By Simone Maddison, Undergraduate Student, Department of History and Department of Government and International Relations
"Man lives on nature – nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die."
- Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (1932), p. 31
"Part of what it means to love someone else is precisely to be committed to protecting them from violence and suffering. In this finality of violent death you have to face your failure."
- Danielle Celermajer, Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future (2021), p. 86
Together, the above words communicate failure: to feel the natural world’s destruction as one’s own; to change in the face of an existential threat we have created; and to realise that these are failures at all. Following recent findings that five crucial 'tipping points' of global heating have already been surpassed, the connection between ecological collapse and capitalistic exploitation has never been more striking. Our feelings of collective responsibility, tempered by individual grief and overwhelming helplessness, necessitate a shift beyond the solutions offered by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the School Strikes 4 Climate movement (SS4C). Reflected most urgently by the Australian Black Summer Fires 2019-2020, this system of what Professor Danielle Celermajer calls “omnicide” instead demands the radical panaceas of eco-Marxism and Multispecies Justice (MSJ).1 Yet despite their similarities, it is only through the latter that the Anthropocene Extinction may not be reversed, but at least channelled, towards more-than-human solidarity.2
While understanding the anthropocentric causes of climate change is important, the Romantic narratives of decline, or total salvation, of a once-beautiful natural world in contemporary activist discourses are often counterproductive.3 The paradox within XR’s self-articulation as a radical, non-partisan and nonviolent group, and its subsequent lack of meaningful impact, represents the tension between accountability and inertia stifling environmental justice.4 To be sure, XR’s flexibility from hosting a protest by the Red Rebel Brigade in Tasmania to burning of Blinky Bill outside Parliament House in Canberra stayed true to its rejection of ‘silver-bullet’ climate solutions.5 But XR’s ethos to move “beyond politics” signifies an exception to, rather than a transformation of, the status quo.6 The issue, then, is not that XR evades a simple climate solution; it is XR’s ignorance to the systems of governance, trade and sociability which irrefutably interlock climate change with capitalism’s obsessions with over-production, profit and mass pollution.
This junction between delusion and doom is ripe for intervention by the similarities between eco-Marxism and MSJ. Both approaches begin with relationality between the human and nonhuman worlds.7 Drawing on historical materialism, Marx saw natural systems functioning in a metabolic exchange of energy with human society.8 When disrupted by industry, however, a metabolic rift replaces “unity” with “struggle”.9 This is a matter of sustainability in MSJ, forcing visual, embodied, ethical and political reckonings with the “face” of the Unknown Other.10 As well as establishing a responsibility to lives beyond the self, both theories confront the ethics of situational connections alienating socialised man “under collective control” and neglecting the whole experience of being.11 Therefore, capitalism remains exploitative as long as it is predicated on power inequality, either in a bourgeois hegemony or the exclusionary anthropocentric identity politics.12
While understanding the anthropocentric causes of climate change is important, the Romantic narratives of decline, or total salvation, of a once-beautiful natural world in contemporary activist discourses are often counterproductive.
By overhauling the assumptions legitimising environmental crisis under capitalism, these tenets present eco-Marxism as a workable framework for MSJ’s mission of “liveability, survivability and justice”.13 It was not a failure of liberal democracy which caused the Black Summer Fires, but rather that violence is capitalism’s desired outcome. Cool, slow and controlled fires have long played an integral role in the health of Australian bushland.14 But the metabolic rift created by the incineration of five and a half million hectares of land made it impossible to bequeath soil in “an improved state to succeeding generations” as Marx intended.15 Likewise, the NSW Berejiklian government’s $12.9 million expenditure cut to Fire and Rescue services alienated workers and activists from collaborative prevention programs.16 The transcorporeal toxicity of Australia’s smoke is perhaps the most pungent reminder of the need for MSJ.17 The embodied experience of breathing in and choking on dead bodies facilitates an intimate encounter with the Other, dismissing a priori distinctions between polluters and the climate itself.18 This cycle will never feel ‘normal’ because it is a condition of killing.
