We are at a point in time in which we face a huge ecological threat.
A research article by six leading biological and environmental scientists published on June 19 in Science Advances estimated that vertebrate species were becoming extinct at more than 100 times the normal rate.
This was just the latest published research suggesting that life on Earth is entering a mass extinction event. In the history of life on Earth there have been five mass extinction events, the last one wiping out the dinosaurs. This sixth mass extinction event is caused by human activity, and humans may well be one of the species to become extinct.
Human activity is causing extinction in several ways. Some species are threatened by over-hunting and over-fishing. Greater damage is caused by habitat destruction by everything from agricultural monoculture to suburban development.
Greater yet is the damage being done to the Earth through large scale tampering with the physical and biological workings of the planet. The use of ammonia-based fertilisers has caused the biggest upset to the nitrogen cycle in 2.5 billion years. The terrifying effects of other forms of widespread chemical pollution are only gradually becoming apparent. Nuclear power, weapons tests and the mining of nuclear fuels have increased the world's background radiation.
Even greater is the effect of burning fossil fuels, which is leading to a rise in ocean acidity and the warming of the earth's surface, atmosphere and water.
Already, climate change is creating absolute disaster for much of the world. Rising seas, increases in the number of droughts, fires and floods, and increased severity of hurricanes, tornados and storms are causing millions of people to face displacement.
Yet these effects are largely the result of emissions made decades ago. Emissions continue to rise. Their consequences defy imagination.
It should be obvious that capitalism cannot, and will not, act in time to save the planet. Since scientists began warming, of the effects of global warning a large amount of money has been spent on denying its existence.
Even though, since the 1990s, it has been increasingly recognised by corporate and political leaders that human-caused climate change is real, the rate of carbon emissions has continued to increase.
Roads are promoted over public transport, short-haul aviation over railways, coal seam gas over agriculture, oil drilling in the polar regions over renewable energy, export monoculture over agricultural self-sufficiency — all by politicians who supposedly recognise the need to fight climate change and businesses that market themselves as "going green".
The capitalist system needs a constant expanding supply of resources to generate its ever-expanding profits. The earth is that resource. No amount of environmental protections, renewable energy targets or carbon pricing will fully stem capital’s hunger for resources, so long as there is profit to be made.
Furthermore, capitalists' wealth and power comes from the fact they own the means of production. The history of the development of industry means that the means of production are mostly fossil fuel-based. Making fossil fuel resources and the industries extracting them and powered by them irrelevant to production would entail capitalists surrendering what gives them control over the world.
This is why even though profits can be made from renewable energy, a rapid transition away from fossil fuels is impossible under capitalism.
Socialists can provide the systemic understanding of capitalism that much of the environmental movement is missing, but the 20th century socialist movement's ecological understanding was often sorely lacking.
Eco-socialism means recognising the relationship between humans and the ecological world far beyond its capacity as a resource. It means understanding that, under capitalism, the working class is not just alienated from their relationships with others, or the goods and services they produce, but also alienated from nature itself. Without this understanding, much of the various socialist movements may not understand the importance of adopting a clear, prioritised ecological perspective.
As Venezuela’s new Minister of Eco-Socialism, Guillermo Barreto, said in an April 22 interview: “We have to go about changing from an extraction-based, basically capitalist model, to a model in which the extraction of resources is not orientated towards capitalist accumulation, but rather towards satisfying the needs of the people.
“This means that you eat what you have to eat and you use what you have to use, but no more than that. This change is gradual, we can’t do it overnight, but what is important is to maintain a vision of the future, that new society in which we cannot repeat the patterns of capitalism.
“That was the error of socialism in the 20th century, which tried to meet its social obligations, but maintained an extraction based-model, which produced huge environmental damage and that translated to a society which was not sustainable. They changed the owners of production, but the logic remained the same.”
Eco-socialists avoid the false dichotomy debated by capitalist anti-environmentalists and "deep" ecologists over whether we should consume less. Socialists understand that under capitalism we do not all consume equally. For the impoverished majority of the world's population, consuming less is simply not an option.
The fact that millions die from malnutrition and preventable diseases is evidence that the immense productivity of capitalism does not guarantee a good quality of life.
Socialists understand that decisions over what is produced, and how, are made by the owners of capital solely on the basis of short-term profit. In the overcrowded megacities of the Third World, people consume barely enough to sustain life, but the way goods are produced and distributed means that even their consumption is ecologically unsustainable.
In the First World, the ideology of consumerism ensures capitalist profits while telling ordinary people the way to overcome the lack of meaning and control in their lives is to buy something they don't really want.
Socialism means the democratisation of production so that it meets human needs. Eco-socialism means recognising that a habitable planet is the most essential human need.
The level of ecological crisis is unprecedented. The five hottest years on record have all occurred after 1997 and the Earth’s average temperature has risen to its highest level in the past four centuries. Further increases are predicted by the end of the century.
The rise in global temperatures threatens the existence of much of the world’s glaciers and ice sheets, whose melting will raise sea levels by 1.5 metres by the end of the century. Up to 100 million people live in coastal areas and many animals, such as polar bears, risk going extinct entirely if much more of their ice is lost.
Its not just polar bears at risk. Up to quarter of Earth’s current species could be headed for extinction by 2050.
These are mere glimpses at some of the very real threats facing the current and future generations if they wish to survive on Earth. Ecological sustainability, therefore, needs to become the number one priority if these threats are going to be fought.