Climate change has almost undoubtedly been intensified by human action – and in particular by the reckless, money-driven actions of oligarchical governments and ruling capitalist classes. Environmental destruction, meanwhile, is clearly linked to human activity directly, such as mass deforestation, irresponsible destruction of habitats and species, the commodification of land, and the establishment of monocultures.
In the fight against the harmful human impact on the environment (especially in the last couple of centuries), numerous environmental activists have proposed solutions. In the environmentalist movement today, however, there are essentially three camps, as will be demonstrated below. These groups believe, respectively, that we must: 1) work within the capitalist system to create greener businesses and value ‘ecosystem services’ more accurately; 2) end the profit-driven, undemocratic exploitation of land and natural resources by replacing the capitalist system with socialism (in order to focus on life rather than money, and democratise and rationalise the relationship between humans and the Earth); or 3) give the Earth back to nature and end human influence altogether as, whenever we get involved, we just seem to make things worse.
1) Work within the Capitalist System
At http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=966&issue=142, Ieuan Churchill analyses a book by former executive director of Friends of the Earth Tony Juniper. In this book, Churchill says, Juniper argues that “earth’s ecosystems provide various “services” to humanity that can be described in monetary-equivalent terms”, suggesting that the correct valuation of these currently free ‘ecological services’ can help governments and corporations to avoid “the market failure of ecological destruction”. And Juniper has not been the only one to take this line. ‘Payments for ecosystem services’ (or PES), for example, are spoken of both “by NGOs and environmental economics think-tanks such as the UK government’s Ecosystems Markets Taskforce, and the UN’s Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB)”. Such a standpoint is a good representation of the first school of environmentalism, which claims we can work within the capitalist system to save the environment from ‘ecological destruction’. The participation of the political establishment in this school of thought is the visible manifestation of the active cooperation of these environmentalists with the current political system (and the parties associated with it).
Churchill emphasises that the connections made between humans and “natural systems” in Juniper’s books are fair, such as the link “between soil degradation and declining food supply…, upland deforestation and coastal flooding, and mangrove destruction and fisheries decline”. Juniper’s “central thesis”, he says, is also reasonable,as it emphasises that “human society is in large part dependent upon nature and that ecological health is necessary for human survival”. In this way, Juniper echoes the key principle of environmentalism, as asserted by Karl Marx, who said that “man lives from nature… and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is part of nature”. How to achieve ‘ecological health’, however, is where Juniper takes a distinctly pro-capitalist line.
According to Churchill, although Juniper’s book does not talk much about “how human society had historically influenced nature before our environmental crisis”, there is still “political value in discussing [his] conclusions”. He affirms that Juniper supports “pro-capitalist mechanisms for environmental salvation”, explaining why his book received “vigorous endorsement from the upper echelons of environmental NGOs”, along with praise from corporations like Nestlé. His “pragmatic” solutions are attractive to these groups because they aim to develop “new markets in environmental conservation through partnerships between NGOs, corporations and neoliberal governments”.
A significant number of supposedly ‘Green’ parties around the world have also sought to work together with corporations, showing their lack of support for grassroots or democratic environmental initiatives in the process. Moreover, Churchill affirms that other so-called ‘radical environmentalists’ have switched sides too, and begun to “argue that the exit from our crisis lies through the corporate world”. The God Species, for example, by Mark Lynas, claims that there is “not necessarily… any limit to human economic growth or productivity” and that we don’t necessarily need to ditch “capitalism, the profit principle, or the market”. And such views seriously endanger ecological conservation, putting the ‘protection’ of nature into the hands of economic elites which have a long track record of not worrying about the wellbeing of either humans or the environment.
The “emerging trend for neoliberal conservation”, Churchill says, is born from an oversimplification of the “dynamism and holism inherent within ecology” which aims to“break down ecological outputs into various anthropocentric “services””. In pushing the commodification of certain ‘services’, according to Churchill, the proponents of this school ignore the fact that, ultimately, all of these “ecological outputs” are products of a complex, interrelated ecological system.Attempts to“commodify just one or two”, he says,will end up subjecting the entire“ecosystem concerned to the distorting impact of speculative capitalism”. In the process of dividing ecosystems into parts, such as “water, food, fuel, cultural and cash provision”, they directly contradict their own “acknowledgement of the need for functioning holistic ecology”. They back their views that such divisions can be achieved, meanwhile, “on existing markets in carbon trading, the trading of “wetland credits” in the United States, the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) process, and the new ideas of so-called biodiversity offsetting”. There is growing evidence, however, that these mechanisms are ineffective and “lead to the promotion of fictitious commodities”.
