“I want kids to be at school to learn about how you build a mine, how you do geology, how you drill for oil and gas … The best thing you learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue because that’s what your future life will look like.”
As the rantings of resource minister Matt Canavan demonstrate, school students striking for climate justice have hit a nerve. Their action is threatening to expose the political and economic elite’s slavish, anti-science and sociopathic dedication to the fossil fuel industry as the intergenerational crime that it is.
For young people, it is not the dole queue, but the destruction of millennia-old ecosystems, catastrophic weather events and rising sea levels that pose a threat to their future.
The Carmichael coal mine in western Queensland’s Galilee Basin has become a focal point in the battle over climate change in Australia.
Against the will of the vast majority of Australians, multinational conglomerate Adani Group is set to begin construction of the mine, which will eventually churn out 60 million tonnes of coal per year, and 2.3 billion tonnes of coal over the next 60 years.
This is only the beginning. The mine will open the Galilee Basin, a giant untapped reserve of thermal coal, to further mining mega-projects. There are currently 10 mining permits awaiting approval from the government, which if granted will open up more than 3,000 square kilometres of the basin to mining, the equivalent of 10 more Adani mines.
A fully exploited Galilee Basin would double Australia’s coal exports to more than 600 million tonnes a year. If the entire coal seam is burned, it would blow one-tenth of the world’s carbon budget – the maximum amount of carbon dioxide we can release if global warming is to be limited to 2 degrees.
Meanwhile, the climate is already signalling catastrophe: record-breaking droughts and floods, the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef due to rising ocean temperatures, unprecedented lightning fires in precious Tasmanian heritage forest.
For both major parties, corporate interests matter more than the planet. Both Labor and Liberal governments have provided handouts and given regulatory approval to the Adani mine.
If we want to resist environmental devastation, we need a radical transformation of the system that fuels it.
Democracy under capitalism
Adani has revealed the sham of democracy in Australia. A January 2018 ReachTEL poll found that 65 percent of Australians oppose or strongly oppose the Adani coal mine. Even more resoundingly, 74 percent want to stop the expansion of coal power and fast-track the rollout of solar. Yet almost every figure in the Australian parliament supports handing the Galilee Basin over to the coal industry to be gutted. At the head of it all is prime minister Scott Morrison, known for advertising his contempt for climate science by bringing a lump of coal into parliament to celebrate the industry (lacquered of course so as not to blacken his hands).
Democracy in Australia consists of numbering boxes for a few minutes every three years or so. The rest of the time, those elected do as they please. There is no ready mechanism for the public to hold politicians or governments to account.
Ahead of the 2015 Queensland election, state Labor said it would “save the reef”. After winning government, it expanded the Abbot Point coal port, a direct threat to the reef, and declared Adani’s mine a “critical infrastructure project”, exempting it from various planning controls and legal objections.
And while most of us are denied any direct control, the super-rich enjoy unfettered access to Australia’s political elite. Adani Group boss Gautam Adani has wined and dined with Queensland politicians since at least 2010, a privilege not available to high school students, or anyone else, concerned about climate change.
But capitalism undermines democracy in deeper ways than direct cronyism. Capitalism is, first and foremost, a class-divided society. A minority owns and controls the means of production – including the mines, factories, warehouses, supermarkets, office blocks, electricity grids and everything else required to meet society’s needs. This economic control comes with extraordinary power. Executives in boardrooms – selected by fellow capitalists and motivated only by amassing greater wealth and market share – make decisions with far-reaching consequences for people and the planet. They decide how society’s resources will be invested, how many people will be employed, where and how they will work, how electricity will be generated – virtually every economic decision of any significance.
By contrast, the majority, those not commanding business empires or born into great wealth, are compelled to operate the means of production for a wage. Despite their indispensable role in production, workers face a kind of dictatorship. We have no influence over what jobs are available, how they are performed or what happens to the products we produce.
In some industries, this is a question of life and death. Australia’s coal industry, for example, has brought the re-emergence of black lung disease. Thought to have been eradicated, black lung results from long term exposure to coal dust, which gets trapped in the lungs and can lead to an agonising death. The simple methods required to prevent it – proper ventilation, masks and dust dampening – are cheap. But even that’s too much for some mining companies. Workers’ lives just don’t rate on the balance sheet.
