To be ‘good ancestors’, we must be red and green

December 1, 2017
The People's Climate March in New York City on April 29.

A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science & Socialism
By Ian Angus
Monthly Review Press
203 pages

Two decades ago, barely anyone called themselves an ecosocialist. Yet today the term is widespread on the left.

This comes from an awareness that any viable alternative to capitalism must do away with the current destructive relationship between human society and the wider natural world. It also stems from a recognition that too many socialists in the 20th century failed to take environmental issues seriously.

Climate and Capitalism editor and ecosocialist activist Ian Angus’s latest book, A Redder Shade of Green, is an impressive contribution to this vibrant trend in radical politics.

Early in the book, Angus says the ecosocialist goal is to bring together the best of Marxist social science and Earth System science. The project amounts to “a 21st century rebirth, if you will, of scientific socialism”.

Angus says: “The way we build socialism, and the kind of socialism that can be built, will be profoundly shaped by the state of the planet we must build it on.

“If our political analysis and program doesn’t have a firm basis in the natural sciences, our efforts to change the world will be in vain. The reverse is also true, because the natural sciences only reveal parts of reality.”

The first section of the book contains two excellent essays that examine how Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels engaged with some of the key scientific debates of their time. These help refute the accusation that Marx and Engels’ work largely ignored natural science. 

The first discusses the decades-long collaboration between Marx and Engels, and pioneering German chemist Carl Schorlemmer. Angus credits Schorlemmer with helping Marx and Engels understand advances in 19th century natural science, which they integrated into their broader critique of capitalist production.

The second essay focuses on Marx and Engels’ warm reception of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. In an 1860 letter to Engels, Marx wrote that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species “contains the basis in natural history for our [communist] view”.

Angus explains the context of Marx and Engels’ enthusiasm for Darwin’s theory. The point is not that Marx and Engels claimed Darwin as a proto-communist (he certainly wasn’t). Rather, Angus says “Darwin did for the understanding of nature what Marx and Engels did for human society. He overturned teleology and essentialism and established a materialist basis for understanding how organisms change over time.”

A later essay takes the form of a polemic with some of the ideas of Binghamton University professor Jason Moore, who authored the 2015 book Capitalism in the Web of Life. Moore has criticised the new field of “Anthropocene” science, which holds that human activity has changed the Earth System to such a great extent that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch.

Moore says Anthropocene science is “a fundamentally bourgeois concept” and “the most dangerous environmentalist concept of our times”.  

Angus responds that the left must listen to Earth scientists and work to incorporate their findings into the socialist vision of revolutionary change.

Angus says: “If we reject Anthropocene science and deny the new epoch’s world-historic importance, we will do lasting damage to both science and radical politics, and undermine our ability to carry through the radical social and geophysical transformations that are so desperately needed in our time.”

A Redder Shade of Green also includes essays that refute the notion that human population size is a key cause of environmental problems such as climate change. Such simplistic arguments misleadingly equate people with pollution, even though the poorest half of the world’s population barely emits greenhouse gases at all.

Angus says the “too many people” argument wrongly diverts focus away from confronting the rich ruling elites who control production, profit from wrecking the planet and fiercely resist sustainable change.

Right-wing climate deniers routinely say warnings of runaway climate change are “alarmist” or “catastrophist”, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. However, there is a left-wing variant of the argument. Angus responds to this in another essay titled “The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism’”.

The left critique of alleged catastrophism suggests that talking about the dire threats posed by climate change and other perilous ecological breakdowns is a self-defeating strategy. Essentially, the argument says too much truth about climate change will make people apathetic and give elites a justification to carry out reactionary policies under the guise of dealing with the crisis.

Angus replies that it is simply untrue that the general public is being bombarded with apathy-inducing doomsday scenarios. Indeed, most people lack access to media that adequately explains the scientific consensus on climate change.

Rather than admonish climate campaigners for giving honest warnings about ecological breakdowns, Angus says the key questions for radicals should be how “we relate to the growing environmental movement? How will we support its goals while strengthening the forces that see the need for more radical solutions?”

Angus makes clear that his purpose in writing A Redder Shade of Green is to help “inform and advance radical movements for social and ecological justice”.

He concludes: “One of the key objectives of socialism must be to build a society in which human beings act consciously to be good ancestors.

“In contrast to capitalism’s incurable focus on short-term gains, a socialist society must think and act in harmony with the needs of our grandchildren — and of their grandchildren.”

[Simon Butler co-authored with Ian Angus the 2011 book Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis.]

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