System Change Not Climate Change

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This new collection of articles brings coherence to the climate maelstrom. Reading it shifted me from depressed romanticism to a deeper understanding of humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature. That understanding brings hope that, as Sarah Ensor puts it in her chapter on biodiversity, we can “shape a convivial, sustainable Anthropocene.” The Anthropocene is the idea that we have entered a new geological epoch characterised by humanity’s dominating influence.

But first, change the system. Otherwise, as editor Martin Empson says in his introduction, the human consequences will be unimaginable.

“System change not climate change” has been adopted as a rallying cry here in the UK. But some see that new system as a new spirituality or at least “disciplined consumption”. Others hope to replace extreme capitalism with “responsible producers” and “responsible government”. There are calls for mass veganism. Many, recognising the disproportionate impact of climate change on the poor, ethnic minorities and people living in the global south, campaign for climate justice.

The arguments put here are an extension of that position. The various authors, from three different continents, agree on the central message — we can mend our relationship with nature only by overthrowing the system that treats labour and nature as commodities in the relentless drive for accumulation.

That argument will be readily accepted by many readers. But in a climate meeting you need both facts and philosophical underpinning to engage with the debates in the movement.

Amy Leather shows, for example, that plastic is a by-product of the fossil fuel industry (and war), not throwaway consumers. That virgin plastic production is increasing as we actively demand less is a disconnect with implications way beyond the material itself. Producers create demand, not consumers.

Empson echoes this theme as he explores capitalist agriculture, what food is produced and how. Statistics on the proportion of greenhouse gases produced by the meat industry rebuff the idea that veganism can save the world.

Perhaps the strangest just-so story is the development of fossil fuel capitalism itself. Far from being a natural development, Amy Leather shows how burning oil and gas answered bosses’ need for mobile fuel to efficiently exploit urban labour. Climate misery and the subjugation of one class by another are inextricably linked.

Yet Marxism, working class politics in general and fossil fuel workers in particular, have sometimes been viewed in the environmental movement with suspicion. This has been bolstered by low working class confidence, the environmental degradation wreaked by supposedly Communist societies, and the way in which trade union leaders can pit sectional interests against those of the class as a whole.

Marxists, thus, have a double task. We must rediscover Marx’s environmental contribution and link environmental and workers’ struggles. Fossil fuel workers have the power to strike at the $4.65 trillion-dollar industry at the very heart of capitalism.

Almost every chapter at least mentions Marx’s concept of “metabolic rift”, a term, like “alienation” before it, with the potential to become mainstream. But Marx uses the term specifically, to show how the process of capital accumulation distorts the web of interactions that constitute life.

Humanity in this scheme is neither separate nor indistinguishable from the rest of “nature”. It is that part of nature which through our labour acts to transform nature like no other species. As it does this, humanity transforms itself. Society itself is part of nature. Nature is at the heart of Marx’s material method. The destructive manifestation of this process is capitalism, as Ian Angus says in a chapter on the rediscovery of metabolic rift: “Like an [auto]-immune disorder that attacks the body it dwells in, capitalism…simultaneously depends upon and destroys its life support systems.”

Kohei Saito reminds us that capital can even invent new business opportunities out of ecological crisis: “Natural limits do not lead to the collapse of the capitalist system.”

But the process also opens space, as Camilla Royle writes, to envisage a society with “a more rational approach to the environment [corresponding] to more democratic and egalitarian social relations.”

Royle’s chapter on the Anthropocene contains a broader discussion of the political implications of various philosophical approaches to humanity’s relationship with nature. This is a theme Ian Rappel takes up as he discusses natural capital (applying financial concepts to nature conservation) as a neoliberal response to species extinction.

The fightback on the streets is more radical. Canadian socialists Carolyn Egan and Michelle Robidoux describe the LEAP manifesto drawn up by a group of indigenous communities, “racialised groups”, trade unions and environmental organisations, which links climate crisis and austerity and calls capitalism into question.

Suzanne Jeffery ends by calling the ongoing youth climate strikes a “qualitative leap forward”. But she says the rebounding climate movement was already focusing on social justice. Projects like the Green New Deal make this a “key moment” that draws organised labour — and therefore socialists — into the climate debate.

The climate fight is intensifying. Read this to arm yourself. It’s time to get involved.