Socialism with a bit of greenwash can’t save the planet either

In his polemic, Mike Haynes argues that if socialists of the Global North are to address the climate crisis, they must also adjust their expectations of what a world with prosperity for all will look like.

A white airplane on a sunny runway, surrounded by grass.

Here is the problem: people fighting to save the planet need to understand that only socialism can do it. But people fighting for socialism have to understand that they need to take the question of the environment more seriously if we are to save the planet. 

So, who has to move the furthest? Green parties have moved to the left in ways that are erratic and inconsistent. Frustration has grown in the UK as, in the midst of the debate over Brexit and the left shift in the Labour Party, the Green Party and its supporters have wobbled all over the place. Even in narrower environmental terms, it is not clear how radical ‘official’ Green demands or tactics are. Many environmentalists argue that we need more than combinations of green new deals and green Keynesianism. That is why movements like Extinction Rebellion have emerged, that employ highly visible shock-tactics to convey the sense of urgency and, at least if we take their rhetoric at face value, demand a thorough systemic overhaul. 

But what if the problem lies more with the left? In the past couple of decades, there has been a growing argument that those who said socialism is about ‘man’ controlling nature were wrong.  We have rediscovered Marx as an early environmentalist. Before many others, he saw how instead of our living in harmony with nature, it was capitalism that was encouraging us to believe that we could master it.  

So far so good. But this has only recently come to inform a more radical left politics. And it is hard to avoid the smell of opportunism.  Today many on the left appear as enthusiastic supporters of Extinction Rebellion. We are living on borrowed time – they argue. In the UK even the University College Union – one of the few in which the radical left has real influence – has taken up the call for workplace climate change action. 

It would be nice to think that there is some deep rethinking going on here.   But there is not. Socialists should be prioritising saving the planet and social justice. But if there are limits on what the planet can produce then we cannot grow our way to equality. We have to find ways of reducing the load on the planet and sharing what we have – some call it contracting and converging.

This is what too many socialists refuse to see.  The reaction to the ‘gilets jaunes’ revolt in France is a good example. It was provoked by an attempt to raise fuel taxes – ostensibly to protect the environment. Some on the left doubt how real its radical credentials are. But after a moment’s hesitation others adopted it with enthusiasm – one left UK group even bought a job lot of yellow vests. The gilets jaunes were not anti-environment, it was claimed, they just realised that the rich had to be made to pay for the crisis – not the workers.

Today this is still the line – even when it comes to the left’s views of Extinction Rebellion. We are with you but it is the rich that have got us into this and it is the rich that must pay. 

There has been some shift. Few people today argue that in a socialist society we should all live like millionaires. The left magazine Jacobin was widely ridiculed when it published an article arguing that we all need air conditioning. 

But the bigger argument is still that to save the world ‘workers’ in the advanced world do not need, and cannot be asked to make sacrifices. Average consumption levels must remain high and those of the poorest raised up. ‘We must make sure people can travel without being priced out of aeroplanes’ said one left-wing article about flying that I recently read. Socialism, it seems means ending capitalism, saving the planet and still allowing everyone a right to fly.   

Extreme examples of this view can be found in the arguments of Aaron Bastani. They are there too in the extraordinary writings of  Leigh Phillips. It was he who authored the most recent demand for air conditioning for all. Now he tells us that any attempt to restrict consumption will be eco-Thatcherism. Real socialism will mobilise science – with nuclear power thrown in – to realise ‘the possibility of socialist growth: a boundless—if carefully planned—increase in the creation of new value’.   

Others are more restrained. Jonathan Neale’s Stop Global Warming. Change the World (2008) was a bold attempt from the left to set out the case for action on climate change. There is still much in it to return to and admire. Yet Jonathan was also adamant that the sacrifice argument had to be rejected. But, unlike Phillips, he recognised that huge changes are needed He just did not name them ‘sacrifices’. He argued against cars in the cities, SUVs, flying and so on. Still, he still failed to follow through the logic of his own position. He noted that Walmart at the time of his writing was the biggest corporation in the world but didn’t explain the implications of big retail. He took on cars but not trucks – many of which travel to supply consumption. 

