Recent events – the terrible floods in Pakistan, the drought and floods in China, the drought and floods in many parts of Africa, the heatwave and fires in France, Spain and Portugal, the fires in the American West and floods in Kentucky and more disasters by the day– make it clear that the catastrophe of climate chaos is upon us. To this must be added the chilling knowledge that this is only the starting point of a process that can only get worse.
The simple fact is that decades of warnings of impending disaster by scientists and the environmental movement have been studiously ignored by our rulers in clouds of greenwashing and ‘blah! blah! blah!’ The fact that COP 27 is being held in Sharm el-Sheik under the hideous Al-Sisi dictatorship, where no real protest is possible and that COP 28 will be held in the United Arab Emirates, is further confirmation that global capitalism is not going to change its spots.
This raises a serious strategic problem: what should the movement, and in particular ecosocialists, do next?
Up to now the climate movement as a whole has focused on raising the alarm: a) in the hope that our rulers will take effective action; b) in the hope of making the international public sufficiently aware to change its own behaviour and to pressure governments to change theirs. Within this framework, ecosocialists have focused on making the general intellectual case for the ecocidal nature of capitalism and the necessity of ecosocialist transformation. Doubtless these efforts will continue and doubtless we should continue to support them. But what if they are not enough and what if the hopes on which they are based are false or at least questionable?
As to the first hope, persuading the powers-at-be to take effective action, the jury is pretty much in on this. If they have done next to nothing, certainly nothing anywhere near what is needed, despite the immense body of scientific evidence that has been accumulated, what grounds are there for hoping they will do differently in the immediate future. To put it concretely if the first 26 COPs have been abject failures, what are the chances that COPs 27and 28 or29 will be different? Regarding the second I would argue that even if a majority of ‘ordinary people’ were persuaded of the need for drastic ecological change e.g. the rapid global transition from fossil fuels to renewables, the structure of power under capitalism is such that they would be unable to bring about the necessary change either at personal or governmental level.
At the level of the individual an example of the problem is a person who, no matter how ‘aware’ they are, is unwilling to give up their car because they need it to get to work (and they need to work) and there is no adequate public transport as an alternative. This example can be multiplied for dozens of different situations. Also the sheer global scale and urgency of the crisis makes this a completely unviable project. Is it the project that we are going to individually raise the consciousness of 330 million Americans, 1.5 billion Chinese, 1.3 billion Indians and so on to the point where they all become green consumers? But even if hundreds of millions of Americans or Europeans get together and, despite the media and all the manoeuvres of the political establishment (remember how they destroyed Corbyn) vote for governments committed to massive climate action, the problem would still exist of the most determined resistance by giant corporations, the rich and their close allies in the State apparatuses. Look what happened to Syriza – despite the 60% NO vote in the OXI referendum.
Obviously, these contentions, especially the second, are debateable but IF they are correct it follows that in order to tackle climate change we are going to have to overthrow capitalism. Two observations about this: it would be wonderful but it is extremely unlikely that this will occur simultaneously in all or many countries; it is more likely to take place in one or two countries first and then spread in a chain reaction (like the Arab Spring of 2011). It is unlikely, and this is suggested by the experience of past revolutions, that the revolutionary process will begin as a worked out conscious ecosocialist reaction to climate change. Much more likely is that the process will begin as a mass response to particular circumstances or injustices, though these may well have climate change as an underlying cause.
From this it follows that ecosocialists who believe it is necessary to overthrow capitalism to combat climate change will need to be active across the board on a wide spread of issues affecting working class and oppressed people. This cannot be done by activists acting as individuals; it requires an organisation, movement or party, and that organisation will, given how politics works at present, have to be national (albeit with internationalist aspirations). But it also requires that that organisation/movement/party be thoroughly imbued with and committed to ecosocialist change, to a full understanding of what needs to be done to secure a future for humanity and life on the planet. In this way an uprising of the people, triggered by the cost of living, the demand for democracy, the need for peace etc, can turn into a government and revolutionary state committed to ecosocialism and real sustainability. From all this it follows that right now ecosocialists have to be working to integrate ecological demands and consciousness within all left and working class campaigns and organisations.
The most obvious objection to this perspective is simply that it will take too long – that we don’t have time to wait for the overthrow of capitalism precisely because, as I said at the beginning, climate change is already upon us. To this I would reply that no one should dream of asking anyone to ‘wait’ for anything. We need every reform, every step forward we can get right now, not least because such measures might buy us time. However, it is also the case that, at this stage, neither reforming capitalism nor overthrowing is going to prevent seriously damaging climate change setting in. Nevertheless precisely the terrible effects of climate chaos will generate the possibility, more accurately numerous possibilities, for revolt against the system.
And this brings me to my final point. It is the responsibility of ecosocialists to be thinking about and putting forward demands for measures not just to prevent climate chaos occurring (for renewable energy, free public transport, afforestation etc) but to defend the basic interests of working people in the face of the disasters that are now inevitable. We need to be advancing- according to circumstances in our respective countries – demands for greatly enhanced flood defences, hugely expanded fire services, strengthened rescue and emergency services, replanning of cities to mitigate against extreme heat and the like. And we should be insisting on spending in these areas instead of militarism and war. We can link the environmental struggle to the struggle against war by specifically calling for armed forces to be fundamentally restructured into organisations of emergency response and funded by taxes on the giant corporations most responsible for climate change in the first place Without doubt these will be class, anti-racist and anti-imperialist issues par excellence because there can be no doubt that the rich and the global elite will see to it that they protect themselves.
To summarise: in the present situation our strategic goals should be:
- To overthrow capitalism
- To work towards that by integrating ecosocialist ideas in all campaigns, movements and organisations of working people and the oppressed
- To advance programmes not only to stop climate change occurring but to defend working class interests in relation to the catastrophes coming down the tracks.