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Eco-socialism (also known as green socialism, socialist ecology, ecological materialism, or revolutionary ecology) is an ideology merging aspects of socialism with that of green politics, ecology and alter-globalization or anti-globalization. Eco-socialists generally believe that the expansion of the capitalist system is the cause of social exclusion, poverty, war and environmental degradation through globalization and imperialism, under the supervision of repressive states and transnational structures.
Eco-socialism asserts that the capitalist economic system is fundamentally incompatible with the ecological and social requirements of sustainability. Thus, according to this analysis, giving economic priority to the fulfillment of human needs while staying within ecological limits, as sustainable development demands, is in conflict with the structural workings of capitalism. By this logic, market-based solutions to ecological crises (such as environmental economics and green economy) are rejected as technical tweaks that do not confront capitalism's structural failures. Eco-socialists advocate for the succession of capitalism by eco-socialism—an egalitarian economic/political/social structure designed to harmonize human society with non-human ecology and to fulfill human needs—as the only sufficient solution to the present-day ecological crisis, and hence the only path towards sustainability.
Eco-socialists advocate dismantling capitalism, focusing on common ownership of the means of production by freely associated producers, and restoring the commons.
Eco-socialists are critical of many past and existing forms of both green politics and socialism. They are often described as "Red Greens" – adherents to Green politics with clear anti-capitalist views, often inspired by Marxism (red greens are in contrast to eco-capitalists and green anarchists).
The term "watermelon" is commonly applied, often pejoratively, to Greens who seem to put "social justice" goals above ecological ones, implying they are "green on the outside but red on the inside". The term is common in Australia and New Zealand, and usually attributed to either Petr Beckmann or, more frequently, Warren T. Brookes, both critics of environmentalism.
The Watermelon, a New Zealand website, uses the term proudly, stating that it is "green on the outside and liberal on the inside", while also citing "socialist political leanings", reflecting the use of the term "liberal" to describe the political left in many English-speaking countries. Red Greens are often considered "fundies" or "fundamentalist greens", a term usually associated with deep ecology even though the German Green Party "fundi" faction included eco-socialists, and eco-socialists in other Green Parties, like Derek Wall, have been described in the press as fundies.
Eco-socialists also criticise bureaucratic and elite theories of self-described socialism such as Maoism, Stalinism and what other critics have termed bureaucratic collectivism or state capitalism. Instead, eco-socialists focus on imbuing socialism with ecology while keeping the emancipatory goals of "first-epoch" socialism. Eco-socialists aim for communal ownership of the means of production by "freely associated producers" with all forms of domination eclipsed, especially gender inequality and racism.
This often includes the restoration of commons land in opposition to private property, in which local control of resources valorizes the Marxist concept of use value above exchange value. Practically, eco-socialists have generated various strategies to mobilise action on an internationalist basis, developing networks of grassroots individuals and groups that can radically transform society through nonviolent "prefigurative projects" for a post-capitalist, post-statist world.
Contrary to the depiction of Karl Marx by some environmentalists, social ecologists and fellow socialists as a productivist who favoured the domination of nature, eco-socialists have revisited Marx's writings and believe that he "was a main originator of the ecological world-view". Eco-socialist authors, like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, point to Marx's discussion of a "metabolic rift" between man and nature, his statement that "private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite absurd as private ownership of one man by another" and his observation that a society must "hand it [the planet] down to succeeding generations in an improved condition". Nonetheless, other eco-socialists feel that Marx overlooked a "recognition of nature in and for itself", ignoring its "receptivity" and treating nature as "subjected to labor from the start" in an "essentially active relationship".
William Morris, the English novelist, poet and designer, is largely credited with developing key principles of what was later called eco-socialism. During the 1880s and 1890s, Morris promoted his eco-socialist ideas within the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League.
Following the Russian Revolution, some environmentalists and environmental scientists attempted to integrate ecological consciousness into Bolshevism, although many such people were later purged from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The "pre-revolutionary environmental movement", encouraged by the revolutionary scientist Aleksandr Bogdanov and the Proletkul't organisation, made efforts to "integrate production with natural laws and limits" in the first decade of Soviet rule, before Joseph Stalin attacked ecologists and the science of ecology and the Soviet Union fell into the pseudo-science of the state biologist Trofim Lysenko, who "set about to rearrange the Russian map" in ignorance of environmental limits.
