On climate change, class, and capitalism
When the subject of climate change arises, there are several things that we can expect to hear about quite consistently;
The Kyoto Protocol and how well one or other government is living up to their responsibilities. The “green credentials” of various corporate bodies. The introduction of some new “green” tax which will, depending on the spin offered, either “reduce emissions” or “fleece more money from the taxpayer.” The “debate” offered by climate change skeptics that the whole thing is just bunkum.
The truth is that, for the most part, all of the above is utterly irrelevant as far as the effect on real people, especially the world’s poorest, of climate change is concerned. Whilst the world’s governments argue over how best to “balance” the dof carbon emissions against the supposed need to maintain economic growth, and corporations concerned only with profit search for a way to make a quick buck out of being “green,” people across the world are dying.
Diseases and starvation, as a result of droughts and floods, kill roughly 160,000 people every year. Nearly a billion people globally are affected by hunger due to a growing global food crisis. And, across the world, struggles for control of dwindling natural resources are exacerbating the problems of war and the brutal oppression of occupied peoples. All of this is happening as we speak, and is not to mention the glacier retreat, acidification of the oceans, the release of 70,000 million tonnes of methane from the melting of permafrost peat bogs, and the risk that droughts brought on by temperature increases will result in a “positive feedback loop” between greater atmospheric CO2 levels and more intense and regular forest fires, all paving the way towards global catastrophe.
There is an overwhelming body of evidence that we are not far away from the culmination of such a scenario, rendering the anecdotal evidence and blind insistence of the skeptics nothing more than a pointless distraction. A research paper by Maxwell and Jules Boykoff demonstrates how “the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action,” resulting in “a significant divergence of popular discourse from scientific discourse.” Thus, the “controversy” surrounding climate change exists almost solely within popular discourse.
That said, it is clear that – whilst the threat of climate change is extremely real and current – most of the “solutions” on offer are political or profit-based rather than ecological. Although governments and corporations are coming around to the threat, by their very nature they must put short term gains ahead of long term consequences.
In a capitalist society, then, anybody who takes the threat of climate change seriously will quickly be weeded out. Not because there’s a conscious effort to destroy the environment, but because that’s how the system operates. A rival who is unconcerned with long-term environmental effects will quickly undercut the profits of the environmentally conscious capitalist, thus undermining their position and their ability to make such decisions. This is why only those “green” measures that generate short-term profit are acted upon, and addressing the core issue with any seriousness is quickly sidelined.
The Socialist Review outlines the contradiction that this situation offers up to the state and big business;
Governments and businesses have a genuine interest in stopping climate change, just as their predecessors a century and a half ago had a genuine interest in dealing with typhoid and cholera in slum working class districts in order to stop the diseases affecting upper class districts as well.
What is at stake for them now is greater. Not just their lives are threatened, but the stability of global capitalism. But they cannot achieve their goal without trying to dampen down the momentum of competitive capital accumulation, the very basis of their system.
Environmental degradation has always been a consequence of capitalism. Karl Marx showed this in the chapter on machinery in Capital: “Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction.”
In early 19th century Britain the damage to the health and fitness of the working class caused by the drive for profit posed more of a danger to the capitalists than the infectious diseases themselves. It threatened eventually to create a shortage of workers fit enough to be exploited. The interests of the capitalist class as a whole lay in legislation and state inspection to prevent the debilitation of the workforce. But individual capitalist interests fought tooth and nail against such measures. Most of them only understood that a healthy working class was more exploitable than an unhealthy one after the state imposed controls.
Capitalism has now reached out to envelop the whole world and it damages not only localities but the global environment on which it depends. The factory fumes causing bronchitis in working class tenements have now become greenhouses gases threatening to devastate the whole of humanity.
It is precisely because this is a global problem, that those who support the system find it difficult to deal with. The drastic measures needed to reduce emissions will present opportunities for other firms and states to intrude on markets. Capitalism is in the situation of destroying the very ground on which it stands. Our futures – or at least our children’s or grandchildren’s futures – are also at stake.
What, then, is the solution? Those who do not understand the institutional short-sightedness that drives state-corporate interests advocate putting pressure on these same institutions to change their ways. A typical example of this is advocated by Al Gore, on his An Inconvenient Truth website;
Your actions to reduce global warming can extend beyond how you personally reduce your own emissions. We all have influence on our schools, workplaces, businesses, and on society through how we make purchases, invest, take action, and vote. Here are some ways you can have a positive effect on global warming.
Encourage your school or business to reduce emissions
You can extend your positive influence on global warming well beyond your home by actively encouraging other to take action. Download our toolkits for schools and businesses to take action outside of your home.
Join the virtual march
The Stop Global Warming Virtual March is a non-political effort to bring all Americans concerned about global warming together in one place. Add your voice to the hundreds of thousands of other Americans urging action on this issue.
Encourage the switch to renewable energy
Successfully combating global warming requires a national transition to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass. These technologies are ready to be deployed more widely but there are regulatory barriers impeding them. Take action to break down those barriers with Vote Solar.
Protect and conserve forest worldwide
Forests play a critial role in global warming: they store carbon. When forests are burned or cut down, their stored carbon is release into the atmosphere — deforestation now accounts for about 20% of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Conservation International has more information on forests and global warming.
Whilst, undoubtedly, all of the above are positive steps, they do not go far enough or address the core of the problem. The barriers against transforming to a carbon-free society are not “regulatory,” but profit-based. Likewise, Gore’s recommendations on how to “reduce your impact at home” are sensible and worth enacting, but their effect globally will ultimately be a minimal one.
No, in order to end the exploitation and destruction of the environment (and not just in relation to climate change), what we need is a complete restructuring of the social and economic order. As Adam Ford explains in an article for Shift Magazine;
Any campaign against environmental destruction has to be rooted in a movement against the profit motive and the capitalist system, or it is doomed to symbolic gestures and failure. Industry doesn’t create carbon emissions, working people do, because they are paid to do so and see no viable alternative. While capitalist ideas prevail amongst the working class, invasions of power stations are less direct action and more dramatic lobbying; ultimately impotent appeals to the government to see further than the short term bottom line, something it is organically incapable of doing.
Thus, the solution to climate change must be class-based. However, engaging people so that they can realise this and become more involved is going to take a lot of work.
As Ford points out, one problem actions such as Climate Camp face is that “the idea of a class-based transformation of society is rejected – in some cases because of righteous disillusionment with traditional forms of class struggle, in many cases because the individual is from a relatively wealthy background.” Often, as a result of this, the environmental movement can take on a shape that is “more anti-technological than anti-capitalist.” Such a divergence must be wholeheartedly rejected. The environmental utopia envisioned by, for example, anarcho-primitivists is one that would require absolutely massive genocide to reduce humanity to the number at which such asociety would be sustainable.
Instead, what we need is serious and constant engagement with this problem. Groups such as Climate Camp and Workers’ Climate Action are moving in the right direction, and the recent occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory in protest at its closure demonstrated that the working class can be mobilised on this issue. What is important now is that activists continue to build upon these actions, to engage with and draw in more and more concerned citizens, and to mobilise the working classes on this issue.
If we are to appeal to the beneficience of governments and corporations, maybe in tandem with our own recycling and use of energy-efficient light bulbs, then we might as well throw in the towel now. Only by fighting to end the cycle of profit, consumption, and destruction that feeds capitalism in favour of a sustainable world run by and for the working masses can we hope to avoid the threat of a global environmental cataclysm.