Who Will Power the Climate Revolution?

Two new books exemplify divergent approaches to the climate crisis. But who are the revolutionary subjects positioned to enact them?

Dylan Saba
February 6, 2023

Climate protest in Cali, Colombia, November 29th, 2019.

Nano Calvo/Alamy Stock Photo

Discussed in this essay: Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet, by Matthew T. Huber. Verso, 2022. 320 pages.

Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics, by Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass. Verso, 2022. 240 pages.

The uncomfortable truth about the struggle to avoid climate catastrophe is that no one has a realistic plan. The challenge itself, as set out by scientific consensus, is relatively straightforward: Reduce carbon emissions, build infrastructure for renewable energy, and protect and restore biodiversity. But achieving these objectives—especially in the tight window we have—requires a degree of foresight and coordination that is incompatible with the political economy of our present. Without a global body to enforce them, state benchmarks are governed only by voluntary treaties, and these commitments can’t withstand the caprices of domestic electorates or the imperative to compete in a global marketplace. Meanwhile, private firms and asset managers are likewise driven to prioritize short-term profits over long-term sustainability. These capitalist incentives are compounded by colonialist ones, which ensure that the very nations responsible for the overwhelming majority of emissions are also the most insulated from the consequences. All in all, those in power have the least to lose from inaction—not a recipe for success.

In the face of this rather dismal state of affairs, every approach to green politics on offer requires a degree of magical thinking—even the supposedly pragmatic liberal strategy, which pins all hope for humanity on persuading elites to adopt a series of woefully insufficient technocratic adjustments. The ideas coming from the left, on the other hand, reason from the premise that the current distribution of power is a structural impediment to building a sustainable future, and so the necessary first step of any viable climate program is to entirely remake the world. Since fatalism offers only a dead end, we have no choice but to weigh these varyingly impractical paths—and given the time-tested inadequacy of the liberal approach, the real question is which leftist vision, however implausible, offers the most promising way forward.

Broadly, leftist climate programs represent two divergent tendencies. One advances a productivist approach, aiming to institute a socialist economy that would prioritize sustainability while raising standards of living. The other takes a conservationist approach, arguing for democratically scaling back collective consumption—and thus production—to accord with planetary constraints. The tension between these tendencies represents a real divide in the climate movement, which manifests not only in the pages of leftist magazines, but in on-the-ground struggles over key issues such as whether to increase reliance on nuclear power (an essential bridge fuel or a disaster waiting to happen, depending on your perspective), and whether socialists should push for climate legislation such as the Green New Deal (which proposes a pathway to net-zero emissions, but on the back of expansionary economic investment). Two new books exemplify this split. In Climate Change as Class War, geographer Matthew T. Huber calls for workers to seize the means of production while deriding conservationism as the pointless posturing of the professional class. In Half-Earth Socialism, environmental historian Troy Vettese and environmental engineer Drew Pendergrass paint an unabashedly speculative portrait of the world conservationism could build, while opposing contemporary Marxism’s “Promethean” impulse to dominate nature in the name of productivity.

But even as these books help to illuminate the central programmatic tension on the US climate left, they also unwittingly expose an area where the theories of both camps miss the mark. Just as important as the question of what climate program to fight for, after all, is the matter of how to fight for it—and the question of “how” is ultimately a matter of “who” and “where”: Who are the revolutionary subjects positioned—ideologically, materially—to organize a left climate program into a left climate movement, and where in the world are they to be found? Climate Change as Class War identifies trade unionists within the electric power sector as its theory’s principal agents of change; Half-Earth Socialism takes up the question less directly, but suggests a need for a movement of movements that would unite a range of social struggles under the common banner of environmentalist restraint. Both answers are unsatisfying, even as each text offers a helpful analysis of the ecological threats inherent in contemporary modes of production. Whether by defining the revolutionary subject too narrowly or by largely ignoring the issue, the books fall short, overlooking key reservoirs of revolutionary energy in places outside the US and the Global North—both potential ones, and ones already in the making.

Who are the revolutionary subjects positioned to organize a left climate program into a left climate movement, and where in the world are they to be found?

Huber maps a traditional Marxist analysis onto the contemporary energy sector, arguing that the antagonism between labor and “fossil capital”—a term coined by Swedish professor of human ecology Andreas Malm to describe the sectors that most directly drive climate change—must be the primary site of the struggle for a green future. His productivism is rooted in his orthodox adherence to Marx, who advocated pushing the consolidation of productive forces that occurs under capitalism further, toward an even more centralized, state-run economy. In his view, socialism should build upon the efficiency gains of capitalist production instead of undoing them. Huber thus opposes calls to decrease economic output in order to save the planet, contending instead that seizing popular control of the economy would stave off climate disaster.

