The recent international climate change talks and protests in Copenhagen have highlighted the issue of climate change. At the same time, leaked emails from the University of East Anglia and minor errors in IPCC reports are being used to promote a new round of climate change denial.

Planet not Profit placard

The winter of 2009-2010 may have been the coldest in the UK since 1978-9, but weather is not climate. The science is clear that without significant cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions soon, catastrophic climate change will be not a possibility, but a reality. With growing public anger at politicians’ inability to act, socialists need to not only build the movement but also develop socialist responses to climate change.

The green movement now

The Copenhagen talks were supposed to generate a new deal to follow the Kyoto Treaty, but in the end they did nothing of the kind. The talks ‘recognised’ a need to keep the global temperature rise below 2oC – not 1.5oC as the G77 group of developing countries wanted – and even then they failed to produce any binding agreement on emissions reductions to make it happen.

The First World governments’ cynical prioritisation of profits over the interests of developing countries has particularly angered greens around the world. There is also disappointment at the behaviour of President Obama, who far from marking a change in US attitudes towards climate change, was instrumental in ensuring that no binding deal was struck. As Lumumba Di-Aping, the chief negotiator for the G77 group, said, ‘Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush.’[1]

As the talks progressed, representatives from social movements were increasingly kept out of them. The admission credentials of delegates were revoked and some were even beaten and arrested by the Danish police. However, while the heads of state manoeuvred for business as usual, outside the protests were bringing together global social movements in a way that was most reminiscent of Seattle ten years before. The Copenhagen talks not only put climate change on the front pages for most of December 2009, they were an impetus for more united action by climate change groups.

At the end of the protests, two major coalitions of climate groups, Climate Justice Now! (NGOs, including Friends of the Earth and debt campaigners) and Climate Justice Action (including the UK Camp for Climate Action) met to discuss how they could work together in future to build a united movement. What will actually come out of this remains to be seen, but, post-Copenhagen, the prospects for such united action look promising.

Faced with the determination of First World governments to avoid commitments to anything that might threaten the corporate bottom line, the priorities for greens have been raising awareness of climate change and pressing for action, pretty much any action, to bring emissions down. However, within the green movement, there is an enormous amount of debate about how we should deal with climate change, and what changes to society might be needed as part of that response.

Lifestyle change vs. system change

Perhaps the most obvious orientation of the green movement, certainly the one with most visibility in the media, is the individual lifestyle element. Mention action on climate change to someone outside the movement and the response is likely to involve light bulbs, meat-eating or driving to the supermarket.

This remains the approach of much official campaigning on climate change, such as the government’s Act on CO2 website, which focuses on small changes to individual lifestyles. Their TV ad campaign from late 2009 to early 2010 exhorted us to ‘drive 5 miles less a week’, backed up on their website by ‘helpful’ tips on how to achieve this. We were instructed to ‘plan your journey in advance’ and to engage in car-sharing.[2]

This is justified by the statement that ‘around 40% of CO2 emissions in the UK are caused by things we do as individuals’, and reflects a determination on the part of government not only to ignore how social systems determine those supposedly freely-chosen individual actions, but to push responsibility for action on climate change as far away from themselves as possible.

A report by the Strategy Unit from 2008 on food and climate change objected explicitly to the distressing tendency of people to expect governmental rather than individual action. Consumers, it complained ‘expect retailers, manufacturers or the government to act on their behalf and to ‘edit’ problems out of the system, rather than ask them to choose’[3], whereas the real role of government is simply to ‘support consumers in the choices they make’.[4]

The apolitical promotion of small individual actions is clearly unable to challenge even the most extreme neo-liberal conceptions of capitalism. As the comment in the Strategy Unit reveals, the neo-liberal ideology which sees the state as nothing more than the facilitator of the market fits very well with an understanding of climate change as an individual rather than a collective responsibility. Within much of the green movement, there is still a general assumption that everyone in the developed world at least has a personal moral obligation to deal with their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but the conclusions drawn from the report are changing.
Increasingly there seems to be a move away from the argument that small individual actions arising from a sense of moral responsibility are the answer. The idea that limited lifestyle changes, of the sort promoted by Act On CO2, which are unrelated to wider action, could have an incremental effect on climate change was questioned in an influential report, Weathercocks and Signposts, issued by the WWF in 2008, which argued that making small changes might not lead most people to make more significant alterations to their lifestyles.

