I don’t usually post on environmental issues, not because I’m not interested but mainly because it’s not a subject I feel particularly knowledgeable about. Usually I prefer to read and learn but I do enjoy a challenge so this post is largely me thinking aloud.
For me, the merits of eco-socialism largely depend upon what it’s up against. When offered as an alternative to Bush-like capitalism with all its vested interests, then there’s no contest, but what if it’s pitched against eco-capitalism (if there is such a thing)? That might be a more interesting discussion. While both capitalism and socialism have been around for generations, the ecological concerns are relatively new and are forcing proponents of both ideologies to stop and think. Socialism on its own isn’t particularly green and some environmentally disastrous policies have been passed by socialist governments which often put social goals above ecological ones. Equally, capitalism by its very nature is always more concerned with the bottom line and the need for expanding markets and won’t act ecologically unless there is a profit in it (or a loss in not acting). But just as both ideologies can be environmentally bad, they can both offer different solutions, or rather, different ways of bringing about change.
Capitalism, as we know, bases all its decisions on the market. If there is a market for, say, energy efficient light bulbs or hybrid cars then we will very quickly be inundated with these products as we are starting to see. But usually the market has to be there first which means that there needs to be a widespread change in attitudes on a personal level before businesses are prepared to take the risks, either that or a marketing campaign to change attitudes and flog more environmentally sensitive products. Eco-socialism seems to work a different way. Change would be imposed by government rather than the market. Government can help to introduce really big changes like the introduction of alternative power production, schemes to bury greenhouse gasses in old oil fields or legislate to make new buildings more energy efficient. It can introduce legislation or a tax regime to force us to embrace change. Authoritarian though this may seem, it might be necessary if the window of opportunity to lessen the effects of climate change is as small as so many scientists are telling us.
Perhaps, if time is so short, we may need the best elements of eco-socialism and eco-capitalism. Governments can be notoriously slow to act while businesses thrive on the spirit of enterprise. Ideally the two ideologies would work together to produce a positive feed-back loop. Just how likely this is in the current political climate is open to question but we are seeing some early signs of what that co-operation can look like even though what’s being proposed seems fairly ineffective at the moment.
Carbon trading, for example, is something that European governments are pushing for and businesses are implementing and using. In my opinion, it doesn’t seem to be such a great idea and I doubt it will make any real difference the way the scheme works at the moment. Carbon trading is an inherently capitalist idea – to make a profit from global warming by trading carbon credits and to allow polluting businesses to continue polluting by buying credits from less polluting countries or businesses. And governments are happy with it because it looks like they are acting on climate change without actually doing anything. There is also a moral issue about carbon trading which was recently pointed out by the former socialist UK politician, Tony Benn. He compared the need to reduce carbon output with rationing in Britain during the Second World War, the idea being that everyone got their fair share regardless of wealth. He compared Carbon trading with the war-time black market racketeering which allowed those with money to get more than their fair share.
Viewed like this, carbon trading is about as far away from eco-socialism as you can get, nor is it a great credit to capitalists who are trying to do as little as possible and dump their problems on others. However, with nationalisation so out of fashion, large corporations do have a role to play. A large energy company might be persuaded to produce alternative fuels or build a solar power station instead of a coal powered one. These are enterprises that governments are reluctant to do on their own. The motivation would be profit rather than any altruistic concern, but at this stage does that really matter? In Spain, which now has a left wing government, we are seeing the growth in solar power stations. And throughout Europe ecological concerns are moving up the agenda whether it’s recycling or alternative energy. Sometimes it’s driven by government and at other times by private enterprise.
As the problems of climate change become more evident, bigger solutions will be needed. Producing a car which uses a different fuel isn’t really a complete answer when you think of the energy used to produce that car and the roads it will drive on. Capitalists wouldn’t lose much sleep if their fields of biofuel meant starvation for others. This is where eco-capitalist ideas fall down. Eco-socialism would, ideally, recognise that resources are limited and focus more on things like public transport and the need for us to consume less (the antithesis of capitalist ideology) and also bringing in laws which would be unpopular but may be necessary (restricting cheap flights is a prime example). If those governments are voted in democratically by a population that recognised the need for change but also the near impossibility of implementing change by themselves then those governments would have the mandate to impose environmentally sound legislation.
At the end of the day, I don’t think climate change is a matter to be tackled solely by ideologies but by values. Ideologies are limited geographically but climate change doesn’t recognise borders. This fact, of course, implies a need for larger international organisations to play a more forceful role, but after seeing the performance of world leaders at the recent G8 summit, I’m pessimistic about that. Eco-socialism or eco-capitalism, it’s the ‘eco’ that matters most and the challenge is to get governments and the people they represent to recognise that.