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Prospects For Eco-Socialism

By Saral Sarkar

31 May, 2014

I. The Question

In Beijing , one of the listeners of my lecture on Eco-Socialism said after hearing me that he was fully convinced, but, he asked, “When will eco-socialism come?” It was a very difficult question, a short answer to which was not possible. I only answered that I was not an astrologer. It was, however, an interesting question, though not exactly in this form. It is better to ask: what are the prospects for eco-socialism? Or: are there indications today that give us hope that the majority of the people of the world or of some countries would in the near future embrace eco-socialism and transform their capitalist society to an eco-socialist one? It is a question worth reflecting upon because, as the world situation is today, it cannot go on like this for long.

For all who consider themselves to be a socialist, Marx's view on this question can well serve as a starting point. Marx wrote in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy :

“No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.” (Marx & Emgels.1977: 504)

I am not a socialist of the old type, for whom a quotation from Marx is always the last word in political wisdom. But these words are largely convincing, are helpful for scientific/materialist socialists, who do not want to indulge in wishful thinking. They help us understand why the working class of the advanced capitalist societies disappointed Marx's expectation that they would overthrow capitalism. It was because, contrary to what Marx himself thought, all the productive forces for which there was room in capitalism had not fully developed yet. There was room for much more.

Now, immediately, the following questions arise: (a) Is today , in advanced capitalism, the room for further development of productive forces exhausted? (b) Have the material conditions for the appearance of the new higher relations of production, socialism, matured? (c) If we today set ourselves the task of creating an eco-socialist society, can we say that we can "solve" (fulfil) this task? Do the material conditions for its "solution" already exist?

II. The Present-Day Crises

Before we can answer the first of the above questions we must describe the more important and relevant aspects of the world situation today. If we see problems and crises, then answering the question becomes easier. For then we can ask: can we expect that some upcoming further developments of the productive forces will be able to solve the problems and overcome the crises within the framework of capitalism ? If we can answer the question in the affirmative, then we must also conclude that capitalism will not perish soon and that the material conditions for the appearance of socialism, which we socialists consider to be a better (let us ignore the term "higher") kind of relations of production, have not yet matured. In other words, we must conclude that a transition to socialism is not necessary yet.

For the last one year or so the global media have been reporting on various crises that are much more serious than the ones on which they usually report, namely inflation, recession, crash in the share market, economic stagnation, rise in unemployment, crisis of the welfare state, foreign debt crisis in the developing countries, poverty, tensions or wars between states etc. etc. These crises are also there, but they are generally ephemeral, are part of the usual state of things. For the capitalist social order they are harmless compared to the more serious ones mankind is facing at present.

Today, in many parts of the world, hunger has become very acute and more widespread than usual. Within a short time the price of rice, wheat, maize etc. have skyrocketed, so that the poor in many countries cannot even afford the meagre meals they have been living on until recently. In 30 countries there have been food riots and mass demonstrations against rising prices. In Haiti there have been violent clashes between the demonstrators and the police, which resulted in a few deaths.

Then there is the energy crisis. The steep rise in the price of fuel and electricity is tormenting not only the poor countries, but also the rich ones. In Spain , Portugal , France and Great Britain truckers and fishermen are demonstrating against the high diesel price by blockading roads and ports, because, as they say, their profession has become uneconomic. There have even been clashes between the demonstrators and the police.

The energy crisis is only the most important part of the general resource crisis. Crude oil, the most important of the basic sources of energy and raw material for many other products, is becoming more and more difficult to find and extract and hence more and more costly. Even the price of coal is rising. One who thinks of nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels should note that even uranium is getting ever scarcer and ever costlier. Same is the case with silicon, the basic raw material for producing photo-voltaic cells and electronic chips. Not only these very special resources, but also ordinary industrial metals like iron, copper, zinc, nickel etc. are becoming ever costlier. Even the price of iron ore and scrap iron is rising sharply.

Everybody knows that cheap and abundant energy is the basis of industrial societies and their high living standards. The end of the era of cheap oil means, therefore, that the prosperity of such societies is in danger of evaporating.

The energy and resource crisis in general, and especially the rising price of natural gas is causing scarcity and rising costs of fertilisers. Population growth, growing industrialisation and large-scale urbanisation are resulting in shrinking availability of arable land and scarcity of fresh water. These factors – together with the foolish decision to transfer arable land from food production to bio-fuel production for motor vehicles – are behind the current food crisis.

Far more serious than the resource crisis is the danger of devastating weather catastrophes – storms, floods, landslides etc. – caused by global warming and the rising sea level. Such catastrophes are, in fact, already taking place regularly in many parts of the world including China . And in future they are going to be increasingly frequent and intense.

