The Ecology Movement Is Not A Social Movement — A Response To John Foran’s Article On The How-Question


John Foran has issued a wake-up call, a “call to arms”, and addressed it to colleagues and comrades:1
I feel spoken to. Not only because of its subject, but also because I am both a colleague and a comrade of Foran. I have namely been both studying and writing about social movements as well as actively participating since the 1950s in all movements for radical social change – in India and Europe.2 I am a bit dissatisfied with the contents of Foran’s article.
Climate Change is Only a Part of the General Global Ecology Crisis Affecting Societies

In the beginning Foran speaks of an unprecedented crisis, in a world beset by massive social problems. He enumerates the latter and then names the unprecedented crisis: it is “climate change” which he regards as “a crisis of humanity and of all species.” But climate change did not suddenly fall from the sky like a “wicked” meteorite. Firstly, it is only a part, albeit at present the most dangerous part, of the general global ecology crisis. Climate is changing because of global warming, which in turn is being caused by a particular kind of air pollution, namely excessive concentration of CO2 and some other green house gases in air. Secondly, this unprecedented crisis of humanity has really been brewing, without being noticed by many people, for nearly two hundred years now, i.e. since the beginning of theindustrial civilization. It was already foreseen and indicated in 1972 in the book Limits to Growth, the subject matter of which had six years earlier been dealt with by the American social scientist (political economist) Kenneth Boulding as the central theme of his essay on spaceman economy and cowboy economy (1966).3

This comprehensive and historical view of today’s “unprecedented crisis of humanity” is actually lacking in the wake-up call of Foran. He of course mentions the term “ecology”, but only in the context of a scientific principle. I did not find in the article the term ecology crisis. Instead, he uses the term “environment” in the phrase “movements for environmental, climate, and social justice”.
In my experience, the terms ecology and environment (German:Umwelt) are generally loosely used synonymously. But I think, for the sake of clarity, they should be understood as slightly different things.
Ecology is the branch of biology that studies relations amongpopulations of organisms in an habitat – including both symbiotic and prey-and-predator relations – and between them and their respective physicaland organic environment that contains the resources the species need forsurvival. As soon as we bring in humans in our considerations and study their interactions with other organisms and the physical environment of the particular habitat, ecology becomes a social science, political ecology, because humans are political animals (zoon politicon).
When a group of humans are trying, say, to keep the air clean – locally or globally, in their own interest or not – it is an environmental movement. The same applies to a movement to protect e.g. a particular marshland or all marshlands of the world or mangrove forests. But when the environmental conditions in a particular habitat or on the whole earth or thenumerical relations between humans and other organisms have deviated so much from the equilibrium/optimum (i.e. deteriorated) that the resource base, hence survival, of (a population of) humans is in danger, then we should speak of an (global) ecological crisis. We should use the term (global) ecology movement when we are speaking of the efforts of the whole humanity or a part thereof to restore the equilibrium, i.e. health, of our one and only habitat because it is so important for our survival. To make it clearer, an environmental movement of the NIMBY (not in my backyard) type must not be called an ecology movement. In theoretical ecological literature there is a formula for showing the level of ecological crisis:

Impact = Population  x  Affluence  x  Technology 4

    In Foran’s wake-up call, however, there is no mention of these elements of the crisis, no mention of overpopulation – of particular populations of humans or of the seven and a half billion humans in the world, no mention of the standard of living, i.e. affluence (resource problem), no mention of high-tech as a problem. There is also no mention of the conflicts of interests and power strugglesbetween different populations of humans (ethnies, nations. identity groups etc.) that result from changes in the above elements. But without such a comprehensive view – global warming being only a part of the total impact of our present civilization – we would neither understand the crisis of humanity nor would we be able to save the biosphere of the planet, humanity’s only home. Without such a view, we would also not find a solution to any of the social problems Foran mentions.5

What is to Be Done? Are the Social Movements e of Any Help?