Yet despite its value, eco-Marxism diverges significantly from MSJ in its ontological and epistemological approaches to nonhuman lives. SS4C’s construction of a heterogenous yet common identity can easily be read as an eco-Marxist movement, reinserting the future working class into the metabolism of “place-thought” rather than “nature as commodity”.19 As young people resisting older elites, corporate control and hegemonic institutions, Australian activists like Anjali Sharma and Vanessa Nakate have contributed to a more grassroots vision of democracy. Yet however noble and valuable as a restoration of working-class politics in climate justice, the structural changes advocated for by eco-Marxism are only radical insofar as they encourage divestment and reforestation.
While capitalism is a means to an end for eco-Marxists, MSJ takes it as a starting point to dissect divides in capitalist systems which exceptionalise and universalise human experiences.20 The metabolic rift is only relevant to the extent that it robs the worker, and the worker is only alienated by wealth or Malthusian population crises.21 Taking the category of ‘man’ as more important than all other species also leads to the false conclusion that he has suddenly landed in this dystopic Anthropocene, denying him responsibility and falsely painting ecological disaster as a tragedy.22 If communism makes the division of labour obsolete, it does not abolish society’s productive and recreational activities; animal oppression is accepted and expected.23 Environmentalism, then, is as much about returning land to the worker as it is about relinquishing hegemony altogether.
No change will occur as quickly as the climate will – but the alternative is a death of our own making.
These critiques return us to the merits of MSJ in addressing the crux of climate justice: that failure is not inevitable. But this claim is not without qualifications for MSJ’s future. MSJ may at first appear to advocate for a consideration of the individual characteristics of a threatened being, rather than its species, to combat anthropocentrism.24 While this exposes the “wrongness of killing”, it ultimately reinforces what MSJ theorists call the fictitious idea that humans are “isolated, unattached and unencumbered”.25 An ethos of care “beyond” a human centre alone cannot stop the processes of harm necessary for life, nor should it overpower Indigenous and subaltern praxes.26 Celermajer’s struggle of “trying to do ecological prevention” instead forces a reckoning with the risk of retaining hierarchies in new systems, and not completing this transformation in time.27
When the torrential rains drain and the smoky ash settle, we humans are left with a reality of fear, both of and for ourselves. Given the immutable connection between global warming and capitalism, the intersections between eco-Marxism and MSJ appear as the antidote to a structural transformation of neoliberal political economy and a revolution in diverse ways of being. But while the former is rooted in poisonous anthropocentrism, MSJ provides a more useful roadmap for justice across the powerful inlets of speciesism, racism, sexism, and classism. No change will occur as quickly as the climate will – but the alternative is a death of our own making.
This article is part of the SEI Student Series on Climate Futures.
1. Danielle Celermajer, “Who Killed Summertime? How Do We Trace the Complex Roots of Responsibility?,” The Guardian, February 7, 2021, sec. Environment, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/07/who-killed-summertime-how-do-we-trace-the-complex-roots-of-responsibility, para. 8; Danielle Celermajer, Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future (Sydney: Penguin, 2021).
2. Petra Tschakert et al., “Multispecies Justice: Climate‐just Futures with, for and Beyond Humans,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 12, no. 2 (2021), https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.699; Blanche Verlie, “Climate Justice in More-Than-Human Worlds,” Environmental Politics 31, no. 2 (2022): 297–319, https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2021.1981081.
3. Ursula K. Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 9.
4. Neil Gunningham, “Article 1: Can Climate Activism Deliver Transformative Change? Extinction Rebellion, Business and People Power,” in From Student Strikes to the Extinction Rebellion: New Protest Movements Shaping Our Future, ed. Benjamin J. Richardson (Cheltenham: Elgar Publishing Limited, 2020), 10–31.
