treatment of natural limits as mere barriers to be overcome, not as actual boundaries, gives capital its enormously dynamic character. But that same refusal to recognize natural limits also means that capital tends to cross critical thresholds of environmental sustainability, causing needless and sometimes irrevocable destruction.2 Marx pointed in Capital to such “rifts” in the socio-ecological metabolism of humanity and nature engendered by capital accumulation, and to the need to restore that metabolism through a more sustainable relation to the earth, maintaining and even improving the planet for successive human generations as “boni patres familias” (good heads of the household).3

In his Dialectics of Nature, written in the 1870s, Engels turned the Baconian ruse on its head in order to emphasize ecological limits:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first…. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.4

Although key parts of Marx and Engels’s ecological critique remained long unknown, their analysis was to have a deep influence on later socialist theorists. Still, much of actually existing socialism, particularly in the Soviet Union from the late 1930s through the mid-1950s, succumbed to the same extreme modernizing vision of the conquest of nature that characterized capitalist societies. A decisive challenge to the notion of the domination of nature had to await the rise of the ecological movement in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Here criticism of the ecological destruction brought on by modern science and technology and by unbridled industrialism—associated with a simplistic notion of human progress focusing on economic expansion alone—led to an alternative emphasis on sustainability, coevolution, and interconnection, of which ecology was emblematic. Science was said to have been misused, insofar as it had aided in the violation of nature’s own laws, ultimately threatening human survival itself. Through the development of the concept of the biosphere and the rise of the Earth System perspective (in which Soviet ecology played a crucial role), science increasingly came to be integrated with a more holistic, dialectical view, one that took on new radical dimensions that challenged the logic of the subordination of the earth and humanity to profit.5

Recent years have brought these issues renewed relevance, with the climate crisis and the introduction of the Anthropocene as a scientific classification of the changed human relation to the planet. The Anthropocene is commonly defined within science as a new geological epoch succeeding the Holocene epoch of the last 12,000 years; a changeover marked by an “anthropogenic rift” in the Earth System since the Second World War.6 After centuries of scientific understanding founded on the conquest of nature, we have now, indisputably, reached a qualitatively new and dangerous stage, marked by the advent of nuclear weapons and climate change, which the Marxist historian E. P. Thompson dubbed “Exterminism, the Last Stage of Imperialism.”7

From an ecological perspective, the Anthropocene—which stands not just for the climate crisis, but also rifts in planetary boundaries generally—marks the need for a more creative, constructive, and coevolutionary relation to the earth. In ecosocialist theory, this demands the reconstitution of society at large on a more egalitarian and sustainable basis. A long and continuing ecological revolution is needed—one that will necessarily occur in stages, over decades and centuries. But given the threat to the earth as a place of human habitation—marked by climate change, ocean acidification, species extinction, loss of freshwater, deforestation, toxic pollution, and more—this transformation requires immediate reversals in the regime of accumulation. This means opposing the logic of capital, whenever and wherever it seeks to promote the “creative destruction” of the planet. Such a reconstitution of society at large cannot be merely technological, but must transform the human metabolic relation with nature through production, and hence the whole realm of social metabolic reproduction.8

Time to Pull the Plugs

By Andreas Malm - ROARMag, December 2017

Our best hope now is an immediate return to the flow. CO2 emissions have to be brought close to zero: some sources of energy that do not produce any emissions bathe the Earth in an untapped glow. The sun strikes the planet with more energy in a single hour than humans consume in a year. Put differently, the rate at which the Earth intercepts sunlight is nearly 10,000 times greater than the entire energy flux humans currently muster — a purely theoretical potential, of course, but even if unsuitable locations are excluded, there remains a flow of solar energy a thousand times larger than the annual consumption of the stock of fossil fuels.

