The IPCC’s report gives us only 11 more years to drastically reduce carbon emissions. We’re heading for the Holocene extinction, which is the sixth mass extinction of life on earth, and on track to exceed 4 degrees Celsius of warming.
How did the climate get to be this bad? Was it really because you used a plastic bag at the grocery store last week? Was it that coffee that you had in a throw away cup? Was it – was it that beach themed party you went to a few years ago where everyone used colourful plastic straws and had those cute little umbrellas on the drinks? No.
Corporate problems and corporate solutions
There are just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Gazprom, and the Saudi Arabian Oil Company are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988 when we started collecting data on this. So we know that fossil fuel companies have impacted the climate more than the fact that you left the lights on last week.
We have been fooled by many companies and campaigns that not only mislead us, but also shift the onus onto us the individual, and blame working class people for climate change when it’s big business and the rich. In fact, Oxfam Media Briefing released a study in 2015 that showed that the poorest half of the global population are only responsible for around 10% of global emissions linked to individual consumption, and of course they live mostly in the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change like Mozambique—which just saw those two cyclones back to back a few weeks ago; while the richest 10% of the people in the world are responsible for around 50% of global emissions based on individual consumption. It’s the rich and their businesses and not the lights or the straws that are to blame, but individual blame is another calculated tactic which comes from a history that started with an anti-littering campaign. It started with littering.
Littering came to public consciousness in the 50s with the Keep America Beautiful Campaign which ran with the slogan “Don’t be a litterbug” and ran in 32 states. This campaign was backed up and completely funded by Coco-Cola, the Dixie Cup Company, the American Can Company, and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. These companies noticed their single use products were taking up space in landfills, and using a lot of natural resources to make, so their solution was to make individuals feel they were the environmental problem and not all of their products that were taking up space in landfills.
Big businesses also promote the “Greenwashing” of their products, campaigns, and actions, to make us feel like our personal actions are in control of climate change. The term was coined in 1986 when environmentalist Jay Westerveld observed the practice of hotels encouraging guests to reuse bath towels as an effort to “help the environment.” It gave the impression that hotels were pursuing efforts to be more ecologically sound. The reality was that the hotels had no other environmentally positive policies and simply saved massive amounts of money on laundry costs, and reducing hours of work for hotel workers. Greenwashing fails to address the fact that we exist in an economic system that can only exploit and consume, and cannot protect the planet nor any basic principles of equity. Green capitalism still exploits our natural resources and still puts us on track to warm to 4 degrees with many more natural disasters ahead.
Marxism is a critique of capitalism and a framework for understanding its different oppressions, and the central role of the working class, and this framework can help us make sense of our current condition by giving us valuable tools, strategies, and lessons to guide an anti-capitalist strategy. It can help us address our violent colonial system that has stolen the land from its original Indigenous stewards and broken sustainable relationships with nature.
Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels wrote a lot about the environment, and they studied Indigenous societies and their relationship with nature to do so. Specifically, the democracy and classless society of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of Six Nations’ was a huge inspiration to Marx and Engels. Indigenous knowledge helped prove the lie about “human nature” that is holding the concept of capitalism together; their way of life proves that greed and individualism are not essential to human beings. Indigenous knowledge helped Marx and Engels conceptualize a classless society where every person, regardless of gender or race, is equal and free, as described in Engels’ text The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Writing in Capital, Marx explained how capitalism broke humanity’s relationship with nature: “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognized as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.”
As Marx knew even in the 1800’s, capitalism views nature and humanity not as resources to be protected, but rather ones to be exploited. Drawing from the chemist Liebig, Marx explained how capitalism was depleting soil fertility. Soil chemistry tipped Marx off, and later his writings focused more on the exploitation of the earth and our failure to sustain the conditions of reproduction. The key to Marx’s entire theoretical approach in this area is the concept of social-ecological metabolism, which was rooted in his understanding and defining of human relation to nature through labour: “Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. […] Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature. . . . It [the labor process] is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence.”
But under capitalism, the “social metabolism” or social relations of humans to the land changes: capitalism imposes a “metabolic rift” between humans and nature, undermining both: “Capitalist production… disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth… All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility… Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”
There are three other Marxist concepts that are also helpful to understanding the climate crisis: accumulation, commodification, and alienation.
