What does Marxism have to say about the climate crisis?
This year and last have seen the emergence of a new climate revolt, set against the backdrop of mass revolutionary movements around the world – most recently in Belarus, where working people have resisted the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko.
At the same time, across society, knowledge about the reality of the climate crisis is at an all-time high. Scientists’ warnings about the melting ice caps, rising sea levels and destruction of biodiversity have been noticed and recognised for the threat it poses by a new generation.
Already, the effects of the climate emergency are being felt. Researchers at the National Academy of Sciences estimated that by 2070, 30% of the world’s land could be rendered uninhabitable. This is a frightening prospect for many, especially when the social and economic impact of these changes are factored in. It will no doubt be the world’s indigenous and neocolonial populations who will shoulder the hardest burden of this crisis, but nobody will be free from the effects when the question of flash floods are considered.
The crisis has revealed a complete rot at the top of society. While the ruling class sits on mountains of wealth, we get told that even the mildest changes are ‘unrealistic’. This idea will be put to the test in the era of Covid-19, as seen in a poll conducted the other month, which reported that only 12% of people wanted a return to ‘business as usual’.
The prevailing mood on the youth strikes is uncompromisingly radical. Emphasis has been placed on the need for urgent and unconditional action to prevent the worst runaway effects – no ifs, no buts. Many have even turned towards anticapitalist ideas. And while the Coronavirus, for a period of time, cut across the building of the movement, all signs point to activists taking steps towards regrouping the movement to renew its struggle.
The reasons why this is happening are obvious. World governments have shown next to no action, while the ugliest face of world capitalism can be seen in the likes of Trump and Brazil’s Bolsonaro. But the whole system is also guilty. Most sections of the US and world ruling class actually have some fear of the approach taken by Trump, and the possibility of mass struggle being inflamed by his overt climate denial. The most conventional approach from the ruling elites has been to pay lip service to the fight against climate change , while doing nothing to seriously confront the issues head on.
The approach of the capitalist class at every corner has been to channel the anti-system mood present on the strikes into channels it finds least threatening. This has sometimes meant companies presenting a ‘green’ image. But it can also be political. The Irish Green Party, for instance, has now jumped into bed with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – the two parties of Irish capitalism – to form a government that acts in the interests of big business.
At the same time, those who want to ‘greenwash’ capitalism seek to guilt trip us for our individual actions as consumers, while the ruling class is let off the hook. It is the immense consumption of the ruling class that plays the biggest role in inflating carbon emissions. As the Institute for Policy Studies estimates, for example, one hour flying in a private jet burns as much fuel as an entire year of driving.
As of now, the world’s scientists continue to uncover new facts about the impending catastrophe. And while elites continue to hold their regular UN climate talks, the question of the profit system remains the elephant in the room.
Repeatedly, these attempts at brokering ‘deals’ between capitalist powers have either broken down, or resulted in useless targets, rarely if ever adhered to at all. Marxism is the only force that can point to reasons for this – primarily in the division of the world into rival imperialist spheres of influence, where capitalist powers are fundamentally driven by the battle for influence and control over global markets.
The upcoming COP26 talks next November in Glasgow will, no doubt, expose this yet again. While youth strikers prepare to gather a show of strength, world capitalism continues to be characterised by heightened conflict between rivaling US and Chinese imperialism. The power play between Trump and China’s ’emperor for life’ Xi Jinping reflects a wider trend towards ‘deglobalisation’, protectionism and decoupling between the big powers. This heightened level of tension between the world’s ‘big two’ makes the prospect of concrete action and international co-operation to protect the climate even less likely that it was in an earlier period.
The effects of this are already being felt. As Rob Jones of Sotsialisticheskaya Alternativa (International Socialist Alternative in Russia) put it best, “capitalist lips are drooling” over the melting of the Arctic ice caps, with the freeing up of profitable natural resources beneath the exposed rock.
Many in the climate movement have shown their ability to connect environmental destruction to capitalism’s endless thirst for profits. But some ‘greens’ incorrectly dismiss Marxism, saying it has nothing of value to offer their movements. On the flip side, the legacy of Stalinism with its poor record on the environment, played a huge role in facilitating these difficulties, which are made worse by the role of some right-wing trade union leaders defending the fossil fuel industry in the name of ‘saving jobs’.
What Marx and Engels said
It does not have to be this way. As we would say, every climate campaigner ought to be a socialist and every socialist must be an active climate campaigner.
But some left-green figures have taken to dismissing the ideas of Marx and Engels, arguing that Marxism itself is unable to seriously understand and chart a plan of action around environmental concerns. ‘Marx ignored the climate and considered it irrelevant’, they will say.
They emphasise that Marx and Engels, both people who died in the late 1800s, cannot have developed a view that we can bring in line with the scale of today’s crisis. It is true that Marx and Engels did not foresee the type of climate emergency we face today (how could they have done?). But they were immensely invested in studying the scientific developments of the time, for instance in their close following of Charles Darwin, even drawing inspiration from his theory of natural selection in informing their theory of historical materialism.
