The Rise of the Green Left: A Global Introduction to Ecosocialism

The Rise of the Green Left: A Global Introduction to Ecosocialism

by Derek Wall


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Climate change and other ecological ills are driving the creation of a grassroots global movement for change. From Latin America to Europe, Australia and China a militant movement merging red and green is taking shape.

Ecosocialists argue that capitalism threatens the future of humanity and the rest of nature. From indigenous protest in the Peruvian Amazon to the green transition in Cuba to the creation of red-green parties in Europe, ecosocialism is defining the future of left and green politics globally. Latin American leaders such as Morales and Chavez are increasingly calling for an ecosocialist transition.

Drawing on the work of key thinkers such as Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster, Derek Wall provides an unique insider view of how ecosocialism has developed and a practical guide to focused ecosocialist action. A great handbook for activists and engaged students of politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745330365
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 09/08/2010
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Derek Wall is the author of six books including The Rise of the Green Left (Pluto 2010), The Sustainable Economics of Elinor Ostrom (Routledge 2014) and, with Penny Kemp, A Green Manifesto for the 1990s (Penguin, 1990). He teaches Political Economy at Goldsmiths College, University of London and is International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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Why Ecosocialism?

The modern economy is structurally reliant on economic growth for its stability. When growth falters – as it has done recently – politicians panic. Businesses struggle to survive. People lose their jobs and sometimes their homes. A spiral of recession looms. Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.

But question it we must. The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed the 2 billion people who still live on less than $2 a day. It has failed the fragile ecological systems we depend on for survival. It has failed spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people's livelihoods (Jackson 2009: 14).

Of course, the big problem facing all discussions of alternatives to capitalism is that there do not seem to be any alternatives. Throughout the Cold War, the alternative was state socialism or communism, but this alternative is fading fast around the globe. Asked about alternatives to capitalism today, most people draw a blank. Some would add: 'for good reason' (Speth 2008: 188).

Ecosocialism is an emerging political alternative that links socialism and ecology, arguing that ecological problems cannot be solved without challenging capitalism, and that a socialism which does not respect the environment is worthless. Ecosocialism is to be found amongst green parties, social movements, socialist groups and indigenous networks. I would argue that it can be traced back to Karl Marx and lives not just in formal organizations of the left but increasingly amongst indigenous networks. Wikipedia provides a good introductory definition:

Eco-socialism, green socialism or socialist ecology is an ideology merging aspects of Marxism, socialism, green politics, ecology and alter-globalization. Eco-socialists generally believe that the expansion of the capitalist system is the cause of social exclusion, poverty and environmental degradation through globalization and imperialism, under the supervision of repressive states and transnational structures; they advocate the dismantling of capitalism and the state, focusing on collective ownership of the means of production by freely associated producers and restoration of the commons. (, accessed 21 February 2010)


This book looks at why ecosocialism is necessary and how it can be encouraged to grow. This title is a call to action, not an academic text. The ecological crisis is an appropriate starting-point for the discussion. Our planet is in the grip of a severe environmental crisis and to solve it we need to construct an ecosocialist alternative. Climate change and the other ecological problems that threaten us are, above all, products of economic growth. As economies grow, the demand for oil, coal and gas to power industrial expansion is increasing and such growth tends to degrade the global environment. While it would be possible to improve living standards with less waste, our present economic system – capitalism – only works if we produce, consume and waste at ever-increasing levels. Capitalism is a system that depends on rising economic growth, so it is intrinsically linked to environmental damage. It is vital to create an alternative to capitalism that allows humanity to prosper without devastating the environment. Ecosocialism seeks to provide an alternative that is ecologically viable, socially just and meets human needs. This chapter outlines the argument for ecosocialism.

It is possible to argue that there is no environmental crisis in a fundamental or serious sense. There are many arguments that can be put forward to challenge ecosocialism. One is the notion that humanity has a long history of damaging the environment, creating horrible problems but none the less continuing to prosper. It is also true that the environment is almost constantly changing; therefore, to look for some kind of stable ecological equilibrium is likely to be misleading. Species come and go, we don't mourn the dinosaurs and the conservation of the woolly mammoth was a lost cause years ago. The idea, implicit in some forms of green politics, of a lost Eden of pristine untainted wilderness, is a myth. The literary critic Raymond Williams argued that each generation of humanity believes that it is damaging a natural order and looks back to a previous environmental golden age; he traces examples of this approach back to Thomas More's publication of Utopia in the sixteenth century and beyond (Williams 1993: 11).

It is clear that environmental damage has occurred throughout much of human existence. Human beings have changed the environment for thousands of years and often caused severe problems as a consequence. Ancient civilisations in Iraq were destroyed partly because of salinisation: using irrigation systems for crops led to increased evaporation of water; as the water evaporated, salt was drawn to the surface of the soil. Eventually the soil was too salty to grow crops and disaster struck; one writer referred to the salt-white landscapes as a 'satanic mockery of snow' (Goudie 1981:113).

