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Every day the evidence for the environmental catastrophe grows more alarming: melting glaciers, fires and floods linked to global warming, massive extinction of species, unbreathable air in cities, plastic waste building up in the oceans: it’s almost impossible to keep up with the coverage in the media and the press. And virtually every article you read, every speech by celebrated scientists and authors, ends up by calling on the governments of the world to be more committed to protecting the planet, and the individual “citizen” to use their votes more responsibly. In short: it’s up to the bourgeois state to save us! The youth marches for the climate and the protests by Extinction Rebellion don’t escape this rule. The indignation of the young people involved in them is very real, but so is the total inability of these campaigns to get to the roots of the problem.
It’s capitalism that is destroying the planet
170 years ago, in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, Friedrich Engels was already pointing out that capitalism was undermining the health of the exploited class through the poisoning of the air, water and food, and by herding the workers into disease-ridden slums.
While, on the one hand, it was developing the productive forces, this new industrial system was generalising pollution: “In these industrial centres, the fumes from burning carbon had become a major source of pollution… Numerous travelers and novelists described the scale of the pollution pouring out of industrial chimneys. In 1854 Charles Dickens, for example, in his famous novel Hard Times, evoked the filthy skies of Coketown, a fictional town that mirrored Manchester, where all you could see were the ‘interminable serpents of smoke’ hanging over the city”.
The responsibility for this pollution that was not born yesterday lies with a social system which exists only to accumulate value without any concern for nature or humanity: capitalism.
The great London smog of 1952 is a more recent example of atmospheric pollution resulting from industry and domestic heating, but today the world’s biggest cities, with Beijing and New Delhi at the top of the list, are faced with new varieties of the same phenomenon becoming more or less permanent. One of the most polluting sectors today is maritime transport whose low costs are a vital component of the entire world economy. But the accelerating destruction of forests for logging, palm oil or meat production is equally determined by the demand for profit. In every branch of its activity, capitalism pollutes and destroys without regard for the consequences.
The pollution of the atmosphere is today reaching apocalyptic levels. Whatever the ‘climate skeptics’ may say (with the generous backing of the oil and chemical industries), numerous scientific measurements of the retreat of glaciers and of the temperature of the oceans go in the same direction and leave no serious doubt about the issue: because of the increasing rates of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the average temperature of the Earth is rising inexorably, resulting in a series of unpredictable climatic phenomena which are already having a dramatic impact on populations in certain regions of the world. According to a study by the World Bank, the aggravating effects of climate change could push more than 140 million people to migrate within their own countries by 2050.
In other words: capitalist industry is threatening civilisation with a gradual but ineluctable slide into chaos. This sinister reality is giving rise to a widespread and very understandable disquiet. The question “what kind of world are we leaving to our children” is being posed everywhere and it’s quite logical that children and young people are the first to be concerned about growing up in a rapidly degrading environment.
In this situation, the “climate marches”, strikes and other protests that have been organised with a great deal of media coverage are responding to this growing disquiet. When a young Swedish high school pupil, Greta Thunberg, left her classes to demonstrate outside the parliament in Stockholm, she expressed these deep concerns about the future. But straight away she was invited to speak at the UN, the world climate conference at Katowice, and the British parliament, and was constantly being photographed alongside politicians like Angela Merkel and Jeremy Corbyn. Greta Thunberg was promoted to be a symbol of the concerns of her generation. And we have to ask why.
Creating divisions between the generations
Behind slogans carried on climate march placards like “They are stealing our future” and “if you won’t act like adults, we will” lies the idea that, if the world is overheating, it’s because the “older generation” haven’t done anything to prevent it, while the younger generation is acting more responsibly by striking for the climate. In reality, the environmental disaster is not the particular responsibility of the previous generation, any more than it can be reduced to the irresponsible individual behavior or the lack of determination of the people who have been elected to govern. It is a product of the capitalist system and its internal contradictions, a system that can only survive through brutal competition and the ruthless hunt for profit. Both the previous generations and the newer ones are subjected to the implacable laws of a mode of production which is descending into barbarism.
The real aim of this ideology about the older generation is to block any solidarity between the generations and even more to hide what is really responsible for our current plight. By setting the old and the young against each other capitalist propaganda is once again seeking to divide and rule the exploited. At the same time, pointing to the “old” generation as the ones who are responsible for our current mess camouflages the mechanisms of the system and the need to overcome it. The solution is not to have new, younger people running the present social system, because they would be prisoners held by the same chains.
Of course, the official organisers of the climate marches and protests do envisage the young and old coming together at another level – but again only to ask the capitalist state to do its best for the planet. Thus the signatories of an appeal by the Climate Action network in France “demand that those responsible for climate change take the necessary measures to limit global warming to 1.5%, while also guaranteeing social justice”. When Greta Thunberg demonstrated outside the Swedish parliament, she was in fact calling for those elected to positions of power in the capitalist state to do their job by thinking about the future for young people. And the politicians have seized on her initiative to issue calls for the renewal of democracy and for supporting new economic models, like the New Green Deal in the USA, to be implemented by a more caring and left-leaning Democratic administration. All this forgets that the states are the protectors of their national capital and cannot afford to let up in the mad race to generate profit. We are seeing a manipulation of perfectly legitimate concerns, a means of dragging young people into the electoral dead end. At a time when the young are more and more disillusioned with the institutions of bourgeois democracy, we can understand very well why the ruling class would seize on any opportunity to reverse this trend.
At the same time, we can hear Greta Thunberg or the Extinction Rebellion group calling for “mass resistance”, for direct action in the streets, for an international general strike of youth and adults on 20 September 2019, but this doesn’t change the underlying perspective: to put pressure on the state so that it will change from a leopard into a llama. Such a dead-end perspective can only contribute to the eventual demoralisation of many thousands of people who really want to resist the system.
Young people are a particular target of these ideological campaigns, not only because they are voicing very real concerns about their future, but because it’s vital to prevent young proletarians mobilising on a class terrain, as they did, for example, in the struggle of French students against a government assault on their employment prospects in 2006, or in the movement of the Spanish “Indignados” in 2011. Fighting as “young people” or simply as “people” in general obscures the class divisions in this society and the necessity for the exploited class to defend its material interests against the attacks of the capitalist regime.
Green ideology in the service of capitalism
When the bourgeoisie itself starts to worry about the question of global warming, you can be sure that its essential concern is how to maintain exploitation and not to safeguard the environment. We know that it is already making profits from the trend towards organic or vegan food, which is presented as a means to preserve the environment: prices go up the minute you buy an organic product, and this increases the gulf between the better-off who can afford to eat more healthily, and the poor who are condemned to eat cheaper, less healthy food – and who are also made to feel guilty about eating it
Even worse, the bourgeoisie paints its industrial strategy in green to justify attacks against the working class. Given the high rates of pollution that result from the use of petrol and diesel driven vehicles, the ruling class is talking more and more about replacing them with “non-polluting” electric vehicles, but this is a new swindle. The more far-sighted parts of the car industry stand to make a lot of money by moving away from the combustion engine, and this will enable them to accelerate the process of automation, throwing thousands of workers onto the dole. According to some estimates in Germany, for example, the switch to electric cars would involve a 16% reduction in personnel. And there are still serious environmental problems associated with the production and disposal of lithium batteries. But the market for cars must continue to expand, or profits will dry up!
By the same token, in the name of ecological needs, “green taxes” of all kinds will increase, and many of them will hit working class living standards directly, as we saw in France with the measures imposed by Macron that initially provoked the Yellow Vest movement. It’s the same with all the talk about the need for sacrifices in the name of the environment, to consume less in order to limit the effects of pollution. This imprisons us in the sterile sphere of individual guilt and individual solutions, while providing yet another justification for the austerity measures that are in any case demanded by the crisis of the capitalist economy.
The real question for the future of humanity is whether or not the working class of the world can recover its identity as an exploited class which is utterly antagonistic to capital and its state; whether it can regain the confidence it needs to defend itself against attacks on its living standards; and whether it can develop, through its struggles, the project of a new society which will stop the mad juggernaut of capitalist accumulation before it crushes us all under its wheels.
Adapted from Révolution Internationale 476.