Main article: Communalism (Bookchin)
Social ecology is closely related to the work and ideas of Murray Bookchin and influenced by anarchist Peter Kropotkin. Social ecologists assert that the present ecological crisis has its roots in human social problems, and that the domination of human-over-nature stems from the domination of human-over-human. In 1958, Murray Bookchin defined himself as an anarchist, seeing parallels between anarchism and ecology. His first book, Our Synthetic Environment, was published under the pseudonym Lewis Herber in 1962, a few months before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The book described a broad range of environmental ills but received little attention because of its political radicalism. His groundbreaking essay "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought" introduced ecology as a concept in radical politics. In 1968, he founded another group that published the influential Anarchos magazine, which published that and other innovative essays on post-scarcity and on ecological technologies such as solar and wind energy, and on decentralization and miniaturization. Lecturing throughout the United States, he helped popularize the concept of ecology to the counterculture.
Post-Scarcity Anarchism is a collection of essays written by Murray Bookchin and first published in 1971 by Ramparts Press. It outlines the possible form anarchism might take under conditions of post-scarcity. It is one of Bookchin's major works, and its radical thesis provoked controversy for being utopian and messianic in its faith in the liberatory potential of technology. Bookchin argues that post-industrial societies are also post-scarcity societies, and can thus imagine "the fulfillment of the social and cultural potentialities latent in a technology of abundance". The self-administration of society is now made possible by technological advancement and, when technology is used in an ecologically sensitive manner, the revolutionary potential of society will be much changed. In 1982, his book The Ecology of Freedom had a profound impact on the emerging ecology movement, both in the United States and abroad. He was a principal figure in the Burlington Greens in 1986–1990, an ecology group that ran candidates for city council on a program to create neighborhood democracy.
Bookchin later developed a political philosophy to complement social ecology which he called "Communalism" (spelled with a capital "C" to differentiate it from other forms of communalism). While originally conceived as a form of Social anarchism, he later developed Communalism into a separate ideology which incorporates what he saw as the most beneficial elements of Anarchism, Marxism, syndicalism, and radical ecology.
Politically, Communalists advocate a network of directly democratic citizens' assemblies in individual communities/cities organized in a confederal fashion. This method used to achieve this is called Libertarian Municipalism which involves the establishment of face-to-face democratic institutions which are to grow and expand confederally with the goal of eventually replacing the nation-state.
In the 1970s, Barry Commoner, suggesting a left-wing response to The Limits to Growth model that predicted catastrophic resource depletion and spurred environmentalism, postulated that capitalist technologies were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation, as opposed to population pressures. East German dissident writer and activist Rudolf Bahro published two books addressing the relationship between socialism and ecology – The Alternative in Eastern Europe and Socialism and Survival – which promoted a 'new party' and led to his arrest, for which he gained international notoriety.
At around the same time, Alan Roberts, an Australian Marxist, posited that people's unfulfilled needs fuelled consumerism. Fellow Australian Ted Trainer further called upon socialists to develop a system that met human needs, in contrast to the capitalist system of created wants. A key development in the 1980s was the creation of the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism (CNS) with James O'Connor as founding editor and the first issue in 1988. The debates ensued led to a host of theoretical works by O'Connor, Carolyn Merchant, Paul Burkett and others.
The Australian Democratic Socialist Party launched the Green Left Weekly newspaper in 1991, following a period of working within Green Alliance and Green Party groups in formation. This ceased when the Australian Greens adopted a policy of proscription of other political groups in August 1991. The DSP also published a comprehensive policy resolution, "Socialism and Human Survival" in book form in 1990, with an expanded second edition in 1999 entitled "Environment, Capitalism & Socialism".
The 1990s saw the socialist feminists Mary Mellor and Ariel Salleh address environmental issues within an eco-socialist paradigm. With the rising profile of the anti-globalization movement in the Global South, an environmentalism of the poor, combining ecological awareness and social justice, has also become prominent. David Pepper also released his important work, Ecosocialism: From Deep Ecology to Social Justice, in 1994, which critiques the current approach of many within Green politics, particularly deep ecologists.
