For a working class trend within the environmental movement,
with a program opposed to the market measures
of establishment environmentalism

Presentation by Joseph Green at the panel on
“Capital, History and Environmental Politics”
at the Platypus Convention, April 6, 2013

(CV #48, June 2013)

One reason that so little has been achieved on the environmental front, is that the working class movement is still in crisis. The class struggle and the environmental movement are linked. The corporations aren't going to do what's right out of the goodness of their hearts, and the working masses are the only class force which can consistently fight them.

As of yet, there isn't a mass working class trend within the environmental movement of this country, that is, a trend which doesn't just have some working class support, but has an environmental program which stands for serious measures of direct regulation and control as opposed to the market-based measures of the establishment environmentalists, and which calls for radical change in the present privatized government apparatus.  Building such a trend is not an easy matter. But we can't just wait for the revolution to solve the environmental problems, that would let the world be devastated before our eyes without a struggle. And neither is it realistic to think that global warming can be averted hand-in-hand with neo-liberalism and in harmony with the growth of financial capital. If we are to discuss the historically-specific nature of the relationship between the growth of capital and ecological devastation, and if we are to discuss the history of the disorientation of the most of the left with regard to the environmental movement, we need to discuss the relationship of the present environmental fiascoes to market-fundamentalism, and the need for an environmental program that is fundamentally different from that of bourgeois environmentalism.

It is not enough to simply oppose the global warming denialists. Establishment environmentalism has led to a number of fiascoes that have done little to help, or have even made the situation worse, such as the promotion of corn ethanol in the US; the excessive search for biofuels under Kyoto, which has promoted the destruction of rain forests; the failure overall of the Kyoto system of cap and trade and carbon offsets; the promotion of allegedly "clean" forms of fossil fuels; and most recently, the increasing promotion of the carbon tax.

Some left trends are skeptical of any action now, and simply preach that environmental problems will be solved under their ideal form of society. That's sitting on one's hands, useless utopianism. Meanwhile reformist trends have simply acted as pressure groups for an agenda that leads them to merge with establishment environmentalism. That's sitting on one's hands in another way. There are also more militant environmentalists who have built an important movement of protest, and have even criticized certain market-based measures; these are valuable steps, but even this militant section of the movement has backed other market measures and generally has no critique of such major establishment environmental figures as Al Gore. The left-wing of the environmental movement still hasn't fully separated from establishment environmentalism.

An example of what reformist environmentalism leads to can be seen in the experience of the German Greens in 1998-2005, when they were part of the ruling Red-Green coalition, which was the government of Germany. The Greens were junior partners with the neo-liberals, endorsed the war in Afghanistan, and helped impose ugly, anti-working class austerity measures such as the so-called "Hartz IV" reforms, which were sort of a German form of  Clinton's "ending welfare as we know it"; thus the Greens backed the main programs of German capital.

Other Green Parties may not be in government, but they don't look seriously at what happened in Germany. And worldwide the Greens, whatever their other promises of reform, generally back the carbon tax, which is the latest neo-liberal market panacea. The use of a heavy carbon tax as one of the main ways to cut down on carbon emissions will be a fiasco. This tax will be passed on from the energy corporations and the polluters to their customers, so it will have only an indirect effect on them. It will be just as complicated and obscure as cap and trade, as we already see in the way the carbon tax is implemented in British Columbia. It will threaten to discredit the phrase "tax the polluter" by identifying it with "tax the people". And it will not accomplish its aims.

And it's not just the Greens who can't emancipate themselves from market measures. Many other theoreticians who regard themselves as ecosocialists have promoted the supposed need for establishing the true value or true social cost of carbon-based fuels; this is nothing but the theoretical basis of the carbon tax. It's said that you can't fool Mother Nature. But the idea of giving thing their true social cost is that you supposedly can fool the invisible hand of Adam Smith.

