Individual versus social solutions to global warming

By Terry Townsend

A talk to the Climate Change Social Change Conference held in Sydney from April 11 to 13, 2008, organised by Green Left Weekly. For more articles, audio and video from the conference, click here.

April 13, 2008 -- I’m sure everybody here is aware of the basic facts of global warming and the likely consequences if rapid and serious action is not taken. There is virtually unanimous agreement among scientists and activists, and increasingly among millions of ordinary people, about the degree of the problem and the time frame we have to make fundamental changes to address it.

The main “solutions” being offered by the capitalist class, its politicians and the corporate-dominated mass media — and endorsed by some key peak environmental organisations — are consciously designed to shift the responsibility for, and the major costs of, addressing global warming away from the most polluting corporations and to preserve the basic structure and mechanisms of Western capitalist economies. They are also designed to delay the necessary political, economic and social changes for as long as possible, and to keep them to the minimum that are compatible (in their assessment) with both the survival of capitalist society and ameliorating the worst of climate change.

This is why major-party politicians and the corporate media — and again unfortunately some peak environment groups – do not place serious demands on big business, but endorse — even celebrate — big business’ preferred measures of emissions trading, “green” taxes, carbon offsetting projects in the Third World and capitalism-friendly publicly subsidised techno-fixes such as so-called clean coal and agro-fuels.

These false “solutions” are not only inadequate, they are counterproductive. However, since other speakers and workshops will be focusing on those, I’ll concentrate on another of the establishment’s favoured — and ultimately also counterproductive — “solution” — one that is intertwined with the others. The push for all individuals to voluntarily consume a little less, and “buy green” whenever they can. That the answer to global warming is for all of “us” — consumers, workers, residents, pensioners — to voluntarily change our wasteful behaviour.

Despite its benign aura of commonsense advice, this is a massive ideological campaign to drive home to “us” that it is ordinary working people who are ultimately to blame for climate change, and that it is “us who must pay for its solution. It is part of the ruling class’ overall offensive to shift the blame and cost of addressing global warming away from itself and its intrinsically environmentally destructive economic and social system.

As one commentator aptly noted in the usually system-friendly Grist e-zine “every time an activist or politician hectors the public to voluntarily reach for a new [fluro] bulb or spend extra on a Prius, Exxon Mobil heaves a big sigh of relief,” because it diverts people’s attention from what is really necessary to address the crisis, and from who is really responsible.

Death by a thousand tips

Another radical commentator, George Marshall, has described this ideological offensive as “death [by] a thousand tips.” He is referring to the literally tens of thousands of newspaper articles and web pages that, after having outlined the severe crisis we face and the sharply diminishing time society has to respond, direct the reader to a snappy, upbeat sidebar or list entitled “10 easy tips to save the planet” or some variation thereof. The same sort of lists have been the core of government-sponsored campaigns across the globe, including Australia.

Standard items include “change your light globes,” “turn off unnecessary lights,” “don’t leave your appliances on stand-by,” “adjust your thermostats,” recycle, compost, drive a fuel-efficient car, or drive less. Yet extremely rarely do these helpful hints mention political action, let alone make concrete demands on governments or business. On the odd occasion they do, it is vague and tokenistic – and tacked onto the end of the list.

Of course, there is a place for action by individuals, and it should not be discouraged. It does make sense in terms of saving energy and water, reducing waste and saving money. Educating and facilitating such behaviour on a mass scale is a significant part of what is needed to halt global warming. But such suggestions should not be counterposed to, or used to drown out calls for, the urgent need for mass political action to force the necessary cuts to emission demanded by the science. And they should not be cynically presented, as they are by the corporate media and capitalist politicians, as the way to save the planet.

In Britain, the government spent £22 million on a “Do your bit” campaign and had to admit that it produced no measurable change in personal habits. A poll in 2007 indicated that this campaign had miseducated people, with more than 40% saying that recycling household waste — which would result in a relatively small reduction of emissions — was the most important thing they could do. Only 10% nominated the far more effective regular use of public transport.

That £22 million would have been better spent to organize a movement to demand an end to the massive and wasteful packaging and advertising industries, or the mass expansion of public transport.

In Ireland, faced with greenhouse gas emissions that have increased 25% since 1990, the government’s response was to launch a multimillion euro “The Power on One” campaign, which provides — yes, you guessed it — “10 top tips” to “make a difference.” Among the revolutionary actions suggested were: don’t overfill your kettle, but fill your dishwasher before use, and unplug your mobile phone charger.

