Why climate action means challenging capitalism

Amy Thomas looks at why the system is unable to effectively address climate change

In 2010, after two decades of scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-induced, global greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high. Forty one per cent of global electricity is produced from coal.

The rich and powerful acknowledge that climate change is a problem. Neo-liberal economists, like Ross Garnaut (Bob Hawke’s key economic adviser and shareholder in the disgraced Ok Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea) constantly push the need for action. But the solutions they propose have failed and failed again. The 2009 Copenhagen agreement went back on principles established at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Globally, most Western governments have implemented market-based solutions like emissions trading schemes, carbon taxes, and to a lesser extent, rebates and feed-in-tariffs for household solar panels.

A Grattan Institute report released this year showed federal government climate programs in Australia have cut four million tonnes of emissions in the last 15 years—yet Australia produced 56.1 billion tonnes of carbon in that time.

These failing market schemes and the threat of rising prices have allowed Tony Abbott and the right to undermine public support for action and draw into question the science of climate change itself.

Governments have spectacularly failed to address what, technologically, is perfectly possible to solve. We can stop burning coal, oil and gas, cover the world in wind turbines, build solar thermal plants, a public transport network that’s free, fast and on time and enforce strict energy efficiency regulations on business. But there is not a single government in the world prepared to do this.
World leaders do have the power to fundamentally restructure their economies.

During WWII, the US reorganised their economy at rapid speed to wage war. Their war budget in 1942 was equal to total US production in 1941. In the first two months of 1942, the US re-geared its factories to produce weapons, guns, bullets and aircraft. But while they’ll take such action to kill, they won’t do it save lives.

For some this doesn’t make sense—these people own the world, why would they want to wreck it?
But while WWII was organised to protect profits, acting on climate change challenges them.

Of the five biggest companies in the world, there are three oil companies—Shell, Exxon Mobil and BP—one car company—Toyota—and one giant supermarket chain, Walmart. Of Australia’s ten biggest companies, three are fossil fuel giants—BHP, Rio Tinto and Caltex—and the rest are mostly banks and supermarkets.

In addition, spending big on climate change challenges the neo-liberal orthodoxy of cutting public spending and privatising public services like transport, health and education that has been the global norm for 30 years.

Greg Combet, Australia’s Climate Change Minister, is constantly talking about how he bravely refuses to “pick winners”, meaning invest in solar or wind technology directly instead of leaving it up to the whims of the market.

By and large the climate movement has accepted these terms and pushed market solutions—as seen by the uncritical approach of many to Labor’s new carbon price.

System failure
The failure to act on climate change reveals something very fundamental about our productive system. And it’s not just climate change—society’s whole relationship to the environment is deeply troubled.

Between 2000 and 2006, the Amazon rainforest, commonly described as the “Earth’s lungs”, lost an area larger than the size of Greece to deforestation.

Worldwide, problems like the decline of fish stocks and loss of fertile land through degradation are painfully familiar. To understand the environmental crisis of the system, we need to go back to some of the first people to theorise it: Marx and Engels.

Many see Marx as a “productivist”: blindly pro-development and technology and of a view that humans could “master” nature. The image of a muscled Russian worker is part of the Soviet Union’s popular history.

But Marx was not productivist and the old “Communist bloc” had nothing to do with Marx’s vision of a new society. It was simply another version of capitalism where the state controlled production, rather than private capitalists. Huge environmental catastrophes were the by-product of the USSR’s blind drive to compete with the West.

Marx and Engels’ writings provide a different understanding. To begin with, they saw humanity as part of nature, or more accurately, in a “relationship” with nature.
Engels noted, when summarising Marx’s theory of human history, that, “mankind [sic] must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion”.

This dependence on nature is crucial to how Marxists understand human society. Engels continued his explanation by saying that, “production of the immediate material means… form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have evolved.”

He is saying something obvious but often ignored—human society cannot exist without nature. We depend on its survival for our own.

But we are not simply subservient to nature. Since the development of agriculture, farmers have used technology to alter the environment, to improve their yields.

We have constructed shelter from the elements, clothes to keep ourselves warm, and so forth. Rather than dominating nature or being subservient to it, we are in a relationship with it, able to alter it, yet governed by its natural laws.

Marx and Engels did not believe that humanity could “master” nature, in fact, they were highly critical
of that idea. In his book The Dialectics of Nature, Engels argued: “Let us not however flatter ourselves over much on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and the third cases has unforeseen effects, which only too often cancel out the first.”

Capitalism accelerated and intensified the human impact on the environment. While human societies had an impact (and sometimes a negative one) on nature before the rise of capitalism, such impacts were localised and had a minimal effect on the world’s ecological systems.

For example, Aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies lived sustainably with the land for around 60,000 years, both adapting to and changing the environment. The Aborigines’ use of fire, for example, significantly transformed the fauna and flora of the natural environment, but it was not until the British class system was brutally introduced into Australia that the issue of sustainability became a problem.

Marx argued that capitalism created an “irreparable rift” in the “metabolic” interaction between human beings and nature—it obscured our relationship to nature and alienated us from it.

Marx described how under capitalism, “for the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself”. The production of commodities to be bought and sold on the market reduces the source of life itself, nature, to the status of a commodity. Nature is divided into things to be exchanged on the market—timber, coal, oil.

In Capital, Marx describes the capitalist’s mantra as “Accumulate, accumulate! That is both Moses and the prophets”. Every company or multinational is driven to compete with every other company and multinational—and the health of the environment cannot be registered as a genuine priority.

Capitalism’s constant thirst for new technology, its international spread, and its thirst to maximise profit, meant nature was exploited on a scale as never before.

Engels wrote of how capitalists engaged in production for profit are only interested in the immediate results, not in considering the long-term ecological impact of their decisions:

“What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees—what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!”

The same could be said today of TEPCO in Japan, BP in the Gulf of Mexico, Bhopal chemical in Hungary and of the fossil fuel corporations that continue to pump carbon into the air despite the threat of climate change.

Solutions to climate change are possible—but the logic of the system and the drive for profit stands in our way.

But while Marx recognised capitalism’s destructive capacity, he also saw that capitalism created, in his words, its own “gravedigger”—the working class.

Capitalist production concentrates large numbers of people in modern workplaces, from traditional factory workers and construction workers to call centre workers and teachers. Through collective action such as strikes, workers have the ability to stop environmental degradation where it begins, at the point of production.

This means there is a special importance to winning workers to the climate campaign. This requires building a fight in solidarity with working people, not focusing on lifestyle changes or market solutions that point the finger in the wrong direction. Demands for direct investment in renewables and free public transport could win wide support amongst workers.

The willingness of workers to fight for the environment is not a fanciful idea. In the 1970s, the green bans of the Builders Labourers Federation in Sydney protected natural heritage sites and low cost housing from developers. Union bans on handling uranium yellow cake put a halt to the expansion of uranium mining for many years.

More recently, in 2009 in the UK, workers sacked from the Vestas wind turbine factory occupied the factory to save their jobs. In the fight against austerity in Europe, climate activists are arguing for a “bailout for the planet” and green jobs for the thousands of unemployed.

Even in Australia today, unions like the ETU are committed to refusing to transport nuclear waste to the proposed waste dump at Muckaty station.

A fighting climate campaign could push unions to ban the construction of new coal-fired power stations.

As Engels said: “the more this happens, the more humans will not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature, and thus more impossible will become the senseless, and anti-natural ideas, of a contradiction between mind and matter, man and nature, body and soul.”


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