Rob Kirby spoke at the London Commune forum in May on the question ‘is ecological struggle class struggle?’:
The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is that practically, the consequences of ecological policies will be negative for the working class, and theoretically, that ecological ideology expresses the interests of groups other than the working class.
It’s worth saying at the outset that I’m not a climate change denier – I accept the fact that humanity is adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and that is probably causing warming, and that pollution is generally a bad thing. However, my critique is a political one; I think environmentalisms’ one-sided focus on the negative aspects of industrial civilisation won’t help us solve environmental problems, and won’t help us advocate working class politics.
I suppose the first point to make is that there is one, central fundamental difference between ecological thinking and Marxist thinking; that environmentalism sees social problems as natural. One of the constant refrains we hear from green activists is that climate change will cause the poorest will suffer. Fair enough, that is true, but the question seems to be never asked – why are the poor poor? The people who will supposedly die of the consequences of climate change will actually be dying of poverty; but greens one-sidedly advocate cutting carbon dioxide, not developing poorer countries to a state where they can thrive despite a potentially harsher climate. Humanity’s relationship with nature is mediated socially; so seemingly perversely, burning more carbon dioxide might have the consequence of making climate change less severe for humanity.
To illustrate this point you just have to look at the differences in impact that natural disasters have at the moment. Compare the impact of the recent earthquake in Haiti, a massively underdeveloped country, with similar earthquakes in places like Japan or California; where tens of people die rather than tens of thousands, as their buildings are sturdier and their emergency services more capable of responding to such incidents. Likewise, compare Bangladesh and Holland; both largely below sea level – but industrialised Holland is much more able to deal with flooding than largely rural Bangladesh. Whilst there is much disruption and suffering involved, people from the third world themselves are choosing to develop an industrialised, carbon producing society, rather stay in rural poverty, becoming proletarians rather than peasants– a massive change in the way the world is organised as large and as full of potential as that occurring when Marx and Engels were writing.
Despite this, in the green movement, there is a general kneejerk reaction against any form of new technology that might enable us to deal with climate change, or lead more prosperous lives, instead preferring to bleat about the need to maintain a balance with nature. Just look at the furore around Craig Venter’s creation of artificial life just a few weeks ago. Despite this technology’s immense potential to solve environmental problems, amongst many other things, groups like Friends of the Earth immediately came out to condemn it. Likewise, despite nuclear power being a cheap and clean alternative to fossil fuels, it has taken decades for some greens to come around to the idea; others still are opposed to it. The focus instead is on reducing consumption, changing lifestyles; basically seeing environmental challenges as a metaphysical one about the hubris of humanity, rather than a practical, technical one that can be solved through science and technology.
One of the most pernicious elements of green thinking is to divide up working class jobs into “good” clean ones and “bad” dirty ones. So you saw climate activists flocking in solidarity to the Vestas occupation; but they’re not so prevalent at other labour struggles. In fact, groups like plane stupid actually want to shut down polluting industries, such as coal and air travel; leading to the obnoxious sight of trustafarians trying to put workers out of a job.
Those activists who do try and balance this contradiction, such as the group Workers’ Climate Action, end up in contortions, with actions like their flying bike picket in support of BA workers – simultaneously trying to claim victory for defeating the third runway and offer solidarity to workers who’d be out of a job if they followed their policies through to their logical conclusion. There are a lot of noises made about “just transitions”, but ultimately greens advocate moving away from industrial society that has brought some degree of prosperity to the mass of the population, to a utopian future of composting toilets that in reality will be much poorer and more difficult for ordinary people.
Just as workers’ jobs are often seen as horrible and polluting, so is their consumption. Flying abroad, going to football, eating meat or fast food, and driving to work are all problematised by environmentalists. Ethical consumption however is lauded; the ultimate commodity fetish, whereby green commodities personify the moral worth of their consumers. This contradictory attitude towards consumption is the expression of environmentalism’s middle class nature; a petty bourgeois response to the cheapening of commodities, and the allegedly vulgar tastes of the working class.
Practically, environmentalism is an ideological justification for the counter-crisis measures that the capitalist class is currently enforcing on the working class. It artificially inflates prices, and demands legal measures to force down consumption through things like taxation on flights. Now that workers’ consumption is problematic for capitalists profits, it also mysteriously becomes problematic for the planet, and natural laws demand that we limit it. Likewise, when overproduction threatens capitalists’ social position – not just since the recession; witness the intellectual property laws designed to enforce scarcity – then overproduction becomes interpreted as responsible for the end of the entire world. Finally, conveniently, when Western societies now rely on low-carbon financial services, and their international competitors in the developing world are starting to outcompete them, CO2 needs to be strongly regulated by international agreements. Environmentalism is providing the intellectual cover for the reestablishment of western protectionism and economic nationalism.
In conclusion, Marxism is and always has been about developing beyond capitalism, stripping its material and industrial gains from the social relations that hold them back; rather than regressing from capitalism, and turning our back on the benefits that it has given us.