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Against Climate Exceptionalism

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Today, members of Unity and Struggle, along with comrades from Sloths Against Nuclear State and Barnard Columbia Divest for Climate Justice * will be engaging in the People’s Climate March in New York City.  We wrote a short pamphlet to share with people who are engaging in these struggles, and who are working through questions of reform and revolution in regards to climate change and environmental destruction.

“Climate Change is Not an Environmental Issue”
It’s easy to forget the roots of climate change.  For many people, climate change and environmental destruction are synonymous with human society, or population growth.  Non-profits, academics, and even some radicals blame environmental destruction on the “anthropocene” and “human intervention.”  But we want to call the origin of the crisis what it is. We are not only dealing with an environmental crisis.  The same root cause that creates climate change is behind inequality, poverty, many contemporary illnesses, homelessness, and everyday alienation.  This root cause is not humans, or “human society” writ large.  It is instead a particular form of human social relations: capitalism.

Capitalism is the organization of society around production purely for exchange and profit, as opposed to use.  Capitalism requires overproduction, debt, endless growth, and most important of all, inequality. Capitalist social relations are inherently anti-democratic. Whether you work for an NGO or for an energy company, you are working for something that exists outside of your direct control.  Without inequality, there would be no workers to exploit, no land to grab, and no rents to raise.  Without hierarchy, capitalist production would become obsolete–as the people formerly on the bottom would take democratic control over the means of production, and end exploitation.  Inequality, hierarchy, exchange, misery, and alienation are all sources of life for capitalism, and sources of death for working and poor people.  The state (congress, the police, local civic bodies, courts) exist to maintain inequality and hierarchy, and work out conflicts within the ruling class.

We will continue to face crises as long as we live in a society based on producing things for exchange, whether gas or compostable forks; where people are forced to work for a wage, whether at Monsanto or 350.org; where deadly institutions of “law and order” are required to keep the whole system running. The organization of society based on exploitation is the cause of environmental destruction–not “climate criminals” or corrupt politicians.

Under capitalism, environmental crisis affects everyone, but it affects us unequally. For example, when people protest to shut down nuclear power plants, the electric companies and the state blame anti-nuclear activists for higher electric bills. When NGOs support indigenous peoples’ struggles against land-grabbing through the monetary funding, communities are made to compete with each other. While radioactive isotopes from Fukushima equally contaminate all buildings-from luxury condos and city housing complexes-only those with financial means can prevent exposure to radiation. We will never live in harmony with nature or with ourselves as long as the world and everything in it, including us, can be parceled up to be bought and sold. And no organization that accepts this state of affairs will be capable of solving the problem.

The Origins of Environmental Struggle
The earliest forms of “environmental struggle” were struggles against colonialism, land enclosure, and the dispossession of holistic healing.  Capitalism is not old, and many lives were lost transforming the world to its needs.  The truth is,  a majority of the world rejected capitalism, whose birth required driving peasants from the land, and stealing knowledge from craftspersons and healers.  This alienation was required to force people to work for a boss, or produce a single mono-crop for the world market instead of diverse crops for subsistence. Alienation was required to create the “medical profession” as something separate from people’s communities, and in particular, to separate this knowledge from women, and create the special role of “physician”.

Early struggles against this alienation were not just “environmental”: they were struggles for survival against a new system of exploitation, as well as old systems of exploitation–the church, the lord, or the king.  One early example of this is the diggers and levelers, who removed the fences and ditches that surrounded newly enclosed common land, and opened it up to be used freely and communally.

In many movements over the last century, the struggle against exploitation and the struggle for the environment have been inseparable:

