Climate catastrophe and how to confront it.

This article is based on Will McMahon’s introduction to the 15 April Talking About Socialism event which you can watch here

March 2024 was the tenth straight month where average global monthly temperatures hit a record high. Climate scientists are now considering whether there has been an unexpected acceleration in the rise in global temperature.

The latest climate science shows, due to ice melt, it is now inevitable that global sea levels will rise at least one metre by 2100 and a metre more each of the next four centuries.

On Wednesday 10 April, floods engulfed cities and towns across Russia and Kazakhstan after Europe’s third-longest river, the Ural, burst its banks, forcing about 110,000 people to evacuate and swamping parts of the Russian city of Orenburg.

The human experience of the climate crisis is global. There is not a continent or a country that is untouched by it. The response to the climate crisis has to be, necessarily, global.

The key problems socialists face

The very size of the crisis can be immobilising – as an individual what can you do? I will talk about this a bit later. 

Also, there is, at present, no form of global governance available to organise the type of coherent response to mitigate and then reverse the impact of the climate crisis. 

This was highlighted at COP 28 where Ahmed Al Jaber, head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, was appointed as first CEO to chair a COP – almost as if the intention was to poke fun at humanity.

The fundamental bottom line is that for capitalist countries and companies to survive they need to accumulate capital, make profits grow so they can continue to compete and for this they need the more and more of the earth’s resources. – that is how the global capitalist system works

This is not about bad people doing bad things, although some people are doing some very bad things, this is about an economic system that needs a certain kind of growth in order to survive. In the last 300 years it has colonised 99 per cent of the global economy with devastating consequences.

The tyranny of the capitalist economy growth model applies whether you are a CEO of a major corporation – you have to grow the corporation in order to survive in your job – of course you are well paid to do this but do it you must. Or if you are a worker your life is dictated by the needs of capital, the law of capital accumulation rules.

Ben Fine, a marxist economist, put it like this “The need to accumulate is felt by each individual capitalist as an external coercive force. You have to accumulate or die.” 

Marx wrote that  “Capital is … vampire-like, it only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.   

Capitalist accumulation is not only a tyranny for individuals and a vampire on humans but is also a parasite on the earth’s resources. It is hollowing out the earth’s resources and producing environmental outcomes that are slowly but surely destroying the planet’s ecology with the devastating implication that it will eventually kill the host because it is simply incapable of not accumulating.  The description given of The Terminator from the dialogue of the film of the same name is very apposite for capitalist accumulation:

It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear and it absolutely will not stop …”

Unless, that is, a global force emerges that can stop it.  

So the questions I want to pose – to which I don’t have answers, and I don’t think at the moment anyone does, is:

What strategy should Marxists adopt in Britain to build a movement led by the working class to offer solutions to the climate crisis?  What strategy can defeat the monster of capitalist accumulation?

I want to make one big caveat at this point – we know that the British working class is part of an international class and that must be part of any general strategy. For this discussion I want to side-step that issue for two reasons. First, it is a discussion all of its own, it brings up questions of what is at the moment is a very academic debate between the eco-socialist modernists and the very badly named emerging Marxist degrowth current. 

Second, I think it is possible for us to discuss the question I have put in a political and practical way and then, perhaps at another TAS event, talk about the other really important debate about how a national strategy would interact with a global strategy and some of the problems it might face. Instead for now I think we should focus on the immediate question of politics and strategy in Britain.

For a movement to be successful it has to offer three things:

First,  a developing alternative vision of how things could be done differently by a working class government. Second, a strategy that that leads to the building of a movement that will deliver a workers’ government. Third, a series of campaign demands that makes sense to the working class and on which individuals, communities and labour movement organisations can act.

This helps answer the question ‘What can I do?’ – the answer being act collectively in your community and your union. In doing what need to be done collectively can lead to the conclusion that a workers government is necessary because there is an alternative vision of what is possible.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done, and we are struggling to do any of it, but do it we must because if we don’t pose a socialist solution to this crisis the field is left open to the ruling class to propose theirs.

A socialist strategy would need to be based on three key principles

The first is tackling the climate crisis is not about individual solutions or individualised consumption patterns. It is a structural problem that requires structural solutions from community to national and international levels. It is not about recycling or driving a car or buying too much as individuals or eating meat –  that is a sleight of hand performed by capitalism that points away from the core of the problem.   