Huber’s vision of climate revolution begins with key energy sector trade unions wresting control of our electrical grid from the capitalist class and restructuring it to rely on renewables instead of fossil fuels. Because “production is the core metabolic force causing the climate crisis,” he writes, we can “tackle the core of the crisis by simply regulating or expropriating the owners of this mere handful of industries (electricity, steel, and cement).” He imagines that this effort, supported by union-led political education and targeted strikes, will eventually cascade into working-class electoral victories. In other words, the path to political power runs through the literal infrastructure of power on which we all rely for energy.

Once in charge, Huber argues, socialists can institute a slate of coordinated, national investments and reforms to address the crises we face, including the climate. Much of the program Huber wants to see instituted has already been put on the table in the form of the Green New Deal, an amorphous collection of policy proposals for state expansion centered on a job guarantee. Huber argues that by seizing the means of production, socialists can realize the Green New Deal’s goal of decommodifying essential services—such as childcare, health care, and housing—and enacting a “politics of more” that would materially benefit the working class.

Huber sees nationalization itself as the central plank of his climate plan. “The most ecologically beneficial part of this program,” he writes, “is that it aims to transfer key industries from private to public ownership so that environmental goals can predominate over profits.” Freed from capitalist imperatives, he insists, the productive apparatus could serve ecological as well as social flourishing. For Huber, it’s the promise of the latter that makes his program likely to work as a galvanizing political force: Despite rapidly deteriorating ecological conditions, he argues that capitalism is far more likely to touch the lives of working-class people through “the abstract domination of the market” that prevents them from satisfying basic material needs than through “the concrete experience of environmental problems themselves.” Instead of attempting to organize people around a reduction in consumption to address a crisis they may not yet feel, he insists, socialists ought to mobilize people against market insecurity through a positive program of material redistribution.

The appeal of Huber’s project, and of the push for a Green New Deal more broadly, is that it attempts to offer a material strategy rooted in the here and now: a contemporary United States of high inequality, precarious employment, and chronic public underinvestment. Huber makes a compelling case that a climate movement that set out to alleviate these economic burdens might have enough mass appeal to take state power. But even while the rhetorical allure of a “politics of more” is self-evident, its utility as a guiding ethos for environmental activism is not. What happens to the promise of cheaper energy for the working class when taking power requires strikes, which will disrupt supply chains and drive up costs? And what happens when a working class galvanized by the promise of increased consumption takes popular control of a power grid running on fossil fuels? While it’s true that in public hands, production could be geared toward collective environmental goals instead of profits, a movement that did not preemptively shape those goals to accord with ecological limits would be deferring, rather than transcending, the problem of trade-offs between social and environmental imperatives. Further, by narrowly focusing on the US as an arena of transformation, Huber’s green growth initiative would likely offshore emissions and climate-related burdens to poorer nations without ushering in the cooperation necessary to course-correct at a global scale.

Huber has a clear vision of his preferred political agent, the industrial worker, but no coherent explanation for how or why this agent ought to go it alone.

And even as Huber’s vision opens the door for a collective politics of working-class resistance, his insistence on trade unionists as the primary agents of transformation limits his view. His attachment to this particular revolutionary subject—a version of the one at the center of Marx’s own analysis—makes little sense in the context of the contemporary US, where the working class is dispersed across service jobs, health care, and other emergent industries. Meanwhile, Huber’s focus on organizing energy sector workers to the exclusion of the awareness-raising genre of environmentalist activism, which he dismisses as an unmaterialist politics of guilt, ignores the reality that on occasions when unions have actually taken a radically environmentalist stance—as in the case of the United Electrical Workers’ endorsement of the Green New Deal and climate strikes—they’ve been pushed to do so by exactly this kind of green activism. In short, Huber has a clear vision of his preferred political agent, the industrial worker, but no coherent explanation for how or why this agent ought to go it alone.

Most glaringly, Huber’s investment in the figure of the (implicitly white and male) energy grid worker leads him to either categorically reject or entirely overlook all other sources of revolutionary energy. By arguing that we ought to organize around the brutality of the market rather than the harm of ecological degradation, Huber misses not only the interrelation of the two phenomena, but also the ways that racism and patriarchy mediate working-class encounters with both. Why should an undocumented agricultural worker laboring through increasingly hostile drought conditions, or a precariously employed, Black home health aide caring for aging patients made ill by a lifetime of environmental racism, be less capable of organizing for collective class interests than electrical workers? Building revolutionary class power requires bridging the real divides within the working class—which means identifying shared interests in changing a status quo whose harms may be experienced differently. Contra Huber, it’s not clear why this shouldn’t entail organizing workers who have had radicalizing experiences of climate change as well as of capitalism, when such people are all around us. His comparatively narrow conception of working-class subjectivity makes his program read more like a class-reductionist fantasy than a materialist road map to power.

