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Alan Thornett - Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism

Review of ‘Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism’

Originally published: Resolute Reader (April 27, 2019)

I’ve known Alan Thornett for many years, most recently through work in the environmental movement as part of the Campaign Against Climate Change’s trade union group. Alan Thornett is a longstanding socialist, a committed anti-racist and fighter for women’s rights. We have, over the years, engaged in various debates over some of the subjects in this, his latest book, and he wrote a friendly but very critical review of my book Land and Labour. I highlight this because in this review of Thornett’s book I will take issue with many of his arguments and suggest that he has a wrong approach for a socialist towards dealing with environmental disaster. These are, however, arguments between people who want to see an end to environmental destruction and to see society move towards a socialist model. They are part of clarifying our mutual understanding of our politics and our strategies.

Thornett begins by arguing that “breaking with the legacy of the 20th century will require big changes organisational and political… it means a serious re-examination of the strategic conceptions that the left has being applying to the ecological struggle for the last three decades”. Thornett shows how historically the left has not taken environmental issues seriously, except in a few individual cases and he rightly argues that this is in part a legacy of those regimes that labelled themselves socialist, but acted in a way that copied the capitalist states. However Thornett’s main ambition in this book is not just to highlight historical errors of the left, but to argue that key strategies and politics of the contemporary left are mistaken. It would be fair to say that I am one of the people he disagrees with here. In the introduction to the book Thornett writes:

Since modern humans migrated out of Africa about 180,000 years ago, we have had a disproportionate impact on other species. We destroyed the planet’s large animals… in what was a major global extinction event… More recently, as human maritime capability developed along with colonial expansion, sailors ate their way through vulnerable species… In the 18th century [I think Thornett really means the 19th century when the majority of the bison where killed] between 30 and 60 million bison roamed North America’s great plains. The construction of the railroad network and accelerated human settlement led to a remarkable mass slaughter of the bison, taking it close to extinction… We are the only species to have invaded every habitat on earth and capable of destroying the planet many times over… If we ignore the impact we are having on the planet, we will destroy all other species that live on it and ultimately ourselves.

There are, I suggest, two problems with this approach. Firstly Thornett repeatedly uses the word “we”, suggesting the human society today is the same as it was in the 18th century and 180,000 years ago. He also ignores the different historical contexts of these events – hunter-gatherer communities killed megafauna as part of their livelihoods which is not the same as the systematic destruction of bison as part of a genocidal approach to the indigenous population of the United States. However I am particularly concerned with the use of “we” as it implies that all humans are equally to blame for today’s environmental crisis, just as they were all to blame for megafauna extinction. For instance, the hunting to extinction, of megafauna in Australia by bands of hunter-gatherers, is in no way the same as the contemporary “Sixth Extinction” caused by capitalism – for example as a result of industrial agriculture.

Over population

This approach characterises Thornett’s wider approach which is to argue that over-population is a key problem for the environment and for the left. He argues that the left has failed to understand and respond to the environmental situation: “major issues remained to be resolved for Marxism and the ecological struggle, in terms of both analysis and response”. Thornett begins by criticising those on the left who argue that the solution to capitalism’s destruction of the planet is the struggle for socialism.

The standard ‘solution’; advanced by most on the radical left in this regard, is the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism – by implication within the next 12 years because that is how long we have to do it. It is what I call ‘one solution revolution’…. Capitalism is the problem and its overturn is the solution – and not just as a long-term perspective, which is a different matter – but as an immediate solution to global warming. Such an approach is maximalist, leftist and useless. We can all, as socialists, vote to abolish capitalism with both hands, and this is indeed our long-term objective. But as an answer to global warming within the next 12 years it makes no sense.

It is true that some on the left, and some socialist organisations, do have a position similar to that Thornett describes here. But in my extensive experience, those are organisations that have the least involvement with environmental politics, and the least developed understanding of Marxism and ecology. Thornett caricatures the whole left (excluding himself) as having this position. He writes, “The practical upshot of a maximalist approach of this kind is to deprioritise the struggle for changes in the here and now, and so demobilise the left”.

But this is plainly not true. For instance, Socialist Worker placards on climate demonstrations often say “System Change not Climate Change” and, as Thornett explicitly notes “One Solution Revolution”. But they also call for One Million Climate jobs and other reforms. Thornett has closely worked with socialists from a number of different traditions (including the SWP) to develop these strategies to deal with climate change under capitalism; so his argument here is a mis-characterisation of much of the radical left.

By downplaying slogans that highlight the need for a socialist alternative to capitalism Thornett makes a error about how socialists should approach the struggle to deal with ecological disaster. The starting point must be that capitalism is the problem, not, as Thornett implies the existence of humans or the use of industry and technology. Global environmental crisis is the result of the development of a system of generalised commodity production based on the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation. Despite Thornett noting the work of Marxists like Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, his own book fails to emphasis this aspect of capitalism. The reader could be left with the impression that Thornett believes that the problem is simply the existence of human society (of whichever form).