  • Miners have gone on strike many times against horrible working conditions, including the chemicals they are forced to breathe.  Workers often have to go against their unions, which try to keep them on the job. During the National Union of Mineworkers strike in the 1980’s in the UK over the hiring of non-union workers, but the unions ordered them back to work, and the mines were started up again. In 2012, South African mineworkers independently resisted their bosses due to dangerous working conditions and the destruction of their communities. They fought their bosses at the mines, and their bosses at the union, who wanted them to go back to work. In Japan, fishing people blocked the boats of industrial tycoons who were searching for sites of a future nuclear plant.  Workers refused the destruction of their homes, and the alienation from their daily activity.
  • Instances of resistance against “hydro-dams” are almost too numerous to count, from Ethiopia to Guatelamala to China to the US.  Hydro-dams are most often proposed and funded by “development agencies” that believe people are poor because they don’t destroy the planet enough.  But the people standing in the path of the dams know they are poor because of development–and its pre-cursor colonialism, which stole land and destroyed ways of life.  Without land to cultivate, crafts to work, or healthy places to live, people are thrust into the labor market to provide cheap hands to make goods for global markets.
  • In the 16th and 17th centuries, ruling elites urgent to centrally concentrate as much power as possible murdered thousands of women who were “social deviants” or who practiced holistic medicine and called them “witches”.  What scared these men the most was the women’s knowledge about nature, the human body and spirit. Now, the same struggle is happening from Gambia to Malaysia, as ruling elites in those countries mimic the European witch-hunts in order to extract women from the land, to sell it to international development and agricultural firms.

There is no confusion among working class and poor people about the relationship between environmental destruction and capitalism: the latter requires the former. Environmental destruction cannot be separated from overall enslavement, alienation and accumulation.

The “Point of No Return” Is Not 2 Degrees Celsius
International climate organizations argue the “point of no return” for climate change is the 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 5th report in early 2014. But many of us already reached the point of no return generations ago.  We are at the point of no return when we get our water shut off, when we can’t afford rent, when our food stamps are cut, when the block is evicted so condos can be built, when our land is used to bury nuclear waste, and when we can’t go outside without being harassed, poisoned, or killed by the agents of the state.

While some say that without green energy reforms we’ll lose our hope of survival, many of us have already lost our hope for survival through the current system, and have been fighting back long before the words “climate change” became popular. Carbon taxes, small business initiatives, and urban gardens will not fight bosses, landlords, and police.  And this is how we understand the fight for survival: fighting the ruling class and its representatives in every facet of our lives, not just asking them nicely (or not so nicely) to stop destroying the planet.

“2 degrees Celsius” does represent a real crisis for capitalist society in climate change. However, crises can be resolved in ways that boost up exploitation and misery for working and poor people, and change the mode of dominance instead of abolishing it.  In this case, there is a possibility for capitalism to recuperate the struggles of people against climate change for its own growth.  We can already see this happening: BP and Goldman-Sachs have places in the climate march; Toyota and Honda have made billions off of hybrid cars, while workers in their factories literally die on the line; and NGO’s like Avaaz and the Rockefeller-backed 350.org have raised millions of dollars promoting green energy, while getting hundreds of indebted college students to work for free or cheap.

The crisis is not just about the environment. New cancers, untreatable congenital problems, respiratory infections, loss of nutrition, and mental illness are all direct outcomes of centralized energy production for use in capitalism, and of capitalist social relations. It’s not a coincidence that alongside these health problems, hospitals worldwide are struggling, holistic medicine is being commodified, and hospitals are closing in poor neighborhoods, with no replacement. These processes are part of the same logic.

The impacts of capitalism aren’t always intentional, and they often create real crises for governments and private capitalists (hence the rise of non-profits and NGOs, which try to smooth over these contradictions). However, as long as we don’t fight back, the crisis can be contained with a combination of “carrot” and “stick” tactics, both of which screw us over. Whether we’re chained to work programs and a meager welfare check, or imprisoned behind bars, capitalist solutions can only offer us different forms of enslavement.

The current climate change and anti-fossil fuel movement (like the XL Dissent, or the People’s climate March) appeals to many people, because climate change is seen as a crisis for all of “humanity”. But the reality is, the impacts of climate change divide humanity more than they bring it together. And the ruling class’ “solutions” are merely a deeper entrenchment of an already lethal system.  Green energy requires the low-wage labor of millions of people, and its development requires an enormous amount of high emissions inputs.  Access to these technologies then divide people along class lines: who will have access to low-cost “energy-efficient” homes, and who will not?

Against a “Just Transition”
A. Green capitalism
We must be clear: our goal is not to build a “friendlier” business model. No such thing exists, especially for the most exploited.  We don’t intend to build a utopia of environmentally friendly capitalist exploitation. And this is why we do not want a well-managed, top-down environmental movement, clamoring for access to the halls of power, the favor of the corporate press, and the endorsement of rich celebrities.