For most, it suggested, small changes might be all that they would make, before they stopped, feeling that they had ‘done their bit’.[5] This does not mean that many in the green movement have abandoned the idea of lifestyle changes; the notion that the sacrifice of modern Western lifestyles is necessary to combat climate change is still prevalent. However, this sacrifice is increasingly being discussed in terms of system change, not lifestyle change. It may not be coincidence that the last year has seen some criticism from the right of the climate movement for its political stance.

Anthony Giddens, for example, complained in his 2009 book The Politics of Climate Change that greens distancing themselves from ‘orthodox politics’ was a barrier to mainstream action on climate change.[6] In the same vein, in January 2010, BBC Radio 4’s Analysis programme asked (and concluded in the affirmative) ‘Are environmentalists bad for the planet?’ because of their anti-consumer, anti-capitalist ‘ideological baggage.’[7] Regardless of whatever prefigurative changes greens may make as individuals in their own lives, the general approach to climate change aside from government and media-led initiatives seems to be increasingly political.

Climate change and capitalism

he slogan from the Copenhagen protests, ‘System Change not Climate Change’, came out of their anti-capitalist character, but could also be seen to express the position of a surprisingly broad swathe of the green movement. At a basic level, the argument that the operation of the market impedes action on climate change is an easy one to make. Examples such as the closure of the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight or the effects of rail and bus privatisation provide simple illustrations of how the need for corporate profits stands in the way of action to reduce GHG emissions.

It is clear that such actions would be unlikely to meet with much disagreement from a green audience. The economic crisis since 2008 has also dented the credibility of carbon trading and carbon markets as a method of encouraging emissions reduction. Beyond a fairly general assumption that consumer capitalism is a bad thing, green distrust of ‘techno-fixes’ to climate change feeds into a more general understanding that changes to the system are required.

The most obvious techno-fix proposals of recent years are things like the space mirrors or reflective dust which the US recommended to the IPCC in 2007,[8] but the concept is not restricted to such obvious ruling class attempts to maintain the status quo. The techno-fix is any measure which changes the technology rather than the system which uses it, whether that technological change is the replacement of petrol with biofuels or coal-fired power stations with wind turbines. This does not, of course, mean that any of these technologies would be harmful if used within a different system.

While using food crops as transport fuel would be a bad idea for any society, renewable sources of energy like wind, wave and solar power would be effective sources of power for a society in which their primary function did not have to be generating profits for private energy companies. The argument is that any such technological changes are an attempt to ‘decouple’ capitalist production from the ecological damage it causes, and there is considerable debate about whether or not that would be possible.

For many, decoupling is a myth designed to justify maintaining the status quo, but you can’t have production without its material consequences. The rejection of techno-fixes by greens is therefore about more than a basic scepticism that science can save us. It leads to the growing sense that the problem is not simply the technology currently used within capitalism, but capitalism itself. [9]

The Steady State theory

Theorising capitalism as the problem does not automatically lead to the same conclusions about how this should be addressed. There are, of course, a wide range of views within the green movement, and it’s not possible to attribute any particular view of capitalism and climate change to all greens. However, one influential conception of the issue with capitalism is the steady state theory. This theory, developed by Herman Daly, views economic growth as the structural problem which causes environmental damage.

Using John Stewart Mill’s theory that the economy would expand to a certain point and then stop in a ‘stationary state’,[10] it theorises an economy with a stable size, neither growing nor going into recession, with constant stocks of labour and of capital, so that apparently the flows of goods and services produced would also be constant.

Economic development, in the sense of change in what is produced or the way in which it was done, could still occur, but it would be change rather than growth, since in this theory, the constant labour and capital stocks would prevent it from growing.[11] Because such a society would have limited production and population, the theory holds that its effect on the environment would also be limited – the steady state would live within its environmental means.

This is not always understood to be an essentially anti-capitalist theory – it was supposed to re-model, not replace, the capitalist system. Herman Daly was a World Bank advisor, and he and others were at pains to stress that the trappings of capitalism could continue; imagining, for example, a steady state with a stock market. [12]

How such a state would overcome the fundamental contradiction of capitalism without growth however is not clear. One suggestion is that material production could be replaced with capitalist economies based on providing services (massage, for some reason, is a common example), but not everyone agrees that this decoupling would be possible.

Daly himself was sceptical about the idea that labour could replace material inputs in production, pointing out that if you’re building a house and you run out of wood, you can’t make up for it by hiring more carpenters. Indeed, many adherents of the steady state theory perceive that to be remotely credible, the steady state position has to be an anti-capitalist one. Tim Jackson, for example in his 2009 Prosperity without Growth, reviewed the material/immaterial production problem and concluded that ‘the capitalist model provides no easy route to the steady state.’[13]

It is this understanding of the steady state theory which is particularly influential within the green movement in the UK. Common green sentiments -economic growth is the problem; this is a finite planet; we have to live within our ecological means; overconsumption drives growth- are often examples of steady state thinking, even where they are not specifically theorised as such.

