Capitalist Environmental Crises: A Socialist Response

In ‘Revenge of Nature: did the Rain Spoil your Grand Prix?[1], Will McMahon paints a stark picture of the choices facing humanity under capitalism in the face of environmental catastrophe, but also throws down a gauntlet to socialists regarding our responsibilities in response to the crisis.  What are we, and should we, be doing, as Marxists, and to what end?  What role must the working class play in any resolution of the crisis?

There are challenges for socialists in picking our way through much of the campaigning that has evolved in recent decades around global warming and other environmental crises.  The environmental movement has been lacking in class politics, or rather perhaps has been highly moralistic from a privileged liberal and petit bourgeois standpoint, often with contempt for working people.  Our intervention as socialists on environmental issues has been all the harder given the habit of many environmental campaigns to target their direct action at shaming and obstructing working class people going about their lives, rather than to highlight and expose the powerful individuals and institutions that are responsible for environmental degradation, through collective action and in solidarity with the labour movement.  Marxists have often found themselves on the back foot in responding to these campaigns.  Some have even bought into the vague idea that as Marxists we can’t think beyond the ‘growth’ imperative that has driven capitalism, and that therefore we are in some sense part of the problem.  

(The ideas in this paper were used to introduce the ‘Talking About Socialism … from a Marxist point of view’ Zoom discussion on 10th July 2023. You can watch a recording of that discussion here.)

Reactionary Environmental Campaigns

For generations, environmental campaigns and activists have often sought to blame the working class for environmental stress and crises.  There are too many (brown) babies being born across the world, demanding ever more resources.  There is too much industrialisation in the global south, using carbon-based fuels.  There are too many people taking too many holidays abroad.  There are too many people “choosing” to drive.  There are too many people “lazily” buying things in plastic packaging.  Overall, there are just too many people consuming too much.

Underlying these claims is a reactionary Malthusian philosophy that there are fixed and finite resources in the world, that there are too many people competing for those resources, and that the solution is to control both population growth and the level of consumption.

Campaigns urge us, as individuals, to make ‘better’ choices, and to choose to consume less in order to “protect the planet”.  The reality is that the vast majority of people across the world have no real choice in these matters: they live as best they can in order to survive. 

Moralistic exhortations to self-denial and abstinence are anathema to human liberation.  They have been (highly effective) tools used by successive ruling classes to repress the oppressed.  Once upon a time, this took the shape of religion.  Now it’s individualistic pressure to deny ourselves the things that we need in our lives … and that includes holidays, convenient travel, communication devices, food that can fit into our time-pressed and super-exploited lives, the packaging that makes this possible, entertainment … etc.  Somehow, we as individuals end up taking the blame for the degradation of our environment – a very convenient smokescreen from the responsibility that lies with those who own and control the means of production.  As socialists, we have to focus on the sphere of production, rather than consumption.

It is no accident that Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil have consistently shaped their direct action around obstruction of working class people going about their (working) lives, whether it’s jumping on top of packed London underground trains during the rush hour, or blocking busy roads.  There seems to have been a belated recognition amongst some that this tactic may be counter-productive, and is losing them support.  However, the underlying demands are problematic.  In the here and now, without the development of alternative cheap sources of energy at scale, saying “Just stop oil!” is tantamount to saying “Just stop living!” … to the working class, at least.  Cheap and reliable carbon-based energy underpins most human activity.  There are very few people across the world who are privileged enough to be able to make genuine choices about their consumption and their lifestyles.

Many socialists have tried to tail-end these reactionary campaigns, and I think lost class-conscious clarity and direction in the process.  I think that there’s a need to “go back to basics” in defining a Marxist response to the climate crises.

Capitalism, Communism, Industrial Growth and the Environment

Marx believed that humanity can be liberated, and we can realise our potential as humans, only through an abundance:

– of plentiful products (things of value to us – things we need and which contribute to our happiness and fulfilment, defined in a very broad sense);

– created by ever more powerful productive forces (the means of production, intellectual and material);

– owned in common across all of us – we chose, plan and control what we produce, depending on our collective needs.

These are the pre-conditions for the socialism espoused by Marx, and I believe they stand as true today as when he proposed them.  Moreover, it is capitalism that has paved the way for socialism through its vast expansion of productive forces.

Marx explored the impact of industrialisation on the environment, and articulated how capitalism simultaneously exploits and destroys the environment on which we depend:

“Capitalist production disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth.  Capitalist production develops technology only by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.”[2]

Historically, the industrialisation essential to the development of capitalism was entirely dependent on carbon-based sources of energy that were cheap, reliable and mobile: coal, oil and gas.  Use of these fuels was instrumental in the transformation of the forces of production and therefore of society, in the creation of cities, and in the creation of the working class.  The revolutions in science and technology that we have seen over the last two centuries, with all their profound benefits for humanity, would not have been possible without carbon-based fuels.  It would be utopian and idealistic nonsense to regret the development of capitalism, and to think that civilisation could have developed without negative impact on the environment.