In 2001, Joel Kovel, a social scientist, psychiatrist and former candidate for the Green Party of the United States (GPUS) presidential nomination in 2000, and Michael Löwy, an anthropologist and member of the Reunified Fourth International, released "An Ecosocialist Manifesto", which has been adopted by some organisations and suggests possible routes for the growth of eco-socialist consciousness. Kovel's 2002 work, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?, is considered by many to be the most up-to-date exposition of eco-socialist thought.
In October 2007, the International Ecosocialist Network was founded in Paris.
Currently, many Green Parties around the world, such as the Dutch Green Left Party (GroenLinks) , contain strong eco-socialist elements. Radical Red-green alliances have been formed in many countries by eco-socialists, radical Greens and other radical left groups. In Denmark, the Red-Green Alliance was formed as a coalition of numerous radical parties. Within the European Parliament, a number of far-left parties from Northern Europe have organized themselves into the Nordic Green Left Alliance. Red Greens feature heavily in the Green Party of Saskatchewan (in Canada but not necessarily affiliated to the Green Party of Canada). In 2016, GPUS officially adopted eco-socialist ideology within the party.
The Green Party of England and Wales has an eco-socialist group, Green Left, founded in June 2005. Members of the Green Party holding a number of influential positions, including former Principal Speakers Siân Berry and Derek Wall, as well as prominent Green Party candidate and human rights activist Peter Tatchell have been associated with the grouping. Many Marxist organisations also contain eco-socialists, as evidenced by Löwy's involvement in the reunified Fourth International and Socialist Resistance, a British Marxist newspaper that reports on eco-socialist issues and has published two collections of essays on eco-socialist thought: Ecosocialism or Barbarism?, edited by Jane Kelly and Sheila Malone, and The Global Fight for Climate Justice, edited by Ian Angus with a foreword by Derek Wall.
Eco-socialism has had a minor influence over developments in the environmental policies of what can be called "existing socialist" regimes, notably the People's Republic of China. Pan Yue, deputy director of the PRC's State Environmental Protection Administration, has acknowledged the influence of eco-socialist theory on his championing of environmentalism within China, which has gained him international acclaim (including being nominated for the Person of the Year Award 2006 by The New Statesman, a British current affairs magazine). Yue stated in an interview that, while he often finds eco-socialist theory "too idealistic" and lacking "ways of solving actual problems", he believes that it provides "political reference for China’s scientific view of development", "gives socialist ideology room to expand" and offers "a theoretical basis for the establishment of fair international rules" on the environment.
He echoes much of eco-socialist thought, attacking international "environmental inequality", refusing to focus on technological fixes and arguing for the construction of "a harmonious, resource-saving and environmentally-friendly society". He also shows a knowledge of eco-socialist history, from the convergence of radical green politics and socialism and their political "red-green alliances" in the post-Soviet era. This focus on eco-socialism has informed in the essay On Socialist Ecological Civilisation, published in September 2006, which according to Chinadialogue "sparked debate" in China.
The current Constitution of Bolivia, promulgated in 2009, is the first both ecologic and pro-socialist Constitution in the world, making the Bolivian state officially ecosocialist.
In 2007, it was announced that attempts to form an Ecosocialist International Network (EIN) would be made and an inaugural meeting of the International occurred on 7 October 2007 in Paris. The meeting attracted "more than 60 activists from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States" and elected a steering committee featuring representatives from Britain, the United States, Canada, France, Greece, Argentina, Brazil and Australia, including Joel Kovel, Michael Löwy, Derek Wall, Ian Angus (editor of Climate and Capitalism in Canada) and Ariel Salleh. The Committee states that it wants "to incorporate members from China, India, Africa, Oceania and Eastern Europe". EIN held its second international conference in January 2009, in association with the next World Social Forum in Brazil. The conference released The Belem Ecosocialist Declaration.
International networking by eco-socialists has already been seen in the Praxis Research and Education Center, a group on international researchers and activists. Based in Moscow and established in 1997, Praxis, as well as publishing books "by libertarian socialists, Marxist humanists, anarchists, [and] syndicalists", running the Victor Serge Library and opposing war in Chechnya, states that it believes "that capitalism has brought life on the planet near to the brink of catastrophe, and that a form of ecosocialism needs to emerge to replace capitalism before it is too late".