Churchill emphasises that there is a “fundamental contradiction between monetary valuation and ecology”, and that the “ecosystem services agenda… serves the interests of corporations seeking to “green” their image”” and of consultants like Juniper who are seeking “to prove how money can be made from ecological catastrophe”. It is an “inherently anti-democratic” agenda, he says, as the “ecosystem services” are being determined “with little or no input from those who are actually managing important ecosystems through their livelihoods, or the rest of us who benefit from healthy ecological outputs”. Ecology, therefore, is being handed over to an elite which will seek to cement and continue this industry.
For Churchill, neoliberal environmentalists have ignored the fact that capitalism has had a “devastating ecological impact” on the planet, and that it has an “inherent bias towards reductionist, corporate-sponsored science”. And with figures like Juniper adopting the ‘ecosystem service’ position uncritically, Churchill claims the “approach is starting to distort our efforts on the ground”. As a result, he fears we will move even further away from understanding the “true nature of ecosystem function”, as the environmentalist movement gains a more and more neoliberal character.
“Once ecosystems… become artificially disaggregated and effectively privatised”, Churchill affirms, “they will become subject to the normative pressures of commodity fetishism”. “Biodiversity offsetting”, for example, as promoted by groups like Environment Bank,simply enhances profits for landowners, showing that the commodification of nature is“at the heart of the “ecosystem services” paradigm”. Therefore, as the “historical and cultural significance” of the natural environment for humanity disappears, it will be rendered “subservient to the artificial priorities of speculative capital”, leading to further destruction and irresponsibility.
Rather than alleviating the environmental problems facing the world today, the ‘ecosystem services’ position, according to Churchill, will exacerbate the current crisis and “place ecological understanding in the hands of a corporate-sponsored elite”. Increased “dispossession and alienation”, he says,will follow as a result, placing“environmentalism on the wrong side of the class struggle”. In conclusion, the more control a small, anti-democratic, and money-driven elite has over the Earth, the more vulnerable the planet will be to ecological devastation. The ‘ecosystem services’ approach (which supports or, at the very least, accommodates such minority control of the world) therefore contradicts ideas of conservation and is a dangerous, counterrevolutionary influence within the environmentalist movement.
2) Replace the Current Political System
Portuguese environmental historian Stefania Barca represents the second school of environmentalism, and has written extensively about the presence of the working class within the movement.In an article seen at http://kielarowski.net/2014/06/04/workers-and-environmentalists-of-the-world-unite/, she calls for “an ecological revolution” which consists of “a complete shift in the social organisation of production, reproduction and consciousness”. This system would need to revolutionise the way human societies produce and distribute wealth in order to create “non-alienated work” (i.e. work that is not dependent on the whims of an exploitative capitalist class, and where the fruits of labour belong to the workers rather than the ‘owners’). With greater social justice, and respect for life, there would be less need and desire to exploit the Earth irresponsibly. In order to implement such a system, however, workers and environmentalists must realise that their interests are the same, and that they must therefore work together.
“The conflict between labour and the environment”, according to Barca,“is a neoliberal construct”. All too often, for example, we hear so-called left-wing governments or movements emphasising that their demands and those of environmentalists are contradictory and “mutually exclusive”. Barca points out, however, that “this artificial division is nothing more than a crucial neoliberal strategy to divide two of the most powerful social movements of the industrial era”. Together, she says, they could seriously endanger the capitalist “treadmill of production”. As a result, the powerful try to ensure that activists do not develop a “historical perspective” on the current state of their movements or “become aware of the revolutionary potential of a common political project”.