Nevertheless, unlike his friends Bill McKibben and Co., Foran seems to have realized that we cannot tackle the unprecedented crisis of humanity only by tackling climate change, and that too only by means of a very rapid and massive technological change – 100% renewable energies – brought about with the help of engineers and investors. He is a member of So I guess he takes it for granted that, firstly, such a massive technological change is necessary and possible, and that, secondly, it is possible without much negative impact on human society and the global environment. But, unlike many others in his scientific community, he thinks that is not enough. That is why he speaks at the very beginning of

“a world beset by massive social problems – the obscene poverty and inequality that neoliberal capitalist globalization has wreaked on at least two-thirds of humanity, the immobility of the political elite almost everywhere, and cultures of violence that poison our lives from the most intimate relations to the mass murder of the world’s wars.

   These interconnected problems are rooted in long-standing processes of inequality – patriarchy, racism, colonialism, capitalism, and now corporate-controlled globalization – whose ongoing, overlapping legacies are making the early twenty-first century a crucial hinge of history.”

That is why he is also calling – and this is his great merit – for a radical social change. He writes:

“We may need a combination of both a dense network of movements and a totally new type of political party to achieve anything like deep radical social change. These movements will have to develop both powerful political cultures of opposition, and compelling political cultures of creation.”

That is why he wants to make the global climate justice movement the most radical social movement of the twenty-first century. And that may also be his reason for being a member of the Green Party of California. But there are a few problems:

The Ecology Movement is not a Social Movement, Because
There is a Conflict Between Them

Social movements as we know them are not useful for solving the crisis of humanity that we are talking about now. I came to this conclusion in the 1990s. Let me repeat, with a few changes, what I wrote then:

We must realize that there is a fundamental difference between theecology movement and social and socialist movements of the past. Until the ecology movement emerged, most large movements arose from social problems. In earlier epochs, in the industrial societies, most social problems could, at least partly, be solved through more or less continuous economic growth. Acute poverty could be overcome and wages increased. The poor, the unemployed and students got financial help. Care of the old and the ill was provided for, Women got the franchise and also better paid jobs in industry and trade. Democratic rights were recognized and extended. The demands of all social movements could be fulfilled to a large extent, thanks to the growing cake. But with the emergence of the ecology movement, the situation has changed completely. Now, not only must the cake not grow, it must shrink. The very basis of the ability of industrial societies to solve social problems in its particular way must be attacked if the problems from which the ecology movement arose are to be solved. For the first time in history, a mass movement promises” to lower the standard of living of the masses.6

    In fact, in my experience in Germany from 1982 till now, I have known some old social movements as special opponents of the ecology movement (but not of the environmental movement) and some others as indifferent to the questions and doubts raised by the ecology movement. Thus in the early 1980s, the ecology movement and the Green Party – in its early years, when it was really radical – were opposed and abused by the trade unions and, generally speaking, the working class movement as destroyers of their jobs and prosperity. The latter two, for example, actively opposed the anti-nuclear- energy movement, they opposed the movement to close down the lignite mines. And they opposed the idea of drastically raising petrol prices in order to reduce private motorized transportation (automobile traffic). Roughly the same was the attitude of activists of the Third World solidarity movement. They were generally uninterested in such issues and causes. Their focus was on anti-imperialism, Third World countries’right to development, fair trade, development aid etc.

In contrast to their oppositional stance or indifference toward the above mentioned radical ecological demands and proposals, no social movement, old or new, have ever hesitated to support e.g. the movement against dying of forests (due to air pollution) or the demand to fit every car with catalytic converters in order to keep the air in urban areas clean. These latter issues are, in my opinion, typical for the environmental movement.

New Social Movements

One may now object that Foran is not a defender of the old social movements (e.g. the old working class movement, old Women’s Movement), that he is seeking to mobilize the new ones in order to build “a dense network of movements” and so to “make the global climate justice movement the most radical social movement of the twenty-first century.” Right. But it should be in order, I think, to also examine this movement a bit. Here is first its short self-introduction:

“Young people across the globe are leading a movement for a real power shift: we’re addressing the climate crisis by standing up tocorporate polluters and tackling root causes of the crisis, while lifting up community and people-centered solutions.

