Global climate strike – 29th November. The social and class dimension of the ecological struggle


Sonja Grusch, Socialist Left Party – CWI in Austria

This article is based on a speech delivered at the Political Ecology Conference in Istanbul, Turkey on 10th November.

Scientists have been pointing to the destruction of nature and the increasingly dangerous consequences this will have for over a century. The negative effects of CO2 in the atmosphere were first mentioned in 1895. The first United Nations Climate summit was held in 1979 – over 40 years ago.  Now, not just climate activists, but a broader audience have become aware of the different aspects of global warming and the pollution of the air, water and soil and their dramatic effects including floods, droughts, increasing food prices and the need for millions of people to flee their homes. 

An end to the production of energy using fossil and nuclear fuels is urgently needed. But although this has been understood for some time, nothing has been done to significantly change the situation. In addition to the empty words of the capitalist politicians, there are also cynical declarations by international organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which recently declared in its “World Oil Outlook” that it supports the Paris climate treaty. It is, however, planning further investments of USD 10.6 trillion in the oil industry over the next two decades so that the share of fossil-based energy remains at the level of two-thirds of the total. Meanwhile, the overall use of energy is expected to rise by 25% in the same period. 

Rosa Luxemburg’s famous words about the future of humanity being “either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism“ have gained a new dimension with the climate crisis. Now that the effects of the climate crisis are becoming more and more obvious, already leading to a world-wide mass movement, there is a chance to fundamentally change course. And a fundamental change in course is necessary!

The source of the problem 

Various explanations are given to explain environmental problems, but the truth is that their source lies in the capitalist system. It is neither humanity, nor greed, but the way capitalism functions. It is true that human beings influenced nature before capitalism, but the changes took on a new quality with the development of capitalism, and especially over the last 70 years. Under capitalism, everything has become a commodity, a source of profit. This includes human beings themselves, let alone the rest of the natural world. Competition and the need to make profit mean that the capitalists have no other choice but to continue their exploitation. So any serious attempt to resolve the environmental problems that fails to address the existence of capitalism is doomed to fail. 

This is demonstrated by some of the “solutions” currently proposed. The EU could implement a carbon tax, taxing the production of C02. Leaving aside the social dimension of taxing working class people, who need to drive to work because there is no functional public transport, would such a measure reduce carbon emissions in industry? No, because production would be shifted to those parts of the world where there is no carbon tax and even lower environmental standards. So CO2 emissions could even increase. 

Another option being discussed is the taxing of imported products in which CO2 is emitted during production. Even some European steel companies propose this to enhance their “green” credentials, while in reality they want to reduce cheaper competition from outside Europe. In this way, poorer countries would be pressurised to drive down production costs leading to even worse working conditions and environmental destruction in these countries. 

And within the EU, it wouldn’t work either because of the existence of the nation state. Each national government is preparing the best “playing field” for its own capitalists in the same way as Trump is doing for his. The role of these governments can be seen in the proposal to trade emissions or the carbon tax – that is if one country exceeds its permitted level of emissions, it can buy extra quotas from other countries. In Sweden the government goes even further by granting large concessions to large companies, so that they maintain their competitive edge. 

Some argue we should use capitalist market mechanisms to tackle the problems. Whilst some large companies understand that there is a problem, they use the issue to try and overcome their own difficulties. In the car industry, for example, there has been a limited push into electric cars, which, in themselves are not particularly eco-friendly. The car manufacturers get state subsidies to do this, hoping to push other companies out of the market. But at the same time, they are still increasing the number of cars on the roads. It would be much better to reduce carbon emissions through a major plan for state investment in public transport. 

Even when companies invest in eco-friendly technologies, their use is often the opposite of eco-friendly. Major dams or wind turbines are often built by private energy companies without even consulting the local population. They do not want to see a reduction in energy use, as this would reduce their profits. Nor is it helpful to replace nuclear power stations with giant dams, ruining whole valleys to maintain private profits. Instead public money should be invested in a genuinely eco-friendly public infrastructure with decisions taken democratically with the participation of the local population.

It is quite clear: there is no way to fool capitalism, capitalist companies cannot be used or relied upon to address the problems as the exploitation of humanity and nature are part of the capitalism’s DNA.

The solution to the problem

For a serious solution, we need to get rid of this system, to bring it down and replace it with one where the economy and the society is democratically-run by working class people. This would not mean just less production, but the replacement of unnecessary production such as weaponry by necessary, removing restrictions such as patents and built-in obsolescence and using the talents and ideas that are wasted today due to unemployment and poverty, combined with new technologies and innovation to raise the living standards in an eco-friendly way.  This would mean no reduction in the living standards of ordinary people and, in fact, lead to big improvements in the lives of those billions living in the developing world and in poor conditions rather than increasing the profits of the billionaires.

