By Margaret Overton
Since the 2016 presidential election, interest in socialism has hit an all-time high in the United States. As social movements seek to focus on intersectionality and the interactions between many societal issues, environmental causes are increasingly viewed through political and socioeconomic lenses. I review the history of socialism in the United States and the relationship between socialist movements and environmental issues throughout history, then turn to the present day and look specifically at the policies, stances, and activist and organizing strategies of socialist parties in Europe as well as the Democratic Socialists of America with regard to environmental issues. Finally, I address the broader implications of the growing eco-socialism movement for other political and environmental activists.
In 2016, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sailed into the national limelight on a wave of controversy. Sanders was at least 50 points behind Hillary Clinton in some national polls when he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president (Gaudiano, 2016), and many assumed this would only be a temporary distraction for Clinton — the strong favorite to win — as she prepared for the general election.
But as the primaries progressed, Sanders began to get under the skin of the Democratic establishment. Party leaders, supporters, and Clinton herself resented his accusations of being too “establishment” and not “progressive enough” (Everett, 2016; Merica, 2017), his aggressive criticism of her close ties to Wall Street (Haberman, 2015; Salazar, 2016), and the fact that he was not even a registered Democrat (Relman, 2017) — Sanders has held office as an Independent since 1981, and openly campaigns and identifies as a democratic socialist (Qiu, 2016).
Although Sanders ultimately lost the nomination, his campaign had a lasting impact on the Democratic party and the election itself due to his immense popularity among younger voters. In the primaries, Sanders beat Clinton by a 40-point margin among voters younger than 30 (“Young v old,” 2016), winning more youth votes than Clinton and Republican Donald Trump combined (Blake, 2016). His influence over this key demographic even caused Clinton to take a leaf out of his book and try to shift left by supporting policies such as Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage in an unsuccessful attempt to appeal to his supporters in the general election (Halper, 2016; Parks & Struyk, 2016).
But what made Sanders so popular with millennials? A simple internet search for “why do young people like Bernie Sanders” turns up page after page of essays and thinkpieces, each with varying degrees of hand-wringing over why so many of these millennial voters — whose support the Democratic Party had long taken for granted — would turn their back on a trailblazing, progressive, female candidate and inexplicably #FeelTheBern, flocking to this “old white guy” like a celebrity (Silver, 2015; Leonard, 2017).
One common theory is that they preferred his fiery rhetoric, sincerity, and honest acknowledgement of failures as well as successes (Wagner, 2015). Whereas Clinton promised to build on the Obama Administration’s progress and focused on projecting an optimistic, positive narrative (Seligman, 2016), Sanders was unafraid to critique the policies of left as much as the policies of the right. Rather than repudiating Donald Trump by saying “America is already great,” Sanders acknowledged the ways that President Obama had failed to deliver on his promises to young people, who handed him the presidency and then found themselves drowning in student debt, stagnant wages, and sparse job opportunities (Phillips, 2016).
Another credible theory is that Clinton was simply too mainstream: young people were tired of politicians — both on the left and the right — being unwilling to make bold, meaningful changes to the status quo. One high schooler put it this way: “I feel like nothing is going to change if Hillary gets into office” (Wagner, 2015). As opposed to Clinton’s more abstract, big-picture positions that likely connected more with older voters, Sanders took clear, consistent stances on issues and proposed concrete, specific policies that would directly impact the lives of struggling millennials (Silver, 2015; Frizell, 2016), which was likely noticed and valued more by people just starting their careers.
Yet perhaps the most likely reason for Sanders’s popularity is one that journalists, academics, and politicians have struggled to reconcile in the two years since the election: young people like that Bernie Sanders is a socialist. In fact, in a 2016 Harvard poll, a majority of 18-29 year-olds rejected capitalism, while a third said they supported socialism (Ehrenfreund, 2016). In contrast with Americans who remember the Cold War, young people “associate ‘socialism’ with the social democracies of Northern Europe, which have high taxes and large welfare states” and are not nearly as scary as the USSR was in the mid 1900s (Silver, 2016). Because millennials generally came to political consciousness after 1989, they are not immediately “freaked out” by socialism as much as older voters (Leonard, 2017).