And, moreover, we must not forget the protracted, ever worsening ecological crisis: the insidious, ever intensifying – visible and invisible – degradation of the quality of air, water and soil due to dust and chemical and radioactive pollution, and the dwindling bio-diversity of the planet due to extinction of species.

Apart from the resource and ecological crisis, the world today is suffering from some intractable social and political crises: hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing their native land due to poverty, wars and environmental devastation; terrorist activities of religious and nationalist fanatics; ethnic conflicts and civil wars within states and across-borders; failed states, where there is no recognised government and which are ruled by a multiplicity of warlords.

These crises, especially the underlying general resource crisis, will generate hitherto unknown kinds of inflation and recession. Until a year or two ago, generally, inflation used to be caused by high wage demands of trade unions and/or rapidly rising demand for consumer and investment goods, while supply could be raised only slowly. The remedy was simple: persuade the trade unions to make modest wage demands and/or reduce the tempo of rise in demand for consumer and investment goods by means of monetary and fiscal measures. From now onwards, however, prices will continue to rise even if labourers do not demand too high wages, even if demand for goods and services stops rising. It will be so because the given geological and geographic conditions under which today raw materials are being extracted are becoming ever more difficult entailing ever rising production costs. The cost of extracting oil from beneath the Arctic Ocean is simply much higher than that of extracting oil, say, from beneath the sands of Kuwait.

When raw materials become ever scarcer and all prices continue to rise, demand will not only stagnate, but will begin to fall, because people will simply not be able to afford more. Moreover, processing less raw materials means less production. And when this happens, there will be a new kind of recession that will continue until sometime in the future the economy, now based mainly on renewable resources, will reach a steady state.

All these are fundamental crises, unlike the harmless ephemeral ones mentioned earlier, which in the past could be overcome more or less easily by changing the relevant policies. The present-day crises are fundamental in the sense that their roots lie in the essentials of the system – the capitalist and industrial system – and overcoming them call for radical changes in the system : in the way we live and produce goods and services, in our numbers, in our economic and political system, in our resource use pattern, in the way we react with nature, in the way we organise our social relations etc. etc. In other words, these crises cannot be overcome in the framework of the present social, economic and political systems, i.e. in capitalism.

III. The State of the Productive Forces

Let us now examine the current state of the productive forces together with the developments thereof that have either recently taken place or are expected by many to take place soon. And then let us examine whether they can help us overcome the fundamental crises within the framework of capitalism. In my book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? (1999) I have dealt with this question in great detail. A revised and updated Chinese version of the book has been published in 2008. So the arguments for my positions need not be presented here in detail. Here I shall deal with the question in short and with reflections based on more recent data.

The most important task facing capitalism today is to find new sources of energy that (a) will not emit, or emit very little, greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and (b) will be sufficiently abundant and cheap, so that they can replace the fossil fuels that (a) are non-renewable and are being depleted rapidly and (b) that emit large quantities of greenhouse gases. In other words, the task is to find new sources of energy (and also other resources) that will allow us to sustain economic growth without degrading the environment and are renewable.

Ever since scientists and engineers became aware of the seriousness of the twin problems of exhaustibility of resources and environmental degradation – that was in the middle of the 1970s – a lot of research and development has been done in many relevant areas, especially in the area of resources that are allegedly not only renewable but also non-polluting. But, unfortunately, no solution to the problems has yet been found.

Great hopes had been put especially on the energy of sunshine and wind, both of which are renewable and available in enormous quantities. The quantity of energy that we receive from the sun everyday is 15,000 times as much as the daily total world consumption of commercial energy. So it was hoped that with the development of solar energy technologies alone the problem of sustainable growth could be solved.

But these hopes have till now failed to materialise. Neither solar nor wind energy technologies are yet able to commercially compete with the conventional, CO 2 -emitting, and fossil fuel burning technologies. And it seems they will never be able to. They are and, it seems, will always remain dependent on subsidies. But the subsidies come from the economy at large, by far the greater part of which is powered by the fossil fuels, the very source of energy which the renewable sources are supposed to replace. That means the renewable energy technologies are not viable, they can exist only as long as the fossil fuels are available.

