Recently, UCSB hosted a conference on the topic of 21st Century Ecosocialism. The conference, which included presenters such as noted environmentalist Bill McKibben and 2012 Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, was organized by the activist group System Change Not Climate Change, and advocated “seeing capitalism itself as the source of the (current environmental) crisis and radical system change as the only viable solution.”
On the surface, there is nothing surprising about an environmentalist conference being hosted at UCSB. UCSB has a long legacy of environmental awareness and activism, and we have every right to be proud of this legacy. However, our concern about the environment makes us susceptible to being misled by groups which claim to care about the same issues we do. A closer examination of System Change Not Climate Change reveals a radical agenda that reaches far beyond the realm of mere environmentalism.
On its website, System Change Not Climate Change states that “The current ecological crisis results from the capitalist system, which values profits for a global ruling elite over people and the planet. It must therefore be confronted through an international mass movement of working people around the world.” Then, in a list of demands, the organization advocates “Public ownership and democratic control of production, starting with the energy and financial industries;” “The economy democratically planned according to social need and ecological sustainability;” “Full employment;” “High taxation of the 1% and the corporations most responsible for the economic and environmental crises;” and (for some reason) “Defund the Pentagon.”
Although many of these demands are very vaguely worded, the overall agenda of System Change Not Climate Change is clear: it wants to remake the world economy into a government-controlled command economy, with public ownership of industries, guaranteed employment, redistribution of wealth, and central economic planning, all of which have been attempted by failed or failing authoritarian regimes in nations like the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela.
These demands are not new, and they are not environmentalist demands, either. Socialists have been advocating concepts like “public ownership and democratic control of production” and “full employment” for over a century now, since long before the modern environmental movement came into being in the 1960s. Because socialism has an essentially parasitic nature, it frequently attempts to piggyback off societal crises and legitimate social movements that are already in existence (such as anti-war movements or movements for minority rights). “Ecosocialism” is nothing more than the latest incarnation of this trend, another exciting opportunity for socialists to insist that their ideas are finally coming to fruition. Do not be deceived by this rhetoric. One can love the environment and be a committed and caring environmentalist without being a socialist.
Although I certainly do not deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming, I do want to point out that the idea of a global warming “consensus” is sometimes used in a misleading sense. Although there is indeed a broad consensus among climate scientists that man-made climate change is occurring, there is no consensus on what the precise effects of climate change on the environment will be, and there is certainly no consensus among climate scientists that the only way to solve the problem is by radically restructuring the global economy and surrendering many of our property rights to a powerful central government.
In fact, a good climate scientist should not be making any economic prognoses at all, because scientists and scholars are generally not qualified to speak on issues outside their field of study. Unfortunately, this is exactly what many of the attendees of the 21st Century Ecosocialism Conference are doing. Although issues of capitalism and socialism are fundamentally economic issues, Dr. John Foran, cited by The Bottom Line as one of the main organizers of the conference, is a sociology professor with no background in economics. Why does Professor Foran feel qualified to advocate a radical systemic overhaul in a field that he does not even study?
In fact, out of a list of twenty-seven presenters I found on the website for the 21st Century Ecosocialism Conference, only one of them (Kshama Sawant, a Seattle City Council member and socialist activist) appears to have any educational background in economics. Not a single one of them is a professor of economics. During three days of talks on every topic from “Decolonize the Food System” to “Guided Loving-Kindness-Equanimity Meditation: Strengthen Your Mind as an Eco-Socialist Activist” there is not a single event that involves hearing a mainstream economist’s perspective of the socialist proposals made by System Change Not Climate Change.
This is no accident. There are so few economists involved in the ecosocialism movement because the proposals being made by the group System Change Not Climate Change are simply not economically feasible. There are very few mainstream economists, whether neoclassical, Keynesian, or of any other major school, who would support them. To economists, the success of capitalism is at least as much of a consensus as the existence of global warming is among climate scientists. They might debate the minutiae, but the major points are not in doubt. While socialism has failed repeatedly in every country where it has been tried, capitalism has measurably improved the standard of living far more than any other system in human history.
Although I am an economic layman myself (and, unlike the “ecosocialists,” unafraid to admit it), I would actually contend that a capitalist system which strongly enforces private property rights is the best system for encouraging respect of the environment. When a good (such as land) is in the public domain, the “tragedy of the commons” occurs. Because users of a public good have no incentive to limit their consumption, the good will soon be exhausted. On the other hand, when a good is private, people will be careful not to deplete the resource on their own property, because costs will be incurred by the individual actor. Nor will they be easily able to steal from or damage others’ property, because a system that strictly enforces property rights will hold individual actors responsible for intrusions on others’ private property.
When a resource (such as air, water, or global climate) is necessarily a common good, we can still hold people and groups responsible for their damage to the good by internalizing the external cost of their actions. This is the logic which was successfully used to solve crises with air pollution in decades past: if an individual or group is responsible for 20% of the air pollution problem, then they pay for 20% of the cost of resolving it. If they are responsible for 10% of the mess, then they pay for 10% of the cleanup, and so on.
Similar logic could be applied to carbon emissions. Corporations could be held responsible for damage they do to the global climate, paying for environmental cleanup proportional to the amount of damage they are responsible for. In addition, we can address the global warming crisis with strategies of adaptation, and in the future perhaps even with some form of geoengineering. All of these potential solutions can be implemented without abandoning the world capitalist system. Contrary to what ecosocialists will tell you, socialism is not the only option on the table.
My objection is not to the fact that the conference took place. I fully support the free speech rights of the conference attendees (probably to a greater degree than they would support mine if the communist system they envisioned ever materialized in the United States). I simply wish to raise awareness of what I believe to be a deeply counterproductive agenda. By polarizing the issue at hand and presenting a false dichotomy between environmentalism and capitalism, ecosocialism harms the debate. There is widespread climate change denialism in America. Many conservatives are afraid to admit that a climate change problem even exists, because they correctly perceive that climate change is being used to push a radical Marxist agenda that would harm America if brought to fruition. A study conducted at Duke University entitled “Solution Aversion: On the Relation Between Ideology and Motivated Disbelief” recently showed that conservative participants were far more likely to deny climate change when presented with solutions which involved increasing government’s power, but more willing to accept climate change when presented with solutions that preserved the free market.
These conservatives, a sizable percentage of the voting public, will remain alienated from the climate change debate so long as groups like Systems Change Not Climate Change speak for the environmentalists. By attempting to inject the teenage fantasy of socialist revolution into a serious debate, Systems Change Not Climate Change is helping to further polarize dialogue on an extremely important issue, and keeping us from having the sort of moderate and rational discussion that we need to have about climate change and environmental issues right now.
Jason Garshfield is not interested in the so-called “parasitic” system that is Socialism.
[Correction: The Nexus does not have a stance on Jason Garshfield’s attendance of this event or his opinions. The previous byline does not accurately reflect the views or opinions of the Daily Nexus. The article has been updated to retract the previous statement made on behalf of the Nexus by an editor who does not have authority to speak on behalf of the organization or any of its employees.]