However, this is not a new trend. Bernie Sanders did not make socialism popular; socialism helped make Bernie Sanders popular. A Pew poll back in 2011 showed that people aged 18-29 had more favorable views of socialism than capitalism, and a YouGov poll from May 2015, just before Sanders launched his campaign, also found that over half of 18-29 year-olds had very or somewhat favorable views of socialism, compared to just 15% of those over 65.
Notably, when interviewed, millennials tended to focus more on generalizations about societal values and ethics than specific details about policies and economic structures (Ehrenfreund, 2016); many were frustrated by the state of the economy and blamed capitalism for low wages and sparse job opportunities. In the Harvard poll, 48 percent agreed that “basic health insurance is a right for all people” and 47 percent agreed with the statement that “Basic necessities, such as food and shelter, are a right that the government should provide to those unable to afford them.” Like Sanders, they preferred to think about the big picture and focus on broad goals for how things should be, rather than mechanisms for how to get there.
And although these ideas may have been popularized by Sanders, he did not invent them (Yarvin, 2017). Socialism has existed in America since its founding, and socialists can claim a strong track record of labor reform, welfare expansion, and victories for the working class. As these ideas come more into the mainstream, it is important to begin to distance American political thought from the legacy of the red scare and examine the philosophy and legacy of socialism and its historical influence in the United States.
II. Socialism in America
The first wave of socialist ideas appeared in the United States as early as the 1830s, when people of various professional and religious backgrounds established dozens of utopian socialist colonies throughout the country based on writings of French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier (“America,” n.d.).
Socialists then turned to more outward-facing political goals in the late nineteenth century, with the founding of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) in 1876 by labor activists, led by German Marxists inspired by the 1848 revolutions in Europe (Heath, 1900). Eventually, the SLP fractured over ideological disagreements, and one faction fused with Eugene V. Debs’s Social Democratic Party to form the Socialist Party of America (SP). Debs, known for his charisma and oratory skills, quickly began to bring cohesion and energy to the socialist movement. Under his leadership, membership increased tenfold and by 1912, hundreds of Socialists were elected to political office (“Socialism in America”, n.d.; Heideman, 2017)
However, when World War I began, Socialists were fiercely divided over whether or not to support it. Debs was arrested and convicted under the Espionage Act and many others were arrested for encouraging young men to break the law and not register for the draft. Membership declined due to the first “Red Scare,” when the Bolshevik revolution created negative associations between the SP and Russian-style socialism (McKillen, 2017); nevertheless, Debs received nearly a million votes in the 1920 presidential election despite being in jail (Yarvin, 2017).
However, the decline of the SP saw the rise of the Communist Party (CPUSA), which quickly gained popularity into the 1930s, which saw large increases in union membership along with the introduction of the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was partially driven by a coalition of socialist and communist parties along with organized labor, which collectively helped push through New Deal legislation (Wolff, 2013). In response, conservative opponents developed the strategy of breaking apart this coalition in order to destroy each member individually through anti-communist rhetoric and attacks on labor unions. Despite their efforts, the CPUSA was a highly influential force in various struggles for democratic rights throughout the mid-20th century, mobilizing the unemployed during the Great Depression (Oral History, 1983), helping found most of the country’s first industrial unions, and becoming known for opposing racism and fighting for integration and black civil rights during the height of the Jim Crow era (Pinckney, 2002; D’Amato, 2015; Jaffe, 2017).
However, after World War II, anti-communist fervor reached its peak in America in large part due to the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Thousands of people — some members of the CPUSA, some not — lots their jobs or were imprisoned by means ranging from questionable at best to unconstitutional and illegal at worst (“Victims of McCarthyism”, n.d.). Communists were required by the McCarran Internal Security Act to register with the Justice Department (“McCarran,” n.d.).
