“Ecology without class struggle is just gardening.”
—Chico Mendes (1944–1988)
Brazilian rubber tapper, union leader, environmentalist
OF ALL THE CRISES ENVELOPING the globe this year—military, economic, environmental, social—the climate disaster often stood out from all others. It appeared that the planet was burning and flooding at the same time. With wildfires, air quality alerts, record ocean temperatures, and flooding sweeping the US and Canada, it was clear that no portion of the world’s population—including those in the “wealthy” countries of the Global North—is exempt from the rapidly collapsing biological and material conditions for the survival of our species.
Meanwhile, the world’s dominant central banks, intent on raising interest rates to suppress wage gains by workers, have engineered a new global debt crisis which, as we discuss below, will only inflict more hunger and suffering on the world’s most vulnerable populations. Just as our rulers keep fiddling on the edges of the environmental crisis, appeasing oil and gas companies, plastics producers, mining firms, and the entire destructive capitalist industrial complex, so they utter empty platitudes as the poorest people of the Global South are ground up in the wheels of a debt crisis that the wealthy have engineered.
Let’s look as both aspects of this multidimensional crisis in turn. We will start with the ecological disaster, whose scale is mind boggling. Consider just these examples:
June 2023 was the hottest June since 1850; the weather in July only kept pace. As heat-driven death tolls rose around the world, yet another scientific study declared that human-induced climate change played an “absolutely overwhelming” role in causing the deadly heat wave.11. David Stanway, “Climate Change Role in July Heatwaves ‘Overwhelming’, Scientists Say,” Reuters, July 25, 2023.
Meanwhile, as a result of clear-cutting, logging, and mining, the Amazon now absorbs 30 percent less carbon dioxide than it did in the 1990s. This is an environmental calamity. It means that global temperatures will inevitably rise more quickly. Yet in countries like Ecuador and Brazil, the Amazon’s biodiversity is further threatened by new giant dam and mining projects.
Climate change is also causing severe storm systems and ominous floods. In the coming years, more than 1.8 billion people face significant risk of severe flooding, with people in the poorest countries most at risk.22. Jun Rentschler, M. Salhad and B Agra-Jafino, “Flood Exposure and Poverty in 188 Countries,” Nature Communications 13 (2022).
Manatee Bay in the Florida Keys exceeded 101 degrees Fahrenheit, potentially the hottest ocean temperature ever recorded by humans. These hot-tub-level temperatures mean the utter decimation of coral reefs, which means an unprecedented threat to marine life subsisting off coral systems.33. Li Cohen, “‘100% Coral Mortality’ Found in Coral Reef Restoration Site off Florida Coast as Ocean Temperatures Soar,” CBS News, July 24, 2023.
Drought is the other side of all this. And the likelihood of mega-droughts—lasting ten or more years—is now projected to increase from 12 to 60 percent by 2050. With drought come water shortages, crop failures, hunger, and starvation.44. Tiffany Means, “Climate Change and Droughts: What’s the Connection,” Yale Climate Connections, May 11, 2023.
Environmentalists are right to warn that the clock is literally ticking where ecological calamity is concerned. Yet the world’s governments continue to miss the carbon reduction targets of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement by a long shot.55. Chelsea Harvey, “Global Carbon Removal Efforts are Off Track for Meeting Climate Goals,” Scientific American, January 19, 2023. At the same time, they are abjectly failing to achieve targets for world poverty reduction. These twin failures are deeply interconnected. Worse, all of this is being massively exacerbated by an emerging global debt crisis that will prove devastating for people across the Global South.
A New Global Debt Crisis
Even the World Bank has recently observed that the current moment in the world economy represents “an enduring setback to development in emerging and developing countries, one that will persist for the foreseeable future.” According to the World Bank’s annual report, the United Nation’s antipoverty development goals for 2030 are now “well off course.” Not only have the poorest countries been hammered by rising food prices and Covid prevention costs. Now they are faced with central banks in the Global North jacking up rates to contain wage gains by workers.
Higher interest rates will enormously raise the costs for poor nations to pay back their global debts. In fact, the seventy-five most impoverished countries in the world, many in sub-Saharan Africa, will need to come up with an extra $100 billion this year to cover loans from international lenders. That is $100 billion that will not go to health, education, housing, or environmental repair. And it means more lives, perhaps millions more lives, sacrificed to corporate profit.
In Nigeria, an additional thirteen million people are expected to fall into poverty by 2025. Meanwhile, Ghana, a major producer of gold and cocoa, has already been forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for debt relief. Pakistan too, which must pay back $80 billion in debt over the next three years, is on the brink of turning to the IMF.
