Journal des Alternatives

Introducing Ecosocialism

Joel Kovel, 20 August 2008

The word “ecosocialism” has yet to appear in any printed dictionary, and the movement it signifies is tiny, chiefly comprised of the fledgling “Ecosocialist International Network,” (www.ecosocialistnetwork.org) which functions as a clearinghouse for these likeminded pioneers. Due to the gravity of the threat to which it responds, i.e. the growing worldwide breakdown of the relationship between humanity and nature, the potential of ecosocialism cannot be overstated.

Our bourgeoning ecological crisis is proof-positive that today’s society is structured in such a way as to be unable to live within natural limits. Indeed, it appears to be dedicated to destroying those conditions under which it can even exist, much less flourish. We need to ask, therefore, why does the breakdown of an ecosystem accelerate exponentially, what drives this rate of collapse, why is this dynamic so hard to bring under control, and, most importantly, what can be done to reverse its course?

To answer these questions requires an examination of the system that is the driving force behind this global ecological crisis. Capital is the ubiquitous lingua franca that has facilitated the creation of a global society powerful enough to destroy its biosphere. This system is built around the production, growth, movement, and accumulation of capital.

Capitalism’s adverse influence on the environment emerges as private ownership, due to survival-of-the-fittest competition, has the unique incentive of profit, which involves maximising production while minimising costs. The result of such a paradigm has been the myopic exploitation of natural resources without sufficient oversight or regulation to manage said resources, their by-products and their after-effects in a sustainable, socially responsible manner.

From an unsustainable status quo comes a concerted effort to heal ecological wounds by superseding capital, hence, ecosocialism. Ecosocialism, however, is not simply a variant of the first-epoch socialisms that came crashing down with the demise of the USSR and the subsumption of Maoist China into the world market.

The main difference between first-epoch socialism and capitalism was that in the former the state was the engine of economic growth, while in the latter it was the market. Both cases demanded the exploitation of labour and the grinding of nature under the wheels of “progress.” In some respects the ecological results of first-epoch socialism were worse than those under market-driven capitalism and contributed to its downfall.

Ecosocialism, though, signifies a radical departure in which “limits to growth” are embraced as the essential conditions for avoiding capital’s destructive accumulation. Such limits are not to be thought of as quotas or as other quantitative indices, rather they are pathways that reorient socialism away from its mimicry of capitalism’s unlimited expansion of the productive forces.

A viable society requires a radical break with consumerism. This amounts to a basic redefinition of wealth. It requires a great transformation of human needs and, indeed, a re-orientation of human nature away from ego-centricity and toward eco-centricity, that is, the appropriation of nature’s intrinsic value.

Ecosocialist production is centred on creating flourish-ing ecosystems rather than churning out an endless stream of commodities. In these ecosystems, the producer is part of what is produced and, so, is neither external nor independent of it. Since the producer is necessarily part of the produced ecosystem, for ecosocialism to exploit labour would be to annihilate itself.

A principle setting for this transformation is through the protection, re-invention, and development of the “commons,” our original, and integral, place in nature.

“Green” strategies for contending with the ecological crisis stop short of the critique of capitalism that is fundamental to ecosocialism. The result is a loss of focus on society and a concentration on the “environment,” which greens strive to improve and/or protect. But environmental politics differ from those that are ecological in spirit. In the former, nature is perceived as being outside of society. In the latter, society is a part of nature, that is, nature is inside as well as outside of society; society and nature share an ecosystem, and are re-connected through ecosocialist production.

Such is the ecocentric ethic of ecosocialism, rather than focusing on how we produce technologically, it focuses on producing according to the free expression of human nature. Thus we transform ourselves as we transform nature. Freed from possessiveness and the ego, humanity can transform nature while respecting its intrinsic forms and limitations.

Thus the ethos of ecosocialism is to build a society around freely associated labour in the service of ecocentric values. Ecosocialism was conceived as a revolutionary program to reunite and realign humanity with nature, essential if we are to survive the ecological crisis with dignity.

Joel Kovel is the Editor-in-Chief of Capitalism Nature Socialism. He recently authored The Enemy of Nature and co-produced the video A Really Inconvenient Truth.