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Climate catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism

Climate catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism

Noam Chomsky[1] – Miguel Fuentes[2] – Guy McPherson[3]

(Part I)[4]

Editorial note

The following is the first part of the interview-debate “Climate Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy, and Socialism” between linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky, Chilean exponent of the Marxist-Collapsist theoretical current Miguel Fuentes, and American ecologist and evolutionary biologist Guy McPherson. Each participant takes a different theoretical and political-programmatic approach to the same problem: the imminence of a super-catastrophic climate change horizon and the possibility of a near civilizational collapse. The debate leads back from reflection on the ecological catastrophe to older debates arising from the history of the left. The original discussion and the critical comments of John Bellamy Foster, Max Wilbert and Yanis Varoufakis to this debate can be found at the debates section of the Marxism and Collapse website.[5] Also to be found there is the discussion, referred to in the text, between Michael Lowy, Miguel Fuentes, and Antonio Turiel together with critical comments by Spanish Marxist ecologist Jaime Vindel, Argentinean left-wing leader Jorge Altamira, and Chilean journalist Paul Walder.

1. In a recent discussion between ecosocialist stances and collapsist approaches represented by Michael Lowy (France), Miguel Fuentes (Chile), and Antonio Turiel (Spain), Lowy constantly denied the possibility of a self-induced capitalist collapse and criticized the idea of the impossibility of stopping climate change before it reaches the catastrophic level of 1.5°C degrees of global warming. Do you think that the current historical course is heading to a social global downfall comparable, for example, to previous processes of civilization collapse or maybe to something even worse than those seen in ancient Rome or other ancient civilizations? Is a catastrophic climate change nowadays unavoidable? Is a near process of human extinction as a result of the overlapping of the current climate, energetic, economic, social and political crisis and the suicidal path of capitalist destruction, conceivable? (Marxism and Collapse)

-Noam Chomsky:

The situation is ominous, but I think Michael Lowy is correct. There are feasible means to reach the IPPC goals and avert catastrophe, and also moving on to a better world. There are careful studies showing persuasively that these goals can be attained at a cost of 2-3% of global GDP, a substantial sum but well within reach — a tiny fraction of what was spent during World War II. And, serious as the stakes were in that global struggle, what we face today is more significant by orders of magnitude. At stake is the question whether the human experiment will survive in any recognizable form.

The most extensive and detailed work I know on how to reach these goals is by economist Robert Pollin. He presents a general review in our joint book Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. His ideas are currently being implemented in a number of places, including some of the most difficult ones, where economies are still reliant on coal. Other eco-economists, using somewhat different models, have reached similar conclusions. Just recently IRENA — the International Renewable Energy Agency, [which is] part of the UN — came out with the same estimate of clean energy investments to reach the IPCC goals.

There is not much time to implement these proposals. The real question is not so much feasibility as will. There is little doubt that it will be a major struggle. Powerful entrenched interests will work relentlessly to preserve short-term profit at the cost of incalculable disaster.  Current scientific work conjectures that failure to reach the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 will set irreversible processes in motion that are likely to lead to a “hothouse earth,” reaching unthinkable temperatures 4 or 5ºC above pre-industrial levels, likely to result in an end to any form of organized human society.

4 degrees Celsius of global warming (yellows and browns are uninhabitable)[6]

-Miguel Fuentes:

Noam Chomsky highlights in his response the possibility of a global warming that exceeds 4-5ºC above pre-industrial levels within this century. This, according to him could mean, literally, the end of all forms of organized human society. Chomsky endorses what many other researchers and scientists around the world are saying. A recent report by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, for example, points to 2050 as the most likely date for the onset of widespread civilizational collapse. The central idea would be that, due to a sharp worsening of the current climate situation and the possible rendering uninhabitable by the middle of this century of a large part of our planet, a point of no return would then be reached in which the fracture and collapse of nation states and the world order would be inevitable.[7] At the same time, he states that the steps necessary to avert this catastrophe will lay the foundations for a transition to “clean energy” and a more just society. This he views as still be perfectly achievable. Specifically, Chomsky says that this would only require an investment of around 2–3% of world GDP, the latter within the framework of a plan of “environmental reforms” described in the so-called “Green New Deal” of which he is a leading advocate.

Let’s reflect for a moment on the above. On the one hand, Chomsky accepts the possibility of a planetary civilizational collapse in the course of this century. On the other hand, he reduces the solution to this threat to nothing more than the application of a “green tax.” Literally the greatest historical, economic, social, cultural, and even geological challenge that the human species and civilization has faced since its origins is reduced, roughly speaking, to a problem of “international financial fundraising” consisting of allocating approximately 3% of world GDP to the promotion of “clean energies.” A danger that, as Chomsky puts it, would be even greater than the Second World War and could turn the Earth into an uninhabitable rock, should be solved either by “international tax collection” or by a plan of limited “eco-reforms” within a capitalist economic model (known as the “Green New Deal”).

But how is it possible that Chomsky, one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, is able to make this “interpretive leap” between accepting the possibility of the “end of all organized human society” within this century and reducing the solution to that threat to what would appear to be no more than a (rather timid) cosmetic restructuring of international capitalist finance? Who knows? What is certain, however, is that Chomsky’s response to the climate threat lags far behind not only those advocated by the ecosocialist camp and even traditional Marxism. That thinking is based on posing the link between the problem of the root causes of the ecological crisis and the need for a politics that defends the abolition of private ownership of the means of production as a necessary step in confronting it. Moreover, Chomsky’s treatment of the ecological crisis seems to be inferior to theoretical tendencies, such as the theory of degrowth or a variety of collapsist currents, all of which advocate the imposition of drastic plans of economic degrowth and a substantial decrease in industrial activity and global consumption levels. The latter by promoting a process of “eco-social transition” which would not be reduced to a mere change in the energy matrix and the promotion of renewable energies, but would imply, on the contrary, the transition from one type of civilization (modern and industrial) to another that is better able to adapt to the new planetary scenarios that the ecological crisis, energy decline, and global resource scarcity will bring.

But reducing the solution of the climate catastrophe to the need for a “green tax” on the capitalist market economy is not the only error in Chomsky’s response. The main problem of the arguments he uses to defend the possibility of a successful “energy transition” — from fossil fuels to so-called “clean energy” — is that they are built on sand. This is because, first, it is not true that so-called “clean energies” are indeed “clean” if we consider the kind of resources and technological efforts required to implement them. Solar or wind energy, for example, depend not only on huge amounts of raw materials associated for their construction with high polluting extractive processes (e.g., the large quantities of steel required for the construction of wind turbines is just one illustration of this), but also on the use of extensive volumes of coal, natural gas, or even oil. The construction of a single solar panel requires, for instance, enormous quantities of coal. Another striking example can be seen in the dependence of hydrogen plants (specially the “grey” or “blue” types) on vast quantities of natural gas for their operation. All this without any guarantee that the reduction in the use of fossil fuels that should result from the implementation of these “clean” technologies will effectively offset a possible exponential increase in its “ecological footprint.”[8]

Secondly, it is false to assume that an energy matrix based on renewable energy could substitute for the energy production based on fossil fuels in the short or medium term, at least, if a replication of current (ecologically unviable) patterns of economic growth is sought. Examples of this include the virtual inability of so-called “green hydrogen” power plants to become profitable in the long term. Similarly, power sources such as solar or wind energy (highly unstable) face enormous challenges in meeting sustained levels of energy demand over time. All this without even considering the significant maintenance costs of renewable energy systems, which, again, are also associated with the use of highly polluting raw materials whose manufacture depends on the use of fossil fuels.[9]

But the problems in Chomsky’s response are not limited to the above. Most importantly, the danger of the climate crisis and the possibility of a planetary collapse can no longer be confined to a purely financial issue (solvable by a hypothetical allocation of 3% of world GDP) or a strictly technical-engineering challenge (solvable by the advancement of a successful energy transition). The magnitude of the problem has gone beyond the competence of economic and technological systems, and has moved to the sphere of the geological and biophysical relations of the planet itself. This calls into question the very techno-scientific (and economic-financial) capacities of contemporary civilization. In other words, the problem represented by the current levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or those related to the unprecedented advances in marine acidification, Arctic melting, or permafrost decomposition rates, today constitute challenges whose solution is largely beyond any of our scientific developments and technological capabilities. Let’s recognize that current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (already close to 420 ppm) have not been seen for millions of years on Earth. Elsewhere I have defined this situation as the development of a growing “terminal technological insufficiency” of our civilization to face the challenges of the present planetary crisis[10].