As George Marshall quips, all “that sounds much nicer than curtailing road building or industrial growth. They are not called `easy tips’ for nothing.”

On October 15, the UN Environment Program organised a “Blog Action Day” in which some 15,000 blog sites offered more “tips” to web surfers, from the inevitable changing light globes to one of’s “tiny actions [that] can save the world”: quit your job requiring a long commute and start up a home-based business! Copyblogger’s not alone in making “tips” that are simply beyond the means of most debt-strapped working people in these days of widespread “mortgage stress” and rising interest rates. Common “tips” include buying more expensive hybrid cars and building architect-designed “carbon neutral” houses.

Blaming working people

All such campaigns are premised on blaming working people for global warming. But as Dave Holmes, a veteran Australian socialist, points out in Green Left Weekly, what real choice to do the mass of ordinary people have:

“the source of our current crisis is quite specific: it is the operations of modern capitalism. The drive for profits by the giant corporations has been relentless and has been pursued in complete disregard of any impact on the environment.

“The fundamental conditions under which we live — how we generate our power, how we get around, how our food is grown, etc. — are not decided by us but rather by the big corporations that control society’s means of production. Without the rule of corporate capital we could set in place radically different and ecologically sustainable arrangements.

“For example, the cars which most of us use are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions…The favouring of private motor vehicles over public transport hasn’t come about because we are innately a society of petrol-heads but is a consequence of the deliberate policies of a succession of capitalist governments loyally protecting the interests of their big business masters. The auto industry and its associated sectors make up a very large part of each national capitalist economy.”

However well intentioned, appeals to people to change their individual habits bring trivial results when measured against the problem, and if not coupled to the much more urgent task of politically mobilizing to demand serious government action to immediately reduce and rapidly halt greenhouse gas emissions, it derails mass concern about global warming from taking a political road.

The Earth Hour greenwash

It also sells the damaging lie that “clean,” “green,” “natural” and “organic” commodities are the answer, when they are fundamentally no better for the planet than any other over-produced commodities under capitalism. It plays into the hands of the mega-financed “Greenwashing” by corporations and governments of an unsustainable economic system.

If anything sums up this sort of operation, it was the massively publicized “Earth Hour” on March 29. The brainchild in 2007 of the World Wildlife Fund, Fairfax newspapers and the Leo Burnett advertising agency, Earth Hour declares on its website: “Created to take a stand against the greatest threat our planet has ever faced, Earth Hour uses the simple action of turning off the lights for one hour to deliver a powerful message about the need for action on global warming.” But you will search in vain for any demands for political action, just boilerplate “tips.” It states:

“Earth Hour is the highlight of a major campaign to encourage businesses, communities and individuals to take the simple steps needed to cut their emissions on an ongoing basis. It is about simple changes that will collectively make a difference — from businesses turning off their lights when their offices are empty to households turning off appliances rather than leaving them on standby.”

There was more of the same in the 40-page, full-colour Earth Hour Magazine that was distributed “free” (free that is if you don’t consider the small forest and who knows how many tonnes of CO2 that were expended in its production and distribution) with the approximate 211,000 copies of the Sydney Morning Herald on March 17. Only one article, by Tim Flannery, made any serious attempt to point out the vested interests that need to be tackled and raised the issues of inadequate public transport, stopping new coal plants and setting adequate emission-reduction targets by 2050.

But his contribution was buried under an avalanche of yet more regurgitated “tips,” feel-good stories and gumph such as this:

“Many governments and communities have already made big changes to reduce emissions. The use of solar and wind power is on the increase. Other renewable energy sources are being investigated. Millions of dollars are being spent exploring ways to bury carbon dioxide or to produce cleaner coal. But more needs to be done and politicians need to be brave enough to make tough decisions. If those politicians know that a couple of million people in their homeland have joined Earth Hour, they can be confident that the people will support the hard decisions and will applaud leaders who have the will to act.”

Don’t expect Fairfax to support “hard decisions” that impact on the big end of town, though. “Hard decisions” is code for making you and me pay higher bills.

The supplement was festooned with full-page ads by electricity suppliers such as EnergyAustralia, Integral Energy and Country Energy — the ones that hawk all that coal power — car companies such as Toyota, Fiat and Hyundai (Volvo waited for 8-page post-Earth Hour “Souvenir edition” Sydney Morning Herald), and even Cascade beer (100% Carbon Offset!).

