To: Detroit Workers' Voice
Date: April 23, 2015
RE: The clash of trends within the environmental movement
Yesterday, April 22, was Earth Day, 2015. It took place at a time when environmental devastation is increasing on land and sea, and climate change is a visible reality. Despite this, the bourgeois governments aren't doing much. In this regard, the growth of the environmental movement faces two dangers: there is a large section of rich exploiters, like the natural gas frackers and the billionaire Koch brothers, who are into climate denial and are destroying the environment faster and faster, and there are establishment environmentalists that talk a good game, but won't fundamentally oppose the big corporate polluters and instead promote market measures that don't do much or even backfire.
Scientists have known for years that human-caused global warming is a major threat. Its been twenty-five years since the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its first assessment report pointing out that global warming had already begun, and that a devastating additional warming of 3 degrees Celsius (about 5 and a half degrees Fahrenheit) was likely in the 21st century if the fossil fuel economy continued with "business-as-usual". The IPCC is a very conservative body as far as its summation of modern science; it accepts only what it has to accept; so its report showed that no serious scientific doubt remained.
But capitalists will do anything to live like kings at the expense of their workers and the public. If they could deny for decades that cigarettes caused cancer, or that leaded gasoline and lead-based paint were major public health disasters, they can also deny that burning carbon fuels has anything to do with the climate. So many capitalists and conservative politicians still deny the danger of human-caused climate change, and there have been repeated attempts to discredit climate science. Climate denial may not have science on its side, but it has a lot of big money behind it.
This denial goes on while the world suffers from one hot year after another, and while countries face cleaning up after one environmental disaster after another. The combination of global warming and the indecent waste inherent in capitalist agriculture and industry is giving rise to increasing problems:
The large establishment environmental organizations oppose denialism. But they don't oppose the corporate polluters with militant action: instead, they seek to make deals with them. In her book This Changes Everything Naomi Klein has a chapter subtitled "The Disastrous Merger of Big Business and Big Green". She points out that "The big corporate-affiliated green groups don't deny the reality of climate change -- many work hard to raise the alarm. And yet several of these groups have consistently, and aggressively, pushed responses to climate change that are the least burdensome, and often directly beneficial, to the largest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet -- even when the policies come at the direct expense of communities fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Rather than advancing policies that treat greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants demanding clear, enforceable regulations that would restrict emissions and create the conditions for a full transition to renewables, these groups have pushed convoluted market-based schemes that have treated greenhouse gases as late-capitalist abstractions to be traded, bundled, speculated upon, and moved around the globe like currency or subprime debt." (pp. 198-9)
Indeed, Klein points out that many of these groups "have championed one of the main fossil fuels natural gas as a supposed solution to climate change, despite mounting evidence that in the coming decades, the methane it releases, particularly through the fracking process, has the potential to help lock us into catastrophic levels of warming . . . In some cases, large foundations have collaborated to explicitly direct the U.S. Green movement towards these policies. . . . The 'market-based' climate solutions favored by so many large foundations and adopted by many greens have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel sector as a whole. For one, they have succeeded in taking what began as a straightforward debate about shifting away from fossil fuels and put it through a jargon generator so convoluted that the entire climate issue came to seem too complex and arcane for nonexperts to understand, seriously undercutting the potential to build a mass movement capable of taking on powerful polluters." (p. 199)
Klein traces the recent history of the environmental movement and points out that the 1980s were a major turning point. The Reagan administration attacked environmental regulations, and the big establishment environmentalists capitulated to this: "In the 1980s, extreme free market ideology became the discourse of power, the language that elites were speaking to one another, even if large parts of the general public remained un-persuaded. That meant for the mainstream green movement, confronting the antigovernment logic of market triumphalism head-on would have meant exiling themselves to the margins. And many of the big-budget green groups having grown comfortable with their access to power and general support from large, elite foundations were unwilling to do that." (P. 205) Moreover, new groups appeared that "pitched themselves as modern environmentalists for the Reagan era: pro-business, non-confrontational, and ready to help polish even the tarnished corporate logos." (p. 206)
Klein points out that this led to splits within the environmental movement, as some new groups were formed that added to the part of the movement focused on confrontations with the polluters, rather than taking their money or greenwashing them. And over and over we see that many rank-and-file members of Big Green groups have been upset when they find out about the deals carried out by the leadership of their organizations. This was particularly notable when it came out that Big Green had deals with BP after its giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
But Big Green isn't everything. A militant movement has always existed: the establishment environmentalists are only the bourgeois-oriented section of the movement. People won't let the bourgeoisie poison the planet and their communities in silence. No matter how much money the foundations pour into the movement, no matter how much the leadership of Big Green preaches about working hand-in-hand with the corporations, the struggle will continue, and the class issues will eventually come to the surface.