In the case of current atmospheric CO2 concentrations, for example, there are not, and will not be for a long time (possibly many decades or centuries), any technology capable of achieving their substantial decrease. Certainly, there will be no technology available before such concentrations skyrocket to levels that could render a large part of our planet completely uninhabitable. In the case of CO2 capture facilities, for instance, they have not yet been able to remove even an insignificantly small fraction of the more than forty billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted each year by industrial society.[11] Something similar is true with other ecological problems such as the aforementioned increase in marine acidification levels, the rise in ocean levels, or even the increasingly unmanageable proliferation of space debris and the consequent danger it represents for the maintenance of contemporary telecommunication systems. In other words, again, these are increasing threatening problems that humanity has no effective technologies to manage, at least not over the few decades that remain before these problems reach proportions that will call into question our very survival as a species.

Current levels of atmospheric CO2 (the highest in the last 650,000 years)

We face unsolvable problems, as unsolvable as those confronting someone seeking to “restore” a clay pot or a glass bottle after it has been shattered into a thousand fragments by smashing it against a concrete wall! To restore a glass of the finest crystal after it has been smashed to pieces? Not even with the investment of ten, a hundred world GDPs would that be possible! This is what we have done with the world, the most beautiful of the planetary crystals of our solar system: We have blown it into a thousand pieces by ecocidal industrialism! To restore? To resolve? Bollocks! We have already destroyed it all! We have already finished it all! And no “financial investment” or “technological solution” can prevent what is coming: death! To die then! To die and to fight to preserve what can be preserved! To die and to prepare for the worst that might befall us — to conquer socialism however we can, on whatever planet we have, and to wrest the future out of the hands of the devil himself if necessary! That is the task of socialist revolution in the 21st century! That is the duty of Marxist revolutionaries in the new epoch of darkness that is rising before us! That is the mission of Marxism-Collapsist!

-Guy McPherson:

There is no escape from the mass extinction event underway. Only human arrogance could suggest otherwise. Our situation is definitely terminal. I cannot imagine that there will be a habitat for homo sapiens beyond a few years into the future. Soon after we lose our habitat, all individuals of our species will die out. Global warming has already passed two degrees Celsius above the 1750 baseline, as noted by the renowned Professor Andrew Glikson in his October 2020 book The Event Horizon. On page 31 of that book, he wrote, “during the Anthropocene, greenhouse gas forcing has risen by more than 2.0 W/m2, equivalent to more than > 2°C above [pre-industrial temperatures], which constitutes an abrupt [climate change] event over not much longer than a lifetime.”

So yes. We have definitely passed the point of no return in the climate crisis. Even the incredibly conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already admitted the irreversibility of climate change in its September 24, 2019, “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.”[12] A quick look around the globe reveals unprecedented events such as forest fires, floods, and mega-droughts. The ongoing pandemic is just one of many events that are beginning to overwhelm human systems and our ability to respond positively.

All species are going extinct, including more than half a dozen species of the genus Homo that have already disappeared. According to the scientific paper by Quintero and Wiens published in Ecology Letters on June 26, 2013, the projected rate of environmental change is 10.000 times faster than vertebrates can adapt to. Mammals also cannot keep up with these levels of change, as Davis and colleagues’ paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on October 30, 2018, points out. The fact that our species is a vertebrate mammal suggests that we will join more than 99% of the species that have existed on Earth that have already gone extinct. The only question in doubt is when. In fact, human extinction could have been triggered several years ago when the Earth’s average global temperature exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius above the 1750 baseline. According to a comprehensive overview of this situation published by the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System in April 2019[13], a “1.5 degree increase is the maximum the planet can tolerate. . . [In] a worst-case scenario, [such a temperature increase above the 1750 baseline will result in] the extinction of humanity altogether.”

All species need habitat to survive. As Hall and colleagues reported in the Spring 1997 issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin:

We therefore define habitat as the resources and conditions present in an area that produce occupancy, including survival and reproduction, of a given organism. Habitat is organism-specific; it relates the presence of a species, population or individual. . . to the physical and biological characteristics of an area. Habitat implies more than vegetation or the structure of that vegetation; it is the sum of the specific resources needed by organisms. Whenever an organism is provided with resources that allow it to survive, that is its habitat.[14]

Even tardigrades are not immune to extinction. Rather, they are sensitive to high temperatures, as reported in the January 9, 2020, issue of Scientific Reports. Ricardo Cardoso Neves and collaborators point out there that all life on Earth is threatened with extinction with an increase of 5–6 degrees Celsius in the global average temperature. As Strona and Bradshaw state in another article in Scientific Reports (November 13, 2018)[15], raising the issue of co-extinctions as a determinant of the loss of all life on Earth: “In a simplified view, the idea of co-extinction boils down to the obvious conclusion that a consumer cannot survive without its resources.”

From the incredibly conservative Wikipedia entry entitled “Climate Change” comes this supporting information: “Climate change includes both human-induced global warming and its large-scale impacts on weather patterns. There have been previous periods of climate change, but the current changes are more rapid than any known event in Earth’s history.” The Wikipedia entry further cites the August 8, 2019, report “Climate Change and Land”[16], published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is among the most conservative scientific bodies in history. Yet it concluded in 2019 that the Earth is in the midst of the most rapid environmental change seen in planetary history, citing scientific literature that concludes: “These rates of human-driven global change far exceed the rates of change driven by geophysical or biospheric forces that have altered the trajectory of the Earth System in the past; nor do even abrupt geophysical events approach current rates of human-driven change.”

The Wikipedia entry also points out the consequences of the kind of abrupt climate change currently underway, including desert expansion, heat waves, and wildfires becoming increasingly common, melting permafrost, glacier retreat, loss of sea ice, increased intensity of storms, and other extreme environmental events, along with widespread species extinctions. And the World Health Organization has already defined climate change as the greatest threat to global health in the 21st century. The Wikipedia entry continues, “Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations collectively agreed to keep warming ‘well below 2.0 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) through mitigation efforts.’” But Professor Andrew Glikson already pointed out in his aforementioned book The Event Horizon that the 2 degrees Celsius mark is already behind us. Furthermore, as we already indicated, the IPCC has admitted the irreversibility of climate change in its “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.” Therefore, 2019 was an exceptional year for the IPCC, as it concluded that climate change is abrupt and irreversible.