In my view, socialists who reject, as utopian, the slogan ‘System Change not Climate Change’ for the environmental movement fail to see that the demand is not simply about the result, but also a strategy for getting a sustainable world. This isn’t simply about whether or not socialism is the solution to the environmental crisis. Understanding that capitalism is the problem helps orient the movement. To argue anything else is to give ground to the idea that capitalism can solve the crisis – and if the last 40 years have taught us anything, it is that it can’t and won’t. It is only mass action that can force through reforms on the scale we require. Thornett’s alternative – to eat less meat, to take individual responsibility for our personal footprint (which socialists don’t worry about this?) and so on are thus fundamentally inadequate. Even Thornett’s preferred strategy – the use of taxation against oil companies to “bring down carbon emissions rapidly” would fail unless it is backed up by powerful forces that can make the oil companies obey. The tragic lessons of experiments in radical reformism over the years has been that the capitalists are prepared to use the full power of their state to restrict any attempts to stop the accumulation of capital.

Capitalism

This brings me to another key difference – the question of population. Thornett argues that the a key problem is the growing population and its environmental footprint. He notes that the footprint of people is different depending on where they are in the world, but writes that “African faces the most dangerous situation”. He argues that strategies need to be developed that will reduce population growth and encourage smaller families. Again he implies, perhaps inadvertently, that others on the left wouldn’t agree. For instance he says that “policies that involve lifting women out of poverty in the poorest parts of the globe and enabling the to control their own fertility through the provision of contraception and abortion services, need to be supported”. But I don’t know anyone on the left who would disagree. The problem is that this won’t stop environmental destruction.

Later Thornett writes, “how can rising population and women’s reproduction be separated? One determines the other.” But this ignores the question of social context. Women have children based on all sorts of factors – but most importantly the number of children they have is linked to wealth. But whether a society can support a particular population is determined by the nature of that society. It’s a point made well by Karl Marx:

overpopulation is…a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by the limits posited rather by specific conditions of production…. How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!

When we look at the causes of environmental disaster we have to point out that the problem is simply not caused by population growth in Africa (and to do this, as Thornett does, is to open the door to racist arguments about the developing world). Thornett does write:

I am not arguing that rising population is the root cause of the ecological crisis… That is the fault of the capitalist system of production and the commodification of the planet – although pre-capitalist systems of agriculture were already degrading the ecology and the biodiversity before capitalism arrived. What I am arguing is that rising population is a major contributory factor.

But if this is the case, the starting point is not population, but the nature of capitalism. The structures of capitalism and the nature of accumulation mean that population growth in the developing world is not the problem. But Thornett moves further into dangerous territory when he argues that

The question is not simply whether capitalism is ecologically destructive, but whether the ecological crisis can be reduced to capitalism…. If the problem is simply capitalism, this implies (in reverse) that its removal would resolve – partially at least – the ecological crisis. But there is no evidence that this would be the case. In fact, major existential challenges would continue to exist, and the ecological struggle would have to continue long after capitalism had left the scene.

Clearly there will be ecological issues to resolve once capitalism has been defeated, but that will require a system being put in place that is capable of dealing with the disaster. In other words a society that is not based on the competitive accumulation of capital. But here Thornett appears to suggest the problem cannot be reduced to capitalism, in which case you can never prevent ecological crisis, which is a very strange conclusion to draw for a Marxist.

In other sections of the book Thornett deals with other issues such as transport and jobs, as well as a discussion of the relative weaknesses of the British trade union movement on ecological issues. In the section on food he argues that we need a transition to a lower meat diet. I’ve dealt elsewhere at length with this question, and won’t repeat those arguments here. But I do want to note that Thornett’s figures are incorrect. On page 176 he argues that GHG emissions from meat production “are greater than the emissions generated by the entire world-wide transportation system”. But this is not true, as the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation [FAO] has pointed out here. Readers might suggest that Thornett is correct not to rely on figures from the UN which might have a vested interest in denying this, but Thornett does rely on FAO figures on the previous page. Similarly Thornett quotes the figure of 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions being due to livestock production, but this figure comes from a report that the FAO admitted was flawed and the correct figure is nearer 14.5 percent. Thornett does then use this figure a few pages later (p186) but attributes it to “meat production” which is incorrect as it is from the whole “livestock sector” which includes more than meat production. More worryingly Thornett uses the infamous figure from the film Cowspiracy that 51 percent of all worldwide CO2 emissions comes from livestock. But this figure has been widely discredited, as Danny Chivers, author and lead external carbon analyst for Christian Aid and ActionAid has written:

The 51 percent number comes from a single non-peer-reviewed report by two researchers—a report littered with statistical errors. This study counts the climate impact of methane from animals as being more than three times more powerful as methane from other sources, adds in an inappropriate chunk of extra land use emissions and incorrectly includes all the carbon dioxide that livestock breathe out.

I highlight these inaccuracies because if the left is to win an argument around the environment we must be absolutely rigorous in our use of evidence, or risk undermining our own arguments.

In his conclusion Thornett writes that the left cannot reduce its arguments around environmental disaster to propaganda for socialism. That is true but no serious ecological Marxist makes this error. But the environmental crisis is an existential threat to humanity caused directly by the nature of capitalism. Unfortunately Alan Thornett’s book undermines the struggle for a sustainable world because it obscures the real problem.

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