That this dependence is not diminishing is shown by the fact that, in Germany, Eurosolar , a large lobby organisation of the renewable energy industries, recently demanded an increase in the guaranteed (and subsidised) kilowatt-hour price for wind energy on the grounds that raw-material costs are rising ( Süddeutsche Zeitung , 30.05.2008). The most important among the raw-materials needed to build wind-driven power stations is, of course, energy from the fossil fuels, the costs of which are indeed rising rapidly. The German government acceded to the demand and did increase the guaranteed price ( Süddeutsche Zeitung , 7.06.2008). Eurosolar did not demand any increase in the guaranteed price for (photovoltaic) solar electricity, although rising raw-materials costs are also causing the production costs of the photovoltaic industry to rise. High grade silicon, from which wafers for photovoltaic cells are produced, is becoming ever scarcer and its price is rising ( Süddeutsche Zeitung , 12.06.2008). But the guaranteed price for solar electricity had already been so much higher than the price of conventional electricity that the government decided to reduce it a little. The point here is not to judge whether the guaranteed subsidised prices are too high or reasonable, but to demonstrate the economic dependence of the allegedly renewable energy technologies on income generated mainly by using non-renewable and CO 2 -emitting fossil fuels. To describe the situation in technical terms, neither solar nor wind energy technologies can reproduce themselves . That is, the entire equipment needed for these technologies is manufactured by using conventional (largely fossil fuel) energy. The net energy they produce (energy return on energy invested = EROEI) is either too little or even negative.

Another renewable source of energy that has been promoted is bio-mass, in two forms: (a) fuel crops and (b) waste products from agriculture and forestry. None of them is actually a new development. Bio-diesel produced from vegetable oil had been considered as fuel for automobiles before petroleum became abundantly available. Bio-gas from waste bio-mass had been widely used in the 1950s to '70s. Nowadays it is used to generate electricity at a small scale. That this actually ancient source of renewable energy has been revived in modernised forms – especially in the forms of bio-ethanol and bio-diesel –, and is being strongly subsidised, is a reflection of the hidden disappointment of policy makers with solar and wind electricity.

Modern industrial societies need not only electricity but also liquid fuels for many purposes, particularly for driving automobiles. To get a liquid fuel from solar and wind electricity – and also to store these irregularly and intermittently available energies for making them available at all times – it is necessary to produce with their help liquid hydrogen from water through electrolysis. But this is a very costly process. Not only the monetary costs but also the energy costs of producing liquid hydrogen from solar or wind electricity is so high that driving a motor vehicle with this fuel is totally nonsensical. That is why one came upon the idea of using bio-ethanol from sugarcane, maize etc. and bio-diesel from rape-seed oil, palm oil etc.

But bio-fuels have a great disadvantage: they need fertile land. So one must either take over land hitherto devoted to food crops or destroy rain forests – as is happening for many years now in Brazil , Indonesia and Malaysia – in order to get land for fuel crops. Both are bad ideas. To reallocate farmland to bio-fuel production is even a dangerous idea at a time when the current world population of 6.5 billions is still growing and about 800 million people are suffering from hunger. The current food crisis referred to above has been attributed in a World Bank report to the extent of 75% to this phenomenon (The Guardian , 4.07.2008). Destroying rainforests for this purpose is a bad idea because (a) they are themselves a large part of nature's own system of absorbing CO 2 and (b) because they are the space where the greatest bio-diversity on earth exists. Moreover, even bio-fuels, although they are not very high-tech products like solar electricity, must be subsidised, so that they can compete with the fossil fuels. There are even strong doubts that the net energy gained from them (their EROEI) is at all positive (see e.g. Wall Street Journal , 5.12.2006).

In view of their strong dependence on fossil fuels, it is totally unconvincing that promoting so-called renewable energy technologies would have the effect of containing global warming. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently presented a packet of recommendations for halving the global emission of greenhouse gases by 2050. Promotion of allegedly renewable energies is to contribute 21 percent of this reduction goal. The IEA recommends that for this purpose, by 2050, 46% of the global electricity demand should be met through renewable energies. It recommends that 17,500 wind turbines should be built every year, and the use of bio-mass for energy generation should be quadrupled. The IEA also estimated the amount of money that would be needed for making all the investments it recommends (which include also investments in new nuclear power plants): in all, 45 trillion US-Dollars till 2050 ( Süddeutsche Zeitung , 7.06.2008; Schrader 2008). But how will these funds be generated if, simultaneously, the contribution of fossil fuels to the gross world product (world GDP) has to be drastically reduced? And if due to continuous rise in the price of fossil fuels, especially oil and gas, a world-wide recession sets in, then it will be difficult even to maintain the present level of necessary expenditures.

The IEA also recommends in its packet the construction of 32 nuclear power plants every year, a total of 1300 new ones by 2050. The revival of nuclear power as a major source of energy is not being presented as a development of the productive forces. It is an old technology which was, against the background of the hopes put on the rise of renewable energies, considered to be too dangerous and dispensable. Now, since the so-called renewable energy technologies have disappointed these hopes, policy makers are willing to revive this old technology. But, even if people are prepared to accept the risks and even if the risks are lowered through technical improvements, uranium is a non-renewable resource and is already becoming ever costlier. According to estimates of experts, at the present rate of consumption of the currently operating 439 nuclear reactors in the world, uranium ore will be available at the most for another 60 years. Moreover, according to the World Nuclear Association , global uranium production already peaked in 1981. That means, its availability is gradually declining (Meacher 2006). In September 2006, the price of uranium was more than six times as high as in 2001 ( International Herald Tribune , 5.09.2006). What prevents the closure of some of the existing nuclear power plants due to lack of uranium is the use of nuclear weapons material made available through the mutual reduction of the nuclear weapons arsenal of the USA and the former Soviet Union.