How conservative is the IPCC? Even the conservative and renowned journal BioScience includes an article in its March 2019 issue entitled “Statistical Language Supports Conservatism in Climate Change Assessments.”[17] The paper by Herrando-Perez and colleagues includes the information:

We find that the tone of the IPCC’s probabilistic language is remarkably conservative. . . emanating from the IPCC’s own recommendations, the complexity of climate research and exposure to politically motivated debates. Harnessing the communication of uncertainty with an overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change should be one element of a broader reform, whereby the creation of an IPCC outreach working group could improve the transmission of climate science to the panel’s audiences.

Contrary to the conclusion of Herrando-Perez and colleagues, I cannot imagine that the IPCC is really interested in conveying accurate climate science to its audiences. After all, as Professor Michael Oppenheimer noted in 2007[18], the US government during the Reagan administration “saw the creation of the IPCC as a way to prevent the activism stimulated by my colleagues and me from controlling the political agenda.”

2. Have the human species become a plague for the planet? If so, how can we still conciliate the survival of life on Earth with the promotion of traditional modern values associated with the defence of human and social rights (which require the use of vast amounts of planetary resources) in a context of a potential increase of world’s population that could reach over twelve billion people this century? The latter in a context in which (according to several studies) the maximum number of humans that Earth could have sustained without a catastrophic alteration of ecosystems should have never exceeded one billion. Can the modern concept of liberal (or even socialist) democracy and its supposedly related principles of individual, identity, gender, or cultural freedom survive our apparent terminal geological situation, or it will be necessary to find new models of social organization, for example, those present in several indigenous or native societies? Can the rights of survival of living species on Earth, human rights, and the concept of modern individual freedom be harmoniously conciliated in the context of an impending global ecosocial disaster? (Marxism and Collapse)

-Noam Chomsky:

Let’s begin with population growth. There is a humane and feasible method to constrain that: education of women. That has a major effect on fertility in both rich regions and poor, and should be expedited anyway. The effects are quite substantial, leading to sharp population decline by now in parts of the developed world. The point generalizes. Measures to fend off “global ecosocial disaster” can and should proceed in parallel with social and institutional change to promote values of justice, freedom, mutual aid, collective responsibility, democratic control of institutions, concern for other species, harmony with nature — values that are commonly upheld by indigenous societies and that have deep roots in popular struggles in what are called the “developed societies” where, unfortunately, material and moral development are all too often uncorrelated.

-Miguel Fuentes:

Chomsky’s allusions to the promotion of women’s education and the social values of justice, freedom, mutual aid, and harmony with nature, as “moral values” disconnected from a broader critique of the industrial system, capitalism, and the class society within which threats such as global warming have been generated and aggravated, become mere phrases of good intentions. On the contrary, the realization of these principles must be thought within a context of a large-scale world social transformation. Such a transformation is necessary if those principles are to be effective in combatting the challenges facing humanity today, the kind of civilizational crisis that is beginning to unfold as a product of the multiple eco-social (ecological, energy, and resource) crises that are advancing globally. In other words, we need a process of historical transformation that can envisage the abolition of the current ecocidal industrial economic system and its replacement by one in which production, exchange, and distribution can be planned in accordance with social needs.

But even a traditional socialist approach to these problems, such as the one above, falls short of accounting for the kind of planetary threats we face. Let’s put it this way, the discussion around the ecological crisis and the rest of the existential dangers hanging over the fate of our civilization today really only begins, not ends, by giving it a proper Marxist contextualization. One of the underlying reasons for this is that the traditional socialist project itself, in all its variants (including its more recent ecosocialist versions), would also already be completely insufficient to respond to the dangers we are facing as a species. That is, we face today dangers and interpretative problems that none of the Marxists theoreticians of social revolution over the last centuries ever imagined, from Marx and Engels to some of the present-day exponents of ecosocialism such as John Bellamy Foster or Michael Lowy[19].

One new problem that revolutionary theories face today is that of the uncontrolled demographic growth of humanity. This is a problem that already confers on us, amongst other things, one of the worst biological (or, in our case, “biosocial”) plagues existing to this day, if we consider the devastating role that our species has been exerting on the biosphere in recent centuries. A plague comparable in its destructive power is that represented by the cyanobacteria that triggered the first mass extinction event on Earth some 2.4 billion years ago. However, in our case, the mass extinction happens at an even more accelerated and “efficient” pace than that. Is this statement too brutal? Maybe, from a purely humanist point of view, alien to the kind of problems we face today, but not from an eminently scientific perspective. Nor can there be any doubt that our species is a “planetary plague” for any ecologist studying the current patterns of behaviour, resource consumption, and habitat destruction. Is that too brutal a statement? Tell that to the more than ten thousand natural species that become extinct every year as a result of the role of a single species on the planet: ours! Tell it to the billions of animals killed in the great fires of Australia or the Amazon a few years ago! Tell it to the polar bears, koalas, pikas, tigers, lions, elephants, who succumb every year as a result of what we have done to the Earth! Very well, we are then a “plague,” although this term would only serve to classify us as a “biological species.” Is understanding ourselves in this way too “limited,” too lacking in social and historical perspective[20].

Not really. The fact that we possess social and cultural systems that differentiate us from other complex mammals does not mean that our current status as a “plague of the world” is confined to the biological realm alone. On the contrary, this just means that this status could also have a certain correlation in the social and cultural dimension, in the sphere of the social and cultural systems particular to modern society. To put it in another way, even though our current condition of “plague of the world” has been acquired by our species within the framework of a specific type of society — the mode of production and particular framework of historical relations characteristic of industrial modernity — this condition should not be understood as a merely historical product, as excluding any biological and ecological dimension. In fact, beyond the differentiated position and role of the various social sectors that make up the productive structure and the socioeconomic systems of the industrial society (for example, the exploiting and exploited social classes), it is indeed humanity as a whole: rich and poor, entrepreneurs and workers, men and women, who share (all of us) the same responsibility as a species (although admittedly in a differentiated way) for the current planetary disaster. An example of this is how almost everything produced today by big multinationalsdown to the last grain of rice or the last piece of plastic — is consumed by someone, whether in Paris, London, Chisinau, or La Paz. And we should also remember that even biological plagues (such as locusts) may have different consumption patterns at the level of their populations, with some consuming more and others consuming less. Just because one sector of a given biological plague consumes less (even much less), it should not necessarily be considered as separate from the plague in question.

Human population growth (1050-2017)[21]

Another similar example: It is often claimed in Marxist circles (sometimes the numbers vary) that 20% of humanity consumes 80% of the planetary resources. This means that approximately 1.6 billion out of the total population of 8 billion consume 80% of planetary resources. That is a number roughly three times the current European population. In other words, a much larger segment of the world’s population than the capitalist elites (and their political servants) bear a direct, even grotesque, responsibility for the unsustainable consumption patterns that are aggravating the current planetary crisis. Or, to put it in more “Marxist” terms, a large percentage (or even the totality) of the working classes and popular sectors in Europe, the United States, and even in Latin America and other regions of the so-called “developing countries,” are “directly complicit” in the destruction of our planet, at least in regards of the reproduction of the current ecocidal modern urban lifestyle.

But let us extend the discussion to the remaining 80% of humanity, to the approximately 6.4 billion people who consume 20% of planetary resources per year. To begin with, let us recognize that 20% of global resources is not a negligible percentage, production of which entrails substantial and sustained levels of environmental destruction. The latter in the context of an ever-growing world population that possibly ought never to have exceeded one billion, so that we could be in a position today to stop, or at least slow down, the disastrous impact we are having on ecosystems. Let us not forget that this 6.4 billion is more than four times higher than the entire human population at the beginning of the 20th century, which means that the number of basic resources necessary for their survival is an inevitable pressure on the earth’s natural systems, even if consumption levels are kept to a minimum.