5. Diana Stuart, “Radical Hope: Truth, Virtue, and Hope for What Is Left in Extinction Rebellion,” Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics 33, no. 3–6 (2020): 493-494, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-020-09835-y; Gunningham, “Article 1.”
6. Oscar Berglund and Daniel Schmidt, Extinction Rebellion and Climate Change Activism: Breaking the Law to Change the World (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 70.
7. Christine J. Winter, “Introduction: What’s the Value of Multispecies Justice?,” Environmental Politics 31, no. 2 (2022): 251–57, https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2022.2039001.
8. Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “‘Marx’s Ecology in the 21st Century,’” World Review of Political Economy 1, no. 1 (2010): 142–56.
9. Clark and Foster, "Marx's Ecology", 148; Karl Marx, A Critique of the German Ideology, trans. Tim Delaney and Bob Schwartz (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1932), 110.
10. Petra Tschakert, “More-than-Human Solidarity and Multispecies Justice in the Climate Crisis,” Environmental Politics 31, no. 2 (2022): 281-291, https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2020.1853448.
11. The Illusion of Boundaries and the Gift of Multispecies Justice, Video (Sydney: Sydney Environment Institute, 2022), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLHp6QJca_8&ab_channel=SydneyEnvironmentInstitute; Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan and Dirk J. Struik (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1932), 29.
12. Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Boston: Brill Leiden, 2006), 211; Tschakert, "More-than-Human", 277-296.
13. Tschakert et al., “Multispecies Justice”, 7.
14. Jens Korff, “Cool Burns: Key to Aboriginal Fire Management,” Website, Creative Spirits, 2022, https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/aboriginal-fire-management.
15. Karl Marx, Capital Volume 3 (New York: Vintage, 1981) cited in John Bellamy Foster, “The Crisis of the Earth: Marx’s Theory of Ecological Sustainability as a Nature-Imposed Necessity for Human Production,” Organisation & Environment 10, no. 3 (1997): 288, https://doi.org/10.1177/0921810697103003.
16. Catarina Da Silva, “Fuelled by Coal: Piercing the Mirage of a Sustainable Capitalist Australia,” Marxist Left Review, 2020, https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/fuelled-by-coal-piercing-the-mirage-of-a-sustainable-capitalist-australia/, para. 4.
17. Verlie, “Climate Justice”, 297–319.
18. Verlie, "Climate Justice", 299-300; Winter, “Introduction”.
19. Sophie von Redecker and Christian Herzig, “The Peasant Way of a More Than Radical Democracy: The Case of La Via Campesina,” Journal of Business Ethics 164, no. 4 (2020): 664, 658, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-019-04402-6.
20. Tschakert et al., “Multispecies Justice”; Danielle Celermajer et al., “Multispecies Justice: Theories, Challenges, and a Research Agenda for Environmental Politics,” Environmental Politics 30, no. 1–2 (2021): 119–40, https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2020.1827608.
21. Foster, “The Crisis of the Earth”; Marco Maurizi, Beyond Nature: Animal Liberation, Marxism and Critical Theory, Historical Materialism Book Series (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 90.
22. Tschakert et al., “Multispecies Justice”; Celermajer et al., “Multispecies Justice"; Celermajer, Summertime.
23. Maurizi, Beyond Nature, 102.
24. Peter Singer, “Introduction,” in In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford: Wiley, 2013), 1–13.
25. Singer, "Introduction", 6; Celermajer et al., “Multispecies Justice”, 120.
26. Celermajer et al., “Multispecies Justice”, 494-495; Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds (Minnesota: University of Minneapolis, 2017), 1-2.
27. Danielle Celermajer, The Prevention of Torture: An Ecological Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 6.
Simone Maddison is a second-year undergraduate student in the Department of History and Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research interests include interrogating and constructing new ways to embody feminist, intersectional and postcolonial justice in social, political and environmental discourses in student life.
Header image: Dawn in the Jungfrau Region by Christian Cueni via Unsplash.