The world we live in today is racked by crises — economic, political, and ecological. Hundreds of millions have seen their standard of living decline and prospects for the future dim, while hundreds of millions more are dealing with droughts, floods, and other impacts of climate change, which only stand to get worse as time goes on.
As international climate negotiations stall and mainstream climate activism grows increasingly desperate, the need for a different kind of society and a political strategy to get there has never been more urgent. But what, concretely, could it look like?
Sabrina Fernandes is an ecosocialist activist from Brazil and host of the popular Marxist YouTube channel, Tese Onze. She is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies.
Developing an effective strategy for radical political change demands a clear vision of antagonisms, alternatives, and pathways of execution. If we acknowledge that today’s many crises are common effects of the capitalist project (rather than deviations from it), to produce answers, we have to name the antagonist in a way that enables people to identify the source of the problem and stand in opposition to it. This is not easy, since capitalist hegemony is also tied to its ability to mask reality, foster consent, and generate fear among those who dare to question what is wrong.
Next, we have to figure out what comes after. It is not enough to oppose something without providing an alternative that is both attractive and possible. If capitalism is bad, what do we want in its place?
Many options have been proposed, including some that could potentially be worse than our current, terrestrial capitalism. If capitalism destroys the planet, how about a new age of colonial capitalism in space? Billionaires have used this vision to stoke imaginations and encourage faith in technological fixes as a way to advance their own business interests and attract more investors. Scientists and the environmental movement, on the other hand, respond by stating the obvious: there is no planet B!
Our job is to show that replacing capitalism is not enough, as replacements can be feeble and temporary. What comes next needs to address the current system’s flaws and be better in so many ways that the status quo simply will not make sense anymore. The alternative needs to make capitalism outdated, pointless, and obsolete.
Ultimately, however, we need to actually get there. The problem with the question of “how” is that it has often been perceived as a simple matter of mechanisms and tools that can be chosen from an existing arsenal. If we need to get from Mexico City to Guadalajara, we can choose between driving, taking the bus, flying, or even walking. A purely instrumental view of the “how” depoliticizes the conditions and consequences of the methods employed and prevents us from continuously evaluating the compatibility between a chosen tactic and the overall strategy.
Our tools are subject to political conditions, time and pace, supply-chain and resource availability, actor engagement, substance, as well as the possibility for detours and adjustment. This means that once we identify capitalism as the main problem and propose that the best alternative is indeed socialism, how we do it concerns not simply a choice between reform or revolution, but essentially the conditions that have to be built for a new kind of power to take over and stay there. We can’t just wish capitalism away and replace it with socialism.
Making History, Today and in the Future
When Karl Marx wrote that humans “make their own history, but … under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”, his point was not that we must accept those circumstances or conditions as constraints, but that our job is to build different conditions for us to inherit in the future — conditions that will give us a better chance to implement elements of our strategy.
When we propose socialism as a system that will save us from capitalism, it is not enough to simply assert that socialist revolution is necessary because society will not survive without it. To those already familiar with the dire need to overthrow capitalism, these statements are nothing more than truisms used to assert our own radical positions. The reality, like it or not, is that we are nowhere close to revolutionary uprisings and the establishment of socialist alternatives on a global scale. To say so is not defeatist anticommunism, but simply acknowledging the concrete conditions we have inherited from our past.
Critically embracing our failures pushes us to deal with the temporal contradictions of socialist construction in a rapidly warming world. It makes us face time: time we have wasted, time we employ now, and time we simply do not have. If the revolution is the “emergency brake” on the Anthropocene’s fast-moving train, to use Walter Benjamin’s formulation, we also need an evacuation plan. Ecological transition is how we engage safety measures to brace for the impact of revolution and equip ourselves for disembarking onto unchartered terrain.