There is a cold reality check here for socialists: in so far as global warming is caused by our use of carbon-based fuels, it is an inevitable consequence of the development of human society through capitalism.  In a sense, you have to say that it was worth it!  We cannot indulge in wishful thinking that we’d done it differently.  Rather, our thinking and interventions around environmental issues (like everything else) must be based on our materialism, on our understanding of economic and social forces under capitalism, and the dynamics of class.  In other words, our approach must be informed by a scientific understanding of how change can come about from where we are now, and which economic and social class can bring about that change.

Production in the hands of the bourgeoisie is anarchic, driven overwhelmingly by the drive to make profits.  Capitalism is incapable of managing our environment to meet our needs (neither in the short nor the long-term).  Only a communist society can do that.  Capitalism is incapable of planning and delivering the investments in new science and technology that would enable an abundance of goods without destroying our environment.  Only the collective planning possible in a communist society, undistorted by the need to make profits, and focussed only on human need and use value, can sustain productive growth in a habitable world.

There are two fundamental questions here, about who is capable of driving the changes in production and planning that are required, and about who pays the price.

The Agency of the Working Class

Who can achieve the changes necessary to move away from carbon-based energy?  The anarchic nature of capitalism has shown itself incapable of the necessary planning and investments, over and over again.

It is elementary to socialists that only the working class can liberate itself – we cannot be liberated by rich benefactors, by liberal do-gooders, by progressive professional elites nor by bureaucrats in the labour movement acting on our behalf.  Marx’s analysis became scientific rather than utopian as soon as, and precisely because, he recognised that the working class can and must be the agent of its own liberation (and as a direct result, of all humanity, through the abolition of classes).

Discussions on the left about how we should respond to environmental crises seem often to lose sight of this central tenet around the agency of the working class.  The environmental crises that we face today and in the future can only be solved by the international working class, in its fight for its own liberation.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that we can put off addressing environmental issues until we’ve achieved socialism.  We have to fight for environmental measures in the here and now, just as we fight for our economic and social interests, without any illusion that our problems can be solved simply through reformist tinkering with the state and with market regulations and controls.  And in everything we do, we seek to build the confidence and the consciousness of our class, and to dispel illusions cast by the ideologues of the ruling class.  Class consciousness develops in struggle, and from self-interest.

Who Pays the Price?

Working class people across the world are already living desperate, impoverished and super-exploited lives.  As socialists, we have to articulate demands, and build support for, environmental measures in which workers can have confidence, and for which they will fight from self-interest.  We cannot ask the global south simply to halt the growth of its productive forces in order to protect the environment in developed countries.  We cannot ask working families in developed countries, juggling multiple jobs, child-care and school-runs, and barely able to feed their children and warm their homes, to sacrifice good jobs without guaranteed investment in replacement jobs and industries.  Nor to penalise them for using cars without providing massively improved public transport.  In so far as we lose sight of this principle, and counter-pose environmental action with working class interests, we open the ground for right-wing populists and fascists.

What Should We Demand?

Of course, as socialists, we have to be very clear – in our analysis, in our propaganda and in our programme – that the economic and social transformation away from carbon-based energy can only be achieved through the working class taking political power, and owning the means of production, in other words through a socialist revolution.

That doesn’t mean that we have to say nothing in the here and now about what needs to be done.  We have to make demands and put pressure on capitalist governments and corporations, and we have to join in united front campaigns with reformists around those demands.  That’s the ABC of revolutionary method.  Historically, socialists have demanded a shorter working week, factory safety, and decent benefits for those out of work, and we have worked with and through the trade unions to achieve such reforms.  In the process, we gained opportunities to grow class confidence, and to offer political leadership.

Specifically with regard to global warming, there are three categories of demand on which I think socialists should be focussed: (1) actions to mitigate the impact on people of climate change, (2) investment and planning to develop cheap green energy, and (3) regulatory controls focussed on holding corporations responsible for the consequences of their production processes.  (Broadly, these categories can be applied to the other environmental crises we face, such as air quality and water pollution, though will require different concrete demands.)

(1) As far as I’m aware, there has been very little attention to the mitigating actions required to protect people from climate change.  There is no need for anyone to die as a result of global warming – worldwide, we have the resources and the technology to protect everyone, whether it’s through flood prevention infrastructure, switching away from mono-crop strategies to prevent forest fires, plans for re-location of communities, creation of cool (and/or warm) homes, hurricane-resistant buildings, or ways to collect, store and distribute water.

