Are First World workers to blame for climate change?

Some see workers in developed countries like Australia as too bought off to be allies in the fight for climate action. Jasmine Ali shows why this isn’t the case

Many people who want action on climate change blame the consumption of workers in the developed world for producing the “Global North’s” high emissions.

They point to workers using cars, heaters and air-conditioners, and the purchase of wasteful commodities such as plasma-screen TVs and four-wheel drives.

A 2006 Friends of the Earth position paper put it this way: “Emissions from developing countries are mainly the result of trying to achieve a basic standard of living for their citizens, whereas those from developed countries are for luxuries such as motor cars and air-conditioning.”

Following from this view is the concern that First World standards of living, if replicated in the developing or Third World, will cement a path of irrevocable environmental damage.

Those who hold such ideas see workers in the North not as an ally in the struggle, but an obstacle to achieving serious climate action—a class of privileged collaborators with the current system of fossil fuel energy generation and carbon-intensive society.

They accept, and even advocate, cuts to workers’ living standards, and higher electricity and food prices to create “market” incentives for a switch to renewable and sustainable alternatives.

To compound this view, it is sometimes thought that the privileges of First World workers are based on an unequal exchange between the Global North and South.

Climate change and inequality in the North
The idea that working class lifestyles in the North are a driver of carbon emissions is generally derived from two obvious facts. Firstly, there is a very real disparity in emissions between the developed and the developing world. Secondly, standards of living in the Global North are substantially higher.

On average, the developed world produces five times more emissions than the developing world. Even starker, in 2006 US emissions reached 15.1 tonnes of CO2 per person, compared to 1.1 tonnes in India. Australia is one of the highest per capita carbon emitters.

There is undoubtedly a greater responsibility on developed countries like Australia to cut emissions. The attempt by Western leaders to shift the blame for accelerating greenhouse gas emissions to the developing world, by blaming countries like India and China, is a blatant attempt to divert attention from their own responsibility.

But even within developed countries, the gulf between industry and household carbon emissions is also enormous.

In Australia, the bulk of carbon emissions come from stationary energy generation (electricity and gas), 53 per cent, followed by transport at 16 per cent. But only a small percentage of overall energy generated, 11 per cent, is used for household consumption.

The call to change people’s lifestyles obscures the fact that decisions about how power is produced and the availability of public transport are made by a tiny elite in Australia society, not by the mass of people. Changing workers’ lifestyles does not result in increased provision of public transport or renewable energy. Rising petrol prices in Australia over the last ten years have seen significant new investment in public transport by big business.

It is the ruling elite of corporate capitalism which makes up the vested interests that stand in the way of climate action.

The world’s largest and wealthiest corporations are fossil fuels companies. Most of the top 50 major polluters in Australia, are energy, mining, aluminium and steel companies, which rely on digging up and burning fossil fuels.

To transform the way our society relates to the environment requires a mass environmental movement that mobilises the economic power of organised workers.

Workers in the North—a “labour aristocracy”?
But even if you accept that household consumption in Australia accounts for only a tiny fraction of carbon emissions compared to industry, what about the concern of climate campaigners and anti-capitalists that workers in the developed countries are tied to capitalism because their living standards are a product of the super-exploitation of those in the Third World?

Some theorists go so far as to argue that the “material benefits” of government programs such as public education, public healthcare and welfare benefits enjoyed by workers in the North are a “social wage” generated from exploitation of the Global South.

Advocates for this standpoint proclaim that workers in the Global North are “embourgeoisified” and form a privileged group that is incapable of forcing social or political change—a “labour aristocracy”.
Some globalisation theorists argue that it is the high levels of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by transnational corporations, exploiting the Third World, that produces the higher profits that allow for the “super-wages” of workers in the North.

But work in the 1970s by Marxist theorist Mike Kidron showed that investment capital is overwhelmingly attracted to larger markets, rather than to under-developed areas. More recently Charles Post, writing in the Historical Materialism journal, has systematically taken apart the “labour aristocracy” argument, by showing that it bears little relevance to the structure of the global economy today.

Post points out that even in today’s era of globalisation, investment by the advanced industrialised countries in the Global South is a tiny proportion of the overall investment figures. According to Post, prior to 2000, FDI in the Global South made up only 5 per cent of total world investment, meaning that 95 per cent of capitalist investment across borders happened between developed capitalist economies.

For example, in the early 1990s, the bulk of the UK’s FDI went to the US and 27 per cent to Western Europe. In contrast, the top ten developing countries accounted for only 16.5 per cent, and 8.5 per cent went to the rest of the world.

Even the rapid growth of investment in China in the last decade has only slightly changed the pattern of international commerce. Between 1982 and 2005, the percentage of Foreign Direct Investment as a percentage of fixed capital globally has increased from 4.1 per cent to 9.7 per cent—so that there is more investment across international borders. But even so, the Global South still accounts for less than 4 per cent of fixed capital formation.