More than any other crisis affecting us today, the ecological crisis radically alters our sense of urgency, because it entails the collapse of the material conditions that make life possible. This crisis, like the others, is mostly produced by the capitalist system. Factors of the Great Acceleration, ranging from rising global temperatures to loss of biodiversity, are tied to the unsustainability of the current mode of production. These cannot be stopped through capitalist solutions, because capital demands more and more from nature to keep its cycle of accumulation going.
In that sense, green capitalism poses more of a threat than standard climate denialism, as it appears to acknowledge the scientific consensus around climate change, but conceals capitalism’s role in the crisis. Its misrepresentation of climate change as a problem that can be managed without drastic changes to the mode of production leads to false solutions and is thus itself a kind of denialism. Its solutions address some critical issues, but only to the extent that they are compatible with the ultimate objective of generating future profits.
Capitalism must end so that life can go on, yet under our current political conditions, no solution appears to be both radical as well as fast enough to confront the ecological crisis without contradiction.
Merely changing how we purchase goods will not fix the problem. Carbon offset schemes allow the big polluters to keep at it while other companies make a killing by reducing some of their emissions. Billionaire investment portfolios value geoengineering methods that are not proven on a mass scale and may have serious ethical and biological implications. We cannot simply replace how we power industry and the production of goods and services with a renewable alternative, because the resources we have on Earth are ultimately finite. We will have to adjust — both in terms of quality as well as quantity — and historically unequal distribution will have to be addressed.
Capitalism must end so that life can go on, yet under our current political conditions, no solution appears to be both radical as well as fast enough to confront the ecological crisis without contradiction. We face the immediate threats of the reorganization of far-right and fascist forces — including ecofascists – and the growing dominance of green capitalism. As we organize to fight such threats, our job is to also identify and engage with possible courses of action that can tackle many things at once.
A prevention program that can start under capitalism, as David Schwartzman argues, is of the essence. To escape the looming ecological disaster before we have the chance to establish a socialist society, we will have to implement ideas, policies, microsystems, reforms, and other socio-political arrangements that will slow the pace of the crisis while establishing the foundations for popular power that can overcome it and support a new system.
This is a question of radical sustainability. We need a strategy that operates in two different political “tides”, as I call it, so that one can account for the contradictions faced by the other. Strategy requires us to think short-, middle-, and long-term questions simultaneously, but with a flexibility that acknowledges that history is a locked-in linear sequence of events and that new contradictions arise as we make it. To lay a sustainable foundation for more radical action in the future is to build conditions that will lead to problems we are not yet ready to approach or even aware of today. They are, however, problems we desire, as they can only materialize once those that plague us today have been resolved. If our strategy is successful, our problems will not be simply about postponing the end of the world, but will engage with what we actually do on this planet for the centuries to come in the billions of years it has left.
Who can implement this strategy? Only those whose real interests lie in preserving the conditions for life on Earth while making said life worth living in a way that is inclusive and peaceful — people who need to reclaim time taken away from them by capitalist exploitation in order to extend the time of human society on Earth.
Even at the early stages, our strategy is not at risk of being enmeshed with green capitalism, because our agent of change is the majority of society exploited by this system — working-class people, migrants and refugees, indigenous groups, people with disabilities, racialized majorities, women, and marginalized LGBTQI+ people who cannot be absorbed into the very limited space capitalism offers in terms of class mobility. Our strategy requires building collective power in arrangements that demonstrate to the majority of the subaltern class that it is possible to reorganize society and that the outcomes of such restructuring are desirable.
Indeed, desirable outcomes are at the core of a successful strategy. Life needs to improve early on in the implementation of an ecosocialist programme to ensure long-term support for the socialist horizon and the possibility for rupture, especially when under external threats of repression, sanctions, and war. These threats should be expected, since our strategy will challenge pockets of capitalist hegemony from the beginning by altering how we deal with nature, and will create conditions for organized counter-hegemonic action — the closest we are to widespread socialist consciousness.