There is evidence that the madness of several Roman emperors was caused by lead pollution from their food: acidic sauces contained in tableware made from pewter, an alloy of lead, would leach lead which was then ingested by diners, contaminating their blood and brains (Wall 1994: 33). There are numerous other examples of environmental problems from the past; for example, Tobias Smollett described the rank pollution of Bath in the eighteenth century and the toxic quality of London's water supply in his novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker:

If I would drink water, I must quaff the maukish contents of an open aqueduct, exposed to all manner of defilement; or swallow that which comes from the river Thames, impregnated with all the filth of London and Westminster — Human excrement is the least offensive part of the concrete, which is composed of all the drugs, minerals, and poisons, used in mechanics and manufacture, enriched with the putrefying carcases of beasts and men; and mixed with the scourings of all the washtubs, kennels, and common sewers, within the bills of mortality. (Smollett 1983:114)

The fact that London's water is rather cleaner today than two centuries ago might suggest that economic growth leads, along with better regulation and the development of new technologies, to reduced pollution. Environmental problems have a long history and time and time again solutions to them have been found. However, environmental problems in the twenty-first century are increasingly global and look increasingly out of control. The most obvious and probably the most dangerous is climate change. While a minority of sceptics deny that climate change is occurring, all the indications are that rising temperatures, caused by an increase in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, already affect us. Carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, trap heat in the atmosphere, like the glass panels of a greenhouse, making the world hotter. CO2 is released from burning fossil fuels and with the rapid increase in industrial development over the last century, huge quantities of CO2 have been placed in the atmosphere.

This leads to increasing temperatures and increasing temperatures tend to create feedback mechanisms that further accelerate the heating of the earth. For example, as the ice caps and glaciers of the world melt, less heat is reflected from the planet's surface, because ice and snow tend to radiate heat, while dark surfaces absorb heat. Another feedback mechanism occurs as permafrost, permanently frozen marshland mainly in Siberia and Canada, melts: methane is released, which is 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, that is, for every kilogram of methane released, this warms the earth 23 times as much as the equivalent kilogram of CO2. So there is a severe risk of run-away climate change, as rising temperatures cause further rises in temperature, and so on.

Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases have increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) to around 430ppm in 2009 over the last century. This is the highest concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere for over years and if CO2 levels continue to rise at current rates, the concentration will reach 780ppm by 2100. Methane is at its highest concentration for 650,000 years. Other greenhouse gases, such as nitrous oxide, are also rising, contributing to the increase in temperatures. Temperatures have risen by 0.7°C over the last century but are currently on course to increase by at least 3°C by 2100. Feedback mechanism could lead to far higher rises in temperature (Stern 2007).

Rising temperatures lead to rising sea levels, and will turn millions of people into refugees, as well as leading to crop failure and greater hunger. Desertification will accelerate in many parts of the world. There are a number of other major ecological consequences, one of the most worrying being acidification of the world's oceans. At present, our oceans are slightly alkaline, but they act as a carbon sink; this means much of the CO2 produced by industrial processes is absorbed into their waters, rather than moving into the atmosphere. Carbon sinks such as the oceans and world's rainforests, which absorb CO2, have so far reduced the greenhouse effect. However, the oceans are becoming more acidic with the absorption of CO2, this means that it is likely that within 50 years, they will become too acidic to support calcium carbonate-shelled creatures. Many shellfish will become extinct and along with them similar species; this will destroy the basis of food chains and is likely to devastate fish stocks. Coral reefs, which are vital to many marine ecosystems, will also be destroyed by a combination of bleaching, caused by increasing sea temperatures, and acidity, which dissolves their structures.

Climate change is just one symptom of a much wider ecological crisis. Basic biological cycles on our planet are being distorted. Rainforests are under attack, soil erosion threatens agriculture, air quality is declining and species are disappearing. Even without the threat of rising temperatures and acidification, over-fishing and pollution are wrecking the oceans. Recent reports suggest that all commercial fish stocks will be lost by 2050 (Pearce 2006). Sea-grass meadows which support marine life are declining at 7 per cent a year, putting yet another pressure on the seas, because they act as breeding grounds for many species. Dumping, industrial development and run-off from fertilisers are all causing degradation (Campbell 2009). Deforestation is accelerating, with rainforests attacked for timber, clear-cut to feed factory-farmed livestock, or assaulted to make way for oil and mineral extraction. With their loss, biodiversity falls, species become extinct and nature is fragmented.


The root of ecological crisis is economic. While cleaner technologies and better forms of environmental management have the potential to reduce environmental impact, as we consume, produce and throw more away, our impact on the environment tends to increase. After just 50 or 60 years of steady economic growth for only a small minority of the planet's inhabitants – mainly in North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand – we have created a number of severe ecological problems. It is difficult to see how ever-increasing economic growth can be possible forever, for everyone on our planet.

