This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
“Even an entire society, a nation or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of households]
Karl Marx (Capital, Volume 3)
The call for an Earth Strike, on Friday 20 September, is a powerful statement, initiated by the younger generation. Across the world, in over 150 countries, millions of students and youth, local communities and workers, will take some form of action to protest governments’ inaction over global warming that threatens the planet and humanity.
The world’s youth have grown up only knowing austerity, massive social inequalities and the crisis of the environment and climate change. Over the last few months, more young people have followed the example of Greta Thunberg, in Sweden, with youth strikes and other mass actions spreading to over 100 countries.
They are right to be alarmed. Record high temperatures; devastating floods in the Caribbean and in other parts of the world; raging forest fires in the Amazon and elsewhere; accelerating extinction of animal species, insects and plants; more polluted rivers and waterways; a mountain of plastic waste, deadly air pollution…the list of examples of environmental catastrophe and climate change grows every day.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels will lead to food shortages and melt the ice cap of the Arctic, leading to more disastrous weather changes and economic crisis.
In many countries, trade unions have called on workers to join youth and local communities for a global week of action to coincide with the UN Climate Summit (23 September). This starts with the global student strike on Friday 20 September, culminating with a global day of action on Friday 27 September. Some trade unions are organising concrete action. Rail freight workers in Germany will be participating in action on 20 September over cuts and linking it to the Earth Strike action.
The growing realisation by growing numbers of young people and workers of the need to take collective action across borders and to ‘strike’ against the inaction of governments over climate change is a big step forward.
It is the global working class, the most powerful social force in society, which youth and students must ally with in the struggle to avert climate change.
Who is responsible for climate change?
Big corporations and pro-capitalist governments have failed to take any serious action to stop climate change. Governments failed to even meet the minimum emissions targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. The first UN ‘Earth Summit’ took place in 1992, yet CO2 emissions increased by 48% and continue to rise. The Kyoto agreement in 1997 proposed ‘market incentives’ to reduce CO2 emissions but climate change has not been halted. The world’s biggest capitalist economy, the US, refused to enact Kyoto.
Big business and their political representatives want to put the burden of the problems on the working people, on the ‘lifestyle’ decisions of individuals.
But it is big business and the profit system that is largely responsible for environmental destruction and climate change. Over 71% of the planet’s carbon emissions are produced by the top 100 companies.
We are constantly lectured to by ‘green’ CEOs and capitalist politicians that “we are all responsible for climate change”. But just 90 companies produced 63% of the cumulative global emissions of carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 and 2010 (30% of emissions came from the top 20 corporations).
Environmental activist groups, like Extinction Rebellion, take mass direct action to put pressure on governments to act. They are often very effective in highlighting the environmental crisis. But it will take much more to stop big corporations side stepping or ignoring regulations. Big business will always seek ways to cut costs, avoid ‘red tape’, as well as drive down workers’ wages and attack workplace conditions.
Capitalist politicians put the emphasis on individuals changing their ‘carbon footprint’ and other measures. Of course, individual actions can help lessen environmental problems. But socialists reject the attempt to put the blame for the environmental crisis and climate change on the backs of the working class. It is big business and the profit system that caused and perpetuates the environmental crisis. The working class and poor suffers the most from climate change, which for millions threatens starvation and their homes being destroyed by rising water levels and hurricanes.
The anarchy of the profit system means that big business determines what is produced and how, with share holders’ profits put a long way before any concerns about the environmental consequences. Individual companies develop new technologies and techniques but under capitalism this knowledge is not shared. Capitalism means massive duplication and enormous waste.
Some environmental campaigners argue that “over consumption” by a rapidly expanding and unsustainable world population is the main problem. They call for “zero growth” and the need to end “over-population”. But economic growth, in itself, is not the problem. Nor is so called “surplus population” the fundamental problem; population growth rates generally level-out, as societies become better off – a goal only achievable today with the socialist transformation of society).
To accept the bosses’ arguments about the environment is to again put the burden of blame on the working class and poor. It expects them to endure endless ‘belt-tightening’, while the capitalist system and the obscenity of the rule of the 1% continue. It is in the interests of the working class and youth to strive to overthrow this profit system, to replace it with a socialist society that would ensure the fulfilling of all basic human needs and to undo capitalist despoliation of the natural world.
Some on the left argue for a ‘Green New Deal’, calling for major state investment in renewable energy and creating ‘green jobs’. And even a handful of capitalist governments have conceded there is a “climate emergency”. The escalating climate disaster crisis can force some governments to take steps to try to deal with the most pressing aspects of the crisis. This would not be done for the benefit of working people or the planet but to relieve pressure from outraged, fearful populations and to try to save their profit system.
