Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific

An effective ecosocialist politics can't just focus on dire threats to scare us into action. It must also convince people that a better future is possible.

Climate change is bleak – coastal sea level rise, millions of climate refugees and whole sections of the planet too hot for human life. Thus, for good reason, ecosocialist politics often emphasizes a “dystopian” vision of a future if capitalism is not replaced. The main mode of critique is laying out what the science is telling us about current ecological collapse and the projected worsening of planetary conditions (not just climate but mass extinction, nitrogen dead zones etc.). However, part of socialist strategy is also about convincing the mass of workers that a better future is possible. Ecosocialist politics usually projects a dystopian future we must avoid, rather than an emancipatory future worth fighting for.

Recently my local socialist reading group happened to be reading Friedrich Engels’s classic Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. For Engels, a “scientific” socialism must be grounded in an analysis of what kind of socialist society is possible given historical and material conditions. Engels emphasized utopian socialists imagine an ideal society “invented out of one’s brain”, but failed to articulate how socialism could be realistically built out of the present. I make a similar claim in this essay. The dystopian vision of the future among much of the green left prevents it from explaining how socialism can be built out of the material conditions that confront us. Ecosocialists often make impressive use of natural science to project a dystopian future, but this is not the “science” Engels called for (his “science” is better described as historical materialism).

Our dystopian future is seen as a product of industrial civilization. For many ecosocialists or left green thinkers, the science is so dire the only option is a wholesale rejection of industrialism This, I would argue, leads to some fanciful (even utopian) ideas of what comes next. Degrowth theorists imagine a “decentralized” future society, “where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming…”  Richard Smith argues for a socialist program of “managed deindustrialization” without fully explaining what that would actually mean. Last year in the New Left Review, Troy Vettese argued for austerity (or what he called “egalitarian eco-austerity”): the program includes energy rationing, compulsory veganism and turning over half the planet to wild nature (a proposal he takes from reactionary sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson).

Much of this thought recoils at any hint of industrial technology (or what they pejoratively call a “techno-fix”) or “eco-modernism.” There is a core contradiction here: Marx, Engels, and all the classical socialists saw industrialization as providing a historically new material capacity for abundance that could abolish poverty and offer freedom from work. As Engels himself made clear:

….[I]t is precisely this industrial revolution which has raised the productive power of human labour to such a high level that – for the first time in the history of humanity – the possibility exists…to produce not only enough for the plentiful consumption of all members of society and for an abundant reserve fund, but also to leave each individual sufficient leisure so that what is really worth preserving in historically inherited culture – science, art, human relations is not only preserved, but converted from a monopoly of the ruling class into the common property of the whole of society….

Simply put, industrial capitalism makes emancipation and freedom possible for all of society. This vision of freedom through social control over industrial abundance is key to mobilizing the masses to the socialist fight. Yet, most ecosocialists agree it is this very system of industrialization that has taken the planet to the brink. This has led to a wedge between the “fully automated luxury communists” on one side and the degrowth-oriented ecosocialists on the other with very little in between.

The core question: is a politics of rejecting industrialism realistic given material conditions? Is it scientific in Engels’s sense? I will argue that this anti-industrial vision of ecosocialism is “unscientific”: its vision of the future is based in a romantic rejection of the material conditions that confront us. Clearly, ecosocialism will need to grapple with an ecologically sound vision of emancipation, but a scientific approach will show how the history of industrialization offers us only a limited set of possible (positive) futures. Here I argue that an emancipatory future can only be built out of industrial systems– not against them. As Leigh Phillips puts it, “Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!” In order to understand this from a “scientific” (and ecological) perspective, we need to consider the historically specific relations between industrialization and what Marx called “the realm of freedom.”  

