Why the climate movement needs the working class

12 October 2021
Emma Black

The scale of the climate crisis has driven a new generation of radical young activists to demand “system change, not climate change”. This is a welcome leftward shift within environmental politics—away from a focus on individual consumption and towards confronting the capitalist system. However, many of those making this demand lack both a coherent analysis of how a system like capitalism might be changed and a strategic orientation toward those who have the power to change it.

You don’t have to be a revolutionary to recognise that addressing climate change entails the total transformation of our society. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—a body not known for hyperbole—argued in a 2018 report on global warming, avoiding ecological catastrophe means implementing “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

Faced with this scientifically established existential threat to human society, our rulers appear complacent at best, and at worst—as is the case with the Australian government—they’re actively stoking the flames. Under the guise of taking action, global leaders occasionally interrupt their carbon-intensive pursuit of economic and imperialist interests to attend international conferences, like the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow, where they set long-term emissions reduction targets. Meanwhile, as Greta Thunberg argues, “The gap between what needs to be done and what we are actually doing is widening by the minute”.

In recent years, climate activists have attempted to close this gap by making more provocative appeals to politicians and the public. In 2019, Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists attracted international attention by engaging in mass disruptive actions in major cities around the world. While this initial burst of activity gained widespread public support, it was soon pushed back by state repression and mainstream media spin. Around the same time, millions of school-age activists—inspired by Thunberg—flooded city streets in protest, only to be condescended to by politicians, who told them, in effect, to “get over” their anxiety about the future.

Political progressives eager to appeal to public sentiment on the climate question have adopted Green New Deal (GND) style policies for state-led reform. In a recent interview in Jacobin magazine, Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt celebrated the GND’s growing appeal. “Whether you call it a GND or not, key elements of the proposal are gaining in popularity”, he said. “Even conservatives such as the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, are saying that some form of Green Industrial Revolution will be crucial in the next twenty to thirty years.”

While some of the demands associated with more radical versions of the GND—such as raising corporate tax rates and increasing state investment into renewables—are supportable, the GND “brand” is fast becoming green cover for government stimulus policies designed to bolster the status quo.

US President Joe Biden provides an example. His election campaign website described the GND as “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face”. And much has been made of the supposedly “green” aspects of his infrastructure plan. But it appears certain now that the majority of that will be junked in negotiations with Republicans, and what’s left will largely be the kind of infrastructure investment (roads, bridges and so on) that will encourage ongoing dependence on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, his administration is presiding over a record pace of approvals of new oil and gas wells on public land.

Talk by the likes of Biden and Boris Johnson of a Green New Deal or a Green Industrial Revolution simply can’t be taken seriously. Thunberg was right when, in a recent speech at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, she dismissed such rhetoric as just more “blah, blah, blah”—empty words designed to greenwash an ongoing commitment to the status quo of a fossil-fuelled capitalism.

It appears then, that the climate movement is stuck in a bind. Lobbying and the kind of peaceful street marches that the school strikers engage in are ignored. The direct, disruptive action of minorities of committed activists—as with XR—runs-up against the overwhelming repressive and ideological forces at the disposal of the state. And attempts to bring change through state reforms—to the extent that they go beyond merely “on paper” proposals by minor parties like the Greens—are appropriated into the arsenal of rhetoric deployed by those in power to greenwash the status quo.

Given all this, it seems the prospects for any genuine “system change” are dim. For Marxists, however, there’s a way out. The first step is recognising that at the core of the climate crisis—both in terms of what’s driving it, and what can overcome it—is class. In short: it’s the global capitalist ruling class that’s responsible for the climate crisis and for blocking attempts to address it adequately, and it’s the global working class that’s best placed to win the radical change we need.

Addressing the climate crisis means confronting some of the most powerful sectors of global capital. This includes the mere 100 companies that—according to the 2017 CDP Carbon Majors Report—have been responsible for 71 percent of carbon emissions since 1988. The owners of the fossil fuel industry and other carbon-intensive sectors (e.g. steel, chemicals and cement) won’t simply stand by while revolutionary transformations render their business models obsolete.

To pose a real challenge to such powerful and entrenched economic interests—which are connected to the capitalist state by a thousand threads—we need to look outside the spheres of political action that liberal climate activists focus on. And this is where the working class comes in.

If workers withdraw our labour, we can bring workplaces and even entire industries to a halt. This kind of action, which cuts off the flow of profits that are the lifeblood of the capitalist system, is vastly more disruptive and hard for the capitalist state to deal with than traditional forms of protest. And not only do workers have the economic power to shut down environmentally destructive industries, but we also share a political interest in pushing back against the destructive “business as usual” of the capitalist system. No member of the working class benefits from the environmental damage wrought by the capitalist class in pursuit of profit. In fact, it’s poor and working-class people who always suffer the worst effects of ecological crises.

If this is the case, however, then why are environmental and working-class politics so commonly pitted against each other?

