Velocities and Scales: Why the Post-Carbon Transition Needs Socialist-Ecological Planning

The difficulty of situating the working class in the context of climate breakdown is not least that any ecological transition has to cope with multiple crises unfolding with different velocities and at different scales. If democratic structures are to enable the organization of the process, then we should explore socialist ecological planning, as it could meet the related challenges, as Jörg Nowak argues in his contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.


The current transition towards post-carbon societies, if indeed fully implemented, will affect many of the few remaining strongholds of working class power, both in the Global North and the Global South: oil and petroleum companies, the automobile industry, coal mining. A truly far-reaching variant of such a transition would also bring a significant reduction in road and ship traffic. The crucial question therefore is how we can avoid that the post-carbon transitions occur at the back of the global working class, eliminating more of their bargaining power against the excesses of capitalism and affecting once again the poorer sections of society, and, last but not least, eroding the few remnants of welfare and social security.

One way to prevent this would be socialist ecological planning enabling to determine in which areas and sectors emissions and economic activities are to be reduced. For example, more investment in public transport than in individual traffic, less coal mining and meat production. A general conversion from a focus on manufacturing of goods towards care and personal services would be a guiding theme, and therefore also a transfer of labor power from certain sectors and industries to others.

Labor, cities, and transportation

In any case, there is a contradiction between the immediate interests of workers in existing industries and (projected) workers in ‘green’ industries after the ecological transition has been fully implemented. Firstly, when confronted with large-scale change workers usually want to stay in their jobs since they have created personal contacts or acquired specific qualifications, or live close to their workplace. Secondly, the question whether there will not be enough ‘green jobs’ for everyone on this planet and whether workers in the Global South, who are systemically-disadvantaged in the international division of labor, will remain excluded from the protection partially granted to the white working class in the centers of the world system.

Another important element and contested field of socialist ecological planning is the structure of cities, including housing and settlement policies. Shorter distances from home to work contribute to diminish CO2 emissions and overall energy use. Commuting times and distances keep on increasing in many countries, a development which is partly fueled by rising real estate prices in urban centers, and partly by corporate restructuring which often comes with moving workplaces to more distant locations.

Apart from the question of settlements, transport and commuting, there is another controversial area: consumption. Many emissions can be avoided if less products are transported from far away places. 60 per cent of the industrial production of East Asia is being transported to Europe and North America. The volume of global shipping exploded after 2000. However, if this long distance transport of goods diminishes, unemployment and poverty in the regions that produce those products would increase. The question of any reduction of the long-range transport of consumer goods has to tackle the North-South distribution of incomes and buying power which is of course an enormous challenge.

Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc)

Having said that, only 20 per cent of global shipping is for consumer goods. One third of shipping is for oil and other fuels required for production or maintaining the infrastructure of production.

In this way, changes to the fossil basis of heating, energy generation, and transport have the potential to bring transport emissions down, too. But only if these types of transport of energy raw material are not replaced by the transport of hydrogen from, for example, Latin America and Africa to Europe. The biggest amount of CO2 emissions originates with the generation of heat and energy (13600 million tons), in manufacturing and construction (6200 million tons) and in transport (8000 millions tons, of which 6000 are from road transport).

The main challenges for socialist ecological planning

Especially greenhouse gas emissions due to transport, the second highest amount after energy generation, keep on rising in the US, the EU and in China since 1990. In countries like China for example, emissions exploded since 1990 – but also because several countries moved production of goods from their own continents to Asia. Therefore the question of sectoral shifts of investment, the reduction of regional inequalities and the reduction of transport are three key areas which are all interlinked and can only be addressed with a more holistic framework. To achieve this, socialist ecological planning faces three main challenges:

1. Unlike capitalist planning, socialist ecological planning is not focused on profit-making. Socialist planning is aiming toward several aims and it is an enormous challenge to resolve the conflicts between those aims. Different parts of society will be affected by socio-ecological transitions in a different way which will lead to potential conflicts of interest. Socialist planning requires the development of democratic procedures to moderate these divergent interests and the establishment of a hierarchy of needs in society and to structure plans accordingly.