The flow of wind alone can also power the world. It has nothing like the overwhelming capacity of direct solar radiation, but estimates of the technically available supply range from one to twenty-four times total current energy demand. Other renewable sources — geothermal, tidal, wave, water — can make significant contributions, but fall short of the promises of solar and wind. If running water constituted the main stream of the flow before the fossil economy, light and air may do so after it.

A Transition to the Flow

How fast could a transition to the flow — all those sources of energy originating in the sun and flowing through the biosphere — be implemented? In the most comprehensive study to date, American researchers Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi suggest that all new energy could come from wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric installations by 2030. Reorienting manufacturing capabilities towards their needs, the world would not have to build one more coal-fired — or even nuclear — power plant, gasworks, internal combustion engine or petrol station. After another two decades, all old equipment based on the stock could be taken off-line, so that by 2050 the entire world economy — manufacturing, transportation, heating: everything — would run on renewable electricity, roughly 90 percent of which the sun and the wind would provide. The job could be done by technologies already developed.

In the real world, the flow does seem to be undergoing something of a boom, output of wind and solar growing exponentially year after year. Despite the financial crisis, global wind-power capacity increased by 32 percent in 2009; for photovoltaics — also known as solar panels — the figure reached 53 percent. In the eighteen months ending in April 2014, more solar power was adopted in the US than in the previous thirty years; in 2013, 100 percent of the fresh electricity in Massachusetts and Vermont came from the sun, while China installed more photovoltaics than any country had ever done before in a single year.

Yet the flow remained a drop in the fossil bucket, evidently doing nothing to dampen the emissions explosion. Between 1990 and 2008 — from the first to the fourth IPCC report — 57 times more fossil than renewable energy came online in the world economy; by 2008, wind represented a trifling 1.1 percent and photovoltaics a microscopic 0.06 percent of primary energy supply; excluding hydropower, renewable sources generated a mere 3 percent of the electricity. In 2013, more energy entered the world economy from coal than from any other fuel. How can this be? Why is humanity not running for life out of the fossil economy towards one based on the flow? What impediments block its way?

A prime suspect is price: fossil fuels simply remain cheaper. And indeed, one decade into the millennium, renewable sources still cost more on average than the conventional incumbents. But the gap narrowed fast. In many parts of the US, onshore wind was already neck and neck with fossil energy, the price of turbines having fallen by 5 percent per annum for thirty years. Photovoltaics crashed at double that speed. In 2014, after a fall of 60 percent in only three years, solar panels cost one-hundredth of what they did in 1975. In nineteen regional and national markets, they had attained “grid parity,” meaning that they matched or undercut conventional sources without the support of subsidies.

Had it not been for state subsidies to fossil energy — six times larger than those to renewables in 2013 and showing no signs of decreasing — sun and wind might have had significantly lower relative prices. Had the costs of climate change, air pollution, lethal accidents and other “externalities” been included in the market price of fossil fuels, they would not have stood a chance.

The ongoing collapse in the prices of the flow is, at bottom, a function of its profile: the fuel is already there, free for the taking, a “gift of nature” or Gratisnaturkraft, to speak with Marx. The only thing that has exchange value is the technology for capturing, converting and storing the energy of the fuel, and like all technologies, it is subject to economies of scale: mass production slashes the costs of panels and turbines. Every time the cumulative volume of photovoltaic installations has doubled, their market prices have declined by roughly 20 percent.

Moreover, there are numerous potentials for increasing performance and further cutting costs. In what is perhaps the only subfield of the climate debate bristling with optimism and near-utopian zeal, experts predict that both solar and wind will be generally cheaper than fossil fuels sometime before 2025. There is talk of approaching “peak fossil fuels,” beyond which coal, oil and gas will be left in the ground simply because they cost so much more than their clean alternatives.

Sean Sweeney of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy presentation to NZ ECO conference 2016

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (YouTube), August 20, 2016

Sean Sweeney's introduces the work of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy to ECO conference 2016:

Ecological Marxism vs. environmental neo-Malthusianism: An old debate continues

By Brian M. Napoletano - Climate and Capitalism, April 30, 2018

Despite being consistently discredited, overpopulation ideology resurfaces with the same predictable regularity as capitalist crises. Only Marxism offers a clear alternative.