Merging aspects of Marxism, socialism, environmentalism and ecology, eco-socialists generally believe that the capitalist system is the cause of social exclusion, inequality and environmental degradation through globalization and imperialism under the supervision of repressive states and transnational structures.
In the "Ecosocialist Manifesto" (2001), Joel Kovel and Michael Löwy suggest that capitalist expansion causes "crises of ecology" through the "rampant industrialization" and "societal breakdown" that springs "from the form of imperialism known as globalization". They believe that capitalism's expansion "exposes ecosystems" to pollutants, habitat destruction and resource depletion, "reducing the sensuous vitality of nature to the cold exchangeability required for the accumulation of capital", while submerging "the majority of the world's people to a mere reservoir of labor power" as it penetrates communities through "consumerism and depoliticization".
Other eco-socialists like Derek Wall highlight how in the Global South free-market capitalist structures economies to produce export-geared crops that take water from traditional subsistence farms, increasing hunger and the likelihood of famine; furthermore, forests are increasingly cleared and enclosed to produce cash crops that separate people from their local means of production and aggravate poverty. Wall shows that many of the world's poor have access to the means of production through "non-monetised communal means of production", such as subsistence farming, but, despite providing for need and a level of prosperity, these are not included in conventional economics measures, like GNP.
Wall therefore views neo-liberal globalization as "part of the long struggle of the state and commercial interests to steal from those who subsist" by removing "access to the resources that sustain ordinary people across the globe". Furthermore, Kovel sees neoliberalism as "a return to the pure logic of capital" that "has effectively swept away measures which had inhibited capital’s aggressivity, replacing them with naked exploitation of humanity and nature." For Kovel, this "tearing down of boundaries and limits to accumulation is known as globalization", which was "a deliberate response to a serious accumulation crisis (in the 1970s) that had convinced the leaders of the global economy to install what we know as neoliberalism."
Furthermore, Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez Alier blame globalization for creating increased levels of waste and pollution, and then dumping the waste on the most vulnerable in society, particularly those in the Global South. Others have also noted that capitalism disproportionately affects the poorest in the Global North as well, leading to examples of resistance such as the environmental justice movement in the United States, consisting of working-class people and ethnic minorities who highlight the tendency for waste dumps, major road projects and incinerators to be constructed around socially excluded areas. However, as Wall highlights, such campaigns are often ignored or persecuted precisely because they originate among the most marginalized in society: the African-American radical green religious group MOVE, campaigning for ecological revolution and animal rights from Philadelphia, had many members imprisoned or even killed by US authorities from the 1970s onwards.
Eco-socialism disagrees with the elite theories of capitalism, which tend to label a specific class or social group as conspirators who construct a system that satisfies their greed and personal desires. Instead, eco-socialists suggest that the very system itself is self-perpetuating, fuelled by "extra-human" or "impersonal" forces. Kovel uses the Bhopal industrial disaster as an example. Many anti-corporate observers would blame the avarice of those at the top of many multi-national corporations, such as the Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal, for seemingly isolated industrial accidents. Conversely, Kovel suggests that Union Carbide were experiencing a decrease in sales that led to falling profits, which, due to stock market conditions, translated into a drop in share values. The depreciation of share value made many shareholders sell their stock, weakening the company and leading to cost-cutting measures that eroded the safety procedures and mechanisms at the Bhopal site. Though this did not, in Kovel's mind, make the Bhopal disaster inevitable, he believes that it illustrates the effect market forces can have on increasing the likelihood of ecological and social problems.
Eco-socialism focuses closely on Marx's theories about the contradiction between use values and exchange values. Kovel posits that, within a market, goods are not produced to meet needs but are produced to be exchanged for money that we then use to acquire other goods; as we have to keep selling in order to keep buying, we must persuade others to buy our goods just to ensure our survival, which leads to the production of goods with no previous use that can be sold to sustain our ability to buy other goods.
Such goods, in an eco-socialist analysis, produce exchange values but have no use value. Eco-socialists like Kovel stress that this contradiction has reached a destructive extent, where certain essential activities such as caring for relatives full-time and basic subsistence are unrewarded, while unnecessary commodities earn individuals huge fortunes and fuel consumerism and resource depletion.
