Why we need a socialist solution to climate change
A lot has been written, including by myself, on why capitalism, by its very nature, cannot tackle or stop climate change. The purpose of this article is not to repeat those arguments but to make the positive case for socialism as necessary to deal with this existential crisis for humanity.
By socialism I mean simply the combination of two things: public ownership and democratic control of production and society.
By public ownership I mean not the elimination of personal private property or the nationalisation of every small business and corner shop but of the main banks, corporations, industries, services and utilities. For example public ownership of bus and transport networks, of the health service, of one main state bank and one main state insurance company, of social housing, of waste management, of water, electricity, gas, wind and solar power production, of Larry Goodman’s ABF Food Group, of Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp and so on.
By democratic control I mean that each major workplace – each hospital, factory, train station, school, university, construction company etc. – should be run by the elected and recallable representatives of its workforce, within the context of a democratic plan for the economy and society as a whole. That would need to be proposed by government based on and accountable to democratically elected popular assemblies.
Without large scale public ownership, capitalism and the laws of the capitalist market will continue to dominate and this will have disastrous consequences for the environment as it has done already. Without democratic control you have not socialism but state capitalism[i] with a new ruling class of state bureaucrats which, as has been seen in Stalinist Russia and in China, also has terrible ecological consequences because it subordinates the needs of the people and nature to accumulation for accumulation’s sake in competition with other states.
Only through socialism will it be possible to generate both the political will at the top and the genuine popular support and collaboration to achieve the immense coordinated transformation of the national and international economy necessary in the current emergency. Only public ownership and democratic planning can coordinate the establishment and expansion of free public transport, the urgent transition to renewal energy, the mass retrofitting of homes and a vast programme of aforestation and rewilding.
Most of the climate and environmental movement support the idea of a just transition but only socialism with its commitment to ending class privilege and inequality can actually deliver this. In any society where there are billionaires alongside homeless people, and immense divisions between rich countries and poor countries as a result of imperialism and globalised capitalism all attempts at transition to ending carbon emissions , even where they are made, will inevitably be structured and blighted by this inequality. The rich will look to protect themselves and their life styles in gated communities in the uplands while trying to shift the burden of paying for the transition onto ordinary people.
Take the example of transport. If, as is absolutely essential, we get people out of the private car and onto free public transport, what will be the consequences of this? Under capitalism it will mean the bosses of the giant auto companies (Volkswagen, Toyota, General Motors etc) will see which way the wind is blowing, loot their own companies and put the proceeds in their Swiss bank accounts , while throwing their hundreds of thousands of workers on the scrap heap. Under socialism the auto industry CEOs and big shareholders could be relieved of their ill-gotten gains while the rundown of the industry is managed in a way that retrains and re-employs the workers in socially useful work eg building wind turbines or buses. The same applies to flying. If air travel were to be reduced, as it must be to save the planet[ii], under capitalism this would most likely be done by a price mechanism so that executives would continue to jet round the world to their conferences while ordinary people had to give up their holidays to Spain and the Greek Islands . That in turn would mean redundancy for airline workers and crisis in the Spanish and Greek tourist industry. Again only socialist planning could solve this.
And it would be the same for the utterly deadly coal industry. When Margaret Thatcher destroyed the British coal industry in 1984-5 she did it for entirely capitalist ‘economic’ reasons - there wasn’t an ounce of environmentalism in it – but the effect on mining communities and villages was devastating; many have still not recovered. Avoiding such communal destruction on a vastly greater requires socialist planning.
Climate justice on a global scale is totally unthinkable without socialism. Five hundred years ago the different continents and regions of the world were roughly at the same level of economic development; for example China was every bit as economically advanced as Europe and India was seen as a rich country. Centuries of capitalism, slavery and imperialism, with the latter growing out of the former, created an immensely uneven world; industrial production, wealth and power became concentrated in the so-called advanced ‘West’ – essentially Europe and North America – with poverty, starvation and lack of industrial development concentrated in Asia, Africa and Latin America, now usually called the Global South. This pattern has changed somewhat in recent decades with massive capitalist development in China and other parts of South and East Asia but it is still a massive reality across much of the world. Historically and still today the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America have contributed least to climate change but will be hugely disproportionately affected by it. For example a 1.5-2 C global temperature increase will be a death sentence for much of Africa because it will destroy their agriculture; melting Himalayan glaciers and rising sea levels will utterly devastate the deeply impoverished Bangladesh. This cannot be challenged or dealt with without socialist redistribution of wealth and socialist planning internationally. Only socialist internationalism based on the common interests of the world’s working people could achieve such international cooperation; any capitalist option, no matter how ‘green’ its intentions, would degenerate into national and international rivalries which would destroy any coherent international planning
Then there is the question of overall economic growth. There is a growing view in the environmental movement that the idea of continuous economic growth is completely unsustainable. Greta Thunberg, in her speech to the UN, spoke of ‘fairy tales of eternal economic growth’. But under capitalism stagnation or, even more so, de-growth is an immediate crisis, a recession when it is short and a ‘great depression’ when it is extended, spelling mass unemployment, poverty and austerity (with the risk of fascism thrown in). This is because capitalism has a drive to growth built into its very fabric. Achieving a non-growth economy (measured in terms of GDP) or, should it prove essential, a de-growth in certain areas would also only be possible on the basis of socialist planning combined with the popular consent that would come from mass involvement in the democratic planning process.
