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Anti-Capitalist MeetUp – green political economy: Ecocentrism, Just Transitions, and Ecosocialism

8 min read

There are some continuing items of discourse that are important to our understanding how the climate crisis is one of a just transition to sustainable production. Naomi Klein reminds us in a recent interview with the Guardian, as we observe the “Beginnings of an era of Climate Barbarism”:

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we’re not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We’re talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we’re in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don’t we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don’t think it’s coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.…

There is a political economy of violence that has an environmental constraint, witnessed in the current Syrian ethnic cleansing made more absurd with Trump “protecting the oil”.

An economic transition is needed that shifts global economic growth patterns towards a low emission economy based on more sustainable production and consumption, promoting sustainable lifestyles and climate-resilient development while ensuring a just transition of the workforce.

Just Transition is a vision-led, unifying and place-based set of principles, processes, and practices that build economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy. This means approaching production and consumption cycles holistically and waste-free. The transition itself must be just and equitable; redressing past harms and creating new relationships of power for the future through reparations. If the process of transition is not just, the outcome will never be. Just Transition describes both where we are going and how we get there.…

The apocalyptic nature of the climate crisis has returned us to addressing a discourse that may necessitate radical solutions. There is in the current US administration, so much unjust action in the rollbacks of environmental regulation. It does compel some to follow more radical actions which while ideologically consistent, have often historically not matched the political reality or critical mass. The resulting “eco-terrorism” threat remains a priority higher for law enforcement in the US than right-wing domestic terrorism.

We might not be able to spike climate change the way Earth First! spiked trees, but is now the time for the ecocentrists’ posthumanist, anti-capitalist, and, at times, illiberal message?

The title of (Keith Makoto) Woodhouse’s book (The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism,) comes from the philosophy underpinning these actions. Sometimes called “biocentrism,” sometimes “deep ecology,” ecocentrism proposed that “human beings and human society held no greater moral value than did nonhuman species and ecological systems,” in Woodhouse’s words. It argued for the moral equivalency of people with trees and rivers. Ecocentrism emerged in the 1980s as a critique of the environmental movements that had come before, from the conservation efforts of the Sierra Club to the ecology movement of the New Left.

Earth First! logo
Radical environmentalism, is a grassroots branch of the larger environmental movement that emerged from an ecocentrism-based frustration with the co-option of mainstream environmentalism. It is the ideology behind the radical environmental movement.…

*Today, radical ecologists tend to fall into two broad camps. The first consists of those who—from a deep-ecology, radical-green, or “ecologism” perspective—simply counter Baconian anthropocentrism with ecocentric philosophies.21 Such views retain the society-nature dualism but approach it from the side of external nature, life, or some kind of spiritualized nature. This general perspective has played an important role within the ecological movement. Ecofeminist thinkers, for instance, have highlighted the link between the mastery of nature and the subordination of women (often by taking the critique of Bacon as their starting point). Nevertheless, the one-sidedness of radical-green or deep-ecology perspectives often encourages misanthropic views (especially when human population growth is seen as the principal problem) and anti-scientism, where the critical role of science in understanding ecology is misunderstood.
*The second broad camp consists of those who have adopted more dialectical perspectives.22 Here, the problem is conceived as one of social metabolism (how capitalist society interacts with nature). From this vantage, the goal is to transcend the “rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” to create a more sustainable form of human development—inseparable from the struggle for human equality.23 This outlook critically builds on ecological science with its emphasis on the ontological interconnectedness of all living and nonliving things. Conflict arises between a social system geared to endless accumulation and growth and everlasting, nature-imposed, conditions of ecological sustainability and substantive equality. It is along these lines that critical scientists, ecosocialists, socialist ecofeminists, anarchist social ecologists, and many Indigenous activists have coalesced to take a stand in defense of the earth. As Frederick Engels wrote in the Dialectics of Nature:…

To ecocentrists, these movements were flawed philosophically, politically, and tactically. Philosophically, environmentalism had long been anthropocentric, or humanist, basing its goals and perceived successes around human health and happiness. Politically, it had been content to work within systems of liberalism and capitalism. Environmentalism had not truly challenged liberal tenets of individualism, humanism, and economic growth. And tactically, the commitment of environmentalism to working within established political systems made it woefully slow. For ecocentrists, none of this was adequate to the acute ecological crisis they claimed humans had caused.