James O'Connor argues for a "second contradiction" of underproduction, to complement Marx's "first" contradiction of capital and labor. While the second contradiction is often considered a theory of environmental degradation, O'Connor's theory in fact goes much further. Building on the work of Karl Polanyi, along with Marx, O'Connor argues that capitalism necessarily undermines the "conditions of production" necessary to sustain the endless accumulation of capital. These conditions of production include soil, water, energy, and so forth. But they also include an adequate public education system, transportation infrastructures, and other services that are not produced directly by capital, but which capital needs in order accumulate effectively. As the conditions of production are exhausted, the costs of production for capital increase. For this reason, the second contradiction generates an underproduction crisis tendency, with the rising cost of inputs and labor, to complement the overproduction tendency of too many commodities for too few customers. Like Marx's contradiction of capital and labor, the second contradiction therefore threatens the system's existence.
In addition, O'Connor believes that, in order to remedy environmental contradictions, the capitalist system innovates new technologies that overcome existing problems but introduce new ones.
O'Connor cites nuclear power as an example, which he sees as a form of producing energy that is advertised as an alternative to carbon-intensive, non-renewable fossil fuels, but creates long-term radioactive waste and other dangers to health and security. While O'Connor believes that capitalism is capable of spreading out its economic supports so widely that it can afford to destroy one ecosystem before moving onto another, he and many other eco-socialists now fear that, with the onset of globalization, the system is running out of new ecosystems. Kovel adds that capitalist firms have to continue to extract profit through a combination of intensive or extensive exploitation and selling to new markets, meaning that capitalism must grow indefinitely to exist, which he thinks is impossible on a planet of finite resources.
Capitalist expansion is seen by eco-socialists as being "hand in glove" with "corrupt and subservient client states" that repress dissent against the system, governed by international organisations "under the overall supervision of the Western powers and the superpower United States", which subordinate peripheral nations economically and militarily. Kovel further claims that capitalism itself spurs conflict and, ultimately, war. Kovel states that the 'War on Terror', between Islamist extremists and the United States, is caused by "oil imperialism", whereby the capitalist nations require control over sources of energy, especially oil, which are necessary to continue intensive industrial growth - in the quest for control of such resources, Kovel argues that the capitalist nations, specifically the United States, have come into conflict with the predominantly Muslim nations where oil is often found.
Eco-socialists believe that state or self-regulation of markets does not solve the crisis "because to do so requires setting limits upon accumulation", which is "unacceptable" for a growth-orientated system; they believe that terrorism and revolutionary impulses cannot be tackled properly "because to do so would mean abandoning the logic of empire". Instead, eco-socialists feel that increasing repressive counter-terrorism increases alienation and causes further terrorism and believe that state counter-terrorist methods are, in Kovel and Löwy's words, "evolving into a new and malignant variation of fascism". They echo Rosa Luxemburg's "stark choice" between "socialism or barbarism", which was believed to be a prediction of the coming of fascism and further forms of destructive capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century (Luxemburg was in fact murdered by proto-fascist Freikorps in the revolutionary atmosphere of Germany in 1919).
Eco-socialists criticise many within the Green movement for not being overtly anti-capitalist, for working within the existing capitalist, statist system, for voluntarism, or for reliance on technological fixes. The eco-socialist ideology is based on a critique of other forms of Green politics, including various forms of green economics, localism, deep ecology, bioregionalism and even some manifestations of radical green ideologies such as eco-feminism and social ecology.
As Kovel puts it, eco-socialism differs from Green politics at the most fundamental level because the 'Four Pillars' of Green politics (and the 'Ten Key Values' of the US Green Party) do not include the demand for the emancipation of labour and the end of the separation between producers and the means of production. Many eco-socialists also oppose Malthusianism and are alarmed by the gulf between Green politics in the Global North and the Global South.
Eco-socialists are highly critical of those Greens who favour "working within the system". While eco-socialists like Kovel recognise the ability of within-system approaches to raise awareness, and believe that "the struggle for an ecologically rational world must include a struggle for the state", he believes that the mainstream Green movement is too easily co-opted by the current powerful socio-political forces as it "passes from citizen-based activism to ponderous bureaucracies scuffling for 'a seat at the table'".
For Kovel, capitalism is "happy to enlist" the Green movement for "convenience", "control over popular dissent" and "rationalization". He further attacks within-system green initiatives like carbon trading, which he sees as a "capitalist shell game" that turns pollution "into a fresh source of profit". Brian Tokar has further criticised carbon trading in this way, suggesting that it augments existing class inequality and gives the "largest 'players' ... substantial control over the whole 'game'".
