Every day it becomes clearer how important it is to understand the political and economic forces that are getting in the way of addressing the climate crisis. The scientists’ understanding of the crisis is clear. The technological solutions to support human life into the future without destroying the natural matrix we depend on are also getting clearer every day. What is less clear are the pathways to political action to make the needed changes as quickly as possible.
One would think that those working in the rich tradition of anti-capitalist thinking would be able to help us understand the ways that an economy driven for pursuit of profits, and political systems captured by those profit seeking forces, are slowing action. And one would think that anti-capitalists would have a lot to say about where to put our energies at this moment. Unfortunately, much anti-capitalist thinking takes place within outdated and rigid frameworks that keep them from offering their full potential to help us see the ways forward. This article looks at three recent books on capitalism and the climate crisis and explores ways that an anti-capitalist analysis can be helpful for climate activists.
In Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics, Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass argue that the solution to the climate crisis is to have half of the earth be in nature preserves run by indigenous people, and to build socialism on the other half. The idea of preserving 30% of the earth for nature by 2030 and 50% by 2050 is an exciting movement that is catching on globally and Vitesse and Pendergrass do an excellent job explaining that idea, and its relationship to preventing pandemics. But they have no theory at all for how we get from where we are to that half-earth socialist future.
In Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet, Matthew T. Huber takes on that second question by developing a strategy for how to get past capitalism. Huber does a good job pointing out the ways that the climate crisis is perpetuated by entrenched interests that are based in capitalism. He makes a persuasive case that the climate crisis cannot be solved by moral suasion, new technology, or education alone. But then when he proposes his own strategy, he falls back on an orthodox Marxist perspective and proposes class struggle via strikes at the point of production as the main way to address the climate crisis.
Both of these books have the virtue of taking the relationship between capitalism and the climate crisis seriously. And yet both have the same weakness of relying on outdated versions of the Marxist canon. If they had only taken any of the lessons of the last fifty years of feminist Marxism, global south economic thinking, or anarchist critique seriously, their work could be so much more valuable for helping us in the present moment.
David Camfield’s Future on Fire: Capitalism and the Politic of Climate Change does a much better job showing both the ways that the political forces entrenched in capitalist processes are getting in the way of climate action, and calling for broad and inclusive social movements to shift the inertia that is getting in the way of rapid action. He is not enamored of an overly controlling state as the basis for an ideal economy for the future. Camfield’s book could have been stronger if he had dug more deeply into the nature of the “state,” or government, to show us how we get from where we are to a just and sustainable society.
Overthrowing the Capitalist System?
Where many anti-capitalists get stuck in thinking about the climate crisis is that they suppose that we need a revolution to overthrow the capitalist system and they suppose that the tools that have traditionally been used to fight capitalism are the main ones to use to fight the climate crisis. With the climate crisis, we don’t have time to wait for the revolution. And we need to use all of the tools at our disposal to make the transition to a sustainable world happen as quickly as possible.
Vitesse and Pendergrass suppose that we need to replace the capitalist system with a new socialist one. The idea of a system, implied in that approach, supposes that capitalism defines the totality of a given society, and it asks us to get rid of that totality. When we think of capitalism this way, it becomes hard to imagine the steps we need to take to get to a better world. What should we do while we are waiting for a revolution to happen? Should we try to make things better to build that new world? Should we try to make things worse so the system will crash?
There is an alternative anti-capitalist tradition, based in the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham, Richard Wolff, and Steven Resnick, that defines as capitalist those economic processes that are based on private property and the private appropriation of value from workers in wage labor. Socialist economic processes are those run by a state. This tradition argues that there are many economic processes operating in any society at any given time. In addition to capitalist market processes and state-run processes, there are also the ways we meet our needs that have nothing to do with money or government. This third category is where we make things for ourselves and others, we care for each other, we trade or give things freely. This third aspect can be called provisioning. On this view the goal of anti-capitalism is to eliminate to the extent possible the damaging aspects of our societies that perpetuate capitalist processes.
Strategies for Getting Past Capitalism
In Climate Change as Class War, Matthew T. Huber correctly argues that saving the climate will require taking power from the capitalist class. But he supposes that this only really happens at the point of production, where workers have their most power to disrupt the extraction of profits. His favored strategy for dealing with the climate crisis is to take over electrical workers unions and fight from within those unions for pro-climate worker militancy that can stop fossil fuel driven electrical systems in their tracks. His advice to young people who want to do something for the climate is to “join a union.”
Generations of feminists, those organizing service sectors, and organizers from the global south have worked within the anti-capitalist tradition to displace this hundred-year-old image of the working class as the men who work in industrial labor as the core of those best positioned to challenge capitalism. But since capitalist forms of destruction are generated at many social locations, so there are many different places where those working to stop pro-capitalist forms of agency can fight against them. At this late date, with only a few years left to deeply de-carbonize human society, we cannot afford to focus on one narrow strategy. The urgent fight we are in, for the survival of our species, requires that we engage in all possible forms of struggle to get there.
In Future on Fire: Capitalism and the Politics of Climate Change, Camfield does a great job reminding us of the power of mass movements to enable social change happen against the will of entrenched interests. Camfield takes a “by any means necessary” approach to the kinds of movements that we should join and support to speed action against the forces that are blocking progress on the climate crisis. While Camfield prefers mass movements that shift the possible within a given political system, he doesn’t rule out engaging with electoral work to gain as much control as possible inside political systems.
What is our Alternative?
On the question of where we are going, both Vitesse and Pendergrass’ and Huber’s books rely on a standard view of socialism as an economy controlled by a state. Camfield has a broader view. For the past fifty years, feminist economists have been producing important work that deeply questions the idea that there are only two economic systems, those controlled by markets and those controlled by the state. The most central insight from feminist economics is that the economy is not just the money economy.
A catch-all term for those other aspects of work is provisioning. In A Postcapitalist Politics, J.K. Gibson-Graham argues that even in highly industrialized societies, more than half of the things we do to meet our needs are done outside the realm of wage labor. These provisioning aspects of our economies, are invisible to mainstream economists because they do not involve buying and selling. They are invisible to socialist economists because they do not involve the state.
Solidarity economics is an emerging approach, whose work can be found in seen in global networks, such as the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social Solidarity Economy– RIPESS as it is known by its Spanish acronym. This tradition pulls together ideas from feminist economics, as well as from the socialist and anarchist traditions, and is of growing importance in movements in the global south. It asks how we can manage the resources of our earthly home, such that people can live well within the ecological limits of the planet.
All three books looked at here do a good job explaining the ways that entrenched capitalist forces are the cause of disastrously slow action on the climate. Vitesse and Pendergrass do a great job explaining the need for preserving half of the earth. Camfield does an excellent job pointing to the kinds of mass movements we need to encourage that engage in large scale protest action to force political leaders to take action.
Many on the left agree that to address the climate crisis we need to challenge capitalism. There is less agreement on the best ways to challenge capitalism. Socialists need to take feminist critiques of the nature of the economy seriously. They need to take anarchist critiques of state domination seriously. They need to take seriously the anarchist insight that when freed from oppressive forces, people make things and do thing to meet their need in ways that can be deeply satisfying. They need to learn from solidarity economics, strongest in the global south, and propagated by organizations such as RIPESS. We need to understand the ways the entrenched capitalist forces are slowing the transition to a sustainable world, while also knowing that we can push against those forces in many different ways.