Magdoff and Williams provide a powerful case that ecological disaster can be overcome by a revolutionary transformation of social relations


Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, Creating an Ecological Society: Towards A Revolutionary Transformation (Monthly Review Press 2017), 387pp.

In November 2017, UN climate observers reported that the past three years have all been in the top three years in terms of temperature records. They also reported temperatures topping 50C in Asia, record-breaking hurricanes in rapid succession in the Caribbean and Atlantic, devastating monsoon flooding affecting millions, and a relentless drought in East Africa. The World Meteorological Organisation has stated that indicators up to this point suggest that 2017 will actually be the hottest year since records began. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now estimated to be higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years. Bearing in mind our species has been on the planet for only about a quarter of that time, this is clearly a crisis of unprecedented magnitude for humanity.

Although the existential threat to life on Earth by climate change becomes increasingly apparent year by year, the capacity of capitalist politicians to respond appropriately remains pitifully inadequate. Trump’s stated goal to take the US out of the 2015 Paris climate deal is only the most egregious example. Supporters of renewable energy estimated earlier this year that UK government funding of wind, solar, biomass power and waste-to-energy projects is set to fall by 95% over the next three years.

The incompatibility of sustainable development with the logic of capital has long been recognised on the left and there have been a number of insightful attempts recently by writers such as John Bellamy Foster and Ian Angus to systematise a coherent ‘red-green’ perspective on the unfolding crisis. Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, in Creating an Ecological Society, have produced a left-wing analysis that is a worthy addition to this collection. They explicitly make the case that only a revolutionary transformation on socialist principles will generate a political framework to save the planet:  

‘if we can’t even imagine a different way of interacting with one another, the economy and the resources we use and depend on, then the struggle for a just and ecologically sound world recedes into the realm of utopian fantasy’ (p.18).

What makes their account particularly powerful is an awareness that only a Marxist perspective on climate change can comprehend that the environmental crisis is intrinsically linked to other manifestations of a declining and dysfunctional social and political system. The book includes incisive analyses of how racism, sexism, class inequality and other forms of oppression are rooted in the dynamics of capitalism and that, consequently, the struggle to avert ecological collapse cannot be separated from campaigns against these and related injustices.

A holistic and all-encompassing vision of both the global situation, and the type of activism required in response, makes this an informative and uplifting account of ecosocialism that is as good as any other available:

‘Whether the issue is police brutality, the building of new oil or gas pipelines, the erosion of voting rights or workers’ rights, the vilification of Muslims or immigrants, sexism in the workplace or elsewhere, or some other battle for social and economic justice and a healthy environment, we must take it on’ (p.328).

The book is coherently structured into sections that address different aspects of the debate on the politics of the environment.  As the co-authors have both a scientific background and a commitment to left-wing politics, their exploration of the issues provides a wealth of professional expertise and political acumen.

The scale of the crisis

The first section is a searing explication of the enormity of the crisis confronting the planet. Climate-change denial is hopefully a shrinking point of view (with the disastrous exception of the Trump administration) but it is always worth being reminded of the scale of ecological degradation that is underway in the natural world. Magdoff and Williams collate a valuable synthesis of data from numerous fields that collectively make an irrefutable case for the evidence of human impact on the planet. Their grim but thought-provoking starting point is an imaginary scenario set centuries ahead in which the crisis of our times has not been tackled effectively:

‘At some time in the future archaeologists may look at the rubble of a large twenty-first century city or other physical remnant of today’s world and wonder, as Shelley’s traveller surely would, what cataclysm struck that civilisation?’ (p.17).

Based on that premise, they provide some staggering evidence that such a scenario is not far-fetched (chapter 1). Even the Paris deal on which Trump has reneged, the authors calculate, is hopelessly insufficient. The guidelines contained in the agreement on acceptable warming would still result in a global temperature rise of 4C, making a mockery of the deal’s stated purpose to limit it to 2C.

They estimate the amount of energy being pumped into the atmosphere since the start of this century is the equivalent of four atom bombs every second. Last year, the extent of sea ice of the Arctic hit an all-time low. An area the size of Alaska has been lost from the ice pack there in just the last fifty years. The fastest melting point of Antarctica contains enough water to raise global sea levels by four feet. In thirty-five years, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Ninety percent of all sea birds have ingested some type of plastic. Giant tortoises existed on the Earth for ten million years and yet one sub-species has now been exterminated by human beings in the space of less than one century. Four thousand people die every day in China due to breathing polluted air; 6.5 million die every year around the world for the same reason. Half of the forests cut down by human beings since the last ice age have been since World War II. Last year, London exceeded its annual limit for nitrogen-dioxide levels within the first week of January.

The role of class and imperialism

Unlike more mainstream accounts of the crisis, however, Magdoff and Williams link these types of problems to the class nature of the system that is presiding over them. They identify that 10% of the global population (the richer countries that is) are responsible for consuming 60% of the Earth’s resources and releasing the same proportion of pollutants into the atmosphere (p.108). Of course, within that 10% is the even smaller percentage who actually control the economies of the major capitalist states. In the US, nearly 40% of all consumption is by the richest 5% (p.50). The authors highlight the jaw-dropping disparity recently highlighted by Oxfam that eight super-rich individuals have accumulated as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity, that is 3.2 billion people (p.41). The same report noted the wealth stashed away by the global elite in offshore tax havens amounts to nearly $7 trillion.

