Our Future Solar Utopia Revisited: Another World is Possible!

(Paper presented at Technonatures session, The 37th World Congress of

the International Institute of Sociology in Stockholm, July 5-9, 2005)

David Schwartzman


We ought to dream! (Lenin, What is to be Done?)

Imagine! (John Lennon)


In my teenage years, one of the first Marxist pamphlets I read and discussed was Engels’ Socialism Utopian and Scientific (I found these pamphlets in a cupboard below the family TV where my father stored them during the McCarthy years. I had the good fortune to be a “red diaper baby”). The core of Marx and Engels’ critique of utopiansocialists was their construction of future utopias, often elaborated in great detail, without a scientific analysis of capitalism and its contradictions wherein Marx and Engels argued are found the opportunities for a revolutionary path to future classless society. Marx and Engels wrote little about this society, global communism, aside from arguing that increases in labor productivity under capitalism would be among the necessary conditions for its realization. We now see such necessary conditions in the existing and potential technologies of information, renewable energy and organic agriculture based on the science of agroecology.

Thus, I urge that concrete visions of communist utopia should now be discussed and represented by political movements that challenge the global rule of capital. This visioning should of course be a work in progress, continually revised with input from both the scientific/technological and political communities. If there is “another world possible” lets begin describing concretely how it will function and begin creating embryos of the future as global class struggle unfolds to achieve its full reality. So I hope to proceed in the spirit of Bloch’s “warm stream of Marxism”, its rescue of utopia by revealing the process by which utopia is possible (Bloch, 1986; see Levitas, 1990), using its “cold stream”, materialist analysis and the cutting edge of science and knowledge of the technology of the possible. I make no apologies for the “C” word (communism, not capitalism), no more problematic than its pinker version socialism. To be sure, millions have been murdered by those who claimed to be its staunchest supporters. But so have millions more in the name of Christianity, the Free World and Democracy. An annual largely silent genocide of some 10 million children still occurs because available resources are not applied to prevent their needless death, mainly in the countries of the South, in a world where in the name of “democracy and freedom” capital reproduction rules, except in small refugees like Cuba. More than 140 million of such preventable deaths, counting children alone, have occurred since the fall of the Soviet Union. Then why communism?

I proposed solar communism as the name of a future global society that will realize an updated version of Marx’s guiding principle for his vision of communism, namely “From each according to her ability, to each according to her needs”, where “her” refers to humans and nature (ecosystems) (Schwartzman, 1996a, 1998). So following the example of the Refoundation Communists of Italy, I urge the rethinking of the scientific utopian vision of communism, and the reconcretizing of the project to realize it, cleansed of the stain of Stalinism and Maoism, of the crimes committed in its name and freed of the dogmas that froze it in ideologies like state-sponsored “Marxism Leninism”.

Why communism as the name and not socialism? Following the Leninist tradition, I take socialism as the first phase (stage) of communist society (Marx,1938), hence well along in the transition from capitalism to communism. This transition will surely be hybrid, a process of nonlinear emergence, likely protracted and not irreversible given the history of “real existing socialism”. Equating (Eco) socialism and communism (e.g., Kovel, 2002, Burkettt, 2003b) unfortunately avoids addressing a theory and practice of transition, the project of emancipative transformation (see Brie, 2005).

Material prerequisites for Solar Utopia

My original papers emphasized the material prerequisites for solar utopia (solar communism) which included:

1) A global high efficiency solar energy infrastructure, replacing fossil fuels and nuclear energy; this argument entailed a critique of fallacious arguments derived from the influential writings of Georghescu-Roegen regarding so-called entropy limitations to a solarized economy. Georghescu-Roegen’s fallacy was his conflation of isolated and closed systems. The biosphere is essentially closed to transfer of matter, but not isolated with respect to energy flux.