Just imagine if housework, washing, cleaning, and cooking were organized publicly and professionally – how much ineffective, unpaid and boring work, especially by women, could be reduced. In such a society, there would be no contradiction between the future of the planet and a good life for all those living on it.

Fighting for the solution

It’s clear that today’s governments and international institutions like the UN are not going to solve the problem. But people all over the world have become active in defence of the environment. The millions of youth that have come out onto the streets in the big climate strikes, mainly in Europe, the US and Australia, understand the international dimension and increasingly question the capitalist system. And there are countless activists like the indigenous people fighting deforestation of the rainforests in Latin America, the people from the African Niger delta struggling against the oil companies, the masses in Delhi, Mumbai and Beijing suffering from air pollution. Also in China, an increasing number of the many class struggles are linked to the devastation of nature. The destruction of nature is a problem for all humankind, but it is the poor, the working class that suffers most. And it is the working class which has the potential power to change everything.

The question of the environment is not new to the workers’ movement. Marx and Engels dealt with the concepts of “sustainability” and a “metabolic rift” – explaining how capitalism destroys the sensitive balance of nature.  In a number of their writings they dealt with questions of pollution and even industrial livestock farming. They took up questions which have again appeared on the agenda such as there being “too many people living on the planet”. This idea is brought into the debate by mainstream media, for example, the Marvel film “Avengers: Infinity War”, but also by all those who claim that there is “no space” for refugees in “our” country. 

Marx took up the same argument when it was raised by Malthus in the 19th century, who argued that there was a “limited fertility of the soil”. Opposing this, Marx explained the possibility of a qualitative increase of soil fertility based on a change in society, a change of the ownership of the productive forces and therefore their development. Marx and Engels did not argue for unlimited material growth but for unlimited qualitative growth. They understood that human beings are part of nature and not the crown, the peak of creation. Their answer was therefore not economic retraction or zero-growth, but to take the power from the capitalist class to release science from the dogma of profit. This understanding is in sharp contrast to both bourgeois and religious explanations that place human beings at the peak of creation, therefore having the right to exploit nature without taking care of natural balances. 

Unfortunately, many in the workers’ movement have reduced Marxist ideas to dried-out formulae and the leaders of the social democratic and Stalinist reformist organisations have accepted the bourgeois conception of there being no natural limits to growth and the resources on the planet. This, combined with the lack of workers’ democracy laid the basis for the numerous ecological catastrophes in the Stalinist countries that led to mass protests, particularly during the last decades of the former Soviet Union. Today we face the same problem. Working class organisations in many countries have fallen under the influence of bourgeois ideology and trade union leaderships accept the arguments of the bosses that there is a contradiction between saving jobs and saving the climate. They say we need huge new airports, new dams and power stations, that it is OK to build huge buildings where there were once parks because of the jobs that are created. But many more, and much better jobs could be created in recycling, in environmentally friendly production, in new technologies like renewable energy. 

The next capitalist crisis is on the horizon, and the capitalists are looking for ways to escape the consequences. As often happens, when a crisis looms the price of gold rises as the capitalists use gold as a safe haven. As demand for gold is increasing, gold mining is starting in places where it would not have been profitable before, such as Greece or Turkey. In existing mines, output is stepped up to maintain profits, so the people working there suffer overwhelming stress on top of the bad working conditions and health problems caused by the use of poisonous substances. 

A similar situation exists in the coal mines in Germany, most of which should be closed as they are dangerous and unnecessary. But the workers have a right to decent jobs with proper wages. Better jobs than in the mines. Safer jobs than in the mines. A responsible society would close the mines and organize new and better jobs, for example in restoring the areas destroyed by the mining. This could easily be financed using the profits the mining companies have been stealing over the last decades. For this to happen, the companies have to be taken out of the hands of the bosses and run under democratic control.

Only 100 companies have been responsible for 70% of all industrial carbon emissions since 1988. If their production methods changed, a lot of the problems could be solved. Even now, under capitalism, several technologies have been developed that would make this possible – it’s no longer a question of if it is possible, but a question of whether there is the political will. Unfortunately, the need to make money is more important for these companies than the environment. So to change their mode of production, to change what, why, and how they produce, we need to own them. We can’t expect any bourgeois government to do this, but it could be done by working class people – they are the ones that can organise society and the economy along democratic lines. Just imagine how much useless and dangerous production could be abolished if production was planned on the basis of what is needed! 

