William Morris is one of the greatest environmentalists of the socialist tradition and his work becomes more relevant by the day, writes Gabriel Polley
Two things are blindingly obvious about climate change.
The first is that humanity, and most life on Earth, are in profound danger. According to the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Programme, July 2019 was, globally, the hottest month ever recorded. It was a month in which forest fires ripped through the Arctic, and the Greenland ice sheet melted at an unprecedented rate.
Sadly, July was not a one-off fluke event; if recent trends are anything to go by, it will become the new “normal”. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we only have until 2030 to take action to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, which itself could have a catastrophic impact, rendering vast parts of the planet uninhabitable and putting millions of species at risk.
The second is that this is a crisis of capitalism, an economic system inseparably married to fossil fuels and the exploitation of the environment. A 2017 report from the CDP or Carbon Disclosure Project, revealed that 70 percent of carbon emissions can be attributed to 100 companies, a handful of mega-corporations, the wealthy shareholders of which are holding humanity to ransom.
The poorest half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion people, are responsible for just 10 percent. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, warned in June of a “climate apartheid” situation emerging, whereby the world’s elite may be able to escape the worst consequences of global warming for a time, while the brunt of the suffering will fall on those who are already most vulnerable.
The belief of the rich that they may be able to save themselves explains why right-wing governments, such as the regimes of Trump in America and Bolsonaro in Brazil, have stubbornly denied the danger posed by climate change, and have empowered the corporate interests so implicated in the environmental crisis. Bolsonaro, for instance, has sought to make good on his election promise to speed up deforestation of the Amazon, with three football fields of rainforest now disappearing every minute and his government slow to take action against the thousands of forest fires tearing through the lungs of the world.
Capitalism got us into this crisis, and cannot be expected to get us out of it. The struggle to mitigate the effects of global warming is a deeply intersectional one: it can only succeed if it replaces the old structures with a fundamentally different system which not only protects the environment, but also liberates all those oppressed under capitalism, and those who will suffer first and hardest from global warming. The search for a new model of society is imperative.
While this is naturally the left’s domain, the articulation of an environment-centred socialism has been complicated by history. In the twentieth century, states that described themselves as socialist were associated with developmental models prioritising rapid industrialisation, which had a transformative effect on their economies, but also led to further environmental damage. With hi-tech “fixes” for carbon emissions, such as carbon capture and storage, still a distant prospect, the models of the past cannot be repeated; however, socialism’s emphasis on liberation and egalitarianism is more crucial than ever.
It may therefore seem surprising that a voice from nineteenth century Britain, the crucible of the industrial revolution and also the early days of the Marxist socialist movement, may indicate the way forward to a vision of the future uniting socialism with ecology. William Morris (1834-1896) is perhaps most remembered today for his role in the Arts and Crafts movement which brought medieval-inspired art and design into middle class homes; yet Morris was also a committed socialist, and a founding member of the Socialist League in 1884.
While Morris’ socialism came from his understanding of the dehumanisation and exploitation of the working class under rampant capitalism, his environmentalism was a reaction against the destruction of the landscape, rapid industrialisation and concentration of hundreds of thousands of people in the cities in cramped living conditions – all, as Morris understood, the results of capitalism. The Walthamstow of Morris’ birth was a quiet village in the Essex countryside. In his later years, the fields and forests had gone, surrounded by miles of houses in London’s urban sprawl.
Morris’ outstanding political statement was his novel News from Nowhere, serialised over several months in 1890 in the Socialist League’s magazine Commonweal. Morris’ attitudes hardened after he attended the “Bloody Sunday” demonstration on November 13th 1887 against unemployment and the British occupation of Ireland. During the demonstration, police attacked the crowd in Trafalgar Square, leading to tens of injuries. Morris became convinced that capitalism could not be reformed but had to be overthrown. In News from Nowhere the novel’s narrator, closely based on Morris himself, falls asleep in Morris’ present, a Britain characterised by state brutality, lack of freedom, vast inequality and wanton environmental destruction, and wakes up in the year 2102, decades after the revolution has occurred.
Environmental concerns are at the heart of News from Nowhere, in which Morris articulates a vision of restoring a landscape blighted by industrial capitalism. The narrator continually expresses his surprise at finding the industrial centres of the past gone, replaced by forests and clean air and water. Morris questioned why production to meet human needs should be so disharmonised with the environment, and why in the industrial revolution “we allowed the making of goods, even on a large scale, to carry with it the appearance, even, of desolation and misery.”
Even more dramatically, in Morris’ post-revolutionary London, Trafalgar Square where Morris witnessed the police brutality of 1887, has been replanted with “an orchard, mainly, as I could see, of apricot-trees”, the nearby Houses of Parliament made obsolete, as society is run through a direct democracy in which one citizen tells the narrator “the whole people is our parliament.” Morris’ vision of the city of the future is one where nature and human life are intertwined.
Morris was unhesitating in blaming capitalism’s crises of overproduction and overconsumption for the environmental destruction of the late nineteenth century. This he called “a vicious circle in the matter of production of wares”, which burdened society with “a prodigious mass of work merely for the sake of keeping their wretched system going.” This was spread abroad by colonialism, which Morris unflinchingly attacked. “Some bold, unprincipled, ignorant adventurer was found (no difficult task in the days of competition),” Morris wrote, “and he was bribed to ‘create a market’ by breaking up whatever traditional society there might be in the doomed country, and by destroying whatever leisure or pleasure he found there.” Morris’ writing provided a visceral explanation of Marxist views of capitalism and colonialism, but one in which environmental destruction was highlighted as inherent in this process.
At the heart of Morris’ dream of a socialist future was the elimination of the division between humanity and nature which he believed had been created by capitalism’s mechanised methods of production. “Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?” Morris had one of his characters ponder of those alive during the industrial revolution. “A life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate – ‘nature,’ as people used to call it – as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them.” Morris understood that human society and nature would stand, or fall, together.
It is easy to dismiss News From Nowhere as a naïve utopia. Yet as the magnitude of the planet’s environmental crisis becomes clearer with every disaster from the Amazon rainforest to the Greenland ice sheet, Morris’ novel now appears prophetic: never has such a transformation in human social relations and humanity’s relationship with the planet, as envisaged by Morris 130 years ago, seemed so urgently necessary. Morris stands today as one of the greatest environmentalists of the socialist tradition, and his work becomes more relevant each day.