There are different currents in the militant movement:
These and other currents of struggle continue. But there are limits to how far the militant movement has developed a separate program from establishment environmentalism. It remains wary of overall environmental planning, and it has usually avoided assessing directly the programs of Gore and the IPCC. While denouncing market measures, it has generally failed to recognize the carbon tax as another market measure. But the carbon tax is a serious threat to environmental goals, not only because it will fail to achieve the necessary reductions in the use of carbon fuels, but because it converts the slogan of "tax the polluter" into "tax the people" and thus threatens to undermine mass support for environmentalism.
It is up to the working-class movement to develop a realistic program to deal with the environmental crisis. The bourgeois economists will never get it right, and the leaders of the establishment movement will always value their place at the capitalist table higher than the needs of protecting the earth. There has always been a hidden class struggle in the environmental issue, and real progress requires that the working class bring this struggle out into the open.
No doubt many of these things can only be achieved partially while capitalism still exists. And the capitalists will constantly strive to take back every concession they make. But some progress along these lines is needed if the earth is to be protected. And the constant struggle over these points will help bring the class struggle to the fore and pave the way towards social revolution.
Naomi Klein takes for her theme that climate change isn't just another issue, but is going to transform everything. And she is right. Market fundamentalism isn't going to last forever. It is going to go up in flames as the environmental crisis deepens and as it also shows its increasing inability to provide water, housing, pensions, schooling, or health care to millions upon millions of people around the world. As Klein says, "The challenge . . . is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it's that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now, the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change." (p.23)
The best sections of This Changes Everything raise issues that many other writers avert their eyes from, such as the faults of the major bourgeois environmental groups ("Big Green"), the threat of geo-engineering, and the failure of carbon trading, carbon offsets, and carbon markets.
Klein expresses the views of the militant section of the environmental movement. In line with this, the book defends confrontation with the polluters but doesn't quite know how to build a conscious alternative to the establishment environmentalism of Big Green. But it provides a lot of information showing that this alternative is necessary.
Gar Lipow shows that it's possible, with technology that already existed at the time of the book, to drastically cut carbon-based fuels, protect the environment, and yet maintain the standard of living. His book is notable for the loving care with which he treats complicated technical matters; he spared no effort in researching his subject. Moreover, technical progress in the decade since he wrote the book only reinforces his conclusions.
This book is important because, if it is correct that we have the
technical capacity to slash greenhouse gas emissions, then it's clear
that the corporate exploiters are the real source of the danger of
global warming. The capitalists don't just insist that everything must
be profitable: the present billionaires and large corporations insist
that they must be the ones who make the profits, or else the world can
go to hell. To stop the threat to the environment, there must be social
and political changes, not simply new technical innovations.
In this book, as in his earlier work from 2006, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore sounds an alarm about the dangers facing the world from global warming. He has helped spread the word among masses of people, and he is influential among environmental activists as well as the establishment environmental groups.
But while he is right on the dangers facing us, he is wrong about the solutions. He has consistently advocated market solutions and covered up their repeated failure. He has consistently advocated work hand-in-hand with the big bourgeoisie. He is silent about the need for overall environmental planning, and what this would mean for economic planning. And while he is influential among militant activists, it is notable that he is silent about them in this books: talking about them might disturb the big bourgeoisie.
Gore's stand is similar to that of the IPCC. The IPCC has done good work in demonstrating the seriousness of the threat of global warming. Its reports correctly reflect the current state of climate science. But its proposals for solution are based, not on science, but on the market fundamentalist viewpoint of the governments represented at the UN. Climate science is one thing and deserves respect; bourgeois economics is another, and deserves opposition.
If there is to be a serious movement for climate justice and social
change, it will have to go beyond Gore's program and that of the IPCC.
Moreover, it should not simply ignore Gore's program and bourgeois
environmentalism, but openly evaluate their policies and oppose the
fiascoes which these policies have caused. But as of yet, even the more
militant wing of the movement tends to be silent about Gore, or
occasionally to denounce him for things other than his main
In this book, Gar Lipow takes on the question of how to achieve the technical changes he had outlined in his earlier book, Cooling It! He talks of the "massive political and economic change" which is needed, and of "the hard questions of organizing and winning" (p.1) And he denounces illusions in the rich. This is the path which we really need to take.
