Review: Facing the Apocalypse

With the insurgent activism around climate in the face of crisis, a Marxist book on climate is timely. John Walker reviews Alan Thornett’s book, Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that there are only twelve years left for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5⁰ Celsius, otherwise the Earth will be faced with droughts, floods and extreme heat, with the poorest members of humanity being the worst affected. 

In response, amongst other things, in Britain we have seen the actions of Extinction Rebellion and, internationally, a series of school strikes, culminating in the Global Strike for Climate on 20 September 2019.

Under these circumstances, the appearance of a book on climate change by a Marxist is timely. Alan Thornett’s book, Facing the Apocalypse, is not the first book on the environment by a Marxist, but it is an excellent summary of what the crisis entails and the possible approaches to it. His approaches can be criticised (and later in this review they are), but it is clear that he intends his book as the start of a necessary debate and not as its final conclusion. As such it is extremely useful.

The book is the result of three years of some very-solid research and is simple, straightforward and clear. Essentially it’s a series of short introductions to a Marxist analysis of important aspects of the crisis. It is divided into four sections: the scope and severity of the crisis, the evolution of ecosocialism (demonstrating its roots in classical Marxism), introductions to various debates on the left, with the last section reprinting debates that Thornett has participated in.

The chapters are short and to the point, excellent summaries of what you need to know. For example, the first section, on the scope and severity of the crisis, contains chapters defining what is possible, and not possible, on planet Earth (‘planetary boundaries’), clean water, pollution and the sixth (current) mass extinction of species. None of these chapters is long and they are an accessible introduction to the science for those less familiar with it.

In the second section, Thornett goes on to trace the history of ecosocialism, including its roots in the writings of Marx and Engels. As well as discussing its theoretical roots, he also writes about the struggles of indigenous peoples in the Global South – useful information to use against those who claim the environmental struggle is a fad of the middle classes in the Global North.

The third section – by far the longest – is a discussion of strategy and tactics. In the face of the ecological emergency (which is by no means confined to climate) what is to be done? Thornett writes about such things as whether polluters should be taxed, the problems of economic growth and whether enough food can be grown in a sustainable way to feed the world’s population. He discusses the motor car and transport systems, including such solutions as electric vehicles, free public transport and the congestion charge. He also writes about population growth, of which more later.

The chapters in this section contain extremely useful information, cut down to essentials, both for climate activists and for those new to the issue. However much you know about the environmental crisis you will gain from reading them.

The final, fourth, section reprints a number of debates that Thornett has been involved in as a consequence of his research. The reader, therefore, gets to see some of the critiques he has received for his views and his responses to them. 

One of the topics included in this last section is the growth in the size of the human population, also covered in the third section. He takes on the dominant opinion on the Marxist left that a rising population is not a problem. He insists that, unless something is done about it, the size of the human population will become ecologically unsustainable. It is not, he says, a question of food. He agrees with those like Martin Empson who argues that the food problem is one of distribution, that enough food is being produced to feed the planet but that it is not getting to the hungry. Instead, Thornett believes it is a question of human beings living alongside other species. We are squeezing them out by using resources that are thus unavailable to them.

He spends a good deal of the chapter on population in the third section defending himself against accusations of Malthusianism. It is true that the writings of Malthus have dominated mainstream thinking on population growth. Malthus, writing at the end of the eighteen and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, argued that, since the human population increases at a geometric rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc) while the food supply increases at an arithmetic rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc), any attempt to raise living standards for the mass of the population can only lead to famine. The human population will always outgrow its food supply. The only way, he concludes, that members of the working population are able to raise their living standard is through sexual abstinence. Malthus’s argument was the theory behind the introduction of the workhouse in nineteenth-century Britain. Thornett denies this is his argument – at length, since he seems very sensitive to the accusation – and, indeed, it isn’t. His solution to the question of population growth is very different.

Where Thornett is correct in his treatment of population growth is linking it to feminism. He titles his chapter ‘Population: an eco-feminist issue’. He is right in making the link, but he has also missed the boat. For much of the middle years of the last century, in many European countries, governments believed that the population was declining and encouraged women to have more babies. But that was then and this is now. The success, however limited, of the struggle for women’s rights, particularly for control of their own fertility, has resulted in women no longer being baby machines, and the global birth rate is consequently falling. In developed countries such as the UK, the birth rate is no longer high enough to replace the existing population.

So while Thornett is correct to defend a woman’s right to choose and control her own fertility, for their own sake, these are already having the effect of reducing the birth rate. There’s no need to have a big argument about this since it’s what is happening, whatever we conclude. Yet the world population, as Thornett points out, is increasing.

