Privatized Universe

There is no limit to human megalomania. One recent example – which went largely unnoticed during this torrid and neurotic summer – was a bizarre exchange between NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and the Chinese authorities. ‘We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon and saying: “It’s ours now and you stay out”’, Nelson cautioned in an interview with Die Bild. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry immediately hit back: ‘This is not the first time for the chief of NASA to lie through his teeth and smear China’.

Nelson’s accusation was strange, given that this December will mark fifty years since anyone has set foot on our natural satellite. Since then, moon exploration has been delegated to small, tracked vehicles which scuttle over its rocky outcrops. China has only deployed one such robot, which travelled to the moon’s ‘dark side’ in 2019. So the idea that it could establish sole dominion over an area the size of Asia, suspended in a vacuum at temperatures ranging from 120 degrees Celsius during the day to minus 130 degrees at night, exposed to cosmic radiation and more than 384,000 km from the closest supply base, was somewhat of a stretch.

The accusation was all the more outlandish given that it was the US, not China, that planned to launch a gargantuan rocket into space on 29 August, completing a few lunar orbits before returning to earth, all for the modest sum of $29bn. This would be the first leg of the Artemis mission – so-called after the Greek goddess of the moon and sister of the Sun-god Apollo – which eventually aims to establish a base worth $93bn on the moon by 2025. In theory, this lunar settlement will one day serve as a launch pad for a human expedition to Mars.

The question is: why are we interested in further trips to the moon? On their successful voyage in 1969, American astronauts collected a few curious stones but nothing else – so it is hard to find a scientific rationale for future missions. There may be a military objective: it was not for nothing that in late 2019 the US established the sixth branch of its armed forces, the Space Force, to manage all space-related military activities. But why the moon? Perhaps to install a military base from which to threaten an enemy on earth? Surely it would be sufficient to use the satellites already in orbit, which are much closer, cheaper and more precise.

Cynical onlookers such as the Financial Times and Economist insinuate that these missions are merely a ploy to bankroll the defence industry and distribute funds to strategic electoral constituencies. The latter publication reported that the Space Launch System (SLS) used in the Artemis project was nicknamed the ‘Senate Launch System’, and its technology, derived from the now defunct Shuttle programme, was intended to safeguard jobs in Alabama, where the bulk of the Shuttle’s components were manufactured.

Another hypothesis is that US wants to replay the game that eventually caused the USSR to collapse. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or ‘Star Wars’ programme, was a cosmic defence system whose pursuit brought the Russians to their knees, despite the fact that it was never realized. To keep pace with the American conquest of the moon, China would similarly have to divert a quantity of resources that would plunge its economy into crisis. Hence the US calling upon its vassals – Canada, Japan, the UK and EU – to participate in the Artemis mission.

Lest this New Cold War expenditure should strike the public as somewhat pointless, the government can always pull a rabbit out of its hat. In recent years we have seen countless economic gurus extolling the potential of resource mining, not only from the moon but also from asteroids. Names of great prestige from the world of finance have begun to sponsor this nascent industry. In 2009, Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt joined with the director James Cameron and the aerospace entrepreneurs Eric Anderson and Peter Diamandis, among others, to found Planetary Resources, a company whose ultimate mission is to mine high-value minerals from asteroids and refine them into metal foams. Meanwhile, iSpace, a similar venture launched in Japan in 2010, claimed that

by taking advantage of lunar water resources, we can develop the space infrastructure needed to enrich our daily life on earth, as well as expand our living sphere into space. Also, by making the earth and Moon one system, a new economy with space infrastructure at its core will support human life, making sustainability a reality.

Fantastical enterprises of this ilk have since proliferated. In 2013, Deep Space Industries Inc. drew up an ambitious blueprint for identifying asteroids suitable for mining by 2015, returning samples to earth the following year, and commencing full-scale operations in 2023. Shortly after, a Californian company called OffWorld announced a grand plan to ‘develop a new generation of universal industrial robots to do the heavy lifting on the Moon, asteroids and Mars.’ It envisioned ‘millions of smart robots working under human supervision on and offworld, turning the inner solar system into a better, gentler, greener place for life and civilization’.

In a 98-page report to its clients in 2017, Goldman Sachs asserted that the prospect of mining platinum in space with ‘asteroid-grabbing spacecraft’ was becoming increasingly affordable, and forecast ever-increasing profits in the sector. Morgan Stanley followed suit. When such banks are encouraging their clients to invest in space mining industries, it is worth remembering that it was Goldman Sachs who managed Greece’s national debt, practically doubling it in the process. That is to say, large financial institutions are endlessly capable of squeezing their clients like lemons. In the end, despite the banks’ predictions, Deep Space was sold to Bradford Space, a comparatively modest trader of orbital flight systems and aircraft components, while Planetary Resources was liquidated and its assets auctioned off. Illusions, however, die hard: January 2022 saw the founding of AstroForge, another Californian firm which claims to have developed new lab-tested technology for processing asteroid material.

Bloomberg has warned us in no uncertain terms about these sci-fi-esque enterprises:

Where would science fiction be without space mining? From Ellen Ripley in Alien and Dave Lister in Red Dwarf, to Sam Bell in Moon and The Expanse’s Naomi Nagata, the grittier end of interstellar drama would be bereft if it weren’t for overalled engineers and their mineral-processing operations…It’s wonderful that people are shooting for the stars – but those who declined to fund the expansive plans of the nascent space mining industry were right about the fundamentals. Space mining won’t get off the ground in any foreseeable future – and you only have to look at the history of civilization to see why. One factor rules out most space mining at the outset: gravity. On one hand, it guarantees that most of the solar system’s best mineral resources are to be found under our feet. earth is the largest rocky planet orbiting the sun. As a result, the cornucopia of minerals the globe attracted as it coalesced is as rich as will be found this side of Alpha Centauri. Gravity poses a more technical problem, too. Escaping earth’s gravitational field makes transporting the volumes of material needed in a mining operation hugely expensive.

Indeed, if we exchange illusion for reality for a moment, we realize there are good reasons why very few people over the last fifty years have poked their heads out of the immediate vicinity of our planet. The International Space Station orbits the earth at only 400km from the earth’s surface – if one were to represent the earth as a sphere a meter in diameter, it would hover just 3cm above it. The moon, on the other hand, is almost a thousand times further, and the shortest distance between the earth and Mars is 55 million kilometres. This doesn’t mean that humans will never exit the solar system, but doing so would require a scientific paradigm shift beyond Einsteinian physics, plus staggering technological advances which would revolutionize transportation in a manner as unthinkable as the reaction engine would have been in the age of the horse-drawn carriage.

The mirage of space exploration obeys the same iron law which Horkheimer and Adorno identified in the culture industry. Namely, it works by indefinitely postponing satisfaction: ‘The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged.’ We are constantly told that in two, five, ten years’ time, a new mission will land on the moon – or better still, build a base there. Likewise, we will always be twenty, thirty or forty years away from establishing colonies on Mars. Deadlines for space flights are infinitely delayed, as demonstrated by Artemis, whose launch was first scheduled for 2020, then for the end of 2021, then 29 August 2022, then 3 September and now, ‘probably’, for later this month, or maybe next…

There’s a stark difference, though, between the ‘normal’ culture industry and the space mirage; the former is produced for the masses, the latter for the capitalist class. It is the Larry Pages, the Elon Musks and the Jeff Bezoses that tell themselves such fairytales – believing, with frenzied hubris, that they can turn fiction into science. From this point of view, the exploration (or exploitation) of space takes a form that is closer to religious postulate than plebeian superstition. For the concrete fact which continues to vex capitalists is that the earth is round (and therefore limited, finite). Capitalism is an intrinsically expansionist system; without unrestricted growth, the profit mechanism jams. We’ve frequently witness this phenomenon as capitalists are forced to open new frontiers of industrialization and accumulation; after Britain and the US it was France, then Germany, then Japan and Italy; now it is China and Vietnam, and one day it will be Africa. Yet the earth remains stubbornly spherical – and this poses an insurmountable problem unless the market can expand beyond its frontiers; or maybe even further, beyond those of the solar system. The capitalists’ dream is of an infinite, universal market, where you can buy shares of the Andromeda Galaxy and futures on the commodities produced on the three planets which orbit the pulsar PSR B1257+1 in the Virgo constellation, 980 lightyears away from our solar system. Imagine: an entire cosmos to exploit! 

Yet capitalism is not simply an expansionist economy; it also involves a proprietary relation to the external world. It is enough to recall the paeans which accompanied last year’s flea-jumps out of the earth’s atmosphere by three billionaires (Branson, Bezos, Musk), heralding the private conquest of space (obviously far more efficient than any public equivalent). Here we must reckon with the notion of the privatized universe: entire star systems recast as private property. Our billionaires have no trouble thinking on this scale. Nor, for that matter, are they reluctant to embrace the ridiculous.

The history of space conquest stretches back to the middle of the last century. The moment humankind peeped out of the earth’s atmosphere (Laika the dog in 1957; Yuri Gagarin in 1961), governments immediately began using international fora to stake their claims on the cosmos. To prevent future galactic incursions and imperialisms, they solemnly signed the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, which recommended that the ‘exploration and use of outer space should be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind’. But this peacemaking was merely a facade. In 1979, when the Moon Treaty declared the moon and its natural resources ‘CHM’ (Common Heritage of Mankind) and called for ‘an equitable sharing by all countries in the benefits derived from these resources’, many states including the US refused to ratify it. Nine years later, the US government’s Department of Commerce established the Office of Space Commerce, whose mission was ‘to foster the conditions for the economic growth and technological advancement of the US commercial space industry’.

Now, over the last decade, Washington has intensified its efforts to create a legal framework that would enable the exploitation of resources in space:

The Obama administration signed the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, allowing US citizens to ‘engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resoources’. In April 2020, the Trump administration issued an executive order supporting US mining on the Moon and asteroids. In May 2020 NASA unveiled the Artemis Accords, which included the development of safety zones around lunar mining sites.