2. Who takes decisions about planning? Social movements, trade unions, national governments or all three of them? What about churches and religious groups? Any centralized institutions of planning will hold so much power that it will provide incentives for the abuse of that power. On the other hand, in the absence of market discipline there will be a need for another form of discipline in order to guarantee that social and ecological targets of planning are implemented.

3. The speed and effectiveness of decisions stands in conflict with a participatory debate on the goals of planning. Poverty and social inequality are pressing needs, and the ecological crisis comes with urgency, too. But democracy and political participation require time and debates.

Addressing multiple aims at the same time

In order to address those three issues, I will draw in part on the writings of socialist Otto Neurath and on the works of contemporary scholars who debate his ideas in the light of ecological economics. The first issue concerns the challenge to address multiple aims at the same time, and to weigh them against each other. Neurath emphasizes that public sector investment in schools and hospitals did not quantify the needs to which these institutions respond in terms of “units of teaching or sickness.” Health and education are incommensurable needs that cannot be weighed against each other. Joan Martinez-Alier develops these ideas further: “Incommensurability means that there is no common unit of measurement, but it does not mean that we cannot compare alternative decisions on a rational basis, on different scales of value.”

While spending for health and education is only in contradiction in terms of where the money and (wo)manpower goes, the contradictions between work and welfare and ecological aims are often more immediate: Should ‘we’ transport mobile phones and computers from other continents although they can be produced closer to the consumers, only to be able to buy them for cheaper prices due to the lower prices of wages and other costs in Asia, and therefore trade lower prices against higher emissions?

Needless to say, this should not be a moral-ethical question, but one pointing to the economic contradictions of addressing multiple aims at the same time.

The politics of decision-making

The second issue of ‘who is able to decide about social changes based on which information’ is even harder to resolve. The difficulty to replace market discipline with an alternative incentive was at the center of the failure of the Soviet model. Workers had a right to work, acquired a significant amount of workplace control and basic welfare was organized by the state. But the lack of clear incentives in the centrally planned economy led to a lack of resources for production, which led factories to stockpile and resulted in a low quality of many goods – which is also not very sustainable, since product life was short.

Moreover, the extremely centralized planning procedures prevented any participation of citizens and workers in the decision-making process. Socialist ecological planning will have to address the question of power and participation along with the question of incentives and effectiveness of planning: How to avoid too much centralization in planning while attaining effective outcomes, and guarantee participation in decision-making?

Neurath did not address the question of discipline/effectiveness head on, but it is interesting to know that he devised a scheme of economic planning based on the cooperation between four different central institutions: The first of these institutions would design a variety of alternative plans and the second institution applies the plan that was chosen to economic sectors. The third institution controls the efficient application of plans, while the fourth one controls the results of the directives of the plans. Suffice to design an institutional architecture in which the power relations between those centers is defined in a proper and clear way.

Neurath’s scheme demonstrates that planning is not easy, but doable and thinkable. On the level of global planning, this would require again the question how to balance different power relations between states, and also between large and small states – if planning continues to rely on national frameworks.

Democracy and the scales, qualities, and temporalities of crises

Neurath did not address the third issue of the contradiction between urgencies, which differ in scope, time, and quality, and democracy. It is characteristic of eco-fascism to put the emphasis on the lack of time and exclusion, while market ecological solutions are neither democratic nor speed up the effectiveness of social or ecological measures, i.e. they fail on both accounts. The contradiction between democracy and the varying scales, qualities, and temporalities of crises cannot be resolved once and for all, as the other aforementioned contradictions, but only be addressed in a practical manner. Any decision in socialist ecological planning will be faced with decisions that balance these two aspects.

In the face of the overall failure of market ecological solutions and the surge of various authoritarian blueprints, socialist ecological planning promises to create a balance between human welfare and ecological concerns. Some ecological measures lead to immediate benefits in terms of human welfare, and other contradict the concerns of human welfare in the mid-term at least. It is only by providing practical solutions and proposals to the three contradictions faced by socialist ecological planning that the balance between social and ecological development can be achieved.

Note by the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here:

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