Workers and youth around the world are taking to the streets to demand action and system change to avert environmental catastrophe. Perhaps the most significant is the “Fridays for Future” or “School Strike for Climate” movement taking place across the globe. This movement was founded by a young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who began protesting outside of the Swedish parliament during school hours in August of 2018. Within months large solidarity rallies had been organized by students around the world. Significantly, on March 15, 2019 the Global Strike for the Future saw 1.4 million students from 125 countries around the world walk out of school to march and demonstrate, demanding government action on the climate crisis. In Montreal alone, more than 150,000 attended. This global day of action was followed up by another global student strike on May 24 which saw hundreds of thousands of students strike for climate action. In Toronto that day, organizers estimated that 800 students turned out and were able to block a busy intersection. A popular slogan being raised in this movement is “system change, not climate change”, correctly highlighting that radical economic and social transformation is required to adequately address the climate crisis.
Another movement that has erupted onto the scene is “Extinction Rebellion” (XR), which began in Britain and made headlines for its method of mass civil disobedience, such as roadblocks, occupations of key public squares and high profile buildings, and disrupting the metro. During a ten-day stretch of protests between April 15-25, more than 1,100 XR protesters were arrested in London for their civil disobedience, but the movement has since continued with further protests and occupations. Meetings and demonstrations are now being held around the world under the banner of Extinction Rebellion, including here in Canada. The leaders of this movement have stated that their aim is to draw attention to the unprecedented ecological crisis facing our planet, and to pressure the government into agreeing to its demands which include: declaring a climate and ecological emergency, halting biodiversity loss and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025, and creating a citizens’ assembly on climate change and ecological justice which would lead to governmental action.
Both of these movements reflect a growing awareness of the need for mass, collective action to address the climate crisis, contrary to the individualist and consumer solutions promoted by the mainstream media and politicians. A whole generation of youth and workers are intuitively cognizant of the need for radical change to address this crisis. These mass movements, generating pressure from below, are also finding a political expression. This is reflected in the call for a “Green New Deal,” which has become increasingly popular within the environmental movement and the left more broadly.
This idea is most vocally championed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), a leading figure from the Democratic Socialists of America, who was elected to the U.S. Congress last year on a Democratic Party ticket. In February this year, AOC submitted a resolution to Congress outlining the principles of the deal which include guaranteeing family-sustaining union jobs; accessible housing, education, clean water, clean air, healthy food; investment in infrastructure and overhauling transport; and stimulating clean domestic manufacturing industries. The thrust of the deal as promoted is government-led investment in green technologies that provide good jobs. However, it should be noted that these are just aims—the policies to back them up are being delegated to a congressional committee, the creation of which is the only concrete proposal of the resolution. Despite its limitations, AOC’s Green New Deal proposal has found significant support on the left.
The call for a Green New Deal has also gained an echo in Canada. With flooding in the east and wildfires in the west, the environmental issue is becoming more and more important in the eyes of the people. In May, a coalition of several unions and social justice organizations signed onto the “Pact for a Green New Deal,” which calls on “workers, Indigenous communities, students, trade unions, migrants, community organizations and people across the country to define a plan for a safe future and more prosperous present that meets the demands of science and justice”. Later the same month, the leader of the NDP, Jagmeet Singh, released a $15-billion climate plan titled “A new deal for climate action and good jobs.” It pledges to fight global warming and poverty at the same time through measures such as a publicly funded national energy retrofit program and green investments to spur economic growth and green jobs. Singh has said that an NDP government would move to eliminate subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and divert those funds to a publicly owned climate investment bank, which would invest in renewable technologies and businesses that reduce emissions. He also talked about free public transit, but the details of how this would be implemented are unclear.
The aims of these “Green New Deals,” both in Canada and below the border—tackling the crisis of climate change, while addressing the need for good jobs—are not only correct but absolutely vital. However, these aims cannot be achieved within the capitalist system, which is killing the planet and pushing greater numbers of people into debt and poverty while the bankers and bosses get richer. Only revolutionary change can achieve the goals of the burgeoning global environmental movement, but the leaders of the left and many of these movements have not yet fully reckoned with this fact.