Socialism, Machinery, and the Realm of Freedom

My core thesis is that Engels’s view of scientific socialism is simply a realistic view of what is materially possible given historical conditions. In ecological terms, capitalism is fundamentally new because of the mass alienation of the bulk of the population from the natural conditions of their existence – the land. For the first time the vast majority is violently torn from the direct dependence on the land and forced to rely upon commodity relations to survive (usually but not exclusively via wage labor). Capital exploits this landless proletariat to accumulate capital and surplus value. One of capital’s main levers of accumulation is a relentless tendency to invest in machines that improve labor productivity. Industrial capitalism thus vastly expands society’s productive capacities in ways that surpasses previous biological and spatial limits to growth.

Marx believed the way capitalism develops automation and machinery could massively reduce the labor needed for basic social reproduction – what he called the “realm of necessity.” If machinery were under socialized control (and not for private profit), he argued all of society could enjoy an extended “realm of freedom” – that is, free time not shaped by the urgency to meet society’s basic needs. Although George Orwell suggested the lack of manual labor could create, “a paradise of little fat men,” free time need not mean idleness and could include a variety of personal and collective activities (including artisanal production or gardening if one enjoys it).

In his famous quote on the “realm of freedom” Marx mentions the realm of necessity should include “the least expenditure of energy” so that the realm of freedom can include “development of human energy [as an] an end in itself.” The focus on energy is key here – and one that is all too often ignored by both dystopian ecosocialists and fully automated communists alike. By focusing on energy and labor, we get a clearer picture of the historical conditions industrialization produced – and the possible futures we might build out of it.

The Ecology of Industrialization: Energy, Labor, and Land

The climate crisis emerges out of our relation to energy: specifically the use of fossil fuels to power machines and industrial processes. As Michael Löwy makes clear, ecosocialism, “first of all…requires a revolution in the energy system.” Yet, we do not reflect enough on the energy system that came before industrialization. In pre-industrial energy systems, nearly all “work” was accomplished by human and animal muscle power – a huge proportion devoted to agriculture. Thus, social power required control over human and animal bodies (i.e. slavery). This also meant the vast majority of society was condemned to brutal agrarian labor. Aziz Rana explains how early white settler colonialism was marked by, ”a basic divide between free and unfree work…The nature of agricultural life meant…there would have to be others who participated in forms of labor long perceived to be degraded.” In this context, political power and freedom meant exclusion from this work; slavery was seen as “either a necessary evil or a legitimate social practice.”

How did the shift to industrialization change these dynamics? Industrialization largely meant the replacement of muscle power with automatic machinery. This started with the production of textiles, but quickly spread to the mass production of everything from housing to books formerly made by human hands and brains (today algorithms can replace human decision-making). In the 20th Century, a narrow spectrum of the working class gained access to automated machines in the realm of social reproduction (e.g., dishwashers, electric devices, etc). The level of reliance on energy and machinery has gotten to the point where, according to historian Bob Johnson, per capita energy consumption in the U.S. is the equivalent to, “about eighty-nine human bodies working for us day and night.”

In the early industrial era slavery was not displaced by machinery, but rather supplemented it. As Marx wrote: “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry.” Yet, we often do not consider the role of fossil fuels in “freeing” some of society from muscle-based labor on the level of society as a whole. As mechanization spread throughout all forms of production, the social necessity of slavery slowly dissipated (even as it still persists today).

In this context, social power emerged less from control over human bodies (slaves) and more from control of machines, factories and other “means of production.” Capitalists who owned such machines made massive investments in fixed capital, which made their labor requirements more flexible. As Andreas Malm  illustrates, fossil fuel – specifically coal-fired steam power – suited capital’s need to control energy, machines and exploitable labor power in the service of accumulation. Unlike rural water, steam was mobile and could be concentrated in urban industrial districts where “where labor is easily procured.”