The threats will increase the more we, too, become a threat. Such threats should not, however, be used to justify more hardships than necessary nor divert too much energy from areas that improve lives right away. Being attacked limits courses of action and puts pressure on how we make decisions and what plans we develop, but attacks cannot be an excuse for taking the easy way out — namely, restricting the kinds of freedoms which are at the core of the socialist project. Our strategy will indeed prepare for war, but will seek to avoid it by laying the foundations for peace.
In sum, our strategy is for an ecological transition that will make the socialist transition possible. It transitions from a deeply unsustainable society to one where the risk of collapse will have been delayed by at least a few centuries.
Our strategy needs to set out clear priorities.
Since planetary collapse is an actual risk this century, as evaluated in the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2022, the ecological transition should occur within a short timeframe, ranging from now to 20 or 30 years in the future. Thus, assuming capitalism will be the dominant system in the next decades, the ecological transition happens mostly under it. This is not because we choose to enact the transition under capitalism, but because if it is not done immediately, there is no chance of reaching socialism due to the depletion of life-sustaining conditions. We are still on the train, after all.
The ecological transition constitutes our initial response and, if done properly, will allow us to implement the best long-term plans. Of course, once there is a rupture from capitalism to socialism, even more radical aspects of the ecological transition can be realized in what will be an ecosocialist transition with different pillars of property and power.
Since the reforms promoted by the many plans and deals of the ecological transition are not enough to actually overcome capitalism, our strategy requires strong movement building that will guarantee these reforms but also create conditions for rupture. Andre Gorz spoke of “non-reformist reforms” due to their potential to help cultivate “counter-powers”, the opposite of the reformism that alters the system by repairing it. Thus, an ecosocialist strategy requires a period of alignment between organizing and a strong ecological transition programme under capitalism so that the fruits of this organizing can ultimately break with the system and build an ecosocialist society.
Two political tides interact and build from each other to form our strategy.
One tide carries a faster transition from point A to point B, where we buy ourselves ecological time and offer glimpses into a better life while still under capitalism. The ecological transition involves a combination of transition plans and Green Deals that harness the limited power of reforms at first, with a focus on structural reforms that tackle immediate crisis, strengthen the public sector and management, encourage political participation at various levels, make informed use of campaigning and propaganda to build consciousness, empower socialist organizations to handle problems within their reach, nationalize resources, construct infrastructure that favours efficient use of such resources and more collective living, and reach across borders from a perspective of regional integration, reparations, and international solidarity.
The other tide consists of movement building, whereby we strengthen class consciousness and democratic socialist standards that build collective power for a more radical rupture targeting all the pillars of private property, profit, and accumulation, in what will be the transition from capitalism to socialism. Movement building provides agency to the ecological transition but surpasses its timing, since it builds conditions for socialist power. Once under ecosocialism, movement building is essential to consolidate popular power, as one tide envelops the other and our strategy continues to be re-evaluated and adjusted.
Going beyond the Green New Deal
The depth of the ecological crisis means that if certain conditions are not met, there is no possibility for building a socialist society — even if the working class is ready for socialism. Thus, an effective ecosocialist strategy is situated in the knowledge and materiality of the Anthropocene, but aims to shorten this era through ecological means.
This conclusion should guide conversations around the various demands for a Green New Deal (GND). Generally, a GND is a bundle of reforms, investments, and adjustments tied to mitigation and adaptation to climate change, but also to other aspects of the ecological crisis, which must be implemented within a short timeframe. GNDs must be part ofour strategy, but are not our strategy as such, as they aim at more direct public policy and are vulnerable to changes in government.
Beyond that, domestic programmes of this sort also need to be coordinated through regional programmes and follow a more general global orientation. The debates over a Global Green Deal set out by social movements and civil society organizations need to outline principles and offer outlets for international agreements and the strengthening of alliances. After all, the ecological transition requires strong coordinated action to achieve short- and medium-term goals, and such programmes offer a great opportunity to realize projects that can be objectively evaluated.