While environmental NGOs and British Petroleum talk about a “just transition” and “alternative energy”, the reality is that there is no alternative as long as production remains status quo. The only “alternative” to the current cycle of destruction is the creation of a new society, based on “from each according to her abilities, and to each according to her needs.”  While many argue that “wind energy”, “solar energy” or even “nuclear energy” are plausible alternatives, we know these are just further opportunities to destroy our land, exploit us as workers, and cause more damage through extraction of fossil fuels during their establishment.

New “resources” or “alternatives”, to produce the same amount of energy currently required by capitalist development will never give us justice. Solar and wind energy may be “sustainable” in the small amounts needed for individual consumption, but they still need to be manufactured.  And in order to supply the needs of capitalist consumption, even “green energy” systems require the exploitation of workers, dispossession of land, the extraction of precious resources from the ground, and, of course, the expenditure of fossil fuels in the process of extraction, land clearing, and construction.

Our only option is to dramatically change our form of production, balance our energy use, and hold power in common.  We don’t mean people should stop driving cars (although the reality is, without having to go to work, drive kids far away to school, and travel long distances for basic services like women’s health care, we will drive less). The problem is not individual household use and waste, but that our energy use is determined by the needs of capitalism. Capitalist production requires three inter-related processes that are at the heart of climate change and environmental destruction:

  • Overproduction.  The capitalist mode of production requires overproduction of commodities.  In order to compete, capitalists have to produce an abundance of goods. If a capitalist is left without any surplus of commodities, it will cost a significantly higher amount to resume production: land will have to be re-rented or purchased, workers will have to start from scratch, material will have to be bought again possible in smaller and more expensive quantities.  Furthermore, because capitalists make money by paying workers as little as possible, it is important for them to have the most cost-saving methods of production, most of which require heavy industrial, technological, and mechanical inputs that simultaneously destroy the planet, and destroy the creativity and bodies of workers. This doesn’t even touch on the world’s vast logistics networks, designed to thwart worker power by transporting commodity parts all over the world to be assembled by low-wage workers, and polluting all the way.
  • Investment. A lot of money circulating in the world right now actually consists of promises of future production, as opposed to actual material wealth.  Many people refer to this kind of money as “fictitious capital”. But just because this capital is “fictitious” doesn’t mean it has no effect on our world.  Because so much is invested in future promises on production, industries have to prove they will meet extraordinarily high production goals.  For the fossil fuel industry, this means companies have to prepare to extract resources far into the future, even if the world will pass the “point of no return” before we could ever use as much fossil fuel as their investments require them to produce.
  • War. In the case of nuclear power and nuclear energy, the same processes that make energy help governments make war: uranium mining, milling, and enrichment, and fuel fabrication.  An end to nuclear power would be a significant blow to the possibility for nations to use nuclear weapons in war; but despite the horrifying history and present of both nuclear energy and war, the desire for sovereignty and control of natural resources by many countries’ ruling classes is stronger.  And war itself brings unspeakable environmental destruction.  From the ongoing effects of dioxin in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Korea (dioxin was a pesticide used to increase agricultural production) to entire forests and jungles scorched by bombing, there is no separation between war, climate change, and environmental destruction.

The current crisis cannot be solved by adding new forms of energy production to the same old capitalism.  Without a fundamental change in the organization of production, the most vulnerable will be left paying the price for green energy’s “just transition.”

B.Non-profits, NGOs, and unions
Over the last 30 years there has been a significant rise in the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profits.  This is directly related to the shift away from the state managing capitalism’s problems (think the New Deal), to the state mandating others deal with them.  These “others” are still controlled by laws, regulations, and taxes.  They still work firmly within the logic of capitalism.  NGOs, non-profits, and even unions diagnose the “problem” as a lack of productivity, or at least as “poverty”, without being able to see the systemic root of suffering.  They do not see the problem as alienation from work and the environment.

Even if individuals within those agencies care a great deal, the organizations they work for can never meet our needs.  NGOs are not political organizations made up of people struggling for a new society; they are led by “experts” whose primary work is to show clear results to funders.  It is no accident that so often development programs focus on increasing incomes or  productivity in certain areas.  Even though many of the people affected by the work of NGOs understand that productivity has an inverse relationship to the health of communities and the environment, NGOs themselves are incapable of moving away from “development” models because they are mandated by funders (both national governments and private corporations) to show economic growth.