While Huber’s insistence
on an ecological “politics of more” is quixotic in ways he doesn’t acknowledge, Vettese and Pendergrass’s Half-Earth Socialism positions itself explicitly in the utopian tradition of writers like Edward Bellamy and Ursula K. Le Guin. The benefit of this approach is that unshackling ourselves from the constraints of the present can open up revelatory possible futures from which to reason backward, and then forward again. For Vettese and Pendergrass, this speculative method entails subordinating the question of how to amass political power to the question of what to do with it. This choice has its benefits, allowing them to focus on the enormity of the problem we face, and to do so with a measure of sobriety uncommon in more polemical climate writing.

They conclude that the single most important obstacle to reversing the deterioration of the Earth’s biosphere is the scarcity of land: Advances in renewables and carbon sequestration, as well as the protection of biodiversity, all require more of it than we have left. The authors’ solution is to liberate land currently used for large-scale meat and dairy production—which accounts for 80% of agricultural land use worldwide but only 20% of the world’s caloric intake—and adjust our lives accordingly. They thus propose a program of radical restraint, which includes the global adoption of veganism, the rewilding and conservation of huge swaths of the Earth’s land area, a rapid and near-total conversion to renewable energy, and a commitment to reducing per capita energy consumption in the Global North while setting an upper limit for the Global South. Their vision is resonant with an emergent “degrowth” tendency, which argues that a managed contraction of the economy is the only way to avoid climate catastrophe. It also follows directly in a lineage of conservationist thinkers and movements tracing back to the early 1990s, drawing in particular on the work of the vocal “half-earth” proponent E.O. Wilson, whose 2016 book Half-Earth argued for large-scale rewilding.

In keeping with the utopian tradition in which Vettese and Pendergrass situate their work, Half-Earth Socialism concludes with a fictionalized dispatch from a future in which the half-earth program has been implemented. Welcome to the year 2047, where production is organized not by the kind of centralized state apparatus Huber advocates, but by a decentralized network of local hubs, coordinated by a cybernetic global planning bureau. Worker-citizens live and labor collectively in agricultural communities built to support a carbon-neutral lifestyle. The once stark divide between city and country has faded away: “There are salmon and great blue herons in the Charles River now, and the parking lots and golf courses are now gardens or rewilded ecosystems.” Resource-intensive activities such as long-distance travel require approval through a permit process, and other indulgences operate on a “credit” system. The work is difficult but rewarding, and the half-earth socialists are largely content with their lives.

Even as the book paints a compelling portrait of a world structured around sustainable human flourishing, it seems strangely uninterested in the people who might populate its utopia—and bring it into being.

Yet even as the book paints a compelling portrait of a world structured around sustainable human flourishing, it seems strangely uninterested in the people who might populate its utopia—and bring it into being. The half-earth program, on its own terms, requires not just a physical transformation of our energy systems and regimes of provision, but an ideological transformation of our conception of what it means to live well. In the future the authors imagine, every person on Earth has agreed to make do with less—less space, less resource-intensive food, less mobility—even though, in the present, the very suggestion of changing consumption patterns tends to produce resistance from all corners. While the authors devote considerable space to rethinking our systems of production, they are mostly silent on how, and by whose agency, our idea of the good life might be reinvented. In fact, in the speculative section at the end of the book, they describe the masses turning to half-earth socialism only after geo-engineering plans have dramatically failed—a tacit admission that even in the unbounded realm of fiction, they cannot imagine how such a population might be positively produced from our political and social present.

This may be for good reason. Social movements don’t often arise from excess: It is lack—of land, food, housing, sovereignty—that inspires struggle. It is thus less than obvious which existing formations could be drawn together under the banner of environmental restraint. And indeed, the book only makes passing mention of its imagined popular coalition, suggesting that it should comprise “animal-rights activists and organic farmers . . . as well as socialists, feminists, and scientists.” All in all, this sounds more like a proselytizing minoritarian force than a struggle built up from the material demands of the masses. Would a vanguard of conservationists really be able to unite a multiracial working class?

