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Book review. Systems Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response To Environmental Crisis edited by Martin Empson

Book review. Systems Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response To Environmental Crisis edited by Martin Empson
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
2 September 2019

Systems Change Not Climate Change is a collection of eleven essays from members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and other socialist authors.

Writing in the introduction Martin Empson argues the multiple environmental crises which pose an existential threat to humanity – including climate change and biodiversity loss – are caused by “the nature of capitalist society.” Therefore “those who argue that we should change our individual lifestyles – giving up cars or flying, changing to a vegan or vegetarian diet – are missing the point”, he maintains. “We need to challenge the very existence of those fossil fuel corporations and the system that needs them.”

Ian Rappel’s critique of the increasingly neoliberal idea of “natural capital” is thought-provoking, as is Camilla Royle’s discussion of the politics surrounding the concept of the Anthropocene. I was particularly struck by Amy Leather’s point that “nothing sums up the irrationality of capitalism more than” single use plastics – “materials that can last practically forever are used to make products designed to be thrown away.”

As much as the book is a sign the SWP is now making the climate crisis a priority in terms of campaigning it is very welcome.

However, I found myself deeply frustrated by many of the authors’ cult-like reverence for Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Incredibly smart political philosophers they might have been, but how useful are their nineteenth century writings in terms of understanding climate change today? In addition, the book seems to have come out of a closed, small circle of peer review and citation – a huge red flag in serious academic research. For example, Royle’s chapter cites Canadian socialist Ian Angus and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, Judith Orr and Chris Harman from the SWP, and “benefitted from feedback” from Rappel and Empson and the SWP’s Alex Callinicos and Joseph Choonara.

Accordingly, the reader is repeatedly told “we must replace capitalism with a socialist system” to solve the climate and environmental crises. How this admirable goal sits with the March 2019 statement from the United Nations explaining the world has “just over a decade… to stop irreversible damage from climate change”, and experts warning deep emissions cuts need to happen in the next few years, is never explored. Indeed, this incredibly short timescale strongly suggests activists in the UK and beyond will almost certainly have to work out how to force radical action from within the existing capitalist system.

Systems Change Not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response To Environmental Crisis is published by Bookmarks, priced £8.