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Synthesis/Regeneration 31   (Spring 2003)

Green Confucianism: Ecology, Class
and the Green Movement

by Patrick Eytchison, Redwood Coast Greens

The regulatory role of the Confucian scholar in feudal China was to warn the Emperor and other officials of the landlord ruling class when their squeeze on the peasantry became so severe that revolt might be provoked. The best of these scholars were quite sincere in their belief in Confucian ethics. This, however, did not negate the fact that in social reality they were acting as a stabilizing mechanism to maintain the system of landlord oppression.

Curiously, much of the Green Movement can be understood in the same way.

Like the Confucian scholars of feudal China, Greens as a whole represent a part of the modern intelligentsia: the professional and semi-professional class, the new intellectual class or whatever term one wants to use. While the Confucianists bird-dogged the landlord class for its own long-term good, the Green Movement can be seen as bird-dogging the modern industrial capitalist class so that its need for profit will not undercut its necessary foundation in nature. Thus the warnings on global warming, resource depletion, biodevastation, and so on. Present capitalism, being of necessity expansive, must also of necessity reach its ecological limits.

Thus seen objectively, the regulatory function of the Green Movement is to warn of this danger (“ecological wisdom”) and prepare a vision for how contemporary industrial capitalism can transform itself into a new system of “sustainable” class exploitation once this ecological limit is reached.

…the regulatory function of the Green Movement is to warn of this danger…

This social dynamic presents a complex challenge for the Green Movement. Obviously global warming and all the other aspects of contemporary ecological devastation are real and must be faced as a human challenge as well as an issue of capitalism: that is, even if class exploitation cannot be done away with the ecological crisis must be solved. But for the working class this is thin soup indeed. If Greens are to be true to the meaning of our color in its best sense, a path of Ecological Wisdom that is not that of the tame doggie of the capitalists must be found. Yet this will be a severe challenge: of necessity it will be an untrodden path, both intellectually complex and politically demanding. Essentially it will mean the transformation of the Green Movement into a movement of explicit class struggle centered at the bottom.

I will discuss key facets of this challenge, under the two headings, Class and Ecology.


In the most general sense, capitalist society consists of two classes, the owners of capital and all those who work with exploited labor for the commodities capital with labor produces. Such a classification, however, is not of great use in real class struggle as it is mechanistic and reified, neglecting the actual social forces around which power against capitalism might be organized.

Just as the bipolar iron magnet, no matter how many times divided, contains a north and south pole in each piece, every subdivision of the non-capitalist class reproduces within itself the dynamics of the total class structure: the pull towards liberation and the pull towards domination. What this means in practical social life is that every class subdivison carries its own tendency to both align with and pull away from alliance with the capitalist ruling class.

In general terms those classes nearest the ruling class will form alliances with the rulers (managers, etc.), while alienation will increase the further down the social hierarchy; but this again is also an abstraction that should not be taken with total literalness. For example, classic Marxism sees the leading edge of revolt in the advanced industrial working class, while those at the very bottom—Marx’s “lumpen”—are seen as having reactionary tendencies; and during the period of capitalism’s ecological expansion this may have been true. Today, however, the general, abstract model is becoming more and more a concrete reality: under 21st century conditions, resistance and alienation will more and more gravitate to the bottom (although today this is mostly expressed in unorganized forms such as petty crime, drug use, window smashing, etc.).

…the ecology of production of modern capitalism can be defined as a fossil fuel ecology…

Under 21st century conditions—as opposed to the situation of the 19th and 20th centuries—every subclass below capital having the possibility to do so will more and more align its interest with the ruling class in united exploitation of subclasses below. For anti-capitalist Greens, this presents a paradox: that of an anti-capitalist program articulated from and to a class base (the professional and semi-professional classes) more and more aligned with capital. This should be the conclusion of a materialist understanding of history and society when all contemporary factors are taken into consideration.

Individuals have free will and as individuals are not necessarily determined in their personal ideology or behavior by material interests and class position; class formations as totalities, however, are. In building a social base, it is an idealist philosophy, not a historical materialist understanding, to assume power building can be done by individual conversion disregarding class position, or even by “issue” organizing; true social movements are built on class struggle, whether or not openly acknowledged (and mostly in reality these struggles are struggles of the middle and ruling classes for ongoing hegemony). This is paradoxical and its apparent implication is just what I mean, that most “leftist” or “progressive” battles are masked or deluded forms of further oppression. This is a paradox that can only be broken once it is realized.


The differentiation of modern capitalism from merchant capitalism and feudalism was based on three primary factors:

1. The emergence of a commodity economy;
2. The creation of the modern factory system;
3. The replacement of biomass energy by fossil fuel energy as a production base.

