Eco-socialist lite

Martin Eckersley looks at the left press' coverage of climate change, which owes more to environmentalism than Marxism

The build-up to the December 3 Campaign Against Climate Change demonstration in London has seen an a number of articles in the left press on environmental issues, such as global warming, toxic pollution and desertification. However, these articles are repeating the same environmental arguments, concepts and metaphors that have become standard fare in the mass-market mainstream press - the only difference being that they are given a socialist-lite spin. There is nothing new in this repetition: the only purpose it serves is to show a degree of concern; that there is someone who can lift the latest research from Science magazine and regurgitate Friends of the Earth press statements. So, for example, Tony Blair is attacked for failing to live up to his G8 promises, the Kyoto protocol is attacked (quite rightly) for not going far enough, contradictorily George Bush is attacked for not signing the Kyoto protocol and current Labour policies are attacked for not addressing the supposed correct issues. The last five years generally has seen a surge of interest in the natural environment, principally because of the phenomenon of global warming, the effects of which have been blamed for the recent spate of hurricanes in the United States and the melting ice caps of Greenland and Mount Kilimanjaro. The left is no different in this regard, except that it has come opportunistically late to the party. The left press, in reporting these phenomena, repeats the discourse of environmentalism that attacks causes. So we get belching factories, carbon-emitting sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and the chopping down of forests. This green discourse consists of the concepts that have been developed over the last 30 to 40 years since the environmental movement kicked off with Rachel Carson's book Silent spring that examined the effects of DDT (the insecticide, dichlorodiphenyltri chloroethane). Some of the familiar environmental or environmental-inspired concepts used are 'sustainable development', 'ecological footprint', 'fair trade' and 'natural capitalism'. These are the proposed solutions to combat the problems of capitalism within a capitalist framework. However, there is a problem for the left - exactly these concepts are being bandied around by such multinationals as BP. Last week The Guardian carried an advert from BP, which declared: "Knowing your carbon footprint is a step in the right direction" (November 26). This is the direction that Jonathan Porritt, long-time environmental campaigner wants to go. His new book lays out the framework for a new "sustainable capitalism"! The consequences of the left's repetition and socialist-lite spin are, firstly, the language of Marxism is abandoned and, secondly, the environmental crisis of capitalism replaces the class conflict of capitalism. What is required, therefore, is to understand the class content of environmental issues and define each environmental issue in that context. The environmental difficulties have to be placed in their proper context and seen as a result of the reigning elite's reproductive externalities: for example, belching smoke and toxic pollution affecting mainly the working class, the impoverished and those on the margins. The unaccounted externalities cause a variety of phenomena from asthma in children to the rising sea levels affecting low-lying Bangladesh. This does not mean, however, that the negative and positive environmental consequences of human activities are downplayed. The human activities though, have to be put in the context of the web of life. So what does the typical left environmental article look like? In time to capture potential readers on the December 3 demonstration, Socialist Resistance offers the standard fare (November-December). All the elements you would expect in a socialist environmental article are present. The title, "Blair offers one-sided 'dialogue', as capitalism screws up the planet", is promising. However, the article itself does not live up to the expectations this creates. There is: l the scene-setting pointing to the failure of the Montreal climate change talks, and criticism of the proposals to come out of that meeting; l the knowing critical analysis of the Kyoto protocol, including the 'clean development mechanism' and carbon trading, which could have been lifted straight out of a Greenpeace pamphlet; l middle class concern over airport expansion; l the attack on SUVs that appeals to anti-American sentiments; l a statistic on road traffic that appeals to the critical mass crowd. These criticisms are all well and good. However, the theoretical underpinnings are grounded in the environmental movement. So the inspiration comes, for example, from Aldo Leopold's land ethic, with its abstract concept, 'to think like a mountain', Henry David Thoreau's, Walden Pond experiment of living close to nature and Arnie Naess's 'deep ecology' demand to think about humanity's place in nature. These are all genuine calls from within the environment movement, which Marxists can learn from. However, the thinking upon which they are based is wrong. As the preface to Karl Marx Critique of the Gotha Programme says, "Opportunism and conciliationism made their appearance in the united party as a result of new experiences, new circumstances". These new circumstances and experiences are the challenge of the environmental movement, and the opportunism and conciliationism is towards the capitalists such as BP. It is replete with metaphysical abstractness and the refusal to recognise the role materialist dialectics plays in the theory of science and history.