Discovered by oceanographer Charles Moore in 1997, the plastic 'island' in the Pacific is one example of the damage that rising waste is doing to the biosphere:

Fifty years ago, most flotsam was biodegradable. Now it is 90 per cent plastic. In 2006, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that there were 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in every square mile of ocean. With its stubborn refusal to biodegrade, all plastic not buried in landfills – roughly half of it – sweeps into streams and sewers and then out into rivers and, finally, the ocean. Some of it – some say as much as 70 per cent – sinks to the ocean floor. The remainder floats, usually within 20 metres of the surface, and is carried into stable circular currents, or gyres 'like ocean ring-roads', says Dr Boxall. Once inside these gyres, the plastic is drawn by wind and surface currents towards the centre, where it steadily accumulates. The world's major oceans all have these gyres, and all are gathering rubbish. Although the North Pacific–bordering California, Japan and China – is the biggest, there are also increasingly prominent gyres in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. Our problems with plastics are only just beginning. (Cumming 2010)

While it is possible to blame 'greed', rising population, or the inevitable desire to have more things, economic growth is first and foremost a product of an economic system that dominates our planet: capitalism. While the definition and nature of capitalism could be discussed in some detail, it is generally agreed that capitalism is based on the pursuit of profit. Capitalism involves taking profit and reinvesting it so as to make more profit. Capitalism does not do sufficiency, there is never enough profit, it is about making more profit, which can be reinvested to make yet more profit and so on for ever. Capitalism must grow by its very nature. Firms need to reinvest; if they don't, other firms will do so and put them out of business by producing at a lower cost in the future. Capitalism is structural, whatever an individual may wish to do, if he or she runs a company, the company will ultimately go out of business if profit is not reinvested. If a firm fails to reinvest, it will be put out of business by others, because they cut costs and increase production as a result of such investment. So it is not a matter of replacing 'wicked' and uncaring people at the top with more responsible individuals.

Profit demands growth. Paradoxically, as firms become more productive by substituting machines, computers and other forms of technology for workers, economic crisis is induced. If workers are replaced with machines, consumers, who generally must work to generate income, find they have less money to spend. Also, with higher productivity, the quantity of goods produced tends to increase, which tends to push down the price. A minor intellectual industry works to investigate the varied contradictions of capitalist crisis. While those working in this industry may disagree about much, what all such theorists agree upon is the need for capitalism to expand so as to survive. Capitalism is not a conspiracy simply maintained by a small number of wicked individuals: it's a complex, embedded, global system. Growth is built into the essence of capitalism.

To keep profits flowing in, new goods must be invented and marketed. While capitalism is a highly complex system, it is clear that to survive we must produce and consume at ever-increasing rates. If we consume and produce less, the economic system we currently have moves into crisis, which is the essential reason why we have ecological crisis. While human beings may or may not be greedy, it is clear that we have a whole system of economics that tends to move into chaos if we become less acquisitive and spend less. Huge effort is put into sustaining and nurturing greedy behaviour to keep the profits flowing. Advertising is one way in which we are persuaded to consume more and more. In 2008, global advertising expenditure was $720 billion; despite a fall due to recession in 2009, it is growing again, particularly in India, China and other 'emerging' markets (Hürriyet Daily News and Economic Review 2010).

Credit is another way of sustaining consumption; in recent years, globalisation has allowed firms to increase profit by relocating to countries where wages are lower. This has transferred income on a huge scale from the poor and middle incomes to the super rich. This in turn has meant that less cash is available for consumption for the majority of the world's population. However, the availability of low-interest credit in the form of credit cards, car loans and mortgages has allowed consumption to increase.

If we spend more, this is beneficial for the current economic system and virtually everything in our society is based around getting us to produce more and consume more. If profit margins fall for a particular good, profit can be maintained by selling more of that good – even a small margin of profit adds up if it is spread over millions of items. There is a tendency to commodify new areas of life, turning activities that were free and informal into services, which are exchanged for cash, as a way of increasing economic growth. Sport is an excellent example: football is a multi-billion-pound industry with transfers of players costing millions of pounds, yet it originated as a raucous and zero-revenue competition between small villages. It's almost impossible to think of football without thinking of massive amounts of cash and a lifestyle based on conspicuous consumption. Capitalism must colonise new areas of human activity to maintain profit. Capitalism also tends to turn the natural environment into a commodity, that is, something which is controlled so it can be bought and sold. The commodification of the environment, whereby it is fenced in to make profit, tends to lead to the simplification of complex ecosystems. This in turn leads to increased environmental damage. Even a renewable energy- fuelled capitalism would still tend to degrade the environment through such commodification of nature.


Excerpted from "The Rise of the Green Left"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Derek Wall.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

Foreword Hugo Blanco x

1 Why Ecosocialism" 1

2 The Real Climate Change Swindle 23

3 An Ecosocialist Manifesto 49

4 The Ecosocialist Challenge 70

5 Ecosocialism in Latin America 105

6 Slow the Train! 122

7 Resources for Revolution 149

Appendix 1 The Belém Ecosocialist Declaration 161

Appendix 2 The Headcorn Declaration from Green Left 168

Bibliography 170

Index 180

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