Friday, November 02, 2007

Gareth Dale on capitalism, climate change and the role of the individual

I accept that I picked up the current edition of the International Socialism Journal without the highest of hopes - but I'm willing to admit I found Gareth Dale's piece “On the menu or at the table” rather good. In fact it is not the only item worth a read. Mike Gonzalez is interviewed on Venezuela, there's an interesting piece on the Left Party in Germany, and then there's the articles on rubbish and sci-fi. You don't even need to buy it as you can read it selectively on-line.

As an anti-capitalist Gareth wants to look at the role of corporations in climate change and starts his examination by pointing out that;

corporations now acknowledge climate change and are developing strategies in response. This much is plain to see. Also very visible, and advertised on company websites, are the strategies themselves. The knottier questions concern their effectiveness. Will they work or are they just dancing elephants? A related question is, “Why now?” What explains the timing of this corporate awakening?
He then goes on to look at the way business has been bending over backwards to present an eco-friendly face. As you might expect he is skeptical that their claims represent a viable solution to the climate change problem. Even on investment in renewable energies he warns us to beware of a combination of false accounting and false promises.

He then goes on, rather cynically, to diss a whole list of projects and initiatives that are designed to be part of being better to the planet. I'm with him to a certain extent here although I have a small concern that essentially his point is that specifics don't matter, only the overthrow of capitalism. Personally I think both the specifics and capitalism matter. Whilst I don't want to exaggerate his position it is more that the underlying negativity about various solutions could lead to a rejection of all environmentally conscious measures in favour of more abstract, party building activity.

That said his arguments against carbon offsetting, bio-fuels or the political influence these companies exert are well argued and coherent. It's good to read a socialist analysis of where we are which does not simply trot out the line only a revolution will do.

One interesting question is how "going green" is seen as a brand asset for many products or companies. For me this can be both a good and a bad thing. It can make the idea of environmental awareness on how goods are produced ubiquitous, but it can also play into the idea that we can buy our way out of the oncoming crisis. However, whilst many on the left nay say the whole idea of ethical shopping I do think it has a role as a useful lever to entrench the idea of taking positive personal action against climate change.

At the end of the day if you can't persuade someone to put their tins in a separate box any revolution they're part of ain't gonna have an ecological edge - and frankly it has to if we are to deal with the most pressing issue of our age, climate change. The solutions have to be political, and global in nature, but the motor of political change is a movement made up of people committed to environmental action. That commitment is cemented in our everyday lives.

We need to look to social forces if we are serious about change. It's true that businesses are taking these issues more seriously and the Stern Report showed there is a capitalist case against climate change, as you'd expect, but capital is a chaotic, anarchistic force difficult to steer away from its obsession with the bottom line. Trade unions, however, can be motors for progressive change that focus on what is good for the workers in the industries they cover. In fact there are signs that unions are taking on board the seriousness of climate change, the way we encourage that is by attempting to get our unions from branch level to national and international to take small and large steps in a positive direction.

More people than ever are involved in groups like WMD, Camp for Climate Action, War on Want, Campaign Against Climate Change and others. They don't leap straight to the overthrow of existing society (or at least the ones worth talking to don't) but work to make a better world and are put directly in conflict with business interests and the government. In that process there are lots of questions that need answers - how do you effectively campaign, who do you look to for support, what will your relationship be to the government, et al. People need to be part of a movement that brings them into contact with these dilemmas, but also need to be free to draw their own conclusions rather than get dragged into sterile ideological dead ends.

When our author says that
Global warming will exacerbate economic crisis, social breakdown, mass migration and political divisions, and will generate political and moral questioning. Fissures will grow, opening space for struggles from below.
I can't help feeling he thinks that this means climate change is good because it will cause a crisis and a crisis might mean a successful revolution (or any revolution at all). I don't agree. Crisis's of this nature mean misery, impoverishment and death for many - I'm not in favour of that for another chance at a big maybe. But of course if we get crisis we need to survive it and that means struggle.

Having said all this I don't want to be overly critical of the piece, it's genuinely competent and interesting in my view. His solutions are sensible and "include massive investment in renewable energy, public transport and energy efficiency measures such as housing insulation... progress on the issue requires a radical break from neoliberal solutions." Absolutely comrade, we are of one mind there.

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