We face a climate crisis, amongst other ecological disasters. As we are learning in the run-up to the December 7-19 Copenhagen Climate Summit, it is poor and working people, and women and children, who suffer the most.
Shamefully, SA environment minister Buyelwa Sonjica claims she cannot cut our country’s extremely high carbon emissions, and an official from one environmental group, WWF’s Tasneem Essop, wrote last week in The Mercury that the SA position is “very progressive”.
The effect of this inaction is to encourage the main carbon polluters in the energy, mining and metals corporations.
The ecological crisis is not only capitalist in origin; some who call themselves socialists added to the mess. For example, the Soviet Union was responsible for one of the biggest nuclear accidents in human history, at Chernobyl. The Chinese Communist Party continues to supervise the destruction of nature through its single-minded and ruthless adoption of capitalist production methods.
But these were distortions, especially Stalin’s theory of “socialism in one country” and the resultant imperative to compete with and match the west in productive and destructive capacity. In the process he exploited and enslaved the very working class in whose name he ruled. The Chinese follow the logic so disrespectful of workers and the environment.
Today, we also have to disagree with Hugo Chavez’s “petro-socialism” because the production of more oil might yield more petro-dollars but it means more carbon emissions.
Human beings are part of nature. Socialism should be humanistic. In today’s world this means there can be no genuine socialism unless it has an ecological component. To emphasise this some people have come up with the term “ecosocialism”.
In contrast, “market environmentalism” – or “green business” - is the attempt to solve the ecological crisis without questioning the profit imperative of capitalism. The end result is that ordinary people think something is being done when in fact the problem gets worse.
For example, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol deal adopted carbon trading – profiting from selling rights to pollute the air with CO2 - as a mechanism for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But since that day, carbon emissions have increased and not decreased in the world, especially amongst Kyoto signatories.
The climate crisis can only be solved if the profit motive is severely restricted or eliminated altogether. Capitalism is incapable of solving the ecological crisis because it is the main culprit.
Let me illustrate. With their hands, workers make the things we need in order to live. They do this together. Collective production is the foundation of modern existence. Imagine if workers not only produced but also organised and controlled production. There would be no reason for anyone to oppress or dominate anyone because people, together, would control their lives and make sure that, through their direct control, no one is allowed to dominate, control, oppress or exploit anyone else.
When that happens then people would become the best that they can be – and not the worst that capitalism makes them to be (competitive, aggressive and basically sub-human).
Socialism, by getting rid of the bosses’s system and private property, by reuniting producers to the means of production, lays the real possibility of society advancing. In the 21st century, into this vision we must inject eco-awareness, what US professor Joel Kovel calls “ecocentrism”, that is, respect for the world’s ecology.
We need to take active steps to address the global ecological crisis by, at a conceptual level, stopping to regard ecosystems as mere commodities to be exploited for profit.
Nature is not the “environment out there” but rather, as Wits professor Jacklyn Cock has cogently argued in her book, The War Against Ourselves, we are part of nature.
How do we use today’s examples of struggles to advance the cause? Civil society is engaged in several that have potential:
The fight against ESKOM building more coal and nuclear power stations to make electricity – when so much of its existing supply goes to formerly-South African mining and metal corporations which send profits abroad
Promotion and use of renewable energy as opposed to fossil fuels
The struggle against dumping of waste (especially toxics) harmful to the environment and the people, e.g. garbage collection and cleaning of open spaces in townships and informal settlements
The fight against pollution e.g. Iscor on the Vaal, Engen in south Durban, the burning of industrial tyres on the East Rand, etc.
The fight against capitalist marketing that promotes destructive mass consumption
The fight against the use of the private car and the struggle for adequate and affordable public transport
We must unify these struggles, and popularise our perspective and demands through making our slogans real: ‘ Keep the oil in the soil! Keep the coal in the hole! Keep the tarsand in the land!’
We must link up with environmental groups, e.g. the newly-formed Climate Justice Now! South African chapter.
We need to demystify environmentalism in order to couch it in ordinary people’s language and align it to their concerns.
We need to include ecology in platforms such as the call for a Conference for a Democratic Left next March.
When we have more time, we need to assess the idea of the “commons’ and how this can be construed as an advance on the “human rights discourse” which in Soweto we were heartbroken by when the Constitutional Court ruled against water rights in late September.
Another important point to integrate is the current global economic crisis which the great sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein suggested was the death knell of the system.
Regardless of which we feel we can give our energies to, the time has come to factor in the earth and safeguard nature from capitalist destruction. We need a vision of a world where humans, animals, plants, forests, rivers, mountains, valleys and all other aspects of nature live harmoniously together.
We cannot turn the clock back to the idyllic and uncomplicated stage of primitive rural societies. But we can embrace the idea of eco-socialism and struggle to realize it practically in order to advance to a classless society.
(Ngwane is a masters student at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society. This is a short version of a paper presented to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation conference The Global Crisis and Africa last week.)