Joel Kovel meeting - why I'm sceptical about "eco-socialism"

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Mon, 28/05/2007 - 00:12,

Recently I went to a lecture by Joel Kovel, a leading US eco-socialist and author of the book, The Enemy of Nature. The meeting was chaired by Derek Wall from the Green Party and had Jane Kelly from Socialist Resistance on the platform. Over 50 people were there.

Kovel spoke well enough about the destructiveness of capitalism and about how a socialist society would be sustainable. However he said there was no privileged agent in the fight for a better society, instead talking about a movement of ”the commons”, and listing Cuba, Venezuela and the Zapatistas as prefigurative examples.

I put it to him that this was a “classless ecology” and that green socialists are essentially activists who had given up on the working class. Kovel backtracked a bit and said that the labour movement was important – but he conspicuously failed to outline any kind of working class environmentalist programme or strategy for convincing workers to take up the issues.

Other pressed him on these points, but his answers were not coherent. He has essentially systematised the uncoupling of ends and means, borrowing bits from Marx but missing the locus of Marxist politics – that is, the working class movement. Derek Wall and his Green Left caucus suffer from the same malaise.

No one from Socialist Resistance explained why they are prepared to go along with this – although by signing Kovel’s eco-socialist manifesto and calling themselves eco-socialists they seem to be entering into some sort of explicit alliance with Green Left people. They seem to be heading from the demoralisation of Respect to the blind alley of the Green Party.

The AWL, Labour and the Left
Issues and Campaigns


Submitted by PaulHampton on Fri, 18/05/2007 - 21:04

Climate change is far more than just the result of poverty and the poor use of resources. Actually its better understood as what Marx called a metabolic rift between humanity and nature. Capital's insatiable self-expansion is driven to appropriate and despoil nature, even to the point of altering the conditions of production.

Capitalism could probably survive even big changes in the climate - but millions of workers will not. For example the IPCC report last month said that
· If temperatures rise by 0.5ºC or more, there will be an “increased burden from malnutrition, diarrhoeal, cardio-respiratory and infectious diseases” and “increased morbidity and mortality from heat waves, floods and droughts”.
· In Africa by 2020, “between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to an increase of water stress due to climate change.”

The bourgeoisie e.g. the Stern review have already given up on stabilisation at 450ppmCO2, the level most scientists think will lead to a 2oC average rise. Even 550ppmCO2 may be exceeded, even if the current targets are met. Over 2oC, the effects are likely to accelerate. We can’t rely on capitalist firms or governments to do the job.

To stop this, emissions have to start falling by 2015. My view is that only a resurgent labour movement is strong enough to impose the necessary measures. Climate change adds to the urgency of our work to build such a movement and fight for socialism. We should start from the reality of climate change and not underestimate its significance.


Submitted by Jason on Fri, 01/06/2007 - 10:48

You may be right about someone developing a technological fix within the confines of capitalism but we can't afford to wait. For a start I think it's pretty unlikely that a big enough solution can be found quickly enough to avoid a lot of catastrophic damage and secondly even if true- who knows- we should take immediate action now- as individuals sure but also far more importantly collectively in the workplaces with e.g. workers' committees to monitor environemntal impact and damage and major campaigns against the corporations destroying the planet.

Submitted by Jason on Fri, 25/05/2007 - 19:01

This has been quite an interesting debate.

I agree that environmental destruction is one of the greatest current threats to the working class, small farmers and indeed humanity as a whole.

A recent UN report suggests that up to 98% of Indonesia's forests could be lost by 2022 (source
- already deforestation has caused massive hardship and deaths through flooding and mudslides.

Flooding in Bangladesh has already been mentioned. There's also the issue of increasing wars over scarce resources.

In all of these cases the politics of the corporations and global capitalism are pushing humanity towards disaster.

The solutions are far from obvious and uncontroversial but most scientists agree that drastic reductions in carbon emissions are needed. However, it is fairly obvious that the corporations and the governments they run (i.e. the capitlaist classes) will not take on the huge expenses of making buildings environmentally friendly, of funding efficient public transport systems, of palnning production efficiently so as to reduce waste and recycle what we cannot reuse or cut out in the first place.

