Right now, shit is really bad. In October 2018, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report revealed that the world was on track for catastrophic global warming in the near term, which led to a rallying cry of “12 years to save the planet.” In early May 2019, a summary report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) affirmed that one million species are at risk of extinction, many within decades. Meanwhile, insect populations are collapsing, the political Right is rising, glaciers are melting, refugees are drowning, disease outbreaks are surging, global powers are violently clashing, the air is becoming unbreathable, and increasingly intense and frequent disasters continue to devastate communities, as business laments the fiscal costs.
The truth is, I’m scared. I’m really scared, and oftentimes I feel really alone. I feel overwhelmed by everything that’s happening because I know I can’t overcome it by myself. But I know I’m not alone in feeling lonely at times, because capitalism breeds alienation. Capitalism needs us to compete with each other, to maintain hierarchies in our workplaces and amid our differences in society. It does this in order to perpetuate the exploitation of people for their labor, and the Earth for its resources, so the production-machine can keep driving more and more wealth into the pockets of the ruling class.
Capitalism created a social order that depends on all of us acting in our so-called self-interest by climbing on the backs of others and pushing our way to the top. But there is no top: there’s no light at the end of the tunnel or salvation in this exploitative social order. The truth is that this social order, built through domination and exploitation of nature and each other, won’t stop growing until it’s consumed and destroyed the entire planet, and us along with it.
Climate change, like social alienation, was born of the capitalist system that orders our lives. The foundation of this social order, upon which we are told to create our dreams of individual success, is the same one that underlies polluted oceans, the increasingly deforested Amazon, poverty, and — ultimately — violence. The result of being trapped in this violent system is something we all experience, even while we each feel unique and alone in our suffering.
Humanity is facing extreme peril, but there are ways out of this delusional dead-end. There is a mode of analysis and action that offers some hope: ecosocialism. Ecosocialism is a political ideology that often serves as an umbrella term for social ecology and ecologically-oriented strains of socialism and anarchism. From an ecosocialist perspective, we can understand that social injustice, economic inequity, and ecological devastation are interconnected forms of violence rooted in capitalism. We can also understand that the struggle for economic survival is a shared struggle against the very same system implicated in the demise of humanity. The capitalist system that makes us alienated and economically desperate also causes ecological devastation and catastrophic climate change.
For too long, we on the Left have organized for civil rights, housing, and health care in separate single issue campaigns with limited successes that haven’t gotten us anywhere, or at least not fast enough. Through shared struggles against a common enemy, we can build the revolutionary mass movement necessary to transform the world into one with a future everyone can belong to, with the urgency required for anyone to have a future at all. This is why a core tenet of ecosocialist organizing is radical solidarity.
In the words of Angela Davis, “radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’”1 Solidarity is the unity that binds people together as one. Radical solidarity is recognizing that your struggle is my struggle, which is ultimately a shared struggle for survival against capitalism. Radical solidarity is a commitment to decentering our personal interests and pet issues in favor of a broader vision, fought for the collective good.
We can recognize the irony of saying that we need to look beyond our pet issues when ecological organizers are constantly talking about the glaciers melting and the sky falling. But climate change and ecological destruction are not a single issue: they encompass all issues. In a destabilized climate, it’s vulnerable peoples who will suffer most. Yet, as the chiming of the climate doomsday clock grows more imminent, the fight to preserve the human species through rapid decarbonization will overshadow the many solitary struggles for justice in various communities and contexts. However, prioritizing climate change above these various struggles would be a mistake. As long as capitalism persists, so will exploitation, to the detriment of a stable, hospitable climate, and our ability to continue as a species. A first step toward radical solidarity is integrating climate organizing, and an understanding of how climate change affects everything else, into all of our fights.
Progressive and leftist groups have begun to wake up to this reality. For instance, the Ecosocialist Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) made a small step toward enacting this vision of radical solidarity during the summer of 2018. We (the members of the group) worked to mobilize climate organizations to participate in DSA’s national Week of Action to Abolish ICE, or US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which targets, harasses, kidnaps, and deports immigrants and refugees. Our statement to mobilize the climate community to Abolish ICE in support of immigrant justice was endorsed by many, including System Change Not Climate Change, Naomi Klein, and the Sunrise Movement. Organizations like 350.org mobilized members to attend Abolish ICE rallies seemingly overnight. This helped expand the dialogue in climate activism circles to consider the millions of climate refugees that will be displaced over the coming years. However, not all climate organizations favored this broad vision. Some climate organizations didn’t sign on, primarily because they didn’t want to endorse something that didn’t prioritize zero emissions above all else. This type of narrow focus was a mistake.