Corporate and government “greenwashing” was the central goal of the pre-hour hullabaloo. For all the talk of millions of Australians taking part, almost the sole yardstick of the night’s success was on corporate office blocks and huge neon advertising signs in the CBD switching off. The participation of major publicly owned landmarks is really what made the impact. Which begs the question, why aren’t all these lights and signs switched off every night?

Fossil fuel giant AGL loaned the giant WWF-logoed hot air balloon, which sailed over several capital cities beforehand, producing an estimated 378 kilograms of CO2 an hour. That’s the same AGL that is a shareholder in Victoria’s largest brown coal mine. Richard Branson gave his grin of approval, ever keen to “offset” the impact of his fleet of 38 747s. BP — the world’s third largest global energy company — also promised to turn off all its “non-essential lighting.” Let’s not mention that BP was named one of the “ten worst corporations” in both 2001 and 2005 based on its environmental and human rights records. Or that it is busy trying to mine the ultra-polluting tar sands oil in Canada.

McDonald’s turned off it Golden Arches for an hour nationally! So the literally millions on tonnes of useless packaging produced by this lot, not to mention the clearing of Amazonian rainforest for beef for Maccas, is forgiven. Not surprisingly, Channel Nine’s support did not extend to urging people to switch of the tellie or to refusing to air the ads of CO2 polluters. Behind the scenes, advertising industry magazine Campaign Brief in league with the SMH offered an incentive to copywriters who “demonstrate the most effective and/or inspirational way to leverage Earth Hour 2008” — two return trips to Cannes in France!

And last but certainly not least, the eco-friendly Department of Defence signed up to participate in Earth Hour. Federal Labor defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced: “Defence takes its obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions seriously and will have over 1330 buildings across Australia participating in Earth Hour.” The minister of war also reported that the department had launched the Combat Climate Change initiative (clever pun) to provide information and “tips” to defence staff in the “workplace” and home to reduce energy use. Here’s a “tip” Joel: get all troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and end all support for those wars for US imperialist control of energy sources.

In the end, despite the hype and PR, the results were hardly impressive. In the hour, electricity consumption across whole city and the Illawarra dropped just 2-3%, while in the CBD it was just over 8%. Nationwide figures put the drop at 3.6%. Based on a survey of 3000, WWF claimed 59% of Sydneysiders took part — a figure that doesn’t gel with the marginal power drop, if simply turning off lights is the way forward.

Anyway, it seems that the WWF and Fairfax were not going to let their advertisers down and were going to declare the night a success whatever the result. The Online Fairfax-owned Brisbane Times reported that “Brisbane made history this evening with the city’s first official Earth Hour going off without a hitch. Kellie Caught, of Earth Hour organiser World Wildlife Fund, said she was thrilled with the response.” Only problem was, this was published on March 28, 26 hours before Earth Hour had even taken place!

The last word on Earth Hour should go to Jimmy Yan, a member of the Glen Waverley Secondary College Eco-Committee, whose excellent critique was carried on the committee’s blog:

“Earth Hour rests on the assumption that the environmental movement can make any real progress without looking at the deeper social and political institutions and systems within our society that cause our environmental problems, one of them being a system that seeks to accumulate as much profit as possible for the sake of more accumulation and more competition irrespective of the human, environmental and social cost. Our environmental problems become another commodity that is bought and sold on the market…

“Ultimately, events like Earth Hour … rest on the idea that we can trust and work with those responsible for environmental destruction without holding them accountable for their crimes and the assumption that ordinary people are too stupid and naive to go beyond just turning off their lights for one hour.”

Mass movement needed

We have to convince millions of people and build a mass movement for emission-reductions that genuinely address the real problem. For Australia, that’s at least 90% by 2030 — not Labor’s anaemic 60% by 2050. A movement that demands that governments impose far-reaching measures that force giant industrial polluters to rapidly and massively slash their emissions, at the risk of massive fines. And if they refuse, they should be nationalized and run in the interests of the workers and consumers.

All public subsidies and tax concessions for the giant fossil fuel industries and resource corporations — which amount to billions — should be redirected to research the development of publicly owned renewable energy sources. We could help ordinary people implement individual actions, by supplying free or at a massive subsidy to all households solar waters heaters and water tanks. There should be a massive reorganization of society to move away from private-car-based transportation to free and frequent mass public transport, and, redesign our cities to put people’s homes close to work and shops.

