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Ecological Politics for the Working Class

Solving the ecological crisis requires a mass movement to take on hugely powerful industries. Yet environmentalism’s base in the professional-managerial class and focus on consumption has little chance of attracting working-class support.

The climate and ecological crisis is dire and there’s little time to address it. In just over a generation (since 1988), we have emitted half of all historic emissions. In this same period the carbon load in the atmosphere has risen from around 350 parts per million to over 410 — the highest level in 800,000 years (the historic preindustrial average was around 278). Human civilization only emerged in a rare 12,000 year period of climate stability — this period of stability is ending fast. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report suggests we have a mere twelve years to drastically lower emissions to avoid 1.5 C warming — a level that will only dramatically increase the spikes in extreme superstorms, droughts, wildfires, and deadly heat waves (to say nothing of sea-level rise). New studies show changing rainfall patterns will threaten grain production like wheat, corn, and rice within twenty years. A series of three studies suggest as early as 2070, half a billion people will, “experience humid heat waves that will kill even healthy people in the shade within 6 hours.”
You don’t have to be a socialist to believe the time frame of the required changes will necessitate a revolution of sorts. The IPCC flatly said we must immediately institute “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The noted climate scientist Kevin Anderson said, “ . . . when you really look at the numbers behind the report, look at the numbers the science comes out with, then we’re talking about a complete revolution in our energy system. And that is going to beg very fundamental questions about how we run our economies.”
The radical climate movement has long coalesced around the slogan “system change, not climate change.” The movement has a good understanding that capitalism is the main barrier to solving the climate crisis. Yet sometimes the notion of “system change” is vague on how systems change. The dilemma of the climate crisis is not as simple as just replacing one system with another — it requires a confrontation with some of the wealthiest and most powerful sectors of capital in world history. This includes a mere 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of the emissions since 1988. The fossil fuel industry and other carbon-intensive sectors of capital (steel, chemicals, cement, etc.) will not sit by and allow the revolutionary changes that make their business models obsolete.Like all other such battles, this confrontation will take a highly organized social movement with a mass base behind it to force capital and the state to bend to the changes needed. Yet, as Naomi Klein argues, this is really “bad timing” because over the last several decades it is capital who has built formidable power to neutralize their main challenges like a regulatory state, progressive tax structures, and viable trade unions. The history of the nineteenth and twentieth century shows that the largest challenge to the rule of capital has come from organized working-class movements grounded in what Adaner Usmani calls “disruptive capacity” — particularly strikes and union organizing. It is the working class that not only constitutes the vast majority of society, but also has the strategic leverage to shut down capital’s profits from the inside.Yet, herein lies the main dilemma. A movement up to the task of bringing about the changes needed will not only have to be massive in size, but have a substantial base in the working class. In its current form, however, environmental politics has little chance of succeeding in this. Its ideological and strategic orientation reflects the worldview of what Barbara and John Ehrenreich called the “professional-managerial class” that centers educational credentials and “knowledge” of the reality of environmental crisis at its core.12This is not simply a problem of the kind of people involved. Middle-class environmental politics is often directly antagonistic to working-class interests. It grounds its theories of ecological responsibility in ideas of “ecological” or “carbon” footprints that blame consumers (and workers) for driving ecological degradation. This approach centers on the appeal that we need to live simply and “consume less” — a recommendation that is hardly likely to appeal to a working class whose wages and living standards have stagnated for almost two generations.13 When seeking examples of emancipatory environmental politics, radical academics imagine real environmental politics as a form of direct livelihood struggles over natural “use values” like land, resources, and the body itself. While livelihood struggles are very important, professional-class environmentalism sidesteps how such a politics could appeal to the tens of millions of workers who do not directly access nature in “use value” form. In this essay, I argue for a working-class ecological politics14 aimed at mobilizing the mass of workers to confront the source of the crisis — capital. In order to build this kind of politics, we needs to appeal to the mass of the working class who has no ecological means of survival apart from access to money and commodities. This politics centers on two major planks. First, it offers a much different story of class responsibility for the ecological crisis. Rather than blame “all of us” consumers and our footprints, it aims its focus on the capitalist class. This kind of politics can channel already existing anger and resentment workers have toward their boss and the wealthy in general to explain yet one more reason why those antagonists are making their lives worse.

Second, it offers a political program meant to directly appeal to the material interest of the working class. It is relatively straightforward to insert ecologically beneficial policies within the already existing movements around the decommodification of basic needs like “Medicare for All” or “Housing for All.” The climate crisis in particular is centered upon sectors absolutely vital to working-class life — food, energy, transport. The goal should be to use this scientifically declared emergency to build a movement to take these critical sectors under public ownership to at once decarbonize and decommodify them. The emergent politics of the Green New Deal, although far from perfect, does exactly this. It not only offers a solution at the scale of the problem — aiming to revolutionize the energy and economic system — but also offers clear and direct benefits to the mass of the working class (e.g., a federal job guarantee). Although there is much consternation about the anti-environmentalism amongst established building trade unions and fossil fuel industrial workers, a working-class environmentalism could better align with rising militancy in more low-carbon care sectors like health and education. These campaigns’ focus on anti-austerity politics and “bargaining for the common good” can also address the expansion of a public response to ecological breakdown.15