In the US, non-profits serve a similar function. And like corporations, they need to reproduce themselves.  Unlike grassroots political organizations that are accountable to the people who build them, non-profits are only accountable to the institution itself. Even if they do not make a “profit”, non-profit organizations have to show quantitative growth at the end of each fiscal year.  When struggles ebb, non-profits have to keep going, and are not able to take time off, reflect, disband, or renew.  Anyone who has worked at a non-profit is familiar with the long hours, endless paper work, pointless programming, and the feeling of being on the “outside” of struggles.  This is not just a subjective problem with the non-profit bosses or workers. It is endemic to the form itself.

Today’s trade unions exist to help companies (schools, non-profits, factories, etc.)  keep business running smoothly. They no longer serve workers, but instead use workers’ militancy to gain political leverage, elect representatives, and tell us to go home and be happy with our lot in life.  This is because unions only seek to represent workers within the system, not build the power of workers to stop and reorganize work. They also are often limited to a single workplace, or a single kind of worker, instead of society as a whole.  The separation of workers and non-workers is the root of our exploitation, and destroying the separation is key to our liberation.

In the climate movement, non-profits and politicians say they are mobilizing “labor” when union leaders come to marches.  But what about the 93% of workers who are not in unions? Or the many workers who have zero connection with their union? Having a union join a climate march separates our daily activity as workers from the environmental and climate crises, and negates the millions of workers struggling outside of unions, or even against their unions.

What is fundamental to all of these kinds of institutions is that they function directly within the law of capitalism: they have to expand in order to survive, and their existence is tied to nothing but their internal capitalist struggle.  They cannot change, morph, disappear when the moment demands it. They are not bottom up, and they see community members as outside objects, to be found, accumulated, and put on display.

From the “Frontlines”: Strategies for a new society
We cannot fight to escape from a system by using the system itself.  While some NGOs and non-profit groups may claim to be anti-capitalist, they will never be able to escape their own internal logic.  Motivated by external forces like funding, electing politicians, or meeting development goals, these groups will always be in tension with movements struggling for self-organization and the abolition of capitalism.  Without a commitment to building power from below, “anti-capitalist” is just an empty buzzword.

Just like the diggers, the miners, and the peasants, our struggles are not just for the environment, but also against capitalism, and for a new organization of society that is democratic, based on our needs, and derived from abilities. Until we fight as exploited people against all forms of capitalism and the state, every environmental reform will mean a new low-wage job, a new land-grab, a new kind of chemical contamination.  We don’t want a world where the ruling class can live harmoniously with nature; we don’t want a world where a new set of bosses tells us what to do and how to live; we don’t want a world where people constantly lose their land to wind farms, their land to uranium tailings, their lives to the cops.

We are calling for a struggle that is class-wide, which opposes the ruling class, rather than cozying up to it.  We need self-organization, directly democratic organizations, spontaneous confrontations. We need to teach and learn from each other, not from institutions whose interests lie in maintaining the status quo.  And no matter how much money, “resources”, celebrities, PR teams, or access to powerful press and politicians climate NGOs bring to the table, we have to recognize that the price we pay for accepting these is our independence, and our ability to smash the very system that they’re invested — literally — in protecting.

Here are a couple examples of what we mean:

  • Anti-nuclear activists can fight not just to close one or two power plants, but can also link nuclear energy with state power.  One example is Sloths Against Nuclear States.  When we protest Indian Point nuclear power plant, they encounter a variety of opponents–from pro-nuke companies, to non-profits that pay people to blame anti-nuke activists for rising energy costs, to politicians who want to make a slick deal to gain support, but not close the plant.  They organize independently of these groups, while linking up with other like-minded grassroots groups all around the world.  In this way, they learn from one another’s struggles, build each other’s knowledge, and develop skills.  Instead of relying on paid staff, everyone in the group is expected to read, write, talk to people, and do art to the best of their ability.  That way, everyone gains equal access to shared leadership.
  • The student fossil fuel divestment movement contains elements of independent from-below struggle.  When students struggle to divest, they meet opposition from university administration.  In the process, many students have come to the conclusion that they have more in common with workers on campus, and people facing eviction in the neighborhood, than with university representatives who try to smooth things over.  By demanding divestment, students actually make a positive demand: for democratic control over the university.  Without administrators, investors, and research institutes, the university would have no need for such enormous investments, and could be run democratically for free by students, workers, and teachers.

