The politics of climate change activism

The Rise of the Green Left:

A Global Introduction to Ecosocialism

Toward Climate Justice:

Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change

AS WITH all movements for social change, much like a sine wave, climate justice activism has oscillated to the ebb and flow of events as activists encounter, analyze, and try to surmount new challenges. While varying greatly in intensity and level of organization from country to country, the movement in the North has crested at mass protest events such as the overtly anticapitalist climate camps in Britain and in the 100,000-strong demonstrations outside of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in December, 2009 (COP 15) in Copenhagen. With the post-tsunami nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, there has been a massive resurgence of anti-nuclear activism and real success in altering governmental policy in several countries, including Germany and Japan. 

In the global South, while the movement for indigenous rights and battles over land, economic, and racial justice may not always be explicitly labeled as climate justice, it is certain that thousands of environmental and social activists around the world have been inspired by the years of stout and defiant resistance of the dispossessed to the ecological degradation, social deprivation, and racism perpetrated by multinational corporations and local elites. 

In recent years, the largest victories have come in Latin America, where major positive change has been brought to a continent soaked in the blood of resistance fighters. Most notably, coming on the backs of strong social movements, South America has witnessed the election of ecologically conscious and leftist governments in Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. These have posed new questions and problems for western corporations and their imperial protector to the north. 

The unholy trinity of neoliberal policies—privatization, deregulation, and cuts to social programs—embodies the capitalists’ drive to tear yet more land away from local communities, to denude the landscape in their hunt for the profitable extraction of raw materials, and to promote intensive harvesting of agricultural products for export. Resistance, however, has been sustained and sometimes successful, as coalitions of labor, indigenous, and social movements have fought to protect their livelihoods, including their access to water and land, and to preserve their communities in the face of the corporate onslaught. 

The movement has also faced obstacles as activists have struggled to contend with the desperate outcome of the COP 15 negotiations. In particular, President Obama’s hatchet job on the talks guaranteed a step backwards in climate negotiations—no mean feat considering how many years have already elapsed with so little progress. In addition, the corporate-led backlash against climate scientists, facilitated by the corporate media’s fixation on a few emails between climate scientists, reached its zenith in the United States with Republicans resurrecting the specter of McCarthyism to intimidate scientists for merely speaking about their research findings. The extremely well-funded corporate assault has had a predictable effect on public opinion and hence the morale of some activists. 

Activists are having to come to terms with the fact that capitalism is a system absolutely driven to torching the planet and much of the life on it, even if that comes at the price of destabilizing the system’s raison d’être: the ability to make a profit. This fact illustrates how no one is really in control of the “free market” system; capitalism operates autonomously via its own “laws of motion,” to use Marx’s phrase. The effect of these laws, such as the need to constantly expand and do so via inter-imperial competition to capture profit, has led us inexorably to the current biospheric crisis. 

Realizing that you ultimately have to fight the whole system to affect even relatively small changes in governmental priorities, and thereby take on the entrenched social and political power of the corporations and their political allies in government, suddenly imbues the task with an entirely more challenging tenor. Political strategies have to be rethought and an inventory taken of who can be counted as a real ally in the struggle and who is likely to vacillate at crucial points or even change sides when the requisite amount of corporate, financial, or political pressure is brought to bear. That means ideas about how the social world works and in whose interests the system functions are paramount in designing successful tactics and strategy.

For this reason, two recent short books, one by well-known British Green Party activist Derek Wall and the other by longtime environmental activist Brian Tokar, at the Center for Social Ecology in Vermont—both of whom have long argued that the capitalist system is the problem—are most welcome. They analyze the recent ups and downs of the movement and set out to chart its activities and offer some tactical and strategic thoughts on what is necessary to move things forward. Their extensive experience and active involvement in climate justice struggles, as well as their individual political outlooks, makes both books excellent additions to the debate about how to “slow the train.”

While both books are explicitly written for activists, it is notable that they highlight the importance of a theoretical analysis of capitalism and that the struggle is really a social and political one, rather than technical. Furthermore, it is fundamentally a struggle about justice and equity. The people who have done the least to create the ecological crisis and who are the least able to adapt to climate change will bear the greatest costs. As Tokar writes, “the fight for climate justice and the fight for social justice are one and the same.”

The Rise of the Green Left examines the growth and development of a Marxist-influenced and overtly socialist strand within green activism. These activists aim to provide a more theoretical grounding to a movement that has often shied away from an analysis of capitalism in favor of cross-class alliances, broad electoral strategies, and a focus on activism without theory. 

This is important for a whole range of reasons. If one locates the source of ecological problems in the endless growth dynamic endemic to capitalism, as Wall and Tokar do, then the fight for reforms within the system may be vitally important to buy ourselves some time to build up confidence and organization, but it will never be enough. We need a complete economic, social, cultural, and political revolution that is global in scope. 