    Countries like the United States, who have greater historical responsibility for causing climate change must be held to higher standards for reducing emissions and addressing impacts, including adequate financial support.

The dirty energy industry is jeopardizing the future of young people, indigenous peoples, people in developing nations, and the very survival of small island states, but there are young people across the planet who are passionate and committed to stabilizing the climate, restoring democracy, upholding human rights, and transforming the climate crisis into an opportunity to design new systems.”7

    I do not here want to repeat my critique of the logic of isolating the climate crisis  from the whole ecology crisis nor my doubts about the feasibility and viability of the idea of transition to 100% renewable energies for solving the global climate crisis. See for these points my articles on the optimism of McKibben, Krugman, COP21 declaration (Paris) 8 But even otherwise this self-introduction does not inspire me very much.
They claim to be “tackling the root causes of the crisis”, I do not see any sign thereof. What are the root causes? Like all old-left radicals before them, they too are blaming the crisis solely on “corporate polluters”, “the dirty energy industry”, and capitalist/imperialist “countries like the United States” etc. And they want to lift up community and people-centered solutions, as if the communities and the people are totally free from any responsibility for the climate crisis, global ecology crisis or the crisis of humanity. This is a very simple black and white picture. Like in Foran’s wake up call, and McKibben’s grandiose plan, there is no mention ofpopulation and affluence, the most variable and the most important factors in the equation mentioned further above. They may even be saying these two may or must be allowed to continue to grow.
And then there are the tall claims: “Young people across the globe are leading a movement for a real power shift.” How can you lead a movement without first presenting a convincing analysis of the crisis? After all, global warming did not suddenly fall from the sky! Some such radical young people sometimes also talk of the need for system change. Not bad, but at best they mean by “system” capitalism, not industrialism itself. However, the secrets of power of the powerful and the longevity of the system are not that easy to understand, they need deep, thorough and sincere analysis. Radical slogans and presence on the streets in large numbers are not enough.
Let us now look at a few other new or currently very active old movements that are pursuing a social end, each for itself. They enjoymass participation, hence they may qualify as a social movement: Unfortunately, after the withering away of the old international socialist movement, which was truly global both in the sense of its presence in the whole world and in the sense of fighting for a socialist society for the whole humanity, the social movements of today (at least those I know of) have reduced themselves to movements for what is generally and properly called identity politics. The separatist movements of today – those of the Catalans, Basques, Scots etc. belong to this category.
In the USA, the human rights movement is mainly represented by theBlack Lives Matter movement. Earlier such movements – Black Power Movement and the Black Panthers – have, like the current one, clearly been movements of and for the Blacks and against their oppression and discrimination in the USA. In the media I have several times come across the slogan “white lives matter too”. But there is no general movement against the high-handed, now and then even murderous behavior of the US police forces. I haven’t ever heard of any contribution of the Black Lives Matter movement (we are here not talking of individuals) to other general or particular causes related to the struggle against capitalism or imperialism nor to the struggle for protecting the environment or the ecology.
Roughly the same can be said about the new women’s (feminist)movement, although there are some feminist theorists who have realized the problem and call themselves eco-feminists, while some others among them organized in the past some conferences and demonstrations on some general issues (e.g. women against nuclear power plants, women against genetic engineering) in which exclusively women were invited to take part and speak. But the anomaly remains. The justification for such special identity-based demonstrations and conferences on general issues is not clear, since there has never been an eco-masculinist nor a patriarchal ecological theory or movement.
The anomaly recently became clear in the campaign phase of the 2016 US presidential election, in which all women (50% of the voters) were called upon to vote for Hilary Clinton, because now “it was the turn of a woman” to become president, because the “glass ceiling” had to be broken through. But the majority of white women voted for Trump. I recently read an interesting and revealing article on this anomaly. The author Susan Chiradec9 asked some white young women about their explanation for Clinton’s defeat. She reports that white young women did in their majority vote for Clinton, but “their enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders during the primary seemed to say that for some, feminism’s traditional preoccupations seem out of date.” In October, Chiradec had asked some such women “about their perceptions of Clinton.” One politically active woman “said she found Mrs. Clinton’s feminism outdated, failing to prioritize climate change, income inequality and the toll of American intervention overseas.” Chiradec writes further, “the brand of feminism that spoke to her, though, wasn’t about breaking historic barriers. It was more specific: ‘progressive feminism, eco-feminism.’ ”
When one speaks of the ecology movement (as distinct from the environmental movement), one should bear in mind that this movement is not so much in the interest of or for the wellbeing of the present generations of grown-up people as for the wellbeing of the future, yet unborn generations – at the most for that of the children of today. And it is about us modern humans withdrawing from much of those territories that we encroached upon in the past decades and centuries – in order to leave enough space for the rest of nature, i.e. for the other species, so that they can continue to exist on this blue planet.10 That means, not only must our ecological footprint be drastically reduced, but also the sheer numbers of humans. The women’s movement’s persistent opposition to any kind ofpopulation control program in developing countries in the name of reproductive rights of individual women is not compatible with this imperative, nor the Third World developing nations’ right to development.
To take another example, in India, the “Dalits” (members of the lowest castes among Hindus plus the indigenous tribes) have since time immemorial been suffering from social discrimination and through it also oppression and economic deprivation. In the decades before and after India became independent (1947) they struggled to overcome the caste system. But in the 1990s, they began fighting for special economic rights in the sense of reservation of jobs and places in universities for them. When these demands were accepted, the movement succeeded but it also moved away from its great goal of reforming Hindu society and “annihilate caste”. This huge identity-based social movement has nothing to contribute to the struggle to save the biosphere of the planet. Even if, as is happening of late, they realize the limitations of their kind of movement and ally themselves with the national left movement for social justice11, they will have nothing to contribute to it because the whole national left movement has nothing but the interests of the currently living working class in mind.
Such identity-based movements may very well be necessary as long as a particular group of citizens (Blacks, women, Dalits) do not find adequate attention to their sufferings and particular grievances, oppressions and discriminations in the established political system. But it must be clear that ultimately a black person, a woman, a Dalit etc. is also a member of society at large, citizen of a particular state along with all others, ultimately, as a human being, a citizen of the world. They cannot free themselves completely from their own particular oppression and discrimination unless the system of oppression and discrimination as a whole is overcome. Nor can they secure the future of their children unless the biosphere is protected. Of course, they may get certain concessions, such as affirmative actions to favor them in economic and job matters. The most intelligent and qualified among them can be co-opted in the ruling elite. But the general rule is that favors to particular groups in society do also generate animosity in the other groups, as the recent history of US and India shows.

