Capitalism vs. Nature

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report in 2018 on the state of climate change, its impending effects, and proposals for mitigation and adaptation. (The full report spans several chapters, but DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group put together a short summary for DSA members.) The planet has already begun warming, but the IPCC’s report urges radical action to slow the rate of increase to reach 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. This action, necessary to prevent an additional 0.5-degree increase, could:

  • Avoid 10 cm of sea level rise, exposing 10 million fewer people to displacement
  • Reduce the plant and animal species (of the 105,000 evaluated) at risk of extreme habitat loss by half
  • Save two million square kilometers of permafrost, which might otherwise release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere
  • Limit irrecoverable coral reef loss to 70–90 percent instead of more than 99 percent

This list could continue on into depressing depths, but this sample is sobering evidence of the scale of the threat.

Of course, capital is unwilling and unable to address this threat. Rather than acknowledging metabolic rifts, natural limits, or ecological contradictions, capital merely moves its ecological problems around. Once it depletes resources in one region, capitalists search to seize control of resources in other parts of the world, whether by military or market forces. (For more on metabolic rift and the conflict between ecosystems and capitalism, see John Bellamy Foster’s book The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, from Monthly Review.)

This has left us with a problem that not only gets worse over time, but also delivers future consequences that we as a planet will feel even if we stopped carbon production tomorrow. As Christian Parenti explains,

The watchwords of the climate discussion are mitigation and adaptation—that is, we must mitigate the causes of climate change while adapting to its effects. Mitigation means drastically cutting our production of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, such as methane and chlorofluorocarbons, that prevent the sun’s heat from radiating back out to space. […] Adaptation, on the other hand, means preparing to live with the effects of climatic changes, some of which are already underway and some of which are inevitable. Adaptation is both a technical and a political challenge.

Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, from Bold Type Books, explores this further.

However, offers from Democrats have been borne of the same market-driven, neoliberal ideology that has guided the party for decades: cap and trade, the Clean Power Plan, a carbon tax, etc. These “third way/Third Stage” strategies, as Kate Aronoff explains, make concessions to capital for the sake of advancing incremental gains and rely on government-created marketplaces, all of which still fall short of the necessary limits on carbon and place the burden on workers.

Meanwhile, 2018 also saw several ballot initiatives, such as last year’s Initiatives 732 and 1631 in Washington state, Proposition 127 in Arizona, and Proposition 112 and Amendment 74 in Colorado, which would impose carbon taxes, mandate higher levels of renewable energy consumption, and increase regulation on oil and gas producers, respectively. All were defeated thanks to massive spending against them from those same producers.

This all requires action on a scale unseen in the US since the first half of the 20th century: specifically, urgent decarbonization and redistribution of the wealth and power that has led to this crisis.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent Green New Deal resolution in the House would be the most ambitious effort yet to address this. Rather than work around the edges of capital as previous attempts have offered, though, the Green New Deal, if adopted, would directly challenge it. The proposal’s federal jobs guarantee would have a two-pronged effect. First, in order to decarbonize our economy, by modernizing our electrical grid, upgrading the resource efficiency of new and existing buildings, and building up the country’s renewable resource production, among other things, the US will need large-scale labor to simply do the work. Second, and more broadly, it would tap into what Marx and Engels referred to as the “reserve army of labor,” those in the working class who have been unemployed or underemployed by capitalism. By guaranteeing a job to anyone who wants it, a Green New Deal would offer relief to workers who are currently pitted against one another for the lowest wage that capitalists are willing to offer.

Putting millions of people to work in the “green economy” also gives workers a direct stake in the environmental quality of their communities. As Jeremy Brecher notes, the “jobs vs. environment” frame is a false one. He writes:

Within such a common frame it becomes easier to build alliances around specific issues in the real world. For example, through the Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, Connecticut unions joined with environmental, religious and community groups to fight for renewable energy standards that create local jobs and reduce pollution by shifting from fossil fuels to renewables, energy efficiency and conservation. Elsewhere, workers in the transportation industry have joined with environmentalists to advocate shifting from private to public transportation—something that would create large numbers of skilled jobs, greatly reduce greenhouse gasses and local pollution, and save money for consumers.

A great case study of this came in the form of Tony Mazzocchi. Mazzocchi was a radical unionist with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) International Union who argued that workers play a strategic role in changing, or stopping, the conditions within industries that pollute the communities in which they are positioned. His work directly lead to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970 and had many other repercussions too many to list here. See Connor Kilpatrick’s article-length biography “Victory Over the Sun” or Les Leopold’s book-length The Man Who Hated Work and Loved labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi, from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Ultimately, mainstream liberal solutions have focused on addressing climate change at the end of the line, demanding the costs be placed at the individual-level, with consumers: recycle more, use less plastic, carpool more. A socialist strategy for reducing carbon emissions must start at the point of production through state intervention on the companies most responsible, 100 of which create 71 percent of the world’s pollution. By building a mass movement united by the power of labor, we can curb and eventually reduce the levels of carbon in the atmosphere and end the climate disaster that capitalism began.

Wes Holing, Socialist Night School Organizer