It also explains why the solutions we are supposed to believe will save us, such as cap-and-trade legislation, carbon offsets, nuclear power, and international treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol, are all false solutions and red herrings. Many environmentalists, including some on the left, have defended Kyoto as better than nothing because it recognizes that the developed world has an obligation to take greater steps than the developing world, and because it is legally binding. Wall, however, calls it “the real climate swindle” (the commonly assumed swindle being climate change denial). He does this based on the fact that the Kyoto Protocol makes people believe it’s effective in tackling carbon emissions when it isn’t.

In one chapter, Wall sets forth an “Ecosocialist Manifesto” with a set of transitional demands that are definitely worth fighting for. Wall makes an argument that Greens need to be socialists—while also arguing that socialists need to be more flexible about traditional notions of socialist planning and economic growth, and more conscious of the ecological dimension necessary to make socialism fully meaningful as human emancipation. 

The age-old question of access to land is the pivot upon which much social protest turns in the Global South. It is no coincidence that land was the first thing to be privatized at the bloody dawn of capitalism in northern Europe. Land previously held in common was enclosed in order to create a working class who faced the choice of either working for wages in the new factory towns or starvation. Exploring the colonial era, one sees that the first laws enacted by the invaders in South Africa, for example, were similarly concerned with expropriation of the land from local inhabitants. 

The question of land is therefore inseparable from the question of social power. The question of social power also extends to other issues. We need to change the source of our electrical power, for instance, but that cannot be accomplished without a change in the relations of social power. 

Even though the industrialized nations are vastly wealthier than they were in the 1930s or during the period just after World War II, it is claimed that there is far less money available for the type of social programs and government spending that characterized those periods. Indeed, to the extent that such programs still exist, they  face savage reductions in this age of austerity. This cannot be explained in any other way than by an examination of the redistribution of social power over the last thirty years, which has allowed for upward redistribution of wealth. It is impossible therefore to make any ecological headway without fighting to alter the balance of power back toward the workers and peasants of the world.

As Wall argues, the legalization of patents on seeds and crops is only the latest in a long line of examples of privatizing (enclosing) what was previously free, solely in order to profit from it. Running down public utilities that provide clean water and sewage treatment while marketing the supposed benefits and health wonders of bottled water is another. If capitalists could figure out a way to enclose or privatize the air, they’d do that too. Wall argues for the importance of reinstating a collectively administered commons under the real democratic control of the producers, and a society based on the ancient concept of usufruct. That is, anyone can use a resource as long as it remains undamaged for future generations. This is in line with Marx’s dictum that we should bequeath the earth to future generations in better shape than we found it; a concept of time entirely alien to capitalist accounting.

Wall’s work is grounded in the work of Marx and Engels, as well as more recent socialists and environmental writers, including early ecosocialists and Marxists such as William Morris, originator of the timeless labor slogan, “Educate! Agitate! Organize!” Wall devotes a chapter to the history of some of these people, as well as some of the distortions of Marxism under Stalin. 

Both authors feel that the pendulum swung from Marx and Engel’s serious engagement with ecological issues, through early socialists concerned with environmental questions, toward a raging “productivism” that shaped much socialist thought for the next seventy years. Hence the need Wall and others feel to emphasize the “eco” in ecosocialism. This change came from the social democratic and state capitalist perversions of genuine Marxism as the self-emancipation of the people. If Marxism was perverted into an elitism favoring the economic enrichment of a small minority via Western democracy or Stalinist autocracy, so it was just as perverted by excising any concern for ecological issues. 

Under the force of world events, the pendulum is now swinging back. The convergence of four factors—the world crisis of capitalism, the global ecological crisis, the collapse of state-capitalist models of “actually existing socialism,” and the emergence of recent scholarship unearthing the real Marxist tradition of ecological thought—have forced a reevaluation of what Marx and Engels and other early socialists, including the Bolsheviks, actually believed about the relationship between humans and nature. The lived experience of various Green parties in coalitions around the world have also contributed to the sense that it is capitalism itself which must be challenged, as these parties have bent to the prevailing neoliberal winds and jettisoned much of their once-radical rhetoric, trading political principle for power. 

In an overview of left green politics in various areas of the world, with a particular emphasis on Latin America, Wall delineates how left green ideas based on a reinvigorated, democratic socialism freed of Stalinist distortions is reemerging in response to economic and ecological devastation. He addresses a trio of traditional problems which have beset individuals and organizations fighting for social change: reformist compromise, sectarianism, and academicism.

