The biggest environmental crisis facing humankind – greenhouse gas warming of the atmosphere – calls for a new society and new insights into the laws of nature. Anything less will bring more hurricanes, storms, wildfires, droughts, and crop failures until we learn this lesson and take revolutionary action.
The environmental movement – a worldwide, diffuse movement heavily staffed by youth and informed by scientists who speak bold truth – has righteously pushed this crisis into our face. The movement has also indicted micro-plastics in the ocean, pesticides in the soil, pollution in the air we breathe, and cancerous chemicals in our food.
What to do about it? Although the movement has no single charter of demands and solutions, we can list several common ones.
The single-family automobile is one of the worst contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Ride a bicycle or an electric scooter. Air travel is a disaster for the atmosphere; most of it should stop.
We are told that we must stop eating particular things or save them for a once-a-month treat. The industrial production of meat takes too much grain, gives off too much greenhouse gas, and poisons the soil with half-treated waste. Factory farms are a global polluting machine. Most food should be grown and raised locally, using more labor and less chemicals.
At the worst a Malthusian gloom pervades. There are simply too many people, more than the planet can sustain at an asserted “carrying capacity.”
On the other hand, one of the most progressive conclusions of the movement is its anti-militarism. Environmentalists have tallied the outsized contribution of air forces, navies, and armies to global warming.
Environmentalists, technology, and fiscal nudges
It is understandable when we see the emission of greenhouse gases as a consequence of technology. Technology is concrete, while capitalism is a pervasive net of economic relationships. Corporations – the engines of capitalist depredation – are largely free to ignore what their chosen technologies do to the environment.
Calling out the deadly effects of some technologies, environmentalists embrace others. Sections of the movement welcome imitations of meat from soy and other vegetables, for example. The big technological-environmental field today is the changeover of automobiles, trucks, ships, and even airplanes to run on battery-operated electric motors. Exactly how the electricity that charges the batteries will be generated is in contention.
How much of the environmental movement is anti-capitalist? It has skewered Chevron and the other big oil monopolists for their hypocrisy, their lies, and their willingness to put humankind at risk so long as Chevron makes a profit to the dying day. Environmentalists have gone after electric utilities over their mix of energy sources, too.
So far, however, only a sliver of the environmental movement has turned to revolutionary socialism. An equal regret is that the communist movement has not done enough theoretical, ideological, and organizational work to unite with environmentalists.
Consequently, the magnificent mass anger of environmentalists expresses itself, and then the “practical” work begins. It comes down to carbon taxes, to incentives that reward producers who adopt low-carbon and low-methane technologies, and rebates for consumers who buy green products. Regulations may set deadlines by which time manufacturers must stop making internal combustion engines, gas kitchen ranges, and air conditioners that use CFC refrigerant.
The most elaborate government tool is carbon cap and trade. Corporations must get an allowance certificate for each metric ton of greenhouse gas their production process emits. The government may give them some tons of allowance and auction off more tons. Then corporations and speculators can trade allowances on a market. Cap and trade quickly became a swamp of technical disputes, competing projections, and back-room lobbying over next year’s limits.
Cap and trade tries to make global warming a cost item for corporations. Of course, they resist. And when they bow to the inevitable, they look for methods of production that also reduce labor cost. Or the corporation must raise the price; the well-to-do feel good about buying ecologically sound products, while broad sections of the working class can’t afford what used to be affordable.
Underlying such government subsidies and taxes is a belief that the technical means to reach net-zero emission of greenhouse gases are at hand or nearly so. The main technologies are solar and wind power, perhaps conventional nuclear fission, and removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into so-called carbon sinks, mainly more trees. Without going into details, two big problems are the low energy density of solar and wind compared with the oil they are to replace, and the deleterious effects of mining and refining their raw materials.
The U.S. government issued a programmatic statement on The Long-Term Strategy of the U.S. It aims at net-zero emissions by 2050. This “strategy” motivates the estimated $369 billion of climate-change subsidies enacted in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. (The total is spread over ten years for most provisions.) The government admits, “The eventual U.S. pathway to net-zero emissions will depend on the evolution of technologies, the specifics of policy and regulatory packages, and factors such as economic growth, sociodemographic shifts, and market prices for commodities and fuels across the next three decades.” (p. 6) The list reads like someone opened a bag of five billiard balls onto a pool table in the hope that they will come to rest in a straight line. There is no confidence that U.S. capitalism and its system of governance will get to net-zero by 2050.
Socialism and science
More than most controversial issues, the environmental problem requires attention to the back and forth between class interests and our powers of production, the productive forces. Global warming needs what can crudely be called technological fixes as well as scientific breakthroughs. Socialist politics alone will not do it. Technological marvels within capitalism will not do it. Socialism and technological effort must go together.
Communists standing in the ranks with working people have always combined our fight to defend wages, working conditions, and social support with the struggle to get rid of capitalism and build socialism. Communists as environmentalists must also combine the fight to address global warming with the struggle to get rid of capitalism and build socialism.
Profit drives a capitalist economy with no necessary relation to human welfare, while socialism develops the economy toward a defined set of goals. We want to bring global warming to a halt; we want everyone to have good food, housing, and healthcare; we want every worker to attain a rising cultural level, with opportunities to master two or three occupations of choice during his working life.
To build this socialism, we have two key tools. The first is communist politics, which continues throughout socialist society. Socialism either keeps advancing through a series of communist projects, or it falls back into capitalism.