These conceptions of the steady state argument are clearly a more left position than that of many steady state adherents, particularly in the US, where, for example, the argument that population would have to remain constant is used as an argument against immigration. There is also a clear difference in position on the question of green jobs: these are rejected in some steady state arguments on the basis that employment would drive economic growth, but are supported by many green steady stateists in the UK.[14]

However, while left versions of the steady state theory can be anti-capitalist in the sense that they find the root cause of climate change in the workings of the capitalist system, they do not necessarily propose solutions with which socialists could agree. The steady state theory identifies production as the driver of economic growth, and demand as the determinant and driver of production. This means that, while the advocates of the steady state arguments are calling for system changes, they are ultimately system changes to enable or compel changes in individual consumption behaviour.

The focus is on how to redefine prosperity, create different understandings of status which don’t include acquisition of material goods, and convince hoi polloi that affluence doesn’t bring happiness. Writers on the steady state don’t usually go as far as one US writer, who called on people to ‘re-embrace such notions as thrift, frugality and self reliance’,[15] but it is clear that an essential part of the solution to climate change within this theory is for ordinary people to consume less.

Indeed, recent literature on the problems of growth shows that the focus is increasingly on the consumption habits of ordinary people, rather than the rich, as the items associated with overconsumption in these works change from luxury cars and consumer goods to junk food; from bourgeois to working class consumption.

Many in the green movement may be moving away from an apolitical belief in small lifestyle changes within the current system, but the key issue here is still that of workers’ lifestyles under capitalism as being the drivers of production and environmental damage. Karl Marx pointed out the error in the view that demand creates production, and also outlined how demand from workers could never be sufficient for markets to sustain capitalist production:

The consumptive demand occasioned only by the workmen employed in productive labour can never alone furnish a motive to the accumulation and employment of capital…Production indeed itself creates demand…but the demand created by the productive labourer himself can never be an adequate demand, because it does not go to the full extent of what he produces.[16]

Efforts to address climate change through changing ordinary people’s consumption identify capitalism as the problem, but don’t identify the reason. For this reason, much of the discussion of overconsumption amounts to an attack on working people, in accordance with the common green idea that dealing with climate change will require sacrifice.

Not only does this fail to grasp the true nature of the problem, but it effectively contradicts the climate justice agenda which was to the fore at the Copenhagen protests and can cut climate change campaigning off from working class struggle. An actual attempt to implement a steady state economy would be an authoritarian nightmare, a vicious attack on the living standards of ordinary people. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that right-wing portrayals of climate change as a plot cooked up by the leftist ruling class find an audience. When climate change deniers argue that greens just want to make people give up their lifestyles, their arguments are lent credence when some in the green movement do indeed argue that people will have to be made to make sacrifices.

This connection isn’t limited to the right-wing media. When a recent Ipsos Mori poll found that the proportion of UK adults who definitely believed that manmade climate change was happening had reduced from 44% to 31%, the Guardian commented that this would make it ‘harder to persuade the public to support actions to curb the problem, particularly higher prices for energy and other goods’.[17] This is indicative of the influence of the steady state arguments, but they are not the only possible response to climate change.

Marx and climate change

For the steady state theorists, the problem with capitalist production is its ever-increasing scale, hence growth not production per se is the enemy. A Marxist understanding of climate change sees the root cause in capitalism’s expropriation and commodification of natural resources. Marx discussed the damage caused by capitalism in the nineteenth century in terms of the ‘metabolic rift’.[18] This was specifically an argument about soil exhaustion – Marx pointed out how capitalism ‘prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing’,[19] so that the nutrients in the soil were lost and fewer crops could be grown on it.

This arose because of the global scale of capitalist agriculture, which meant that nutrients which would once have been returned to the soil were instead transported elsewhere as part of capitalist production. Often, what would have been part of a sustainable cycle in one place would become a pollution problem in another, as was the case with importation of guano into Europe for use as fertiliser to counter soil depletion, which then polluted rivers.

The metabolic rift was not only the alienation of nutrients from the soil, but also expressed the alienation of humans from the natural world under capitalism. This was not a question of attitudes towards nature, but a result of capitalist accumulation of land as private property. The development of capitalism saw a process of removal of much of the population from the land, through forced dispossessions, enclosure of common land and the slashing of agricultural wages. Enclosure, the Highland clearances or the eighteenth century Black Acts, which made trespassing in royal forests a capital offence, are all examples of this process in Britain, which was repeated elsewhere in Europe.