2) Application of the containment and precautionary principles to environmental policy (including industrial ecology, organic agriculture centered around and in green cities)

3) Progressive dematerialization of technology, global availability of state-of-the-art information technology

4) Increase of human population density centered in green cities, elimination of sprawl leaving extensive biospheric reserves, managed to preserve biodiversity

The first two prerequisites were discussed at length in my original papers. Since then, promising new solar technologies are now on the horizon that promise to be the basis of a high efficiency infrastructure capable of replacing the present unsustainable fossil fuels/nuclear power/big hydropower energy system. These solar technologies incude wind power (linked to hydrogen production), solar water-splitting hydrogen-generation and thin film high efficiency plastic photovoltaics (see e.g., Goho, 2004). Expansion of nuclear energy, specifically a reincarnation of fission-powered reactors with new technology, will not significantly mitigate global warming (Van Leeuwen, and Smith, 2004), nor will it plausibly avoid the well-known negative environmental and health impacts of this energy source.

While the commodification of drinking water is a growing challenge to the global justice community (see e.g., http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?id=669, http://www.canadians.org/documents/blue_gold-e.pdf ) and needs immediate political and material solutions (such as water harvesting, reduction of wasteful uses of fresh water), the challenge of ultimately providing clean, fresh water to all can be fully met if necessary by desalination of seawater powered by solar energy. Except for water stored in ancient aquifers, water is not a depletable resource like fossil fuel, since the world’s ocean contain a nearly inexhaustible source of water that circulates naturally through the global hydrologic cycle.

Industrial ecology is now a growing practice, but the flux of waste to the biosphere has grown even faster. Nevertheless, industrial ecology still provides actual examples of what will be possible in a future solar utopia (see McDDonough and Braungart, 2002, for an introduction), embedded as it is in “Growth or Die” capital reproduction which still is the dominant mode.

Agroecology/organic agriculture is now blossoming (http://www.agroeco.org/), with remarkable initiatives in many countries, especially Cuba (Funes et al., 2002). There is growing evidence that this mode of agricultural production can replace the unsustainable green revolution stage of industrial agriculture, now being transformed by the use of genetically modified organisms, abandoning traditional crop and animal breeding. Further agroecology has the potential of feeding humanity without the negative health, ecological and environmental impacts of the present mode (see e.g., Ho and Ching, 2003; Vasilikotis, 2004; Pimentel et al., 2005).

The theory and practice of green cities has a long history (e.g., Mumford, 1961; McHarg, 1971; Giradet, 1992; Van de Ryn and Cowan,1996; Gordon, 1990; Roseland, 1997). One of the earliest anticipationsof urban spaces under communism was outlined by Gutnov et al. (1968),a work emphasizing the social aspects, mentioning green belts and elimination of car traffic, but otherwise ignoring other ecological aspects such as waste disposal. The elimination of sprawl (see e.g., Bullard et al., 2000) and reconcentration of people into sustainable green cities with high population densities are likely imperative to restore and protect global biodiversity.

The dematerialization of technology of course has the potential virtue of reducing physical throughput and energy consumption. In particular, the dematerialization of information technology has enormous potential but negative social, health and environmental impacts of information technology can be significant (Huws, 2003, Wallis, in press), so this technology like all others must be subject to an increasingly strong social and environmental regime produced by class struggle. The dialectics of this struggle are lucidly explored by Vlachou (2004, 2005).

Necessary conditions

I argue that the necessary conditions for solar utopia include:

1) Highly organized global workforce (from below)

2) Accelerated democratization of global society in all spheres including economic

3) Transnational labor/green solidarity, the ascendancy of an “Ecosocialist “World Party” (Wagar,1992; see http://wsarch.ucr.edu/archive/praxis/wp/)

4) Partial realization of the material prerequisites cited above, as living models for red/green struggles within global capitalism