In order to demonstrate the orchestration of the division between workers and environmentalists, she speaks of the city of Taranto in Italy – home to “the biggest and one of the oldest steel factories in Europe”. In 2012, the factory (owned by the formerly state-controlled ILVA group and now by the powerful Riva family) employed 20,000 people, making it the city’s largest employer by far. A year before, however, the company was found “guilty of outrageous violations of environmental regulations” and was ordered to suspend its activities immediately until it renewed its equipment and cleaned up the areas it had damaged. In response, the company asserted that environmental regulation was incompatible with its “economic plans”. This “occupational blackmail strategy”, according to Barca, is a tried-and-tested tactic used by capitalists to block any government “actions against business interests”. But the company went further this time, actually organising its workers to march in an attempt to “convince public opinion that there was in fact real opposition” to the court ruling – aided by the “ample and complicit media coverage” the protests received.
The “treadmill of production”, Barca says, presents workers with a horrific choice between unemployment and “occupational illnesses, job accidents, environmental contamination and ecocide, public health disasters, [and] the annihilation of possibilities for alternative/autonomous forms of local economy”. In the area around Taranto bay, she affirms, a significant concentration of “cancer, malformations and other health disorders” has been detected over the last fifty years, which is almost certainly linked to industrial contamination. To make this problem even worse, the local public health infrastructure is poorand there is a “lack of adequate healthcare”.
In spite of the situations described above, “citizens’ organisations and “committees”” have shown shoots of resistance to the “occupational blackmail” of ILVA, organising in response to the company’s opposition to the court ruling. These groups have participated in “cyber-activism… film-making… [and] street demonstrations and campaigning”, even organising a May Day demonstration of over 100,000 people. In “open competition” with the celebrations traditionally organised in Rome “by the trade unions confederation” and the national public broadcaster RAI, these groups managed to organise an independent, “crowd-sourced mass concert”. This event was a clear “manifestation of discontent”with the complacency of the main trade unions with “corporate occupational blackmail”, their insensitivity to “threats to public health”, and their strong opposition to “grassroots environmental mobilization” in the area.
Environmentalism, therefore, is not the only movement which faces the undermining influences of pro-capitalist activists. Workers’ movements also face the anti-democratic treachery of pro-capitalist infiltrators. In order to unite environmentalists and workers under the same banner, therefore, a key issue is the democratisation and autonomy of workers’ organisations.
Life, Barca says, both in human and non-human forms, should be sustained by work – not destroyed by it – and it is thus “impossible to separate or to alienate life from work”. In order to avoid such alienation, workers must understand and respect“the daily work made by non-human nature in sustaining life in the local environment”. This dream, however, goes against the market, the neoliberal state, and “the unions and political parties associated with them”. As a result, the imagination of the People will be needed to construct an alternative system, alongside a “political memory” which ensures “the contradictions of the old world” are not reproduced and the successful actions of activists in the past are not forgotten.
By learning and understanding other struggles around the world, with both their victories and their failures, we will gain a “clearer perception of the possibility of not just one but many other worlds”, Barca affirms. This process “will help us envision our own possibilities” and “better organise our own struggles”.
Barca gives several examples of how workers and environmentalists have, since the Second World War, managed to overcome the divide built by neoliberalism in order to fight for a common cause. In 1999, for example, “truck drivers and eco-activists marched together” in Seattle against the WTO “under the banner of “Teamsters and turtles””. During the ‘Fordist era’, meanwhile, such coalitions managed to push the US government to implement “important legislative reform in occupational and public health… [and] environmental protection”. In this case, the“active collaboration between labor, environmental, student and feminist movements”forced politicians to passthe Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of 1972. And this movement benefitted significantly from the support of “the most powerful trade-union confederation of the time, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW)”.
In Italy, meanwhile, “a decade of intensive struggles and two general strikes” led to the creation of the Public Health System (Sistema Sanitario Nazionale) in 1978. This movement was forged by the ““environmental club” within the unions’ confederation: a coalition of labor physicians, sociologists and union leaders”, which had already forced significant changes “in the regulation of the work environment” and promoted “the principle of direct workers’ control” (seen in articles 4 and 9 of the Labour Statute of 1970).