The CPUSA suffered an ideological schism in the aftermath of McCarthyism, although interest in socialism persisted as other organizations aligned themselves with the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War sentiments gained traction, drawing support from public figures like Angela Davis and Malcolm X (Daulatzai, 2012; Smith, 2016). Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a socialist familiar with Marx’s writings (Hendricks, 2014); he often discussed the need for a “better distribution of wealth” in America and founded the Poor People’s Campaign as he began to work on economic as well as racial justice, but was assassinated just months later (The Poor People’s Campaign, n.d.).
Into the 1980s and 90s, socialist groups continued to splinter due to differences in opinion among its members, and a unified socialist movement failed to form in America despite success in other countries (Foner, 1984). Socialism is heavily stigmatized due to the success of anti-communist propaganda and public perception throughout the 20th century, especially due to its association with authoritarian communist regimes (Liebovich, 2007).
Today, however, the influence of Bernie Sanders has breathed new life into the American Socialist movement. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which was founded in 1982, saw an explosion in membership after the election, going from 6,500 members in May 2016 to over 37,000 by the end of 2017 (Bova, 2018), making it the largest socialist organization in the United States in over a century. Jacobin Magazine, the country’s largest socialist publication, had about 17,000 subscribers prior to the 2016 election, a number that has nearly doubled to 30,000 as of May 2018 (Yarvin, 2017; Sunkara, 2018).
But where will the revitalization of socialism take America? For DSA, part of the answer involves building a socialist response to climate change. As society becomes increasingly connected through globalization and the internet, its problems become linked as well, meaning that social and environmental groups are working together more and more to find solutions. As part of this shift towards intersectionality, it becomes necessary to define the eco-socialist movement and examine how its ideas and tactics can be applied by groups of all ideologies.
“History can be viewed from two sides: it can be divided into the history of nature and that of man. The two sides, however, are not to be seen as independent entities. As long as man has existed, nature and man have affected each other” — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (cited in Spear, 2015)
« Pour nous, l’éco-socialisme est le chemin du progrès humain. »
“For us, eco-socialism is the path of human progress.” — Sabine Buis (n.d.)
Eco-socialism, also called green socialism or socialist ecology, is an ideology merging aspects of Marxism, socialism, green politics, ecology, and alter-globalization (Environment and Ecology, n.d.). Eco-socialists generally believe that the capitalism is the cause of social injustices, poverty, war, and environmental degradation through globalization and imperialism. Because capitalist systems depend upon an ever-increasing volume of production for their survival, they will necessarily require more and more resources and produce greater amounts of waste (Hopwood, n.d.).
“Ecosocialists start with the premise that environmental degradation and social injustice stem from the same source: a world where profit is the highest goal. […] Thus, unlike most branches of the environmental movement, ecosocialism provides an over-arching framework that sees links between different struggles” (System Change, 2018).
According to eco-socialist theory, capitalism causes people to see themselves as separate from nature because industrialization drew them away from farms and into factories and cities; for capitalists, nature became an expendable source of wealth, leading to reckless environmental destruction and unsustainable resource use (Spear, 2015). However, eco-socialists also reject the idea that we should return to the ways of pre-modern society; instead, we should seek a balance with nature that allows peaceful coexistence with human society (Spear, 2015).
Eco-socialists further argue that climate solutions within the capitalist paradigm fail to address the aspects of society that pose the greatest threat to the environment. Because environmental protection is presented as an issue of individual choices rather than a consequence of industry- and economy-wide systems and structures, workers and business owners are blamed in equal amounts, even as the working class and the poor suffer the harshest consequences of climate change.
Instead, they believe, the “main culprits” are corporations and “the governments that defend them” (Hopwood, n.d.) As socialist writer Mark Schaeffer put it, “Changes in individual behavior and technology can buy time but are insufficient to save the biosphere as long as ‘free enterprise’ allows huge corporations to continue polluting” (2014).