The other critical material aspect of pre-industrial energy relations is land. All pre-industrial energy came from the land – food for muscles, fiber for clothing, and forest for fuel. In this territorially extensive system, those who controlled land had immense social power – the church, crown, and aristocracy. Suddenly the energy requirements of production shifted from large swathes of land to small “holes” with access to the subterranean bounties of fossil fuel. Capitalism can be seen as a historical process of shifting power from those who controlled land (the landlord class) to capitalists who controlled energy, machines, and, of course, money (the bourgeoisie).

Like labor, we do not reflect on the enormous material transformations this transition made possible in terms of land-use. Fossil fuels expanded society’s access to heat energy for not only domestic heating, but also heat process industries like brickmaking, steel, glass and beer. Prior to the widespread use of coal, E.A. Wrigley estimates iron smelting was spatially extensive: “10,000 tons of iron involved the felling of 100,000 acres of woodland.” Rolf Sieferle estimates that by the 1820s, British coal use would have required the entire territory of the United Kingdom to produce the equivalent amount of wood energy. The urban built environment of steel, concrete and brick requires relatively little land for its fuel needs. It is hard to imagine a future built environment based purely on organic land-based energy and materials.

None of this would be possible without dramatic transformations of agriculture which freed up labor for other kinds of work. It was the steel plow and eventually the tractor that dramatically lessened the labor requirements on farms. Today, virtually every “input” into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil. In the U.S., the story is dramatic: in 1790 90% of the population worked on farms (including slaves). In 1910, it was down to 35%. Today it is less than 1.5%. As Connor Kilpatrick and Adaner Usmani put it, “In the West at least, the agrarian question has been answered — by capitalism. “ Even the global south has also seen massive “depeasantization”, although an estimated 1.5 billion still practice smallholder agriculture around the world.

Industrialization has totally remade the world from a biologically restricted land and muscle based economy into an automated mass energy society of abundance. Socialists have always argued this makes possible a wider “freedom” from work, but neglect the energy basis of these relationships. Many ecological critiques argue these machines are inherently stained with capitalist logics. Since the capitalist use of machinery has not lightened the toil of workers, we must abandon the idea they will ever do so. Consider a Corner House report on “Energy, Work, and Finance”: ”Every time a ‘labour-saving’ energy advance has been introduced in the workplace, the result has generally been new kinds of toil.” As I have argued above, industrialization actually has led to less labor in agriculture. However, the authors are generally right that under capitalism industrial abundance has not led to ample leisure for the majority. Nevertheless, this is a class not technological problem. It is rooted in capital’s private appropriation of the wealth and profit from automatic machinery – not in the machinery itself.

The key “scientific” question for ecosocialists must be: how can we build an emancipatory and ecological society out of industrial forms of production that now structure the material lives of billions of people? Some ecosocialists hint we should return to more labor-intensive agricultural society. Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams suggest an ecological agriculture “…may mean smaller farms with more people working on them,” but they admit machines must developed to lessen the time needed for working on farms. Jasper Bernes’s provocative essay, “The Belly of the Revolution,” lays out a future vision of communism where developed world agriculture is more “effort intensive,” and “nearly everyone would have some hand in growing the food they eat.” More egregious is the explicit promotion of labor-intensive farming. One of the most prominent critics of industrial agriculture, Tony Weis, claims, “Agricultural systems must be vastly more labour-intensive and biodiverse…There is no substitute for skillful and dense human labour, decentralized agricultural knowledge and careful, passionate stewardship.” Naomi Klein explains the benefits of sustainable agriculture: “Another bonus: this type of farming is much more labor intensive than industrial agriculture, which means that farming can once again be a substantial source of employment.”

