Eco-Socialism or Eco-Barbarism

What good is theory in the face of catastrophic climate change? In "The Progress of the Storm" Andreas Malm articulates a strong case for a red-green, anti-fascist, anti-colonialist politics

Andreas Malm, The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in the Warming Condition (Verso, 2018) & Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (Verso, 2018)

This summer has been hot, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. The earth’s climate is warming, and it is doing so because of human activity. More specifically, it is doing so because of the extraction of resources and the combustion of fossil fuels: processes that are integral parts of the global capitalist economy. This has been going on since at least the mid-fifteenth century, if not before, but the apparently irreversible global dependence on fossil fuels firmly established itself during the nineteenth century’s industrial revolutions. The countries that are extracting and combusting the most fossil fuels are, as a rule, not the countries that will experience the most immediate and pressing effects of the warming condition: rising sea levels, soil erosion leading to famine, extreme weather events, and so on. The countries that will first feel these effects of anthropogenic climate change—the countries which are, in fact, already feeling the effects of it—are typically those which have been subjected to the colonialism that developed out of the capitalist drive to find more fossil fuels to extract and combust.

What good is theory in the face of catastrophic climate change? If the situation is as dire as it seems to be, undertaking theoretical work might just be a way of taking up residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss, as some would argue it always has been: issuing warnings and rebukes from the comfort of tenured academic chairs, flying across the globe to deliver sermons on the irreversible damage we are doing to the world by flying so much. Those already involved in the climate movement might argue that the urgency of the situation is so great that the imperative is to act, and to act immediately, not to philosophise: our most pressing concern is to stop the continued and increased extraction of fossil fuels, to stop the construction of new power plants and runways, and to stop them by any means necessary. Direct action is of the utmost importance. The total decarbonisation of the world economy is a crucial demand, and it is one that can only be achieved through praxis, through divestment and radical direct action.

In a recent paper warning of the risk of feedback loops of ecological disruption even if human emissions are reduced to the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, a team of international scientists called for collective human action involving “decarbonisation of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioural changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements and transformed social values”.1 These new social values, government arrangements and behavioural changes will probably not emerge spontaneously. Instead, they will be fought over and contested by those that already hold power and benefit most from the status quo. We are already seeing the relation between climate change and right-wing politics playing out globally; not just in the current US administration’s insistence on climate denialism, but also in emergent nativist movements which articulate a kind of eco-völkism (e.g. the writings of the British novelist Paul Kingsnorth) and the racist attitudes towards Syrian refugees across Europe, in whose forced emigration climate change has certainly played at least some role. To use a tired phrase, we are facing the choice of eco-socialism or eco-barbarism.

The role of theory should be, now as ever, to clarify our situation in a way that might demonstrate a path forward for action. One question that it might be worth trying to address is: what is the relationship of humanity to nature at this particular juncture in the history of the species? Unlike the dawning of the nuclear age, when life on the planet in a matter of minutes, the situation we face today because of anthropogenic climate change is saturated with time. The rising temperatures we are seeing today are not from last year’s carbon emissions; their origins are in the emissions of the nineteenth century’s industrial revolutions and earlier colonial expansions. As soon as any emissions target is set by supranational governmental treaties, it is almost immediately surpassed. Climate change is the return of the past in the present at the expense of the future. This is why so-called “sustainable” models of environmental policy change are not the answer: they presume a capacity to maintain a status quo that is already unsupportable. Capitalism needs to assert control over labour, and this commits it to specific forms of energy. Andreas Malm has argued that the ability to know and predict the amount of energy produced by putting coal to work ensured that it took centre place in the energy regime of the industrial revolution, since it allowed capital to bypass the social powers and potential for disruption held by human labour.2 This is why even an eco-capitalism, reliant on solar and wind energies, poses a dead end, even if might be in capital’s financial interests: you cannot predict the weather in the same way that you can know how much energy a particular amount of coal will provide. We cannot continue on as we have been; we must transform the global economy to one driven by decarbonisation and degrowth.

Theory attempting to deal with society and nature should address these problems, and affirm the centrality of human agency in any path forwards. To do so, there is a need to find a useable working definition of what we mean when we use the word “nature”. This is not a new problem of course, but it is one that is becoming increasingly important. A proliferation of theories seeking to articulate what exactly nature is—or even if there is something called nature that is distinct from humanity— have gained varying degrees of popularity inside academic humanities and social sciences departments over the last few decades. Unfortunately, as Malm argues with impressive rigour and skill in his new book, The Progress of This Storm, over the past few decades the waters of social theory have been muddied by this unending series of ‘turns’, which have worked to decentre the human or to insist on the primacy of discourse, ultimately at the expense of human responsibility.