Moreover, a large part of the environmental movement has or seeks bourgeois support and funding. A few years ago, the Corporate Responsibility Project did a chart of the relationship of environmental groups active in Pennsylvania with the polluters. I have reproduced this chart as a hand-out, with a list of Communist Voice articles on the environment on the other side. [It was handed out at the end of the presentation to the audience. See pages 29-30.] Note that while I had permission from the CRP to reprint their chart in CV, they have no connection to CV, and they're not responsible for anything I say. Their chart is notable for trying to make sense of a spectrum of different types of groups that speak in the name of the environment, from corporate polluters and their front groups, to groups that are compromised in varying degrees by being funded by the bourgeois foundations if not corporations, and finally those grassroots groups which are largely unfunded and uncompromised.

The chart shows that problem isn't simply the puppet groups of the corporations, but that the bourgeoisie has influence on what seem to be serious environmental groups. Indeed, when I first saw this chart, I was surprised to see an activist group like Greenpeace listed as a "moderately compromised" group, and then I did some research on the internet and found that in the 1990s it had become involved with deal-making with the corporations and was accused of a certain amount of greenwashing.

All this illustrates that the enthusiasm for the carbon tax, for example, is not because the workers are demanding it. Instead it's because it's something, it's hoped, the bourgeoisie may agree to. A working-class environmental movement would be one that fought this coalition, rather than being silent about it or seeking measures to come to agreement with it.

The environmental groups that have made their peace with market fundamentalism may still talk about allying with the working class. This is often done with the promise of "green jobs". The idea is that one can promise subsidies to the bourgeoisie for green projects, call it "green jobs" to the workers, and unite with the pro-capitalist labor leaders. This is sort of the idea of the BlueGreen Alliance of certain environmental groups and trade unions. But this is not what building a truly working class movement environmental movement means.

A working-class class environmental movement would be one that brings the class struggle into the environmental movement. It would demand that environmental and economic planning include planning for mass welfare as an independent goal, alongside that of protecting the environment. It would mean seeking mass influence in government planning and environmental decisions and in oversight of corporate compliance with environmental regulations, and it would denounce the presently-privatized government apparatus.

Present-day environmental problems, from global warming to the devastation of the oceans, from the need to changed farming methods to the problem of the deluge of poisonous chemicals, require regulation and control, and not corporate-government partnership. Marx pointed out that it was the lack of overall planning that led to the capitalist devastation of the environment, while the Australian naturalist Timothy Flannery, in his notable book of 2005, The Weather Makers, pointed out that extensive environmental regulation would lead to economic planning as well, although for him this was the nightmare scenario. Meanwhile the growth of capital and its current phase of market fundamentalism has led to a bourgeois reaction against even capitalist forms of regulation and planning, to the denigration of "command and control", the privatization of government functions, etc.

Capitalism doesn't stand still. The decades right after World War II were the heydey of a supposed mixed capitalism. But the last few decades have been the period of rampant financialization, of market-fundamentalism, of privatization of government operations. This affected how supposed environmental measures were carried out. The system of carbon offsets under Kyoto was a bad idea no matter how it was carried out, but in fact it was carried out in a privatized way, where it was private experts hired by the corporations who were the referees of what was going on. It was the fox guarding the henhouse. A serious environmental program has to demand the end of this system.

We cannot put off environmental demands until revolution, but neither can there be any hope that market-based measures will be effective, and that subsidizing green business initiatives and readjusting prices will suffice. Environmental progress requires the imposition of regulation and planning. Moreover, if it is to be effective, this cannot be planning carried out by neo-liberal privatized bodies, or even by the old-style government bodies. There needs to be some measure of mass oversight, or else the corporations will defy environmental regulations, and the planning will consist of squeezing the masses.

Without such a working class environmental movement, there is no serious pressure to do what is needed.

No doubt working-class victories can only be partial under capitalism. And as long as capitalism exists, planning can only be partial, and government bodies will always be subject to regulatory capture. But constant struggle over environmental and regulatory backsliding will be one of the factors leading eventually to a new revolutionary consciousness in the working class. This protracted struggle will be the bridge between revitalized program and future utopia. However utopian this idea may seem at the present, it will look different as the world goes through major changes in the next few years. The multiple crises of the present are the harbinger of a new period of change; there is nothing so unrealistic as thinking that things will simply proceed as they have in the past.     <>

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Last changed on June 25, 2013.