Debate: definitions and focus

Submitted by AWL on 14 August, 2019 - 12:06 Author: Mike Zubrowski

People who worry more about climate change, correspondingly putting more effort into “being green”, are likely to live lifestyles with higher associated emissions.

In advanced capitalist countries, middle-class people tend to think more about climate change. They are simultaneously living in less densely-packed areas, further from where they might travel to, and with more disposable income: more carbon-intensive lifestyles.

Martin’s article (Solidarity 513) and mine (Solidarity 512) are in broad agreement, areas of disagreement being a question of subtly different emphases or slight tweaks.

In the longer version of this article online, I critique emissions calculations and allocation, and the (more or less) deep limitations of particular theories of causality and agency, and a narrowed scope in consideration, that come with most such calculations, and some other things. Here I consider (again, more condensed) the term “decarbonisation”, and our analysis of historic climate movements.

It’s good that Martin is giving a precise definition, as “reduce the amount of gaseous carbon compounds released in or as a result of a process”, and so synonymous with “reduce emissions”, adapted from removal of carbon accretions from engines. Not all, but many dictionaries do define decarbonise like Martin has.

Previously, Martin has stated that “I take decarbonise to mean zero carbon emissions”, as other comrades have agreed with and none, before Martin, disputed. To the extent that it meant anything, I had also taken it this way: not reduction but elimination, an achievement of “net zero”. It is on this basis that I had disputed it – we should not pretend that individual institutions can achieve net zero.

When arguing for environmental demands at work, I have easily kept what I was proposing in clear proportions, with no demand to “decarbonise”, which would have confused and miseducated more than clarified. The gravity of the insufficient and – for some time at least – shrinking amount of environmental engagement is another issue our articles are in agreement on.

However, Martin underplays the extent to which “environmental activism has been [historically hindered by] a ‘tunnel-vision of institution-by-institution focus’. There has been lifestyle and win-environmental-awards greenery. But that's not really activism.” Matt Cooper’s article (Solidarity 513), referring to “the straw man of localism” also underplays this.

No, that isn’t activism, although it is seen as by many and influences the ideas of yet more. Perhaps there are areas of environmental activism that weren’t as influenced by this as I stated, and likely these ideas had less influence on the labour movement, on the working-class more widely. But an institution-by-institution focus has been predominant in much of the environmental left, among much of what we would see as “environmental activists” (see my article in Solidarity 512).

From climate camps, and since, we have seen much needed, often heroic, creative and inspiring environmental direct action – but almost all institution-by-institution. The minimal demands that come with this aren’t fundamentally altered by the maximalist rhetoric of “system change not climate change”, with nothing, no credible strategy, connecting the two.

Engaging with rather than writing off these political currents has been necessary, as well as organising inside labour movement with which we want it to fuse.

Workers’ Liberty have been involved and supported these actions, trying to link them to the labour movement and to push them further, to more radical politics. The key, consistent argument we’ve made is the need to orientate seriously to the labour movement.

The other strand of our politics that we have, rightly I think, pushed is the need for wider, positive demands. For energy to be socialised, to be taken into democratic public ownership, with adequate public funding to carry through a rapid transition, sourced through taxing the rich, expropriating the banks and the wealth of the rich.

Martin Thomas replies:

Local augments the big picture

Especially since 2009, much climate activism has been reactive and defensive: stop (this or that) fracking (project); stop Keystone XL; stop Adani, etc.

That isn’t because people have had “institution by institution” illusions, but because with the movement on the back foot, those defensive battles seemed more winnable.

The renewed climate activism with the school student strikes gives hopes of moving onto the front foot again. The renewed activism will also build local activism to “decarbonise” big workplaces and campuses, which, as Paul Hampton's research has shown, sagged as the bigger-picture activism also sagged.

Pushes to reduce carbon emissions in workplaces and campuses (to “decarbonise”, using one word instead of three) will build up pressure on governments, develop copyable technologies, and nourish anchored long-term worker-control-oriented climate activism.

It will complement the big general-political challenges and augment the base for them.

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