Another example comes from “the orange fields and vineyards ofCalifornia” in the mid-1960s, where there was a significant mobilisation of workers against the use of pesticides.In this process, the United Farm Workers Union organised migrant wage labourers from Latin America and managed to ensure “decent working and living conditions” for them, along withthe recognition of their labour rights. The struggle was, however, primarily focussed on the “serious health threats that agro-chemicals posed not only to the farmers and their families, but to the American consumer and environment at large”.
Barca’s final example comes from Brazil, where the Seringueiros (a union of rubber tappers)“successfully organised to defend the [Amazon rainforest] from the attack of powerful lumber companies and ranchers, while at the same time defending their right to live and work in the forest”. During the struggle, they formed “cooperatives for the management of sustainable extractive activities, such as rubber and nut collection or fisheries”. Barca insists that this movement was a “striking example of workers’ environmentalism”, and was developed in the mid-1980s in spite of “the violent opposition raised by powerful local interests” and the assassination of numerous trade unionists and environmentalists that occurred as a result. Eventually, the workers forced the government to create “extractive reserves”, in which “landless local people are legally recognized and supported by the state as the legitimate “owners” and safeguards of the forest”.
Through these examples, Barca hopes to highlight the presence of workers’ movements that are also environmental movements (whether they explicitly recognise it or not). However, she asserts that such movements “must be rebuilt on more solid premises”, with greater consciousness of the indivisible link between social justice and environmentalism.The idea that“economic growth” is the “only way to produce social welfare”, she says, “must be thoroughly questioned”, and must eventually be “abandoned by the labor movement”. The presence of “growth imperatives”, she affirms, gives “powerful justifications for the most shameless disregard for the well-being of people and of non-human nature”, and a system reliant on such an ideology is incapable of safeguarding life.
The ‘greening of the economy’ through capitalism, therefore, is simply an illusion that is funded by political elites and financial institutions. The big problem, however, is that their promise of ecological solutions through eco-efficient technologies and market mechanisms has unfortunately been “embraced by large parts of both the labor and the environmental movement”, Barca says.
In the age of globalisation (and the de-industrialisation of ‘developed’ nations which has occurred in the last 20 years or so as a result),‘economic greening’ has simply meant the “transmigration of industrial hazards and their death toll to less developed countries”. Western capitalism, therefore, functions only thanks to a “double standard” regime, according to Barca. In this system, multinational corporations simply move abroad, taking with them the production techniques and technologieswhich have been “banned or heavily regulated in their countries of origin”. The loss of manual work in ‘first world’ working-class communities, meanwhile, leaves workers there“more and more vulnerable to occupational blackmail”, making them fearful of strike action because capitalists simply threaten to take their “industrial activities elsewhere”.
‘Green’ technologies can even be damaging when they follow capitalist logic, says Barca, affecting both humans and the environment in a negative way.She affirms that both “grassroots struggles” and “engaged research” have shown that large-scale implementation, based on the profit motive, can have dangerous consequences. For example, windmill parks in both Greece and Spain “have been strongly opposed by local communities” because of “the impact they have had on extended rural areas, altering local climates and landscapes, as well as heavily conditioning land use patterns”. Large solar power plants have also been criticised for the impact they have had on “soil, local climate and ecosystems”. One of the most controversial projects, however, has to be the“biofuel business”. In Brazil, Barca says, “extensive monoculture plantations of sugarcane have replaced millions of hectares of forest”, and they often use “semi-slave laborers working in conditions of horrible toil and health risk”.
In spite of these issues, Barca emphasises that “renewable and non-fossil energy sources” must indeed be developed“as the only possible way out of the current climate crisis”, though “dimension and scale” are “of fundamental importance”. On a small scale, she affirms, alternative energy can be truly sustainable, but it would need to be managed locally, autonomously, and in a decentralised manner – focussing on “self-provision for households and local communities”. This way, she asserts, “huge concentrations of profits… and political power” cannot be obtained, but a better future for our planet and our species can. Such projects will only be brought to life, however, if there is a “thorough transformation… of the social organisation of work… [and] the form and structure of urban life”. In summary, workers need to completely abandon “the “treadmill of production”, including the politics, economics and ideology of unlimited growth”.
