Source Illustration: Tribalium / Shutterstock.com. Edit: DF/Public Seminar
A recent survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that 72 percent of Americans believe that climate change is real with an almost equal number concerned that it will harm future generations. While the climate movement appears to be finally winning the war of ideas, it is still losing the battle for securing the planet. After a brief pause due to the global COVID-19 lockdown, carbon emissions are again on the rise, having reached record levels in 2021 according to the International Energy Agency.
Syracuse University geographer Matthew Huber traces the origins of the climate crisis and proposes a plan of action in his new book Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (Verso, 2022). Huber, a frequent contributor to Jacobin and other journals, argues that climate change is first and foremost a class issue that pits the interests of capitalists over everyone and everything else, sacrificing the planet’s future in the process. He proposes to mobilize the working class as the most viable agent of change.
Huber offers a class-based analysis of the ecology, and the ownership of the material means of production, from resource extraction to the centrality of carbon-based fuels in the global industrial complex whose productivity has been progressively leveraged over the past 150 years by electrification. He criticizes what he sees as the underlying assumptions of current environmentalism to set up an agenda for a broadly based working-class approach to meet the challenges of a warming planet.
That capitalism is the primary driver of climate change has been largely acknowledged in recent times among academics and policymakers, as well as some elements of the popular media. Understanding the relationship between capitalism and the climate is thus the first step toward constructing what Huber terms a “proletarian ecology.”
Climate change, or more accurately planetary warming, is inextricably tied to the development of modern capitalism, which has consumed more and more energy to expand its industrial base and pursue greater profit. This is particularly true since the mid-twentieth century in what is termed “The Great Acceleration,” whereby the deleterious effects of capitalist-based growth have become increasingly evident across the planetary environment. The increased emissions from industrial production are at the root of emissions in all other sectors of the capitalist economy—transportation, construction, commercial, residential, etc.—as they depend on industrial products for their capacity to function. Electricity is the primary power source for industrial production, and the US Energy Information Administration estimates that some 60 percent of all electricity is generated from fossil fuels, primarily natural gas and coal.
Control of this production system is in very few private hands, which Huber, following London School of Economics sociologist Leslie Sklair, identifies as “the transnational capitalist class.” Huber devotes Part I of Climate Change as Class War to several of these bad actors and the ways in which the material conditions of the climate are all too often obscured. It is well researched and provides concrete detail to what ecosocialists such as John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, and McKenzie Wark, following Karl Marx in volumes I and III of Capital, term the “metabolic rift,” the disconnect between the environment and human, and in particular more radically capitalist, interventions that have interrupted its natural cycles.
Recognizing that the climate crisis has its material foundations in the capitalist system of production, Huber asserts that tackling the problem requires changing how production is organized. That necessitates a struggle for power against the transnational capitalist class who are reaping the rewards of environmental degradation at collective expense. So far, efforts toward that end have met with limited success.
A major impediment, in Huber’s estimation, is the terrain upon which the struggle is being contested. The climate dispute is currently the purview of a professional class of intellectuals, technocrats, and other knowledge workers—the credentialed beneficiaries of postwar meritocracy—who rely on scientific knowledge, technological intervention, and “smart” policy recommendations to carry the day. Among this class, in Huber’s reading, there is the assumption that things will necessarily change for the better if only the “objective, scientific facts” could be properly communicated and accepted and remediating tactics put into place.
The pitfall of that strategy was succinctly summed up by Upton Sinclair more than 100 years ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Even more so, when the ability to accumulate immense wealth and power depends on blatantly ignoring facts and getting others to do the same. Communicating climate statistics or attempting to address so-called market failures through mechanisms such as carbon taxes will have only modest, and many would argue insufficient, effects so long as there are substantial financial gains to be made.
Another obstacle is what Huber terms the “carbon guilt” also associated with the professional class. On the one hand, there is the “anxiety of affluence,” the deeply rooted Puritanical reproach of consumer excess in American culture, and on the other the virtue-signaling of what is termed “the ecology of austerity,” the imperative to subsist on less, as summed up in the phrase: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” This latter directive is particularly insidious in the way its emphasis on individual responsibility and restraint dovetails with neoliberalism, which emerged as part of the capitalist attack on workers and the welfare state coming out of the 1960s and into the present.