Every day in Vienna, Austria’s biggest city, the amount of unsold bread thrown away is equivalent to what is consumed in Graz, Austria’s second biggest city. This could easily be avoided in the 21st century, with all the technical possibilities for managing data that exist. And this is just one of many examples! The chaos of capitalist production leads to overproduction of more goods than can be purchased, and the race for profits leads to bad quality. No consumer voluntarily buys a product with built in “planned obsolescence”. The planning of production, of transport and the energy sector, would be much more effective and would save resources if democratically planned. 

Since the 1970s, a massive programme of privatization, for example of energy companies has been forced through as a way of investing the over-accumulated money of big business. Profit is the driving motive, as we’ve seen with the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Company and its disastrous role in California during the wildfires. Due to a lack of investment over decades in the richest country in the world, millions of people were left with no electricity. 

These companies need to be taken back into public hands, to change over to renewable energy and sustainable production. To make this possible it is not enough to just re-nationalize – something even Republican politicians including Donald Trump have considered. The Swedish energy company Vattenfall, one of Europe’s biggest energy companies, is state owned. Although it pretends to be climate friendly,  over 40% of their energy production comes from nuclear energy and 25% from fossil fuels. Nationalisation itself is not enough, we also need to take state power from the ruling class and replace it with a genuinely democratically run society. And we need democratic planning of the energy sector, transportation, and the building sector according to need, not profit.

We live in a time where there are enough resources and knowledge for everyone on the planet to live a decent life in dignity, without oppression and exploitation and with full rights for all genders, minorities and nationalities. And we live in a time where millions of youth want to fight for their future and the future of the planet.

The ruling class is always complaining that the youth are “apolitical” and “not interested”. But the ruling class is completely misreading the situation. The youth is not interested in their corrupt system, in their inability to solve the crucial problems we face. But they are prepared to fight for what they believe to be important. Although many still look for individual solutions, there is also a growing understanding of the need for collective action. 

There is nothing wrong with trying to live in an “eco friendly” way – but it’s something that is only possible for those who have the time and money to do so. But this alone is not enough to solve the problem. A French study revealed earlier this year that even if we all lived extremely eco-friendly lives, watching what we consume, how we travel and so on, this would only reduce carbon emissions by one third. 

However, even if there is no individual solution – the fact that so many people are prepared to change their lifestyle, even to make sacrifices doing so, shows that those who claim that human beings are too selfish for a better society are wrong. The movement of the youth is inspiring, and the discussions within it are of extreme importance. Democratic structures to make decisions are fundamental. But whilst the scale of the movement is fantastic, for real change, more is needed. Students have already understood that demonstrations alone are not enough and have started calling for strikes. But students have no economic power, no profit is reduced if they strike. So it is necessary for the environment movement to link up with the workers’ movement – the only force in society that has the power to make the necessary change. 

The bourgeois elements in the movement are completely against this approach, so they use the lack of democratic structures to try to derail the movement into safer lines. Therefore, democratic discussions about program, tactics, and strategy are central for the future of the movement. It’s not enough to appeal to the official institutions. Nor is it enough to be a mass movement – moves are needed to get rid of the profit-driven logic of capitalism. 

The fact that several trade unions in various countries have supported the climate strikes is a big step forward. This is a step in the right direction, because the working class is the only power in society that can change the system. For some, this call to the working class might sound old-fashioned and outdated. But the example of the workers in the North Irish shipyard of Harland & Wolff is an important example. They struck and occupied the company to save their jobs. They not only demanded re-nationalisation, but also demanded a change of production to specialize in green energy. They linked up with workers in other companies and brought together workers from both sides of the divided working class, Catholics and Protestants. They reached out to the community and to other struggles taking place. They supported the calls for the climate strike and supported LGBT Pride. And they won. They showed in practice that the question of the environment cannot be separated from other class issues.

It’s true that all human beings are affected by the climate crisis – but capitalism stands in the way of our solution. Therefore, it is a class question! And it’s the working class that is taking to the streets. At the moment of writing, working class and youth all over the world, from Chile to the US, from South Africa to Russia, from Lebanon to Hong Kong, from Catalonia to Iran and in many other countries, are out in protest. These protests started on different issues: against price increases, for democratic rights, against repression, for a decent life – but they’ve all quickly come into sharp confrontation with the ruling elites and the capitalist system, which they defend. 

The climate crisis is part of the crisis of capitalism and its political system, and it’s part of the international uprising. The struggle for the future of the planet must be part of the struggle against the ruling system – or it will fail. The world is burning and it is the oppressed masses that are rising to fight back. 

The next international day of action is on November the 29th. Socialists all over the world will link up the struggle of the youth with the struggle of other parts of the working class for a mighty and powerful fightback. We have something to fight for – we have a world to win!