3) End Human Influence Altogether
George Monbiot, the “most important independent environmental campaigner” in the UK, once belonged to the second school of environmentalism but, in his recent book Feral, he has shown how his ideology has shifted (particularly since the failures of Rio+20). Ieuan Churchill (http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=966&issue=142) describes how Monbiot’s book represents both his support for the idea of ‘rewilding’ and his move towards a new, “uncharacteristically apolitical approach”, which distracts environmentalists from the real danger to the planet (i.e. capitalism).
Rewilding, according to Monbiot, is the “mass restoration of ecosystems”, and aims to create “refuges for the natural world” which are free from human influence. In his book, Churchill says, he advocates handing back “our most “unproductive” agricultural land to nature”, reintroducing “locally-extinct “keystone species”, such as the wolf, beaver, and elephant, to “speed up the regeneration of natural ecology on such abandoned land”. In a sense, Monbiot sees this project as “a release of humanity’s control over nature”.
Through a passionate “appeal for a liberated human imagination”, backed up with “a great deal of research”, Monbiot calls for widespread ecological restoration which, according to Churchill, is justified to a certain extent after “a half century of capitalist agricultural intensification that’s hammered our soils, human health and the world’s biodiversity”. A change in our relationship with nature, he says, is long overdue. Monbiot’s lack of reference to political change, however, leaves him “open to the charge of environmental romanticism”.
Churchill asserts that Monbiot, much like Juniper, espouses a “highly-simplified division between nature and human society”, which “hides the historical interrelationships between humans and nature”. According to Timothy Morton, such “romantic environmentalism is a flavour of modern consumerist ideology… [which] is thoroughly urban even when it is born of the countryside”. Building on this point, Churchill says that romantic environmentalism is a “product of alienation” and the separation of humans from the land that was once such an important part of their lives. British “nature writing” and its “idealisation of the natural world”, meanwhile, have been called ‘bourgeois exploits’ by Steven Poole in the Guardian. Poole affirmed that such writers, corrupted by the influence of the city, always present “a return to pastoral life… as a cure”. In his article, he singled Monbiot out for “bourgeois escapism”, partly based on Monbiot’s frequent reference to his “ecological boredom” in Feral.
For Churchill, however, such an analysis was superficial, and “the link between Monbiot’s positions in Feral and bourgeois thought needs to be taken more seriously”. The fetishisation of “wilderness” is a distraction, he says,as nature does not exist as a “separate category outside of human society”. The only reason it seems to be “something separate from humanity” today is simply “because all aspects of the Earth’s life are, at this stage, subject to the same forces of capitalist alienation”. He affirms that Marx captured the truth succinctly, saying “Nature is the natural substratum [foundation] of human life. Human beings are inseparable from nature.”
“Wilderness”, Churchill argues, is simply “a construct of idealist bourgeois ideology”. Other conservationists who proposed the creation of ‘wildernesses’ (such as Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir), he says, gazed “in rapture over American landscapes that had been wiped clean of human influence through the genocides and diseases unleashed on the indigenous people” after the arrival of European colonialists. When such bourgeois romantics began to fetishise wilderness, Churchill affirms, the world “had already been turned upside down” by capitalist imperialism. Their comments, therefore, were misdirected. Instead of criticising the minority of imperialists and capitalists who were beginning to cause immense damage to the natural environment, they blamed the whole of humanity.
In reality, Churchill insists, there were “long-established ecological patterns that had arisen through the interplay of local human societies and non-human nature” when colonialists arrived in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Only when the European colonial powers “completely transformed or shattered” these patterns did real environmental damage begin, he says. On top of this, “the slave trade… had depopulated the coasts and riverbanks… even before colonialism…” and driven “survivors into densely populated, defensive, inland settlements”, thus disrupting the local ecological traditions. “Pre-capitalist trading patterns”, meanwhile, were also interrupted, “forcing changes in modes and means of production”. At the same time, thousands of indigenous inhabitants throughout the world died of disease or were killed off, reducing significantly the possibilities of resistance to European capitalism. All of these factors, Churchill affirms, must be considered when we analyse the impact of ‘humans’ on nature.