To answer this question, we have to look at environmentalism's origins. The rise of the modern environment movement—beginning in the late 70s and early 80s—coincided with a period of historic defeat for the left. The subsequent evolution of environmental politics—away from confronting big business and “the system” and towards a focus on individual consumption—was symptomatic of this defeat.

From the late 1970s onwards, the ruling class unleashed a series of ruthless attacks on workers. Under the guidance of neoliberal economists, those in power gutted living standards and bulldozed working conditions. What followed were decades of wage stagnation, increasing debt, eroding job security and longer working hours.

At the same time, environmentalists began criticising the “hollow materialism” of “consumer society”. Middle-class recriminations about supposed “overconsumption” aligned well with state-driven austerity measures slashing public spending. Whereas working-class politics always aimed to improve overall living standards, many in the modern environment movement promoted individual asceticism to save the planet.

The middle-class elitism implicit in this political framework was made explicit by Rudolph Bahro of the German Greens in a 1984 interview published by New Left Review. “The working class here [in the West] is the richest lower class in the world”, he said, “I must say that the metropolitan working class is the worst exploiting class in history.”

For many activists of the older generation in the Greens and in movements like XR, sentiments like this no doubt retain some currency. Fortunately, however, the new generation of high school and university-aged environmental activists seems largely to have moved past the moralistic focus on the consumption patterns of the “plebs”—on proselytising about carbon footprints, keep-cups and so on. As the evidence for the capitalist roots of the environmental crisis have grown, the need for collective action to disrupt the system has gained new currency.

For this movement to go forward, we must fight for a perspective that sees environmental and working-class politics not as antagonistic, but as inextricably and powerfully linked. Only a mass social movement with a substantial base in the working class has the power to force major concessions from capital. And fortunately for us, one of the best historical examples of this kind of movement happened in our very own backyard.

At its high point in the early 1970s, the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) was easily the most radical union in Australia. The activity of the union, which was led by Communists like BLF secretary Jack Mundey, went well beyond the “bread and butter” issues of wages and conditions. The union sought to act as a tribune of the people, campaigning around a broad range of political issues that impact on the working class—from racism, homophobia, and women’s rights, to public housing and the Vietnam War.

The BLF’s most famous campaign, however, was a series of actions known as the “green bans”. These were bans on union members doing work on any proposed development which was considered socially or environmentally irresponsible by local residents. Interestingly, the term “greenies” was coined by the press at the time to refer to supporters of the bans, only later broadening out to encompass environmentalists in general.

Not only did BLF members refuse to work on “green banned” sites, but they also actively defended them against developers by threatening additional strike action on other sites if work went ahead. By 1975, the BLF had managed to block more than $5 billion worth of development—saving parkland, heritage buildings and working-class neighbourhoods all over Sydney.

According to Meredith and Verity Burgmann, authors of Green Bans, Red Union: The saving of a city, the green bans “contained both an environmental element and a social element: they expressed the union’s determination to save open space or valued buildings and to ensure that people in the community had some say in what affected their lives.”

For Jack Mundey, environmentalism was a working-class issue. “It’s not much good winning a 35-hour week,” he argued, “if we’re going to choke to death in planless and polluted cities where rents are too high, and where ordinary people can’t live”. The union didn’t engage in environmental struggles for purely altruistic reasons. As class-conscious workers, they saw the exploitation of the environment and the exploitation of people as two sides of the same coin.

For the BLF, workers’ living conditions—including access to open spaces as well as clean air and water —were as important as wages and working conditions. “Workers had to look further ahead than wages and conditions and ensure that the environment was protected”, Mundey insisted, because “developers would do irreparable damage if they were allowed to go unchecked”.

The green bans movement shows what can be achieved when environmentalism and militant working-class politics walk hand in hand. By arming environmental struggles with industrial power, the BLF helped force concessions from capital that would have otherwise been impossible. As the Burgmanns write, “environmentalists everywhere, and others who had felt powerless to halt destruction, realised that there did exist an organised strength in the trade unions whose help they could invoke to bring effective force to their cause”.

Expecting those at the top of our society to address climate change on our behalf is a death wish. Avoiding ecological catastrophe means pulling the brake on the entire capitalist system. The only force capable of doing this is the working class.

As such, environmental activists must treat climate change as a class issue. In the short term, this means raising class-conscious environmental demands. For example, alongside the necessary demand for a rapid shutdown of the fossil fuel industry, demanding that workers impacted by the closures be given full support to retrain where necessary and find secure jobs in alternative areas. Or foregrounding, when discussing other sustainability measures, things that will result in clear improvements in working-class living standards—such as massively expanded public transport, more green space in cities and so on.

At the same time, we need to fight to rebuild the radical traditions of socially and environmentally engaged unionism exemplified by Jack Mundey and the BLF. Only a class-conscious environment movement, equipped with the industrial strength to confront capital, can actually achieve the “system change” we need. Environmentalists and workers unite: we have a world to win!

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