Instead we get proposals on congestion charges- deeply regressive taxes hitting the poor the hardest (for example up to £5 a day proposed to travel in and out of Manchester), carbon trading, cut backs on refuse collection to try to coerce recycling- all measures to make the working class pay.

Instead we need to abolish the corporations and plan production for human need and environmental harmony. It may even be that some of the technological fixes suggested by maverick scientists such as James Lovelock may work- only scientific trials will show. However, it is probably utopian to assume that capitlaist governments will have the iuncentives, means or co-operation to test and trial such methods.

What is less obvious perhaps is how to get there. Positive feedback cycles play a potentially destructive effect in potential climate change. We need to harness the postive feedback of working class resistance through a program of transitional demands to tackle climate change-
some possible and very tentative ideas-
strong workplace unions to demand longer holidays and longer journey times for those workers choosing to come on public transport or cycling
collective policies on saving energy enforced by the workers
mass campaigns for free or cheap public transport-
campaign against regressive taxes and cuts in services-
tax the rich and make them pay

It's quite incomplete I admit- but we need on the revolutioanry left to urgently work out detailed program and practical ideas to tackle climate change by mobilising the working class and linking the fight against climate catstrophe to the fight against global capitalism and for democratic and environmentally friendly global revolutionary socialism.

More here…

Submitted by Jason on Sat, 26/05/2007 - 09:37

Hi Arthur

On your first point, I'm not entirely sure we disagree as such; more that, I feel you have misunderstood the point.

I'm not saying and I don't think anyone else is that we somehow 'afford' to wait around for socialism. Of course we fight for immediate reforms that we link to the fight to overthrow capitalism. I mentioned some immediate reforms- cheap and efficient public transport, better insulation for houses and buildings, reducing carbon emissions through less use, reuse and recycling. To make these transitional would require workers' committees to oversee targets in factories and offices, to run public transport under workers' and passengers' control and would need to be fought for by mass class struggle tactics. It is not easy and does not at all mean that in the meantime we eschew making common cause with green lobbyists advocating change in more traditional manners- think tanks, letter writing, demos etc. However, we should point out that though public opinion and even business sense has produced a big change in the practices of capitalist governments and businesses anf this change will increase nevertheless it is still woefully inadequate.

On the second set of points, it is clear thatthere is some incentive for capitalists to do somerthing about the environment. If there was some quick techno fix (I can't rule that out) then they may well do it- why? Because environmental damage does have some costs to capitalists- though they are mainly externalised to the working class and poor farmers in the forcibly underdeveloped semi-colonies.

There are therefore also potentially vast profits to be made from new technologies- if they are are cheap enough and it is in the interests of capitalist firms and governments to buy them. But short of hunch or unless you are some kind of expert or even budding inventor I can't see how we can at all depend on the cheap fix. A machine that defies the second law of thermodynamics seems rather unlikely (if not impossible) and other more credible or actually existing inventions will help but not nearly fast enough to avert further enormous damage and may be catastrophe. Other ideas on the far edge of science such as huge mirrors or aerosol pollination of the skies may work for all I know but it seems fairly likely that they would require large enough investment to not be attmepted by the capitalist corporations and their governments.

However, barring some realtively cheap fix it is clear that capitalism does not have the incentive to spend vast amounts of money to sort out the problems of humanity- profit is the bottom line. Why would they otherwise spend the billions on rebuilding and insulation, on new public transport systems (unless profits can be made)? Capitalism is notoriously myopic. Only a working class movement can force major reforms out of the capitalists and ultimately we will need to seize the means of production ourselves.