In addition, Kovel criticises the "defeatism" of voluntarism in some local forms of environmentalism that do not connect: he suggests that they can be "drawn off into individualism" or co-opted to the demands of capitalism, as in the case of certain recycling projects, where citizens are "induced to provide free labor" to waste management industries who are involved in the "capitalization of nature". He labels the notion on voluntarism "ecopolitics without struggle".
Technological fixes to ecological problems are also rejected by eco-socialists. Saral Sarkar has updated the thesis of 1970s 'limits to growth' to exemplify the limits of new capitalist technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells, which require large amounts of energy to split molecules to obtain hydrogen. Furthermore, Kovel notes that "events in nature are reciprocal and multi-determined" and can therefore not be predictably "fixed"; socially, technologies cannot solve social problems because they are not "mechanical". He posits an eco-socialist analysis, developed from Marx, that patterns of production and social organisation are more important than the forms of technology used within a given configuration of society.
Under capitalism, he suggests that technology "has been the sine qua non of growth"; thus he believes that even in a world with hypothetical "free energy" the effect would be to lower the cost of automobile production, leading to the massive overproduction of vehicles, "collapsing infrastructure", chronic resource depletion and the "paving over" of the "remainder of nature". In the modern world, Kovel considers the supposed efficiency of new post-industrial commodities is a "plain illusion", as miniaturized components involve many substances and are therefore non-recyclable (and, theoretically, only simple substances could be retrieved by burning out-of-date equipment, releasing more pollutants). He is quick to warn "environmental liberals" against over-selling the virtues of renewable energies that cannot meet the mass energy consumption of the era; although he would still support renewable energy projects, he believes it is more important to restructure societies to reduce energy use before relying on renewable energy technologies alone.
Eco-socialists have based their ideas for political strategy on a critique of several different trends in green economics. At the most fundamental level, eco-socialists reject what Kovel calls "ecological economics" or the "ecological wing of mainstream economics" for being "uninterested in social transformation". He furthers rejects the Neo-Smithian school, who believe in Adam Smith's vision of "a capitalism of small producers, freely exchanging with each other", which is self-regulating and competitive.
The school is represented by thinkers like David Korten who believe in "regulated markets" checked by government and civil society but, for Kovel, they do not provide a critique of the expansive nature of capitalism away from localised production and ignore "questions of class, gender or any other category of domination". Kovel also criticises their "fairy-tale" view of history, which refers to the abuse of "natural capital" by the materialism of the Scientific Revolution, an assumption that, in Kovel's eyes, seems to suggest that "nature had toiled to put the gift of capital into human hands", rather than capitalism being a product of social relations in human history.
Other forms of community-based economics are also rejected by eco-socialists such as Kovel, including followers of E. F. Schumacher and some members of the cooperative movement, for advocating "no more than a very halting and isolated first step". He thinks that their principles are "only partially realizable within the institutions of cooperatives in capitalist society" because "the internal cooperation" of cooperatives is "forever hemmed in and compromised" by the need to expand value and compete within the market. Marx also believed that cooperatives within capitalism make workers into "their own capitalist ... by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour".
For Kovel and other eco-socialists, community-based economics and Green localism are "a fantasy" because "strict localism belongs to the aboriginal stages of society" and would be an "ecological nightmare at present population levels" due to "heat losses from a multitude of dispersed sites, the squandering of scarce resources, the needless reproduction of effort, and cultural impoverishment". While he feels that small-scale production units are "an essential part of the path towards an ecological society", he sees them not as "an end in itself"; in his view, small enterprises can be either capitalist or socialist in their configuration and therefore must be "consistently anti-capitalist", through recognition and support of the emancipation of labour, and exist "in a dialectic with the whole of things", as human society will need large-scale projects, such as transport infrastructures.
He highlights the work of steady-state theorist Herman Daly, who exemplifies what eco-socialists see as the good and bad points of ecological economics — while Daly offers a critique of capitalism and a desire for "workers ownership", he only believes in workers ownership "kept firmly within a capitalist market", ignoring the eco-socialist desire for struggle in the emancipation of labour and hoping that the interests of labour and management today can be improved so that they are "in harmony".
