Keep cups, carbon offsets and emissions trading schemes, they all sound great but do they actually do anything to further climate justice? The short answer is no. Yet, as a society we seem all too keen to embrace the ideas of green capitalism without any suspicion or critique. We often blindly believe that the system that profits off our demise and has found a way to commodify everything will carry us in its arms and save us from the burning wreckage that our Earth is becoming. While there are many actors to blame for our blind faith and obedience in gimmicks and green surcharges, from NGOs, to advertising firms, it is up to the environmental movement to define itself and its politics.
Too often the general public have become beholden to the ideas of sustainability and green consumerism presented in the mainstream media and politics. It is only within the past five years that we have seen a genuine challenge to these ideas and the ‘mainstream’ promotion of systemic alternatives that could lay the basis for changes that will divert humanity’s course away from catastrophe. While the some of the policies presented within the ‘Green New Deal’ policy platform, championed in the US by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, are contestable, the idea of reframing climate action away from shutting the doors of industries that employ working class people is fairly new to mainstream discourses.
Working class solidarity
Fighting for a just transition away from the fossil fuel industry should not be taken for granted, but much rather should be a demand of the environmental movement that is constantly reiterated and championed. Too often, we have seen the movement allow for the discourse of jobs vs. climate, that you cannot possibly support working people and the planet. Dangerous rhetoric around the immediate abolition of the fossil fuel industry, stokes the fears of years past whereby middle-class, liberal environmentalists pit themselves against the working class and unionised. Glimpses of this past hit the spotlight during the 2019 Federal Election Campaign, whereby Bob Brown and his ‘Stop Adani Convoy’ did nothing but alienate the working class mining communities of Queensland and consolidate public support for the LNP.
Given the tumultuous relationship between mainstream environmentalism and the working class, it is pivotal that those who do engage in modern climate politics do so in solidarity with workers. Workers have a unique power, they have the ability to withhold their labour through strike action, which is important in driving disruptive activism that will force governments and corporations to adopt our demands. It is up to us as environmentalists to form strong relationships with the unions and working class communities. It is a non-negotiable that we have to demand a just transition away from fossil fuels that can accommodate the livelihoods of those working in industries attached to fossil fuels. It is no longer good enough to be able to mobilise the Inner West of Sydney; in order to build a movement that can sustain itself, we must form connections across Sydney, building bridges with communities that are often neglected by mainstream politics. Our key alliances can’t be with politicians but with organised communities that represent the makeup of Greater Sydney. When we move away from this, the movement can be easily divided.
First Nations justice
Our alliances must also extend to First Nations People. Globally, BIPOC are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation and pollution. It is often in communities of colour that heavily polluting infrastructure is erected and operated, it is Pacific Islanders that will be the first to bear the brunt of rising sea levels and catastrophic weather events, and in the Australian context, it is First Nations Peoples that have had their traditional lands pillaged and degraded. It is imperative that environmentalists recognise the injustices inherent to the current colonialist system and work with First Nations Peoples to achieve Indigenous sovereignty and autonomy. Indigenous Australians have lived in harmony with this land for 10,000s of years, attaining knowledge that is pivotal to maintaining the Australian environment, and thus as environmental activists we have much to learn. This is why we must always fight for Indigenous Justice within our movement, platform First Nations Peoples and listen.
Corporations and NGOs
While we must champion our alliances with the working class and First Nations Peoples, we must also end some of the relationships of convenience that have formed over the duration of the movement thus far. The first place to look is corporations and NGOs. For corporations and NGOs politics are negotiable and morals are non-existent. Greenwashing won’t solve climate change and neither will ‘corporate social responsibility’ (if such a thing actually exists). Our first point of reference should be the fact that since 1988 the top 100 global polluters have accounted for 71% of carbon emissions. Corporations, specifically those attached to heavy-polluting industries have done nothing more than individualise what is a systematic crisis. It was British Petroleum that popularised the concept of the carbon footprint, it was the NGO Keep America Beautiful, funded by beverage and packaging conglomerates (i.e. the likes of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola), that launched the award-winning advertising campaign with the slogan “People start pollution. People can stop it.” Entwined within this notion of the corporate enemy we must include the supposed ‘climate saviours’, the billionaire CEOs with good PR teams. They have neither the incentives or skill sets to actually solve change, and have often funded and patented alternative solutions that they can then implement to further their net wealth. Bill Gates has long advocated for a simple solution, controlling ‘overpopulation’ (which neglects the fact that the rich pollute significantly more than the poor), while Elon Musk has openly supported a coup against the democratically elected Bolivian government.
For as long as there has been significant evidence to suggest that climate change was a man made issue caused by the burning of fossil fuels, corporations have been passing the buck on to individuals, often given cover by environmental NGOs. NGOs have often been quick to endorse unfounded gimmicks and propaganda and even big polluters. Conservation groups specifically have had a troublingly close relationship with the fossil fuel industry in the past, with some accepting millions in donations from big polluters (The Nature Conservancy group even took it upon themselves to undertake gas extraction and exploration). Many have advocated for the “easy” solutions to climate change, fighting for ‘clean fossil fuels’ and ‘market-based’ solutions. NGOs have also involved themselves in extremely problematic carbon offset schemes, choosing to give cover to polluting corporations through the schemes themselves, but also engaging in practices like the forced displacement of local Indigenous peoples in order to protect newly classified ‘carbon sinks’ from human activity.
As environmentalism and climate action reach mainstream politics once again it is pivotal that not only we keep in mind our allies and stay true to our politics, but also identify the enemy. We must point out at every turn that corporations and NGOs will not deliver us from climate catastrophe, but strong unified partnerships with the working class and First Nations Peoples will. Recognising this and then developing these relationships is the key next step for mainstream environmentalism, which will allow for the development and implementation of Climate Justice and a better future.
This article was published in ‘Embers’, a pullout in Honi’s Semester 1, Week 11 edition.