Then there is the fact that the proliferation of extreme weather events associated with climate change has already begun, as is evident from the numerous disasters currently observable round the world. This is clearly going to intensify in the years ahead. Even in the event of a Damascene conversion by the world’s rulers – of which there is no sign – it is unavoidable, due to the climate change already built into the system, that we will see a dramatic escalation of ‘natural’ catastrophes – storms, floods, droughts, fires etc – over the next 5-10 years. But we know from abundant experience that the way capitalism responds to such events is through a combination of crocodile tears (for a very short while), followed by callous indifference and abandonment.
This pattern has repeated itself through the Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, to Superstorm Sandy in 2012 under Obama and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rica in 2017. In all of these cases all sorts of pledges of aid and reconstruction were made in the immediate aftermath of disaster only for them to disappear into thin air when it came to delivery. Years later people who lost their homes and everything in them were still unable to return. The case of Hurricane Maria was particularly atrocious. Initially the death toll was officially claimed to be 64. A year later it was admitted to be 2,975 [iii] and many critics argue that it was really much higher. Bitterness at the appalling response to the Hurricane, by both the Trump administration and the local governor, was a significant factor in the great revolt of the Puerto Rican people earlier this year. On a lesser scale similar scenarios were played out over the Grenfell Fire and in relation to flood victims in Ireland. Moreover, class and racial privileges will continue to operate even within the extreme weather events as happened with Katrina in New Orleans and the more frequent and extensive these are the more this will be the case. The rich and white will be saved, while the poor and black will be sacrificed and demonised as ‘dangerous looters’.
When we grasp the fact that escalating climate change will make events like the California fires, Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas and flooding in Bangladesh a regular and ongoing occurrence – regardless of what is done to stop it now – it is clear that a socialist response at governmental and societal level is necessary to cope with them and minimise the death toll and human suffering. In other words we will need huge state intervention resting on popular participation and solidarity to rescue the victim, feed the hungry and house the homeless. Speaking of housing the homeless it is worth noting that rich societies such as the US, Britain and Ireland, operating on a capitalist basis, cannot even do this in normal times: what will they be like in time of catastrophe?
Moreover, rising temperatures and extreme weather will inevitably increase the flow of refugees, probably massively so because swathes of the planet will cease to be habitable, and in the next decade, not the end of the century. How will the better placed countries respond? On the basis of a capitalist economy, an economy based on the profit motive, it hard to see how there will be any even moderately humane response. Again only a socialist economy and society, which harnesses the collective labour and talents of all and understands that with every new person comes a new and equal contributor to society regardless of nationality, colour or ethnicity, will respond with dignity and humanity.
Finally, some imagine that there might be a third alternative, neither capitalism nor socialism, but a return to some kind of pre-capitalist society based on small scale ecologically sound self-sufficient villages or communes. Whatever one thinks of the moral value of such communities as experiments or pre-figurations of life in an imagined future, the fact is such a lifestyle is simply not an option for the vast majority of ordinary people in our society and will not and cannot gain any large scale popular take up any more than did the phalansteres of the early nineteenth century (communes inspired by French utopian socialist, Charles Fourier) or the hippy communes of the sixties. And when we think of a world of seven billion people in a state of crisis the idea that such a ‘third’ or ‘deep green’ alternative would be viable for the majority is completely untenable. Are we saying the 100 million people in Guangdong (the hyper industrialised and urbanised region of South China) or the 24 million people of Shanghai should go back to rural communes? This is literally not possible. Only a solution in which the 100 million of Guandong or the 20 million of Mumbai or the eight million of Paris or the one and half million of Dublin (together with all the millions in smaller towns and in the countryside) take collective ownership and control of the immense productive resources generated by workers’ labour under capitalism and move forward to a society based on production for human need offers a real way forward for humanity.
Unfortunately there is a possible ‘third alternative’ to both socialism and capitalist business –as –usual in a society in extreme crisis. That alternative is fascism or some other form of ultra- right authoritarian dictatorship. This would not abolish either class inequality or capitalism but it might partially bring private capital under state control and it would certainly abolish democracy, even in its current very limited parliamentary form. And in conditions of acute climate crisis it would mean, and would be premised on, racist barbarity that globally would exceed that of the holocaust and the Second World War. This has not happened yet but we see a whiff of it with Trump, Bolsonaro and Salvini. Parliamentary democracy and the limited democratic rights gained by working people should, of course, be defended against this fascist threat but in the immense crisis we are entering capitalist business-as-usual will become less and less a viable option . A socialist solution is an historic necessity.
[i] As James Connolly put it back in 1899, ‘Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism – it is only State capitalism.’ James Connolly, ‘State Monopoly versus Socialism’, https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1901/evangel/stmonsoc.htm
[ii] There are currently no signs of this happening – witness the expansion of Heathrow Airport and the fact that on the day of Global Climate Strike Leo Varadkar was opening a new runway at Knock.
[iii] Baldwin, Sarah Lynch; Begnaud, David. "Hurricane Maria caused an estimated 2,975 deaths in Puerto Rico, new study finds". CBS News. Retrieved August 28, 2018.