Early in The Progress of this Storm, Malm commits himself to following the “realist” definition of nature offered by Kate Soper in 1995, worth quoting in full and remembering. For Soper,

nature is those material structures and processes that are independent of human activity (in the sense that they are not a humanly created product), and whose forces and causal powers are the necessary conditions of every human practice, and determine the possible forms it can take.3

This definition is useful because it avoids collapsing the categories of social and natural into each other; it posits an independent nature that exists prior to and outside of humanity, which determines human potential, which is the condition for human existence. It also avoids the temptation of purist definitions of nature that would argue that the material world stops being “natural” as soon as humanity comes into contact with it or works on it. Humanity did not create nature. Any impact we have on the natural world will in turn have an impact on the conditions of our existence.

Working from this conception of independent nature, and articulating a critical realist approach to climate change that builds off Roy Bhaskar’s philosophy of science, Malm develops stringent critiques of two trends in recent theory, which he calls “constructionism” and “hybridism”. Constructionism, in short, is the idea that nature is a social construct. This takes various forms, from arguments that because humans alter and affect their environment in particular ways they thus build the natural world, to claims that nature itself is a fiction, or “just” a discursive construction. Malm has no patience for these arguments. Just because our knowledge of nature is gained and mediated through socially produced concepts, he argues, doesn’t mean nature in itself is made up of those things; it is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer. We cannot talk about hurricanes without language, but that doesn’t mean that a hurricane is a speech act. Theories that describe the human construction of nature collapse the category of the natural into that of the social, and any concept of climate change based on a notion of anthropogenic causation relies on a background of non-social nature. There is a difference between the fact of the increasing amount of carbon in the atmosphere due to emissions, and the fact that as atmospheric carbon levels increase the acidity levels of the oceans also rises. The first is something that humans have control over; we could call it a social fact. The second is something we can do nothing about; it is a law of nature. Malm insists that we need to maintain and preserve the distinction between the social and the natural, so we can understand exactly what the limits of human agency are, and from there devise a way to act accordingly. Just because we have affected the climate does not mean that we have built it. What we have built, however, is a global economic system based on the extraction of fossil fuels and the logic of colonialism.

“Hybridism,” on the other hand, is the position that claims the limits between the social and the natural are now so blurred and difficult to distinguish there is no point in attempting to separate the two spheres. This goes beyond collapsing the social into the natural, to the extent that it tries to render both categories non-existent. This latter position mostly takes its lead from the writings of Bruno Latour, the primary antagonist of Malm’s book, and it encompasses both the longer lineage of post-humanism, and more recent theoretical gewgaws like the new materialisms offered by writers like Timothy Morton, Graham Harman and Jane Bennett.

Humanity is born of nature but can affect it in ways that are not found in other species. While other non-human animals can clearly alter their environments, by building shelters for themselves or whatever, it so far seems to be the case that no other species has extracted and combusted fossil fuels on a global scale over the past few centuries, and then subsequently realised that this activity has enormous ecological consequences, which it might have the ability to forestall or reverse. Despite the claims of some post-humanists to the contrary, there is a divide between the human and the non-human animal and it is quite simple: we can cause the extinction of other species quite easily, accidentally even, based on the type of energy we chose to use. It appears to be the case that no matter how intelligent other species may be, or how far we may not be able to truly appreciate non-human forms of cognition on their own merits, no other species is capable of organising their relationship with nature in as many varied ways as humanity has been and will be capable of. With this unique capacity comes at least a degree of responsibility. To those who think that we have so far underestimated how intelligent other species are, it might be suggested that the precondition for respecting those other species is a stable climate that allows them to flourish, rather than the denigration of human capability. Recent theoretical turns that seek to decentre the human might be helpful in encouraging us to consider the position of other life forms and environments on the planet, but they can easily slip into an abnegation of our responsibility. If global temperatures rise by 8ºC because of carbon emissions, as some models predict could happen, every organism on earth will be affected by human activity, and this will be true even in the face of human extinction.

