Why 100% renewable energy requires libertarian eco-socialism

Grow or Die

by Dan Fischer

It’s old news that humans can power society with 100% renewable energy. Back in 1964, the anarchist Murray Bookchin wrote a prescient essay on global warming and other ecological issues. “Solar devices, wind turbines, and hydroelectric resources taken singly do not provide a solution…Pieced together as a mosaic…they could amply meet the needs of a decentralized society,” he wrote (Ecology and Revolutionary Thought).

This transition can only take place when we start confronting the system that caused climate change: capitalism. Capitalism is a system based on private property and wage labor, where a ruling class of people own and manage most of the economy. It is inherently anti-ecological.

What’s Wrong with Capitalism

Capitalism presents each business with a stark choice to either “grow or die”. If businesses don’t keep producing more stuff, they lose out in a game of cutthroat competition. And because renewable energy tends to cost more than fossil fuels, a company that truly goes green will usually lose market share to its competitors very quickly. So, the vast majority of businesses have no choice but to keep on using fossil fuels.  In practice, when large corporations dominate governments and gut agencies like the EPA, capitalism gets even more destructive than it does in theory!

To appear sustainable, they sell the public false “solutions” like natural gas, mega-hydro, nuclear power, and cap-and-trade. We call these false solutions, because they rely on the very same oppressive, capitalistic structures that caused climate change. In some cases, these false solutions increase greenhouse gas emissions. “Clean” natural gas pollution, for example, is many times more potent than carbon dioxide, leading Cornell scientists to conclude natural gas is worse than coal for the climate.

Even when capitalists switch to renewable energy, they build it in a very socially and ecologically destructive manner. Google’s large solar thermal project in California desecrates Chemehuevi burial grounds and devastates local birds and endangered tortoises. HydroQuebec’s hydroelectric dams violate Innu sovereignty and flood large areas of borreal forests. Even if a fully renewable energy-powered capitalism were possible, it would be inherently unsustainable. We need a democratic system capable of putting people and the earth above private profit.

Under socialism, by contrast, ordinary people control and manage the economy. There is no private property, only personal possessions. There is no grow-or-die imperative. There is a possibility for building an ecological society that also meets people’s needs and desires.

State and Hierarchy

However, we need to distinguish between two very different strands of socialism: authoritarian socialism which advocates the taking of state power and libertarian socialism which tries to  remove all coercive hierarchies. Libertarian socialism is the green choice.

Authoritarian socialism–which should technically be called “state capitalism” since it creates a class of political and economic decision-makers–contains anti-ecological tendencies, and can be as destructive as capitalism. It fails to recognize that social hierarchy is at the root of ecological crisis. Hierarchy contributes to environmental destruction in several ways.

      1. By definition, authoritarian societies put a class of decision-makers at the top of society and the rest of the people below them. History has shown that the people at the bottom of a society, because they have very little power to influence environmental decisions, get stuck with the most pollution. Conversely, in a non-hierarchical society it would be very difficult to build a hazardous facility anywhere!
      2. Domination of humans reinforces the idea that humans should dominate nature. For example, Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann called Palestinians “the rocks of Judea…obstacles that had to be cleared”. Aristotle, in Politics, justified the subjugation of women and slaves by likening them to nonhuman nature. As we can see, the denigration of humans and the denigration of nature go hand in hand. Conversely, an egalitarian, libertarian culture reinforces the notion that humans should not rule over other people or over nature.

Authoritarian societies are best suited to repress and marginalize environmental protest movements. As Tadzio Meuller writes, “[T]he extraction of fossil fuels, really of most mineral resources, tends to generate strong local resistance, whether or not the community gets to share in the spoils of the extraction. In turn, this resistance has to be managed/repressed” (Greece under SYRIZA?).

