Alan Roberts imageOne of my friends Alan Roberts died late last year. He was 92. Alan was born in Brisbane in 1925. His father died of injuries from his service in World War I in the months before he was born and he was raised by his mother in difficult circumstances. He was just old enough to serve in the Australian Royal Air Force during the last years of the Second World War and because of his service he was able to go to university. He became a theoretical physicist.

Alan said that he was converted to socialism by a book he read during idle moments of his military career. He became a member the Communist Party but later joined one of the groups labelled ‘Trostskyist’. Alan was never a sectarian and in his career as a socialist he concentrated on campaigns against nuclear weapons and nuclear power. He was influenced by the Builders Labourers successful green ban campaign and this gave him the conviction that workers could become leading activists in an environmental movement that was socialist in its objectives.

The following is the talk I gave at his memorial in February.

Alan was a scientist by profession but he was also a philosopher, an environmentalist and a socialist. All these elements of his thought come together in the Self-Managing Environment, a book published in 1979. I want to talk about this book not only because I regard it as an important contribution to socialist and environmental thought but also because it embodies so much of what we all regarded as so attractive, inspiring and thought provoking in our encounters with Alan’s views (and it was impossible not to encounter them since Alan, once he was preoccupied with a topic, would air it incessantly.)

Alan’s book was published in 1979 at the end of a decade in which environmentalism and environmental literature had experienced an exponential growth. Alan’s main purpose in writing the book was to answer the basic questions: ‘What is responsible for the environmental crisis and what is the solution to it? But he also assesses and criticises ideas that had so far dominated environmental discussion (and to a large extent still do).

The main error he identifies in environmental thinking is that of unjustified abstraction. ‘Writers on ecological crises often leap straight from the considerations that are important in plant and animal systems to the ecosystems in which humans operate.’ We cannot expect science to comprehend environmental interactions and control them, he says. Science works with simplified models, ignoring many of the forces at work. ‘In a practical sense the science of human ecology cannot be a “science” at all. Not only because interactions are so complex but because human choice must be taken into account. We cannot and should not expect it to develop into a tidy discipline with a set of objective laws. The environmental crises are drumming dialectics into our heads.’

Marxists, he believes, have been less guilty of the error of abstraction. They realise that the way humans interact with the environment – namely through the means and relations of production – are implicated in environmental crisis. But their insistence that capitalism is the problem and overthrowing it is the solution ignores the role that values play in perpetuating the crisis. Societies that have overthrown capitalism also suffer from serious environmental problems. (He had the Soviet Union in mind; we can point to China.)

Alan thinks that capitalism has to be overthrown – of course – but those who want to prevent destruction of the environment must also find a way of challenging consumer values: a complex of motivations that encourage people to regard their possessions as a major source of self-respect and to value the future and their political system in so far as it holds out the prospect of further consumption. Alan does not regard these motivations as natural or inevitable; indeed he thinks that they are a perversion, the result of a bad bargain between capital and labour. Leisure time, the shorter working day, and satisfying work that could have been enjoyed by workers as the result of modern industrial technology were traded off for their ability to buy more and more consumer goods. Consumerist values and the need of political and industrial leaders to satisfy the desire of people for consumer goods have also resulted in developments that are irrational even from a capitalist perspective and especially bad for the environment: for example the growth of the nuclear industry and, more generally, the enormous political influence wielded by big energy corporations.

When Alan was writing his book there was considerable enthusiasm, at least in left wing circles, for workers’ control of industry. He latches onto that, not only as a way in which workers can challenge capitalism but as an alternative source of value. In the place of the alienated workplace for which consumerism has to compensate, industries run by workers will give them all the benefits and satisfaction of cooperation and collective control of the conditions that affect their lives. Worker controlled factories and industries not only encourage the development of these social values and thus discourage consumerism. Alan thinks that they can also motivate workers to act for the good of the environment. He gives as examples the green bans in Sydney – the result of an alliance between builders labourers and residents that saved parks and heritage from developers – and the workers of Lucas Aerospace in Britain who constructed a plan to use the technology of their factory to produce goods that would satisfy real human needs.

Alan’s answers to the basic questions about environmental crisis and its cure are highly original and so is his attempt to bring socialism and environmentalism together. From our perspective, almost 40 years after the book was written, we can spot difficulties for Alan’s argument. Production is now global, a situation that throws up difficulties for the prospect of workers’ control. Capitalists have found a version of self-management that suits them: namely making workers into independent contractors. When Alan wrote his book industrial production still played a dominant role in Australia. Australia is now more of a service economy and any scheme for control of the workplace would have to take into account the problems faced by service workers and their clients. Electronic technology has opened up new possibilities for political struggle and organisation of society but it also poses many dangers.

However, one of the lessons that Alan draws from his discussion of the error of abstraction is that there are no leaders who can tell us how to bring about socialism or save the environment. There is no blueprint for action. ‘Life thrusts theory aside,’ as he says. What socialist theorists can do – what Alan did so well – is to point out possibilities for a struggle that can achieve the traditional socialist objective: a society that does away with the hierarchies that separate mental from manual labour and permits the full flowering of all a person’s talents. Where he differed from many traditional socialists is in his belief that human flourishing requires a society in which humans live in harmony with their environment. Socialists must also be environmentalists. Alan’s accomplishment was to understand what socialism has to become in our times and to point us, as best as he could, in the right direction. We are left with the difficult task of continuing his work.

Those interested in reading this book should contact Hall Greenland (hallgreenland@gmail.com) who is arranging a re-printing.