Because of these problems with the presumptive alternatives to fossil fuels, hard-headed realists in the energy industries are thinking of some other solution of the energy and global warming problem based on coal, which is still abundantly available and comparatively cheap. Coal is not as versatile as oil, but it can be gasfied and liquefied. The problem that has to be solved is how to burn it and yet not emit CO 2 into the atmosphere. The solution that is being advocated and experimented with at present is the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology. The idea is to industrially separate the CO 2 from the other exhaust gases of the coal-burning power plants, capture and liquefy it under high pressure and then pump it down into caverns that result from the exhaustion of oil and gas fields. Then – here the idea becomes a bit unclear– either the caverns would be sealed off or the liquefied CO 2 would be absorbed by the rocks around the cavern. Geologically suitable caverns with chemically suitable rocks will, of course, have to be found.

The strongest advocacy of this solution of the problem came in 2006 from the report of a commission appointed by the UK government and presided over by Sir Nicholas Stern. The report estimates the costs to be incurred for limiting global warming to a safe level by this and some other methods to be very modest, yearly 1% of the global GDP up to 2050 (Stern 2006). But some economists have strong doubts about this optimistic estimate. Robert J. Samuelsonwrites:

“The notion that there is only a modest tension between suppressing greenhouse gases and sustaining economic growth is highly dubious. Stern arrives at his trivial costs .... by essentially assuming them. His estimates presume that .... technological improvements will automatically reconcile declining emissions with adequate economic growth. .... To check warming, Stern wants annual emissions 25% below current levels by 2050. The IEA projects that economic growth by 2050 would more than double emissions. At present we can't bridge the gap. .................

We need more candor . Unless we develop cost-effective technologies that break the link between carbon-dioxide emissions and energy use, we can't do much. Anyone serious about global warming must focus on technology – and not just assume it. Otherwise our practical choices are all bad : costly mandates and controls that harm the economy, or costly mandates and controls that barely affect greenhouse gases. Or possibly both. (Samuelson 2006. Emphasis added)

IV. The central source of prosperity

Nowadays, in Europe one often hears that we are now living in a Wissensgesellschaft . The English equivalent of the term is presumably “knowledge society”. Recently, in a high-level discussion on the various crises of today, the moderator asked an intellectual, who had been an adviser to the Finance Minister of France , what the Western societies should and can do to overcome the crises. The adviser said, in the general sense, the material resources are inexorably becoming scarcer and costlier, and there is competition at the world market from low-wage countries like China , India etc. The way to overcome the crises is therefore fast progress towards a Wissensgesellschaft. I checked in an internet encyclopaedia and found there that many Western thinkers believe that “theoretical knowledge is the most important resource of the post-industrial society”, that “production, use, and organisation of knowledge are the central sources of productivity and growth” (Wikipedia, German edition ).

A few years ago similar thoughts used to be expressed in simpler terms, namely scientific and technological development. Some people in Germany used to say: let the Chinese, the Indians, the East Europeans etc. produce all the ordinary goods, we shall sell the blueprints, or we shall sell the highly sophisticated products and know-how. But how much of all these beliefs has a solid basis?

Ever since modern science began, knowledge production has continued uninterruptedly. In our times, we hear from scientists that knowledge is, so to speak, exploding. But then, if knowledge is the most important resource and the central source of growth, why are there these crises that I have referred to in section II.? Obviously, these beliefs are not well-founded.

Production, use, and organisation of knowledge have always been an important (let us use the terms) resource and source of growth in productivity and production. However, they have not been central to the origin and explosive growth of the Industrial Civilisation. But is there at all something we can call the central source of growth in prosperity in the last two hundred years? Yes, these are the fossil fuels .

As we all know, the steam engine made the Industrial Revolution possible. And high pressure steam could be produced by burning coal. It is not as if coal was essential for producing steam. One could have done that also by burning wood or charcoal. But wood had become scarce much before the Industrial Revolution began in England , which is why coal, a very dirty fuel, started being used in place of wood. The difference between wood and coal was that, firstly, coal was – at least in the countries, in which the Industrial Revolution was made – immensely abundant; it appeared to be inexhaustible. And, secondly, the energy content (energy density) of coal is much higher than that of wood. A study made in 1996 found that whereas the EROEI of US-American plantation wood amounts to 2.1 (i.e. a return of 2.1 units of energy can be had by investing one unit of energy), the EROEI of coal (from Wyoming USA) amounts to 10.5. The EROEI of US-American onshore natural gas and that of Alaska oil are, according to the same study, 10.3 and 11.1 respectively (cf. Heinberg 2003: 153). In its early days (1901–1920), the EROEI of Texas oil was 20 (Kunstler 2005: 107). It is as if “fossil fuels provided for each person in an industrialised country the equivalent of having hundreds of slaves constantly at his or her disposal” (ibid: 31).