Despite the inclusion of both in political factions like the fundies of the German Green Party, eco-socialists and deep ecologists hold markedly opposite views. Eco-socialists like Kovel have attacked deep ecology because, like other forms of Green politics and green economics, it features "virtuous souls" who have "no internal connection with the critique of capitalism and the emancipation of labor". Kovel is particularly scathing about deep ecology and its "fatuous pronouncement" that Green politics is "neither left nor right, but ahead", which for him ignores the notion that "that which does not confront the system becomes its instrument".
Even more scathingly, Kovel suggests that in "its effort to decentre humanity within nature", deep ecologists can "go too far" and argue for the "splitting away of unwanted people", as evidenced by their desire to preserve wilderness by removing the groups that have lived there "from time immemorial". Kovel thinks that this lends legitimacy to "capitalist elites", like the United States State Department and the World Bank, who can make preservation of wilderness a part of their projects that "have added value as sites for ecotourism" but remove people from their land. Between 1986 and 1996, Kovel notes that over three million people were displaced by "conservation projects"; in the making of the national parks of the United States, three hundred Shoshone Indians were killed in the development of Yosemite.
Kovel believes that deep ecology has affected the rest of the Green movement and led to calls for restrictions on immigration, "often allying with reactionaries in a ... cryptically racist quest". Indeed, he finds traces of deep ecology in the "biological reduction" of Nazism, an ideology many "organicist thinkers" have found appealing, including Herbert Gruhl, a founder of the German Green Party (who subsequently left when it became more left-wing) and originator of the phrase "neither left nor right, but ahead". Kovel warns that, while 'ecofascism' is confined to a narrow band of far right intellectuals and disaffected white power skinheads who involved themselves alongside far left groups in the anti-globalization movement, it may be "imposed as a revolution from above to install an authoritarian regime in order to preserve the main workings of the system" in times of crisis.
Bioregionalism, a philosophy developed by writers like Kirkpatrick Sale who believe in the self-sufficiency of "appropriate bioregional boundaries" drawn up by inhabitants of "an area", has been thoroughly critiqued by Kovel, who fears that the "vagueness" of the area will lead to conflict and further boundaries between communities. While Sale cites the bioregional living of Native Americans, Kovel notes that such ideas are impossible to translate to populations of modern proportions, and evidences the fact that Native Americans held land in commons, rather than private property – thus, for eco-socialists, bioregionalism provides no understanding of what is needed to transform society, and what the inevitable "response of the capitalist state" would be to people constructing bioregionalism.
Kovel also attacks the problems of self-sufficiency. Where Sale believes in self-sufficient regions "each developing the energy of its peculiar ecology", such as "wood in the northwest [US]", Kovel asks "how on earth" these can be made sufficient for regional needs, and notes the environmental damage of converting Seattle into a "forest-destroying and smoke-spewing wood-burning" city. Kovel also questions Sale's insistence on bioregions that do "not require connections with the outside, but within strict limits", and whether this precludes journeys to visit family members and other forms of travel.
Like many variants of socialism and Green politics, eco-socialists recognise the importance of "the gendered bifurcation of nature" and support the emancipation of gender as it "is at the root of patriarchy and class". Nevertheless, while Kovel believes that "any path out of capitalism must also be eco-feminist", he criticises types of ecofeminism that are not anti-capitalist and can "essentialize women's closeness to nature and build from there, submerging history into nature", becoming more at place in the "comforts of the New Age Growth Centre". These limitations, for Kovel, "keep ecofeminism from becoming a coherent social movement".
While having much in common with the radical tradition of social ecology, eco-socialists still see themselves as distinct. Kovel believes this is because social ecologists see hierarchy "in-itself" as the cause of ecological destruction, whereas eco-socialists focus on the gender and class domination embodied in capitalism and recognise that forms of authority that are not "an expropriation of human power for ... self-aggrandizement", such as a student-teacher relationship that is "reciprocal and mutual", are beneficial.
In practice, Kovel describes social ecology as continuing the anarchist tradition of non-violent direct action, which is "necessary" but "not sufficient" because "it leaves unspoken the question of building an ecological society beyond capital". Furthermore, social ecologists and anarchists tend to focus on the state alone, rather than the class relations behind state domination (in the view of Marxists). Kovel fears that this is political, springing from historical hostility to Marxism among anarchists, and sectarianism, which he points out as a fault of the "brilliant" but "dogmatic" founder of social ecology, Murray Bookchin.
