Would there have been climate change under socialism?

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The idea that, without capitalism, the planet might not be facing so great a climate crisis is well established, appearing in works like Naomi Klein’s bestselling This Changes Everything (2014) and from the growing ranks of “eco-socialist” activists.


But in this essay, the science writer (and committed socialist) Leigh Phillips argues that an entirely socialist 20th century would have resulted in global heating at least as bad, if not worse. He outlines a counterfactual history in which capitalism is vanquished everywhere by 1930, colonialism willingly unravelled – and industrialisation rolled out for everyone, not for the few. “Housing for all, electricity for all, fast and comfortable transport for all, and yes, even delightful plastic consumer tchotchkes for all,” he writes. “There would absolutely be a People’s Xbox under socialism.”


In this clearly argued and imaginative essay, Phillips concedes that, yes, there would have been differences under socialism – and some benefits, once the harms of carbon emissions were realised. But we must start to see the climate crisis as the unintended consequence of largely beneficial (if uneven) economic development – and a problem that is very hard to solve under any single system. What is needed, he says, is not a move towards degrowth, anti-consumerism and other forms of eco-austerity – but a greater role for economic planning.


Written by Leigh Phillips and read by Hugh Smiley.


This article was originally published on the newstatesman.com on 10 August 2022. You can read the text version here.


You might also enjoy listening to The lonely decade: how the 1990s shaped us by Gavin Jacobson.


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