The necessity of integrating the campaigns against climate change and inequality is underlined by research that shows that nearly two-thirds of carbon emissions originate from just ninety companies around the world and, of those ninety, eight are responsible for 20% of the emissions from fossil fuels and cement production over the past couple of centuries (p.120). The authors regard a combined struggle against the elite and the destruction of nature they have wrought as a pre-requisite for safeguarding the future of humanity. They creatively deploy a concept deployed by the nineteenth-century thinker, John Ruskin, that capitalism generates not wealth but ‘illth’:

‘Illth comes in many forms. One is conspicuous consumption by the very rich – the luxury cars, yachts, private jets, huge houses, and other forms of conspicuous living. If this richest 10 per cent reduced their consumption to the average consumption of the rest of humanity, total global resource use would be cut in half (p.108).

As well as underlining the crucial link between capitalism and the environmental crisis, Magdoff and Williams highlight the often hidden role imperialism plays in exacerbating the threat to the biosphere by diverting vast funds into wasteful projects. In the eyes of some, Obama now looks like a model of ozone-friendly politics compared to his toxic successor, but the authors are scathing about the reality behind the rhetoric. They remind us that Obama ploughed $1 trillion into an upgrade of the US’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and the development of the F35 fighter, the most expensive military vehicle in history. The Pentagon is planning to construct over two thousand of these by the end of the 2030s; the helmet for one pilot alone costs $400,000! Magdoff and Williams calculate the cost of one plane would be enough to subsidise over three thousand years of college money! (p.111):

‘The military also wastes incredible quantities of fuel. It is exempt from all international climate agreements and local environmental regulations at its hundreds of bases worldwide, allowing the US military to be the single largest user of fossil fuels and by far the world’s biggest polluter’ (p.112).

This recognition of the threads connecting the crisis in the natural world to a crazy economic system with its militarised obsessions makes this analysis superior to anything coming from the orthodox green movement.

Oppression and ecological crisis

As part of their crucial perspective that the environmental crisis is one aspect of the systemic failure of capitalism, Magdoff and Williams also provide valuable analyses of the sexism, racism and poverty afflicting Western societies and explain why these forms of oppression cannot be siloed away from the impact of the rich on the biosphere. Again, their utilisation of official statistics provides powerful ammunition for activists. They note data from the UN that women’s unpaid contribution to the global economy amounts to $11 trillion (p.144) and from the World Health Organisation that one third of women around the world have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence, usually from a partner (p.147). The Weinstein scandal this year has obviously put this issue in the spotlight, but this shocking fact suggests no one should really be surprised by the extent of the problem.

They also draw attention to the epidemic of police violence plaguing US society in particular, and see it as another symptom of a rotten system; 67% of the US prison population is black, whereas only 37% of the general population is classified as such (p.134). This is part of a wider increase in the size of the prison population of 500% over the last forty years (p.133). The link between racism and the environmental crisis is spelled out even more in a discussion on how the living conditions of working-class black Americans puts them at greater health risk than more affluent sections of society:

‘Compared to the rest of the population, people of colour are more likely to be living near toxic waste sites (56 percent of those living nearby are people of colour); twice as likely to live without clean water and modern sanitation facilities; they are thirty-eight times more likely to be exposed to nitrogen dioxide, which causes respiratory problems’ (p.139).

As Marxists, the authors integrate their account of these forms of oppression within the concept of alienation as developed by Marx in the nineteenth century, and explain how part of its deleterious effect of the human personality is to set us subjectively against those who are objectively our comrades in struggle:

‘These social divisions are not accidents. They act to prevent people from uniting, to keep them fighting to stay one rung higher up the ladder by stepping on those below. That is why racism and the systematic oppression of women are endemic to capitalist societies, varying only by degree’ (p.132).

It would be understandable if a reader of this volume was to feel despondent due to the overwhelming evidence presented that twenty-first-century capitalist society is taking us at an accelerating rate towards a precipice. However, the authors are refreshingly optimistic about chances of a revolutionary transformation taking place at some point in the next few decades and argue the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the electoral revival of the left in the West are all portents of impending class struggle on a massive scale:

‘To be successful any revolutionary upheaval will have to dwarf the mobilisations we have seen recently around the world and take place on a qualitively different basis. It will have to be organised to reflect the principles of the future society and take control of the centres of production to bring capitalism to a halt’ (p.301).

They helpfully remind us that ‘capitalism has been prevalent for less than 0.3 percent of the entire period that modern humans have walked the earth’ (p.184), so it is irrational to believe future generations are condemned to endure the madness of a system that prioritises mass destruction above mass education. They forcefully argue that for the majority of our history as a species, altruistic and other-centred behaviour has been the norm in most societies and it is probable these traits will predominate in a postcapitalist system. Even in today’s cutthroat neoliberal culture, the indicators of a re-energised human nature are visible:

‘Prosocial behaviour and traits are often suppressed by the need to express those contrary behaviours required to survive and flourish within the system of capital. However, even when antisocial capitalist social relations are prevalent, there are expressions of the deep human values of empathy, solidarity and cooperation’ (p.193).

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters