Why Ecosocialism? A Democratic Socialist Perspective


By: System Change Not Climate Change co-founder, author, and DSA member Richard Smith


Here’s the problem: We live on a planet with finite resources. But we live in an economic system, capitalism, which is based on infinite growth. In the 19th century, when factories were few and small, this economic logic didn’t have much impact on the natural world. But today, when commodities are produced in the millions and billions, only to be trashed and reproduced again the next day, this logic is driving us to collapse. Climate scientists tell us the industrialized nations need to cut CO2 emissions by 6-10% per year until we phase them out. Ocean scientists tell us we need a five-year plan to save the oceans. We need plans to save the forests, to control toxics pollution, to stop species extinction, and more.

But instead of cutting back, oil companies are drilling the ends of the earth even as we face an oil glut. Detroit has all but quit making cars to push gas-hog 6,000 pound “light” trucks and mountainous Sierras, Denalis, Yukons and Armada SUVs. Instead of inventing ways to conserve resources, our top companies hire the best talent to invent superfluous “needs”- drones, virtual reality headsets, Go-Pros to film your whole life, AI to take your job. Apple’s engineers design their iPhones to have the shelf-life of a loaf of bread, driving exhausted Chinese workers to jump off buildings in despair while Congolese children are enslaved to mine the cobalt these phones require. H&M’s “fast fashion” microseasons drive continuous consumption of disposable clothing, poisoning waterways from New England to Guangdong. IKEA’s production of disposable chip-board furniture drives repetitive consumption and deforestation around the world. IKEA is the third largest lumber consumer on the planet. And so it goes.

Yet given capitalism, we need this overconsumption and waste because if we all stopped shopping tomorrow we’d all be out of work the next day. This is the ultimate contradiction of capitalism: we have to destroy our children’s tomorrows to keep our jobs today. Yet economists tell us that this is the most “rational” system possible. On the contrary! What’s rational about a market-driven death march to extinction? A rational economy would be geared to the needs of people and the planet, not profit and destruction.


Green capitalism can’t save us. Corporations aren’t necessarily evil, but they’re not responsible to society. They’re beholden to private owners. Companies can “go green” as long as it boosts profits. But companies cannot sacrifice earnings, let alone risk putting themselves out of business – even if it is to save the planet.


If large corporations can’t reverse their suicidal growth-to-bust trajectory, then what alternative is there but to socialize them, nationalize them, put them under public ownership so we can phase them out? To make the world’s economies sustainable we need to retrench or close wasteful, harmful industries and steer resources into things we really need like renewable energy, ecological remediation, organic farming, social services, public schools, and  medical care. And if we have to shut or retrench industries to save the world, then we have to guarantee new (low-emissions) jobs at comparable pay and conditions for those affected workers. All this requires planning.


Planning for the common good requires democracy. Polls show that 69 percent of America, 71 percent of China, 77 percent of Nigeria, and 88 percent of Brazil want binding limits imposed on CO2 emissions. Why don’t we get to vote on such questions? We don’t need to be experts. Corporate boards are composed of major investors and VIPs who solicit experts to advise them, then vote and hire engineers to figure out how to get it done. Why can’t society do the same – but in the interest of the common good? We should establish democratic institutions to plan and manage our social economy, with planning boards at local, regional, national and international levels. We have plenty of examples- from the Paris Commune to Polish Solidarity in 1980. We even have a prototype right here in the USA: The regulation of public utilities. As Greg Palast and co-authors write:

Unique in the world . . . every aspect of US regulation is wide open to the public. There are no secret meetings, no secret documents. individuals, industrial customers, government agencies, consumer groups, trade unions, the utility itself, even its competitors. Any and all citizens and groups are invited to take part: Everyone affected by the outcome has a right to make their case openly…In public forums, open to all citizens, the principles of social dialogue and transparency come to life. It is an extraordinary exercise in democracy–and it works.       We see no reason why this cannot be scaled up to the whole economy.


Democracy requires rough socioeconomic equality: In the midst of the Great Depression, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Today with the greatest concentration of wealth in history, it’s hardly surprising that we have the weakest democracy since the Gilded Age. For a true democracy, we’ll have to abolish not just capitalist ownership of the means of production, but all extremes of income and inherited wealth. To prevent corruption of democracy we need a society with neither rich nor poor.


Liberation, not austerity: In ecosocialism we’ll make a lot less stuff but we’ll make it better, to last longer, and to be shared. Far from austerity, this will liberate us from the treadmill of consumerism, from lives of wage slavery for Walmart or gig work for Uber. It will open the way to the fullest development of the creative potential of every human being, and enable us to enjoy life and preserve a green and beautiful world to hand on to our children and share with the other life forms on this small blue planet.


Join the DSA and help us build that better world

Download the pamphlet version here.

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