However, eco-socialists offer an alternative to capitalism that they believe will combat wastefulness and environmental degradation. Socialism, they argue, offers “a way of living that isn’t dominated by profit, greed, exploitation, ever-increasing wasteful production and environmental damage” while empowering workers to have control over economic decisions and structuring production in a way that prioritizes reuse and thoughtful waste management (Hopwood, n.d.).
By building a socialist economy — which is focused on meeting human needs — rather than a capitalist economy — which is focused on building capital and making profits — countries would be able to “meet people’s needs for now and the future, so environments would be protected. In other words, a socialist world would have diverse, healthy and attractive environments where people and other life would flourish” (Hopwood, n.d.)
And these ideas are not just wishful thinking; an analysis by Avner de‐Shalit, a political philosopher and Max Kampelman Chair of democracy and human rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, concludes that “despite current scepticism, democratic socialism is best for the environment.” de‐Shalit writes that to be socialist, one must not necessarily be “green,” but to be “green,” one must be a socialist (2000).
Sabine Buis, a professor of economics and social sciences and Deputy National Secretary for Environmental Dialogue for the Socialist Party in France, seconds this sentiment, writing:
« Être social-écologiste, c’est comprendre que l’accomplissement du progrès humain passe par le respect de notre environnement, que notre épanouissement ne peut se faire aux dépens de celui de la nature, mais qu’elle en est une composante. La société que nous voulons, c’est un monde où l’épanouissement de tous a remplacé l’enrichissement personnel comme valeur cardinale. »
“To be a social ecologist is to understand that the accomplishment of human progress depends on respect for our environment, that our blossoming cannot be at the expense of nature, but that it is a component of it. The society that we want is a world where the development of all has replaced personal enrichment as a cardinal value.”
IV. History of Eco-Socialism
Although socialist as well as environmental writers have depicted Karl Marx as an economist focused on domination rather than protection of nature, eco-socialists have revisited his writings in recent years and proposed a different interpretation (Dickinson, 2002). They argue that he “was a pioneer when it came to analysing the relationship between production and nature” because he “showed that all wealth was the product of the interaction between labour and natural resources” and wrote that, “Capitalism exploits nature, just as it exploits the working class” (Socialist Party, 2015). Writers also point to his observation that a society must “hand [the planet] down to succeeding generations in an improved condition” as evidence that he was focused on environmental as well as labor issues (Environment and Ecology, n.d.).
Ultimately, it is English novelist, poet, and designer William Morris who is largely credited with developing the ideological foundations of eco-socialism during the late 19th century. However, his ideas would be slow to catch on in practice. During the first decade of the Russian revolution, many socialists and government officials worked to lay a foundation for environmental conservation and responsible resource use and “integrate production with natural laws and limits” (Socialist Party, 2015). However, when Josef Stalin took power, he and his Communist Party purged or rejected those individuals and scientific principles, leading to “wanton” destruction of nature in the USSR. Socialists today generally argue that Stalin’s approach was not a legitimate application of socialist principles (Socialists Party, 2015.
In the 1970s, as the environmental movement grew out of concerns of resource depletion, Barry Commoner, often called the father of the modern environmental movement, proposed that capitalistic technologies, rather than population growth, were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation (Commoner, 1972; Environment and Ecology, n.d.). At the same time, Australian Marxists, including Alan Roberts and Ted Trainer, began to call on socialists worldwide to develop a system that would meet human needs rather than contribute to the capitalist system of created wants and consumerism (Environment and Ecology, n.d.).
The journal “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism” (CNS) was created in 1988, providing the framework for more critical eco-socialist thought. The Australian Democratic Socialist Party also launched the Green Left Weekly newspaper in 1991, and the following years saw greater levels of collaboration and focus on intersectionality, with eco-socialists being influenced by socialist feminists, the anti-globalization movement in the Global South, and principles of environmental justice (Environment and Ecology, n.d.).