(2) Bourgeois governments repeatedly talk about investing in the development of alternative green energy, but their plans are always woefully inadequate: piecemeal, lacking planning and co-ordination, relying on the private sector, and without serious funding.  We should demand a huge, co-ordinated programme of investment (in science, technology and manufacturing infrastructure), under democratic control, to develop new cheap energy sources at scale.  This is the only way to move away from carbon-based fuels without asking the working class to pay the price.

(3) There has been an important strand of environmental campaigning over the decades that has been focussed on holding polluting companies to account, and demanding regulations to control them, rather than on pressurising consumers to make choices and sacrifices.  Campaigns to regulate agricultural use of fertilisers, pesticides and anti-biotics, factory chimney emissions, and leakage of industrial effluent into waterways, for instance.  This is a tradition that we should develop today: demands for regulation that expose the role and responsibilities of major international corporations, notably including the energy extraction, processing and distribution conglomerates, and seek to constrain their impact.

In contrast, I am not in favour of demands that simply seek to stop investment, whether it’s to “Just stop oil” or to prevent the development of new airport capacity and new transport infrastructure.  These demands invariably pit environmental campaigners against a working class that is desperate for investment and good jobs, and undermine our class confidence and unity.  We have seen this in labour movement debates around the 3rd runway for Heathrow, and in recent trade union opposition to Starmer’s declaration that a Labour government would not support any new oil extraction projects in the North Sea.

Capitalism will not achieve a non-carbon economy even if we stop a new runway, a new train line, a new motorway, or a new oil rig.  Conversely, a confident working class fighting for and winning better jobs and better infrastructure is far more likely to take power.

We have to be clear that we cannot form a united front with campaigns like ‘Just Stop Oil’ and Extinction Rebellion, where they are essentially and above all else seeking to stop investment and to stop the use of carbon-based fuel without the development of an alternative.  Their focus is not on mitigating the impact of global warming, nor on developing alternative energy sources, nor on regulating companies to expose their responsibilities.  Their demands are essentially antagonistic to working class interests.  If we were to act in a united front with such organisations, it is imperative that we identify explicitly which demands are shared, and be very clear about where we disagree with them.

A ”Just Transition”

The concept of a “just transition” is a reflection of the sentiment that we should stand with working people across the world in fighting to ensure that:

– measures to protect the environment are taken at speed

– but without negative impact on their lives.

This was the philosophy behind the Green New Deal in the 2019 Labour Party manifesto: that “we” would make the massive investment in new energy technologies (and jobs) required to protect the environment, and to phase out carbon-based energy, without harming the interests of people who work in those sectors.

Of course, as with all reformist programmes, actual proposals for a just transition (and for the Green New Deal) always fall far short of what is required.  The truth is that there can and will be no just transition under capitalism.  The demand for a just transition can perhaps be a useful propaganda tool, but only when used to point out the limitations and contradictions of piecemeal reforms within the capitalist system, and the necessity for a revolution in which the working class take ownership of the means of production and are able to plan and execute a genuinely just transition.

As socialists, we are constantly torn between two imperatives:

– on the one hand, to articulate the necessity for revolution, the abolition of private property and the end of class exploitation, and

– on the other to demand concessions and reforms from the bourgeoisie and its state.

If we just do the former, we become mere commentators on the sidelines of the class struggle, lecturing through our megaphones.  If we just do the latter, we sow illusions that working class needs can be met through capitalism, and prop up the existing system by giving it credibility.

The draw of reformism on socialists is astonishingly strong, as anyone who found themselves sucked into building the Corbyn project can attest.  This is as true for environmental crises as it is for economic redistribution and social liberalism, even more so perhaps as we are reminded constantly of the ticking environmental clock towards Armageddon.

Let liberals argue for mere reforms: we know they won’t solve the crisis.  Our job as socialists is to highlight the limitations and contradictions in piecemeal reforms whilst fighting for the real changes that are required, and standing with the working class to build their confidence, strength and consciousness.  We must do this in action, in a united front across the labour movement (and beyond, where possible) around practical immediate demands for mitigating actions to protect people from the impacts of climate change, for investment in the development of alternative energy sources, and through regulation of corporations.  Throughout, we must insist that the working class is not made to pay the price for these measures, and always seek to show how capitalism will not, and cannot, solve the crisis.

Capitalism has brought us to this crisis, not by accident but from its very nature, and capitalism shows no signs of averting the crisis.  On the contrary, the escalating proxy war in Ukraine, and the trend towards an American military confrontation with China, threatens to compound the problem many times over.  Only the working class can plan and manage our interaction with the environment to preserve it for the benefit of humanity, and make rational choices about what to produce, and how.  And that can only be done through the common ownership of all means of production, and the abolition of private property.[3]


[2] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 505–07

[3] This paper has evolved from a long series of discussions with Anita Patel.  In so far as it succeeds in clarifying how Marxists should respond to the environmental crises, the credit belongs to her.  In so far as it muddies the water, the fault is all mine.

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