The Department of Homeland Security, which houses ICE, is not only weaponized against immigrants at the border, but also against Indigenous and environmental activists and water protectors protesting the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure driving the demise of a hospitable climate. Zero emissions is not a separate fight from abolishing institutional violence, especially when those institutions are being weaponized against the very people fighting for that same goal. In fact, these institutions have been a primary weapon against activists across social justice movements for a long time.
When we choose to focus on one issue while ignoring state-sponsored violence against different groups, we’re permitting the continued growth of a racist, violent machine that will later be weaponized against all of us. Radical solidarity is not only about bridging movements: it is also about unifying those movements to fight the institutions and forces threatening our collective survival.
A core aspect of fighting institutional forces that threaten our survival is fighting for public and democratic control of resources we all depend on. Water, food, energy, housing, and transportation systems established under capitalism are controlled by a select group of individuals and exist solely for the pursuit of short-term gain, to the detriment of everyone who relies on them. These individuals with outsized influence have no “rational” reason to maximize the health and safety of the millions who rely on their business. In fact, capitalist logic points them in the total opposite direction: maximizing profit at the expense of all of us.
Radical solidarity also involves ensuring that we do not allow the exploiters to control the process of transitioning to a different future. Take developing renewable energy, for example, which many climate organizations are rightfully fighting for. The reason this transition has yet to happen —despite overwhelming public support —is because corporations have refused to change their ways with any sort of urgency. After all, why should they? Their function is to maximize profit, not to ensure that society functions better.
Simply making corporate entities public doesn’t necessarily change this equation either. Take utility companies, which are often public but are largely undemocratic. In October last year, Vox revealed that utility companies had hired a PR firm to explore messaging aimed at convincing the public to accept a slower transition to renewable energy than they’re demanding. Why? Because one hundred percent renewables “does not make practical sense.”2
It’s clear that a push for renewable energy, without consideration of how unequal decision-making power created our current circumstances, has fallen short. Ecosocialists must fight to transition to renewable energy while simultaneously demanding a transition to direct control over energy systems by the people who depend on them. We cannot have one without the other. And the logic of democratizing control must not be limited to energy production; democratic principles must be foundational in every institution, in every sector.
But radical solidarity is more than unifying our fight to take collective control of the means of production; we ultimately need to transform the production process if we want to live. Right now, we currently consume the equivalent of what it should take two Earths to provide. This level of production is made possible by the fuel emissions currently suffocating us, but foregoing fossil fuels would still require the continued devastation of ecosystems. The fact is that the material luxuries many enjoy came from somewhere, and that somewhere is someone else’s home, often in poor countries. First world consumption in places like Western Europe and the US is driven by the continued pillaging of other communities in poor countries, which in turn is driving the system that forces migrants from their homes, and all of us toward climate collapse. Moving forward, radical solidarity means opposing power that oppresses or exploits anyone, anywhere, even when disobeying that power requires personal sacrifice of us.
In the end, it’s not just dictation by the ruling class that is driving us toward apocalypse; it’s also our participation in the existing social order. All of our single-issue campaigns and quests to alter institutionalized power are ultimately a fight for survival against the status quo, because the status quo is killing us, and will kill us in the near-term, if we do not rebel.
Yes, this will require tremendous sacrifice, and tremendous risk. Disobeying the existing social order comes with terrifying possibilities, including death. But if we continue ambling toward the apocalypse by upholding the existing social order, then death is certain.
We live in scary times and it’s okay to be scared, but we also need to be brave. Ultimately, a commitment to radical solidarity requires being brave enough to step out of our temporary comfort toward seizing this moment to transform the future on behalf of the collective good, because it might be the last chance anyone ever gets. But if we are brave enough to put the interests of the collective good above our own, we won’t have to do it by ourselves.
If I leave you with one thought, let it be that you are not alone in this fight. People all over the world are struggling against hegemonic power in order to survive. If we are brave enough to step out of our isolation and self-interest, we can step into a united struggle for a future we all belong to. This could be a future without borders or bosses, pipelines or prisons. This could be a future where we aren’t living paycheck to paycheck; where everyone’s needs are met and we collectively make the decisions that take care of the earth and each other. We live in terrifying times, but our fight for the future should not just be a fight against death, but a fight for everyone to truly live. Through a commitment to radical solidarity, that future could be ours.
Sydney Ghazarian is a co-founder and organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America Ecosocialist Working Group. This piece was developed out of a talk delivered at the “Capitalism is Killing Us: Ecosocialist Solutions to a Warming World” forum held on November 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
1. Angela Davis, Women, Culture and Politics (London: Women’s Press, 1990).
2. David Roberts, “Utilities have a problem: the public wants 100% renewable energy, and quick.” Vox Media (October 11, 2018). https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/9/14/17853884/utilities-renewable-energy-100-percent-public-opinion