At this rate, it won’t be long until law firms begin to handle space-related controversies, hiring lawyers who specialize in the intricacies of interplanetary commerce. And all this before anyone has even returned to the moon itself! The problem is that, while we pursue such extravagant schemes, we are simultaneously condemning this small, singular, fabulous planet of ours to destruction. 

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Eva Díaz, ‘Art and the New Space Age’, NLR 112.


The Great Unfettering

In a recent contribution to Sidecar, Matthew Huber claims to present a ‘Marxist alternative’ to the ‘mish-mash ecologism’ and dead-end ‘utopianism’ that he says afflicts parts of the climate left. Finding evidence of these maladies in two recently published books – The Future is Degrowth by Aaron Vansintjan, Andrea Vetter, and Matthias Schmelzer, and Half-Earth Socialism by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese – Huber makes an impassioned plea for the left to walk away from utopian arcadias and embrace the more realistic option of a ‘socialist eco-modernist… transformation of production’.

Huber’s essay rehearses a line of criticism that he has elaborated on several occasions and that finds its most systematic form in his recently published book, Climate Change as Class War. In part an argument for appealing to working-class interests to win a Green New Deal, in part a polemic against degrowth, which Huber associates with the environmentalism of the ‘professional managerial class’, the book aims to further the cause of so-called ‘eco-modernism’.

Briefly put, advocates of degrowth call for an end to the fetishization of growth in contemporary society, a reduction in energy use and material throughputs in the Global North, and a globally just distribution of wealth and resources. This is necessary, they claim, to phase out fossil fuels, regenerate the planet’s damaged ecosystems and attain a decent quality of life for all. Such a programme would require reductions in resource and energy use for many in the Global North, yet this need not lead to asceticism. Rather, its supporters argue it would enable communal luxury within ecological limits. Though disagreements exist within the degrowth movement, most of its adherents envision a future where food production is localized, people have democratic control over issues that affect them, renewable energy infrastructure is decentralized and collectively owned, and public transportation is commonplace.

For left eco-modernists such as Huber and Leigh Phillips, this is a decidedly middle-class agenda – a ‘politics of less’ which, by calling on workers to reduce their energy and resource use, is destined to be unpopular and unattainable. For Huber, the problem is not the consumption habits of the Global North’s proletarianized groups; it is rather the activities of a capitalist class that consumes too much and profits from planet-destroying fossil fuels. As such, the antidote is class struggle, stronger unions and a parliamentary path to a Green New Deal.

From this perspective, degrowth’s inclination towards the local and the particular, and its relative silence on class struggle, create insurmountable barriers to socialist emancipation. In contrast, eco-modernists propose largescale nuclear energy projects, hydroelectric dams and industrialized agriculture, arguing that this is what it means to think and act in the Marxist tradition. Capital’s large-scale industry and exploitation of the world’s producers sets the stage for its abolition through a working-class seizure of the means of production. In Huber’s words, ‘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.’

In his Sidecar contribution, Huber adds that social control of industry will remove the primary impediment to a green transition: capital’s pursuit of profit. ‘All known technological pathways to halting environmental breakdown’ – Huber gives the examples of renewable energy, ‘green nitrogen production’ and lab meat – ‘are “fettered” by the social relations of production’. He goes on to explain that ‘while the utopian eco-socialists would likely scoff at these “techno-fixes” – technological solutions which don’t challenge capitalist social relations – an eco-modern socialist perspective would insist these technologies will not be developed unless we challenge capitalist social relations.’

Huber’s Climate Change as Class War has so far been the apogee of the eco-modernist position in a debate that has done much to further the discussion of desirable post-capitalist futures. The book’s emphasis on class struggle, thinking at scale, the state as a terrain of struggle, and the dynamics of transition are valuable contributions. Huber’s Sidecar essay reiterates many of these themes, stressing the need to imagine a green transition rooted in a Marxist study of the ‘historical economic conditions’, rather than abstract utopian speculation.

There is no question that there are important critiques of degrowth to be made from a Marxist perspective. Whereas Marxism’s critique of capitalism flows from a study of the historically determinate way it realizes value – through the exploitation of labour and the natural world – degrowth instead opts for an abstract critique of ‘growth’ as such. This is more than just a difference of terminology. Degrowth’s simplified conceptual apparatus has obscured the political stakes of a green transition to such a extent that it has been adopted by various irreconcilable traditions: from anti-capitalists to those pursuing a reformist politics of redistribution and reduced consumption. However, by unreflexively aligning Marxism with eco-modernism, Huber obscures Marxist alternatives to degrowth that are not eco-modernist in orientation but that nevertheless strive for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in the pursuit of a liveable planet for all human and non-human life.

At the heart of Climate Change as Class War is the claim that a successful climate politics must win over the majority of the world’s population. As Huber rightly claims, that majority is the ‘global proletariat’ in its myriad of forms: manufacturing labour, service workers, informal workers, agricultural work, unwaged work, reproductive work and more. The issue of how the world’s exploited and oppressed can unite in struggle is of course a crucial one for any left politics. It is all the more striking, then, that Huber does not try to answer it. In a footnote to Climate Change as Class War, Huber explicitly narrows the scope of his study:

My analysis of class in this book will focus mostly on the US context… While there is no justifiable basis for analyzing class in territorial terms – as if particular classes are only contained within national boundaries – a reason for this analytical focus is the simple fact that US political culture is the largest barrier to climate action globally… I will also admit my own scholarly (and personal) expertise is based in American Studies and US politics.

This amounts to an admission of methodological nationalism. If the goal is to appeal to the majority of the world’s population, this should lead to an analysis of the global working class in all its complexity – not the minority of that class living in the US. Moreover, if ‘US political culture’ is indeed one of the greatest stumbling blocks to climate action, this should involve an interrogation of not just the US’s internal political economy but its external role as the world’s leading imperialist power and orchestrator of wars, coups, sanctions, ‘development programmes’, ‘human rights interventions’, assassinations and arms sales that have devastated the world’s working classes and the ecological systems their lives depend on.

A thorough analysis of US class politics should also involve a consideration of how imperial predation in the periphery shapes class interests and struggles in the US. Yet in his critique of climate justice politics, Huber categorically rules out this line of inquiry: ‘climate justice politics often positions the struggle in territorial terms, as a struggle between Global North and Global South, and not as a global class struggle between capital and an international working class.’ He goes on to cite Jason Hickel’s work on value transfers and uneven ecological exchange as an example of a degrowth paradigm that fails to ‘differentiate “income” based on wages versus capital ownership’, writing that such scholars falsely ‘assume all income – whether it flows to capital or labour – is a form of ecological imperialism.’

This approach leads Huber into a false choice between a politics that attends to imperialist domination and one focussed on class struggle. As anti-colonial Marxists such as Walter Rodney, Samir Amin and Sam Moyo have long argued, this is to ignore one of the fundamental issues of working-class politics today: the national self-determination of oppressed peoples. As Enrique Dussel explains, Marx repeatedly intimated in his writings that an analysis of global capitalism must investigate both competitive relations between ‘capitalist nations’, which are defined by ‘dependency’ and the ‘extraction of surplus-value by the stronger capital’, and relations of class struggle, or ‘the exploitation of one class by another, of labor by capital.’

Huber’s criticism of Hickel also ignores a wealth of scholarship on how value transfers and uneven ecological exchange are used to reduce labour unrest in the core. Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik, for instance, describe how the imperialist world-system rests on the devaluation of currencies in the periphery to strengthen the currencies and increase the living standards of both capitalists and workers in the Global North, while Gurminder Bhambra traces the genealogy of Euro-American welfare systems back to their origins in colonial plunder and exploitation. None of this is to say that workers in the core are not exploited; it is merely to point out that they benefit from a capitalist system that pits them against their peripheral counterparts. If you drink coffee in the United States or Europe, eat chocolate, own a phone or wear clothes, you are in all likelihood a participant in the super-exploitation of the periphery’s lands and labour. To recognize this is a precondition for meaningful internationalism. Since the Global North’s energy and resource use cannot be extended to the rest of the world without exceeding the planet’s biophysical limits, anti-imperialist politics requires that those in the core – including many workers – reduce their overall consumption.

In 1848 Marx and Engels wrote that ‘the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie’. This, I would hazard, is what animates Huber’s approach to Marxist politics. But by 1869 Marx had come to realize that for workers in colonial countries, this would be impossible without first tackling the colonial question that divided the world’s working classes into ‘hostile camps’. As Marx argued, and as history verified, workers often have conflicting interests that pose a challenge to the kind of mass mobilization that Huber envisions. His image of the ‘planetary proletariat’ is not attuned to how conflicting interests, misogyny, racism and chauvinism drive a wedge between workers. It refuses to acknowledge that shared interests, far from being an objective reality, must be composed in and through struggle. Indeed, it is particularly concerning that Huber’s proposal to implement a Green New Deal in the imperialist heartland overlooks such messy realities. As critics of the GND have argued, a green transition that does not take heed of such divisions will merely entrench neo-colonial and ecologically unsustainable relations of labour, land and resource exploitation.

Huber’s belief in the necessity of climate ‘megaprojects’ – involving large-scale, state-led ecological planning – leads him to rebuke those on the left with a ‘penchant for a retreat to small-scale agriculture’, which he says ‘implies hunger, if not starvation, for the world’s mega-slums’. In a telling aside, he remarks that ‘as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, urban gardens are no substitute for industrial agriculture’. This reveals a major problem with the eco-modernist mentality. Far from discrediting urban gardens, the Ukraine conflict makes the case for localized, resilient and diverse food systems. The global dependence on a few select crops, produced by industrialized monocultural systems that are vulnerable to geopolitical antagonisms – and unpredictable weather events like floods, droughts and wildfires – now looks entirely unsustainable in light of the war. What matters here is that, like all eco-modernists, Huber assumes capitalist industrialization is the pinnacle of technological advancement. Technology progresses, they suppose, in a linear fashion from inefficient and labour-intensive systems to efficient, energy-intensive, labour-saving ones. Hence, for Huber as for Phillips, the aim should be ‘to take over the machine, not turn it off!’