As the crisis of climate change deepens, environmental destruction becomes real for the ruling class. We are entering a bitter battle for who will control the new world, and what this world will look like.  It is imperative that we reject any remnants of a society based on alienation, exploitation, and hierarchy.  In demanding abolition of fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and an end to all forms of estranged labor, incarceration, and the state, we are creating the world we want.  Defeating governments and capitalists requires democratic self-organization, and as we struggle, we see possibilities for a new society before our very eyes.

 No rest until every power plant, every state, every boss, every NGO is abolished!  Self-organization of exploited and oppressed people for a new society and a harmonious planet!

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*This piece does not claim to represent the views of any of these groups as a whole, but was contributed to by members of these groupsT

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8 thoughts on “Against Climate Exceptionalism”

  1. The history of the 1984-85 British coal miners strike is incorrect

    the National Union of Mineworkers and it’s members went on strike to stop a bid by the British government (which owns the UK’s coal industry) to shut down the mines and rely on coal imported from Poland, the USSR and South Africa, where wages were lower.

    The miners went out on strike – but the National Board of Mines was able to hire unemployed coal miners as scabs. The Board had laid off thousands of miners in the 60s, 70s and 80s, so they had a very large pool of miners to hire from

    Also, the Transport and General Workers Union didn’t effectively stop unionized truck drivers from scabbing on the strike. Instead of calling an illegal sympathy strike, they merely levied fines on the scab truck drivers – the drivers either paid the fines and stayed in the union or didn’t pay the fines and got kicked out, but either way they kept scabbing.

    Also, the Home Office sent police officers from every department in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to break the strike – at peak there were 40,000 cops in the mining downs, facing off 20,000 strikers.

    After over a year on the picketlines, the strike was beaten, and the NUM had no choice but to end the strike, on the Board’s terms. Most of the strikers lost their jobs because most of the mines didn’t reopen after the strike ended.

    1. Thanks for the history, Gregory. Since there are only two lines about the NUM strike, I’m not sure what you consider incorrect, but I think your clarification of the goals of the strike lends a lot to the story and I made a small edit to emphasize this.

      1. Still incorrect.

        The issue wasn’t hiring non union workers.

        The issue was, the Thatcher Administration wanted to shut down the coal mines entirely and rely on coal imported from the USSR, Poland and South Africa – the miners and their union wanted to keep the mines open.

        That was the main issue – preserving jobs in the coal fields (the union’s goal) or eliminating the coal industry and laying off all the workers (the government’s goal)

        1. Hey Greg, do you have anything you want to add to the broader discussion and intent behind this blog post, or do you just want to knit pick? You don’t definitely don’t have to agree, but why don’t you go ahead and try contributing something substantial and constructive. I think you might have it in you.

    1. Hi Gregory, thanks for the comment. Since it is a short piece, I can see why you would have trouble picking out a program, and in fact, the goal of the piece was not to put forward a program. However, I think if you read the final section, you will see what kind of struggles the authors are concretely engaged it. If you would like to debate about strategy, that could be a good starting point.

  2. This piece is amazing. Thanks so much for putting all this together. I think it speaks to where people are at and what they’re thinking about in the environmental rights movement. I’m really interested in the fictitious capital argument and the sharp analysis of nonprofits.

    I have one, maybe technical, question. I am wondering about your argument that overproduction is necessary for capitalism. I think one of the arguments green capitalists make is that this could actually be stymied in a capitalist system. After all, overproduction does harm capitalist accumulation, and it might only take better planning to greatly reduce overproduction. While Marx argues that capital must constantly expand, in my reading of Capital at least, this doesn’t necessarily translate to an expanding quantity/overproduction of commodities. I am thinking about how some green capitalists do argue for a radical transformation of production , though still value-producing. I’m interested to hear more on this.

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