So our limited parliamentary democracy exists alongside an economic dictatorship of the minority. If Australia were truly democratic, we would be well on the transition away from fossil fuels, and black lung would be a thing of the past. But power resides with the few.
As students prepared to walk out of school for the climate strike last November, Scott Morrison’s message was: “We do not support our schools being turned into parliaments”. In other words: sit down and shut up. Go to school or go to work, leave decision making to your superiors.
Profit as god
Under capitalism, businesses don’t produce things to meet human need. They only care about making money and securing ever greater market share. This applies to something as basic as food. Enough food is produced every year to feed everyone on the planet. Yet starvation and malnourishment persist. If the poor can’t afford to pay for food, goes the capitalist logic, they don’t eat. If the wealthy can’t make money selling food, the hungry are left to starve. The logical response – giving food to the hungry – would undermine the price of food and jeopardise the profitability of the food-producing company, an act contrary to “responsible” business management and a company’s legal obligations.
Profitability likewise overrules environmental considerations. If there is coal in the ground that can be sold for a profit, a company like Adani will extract, export and burn it, regardless of any long-term consequences such as melting icecaps, dead coral or wrecked ecosystems.
The scramble for profits is driven by capitalist firms being locked in competition with each other. If the Adani executives all woke up one morning with an environmental conscience, it would just mean more coal and more profits for other mining companies.
This competition governs the daily life of the most powerful people on the planet, and ensures the system continues to be driven by, in Karl Marx’s words, “accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production”. Even the capitalist is “merely a cog” in this chaotic and destructive machine.
Climate change brings science into conflict with power. Saving the planet, and reversing the damage already inflicted, will require long term planning over short term profiteering, global cooperation over cutthroat competition.
In the 17th century, Galileo’s insistence that the earth rotates around the sun led to him being condemned and put under house arrest by the Catholic Church. Today, right wing politicians from US president Donald Trump to Scott Morrison sideline scientific advice, bury reports that warn of impending disaster and cut funding from environmental protection bodies.
Increasingly though, politicians are under pressure at least to pay lip service to climate science and the need for action. The result is some rhetoric and inadequate emissions commitments (or not even those in the case of Australia) while the fossil fuel machine churns on.
And it’s not just a problem of the right. Labor leader Bill Shorten denounces the climate denialists in the Liberal Party and pledges support for renewables. But anti-Adani protesters were dragged from Labor’s national conference last year, and Labor maintains its commitment to coal expansion.
The leader of Labor’s “left” faction, Anthony Albanese, reportedly asked anti-Adani protesters in Sydney in 2017: “When will you people fuck off?” Again the message was: sit down, shut up, go to school.
Australia’s fossil fuel addiction
Australia is among the world’s worst climate vandals. It has one of the highest rates of carbon emissions per capita. More, it is the world’s largest exporter of coal, contributing 37 percent of total exports in 2017.
To understand why Australian politicians are, by international standards, so belligerently committed to destroying the planet, we have to look at the international context, where the competition between capitalists is replicated by global competition between states.
Australia may not be a superpower, but it needs to compete to maintain its place in the imperialist pecking order. That means exploiting whatever resources are at its disposal. Blessed with the world’s fourth largest coal reserves, the industry is a major advantage for what politicians and business groups call the “national interest”.
Tens of billions in export earnings each year provide a large flow of profits for mining and associated companies and tax revenues for state and federal governments.
This is why politicians thus far have not blinked as the Great Barrier Reef dies.
It’s easy to conclude that the planet is in the hands of morons and there is no hope. But the insanity follows a clear logic: a competitive capitalist logic.
To solve the problem, we need to relegate that logic to the dustbin of history. To do that, capitalism needs to follow.
There is only one alternative to capitalism: socialism.
Socialism is a society in which, instead of the wealthy few making all the decisions, the majority have day to day control over how society’s wealth is used. This means democratic control at the workplace level.
Only when those who will most keenly feel the effects of climate change have real power – over electricity generation, transport networks, food production and so much more – will there be real hope for the planet.
The fight for such a socialist society needs to start now. The planet can’t wait.