Ecological Limits and the Working Class

Blue Heron Mill, Oregon City. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In the latest issue of Catalyst Magazine that is published by Bhaskar Sunkara, there is an article titled “Ecological Politics for the Working Class” by Syracuse University professor Matt Huber, which argues for the need to abandon the “middle class” orientation of the ecologists whose worldview was shaped by the 1960s radicalization. (I guess that includes me.)

These people with their affinity for the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil or the struggle for clean water in Flint, Michigan are neglecting the mainstream proletariat that sounds like Donald Trump voters:

It was working-class loggers who opposed the protection of the spotted owl or the restoration of salmon runs in the Columbia River. As Richard White recounts, the bumper sticker “Are you an Environmentalist or do you Work for a Living?” became popular among rural working-class communities.

To woo such people into a revolutionary movement, the emphasis should be on winning urban and suburban workers to the Green New Deal that is a lynchpin of Sunkara’s developing journalistic empire rather than “the struggles of poor rural populations (peasants, indigenous peoples, etc.) over land, resources, and environmental degradation within a Marxist political-economic framework.” Since most people are wage workers who have been dispossessed of land through “primitive accumulation” over the past four centuries at least, why waste time with the “marginal” population in Brazil, for example? For every Yanomami, there are likely 100,000 wage workers. That’s the argument, anyhow.

Huber also views the Environmental Justice Movement in the industrialized north as having the same kind of glass ceiling. These coastal fishermen, drought-prone farmers, etc. are vulnerable to the effects of climate change and land or water pollution but what about the majority of wage-earners who are not exposed to any apparent threat of toxic pollution? Huber certainly feels sorry for some Bangladeshi farmer or fisherman whose life will be destroyed by rising ocean levels but has to question how such struggles could ever have the social power capable of taking on a capitalist class that is responsible for the dispossession and pollution in the first place. Since Huber and everybody else who writes for Sunkara’s magazines have placed their bets on the Sanders campaign for “taking on capital”, you are left with the dismaying feeling that they are armed with a very blunt instrument. For a Yanomami or a Bangladesh farmer or fisherman, the stakes are very high. For a machinist working at Boeing or a Verizon lineman in suburban New Jersey, there are worries about climate change but it doesn’t have the same immediacy as living in a village near the Indian Ocean.

Matt Huber first came to my attention when I spotted his article “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” in the DSA magazine in May. He singled out Richard Smith, one of my favorite Green scholars, as a “dystopian” since he supports a socialist program of “managed deindustrialization”. Huber complains that he doesn’t fully explain what that would mean. If you go to the Common Dreams article that irks Huber, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the term speaks for itself in light of this example:

Take just one: Cruise ships are the fastest growing sector of mass tourism on the planet. But they are by far the most polluting tourist indulgence ever invented: Large ships can burn more than 150 tons of the filthiest diesel bunker fuel per day, spewing out more fumes—and far more toxic fumes—than 5 million cars, polluting entire regions, the whole of southern Europe – and all this to ferry a few thousand boozy passengers about bashing coral reefs. There is just no way this industry can be made sustainable.

Would phasing out these floating monstrosities be a concession to the “small is beautiful”, hairshirt-wearing eco-socialists who were inspired by Barry Commoner or Rachel Carson? That’s a concession I’d make myself, even at the risk of being labeled a neo-Malthusian.

Back in 1991, when I first began working at Columbia University, I used to spend a lot of time browsing through the books and magazines of Labyrinth bookstore, where I first ran into a magazine called LM. It was originally called Living Marxism and featured snazzy-looking graphics like Jacobin’s. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that its “Marxism” clashed with my own since it published articles denying climate change as well as supporting nuclear power and GMO. Their stance against neo-Malthusian Greens sounded a lot like what Huber is arguing.

While I don’t know what Huber’s views on GMO are, he did claim in the DSA article that it was a major advance when chemicals began to do the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil. He also backed Leigh Phillip’s open letter to Bernie Sanders urging him “to change his mind and embrace nuclear energy.” Phillips, the author of “Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence Of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff”, was cited in Huber’s Catalyst article as someone who is on the same wave-length as him. Phillips was also on the same wave-length as Spiked Online, the website that emerged out of LM Magazine and that featured an excerpt from his book.

Phillips and Huber are throwbacks to the early 90s LM writers who shared their “productivist” version of Marxism. In essence, this takes a single sentence out of The Communist Manifesto and builds an anti-environmentalist program that, except for the Marxist rhetoric, has much in common with Gregg Easterbrook or Bjørn Lomborg. When Marx wrote “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society”, people like Phillips and Huber decided that this meant embracing nuclear power, GMO and all the rest. This is a very narrow understanding of Marx, virtually the eye of a needle that a camel could not pass through.

When Vivek Chibber, the editor of Catalyst, published Huber’s article, he was clearly expressing his affinity for this brand of ecomodernism that was featured in a special issue of Jacobin two years ago. It included an article by Phillips and Michal Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that put a kosher stamp on nuclear power: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” In his letter urging Bernie Sanders to embrace nuclear power, Phillips assured him that the human costs of Chernobyl were exaggerated. Even though there were likely 4,000 people who would die eventually because of exposure, it was a lot less than Greenpeace and other groups alleged.

In an article on Kate Brown’s new book “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future”, MIT News came up with a different assessment than Phillips’s: “The Ukrainian state pays benefits to about 35,000 people whose spouses apparently died from Chernobyl-caused illnesses. Some scientists have told her they think 150,000 deaths is a more likely baseline for the Ukraine alone.”