But things are not as simple as this stageist, almost Whiggish, theory of history would suggest. David Noble and Langdon Winner have argued that technologies do not exist independently from the social relations that produced them (and which they help to reproduce). Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital recounts how the introduction of fossil fuels in the early nineteenth century was an effect of class struggle rather than linear progression. Mill owners transitioned from using water energy in the countryside to coal – a more expensive energy source – because it enabled them to access a more disciplined and dependable labour supply in industrializing cities. In Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell explains how the eventual shift from coal to oil similarly empowered capitalists to discipline labour by limiting the ability for workers to conspire and organize together to disrupt production. In other words, from the perspective of class struggle, a given technology and the social relations it instates might not be preferable to the one it replaces. The transition from labour-intensive agricultural systems to centralized industrial ones may not, as Huber assumes, pave the way for socialism.

Technology must also be understood in a broader sense than eco-modernists permit. Anti-colonial Marxists have described how colonialism de-developed and supplanted more ecologically sustainable technologies in the periphery, from vernacular architecture to agroecological farming systems. To take just one example from Climate Change as Class War, Huber argues that synthetic nitrogen production unleashed previously unknown levels of agricultural productivity – yet, on closer inspection, this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. Eric Ross and Glenn Stone have shown that the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s was entirely unnecessary to feed the world. Its main achievements were chronic overproduction, profits for input producers in the core, the loss of smallholder independence and suppression of communist and agrarian struggles for land reform. Ironically, by displacing producers from the land, it also accelerated the emergence of the mega-slums Huber cites as an argument against smallholder agriculture. All of which suggests that capitalist technological advancements may not be in the ultimate interest of the world’s producing classes. Historically, they have often conflicted with greener forms of production.

Instead of seeing capital’s abolition as the unfettering of productive forces, it is better to view it as freeing the world’s producers to choose from a richer and more diverse array of technologies and socio-ecological relations than capitalist industrialization can offer. Of course, it would be unwise to reject contemporary medical advances, green steel production or lithium batteries; but we might want to avoid nuclear in a world destined for water shortages, unpredictable weather events and geopolitical instability. And instead of using ‘green hydrogen’ to produce synthetic fertilizer, we might consider supporting and expanding agroecological farming systems, which already provide between 50% and 70% of food calories consumed globally, with fewer high energy off-farm inputs, and greater biodiversity and climate resilience than industrialized agriculture.

The question, then, is not about whether one is for or against technology – as if this were possible. It is about adopting appropriate technologies and collectively managing energy and food systems at relevant scales. A promising alternative to Huber’s vision lies in an anti-imperialist eco-communism that understands how relations of dependency and uneven ecological exchange devastate ecologies and exploit workers in both core and periphery. Such a politics must do the difficult work of developing strategies of struggle and ecological transition that meet the needs of the exploited and oppressed in the Global North in ways that are compatible with demands for colonial reparations, technology transfers, food sovereignty, land back, the lifting of sanctions, the end of occupations and the atmospheric space to develop freely and independently. This knotty problem can neither be wished away nor delayed until the US working class has won a Green New Deal. Huber is right that capital’s pursuit of profit is a fetter on our collective liberation. What he misses is that eco-modernism similarly fetters a world of flourishing for all.

Read on: Mark Burton & Peter Somerville, ‘Degrowth: A Defence’, NLR 115.


Mish-Mash Ecologism

Things seemed to be looking up in late 2020. After yet another catastrophic season of fires, floods and heat, the US elected a president with the most ambitious climate plan of any candidate in history, directly shaped by the Sunrise Movement and the campaign for a Green New Deal. Yet here we are in 2022, and it’s all gone awry. The fossil fuel industry is earning windfall profits, and asset manager titans have reversed their efforts to shift the financial sector away from such enticing returns. Joe Biden’s breakthrough climate legislation, the misleadingly named Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), includes major concessions to the fossil fuel industry and has been met with their approval.

The IRA greenlights offshore oil and gas leases in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico for the next ten years and backs the bitterly contested Mountain Valley pipeline. At its core, it aims to ‘derisk’ private capital investment in the green transition, in line with what Daniela Gabor calls the ‘Wall Street Consensus’. Its major policy tool is its tax-credit programme, available for mostly middle-class homeowners looking to buy EVs or new appliances and private companies that develop and manufacture electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels and batteries. (A direct pay provision might open the door for expanding publicly owned clean energy, but it will have to compete in a largely private market).  

Such measures have been hailed as the largest climate investment in US history – but that is not saying much. It is estimated that decarbonizing the US power grid alone will cost $4.5 trillion. Biden’s Act offers a mere $369 billion to be spent over a decade. Most of it will be handed to the private sector, including the fossil-fuel industry itself. The tax credit programme does contain prevailing wage and domestic content standards that aim to reinvigorate domestic industrial policy toward solar, wind and EV manufacturing, but it’s not clear if such standards can be met or how they will be enforced. Optimistic models suggest the IRA will lead to 40% reductions in carbon emissions by 2030, but they also admit that doing nothing at all would lead to reductions of between 24% and 35%. The wager for the planet thus appears to be that state-supported green capital can beat fossil fuels on the free market.

Meanwhile, fossil capital continues to win. In June, it was reported that of the top ten best performing stocks of 2022, three were coal producers and five were linked to the oil and gas industry. If it wasn’t clear already, it should be now: those who profit from the production of fossil fuels will continue to do so unless forced to stop. Market-based solutions such as the IRA neglect basic questions of political and economic power. As such, it is worth pausing to consider what answers eco-socialism can offer in the present conjuncture. Two new books – The Future is Degrowth by Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan and Andrea Vetter and Half Earth Socialism by Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass – both embrace utopianism as an Archimedean vantage point from which to imagine a reconfiguration of the world, beyond the narrow confines of mainstream climate policy.

Co-authored by an economic historian (Schmelzer), a political ecologist (Vansintjan) and a journalist (Vetter), The Future of Degrowth argues that the global economy must be scaled down to align with its natural limits. The book offers a broad overview of the degrowth movement and its critique of the postwar Keynesian paradigm – along with the colonialist, capitalist and patriarchal ideologies that underpinned it. Though the authors acknowledge ‘overlaps and similarities’ between their framework and the Green New Deal, they argue that the latter is fundamentally flawed. Not only is it hitched to a fantasy of ‘progressive productivism’, it would also require a neo-colonial mining regime for its build-out of renewable-energy infrastructure. Against this trend in climate policymaking, The Future is Degrowth articulates a form of utopianism rooted in the here and now, based on what Engels once called ‘model experiments’. Engaging with the work of Erik Olin Wright, the authors describe a series of ‘nowtopias’ – community-supported agriculture, communing, cooperative economies – which they see as an antidote to climate ‘megaprojects’ (on which they propose a blanket ‘moratoria’).

While defining degrowth in bland terms – ‘a fair reduction of production and consumption that encompasses both human well-being and ecological sustainability’ – Schmelzer et al. also lay out a concrete agenda: the ‘Global North’ must lower consumption while switching to renewable energy and more localized production. How will this ‘fundamental political and economic reorganization of society’ be brought about? The authors admit it may require ‘confrontations with private ownership structures’. Historically, they write, such transformations ‘have always been marked by fierce controversies, public disputes and, up to now, (violent) conflict.’ Yet their main strategy for enacting this green transition is borrowed from the well-worn post-1968 playbook of turning the Leninist Antonio Gramsci into an ecumenical pluralist. They predict that degrowth alternatives will add up, one by one, into a powerful ‘counter-hegemony’ able to simultaneously offer alternative lifestyles, pass ‘non-reformist reforms’ via the state machinery, and build revolutionary ‘dual power’ ready for ruptural crises.

Half Earth Socialism shares some features with the degrowthers: it too focuses on natural limits and calls for lower consumption, renewable energy and deindustrialized agriculture in the Global North. But the books differ in their focus and ambition. While The Future of Degrowth envisions a ‘pluriverse’ of diverse and localized alternatives, letting a thousand degrowth flowers bloom, Half Earth Socialism is much bolder, imagining nothing less than planetary-scale ecological planning. Co-authored by an environmental historian (Vettese) and an environmental engineer (Pendergrass), the book rejects the standard solutions to climate change – bioenergy, carbon capture, geoengineering and nuclear power. Instead, it combines the socio-biologist E.O. Wilson’s proposal to leave half the planet’s habitable surface to wild nature with Pendergrass’s computer models of a world defined by 100% renewable energy.

Whereas The Future of Degrowth avoids ‘indulging in the euphoria of expert-led planning’ and attempts to ‘give space for many different visions for the future’, Half Earth Socialism wants to resuscitate the socialist planning tradition. It draws on the work of Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath and Soviet mathematician Leonid Kantorovich to mount a trenchant critique of Hayekian planning-scepticism. Yet Vettese and Pendergrass explicitly reject Marxism as part of a Hegelian-Promethean thought-system marked by the ‘humanization of nature’ – ‘the process by which humanity overcomes its alienation from nature by instilling the latter with human consciousness through the process of labour.’

By contrast, the authors’ vision is almost as austere as Pol Pot’s. Their core claim is that nature should largely be left to itself, free from human manipulation. Citing Morris’s News from Nowhere, they imagine a world 25 years in the future, run on the principles of cooperation, democracy and ecological restoration. With Pendergrass’s algorithms to guide them, the ecological planners of the 2040s develop a variety of land-use models and let people democratically choose which scenario they prefer – some with more/less energy per capita, some with more/less land left to wilderness. The energy quotas range from 2,000 Watts per person to as low as 750.

One of Half Earth Socialism’s merits is that its authors take the land-use needs of different energy-production systems seriously. But their penchant is for the most land-hungry options – solar and wind power – even as they accept that the intermittency of these energy sources is likely to lead to regular blackouts. Their models also include land-intensive biofuels which, in one scenario, are estimated to cover 26% of land surface. And their plan to rewild half the Earth’s habitable surface would require perhaps the most preposterous proposal of all: the imposition of universal mandatory veganism (otherwise the numbers would never add up). They also reject the energy source that could free up space for biodiversity by using less land than all the others: nuclear power.