Behind countries like Pakistan and Ghana are others like Sri Lanka, Lebanon, and Argentina, all of which face impending crises of indebtedness. And as decades of debt disaster have shown, the IMF demands draconian cuts to social services and food subsidies for the poor as a condition of emergency loans. Hundreds of millions of people in the Global South are thus threatened with a double whammy of imperialism: growing poverty due to debt crisis combined with catastrophic droughts and flooding.
“Polycrisis” or a Single Multidimensional Crisis?
As we argued in the last issue of Spectre, the popular term “polycrisis,” coined by economist Adam Tooze, does not truly get at the roots of what is happening in our world. To be sure, it appears as if many crises are erupting at the same time. But in fact, we are dealing with multiple effects of the subordination of human social reproduction to the imperatives of profitability and capital accumulation.
It is capitalist competition and the incessant drive for profitability, that are at the root of sharpened political–military competition and war; growing poverty and social inequality; mass migration, sharpening racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia and transphobia; and the resurgence of the far right. Rather than imagining that these are separate phenomena, we need to see them as interconnected crises that demand a unified anticapitalist response.66. See “Editorial: ‘Woman, Life, Freedom,’” Spectre, 7 (Spring 2023). In fact, these interconnected crises are what the Marxist organizer Antonio Gramsci called an “organic crisis” of the system.
All these phenomena express the logic of profit over people—and the natural environment. That is why world leaders have utterly failed to address climate change for more than half a century.77. Christina Figueres, Y. de Boer and M.Z. Cutajar, “For 50 Years, Governments Have Failed to Act on Climate Change: No More Excuses,” The Guardian, January 2, 2022. It is not that they are unaware of the problems, but that they are committed to corporate profitability. Cleaning up the environment, de-carbonizing the economy, massively developing renewable energy, phasing out plastics: all of this would inflict costs on big business. And that is what our rulers will not countenance.
An End to Illusions
In such desperate circumstances, it can be tempting to simply throw in our lot with any promise, however feeble, to address the crisis. Certainly, we applaud all small steps in the right direction, such as the Lula government’s recent pledge to stop deforestation of Brazil’s Amazonian rainforests. But such measures are not sweeping enough, radical enough, or, frankly, anticapitalist enough to shift the dynamics of ecological decline.
We are not shy in declaring that only international socialism can avert the pell-mell rush toward disaster. Mere tinkering at the margins of the capitalist market system is not only inadequate; it is recklessly irresponsible. We can afford no illusions about the stakes involved. Capitalist parties are an obstacle to be overcome, not allies to be influenced.
Socialists who limit their sights to reforming parties like the Democrats in the US can only disappoint themselves and their supporters. This was evident when Biden, in order to facilitate “bipartisan” support for raising the US debt ceiling, agreed to expedite the Mountain Valley Pipeline through the Appalachians—just weeks after his approval of a giant oil drilling and pipeline project in Alaska.
The burning of fossil fuels continues unabated, despite the faint promises of a transition to solar and wind power in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act passed last year. Put simply, it is open season on the environment, workers, and the global poor in the name of profit-driven “economic growth.”
System Change not Climate Change
It is clear that capitalism cannot solve this crisis; it is less clear, however, how Marxists ought to respond. There is a sharp debate between starkly contrasting visions of ecosocialism. The ecomodernist wing of the ecosocialist movement aims to accommodate ecological realities primarily through technological change and demarketization, while holding to a more traditional vision of widespread material abundance as a central goal of socialism.88. As a case in point, see Matthew T. Huber, Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (London: Verso Books, 2022).
More radical strands of ecosocialism, advocates of “degrowth communism,” argue that ecomodernism uncritically replicates capitalism’s fantasies of endless growth and ideological faith in technofixes.99. See, for instance, Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene: Toward the Idea of Degrowth Communism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2023). This debate ultimately spills beyond the bounds of ecological Marxism, touching on fundamental questions of socialist strategy and values.
Each side, moreover, views the rapid worsening of the climate and biodiversity crises as validating its position. Ecomodernists argue that degrowth’s vision of radical transformation is politically unpopular and thus doomed to irrelevance, and that we must appeal to workers’ immediate interests if we wish to win political power within the timeframe necessary to avert further catastrophe. Degrowth’s proponents see ecomodernist reformism as a false solution that will further lock in the present paradigm of productivism and extractivism.