This is not to say that people should not recycle, use public transport where possible, not waste energy, eat less meat etc but these individualised household actions are entirely besides the point.  

So we need to think about campaign messaging that attacks the idea that there are individual solutions to the climate crisis and point people to collective solutions – including collective solutions in their community that socialise resources where possible. 

The second principle is solutions to the climate crisis can and necessarily must be based upon improving the quality of life and living standards of the working class. It is not a question of counter posing raising working class living standards to the climate crisis but understanding how they are, both necessarily part of the same solution.

Since at least 1979 the working class has experienced a prolonged period of capitalist ‘austerity’ combined with marketisation of basic needs, for example housing, heating, transport and health, fundamentally undermining living standards and quality of life. Over 20 million adults and children are living in poverty in Britain – with 28% of adults reporting missing meals.  Above them, 20 million more are just managing.

In the same period it has become self-evident that organising and planning consumption to reduce the impact of humanity on the environment is not ‘would like to have’ but a ‘must have’ if the humanity is to survive. So, a democratic and collectively organised solution is not a sleight of hand similar to the focus on individual consumption by the ruling class, but a necessity for ecological and human survival. It poses the issue of different forms of consumption and growth which focuses on production for collective needs rather than for profit.For example how housing, heating, transport and health, are produced and used are key to both raising living standards and to reducing humanities impact on the environment of which it is part.

This is counterposed to the anarchy of capitalism that is impoverishing the working class while producing huge amounts of commodities that are not based on human needs and that will destroy the living planet.

These different production priorities also pose the question of which class rules – one that produces for social need or one that produces for profit.

The third principle is the campaign strategy needs to focus on the source of the problem – the necessary drive to accumulate capital that is at the heart of capitalism. This means shifting the focus of climate campaigning from individual responsibility to challenging capitalist accumulation.

Any campaign that appears to blame working class people individually, such as sitting in roads to stop cars or sitting on the roof of underground trains during the morning rush hour are not only besides the point but are also massively counter-productive and a gift to the ruling class. What we need to do is develop credible ways of taking the fight to the capitalist organisations driving the climate crisis with two key messages.

Two key messages

The first is that the COP process shows that global capitalist governments and corporations are demonstrably incapable of meeting the climate crisis with the required urgency and the working class and its allies are the only force that can meet that challenge.

The second is a working class government would be focused on the regrowth of our common and shared resources which will make working class lives qualitatively better and also attack the very individualised and capitalist commodification of life that is at the heart of the crisis we face.

Some really obvious examples about what this might mean are:

There are over a million homes without a permanent resident, second homes, short lets or properties simply unoccupied  – yet there are 100,000 people in temporary accommodation and a so-called housing shortage. Without making any more concrete or bricks the use of just 10 percent of these homes could end the temporary accommodation crisis with enormous environmental and health benefits. 

There are another million cold and damp homes that leak heating through windows, walls and roofs, they are in need of urgent environmental retrofitting. – the vast majority lived in by people on low incomes. Warmer more energy efficient homes is an obvious measure.

With regard to heating, the technology exists to massively cut heating bills through the use of ground and air sourced heat pumps and solar panels. The market is simply unable to deliver on these housing issues in the required time scales. A workers government would create an end to end supply chain to break the inefficient log jam that the markets create starting with delivery to the lowest income households first.

The re-organisation of the disaster that is the privatised train, metro and bus network that is desynchronised and unaffordable, and has huge transaction costs because of multiple providers required by capitalist markets, should form a central part of a workers plan to tackle the environmental crisis. If we want people to get out of their cars then we should make it possible  through an integrated socially owned transport system controlled by the workers who deliver it in collaboration with the passengers who use it.

Lastly, we are being poisoned by capitalism, the air in our cities, our rivers and our bodies have all been under sustained attack for over two hundred years.  We need to remember that when Engels finished writing The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1845 he was describing an industrial system that was as poisonous and life shortening then as it is now. Capitalist production is, for example, highly carcinogenic. It is not an accident that 1 in 2 people will have some form of cancer before they die.

All of the above examples are core to the environmental crisis and have collective solutions that are better alternatives to the capitalist growth model and will also improve the living standards and quality of life of the working class. These should be some of the targets of a socialist strategy which can be both popular and core to challenging the environmental crisis created by capitalism and thereby capitalism itself.

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