Since the turn of the century, the eco-socialism movement has taken on a more focused, organized approach. In 2001, former Green Party candidate Joel Kovel and Trotskyist anthropologist Michael Löwy released An ecosocialist manifesto, which outlines possible routes for the growth of an eco-socialist movement and has since been adopted by some organizations. And in October 2007, the International Ecosocialist Network was founded in Paris, which facilitates the exchange of documents and articles on eco-socialist ideas and encourages collaboration and coordination between eco-socialist organizations around the world (Ecosocialist Network, n.d.-a; Ecosocialist Network, n.d.-b.).
V. Eco-Socialism in Practice
Currently, many socialist organizations have environmental elements and vice versa as a result of the broadening of social movements to become more intersectional. The influence of socialism can also be seen on environmental policy in the few “existing socialist” regimes throughout history.
Cuba, one of the few nations that may arguably be considered socialist despite its departure from the ideal economic transition envisioned by Marx, has seen tangible benefits of a consciously environmentalist form of socialism over the last several decades.
Although population growth and poverty are regarded as important factors that drive environmental degradation as well as exacerbate its effects, the socioeconomic changes brought about by the 1959 Cuban Revolution essentially removed both of these influences by creating “one of the most equitable income distribution regimes in the world” (Díaz-Briquets & Pérez-López, 2000). This unique context allows researchers to view its environmental policies in a vacuum and evaluate the true effects of Cuban socialism on the environment.
Isolation from most globalization and development during the mid 20th century thanks to trade embargos and the Cold War allowed Cuba to avoid traditional forms of capitalist development and industrialization and adopt more environmentally-friendly measures. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to shortages in fossil fuels and the disappearance of 80% of all national trade, Cuba entered the “Special Period,” a time of economic depression that resulted in dramatic agricultural, industrial, and environmental changes for the country (PBS, 2011). New techniques were developed to help Cuba become more self-sustaining, including the adoption of permaculture and better land use strategies. And with a fairly stable population, Cuba witnessed a partial reversal of deforestation, better preservation of its coral reefs, and fewer threats to biodiversity than many parts of the world (Bruno, 2017).
However, Cuban socialism had its drawbacks as well. Although Castro can be called pro-environment and implemented several national environmental laws and strategies, even amending the constitution to include sustainable development, the nationalization of many powers created difficulties in implementing eco-socialist agricultural practices (Cernansky, 2012). Central planning was “oblivious to local environmental circumstances,” and the lack of local ownership rights removed accountability and community input in decision-making, resulting in “improper use and neglect of natural resources” (Díaz-Briquets & Pérez-López, 2000). As one author put it, Cuba “stands out among both capitalist and communist nations as having only limped along toward the Anthropocene instead of charging forward into a new geological epoch” (Bruno, 2017).
Cuba and China have very little in common in terms of their levels of industrialization, population growth, size, and involvement in economic globalization. China’s economy is also far more complex than Cuba’s, although it continues to embrace socialist influences even as it incorporates more capitalist aspects into its economy (Naughton, 2017; Vanderklippe, 2017). However, many Chinese scholars and politicians have long been interested in the eco-socialist lessons that can be learned from the small island nation.
China is facing an unprecedented environmental catastrophe after years of unchecked economic growth. Its arable land, water, and air are all being depleted, while energy demand is on track to quickly exceed capacity and climate change threatens to exacerbate these conditions and wreak havoc on agricultural production and rural communities.
Indeed, researchers from the International Forum on Globalization and the University of Utah write, “it is very unlikely that China’s and the global environmental problems can be effectively addressed under the existing capitalist institutional framework. The pursuit of profit and accumulation as well as the operations of the global capitalist market is driving China inexorably onto the path of environmental self-destruction.” They conclude that in order to build a sustainable society, production and consumption must be “oriented towards meeting the basic needs of the general population rather than the pursuit of profit and capital accumulation” (Wen & Minqi, 2007).
