Democratic ecosocialism or climate catastrophe?

Climate protest
2022 Student Strike for Climate. Photo: Peter Boyle

Climate Change and Capitalism in Australia: An Eco-Socialist Vision for the Future
By Hans A Baer
Routledge Press, London, 2022
xi+240 pp., $35.96 paperback

Anthropologist Hans A Baer is a well-established writer on global warming and capitalism. In his latest book, Climate Change and Capitalism in Australia — An Eco-Socialist Vision for the Future, Baer not only tells us about the environmental pathologies of capitalism, he also invites readers to imagine a future beyond the system that has caused global ecological misery: capitalism. Much of this builds on his 2018 book, Democratic Eco-Socialism as a Real Utopia: Transitioning to an Alternative World System.

Baer’s book is divided into seven parts starting with the impact of global warming in Australia. This is followed up by “Australian capitalism as a driver of climate change”. Chapter three examines politics and global warming while chapter four discusses environmental movements. Chapters five and six examine climate justice activism and eco-socialism. The final chapter illuminates the issue of ecosocialism in a global context.

The book starts with a clarifying statement: “Solving the climate crisis and related crises requires a radical socio-ecological revolution that transcends capitalism and replaces it with an alternative system based upon social justice, deep democracy, environmental sustainability and a safe climate, both worldwide and in specific countries, such as Australia." Today, many have accepted the fact that “global capitalism has had adverse impacts on large sections of humanity and a fragile ecosystem”.

Australia’s fragile ecosystem has been under serious threat in recent years. For example, the hottest recorded year in Australia was 2019. Worldwide, 20 of the 21 hottest years occurred in the 21st century. Worse, in late 2019 and early 2020, Australia experienced the most devastating bushfires on record. Roughly, 80% of all Australians were affected. In an almost classical calamity, the country's then neoliberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison took a secret holiday to Hawaii during the bushfires until it was uncovered.

Set against impending ecocide, Baer suggests “democratic eco-socialism”. He outlines four ingredients for democratic ecosocialism. These are: an economy oriented towards meeting basic social and economic needs for everyone; a high degree of social and economic equality; public ownership of the means of production; and environmental sustainability and a safe climate. Interestingly, Baer suggests “public ownership”: while this may imply the state (socialism), it also can very well mean community and collectives which would be rather indicative of anarchism.

For Baer, any socialist alternative must embody inspirational ideals. It must also offering down-to-earth proposals for dealing with the problems of contemporary capitalism. With this, Baer’s concept of democratic ecosocialism is not far from what, for example, US economist Michael Albert suggests in his book No Bosses.

One of the reasons for Baer to reach his conclusion about removing the present economic and political system is found in the writing of US academic Noam Chomsky. Chomsky once noted that the United States is run by a one-party system. Chomsky calls this the Business Party. This party, however, has two factions: the Republicans and the Democrats.

In Australia, we find something very similar, where there is also a Business Party. Its two factions are the Coalition and the Labor Party. Beyond that and largely excluded from influencing environmental laws are, what Baer calls, the three climate movements in Australia: (i) the mainstream layer, e.g. the Climate Council; (ii) environmental NGOs such as, for example, Greenpeace; and (iii) grassroots and action groups such as Rising Tide, Lock the Gate, Stop Adani, School Strike 4 Climate and Extinction Rebellion.

The author suggests a move from the environmental pathologies of contemporary capitalism — more “capitolocene” than “anthropocene” — towards democratic ecosocialism. This suggestion is based on his decades of research on global warming and a conviction that Wallace-Wells was not too much off the mark when writing about The Uninhabitable Earth.

Beyond that, Baer argues that global warming has “three interlinked dimensions”: there is an undeniable link between global warming and capitalism; secondly, there is the Jevons Paradox, which states that “technological improvements in energy efficiency lead not to decreased but increased utilisation of natural resources, and thereby contribute to environmental degradations”; finally, capitalism means the destruction of carbon sinks. A carbon sink is pretty much anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.

A precursor of what is going to come in the decades ahead, can be seen in the recent impact of global warming in Australia. Recently, Australia suffered a so-called “Millennium Drought” between 1997 and 2009. In the year 2003 alone, it destroyed nearly two million hectares of nature. This was followed up by the 2009 Victorian bushfires. It was the most devastating bushfire on record in Australia’s history. Of course, all this continued with the so-called Angry Summer (2012‒13) which included the “hottest day, week, month, and year”.

It got worse with the 2019‒20 mega bushfires.

Australia is a client state of the coal industry run by international capital. Most of Australia’s resource industry is foreign-owned. This has resulted in four common features, these being: (i) extremely high levels of foreign corporations that operate in Australia; (ii) a substantial in- and outflow of capital; (iii) a strong import-export orientation in which Australia exports raw material and imports consumer goods resulting in the piling up of empty containers, for example, in Sydney’s Botany Bay; and (iv) a resulting reliance on imports of industrial equipment.

For ordinary Australians this means that “taxes and royalties paid by all mining companies to all levels of government account for less than 5% of government revenue”. Interestingly, Queensland’s government earns more from speeding fines and car registration than it does from the coal industry. Queensland is one of Australia’s prime mining states. In other words, foreign capital pays virtually no taxes while Australians foot the bill. This is the beauty of neoliberal capitalism and politics.

Of course to keep the show on the road, capitalism needs two things. First, it needs the best politicians that money can buy and indeed one of the two business parties in Australia receives 2.6 times the money than the other. Second, one needs a propaganda machine telling Australians how wonderful it all is. This is the job assigned to Rupert Murdoch’s formidable media machine. Murdoch’s media operates with a media concentration second only to North Korea.

As a result of years of neoliberal rule, Australia has a failed infrastructure and transport policy. Perhaps, it is better to say, that it has no policy at all, as the neoliberal belief system demands to leave it up to the free market. As a consequence, “85% of transport emission comes from road transport and over 60% from automobiles and light commercial vehicles”. Sydney, for example, is a car city. Sydney has no underground comparable to London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Tokyo, etc.

To make matters worse, “globally, Australia is distinct in that it has been the only country that adopted and then abandoned some form of carbon pricing” when Labor introduced it in 2012 and the Liberal Party eliminated it in 2014. The latter party also pushed strongly against the Kyoto Protocol. Eventually, then-Labor PM Kevin Rudd ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2007 to the enduring annoyance of the conservatives.

Murdoch’s most ideological flagship is The Australian newspaper. Unsurprisingly, an analysis of 880 articles between January 2004 and April 2011, found that some 700 of them opposed climate action. A good example of how propaganda works remains global warming denier Lord Monkton’s visit to Australia at a time when NASA’s global warming expert, James Hansen, also came. Not only did Australia’s right-wing media give Monkton a highly favourable platform, Hansen remained largely ignored. In short, "not only coalmining companies have the government … wrapped around their finger, but so does Australia’s conservative corporate media".

Having outlined the political program of democratic ecosocialism, Baer closes his book by paraphrasing Rosa Luxemburg. “Eco-socialism or eco-dystopia” dates back to Luxemburg’s 1916 essay “Sozialismus oder Barbarei” (“Socialism or Barbarism”).

Today, we again face a stark choice between global ecocide and Baer’s democratic ecosocialism. The choice is ours to make.

[Abridged from Marx and Philosophy.]