Monbiot’s ignorance of historical context and presentation of ‘wilderness’ as a “legitimate ecological category”, Churchill argues, is “crudely materialist”. His approach offers “no meaningful solutions to the ecological crisis because it is not rooted in… historical reality”.For Churchill, it is important to emphasise that humanity is not “a universally destructive influence on the earth’s living systems”, and that such a view is “very definitely a bourgeois distraction”. Similar to “the resurgent trend for Malthusianism” (which blames poverty, disease, and war on excessive reproduction caused by a lack of ‘moral restraint’), he says, Monbiot is involved in blaming the victims rather than the aggressors.
In order to criticise the inaccurate and unfair generalisation of human impact on the world encouraged by environmental romanticism, Churchill uses Monbiot’s own words in a BBC Radio 3 interview. The environmentalist “called for the reintroduction of wolves in the UK because of their recorded ecological benefits as a keystone species within the US Yellowstone National Park”, saying “we think of wolves as killing things, but the wolves actually created opportunities for a vast range of life to live which wasn’t living there before”. In reference to these comments, Churchill challenges us to “replace the word “wolves” with “humans””, highlighting that “we humans are earth’s keystone species”. The only difference between wolves and us is that “our societal form… conditions our interactions with non-human nature”.
With this remark, Churchill emphasises that our current interaction with nature is largely negative because we live under a capitalist political system. He points out that, before capitalism, “our pre-capitalist ecological impact was largely and inadvertently positive” in spite of “the loss of a relatively low number of species”. Even modern European conservationists, he affirms, seek to maintain “traditional agricultural practices [in order] to save the species that are being lost through capitalist agriculture, the collapse of small-scale farms, and the demise of Europe’s peasantry”.
As human society “has evolved towards an increasingly rapacious capitalist social formation” over the last three centuries, says Churchill, “our once positive relationship with nature has swung into reverse”, much in the same way that capitalism has unleashed “destructive forces… within our own human lives and cultures”. If Monbiot’s stance is unmoderated, he insists, it will prove to be a “disastrous distraction for environmentalism”. By attacking victims (like Welsh hill farmers and fishermen) rather than aggressors, ‘wilderness fetishism’ places “conservation arguments on the wrong side of the class struggle”. In order to emphasise his point, Churchill gives the example of “anti-worker positions of the environmental organisation Earth First in the battles against old-growth logging” in the USA. He fears that, in a similar way, a focus on rewilding will increase “the sense of alienation that workers feel from nature”. Conservation should not be seen as an “elitist concern”, he asserts, but such alienation could help to “bolster the myth that members of environmental organisations are not working class” (which Barca’s examples showed to be false).
While Monbiot argues forthe “removal of subsidies to hill farmers who are eking out marginal livelihoods with the direct assistance of state support”, he ignores the “aggressive round of bankruptcies and land-grabbing” that has occurred “across the Third World in the decades since the IMF and World Bank scrapped state subsidies to small farmers under structural adjustment programmes”. So, although he “rightly criticises absentee landlordism and land inequality”, his largely apolitical stance is a dangerous dividing force between environmental activists and workers.
Churchill believes, however, that Monbiot himself provided the best critique of a ‘wilderness ideal’ back in 2002, when he said that “the construction of wilderness has always been a key component of the colonial project”. In order to seize land, he affirmed, “European settlers [or colonialists]… either proclaimed the land they seized to be “terra nullius” [nobody’s land] or, by expelling its people, ensured that it became so”. Although Monbiot is still opposed to such forced expulsion, he now sees it, according to Churchill, as simply the ““wrong way” to rewild”. By hoping to work within the capitalist system rather than against it, Monbiot’s rewilding approach is referred to by Churchill as a “bourgeois digression”, in spite of the “useful stance” he has taken“against the creeping commodification of nature” advocated by figures like Juniper. Overall, his stance acts to distract environmentalists “from the rising tide of neoliberal conservation”, leading Churchill to call his book both “disappointing” and “almost wastefully distracting”.
4) The Common Interests of the Planet and its People
As seen above, both attacking humanity as a whole and hoping to change its relationship with nature from within the capitalist system are approaches that place the struggle against environmental disaster on the wrong side of the class divide. In each case, the rule of exploitative elites over an exploited majority is left unchallenged. Therefore, the form of environmentalism which places the wellbeing of humans (as an integral part of nature) at its heart is the one that truly understands the relationship between our species and non-human nature. This school realises that it is impossible to separate humans from nature, and that the fight against the irresponsible exploitation of nature is the same as the fight against capitalism. In connecting these two struggles, the path can be opened for a powerful mass movement of workers against environmental destruction.