The result was the separation of the working population from the means to sustain themselves without wage labour and the transformation of common land into private property. At the same time, imperialist conquests allowed the seizure of land and resources from across the world. It is this dual appropriation of natural resources which is key to how the particular nature of capitalism is responsible for climate change. All human societies affect their environments; humans live in a dialectical relationship with the natural world, and the idea of a prelapsarian nature untouched by humans is profoundly un-Marxist, not to mention unscientific.

This effect can be detrimental – the societies of pre-Roman Britain, for example, are thought to have been responsible for considerable deforestation – but isn’t invariably so. The lushness of much of the Amazon, under threat now from climate change and deforestation, is at least partly due to the very productive terra preta soil deliberately created by the agricultural practices of the pre-capitalist Amazonian Indians.[20] However, the particular nature of capitalism sets it apart in terms of environmental destruction from societies with other modes of production.

The ruling class under feudalism, for example, was made up of individual lords whose power depended on their continuing possession of productive land, so a minimal amount of environmental protection was in their interest. Ancient empires, like the Roman or the Maya, may have had more scope to cause environmental destruction, but the tax revenues which sustained the elite were still ultimately dependent on the productivity of their lands, which couldn’t be destroyed without destroying the empire along with it.

In contrast, the capitalist ruling class has been able to use natural resources without worrying about depletion or pollution, because they could always move on to expropriate more resources, and make more profits, elsewhere, leaving others to deal with the consequences. This is not to argue that capitalism is immune to the ultimate effects of its destruction of the environment, just that the global nature of capital enables it to cause destruction on a unique scale.

Private vs. collective control of resources

The privatisation of land and natural resources is key to capitalism’s ability to exploit the natural world, and this question must be at the centre of a holistic response to climate change. The public awareness of climate change puts pressure on the capitalist class to implement real solutions, but it has also created the political space for increased commodification of nature under the guise of building environmental harms into the cost of production.

The obvious example here is carbon credits, which give a monetary value to notional GHG emissions – GHGs which have not yet been emitted but which can be traded as a permission to emit – but there are also wetlands credits, for refraining from developing wetlands, and even credits for maintaining woodpecker populations, all of which can generate considerable profits for the companies trading in them.[21]

Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the idea of a carbon market appears less popular within the green movement as a mechanism for reducing GHG emissions, but the underlying logic of the private control of natural resources has not necessarily been affected in the same way. There can be a tendency for some within the green movement to view people in general as inherently selfish and destructive, so it is perhaps not surprising that arguments that if people are left to themselves they will destroy their environment should continue to be influential.

One such argument, which is still cited approvingly by some steady state influenced writers,[22] is put by Garrett Hardin in his 1968 essay ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’.[23] Hardin argued that the common management of land or any resources was impossible, as each individual would seek to gain more and more of the resource for their own use, and that the only way to deal with this was through privatisation. He said that ‘the tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property’, complemented by ‘coercive laws or taxing devices.’[24]

This has sometimes been used as an explicit argument against anti-capitalism – for example, that ‘One-World’ ideology would ‘foster a preference for short-term consumption over long-term saving’ because it created ‘ambiguity over the ownership of resources.’[25]

The use to which this idea is currently being put by the ruling class also shows how it serves the neo-liberal project. In his Stern Review, Nicholas Stern argued that managing forests to avoid deforestation required ‘establishing and enforcing clear property rights to forest lands’, and, in case anyone might take this for a defence of the rights of forest peoples, went on to say that it also needed clear rights and responsibilities not only for communities but also for ‘landowners and loggers.’[26]

Like the enclosure acts in the eighteenth century, schemes ostensibly aimed at preventing deforestation from India to Latin America are removing people from the land by refusing to recognise customary rights to land use, turning common land into property for states or multinationals and wiping out hunting and fishing rights.[27]

This expropriation of forest lands thus removes the people who live on them and are most likely to protect them, in favour of the governments and companies who have been responsible for the deforestation which the policies are supposed to prevent. It does this by turning the natural resource – the forest – into a commodity, an example of the process identified by Marx of the accumulation by capitalism of natural resources.

Such commodification of the natural world is what has enabled capitalism to bring us to the brink of ecological disaster. It is understanding this that would set a socialist response to climate change apart from that steady state influenced thinking which is ultimately rooted in the assumption of the primacy of private property.

Collective control would make truly sustainable societies possible; taking resources away from capitalists who can cut and run once they’ve made their profits, and restoring them to the people who have to live with the consequences of ecological damage. This isn’t just true for land -if the Vestas wind turbine plant had been run by the workers, rather than by a corporation, it would not have been closed.