While these divergences are significant, the sometimes abstract character of debates over “growth” and “technology” may obscure necessary nuance and generate excessive polarization. In truth, it seems likely that a just response may require growth in some areas and degrowth in others, the repurposing of capitalist technologies in some spheres and the complete reorganization of productive processes and aims in others. It may also call for different priorities at different points in time as we struggle to preserve the material grounds for a livable—and, we hope, a more just and sustainable—future.
A Left on Fire
As always, the Left confronts the challenge of political agency. The primary problem we confront is not the absence of masses of people who understand the urgency of what we face. Once again, for instance, the 2023 Harvard Youth Survey shows strong majority support among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in the US for government spending to reduce poverty; to guarantee food, housing, and healthcare; and to curb climate change.1010. Harvard Kennedy School, “Harvard Youth Poll,” Institute of Politics, Spring 2023, https://iop.harvard.edu/youth-poll/45th-edition- spring-2023. Our problem, particularly in the United States, is a low level of organized resistance due to a demobilized left that has overinvested in electoralism at the expense of building workplace, community, and street-based struggles.
Yet, there are compelling examples which we could—and should—emulate. In the vanguard have been the decades-long struggles of Indigenous people across the globe against extractivist corporations and their political representatives, including in the heroic struggle at Standing Rock in the US against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In Latin America, organizations such as the Enlace Continental de Mujeres Indigenas (Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas) have succeeded in forcing several governments to enact policies to protect the lands and ways of life of Indigenous people.1111. Karla Mendes, “President Lula’s First Pro-Environment Acts Protect Indigenous People and the Amazon,” Mongabay, January 4, 2023.
Mass struggles in the Global North, culminating in the last April’s climate strike in Germany, also hold out promise for a powerful movement precisely where the bulk of environmentally destructive corporations are located. The challenge is building an anticapitalist, ecosocialist left that is up to the task of confronting the environmental crisis.
Spectre has insisted that capitalism provokes resistance in the form of episodic mass struggles: from mass strikes to antiracist uprisings and the mobilizations of working and oppressed people against the far right. We hope to help coalesce a Left in the US and internationally that builds mass insurgency for a world beyond the rule of capital.
This issue offers analysis meant to arm us intellectually and politically for the challenges ahead. In a rich and provocative piece, Jonathan Martineau and Jonathan Durand Fulco argue that we need to come to terms with the dynamics of algorithmic capitalism today. Todd Gordon and Jeffery R. Webber analyze the dynamics of right-wing and fascist movements. And Christina Heatherton addresses questions about international working class organizing based on her exciting and inspiring new book, Arise! Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution.
Spectre is also excited to publish here a forgotten interview with C.L.R. James on anticolonial struggles in the Caribbean with an introduction by socialist-feminist writer and campaigner Selma James. We include further Provocations on ecosocialism and analytical Marxism. And, as always, we review some important new books for the Left.
We conclude these comments with a valuable reminder from Selma James that you will find in these pages. Writing about her work with C.L.R. James in Caribbean independence struggles, she cautions that struggles for global justice will be derailed “unless the society [we] aim to create is based on the self-mobilization of the population to recreate society anew.” Let us be guided by that injunction. ×
- David Stanway, “Climate Change Role in July Heatwaves ‘Overwhelming’, Scientists Say,” Reuters, July 25, 2023.
- Jun Rentschler, M. Salhad and B Agra-Jafino, “Flood Exposure and Poverty in 188 Countries,” Nature Communications 13 (2022).
- Li Cohen, “‘100% Coral Mortality’ Found in Coral Reef Restoration Site off Florida Coast as Ocean Temperatures Soar,” CBS News, July 24, 2023.
- Tiffany Means, “Climate Change and Droughts: What’s the Connection,” Yale Climate Connections, May 11, 2023.
- Chelsea Harvey, “Global Carbon Removal Efforts are Off Track for Meeting Climate Goals,” Scientific American, January 19, 2023.
- See “Editorial: ‘Woman, Life, Freedom,’” Spectre, 7 (Spring 2023).
- Christina Figueres, Y. de Boer and M.Z. Cutajar, “For 50 Years, Governments Have Failed to Act on Climate Change: No More Excuses,” The Guardian, January 2, 2022.
- As a case in point, see Matthew T. Huber, Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (London: Verso Books, 2022).
- See, for instance, Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene: Toward the Idea of Degrowth Communism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2023).
- Harvard Kennedy School, “Harvard Youth Poll,” Institute of Politics, Spring 2023, https://iop.harvard.edu/youth-poll/45th-edition-
- Karla Mendes, “President Lula’s First Pro-Environment Acts Protect Indigenous People and the Amazon,” Mongabay, January 4, 2023.