The proposals currently being put forward on both sides of the border are fundamentally Keynesian in their content: advocating government-led investment in green technologies; funding these measures through taxation; and attempting to carry out these policies within the confines of the capitalist market and the profit system. It is absolutely correct that we need to rapidly invest in green technologies, curb emissions and take other drastic measures to address the climate crisis. But the reality is that this cannot be achieved within the capitalist system. Capitalism is production for profit and genuine sustainability is simply not profitable. For example, while investment in housing insulation would reduce energy consumption, this would cut into energy companies’ profits. Renewable energy technology could provide energy that is essentially free, but this would jeopardize the super-profits of the fossil fuel cartels.
Because they own and control the levers of the economy, the capitalist class ultimately decides how production is carried out—and we must be clear, the vast majority of environmental destruction and pollution occurs on the production, not the consumer, front, with only 100 companies being responsible for more than 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in recent decades. Under capitalism, society’s needs, including the needs of the planet, will always be subordinate to the profit interests of the bankers and bosses. They will always cut corners and evade environmental regulations to protect profits.
It is therefore futile to appeal to the better nature of the capitalists to invest in greener technologies and better jobs when this would cut into their profits and directly contradicts their motives. The capitalists also have many tricks up their sleeves to get around attempts to tax their profits or to regulate their production to be more sustainable. There are tax havens and other means to evade taxation; there is the ability to pass the cost on to the consumer or to compensate for lost profits by deepening the exploitation of workers; there is the ability to move production to countries with less regulation and taxes, and so on and so on. Ultimately, you cannot control what you do not own. As long as production is for profit and controlled by the capitalist class, environmental devastation will continue largely unabated.
For this reason, appealing to the government of any capitalist state to take action on the environmental crisis, which has been XR’s main thrust, is a misguided approach. The state under capitalism exists to defend the interests of the capitalist class, these being the protection of private property and production for profit. Even when a government comes to power with the intention of regulating the excesses of the system, they run into the problems explained above, where the capitalist class have the final say because they own and control the means of production and the vast majority of wealth. The inability of governments to act on the environmental crisis has been demonstrated by the total failure of international treaties on climate change. Every few years the global heads of state get together for yet another “last chance” summit, and every time they agree on precisely nothing. For example, the latest treaty, the Paris Agreement, is entirely toothless and allows each country to set their own, non-binding targets for reducing emissions. Anything more than this is simply not achievable under the capitalist system.
The global student strike movement is entirely correct to call for “system change, not climate change,” but it must be made explicit that we can’t expect the capitalist state to institute such change for us from the top. Furthermore, it must be made explicit that the system change that is required is the socialist transformation of society. This requires a mass movement of the workers and youth—that is to say, it requires class struggle. It is the workers who produce all the wealth in society through their labour, which puts them in a unique position to overthrow capitalism. The school strikes are a great beginning, as are the mass demonstrations and occupations led by XR, but this cause must be taken up by the labour movement who must support the students and the environmental demonstrations with mobilizations and strike actions.
The labour movement must prioritize the climate crisis and provide bold, socialist solutions that can actually address the problem, while also tackling other pressing issues such as the need for good jobs, universal health care, and fully publicly funded education and child care. We need free public transit today, not 10 or 20 years from now. The wealth required to invest in green technology and move away from fossil fuels, as well as to fund a myriad of universal social programs that would address the burning needs of the working class and oppressed, already exists. Much of this wealth sits idly in the bank accounts of big business or stashed in offshore tax havens because the bankers and bosses cannot find a profitable avenue for investment in the context of a saturated world market and a crisis-ridden global economy.
Instead of a futile attempt to entice the capitalists to invest against their profiteering interests, we need to take this wealth out of their hands. The only way to do this is through the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, that is the major corporations and banks, under democratic workers’ control. In this way, the wealth generated through these enterprises can be used to fund green energy and effective responses to climate change, instead of going into the pockets of the parasitic capitalist class. A democratically planned, socialist economy would also be able to guarantee new green jobs for all those previously employed in the fossil fuel industry, with the needed training provided under union rates of pay. This solution cuts across the false dichotomy of protecting the environment vs. protecting jobs, which is often posed in response to the call to halt fossil fuel production and pipelines. Under a socialist plan of production, they need not be counterposed.
Capitalism is killing the planet and threatening humanity’s very existence. The vast majority of workers and youth understand the urgent nature of the situation, and are looking for a genuine solution. The technology and science exists to address the climate crisis, as does the wealth required to implement them; they only need to be put to work in the interest of the majority. Only by breaking with the profit motive and democratically planning the economy on the basis of needs can we put an end to the destruction of our planet. To save the planet and thrive as a society, we need nothing short of a socialist revolution!