In short, there is therefore no doubt that humanity has indeed become one of the worst planetary plagues in the history of terrestrial life, constituting this a fundamental problem for contemporary revolutionary thought and, more generally, for the human and social sciences as a whole. In other words, this is a problem that cannot be solved by a mere change in the mode of production, the class structure, or the sociopolitical system, but must rather be associated with the very “genetics” of industrial society, which is based on a voraciously destructive form of human-nature relationships. Such relationships remain the “structural basis” of all possible and conceivable models of capitalism or socialism. Whether in the framework of a neoliberal market economy or a socialist and/or collectivist planned economy, the industrial system and modern mass society in all its variants, whether capitalist or socialist — its megacities, its productive levels, its consumption patterns and lifestyles, its “anthropocentric spirit” — is structurally associated with demographic patterns in which the Earth is conceived as a mere space for human consumption and reproduction. That is the main problem.

Is it possible to reconcile current levels of overpopulation with the survival requirements of our species? No. We have become a planetary plague and will remain a planetary plague until such time as, by hook or by crook (almost certainly by crook) our numbers are substantially reduced and remain at the minimum possible levels, for at least a few centuries or millennia. Is it possible to solve the problem of overpopulation and at the same time defend the legitimacy of traditional modern values associated with the promotion of human and social rights, at least as these values have been understood in recent centuries? No. Modernity has failed. Modernity is dead. We are going to have to rethink every single one of our values, including the most basic ones, all of them. We are going to have to rethink who we are, where we are going and where we come from. The existence of almost 8 billion people on our planet today, and, moreover, the likely increase of this number to 10 or even 12 billion is not only incompatible with the realization of the very ideals and values of modern democracy in all its variants (capitalist or socialist), but also with the very survival of our species as a whole and, possibly, of all complex life on Earth. This simply because there are not enough resources to ensure the realization of these values (or even our own subsistence) in such a demographic context. There simply won’t be enough food and water. Our situation is terminal. Modernity is dead. Democracy is dead. Socialism is dead. And if we want these concepts — democracy or socialism — to really have any value in the face of the approaching catastrophe, then we will have to rethink them more humbly than we have done so far.

Modern civilization has borne some of the best fruits of humanity’s social development, but also some of the worst. We are in some ways like the younger brother of a large family whose early successes made him conceited and stupid and who, thinking of himself as “master of the world,” began to lose everything. We are that young man. We should therefore shut up, put our ideologies (capitalist and socialist) in our pockets, and start learning a little more from our more modest, slower, and more balanced “big brothers”: Traditional or indigenous societies that have been able to ensure their subsistence for centuries and, in some cases, even millennia. Compare industrial society, which has not even completed three centuries before endangering its own existence and that of all other cultures on the planet. We must start learning from those traditional societies that have developed social systems that are more respectful of ecological and ecosystemic balances. Those “ecosocial balances” are, in the long view of the evolution of species, the real basis for the development of any society. Because without species (be they animal or plant), human culture is impossible. Scientific and technological progress? Excellent idea! But perhaps we could take the long route, think things through a bit more, and achieve the same as we have achieved today in two centuries taking a bit longer — say ten, twenty, or even a hundred centuries? Who’s in a hurry? Let us learn from the tortoise which, perhaps because it is slow, has survived on Earth for more than 220 million years, until we (who as Homo sapiens are no more than 250,000 years old) came along and endangered it.

-Guy McPherson:

As ecologists have been pointing out for decades, environmental impacts are the result of human population size and human consumption levels. The Earth can support many more hunter-gatherers than capitalists seeking more material possessions. Unfortunately, we are stuck with the latter rather than the former. Ecologists and environmentalists have been proposing changes in human behaviour since at least the early 20th century. These recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. However, even if it is possible to achieve substantial changes in human behaviour, and if they result in an effective slowing down or stopping of industrial activity, it is questionable whether this is a useful means of ensuring our continued survival. One reason for this lies in the knowledge of what the effect of “aerosol masking” could mean for the climate crisis.

The “climate masking” effect of aerosols has been discussed in the scientific literature since at least 1929 and consists of the following: At the same time as industrial activity produces greenhouse gases that trap part of the heat resulting from sunlight reaching the Earth, it also produces small particles that prevent this sunlight from even touching the surface of the planet. These particles, called “aerosols,” thus act as a kind of umbrella that prevents some of the sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface (hence this phenomenon has also been referred to as “global dimming”).[22] In other words, these particles (aerosols) prevent part of the sun’s rays from penetrating the atmosphere and thus inhibit further global warming. This means, then, that the current levels of global warming would in fact be much lower than those that should be associated with the volumes of greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere today (hence the designation of this phenomenon as “climate masking”). To put it in a simpler way, the global warming situation today would actually be far more serious than is indicated not only by the very high current global temperatures, but also by the already catastrophic projections of rising global temperatures over the coming decades. This is especially important if we consider the (overly optimistic) possibility of a future reduction in the amount of aerosols in the atmosphere as a result of a potential decrease in greenhouse gas emissions over the next few years, which should paradoxically lead, therefore, to a dramatic increase in global temperatures.

Aerosol emissions and global warming

Global temperatures should then not only be much higher than they are today, but the expected rise in global temperatures will necessarily be more intense than most climate models suggest. According to the father of climate science, James Hansen, it takes about five days for aerosols to fall from the atmosphere to the surface. More than two dozen peer-reviewed papers have been published on this subject and the latest of these indicates that the Earth would warm by an additional 55% if the “masking” effect of aerosols were lost, which should happen, as we said, as a result of a marked decrease or modification of industrial activity leading to a considerable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This study, published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications on June 15, 2021, suggests that this could potentially lead to an additional (sudden) increase in the earth’s surface temperature by about 133% at the continental level[23]. In conclusion, the loss or substantial decrease of aerosols in the atmosphere could therefore lead to a potential increase of more than 3 degrees Celsius of global warming above the 1750 baseline very quickly. I find it very difficult to imagine many natural species (including our own) being able to withstand this rapid pace of environmental change.

In reality, a mass extinction event has been underway since at least 1992. This was reported by Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, the so-called “father of biodiversity,” in his 1992 and 2002 books The Diversity of Life and The Future of Life, respectively. The United Nations Environment Programme also reported in August 2010 that every day we witness the extinction of 150 to 200 species. This would thus be at least the eighth mass extinction event on Earth. The scientific literature finally acknowledged the ongoing mass extinction event on March 2, 2011 in Nature. Further research along these lines was published on June 19, 2015, in Science Advances by conservation biologist Gerardo Ceballos and colleagues entitled “Accelerated Human-Induced Losses of Modern Species: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction.”[24] Coinciding with the publication of this article, lead author Ceballos stated that “life would take many millions of years to recover and that our species would probably soon disappear.” This conclusion is supported by subsequent work indicating that terrestrial life did not recover from previous mass extinction events for millions of years. It is true, however, that indigenous perspectives can help us understand ongoing events. However, I am convinced that rationalism is key to a positive response to these events.

Be Moderate… We only want THE EARTH!

A comment on the first part of the debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism”

By John Bellamy Foster

Editorial note

The following commentary was written by Marxist thinker and author of Marx’s Ecology John Bellamy Foster on the first part of the debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism” between the renowned American intellectual Noam Chomsky, the Chilean exponent of the new ideology of Collapsist Marxism Miguel Fuentes and climate scientist Guy McPherson. One of the main achievements of J. B. Foster’s critical commentary is explaining his position on this debate by developing his own ideas in relation to what for him would constitute the most urgent task of the moment: to respond to the ecological catastrophe and the danger of an imminent civilisational collapse from an ecosocialist perspective.