The British ruling classes finally built a sewage system in London in the 19th century because of a public outcry over the large numbers of deaths due to contagious diseases amongst the poor working classes, which also decimated workforces and hit bosses’ profits. Similarly, government action was taken to end the London ‘smog’ pollution in the post-WW2 period. However, the scale of the problems created by climate change, including the long period between cause and effect, means that the capitalist system today faces an unprecedented challenge. The capitalist state can be forced into taking some emergency, temporary measures but the system is incapable of bringing about the fundamental changes needed to end climate change and environmental destruction.
A Green New Deal, in itself, will not solve the huge problems related to climate change. Attempts to regulate and manage the capitalist economy are always resisted by big corporations. Big capitalist interests ultimately determine the policies of all governments that base themselves on the profit system. Tellingly, a Green New Deal bill tabled by left Democrat Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez in the US Congress failed to pass.
Many youth and workers are concluding that climate change crisis is linked to the anarchic and extremely wasteful profit system. This screams out for an alternative economic and social system, based on collective global collaboration. There can be no ‘national-based’ solution to the problem of climate change, which has global dimensions; it requires world-wide socialist change.
Green parties’ electoral gains
On the back of widespread concerns about climate change and with distrust of the traditional right wing parties and social democratic parties running at an all-time high, several Green parties have made electoral gains in recent elections across Europe. Many rank and file Greens want radical measures to avert global environmental disaster. Socialists can agree with various progressive measures, like renewable energy sources based on the sun, wind and tides. However Green leaders’ policies are no fundamental solution. The Greens do not oppose the capitalist system that is the fundamental cause of climate change and a fundamental barrier to overcoming the crisis. For example, new technologies, such as renewable energy sources, will be insufficient unless they are integrated into an economic system that is not based on profit interests but which is democratically planned to ensure long term sustainability.
When in government, from Germany to Ireland, and in local administrations in Britain and elsewhere, the Greens have shown themselves to be wedded to the capitalist system. This ends up with the Greens, in coalition with capitalist parties, imposing ‘green taxes’ on the working class and other ‘green’ measures and cuts that add to workers’ austerity misery.
Genuinely striving to save the planet from environmental destruction logically means going beyond the confines of the capitalist system. The urgent measures needed to combat climate change come into conflict with the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist system – the division of the world into rival, competing nation-states and the private ownership of the means of production. To start to reverse climate change would involve a rational, scientific global plan, democratically drawn up, to re-organise the energy industry to move away from reliance on fossil fuels to using only renewable energy. This would entail converting jobs in the fossil fuel-based industries, the nuclear industry, mining etc., to alternative green energy jobs, guaranteeing real living wages, decent workplace conditions and full trade union rights.
To tackle global warming requires worldwide action and cooperation. The technology exists, as part of an international plan, to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions and begin re-balancing the natural systems of the planet. However, this potential is cut across by rivalry between powerful nations. China leads the world in the development of green energy but its trade war with the US will only hinder that technology being developed and adopted.
Only the socialist re-organisation of society, on a world scale, can save the planet and transform living standards. A democratically controlled socialist plan of production would see a truly sustainable economy, where living standards and the earth’s future are in harmony.
What’s Marxism got to do with the environment?
For a long time, it was falsely claimed that socialists have nothing useful to bring to the debate about the environment. But as long ago as the 1840s, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels pointed out that capitalism causes a harmful “rift” between humans and the natural world. They explained that individual capitalists, who control the means of production, are driven by competition and the search for profits. This leads to a focus on short term gains that ignore the long-term effects of production, including the consequences for the environment. According to Marx, “Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth – the soil and labour”.
In Marx’s time, environmental damage caused by the market economy was localised in those countries or regions which had experienced capitalist development. Today we live in a world capitalist market and environmental problems have taken on monstrous, global dimensions. The solution therefore requires a global, working class-based response.
The CWI has a long, proud record of addressing the environmental crisis and putting forward a socialist solution. An important pamphlet on the environment by Peter Taaffe and Ronnie Sookhdeo, produced in the 1990s, the book, ‘Planning Green Growth’ (first published in 2003), by Pete Dickenson, and many other pamphlets and articles produced by the CWI around the world, over decades, addressed environmental issues, in detail.
CWI supporters have also participated in many climate change protests around the world. Several of the main local Earth Day protests taking place in London and elsewhere in England, on Friday, 20th September, were initiated by Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) members through their trade unions and trades councils.
It is by linking up students and youth with the organised working class, arguing for a socialist programme to change society, that the global warming catastrophe can averted, to create a safe and healthy environment and to satisfy human need.