Let’s get real, or “scientific.” At least in the U.S., where 1.5% people work on farms (globally it is around 30%), we are not going to win the masses of workers with a socialist program based on what Leigh Phillips calls “drudgery for all.” Capitalism has produced the first society where the vast majority need not work in agriculture. A reversal of this is not politically possible or desirable. We cannot make ecosocialism about massive urban outmigration where millions must go do hard labor on farms (that sounds reminiscent of a Stalinist collectivization based on coerced labor). Despite the popularity of urban gardens and small-scale agriculture, we cannot wax nostalgic about “passionate” agricultural labor. Because agricultural labor is often insufferable, societies reliably find ways to coerce others on behalf of elites. While we certainly want to support peasant movements seeking to maintain their livelihoods and resist dispossession, we cannot act as if smallholder agriculture is any material basis for a society beyond capitalism. Yet, one article argues that something called “peasant food webs” have the capacity to “feed the world.” Peasant communities, already struggling with debt and manifold threats to their livelihood must now feed a world that is more than 50% urban? Who will force them to?  

Powering Ecosocialist Abundance

Fossil fuel-based industrialism creates massive levels of waste and pollution at all stages of extraction, production and consumption. Capitalism compels firms to externalize these ecological costs onto society as a competitive strategy. Historically state socialism also focused on rapid industrialization without fully considering the ecological consequences. Yet, today, unlike the 1920s, we have a much broader base of ecological knowledge to inform how production is organized. This is the core of socialism – subjecting production to democratic debate over social (and ecological) needs. Today our social needs should still include free time made possible by automation – but we must explore ecological forms of automated production.

The ecological question with automation revolves around energy. Since we cannot take a global society of seven plus billion people based on automated machine production and turn into an artisanal handcrafted local agrarian society, the key to an ecosocialist future is finding some way to replicate the labor-saving aspects of the fossil economy with clean energy.

As David Schwartzman argues, we need to view a transition to socialism as an energy transition to the abundant resource known as the sun – what he calls solar communism. Solar energy fits nicely with the socialist vision of abundance. Schwartzman explains: “…one hour of solar flux to the earth supplies the same amount of energy as that consumed globally by society in one year.” The problem with solar power is of course technical. But under socialism, if production were oriented toward human and ecological need, vast amounts of engineering knowledge would be devoted to solving the limits of renewable energy (its intermittency and need for storage). Historically speaking from an energy standpoint, this transition would be a kind of energy reversal. 99% of human history is based on direct solar energy — specifically the photosynthesis needed for food, fuel, and fiber. The use of fossil fuels (or buried sunshine) could be seen as a brief “bridge” to re-inaugurating a society based on abundant sunlight.

Renewable energy is not only abundant, but its material properties are somewhat inimical to capitalist profitability. As Malm points out, once the infrastructures are built, energy flows freely and is not easily privatized. This is a problem for “green capitalists” but a boon for a socialist society. Further, renewable energy provides free and abundant energy that requires little labor to harness once the infrastructures are built.

Of course, we must acknowledge that renewable energy infrastructures would require extraction – steel, concrete, rare earth metals. Much of this process would be ecologically destructive. For many self-styled eco-leftists, this very fact is a basis for dismissing them (admittedly renewables under capitalism are quire nasty!). Yet, it is the height of unscientific ecosocialism to imagine a world without “extraction.” While we most avoid the undemocratic forms of dispossession wrapped up with capitalist and (neo)colonial extraction, a socialist extraction would need to be deeply democratic: taking into account both local communities’ needs for clean water and soil, but also the broader social needs of society. As Thea Riofrancos argues this means “scaling up” democracy to effectively balance what are both left movements against extractivism and struggles to improve societal living standards.

The key with renewables is that the energy itself is not extractable – it is an inexhaustible flow resource. Once we have extracted all the materials needed for the energy infrastructure, at least we do not have to continue destructive extraction of fossil fuel to continue generating energy. A critic of renewables points out in a negative light that a windmill “only has a 30-40 year life-span”, but that is a lot longer than the millisecond lifespan of oil/gas/coal once it is combusted in the fuel chamber.

