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The necessity of anti-capitalism in the climate movement

Why the climate movement needs anti-capitalism.

Broadly, capitalism refers to an economic and political system in which industry – the means of production – is controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state, or the people. What the dictionary doesn’t note, however, is that at the rotten core of capitalism lies exploitation and inequality. Anti-capitalism is essential not just for arresting the destruction of our planet but also in terms of addressing the systemic inequalities and exploitations that plague our society. Anti-capitalism must, therefore, be one of the pillars of the climate movement and anti-capitalist behaviour must form the basis of any approach to climate justice.

The nature of capitalism and how it got us into this mess

The nature of capitalism is to accumulate capital and generate profit at all costs, even if this has devastating impacts on the environment. First Nations people lived sustainably with the land in Australia for at least 60,000 years before the introduction of capitalism through British invasion. Since then, the natural landscapes and environments of Australia have been degraded to mere ‘inputs’ for production as we see deforestation, mining, fracking and other equally damaging processes take place for the extraction of singular resources. Over the last 20 years in Malaysia and Indonesia, over 3.5 million hectares of forest have been destroyed in the name of palm oil, reducing viable Orangutan habitat by up to 80%. Agriculture and industry are polluting our natural bodies of water with manure, chemicals and pesticides, and more than 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Mining and fossil fuel giants such as Rio Tinto and BP continue to plunder fossil fuels from the ground, desecrating sacred, unceded, Indigenous land, polluting the air and water, acidifying oceans, and producing astronomical carbon emissions. In its search for resources to generate profit, capitalism allows for nature to fall by the wayside.

Capitalism does not think big picture and so despite the general consensus of climate experts who say fossil fuels will eventually drive the planet, and thereby humanity, to extinction, we quite unbelievably continue to allow for them to be used. Scott Morrison refused as recently as April to commit to net zero emissions targets by 2050 when the experts say we need to do so by 2030. Labor has recently announced that they too will continue to support coal mining in a bid to win over voters in contested seats like the Upper Hunter, further entrenching the contrived wedge between jobs and climate justice. 

There is no profit to be made on a dead planet but the nature of capitalism demands competition between companies, and so without massive government subsidies, companies that have the desire to reduce emissions remain massively handicapped. A freighting company that tried to reduce emissions by running electric vehicles with a high start-up cost, rather than those fuelled by fossil fuels, would quickly go out of business as they would have to compete with the already established fossil fuel powered companies. This market competition means it is supremely difficult to produce quality, sustainable goods without marking up consumer prices drastically, meaning in turn that sustainable living can become a way of life that is out of reach for many of those living paycheck to paycheck. This kind of sustainability gatekeeping alienates large sections of the working class, at a time when we desperately need to unite and strike against the climate criminals at the top of the economic food chain. It also destroys working class solidarity for the climate movement when initiatives such as the 2012 Gillard government’s carbon tax, which was also supported by The Greens and much of the climate movement, result in ordinary people bearing the brunt of the cost of increasing electricity prices, etc. In an indictment on reformism and corporate greenwashing, Government climate adviser Ross Garnaut admitted: “Every dollar of revenue from carbon pricing is collected from people, in the end mostly households, ordinary Australians. Most of the costs will eventually be passed on to ordinary Australians.” This allowed Tony Abbott and the Liberals to campaign around scrapping the tax, ostensibly defending workers’ rights in the process. Workers’ rights need to be at the centre of the climate movement both because we need their power and because an anti-capitalist revolution is about recentering the working class, not the 1%, as the basis of society.

Capitalism is not equipped to deal with the scale and the immediacy of the issue

Restructuring society and dismantling the fossil fuel industry means massive economic losses for fossil fuel companies who have vast sunk costs in their industries. It means that gas and coal plants, that were invested in on the basis that they would remain profitable and that otherwise would in fact remain profitable for decades to come, are retired, thus becoming stranded assets. It means massive investment in long-term, renewable energy options, likely with no profits for many decades – a notion antithetical to capitalism. It means nationalising things like our electricity system and placing the quilt of privatisation that it has become back into public hands. We cannot rely on private investors who are motivated by profit and restricted in their ability to engage in sustainable practices by market competition. Besides, it is only if these new renewable energy power stations are publicly owned that we can ensure a just transition for the workers impacted by the dismantling of the fossil fuel system, guaranteeing them the new, green jobs. 

