As the new year breaks, still more articles warning of climate change are breaking too. Marxists must urgently and collectively work on strategy argues John Molyneux, not least because capitalism is the cause, but also because in the absence of answers from the left, the far-right will provide their own.
Given that when its foundations were laid down catastrophic climate change was not even dreamt of, Marxism has proved remarkably effective in dealing with this new challenge. If pride of place goes to John Bellamy Foster for his groundbreaking Marx’s Ecology, which demonstrated a deep concern with the environment at the heart of historical materialism, and for his theory based on Capital, of a ‘metabolic rift’ between capitalism and nature, numerous other Marxists have contributed to forging a Marxist and socialist response to this existential crisis for humanity and for the world’s species.
Thanks to the work of Foster, Paul Burkett, Andreas Malm, Ian Angus, Jonathan Neale, Kohei Saito, Martin Empson and others it has been clearly established, firstly that the driver of climate change and the wider ecological crisis is capitalism not human nature or even ‘industrial society’, and therefore secondly, that humanity already possessed the knowledge and technology to halt climate change (through a massive shift to renewable energy, public transport, sustainable building, and non-beef agriculture, combined with large reforestation), and finally, that the inability to tackle climate change derives not from some superficial character of the system or even some ingrained ideological mindset (a ‘belief in growth’ or ‘an addiction to consumption’) but from capitalism’s fundamental dynamic: its in-built drive to accumulate capital and to expand in its relentless struggle for profit.
Moreover, this analysis has provided a strong basis for propaganda and agitation and it will continue to do so. It points to a necessary critique of the idea that climate chaos can be stopped by reforming individual behaviour or by altering patterns of consumption. It is particularly important in relation to the reactionary and potentially disastrous attempt by governments and ruling elites to load the burden of combating climate change on ordinary people while protecting the giant corporations, states and their military machines, as we have seen with Macron’s fuel taxes (and the mass yellow vest revolt against them) and with the proposal for a carbon tax in Ireland. It suggests strongly that what we need internationally are mass movements from below for ‘system change not climate change’ and that combating climate change needs to become an integral component, like anti-racism and anti-imperialism, of the international socialist and working class movement. The power of the yellow vests forced Macron not only to back down from the fuel tax, but to offer pay rises too. Still the yellow vests are on the street demanding more and headlines say Macron is in ‘hiding’ from the public eye.
All this stands and will continue to stand. We carry on the fight on all fronts for the fundamental changes required to stop the headlong rush towards catastrophe. However, the extreme urgency of the situation raises another difficult question. The recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Report has said the world has 12 years to bring about fundamental and unprecedented change or face disaster. The question Marxists have to face is: what if capitalism does not change course either at all or in time and the world heads in to the territory of 2 or 3 percent Celsius warming?
Government and Corporate Failures
There is, I have to say, every reason to believe that this will be the case. The governments of the world have known the basic facts of climate change for over 30 years – at least since the IPCC was established in 1988 and issued its first Report in 1990 – and they have done nothing serious about it. And despite all the scientific warnings and all the fine words of David Attenborough and all the ‘earth summits’, they still not doing anything serious, by which I mean they are still not taking action on the scale necessary to deal with the problem. Neither Kyoto nor Copenhagen nor Paris, regardless of their failures, even attempted or aspired to, the action required by the crisis we are facing.
The main strategy of the corporations and governments has been to talk the talk but not walk the walk. It has been to engage in massive ‘green washing’ while continuing business as usual. The case of Volkswagen epitomises this approach. In 2013 Volkswagen proclaimed:
‘Resource conservation and sustainability in the production sector are pivotal for achieving our Group goals for 2018. We are aiming not only to adopt eco-friendly practices but also to strike a balance between the three main factors: economy, ecology and society.’
In September 2015 it was revealed that Volkswagen had been intentionally and systematically cheating environmental tests on carbon dioxide emissions of millions of its cars (about 11 million in all). The cars were fitted with a special device that lowered emissions when the cars were being tested but allowed the level of emissions to rise dramatically in ordinary driving.
In so far as a section of the world’s rulers has an alternative strategy it is that of Trump and Bolsonaro: engage in the most absurd climate change denial (‘its a Chinese hoax’, or ‘it’s a Marxist plot’) which really signifies a determination not to give a damn and to tough it out, in the belief that they and their class will be protected from the worst of the catastrophe.
