There is a growing awareness of environmental issues across the planet. But are lifestyle changes enough to stem the descent into climate chaos? David Swanson takes a look.
The effects of climate change remain a common discussion point in today’s society, as all forms of broadcasting and media continually highlight that we must be mindful that our current routines are ruining the planet as we know it. This is something the left should celebrate; that millions of people are waking up to the realities of climate change—whilst climate change deniers are forced to retreat into isolated cluster groups that bear little relevance or influence upon society—is a victory that should not be taken lightly and positively celebrated. However, we should also remain acutely aware that there are serious limitations to the narrative pursued by the mainstream media, which could in the long run be deeply harmful to any serious strategy to halt the threat of climate chaos. The job of socialists, I would argue, is to urgently make this point clear, and to offer a more coherent and radical strategy for upending the systemic interests that continue to destroy our environment.
Consider, for example, the predominance of focus on the individual solutions to climate change. This is not an accidental occurrence. More and more is being publicised about the environment. Of this there is no doubt. But much of this coverage, and the discussion that takes place around it, is mediated and distorted by the way that capitalism frames debates about society. Time and time again, we hear prominent figures in media, from the business sector, or the great and good from the world of politics, exalting the virtues of lifestyle changes as the solution to climate change. Whilst no one would argue that individual changes themselves are wrong, it is self-evident that this emphasis greatly reduces our horizons, considering only how a single person should live their lives, or those immediately around them. Again, by only focussing on the individual, the burden of responsibility is shifted onto the isolated actions of people, rather than on society as a whole. Here, I think, Marxists—with our unapologetic focus on the systemic nature of climate change—are uniquely placed to intervene in this debate; remaining insistent that individual action must be linked to a wider movement that collectively tackles the structure and overarching framework of capitalism and the ecological destruction inherent within it, as we battle to freeze or reverse the terrifying prospect that now faces humanity.
This is particularly apparent in the strategy towards curbing the influence of plastic within our society. Many environmental documentaries and indeed state media channels have devoted countless hours producing harrowing footage of natural habitats facing destruction beyond repair, the extinction of endangered or exotic wildlife and indeed the devastation of indigenous homelands because of capitalism’s proclivity for the usage of plastics and other products, and the careless way that it is often disposed of. This is undoubtedly true, but the prevalent view that the solution simply lies in a boycott of plastic straws, cups and cutlery, replacing them with more environmental alternatives is a sticking plaster rather than an antidote. There is much to be said for purchasing a reusable coffee cup or a bamboo toothbrush to negate an individual’s ‘plastic footprint,’ but unless it is linked to a wider consciousness about how it is actually produced in the first place then we have little hope of solving the issue.
System Vs Individual
The problem, as I have argued, is systemic. Multi-million pound corporations of the cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food industries produce endless amounts of plastic packaging on an annual basis, incentivised by cheaply assembling products to maximise profits and perpetually pushing towards becoming the market leader within their sphere of influence. Moreover, as society continues to succumb to the influence of free market politics, in which production falls within the jaws of the anarchic world market and produced for the sake of financial reward rather than human need, an endless stream of single use plastic will continue to blight humanity, no matter how effective the boycott. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
This focus on the individual also has the effect of letting big corporations off the hook, deflecting attention away from the fact that our current surroundings are a product of careless decisions on the part of the ruling class, and not the population at large. There is a huge amount of truth in the claim that everyone has a duty to provide a habitable planet for future generations. Without examining how society has managed to arrive at such a sharp crossroads, however, we are in danger of repeating the mistakes that got us here in the first place. The planet is in a state of crisis because the attainment of ecological sustainability is not profitable. The big businesses that monopolise energy facilities, fuel consumption and transport services knowingly produce and encourage the use of fossil fuels that are continually pushing the world’s temperature to record heights for a simple reason; a saturated world market and ever expanding (and ever crisis-ridden) global economy will financially reward them for doing so. It is this drive to profit that is literally killing the planet with the vast resources accrued sitting idly in off-shore bank accounts and lucrative hedge funds until such a time that a further investment opportunity arises, creating a hamster wheel of arbitrary production that is slowly strangling humanity and suffocating our natural surroundings.
