Climate activism: 'It's not enough to criticise. Build movements that confront the crisis'
Gemma Weedall addresses Socialism 2014 in Malaysia.
By Gemma Weedall
November 20, 2014 -- Green Left Weekly -- Climate change is the biggest and most urgent threat facing humanity today. We are seeing global temperatures rise at an unprecedented rate, with 13 of the 14 warmest years on record having occurred in the past 14 years.
In fact, if you are under 37 years of age, you have never seen a year of below average temperature.
Last year in Australia, over 150 weather records were broken, including experiencing our hottest day, week, month and year on record. It is likely that these records will not be long-standing, with all signs indicating they will be broken again this coming summer.
There are predictions that at current rates of emissions increases, the Arctic will be ice free in summer as soon as four years from now, but in the best case scenario, in about 20 years.
This represents a dangerous tipping point that will take us into uncharted territory from which we may not be able to return.
As a result of these drastic changes in the Earth’s weather patterns, caused by rising greenhouse gas emissions, we are seeing an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events around the world.
From bushfires and droughts, to floods and cyclones, these disasters are devastating communities, and hitting the poor the hardest.
Australia is one of the highest carbon emitters per capita in the world. But it is our role as a global exporter of fossil fuels that is most notable; Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and home to the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle.
Australia continues to play an imperialist and exploitative role in the region, and take virtually no responsibly globally for its significant contributions to the climate crisis.
The emissions from this export industry are never included in official measurements of national emissions. Fossil fuel companies in Australia are subsidised with billions of dollars a year, and have aggressively fought back against any policy proposals to tax their super-profits.
There are currently nine proposed new “mega coal mines” in Queensland’s Galilee basin, which would be producing for export and would turn that region alone into the world’s seventh largest contributor of emissions.
Globally, the fossil fuel industry already has 2795 gigatonnes of CO2 in reserves (not even counting unconventional gas), which is five times more than the maximum the planet can handle.
If we continue with capitalist business as usual, there will be disastrous consequences for humanity. As 350.org founder Bill McKibben puts it, “if they carry out their business plans, the planet tanks”. We need to rewrite this script and go down a different path.
Capitalism is in unavoidable conflict with environmental sustainability because of three key features that are inherent to the system.
Profit motive: The motivating force of capitalism is the never-ending quest for profits and accumulation; all other areas are and suffer as result.
Unfettered growth: Capitalist economies must continually expand, which is incompatible with the Earth’s defined boundaries and finite resources. Marx called this the “treadmill of production”, and it was one of his most valuable ecological insights.
Externalities: Social and environmental costs are externalised and unable to be accounted for in capitalist economics.
In reality, the environment is not something “external” to the human economy as capitalism tells us; it constitutes the essential life support systems for all living creatures. A system that is unable to take this into account is not “rational” and “efficient”, but paving the way for its own destruction.
Marx and Engels’ conception of the Earth as a dynamic and complex whole demonstrate that their views constituted some of the most advanced environmental thinking of the nineteenth century.
This advanced view also saw humans as a part of this ecosystem structure, rather than above it, and derided the view that humans could exploit nature as they wished without consequences.
In Dialectics of Nature engels wrote: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each victory nature takes its revenge on us…
“Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst”.
Marx and Engels may not be well known for their ecological thinking, but in fact, they have a lot to teach us in this field. They argued that capitalism’s exploitation of working people and the unsustainable exploitation of nature were linked and part of the same process.
Marx’s two most important ecological insights were “the treadmill of production” (previously mentioned) and the “ecological (or metabolic) rift”.
The Metabolic Rift states that the capitalist mode of production causes a sharp break in the metabolism (two way relationship) between nature and humans, which Marx sees as mediated by process of human labour. This occurs on dual levels; at the local level where industrial production reduces soil fertility, depriving both soil and workers of nourishment and sustenance, and on the global scale through exploitation of the resources of the Global South by the imperialist countries of the Global North.
It is evident that we cannot just reform the system or shift to “green capitalism” because ecological destruction is built into the inner nature and logic of our present system of production and distribution.
As socialists, we know there can be no lasting solution to the world’s environmental crises as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic and social system on this planet. Eco-socialism or barbarism, there is no third way.
Eco-socialism aims to combine the best aspects of green and red — of ecology and Marxism. It takes from ecology an understanding of nature as interrelated, integrated eco-systems and essential insights into humanity’s impact on the environment.
Marxism provides the materialist analysis of why the capitalist social order has been so destructive and shows that another kind of society is both possible and necessary.
It compels us to learn from the mistakes of many 20th century Marxists who ignored ecological issues at their own peril. The lesson we must learn is that ecology must have a central place in socialist theory, and the activity of socialist movements.
It is not enough for the socialist left to just criticise neoliberal and liberal responses to the climate crisis. We have to actively support and be involved in movements that directly confront the problem.
Opportunites and hope
In Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, she asserts that climate change is not just a disaster but also a one-of-a-kind opportunity that can serve as a wake-up call for widespread democratic action.
She says, “I began to see all kinds of ways that climate change could become a catalysing force for positive change – how it could be the best argument progressives have ever had” to build the fair and just society we’ve always fought for.
The book provides a vision for how we can collectively use this crisis to create a world that is actually a big improvement for the majority of the world’s people; creating societies that are not just safer from extreme weather, but also safer and fairer in many other ways.
“If there has ever been a moment to advance a plan to heal the planet that also heals our broken economies and our shattered communities, this is it.”
She makes the argument that given that the current capitalist economic model is failing the majority of people on this planet, being forced to change in order to address climate change might not be such a bad thing.
Indeed, the structural, economic and social changes necessary to address the climate crisis could simultaneously address many of society’s ills and the inequalities of capitalism.
Of course, the ruling class will try to use this situation to further entrench inequality and uneven control, as they have done in response to countless natural disasters, as Klein outlines in one of her other books The Shock Doctrine.
But we can also flip this around, and create what she calls a “people’s shock”, using this opportunity to disperse power, extend democracy and redistribute wealth.
There is no doubt that the reality of the climate crisis is incredibly daunting and scary. But This Changes Everything provides some real hope that we can use this impending crisis to build a better world, and that it is possible.
There is plenty of evidence that free market ideology is losing its persuasive power amoungst the general population, and no shortage of signs of hope that the tide is changing.
The take-home message from Klein is “We can’t sit this one out, not [just] because we have too much to lose, but because we have too much to gain … for a great many people, climate action is their best hope for a better present, and a future far more exciting than anything else currently on offer”.