When one generation of scientists and engineers, the providers and practitioners of knowledge, die, they are replaced by the next generation of scientists and engineers. They and their knowledge are, so to speak, renewable resources that are, in highly developed countries, not scarce. But not so the fossil fuels. The huge leaps in inventions and productivity that took place in the past two centuries were, of course, the work of creative scientists and engineers. But the platform, so to speak, on which they worked was provided in the final analysis by the abundantly available cheap fossil fuels. The invention of, e.g., aeroplane could not even have been imagined without the availability of cheap oil. And automatic machines that replace manpower and thus enhance productivity cannot be manufactured and operated without the use of fossil fuels. They enhance productivity because they are able to replace human energy with some or other form of fossil-fuel energy.

This platform is nowadays becoming ever weaker. Oil extraction has (almost) peaked. Its price is rising inexorably and supply cannot be increased anymore. The end of the golden age of oil is looming on the horizon. Many airlines are mothballing planes, giving up routes, raising prices. Americans and Europeans are being compelled to drive less and buy smaller cars. There is a crisis in US and European automobile industry.

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a pioneer in ecological economics, calls the deposits of fossil fuels and other important non-renewable minerals in sufficiently high degree of concentration “the limited dowry of mankind's existence on earth”. A dowry is not only limited but also a once-only gift. That is why he comes to the conclusion:

“Even with a constant population and a constant flow per capita of mined resources, mankind's dowry will ultimately be exhausted if the career of the human species is not brought to an end earlier by other factors.” (Georgescu-Roegen 1971/1981: 296)

Under the expression “other factors” we may understand all kinds of wars, especially those over resources, pandemics (like AIDS, bird-flu etc.), to fight against which mankind would not have enough resources, the devastations caused by the effects of global warming etc.

Georgescu-Roegen wrote these lines in 1971, when the focus was more on the resource question. In 2006, James lovelock – another great scientist-thinker – was compelled to focus more on the ecological health of the planet Earth. He had earlier compared it with a living organism and called it Gaia (the name of the ancient Greek Earth-goddess). Referring to the great dangers coming from global warming, Lovelock (2006) wrote in a very pessimistic mood:

“We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there [i.e. in a state like a coma] before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences: as the century progresses, the temperature will rise 8 degrees centigrade [Celsius] in the temperate regions and 5 degrees in the tropics.”

But, despite being very pessimistic, he gives a call for action:

“So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal warlords.”

V. The new tasks

If we want to heed Lovelock's call, then we must give ourselves some very new tasks. The problem is not just global warming. It is actually more general. There is, undeniably, a contradiction between ecology and economy as we know it today. Because, generally speaking, the more resources we consume, the more we pollute/degrade the environment. This is true even if resource consumption is increased in order to limit some particular case of pollution somewhere. And almost all measures to protect the environment in the interests of the general public, peoples of other countries, and the future generations result in increasing costs and losses to some people and some enterprises of the present generations, and that jeopardises economic growth. The only convincing way to achieve overall reduction in pollution and degradation of nature – that includes limiting global warming – is to reduce overall resource consumption. That entails overall economic contraction. In my book (1999 & 2008) I have argued in detail for these propositions.

Whether we like it or not, the expositions in section III and IV lead undisputedly to the conclusion that the idea of socialism on the basis of a highly developed industrial society has no chance of being realised. Also the traditional notion that a socialist regime's first task is to develop the productive forces and thus to increase production and labour productivity does not make any sense any more. These ideas and notions have become obsolete, they must be replaced with ideas and notions that are appropriate to the problems and crises we are facing today . Thus, today, socialists must replace the notion of primacy of human needs and rights with the notion of primacy of environmental protection. And the primary task of a new socialist regime will have to be to organise the transition to an economy based largely, if not exclusively, on renewable resources. Marx wrote: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it". Following him, we should today say: till now, we, including socialists, have changed the world in various ways; the point today is, however, to protect it. Also Marx's vision of a communist society as one in which the first rule of distribution is "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need", must be revised. The second part of the rule should read: .... to each an equal share of what we can take from nature without degrading it.

Let us go back to the Marx-quotation in section I. He wrote: ".... higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself." Here Marx seems to say that socialism, the higher relations of production, will appear by itself (automatically) when the material conditions for its existence have matured. I do not believe that it would appear by itself, it has to be created , and Marx himself also spoke in the same quotation of the " task " that arises. Now the question is: have the material conditions for the existence of socialism matured?