Malm’s work strongly argues that any theory purporting to deal with anthropogenic climate change should seek to clarify the relation between the natural and the social, to understand what the limits of human agency are and what the effects of that agency are and have been, and be organised around the struggle to stabilise the world climate through the demolition of the fossil economy. A theory that seeks to dissolve the boundaries between human action and natural response, or one which rejects the tools of critique, judgment and distinction, will ultimately only absolve us of our capacity to mitigate the looming catastrophe. Positing that the collapse of the polar vortex is just the vortex asserting its own agency, as a new materialist might, is nothing more than a strategy for exculpation and the erasure of human responsibility. Against doomsayers of the Anthropocene, who suggest that it is humanity as a whole—“us all”—who has caused the warming condition, acting in accordance to some sort of suicidal human nature, and so implying we all share responsibility equally, the work of ecological socialists refocuses the discussion to ideas of climate inequality driven by capitalism: climate change will affect humans in different places in drastically different ways. Subsistence farmers in Burkina Faso are not responsible for the massive carbon emissions of ExxonMobil, but who will be most damaged by an increasing number of excessively hot working days? In the past, the responsibility for anthropogenic climate change has been squarely in the hands of the capitalists engaged in the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels for profit. The agency that allows us to alter the natural world to such enormous extents, an agency that belongs to humanity as a whole, has effectively been monopolised by capital. The urgent problem is how to constitute global humanity as a subject with the power to employ this agency for its survival and flourishing as a whole.

For the most part, the Latourian hybridism that Malm attacks takes on the mantle of a spurious radicalism, despite being reactionary at heart, or it claims to be effectively apolitical (making it equally reactionary). However, there is also a strand of left-hybridism in the work of Jason W. Moore, also published by Verso (Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2015). In the past, Moore has accused Malm of “fossil fuel fetishism”, and has worked to demonstrate that the activities of the nineteenth century industrial revolutions actually originate in the interplay between philosophy and colonialist expansion in the early modern period. Malm broadly dismisses Moore’s work, but it is worth reading the two in tandem. There is certainly something very beneficial in the longue durée approach that Moore takes in his recent book (and elsewhere), co-authored with Raj Patel, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. After reading Moore and Patel’s book, Malm’s focus on the nineteenth century as the beginning of our climate problems begins to seem a little short-sighted. By shifting our attention away from the question of global warming to focus on the larger ideological manoeuvrings underpinning the way capitalism seeks to organise nature, Moore and Patel persuasively demonstrate that our responses to the crises of capitalism and climate that we are facing should not be exclusively about preventing catastrophic ecological change by blocking runway expansions. Instead, their work suggests that we are potentially seeing an unravelling of a much more complicated and convoluted set of longer running crises of capital that are becoming increasingly unmanageable, and not just because of heat waves or rising sea levels. If we follow this suggestion, which it is hard not to, Malm’s focus on the warming condition risks falling into what Nancy Fraser has called a “critical separatism” , whereby one strand of capitalist crisis is abstracted from the others—in this case anthropogenic climate change—when in fact none of them are adequately conceivable in isolation. Malm’s stringent insistence on the separation and firm distinction of concepts is philosophically useful, but it perhaps risks running up against dead ends in its urgency. By focusing on the frontier zones and limits of expanding capitalism, Moore and Patel offer a way of thinking about the sites at which the struggle for resistance against fossil capitalism have been fought in the past and can be fought in the future.

Moore and Patel quite reasonably choose Christopher Columbus and the economic and intellectual contexts of his time (and the next few centuries) as a colonial origin point. The familiar bêtes noires of the early modern period rear their heads: Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke. Categories and concepts are invented all at once between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries: nature, society, man, woman. The intellectual history of these concepts often feels a little rushed, and it is helpful to remember that the specialisation that divided what we now call “philosophy” and “science” was a site of ideological struggle at this point in human history, though this is not explicitly mentioned in Seven Cheap Things. That’s a quibble, but the larger argument they make—that we need to do away with concepts like nature and society because of their historical uses and abuses—might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. These concepts have certainly been put to malign use in the past, probably even from their very beginnings. But the solution to this is not to jettison them from our vocabulary; it is to insist on a more rigorous, precise and critical usage of them.

Seven Cheap Things makes a convincing argument that humans had altered the climate of the planet before they were burning enormous amounts of fossil fuels. This is most effectively and grimly explored in the section which describes the fact that the genocide of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas (who had been engaged in some deforestation of their own) led to such an abundant regrowth of trees that a new carbon sink was created, exacerbating the global cooling effect of the Little Ice Age, which contributed heavily to the late medieval crises in Europe. But, that said, by insisting on the primary importance of the effects of early modern colonialism, Moore and Patel occlude what exactly is different about the effects of nineteenth century industrialised colonialism, which is the degree of magnitude and the awareness of global causality: this time we are capable of acknowledging the looming global catastrophe, and we might be capable of preventing it.