Marxism and Collapse

Junio 11-12, 2022

*The debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism” can be read at the website of Marxism and Collapse:

John Bellamy Foster

I agree with much of what Noam Chomsky, Miguel Fuentes, and Guy McPherson say, but do not agree completely with any of them. My view of the planetary ecological emergency starts with the world scientific consensus, insofar as that can be ascertained, and draws on the long critique of capitalism developed most centrally by historical materialism. In terms of the scientific consensus on climate change, the reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are most important. The planetary emergency is not, however, confined to climate change, and also encompasses the entire set of planetary boundaries that are now being crossed, demarcating the earth as a safe home for humanity. Most of my comments here, though, will center on climate change.

In terms of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, published over the course of 2021-2022, it is no longer possible for the world entirely to avoid crossing the 1.5° C increase in global average temperature. Rather, in the most optimistic IPCC scenario (SSP1-1.9) the 1.5° C mark will not be reached until 2040, global average temperatures will go up a further tenth of a degree by mid-century, and the increase in global average temperature will fall again to 1.4°C by the end of the century. We therefore have a very small window in which to act. Basically, meeting this scenario means peaking global carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. All of this was outlined in the first part of AR6 on the Physical Science Basis published in August 2021. This was followed by the publication of the IPCC’s Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability report in February 2022, and its Mitigation report in April 2022.

Global surface temperature changes relative to 1850-1900 (IPCC, 2021)

Each IPCC assessment report (AR1-AR6) has three parts, each of which is published separately and is introduced by a “Summary for Policymakers,” followed by a series of chapters. In the IPCC process scientists, reflecting the scientific consensus, write the whole draft report. But the “Summary for Policymakers” for each published part—the only section of the overall report that is widely read, covered by the press, and constitutes the basis for governmental policies—is rewritten line by line by governments. Hence the published “Summary for Policymakers” is not the actual scientific consensus document, but rather the governmental consensus document that displaces the former. Especially with respect to issues of mitigation, related to social policy, governments can obliterate the entirety of what the scientists determined.

Capitalist world governments were particularly worried about, part 3 of AR6 on Mitigation, as drafted by scientists as of August 2021, since it was by far the most radical IPCC treatment of the mitigation issue, reflecting the fact that revolutionary-scale transformations of production, consumption, and energy use (both in terms of physical and temporal scales) were now needed if the 1.5°C pathway was to be reached—or even in order to keep the increase in global average temperature well below 2°C. This is considered the guardrail for avoiding irreversible out-of-control climate change, which, if crossed, would likely lead to a global average temperature of 4.4°C (best estimate) by the end of the century, leading to the collapse of global industrial civilization. Chapter I of the AR6 Mitigation report went so far as to question whether capitalism was sustainable.

J.B. Foster accepts the possibility of an imminent civilization collapse (Getty Images)

Anticipating that governments were prepared drastically to alter the scientific consensus “Summary for Policymakers”, scientists associated with Scientific Rebellion (linked to Extinction Rebellion) leaked the scientific consensus report for part 3 on Mitigation in August 2021, days before the release of part 1 of the report on The Physical Science Basis. This action allowed us to see the radical social conclusions of the scientists in Working Group 3, who well understood the enormous social transformations that needed to take place to stay within the 1.5°C pathway, and the inability of existing and prospective technologies to solve the problem, independently of transformative social change. The scientific consensus Summary for Policymakers for part 3 on Mitigation also pointed to the importance of vast movements from the bottom of society—involving youth, workers, women, the precarious, the racially oppressed, and those in the Global South, who had relatively little responsibility for the problem but were likely to suffer the most. All of this was eradicated, and in many cases inverted, in the published governmental consensus “Summary for Policymakers” in part 3 of AR6 on Mitigation, which was almost a complete inversion of what the scientists had determined. For example, the scientific consensus draft said that coal-fired plants had to be eliminated this decade, while the published governmental consensus report changed this to the possibility of increasing coal-fired plants with advancements in carbon capture and sequestration. The scientific consensus Summary for Policymakers attacked the “vested interests.” The published version removed any reference to the vested interests. More importantly, the scientific consensus report argued that the 1.5°C pathway could be reached while dramatically improving the conditions of all of humanity by pursuing low-energy solutions, requiring social transformations. This, however, was removed from the published governmental consensus Summary for Policymakers.

Extinction Rebellion

This, I think, is a good reflection of where the struggle lies in relation to the science and what we have to do. We have to recognize that there is a pathway forward for humanity, but that the capitalist world system, and today’s governments that are largely subservient to corporations and the wealthy, are blocking that pathway, simply because it requires revolutionary-scale socioecological change. The world scientific consensus itself in this planetary emergency is being sacrificed to what ecologist Rachel Carson called “the gods of production and profit.” The only answer, as in the past, is a social earthquake from below coupled with volcanic eruptions in every locale forming a revolt of the world’s population, emerging as a new, all-encompassing environmental proletariat. There are incredible obstacles before us, not least of all the attempts of existing states to mobilize the right-wing elements of the lower-middle class, what C. Wright Mills called “the rear guard of the capitalist system,” generating a neo-fascist politics. Nevertheless, we are facing a historically unprecedented situation. A Global Ecological Revolt is already in the making. Hundreds of millions, even billions, of people will enter actively into the environmental struggle in our time. Whether it will be enough to save the earth as a home for humanity is impossible to tell. But the struggle is already beginning. It is possible for humanity to win, and our choice as individuals is how we join the struggle.

The necessity of a Global Ecological Revolution

It is clear from the world scientific consensus as embodied in the Mitigation report that a strategy of capitalist ecological modernization, financed by global carbontaxes and the financialization of nature, is something that is too little and too late—and relies on the juggernaut of capital that is already destroying the earth as a home for humanity—on the pretense that saving the climate can all be made compatible with the accumulation of capital.

What Robert Pollin and Noam Chomsky have advanced in terms of green taxes and a global Green New Deal that depends primarily on decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions through technological change—basically a strategy of capitalist ecological modernization with some just transition features, is not sufficient to deal with the crisis at this point—and would at best give us a little more time. Even this, though, is being resisted by the vested interests as a threat to the system. The capitalist class at the top is so intertwined with fossil capital as to be incapable of even a meaningful strategy of climate reform. It is prepared to drag its feet, while building fortresses to safeguard its own opulent conditions, stepping up its looting of the planet. This is not quite a suicidal strategy from the standpoint of the self-styled “masters of the universe”, because they have already largely separated themselves in their consciousness from humanity, the earth, and the future.

In contrast to Chomsky, the views of Fuentes and McPherson, though realistic on many points, seem, in different ways, to have given up. Yet, humanity as a whole has not yet nor will it ever give up. As Karl Marx said quite realistically, in confronting the destruction that British colonial rule unleashed on the Irish environment and population in his day, it is a question of “ruin or revolution.” We know now that even in the most optimistic scenario whole constellations of ecological catastrophes are now upon us in the next few decades. This means that human communities and populations need to organize in the present at the grassroots for survival at the local, regional, national, and global levels. Issues of survival are bearing down the most on marginalized, precarious, oppressed, and exploited populations, although ultimately threatening the entire chain of human generations. It is here we must take our stand. As the great Irish revolutionary James Connolly wrote in his song “Be Moderate,” “We only want THE EARTH.”