A Network of Movements and a New Type of Party

Foran’s concluding idea is: “We may need a combination of both a dense network of movements and a totally new type of political party to achieve anything like deep radical social change
This is not a very new idea. I have experienced, participated in, and studied such a combination in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. The result of that study commissioned by the United Nations University (UNU) is a two-volume book, written in English and published by the UNU Press.12 In Germany it began with the state-wide anti-nuclear-energy movement and it was quickly followed by the Citizens’ Initiative Movement consisting of hundreds of groups (generally called a citizens’ initiative) struggling for a cause or against some project of the state or private economic interests. These included the state-wide Peace Movement and a plethora of smaller and mostly local/regional one-issue one-demand movements for protecting an aspect of the environment. The sum total of the latter kind of movements, which were also very much connected, were also called the Environmental Protection Movement. In the same way there arose the Alternative Movement, Women’s Movement etc.etc. And finally, from all these movements, arose the Green Party of Germany (Die Grünen), which at the beginning understood itself as an “anti-party party” and as the “electoral-political arm” of the new social movements mentioned above. These movements mostly have had the same qualities that Foran lists in connection with the modern-day social movements that he wants to bring together in a network. As far as I am informed, such movements arose in most highly industrialized rich countries of Europe and North America.
The point I want to make here is that these movements, in my objectiveoverall judgment, ultimately failed – except some of the one-issue one-demand movements. They either fizzled out or were co-opted into the system, particularly their leaders. Die Grünen have become a pillar of the current system. (Neither PODEMOS nor SYRIZA are willing to be the electoral-political arm of the ecology movement.) There is no space here to go into the details, and one may disagree with this assessment of mine. But, this is in short my argument, if they had been successful there would not be any need today for a climate justice movement, nor for a cry to protecting the biodiversity of the planet.