Moore’s work has come under fire elsewhere because of his addiction to unnecessary neologism, and Seven Cheap Things seems to have been written with a more popular audience in mind than usual, so the style is understandably clearer and less jargonised than his usual work (presumably this was the main point of Patel’s involvement in the book, which otherwise repeats ideas already found in Moore’s previous publications). Perhaps because of this, the word surprisingly missing from Seven Cheap Things is reification: the central argument that its authors are making is that these seven “things” that capitalism needs to be cheap for its continued functioning (nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives) are, of course, not things at all, but complicated social processes and relations which appear to us in the form of things. This is best demonstrated in the book’s introduction, which deals with the fetish character of the Chicken McNugget, in which all of the global networks of commodity production and exchange, and all of the labour entailed in those networks which lead to the production of a small piece of heavily processed and fried chicken and soya, are occluded the moment you dip it into some barbecue sauce. It is impossible to unravel all of the human labour power that is congealed in the chicken nugget: it contains not just the labour of the service workers in the restaurant, or the drivers shipping the frozen nuggets around, or the programmers of the logistics software which manages the distribution of the nuggets, or the manufacturers of the computers on which that software runs, or the miners forced to extract rare minerals used to make the microchips in those computers, and so on and so on forever. Moore and Patel demonstrate how these connected processes have come to appear as isolated from each other throughout the past five centuries. Their articulation of capitalism as an organising force within the biosphere, rather than as something external and in opposition to it, points us towards a concept of totality involving both human and non-human nature. Of course, Moore uses the terms “web of life” and “world-ecology” rather than “totality”, and probably his choice of terminology is a way of sidestepping the baggage and difficulties of that particular term.4 But his work operates on the premise that by re-describing the global social relations in action under capitalism we can begin to recognise the larger shape of the system, and perhaps from there begin to change it. In this, his approach shares as much with Lukács as it does with World Systems Theory and Latour.

Theory alone will not stop the continued expansion of the fossil economy; it won’t block airport runways or stop fracking. The Progress of This Storm is a call for direct action on the part of the climate movement. It is scathing in its critique of thinkers who try to soften or erase the confrontation between capitalism and independent nature. Even if theory cannot stop pipelines, there’s certainly no reason that it should hold back praxis. Geo-engineering and technological fever dreams of full automation will not save us: these pseudo-solutions simply reproduce the logic of colonialist expansion that the capitalist economy has been built upon, as Ernst Bloch pointed out as far back as 1955.5 By preserving what is essentially a bourgeois attitude to the relation between nature and technology, these approaches treat the natural world as an unending colonial dominion, from which resources can be extracted without too much intervention beyond administrative managerialism (after the initial installation of space reflectors or stratospheric aerosols or whatever else). They puts nature to work by alienating it further from us; treating the external world as if it is there to be tamed and left to exhaust itself, rather than as the essential and first condition for the existence of life, human or otherwise.

Moore and Patel’s book draws a much broader and intensive historical account of the situation than Malm offers, albeit one that ends on a vague note suggesting that developing a new way of thinking and acting grouped around five words beginning with “re-“ (recognition, reparation, redistribution, reimagination, recreation) is what “we” need to do. There are no concrete demands here: not even one as optimistic as a total global commitment to a decarbonised, degrowth society, with which Malm’s book opens. Moore and Patel’s book rightfully emphasises the centrality of Indigenous Peoples’ movements to imagining and building a future after the Capitalocene, but it lacks the insistence of Malm’s work that in the immediate present there is an pressing demand to stop runway expansions or fracking by direct action, out of both solidarity with globally exploited Indigenous People’s and out of a sense counterhegemonic project of degrowth. Seven Cheap Things is often very convincing in its analysis of the ideology of early modern settler-colonialism and its emergence in the face of the combined ecological and monetary crises in the late medieval period, culminating in the Black Death. This is certainly valuable from a historical perspective. But it is less clear-eyed about the present, and even less so about the future. Malm, meanwhile, articulates a strong case for a red-green, anti-fascist, anti-colonialist politics, which insists on human agency and responsibility, and demands immediate and direct action based on global solidarity. His work reasserts the importance of historical materialism and the need for critique, against the reactionary theories of Latour and his followers. In doing so, it offers a deeply valuable contribution to understanding what is probably the most pressing and intractable problem of our time.

  1. Will Steffan et al., “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” PNAS August 6 2018 

  2. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (Verso, 2016). 

  3. Kate Soper, What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (Blackwell, 1995) pp.132–33 

  4. For the intellectual history and debates over totality see Martin Jay’s Marxism and Totality (University of California Press, 1984). 

  5. See the chapter on technological utopia in Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope: Volume 2 (MIT Press, 1995), pp. 625–98. 


Andrew Key (@rolandbarfs)

Andrew Key lives in Sheffield and works in mental health social care. His essays and criticism have appeared in various publications. Ross Hall, his novel about Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exile to England and subsequent feud with David Hume, is forthcoming from Grand Iota in 2022.