The bulk of Huber’s article is devoted to debunking the notion of ecological limits, sometimes called “carrying capacity”. He writes:

One of the most influential texts was William Catton’s Overshoot, which explained how human resource use had “overshot” the carrying capacity of the Earth and mass die-off was imminent. Environmental politics rose and expanded precisely during the period of neoliberal restraint. It subscribed to what Leigh Phillips terms an “austerity ecology” — a politics of limits, reducing consumption, and lessening our impact — reduce, reuse, recycle.

Perhaps the most popular strand on the eco-left today is the program of “degrowth” defined in a recent compilation as “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that will reduce societies’ throughput of energy and raw materials.”

You get the same sort of thing from Phillips in his “Austerity Ecology” book. He writes:

The mantra we keep hearing from the anti-growth advocates, “You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet,” seems so obviously true. Which is why it is so seductive to green activists. It’s designed perfectly for a banner or placard. But it is only true if the rate of consumption is fixed, and we have just shown how in two clear ways—technological innovation and reorganization of our political economy—we can alter the rate of consumption. Indeed, the rate is constantly changing.

What you won’t find in either Huber’s article or Phillips’s book is a serious attempt to deal with the economic data that supports the conclusion that ecological limits is a real thing. Take for example Jason Hickel’s “Is it Possible to Achieve a Good Life for All Within Planetary Boundaries?” and you will be struck by the extensive bibliography that references 99 scholarly articles that, like his, crunch the kind of numbers that are blissfully ignored by Huber and Phillips.

Hickel’s article is focused on the contradictions he found in a 2015 UN report titled “Sustainable Development Goals”. In essence, poverty reduction required economic growth at the expense of sustainability. If the goal was to elevate poor nation’s well-being to the standards of Europe or the USA, even at a middle-class level, the consequences would be environmental degradation of the kind highlighted in a UN report two months ago that warned about the imminent extinction of 1,000,000 species.

To be taken seriously in discussions about ecological limits, you need to deal with real numbers rather than empty abstractions about how “technological innovation” can fix all these problems like the wand used by the sorcerer’s apprentice. The proper balance is struck in country’s that lie within the middle tier of UN Human Development Indicators such as Belarus. At a $7.40 per day level, Belarus is the most promising, according to Hickel. It has a minimal social shortfall (a score of 0.98) excluding qualitative indicators, with an average biophysical score is 1.64. In other words, they are close to being balanced. The biophysical score is connected to the country’s level of resource extraction and other factors related to “footprint”, which means the amount of infrastructure and resources necessary to sustain a population. In a country like Mauritania, with a preponderance of migratory herders, the footprint is quite low.

After examining all the numbers, Hickel concludes that the only way that the contradiction between human and nature can be resolved is by the most advanced countries undergoing some loss of material goods such as the luxury cruises that Richard Smith views as unnecessary.

Naturally, the most unequal use of resources between the wealthy North and the poverty-stricken South is energy. Even with the development of alternative energy sources, the North continues to derive vast amounts of energy from natural gas and oil. Hickel is blunt about what has to be done:

In sum, there is no empirical evidence to support the notion that rich nations can make sufficiently dramatic reductions in resource use and emissions while at the same time pursuing economic growth…In light of this, achieving a good life for all within planetary boundaries will require that rich nations begin to gradually downscale their aggregate economic activity, embarking on a trajectory of planned de-growth. One approach would be to gradually reduce the size of the population (in an equitable, progressive and non-coercive way), so that GDP per capita can be maintained even while total economic activity shrinks. But if we assume that the population grows according to existing projections and stabilises at 9–11 billion, this will require de-growth in both absolute and per capita terms. Scholars argue that de-growth can be achieved without any loss to social indicators, and could further enhance human well-being if done equitably.

In an article titled “Degrowth: a theory of radical abundance”, Hickel takes the sting out of a possible future that Huber and Phillips see as a fate worse than death. Being deprived of luxury liner cruises, 5,000 square-foot suburban houses, central air-conditioning, beef four nights a week, and SUVs might sting at first but a 30 hour work week, a job guarantee and a living wage might assuage all except the most rabid Trump voter. Add to this access to high-quality, generous public healthcare, education, affordable housing, transportation, utilities and recreation facilities, it would go along way to keeping people satisfied. Hickel notes that a Gallup poll revealed that many countries (Germany, Austria, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Finland, Canada, Denmark, and most notably Costa Rica) have higher levels of well-being than the United States does, with less GDP per capita.

As promising as this sounds, none of this can happen under capitalism. Capitalism is driving the planet toward extinction for the simple reason that profit-seeking will allow nothing less than the subordination of humanity and nature to the corporate state. The resistance to anything resembling a degrowth agenda will be more aggressive than anything the Trump administration has come up with to this date but it will be aimed at the bulk of the American citizenry rather than immigrants, the poor and the racially oppressed.

As the final act of the capitalist system draws near, there will be the stiffest resistance to any challenge by a socialist movement internationalist enough to understand that American workers must sacrifice some privileges in order to save all of humanity and the natural world in the long run. The notion that the planet Earth is some kind of inexhaustible supply of natural resources that can guarantee some 11.2 billion people to live in peace, security and well-being by the end of the century is absurd. We can certainly understand why capitalist politicians try to maintain such illusions but it behooves those on the left to dispense with them posthaste.

As Karl Marx once put it, “But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”


Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.