Behind all this perhaps lies something else – the left’s fear of what is sometimes called ‘consumer critique’. We prefer to focus on producing and exploitation. We recognize abstractly that ‘capitalism’ is behind how much and what we consume. We talk about the role of alienation.  But we are reluctant to openly question the choices that people make for fear of offending them and opening up the question of whether consumption irrationalities in capitalism ‘buy’ people off. 

This does not work. If we are to have an equal world then there is no way in which we can solve our problems by simply producing more and redistributing the share that the very rich already have. We have to share what we already have and that means not only the richest giving up something but those on ‘average’ wages in the developed world too. 

Let’s do a test. Do you hate the global elite – the 1%? But how much do you have to earn to be in it? Look within an advanced country and it is quite a lot. To be in the 1% in the UK, you would need to be earning around £160,000 per year. For the US it is over $400,000. If you think in terms of wealth – what you own – then in the US the figure in the US is nearer to $800,000. If you are reading this you are probably not in the global 1% though we should remember that in terms of ‘wealth’, some workers who own their own homes in London are.

Does that last point make you angry? Okay, let’s make it worse. Who is in the global 1%? If you are reading this then there is a good chance it is you. In the UK, you can say that it is anyone with an income of over £25-30,000 (the fluctuating pound confuses the calculations a bit). Even people on the minimum wage in the UK are pretty rich in global terms.

Now at this point you will probably be screaming that poverty is not absolute, it is relative. The people at the bottom are poor in any society compared to the elite at the top. That’s true. And in a world of infinite possibilities, we could then say let us raise the standard for everybody. But we do not live in a world of infinite possibilities. 

If we were to raise everybody in the world to the same income as those on a UK minimum wage, we would have to massively increase global output. Raise them to the average UK income level (while distributing all incomes equally) and we would have to more than double, perhaps even triple global output.   

Of course, organising society more sensibly can limit the change in consumption that workers in the advanced world would have to make. But this reorganisation needs to be extensive and many of us are going to have to accept reduced levels of consumption.  This is the point the left has yet to grasp. 

Not convinced? Let’s take the example of flying. It sounds good to say, ‘We must make sure people can travel without being priced out of aeroplanes.’  But most of the world’s population today has never flown and never will. Now add up how many times you have flown. Global fat cats may be the most frequent flyers but look at the problem globally and anyone who can afford to fly seems to be a fat cat. 

Who then has a right to fly? The figures of how many have ever flown are contested – some say 5%, others 20%. It is probably closer to 10% but the share is growing. It cannot keep growing.  With the technologies we have, we need to reduce flying now. Socialists who are serious about the environment need to face up to this. 

That includes members of UCU. Staff and students at Goldsmiths in London have won some militant battles over making their university more sustainable and they need to be emulated. But is the global higher education model itself sustainable? Can we continue to have hundreds of thousands of international students flying around the world? Can academics jet off as university flying faculty? Do we need global academic conferences? If we demand that business is Skyped why does that not include UK, HE PLC? 

You see it is tough. I still don’t know how to deal with this myself. Holier than thou approaches tend to repel people. But so too does left-wing hypocrisy. You don’t get off the hook by simply saying that it is the system’s fault and that only in the future should our behaviour reflect our politics.  Who is speaking this year’s big left event? Bob and Sue are flying in. Face to face is so much better than a video link. You see how it works? Should we support Palestine? Absolutely. Should we support it by flying off to do a cycle ride there? That’s a harder question.  

Twenty years ago, I co-authored two articles that made the argument for redistribution overgrowth and pointed to the planetary limits. But if I am honest, I thought of the argument about these limits more as a logical one than something I would see being hit in my lifetime. 

Now I have read more and have also worked through the data with growing alarm.  Look at this graph of arrivals and departures at UK airports. 

They have risen from just over 2 million in 1950 to nearly 250 million today. Look too at the rate of increase. There is a blip with the 2008 crisis but then the figure recovers. The growth rate since 2010 has been nearly 5% a year. If this continues there will be half a billion people landing and taking off from the UK in the early 2030s. 

It cannot happen.  The 250 million figure is already a problem.  If we take the view that everyone should have an annual right to fly ‘there and back’ once a year that means at least 130 million flights for UK citizens. But if we offered this on a global scale then instead of the 4 billion flights that there are today, we would have to believe it would be possible to have 16-20 billion. 

Wherever we look we hit the same limits. Production and consumption are integrated processes. To measure the environmental impact of anything we have therefore to calculate the total inputs and outputs going into the things that we, in the advanced world, take for granted – the total impact from the raw materials being taken out of the ground and then everything that follows down to the final waste form. These calculations tell us that we cannot all drive cars, we cannot all eat roast beef. It is a self-deception to believe we can.

Does that mean that we cannot promise socialism and a ready supply of beef burgers? That is exactly what it means. 

Big Macs are hardly the food of the global elite. So why can’t we say that come the revolution, we will rename them Big Marxies, put them under workers control, and allow everyone who wants to eat their fill?  The answer is that beef is one of the most environmentally costly things we produce. One-third of all beef production is consumed by the people of the USA and the European Union. But we only make up only 12% of the world’s population. Raise global beef consumption to the EU levels and we have to double it.  If we were to raise to US levels, we would have to multiply it at least four times. There is simply no magic socialist solution to this problem. We cannot promise socialism and Big Marxies in the future if we have to argue for a reduction in Big Mac consumption now. 

There can be no absolute right to air travel, to drive cars, to eat hamburgers. The problem is more than the ‘1%.’ It is much deeper. The left, for all its ‘green bravado’, has yet to confront how to deal with this.


We have published a response to this piece which can be found here


  1. It’s certainly not the whole of the answer to the dilemma posed inthis article; but one thing I think we need to consider in thinking our way through this is the extent to which provision of mass/cheap/environmentally unsustainable consumption for the working class in wealthy countries has been – among many other things – an effective mechanism which capital has used to maintain and deepen wage restraint, and to generally provide cover for making our lives shit in many other ways.

    I think we can point to a range of different aspects of modern consumption (to take just three easy and obvious examples: cheap food from massively fossil fuel dependant industrialised monocultures, the preponderance of plastic tat and planned-obsolescent gewgaws, and yes cheap flights) and say not only that these things are wasteful, unnecessary and environmentally destructive; but that they developed the ways they did for very specific material reasons and in the service of interests quite different to the ones they present themselves as serving.

    This is all stuff which much of the left hasn’t spent a great deal of time seriously theorising. As the article mentions, we’ve tended to prioritise the politics of the sphere of production over interrogating consumerism. Now there are genuinely good reasons why we’ve done that and I’m not suggesting we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but as the article also points out production and consumption are intertwined in both big and subtle ways, and I think we could benefit greatly from thinking more about the latter.

    I think it’s possible to argue – although maybe not exclusively – that with a radical enough reorganisation of the economy we could decouple abundance from unsustainability. Perhaps we could even decouple luxury from unsustainability, although I think that would also require a significant cultural shift in our understanding of what the word ‘luxury’ means. If that all seems quite abstract I’ll give a concrete example: it may be hard to argue against the “necessity” of cheap flights to working class people when the official holiday entitlement is 28 days a year and many of us don’t even get that, but if we all had say 90 days annual leave then slower modes of transport (particularly if invested in on parity to the numerous subsidies and backhanders which have been slung at the air travel industry over the years) might look far more like reasonable alternatives to flying.