For now, I will only assert that the divisions in the global working class and potentially allied strata, derived from the use of differences in nationality, ethnicity and “race”, gender, sexual preference etc. must be significantly overcome if there is any hope for the creation of a powerful transnational countervailing force to the national and transnational ruling classes in the global struggle for power. Of course, these differences have a long history of utility to ruling classes to create mechanisms of reproducing their dominance in pre-capitalist and capitalist societies (e.g., white skin privilege; see Allen, 1994, 1997). Like Kovel (2002), I have argued that a transnational ecosocialist movement must emerge as a component of this struggle as a necessary component for its success (Schwartzman, 1992, 1996b). Traditional forms of organization such as the Leninist party model have already been and will be superseded by the immense creativity of those involved in the global peace and justice movement, especially youth. We see these forms emerging in embryo in the networking and inventions of solidarity in the World Social Forum process. Transnational labor at the core of global peace and justice movements is by necessity the central countervailing force to transnational capital in the 21st century where the latter increasingly contests nation-centric forms of capitalist accumulation (Harris, 2005). The vision of ecosocialist transition should be articulated in every struggle so it will be fleshed out by those who have the most to gain, the working class, old and new, and middle strata. The challenge of ecosocialist politics is to create alliances among lower and middle strata as a countervailing force to big capital (Brie, 2005). The goal of the overall movement: first constrain, then do away with the global rule of capital. The reformability of real existing capitalism must be tested out by actual class struggle, not by pronouncement. In other words, by testing capitalism at its limits by defending and expanding democracy in the social, political and economic sphere (Boucher et al., 2003).

Sufficient conditions for the transition to and realization of Solar Utopia

In addition to the material prerequisites, the sufficient conditions arguably include:

1) Local/national/global social governance of production/consumption

2) Global equity, full equality of women, elimination of North/South disparities in health, education

3) Disarmament (demilitarization of global society)

4) Expansion of and social management of communally-owned land

5) The end of production of value based on labor time

The challenge of demilitarization

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children… This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” Dwight Eisenhower,1953)

Even in this world of such colossal theft, there is still enough food both in calories and nutrition to potentially feed everyone (Boucher,1999), although this mode of production has huge negative impacts on humans and nature. Hunger and malnutrition are the results of existing political economy not any real shortage of food. But imagine the possibilities of a world without this theft! Moreover, global demilitarization is likely a necessary condition for a conversion to renewable energy on a time scale that will significantly avoid the worst effects of global warming (Boucher et al., 2003). And of course demilitarization will open up the possibility of a vast green reconversion of production and consumption (Wallis, 1993; Schwartzman, 1991). Thus the peace and ecological movements must be integrally linked for any chance for mutual success. I do not believe it wishful thinking to identify February 15, 2003 as the historic day that this transnational of peace and justice was born.

Significantly, it was a socialist, Robert Marshall, who fought for public ownership and management of forests in the United States in the 1930s (Marshall, 1933). Social management of communally-owned land of course has reality in even capitalist countries in the form of National Parks, Biosphere Reserves, recognition in international law of the common heritage of humanity (Antarctica, Oceans, Atmosphere, the Moon). This social management will be vastly expanded in an ecosocialist transition to solar utopia (see Burkett, 2003a for discussion of social management under communism). I argue that the transition to solar utopia must proceed from entropy-limited capitalism thru ecosocialism to energy-limited solar communism (Schwartzman, 1996a). What is the ultimate limit to global energy consumption? Presently the global anthropogenic energy flux is equal to 0.03% of solar flux to land, hence tapping the solar flux has huge potential as the energy basis of solar utopia, with much smaller impacts on global ecology than now (see Schwartzman, 1996a, for fuller discussion).

Solar utopia will mean the end of Value or capital reproduction (Davis, 2000; Davis et al., 1997; Dyer-Witheford, 1999). This passage from Davis (2000) is illuminating:

“New technologies express the fulfillment of Marx’s writings in his “Fragment on Machines”—a production system without human labor, where the productivity of technology so overwhelms the production process that “labor time ceases to be the measure” of wealth and “production based upon exchange value collapses.” Such a production system is antithetical to a system based on the expropriation of surplus labor, and by definition cancels it. However, production has not collapsed; rather than work disappearing, or at least lightening, more people than ever are engaged in wage labor; and each new high-tech production zone seems to be matched by a new Dickensian production zone. Can these two positions be reconciled? This paper attempts such a reconciliation, towards coming to a better understanding of capitalism in the age of electronics, and what that means for the class struggle. I argue that as a historical category, Value has at least a theoretical end. Qualitatively new technologies are labor-replacing technologies, and lay the basis for Value-less production. This, of course, raises profound issues for Capital. The complex interaction of these new technologies and Capital, expressed in various counter-tendencies explains much about the state of capitalism today. The new technological climate does not in itself destroy the Value system, or capitalism, but it does create the conditions for Capital’s destruction and the construction of a communist society. The end of Value is not automatic, but a conscious act by class forces born out of the new conditions.”