Accumulation is the continual acquisition of capital, for the sheer point of gaining more capital, and accumulation does not stop. Capitalism only knows how to accumulate. Since the ruling class owns the means of production and the products that come from them, the workers who do not own the means of production have to sell their labour power (their movements, their time) otherwise they’ll starve. In Wage Labour and Capital Marx explains “the putting of labour-power into action – i.e., the work – is the active expression of the labourer’s own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works that he may keep alive. He does not count the labour itself as a part of his life; it is rather a sacrifice of his life. It is a commodity that he has auctioned off to another.”
Capitalists will tell you that the bourgeoisie provides opportunities to work and get experience, but Marx would argue that this is called exploitation in the form of profit from the wage labour. Workers are only paid just enough to get by, if at all, which we know from many people working two or three jobs just to get by, and thus Marx would also argue that workers are paid significantly less than the value they produce because that is what capitalism requires. It is thus the difference between the value that the worker produces and the cost the capitalists pay to workers that creates surplus value. Because capitalists are in competition with each other, they are driven to extract surplus value from their workers in order to invest in further accumulation.
To get surplus value, the rich not only pay their workers less than what they are worth, but more often than not drive down wages and drive up productivity. Amazon is a great example of this where we see workers who are so burdened with productivity and “efficiencies”, they urinate into bottles because they are penalized when they take bathroom breaks, and penalized when they don’t meet their ludicrous fulfillment targets. And capitalism rewards this behaviour because capitalism rewards exploitation of workers and environment.
This brings us to commodities. Humans have always produced things; we’ve made tools, we’ve farmed crops, we’ve built houses, we’ve created art. Under capitalism, we’ve produced more than we’ve ever needed. Even though the right-wing tries to scare us into thinking we don’t have enough houses, or food for everyone, this is false. We don’t have a crisis of resources, we have a crisis of the distribution of those resources, and actually a crisis of overproduction which can be seen everywhere. We consume – we throw out. And the products that we do buy aren’t built to last and often are built to break so we will replace them, and this is the cycle of consumerism we find ourselves in each day.
Another major problem with this system is that our modern work is alienated; meaning we don’t see ourselves in the work. Marx explained that work has the potential to fulfill people, to make us feel alive, but in a system where our work is exploited, where we are forced to sell our labour, and where we can’t see ourselves in the work we produce; we feel alienated from society and ourselves. Marx wrote about how factories alienate their workers, as they make items they cannot afford to buy to make money for people who pay them next to nothing. He explained how the factory production and assembly lines split up creation into tiny tasks wherein the worker would be easily replaceable. Instead of one worker being the master at creating an object, like a car, the job was broken down so the worker would learn how to put on the left wheel, or the right wheel, never mastering a craft and allowing them to be easily replaced if they caused trouble.
Workers became the cogs in a gigantic machine and feel their work was meaningless and empty; they spend hours and hours doing the same repetitive tasks. Workers only lived for the few hours they got to spend at home a night – but for the rest of the time, they weren’t fully alive. They were alienated from the work, and also alienated from each other. Being exploited by capitalists for labour alienates us from our own humanity – and Marx observed that under capitalism workers consciously and unconsciously turn against each other, whether for jobs, pay raises, or promotions; the ruling class also pits us against one another, because workers are forced to compete against each other to sell their labour which is bought by capitalists. This is why the ruling class relies on oppression like sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism to keep the people down.
But Marx also wrote about the importance of workers unionizing, and banning together to seize the means of production, and replacing capitalism together, leading to his famous rallying cry “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and change how we structure society. Together we can smash the state, smash capitalism and stop the exploitation of land and resources. We can support our unions or unionize ourselves, we can talk to our co-workers, our friends, our community groups, about our material conditions and spread revolutionary anti-capitalist ideas. Marx reminds us that it’s the workers who drive the world forward and it’s the workers, everywhere—of every race, gender, and ability—who will be leading the charge to fight back against capitalism and climate crisis on an international level.
The rich must bear the cost because this is primarily their fault. Capitalism will have us trapped in the system of letting these big companies extract natural resources until we suffocate and die. Another world is possible, but we must fight tooth and nail against capitalism to make this happen. We can:
- Support unions in their calls for strikes
- Support or join intersectional climate spaces like Climate Justice Toronto, the Fight for $15 and Fairness Climate Caucus
- Oppose racism and white supremacy by supporting all migrants and supporting organizations like the Migrant Rights Network
- Advocate for Indigenous Sovereignty; support the original stewards of the land and be allies in Indigenous led campaigns
I will close with one of my favorite Marx quotations from Thesis 11, which is carved into his gravestone as a testament to its power. “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, the point, however, is to change it”. Together we can transform the world, and have our system—and not our climate—change.