Important contribution to stopping capitalist destruction

July 25, 2019
School strike for climate rally in Sydney on March 15.

System Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis
Edited by Martin Empson
Bookmarks, 2019

If you’re looking for an accessible summary of revolutionary theory and practice related to the climate crisis and how to overcome it, System Change Not Climate Change is a must-read, writes Valerie Lannon.

As the movement grows, so do debates about causes, solutions, strategies and tactics, and we need deeper understanding of what changes are needed.

Made up of 13 essays by ecosocialist activists from three continents, this book contributes to that understanding by exposing the dead end of capitalism and pointing to the socialist alternative. The writers build on recent literature highlighting the essential contributions made by Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and others about both ecology and the unique, revolutionary role of the working class.

The opening chapters provide plain language summaries of essential ecosocialist works. “Hopelessly Devoted to Fossil Fuels” summarises Andreas Malm’s 2016 Fossil Capital, which describes the origins and continuation of capitalism’s love affair with fossil fuels.

The book does not shy away from tackling important debates happening in the climate justice movement. In “Marxism and the Anthropocene,” for example, Camilla Royle summarises debates about the Anthropocene, ranging from when it began, to the role of human agency, and even to the word itself, drawing on authors as diverse as Jason Moore and Malm.

Another debate — taken up by both Kohei Saito’s "Karl Marx’s Idea of Ecosocialism in the 21st Century" and Ian Angus’ "The Discovery and Rediscovery of Metabolic Rift" — considers whether Marxists have anything useful to say about environmental issues.

The experiences of some states that have called themselves socialist has made many greens sceptical. In fact, as Angus and Kohei show, Marx and Engels developed one of the first ecological critiques of capitalism, writing that it “disrupts the metabolic interaction between man and the earth [and causes] an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism”.

In "Natural Capital: A Neoliberal Response", Ian Rappel takes issue with the concept of natural capital, where “nature and the ‘natural world’ [are] approached in terms of asset values”. This controversial approach is commonplace with the conservative end of environmental NGOs and the corporations and governments with whom they like to negotiate.

Martin Empson’s “Food, Agriculture and Climate Change” connects the book’s more theoretical pieces with grass-roots campaigns. He debunks claims in the film Cowspiracy about the CO2 emissions caused by the role of meat production.

Empson notes the success and limitations of peasant agriculture and movements for land control, but argues wholesale change “will require the development of wider alliances that can directly challenge the capitalist agriculture system”.

Building on the concept of mass action, the last third of the book looks at specific climate issues and campaigns, the state of the climate justice movement, and steps for building a sustainable society.

“Capitalism and the Biodiversity Crisis,” by Sarah Ensor, examines “the sixth extinction”, and notes “what links biodiversity crisis to industrial meat production, deforestation, overfishing, rising temperatures and extreme weather events is capitalism’s drive for profit”.

She states that current campaigns for “rewilding” are much more likely to succeed under socialism, where “we won’t force other life forms to compete with capital and its profit motive”.

Amy Leather’s “Why Capitalism Loves Plastic” dissects companies such as ExxonMobil and Shell, which produce both fossil fuels and plastics, with this memorable quote: “Perhaps nothing sums up the irrationality of capitalism more than this — materials that can last practically forever are used to make products designed to be thrown away.”

“Canada’s Tar Sands, Indigenous Sovereignty and a Just Transition for Workers,” by Canadian activists Carolyn Egan and Michelle Robidoux describe how the fight to stop pipelines carrying the world’s dirtiest oil is led by indigenous peoples.

The authors insist that fossil sector workers be given a just transition from their current employment, and the discussions around the Green New Deal (GND) — that link labour, indigenous sovereignty and equity demands — are part of the way forward.

Suzanne Jeffery also discusses just transitions in “Up Against the Clock: Climate, Social Movements and Marxism”. While celebrating Extinction Rebellion and the student strikes, she argues that mass working-class participation is essential to the movement. But her claim of popular union support in the US for the GND fails to consider unions in the fossil sector and building trades that oppose the GND because the just transition strategies are too vague.

Empson’s “Can we build a Sustainable Society?” exposes the limits of some climate activists, like Naomi Klein, who build their hopes on a rational form of capitalism. Empson shares Marx’s perspective that class struggle is needed not only to replace capitalism, but to ensure workers “put themselves back in their rightful place, as a part of nature, labouring and changing the world around them in the collective interest of people and planet…”

Of course, no book can cover these complex subjects completely, so its editor Empson concludes with a valuable guide to other books that should be on every radical environmentalist’s reading list.

System Change Not Climate Change is an important contribution to building the red-and-green movements that are so necessary today. Read it — and put it to use as soon as you can!

[Reprinted from Climate and Capitalism.]

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