Understanding climate change as a specific product of capitalism is not to argue that nothing can be done until capitalism is overthrown, any more than an understanding of the roots of imperialism is an argument for inaction on the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Campaigning for publicly-owned public transport, or struggling to keep the Vestas factory open, is part of the struggle for management of resources to be in the hands of workers, not multinational capitalists.

Climate change is not the only crisis facing working people today, nor is it a separate issue from the other struggles in which we are engaged. We are undergoing a triple crisis of recession, war and climate change, for which ordinary people are being expected to foot the bill. What appear at first glance to be apparently separate campaigns are actually aspects of the same, multi-faceted whole. Socialists have a key role in pointing out the connections between these different struggles, repeating that we won’t pay for crises of the capitalist class.

Even where we are committed to activism, many in the green movement can be pessimistic about the chances of dealing with climate change. The belief that humans are inherently selfish is not after all a particularly optimistic one, and the effect of the steady state theory is to identify capitalism as the problem without a concrete answer to put in its place.

There can also be a tendency to conflate civilisation with capitalism, as Andrew Simms does in the conclusion to his Ecological Debt, where he undermines 180 pages of argument on how to respond to climate change with the comment that ‘the brief ascendance of modern human civilisation is set to fail.’[28] This then is another contribution that socialists can make to climate campaigning: we understand that, through class struggle, another world is possible.



[2], accessed 1st February 2010.

[3] Food Matters. Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century, (The Strategy Unit 2008), p.3

[4] Ibid, p.5

[5] Weathercocks and Signposts. The environmental movement at a crossroads, (World Wildlife Fund, April 2008).

[6] Anthony Giddens, The Politics of Climate Change, (Cambridge 2009), especially pp. 49-57.

[7], last broadcast 31st January 2010.


[9] See for example Victor Wallis, ‘Capitalist and Socialist Responses to the Ecological Crisis’, Monthly Review 60, no.6, (2008), pp.25-40 and Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth? The transition to a sustainable economy, (Sustainable Development Commission 2009), pp.48-57.

[10] For a discussion of J S Mill’s theory and its use in modern steady state thinking, see the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy,, accessed 11th May 2009.

[11] For a relatively concise explanation of the theory, see Brian Czech and Herman E Daly, ‘In My Opinion: The Steady State Economy – What It Is, What It Entails and Connotes’, Wildlife Society Bulletin 32 (2) (2004), pp.598-605.

[12] Ibid., p.602. Czech also states elsewhere that the proposition of development without growth is not socialist. Brian Czech, ‘The Foundation of a New Conservation Movement. Professional Society Positions on Economic Growth, Bioscience 57 (1) (2007), p.6, accessed at

[13] Jackson (2009), p.46.

[14] See for example Jackson (2009) pp.71-2 and A Green New Deal (2008)

[15] Thomas Princen, ‘Consumption and Environment: Some Conceptual Issues’, Ecological Economics 31 (1999), pp.347-63, p.359.

[16] Karl Marx, Grundisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), (1939) trans. Martin Nicolaus, (Penguin/New Left Review, London 1973), p.418.


[18] See John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology. Materialism and Nature, (New York 2000), pp.155-163.

[19] Karl Marx, Capital, (Moscow 1961), vol.1, p.505.

[20] Charles C Mann, 1491. New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, (NewYork 2006), pp.344-9.

[21] Neil Smith, ‘Nature as Accumulation Strategy’, Socialist Register 2007: Coming to Terms with Nature, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds.), (Monmouth 2006), pp.16-36.

[22] See for example Andrew Simms, Ecological Debt. The Health of the Planet and the Wealth of Nations, (London/Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2005), p.167.

[23] Garrett Hardin, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Science 162 (13 December 1968), repr. In John S Dryzek and David Sohlus (eds.), Debating the Earth. The Environmental Politics Reader, 2nd ed., (Oxford 2005), pp.25-36.

[24] Ibid., p.30.

[25] Virginia Abernethy, ‘The One World Thesis as an Obstacle to Environmental Preservation’, Kingsley Davis and Mikhail S Bernstorm (eds.), Resources, Environment and Population, Present Knowledge, Future Options, (New York 1991), pp.323-327, pp.323-4.

[26] Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change. The Stern Review, (HM Treasury/Cabinet Office, Cambridge 2007), p.537.

[27] See T Griffiths, Seeing RED? Avoided deforestation and the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, (Forest Peoples Programme 2007), and updates at

[28] Simms (2005), p.188.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.