The significance of understanding where investment takes place is in exposing that two thirds of the world, or the majority of the Third World, is by and large excluded from participation in the world economy. The extreme levels of marginalisation, poverty and misery experienced by people in the Third World, in places like Sudan in Africa, and East Timor in Asia, are a consequence of them being largely shut out of the global economy.

Even in the cases of China and increasingly India, their connection to the world economy is restricted to a few enclaves or “zones” in manufacturing and textiles that are better understood as extensions of the developed economies rather than the development of their entire domestic economy.

China’s growth, documented by books like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, whilst significant, has been restricted to a particular type of growth. The Global South accounts for 20 per cent of global manufacturing output, but mostly in labour intensive industries such as clothing, automotive parts and basic electronics. In China, growth remains concentrated in low-tech, labour-intensive manufacturing, mostly the production and export of components.

Living standards in the North
In the North the availability of large pools of educated and highly productive labour is a result of the need to maintain a skilled workforce for a developed economy. Unlike the Global South, the bulk of the labour force in the North works in skilled and semi-skilled industries.

Workers in the North have better living standards and higher wages on average because capitalists require higher levels of productivity from workers in the North.

Competent literate and numerate workers are required for work in high tech manufacturing plants, as much as for teaching and nursing services, in a way that is unnecessary for manufacturing or semi-subsistence agriculture in the South. Kidron points out that the difference in the average skill level of workers in the North and South is a product of the particular way capitalism arose and has concentrated development in certain areas around the globe.

Understanding exploitation
For Marxists, exploitation is understood not as a physical description of work in the most brutal, poverty-stricken parts of the world, but a description of the way capitalism universally extracts profits from workers’ labour.

But because workers do not own and control the means of production, they must sell their “labour power” to a boss. The amount in wages received by workers is less than the total wealth they create when they work. This difference—surplus value—is the basis of the capitalists’ profits. The ideology of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” masks the hidden reality of exploitation because workers are only paid for a portion of the total value they create.

Workers in the North receive higher wages than workers in South, because productivity, the rate of exploitation, in the North, is in fact higher. For example, miners in Australia often earn two-thirds more than the average wage. The rate of exploitation for miners however is higher than average, because the wealth created through a small number of workers operating highly mechanised mining operations is vastly more than the wages paid by the mining bosses.

Exploitation thus is not about how hard or how much work is undertaken, but about the surplus value extracted by capitalists at the point of production. Workers in the North get paid much more than workers in the South, but the capitalist gets much more per unit of labour power. Mike Kidron describes this underlying contradiction in the global system—workers in the North, “are richer, yet more exploited.”

Their higher living standards are not a result of greedy workers being bought off but because a more highly educated, and highly skilled workforce is a part of maintaining the higher productivity in the developed capitalist economies.

The workers of the North and South are not pitched against each other but in fact have a common enemy, and a common interest.

Global problem, global solution
Rather than a “labour aristocracy” of workers in the North being a barrier to social change, the possibility of transforming environmentally damaging production methods across the globe lies at the point of production with workers in the North and the South.

The deepest divisions in the world system are not between workers in the North and South but between workers and the bosses in their own countries. The commitment to a future based on fossil fuels is driven by the ruling classes of both North and the South.

This much was on display at the international climate negotiations at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, where the non-binding agreement was signed by rulers of the North and South—the US, China, Brazil, South Africa and India.

Climate change is a global problem and requires a global solution. Far from workers in the Global North having a privileged set of interests to those in Global South, the future for workers in the North and South is tied together. Workers are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

The immediate task is to develop the climate movement among workers where it matters most—in the developed world against the worst global polluters. Rather than carbon taxes, and emissions trading schemes based on the market that ultimately make workers pay, we need a struggle to transform the system and make the polluters pay.

Raising workers’ living standards in the Third World does not require countries following the same path of intense carbon polluting capitalism.

Every battle won by workers’ struggles in developed countries is a blow against the vested interests profiting from fossil fuels. The workers’ movement in China is already confronting the logic of their own lethal polluting capitalist industries. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are timely reminders of the potential that workers in lesser developed economies have to challenge capitalism.

It is this type of social power that can be mobilised to win the immediate changes necessary to radically reduce emissions to avoid runaway climate change—forcing corporations and governments to build large-scale renewable energy infrastructure and cheap accessible public transport.

It is this type of social power which can and must ultimately smash the global capitalist system of competition and exploitation that prioritises the profits of a small minority over the needs of people and the planet on which we rely.

Further reading
Tony Cliff, “Economic Roots of Reformism”
Chris Harman, “Globalisation: A critique of a new orthodoxy”, International Socialism 73 (1996)
Chris Harman, “Anti-capitalism: theory and practice” International Socialism 88 (2000)
Mike Kidron, “Black Reformism: The Theory of Unequal Exchange”, in Capitalism and Theory
Charles Post, “Exploring Working-class consciousness: A Critique of the Theory of the ‘Labour-Aristocracy’”, Historical Materialism 18 (2010)
Friends of the Earth Australia, “Overconsumption in the global north is causing climate chaos”,


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