What is particularly refreshing about Wall’s book is that he highlights two areas which are often overlooked or actively denigrated by green activists—the importance of theory and the question of who can be the most effective agents for change. While the Green movement is extremely heterogeneous, many Greens have often seen class as unimportant or irrelevant and been somewhat scornful of the need for a more theoretical understanding of the nature of society. The rejection of theory, which often comes with a disdain for the working class, explains why many activists believe appealing to or working with the more progressive wing of capitalism or small businesses represents the way forward. As Wall notes, “Agency remains of great importance when discussing strategy.” Wall’s book concludes with a useful list of “Resources for Revolution,” which makes his desired endpoint more explicit.

In his discussion of which social groups are likely to be the most effective and determined to effect social and ecological change, Wall’s emphasis on the agency of the working class is particularly welcome. This approach contrasts with that of Brian Tokar, who does not mention the role of labor, trade union alliances, or the importance of production, or what workers should be doing to combat climate change. Toward Climate Justice is instead a discourse on the writings of Murray Bookchin and the political ideas associated with social ecology.

Toward Climate Justice is a compendium of previously released articles updated and formed into a small book. As such, it is not quite as up-to-date as Wall’s book and contains a certain amount of repetition. Nevertheless, it is a very useful primer on the lead-up to COP 15 and the outcome of the negotiations. It also contains a detailed discussion of mainstream false solutions to the climate crisis and the class-based impact of climate change as it’s already being experienced, most particularly in the global South. 

The fallout from COP 15 illustrated one thing with perfect clarity—the refusal to take meaningful action with respect to climate change was not a unique feature of the George W. Bush years, but is intrinsic to US capitalism. Hence, while the rhetoric has changed, the Obama administration continues to block international action, providing an excuse for other countries to do nothing themselves. In fact, Obama has achieved what Bush tried but failed to do: to establish a voluntary, multi-track process without specific goals (or paths to reach them) that tears down the almost two-decade long process of internationally-verified, accountable negotiations established at Kyoto. Climate justice activists in the United States, and all who are interested in fighting to preserve a livable earth, need to fully absorb this lesson. 

A few questions that Tokar doesn’t ­address—but which are worthy of discussion—are why the US is so intransigent on climate change, and why do successive US governments of whichever stripe push a patchwork, non-binding agreement? What structural and political issues lie behind this? Also, why didn’t the protests in Copenhagen turn into another Seattle? Many commentators predicted that they might, occurring as they did on the ten-year anniversary of the Seattle protests. 

Furthermore, the relative success of grassroots social struggles in Latin America to change the priorities of various national governments highlights the reason why it is very unlikely that climate justice activists will be most effective at altering capitalist priorities at inter-governmental climate negotiations. We have very little leverage at these events. That is not to say we shouldn’t protest the false solutions and lack of progress at these meetings, but it does mean that what we do in our workplaces and communities back home will be where social change must begin in order to effect the kind of international changes we want to see.

Tokar makes it clear that the fight should not be focused on how many parts per million of carbon dioxide there are in the atmosphere, as groups like tend to do, but rather on questions of social equity, justice, and the need for a complete social and economic revolution. As Tokar writes, “A basic concern for justice and equity today leads irrevocably to the conclusion that a thorough social and economic transformation is necessary if we are to head off the very worst consequences of an increasingly erratic, overheating climate.”

Moreover, Tokar argues that there is no point appealing to the capitalists on the basis of rationality or even efficiency gains, as Amory Lovins has done extensively; capitalists are driven to maximize profit, not efficiency. And in any case, efficiency just enables further economic expansion, as John Bellamy Foster has persuasively shown. 

Importantly, Tokar argues against writers such as Derrick Jensen by positing the need for hope in the movement, which Jensen views as pointless or positively unhelpful. If there is no prospect of a qualitatively better life to inspire people to become involved, the chances of mass participation are slim. Naturally this leads people like Jensen, who has written cogent and thoughtful articles and books on the impossibility of capitalist society living in harmony with the earth, toward a set of politics divorced from the task of building a mass movement.

What both books underscore is that there is no solution to the climate crisis within the structure of capitalism. This opens the path toward an examination of real short-term solutions, a dissection of false ones, and ultimately the need for complete social change. As such, both books are of great value to activists as they argue for the need to more clearly identify allies and the strategies and tactics necessary to build the movement. The Rise of the Green Left is particularly significant because it maps out a vision for achieving change. Wall is not afraid to be explicit about what that needs to look like and how it might be attained.

Both The Rise of the Green Left and Toward Climate Justice emphasize the imperative requirement to rebuild an active political left that is grounded in a theoretical understanding of neoliberalism as a variant of capitalism, not a distinctive new process. It is capitalism that is killing the planet. 

Rebuilding the left across the world, and integrating it into the movement for climate justice, is a task that couldn’t be more urgent. These books are a great help in that process and are recommended to anyone who wants to understand where the movement is, how it’s changing, and what we can do to make it more effective. 


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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