The authors seem to struggle with the question of the revolutionary subject in part because they believe that the key to saving the planet is, by and large, to get out of the way. “Earth,” they write, “is a natural machine, both ancient and alien, whose operating systems we will never fathom, and therefore it is wisest to let the ghost in the shell control the circuitry even if we do not always understand it ourselves.” The problem, though, is that this laissez-faire approach assumes a set of political conditions that could only be created by a wave of anti-colonial movements, even as it fails to identify them as such. In the dispatch from 2047, we find not only that capitalism has been replaced by a regime of equitable provision, but also that national borders have been dissolved: The global planning center is headquartered in Havana, while the world parliament is in La Paz; both make decisions on resource provision that hold sway from Boston to Berlin to Tokyo. This implies that the United States—with its military tendrils spread across the planet and backed up by the global reserve currency—has been defeated, along with NATO, the IMF, and other transnational institutions of financial empire and colonial control. Indeed, to build the world Vettese and Pendergrass envision, we would need a movement that was not only environmentalist and anti-capitalist, but fiercely anti-imperialist. This would likely require assembling a coalition from those most oppressed by the present world order, who also stand to suffer the worst effects of climate disaster.

Despite the authors’ stark divergence
on the question of whether socialists ought to carry large-scale industry into the future or replace it with decentralized, local systems of provision, they also have a good deal of theoretical and programmatic overlap. Both texts argue that human and ecological flourishing are inextricably linked—and that achieving them requires defeating the capitalist class and its regime of accumulation through mass politics. In theory, these opposing visions are even compatible on a single timeline, where Huber’s approach takes precedence in the short term—during the necessary green energy build-out—and the Vettese and Pendergrass approach wins out in the long term. In other words, we can be class-struggle eco-Marxists for a better tomorrow, and revolutionary re-wilders for a better next century.

But what remains is the question of which agents of transformation will lead the fight for a green future. To answer it, we must recognize that latent revolutionaries of the present are up against not only the domination of capital (as class-first Marxists like Huber would have it), or the experience of environmental collapse (as conservationists like the Half-Earth authors might emphasize), but both of these at once, on top of the world-making forces of colonialism and racism. What would a climate movement that spoke directly to these injustices look like? Some scholar-activists—notably Esther Stanford-Xosei, Olúfémi O. Táíwò, and Max Ajl—have taken up the need to redress colonial injustice and the ecological crisis concurrently. Their work starts from a recognition that changing course on climate change will require bridging the political divides between the Global North and South—a task that must begin with challenging the capitalist–imperialist world order. Any eco-socialist movement ought to take these interventions seriously.

So far, much of the US environmental left is ignoring the demands of the colonized—and in the process overlooking the people and movements most prepared to wage class struggle for the climate.

So far, though, much of the US environmental left is ignoring the demands of the colonized—and in the process overlooking the people and movements most prepared to wage class struggle for the climate. Instead, they should be paying close attention to the Indigenous-led movements in Latin America that are starting to cohere a transnational platform of green anti-colonialism. (Notably, these movements are not uniformly productivist or conservationist, but programmatically diverse, suggesting that debates over the scale and direction of economic transformation will remain relevant as we chart a collective course on climate.) In 2010, for example, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth convened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to produce a People’s Agreement, in which over 35,000 representatives of civil society organizations, Indigenous peoples, and states demanded a new system that would be premised on the “elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism,” and would begin, among other things, with the payment of climate debts to developing countries by wealthy ones. By pairing demands for decolonization and reparations with an analysis of the unequal effects of climate change, this massive coalition staked out an explicitly anti-imperial environmentalism.

Green activists and Indigenous groups have joined forces across Latin America this past summer and fall. They propelled Gustavo Petro to the presidency in Colombia, where he and his vice president have committed to advancing ecological and anti-colonial interests in tandem, connecting the war on drugs—a colonial vestige—to environmental destruction and the persecution of Black and Indigenous peoples. In Ecuador, protests from confederated Indigenous groups raged as activists demanded economic relief from their government, a moratorium on expansions in oil and mining, and environmental reparations for the adverse effects of these industries. While it was ultimately rejected in a national vote in September 2022, the proposed Chilean constitution backed by the leftist administration of Gabriel Boric demanded things like autonomous Indigenous territories, new environmental protections, and gender parity, offering a vision of environmentalism that was shaped by both socialist and anti-colonial demands. And in Brazil, leftist Luiz Inácio​​ Lula da Silva managed to defeat right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro, in part by making rainforest protection a key plank of his platform and promising to recognize Indigenous land claims.

From indigenous women facing down logging trucks in the Amazon to protesters filling the streets to demand climate reparations as part of a new political order, the power of these movements is in their ability to jointly confront capitalism and colonialism in their collective struggle for a green future. Unless and until the US environmental movement can do the same, the visions that the left has to offer will remain trapped in the realm of imagination.

Dylan Saba is a civil rights attorney and writer based in New York City, and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.