The reason for the increase in the population is not the number of babies being born but is down to people like myself and Thornett – over seventy years of age and refusing to kick the bucket. The reduced number of babies being born is less than the number of the old dying off. The numbers of the young are not replacing the numbers of the old but are adding to them. Thornett notes this but does not grasp its significance. This problem will solve itself eventually since there is a limit to how long people live and the excess number of the old will die off. By the end of the twenty-first century, the world’s population will begin to fall. The question he is really addressing is how to deal with the increase in the population (which will be huge) in the meantime.

The increase in the number of the old is not just potentially about the crude numbers. As the population ages the proportion of the population that is of working age declines. That means that every worker has, in society at large, a larger number of aged dependents to support. It’s this changing proportion that is the background to the proposal by a group of British Tories to raise the retirement age to 75, higher than the life expectancy in large parts of Britain. What the actual solution to the problem of an ageing population is, is not clear. Suffice it to say that the Tory proposal has to be resisted. Whatever happens, it should never be the poorest or the most vulnerable who shoulder the burden of solving the environmental crisis.

Thornett is clear that the solutions to the environmental crisis must be social, not individual. Though he does also argue that, as much as possible, a socialist should reduce their own individual carbon footprint.

Thornett himself is a long-time industrial militant and Marxist activist, most of this in Trotskyist organisations. He was a former shop steward in the Cowley car plant and, as such, at one point in the 1970s, became a household name when he was under attack by the whole of the mainstream media.

As a result, he approaches the crisis as someone who regards himself as standing in the tradition of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, and his chapter on the environmental struggle in Britain focuses on the trade unions and the Labour Party (of which he is a member). In his conclusion, he says that the involvement of the trade unions is crucial. This is not to say that he dismisses social movements and environmental campaigns. Far from it. He regards these as central.

But he quite rightly rejects the maximalist attitude of ‘wait until the revolution’, pointing out that the revolution isn’t imminent, so, with only twelve years to act, we don’t have time to wait. He also points out that the revolutionary left doesn’t take that attitude with other issues, and instead, it adopts transitional demands. 

But in rejecting maximalism he also rejects the slogan ‘System change, not climate change’. In rejecting this, I think Thornett makes a fundamental political error in two ways. Firstly, he treats revolution as an event rather than a process. To be sure, there is, in any revolution, a point where the old institutions have to be overthrown. But there is, both before and after this, a long period of struggle where things change (or not!) as a result of that struggle. Preventing firms from fracking through direct action, for example, alters the power relations between the fracking companies and the working-class communities the fracking will damage. Struggle never leaves ‘the system’ unchanged, even if the change is small.

The second error is that there is – as Thornett himself shows throughout his book – an intimate connection between climate change and ‘the system’. It is the capitalist market, with its continual need to expand the production of goods for sale, that drives climate change. Striking school students recognise this when they write the slogan on their homemade cardboard placards. Those in power have created the environmental crisis as a consequence – collateral damage as it were – of their activities, and to let them continue with their activities means that climate change will continue unabated. 

The fight against our ruling class and the fight against climate change are therefore the same. One does not ‘wait’ for the other. Those who take part in direct action against climate change, as part of, say, Extinction Rebellion events, are therefore taking part in a revolution, regardless of what they might think. The point is to help the participants and supporters of these actions become conscious of this fact so that things do not go in reverse while no one is looking.

It’s the need for vigilance because the default tendency in a capitalist society is towards environmental catastrophe, that mass involvement in the ecological struggle is needed. This is why trade union involvement is crucial – a mass movement with permanent institutions, potentially capable of mobilising activists to defend gains and to push forward to new ones. But it is also why we need the less formal social movements and campaigns, whose mass activity may be less constrained by institutional inertia and, alas, the law of the land.

Thornett implies this point but does not make it strongly enough. But despite this, his book is extremely useful both in providing key information and in setting out out a starting point for debates. It’s well worth reading.

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Book now for:

Endgames: Capitalism and the Climate Emergency
A day of anticapitalist discussion on the politics of the climate emergency.

9.30-17.00, 26 October 2019
Elvin Hall, Institute of Education, London WC1H 0AL

Free professional childcare
£10 waged • £5 unwaged • £20 solidarity (help fund unwaged tickets and childcare)
Organised by rs21

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for an interesting review. One quibble:
    “every worker has, in society at large, a larger number of aged dependents to support. It’s this changing proportion that is the background to the proposal by a group of British Tories to raise the retirement age to 75, higher than the life expectancy in large parts of Britain”
    A key part of the left argument against the Tories is that this is only looking at the growing (older) part of the dependent population, ignoring the shrinking (young) part. To make an argument about what proportion of what is produced by workers should be allocated to dependents we have to include them all, and the ratio of dependents to working age people is nowhere near as high as during the baby-boom, when we could afford better pensions and an expanding welfare state: https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/United-Kingdom/Age_dependency_ratio/

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