John Bellamy Foster

June 10 / 2022

That era is over! This is our reality!

A comment on the first part of the debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism”

By Max Wilbert

Editorial note

The following commentary was written by eco radical leader and organizer of the Deep Green Resistance (DGR) movement Max Wilbert on the first part of the debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism” between the renowned American intellectual Noam Chomsky, the Chilean exponent of the new ideology of Collapsist Marxism Miguel Fuentes and climate scientist Guy McPherson. Wilbert’s comment is notable both for the use of some of the interpretative concepts of the so-called deep ecology (a theoretical trend to which he ascribes) and the political principles of his own political organization (DGR).

Marxism and Collapse

August 15, 2022

*The debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism” can be read at the website of Marxism and Collapse:

Max Wilbert

1. ‌In a recent discussion between ecosocialist stances and collapsist approaches represented by Michael Lowy (France), Miguel Fuentes (Chile) and Antonio Turiel (Spain), Lowy constantly denied the possibility of a self-induced capitalist collapse and criticized the idea of the impossibility of stopping climate change before it reaches the catastrophic level of 1.5 centigrade degrees of global warming[25]. Do you think that the current historical course is heading to a social global downfall comparable, for example, to previous processes of civilization collapse or maybe to something even worse than those seen in ancient Rome or other ancient civilizations? Is a catastrophic climate change nowadays unavoidable? Is a near process of human extinction as a result of the overlapping of the current climate, energetic, economic, social and political crisis and the suicidal path of capitalist destruction, conceivable?  (Marxism and Collapse)

Throughout history, all civilizations undermine their own ecological foundations, face disease, war, political instability, and the breakdown of basic supply chains, and eventually collapse[26]. Modern technology and scientific knowledge does not make us immune from this pattern. On the contrary, as our global civilization has harnessed more energy, expanded, and grown a larger population than ever before in history, the fall is certain to be correspondingly worse. What goes up must come down. This is a law of nature. The only question is, when?

Modern Industrial Civilization

Professor Chomsky’s argument that collapse of civilization can be averted at a relatively minor cost by diverting 2-3% of global GDP to transition to renewable energy and fund a “Global Green New Deal” does not contend with the physical constraints civilization faces today. The global energy system, which powers the entire economy, is the largest machine in existence and was built over more than a century during a period of abundant fossil fuels and easy-to-access minerals and raw materials. It was powered by the last remnants of ancient sunlight, fossil fuels condensed into an extremely dense form of energy that is fungible and easily transportable.

That era is over. Accessible reserves of minerals, oil, and gas are gone, and we are long since into the era of extreme energy extraction (fracking, deepwater drilling, arctic drilling, tar sands, etc.). Simply replacing fossil fuels with solar and wind energy and phasing out all liquid and solid fuel (which still makes up roughly 80% of energy use) in favor of electrification of transportation, heating, etc. is not a simple task in an era of declining energy availability, increasing costs, extreme weather, political and financial instability, and resource scarcity. And these so-called “renewable” technologies still have major environmental impacts (for example, see solar impacts on desert tortoise, wind energy impacts on bat populations, and lithium mining impacts on sage-grouse), even if they do reduce carbon, which is not yet proven outside of models[27].

The collapse of industrial production (The Limits to Growth)

In practice, renewable energy technologies seem to be largely serving as a profitable investment for the wealthy, a way to funnel public money into private hands, and a distraction from the scale of the ecological problems we face (of which global warming is far from the worst) and the scale of solutions which are needed. This is, as Miguel Fuentes points out, a rather timid cosmetic restructuring of the dominant political and economic order.

In our book “Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It”, my co-authors and I call this “solving for the wrong variable”. We write: “Our way of life (industrial modernity) does not need to be saved. The planet needs to be saved from our way of life (…) we are not saving civilization; we are trying to save the world”. Scientists like Tim Garrett at the University of Utah model civilization as a “heat engine”, a simple thermodynamic model that will consume energy and materials until it can no longer do so, then collapse. Joseph Tainter, the scholar of collapse, writes that “in the evolution of a society, continued investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy yields a declining marginal return.” This is our reality.

Whether sanity prevails and we succeed in building a new politics and new societies organized around rapidly scaling down the human enterprise to sustainable levels, or we continue down the business-as-usual path we are on, the future looks either grim or far more dire. Global warming will continue to worsen for decades even if, by some miracle, we are able to dismantle the fossil fuel industry and restore the ecology of this planet. The 6th mass extinction event and ecological collapse are not a distant future. We are in the depths of these events, and they have been getting worse for centuries. The question is not “can we avoid catastrophe?” It is too late for that. The question is, “how much of the world will be destroyed?” Will elephants survive? Coral reefs? Tigers? The Amazon rainforest? Will humans? What will we leave behind?

I want to leave behind as much biodiversity and ecological integrity as possible. Human extinction seems unlikely, at least in coming decades, unless runaway global warming accelerates faster than predicted. “Unlikely” is not “impossible”, but there are 8 billion of us, and we are profoundly adaptable. I am far less worried about human extinction than about the extinction of countless other species (100 per day). I am far more worried about the collapse of insect populations or phytoplankton populations (which provide 40% of all oxygen on the planet and are the base of the oceanic food web). The fabric of life itself is fraying, and we are condemning unborn human generations to a hellish future and countless non-humans to the extinction. Extinction will come for humans, at some point. But at this point, I am not concerned for our species, but rather for the lives of my nephews and their children, and the salmon on the brink of extermination, and the last remaining old-growth forests.

2. Have the human species become a plague for the planet? If so, how can we still conciliate the survival of life on Earth with the promotion of traditional modern values associated with the defence of human and social rights (which require the use of vast amounts of planetary resources) in a context of a potential increase of world’s population that could reach over twelve billion people this century? The latter in a context in which (according to several studies) the maximum number of humans that Earth could have sustained without a catastrophic alteration of ecosystems should have never exceeded the billion. Can the modern concept of liberal (or even socialist) democracy and its supposedly related principles of individual, identity, gender, or cultural freedom survive our apparent terminal geological situation, or it will be necessary to find new models of social organization, for example, in those present in several indigenous or native societies? Can the rights of survival of living species on Earth, human rights, and the concept of modern individual freedom be harmoniously conciliated in the context of an impending global ecosocial disaster? (Marxism and Collapse)

Human population is a hockey-stick graph that corresponds almost exactly with rising energy use. Most of the nitrogen in our diet comes from fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Norman Borlaug, the plant breeder who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Green Revolution, said in his acceptance speech that “we are dealing with two opposing forces, the scientific power of food production and the biologic power of human reproduction (…) There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort”.

Ideally, this situation could be dealt with humanely by education and making family planning and women’s health services available. The best example of this actually comes from Iran, where under a religious theocracy in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war, birth rates were reduced from around 7 children per woman to less than replacement in little more than a decade (the policy was since reversed, and Iran’s land and water is paying the price). Technically, it is quite easy to solve overpopulation humanely; reduce birth rates to less than replacement levels, then wait. Politically, it is much harder. As we have seen with the recent fall of abortion rights in the US, the political battle for control of women’s reproduction is alive and well, and basic ecology is anathema to many political leaders and populations.

Unless we take action to reduce our population willingly, it will happen unwillingly as the planet’s ecology fails to be able to support us. That will be harsh. Any species that exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment it lives in will experience a population crash, usually due to starvation, disease, and predation. That’s our choice. Either we make the right decisions, or we pay the price.