Different versions of the Green New Deal have been introduced since the debate re-emerged in the US after 2018, some more capitalist and some more radical. Irrespective of the labels used, the advantage of integrating GND-like programmes into an ecosocialist strategy is two-fold: they contain changes that can be implemented today, and they can be tools for mobilization.
The GND is sometimes framed by politicians and the media as an investment package, but in an ecosocialist strategy, it is much more than that. Investment packages are important, especially when we consider the enormous changes in infrastructure required by the climate part of the transition. Energy conversion to renewables alone will cost between 30 and 60 trillion additional US dollars between now and 2050, depending on the study. Making housing more efficient and building new comfortable and climate-friendly homes would require trillions more. Changing the transportation grid, promoting new technologies, and growing our food in an efficient, but healthy and sustainable manner will also require a lot of investment.
The Anthropocene may be characterized by human intervention, but in asymmetrical ways.
Currently, the financial sector claims it could allocate over 100 trillion dollars in assets to finance the race to net-zero emissions. But this is business-as-usual, since net zero frameworks still allow fossil capital to bank on the system and cannot work fast enough in the next three decades to prevent us from going over 2ºC, let alone 1.5ºC. The reason is simple: it looks at investment from within the capitalist paradigm, where there is a lot more diversification and conversion than actual transition into something else.
The rationale that climate transition can generate many other trillions in capitalist growth attracts investors and pleases political representatives willing to incorporate the climate agenda, but only if they can bank on it. The financial markets will invest in “carbon neutrality” the same way they evaluate stocks. They are not concerned with the bulk of ecological concerns caused by the Great Acceleration, because that would require calling into question the logic of capitalist accumulation as a whole.
Moreover, important elements of the transition end up downplayed when GND proposals make it into general political programmes, as was the case with Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 in the US. When policy is dictated more by climate investment than climate justice, there is still room to push things to the left, but chances are that fossil capital will be fighting for its piece of the pie. We should fight some of these battles to secure marginal gains, but their logic cannot dictate our strategy.
In an ecosocialist strategy, GND programmes promote investment with the purpose of fighting multiple crises and match it with initiatives that involve governments, communities, movements, and small enterprises to reconfigure aspects of how we produce, consume, and live. A GND can focus on things that can be achieved fast and, because of the desirability of these changes, serve as a focal point to rally more people, which in turn is a boon to accountability and helps to raise more radical demands.
Where a green job guarantee is offered, for instance, mobilization can ensure that the jobs created pay fair wages, offer benefits, subsidize re-skilling, and are unionized. In combination with these measures, more pressure from below can also lead to a GND that makes the reduction of the workweek a prime demand.
Fighting for and against Time
Reducing working hours at stable productivity levels alters the rate of exploitation of workers, making it a radical anti-capitalist demand. Indeed, significant reductions have already been secured in several core capitalist states, backed by a long history of labour organizing around the issue. Spain recently began a four-day workweek trial. France moved to a 35-hour workweek in 2000, and surveys indicate that the newfound free time was allocated to activities such as family time, rest, and sports.
Where productivity rates are already high, shorter workweeks may even mean more efficiency, which is desirable in certain sectors due to the positive effect on workers’ well-being. More free time leads to health benefits, less commuting. and opens up opportunities for political organizing — feeding both tides of our strategy. Moreover, more time off work can also contribute to more equitable loads of social reproduction labour in the household and alter peoples’ perceptions of how fast they have to get somewhere.
Slowing down the pace of life has particularly interesting implications for matching GND investments in public transport and rail infrastructure.
When forced to choose between taking a train or a plane, people consider cost, duration, and overall convenience. The growth in low-cost airlines has made travel more accessible, but also contributed greatly to climate change. The “green” approach of some airlines is to offset their carbon emissions on the market or allow customers to purchase their own offsets. On the other hand, research into alternative aviation fuels has advanced. Solar-to-fuel technologies tend to be more efficient than biofuels, but have major impacts on water usage and the solar grid, and require CO2 from direct capture or carbon capture and storage options.
This means that as much as we desire certain technologies to improve, thereby simplifying the energy transition through direct conversion from fossil fuel to renewables, things are not that straightforward. It is one thing to want to transition the aviation sector, which also implies changes to its size, but it is quite another to bet on simple fuel conversion into renewables, ignoring every other ecological pressure associated with the chain of production and sheer volume of flights worldwide — especially in richer societies.
Our strategy should encourage research and innovation into better low- to no-carbon technologies, while simultaneously recognizing that technological advancement alone will not fix our problems. The supply-chain considerations raised when it comes to mining strategic minerals help us to understand that there are limits to production and implementation in the transportation sector.
The imagery of a monolithic Global North and a Global South can set us back analytically, as it implies geographical lines of conflict rather than historical patterns of production and distribution of resources.
Thea Riofrancos has demonstrated how lithium’s central role in renewable energy scenarios is part of a delicate “security-sustainability nexus” influenced by expectations of growth, introducing a green chapter in the long history of sacrifice zones created by extractivism — usually concentrated in the Global South or racialized territories in the Global North. It is simply absurd to expect that we should open more and more mines in order to extract the materials needed to produce 1 billion passenger electric vehicles (EVs). Nevertheless, this logic has been completely normalized by current paradigms of green investment, with governments in Canada, Norway, and elsewhere choosing to grant subsidies to customers, dealerships, and automakers to encourage the sale of passenger EVs, rather than massively expand public transport.
Our strategy needs to set out clear priorities. One way do so is by aligning the interests of people with the necessary infrastructure. If we need to reduce the number of airplanes in the sky, how can we offer people alternative means of long-distance transportation that are attractive in terms of cost, duration, and convenience? We could, for example, give people more high-speed trains in lieu of certain plane routes, take advantage of centrally located stations, and make them cheap — perhaps even free!
The cost-of-living and energy crises that hit Europe in 2022 led Germany and Spain to experiment with temporary subsidies for regional trains and local transit. By taking the climate crisis seriously, countries and regions can invest in GND-like programmes and change the way people use transportation. With added infrastructure, other positive effects follow, such as the reduction of congestion and car accidents.
Even if a high-speed train is not as fast as a plane ride, when we slow down the pace of life by allowing people more time off work, the trade-off may not look so bad. The convenience of simply boarding a train rather than having to go through an airport check-in, or of taking a free bus without worrying about turnstiles and ticket purchases, helps to modify behaviour and gain the population’s consent.
When capitalism offers convenience, it usually comes at a price — for customers and the environment. Pre-diced vegetables are convenient in a world where we have limited time for domestic chores, but we pay more and have to deal with excess packaging, usually plastic. An ecosocialist strategy creates convenience of a different kind by providing green public infrastructure that makes life easier and cheaper for workers, reconciling the needs of people and nature in the ecological transition.
Because we need to mitigate and adapt fast, the ecological transition will only win this race against time if it also creates time through the rearrangement of production and living environments.
Some Things Have to Come First
Our strategy is also uneven and combined. We understand that capitalism has developed unequally across the planet and that colonialism still plays a role in industrial advancement and the international division of labour. The underdevelopment of the Global South is combined with the advancement of the Global North.
When Brazilian sociologist Florestan Fernandes explains this phenomenon, he highlights that the persistence of dependent capitalism in peripheral countries is part of a capitalist calculation: the development of capitalism at the margins ends up heavily dissociated from democratic structures and favours the establishment of autocracies. Imperialist intervention contributes to and takes advantage of the democratic deficit to further the interests of more powerful states — installing dictatorships if necessary, as has been routine in Latin America, but also in Africa and the Middle East.