  1. A State simply cannot manage an ecosystem as well as local communities. The political scientist James Scott shows that States try to homogenize the environment in order to make it “legible” from above. They tend to adopt monocultural approaches that have repeatedly proven disastrous in forestry, energy and agriculture. After Germany’s late-18th century invention of state-managed forestry, forests became so unhealthy that “[a] new term, Waldsterben (forest death), entered the German vocabulary.” (James Scott, Seeing Like a State).

Moving from theory to practice, State-managed economies and authoritarian socialists who’ve taken power, have a terrible environmental track record. Consider the following examples:

    1. The Chernobyl disaster, history’s worst nuclear disaster, happened under the Soviet Union’s watch.
    2. To stop Greenpeace from interfering with destructive nuclear tests, France’s “Socialist” government sunk Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in 1985, murdering the photographer Fernando Pereira.
    3. Under socialist president Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s exploitation of oilfield communities led the documentary filmmaker Gabriel Muzo to observe in 2005: “When I took my first journey through the petroleum-producing zone in the state of Zulia, on the eastern side of Lake Maracaibo, I was absolutely astonished by what I saw, by the misery, the resignation of the public, the public health problems, the environmental degradation” (Rafael Uzcategui, Revolution as Spectacle).
    4. Leon Trotsky held an attitude of “worship toward technology” and “allowed himself to fantasize about a future of rearranged rivers and mountains” according to eco-marxist Joel Kovel in The Enemy of Nature.

Community Control

Libertarian socialism, by contrast, recognizes that ecological crises ultimately have their roots in social hierarchies. It is a philosophy advocating a society where communities are free to govern themselves and individuals are free to do as they wish, short of coercing others. There are many ecological or green varieties of libertarian socialism. Some important thinkers include the social ecologist Murray Bookchin, the revolutionary ecologist Judi Bari, and the eco-marxist Joel Kovel. All would agree with Kovel that States inherently “implement the domination of nature” (Enemy of Nature).

Energy is an example of a sector best managed in a decentralized manner. Bill McKibben explains in Eaarth, “it makes more sense to think about energy locally and regionally. (The very physics of electricity, the juice lost in transmission, works against long-range strategies.)” Agriculture is another example. In Seeing Like a State, James Scott documents how state-planned farming in West Africa failed to match up to indigenous farming techniques which make use of local knowledge.

So far, we’ve established that capitalist privatization is a clear dead end, and the statist nationalization favored by authoritarian socialists and some liberals won’t save us either. The alternative is municipalization, or community control of the economy.

This is not to say that local communities will become isolated enclaves. Communities will still confederate together to share resources and coordinate regulations. The Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, for example, confederate hundreds of thousands of people into autonomous zones. These zones have banned pesticides, stood up to oil companies, and they practice decentralized, ecological agriculture. In 1996, two years into their revolt, the Zapatistas reached an agreement with the Mexican government called the the San Andrés Accords, which gave local communities the power to veto all oil drilling.

In Denmark, in the 1980s and 1990s wind power grew dramatically, due to a movement of community-owned wind cooperatives. In the town of Sydthy, a 1996 poll found some 80% of residents supported the wind turbines, and the people living the closest were the most supportive! However, after neoliberal reforms in the late 90s and early 2000s privatized much of the sector, public participation dropped and the industry’s growth rate fell. Nonetheless, areas of Denmark still get 100% of their electricity from wind power, and on a good day wind can meet half of the country’s electric needs (Chapters 21 and 43 of Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution).

There are thousands of examples of direct democratic societies that we can study, from ancient Athens to 1936 Catalonia to the current-day Zapatistas and the alternative spaces established by Occupy Wall Street, just to name a few. If we build a large-scale direct democratic society, it is hard to see who would allow an incinerator or a dirty power plant to be built in their neighborhood!

Climate change and other ecological crises threaten human existence. However, when communities municipalize their economy, democratize their politics, and confederate with other communities to share resources, then humans will have a decent chance at surviving…and living quite well too!


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3 responses to “Why 100% renewable energy requires libertarian eco-socialism”

  1. intexile2013 says :

    May we republish this on ecology.iww.org?

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