Moreover, the fossil fuel industry has proven over the last few centuries that it does not care even one iota for the environment, in fact it continues to actively accelerate its destruction. It has been almost 200 years since 1856, when American scientist Eunice Foote discovered that carbon dioxide can absorb warmth and suggested the environmental implications of this. For almost 200 years the government has done nothing with this climate science and the fossil fuel industry has grown exponentially – listed among the world’s ten biggest companies in 2018 according to Fortune magazine were 5 oil companies and a power company. Between 1998 and 2015, just 100 companies were responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions, these being companies that either traded in fossil fuels or that were indelibly tied to them through their reliance on their power. In Australia, we are still hugely reliant on fossil fuels – coal providing 60% of our power and gas a further 20%. Scott Morrison’s Covid-19 economic recovery plan is known as the ‘gas-fired recovery plan.’ Recently greenlighting $56 billion of new gas pipelines in the Narrabri, ‘ScoMo’ has proven once again his apathy for all things environmental and for what the people demand. Covid has provided us with a golden opportunity to redesign the economy around renewables after it briefly grinded to a halt, but his solution was instead to further invest in that which threatens our very existence. 

If we want real climate justice in the immediate future we need to organise the power of the working class around these climate injustices. This power comes from the fact that it is the working class, not the capitalists, that keep the economy running. Despite low union density at the moment, organised sections of the working class have shown that they can exercise real power. Recent May Day demonstrations continued the proud history of Green Bans in NSW that started with the Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s. The ‘Save Willow Grove’ campaign saw strong student contingents alongside CFMEU walk offs and other trade union contingents. Taking a stand against the destruction of heritage buildings and green areas, Green Bans show the power that the organised working class has to strike against government and industry dictates. Governments and their capitalist cronies may not care about the environment, but they sure as anything care about profits. It is only through continued mass demonstrations and worker strikes that threaten to cripple production and economic function, that change will be realised. The workers, united, will never be defeated.

The mirage of green capitalism

Recently, a trend of companies that actively support renewable energies and net zero policies has emerged and inspired hope in green capitalism – a progression of capitalism that aims to solve the climate crisis largely without disrupting existing political and economic systems. One such company is Atlassian, an Australian software company that committed to running on 100% renewable energy by 2025 and instead reached this goal last year, 5 years ahead of schedule. They’ve also committed to moving themselves, as well as companies they work with. towards net zero emissions. Other companies engage in greener business models such as cost/price integration and equipment service-leasing – both of which are fascinating steps in a positive direction. The issue however is not with the ‘green’ of ‘green capitalism,’ but with the ‘capitalism.’ Green capitalism does seek, albeit without real conviction and far too slowly, to account for the environmental issues caused by capitalism, but it ignores every other social issue that is rooted in capitalism. The evils of capitalism do not start, and nor do they end, with the environment and so a progression of capitalism that only counters environmental issues will not combat things like wealth inequality, exploitation of workers, racism, imperialism, sexism, etc. 

An Oxfam Australia report in 2014 detailed how the richest 1% of Australians own the equivalent wealth of the poorest 60%, with economic inequality only skyrocketing further during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Washington Post reported that Jeff Bezos made $70 billion dollars over the last year, taking his estimated net worth to $186 billion and that Elon Musk grew his wealth by a mind boggling 500%, vaulting him to second among the world’s richest. Such brutal inequality cannot be justified in the name of an innovation incentive, free-market rational decision making, “hard work” or any other pro-capitalist nonsense. The nature of capitalism means that all the profits go straight to the bosses, either to be pocketed or reinvested in the business – workers never see the profits of their labour. Green capitalism is not pro-worker, it is, as its name suggests, geared in favour of the capitalists and so while some environmental damage may be mitigated it provides a solution – not even a good one – to just one of the problems caused by capitalism. 

The Covid-19 crisis has provided us with many irrefutable examples of the deadly nature of capitalism and the necessity of anti-capitalism. Covid is currently raging through India with up to 400,000 new cases every day and yet the West continues to gatekeep vaccines in the name of intellectual property and patent law. Economic anthropologist Jason Hickel wrote: “The covid catastrophe that’s engulfing India and other Global South countries could have been significantly mitigated had the US, UK and Europe not repeatedly refused to suspend vaccine-related patents. People are being sacrificed on the altar of intellectual property.” Other tweets described the situation as a “vaccine apartheid” and one user tweeted: “The idea that a working vaccine is anyone’s exclusive intellectual property is so utterly anti-life in the name of capitalism.”

Nor does green capitalism provide any solution to the massive exploitation of workers that would hypothetically worsen if businesses made workers bear the cost of the more expensive ‘green’ technologies in 

an effort to mitigate higher production costs. The defining feature of capitalism is the ‘profit motive’ and so of course businesses aim to maximise profit through a multitude of anti-worker strategies. Capitalists minimise production costs by cutting wages or allowing them to stagnate behind inflation. They move labour offshore where less well-regulated countries of the Global South allow for easier exploitation of workers and cheaper labour. They attempt to boost the productivity of labour by intensifying work, lengthening the work day etc. Capitalism is therefore antithetical to a pro-worker state and so whilst green capitalism may attempt (an unfortunately accurate word) to minimise environmental damages, it will never account for the inequality, exploitation and host of other evils engendered by any and every form of capitalism.

For our climate and for our people, for our survival and for our liberation, capitalism must be dismantled.

This article was published in ‘Embers’, a pullout in Honi’s Semester 1, Week 11 edition.