Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 6, 2011

The Green Impasse, False Panaceas, and Ecology Through Socialism

Filed under: Ecology,Pham Binh — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

An event for the book above that is reviewed below:


Saturday, May 7
7:00pm – 10:00pm
No Space
84 Havemeyer Street
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The Green Impasse, False Panaceas, and Ecology Through Socialism

By Pham Binh

As the fourth book in the “and Socialism ” series ( Black Liberation and Socialism ; Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation ; Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation), this book is an absolute must read for anyone who is concerned about the fate of the environment that is quickly approaching a point of no return in terms of irreversible damage done. With the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima and horror stories about the effects of fracking appearing in the news almost daily, this book could not be more relevant.

Chris Williams combines data from peer-reviewed scientific journals, sharp political commentary, layman’s English, and a class perspective to produce a book that is engaging, readable, and damn good.

The current environmental movement is at an impasse, stuck on false panaceas like cap-and-trade, cutting individual consumption (“live others so that others may simply live”), and outright reactionary “solutions” that revolve around some form of population control (as if the number of people on the planet was the problem rather than the nature of the relationship between said people and the planet).

Williams does an excellent job debunking these notions with a plethora of factual information and empirical data.

The central contention of the book is that capitalism and its social relations are the root of the problem, not surplus population, individual consumers’ choices, or “bad corporations.” Capitalism is organized around companies making as much money as quickly as possible; if they don’t, their competitors will drive them out of business. As a result, corporations have an incentive to pollute because investing in clean technologies for their business would be costly and cut into their precious profits. Furthermore, there are entire branches of industry that depend on pollution – gas, coal, and the auto industries, to name just a few. They have a vested interest in blocking any kind of meaningful development of green technology or any tinkering with the U.S. transportation infrastructure which is heavily car-centered. Williams also examines how various companies (like British Petroleum) have “greenwashed” their image in order to avoid actually changing their polluting ways.

The theme dominating the second half of the book is the question of what is to be done. The first chapter of this section, “Real Solutions Right Now: What We Need to Fight For,” lays out a variety of achievable short-term goals that a revivified green movement could and should fight for. For example, pushing the government to make major investments in green energy would produce tens of thousands of green jobs, alleviating the unemployment problem and undermining the capitalist economy’s dependence on dirty energy. This example dovetails with another of Williams’ central points: a truly effective environmental movement needs to connect with the only social force within the capitalist system that can win real change – the working class. He gives some examples of how green activists joined forces with unions to win stronger pollution controls in England and elsewhere, and he also does an excellent job showing how environmental degradation is a class issue. Working class people (especially blacks and other minorities) are far more likely to live in polluted areas, near landfills, etc. than middle or ruling class people, and he also takes up the plight of workers and the poor in the Global South, many of whom live in shanty towns that are far worse than the tenements of the early industrial revolution in the West.

The remaining chapters of the book focus on the longer-term solution: abolishing capitalism via a working-class revolution. He looks at the (limited) experience of the Russian workers’ government after 1917 for guidance and shows how the Bolsheviks pioneered conservation efforts in their attempt to organize production based around human need rather than corporate profits. In doing so, he points out that when the party/state bureaucracy led by Stalin seized power for itself, displacing the working class, it reversed the early green policies of the Soviet era and reverted back to capitalist-style exploitation and ruin of the environment to fuel its massive, rapid industrialization drive.

Williams’ book is an excellent polemic on the way forward for the environmental movement and a tremendous contribution to the project of winning an ecologically sustainable socialist society.


  1. Thank you for posting this. Here’s an article by Williams that takes up the question of nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima that gives the flavor of the book and his writing style:

    Comment by Binh — May 6, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

  2. Looks like an interesting read. I’ll have to take a loot at it. I’m a greenie conservationist at heart but fall well within the socialist spectrum when it comes to politics and economics, looks like it could be for me.

    Comment by confusedious — May 6, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

  3. I’m not sure if you’d be interested, Louis, but I recently posted a longish analysis of humanity’s relation to nature which concludes a rather harsh (damning, in fact) Marxist critique of the contemporary “Green” environmental movement at the end. It’s fairly comprehensive, covering nearly every constituency that comprises the muddled mass of contemporary Green ideology. Following the critique, I offer some suggestions toward a Marxist alternative to the problem of man’s relationship with nature. I’m not sure if you’d be interested in checking it out, but I think you’d be surprised by some of its conclusions.

    Anyway, I might have to pick this book up, given your recommendation of it. I’ve also heard that Joel Kovel has written on the prospects for an eco-socialism.

    Comment by Ross Wolfe — May 16, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

  4. […] summed up admirably. The other speaker was Chris Williams, who I knew by reputation as someone who Pham Binh admires greatly. That’s good enough for […]

    Pingback by New York Ecosocialism Conference: a resounding success | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 23, 2013 @ 10:19 pm

  5. […] summed up admirably. The other speaker was Chris Williams, who I knew by reputation as someone who Pham Binh admires greatly. That’s good enough for […]

    Pingback by NYC Ecosocialist Conference: Two Reports on a Resounding Success — April 24, 2013 @ 7:28 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: