Trade Unionists must be the agents of human survival

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An Interview with Roy Wilkes 

Roy Wilkes lives in Manchester, England. He is secretary of the organizing committee of the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Conference that will take place in London on February 9.

Roy is also a member of Respect Renewal and of the International Socialist Group. He was interviewed by Richard Searle of Red Pepper magazine.

Climate and Capitalism has lightly edited the interview for stylistic consistency.

RS: Although there’s universal agreement now that Climate Change is happening as a result of human activity, why is there no equally unanimous agreement on solutions? What’s the crucial fault line?

RW: It is easy to forget that this ‘universal agreement’ you speak of is in fact only very recent. It was the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report, published less than a year ago, which drove the final nail into the coffin of climate skepticism. Up until then public opinion was seriously divided on the issue, even among sections of the left, and this was mainly due to the massive PR effort of the fossil fuel and auto industries.Of course, the vested interests that promoted climate skepticism for so many years still exist, and they are as rich and powerful as ever. Only the other day, Royal Dutch Shell posted profits of £13.9 billion for 2007 (which works out at over £1.5 million per hour) – the biggest profit ever recorded for a UK company.

Globally, 7 of the top 10 corporations (by sales) are either oil companies or auto manufacturers. These are very powerful forces. And although they can no longer be taken seriously in casting doubt on the linkage between human activity and climate change, they still exert a huge influence, particularly on US government policy.

So instead of denying anthropogenic climate change, as he did until very recently, Bush now insists that, although the problem exists, it is best addressed through voluntary measures undertaken by business, and by the development of techno-fixes, rather than by setting limits on emissions. But a survey published in the Independent last week showed that climate change ranks only eighth in the concerns of big business, below increasing sales, reducing costs, developing new products and services, competing for talented staff, securing growth in emerging markets, innovation and technology.

And of course, as the recession starts to bite, climate change will fall even further down the agenda of big business, whose raison d’etre is and always has been to generate profit, and for whom everything else will always remain secondary.

Even those governments that do claim to take climate change seriously, such as Gordon Brown’s New Labour, still rely on market mechanisms, in particular carbon trading, to solve the problem. Unfortunately, there are many within the environmental movement who harbour similar illusions in the capacity of the market to resolve this crisis. But emissions trading schemes simply don’t work, as has been amply demonstrated by the EETS [European Emissions Trading Scheme], although they do deliver big windfall profits, including to the biggest polluters.

They don’t work for a very simple reason: there is a fundamental contradiction between the driving force of capital – which strives for infinite growth and accumulation – and the preservation of a finite ecosystem.

Ultimately, we will only solve the problem of climate change through rationally planning what we produce and how we produce it, not by clinging to the anarchy of the market. Capital can never accept this, so the crucial fault line, as you put it, really boils down to one of class.

RS: For a lot of people in the developed world, Climate Change remains an abstraction, with the exception of freak weather events. How are we going to make people act to deal with something that may not happen in their lifetime?

RW: As you said in your previous question, everyone now knows that climate change is a serious threat to the survival of our species, so it seems irrational somehow that we don’t respond to this threat with more urgency. What this illustrates very clearly is the depth of our alienation.

Capitalism starts by alienating us from our own labour power, that is from our capacity to work, which is the most human of all our characteristics. It therefore alienates us from our own nature, from our ‘species being’ as Marx describes it. And by forcing us to compete, each of us against everyone else, in every sphere of our lives, it alienates us from each other.

But it doesn’t end there.

By means of commodity fetishism, capitalism alienates us not only from our own nature but from all of nature. An artificial rhythm of daily life is imposed upon us – we sell our labour power, within strictly enforced time frames, we buy commodities (often on credit), we consume them, we worry about debt and fractured relationships, we seek distraction via the bourgeois mass media and deified celebrities – and all of this gives us the illusion that we are separate and apart from the natural world, that we are insulated from that world.

Of course, we are not separate from nature at all, we are very much a part of nature, and as such we are utterly reliant on our natural habitat, on our environment. But our social consciousness is a product of these multi-layered alienations, and this is especially true in the imperial heartlands, in the so-called ‘developed world.’ It will be transformed into ecological consciousness not through an academic process of pure reason but through a process of struggle.

As Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, observed, “It is the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit.”

The poor blacks of New Orleans would certainly concur with that. And increasingly it will be the poor in Britain, those who cannot afford houses other than in the flood plains, those who cannot afford the ever rising home insurance premiums, who will suffer first and most from the freak weather events to which you refer, and which will undoubtedly increase in frequency and intensity over the coming years.

So ecological consciousness will develop hand in hand with class consciousness, as it becomes increasingly clear that capitalism not only generates war, poverty and insecurity, but that it also threatens our very survival as a species.

We are starting to see the emergence of a mass movement against climate change, a truly global movement, and although its fiercest battles will initially be in the global South, for example among the indigenous peoples of Latin America, who are fighting to defend the rainforests from the incursions of big agribusiness and logging companies, nevertheless their repercussions will be felt globally, and will impact on social consciousness even in the imperial heartlands.

RS: The problem does appear to be so vast for individuals to deal with, yet at the same time we are continually exhorted to taking individual solutions. Why is this, is it conspiracy or denial? Is there any merit in individual solutions or is it all just pissing in the wind?

RW: I would go as far as to say that there are no individual solutions to this crisis whatsoever. That’s not to say we should all go out and buy 4x4s, take lots of domestic flights and generally behave irresponsibly, not at all. But the crisis will never be resolved by trying to change behaviour at the level of the individual. Climate change is not an ethical issue, it is profoundly political.

Of course, it serves the interests of capital for us to exist as atomized individuals, in permanent competition one with another.

Similarly, it serves the interests of capital to encourage an individual response to climate change, to make us feel guilty about the way we as individuals live our lives, to make us pay the price for a crisis that is not of our making. It isn’t so much a conspiracy as a diversion, an attempt to divert our attention from those who are truly responsible for this crisis.

But as workers we don’t choose our conditions of life; we don’t choose where and how our electricity is generated, we merely flick switches as passive consumers; we don’t choose to spend hours stuck in traffic jams; we never chose to have a privatized, overpriced and inadequate public transport system; we don’t choose commodity fetishism, just as we don’t choose to wear the chains that bind us to capital, that force us to sell our labour power in order to survive.

These conditions are imposed upon us. Only by collective action will we be able to develop solutions to a threat as huge and momentous as climate change, beginning with collective struggle, mass struggle, and leading, if we are successful in our struggle, to collective planning, to collective control over the resources of the planet, so that we can allocate those resources not to generating profit for the few but to the satisfaction of real human need, beginning of course with the need to repair the damage done to our planet by two centuries of capitalism.

RS: George Monbiot’s book, Heat, appears to be the most trenchant in putting a serious argument about what’s really needed to effectively tackle climate change. What are the strengths and weaknesses in Monbiot’s arguments?

RW: Monbiot summarizes the science of climate change very well, and he advocates several technical solutions that are eminently sensible, such as the generation of solar power in the deserts and its transmission via DC cabling to the centres of population. But he finds it difficult to break with the essential logic of capitalism, i.e. that the guiding principle of all human activity is the profit motive.

So Monbiot advocates carbon rationing as the main mechanism for achieving the necessary 90% cut in carbon emissions. The idea is that we should calculate a fair allocation and issue each person with carbon units, which he prefers to call ‘ice caps.’ He believes that this measure would automatically stimulate a market for low-carbon technologies, such as public transport and renewable energy.

This is of course a market solution to the crisis, which would incidentally allow the rich to buy rations from the poor in order to prolong their unsustainable lifestyles.

Monbiot is not alone in the green movement in relying on market mechanisms to solve the problem. There is a widespread belief that climate change is so urgent that we cannot wait for capitalism to be overthrown, that we have to deal with climate change within capitalism.

This view is deeply flawed on many levels.

Of course we don’t ‘wait’ for the overthrow of capitalism, because capitalism will not be overthrown by ‘waiting’ anyway. But neither will there be any solution to climate change within capitalism. The struggle against climate change and the struggle against capital are inextricably linked, they will either march forward together or else both will fail.

Monbiot himself is beginning to realize this. His speech at the national climate march in December was openly anti-capitalist.

But Heat’s greatest weakness is in its ending, where Monbiot argues that the campaign we need is unique in that it is a campaign against ourselves. We will never build a mass movement on the basis of arguing for self imposed austerity. On the contrary, the changes we need to make in order to fend off the threat of climate change would greatly enhance the quality of life for the vast majority of us by, for example, freeing us from the tyranny of the private automobile and replacing it with free public transport, by significantly shortening the working week, by socializing domestic labour etc.

RS: What’s the essence of ecosocialism that some sections of the Left are signing up to? What makes this anymore than just Red with a dash of Green?

RW: Marx and Engels were both ecological thinkers who developed a profound understanding of the environmental impact of capitalism and of humanity’s alienation from nature. Of course they weren’t aware of the greenhouse effect, but they wrote extensively on those aspects of the environment that were known at the time, Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England, and in Dialectics of Nature, and Marx in his writings on the dislocation of the soil cycle that arose with capitalist urbanization. Indeed, Marx’s studies of Epicurus and the materialist conception of nature preceded and gave rise to his materialist conception of history.

Some of the most advanced ecological thinking of the twentieth century was developed by early Soviet scientists, such as Vernadsky, who published The Biosphere in 1926, several decades before western environmentalists re-discovered the concept.

So, why have western Marxists concentrated almost exclusively on social science in their thinking for the past half century, to the extent that ecosocialism seems like something new?

This is one of the more unfortunate legacies of Stalinism, which has distorted so many of our traditions. Stalin purged an entire generation of Soviet conservationists, including Vavilov, Uranovsky and of course Bukharin, condemning ecology as a bourgeois science.

The theory and practice of socialism in one country required the Soviet state to try and ‘outgrow’ capitalism by using economic planning to generate more output than the market economies. This policy, which is usually described as ‘productivism’, was of course doomed to fail, and the Soviet Union degenerated into ecocidal tyranny.

So ecosocialism is certainly more than just ‘red with a dash of green’, it is about freeing Marxism from the distortions of Stalinism, it is about reclaiming a Marxism that is both humane and ecological, and whose goal is the thoroughgoing disalienation of humanity through the agency of its only truly progressive class, the proletariat.

RS: Can you suggest any concrete steps that shop stewards or union activists can engage in as part of developing and organizing a collective response to climate change?

RW: Historically there has been something of an antagonism between environmental activists on the one hand and trade unionists, or more precisely the trade union bureaucracy, on the other. Trade unionists have tended to regard environmentalism as a threat to jobs, and environmentalists distrust the unions because they defend even the most polluting industries.

Both sides are right about the other but for the wrong reasons.

The trade union bureaucracy allows capital free reign to direct production in whatever way it sees fit, as long as it provides their members with jobs; they rarely question what is produced or how it is produced, except from a narrow health and safety perspective. or more recently from the perspective of ‘greening the workplace.’

Many environmentalists, on the other hand, have taken managerial jobs within the big corporations in a vain attempt to reform them from within, while others continue to advocate pro-capitalist solutions to the environmental crisis.

So as ecosocialists we have to organize to change this situation. We want trades unionists to be a leading part of the mass movement on climate. And we want environmental activists to recognize that to be effective their allegiance has to lie with organized labour not with capital.

That is the purpose of next week’s Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Conference, to start drawing the unions into the movement so that it starts to become a truly mass movement, even here in the imperial heartlands.

But we also want to go further than that, and in recognizing that capital can offer no solutions to the crisis, that any genuine solutions will fall foul of the profit motive, we start to raise the question, well who does have the solutions, and what will those solutions look like?

We want trade unionists to start developing alternative plans of production, or at least to start thinking along those lines, to start thinking about taking control of production. There is no law of nature that says that trade unions have to be defenders of wages and conditions within the narrow confines of capitalism.

At certain historic junctures unions can play a more progressive, even a revolutionary role. In the context of climate change, we are asking trade unionists to be nothing less than the agents of human survival.