As Davis ends his essay, “This is how Value will end - as a political act , the exercise of class power”, i.e., class struggle.

A critical material prerequisite of the end of Value is the availability of virtually “free” energy derived from a global infrastructure of high efficiency capture of solar energy. This infrastructure will create the supply and quality of energy necessary to radically reduce negative environmental impacts, indeed to also restore and repair both the technosphere and ecosphere (Commoner,1990), though irreversible damage has already occurred (e.g., biodiversity loss). In contrast, continued reliance on the present unsustainable energy supply not only contributes to well known negative environmental, ecological and health impacts, thereby reduces labor productivity while externalizing the costs of these negative impacts (e.g., increasingly regressive tax structures providing state subsidy to fossil fuels and nuclear power while structural adjustment cuts budgets for health and environmental protection). As mentioned above, we may now be near revolutionary breakthroughs in high efficiency plastic photovoltaics or hydrogen generation by water-splitting driven by solar energy. Each stage of history has been energy-parasitic on the previous: pre-industrial (low efficiency solar, i.e., photosynthesis), then industrial (fossil fuels, nuclear fission) now in the 21st century, the challenge of transition to post-industrial high efficiency solar parasitized by the remaining reserves of fossil fuel energy, particularly natural gas, the preferable choice with respect to limiting carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, this transition is increasingly urgent because of the prospect of ecocatastrophe mainly a result of global warming, and the timescale of the so-called Hubbert Peak, the likely peak in petroleum production in this century driven by the exhaustion of petroleum reserves (see Smil, 2003). How much time we have to successfully meet these challenges that face all humanity is critically dependent on the lifetime of US hyperpower hegemony (“Empire”) (see e.g., Harvey, 2003), itself contingent on global class struggle, transnational movements from below.

Modeling the transition to solar utopia

Dynamic models that include explicit assumptions and quantitative parameterization are useful, not as a basis of “scientific” prophecy, but rather to demonstrate the practicability of solar utopia and as heuristic tools to help think through the contingencies and possibilities entailed in this project to achieve it. Such models may reveal unexpected places in global political economy where ecosocialist movements might have the most leverage, to move the monstrous boulder of capital down the slope to its well deserved sedimentary cemetery of prehistory on a path that minimizes the destruction of nature and humans.

For example, in a series of papers (Hoffert et al., 2002; Caldeira et al., 2003) it is claimed on the basis of modeling that present solar technology lacks the necessary efficiency required for a transition fast enough to slow down global warming significantly in this century. But in their modeling, these authors assume the IPCC “business-as-usual” economic assumptions (i.e., relatively unconstrained market capitalism). A revealing caveat is stated: “There is no doubt that long-term economic projections are unreliable, as they cannot anticipate unforeseen technological or socioeconomic revolutions.” (Caldeira et al., 2003) Socioeconomic revolutions indeed. The critical obstacles to a rapid “soft” path are plausibly more political-economic than technological. Even existing solar technologies are likely adequate but not sufficient for a conversion to solarized global economy, with a critical obstacle being the dedication of the present and near future US regimes to prolonging a petroleum-based global empire under its military/corporate hegemony. Thus, I suggest we need to explore world models, with these political economic obstacles removed, models that include the transformation of industrial/genetically modified agriculture to global agroecology, the creation of green cities, and industrial ecology in a world committed to rapid and progressive demilitarization and solarization, models that begin to demonstrate that another world is indeed not only possible but realizable in the 21st century.


In this post 9/11 world, is this vision another “infantile disorder” (Lenin,1940) or realizable in this the 21st century? In the final analysis, the answer will follow from the success of national and transnational political struggles that eliminate hyperpower hegemony and impose social regulation on capital reproduction (Boucher et al., 2003). Arguably the material prerequisites are already in existence in embryo or will be born soon within the womb of global capitalism or the remaining remnants of real existing socialism (e.g., Cuban agroecology).


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I thank Paul Burkett, Charles Verharen, Victor Wallis and Damian White for their critical reviews of a draft of this paper.