Vettese and Pendergrass invite us to imagine that ‘the Half-Earth socialist revolution happens tomorrow’, but they do not explain how this might occur. Though they gesture towards a pro-Half Earth political coalition, its members are vaguely delineated: ‘there should be animal-rights activists and organic farmers there, as well as socialists, feminists and scientists’ – constituencies that make up miniscule fractions of the eight billion-strong population they hope to corral. As for broader layers such as social classes, Half Earth Socialism is largely silent. Like The Future is Degrowth and much of the left for the last half-century, the authors assume that a ‘movements of movements’ – uniting various disparate and subaltern groups – will eventually gain enough power to confront capital.

Is there a Marxist alternative to this 21st-century utopianism? In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels saw the emergence of 19th-century utopian socialism, signalled by the work of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, as a reaction to the defeated aspirations of the French Revolution. By the early 1800s it was already clear that it had failed to deliver the kingdom of reason and justice promised by the Enlightenment; instead, the triumph of the big bourgeoisie had brought corruption, war and the poverty produced by super-abundance. Industrial production was barely developed, and the proletariat, wrote Engels, appeared to these radicals as ‘incapable of independent political action’ – ‘an oppressed, suffering order’ which required help from outside. In these conditions, the utopian socialists attempted in idealist fashion to evolve the solution to social problems ‘out of the human brain’:

Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary, then, to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and, wherever it was possible, by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.

Two hundred years on – and in the wake of the defeated aspirations of the 20th-century revolutions – utopian eco-socialists appear to be repeating the same pattern. A new ecological order will be conjured up out of their brains, trialed in micro-experiments – as in The Future of Degrowth – or, as in Half Earth Socialism, ‘imposed from without by propaganda’. What is missing here is any analysis of the concrete class relationships that both inhibit such transformations or might bring them about. For Engels, winning real socialism hinges on class struggle: ‘Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.’

As idealists, 19th-century socialists saw their mental adumbrations as the expression of an absolute truth – although, as Engels pointed out, the absolute truth differed for the founder of each school; each was mutually exclusive and hence the sects were in permanent conflict with each other. As a result, nothing could come of the early-socialist movement but ‘a kind of eclectic, average socialism’ – ‘a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion’:

A mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook.

Hard not to think of Engels when one reads The Future of Degrowth’s evocation of the ‘pluriverse’ or ‘mosaic of alternatives’ which will supposedly overwhelm the tightly defended capitalist interests of the ‘Global North’. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific he insisted, on the contrary, that socialism could only emerge from the historical economic conditions of the age. This did not involve any condemnation of utopianism as such. Rather than crow over the failure of Owenite experiments, Engels wrote, ‘we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering.’

In present conditions, as Mike Davis has put it, ‘utopian thinking can clarify the minimal conditions for the preservation of human solidarity in face of convergent planetary crises.’ But the initial problem remains: those who benefit from their massive fixed investments in fossil fuels seem hell-bent on sustaining them. Does this utopianism yield a strategy to confront the political and economic power of the planet’s opponents – in the first instance, key sectors of the American ruling class?

As Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote nearly four decades ago, the working class has done more to challenge power than any other social force. Where does it stand today? Engels argued that ‘scientific’ – that is, self-critical, rigorously conceptualized and empirically tested – socialism must be rooted in an investigation of historical development: ‘the process of evolution of humanity.’ He himself lived through the epochal ruptures of mass proletarianization and the industrial revolution. The 20th century saw those processes accelerate, in what Farshad Araghi calls ‘global depeasantization’ – a process continuing in China today, in what is probably the largest rural-urban migration in human history. According to David Harvey, global capitalism has added something like two billion people to the global proletariat over the past twenty years. While Marx and Engels thought this mass proletarianization would swell industrial factories, the result has more been the rise of a vast ‘informal proletariat’ deemed superfluous to the needs of capital; a surplus humanity, housed in a Planet of Slums.

Planetary proletarianization should be a central issue for eco-socialism: capitalism produces an urbanized majority with no direct relation to the ecological conditions of existence. The most pressing question of our times is how we can solve ecological problems while restructuring production to provision a society largely torn from the land. If that provisioning requires large-scale democratic planning – as Vettese and Pendergrass rightly assert it does – the ‘demos’ must include the global proletariat. But the eco-socialist penchant for a retreat to small-scale agriculture – Half Earth Socialism’s fictionalized utopia concedes agriculture will require ‘a lot more labor, for sure’ – implies hunger, if not starvation, for the world’s mega-slums (and, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, urban gardens are no substitute for industrial scale grain production).  

The question of the actually existing productive forces poses a further set of problems. Eric Hobsbawm called the Industrial Revolution ‘probably the most important event in world history’. Machines and fossil fuels replaced a good deal of human and animal muscle-power – as he put it, ‘the shackles were taken off the productive power of human societies.’ In the 21st century it is easy to take this transformation for granted, while blaming it for our present ecological predicament. The Future is Degrowth offers a wholesale critique of ‘industrialism’ and proclaims, ‘the goal of degrowth society must be to overcome industrialism and towards a post-industrial society.’  Yet it was only with the development of modern productive forces that it became possible to envisage a standard of life that could allow the free development of all. Solving climate change undoubtedly requires massive new industrial infrastructure in energy, public transit and housing. We do need to develop the productive forces – but ecologically. 

A socialist eco-modernism should make the transformation of production and the productive forces the fulcrum of any new relation to the planet. One of the few thinkers to have explored this problem is Jonathan Hughes, who speculated about ‘ecologically benign forms of technological development.’ Clearly, the productive forces must develop beyond their historically entrenched reliance upon fossil fuel. Yet, the private ownership of energy prevents this from taking place – a contradiction realized through the wider crisis of planetary climate change, from rising seas in Bangladesh to drought in the horn of Africa. All known technological pathways to halting environmental breakdown are ‘fettered’ by the social relations of production: renewable energy might be getting cheaper, but that does not necessarily translate to profits. Other solutions like nuclear fission, green hydrogen, scaled geothermal and carbon removal all present the same key obstacle: they cost too much, and fossil fuels are more profitable. In sum, solving climate change requires new social relations of production that would develop the productive forces toward clean production.

While the utopian eco-socialists would likely scoff at these as ‘techno-fixes’ – technological solutions which don’t challenge capitalist social relations – an eco-modern socialist perspective would insist these technologies will not be developed unless we challenge capitalist social relations. Beyond climate, most other aspects of the ecological crisis hinge on developing new forms of production: greening nitrogen production and consumption and finding less land-intensive production to preserve biodiversity (e.g. lab meat). All of these ecological forms of production struggle to compete with dirtier and more profitable alternatives under capitalism.

In this context, the climate left does not lack for utopian imaginaries, which can make for productive (and enjoyable) exercises. But such utopianism can too easily avoid the material realities of the world as it exists. We need a climate politics that aims outward, beyond the already converted – towards the exploited and atomized working class.

Read on: Kenta Tsuda, ‘Naïve Questions on Degrowth’, NLR 128.


Away from the Guns


Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard-based naturalist who died on 26 December 2021 at the age of 92, was often misunderstood by the left. When he launched the field of sociobiology in 1975, he was charged by the Sociobiology Study Group – a critical group set up by Marxist geneticist Richard Lewontin – with trying to ‘justify the present social order’. His work, applying the modern synthesis of genetics and evolution to the interpretation of behaviour, appeared to give a new gloss to discredited biological determinism, and suggest that there was a natural basis for such undesirable characteristics as xenophobia and male dominance.

Despite the conservative implications of some of his work, Wilson did not consider himself a man of the right. In his own words, he was a ‘Roosevelt liberal turned pragmatic centrist’. He considered himself a feminist, and furiously rejected charges of racism. His major intellectual goal, which he termed ‘consilience’, was to unify the sciences through a narrow version of Darwinism. He hoped that the essential questions about art, society and religion could be addressed, in part, as questions about genetics. His major ethical concern was to defend the biosphere, challenge human exceptionalism and cultivate respect for the non-human species he studied. Awareness of the ‘limits of human nature’, achieved by viewing humanity ‘from a distance’ – from a termite’s-eye-view, one might say ­– would undermine anthropocentrism.

He was also a pugilist ‘roused’, as he once wrote, ‘by the amphetamine of ambition’. Nothing could have been more ambitious than to use population biology to explain animal behaviour at every level. In his advice to young scientists, he urged followers to avoid research fields blazing with intellectual battle: ‘march away from the sound of the guns’, he said, before adding, ‘make a fray of your own’. This is what Wilson did, through thirty books on insect civilization, island biogeography, human nature, ecology, extinction, the origins of social life and the roots of creativity, among other themes.  His turn to environmentalism, including his ‘half-earth’ solution to mass extinction, made a significant impact on the ecological left. 

And, if one could forgive his political obtuseness, he wrote beautifully. His descriptions of his field work were excitable, evocative, and dense with delighted observations and perfectly pitched metaphors. This gift won him mass audiences and two Pulitzer Prizes.


Born on 10 June 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama, Wilson was raised in a South beguiled, as he wrote in his memoir, by ‘her antebellum dream of the officer and the gentleman’. It was a chaotic childhood, with unhappy parents. When he was seven, in the summer of 1936, he was sent to stay with a family on Florida’s Perdido Bay while his parents fought. He spent two days, in this ‘season of fantasy’, exploring the life on the shore, enthralled by marine life and the evidence of ‘alien purpose and dark happenings in the kingdom of deep water’. The same year, he blinded himself in his right eye in a fishing accident. To this injury he credited his attention to smaller creatures, such as butterflies and ants. Finally, in the winter of 1937, his parents divorced, and he was sent to the private Gulf Coast Military Academy in Gulfport, Mississippi, which he described as a ‘carefully planned nightmare engineered for the betterment of the untutored and undisciplined’. He was gleeful when the Academy was visited by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and populist governor of Alabama Jim Folsom, whom he admired.