There is a risk of being too romantic about renewables (similar to the romanticism about labor-intensive agriculture). There is a scientific debate on the potential transition to renewable energy. Mark Jacobson and his colleagues have generated much excitement with their research showing a transition to 100% renewable energy is possible. Yet, this research has recently come under fire by a significant group of scientists (mainly for over- optimistic predictions of hydropower capacity). Yet, even these critics, “have concluded that an 80% decarbonization of the US electric grid could be achieved at reasonable cost” (keep in mind this estimate includes hydropower). The key question is how to approach the extra 20%.

The problem is not just one of percentages, but real material constraints. Intermittent renewable energies like solar and wind could not yet replicate continuous baseload energy generation that defines modern electricity systems. Therefore, a socialist push toward solar communism must also think seriously about complementary sources of power such as hydro and even the low carbon source that might make us squirm: nuclear power. There is evidence advanced reactors and recycling can solve many of the environmental worries of waste and meltdowns. The most credible objection to nuclear is cost, but this should not be the main criteria under a socialist program whose aim is decarbonization and production for social needs (and, like renewables, once nuclear plants are built the cost is very low). The only other option is “storage” which often means batteries with their significant extractive geographies.

Let me also be clear – the harnessing of renewable abundance is not an effort to replicate wasteful capitalist consumerism (e.g. cheap plastic crap), but rather to define (and debate) what society actually needs through the premise of abundant energy. Again, socialism means the democratization of production. When the goal is to transform the relations of production, new, emancipatory relations of consumption will follow. An ecosocialist politics of production also avoids the typical environmentalist shaming about “overconsumption” (in an unequal society where so many are living lives based on underconsumption).  

Overall ecosocialist abundance is not about the “abundance” of mere stuff, but time and real human relationships. Again, Marx saw labor saving machinery as fundamentally a means to ensure more free time. Ecosocialism must also seek ecological abundance – that is, an abundance of nonhuman living ecologies. And, while capitalism devalues and exploits reproductive care work, an ecosocialist production system would make “reproduction” and “care” the sole purpose of all production itself (i.e. production geared toward needs). An ecosocialist society would  need to figure out how to produce food and clothing (and even stuff like steel), but it would take equally seriously the production of housing, education, health care, child care and the other needs of social reproduction.  

The climate Left has begun organizing around a program that aims build a rapid clean energy transition – the Green New Deal. Yet, this program cannot solely be about decarbonization and less emissions; it must also explain how solving climate change will lead to a better future society for the many: free electricity, public transport, and green public housing are all good starts.  Ecosocialists need to also emphasize the fight to transform who controls energy systems – the public crisis of climate change requires public ownership of energy. The inclusion of a federal job guarantee is also a good goal under capitalism (as a means of ensuring full employment and empowering labor), but a socialist demand should include less work (i.e. a shorter workweek). Ultimately such struggles must be about an appealing vision of freedom where, “the development of human energy is an end in itself.”


I should say that the dystopic vision of catastrophic civilizational collapse could be “scientific” if capitalism continues. Under these conditions, the small minority of private owners will continue to construct their own security enclaves as the world burns. As Marx said, “Capital…takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so.” This applies to the planet as well. If we really want “system change not climate change” we had better get a deeper understanding of history and how social change happens. Entrenched systems of power – like fossil capital – will only bend under tremendous political pressure from below.

We cannot win ecosocialism simply by presenting the latest climate science and hoping the masses will awaken to the need for change. All mass, popular movements also include emancipatory and positive visions of a future worth fighting for. The socialism of Marx and Engels articulated a mode of analysis – historical materialism – that attempted to popularize an understanding of how human liberation could be built out of capitalism itself. Ecosocialists not only need a convincing version of this; they also they need a more inspiring and positive political program that can win the masses of the working classes. A basic premise might be: humans are ecological beings who have basic needs to reproduce their lives (food, energy, housing, health care, love, leisure). An ecosocialist politics can still be built on the decommodification and universal access to these needs, but also a more radical and democratic vision of organizing production to integrate ecological knowledge and principles. We literally have a world to win.