[Marxism] Why socialists should enter the environmental movement

ehrbar ehrbar at lists.econ.utah.edu
Sun Aug 12 12:27:44 MDT 2007

In the past year I spent most of my time in the environmental movement
in Utah.  I think this was the right move and I am making a
difference.  This message tries to develop the general reasons why
socialists should get involved in the environmental movement.
Apologies for writing this as a personal testimony in a patronizing
style; this message started as an email to my adult children, so that
they know what their dad is up to.

The governor of Utah is in the midst of an initiative to combat global
warming, and every week I am attending at least two meetings where the
Utah State bureacracy decides on energy policy issues, and where they
solicit input from stakeholders.  Ten years ago, the only stakeholders
that showed up in such meetings were the big power companies and other
special interest groups, but in recent years more and more
environmental activists are there too.  It is interesting in a gory
way.  I am witnessing our society at one of those places where it is
sickest, namely, where they decide not to switch away from coal-fired
powerplants and car-based urban sprawl and try to get away with using
only cosmetic measures, although there are lots of exciting
alternatives and the need to make such a switch is overwhelming.

Many environmentalists become depressed when they see the
irrationality of the decisions generated by this supposedly democratic
process.  Most of them don't make the connection that the culprit is
the capitalist system; they don't see that production based on money
and profit is inherently incapable of staying within the limits set by
the earth's environment.  Therefore they think the culprit is human
nature.  And if you think that humans due to their own inertia and
shortsightedness are about to jump off the cliff like lemmings, there
is not much you can do about it.  I do not share this hopeless
outlook; I think humans as individuals are willing to do the right
thing, but they are shackeled by the structure of their society.

What can be done if this is the case?  The logical thing would be to
change the structure of society.  Unfortunately there is not enough
time to first abolish capitalism and go over to a more socialist
system before addressing the environmental crisis.  The transition to
socialism is coming very very slowly with many setbacks; it will take
many generations before a robust democratic socialist system, which is
able to react to the climate crisis in an approriate way, is in place.
Since there is not enough time for this, we have to address the
climate crisis within the given system.  We have to tweak the system
in order to force it to do something that is against its own in-built

One of the main lessons I teach in my Marxist classes is that
capitalist society is driven by built-in tendencies that are
independent of individual intentions.  The profit motive does not come
from the greed of the capitalists but is a systemic necessity when
everything is measured one-dimensionally by money.  How can I at the
same time imply that it is possible to tweak the system to respond
appropriately to the environment?  Isn't this methodological
individualism and voluntarism?  The following five points cause me to
think that it is possible, even if it may not be easy:

(1) There is hope that the capitalist relations can be tweaked because
individuals who see the urgency of action are present in many
positions in society.  California's governor Schwarzenegger and the
German chancellor Angela Merkel are conservative politicians who have
made the environment one of their top priorities.  There are people
high up in the corporations who would like to protect the environment
but know they would lose their positions if they do.  They secretly hope
that the environmental movement will be strong enough to force the
corporations to finally do the right thing.

(2) At the present time, a huge investment program is needed to switch
from fossil fuels, planned obsolescence, and automobile-driven urban
sprawl to distributed generation of renewable energy, energy-saving
homes, and energy-saving mass transportation systems.  Such an
investment push is compatible with capitalism (but the environmental
movement has to join forces with the social justice movement to
provide a safety net for those losing their jobs in this profound
restructuring of production).

(3) If the recent credit market disturbances become a full-fledged
crisis, environmentalists should be prepared to use this as an
opportunity to push for public investment in renewable energy and
urban mass transit.  This will be much easier if they have
done their homework and forged an alliance with the labor movement.

(4) It takes skills to steer the system against its own built-in
tencencies, but the environmental movement has shown in the past that
it is able to meet scientific challenges.  Environmentalists have
shown since the 1970s that they had the better science about the
environment itself than their corporate detractors.  Now they have to
go one step further: they must also become the better experts in
designing policies that bypass the many capitalist hurdles against a
rational response to global warming.  Many different policies are
possible; well-documented experience with them is available from many
different countries, and their effectiveness varies greatly.  I am
going to teach a special course about environmental policies which
evaluates this literature.  It will be critical of some of their pet
policies like cap n trade.  Class syllabus is at
I am happy to hear that the Director of the Utah Division of Public
Utilities contacted the Dean because a couple of her employees wanted
to audit the course.

(5) And if we do not succeed in tweaking capitalism, there is always
the possibility of a revolutionary situation.  With everything we do
we should be aware that the skills and the organizations that are
built now may at some point be needed for taking power away from the
capitalist class.  (This eventuality is another reason why the
environmental movement needs an alliance with the labor movement.)

Even without point (5), this is an inherently socialist movement.  We
cannot rely on the corporations to push for the effective policies
instead of those which look good on the surface but are ineffective in
practice.  The environmental grass-roots movement must insist on the
right policies.  And Utah has not only had very good anti-war actions
in recent years but also some powerful environmental mass
organizations like the Utah Moms for Clean Air.  Many of these
policies can be considered a form of democratic control of production,
they are socialism in capitalist disguise.

This socialist element of environmental policies will probably not
stay disguised indefinitely.  After the initial investment surge,
production has to decline for environmental reasons, and the quality
of life has to increase due to more free time and a more harmonious
interaction with nature.  Capitalism will become more and more an
obstacle and eventually it will be overcome.  But of course the
irrepairable damage which the capitalist system has already done to
the environment will be with us for many generations.


Hans G. Ehrbar   http://www.econ.utah.edu/~ehrbar ehrbar at economics.utah.edu
Economics Department, University of Utah     (801) 581 7797 (my office)
1645 Campus Center Dr., Rm 308               (801) 581 7481 (econ office)
Salt Lake City    UT 84112-9300              (801) 585 5649 (FAX)

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