Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Eco social democracy

In a political climate dominated by vague utopianism, social democrats must develop bold, practical ideas for a sustainable planet

A forward thinking modern social democracy must acknowledge the implications of climate change. It is hard to talk about climate change without sounding alarmist; yet this alarmism is in some ways justified. It seems probable that climate change is the one issue that will have the most drastic ramifications for the future organisation of human civilisation. This is something very few people in politics are seriously grappling with.

Part of the problem is that the spectre of ecological disaster is always spoken about as a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – a far-off future which we will only encounter if we do not mend our ways. Professor Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, has said that the extreme weather experienced this summer across the globe has been made more extreme by the effects of global warming. He told the ​Guardian​, ​’The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. We are seeing them play out in real time and what is happening this summer is a perfect example of that.’ ​It must be hoped that this summer has crystallised in people’s minds that climate change is a present reality.

Mann, however, goes on to offer a curious sliver of hope, ‘It is not going off a cliff, it is like walking out into a minefield so the argument it is too late to do something would be like saying: “I’m just going to keep walking”. That would be absurd – you reverse course and get off that minefield as quick as you can. It is really a question of how bad it is going to get.’ We have taken our first steps through the minefield but we can turn back if we have the political will.

Any attempt to reinvent social democracy in the 21st century must acknowledge this context. Elsewhere on the left, promises of fully automated luxury communism have become fashionable of late and are an attempt to address another problem of the future: impending automation and its implications for work. However, the masterminds of these utopian theories have yet to explain how they will function in a world of extreme resource scarcity due to unfolding ecological disaster.

Peter Frase’s Four Futures is one of many books that suggests automation and abundance will inexorably lead to the realisation of a utopian communism but he also details another endpoint, which he simply refers to as socialism. This is not the bureaucratic statist top-down socialism of the post-war settlement, but an economic system that addresses the issues of our times: ecological disaster, resource scarcity and automation.

Frase’s socialism is a post-capitalist utopia based on ideas of restructuring our political economy along the lines of sustainability. It is a vision of the future that takes some inspiration from sci-fi novels such as Pacific Edge and the Mars Trilogy. It rejects environmental fatalism as ‘an evasion of politics’ and also rejects the idea that the role of the ecological socialist is to return the world to a mythologised natural state. Rather, the role of the ecological socialist is to better manage and care for actually existing nature as well as ensuring humanity’s survival within it. Frase does not reject the market as a method for managing consumption, rather he accepts it as a potentially necessary component of the socialist future. He does, however, label it a mechanism through which inequality is perpetuated. This circle is squared through the possibility of universal basic income and economic planning. These is also a place for cooperatives within this.

As social democrats in the age of ecological disaster, there is much to learn from this broad picture of the future. We clearly need policies to mitigate existing climate change. This, obviously, must include the eventual transition to renewable sources of energy in every instance (with the exception of, potentially, a role for nuclear fission). This must also include investment in research into nuclear technology, further expenditure on carbon capture, and carbon taxes. The required pace of these changes is only plausible through state direction. Implementing these changes at a national level as part of a Labour government would be the start, but international cooperation must also be pursued aggressively.

In addition to this, however, it is required for us all to adjust our lives to the new reality. The working week should be cut to four days in the first instance, with a view to further reductions when this becomes realistic. This would quickly have a positive effect on the environment through the reduction of car usage and the energy consumption of running workplaces. It has the additional effect of aiding our adjustment to automation and could go some way to unlocking the UK’s productivity puzzle. Public transport must also see significant investment. This investment must be run alongside incentives for people to ditch their cars in favour of the bus, train or tram. This could be carried out through an extension of free bus passes (with a view to this becoming universal).


Ultimately, the way we live must be radically reorganised – something that links back to the vision of ecological socialism discussed in Four Futures. Frase describes the need for ‘sprawling suburban metropolises’ to be replaced by ‘densely packed locales, connected by public transportation’. Citing French sociologist Bruno Latour’s description of France’s national parks, Frase’s vision for the countryside is ‘a rural ecosystem complete with post offices, well-tended roads, highly subsidised cows, and handsome villages’ which is ‘connected to the cities by clean high speed rail’. Frase cites other examples of how our natural world could be reconstructed, such as adapting coastal areas for flooding. Rather than reverting back to an ill-defined natural order, humanity must learn to reconstruct the world around us sustainably in order to care for and maintain it.

The combination of these reforms amount to a serious reckoning with an increasingly inevitable ecological disaster. This is not a Malthusian dystopian vision of exhausting our finite resources. Instead, it is a vision of efficiency and living within our means. In the first instance, the modern social democrat’s role is to mitigate the existing causes of climate change. In the second instance, it is to adjust the ways in which resources are consumed and society is organised in a post-climate change world. The modern social democratic mission is to acknowledge the use of the state within a mixed economy to ensure a fair distribution of increasingly scarce resources while also attempting to prevent the perpetuation of that scarcity.

If social democrats are looking for a purpose in the modern world, saving it is a start.

Read next: Since 1945, radical change has been enabled by pragmatic politics


Joseph Hamm is a writer and blogger. He tweets @steamedhamms


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