However, as Ieuan Churchill emphasised, there has been a “rightward political drift of mainstream environmentalism”which “has been barely acknowledged”, and this change is a danger to the unification of environmentalist and anti-capitalist movements. The “fallacies embedded within neoliberal ecology”, he says, must be exposed. If they are, many millions of environmental activists (who support organisations that have unfortunately seen ‘corporate takeovers’) will undoubtedly be pushed to take action – realising that their “desire for ecological protection from the forces of commodification” has been betrayed.
In favour of a responsible and democratic human relationship with nature, socialists can look back to figures like Trotsky, who affirmed in the 1920s that humans will “repeatedly make improvements in nature” once, of course, capitalism has been defeated. Upon developing true democracy and social justice, he said, humans “will have rebuilt the earth”, but will not have “marked… the entire globe… off into boxes”. He assured us that nature will remain and that humans will manage their own development “so well that [nature] won’t even notice the machine”. Trotsky’s words here may speak of a dominant human influence over the planet, but they also speak of a harmonious and respectful relationship with nature. Churchill asserts that we, as humans, “have no option but to control nature” (in the sense that we need to focus on “housing, clothing and feeding ourselves”) but that Trotsky referred to how “we can rationally and democratically control our relationship with nature”.
Over the last hundred years, however, our “relationship with nature”has been handed over more and more“to the violent, anti-ecological, short-term whims of capitalists”. As a result, humans in “a socialist future” will need to try and undo the damage caused by capitalism, taking on an active, rational, and democratic role in adapting to climate change and undertaking “the restoration of the earth’s capital-ravaged ecosystems”. We will need to do so in order to heal our “ecological rift”, Churchill says, and move us “from the capitalist brink towards meaningful ecological sustainability”. And ideas like rewilding could indeed play a part, though within a capitalist system they would have no significant impact. Without fighting against capitalism simultaneously, then, the efforts of activists like Monbiot will simply prove a distraction.Only“anti-capitalist discourse”, Churchill insists, will help environmentalists to“apply genuine science and a meaningful collective imagination [in order] to discover what rewilding could really mean.
In summary, we should ensure that fellow environmental activists understand that the “road to environmental sustainability” Churchill speaks of does not lie within the capitalist system, whether through ‘ecosystem services’ or ‘rewilding’. Instead, it lies in “successful strategies of class struggle”, much like Barca demonstrated in her examples of working class environmental struggles. Churchill insists that “it is vital for socialists to continue our expanding and ground-breaking work in the environmental arena”, giving many examples (such asthe ‘Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group’, ‘La Via Campesina’, ‘One Million Climate Jobs’, and anti-fracking movements).
Groups like the Zapatistas in Mexico, meanwhile, also give socialist environmentalists hope that a respectful, democratic, and rational relationship with the Earth can be forged through autonomy from the Capitalist State. With the encroachment of neoliberalism, and the subsequently increasing concentration of national wealth and land in the hands of a wealthy, exploitative few, the Zapatistas said ‘Enough!’, realising that no change would ever come within the capitalist system. In search of justice for their communities and an end to the privatisation and commodification of their ancestral lands, they set about creating autonomous political structures – which have attracted attention and solidarity from activists throughout Mexico and the world.
Nonetheless, significant challenges also lie ahead. In order to forge a strong movement against capitalism (and the environmental destruction it brings), it is necessary to increase awareness and understanding of working class environmental movements of the past and present (as Barca said), in order to facilitate the formation of conscious and comprehensive coalitions between environmentalists and socialists. It is also essential, according to Churchill, that we realise that “neoliberal conservationists such as Tony Juniper… [are simply] facilitating the interests of capital…, subjugating our ecology to corporate interests and justifying the further privatisation of life on earth”.
The obstacles in the way of change are substantial, but they can, and must, be overcome. And, with consciousness of the matters outlined above, activists will recognise that unity against capitalism is the only way to protect our world and all forms of life which live upon it.