Unable to serve in the army during the Second World War, due to the impairment of his right eye, he studied biology at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where he was also briefly drawn to the radical left. It was, however, the Darwinian revolution that would capture his imagination. The ‘modern synthesis’, as it was dubbed by Julian Huxley, combined Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian genetics. R. A. Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane and Sewall Wright had deployed mathematical population genetics to show that continuous, small-scale genetic mutations could provide the missing mechanism of heredity in Darwin’s theory of evolution. This discovery catalysed Wilson’s conversion from his Baptist upbringing to secular humanism.

The ambition of the modern synthesis was expansive. Influenced by the Vienna positivists, many of its pioneers sought to unify the sciences: a factor in Wilson’s later effort to shoehorn sociobiology into every possible field. It was also infused with the ambition of human improvement, through eugenics. Wilson hoped, in the spirit of pre-war progressivism, that the ‘jerrybuilt foundation of partly obsolete Ice-Age adaptations’ in humanity could be refined through ‘conventional eugenics’.

Fired up by the new discoveries, Wilson would begin his first survey of Alabama ants at the age of eighteen, start his PhD research at Harvard three years later in 1950, join Harvard’s faculty in 1956, and go on, with population ecologist Robert MacArthur, to develop the theory of island biogeography. He would also develop the insights of British evolutionary biologist, W. D. Hamilton, whose obscure paper on the evolution of altruistic traits, ‘The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour’, he read in 1964. Hamilton was struggling to gain an academic position, in part due to his views on eugenics. His theory of ‘inclusive fitness’ argued that the unit of selection was not the organism, but the gene. Since related organisms shared so much genetic material, there was an advantage to kin altruism. Wilson had already become interested in social biology through his study of ant societies. Hamilton’s theory suggested to him the possibility of launching a new discipline.


Wilson first systematically applied Hamilton’s ideas with his 1971 book, The Insect Societies. However, it was with Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), and On Human Nature (1978), that he made his fray. In Sociobiology, he sought to explain the social behaviour of insects, birds and primates with the Hamiltonian principle that each organism, a ‘temporary carrier’ of its genes, was ‘the DNA’s way of making more DNA’. Behaviour, being adapted to its environment, must be governed by its genetic make-up.

Like Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’, also influenced by Hamilton’s work, this way of talking about DNA was pungent mythmaking. In ascribing ultimate agency to genes, Wilson’s metaphor implied a rigid genetic determinism. In Sociobiology and On Human Nature, however, he emphasized the importance of emergent properties, acknowledged that ‘genes have given away most of their sovereignty’, foregrounded the human ‘flexibility’ allowing individuals to ‘play roles of virtually any degree of specification’, and stressed that there were choices to be made ‘among our innate natural propensities’. He rejected claims for a genetic basis of hierarchy and downplayed IQ, a fetish of the right, as ‘only one subset of … intelligence’. In an interview with the New York Times, he explained, ‘I see maybe 10 percent of human behaviour as genetic and 90 percent environmental’.

Nonetheless, Wilson insisted, human nature did restrict social choice. There was, he suggested in Sociobiology, a likely genetic basis for xenophobia, war, the nuclear family, spite, homosexuality, creativity, entrepreneurship, drive and mental stamina. Citing the work of ecologist Garret Hardin, he suggested that ‘human territorial behaviour’ was genetically founded, with the result that when tribes compete over scarce resources, ‘xenophobia becomes a political virtue’. In arguing for the possibility of ‘homosexual genes’, he explained that the ‘homosexual state itself results in inferior genetic fitness,’ and could only be explained by ‘kin selection’: though he was unsure whether ‘such genes really exist’. Of the nuclear family, then under sustained criticism from the feminist movement, he insisted that it was the ‘building block of nearly all human societies’, and that the ‘formalised code’ governing kinship relations had not changed much since hunter-gatherer society. Of universal competition and hierarchy, he explained that the ‘best and most entrepreneurial of the role-actors usually gain a disproportionate share of the rewards, while the least successful are usually displaced to other, less desirable positions.’

Most controversially, in On Human Nature, he tentatively lent credence to ‘racial’ variations. While acknowledging that ‘almost all differences between human societies are based on learning and social conditioning’, he cited research finding ‘significant average differences’ between races in ‘locomotion, posture, muscular tone, and emotional response’. One did not have to believe in ‘biological equality’ as a condition for affirming ‘human freedom and dignity’, he averred. But, without displaying the slightest historical sensitivity, he accepted the framing of variation in terms of the monstrous pseudo-concept of ‘race’. This is notable given the placatory tone of the book, and its effort to distinguish him from crude reductionists and reactionaries.

Wilson’s ahistorical description of species behaviour in terms of the categories of twentieth-century capitalism – neither the ‘nuclear family’ nor ‘entrepreneurship’ are human universals, for example – implied that it would be very difficult to change behaviours like competitiveness, racism or sexism by changing the environment. Later, writing in the New York Times Magazine, Wilson guessed that ‘the genetic bias’ between the sexes was ‘intense enough to cause a substantial division of labor even in the most free and most egalitarian of future societies’, although he qualified this as ‘only a guess’ which could not justify ‘anything less than sex-blind admission and free personal choice’. But such a ‘guess’, like the value-laden claims peppering the last chapter of Sociobiology, is indistinguishable from ideology.

Wilson’s claims provoked the formation of Richard Lewontin’s Sociobiology Study Group. Lewontin wrote to the New York Review of Books to warn that discredited biological determinism was being presented as breakthrough research. Ironically, Sociobiology had cited Lewontin’s work several times. Demonstrators began to turn up at Wilson’s lectures, charging that he was legitimizing sexism and racism. Wilson was bitter over the attacks. He considered Stephen Jay Gould, a leading critic of his work, a ‘charlatan’, and framed the battle as one between ‘science and political ideology’, in which Marxism was ‘mortally threatened by the discoveries of human sociobiology’. The sociologist Ullica Segerstrale argues in Defenders of the Truth (2000) that the critics showed ‘astounding disregard’ for what he had written. There is some truth to this: Wilson was frequently misquoted, and wrongly treated as a biological determinist making a case for sexism and hierarchy.

Yet, as Philip Kitcher wrote in Vaulting Ambition (1985), by far the best review of the controversy, this was ‘a dispute about evidence’, not the validity of sociobiological research. Wilson’s most trenchant critics were not extreme culturalists. Lewontin, Leon Kamin and Steven Rose, in Not in Our Genes (1984), rail against the ‘denial of biology’. In part, Wilson acknowledged, there was a dispute about the validity of ‘plausibility arguments and speculation’. As Kitcher put it, when the costs of being wrong are sufficiently high, ‘then it is reasonable and responsible to ask for more evidence’. Not only was there little to no evidence for human sociobiology’s most controversial claims but, as Rose would argue, this style of reasoning posited speculative ‘distal’ (evolutionary) mechanisms for human behaviour such as sexism and xenophobia, when ‘proximal’ (political or social) causes better explained the data. An underlying theoretical issue, as Gould wrote, was Wilson’s stringently adaptationist version of Darwinism which resulted in the false inference that any behaviour that contributed to fitness, and was universal, must have come about through natural selection, and thus be under what Wilson called ‘genetic control’.


Despite Wilson’s middle-of-the-road politics, the ideological refrains bookending his ambitious salvo resonated with a wider turn to the right. A form of pop sociobiology vastly more vulgar than anything Wilson endorsed held that human destiny was ‘hard-wired’, a claim that entered the conservative ‘common sense’ of the era and fed into human sociobiology’s rebranded successor, evolutionary psychology.

And there is a further, revealing chapter in Wilson’s political opacity. Between 1987 and 1994, according to a recent exposé in the NYRB, he corresponded with the ‘race realist’, J. Phillipe Rushton. Rushton, based at Western University, used Wilson’s work on island biogeography to explain ‘race differences’. Wilson and MacArthur had suggested that the reproductive success of species in islands was determined by the advantages of ‘r/K’ selection. Species that produced large amounts of offspring were ‘r selected’. Those that produced fewer offspring with more parental investment were ‘K selected’. Rushton thought that black people were ‘r selected’ while white people were ‘K selected’.

Wilson did not see a racist pseudoscientist mangling his work. He saw, instead, a ‘courageous’ academic being persecuted. He acted as an academic referee for Rushton’s article, and lobbied Western’s faculty on Rushton’s behalf when he was investigated for academic misconduct. There is no evidence that Wilson was a wholehearted supporter of ‘race realism’. In his 2000 introduction to Sociobiology, he observed that ‘statistical racial differences, if any, remain unproven’. Yet given his claims in Sociobiology and On Human Nature, it cannot be written off as an error of judgment. Rather, Wilson’s predicates, and his historical ignorance, inclined him to credit views that were at odds with his liberal politics.

Wilson’s Darwinian ecological precepts had other political ramifications. An emphasis on the struggle for survival in conditions of competition for scarce resources underlined the biological limits conditioning human civilization. Yet Darwin also stressed the evolved dependencies between organisms, and the necessity of cooperation. As Wilson wrote, humanity had been an ‘ignorant’ steward of the planet, having ‘scarcely begun to conceive of the possible benefits that other organisms will bring in economic welfare, health, and aesthetic pleasure’.

In the latter half of the 1970s, Wilson, alarmed by reports of catastrophically declining biodiversity, embraced the cause of environmentalism. Alongside other ecologists he formed part of the ‘rain forest mafia’. In the same year Sociobiology was published, he wrote of the urgent need for an ‘applied biogeography’ to reduce the rate of biodiversity decline. His biogeographical work with MacArthur had found that the diversity of the population declined with island size. The reduction and fragmentation of natural reserves under pressure from human industrial and agricultural expansion was reducing the ‘islands’ available for biodiversity. A vital source for this view of the value of biodiversity was Ukrainian-American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky’s argument, in his programmatic statement of the modern synthesis, Genetics and the Origin of Species (1937), that genetic diversity was a store of variability that enabled species to survive changing environments.