But in essence, he proposes that the movement keep on doing what it has already been doing, but be somewhat better at it. So he provides an intelligent discussion of details, while staying silent on the major obstacles to the movement dealing with social change. He evades big issues such as what attitude to have to the Democratic Party or the sell-out labor leaders. He is silent about Al Gore's program, and whether he agrees with it or not, and yet Al Gore is influential among the activists whom Lipow is addressing. He evades the promised issues of major economic change, and talks of public investments rather than the replacement of market fundamentalism and privatization with an overall system of environmental and economic planning.
In brief, he evades the question of building a serious working class
alternative to establishment environmentalism. But one can't have a
powerful movement for social change hand-in-hand with organizations
committed to doing nothing that would fundamentally irritate the big
This book shows that many programs promoted as green causes have had sorry results. Heather Rogers looks into how many fashionable plans work in reality, such as carbon offsets; the marketing of supposedly ecologically-responsible products; biofuels such as biodiesel; and fair trade programs -- she examines how they really affect small peasant farmers. She did a lot of painstaking personal investigation and, for example, visited Paraguay and talked to the people who grow sugarcane, and visited Borneo and saw what the production of palm oil was doing to the rainforest.
Rogers documents the failure of market measures to live up to the glorious claims made for them. For example, she shows how the certification methods used for organic and fair trade goods force small peasants into dependency on large corporate farms.
Indeed, she shows that market measures have repeatedly backfired.
Among other things, she points out that even when governments say they
are regulating things, it isn't really so. "Under the American system,
the government isn't directly tasked with day-to-day enforcement.
Instead, it issues licenses to private certification companies for the
job. Government officials can intervene when there's a serious problem,
but, otherwise, the certification firms call the shots." (p. 62) The
result is that the mutual interests of the certification firms and the
companies that they are supposedly regulating trump whatever the
regulation was supposed to accomplish. Thus the privatization of
government functions makes a mockery of supposed regulation. This is
extremely important to understand: regulation is needed, but it must
not be the privatized regulation developed in these days of market
This is not a book but a documentary film by a brave Chinese journalist, willing to risk the anger of the Chinese government. It can be found with English sub-titles at YouTube.com. It deals with the incredibly high levels of pollutants in Chinese air, which make Chinese cities such as Beijing into a nightmare version of London in the 19th century or Los Angeles before anti-smog measures were taken. The issue isn't pollutant levels 10% above normal, but more than 10 times the safety levels set by the World Health Organization.
These pollutants are a direct and immediate threat to the health of Chinese people. They stem mainly from the massive use of coal, but Under the Dome also documents the government's disregard for elementary measures that could limit air pollution. Until prodded by ordinary people, the government bureaucrats don't even bother to enforce their own regulations. There needs to be an environmental movement in China as well as the US.
Chai Jing stays away from politics. But one can hardly watch her
documentary without seeing that state-capitalism, as in China, is no
alternative to Western market capitalism. The same financial pressures,
the same disdain for the masses, are manifested by the Chinese and
American ruling classes.
These two books reflect the militant environmental movement that has arisen in South Africa. It is not the African National Congress nor the South African Communist Party that are fighting to defend the environment and improve the conditions of the masses of workers; it is the protest movement among the people.
In November 2011 the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was held in the major South African city of Durban. A "Global Day of Action" saw large protests against the UN meeting by activists in favor of climate justice. Some concentrated on denouncing the market solutions being set forward at the UN conference. Others were upset by the the local environmental and social policies of the ANC government: for example, in the name of environmentalism, electricity subsidies for the masses were ended, while mining and metals corporations, the big sources of pollution, pay very little for power. Durban's Climate Gamble discusses both the failure of market measures and the history of environmental conflict in Durban.
The Politics of Climate Justice traces the history of several UN climate conferences, summing up the results at Copenhagen (2009), Cancun (2010), and Durban (2011) as "deckchair shifting on the climate Titanic". It shows how market measures are denounced by various sections of the militant environmental movement. The movement is strong on denouncing the continued development of further carbon-based fuel plants and carries out important environment actions, but, it seems to me, is skeptical of the overall environmental and economic planning that will be required in the future, unclear on the carbon tax and on the nature of certain governments, and still has trouble developing an overall stand towards Al Gore and the IPCC.
These books by Bond give a valuable picture of the climate justice movement, provide a lot of ammunition against a number of market measures, and show the growing importance of the movement from below in South Africa.
-- Joseph Green, editor, Communist Voice
For links to articles from Communist Voice on the environmental movement, see www.communistvoice.org/00GlobalWarming.html.
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