My own conclusions

In short, all efforts are doomed to failure unless at first an honest analysisof the present world situation is made and propagated and unless it is accepted by the majority of those who form opinions and make decisions. Unfortunately, the majority of those whose task it is to make this analysis and propagate it, are cherishing several illusions. I have elaborated this critique in several contributions to the debate, and presented my own analysis of the present world situation in my major writings.13

So far as the contribution of concerned citizens of the world is concerned, they may organize themselves in a truly ecology movementand not be satisfied with just some environmental improvements (see above for the difference).
In this connection I may inform the readers that in some countries of Europe a truly ecology movement has begun. It is the De-Growth Movement. There is also an organization called Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) with branches in many industrial countries. And since without the promise of social justice and without global economic equality no poor person, nor any poor nation, would accept an ecology movement that inevitably entails economic contraction, it is necessary to enlarge the ecology movement to a global eco-socialist movement.

Saral Sarkar was born in 1936 in West Bengal, India. After graduating from the University of Calcutta, he studied German language and literature for 5 years in India and Germany. From 1966 to 1981, Sarkar taught German at the Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe Institute), Hyderabad, India. Sarkar is living in Germany since 1982. He is the author of 5 political books(see list in Wikipedia/German) that have appeared in English, German, Chinese, Japanese and (in internet for free downloading) French and Spanish. Sarkar has also published many articles and essays in several journals in India, USA, Germany, UK, Holland, China, Spain. He also writes regularly in two blogs of his own (see Wikipedia/German).

Notes and References


  1. Relevant in the present context are the two empirical studies:

Sarkar, Saral (1993) Green-Alternative Politics in West Germany. Vol. I.The New Social Movements. Tokyo: United University Press.
Sarkar, Saral (1994) Green-Alternative Politics in West Germany. Vol. II.The Greens. Tokyo: United University Press.

  1. Boulding, Kenneth E. (1966) “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”

  1. See: Meadows, Donella H.; Dennis L. Meadows; and Jörgen Randers (1992) Beyond the Limits, London; P. 100.

  2. For this point see my critique of Bill McKibben’s and others’ calls for a massive World War II like industrial effort to achieve a quick transition to 100% renewable energies:

  1. Sarkar, Saral (1999) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books. P. 226f.


  3. Some of my articles on the subject:

See also the following latest info: reports: The climate friendly electricity generated by solar panels in the past 40 years has all but cancelled out the polluting energy used to produce them, a study said Tuesday. Indeed, by some calculations, the so-called “break-even point” between dirty energy input and clean output may already have arrived, researchers in the Netherlands reported.”
On this Euan Mearns commented: “The numbers in the excerpt are quite damning – 40 years of PV development and it seems that we only now got the first net energy to society.”

  1. Susan Chiradec: Feminism Lost. Now What?

  1. Let me here state clearly that I am not calling upon the indigenous people to withdraw from e.g. the Amazonas or the rain forests of Indonesia. Their ancestors did not encroach upon these territories in the recent centuries. These constitute their home since time immemorial.

  2. On this issue see:

“When Jai Bhim meets Lal Salaam”

  1. See note 2.

  2. See : Sarkar 1999 (note 6) and

Sarkar, Saral (2012) The Crises of Capitalism. A Different Study of Political Economy. Berkeley : Counterpoint.

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