Wilson sought a biological foundation for his ethical convictions. In 1979, he coined the concept of ‘biophilia’, suggesting that humans have an ‘inborn affinity’ for other forms of life. The biophilia hypothesis, speculative and based on ‘thin’ evidence as he acknowledged, was an effort at moral persuasion aimed partly at states and scientific establishments, whom he exhorted to invest in research and conservation strategies. Through the 1980s, Wilson wrote copiously and passionately on the threat of extinction caused by the destruction of ecosystems, including a stint editing the journal BioDiversity in 1988. Against ‘spurious’ claims that humanity was merely acting as another ‘Darwinian agent’ by causing species’ extinction, he noted that the ‘rate of extinction is now about 400 times that recorded through recent geological time and is accelerating rapidly’.

This implicitly called for drastic changes to production and consumption. However, like most in the rain forest mafia, Wilson wrote in an eco-Malthusian register. ‘While ants exist in just the right numbers for the rest of the living world,’ he wrote, ‘humans have become too numerous.’ The ‘problems of Third World countries’, he explained, were ‘primarily biological’. ‘Various forms of biological excess’ such as ‘overpopulation’ contributed to deforestation, soil erosion, famine and disease: a position that highlighted the danger of applying Darwinian concepts to complex social problems

Perhaps Wilson’s most implicitly radical suggestion was his ‘half-earth’ thesis. ‘Large plots,’ he wrote, ‘harbour many more ecosystems and the species composing them at a sustainable level … A biogeographic scan of the Earth’s principal habitats shows that … the vast majority of its species can be saved within half the planet’s surface.’ One suspects that such conservation was not just a defence strategy. It spoke to an occulted utopian impulse in his work. As he wrote in The Future of Life (2001), the encounter with wild nature reminded one of ‘the way life ought to be lived, all the time.’ Which is to say, with curiosity, sympathy and a sense of mystery. In his nature writing one finds precisely the transcendental impulse to which he appeals in The Creation (2006), a plea to the fundamentalist Christians in whose tent he was raised to help save the earth. Again, though, Wilson tended to view the issue as a moral struggle against the worst of the human nature. ‘We are still too greedy, shortsighted, and divided into warring tribes to make wise, long-term decisions. … Imagine! Hundreds of millions of years in the making, and we’re extinguishing Earth’s biodiversity as though the species of the natural world are no better than weeds and kitchen vermin. Have we no shame?’

Wilson continued to rethink the human condition in view of his version of Darwinism. Having decided that Hamilton’s concept of ‘inclusive fitness’ had ‘crumbled’, he wrote in The Social Conquest of the Earth (2012) that humans were shaped by the legacy of two types of selection: group selection favoured ‘honour, virtue, and duty’ whereas individual selection favoured ‘selfishness, cowardice and hypocrisy’. Since group selection could never totally overwhelm individual selection, the ‘human condition’ was one of ‘endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us’. This was elegantly parsimonious: deceptively so given the mass of data on which it relies. Despite its fabular feel, it acknowledged the variety of contradictory human behaviours built into our biological potential.


Wilson was a great naturalist, but also a moralist. Much of his later work seems to be an effort to alert the species to its dark side and limit its damage. His contradictory sociopolitical legacy, and methodological narrowness, cannot but sour the left’s response to him. Yet he was not an ideologue, but a serious scientist. His problematic political speculations represent a fraction of his output. And there is much to critically admire, and radicalise, in the ambition and intellectual breadth with which he studied, catalogued, explained, valued and defended the multitude of life on earth.

Read on: Richard Seymour, ‘Patterning Slowdown’, NLR 131.


Fossil Labour

Sometime in August 1769, miners at Mearn’s Pit in High Littleton, Somerset discovered that a rectangular drainage pipe they had constructed from elm wood was blocked. As in many mines, removal of water was a problem; so was ventilation. Around the end of 1766 they had sunk a new shaft to improve the airflow, but this brought more water coursing down the walls. They tackled this problem by installing lightly inclined wooden gulleys on the mine’s four sides to direct the flow to the 7.5 x 4 inch pipe. In turn, the pipe would carry the water off to a passage out of the mine about 42 feet below, probably pumped out by a Newcomen Engine – the early steam engine typically used at the time for this purpose. Less than three years later, their drainage system had begun to fail, prompting them to excavate and examine the pipe. This is a drawing of a cross-section of the pipe as they found it:

Cross-section of the blocked pipe, from Edward King, ‘Observations on a singular sparry incrustation found in Somersetshire’, Philosophical Transactions, vol. 63, 1773.

It had become so scaled up with minerals that the water could not drain fast enough. The deposit had a certain peculiarity: it was striped with alternating dark and light bands quite evenly throughout, but for a point where a nail had penetrated the pipe’s side.

A sample of the deposit from Mearn’s Pit came into the hands of the Reverend Alexander Catcott of nearby Bristol, a theologian with an interest in fossils and geological strata who had just published the expanded second edition of his Treatise on the Deluge (1768). Fossil traces of apparently aquatic forms far from any ocean had of course, since antiquity, fuelled the idea in many cultures of a great primeval flood. Now, as ever-deeper mining operations driven by capitalist industry brought heightened awareness of the Earth’s strata and the fossils with which they were associated, the gentleman scientists of the era were increasingly puzzling over implications for the Genesis narrative in the pages of such publications as the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions.

Indeed, already in 1719 local landowner John Strachey, who had developed an interest in extracting the coal under his estates, had written to the Society with his observations about the regularity of strata in the area around High Littleton. Strachey diagrammed the regular, sloping bands.

Cross-section of the strata, with various ‘veynes’ of coal, from John Strachey, ‘A curious description of the strata observ’d in the coal-mines of Mendip in Somersetshire…’, Philosophical Transactions, vol. 30, issue 360, 1719.

Of particular interest to those prospecting for coal, was that the regularity of these layers, always sloping towards the South East, made the location of veins predictable. While most mining since antiquity had occurred near the surface of the Earth, with knowledge like this deeper mines could be sunk with greater certainty of a return. A few years later, in 1724, Strachey followed up with another Philosophical Transactions article, further diagramming the Somerset strata and proposing a bold theory of their formation: the planet had been constituted with layers radiating from its centre at Creation, but its spin had caused them all to twist, furled one upon the other, ‘like the winding up of a Jack, or rolling up the Leaves of a Paper-Book’. There were 24 layers – one for each hour of the day – which had ticked by in a daily cycle ever since.

Speculative diagram of the Earth’s strata, from John Strachey, ‘An account of the strata in coal-mines, &c’, Philosophical Transactions, vol. 33, issue 391, 1724.

Strachey had granted a mining concession in 1719 to a neighbouring landowner, William Jones, who married his sister Elizabeth. Their daughter, Mary Jones, inherited the estate and coal property at High Littleton, and was one of eight local landowners involved with Mearn’s Pit a half century later when the pipe blocked and the strange, striped rock fell into Catcott’s hands.

From Catcott, the stone was passed to Edward King, an antiquarian and also a Fellow of the Royal Society, who wrote up his finding and diagrammed it in the image with which we started this article. Like Catcott and Strachey, King was much concerned with the implications of geological phenomena like regular strata and fossils for the Genesis narrative, and had offered his own speculations to the Society a few years earlier in ‘An attempt to account for the universal deluge’ (1767). In the terms of the proto-geological debates of the day, King was a Plutonist or volcanist: without quite contradicting the idea of a primeval flood, he proposed volcanic activity as the transporter of aquatic fossils from ancient sea beds to mountaintops. The opposing theory was that of the Neptunists, who held the continents to have precipitated out of ancient waters – but, King asked, where did all that water go? Similar debates can be traced all the way back to figures of the Islamic Golden Age such as Avicenna, and to some extent to Strabo, a Greek thinker writing at the time of the shift from Roman Republic to Empire. King was also a catastrophist, in that he took this volcanic movement of seabeds to have occurred in a single gigantic event which might also account for the deluge – with such an upheaval, there would, after all, have been a lot of water sloshing around. Within decades the Plutonists would win out as the modern scientific discipline of geology cohered, but catastrophism would give way to the gradualism of King’s more famous contemporary James Hutton and his heirs, such as Charles Lyell.

In 1791, Mary Jones died. According to her will, the estate and colliery were to go to a cousin, and in the execution of this a land surveyor was required, for which they hired a young man named William Smith; by the next year he was surveying Mearn’s Pit. Smith seems to have gained access to Strachey’s papers on the geological strata of the area – likely through the close family connection of his employer – and to have drawn on them in his own enquiries. It was in this work at Mearn’s Pit that he first developed the geological understanding which would eventually enable him to create his famous stratigraphic maps of Britain; the 1815 version was the first of any whole country.

Smith’s 1815 stratigraphic map of Britain. Image courtesy of the British Geological Survey © UKRI 2021; permit no. CP21/064.

Key to this was the orderly, predictable sequence of layers and associated fossils, a layering which, in his work and that of his scientific heir and collaborator John Phillips, would provide the basis for geological periodisations – Paleozoic, Mesozoic – still in use to the present. Thus Mearn’s Pit may be seen as a central location in the formation of a new notion of time, caked in the composition of the planetary crust; a time that is deep, structured in superposed layers, descending from the present surface down into the ancient past; a geological time that would come to be recognised as far greater than the biblical scales people were accustomed to, and which would provide an important basis for Darwin’s work a few decades later.

As to the peculiar rock that was clogging the pipework, King, for his part, does not seem to have put much thought into explaining its stripes. He attributed them to ‘the water bringing, at different times, more or less oker along with the sparry matter’. But his specimen seems to have been an example of what miners themselves called ‘Sunday stone’; indeed his is the earliest record of that stone I have been able to find. This stone often formed in the drainage pipes of mines as pale coloured lime was deposited by the water flowing through them. This lime would be tainted regularly by the coal dust that filled the air when miners were working. The resulting rock – a pure by-product of the labour process – could thus be a fairly good record of working hours in a particular mine, with dark stripes for working hours, separated by thin pale bands. Since miners typically worked six-day weeks, there was a pattern of six fairly even pairs of stripes, followed by a thicker pale band for Sundays – hence the name. Holidays too were marked in this mineral timesheet. Here was another temporality inscribed in the layered rocks of Mearn’s Pit, on a scale far different to the geological one that would emerge from the work of stratigraphers like Smith. This was the time of the capitalist labour process, caked in rock.