These three factors formed an organic unity, such that none of the three can be taken as the principal historical force; however without fossil fuels, first coal and then petroleum, modern industrial capitalism and all that has come with it could not have come into being. In this sense, the ecology of production of modern capitalism can be defined as a fossil fuel ecology, where such fuels represent geologically concentrated pools of photosynthesized energy as compared with the dispersed photosynthesis of living biomass matter (for example, a certain haulable unit of coal will represent the energy of an entire forest).

Furthermore, because of the fact of geological concentration, fossil fuels tend to be extractable—especially in the early stages of mining or drilling—at a relatively low labor input per unit of energy output. To use another analogy, the mass introduction of fossil fuels into production was like the injection of a dose of methamphetamine into the veins of an all night driver: everything was suddenly, on a historical scale, sped up and expanded—but only of course until the come-down. The come-down for fossil fuel production is the Hubbert Curve.

…global oil production will peak at some time in the present decade…

In a famous paper of 1956, petroleum geologist King Hubbert predicted that US crude oil production would peak in the 1970s and then follow an inevitable decline; in other words, that the extraction of finite resources such as petroleum necessarily followed a bell curve. Hubbert’s prediction was not taken seriously by most experts at the time but, astonishingly, it proved to be true; since about 1973, when US domestic production peaked, oil production within the lower 48 states has continually declined, until today the US is dependent on imported oil for industrial production and transportation.

But now, according to a growing number of reputable petroleum geologists, the same curve by which Hubbert foretold the end of US domestic oil dominance is working its way through global oil production. Their prediction is that global oil production will peak at some time in the present decade and from that point will trace a decline to an economically recoverable zero at mid-century. One indication of this is that for many years the discovery of new oil around the world has lagged far behind growing world demand.

Crude oil (with natural gas) is the keystone of the arch of modern industrial production; not only is it a primary energy source, especially in transportation, but petroleum is also a vital raw material for the production of many essential goods such as plastics, petro-chlorine chemicals, lubricants and fertilizers. The collapse of the petroleum keystone could signal the collapse of the entire arch.

Marx…did not consider the possibility of such total shrinkage of nature as a serious factor for capitalist development...

The shrinking of world petroleum reserves, combined with a growing world population (predicted to peak at between 8 and 11 billion by mid-century) and other declines in the resource base for human production, such as soil, forest and fishery depletion, will create a constriction of the total global ecology of human production, an event unprecedented in human history. Marx, for all his insight, did not consider the possibility of such total shrinkage of nature as a serious factor for capitalist development—which, of course, it was not in his time. This future of shrinking production is already being mirrored in the fact that world per capita energy consumption, having rapidly increased since the end of World War II, has been essentially level since the 1970s. (1) This is one primary fact behind the general slowdown of the world economy since the 1960s.

The looming world energy gap—between growing world need and declining fossil fuel reserves—is already a major concern within capitalist think tanks and in universities; government energy departments are also, slowly and reluctantly, beginning to acknowledge the problem exists. Yet proposed solutions are both complex and problematic. What is coming is an ecological shift in production as drastic as that from feudal production to industrialism and no one knows, or can know, just how it will work out. The future lies stretched between the dialectical poles of an even more technified society based on breeder reactors and fusion and a “green” solar/biomass society (based on intensified hand labor), with dwindling coal reserves as a bridge from the present. None of this should be glamorized, especially a future of green “feudal” peasantry.

What is coming is an ecological shift in production as drastic as that from feudal production to industrialism...

Finally, the ecological squeeze impacts directly on practical class analysis. As the world production ecology contracts, a per capita squeeze on all sectors of society will create a powerful “social attractor” pulling most social sub-strata into orientation with the “north pole” of the ruling class (out of defensive class self-interest). Only the lowest strata, low-paid workers and the poor, will resist this reorientation, not out of idealism but because the social space for turning north will have been occupied by other class strata. As difficult as it may be, the lesson for the Green Movement is clear: to move forward on a non-sellout path, as a true oppositional force to capitalism. In other words, for the Green Movement to become more than “Confucian” window dressing for the green evolution of capitalism, there must be a shift of movement base from the professional class to a base in the lower strata of society.


1. John H. Gibbons, Peter D. Blair, Holly L. Gwin, Strategies for Energy Use, Scientific American, Sept. 1989; see also more current British Petroleum statistical reports.

Some references on Oil Depletion:

Colin J. Campbell, The Coming Oil Crisis, Multi-Science Publishing Co. & Petroconsultants, 1997.

Colin J. Campbell & J. H. Laherre, The End of Cheap Oil, Scientific American, March 1998.

Kenneth Deffeyes, Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage, Princeton University Press, 2001.

Richard C. Duncan, World Energy Production, Population Growth, and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge, Population and Environment, May–June 2001, v.22, n.5.

King M. Hubbert, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, Drilling and Production Practice, pp. 7–25, American Petroleum Institute, 1956.

King M. Hubbert, Energy Resources, National Academy of Sciences—National Research Council, Washington, DC, 1962.

See also, http://hubbertpeak.com

[18 apr 03]

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