Furthermore, austerity ecology has little resonance among much of the working class, which during the past half-century has seen their share of the wealth from increased productivity stagnate and even erode while the social safety net has simultaneously been pulled out from under them. From that perspective, it can be argued that it is unreasonable to expect those who are living paycheck to paycheck, many of whom are only one major medical expense or household repair bill away from the financial crisis, to voluntarily live lower on the food chain if that is even possible.
The remedy Huber prescribes is to mobilize workers with an appeal to material interests that expands upon the purely economic to embrace a broader ecological framework. This stems from Huber’s conception of the working class as those who are alienated not just from the means of industrial production but from the very natural conditions of life itself. This comes straight out of Marx’s notion of estranged labor as articulated in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is realized, in which it is active, from which, and by means of which it produces.” (Emphasis original.) Nature is what capitalism, at its most fundamental level, alienates the worker from and the foundation of Huber’s conception of the proletarian ecology, which includes anyone and everyone who derives their means of survival from their dependence on market forces.
As part of moving forward, it is important not to cast workers as the victims of some zero-sum game, as much of the climate debate, especially from the right, has heretofore done in the false dichotomy of jobs vs. the environment. In this regard, Huber holds up the Green New Deal as a model of how to address the twin objectives of inequality and climate action. He notes that the Green New Deal rejects austerity as a condition of repairing the environment, but instead sets out an agenda for a just transition to a sustainable future through a combination of economic, technological, and social initiatives that would ultimately benefit workers of all stripes.
In setting out his action plan, Huber takes a cue from longtime labor writer Kim Moody, who in On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War (Haymarket, 2017) identifies the supply chain as a potential chokepoint where workers may organize to disrupt the flow of goods, and thereby profits, as part of a rank-and-file tactic to win their demands and foster solidarity. Huber’s scheme is to move the disruption upstream to where the capacity to produce originates: the electricity grid.
In addition to being the source of much of capitalism’s ability to produce, the electric power industry is fairly well unionized when compared to other sectors of the economy, including renewable energy. It is also already subject in many parts of the country to public oversight when not publicly owned outright. It can thus serve as the cornerstone of a longer-term strategy to socialize and decarbonize the rest of the economy. If a move toward socialization can be achieved in this crucial sector, Huber surmises the potential for working-class power to expand as victories accrue and spread to other sectors.
Huber’s analysis of the links between capitalism and the climate crisis is compelling; he also offers an incisive argument as to the conundrums of current climate politics. However, there are serious questions as to the efficacy of his proposed solution. First is the prospect of mobilizing electric power industry workers against their own union leadership, which like others in the age of diminished union power have sought to maintain relationships with owners in what some would say is a misguided attempt to forestall givebacks and other concessions. Then there is the single-sector strategy, which is liable to be nipped in the bud under what will no doubt be intense opposition from owners, investors, the government, and other powers of the transnational capitalist class. One may also question the prospects of expanding solidarity into the broader working population, which has largely rejected unionization over the past 50 years. (Though there are rumblings of that possibly changing, especially among younger workers, with the recent upsurge in organizing in the “meds and eds,” retail service, and supply chain sectors.)
Beyond what appear to be the unlikely prospects of it ever coming to fruition, one may also look askance with respect to the Green New Deal, as currently conceived, as a model for moving toward a truly just and sustainable future. Most obviously, the Green New Deal is aspirational, setting out a laundry list of desired outcomes without much in the way of concrete details as to how they might be achieved. It is also a capitalist solution to the climate crisis, essentially a neo-Keynesian program that proposes to muster government-led investment in green technologies and social-welfare programs to carry out its agenda within the confines of the market system. Its gesture toward the original New Deal of the 1930s might also be seen as flawed as there is much to suggest that it was the ramping up of production (and the attendant waste) in conducting the Second World War that ultimately “saved” capitalism not New Deal economics, which stumbled in 1937-38.
Climate Change as Class War does offer fuel for thought if only to clarify the irreconcilable conflict between our collective future and capitalism’s scorched-earth drive. Huber is essentially correct that the climate crisis is for all intents and purposes a class war, that of the transnational national capitalist class against the rest of us. There is no doubt that little will change without radical action. And the stakes are high: There is more than a world to win; there is a planet to lose.
Vince Carducci is a cultural critic and Dean Emeritus at College for Creative Studies in Detroit.