A Worldwide Approach
The result of all this is that concentrations of key gases in the atmosphere that are driving up global temperatures reached a new high in 2017. In their annual greenhouse gas bulletin, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says there is no sign of reversal in this rising trend. Carbon dioxide levels reached 405 parts per million (ppm) in 2017, a level not seen in 3-5 million years. And this is the decisive statistic. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are cumulative – once there, they stay there. It doesn’t matter if the rate of greenhouse emissions in the EU are slowing or somewhere else has cut their commitment to fossil fuels; the world has one atmosphere and if the concentration of greenhouse gases in that atmosphere is rising then the course to disaster has not changed. The Titanic is still headed for the iceberg.
We can say ‘we need a revolution’ and indeed we do say so and we should say so. But what if, despite our best efforts, the international revolution doesn’t arrive in the next 12 years? We are then into the territory of catastrophic climate change. The meaning of this needs to be clarified. It does not mean the world will end in 12 years; it doesn’t mean humanity will be wiped out; it doesn’t mean we will all be up to our knees in water; and it doesn’t mean – yet – what Marx called ‘the common ruin of the contending classes’. It means the intensification of extreme weather events on a hitherto unprecedented scale – more droughts, more fires, more storms, more floods , more destruction of crops and more refugees. It means therefore the extreme intensification of the class struggle. In the face of disaster the rich will not unite with the poor, the capitalists will not unite with the workers – they will save themselves and their own (in class not national terms) and let the rest of us starve, drown or wander the streets. And there will be, as there always is, resistance.
This is the challenge for Marxism. Marxists are going to have to think about how we address this new and unprecedented state of the world. What will we pose as the way forward in a world in the grip of major climate change? The question exists at two levels that are distinct but, of course, interlinked. The first is the level of immediate strategy and tactics, of demands, slogans, mobilisations, in the face of climate change induced disasters. The second is at the level of charting a way out of or dealing with a situation in which massive and, perhaps, ongoing climate change is already an accomplished fact. I mean more here than just calling for socialism, but attempting to spell out what socialism would mean in those circumstances. We are not at present equipped for this and this is call for individual and collective work.
Immediate and Strategic Demands
Obviously we are not yet equipped to answer my questions here, but I do want say a bit more about them. In terms of responding to ‘natural’ disasters, I think it is fair to say that the left has generally often responded at a propaganda level after the event but not attempted much of an immediate intervention as the disaster was unfolding. Katrina in New Orleans would be an example of this and the same would seem to be the case with the recent California fires. But what if the hurricanes and the wildfires are recurring and ongoing in a short space of time? Then we would have to respond with both immediate and strategic demands. Thinking about this will have to be both global and national. We will have to learn from each other’s experiences internationally while also understanding that although climate change is by its nature a transnational phenomenon, the impact of climate change will vary enormously from one part of the world to another – from the Sudan to Bangladesh, from the Gulf of Mexico to Australia.
Then there is the question of the nature of the economy and society that might be able to fix, or be compatible with, a hothouse world. In New Left Review (111, May-June 2018) Troy Vettese argues for what is known as ‘the half-earth’ solution. The key problem, he says, will not be population or economic growth but ‘land scarcity’ and what he suggests is that humanity will have to confine itself to one half of the earth’s land surface while the other half is reforested and rewilded, so that half the world would absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. It would also involve compulsory veganism because that and only that would permit the required reduction in the use of land for arable farming.
Vettese’s article and proposal is clearly utopian, not in the sense of being inherently impossible (I do not know if it is hypothetically possible) but in the sense that it contains no link, and doesn’t attempt to establish one, between where we are at present and this imagined alternative society. But my point is that we are going to need, before too long, serious non-utopian Marxist thinking that addresses the issue of what kind of other world we are advocating. Moreover, the agitational demands and responses that we make in the face of mounting disasters will need to point in the direction of such an alternative – a socialist alternative certainly but a concretely articulated one.
These are massive and daunting issues and at the moment they not seem the most pressing ones, compared for example with the complexities of Brexit or the rise of the far-right, but it won’t be long before they are very pressing indeed and if Marxists don’t have answers for them, the right and the fascists most certainly will. That is why I think the Marxist hive mind, especially younger Marxists, needs to get its thinking cap on. Needless to say this is in no way counterposed to fighting in the here and now to do everything we can to prevent humanity coming to this dreadful pass.