Chinese officials have already begun to approach this growing crisis from an eco-socialist standpoint. Pan Yue, Deputy Director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, has acknowledged the influence of eco-socialist theory on his work, stating in an interview that although he often finds it “too idealistic” and lacking “ways of solving actual problems,” he believes that it provides “political reference for China’s scientific view of development,” “gives socialist ideology room to expand” and offers “a theoretical basis for the establishment of fair international rules” on the environment. He also echoes much of eco-socialist thought, attacking international “environmental inequality,” refusing to focus on technological fixes, and arguing for the construction of “a harmonious, resource-saving and environmentally-friendly society” (Environment and Ecology, n.d.).
Meanwhile in non-socialist countries, many major national socialist parties include environmental causes in their platforms. In 2015, the Socialist Party (formerly known as “Militant”) in England and Wales published a special edition of its magazine Socialism Today titled “Socialism or Ecological Catastrophe” to coincide with the 21st United Nations conference (COP21) on the environment. In the issue, authors describe what they see as decades of failure by mainstream political parties to produce meaningful action on climate change while discussing socialist views of environmental causes. In particular, it notes that the poor and the working class will suffer the most due to capitalism’s promotion of unchecked growth and uncontrolled production and agriculture, consistent with broader eco-socialist theory (Socialist Party, 2015).
The Party also has a set of concrete proposals to combat climate change. In 2009, it published a proposal for “green job creation” which involved hiring unemployed construction workers to build “new and affordable housing, insulating existing properties and installing solar panels” and called for a “massive investment into renewable and sustainable energy sources” (Baldwin, 2009).
Le Parti Socialiste Français (the Socialist Party of France, or PS) has historically been the largest party of the French center-left and one of the most influential socialist parties in Europe in terms of the number of elected officials and influence on national policy. PS also places explicit emphasis on environmental causes, integrating eco-socialism into their Party charter in 2014 (PS, 2014). The party logo also incorporates a green leaf and the phrase “social-écologie,” or “social ecology.”
The PS platform focuses on equitable development, particularly in the areas of energy, agriculture, and industry, with additional emphasis on education (Buis, n.d.):
« La transition écologique ne peut se faire sans intégrer pleinement les citoyens, qu’ils soient des acteurs des changements opérés. Il ne peut y avoir de transition écologique sans l’éducation de tous et des générations futures aux enjeux du développement durable, ni sans leur inclusion dans les prises de décision des projets locaux qui les concernent. Les socialistes doivent se porter garants de l’inclusion de chacun. »
“The ecological transition can not be done without fully integrating the citizens, that they might be the changemakers. There can be no ecological transition without the education of all and future generations about the challenges of sustainable development, nor without their inclusion in the decision-making of local projects that concern them. Socialists must vouch for the inclusion of everyone.”
However, in America, socialists are not as much a part of the mainstream political establishment thanks to the legacy of the Cold War and years of anti-communist propaganda, necessitating the adoption of different strategies in their role as grassroots activists rather than Washington insiders. The largest socialist organization in the United States — the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — is technically not even a political party, though it still prioritizes environmental issues as it endorses candidates, lobbies politicians, and fights for local policy change. Although it currently lacks an official stance on environmental issues as an organization, one is currently in development, and climate change is still recognized as a major priority (B. Doyle, personal communication, May 4, 2018).
The DSA National Political Committee officially recognizes a Climate and Environmental Justice Working Group with over 450 members of all experiences, ages, and professions (DSA, n.d.; B. Doyle, personal communication, May 4, 2018). Founded in 2017 at the National DSA convention, its steering committee is still working on establishing its goals and strategies. For now, they are focusing on mobilizing members, distributing educational materials, developing an internal strategy, and building their social media presence (B. Doyle, personal communication, May 4, 2018).