The central, if understated, question of Woodhouse’s book is whether it is adequate now. In the field of environmental history, he writes, scholars have been engaged in deconstructing their own fundamental concepts. Not least of these is the concept of nature itself. Whereas environmental history once focused on untouched wilderness, the last two decades of scholarship have looked for nature beyond such landscapes, to cities, farms, suburbs, coal mines, and coastlines. It has deconstructed the idea that “humanity” and “nature” are separate or stable things. Instead, scholarship has centered on a hybrid and relational theory of ecology, one in which humans are part of the intricate web of being, not separate from it. Finally, recent work in environmental history has hedged against the declensionist narratives — that humans are a force outside of nature who are at work destroying it — that once defined it.

To Woodhouse, something similar has happened in certain corners of environmental politics. Some interpret the Anthropocene to be the expression of the inseparability of the human species from the “rest” of nature, and some interpret this to mean that there can therefore be no conflict between human activity and the interests of the planet. Right-wing politicians and friends of the oil industry twist this logic and take it even further, Woodhouse writes, as when Ronald Reagan compared oil spills to naturally occurring oil seepage. Llewellyn Rockwell, a right-wing libertarian, justified the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill by claiming that “oil is natural, it’s organic, and it’s biodegradable.” There is danger, too, Woodhouse suggests, in the discourse of resilience, as it can lead to a sense that humans are not so much destroying nature as they are reshaping it, and whatever humans do, nature will bounce back.…

There are certainly enough radical examples that remind us where such theorizing can lead like the unabomber’s anti-technology writing, but in reference to a critical realism, there are alternative views that would make the critical discourse more empirically rigorous, especially in the technocratic need to bring large scale climate crisis events under control.

An alternative body of work seeks to integrate political awareness of environmental conflicts with a realist understanding of environmental change. The key aspect of this type of work is that it incorporates the construction of biophysical science into the political analysis of environment. Such work may be considered critically realist because it seeks to understand ecological change through epistemological skepticism but ontological realism to underlying biophysical processes. 

An alternative phrasing is the belief that biophysical reality is ‘externally real’ to human experience, because all knowledge, we have of such reality is partial and socially constructed. This kind of work may claim to be genuine ‘political ecology’ because it assesses the political construction of what is considered to be ecological. In this sense, (critically) realist political ecology builds on advances in science and technology studies (STS) by seeking
to indicate how supposedly apolitical scientific laws in fact reflect historic political and social relations (e.g. Latour, 1993). Yet unlike STS, realist political ecology does not just seek to illustrate how such boundaries are constructed, but also to reconstruct new and more effective science for environmental policy that is both biophysically more accurate than existing conceptions, and socially more just.

As this chapter argues, this ambition does not imply a belief in naïve realism – or the idea that environmental change can
be understood in any final and complete way – but that existing scientific constructions of environmental degradation can be made more beneficial, and less potentially damaging, to people previously unrepresented in the science process.…

We can now imagine some form of regenerative economy that “advocates dismantling capitalism, focusing on common ownership of the means of production by freely associated producers, and restoring the commons.” 

The problems continue as governance and governmentality where leveling and redistributing wealth remains as well as solving the scalar problems of inequality in terms of culture, gender, race, and class.

Institutionally collective organizations whether workers cooperatives might still need to cope with problems of a state, however local. Can there be a local economy that are neither nationalized or collectivized according to syndicalist precepts that for many are inconceivable especially considering the history of class struggle.

Libertarian municipalism proposes a radically different form of economy-one that is neither nationalised nor collectivized according to syndicalist precepts. It proposes that land and enterprises be placed increasingly in the custody of the community-more precisely, the custody of citizens in free assemblies and their deputies in confederal councils.
In such a municipal economy-confederal, interdependent, and rational by ecological, not simply technological, standards-we would expect that the special interests that divide people today into workers, professionals, managers and the like would be melded into a general interest in which people see themselves as citizens guided strictly by the needs of their community and region rather than by personal proclivities and vocational concerns.
Here, citizenship would come into its own, and rational as well as ecological interpretations of the public good would supplant class and hierarchical interests.

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