They did not live to see the type of climate crisis confronting us currently. But they laid down a method for understanding the world that is extremely valuable for climate campaigners to follow today.
How so? A starting point for Marx and Engels was to recognise that capitalism has not always existed and does not need to always exist. The system has only existed globally for the last few hundred years – i.e. for a tiny part of human history. Economic thinkers prior to Marx sought to answer the question of how capitalism can be made to work. But Marx took this a step further, looking at the system as a whole to understand the contradictions and flaws that can account for its endless destruction of people and the planet.
Marx stressed the central importance of nature. As he put it, the products sold on the market are made up of “combinations of two elements – matter and labour. If we take away the labour expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by nature”.
All of our products stem from the use and manipulation of the natural world for our own ends. This, of course, is obvious to many people. The smartphones we use are aided by the use of minerals mined by slave child labour in the Congo. The clothes we wear are made out of cotton grown across South and Central Asia. But capitalism tries to remove us from this, and to hide the natural roots of our lives.
Marxists use the method of ‘dialectical materialism’. Put simply, Marxism analyses the processes and changes in society and the world as a whole. The world never remains static but is constantly changing, marked by rapid leaps. Climate change is no exception to these processes . The tipping point, a rapid shift which we are currently facing, is the endpoint of a long process that Marx describes at the peak of the Industrial Revolution.
Marx famously coined the term ‘metabolic rift’ (Stoffwechse) to describe capitalism’s tendency to disregard the normal functioning of the natural world and humankind’s relationship with it – to “disturb the metabolic interaction between man and the earth”. As a system, he said, capitalism treats environmental damage as an ‘externality’ – i.e. something that the mass of people can be made to pay for, as opposed to the executives and shareholders.
This is quite obvious today, for instance, in how our products are supplied. It is common to see fruit in supermarkets, for example, grown and picked in Sub-Saharan Africa, then shipped abroad to be packaged in plastic, and shipped to another country for sale, leaving behind a tremendous amount of waste and CO2 emissions.
But it was also the work of Engels that gave some alarming predictions about the scale of an impending climate catastrophe. As Engels put it in a piece published after his death:
“Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us… We by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people”.
If this is not a clear warning about the devastating results of capitalism’s disregard for the concerns of the natural world, then what is?
Workers and the land
One of Marx’s most important conclusions was that the metabolic rift was not just bad for nature, but would also spell disaster for workers and the global poor. The exploitation of labourers in workplaces, he said, resembled the way in which “a greedy farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility”.
It was this question of soil exhaustion that interested Marx the most. Capitalist agriculture, by the time of his writing, had adopted the intense farming of land in order to generate products sold in the cities. But capitalists did not see a profit to be made in returning the nutrients from those goods back to the land. The result was both mountains of waste from the cities and a mass of farmland depleted of its natural nutritional value. As he then put it:
“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil… by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker”.
What kind of ‘system change’?
Marxists in the climate strike movement have two jobs. On the one hand, Socialist Alternative and ISA play an active role in building and developing the climate strike movement into a force that can win real gains. We need to build the widest base possible to fight on concrete demands. We need to use our positions in the trade unions and strike organising groups to make sure that youth strikers and organised workers can show real solidarity, linking with anti-racist, feminist and LGBTQ+ liberation campaigns, finding common ground on which we can fight together.
At the same time, the movement for climate justice also needs a revolutionary organisation that can argue the need for a radical break with capitalism. We can’t keep trying to patch up this putrid system. We need a wholesale transfer of power towards working class and young people in running society.
By doing this, we would be able to make use of the massive potential in society’s existing technology. It would allow for the massive shortening of the working week without loss of pay, freeing up time for workers and the mass of people to play an active role in running society. We saw this in two major revolutions: the Paris Commune of 1871, which Marx enthusiastically wrote about, and the Russian Revolution of 1917, which was led by the revolutionary Marxist Bolsheviks.
Marxists do not take an inactive approach to the fight for change. Important movements in recent years have emerged to demand valuable reforms under the system – for instance in the campaigns at universities demanding divestment from fossil fuel companies. Demands for the public ownership of transport can and should be fought for by the climate movement in the here and now. But any reforms we win will always be vulnerable to attack for as long as they exist if they’re still encircled by a capitalist economy.
This is why the fight for reforms has to be twinned with demands for more radical changes. Doing this requires an internationalist approach. Capitalism is an international system, climate change is an international problem and so our response has to be international in focus. This does not have to be abstract either.
A position of Marxist internationalism means stressing the need for the climate strike movement to be organised on a higher and wider scale in preparation for a new round of struggle. Local youth strike groups are forming organising committees, which should not be kept simply local. Organising groups could link up nationally into real democratic organisations, and link up with the movement globally, from Britain to South Africa, from Taiwan to Brazil to coordinate the struggle with international days of action.
The phase of world history we are in now is very clear. We have two options facing us: socialist revolution or mass extinction. We are faced with a real task in fighting for our futures. But it is the Marxists that have complete belief in the ability of humanity to overcome all obstacles in its way.