While Malthusianism and eco-socialism overlap within the Green movement because both address over-industrialism, and despite the fact that eco-socialists, like many within the Green movement, are described as neo-Malthusian because of their criticism of economic growth, eco-socialists are opposed to Malthusianism. This divergence stems from the difference between Marxist and Malthusian examinations of social injustice – whereas Marx blames inequality on class injustice, Malthus argued that the working-class remained poor because of their greater fertility and birth rates.
Neo-Malthusians have slightly modified this analysis by increasing their focus on overconsumption – nonetheless, eco-socialists find this attention inadequate. They point to the fact that Malthus did not thoroughly examine ecology and that Garrett Hardin, a key neo-Malthusian, suggested that further enclosed and privatised land, as opposed to commons, would solve the chief environmental problem, which Hardin labeled the 'tragedy of the commons'.
Joan Martinez-Alier and Ramachandra Guha attack the gulf between what they see as the two "varieties of environmentalism" – the environmentalism of the North, an aesthetic environmentalism that is the privilege of wealthy people who no longer have basic material concerns, and the environmentalism of the South, where people's local environment is a source of communal wealth and such issues are a question of survival. Nonetheless, other eco-socialists, such as Wall, have also pointed out that capitalism disproportionately affects the poorest in the Global North as well, leading to examples of resistance such as the environmental justice movement in the US and groups like MOVE.
While in many ways the criticisms of eco-socialism combine the traditional criticisms of both socialism and Green politics, there are unique critiques of eco-socialism, which are largely from within the traditional socialist or Green movements themselves, along with conservative criticism.
Some socialists are critical of the term "eco-socialism". David Reilly, who questions whether his argument is improved by the use of an "exotic word", argues instead that the "real socialism" is "also a green or 'eco'" one that you get to "by dint of struggle". Other socialists, like Paul Hampton of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (a British third camp socialist party), see eco-socialism as "classless ecology", wherein eco-socialists have "given up on the working class" as the privileged agent of struggle by "borrowing bits from Marx but missing the locus of Marxist politics".
Writing in Capitalism Nature Socialism, Doug Boucher, Peter Caplan, David Schwartzman and Jane Zara criticise eco-socialists in general and Joel Kovel in particular for a deterministic "catastrophism" that overlooks "the countervailing tendencies of both popular struggles and the efforts of capitalist governments to rationalize the system" and the "accomplishments of the labor movement" that "demonstrate that despite the interests and desires of capitalists, progress toward social justice is possible". They argue that an ecological socialism must be "built on hope, not fear".
Conservatives have criticised the perceived opportunism of left-wing groups who have increased their focus on green issues since the fall of communism. Fred L. Smith Jr., President of the Competitive Enterprise Institute think-tank, exemplifies the conservative critique of left Greens, attacking the "pantheism" of the Green movement and conflating "eco-paganism" with eco-socialism. Like many conservative critics, Smith uses the term 'eco-socialism' to attack non-socialist environmentalists for advocating restrictions on the market-based solutions to ecological problems. He nevertheless wrongly claims that eco-socialists endorse "the Malthusian view of the relationship between man and nature", and states that Al Gore, a former Democratic Party Vice President of the United States and now a climate change campaigner, is an eco-socialist, despite the fact that Gore has never used this term and is not recognised as such by other followers of either Green politics or socialism.
Some environmentalists and conservationists have criticised eco-socialism from within the Green movement. In a review of Joel Kovel's The Enemy of Nature, David M. Johns criticises eco-socialism for not offering "suggestions about near term conservation policy" and focusing exclusively on long-term societal transformation. Johns believes that species extinction "started much earlier" than capitalism and suggests that eco-socialism neglects the fact that an ecological society will need to transcend the destructiveness found in "all large-scale societies", the very tendency that Kovel himself attacks among capitalists and traditional leftists who attempt to reduce nature to "linear" human models. Johns questions whether non-hierarchical social systems can provide for billions of people, and criticises eco-socialists for neglecting issues of population pressure. Furthermore, Johns describes Kovel's argument that human hierarchy is founded on raiding to steal women as "archaic".