Environmentalism without Class Struggle is Gardening’December 27, 2021
Climate Change and Capitalism
It was the month of December when, thirty-four years ago in 1988, Brazilian environmental activist, Chico Mendes, was killed by timber mafia. Mendes was fighting for the preservation of the Amazon forests. The famous statement of Mendes – “Environmentalism without class struggle is gardening” – offers a simple answer to the ‘irresolvable’ question of climate change and environmental protection. This is an answer which the renowned environmentalists, activists and organizations around the world have chosen not to consider. That Marxism, as well, can offer solutions to the current environmental crisis is an issue that remains largely absent from serious environmental debates. The present article is an attempt to throw light on this subject. The first part of the article discusses the idealistic solutions offered by environmentalists in the midst of the deepening climate crisis, and the second part explores the inherent character of capitalism that lies at the root of current crisis.
We, in our everyday lives, either remain oblivious to climate change or when we do recognize its gravity we fail to find effective ways to combat it. There is also a huge gap between the magnitude of the problem and the response of our policy makers to it. Some ecologists have labeled the current crisis as “planetary emergency” and the statistics do demonstrate that we are literally living in a state of emergency. According to an estimate by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), if our Earth gets warmer by two degrees above pre-industrial levels, the whole world will see countless catastrophic consequences – sea levels may rise by one meter and the population of all coastal and low-lying islands would be submerged; forest fires might spread furiously wiping out all the remaining forests of the earth; some regions may face floods while others may witness serious droughts; hurricanes and tornadoes would become frequent occurrences. In fact, the glimpses of such catastrophes are already visible in the present. The torrential rains that lashed Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Kerala in October this year were the trailers of the ultimate disaster of climate change. Another report (Climate Vulnerable Forum of 2012) states that every year globally there are five million deaths due to air pollution and climate change and this figure is expected to reach six million by the year 2030.
The biggest cause of climate change and global warming is fossil fuels and currently fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) supply 80% of the world’s energy. The Swedish chemist S Arrhenius was the first scholar to link fossil fuels to the phenomenon of global warming in his 1895 research. During the 1950s Climatology emerged as a separate field of study and there was a serious concern for climate and environment on a global scale. For the first time we realised that human activities are actually responsible for the increasing temperature of the earth. In 1987, the IPCC was formed to monitor climate change on a global scale, and in 1992 the UNFCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) was established. During this period, environmentalists, conservationists, activists, non-governmental organizations etc. also became active on a global level. Apart from seminars-conferences on issues like pollution, climate change, forest conservation, there were agitations and movements as well. Globally, different nations met to fix their collective and individual responsibilities. But, in the midst of all this, the crisis, instead of getting averted, continued to worsen. An answer to this irony can be found by taking a look at how the so-called environmentalists and activists understand the crisis and the remedies they offer.
This year the United Nations selected Archana Soreng, an Adivasi woman belonging to Kharia tribe of Orissa, as a member of the ‘Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change’. The main task of this group is to regularly advise the Secretary of the UN on the issue of climate crisis. India felt proud when Soreng was nominated and in no time our media labeled her as the ‘Tribal Climate Warrior’. The intimate relationship that Adivasis share with the nature forms a significant subject in the current mainstream discourse on environmentalism and therefore when an Adivasi is portrayed as a ‘climate warrior’ it is seen as the most effective way to deal with climate crisis.
But are the several tribal environmentalists and activists able to identify the root causes of climate change? Archana Soreng is known for documenting tribal cultural practices. She believes that dissemination of the customs and practices of tribals, who share a reciprocal relationship with the environment, would be an effective way to deal with climate change. She says:
“Indigenous peoples should be leaders of climate actions and not victims of climate policies. The methods and tools used by the tribals in their daily lives, for green living, rainwater harvesting, organic farming, preserving bio-diversity, if adopted at a large scale by other people, it will help in preserving the environment and fighting the climate change.”
There is no doubt that the burden of climate change lays more heavily on the backward communities of society. And for the Adivasis the vulnerability gets more acute as their material and cultural life is directly related to the environment. But can this crisis be averted simply by making an Adivasi a ‘climate warrior’ or by disseminating tribal traditions? Can this knotty problem that has assumed gigantic proportions be resolved by making small changes in our daily habits and behaviour? In other words, can a system-borne crisis, and climate change is definitely one, be solved through individual efforts? Greta Thunberg, a world-renowned environmental activist who is known for her anger and outspoken questions to world leaders, offers nothing but a call for such individual efforts. She describes four “simple” measures she has adopted in her life to “combat” the climate crisis – a ban on air travel (Thunberg and her family don’t travel by air); eating a vegetarian diet (according to a report by the IPCC, if more people switch to vegetarianism, it will be “significant” in fighting the scourge of climate change, so Thunberg and her entire family have turned to vegetarianism); joining an activist movement and demanding reform; and finally by “utilising” the power of vote to choose a “worthy” leader who will fight this crisis. Thunberg’s anger might seem immensely appealing, but it does not challenge the current system. It advocates efforts towards individual reform, voting for the “right” leader and presenting demands before the system through activism. The system, itself, is never brought under scrutiny, never questioned. And this brings us to a pertinent question: Can the environment be saved while continuing within the present capitalist system, which is inherently designed to exploit the nature indiscriminately? Isn’t the praxis of capitalism completely incompatible with the idea of environmental protection? We will explore these questions in the next section.