The second key tool is economic planning. Capitalists and their professors mock it. You can’t issue every factory, shop, and office daily work plans from one center, they tell us. That is a straw-man argument. The essence of economic planning is the overall allocation of investment. Next year, and over the next five years, what industries, technologies, and occupations shall we expand, and which shall we wind down?
We find the answer by iterative planning exercises. Take a first stab at a plan. It must be consistent: each industry will have the inputs it needs from other industries, and the output of each industry will be taken up by users. Compare the plan with the goals. How many tons of greenhouse gases will be emitted? What healthcare needs will be met and which are still to be met? What changes of occupation does the plan require? These comparisons will point out how investment could be allocated better. Revise the plan and repeat.
Iterative discussion and calculation happen before the plan launches. This is the overall allocation of investment.
If the plan shows that we must invest in renewable energy production and shut down some oil refineries, let’s do it. There is no worry about Chevron’s profits and share price. Suppose we agree to renovate our cities with mass transit comprised of frequent runs along a dense network of streets, using buses and jitneys powered by electromagnetic lines laid under the streets. We can do it without resistance from General Motors, Toyota or Tesla.
No capitalist regime can direct the economy this way. Each capitalist executive invests where he sees the most profitable opportunity. The government can lay down a rule here and offer a tax incentive there. It’s all nibbling around the edges.
A historic change of energy base
Humankind is on the threshold of passing from industrial civilization powered by burning hydrocarbons to a fundamentally new energy base that supports and is supported by a new mode of production.
The human species began by applying our own muscle energy. We added the power of domesticated animals. This energy base took us through the eras of foraging and hunting and then agriculture. After several thousand years we added water and wind power in some places, using wooden mills.
The second great energy base of human society was burning (oxidizing) carbon. We moved from burning wood to coal and then to oil and other hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbon energy made industrialization possible. We created machines driven by the energy of burning carbon. Indeed, some machines were required in order to capture the energy of burning carbons: the steam engine and the internal combustion engine.
Scientific knowledge advanced hand in hand with the industrial revolution, principally mechanics, chemistry, and the marvels of electricity and electronics.
When the energy base was human and animal power, the mode of production was agrarian rule. Peasants toiled, and their crops and meat fed priests in ancient Egypt, lords and the Church in medieval Europe, landed gentry and mandarins in dynastic China. When the energy base is burning hydrocarbons, workers labor, and their output is the commodity wealth of capitalists.
We are at the door of both socialism and a new energy base of human society. We will find this foundation. We will attain greater insight into nature than was achieved by peasant wisdom and by the largely mechanical way of scientific thinking under capitalism.
Socialism puts more resources into science and technology than capitalism, not less. Socialism makes more use of the fruits of science and technology than capitalism, not less.
There are already hints of a new energy base. We know four basic forces in nature: gravity, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force, and electromagnetism. In 1989 Martin Fleischmann, an electrochemist and Fellow of the Royal Society, and Stanley Pons, the chemistry chair at the University of Utah, concluded from tabletop experiments that they had tapped the huge store of energy locked in nuclear bonds. Fleischmann and Pons gave a jump-start to the study of low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR). It is a misnomer; the locked-up energy is huge. The challenge is to tap it with a low-energy trigger of some kind.
Billions of dollars pour into attempts at nuclear fusion ignited by lasers that heat a tiny target inside a complicated container to several times the temperature of the sun. Meanwhile, the field of LENR has not done well. Government grants have been a tiny fraction of one percent of the funds given to high-energy nuclear fusion projects. Con men swept into the void, swindling investors with physics gobbledygook and fake devices.
LENR requires deep, innovative scientific work. It is much more difficult than the big nuclear fusion experiments. The latter are more applied research than new science. Really basic research moves slowly under capitalism. Typically, we must explore many disparate avenues; most will lead to a dead end. Basic discoveries are difficult to lock up in property that one capitalist can block other capitalists from taking freely. Truly new results threaten a vast amount of assets on corporate books. LENR would decimate the hydrocarbon corporations, the electric utilities, and many other industries.
While LENR deserves a big push, it is too early to say that LENR is the door to the new energy base. Solar, wind, tidal energy, and improved types of fission reactors (like an update of the breeder or integral fast reactor) will probably serve as stop-gaps, along with better insulation of buildings and the planting of trees to absorb carbon.
One way or another, we need a new energy base, and we can find it. We need it to escape further disaster from global warming. We need it to pass from the deadly capitalist world to a better world for all. Let environmentalists and socialists find unity in this quest – and in revolutionary action to embark on it.
 There are also the so-called democratic socialists. But try to make sense of their ricochet between capitalism and socialism: “Creating a fully ecological society will require a revolutionary transformation to replace the capitalist social order based on exploitation and oppression with a new society based on cooperation, equity, and justice. A Green New Deal must serve as a bridge toward this future. To that end, we support the resolutions introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House and Sen. Ed Markey in the Senate while recognizing that they are conversation starters.” “DSA’s Green New Deal Principles,” Feb. 28, 2019. Next, seven principles in effect demand that capitalism behave like socialism.
 The Long-Term Strategy of the U.S., United States Department of State
and the United States Executive Office of the President, Washington DC. November 2021.
 For more on the basic mechanism of socialist economy, see No Rich, No Poor by this author.