Under "material conditions" Marx and his followers understood a situation in which, in a highly developed industrial society, capitalism has become a fetter to the further development of productive forces. Capitalism, they thought, would perish because of this. However, when we observe the capitalist economies of today, we do not see any sign of capitalism having become a fetter to the further development of productive forces. On the contrary, capitalism is developing the productive forces so much and so rapidly that this itself has become a great threat to both human societies and the global environment. The task today is, therefore, not to smash any non-existent fetters, but, on the contrary, to fetter the productive forces, which under capitalism, driven by market forces, have developed a dynamism independent of any considerations of good or bad for human societies and nature. But that would not suffice. The task today is rather to organise an orderly retreat from today's growth madness, to wilfully scale down humanity's economic activities.

These are the tasks, for which we need socialism with a planned economy. There is no room for these tasks in capitalism, because in its very logic there is an in-built growth compulsion. It is mainly for this reason that it must be overcome. These are very different, very new grounds for demanding socialism. This is a very new conception of socialism's tasks. To make the difference between old socialism and this new socialism clear it is necessary to call it eco-socialism.

VI. Prospects for Eco-Socialism

Marx wrote: "mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; .... the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist .... ." (see quotation above!). Do the material conditions for successfully fulfilling the new tasks, the tasks as understood in the concept of eco-socialism , already exist? I believe they do. For, unlike in the old Marxist concept of socialism, no rapid and difficult-to-achieve development of productive forces is necessary, no highly industrialised society has to be built up from scratch as the Soviet and Chinese communists have had to do. The material conditions that are needed for fulfilling the new socialist tasks defined above exist since long: adequate renewable resources and intermediate , labour-intensive technologies. Also technologies for stopping population growth are easily available.

I would like to add here that even the objective necessity for eco-socialism exists. Large sections of humanity have realised that the crises and their sufferings referred to in section II cannot be overcome in Capitalism; they are crying for an alternative. At least in Germany , where I can observe the developments personally, the earlier antipathy to socialism is melting down. In opinion surveys, about half of the Germans say that socialism is a very good idea, only its implementation in the past had been bad. However, one very important condition that does not exist yet is the subjective readiness of the majority of the people of the world to really set itself the tasks defined above and, generally speaking, to accept the vision of eco-socialism. The expression "adequate renewable resources" is, unfortunately, still understood as enough to maintain the present-day average standard of living of, say, a middle class family in the USA or Germany .

Old Marxist socialists understood the psychological dimension of their task as creating, after the revolution, the New Man , a character type that has overcome selfishness, is ready to sacrifice personal interests in favour of the welfare of the collective, is ready to accept material equality as a social goal. What is new in eco-socialism in this respect is that the majority of the people must be subjectively ready, now , to accept a much lower material standard of living in the near future. Whereas in old socialism the selfish man was to become the New Man in the context of the promise of rising prosperity of the collective, in eco-socialism there will definitely be no promise of rising prosperity. For – unlike e.g. today's Brazil , that is rapidly destroying the Amazon rainforests – an eco-socialist society must not strive to use all the country's renewable resources for the benefit of human beings. Much fertile land must be left unused by humans so that they can be the habitat of the other animal and plant species. An eco-socialist society must not dam all its rivers to produce hydroelectricity.

What then are the prospects of eco-socialism replacing capitalism? At first it seems to be bleak. Lovelock uses the term “we”. But who are these “we”? Lovelock, I am sure, would say: why, the whole mankind. But mankind is not united in this matter. At the recent G8-summit in Japan the participants did not announce any agreed middle-term action plan aimed at retarding global warming, although they agreed in principle on the long-term goal of halving the emission of greenhouse gases by 2050. China and India , whose leaders had also been invited to take part in this part of the deliberations, flatly refused to undertake anything in this regard. Their argument is essentially the same as that put forward until two years ago by the US President Bush II for withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol process, namely that it would harm the US economy. In 1992, at the so-called Earth Summit in Rio-de-Janeiro, the then US President Bush I had said categorically that the American way of life could not be a matter for debate. All this confirms Samuelson's assertion that “the notion that there is only a modest tension between suppressing greenhouse gases and sustaining economic growth is highly dubious”. All this also means that the prospects of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting the environment in general are, at least at present, very dim. Economic growth is still the topmost priority of the leaders of all nations. Even the leaders of the EU, which poses to be the pioneer in this matter, back down from their promises when it comes to taking concrete measures that might harm particular economic interests. Bush II was at least honest when he withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol process.