Human overpopulation

The difference between our situation today and the Indus Valley civilization or the Roman Empire is that today civilization is globalized. The collapse of global industrial civilization, as I wrote above, is coming. I do not believe it can be stopped at this point; in fact, I believe it is already in progress. But collapse is also not simply an overnight chaotic breakdown of all social order. We can define collapse as a rapid simplification of a complex society characterized by breakdown of political and social institutions, a return to localized, low energy ways of life, and usually a significant reduction in population (which is a nice way of saying, a lot of people die).

Collapse should be looked at as having good and bad elements. Good elements, from my perspective, include reducing consumption and energy use, localizing our lives, and having certain destructive institutions (for example, the fossil fuel industry) fade away. Bad elements might include breakdown of basic safety and rising violence, mass starvation, disease, and, for example, the destruction of local forests for firewood if electricity is no longer available for heating. Some aspects of collapse have elements of both. For example, the collapse of industrial agriculture would be incredibly beneficial for the planet but would lead to mass human die offs.

If collapse is coming regardless of what we want, it is our moral and ecological responsibility to make the best of the situation by assisting and accelerating the positive aspects of collapse (for example, by working to reduce consumption and dismantle oil infrastructure) and help prevent or mitigate the negative aspects (for example, by working to reduce population growth and build localized sustainable food systems).

As I write this (…) I am looking into a meadow between 80-year-old oak trees. A deer and her fawn are walking through the grass. Birds are singing in the trees. A passenger jet roars overhead, and the hum of traffic floats over the hills. (…) There is a fundamental contradiction between industrial civilization and ecology, and the organic tensions created by this contradiction are rising. These are dire and revolutionary times… and it is our responsibility to navigate them!

Max Wilbert

August 1, 2022

Our Task? To Inspire the Rebellion against the Legalised Robbery of People & Earth, even if it is too late

Final commentary for the first part of the debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism”

By Yanis Varoufakis

Noam Chomsky was right: humanity could, in principle, avert climate catastrophe with a permanent investment (I would say 5% of global GDP, rather than Noam’s 2% to 3%) that is financially feasible within the current global system of financialised capital. His critics also had a point: the political will necessary for such a Global New Deal to be enacted is impossible to find within the confines of the current political economy. Interesting as this debate most certainly is, it is now moot. The New Cold War, started by Trump and turbocharged by Biden, its extension in the context of the Ukrainian War, and the new Vortex of Financial Instability caused by the transition from the Great Deflation to the Great Inflation – these developments have rendered a Global Green New Deal utterly beyond the limits of feasibility. Rosa Luxembourg’s pressing question (Socialism or Barbarism?) is now acquiring a new meaning as it becomes: Socialism or Extinction? (Yanis Varoufakis on the first part of the debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism”)

Editorial note

The following commentary was written by Marxist economist, politician and former Finance Minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis on the first part of the debate “Ecological Catastrophe, Collapse, Democracy and Socialism” between the renowned American intellectual Noam Chomsky, the Chilean exponent of the new ideology of Collapsist Marxism Miguel Fuentes and climate scientist Guy McPherson. One of the main characteristics of Varoufakis’ comment (who describes himself as a “Libertarian Marxist”) is offering a balanced review of some of the main ideas expressed earlier in this debate. The latter from the perspective of the implications of current geopolitical events such as the Russo-Ukrainian war and what Vafourakis has defined as the beginning of a new Cold War. Varoufakis commentary thus constitutes both a necessary update and an informed closure of the first part of this ongoing discussion.

Marxism and Collapse

October 21, 2022

Yanis Varoufakis

Our Task? To Inspire the Rebellion against the Legalised Robbery of People & Earth, even if it is too late[28]

Have we, humans, passed the point of no return down the path to ecological ruin? Does ruin-without-end loom black across the land, the air, the oceans? I hope not but, regardless, I don’t think it matters. What matters is what we do. And how we do it. From now on. Until our last breath.

Sure enough, three centuries of industrialisation dictated by the logic of capital pushed us into a hideous predicament: Whatever we do from now on may, I acknowledge, prove insufficient for preventing the collapse of organised human society. Even so, radical humanists ought to think it necessary to do our best to resist civilisational collapse. As an old-school Marxist once taught me, what is necessary is never unwise, never futile, never worthless – even if it is as hard to accomplish as hitting a bullet with another bullet fired from a handgun while riding a runaway horse.

I am no climate scientist, so I shall say nothing about our proximity to the point of no return. Instead, I shall focus on the political economy of what it means to do our best in view of our capacities and in the face of ecological and civilisational collapse. My focus shall be on what we can do, as activists, to help translate humanity’s remaining capacities into the necessary praxes, into the collective actions that will permit us jointly to say: “We did our damned best!”.

The Final Battle

Two are our greatest obstacles: Baseless optimism is one. And self-indulgent pessimism is the other. In fact, I would go so far as to proscribe prognosis altogether. Prediction is not our friend. We know everything we need to know in order to act: humanity is on a path to ruin without any guarantee that we can turn back. That’s enough knowledge. Unlike astronomers seeking to predict the trajectory of a faraway comet, our current task is not, and should never be, to predict the trajectory of climate change. Astronomers have the luxury of knowing that the phenomenon they study (the comet) doesn’t give a damn about their predictions of its trajectory. We don’t have this luxury. Our predictions, to the extent that enough people take them seriously, are crucial determinants of what people do. Thus, the phenomenon we are struggling to fathom and control (e.g., humanity-driven climate change) cares deeply about our predictions and, in an infinite regress, is bound violently to react to them – rendering our predictions useless and, potentially, causing us to lose any control over the phenomenon we might have had.

What should our task be, once forecasting is out? My answer is: To end the legalised robbery of people and Earth fuelling climate catastrophe and the broader ecocide. Even if it is too late, at least let’s go out with a revolutionary bang. Let the last feeling we have be that we did what we could, albeit belatedly. To accomplish this, we must inspire the multitudes to join our rebellion.  But to inspire them, we need to articulate a Program that addresses people’s hearts and minds. What should that Program consist of? This is the pressing question.

In the face of the collapse of civilization: the need for a new Revolutionary Program

Our Program should avoid excessive optimism and the insinuation that climate change is a technical problem calling for a technical fix. Smart technological solutions funded by clever public finance will not save the Earth just because they are feasible (even if they are!). Equally, it would be a terrible defeat for progressives to dismiss the capacity of science, technology and public finance to be part of a Program that succeeds in saving humanity and the planet. Giving up on humanity and its collective ingenuity may be tempting in times like the present, when war is once more turbocharging the fossil fuel industry. Alas, such defeatism is impermissible for progressives. This, our darkest hour, is precisely the time when we, progressives, radicals and revolutionaries, must give back rational hope to those who have been deprived of it.

Which brings me to the debate between, on the one hand, Noam Chomsky and, on the other, Miguel Fuentes and Guy McPherson[29]. As ever, when it comes to passionate debates between radicals whose objectives coincide but who disagree regarding strategy and constraints, it is important to take a step back so as to appreciate the room for synthesis. In the following paragraphs, I shall attempt such a dialectical synthesis for one purpose: to establish the common ground that is a prerequisite for a common Program that inspires the multitudes to coalesce internationally so as to end the legalised robbery of people and Earth.

Let me begin with Noam’s position, which I understand intimately having myself been a proponent of a Green New Deal since 2001. A large public investment in humanity’s green transition (Noam suggested 2%-3% of global GDP, I raise this to at least 5%) can make a decisive dent in our collective carbon footprint. Public financial instruments can be constructed to mobilise these funds globally. Exponential technological advancements in solar, wind, green hydrogen, organic agriculture, etc. are feasible. Technically (both in terms of engineering and public finance), an effective green transition is possible without a revolution, under the present global exploitative system. However, the operative word here is: Technically.

