Ecosocialist Ian Angus: 'If we don't fight, we're guaranteed to lose'

April 8, 2016

Protest by members of the Wer'suwet'en First Nation against tar sands oil pipelines.

Ian Angus is a Canadian ecosocialist activist and author. The editor of, Angus is also the co-author of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis with former Green Left Weekly editor Simon Butler (Haymarket, 2011).

Angus is also a featured guest at the “Socialism for the 21st Century” conference in Sydney on May 13-15 as well as speaking at public forums around the country ahead of the conference. Melbourne-based community radio 3CR spoke with Angus ahead of his Australian tour. The second part of his interview is abridged below, you can read the first part, on the outcome of the Paris climate talks, here.


We are in a very difficult situation aren't we? Politically we have capitalism marching on — it's getting harsher by the day — and we have very little opposition to it. There have been mobilisations in Europe. There is the momentum in the US behind Bernie Sanders and you have Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party in Britain. But there seems to be nothing substantial to counter capitalism's betrayal of the planet or push the needed measures to solve the climate crisis.

Yes, you're right — it's a difficult situation. I repeatedly go back to the catchphrase or slogan that the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci used, which he referred “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”.

That is, from an intellectual point of view, we realise the potential for catastrophic change is facing us. But the only choice we have in that situation is to fight because if we fight we might lose; if we don't fight, we're guaranteed to lose.

So our choices here are basically to commit to fighting for change and to win what we can. We may not be able to head off the rising oceans, for example, but it's quite possible that we can limit the extent of temperature rises, or we can reduce the species that go extinct in our lifetimes.

There are many things like that that we can achieve and in fact fighting for those things is part of fighting for overall change.

Occasionally I'll run into someone who'll say well there's no point in fighting for those reforms, the only thing we need is to change the entire society. I agree in general terms, but you've got to say if our movement cannot stop coal seam gas, for example, how can we imagine we change the whole society? It's the smaller struggles and the intermediate ones through which we'll build a movement.

Can you update us about the struggles in Canada. I know the mining of tar sands has been proposed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. What's happening around that?

There have been frequent fights in Canada about pipelines. Canada has the largest reserves of oil in the world next to Saudi Arabia, but they are tar sands, which means they are particularly dirty. They produce particularly large amounts of carbon emissions and simply the process of mining tar sands is extraordinarily destructive.

There have been successful campaigns over this. The tar sands are located in landlocked territory and, of course, the oil companies want to get that oil to other international markets.

To do that, they are now mostly shipping the oil by rail. What they want is a pipeline to the sea. But at least two major projects to build pipelines to the Pacific have been stopped by substantial mobilisation, primarily by the indigenous people.

The First Nations in Canada have done a heroic job of fighting and preventing the pipelines from going through their historic lands.

There was also a proposal to send tar sands oil down to the Gulf of Mexico — the proposed Keystone pipeline. The US government has finally said it's not going ahead with this, at least so far.

So the proposal is now for what is now called Energy East, which is the biggest one of all. It would be a C$17 billion- $18 billion project to pipe oil from Alberta about 3500 miles to the Atlantic Ocean.

There have been large-scale campaigns against Energy East, particularly in Quebec and again particularly among indigenous people. And then there have been a lot of local campaigns, although as with all campaigns, it ebbs and flows but nevertheless there is a strong campaign.

One of the difficulties we have unfortunately is that in mainstream politics there is almost no opposition. Not even Canada's Green Party is opposing the pipeline. Our Green Party is what you might call an eco-capitalist party. And they view the pipeline as a method of building Canadian industry, which makes little sense to me, at least not if you're going to call yourself green.

But we do have these campaigns going on. I would not call them mass campaigns except, as I say, in the involvement of the First Nations people who have been absolutely heroic. Many of the areas where the tar sands lie or the where the pipelines go through are historic lands of First Nations. They are watching the rivers being poisoned and wildlife being killed by these huge tar sands mining projects.

Is there opposition to these projects in Canada's parliament or government, seeing as Trudeau appointed a multicultural cabinet?

It's important to remember that Trudeau is from the Liberal Party and the Liberal Party in Canada was in power when the Kyoto Accord went into effect. They only signed the Kyoto Accord, they upped the ante with the United States, which said it would reduce emissions by 5%. The Liberal Party said no, it'll be 6% — we gotta be better than the Americans.

They did all that and promoted themselves as the ones who were gonna help reduce global warming and then promptly did nothing. In fact Canada's emissions continued to rise under both Liberal and Conservative governments. So it is very unlikely that we will see significant action on climate change in Canada.

Do you want to say a few words about the Socialism for the 21st Century conference you're coming to in Sydney?

This is the third time Socialist Alliance has invited me to come to Australia. I'm very pleased and so I will be one of the speakers. People should look it up on the web to see the program — it's quite astonishing.

Other participants from overseas include Michael Lebowitz, who is one of the finest contemporary Marxist theorists, a really fine writer who's done an awful lot of studying.

One of the questions he's asking is what happened to socialism in the 20th century, why did the countries that were supposedly socialist go wrong? He has done some really wonderful work on that, talking about what we would need to do to build a solidarity-based society, one that is actually built on socialist principles, in our century.

Marta Harnecker is also speaking and she was involved in the Chilean movement around the time of Salvador Allende and has continued to be a key figure in the Latin American left. She's got more books out than I can count and a wonderful speaker and insightful thinker about the strategy and tactics of building the left.

It is a very impressive conference and I'm looking forward to seeing a lot of people there.

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