Sunday stone specimen from the Natural History Museum. Image © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

A younger contemporary of Smith’s, Robert Bakewell, would publish his Introduction to Geology in 1815, the same year as Smith’s map. Bakewell was familiar with Sunday stone and noted a certain analogy in a discussion of ‘the formation of the superficial part of the globe’. If the Earth’s strata could have been formed through ‘successive igneous and aqueous eruptions forced through craters and fissures of the surface’, which would each have deposited a new layer of rock, this layering could be seen in microcosm in a certain artefact:

To compare great things with small, there is an analogous formation taking place every day in the channels which receive the boiling waters from some of the steam-engines in the county of Durham. This water contains a large quantity of earthy matter which is deposited every day, except Sunday, in regular layers that may be distinctly counted, with a marked line for the interval of repose on Sunday, between each week’s formation: hence the stone got out of these channels has received from the country people the name of Sunday stone.

Thus Sunday stone appeared as an example of geological time in microcosm, the strata deposited during regular cycles of work and rest analogous to those deposited during phases of volcanic activity and inactivity. If the regular, measured time of the working week gave Sunday stone its peculiar form, materially encoding its periods in stripes legible to miners, the same may be possible with geological strata, reading from their sequence the time of the Earth itself. The mine was at that point the primary means for the development of geological knowledge – and, it turned out, even its labour process could supply a model of deep, structured time.

By the 1870s, according to Francis Buckland’s Curiosities of Natural History, King’s specimen had made its way to the British Museum’s North Gallery No. III. Marx was still working in the reading rooms, so it seems reasonable to wonder if he encountered the stone, and what he might have made of it. Marx read the work of the geologists that emerged in part from Mearn’s Pit: he engaged fairly substantially with Phillips – and Smith gets the odd mention – in the notebooks of March–September 1878; he was well aware of the stratigraphic science of the moment. But King was a minor, eccentric figure from a previous age. Bakewell was more significant, but by the time Marx looked seriously at geology his introduction was out of date; he studied the 1872 edition of Joseph Beete Jukes’s Student’s Manual of Geology instead.

Sunday stone was known somewhat in British culture by the mid nineteenth Century, apparently more from miners themselves than the more famous geologists, to whom it would perhaps have remained a mere curiosity. It was mentioned with characteristic moralism in Christian children’s literature, as God’s record of labour time in admonitions to observe the Sabbath – as if a religious injunction was required for miners to desire a day out of the pits. But this stone seems, on the contrary, an exemplary materialist object, for here we find capitalist social forms already – in the belly of the Industrial Revolution – meshing with geology, leaving traces in the crust, the most literal announcement of the Capitalocene; labour time fossilised like the rings of an ancient tree, at a key site in the discovery of geological temporality; a time written in the black of fossil fuel; a time that congealed until the production process itself broke down.

Read on: Adam Hanieh, ‘Petrochemical Empire’, NLR 130.


Picking Winners

The annual UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, which convenes the 197 states and territories which have signed on to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, is one of the anchoring events of climate politics discourse, alongside the release of IPCC reports and increasingly regular occurrence of climate-fueled natural disasters. Since the first was held in Berlin in 1995, when atmospheric carbon levels were around 358 parts per million (today they hover around 414), a steady procession of COPs have produced a great deal of geopolitical drama, but have not yet managed to reduce carbon emissions. 

In 1997 there was the fight over the Kyoto Protocol, widely criticized for concessions to the US insistence on market mechanisms; followed in 2001 by George W. Bush’s announcement that he would not implement it anyway. In 2009, many expected that Barack Obama’s election would clear the way for a legally binding agreement at COP15, in Copenhagen – officially branded ‘Hopenhagen’ by the UN. Instead, negotiations nearly collapsed over bitter disagreement between developed and developing countries, and eventually culminated in a weak deal brokered behind closed doors by Obama and Wen Jiabao. Six years later, the Paris agreement was hailed as a world-historic triumph, even though the voluntary commitments made by individual member states failed to add up to the agreement’s stated goals. As climate activists pointed out, and even the text of the agreement acknowledged, although the agreement set a goal of limiting global warming to ‘well below 2º C’, the aggregated commitments would result in an estimated 3º of warming. Nor were the Paris Accords complete: they dictated that signatories update their pledges five years later. This was the key task set for COP26 in Glasgow.

Although more people are paying attention to the COP process than ever before, there has also been a striking decline in public confidence. The years since 2015 have seen serious challenges to international action of many kinds. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement prompted subsequent acts of defiance from the likes of Bolsonaro, Modi and Putin, while the gilets jaunes protests against Emmanuel Macron’s gas tax prompted new anxieties about the backlash to climate policy. At the same time, rising tensions between the US and China have contributed to pessimism about the prospects for global agreement. The ‘Climate Behemoth’ – a reactionary alliance between right-wing populism and national fossil capital, schematized by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright – has gained popularity, countering the bid for planetary sovereignty they see represented in the COP process. Pledges aside, carbon emissions continue more or less unabated.

In many ways the circumstances of Glasgow recall the disastrous proceedings in Copenhagen: taking place in the aftermath of a world-shaking economic crisis, marked by protest and dissatisfaction, undercut by the failure of a US president to secure domestic climate policy. Even Greta Thunberg’s memorable description of COP26 as a place of talk and no action – ‘blah, blah, blah’ – was less novel than it initially appeared: ‘Blah, Blah, Blah, Act Now!’ had already adorned signs at the Copenhagen protests in 2009. On the uselessness of the talks, Thunberg and the world leaders she indicts likely agree: Xi and Putin did not even bother to attend.

By the conclusion of the conference, a few new agreements had materialized, although most came with caveats. Twenty nations agreed to stop financing global oil and gas projects abroad, although most continue to subsidize oil projects at home – echoing the G20’s commitment to stop financing coal plants internationally, even as member countries continue to use coal domestically. A hundred countries, led by the US and EU – but excluding China, India and Russia – pledged a 30% methane reduction by 2030. A hundred and forty-one countries agreed to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030 – although Indonesia, where primary forest has decreased by approximately 50% since the 1960s, immediately backtracked, calling the terms ‘inappropriate and unfair.’ The US, France, Germany, EU and UK struck an $8.5 billion agreement to help South Africa transition away from coal use – important in its own right, but perhaps even more so as a potential demonstration of the feasibility of a ‘just transition’. Most incredibly, the text for the first time in the history of the COPs includes the words ‘fossil fuels’.

But even most boosters have been forced to admit that Glasgow was a disappointment. By now the problems with the COP process are well-canvassed, ranging from the features of its institutional design to the nature of national sovereignty. The consensus model tends to result in a lowest common denominator approach to agreement. Countries set their own decarbonization goals, but also report their own progress towards them; unsurprisingly, a Washington Post report recently found that progress towards decarbonization is seriously overstated. Absent a global sovereign, there is no way to compel action, even when agreements are reached.

So be it, many would say: too much time has been wasted on global diplomacy when real progress is being made elsewhere. The conventional wisdom on climate politics is shifting away from the need for grand global agreements focused on climate specifically, and instead emphasizing the potential for addressing climate change with economic mechanisms: industrial policy, trade agreements, global finance. This is, in many respects, long overdue. In spite of the massive fossil fuel delegation and distasteful corporate pavilions, COP26 is not really where important investment decisions are made. The UN’s array of environmental agencies has always been a shadow to the fora where global capital makes its rules.

Advocates of green industrial policy in particular challenge the ‘collective action’ framework, suggesting that climate action is no longer a cost to be shouldered, and that free-riding is no longer the central problem to be solved. Rather, the ‘energy transition’ offers benefits in the form of industrial renewal and jobs: instead of shirking their commitments to decarbonize, states will compete for green market share.

The promise that a brighter green future is just around the corner is another familiar refrain of climate politics: back in 2011, for example, Obama promised to ‘win the future’ with investments in ‘innovation.’ But what is genuinely different about this COP is that the private sector is lurching into gear. The recent rash of corporate net-zero pledges and surge of ESG (‘Environmental, Social, Governance’) funds should not be taken at face value, of course. But Chinese state investment in low-carbon technologies, and solar panels in particular, has catalyzed the renewable energy industry and set a challenge to Western governments.

The hope of industrial policy advocates is that the US, EU, and China will compete for the green tech market – at least, the sectors which China does not already dominate – setting off a virtuous circle of competition amongst green capitalists. Politically, state support for fledgling green tech industries is expected to generate constituencies for decarbonization which can serve as a counterweight to the entrenched power of fossil capital. Green industrial policy advocates tend to flatten the differences between labour and capital, suggesting that the central axis of conflict is between carbon-intensive and decarbonizing coalitions, even as clean-energy darlings like Tesla union bust. It is a view which puts most stock in the power of one fraction of capital to counter another; popular mobilization and labour strife feature primarily as threats to stability to be warded off. Joe Biden’s pair of infrastructure bills, for example, take cues not from the public investment-driven Green New Deal of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but from the innovation-oriented Green New Deal of the late 2000s, as outlined by Thomas Friedman and Edward Barbier. The model, which targets subsidies at strategic sectors like clean hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage, is more Silicon Valley than the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Focused on production in one country, industrial policy frequently relies on a methodological nationalism which neglects the global interdependence of contemporary production, while frequently threatening to tip into a more overtly political nationalism where convenient: this is a vision of climate policy that can coexist with, and perhaps even benefit from, increasing antagonism between the US and China. The key elements of its international policy are not grand global agreements but trade deals like the recent US-EU agreement to reduce steel tariffs and incentivize the production of ‘green steel’.  

Industrial policy oriented towards boosting ‘green tech’, however, has limits as climate policy. It does little to directly reduce fossil fuel use, prevent the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, or even directly reduce carbon emissions. It also faces political obstacles of its own. The tariffs and subsidies necessary to nurture emergent domestic industries are likely to garner objections from the WTO. A state which takes a more active role in ‘picking winners’ will face familiar challenges of domestic distributive politics. At the same time, as Cédric Durand has argued in Sidecar, by failing to undertake more substantial planning, states risk a slower and more disruptive transition away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile the still-powerful fossil fuel industry will seek to turn any stumbles to its advantage, as Adam Tooze warns.