Although the prospects today are bleak, we can still speculate on the prospects in future. All the crises we are experiencing today will further intensify in course of time. Chaos, disorder, conflict may lead to the breakdown of the prevailing political regime in one country after the other. Of course, as of today, there is not much hope that eco-socialist regimes will take their place. But there is no compelling reason to be pessimistic either.

Today, of course, there are very few eco-socialists in the world. And even many who call themselves eco-socialists or eco-Marxists still harbour many illusions about alleged wonderful possibilities of renewable resources and non-polluting technologies that will allow all of humanity to enjoy a-middle-class standard of living. But that may change soon, or perhaps later. The various crises of today, especially global warming and the resource crisis, may themselves educate the masses quickly. We eco-socialists may add our own efforts to that. The number of eco-socialists may rise rapidly and they may become more realistic in their thoughts. It depends largely on us, today's eco-socialists, on our commitment and on how intensively and intelligently we work for our cause.

Also in the highly developed industrial societies I can see some signs of hope. Firstly, for reasons other than ecological, the population of these countries is going down (e.g. in Russia and Germany ) or stagnating. And for spiritual, moral and/or ecological reasons many people are voluntarily living a modest life. There are many who have given up using a private car and generally reduced their consumption. In theoretical writings on the ecology and resource problems I have often come across a quotation in which the 19th century economist John Stuart Mill advocates "a stationary state" economy. Herman Daly's (1977) advocacy of "a steady-state economy" is fairly well known among environmentalists. In the English and German speaking world, recently several books and articles have appeared that warn the highly industrialised societies of the coming unavoidable downscaling of their economies (see e.g. Heinberg 2003, Kunstler 2005). People who have accepted such views are, of course, still a small minority. But the majority is worried and have started thinking seriously about life beyond the Oil Age and amidst global warming. In this context, it is also important to note that in these countries there exists a movement that calls itself de-growth movement.

However, unfortunately, all these writers and other people who are worried, envisioning the future, and thinking of solutions to the problems are thinking only within the framework of capitalism. They are not asking whether their ideas can at all be implemented in capitalism. But I think it is possible that after some time, when the governments would be compelled to tell the people that substantial sacrifices are necessary, the people, who would have become highly politicised by then, would demand that the sacrifices and burdens are distributed equitably, that some kind of rationing of the more essential goods and services and jobs are introduced. We may hope that in the highly developed countries, when the planned downscaling of the economy begins, people would not accept extreme inequality as their forefathers did in the pre-industrial ages. That could be a step towards an eco-socialist society. (In my book on the subject {1999, 2008}, I have discussed in great detail the main features of an eco-socialist society).

VII. Prospects for Eco-Socialism in Developing Countries

The prospects, I guess, are better among the peoples of the poor Third World countries. The distance between an ideal sustainable way of life and their present real way of life is not as great as that among the peoples of Western Europe and North America . In the Third World , many of us still remember having lived without electricity and motor vehicles. In India , even today about two-thirds of the population do not have access to electricity. But one very depressing aspect of the situation there is the unabated population growth.

Nowadays, among socialists one can observe quite a lot of enthusiasm over the recent developments in Latin America . In some countries there, those who call themselves socialists have been elected as president, in some others left leaning Social Democrats. Especially the developments in Venezuela and Bolivia have raised hopes. But such feelings only reflect old socialist thinking. The redistribution of the nation's oil and gas wealth in favour of the poorer strata of society that is taking place in these two countries is, of course, highly laudable. But this may be called "petro-socialism". This policy has no future. When the oil and gas wealth will start to decline, what will the socialist presidents have to distribute? They are raising hopes without caring for the future. We should therefore focus on countries that are not so well endowed with oil and gas or some other valuable minerals, the limited onetime-only "dowry" Georgescu-Roegen spoke of.

China immediately comes to mind as an example. The economy of this most populous country of the world is booming for quite a few years. It is rapidly becoming industrialised. China is, moreover, ruled by an all-powerful communist party. So, following the ideas of old socialism, one might think that the foundation of a socialist society is being built there, albeit largely through an economic policy that allows and encourages capitalist enterprises in a sort of market economy. When a BBC journalist asked a member of the Communist Party of China, whether he found it alright that capitalist entrepreneurs were making large profits at the expense of the working people, the latter replied: "The goal remains the same, only the path and the tempo can vary." I think, the leaders of the CPC would say the same in reply to the question.