And the facts are clear. It is not the mass of individuals that are the problem, but the actions of a small elite of individuals. Only one hundred companies are responsible for over 70% of the world’s greenhouse emissions since the early 1970’s, each vying competitively with each other to produce energy supplies for the sake of financially rewarding a few select bosses, bankers and big businessmen.
Nationalism or Internationalism?
If we accept, therefore, that climate change is a systemic and global problem, then it follows that we will need a planned and coordinated response across the world. Instead of this, or perhaps even because of this, what we are witnessing from the likes of Donald Trump is a reversion to a reactionary nationalist position that prioritises strengthening the nation state over humanity’s future. As much as the market economy of late capitalism continues to become more globalised in modern times, the absence of a truly binding international code of conduct has encouraged state governments and their national advisors to continually engage in an ongoing feud for material resources and the protection of national tariffs, leading to the absurd situation that both production and trade remain uncontrolled whilst a lack of actual planning of resources leads the planet into endless wars of competition between states and their governments. It is ironic that at the very moment that humanity needs a coordinated international response more than ever, the chief political representatives of the capitalist class are moving in the opposite direction.
And the environmental aspects of this are already having an enormous impact; unusual weather patterns that are leading to unexplained forest fires and tsunamis across the globe are affecting the lives and routines of millions, causing a massive humanitarian crisis that is then exploited by racists who wish to prey upon the lives of the growing number of migrants fleeing the impact of environmental degradation. It is more profitable to criminalise, jail and deport those who are affected by climate disaster in our current conditions, including lucrative financial contracts for those who profit from systems such as Direct Provision in Ireland, or the privatising of national immigration offices in other parts of the world that are steeped in the very racism and division that capitalism thrives upon.
It is also abundantly clear, then, that we should warn against those who advocate individualist solutions to climate change in the sphere of electoral politics. The mainstream green movement fails because it continues to deny, or at best de-emphasise, that climate change is a collective problem, and ultimately a question of class, that requires a radical overhaul of our current surroundings to halt the descent into further climate chaos. The natural world continues to suffer because of capitalism’s innate need for unchecked GDP growth. With or without state intervention, big businesses will continue to destroy the world’s natural habitats that act as sustainable cooling mechanisms in the pursuit of profitable opportunities. As international Green parties continue to stubbornly propose ineffective reformist, electoral strategies that promote individual reasoning as the groundwork to tackle climate change, Marxists must be resolutely determined to go beyond this. We must, in short, link the overall fight against climate change with the ongoing campaign to collectively overcome the system that created it.
Individual solutions simply will not do. Instead, it is time to take the money and resources held by the tiny elites who run (and ruin) this planet, to invest in new, green technology and energy emission programs that go against their own interests. All major utilities and banks should be nationalised and placed under democratic workers’ control, as part of a wider strategy to not only tackle the erroneous decisions that are harming the planet, but also to uproot the system that caused climate change in the first place. The left should remain unambiguously clear that the poor and working classes should not have to shoulder the responsibility or the blame for the poor decisions of those who privately hoard the world’s wealth, and that ultimately it is the power of those same exploited people—namely the international working class—who have the power to overhaul the system that is destroying the planet, allowing humanity to build on a sustainable basis, whilst placing fossil fuels into the dustbin of forgotten history.
As big as this task may seem, without a democratically planned economy, managed and controlled by workers, we have little hope of reversing climate change. Some might say this is pie in the sky. Perhaps it is. But who can argue that the global and systemic nature of climate change, requires anything less than a global and systemic response. Socialists, therefore, must place ourselves right at the heart of the movement against climate change. We must argue that placing the burden of responsibility squarely upon the shoulders of consumers is a farce, and we must challenge the perceived untouchability of high-flying capitalist oligarchs who hold the future of the planet in their palms.
Combatting climate change requires a green movement that is the deepest shade of red. It is time for workers everywhere to unite and fight towards this goal, breaking national lines to create a sense of solidarity that will truly link climate change protests to their rightful place of development at the heart of production. We need system change, not climate change – that is our task.