Notably, the group is focused not only on climate change issues, but environmental justice as well, making it a true model of eco-socialist theory via its recognition of the intersections of social and ecological issues. Its stated objectives are as follows (DSA, n.d.):
“Our mission is to ensure that the transition to socialism in the United States is based on sound ecological principles, preserving the viability of the natural and human environments for future generations and other forms of life, and bearing in mind the historical and present inequities imposed by prior forms of society. This working group seeks to help chapters build local power for climate & environmental justice with the backing of a national network; advance an ecosocialist perspective in environmental justice movements, the DSA & greater left; promote understanding of climate science as well as the intersections of capitalism, imperialism, systemic oppression & climate crisis; and build a socialist movement that reflects the needs of the people and limits of our planet.”
Neither socialism nor environmentalism are new, but the ways that socialists and environmentalists are facing the daunting challenge of coping with a changing climate in an increasingly globalized world are ever-evolving. As activists seek to spark change as small as using a reusable grocery bag and as large as a complete overhaul of capitalism, they are tasked with presenting their arguments in ways that are accessible and relevant to those whom they seek to convert to their cause. It is necessary to scare the public just enough that they feel pressure to act, but not so much that they feel hopeless; be optimistic, but not too much, and always be aware of the ways that social, economic, and environmental problems can influence and aggravate each other.
How can environmentalists learn from socialists? Throughout history, socialists have been focused on local change through grassroots organizing, unafraid of authority, and eager to stick their necks out for the poor, the forgotten, and the oppressed. Their emphasis on community engagement and ability to form strong coalitions that bridge boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality has earned them valuable allies and resulted in groundbreaking advancements that have transformed American society. It has also created powerful enemies, but socialists continue to fight for their causes every day around the world. Environmental activism can often be frustrating and discouraging, and it is a valuable lesson to learn how to stay determined and keep going despite setback after setback.
How can socialists learn from environmentalists? They could start by looking at their own past failures: again and again throughout American history, socialist organizations full of potential and energy have splintered or dissolved due to ideological disagreements and arguments about specific aspects of socialist theory. Rather than staying focused on their mission, socialists have allowed slightly different schools of thought and minor details to distract them and obstruct their progress. They could learn a valuable lesson from the environmental movement, which has encompassed people of all persuasions and walks of life while retaining its cohesion and focus. If environmentalists can grudgingly accommodate individuals as wildly different as Edward Abbey (author of The Monkey Wrench Gang) and John McCain (Republican Senator from Arizona and former Republican presidential nominee), surely Trotskyists, Maoists, and anarcho-communists can lay down their arms and unite behind their shared goal.
Eco-socialism, too, will play an ever-increasing role in the future of environmental activism and policy, especially if current trends in generational political leanings persist. If socialists are to be believed, then an absolute transformation of our economic, social, and cultural systems will be required in order to sufficiently address climate change on a level that is truly effective and sustainable. Restructuring our economy and redefining our collective values in order to prioritize human rights and personal needs over individual profit and the accumulation of capital will be a long process that may not yet be possible with current technological development, at least on a worldwide scale.
But even as some struggle towards a socialist future, others must be ready to be present for the everyday challenges that climate change will bring. Not only are long-term solutions absolutely required, but intermediate steps will have to be taken in order to weather the coming storm. Activists, scientists, academics, and politicians may find it necessary to share socialists’ awareness of the inequitable distribution of environmental burdens as they seek solutions to issues of soil degradation, water quality and access, air quality, energy production, biodiversity loss, and agricultural production. Small-scale or international redistribution of resources, too, may help protect rural and low-income communities as well as developing nations as they cope with the worst of climate change’s effects.
One thing is clear: it is no longer acceptable to avoid discussion of socialist theory due to simple historical stigma and decades of propaganda. As climate change threatens every inch of the Earth, those who are invested in finding solutions must begin to look outside of the conventional, the accepted, the mainstream, and the status quo. Eco-socialists have a great deal to offer the broader environmental movement, and in the face of the greatest global challenge humanity has ever faced, activists must unite behind a shared goal for the sake of everyone, present and future, whose very existence depends on their efforts.
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