Ian Angus’ essays range across many issues at the intersection of politics and environmental science, illuminating the meaning of ecosocialism, finds Kevin Crane
Ian Angus, A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science of Socialism (Monthly Review Press 2017), 204pp.
Ecosocialism is often seen as something of throwaway buzzword on the left, with some commenting that today’s left, which at least acknowledges that environmental concerns are essential part of the criticism of capitalism today, doesn’t even need it. Ian Angus, a writer of books such as Facing the Anthropocene (Monthly Review Press 2016), and Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket Books 2011), with Simon Butler, and maintainer of the blog Climate and Capitalism, feels that it is a term that means much more than just a passing nod of one movement to another. This new book is a compendium of his essays and articles that he has linked together to demonstrate his argument.
The various documents are divided into five parts, the first of which is about the historical roots of ecological thinking on the left. This is probably the least engaging, or fresh seeming section of the book. Histories linking early socialists to early ecologism have been done before, in particular on the fact that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels actually had plenty to say about the interaction between the economy and the environment. I did find the focus on Carl Schrolemmer, a scientist from a humble background who became an active comrade of Marx and Engels, quite nice new information about a socialist of whom I hadn’t heard. Unfortunately, to my mind, this was somewhat undone by a following chapter about Charles Darwin and politics that gave only a single line’s mention to Alfred Wallace. Wallace, the official co-author of Origin of Species, was a self-taught working-class hero of science who later became active in the early socialist movement. The reason so few people know this is that his memory, unlike that of the thoroughly posh and establishment Darwin, has been largely buried. It’s a bit disappointing that Angus didn't buck that trend and give him a bit more of a mention!
The book’s second, third and part of the fifth parts are all more focused on debates within the environmental movement. If, like me, you are new to a lot of these debates, it can a little bit odd being introduced to some of the ideas via arguments that refute them. What Angus is really very good at, fortunately, is making clear what he is criticising with proper references and quotations before going into to his dissenting views, which is a really healthy approach.
The topics that the author decides to target for his criticisms start with theorising about the concept of the Anthropocene geological era. This has become a reasonably widely understood concept very recently, but Angus feels that some of the discussion around it is actively unscientific and damaging. His short summary of the big idea from his previous book on the subject is that the Anthropocene starts at a very specific point in time: after the Second World War, when the petrochemical industry became completely central to international capitalism.
A lot of users of the term are nowhere near so careful, and two examples of how this goes wrong are highlighted. The first is an actively nefarious one, a so-called ‘good Anthropocene’ that idiotically claims that the Anthropocene started from the origin of human interaction with the environment. The purpose of this deliberate misunderstanding, Angus reveals, is ultimately an elaborate defence of non-environmentalism akin to geoengineering. The second is a slightly different mis-timing, this time an ostensibly radical one that admits that humans didn’t fundamentally start restructuring the entire biosphere just by evolving, but rejects the concept of the Anthropocene. In recognising that capitalism created metabolic rifts from its very beginning, the argument nevertheless disregards the science that shows major global impacts from capitalism beginning around 1950. This, says the author, worsens an already too-deep divide between the humanities and the sciences within the movement.
Myths of overpopulation
Part three also deals with some bad arguments on a theme Angus has written about before: this time overpopulation theory. Unlike the Anthropocene idea, which is very young both in theory and fact, this is a concept that has been with us for hundreds of years. The writer has some fun deconstructing the various arguments and their highly dubious history, but this isn’t just an exercise in batting off some annoying bad arguments. As he points out, concepts of overpopulation are frequently fashionable both with the establishment and with many people who like to think they are radical. I heartily agreed with the harsh conclusion reached: aside from the faulty economics that lead to it, there is a fundamental racism and classism that cannot be escaped in the conclusions that flow from this tendency. Socialists should be armed with the strongest possible arguments against overpopulation theory.
The fourth part moves on to topics that are arguably related. One of these is the hypocrisy of Global North concepts of wilderness and its negative impact on opportunities for people in the Global South to develop proper sustainable agriculture. The other is an article that manages to be extremely useful due to timing. Disposable plastic pollution became a hot political issue a mere few months after this book was published, and Angus gets to take us through the non-solutions that the ruling classes are currently attempting to push on us to deal with it. There is something darkly comical about the fact that they are coming up with ways to punish the public for failing to deal with disposable plastics as they see fit, while not contemplating any reduction in the huge volumes of it they insist on manufacturing.
Most of the remaining of part five is a given to rounding off the various definitions of the concept of ecosocialism and the author’s preferred version it. Like another prominent left green writer, Derek Wall, Angus feels that the struggle of indigenous people in the third world against resource extractivism is critical to the overall struggle against capitalism, in no small part because of the utter centrality of fossil fuels to the system as a whole. He also introduces another phrase that I found quite pleasing: being a good ancestor to the people who come after you; not a bad aim for any socialist.
This book is really a set of little vignettes; basically, it is a collection of interesting blog posts, that add up to a reasonably good read if you want to put some flesh on the bones of a left environmentalism that has been something of a gimmick from other writers. It is perhaps not as obviously focused on activism as some of Naomi Klein’s recent work, although does underline the importance of working with those like Klein in a non-sectarian manner (p.164). It is the scientific focus that is really well maintained and explained, and the topics are all very relevant. It’s an enjoyable dip into a topic you may well choose to look a lot deeper into afterwards.