This centre-periphery divide also has deep ecological implications. The Climate Action Tracker estimates that the world is set to reach 2.7ºC of warming by the end of the century if current policies are applied. The 2021 Glasgow Climate Pact failed once again to deliver more radical pledges and cuts. Not only are current policies watered-down, but there is also an implementation gap that will lead to even worse — unequal — outcomes.
The Anthropocene may be characterized by human intervention, but in asymmetrical ways. Richer countries carry far more historical responsibility for climate change than the least-developed countries. Our World in Data estimates that the US, UK, and the 27 members of the European Union together account for 47 percent of global cumulative emissions. Moreover, although climate change affects the entire planet, poorer countries are less prepared to adapt to the effects.
Thus, richer countries ought to bear most of the costs of the ecological transition. Domestic GND programmes need to be publicly financed. and the wealthiest ought to be taxed more heavily. Threats of layoffs, downsizing, and attempts to shift the burden onto consumers must be fought off by a strong alliance between workers’ organizations and the environmental movement.
Moreover, international mechanisms must ensure that poorer countries get access to funds, patent waivers for key technology, and technical support for their own set of programmes. We have to go beyond green finance and pledges made to the UN, given that their voluntary nature has resulted in underwhelming execution so far.
At COP15 in Copenhagen, rich countries pledged to deliver 100 billion dollars per year in finance for climate mitigation and adaptation projects in the Global South, but fell short every year. To make matters worse, a significant portion of the billions made available were in the form of loans. Japan and France have shouldered more than their fair share of the pledge, especially when compared to the US, but repayable loans were at the core of their contribution.
This helps to explain the imbalance in financing, where mitigation initiatives are often privileged over adaption projects that fail to generate profits in return, adding to the devastating indebtedness that chokes the economies of poorer nations. In his inaugural address, Colombia’s new left-wing president Gustavo Petro emphasized how debt is an obstacle to transition in the Global South.
Authors like Olúfémi O. Táíwò have called for a paradigm of climate reparations and debt forgiveness that will allow poorer nations to address the negative legacy of slavery and colonization as part of their ecological transition. Reparations belong in both tides of our strategy, going beyond money transfers and offering a framework for just transition that politicizes present and past conditions.
Our strategy will indeed prepare for war, but will seek to avoid it by laying the foundations for peace.
The Amazon Forest spans across nine countries, and although these nations certainly have the right to improve the lives of their citizens, they also share the responsibility to care for the Amazon in ways that Global North countries did not care for their own ecosystems. The mentality that “they did it first, so can we, too” that permeates some developmentalist discourses in the region is both dangerous and foolish. Socialist organizations in peripheral countries must demand reparations, but the credibility of this action rests on owning up to their own responsibility to explore alternative development paths. Ecosocialist strategy recognizes that Global South states have eco-systemic responsibilities, but unless rich countries must make up for historical liabilities, the rest of the world will be materially unable to transition.
Even today, a certain strand of anti-imperialism argues that climate change is a hoax devised by imperialist countries to delay the development of the Global South. Although a marginal position, variations on this argument make their way into left-wing approaches to the climate crisis.
Oil is a good example. Venezuela has about 300 billion barrels in crude oil reserves, the largest in the world, and many argue that its sovereignty depends on it. Oil development and exports guarantee a massive influx of foreign capital to support investments in public services and infrastructure, as was the case in the best years of the Hugo Chávez presidency. Dependent capitalism, however, sustains a scenario in which Venezuela cannot become a self-sufficient oil producer. It lacks the infrastructure and subsidiary resources needed for refinement, and at the same time is the target of foreign interventions on behalf of the Venezuelan Right, infringements on local sovereignty, and brutal sanctions that destabilize its economy and worsen living standards to create a permanent crisis.
But even if Venezuelan socialists had everything they needed to use all of their oil reserves, the long-desired sovereignty would remain out of reach, as the level of emissions it requires would render the planet uninhabitable — and there is no sovereignty without life. The only thing left would be eco-apartheid and ecofascist forces aligned with corporations, combing through what remains of the Earth for scraps and condemning the majority of humans to fight for survival.