But they cannot ignore the ecological and resource crisis any more. They are fully aware of the enormity of environmental pollution in China . The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics estimated that in 2004 the economic damage caused by environmental pollution amounted to 3% of the GDP of that year. It further estimated that to clean up or repair the [accumulated] environmental pollution/damage would cost the nation €106 billion, which is equivalent to 7% of the GDP of 2004 ( Financial Times , 8.09.2006). The leadership is also aware of the basic cause of this high level of pollution. Responding to the world-wide negative reports on the state of China 's environment, a high level member of the national government said: you cannot want China to be the "factory of the world" and then complain about pollution! As regards the energy and resource crisis, China is, through its accelerating demand, as much a cause of the crisis as a sufferer from it. For the average Chinese, the recent 18% hike in the price of petrol is much more difficult to bear than it would be e.g. for the average German. According to recent reports, there is now even power shortage in China , because coal production cannot keep pace with demand ( Frankfurter Rundschau , 11.07.2008). The shortfall in coal production resulted inter alia from the closure of many small and/or illegal coal mines where every year hundreds of miners lost their life through accidents, which happened because mine owners had refused to invest enough in safety measures ( International Herald Tribune , 14.07.2008).

Leaders of the CPC also cannot ignore the negative social and political effects of such disregard of the interests of the working class. And there are also reports of hundreds of protest demonstrations on various issues and grievances, and reports of numerous violent clashes between the police and the aggrieved people.

Against this background, one is compelled to ask, can the goal remain the same, i.e. socialism on the basis of a highly developed industrial economy?

At present, it does not appear that the Chinese leadership is prepared to revise its goal. At an international conference on "Environment and Socialism" held in May 2008 in Jinan (I took part in it) almost all Chinese speakers said, in the general sense, they knew that the state of the environment in China was very bad, that this could not be allowed to continue and that measures to protect the environment must be taken. But why? Because, they said, otherwise development would be halted. There was no mention of the resource crisis. The remedy was seen in the development and use of environment-friendly technologies. And I heard very often the avowal of eco-socialism as the goal (at least of the speakers). But this is not what I consider to be true eco-socialism. I am afraid, if the Chinese leadership does not change course soon, if it continues, like the rest of the world, to pursue the goal of maximising the GDP, then it would lead China to economic and social collapse. (That may happen in India too.)

But if the leadership embraces true eco-socialism, then China has a better chance of success than any other country. Because, firstly, in China the Communist Party still has considerable control over the economy and society at large. Although much of the economy is now functioning as a capitalist market economy, not much is left totally at the mercy of anonymous market forces. If it decides to change course, the leadership can take over complete control of the economy and organise an orderly (instead of a chaotic) retreat from today's growth madness. Secondly, with its one-child policy the leadership has already taken an important step towards eco-socialism. And thirdly, unlike in rich industrial countries, the masses still have not forgotten how to live a happy life without much material wealth.

However, there is also a danger: the corroding effects of capitalism on the moral fabric of society, of the masses as well as of the leadership. To allow capitalists to become a member of the Communist Party was not a good idea. Through them greed can (or it has already) become a dominating force in human behaviour. And greed is not only an anti-socialist, but also an anti-ecological trait of character. As Gandhiji said, "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs but not for every man's greed".

Saral Sarkar was born in 1936 in West Bengal, India. After graduating from the University of Calcutta, he studied German language and literature for 5 years in India and Germany. From 1966 to 1981, Sarkar taught German at the Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe Institute), Hyderabad, India. Sarkar is living in Germany since 1982. He is the author of 5 political books(see list in Wikipedia/German) that have appeared in English, German, Chinese, Japanese and (in internet for free downloading) French and Spanish. Sarkar has also published many articles and essays in several journals in India, USA, Germany, UK, Holland, China, Spain. He also writes regularly in two blogs of his own (see Wikipedia/German).


Daly, Herman (1977) Steady State Economics . San Francisco : W. H. Freeman.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1971/1981) The Entropy Law and the Economic Process .
Cambridge (Ma): Harvard University Press.

Heinberg, Richard (2003) The Party is Over . Forest Row: Clairview. .

Kunstler, James Howard (2005) The Long Emergency. London : Atlantic Books.

Lovelock, James (2006) “The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever .... ”, in:
The Independent , 16.01.2006.

Marx, Karl & Engels, Frederick (1977) Selected Works in Three Volumes , Volume One.
Moscow : Progress Publishers.

Meacher, Michael (2006) “On the Road to Ruin”, in: The Guardian , 7.06.2006

Samuelson, Robert J. (2006) “The Worst of Both Worlds?” in: Newsweek , 13.11.2006.

Sarkar, Saral (1999) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? . London : Zed Books.

,, ,, (2008) Chinese translation of ditto. Jinan : Shandong University Press.

Schrader, Christopher (2008) Große Töne, kleiner Beitrag , in Süddeutsch Zeitung ,

Stern, Nicholas (2006) Stern Review: Der wirtschaftliche Aspekt des Klimawandels
. London : Internet.





Saral Sarkar

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50670 - Köln


Tel. 0049-221-1391737.

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e-mail: [email protected]

Written in June–July 2008.


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