From the perspective of many of those gathered at COP26, however, what is perhaps most concerning about the shift to green industrial policy is that it bypasses the many parts of the world which have little hope of competing with the big industrial powers on green tech. There will be ripple effects down the supply chain, of course. Some countries will garner new interest in minerals like lithium and cobalt. Those with relatively intact forests may be able to sell carbon offsets to help multinationals meet their net-zero promises – nearly all of which are currently premised on carbon removal in some form. But many other parts of the world will be surplus to the ‘green economy’, except as consumers of the products it generates. It has long been hoped that developing countries would be able to ‘leapfrog’ fossil fuels altogether and move straight to renewable-powered electricity. The countries most in need of electrification, however, are typically faced with high borrowing costs – a problem which bears directly on the energy transition, since renewable energy infrastructure is often more capital-intensive than coal-fired power plants. The problem of access to finance is made still worse by the fact that, as Kate Mackenzie observes, countries deemed to have a high ‘climate risk’ must pay more to borrow.

There was much talk about climate finance at COP26. But for economist Daniela Gabor, what it revealed was simply ‘status-quo financial capitalism entering its green age’ rather than any more transformative project. The response to Covid-19 spurred talk of the ‘end of neoliberalism’ and the return of the interventionist state. But the response to climate change thus far suggests a less dramatic reorientation: as Gabor observes, thus far the role marked out for the state in climate finance is not to undertake public investment but to ‘derisk’ private investments in green sectors.

A different response to the dead end of the COP process, then, would be to make a lateral move, taking climate justice to the global financial institutions. The political scientist Jessica Green argues that international trade and finance ought to replace the UN framework as the ‘locus of climate policy’, while also calling for major reform to global financial institutions. The problem is figuring out how such long-sought reforms might come about. Labour and environmental movements in countries with valuable minerals or powerful industrial sectors may be able to exert some influence over trade deals, as United Steelworkers did in the US-EU steel agreement. The global reach of green supply chains offers the possibility for more internationalist organizing, as Thea Riofrancos has argued. But the prospects for reform of global trade and financial institutions are hazier.

The global climate justice movement has undoubtedly spurred a change in the conversation. But at present, it simply does not have the power to realize its goals. At COP26, climate justice activists criticized the failure of developed nations to make good on their commitment to spend $100 billion annually on climate finance – a sum agreed on in 2009 in an attempt to salvage the Copenhagen talks. Yet the more ambitious demand, both then and now, is for a framework for loss and damage, which would require open-ended funding for harms incurred as a result of climate change – something which might come close to climate reparations. The argument in favour of it is morally unimpeachable. But it is hard to see what could force the US or EU to agree to a programme that would expose them to liability claims long into the future.

Lacking leverage, the movement has resorted to the tools it has available: spectacle, and, most notably, shame. This year, the foreign minister of Tuvalu, Simon Kofe, gave his COP26 speech knee-deep in ocean waves to symbolize the threat that rising seas pose to his island nation’s existence. This, too, recalled a previous moment of COP politics, in 2009, when President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives held an underwater cabinet meeting prior to the ill-fated meeting in Copenhagen. But if the power players at COP26 have learned to speak the language of climate justice, they have so far remained shameless. Andreas Malm has called for a reevaluation of tactics, arguing that the climate movement must become more combative. Different tactics may help disrupt business as usual – but they are unlikely to solve the fundamental problem of power.

As climate policy is finally incorporated into economic policy, whither the COP process? The COP cycle will continue. But it seems increasingly likely to be an afterthought: a forum where countries with no chance of competing on green tech or being invited to G20-like summits do what they can – which is to say, not very much – to extract concessions from the rich and powerful countries which have built their wealth on ecological destruction, and which are now using that wealth to escape its consequences. In other words, not so much an emergent global sovereign as a charity fundraiser.

Lola Seaton, ‘Painting Nationalism Green?’, NLR 124.



Larry Fink’s annual letter to CEOs has become something of a cult event. In recent years these documents, ostensibly written by the Chief Executive of BlackRock – the world’s largest investment management firm with more than $8 trillion in assets – have emphasized the existential risk of climate change and the importance of ‘investing with purpose’: rhetoric that has met with solemn agreement from the press and even cautious optimism from some of the major environmental NGOs. In his 2021 letter, Fink championed the virtues of so-called ‘ESG’ (Environmental, Social, Governance) investing: a once cottage industry in which financial products are designed according to certain ‘ethical’ criteria, including environmental sustainability, social impact and corporate governance factors. ESG investors and financial products buy shares in companies (or their bonds) based on metrics purporting to measure their carbon emissions intensity, equitable labour practices, transparency, the diversity of their executive boards and so on.

Fink is not alone in his enthusiasm. In November, Rishi Sunak touted the prospect of a booming ‘green finance’ industry which could remake the UK after Brexit, while Davos heavy-hitters from Mark Carney to Kristalina Georgieva have been stressing the need to leverage private finance to drive the green transition. Given these changing tides, the ESG industry has enjoyed an incredible surge over the course of the pandemic, with record inflows and soaring asset prices. To some, the sector’s remarkable growth suggests that Covid-19 has driven home the danger of ‘systemic risks’, such as political crises or climate change, for asset-holders. Commentators have also noted the cultural shift among younger investors, for whom it is no longer enough to simply make returns; the industry must also contend with the latter’s growing expectation that investments should align with their values and contribute to sustainable initiatives.

For Fink and his followers this is cause for optimism. The financial system, they assert, is adapting to provide much-needed investment in rapid decarbonisation. But the reality is somewhat different. To date, the ESG industry has established no rules for what counts as ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’. The EU has taken some steps towards creating a ‘taxonomy’ of green corporate activities, but its current guidelines contain countless loopholes – the result of disagreement between member states and effective industry lobbying. In recent research I undertook for Common Wealth thinktank, I found that of the UK’s ‘climate-themed’ ESG funds, a third hold stakes in fossil fuel companies, with several invested in Exxon. The ‘social’ practices of companies lauded by the ESG hierarchy are no better. Fashion retailer Boohoo received one of the highest possible ESG ratings from the American multinational MSCI, just weeks before it emerged that its supply-chain workers were paid only £3.50 per hour.

ESG funds also funnel millions into big financial firms, pharmaceutical conglomerates and the tech giants. For the flagship ESG fund of the prominent US investment advisor Vanguard, the top five holdings are Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google, with Tesla eking out the sixth spot. One study found that, among a large sample of ESG funds, the single strongest variable which differentiated their portfolios from mainstream funds was companies with no employees – the implication being: no labour equals no labour disputes, which equals ethical value for money. If this is ESG’s idea of socially conscious investing, it is a uniquely dystopian one.

These findings are a reminder that finance will invariably approach environmental crises as a ‘risk factor’, rather than a consequence of investment decisions. In other words: ‘Ask not what finance can do for the climate, but what the climate will do to finance’. This framework ensures that returns remain the ultimate horizon of eco-consciousness; the latter must be flexible enough to serve the former. This understanding also casts a new light on the impressive returns of ESG funds during the pandemic. Rather than reflecting a market-driven and enduring decline of unsustainable firms, the returns on ESG products tended to derive from their tendency to overweight the pandemic’s biggest winners, from Facebook to Pfizer, who aren’t excluded by the often narrowly defined ESG criteria, while underweighting the pandemic’s losers, like fracking firms hit by the lockdown-induced slump in fossil fuel demand. Thus, the criteria by which ESG distinguishes virtue from vice are consistent not necessarily with social or environmental impact, but with profitability.

Between greenwashing and gorging on Big Tech, then, it seems sustainable investing has little time left for the initiatives required to build a sustainable society. But even if ESG funds were interested in financing green industries, their capacity for productive investment is questionable. Indeed, ESG is less an opportunity to invest in the construction of a sustainable future than to bet on its likelihood. As Doug Henwood noted regarding the recent GameStop controversy, very little productive capital is raised on the stock market. The value of share issuance and IPOs is dwarfed by that of stock buybacks, underscoring the fact that stock exchange activity is, by definition, secondary, with cash and stock largely changing hands between those placing the bets, while the companies who issue the stock spend much of their time on the side-lines.

Moving investors away from the most egregiously destructive (or ‘risky’) firms may still have a modest impact on companies’ share prices and capital allocation decisions; and as such, clear regulation of what does and does not constitute a ‘sustainable asset’ remains necessary to eliminate greenwashing. The issuance of ‘green bonds’ and other instruments tied to green projects could also, in theory, overcome the issue of ‘additionality’ raised above, but to date these instruments have been plagued by questions of inconsistency and inefficacy, and stocks remain the primary fodder of ESG investors. More fundamentally, the emerging political consensus around the merits of a private finance-led approach to decarbonisation must be resisted. The widespread praise for ‘sustainable’ finance risks simulating a green transition where one is not occurring – an illusion that could undermine our ability to enact the large-scale transformation necessary to confront environmental breakdown.

The climate and ecological crises are fundamentally problems of inequality, in both their origins and consequences. Yawning wealth disparities within and between countries, along with ongoing colonial legacies, have created a global economy in which the affluent consume and emit on a scale that dwarfs the environmental impact of the majority. Meanwhile, the uneven distribution of political power prevents those on the frontline of the climate catastrophe from taking measures to slow its advance. This entrenches the self-reinforcing impression that climate politics is an elite preserve, best dealt with by experts at multilateral summits or BlackRock board meetings.  

The rise of ESG promises to exacerbate this issue, swelling the portfolios of asset-owners and concentrating political influence among technocrats at investment firms. As governments forecast a green recovery from the Covid-19 downturn, ‘ethical finance’ will be among its key components. But the transition to a sustainable economy should not be seen as an investment opportunity for the asset-rich; rather, it should be understood as an urgent opportunity to rectify the forces of inequality and injustice driving environmental crisis.

Read on: Nancy Fraser, Climates of Capital, NLR 127.