We earthlings have had to swallow some hard truths lately. The impending impacts of climate change, and just how far we are from meeting our goals to stop them, have been brought into crisp focus by not only major, intergovernmental reports but also the slew of dramatic weather events around the globe.
It can be easy to feel hopeless, like there’s nothing we can do to stop our species from obliterating the planet as we know it in less than a generation. But there’s one sect of people who think they have the answer and, if everyone would just get on board, could easily curb the effects of climate change. It’s called ecosocialism, and it’s exactly as radical as it sounds.
“Ecosocialism combines the ideas of ecology and socialism, meaning that you have a society without class divisions that lives in some kind of harmony or balance with nature,” Victor Wallis, author of Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism, told me in a phone interview . “You can’t make the decisions necessary for the health of the environment on the basis of profit calculations.”
Ecosocialism first began to spread in the 1980s alongside environmentalism, though some scholars argue that the roots of this movement trace back to Karl Marx’s theories. The concept is basically that environmental protection is incompatible with capitalism, and the best (or, some would argue, only) way to fight climate change is to move towards a socialist society. Capitalism is always going to be driven towards producing and consuming more and more, which is a big part of how we got in this pickle to begin with.
Though proponents of the movement have trouble detangling the two ideologies, the overlap may not be immediately apparent to everyone. After all, there are profits to be made from the fight against climate change: think of renewable energy or electric cars. These industries don’t exist out of some corporate altruism, they exist because they’re profitable. And they’re growing rapidly—in 2017, more than 500,000 new jobs in renewable energy were created around the world, bringing the total number of people employed in the sector to 10 million, and $335.5 billion of new investments were made in the industry.
But ecosocialists argue even if some parts of capitalism can advance an environmental agenda, the rest of the market will still be working against it, and we’ll never get where we need to be.
“Unless you do away with capitalism, you’ll still have the other companies that are much more influential and bigger in scale, like oil companies,” Wallis said. “There is ultimately a clash in the wider scheme of things, even if you have one sector of a capitalist market that responds to people’s concerns about the environment.”
The other aspect of socialism that Wallis says meshes well with environmentalism is leveling the playing field. You may not like that your job at a coal mine contributes to climate change, but you still need to feed your family and pay your bills. If we could flatten out class structures so that was no longer a concern, more people would be able to participate in the changes we need to make.
But what does an eco socialist society even look like? Do we all live in vertical farms together, sharing crops and riding bicycles to power our light bulbs? Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist, reporter, and ecosocialist, told me it doesn’t have to be that dramatic of a shift.
“It’s not going to require everyone giving up all their possessions and living on a farm for the rest of their lives,” Holthaus said in a phone interview.
Flooding in Port Arthur, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey in 2018. Image: Wikipedia
Holthaus argues that we have the technology to rapidly switch to a world that runs on carbon-free energy, but that won’t happen in the current structure because it doesn’t benefit those already at the top. He pointed to the fact that studies have shown just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we created a government willing to strictly regulate these companies, it would make a drastic impact and open the door to a clean energy future.
This all sounds peachy, but it also sounds impossible, especially under the current climate-change-denying administration in the US. It doesn’t seem likely that we could make such a massive global shift in enough time to slow down this runaway train of destruction. While Wallis largely agreed, quipping that even though it’s highly unlikely, it’s “our only option,” Holthaus was a little more optimistic.
“Think of 30 years ago: 1988 was a very different world,” he said. “The example I always go back to is gay marriage. At one point, it felt impossible. It felt like an issue we would never change. But with a lot of people working behind the scenes and very publicly for decades, the political world switched within just a few years.”
Holthaus thinks we can see similar switches with climate change, as more people become aware of the dire straits we’re all in and decide, y’know, we’d like to stay on this planet for awhile.
And it’s not just a fringe movement. The US Green Party has embraced ecosocialism as a core tenant of its platform since 2016. Democratic socialism has seen a surge in popularity this year, including the election of Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted a 10-term incumbent for a congressional seat in New York this summer. The Democratic Socialists of America organization has also adopted the ecosocialism philosophy and has an ecosocialism working group.
It reaches beyond the US, as well. In the UK, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been an outspoken advocate of an ecosocialist approach to climate change.
Regardless of how tightly you subscribe to the notion of ecosocialism, both Holthaus and Wallis recommended getting out and getting active. Find like minded individuals, groups, and political parties, get organized, and start living in a way that will make this kind of transition easier. Though it may not be a panacea, at this stage in the game, I for one am happy to explore any idea that people believe will bring us back from the brink.
“I think it’s possible to have the world that we want and the world that we need to have,” Holthaus said. “I want to believe that that’s true.”