Cutting fossil fuel emissions is not a choice, but a necessity. Different accommodations must be made according to development levels, so that peripheral countries are not overly penalized. And yet, expanded production of Venezuelan fuel would certainly rely on sales to the same Global North countries who must phase-out their reliance on oil as soon as possible. The necessity of the ecological transition means that Venezuela could not rely on the Global South market, either.
The good news, however, is that countries that have been stuck on the margins of development do not need to go through a linear stage of more oil, coal, and gas dependence. Providing electricity to poor communities for the first time can be a cleaner move, going straight from no power to a renewable electric grid drawing on mixed sources and taking ecological and community impacts into account. There is no need for a fossil fuel stage as long as a reparations framework focused on energy democracy is part of our strategy.
An underdeveloped country cannot plan its sovereignty around fossil fuels because its ownership of the resource makes it a target. At the same time, its current level of development is not simply fate, but a result of international political economy, while phasing-out of fossil fuel dependence is a task facing countries both rich and poor alike. A Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty within a just transition framework could help to manage this process fairly.
Making Internationalism Sustainable
Ecosocialist strategy calls for a reframing of sovereignty in terms of radical sustainability. Energy transition alone buys us time and, if focused on addressing basic needs, also contributes to organizing around public utilities, housing, community planning, technological impact, and a post-extractivist mining paradigm.
Ecological transition will look different in each country, according to historical liabilities, but must be combined with the planning of trade and development to optimize how nations address their eco-systemic responsibilities. History has taught us that powerful countries will not voluntarily sacrifice their economic interests for the greater good. This kind of ecological imperialism goes hand-in-hand with political-military imperialism and its own contribution to extinction and barbarism. Programmes for ecological transition require workers’ participation in order to align their interests across wealthier and poorer nations and to apply common pressure on governments and international institutions.
Energy use in OECD countries is almost ten times as high as it is in low-income countries. While adjustments in efficiency will narrow this gap, patterns of consumption and the general mode of living of wealthier societies must also change. That said, the developed world is also riven by inequality, and many workers do not share in what Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen call the “imperial mode of living”. This mode of living puts major ecological pressure on Earth and is connected to the industrial extractivism that impacts local communities in the North while turning entire regions of the South into sacrifice zones.
The mineral resources needed to feed the capitalist appetite and sustain a mode of living that promises big cars, big houses, lots of meat, and cheap air travel will also be problematic even if powered by renewables. Thus, an ecosocialist strategy also has to imply uneven and combined degrowth.
“Selective degrowth” is about economic sectors, borders, and territory. Some regions will need much higher levels of investment so people can enjoy good food, housing, transportation, and stable jobs for the first time. Other regions, especially in high-income countries, will also invest in and grow strategic sectors, while relying on transfers to build inclusive and convenient infrastructure for workers facing high costs of living and bad jobs. This in turn requires popular control of resources — currently a hot topic in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and elsewhere — and alternatives to the hegemonic extractivist model.
The class struggle within climate politics is indeed between workers and capital, as Matt Huber has argued, but this should not be antithetical to the understanding that workers and capital are organized in often contradictory ways across the Global North and Global South, as degrowth, eco-socialist, and Marxist Dependency Theory authors have outlined. Political and economic contradictions often confuse the interests of workers in different countries, but properly acknowledging them helps us to identify where class interests coincide. Our strategy will only work if we also dedicate ourselves to critical political education in labour and movement organizing, so that transformative praxis offsets the influence of capitalist ideology.
It is possible to recognize the existence of an imperial mode of living as well as its uneven distribution. Sometimes, the imagery of a monolithic Global North and a Global South can set us back analytically, as it implies geographical lines of conflict rather than historical patterns of production and distribution of resources, including labour. Automotive industry workers in Germany and Brazil face different realities in terms of infrastructure, salaries, rights, and geopolitics, but in their respective societies, they are subject to similar class antagonisms and face the same challenges.
