I recently participated in a study group where climate change and environmental issues were discussed in an anti-capitalist light. It was mentioned, among other things, that if every country in the world were to have the same ecological footprint as Norway, we would need 3,6 earths. It is our duty, both to the coming generations as well as the poor and exploited masses in the global south, that we in Norway change our way of living. In a time where global capitalism leads us ever closer to total ecological collapse, and communism becomes more and more a necessity, it is important to discuss alternatives to the current social order. In the face of hopelessness, confusion, lack of willpower and dishonest vows, we need to think creatively and take the question of how a sustainable society can look seriously.
“Green capitalism” is a self-contradiction
My point of departure is that the free market and capitalist mode of production is incompatible with a sustainable society. Free competition, and thus the need to constantly produce in cheaper ways than one’s competitors, makes companies choose cheaper and most often less environmentally friendly solutions. Besides, each company needs annual growth – no investor or stockholder wants to put their money into a company that expects a loss at the end of the year! Unlimited economic growth is impossible on a planet with finite resources and in an atmosphere that can only take a limited concentration of greenhouse gases. Even “renewable” resources like wood and ocean life will end if they are exploited faster than they can reproduce themselves. If humans are to live on this planet for more than forty-fifty more years, zero-growth needs to replace growth and human need needs to take the place of profits.
Bourgeois humanism and the “conquest mindset”
The classical bourgeois view of nature is that it is (1) separate from humanity, (2) that it exists for humanity and should be conquered by it and (3) an infinite resource. According to this view, the agrarian revolution was the start of the conquest of nature, while the industrial revolution signalled the completion of this conquest. This view of the relation between humanity and nature has never been universally accepted (various indigenous societies have long insisted that humanity is part of nature) and is starting to crumble. More and more people realize that humanity is subject to the rules set by nature. Still, the principle of conquest shines through in liberal technological optimism; many well-meaning liberals believe that since humanity has an unlimited ability to create and to tame nature, we will sooner or later have developed some technology that is able to stop or even reverse climate change and environmental destruction. This bourgeois view is a dead end for all environmentally conscious people. We need to liberate ourselves from the conquest mindset, and immediately fight for a society and mode of production that respects the boundaries set by nature.
A socialist planned economy is necessary
We’ve so far established that a sustainable society can not be a capitalist one, and that humanity needs to liberate itself from the thought that nature is to be conquered. I think the society we need is a communist or socialist one: where the production is planned collectively, where people’s and nature’s needs are the basis for all production and where people contribute according to ability and receive according to need. I choose to maintain the planned economy as a key socialist principle, as opposed to the “market socialism” that some espouse. A system where internally democratic worker cooperatives compete freely with each other is not liberated from capitalist economic laws (ignoring the law of surplus value for this discussion). Cooperatives still need to produce cheaper than their competitors to avoid bankruptcy. They still need to achieve an annual surplus – and thus produce more each year – in order to keep wages from falling. Just like private capitalist firms, they are not able to make long-term plans. This does not mean that cooperatives aren’t a valuable element in a socialist economy, but that the most important parts of the economy need to be run as public enterprises with no need for growth and profits.
What will a green communism look like – for us?
In addition to changing the societal economic relations, we humans need to change the ways we relate to nature and each other. In the study group I have already mentioned, it was discussed how the level of consumption and ecological footprint in Norway could be decreased, without reducing the standard of living for poor people. Here are some things that were mentioned:
- We need to leave behind the idea that standard of living is the same as level of material consumption. Quality of life for all needs to be the guiding principle.
- The contrast between urban and rural areas needs to be erased – especially by growing more food in the cities.
- People can live more collectively and do more things together. We can build housing units with a common kitchen, dining room and laundry room. People can, to a greater extent, live across generations. For instance, young students can live alongside pensioners.
- There can be established “rental centrals” similar to libraries, where people can borrow everything from gardening equipment to musical instruments – rather than everyone owning everything themselves.
- All large housing units can have an associated garden where the residents grow some of the things they eat together.
- Cities need to be planned in such a way that people have a short distance to work, the store etc. in order to limit the need for private cars.
- A way of living where people do more things collectively, and live closer to nature, may change the way we see ourselves and each other. People may feel less lonely and more like full humans in a valuable community with others.
A sustainable society where humans live in harmony with nature is not built overnight. Nor will the thought that material consumption is the same as standard of living disappear of its own accord. As Lenin once said, we need to build socialism with the humans that exist today, delivered to us by capitalist society. We who see ourselves as environmentally conscious socialists are also, in many ways, affected by consumer ideology, the “conquest mindset” and individualism. The struggle against these forms of thinking and for a way of life where humans live in harmony with nature will take generations to complete. The only thing that is certain is that this struggle cannot be won within the limits of a capitalist system.