Politically, I cannot see how the current oligarchy-without-frontiers will allow the green transition to happen. Green Keynesianism will not work for the reasons Michal Kalecki gave decades ago to explain why the original Keynesianism would never be allowed to run its course. In short, because even if the bourgeoisie panics and adopts Keynesian (today Green Keynesian) policies to save its skin, the very moment these policies begin to bear fruit, and well before they do their job, the ruling classes will abandon them in favour of their usual extractive, austerity-driven policies. It is in the capitalist class’s nature to block the very road that leads to its own salvation.

So, why do people like Noam Chomsky and myself still put forward Green New Deals or Green Keynesian-like policy proposals? Are we so naïve as to imagine that our sensible arguments will win over the capitalist oligarchy? I assure you dear reader that we have no such illusions. No, the reason we do it is because their mere advocacy is full of revolutionary potential. Let me explain this by comparing three different strategies of how to approach the many who are impervious to the language of us radical leftists – with a view to mobilising them. Compare and contrast three things we could say to them:

Strategy 1: “Nothing will save humanity except revolutionary socioecological changes that include (A) the socialisation of property rights over the means of production and (B) painful decisions on how to de-grow our economy in favour of Nature and of our cultural and spiritual lives. Join us!”.

Strategy 2: “Humanity is doomed. We are past the point of no return. The collapse of our ‘civilisation’ is inevitable. Let’s embrace collapse and see how best to organise whatever life survives within the ruins”.

Strategy 3: “Here is a bunch of policies that can be implemented today, even under the existing system, to shift massive funds to the green transition, to provide basic public goods to everyone, especially in the Global South, to eradicate unpayable debts, to pay you a basic income wherever you live on the planet, etc.”.

The need for a Green New Deal?

Strategy 1 involves telling people out there the naked truth about the need for a revolution which they, nevertheless, are unprepared psychologically to fathom, let alone to stage. Indeed, Strategy 1 will cause anyone who is not already a card-carrying revolutionary to yawn and move on, with their heads tilted to the floor, unable to muster any enthusiasm for joining us to rebel against the systematic looting of people and planet. Similarly with Strategy 2, which will probably only benefit psychoanalysts whose clientele will burgeon, not to mention end-of-the-world prophets of doom whose congregations will grow. Only Strategy 3 stands a chance of mobilising those whom we, the radical left, have failed to mobilise. Here is why.

If the policies of our Green New Deal make sense in the mind of reasonable people who are discontented with the grim social and ecological realities surrounding them (yet who are no revolutionaries), it should be possible to convince them that these policies, technically, can be implemented immediately. Without a revolution. Within the current system (like, for example, Roosevelt’s neutering of the banking sector did not require a prior overthrowing of capitalism). Once this realisation is planted in people’s heads, it is plausible that a radical question will hit them: “If these things could be done today to benefit humanity, without some socio-ecological revolution, why on Earth are the authorities not doing them?”.

It is at that point that the ears and minds of the many will be readied for the explanation which only radicals can offer them: That, yes, though technically feasible, these policies are ignored by an establishment solely interested in profit that is maximised by methods that destroy lives, ecosystems, capitalism’s own sustainability even. That will be the point when we, radicals, will get our chance to influence the many, to radicalise them.


As I was reading Miguel Fuentes’s and Guy McPherson’s rejoinders to Noam Chomsky, I was struck and concerned by their embrace of defeat. Sure enough, I understand their radical rejection of baseless optimism and of those who treat ecological disaster as a technical problem. On the other hand, it seems to me that if civilisational collapse is the answer, we are asking the wrong question. That if the Left must fall back onto a neo-Malthusianism, which places its hope on death as the only possible cure to the plague that is humanity, we have lost our way. We, the Left, were defeated at a planetary scale in 1991, and since then we have been failing to recover, despite the occasional revolutionary moments that revived our spirits temporarily. But vengeance and defeatism are lazy forms of grief. Giving up on humanity because humanity gave up on us, on the Left, is an affront to the values the left was born to serve.

Wishful thinking, of a Keynesian or social democratic kind, is not the answer either. Without a socio-ecological revolution humanity is doomed. Green Keynesianism will never be implemented to any degree equal to the task. As for the green technologies developed under capitalism, which could make a difference (e.g., green hydrogen), they will never be developed fully by a system which has a natural propensity to continue cannibalising what remains of our commons. The delicious irony is that for a fully-fledged Green New Deal to be implemented a revolution must precede it. And there’s the rub: For a revolution to precede any Green New Deal, we need rational rage to overcome the hearts and minds of people who are not yet revolutionaries. To engender this rational rage, the many need to be exposed to our Green New Deal policy proposals, to be convinced by them before watching the establishment shoot these proposals down.

Then and only then might the rational rage that is necessary to motivate them crawl up their spine, bolstering it enough to cause them to join us in rising up, en masse, against the incessant looting of people and Earth.

Yanis Varoufakis

October 20, 2022

[1] American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist. He adheres to the ideas of libertarian socialism, anarcho-syndicalism and advocates a New Green Deal policy as one of the ways of dealing with the ecological crisis.

[2] Chilean social researcher in the fields of history, archaeology, and social sciences. International coordinator of the platform Marxism and Collapse and exponent of the new Marxist-Collapsist ideology. He proposes the need for a strategic-programmatic updating of revolutionary Marxism in the face of the new challenges of the Anthropocene and the VI mass extinction.

[3] American scientist, professor emeritus of natural resources, ecology, and evolutionary biology. He adheres to anarchism and argues that human extinction is inevitable and that it should be addressed from a perspective that emphasizes acceptance, the pursuit of love, and the value of excellence.

[4] The final version of this document has been edited by Dutch archaeologist Sven Ransijn and Sublation Magazine Editor Spencer Leonard.

[5] Link:

[6] Source link.

[7] For this and other related reports, see the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration website.

[8] An explanation of this paradox can be found in Jorge Riechmann’s YouTube presentation “Where are we? Ecosocial crisis and climate emergency.”

[9] More information about this topic can be found in Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore’s documentary The Planet of Humans.

[10] See here the materials included in the section “Strategic Emergency” of the Marxism and Collapse website:

[11] See here, for example, the interview with Peter Wadhams, Martin Rees, and Hugh Hunt entitled “Climate Change and Carbon Dioxide Removal.”

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[19] For a discussion of the unprecedented problems facing the socialist horizon today, see the articles “Socialist Revolution in the Face of the Abyss” (2015–19) and “Ecological Crisis, Civilizational Collapse, and Terminal Crisis of Classical Marxism” (2019), available in the strategy section of the Marxism and Collapse website (

[20] A very suggestive graphic example of the impact that the current rates of human reproduction are having on the planet can be seen in the audiovisual presentation entitled “World Population History (1 CE – 2050 CE).”

[21] Source Link.

[22] For an informed and didactic explanation of this phenomenon, see the documentary by that title.

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[25] This debate can be found at this link:

[26] Check here to read the material “Definition of civilization” on the website of Deep Green Resistance:

[27] See here these articles on these topics: (1), (2)

[28] The first part of the debate between Noam Chomsky, Miguel Fuentes and Guy McPherson and the critical comments of John Bellamy Foster and Max Wilbert can be found here:

[29] The first part of the debate between Noam Chomsky, Miguel Fuentes and Guy McPherson and the critical comments of John Bellamy Foster and Max Wilbert can be found here: