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Socialism? Environmentalism? Or Both?

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Are social justice and environmentalism coherent goals for society? Katie Kenyon discusses the dynamics at play when trying to tackle such a difficult political question.

A central question in today’s global political culture, to political scientists and advocates of social justice, is regarding the compatibility of socioeconomic equality and environmentalism. I have no doubt that these are coherent political objectives, and that reconciling both in policy in a given society are achievable and workable. But what is prioritised, who is consulted and how policies are implemented in conjunction with one another is what makes, like any, a difficult political exercise.

Since this is a topical and hotly debated, broad discussion, there are too many

components of the varying arguments to examine in a set of short articles. So while

acknowledging that this collection is not close to exhaustive, I have selected various focal points on which to write about encompassing the wider debate regarding the socialist response to climate change. Inevitably, all forms and systems of production will result in some degree of damage to the natural world - humans live extractively, so it is about finding the most efficient system, rather than the perfect one. Climate change is increasingly being labelled as a capitalist disaster, namely in the work of activists like Greta Thunberg and the Green New Deal proponents; as well as scholars who discuss economic crisis and climate change as almost interchangeable - for example in Climate Change and the Crisis of Capitalism. Unlike many, I agree with this interpretation - our economic and industrial system and its history has led directly to today’s dangerous atmospheric CO2 levels. Unregulated and domineering capitalist forces, most animated and forceful since post-Keynesian 1980s-present economic climate has directly established the normalisation of uncontrolled extraction. The petrochemical industry and its vast global operations (as well as major disasters), are a testament to this. As is the global agricultural industry. Nevertheless, whether this is an accurate judgement or not, to many commentators socialism is equally incompatible with climate-conscious politics.

The interests of equality-seekers and environmentalists are not only aligned but both compliment each others’ efforts. This shows, most importantly, in the fact that globally, minority communities and the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change.

This is a systemic issue. The solutions involve societal reorganisation so that the interests of

various groups of citizens become more coherent. The specific mechanisms of this restructuring would be criticised by free market advocates as impinging on civic freedoms, independence and limiting opportunity. I believe the necessity for it runs deeper than this - it’s about removing the hierarchies and handicaps rooted in our social structure which have allowed, and continue to allow, the privileged few property owners to ascend (or remain at the top of) the socio-economic ladder and become owners in the first place. Without such vast income and wealth disparities enabled by this pre-existing power-structure, and therefore disparities in lifestyle and social interests too, naturally the needs and priorities of members of a given community, which whether we like it or not is maintained by finite resources, would not clash quite as extremely as they do now. This would remove the need for such prevalent financial competition which supposedly fosters the highest possible level of efficiency in resource extraction and use.

This is important in itselfbecause of how socially damaging this climate of polarisation, division, and economic contest is. It is rarely the ideology of socialism and its potential manifestations that are criticised, such as the positive and progressive change that could come in the form of the Green New Deal. Rather critics merely draw on examples from states which have, in very different historical and political contexts to today, experimented with ideas loosely associated with socialism and in doing so have greatly misinterpreted the materialisation of these ideals. For example, many arguing against socialist-led climate management site the emissions records of the Soviet Union in contrast to those of the US, which at points had air pollution almost double, while its GNP equaled only half. In the 1980s East Germany’s CO2 emissions were almost twice that of West. Instances of nationalised oil companies increasing in corruption levels are often used to demonstrate this too; for example Pemex of Mexico, established in 1938 by the nationalisation of all the country’s private oil companies and accumulation of any wealth associated with this. Pemex is cited as being among the top ten most polluting companies in the

A response to these examples is this: It is not the ideologies guiding these political actors and the promotion of nationalisation that has resulted in these outcomes. Rather the corruption with which these actors engage is what is so damaging. In the cases of ex-colonies and countries in the global south, imperialism and exploitation entirely set the stage for fraudulent and inefficient political and economic climates and paved the way for extensive corruption. The Communist forces of the Soviet Union and the ideologies behind them are hardly comparable to to the equality- and justice- seeking policy of those advocating a socialist approach to green policy today; we can safely say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s hypothetical GND-led America would far from replicate Stalinist repression. The reason for the sharp drop in carbon emissions following the collapse of the Soviet Union is that people had to remove meat from their diets when the prices of every-day consumer products soared following the internal disintegration of the Union.

We make comparisons with governments’ focus on climate change issues pre-1980, but actually up until then very little mainstream scientific interest had been taken in the potential severity of global warming, at least relative to the last forty years’ worth of research as of today. So in reality, policy universally failed to place ample focus on the environment, it was not a mistake specific to socialist government. When it is elements of the ideology itself that are doubted, a common criticism of fighting climate change within the auspices of an institutionalised socialist agenda regards economic incentive structures. The idea is that through lack of ownership and therefore personal interest in specific commodities and land, the socialist ideology removes any incentive individuals might have to conserve and sustain its resources. Whereas the financial competition and individuality that characterises market economies and their inhabitants incentivises efficiency in resource extraction and use. I believe that collective ownership of such valuable and finite resources on a global scale actually provide better conditions for this land to be nurtured, and its valuable resources to be fostered. This is why deep structural change is necessary, because yes, in today’s context, categorically communalising every mode of production and erasing property rights would

be unhelpful. This would not be the socialist method. Rather, it would involve extreme re-

distribution of this wealth largely through taxation and radical but long-term processes of a just and attentive transition to an eventual state of 100% clean renewable energy, subsidising through benefits and/or job opportunity any workers displaced in the process.

What critics tend to ignore is that genuine desires to increase social equality, particularly racial and ethnic inequality, very often go hand-in-hand with those to protect the environment. This is becoming increasingly realised, but these shared interests are historically consistent. In the 1970s, groups were campaigning against the injustice behind the fact that activities harmful to the environment disproportionately affected minority neighbourhoods. An all-too frequent example is toxic waste dumping in predominantly-black neighbourhoods - a case of structural oppression with deep political roots. The 1990s saw the continued formulation of organisations to promote justice for politically oppressed communities hardest hit by environmental damage at the hands of major capitalist forces. For example, the Indigenous Environmental Network. More recently, the Climate Justice Alliance incorporates the global goals of environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty. Historically, collaboration between unions and environmentalists has been very effective due to obvious shared interests. For example in the 1960s-1980s, progressivism in the US encompassed workers looking to change aspects of the workplace that equally concerned environmentalism. The 1973 Shell strike by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) is one of many testaments to this.

It is overwhelmingly the demands of the rich that are killing the planet - the wealthiest 10% of the global population produce over half its total emissions . According

to Oxfam’s report ‘Extreme Carbon Inequality’, “climate change is inextricably linked to economic inequality...The only beneficiaries of inadequate climate action in Paris and beyond are a much smaller elite with vested interests in the continuation of a high carbon and deeply unequal global economy”. It is clear, despite the views of the many economists and privileged individuals who claim that no one is actually responsible for the climate crisis as such, that there most definitely are a number of guilty parties.

Most significantly, the growth-obsessed, profit-driven, inhumane operatives of capitalist

production, controlled entirely by a small political elite. Some individual policies enacted under an environmentalist agenda may well be detrimental to impoverished communities, and these single acts must be reprimanded. However, there is no inherent paradox between climate policy and the political prioritisation of social justice and economic equality. In the past, environmentalists have often failed to frame the debate well when considering the needs of low-paid workers, job-seekers and disadvantaged communities. This has been harnessed by major industries from tech giants to the forces of corporate retail, in the

form of a threat: the oil and gas industry, for example, almost universally ‘warns’ that any

significant fight against climate change will harm the economy. But when we analyse production and consumption patterns across the world it is clear that today’s scale of private ownership of business, and the owners themselves, are the irreconcilable party in this equation. One of the mainstream capitalist motives for protecting natural resources - selectively I might add - adds up to nothing more than the ungenuine and self-serving goal of profit maximisation. If a malignant and somewhat corrupt desire motivates a positive action or outcome, I don’t think the benefits of this outcome are enough to warrant endorsement of the desire. It is dangerous to turn a blind eye to the motivations of individuals’ actions in any political context, even if the outcome itself is something we are all seeking. After all, in this case, treating the natural world with respect and care would not be an end in itself for these actors, it’s merely a step towards a much more

sinister goal.

The potential that socialist policy has to provide simultaneous solutions to climate change and inequality is greater than that of an approach which favours free enterprise, non-interference and social conservatism. What also needs to be paid more attention is just how strong the link is between class, identity, ethnicity, nationality, and how affected people are by the catastrophes of climate change. Those least responsible for the artificial catalysis of climate change - i.e. people of colour in the global south - are those who are and will continue to suffer most severely from its affects. Perhaps this is where we start when it comes to educating current and future generations on the state of the environment we inhabit, and how we have brought ourselves here. It is important to understand that there is a fundamental link between the various beneficiaries of capitalist exploitation, and likewise there is perhaps an even stronger one between those parties who bear the brunt.


Katie Kenyon

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