We need to think about ways of linking these wider demands with our more immediate campaigns, for example as we fight to stop the Tasmanian pulp mill, oppose power privatization, end coal and uranium mining, and to stop the building of new freeways and toll roads, we have to also convince people that the workings of capitalism itself is both responsible for the crisis and also the main obstacle to its solution.

The real source of the problem

Through struggles for immediate and broader demands, masses of people can come to understand that the source of the problem lies with capitalism itself.

The scientific analysis of capitalism first made by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, illustrates how, despite the assertions of many environmental movement theorists over the years, Marxism not only provides essential insights into the fundamental cause of the environmental crisis ,but also offers a political guide to its solution.

Capitalism’s fundamentally anti-ecological trait is captured by Marx’s analysis of the working of capitalism. Capitalists buy or produce commodities only in order to sell them for a profit, and then buy or produce yet more to sell more again. There is no end to the process. Competition between capitalists ensures that each one must continue to increase their production of commodities and continue to expand in order to survive. Production tends to expand exponentially until interrupted by crises (depressions and wars) and it is this dynamic at the very core of capitalism that places enormous, unsustainable pressure on the environment.

Capitalism is a system that pursues growth for its own sake, whatever the consequences. This is why all schemes based on the hope of a no-growth, slow-growth or a sustainable-growth forms of capitalism are pipe dreams. As too are strategies based on a critical mass of individual consumers deciding to go “green” in order to reform the system.

People are not “consumers” by nature. A multi-billion-dollar capitalist industry called advertising constantly plays with our minds to convince us that happiness comes only through buying more and more “stuff,” to keep up with endless wasteful fads, fashions, upgrades, new models and built-in obsolescence. The desire for destructive and/or pointless goods is manufactured along with them. In 2008, an estimated $750 billion will be spent on corporate advertising and public relations in the US alone. In Australia, such spending is now well in excess of $12 billion a year.

Many in the environmental movement argue that with the right mix of taxes, incentives and regulations, everybody could be winners. Big business would have cheaper, more efficient production techniques, and therefore be more profitable, and consumers would have more environment-friendly products and energy sources.

In a rational society, such innovations would lower the overall environmental impact of production. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a rational society. Any energy and money savings made through efficiency are used to make and sell more commodities, cheaper than their competitors.

Capitalism approaches technology — in the production process or in the final product — in the same way as it does everything else. What will generate the most profits? Whether it is efficient, clean, safe, environmentally benign or rational has little to do with it. The technologies that could tackle global warming have long existed. Even though research into them has been massively underfunded, renewable energy sources are today competitive with coal and nuclear power (if the negative social and environmental costs are factored in). Public transport systems have been around since the late 1800s.

Fundamental to capitalism’s development has been its power to shift the cost of its ecological and social vandalism onto society as whole. More profits can accrue if the big capitalists don’t have to bother themselves with the elimination, neutralisation or recycling of industrial wastes. It’s much cheaper to pour toxic waste into the air or the nearest river. Rather than pay for the real costs of production, society as a whole subsidizes corporate profit-making by cleaning up some of the mess or suffering the environmental and/or health costs. Or the whole messy business can simply be exported to the Third World.

It is becoming abundantly clear that the Earth cannot sustain this system’s plundering and poisoning without the humanity sooner or later experiencing a complete ecological catastrophe.

To have any chance of preventing this, within the 10- to 30-year window that we have in relation to global warming, humanity must take conscious, rational control of its interactions with the planet and its ecological processes, in ways that capitalism is inherently incapable of doing.

[Terry Townsend is managing editor of Links - International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

It's always never too late. As we all know, many people are eager and willing to help and care for the environment. Some of them may have organized a group within the community that plant trees. I believe education is the key to changing things. Many people still have no idea of what climate change may bring. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed reading your article. Cheers!


Your point is taken as to the connection between capitalism and global warming. I do understand that this is much more than an environmental problem, it is a socio-economic problem. As long as fossil fuels are economically desireable, the problem will not be resolved. I think that it will be a much more desireable, and feasible solution to put our efforts toward making renewable energy technology economical than it will be to convert the major industrial powers to a more environmentally freindly economic system and then solve the problem. We must work within the current political parameters (that's not to say that those parameters cannot be changed) and focus on the task immediately at hand.