Contribution to GTI Roundtable Do Red and Green Mix?

Kerryn Higgs

Thanks to Michael Löwy for setting out some of the possible positive social structures that might emerge from pursuing an ecosocialist destination for the Great Transition. And thanks to everyone for such a varied and stimulating discussion.

Whatever form the Great Transition takes, it must both address the destruction of the ecological basis of Nature (and human civilization) and deal with the legacy of centuries of imperialism and the endemic poverty of billions of people.

Like Löwy, I am skeptical that capitalism, especially in its current corporate and transnational form, can carry out either of those crucial tasks. Driven by the profit motive and dependent on consumption for consumption’s sake (i.e., intractable waste), it is liquidating the natural world and simultaneously deepening inequalities. Though we may continue to use market processes for certain allocation functions, we have to get past the ideological insanity of the last forty-odd years where markets are supposed to solve all social problems. As Herman Daly argued long ago, markets cannot supply just distribution or sustainable scale. But both are indispensable.

It is fair to say, as some have said in this debate, that Marxists (and the Left in general) have been slow to recognize the ecological dimensions of the current crisis. And we still hear the argument that fixing distribution problems will automatically lead to ecological sustainability. Growth of both population and production scale are thought by some on the Left to warrant no particular attention.

But socialism is a broad concept. Communist regimes of the twentieth century are not terribly relevant, with the partial exception of post-1990 Cuba, where sustainable practices were imposed by the withdrawal of fossil fuel subsidies when the Soviet Union collapsed. Life expectancy in Cuba is now as high as in the US, and Cuba provides medical access for everyone. On both my crucial criteria, they are doing a lot better than most of the West.

In this connection, I am often reminded of formulations of human rights made back in the 1940s (UN Declaration, 1948; and FDR’s “four freedoms,” 1941) which ranked the rights to food, shelter, work, etc., alongside those to belief and free speech. The prevailing notion of human rights now refers principally to the right to speak and habeas corpus, while excluding all aspects of material survival—which is designated as the problem of the individual. Cuba has lacked the former but has addressed the material rights better than most countries.

While supporting much that Michael says, my main criticism of his essay is the lack of urgency. Michael says, “We’re already at 1 degree C. At what temperature increase—5, 6, or 7 °C—will we reach a tipping point beyond which the planet cannot support civilized life?” Sadly, if we were to have to wait until such temperatures occur, we are history.

The evidence shows that only drastic immediate changes will suffice and thus allow time for any transition. The situation is dire; we now face ecological emergency. Not just climate, but species loss, nitrogen and phosphorous contamination of waterways and groundwater, and the continuing march of forest and wetland conversion, while other forms of pollution, including plastics, are also undiminished.

When we were out on the streets of Australia in the 1970s, pressing for radical change, we still had time, I believe, to make a transition of the kind Löwy favors. Sadly, we were not fully aware that the actual revolution being undertaken at that time was that of the ideologues of “liberalism” and the billionaires who funded their tsunami of think tanks; these would lay the ground to transform the accepted version of “common sense” and lock out social and ecological priorities.

The IPCC said in October that we have only twelve years to accomplish an energy transition; these reports are vetted by governments and reflect the reluctance of the least enthusiastic (such as Australia, Saudi Arabia, US) to engage in any transition at all, so we may fairly deduce that this is a rosy scenario.

In reality, we already face the possibility of runaway warming, even if the Paris targets are met—which seems improbable at present. When potential “tipping cascades” are considered, we may already be heading for something far worse: “hothouse earth.”1 Hans Schellnhuber has argued that Holocene climates are no longer accessible to us and we are heading for conditions such as the mid-Pliocene, three million years ago (+2 °C – 3°C, 400-450ppm), or the mid-Miocene, seventeen million years ago (+5 °C, as much as 500ppm).2 While there is a slight chance that humans might adapt to the former, we have little hope of adapting to the latter.

Up to now, we have not seen a popular upsurge sufficiently strong to mandate a new direction, nor have we seen our corporate-controlled democracies adopt adequate policies to stabilize carbon emissions, species loss, land-use change, or fertilizer contamination of waterways–let alone reduce these. Such policies run counter to the trajectory of capitalist extraction. I place any hope I have in unstoppable public demand from a critical mass of people. In response to our inaction on climate, many of the children of Australia walked out of school in the end of November, despite rebukes from the Prime Minister, and they spoke with compelling passion. We need much more of this.

It is not clarity about where we are going that will achieve any transition, so much as it is finding a way through the thickets of propaganda and resistance. It may be that reformist approaches and specific campaigns that will not ultimately solve the root problems of ecological overshoot are now essential to buy the time we need to slouch towards deliverance.

1. Will Steffen et al., “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” PNAS, 115, no. 33 (August 2018): 8252-8259,

2. Hans Schellnhuber, “2018 Aurelio Peccei Lecture: Climate, Complexity, Conversion,” 50th Anniversary Summit of the club of Rome, October 17, 2018, Augustinian Patristic Institute, Rome, Italy, available here.

Kerryn Higgs
Kerryn Higgs is a University Associate at the University of Tasmania, fellow of the Club of Rome, and author of Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet.

Cite as Kerryn Higgs, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Do Red and Green Mix?," Great Transition Initiative (December 2018),

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