Ecosocialism’s global challenge

September 11, 2010
A protester during December’s global climate summit in Copenhagen. The Copenhagen protests and April’s World People’s Conf

Not long ago, a lot of socialists around the world had little to say about environmental issues. The environmental movement was focused on individual (change your light bulbs) and capitalist (create a market for emissions) solutions to the ecological crisis.

In 2007, immediately after the founding of the Ecosocialist International Network (EIN), I wrote a Canadian Dimension article on the challenges facing ecosocialists.

In it, I discussed two trends that seemed to indicate a new wave of anti-capitalist and pro-ecology action:

• Some socialists were moving away from the left’s abstention from the environmental movement, and trying to develop a distinctly socialist approach to the global environmental crisis; and

• Some greens were growing disillusioned with the pro-corporate agenda of the mainstream Green parties and NGOs, and expressing interest in radical alternatives.

Those trends have sped up and deepened in the past three years. The left’s ability to respond effectively to this development will determine whether ecosocialism lives up to the promise those of us who formed the EIN saw three years ago.

The most important development has been the rapid growth of the climate justice movement, raising the possibility of a global mass movement against climate change.

This potential was demonstrated powerfully in Copenhagen during the United Nations climate summit in December 2009. The largest climate change demonstrations ever held in Europe challenged the business-as-usual policies of the world’s largest polluters.

Militant actions by 100,000 people — double the number expected by the organisers — showed it was possible to develop mass mobilisations on the issue of global warming.

The sequel to Copenhagen — the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth — brought more than 35,000 people to Cochabamba, Bolivia.

It forged unprecedented unity between mass anti-imperialist movements in Latin America, indigenous activists from around the world, and the burgeoning climate justice movement in the global North.

The conference adopted the most radical program put forward by any significant section of the environmental movement in decades.

The Peoples’ Agreement adopted by the summit declared: “Under capitalism, Mother Earth is converted into a source of raw materials, and human beings into consumers and a means of production, into people that are seen as valuable only for what they own, and not for what they are…

“Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”

Cochabamba and Copenhagen were initial expressions of a new alliance that includes indigenous groups, radical environmentalists, justice campaigners, trade unions, socialists and a host of other fighters for social change.

If that alliance continues, it could pose a real challenge to the power of the climate vandals.

At the same time, most socialist groups that once dismissed the environment as a middle-class diversion have reconsidered. Today, it would be hard to find a socialist organisation anywhere that hasn’t published a statement, pamphlet or book describing the environmental crisis and explaining its roots in capital’s insatiable drive for profit.

But it’s one thing to analyse the causes of environmental destruction. It is quite another to translate that understanding into action.

In my 2007 article, I wrote: “Most socialist writing about climate change does a good job of analyzing the nature and causes of the problem, and a terrible job of explaining about what to do now.

“All too often, a stirring condemnation of capitalism is followed by a simple assurance that socialism will solve the problem. How socialism will come about and what socialists should do about climate change now, those are unexplained mysteries.”

This continues to be a weakness of left commentary on the environment, but in an increasing number of countries socialists are playing key roles in building the movements against climate change.

The entire global left can learn much from Australia, Britain and those countries in continental Europe where real red-green alliances are growing.

What, then, of the organisation that seemed so promising three years ago? The EIN, said the group’s initial announcement, is “united in the belief that if we are to have a worthwhile future, the whole world needs to come together to drive capitalism from the stage and create an alternative society based on principles of social and environmental justice as well as popular participation”.

Where is it today?

Since 2007, EIN supporters have organised successful sessions at the World Social Forum in Brazil and the alternative KlimaForum in Copenhagen, and this year at the Cochabamba conference and the US Social Forum.

The Belem Ecosocialist Declaration is available in six languages and has been signed by activists from nearly 40 countries. Though far from perfect, it offers a workable basis for unity among the wide range of people who call themselves ecosocialists.

In general, these successes reflect the activity of ad hoc groups of activists acting in the EIN’s name rather than any coordinated effort by the EIN as such. The organisation’s very loose structure has limited its ability to decide on actions and carry them through.

There appears to be broad agreement on the analysis and political perspectives outlined in the Belem Declaration, but no apparent consensus on what practical activities the EIN should initiate or support, or whether it should initiate any at all.

Given the failures of many other socialist “internationals”, many ecosocialists believe the EIN should not try to be more structured, but should provide an open framework for discussion and communication and leave actions to local initiatives.

As well as meeting an important political need, such an approach seems realistic in view of the EIN’s still limited resources.

An EIN session held during the US Social Forum in Detroit in June discussed some of these questions, and took initial steps towards the formation of chapters in North America.

An international organising meeting, planned for Paris in September, may provide more clarity about the EIN’s long-term direction.

The most important issue facing ecosocialists is not whether a specific organisation succeeds or fails, or whether a given resolution passes some socialist purity test.

The real question is: Will ecosocialists support the Cochabamba program and similar initiatives to build a global climate justice movement, or will we remain on the sidelines?

As we expected three years ago, the mainstream NGO-dominated ecological movement has lost its way and a growing number of activists now understand that the “market-mechanism” approach is an anti-ecological fraud.

At the same time, the urgent need for a mass movement for climate justice on an anti-capitalist axis has been given life by Copenhagen and Cochabamba. A real anti-capitalist green movement is being built outside the traditional socialist movement and outside the established environmental groups.

The climate justice activists, whatever their weaknesses and inadequacies, have begun the hard work of building a global mass movement against capitalist ecocide.

Socialists who actually want to change the world need to understand, as Canadian ecosocialist Steve D’Arcy wrote in an August 2009 article, that taking part in building such real social movements is the only way forward: “It is there — at the point of intersection between struggles for social justice and economic democracy on the one hand, and struggles for ecological sustainability and other broadly ‘environmental’ issues on the other hand — that ecosocialism must take root.

“It is these struggles that will pose the questions, in the minds of activists, to which ecosocialism can begin to suggest answers. If ecosocialism is to be a living political current, it will have to live within the ‘medium’ of mass struggles for social and environmental justice.”

Karl Marx famously wrote that, “every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs”. As Copenhagen and Cochabamba showed, a real movement is stepping out, right now.

[Reprinted from Canadian socialist Ian Angus edits and is co-editor.]


NGOs have moved from back stage to centre stage in world politics, and are exerting their power and influence in every aspect of international relations and policy making. They have in most part, been a positive force in domestic and international affairs. However, in recent times, various global Climate Justice Networks have popped up. These are platforms mainly constituted and controlled by Northern NGOs. We as member of the NGO fraternity or general public seldom research their record of accomplishment; or ask awkward questions on northern NGOs policies; or chase facts behind their claims and publicity spin. One of the most basic questions as we dig deeper is what kind of credentials do these northern NGOs possess to champion justice issues. Simply put - are they committed to principles of justice as portrayed in their carefully cultivated public image? If we go back to history, what we find is that they have a chequered past in terms of justice credentials. Rwandan Genocide until now had been regarded as the worst shame of NGO behaviour. This was genocide where an estimated 800,000 were massacred. The nineties saw NGOs soul-searching on such behaviour even as today NGO workers remain mentally scarred of experiences such as Rwanda. Apparently lessons have not been learnt as we find that through their climate advocacy they have been nopt only repeating the mistakes of the past but the shame hit a new low. Read more:

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