  2. I’m glad you’re making this point. There was an Open Democracy article a few days ago that your article addresses. I think that the focus on carbon emissions and reducing those, it can provide a convenient smokescreen to the destruction connected to those emissions. Carbon capture technologies, for instance, as well as being largely the stuff of fantasy, don’t repair felled forests, quarried mountains, poisoned rivers and landscapes scarred by mining and drilling, and don’t provide replacement habitats for any of the other species we push further and further to the margins and often over the edge. We’re losing an area of ancient forest the size of the UK each year. Redistribution will not stop this calamity. Neither will solar panels, wind farms or tidal power. The ecocide we’re engaged in is comprehensive, not just atmospheric, it’s the land and the sea as well. Even current levels of extraction and destruction mean the end of life on earth. Thanks for writing this article.

  3. First, I like your article. The points are timely.
    However, like many on the left, there is a certain amount of mysticism about Extinction Rebellion because it is in-your-face activism. But it is NOT demanding systemic change as you indicate. The following is a result of several conversations and two rather lengthy meetings with people involved in Extinction Rebellion here in Vancouver, British Columbia. The more conservative of their members rely heavily on the UK principles, so it is not simply a local phenomena that I am critiquing.

    1. XR has nothing to say about the economy. For us, and for many other environmentalists, an economy that grows (by its nature) is not compatible with a finite planet. That this issue is so basic to environment sustainability is indicated by the many decades and hundreds of articles and books that have been devoted to it. But it was dismissed as a political issue and since XR wants to appeal to all sides of the political spectrum, XR will not deal with the economy. I think that prioritizing the growth potential of an organization over the needs of the environment is a serious mistake, especially as that organization has a motto to tell the truth.
    2. Again dealing with the political question: The fact that XR wishes there to be a citizen’s assembly which could hold environmental policy and direction to account is indicative of a leftward bent. Having studied history and economics, and having been an activist for 5 decades, I have never heard of the “right” suggesting anything of the sort. In fact, presuming that “conservatives” are only concerned with maintaining the status quo ignores what that status quo is. Historically, and in real life, conservatives have been intimately associated with the economic elite for centuries. Are they worth pandering to?
    3. To say that only 3.5% of the population is needed to create the context for a sustainable society relies on research, as was said, centered on the legal changes that Martin Luther King’s campaign was partially successful in bringing about. King himself was critical of that limited goal, especially near the end of his life. Moreover, it takes some kind of racial blindness to suggest that those changes were sufficient to deal with the on-going reality of racism and the economic reasons for its maintenance.
    4. To suggest that environmentalism can – and should – unite all the various people who are oppressed or exploited is presumptuous. Strength in unity can best be created by honest dialogue and a respect for what others bring to the table. Difference is always going to be part of the reality of resistance.
    5. If we are going to include the economy as an active player in environmental degradation and climate disruption, then we must look at a system that needs much more fundamental changes than XR is proposing. Moreover any kind of societal analysis of our present system would recognize the interplay between the economic and political elites and their interests. It is simply not true that those elites “don’t get it” or are in any way stupid or incompetent. They are strong, confident and are completely assured of their positions.
    6. If any of you are workers or tenants, ask yourselves if you would wait for your boss or landlord to give you a raise or lower your rent. Every once in a while it might happen. But you do not count on it. The changes that are necessary to survival are up to us to create. The elites will not do it for us – in fact, they are complicit (at a minimum) in having created what we’re having to face.
    7. Overall, we need to understand the processes that got us to where we are. Without understanding how we got here, we are unlikely to discover the way out.

    That said, XR should be widely applauded for getting us to the point of “Telling The Truth”. For decades that was missing in the green movement. For about the same amount of time doctors have been telling their patients the truth about whatever their health conditions were. Previous to about 1960 doctors were reticent about conveying unpleasant news. “Better to be optimistic.”
    It is so refreshing to have a major environmental group saying the truth about what the science says about our future. If humanity is to make it, this will be seen as an extremely important step. The courage to tell the truth is also matched by the courage to act on your convictions. I may disagree with XR about much, but the commitment and courage that have been displayed openly and often is worthy of the highest respect.


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