Ecosocialism or Bust

By Thea Riofrancos, Robert Shaw, Will Speck - Jacobin, April 20, 2018

The Poverty of Luxury Communism

By QQ - LibCom.Org, April 5, 2018

A spectre is haunting Europe and the US, the spectre of... productivist national protectionism from the Left. QQ and Mike Harman respond to Novara Media and Jacobin Magazine.

"One form of wage labour may correct the abuses of another, but no form of wage labour can correct the abuse of wage labour itself." – Marx (Grundrisse)

Towards Workers' Climate Action

By Traven Leyshon - Solidarity, March 2016

Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity:
Tackling climate change in a neoliberal world
By Paul Hampton
Rutledge, 2015, 211 pages, $54.95 kindle.

For Workers’ Climate Action:
Climate Change and Working-Class Struggle
By Paul Hampton, 54 pages, £4.

Third Memorandum or Grexit: What are the implications for the Future of Greece’s Energy System?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, July 18, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Presentation, July 18, 2015, Democracy Rising conference, Athens, Greece

Third-Memorandum-or-Grexit-word document (full presentation)

It is understandable that this conference, Democracy Rising, should be deeply engaged in the intense political debates going on in Athens and all over the world about the decision by the Syriza government to sign the Third Memorandum and not walk down the Grexit road.

So the future of Greece’s energy system is not exactly the stuff of intense coffee-shop conversations going on right now. But energy will be at the heart of the struggles in Greece in the years ahead, Memorandum or Grexit. Energy poverty has grown with austerity and recession, and Syriza has taken measures to protect the poorest and most vulnerable from, for example, electricity disconnections.

But it is clear that the structure of Greece’s energy system also needs to change. The “Institutions”, through the Memorandum, have a clear sense of what restructuring energy means for them—full-on privatization. However, a left restructuring would seek to address two major challenges: firstly, Greece’s dependence on fossil fuel imports and, secondly, how to take advantage of its potential to generate large amounts of renewable energy. I will return to this later.

Should Unions Strike for a Just Transition?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 10, 2017

After more than a decade of tenacious union lobbying of government negotiators, the words “a just transition of the workforce” was written into the preamble of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

But now what? Encouraged by Paris, unions around the world have committed fresh energy towards giving Just Transition some practical significance, otherwise it will remain little more than a moral appeal for fairness in a corporate-dominated world economy where both morality and fairness are increasingly scarce.

This Bulletin features an article by TUED coordinator Sean Sweeney on the recent commitment made by unions in South Africa to strike for a “just transition.” However, the goal of the threatened strike is to halt the plan of the national utility (Eskom) to close 5 coal-fired power stations, a move that threatens 40,000 jobs.  Titled “When Stopping Coal Plant Closures Makes Environmental Sense” the article, which first appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of New Labor Forum, urges environmentalists not to support the closures, but to join with unions in opposing Eskom’s proposed actions.  Supporting the closures, argues Sweeney is “a poisoned chalice,”  that “will separate the environmental movement from the unions with whom it should be allied. And whatever environmental gains the 5 closures might produce at the margins in terms of avoided emissions and pollution levels will be more than offset by the impact of ‘jobs versus environment’ political fragmentation. This is why the Eskom closures should be opposed, but opposed in a way that might lay the political foundations for a more fundamental energy transition.”

Since the article was written, Eskom’s war with the private renewable energy companies has continued, with the utility pushing back against high-cost of power purchase agreements for wind and solar power. TUED union NUMSA and also the new South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) have called for a socially owned renewables sector in order to allow for a just energy transition from the present coal-dominated power system to one that can take advantage of South Africa’s abundant supplies of wind and sunshine.