Theoretically, capitalism has been described by liberal economists as a system that operates over a balance of demand and supply: that is, a demand is brought into the market by consumers though rational cost-benefit analysis and accordingly products are purchased. It is further argued that since people do not buy what they do not need, and hence producers do not manufacture what people will not buy, therefore capitalism naturally leads to positive social outcomes. The factor that maintains this balance of demand and supply in the free market was termed as ‘invisible hand’ by the famous economist, Adam Smith. Matthew Kahn in his book Climatopolis: How our cities will thrive in a Hotter Future (2010) finds answers to the climate crisis in this “equilibrium” of capitalism. According to him, since the consumer in a capitalist society is a rational being who judges the consequences of his purchasing decisions, he will continually demand products that will enrich the society and the environment. Therefore, Kahn advocates the expansion of capitalism to conserve the environment. But is the consumer as prudent as these economists have made us believe? Well, no and we do not need any special research to answer this question. If we look at ourselves and the markets around us, the buyers, producers, and the marketing-advertising world, we will soon know that the consumer neither makes rational decisions nor does she consciously controls the creation of demands in the market. Marketing and advertising have become an integral part of our life and in the present digital world it is impossible to remain unaffected. Creating synthetic demands and constantly convincing consumers that they need products to meet those demands is the sole function of the big world of advertising. But why does capitalism create artificial demands? The answer to this question has to be found in the innate character of capitalism. Capitalism is a system based on the laws of profit. No matter how many pages the economists fill with their ridiculous arguments, capitalism never produces to meet the needs of humans. Its sole purpose is to make profits and this is what drives and sustains it.
Once we understand this character, it is no longer difficult to fix capitalism’s accountability for climate crisis. As we have just seen, this system is driven not by necessity, but by profit, and to ensure continuous profits, unnecessary demands are continuously created artificially which are then met through incessant production. Thus, the very existence of capitalism rests on profit and production. But production requires resources – in the form of raw materials and in the form of fuels, as well. And we know that fossil fuels are the biggest source of pollution. Thus our limited natural resources are being recklessly depleted merely for the creation of capitalists’ profits and this in turn is worsening the climate crisis. If we want to save our limited resources and environment, then this cycle of indiscriminate and unreasonable production-consumption has to be terminated. But is it possible in capitalism? The economist Jonathan Park (2015) sums up this paradox in the following words:
“Any viable solution to climate change will therefore require a global agreement to drastically inhibit the extraction, production and consumption of natural resources. Yet, the capitalist system as it currently stands is neither designed for nor capable of consciously inhibiting its own propensity for unsustainable growth. The basic assumptions under which neo-liberal capitalism operates renders it incapable of correcting climate change.”
Jonathan Park, thus, rightly argues that capitalism in its natural, essential self, is not only the real culprit of climate crisis but is also incapable of finding solutions to it. This is the reason why various organizations and agreements working at the global level – IPCC, UNFCC, Kyoto Protocol, etc. – have failed to bring about effective change. These organizations, run and controlled by capitalist nations, actually work to maintain only an illusion of environmental protection. The IPCC report, mentioned in the previous section, which declares vegetarianism as an effective way of tackling the climate crisis, is an example of such illusion. A research paper by the Corporate Europe Observatory uncovers how powerful corporate entities use their lobbies to influence the negotiations and decisions of these organizations in their favour. The CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) system under the Kyoto Protocol is a clear proof of how pro-capitalist these organizations, their negotiations and agreements are. CDM is a carbon-trading tool whereby developed countries, instead of themselves reducing emissions, actually buy carbon credits from developing countries to meet targets set by the Kyoto Protocol. The capitalist system based on the dynamics of purchase-profit-market has converted even pollution and emissions into marketable products.
While the big capitalists use lobbies and buy carbon credits to deal with the environmental crisis on global stage, within their own country they influence laws and policies in their favor by colluding with state power. In the name of ‘Ease of Doing Business’ in India, environmental protection related laws are being tampered with indiscriminately. Certainly the existing laws are not without loopholes and they have been misused as well. But under the present capitalist-fascist regime, laws are being amended with an audacity that has no parallels in the recent past. The Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification (EIA) published by government in 2020 and the recently (October 2021) proposed amendments to Forest Conservation Act (FCA) 1980, underscore the close relationship between capitalists and the current government. While the EIA notification is an attempt to nullify the environmental clearance rules, the proposed amendments to the FCA make India’s remaining forests easily available to the capitalists. Thus, while on the one hand our forests are being exposed for capitalist exploitation, on the other hand, Tulsi Gowda, a tribal environmentalist, is being awarded Padma Shri. Such symbolic steps serve the interests of capitalism and the state in many ways – appeasement of the Adivasi community that is worst hit by climate crisis; creation of a pretense of “seriousness” on the part of state towards environmental protection; And most importantly, shifting the focus away from capitalism to idealistic solutions like tree planting.
Whether we wish to notice or not, climate change is a reality and similarly, whether we admit it or not, capitalism shall remain the biggest culprit behind climate crisis. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, resolving climate crisis shall get more challenging. We are literally living in a state of planetary emergency. The need of the hour is to acknowledge both the crises – Climate and Capitalist. One must comprehend the politics behind the idealistic solutions served by the state, international organizations and environmentalists. And, if the earth has to be saved in the present age of intensifying class struggle, the only alternative available to humanity is dismantling Capitalism.