The ecological transition needs to make sense for workers everywhere. The conventional imperative for economic growth has led to precarious employment and high rates of exploitation, meaning that a conversation around uneven and combined degrowth can actually improve demands for socially necessary, good green jobs and the kind of living arrangements that communities may desire — if, that is, we centre our strategy on alternative frameworks of sufficiency, solidarity, and justice, as suggested by Bengi Akbulut.
Our strategy requires bold action today, oriented by the utopia that can guide us from this century to the next in order to build a just and desirable society.
To succeed in making the ecological transition, the global working class will have to adjust its expectations. We have to reject capitalism’s consumerist lifestyle and take energy and material constraints into consideration when planning a good life. These constraints foster conflicts over who gets to use a resource and how much — not all of which can be resolved by improved technology.
In fact, sometimes older technologies are what can save us, such as the turn to agroecology and its more efficient use of soil and contribution to lower emissions. Agrarian reform and a fair indigenous land settlement process are pre-conditions for rural workers to gain from the ecological transition by overcoming poverty and changing how we feed the world.
Since there is no just transition without indigenous sovereignty, our understanding of what goes where — be it wind turbines or regrown forests — requires improving our approach to territorial rights and living arrangements. Urban workers around the world stand to gain from this, and should coordinate demand so that resource exploitation does not lead to the creation of new sacrifice zones.
We must also be honest that many jobs promised in the transition are temporary, as they are tied to the construction of new infrastructure. Overcoming planned obsolescence will also mean more efficient production, fewer replacements, and less intense maintenance. Some jobs can be converted from dirty to clean sectors, while others will have to disappear completely, such as in the arms industry. Being honest about this fact will help to deepen the tide of organizing at unions, associations, and general social movements, so as not to leave any worker behind. These kinds of calculations will occur within and across borders, possibly many times a day. The success of our ecosocialist strategy depends on the quality of internationalist movement building and our capacity for coordinated planning.
The working class is very diverse. It includes industrial workers, and unions have a strong role to play. That said, it also contains a lot of informal labour. According to the International Labour Organization, there were about 2 billion informal workers around the world in 2019. Some of them — such as those with temporary jobs at farms and fisheries, or the 15–20 million people who earn their living in recycling — face particularly high risks of job loss and health issues as climate change advances. We should also view these jobs, not only factory jobs in the production of solar panels or lithium batteries, as climate jobs.
Women performing care work are also key to the transition, and not only due to the strategic role of the care sector in improving lives in low-carbon ways. Women tend to be principal leaders in the resistance to fossil capital enterprises, in demanding the reduction of the workweek and its gendered double burden of time, and can help to build bridges between workers in the North and South through the feminist movement.
Organizing across these sectors is vital for a real internationalist just transition, and can strengthen campaigns to pressure governments for the programmes that we need. The more successful they are, the more likely we are to get billions of people to join — not only the more environmentally conscious professional class and engaged activists, but also the social movements born out of sacrifice zones that have been involved in centuries-long struggles for land, water, forests, and a good life around the world. This internationalist movement is working class-based in terms of its challenging of capitalism and how it is the source of our present crisis, but populated by the various marginal groups who stand to lose everything if fossil- or eco-fascism has its way.
Thus, the tide of movement building in our strategy will always deal with the pressing issues of the ecological transition, but must also plan for rupture as a consequence of the deeply unsustainable nature of the capitalist machine. Our strategy requires bold action today, oriented by the utopia that can guide us from this century to the next in order to build a just and desirable society.
Our strategy is about more than survival. It is about life — a better life — and this alone sets us apart from the capitalists and the tragedies they cause. The long path of transition is full of contradictions and will present more challenges than the socialist movement has ever faced. Time is of the essence and we cannot afford to waste it any longer, as our ultimate goal is to win an emancipated society and maintain it for centuries to come.