It's not a question of resting on our laurels and waiting for the revolution but of taking immeidate steps tied to a a program of transitional demands to overthrow capitalism. But neither can we afford to sit on our hands waiting for the market to come up with a set of relatively cheap fixes that capitalists can afford and have the incentive to implement. It's not impossible and if it happened there would still be every reason to overthrow capitalism (we don't require a crisis to take power in our own lives, though obviously it can give an extra incentive). It may happen but we certainly can't afford to sit back and wait just on the off chance.


Submitted by PaulHampton on Fri, 15/06/2007 - 20:53


I don’t think your post is very helpful.

The IPCC report on the physical science basis of climate change said:
“The global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from a pre-industrial value of about 280 ppm to 379 ppm in 2005. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in 2005 exceeds by far the natural range over the last 650,000 years (180 to 300 ppm) as determined from ice cores. The annual carbon dioxide concentration growth rate was larger during the last 10 years (1995–2005 average: 1.9 ppm per year), than it has been since the beginning of continuous direct atmospheric measurements (1960–2005 average: 1.4 ppm per year) although there is year-to-year variability in growth rates.”

It concluded that, “the global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land-use change, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to agriculture”. Increases in temperature are “very likely” due to increased greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from human activity.

I think there are lags between CO2 emissions and warming – and anyway the contraction in the Depression was relatively brief – which might explain your point.

In any case, we’re better off accepting the reality of climate change and developing a programme to mitigate warming than on this kind of speculation.


Submitted by Bruce on Thu, 10/05/2007 - 14:18

Sacha wrote "Kovel seemed to miss the point that what is needed is a *class-based* political movement."

I doubt he missed the point. He has explicitly written that he does not believe the working class to be a "priveleged agent of social change." Like many of the eco-socialists (and others)today, he uses Marxism as a tool of analysis but draws back from the conclueions in terms of social action, seeing the working class as on a par with other components of a rainbow coalition.

Submitted by PaulHampton on Sat, 12/05/2007 - 11:04

In reply to by Bruce

An article in Counter Punch in 2004 said that Kovel supported John Kerry in the US presidential election that year. The intro reads:

"Life is full of bitter ironies! Behold the spectacle of Joel Kovel, who loudly proclaims his credentials as a Marxist socialist, who ran against Ralph Nader for the Green nomination from the left in 2000, claiming that Nader failed to enunciate a sufficiently radical critique of the capitalist system--this same Kovel is out of the closet as a cheerleader for the prowar, pro-Patriot Act, pro-WTO and NAFTA John Kerry--loyal servant of . . . capitalism!!!!"

If that's true, Kovel has not just missed the point about class politics - but completely lost the plot.


Submitted by DR_SEUSS on Sun, 06/05/2007 - 10:52

It does not surprise me that socialist resistance are seeking an alliance of this kind. Their french counterparts the LCR had a flirtation with the CP, and resistance themselves have thrown themselves into projects like the socilist movement, and more recently Respect.
Doesn't this turn just reflect deep seated defeatism, rather than focus on the basics of working class organisation they search for a niche to market themselves to young radicals, after they've realised that being in respect and the socilist alliance just made them invisible

Submitted by Bruce on Sun, 06/05/2007 - 13:30

Dr.Suess is definitely correct to point to elements of opportunism in the LCR and Resistance responses to green issues. I went to the 2004 Marx Conference in Paris and attended a sessiion on eco-socialism addressed among others by leading LCR members Michael Loewy (the other signatory of the Eco-socialist Manifesto with Kovel) and Pierre Rousset. Rousset said something along the lines of "Today ecological issues are the big thing, just as in the 70's it was guerilla warfare in Latin America." None of this will be a surprise to those who have followed the history of the USFI current and its eternal search for the 'new mass vanguard'.

Perhaps instead we need to think more about why green politics seem to be more popular among young people than socialist politics.

Like Lawrie I have read 'The Enemy of Nature' and find much that is good in it - particularly the stuff on capitalism and ecology and the critique of the main mainstream green approaches. I agree with him that we need to face the challenge that eco-socialism poses to 'traditional' Marxism but I am not yet sure that eco-socialism provides the answers - certainly not Kovel's version which is ultimately mystical.

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