Environmental Catastrophe and Socialism – Report from 2017 CWI school

“The planet has almost reached its limits” said Eva Dimokoustoula from Xekinima (Greece section of CWI) in opening the commission on the environment at the 2017 CWI Summer School.


Climate change is beginning to have a significant impact on the planet, seen in the recent detachment of an ice sheet the size of Luxembourg from Antartica. Whilst ordinary workers around the world worry about the impact of rising sea levels, including increased flooding as a result, key parts of the capitalist class are instead rubbing their hands at the opportunity to exploit new shipping routes as by 2020 it is predicted there will be no summer ice in the Arctic.

Yet this is not the only indicator of the serious threat posed by climate change, 2015 was the hottest year on record with temperatures now 1˚c above the pre-industrial age – 2˚c is thought to be the limit that could be reached before any changes are irreversible.

Undoubtedly, fears on these issues have been raised even more by the legitimacy given to climate change deniers by Donald Trump’s election as US President last year. Among his first acts in office were restarting Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipeline, and a more recent act was to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement signed under Obama in 2015.

The Paris agreement itself falls far short of what would be needed to tackle climate change. It adopted pledges to tackle climate change, but with no specified timetable for them or sanctions to be taken against states which fail to do this. The only legally binding measure agreed was to review the situation in five years time!

That Trump has still withdrawn from an agreement so minimal is reflective of a trend of climate change denial, that is in part fuelled by companies seeking to protect their profits through discrediting climate science, but also has root amongst some workers due to scepticism of the methods and motives of ‘green capitalism’, particularly around the question of jobs.

Socialists have to take up this question, explaining the need to put forward the idea of re-using the skills of workers in new green industry. In the discussion, the example was given of workers at weapons company Lucas Aerospace drawing up plans to produce socially useful goods such as hospital equipment.

Even where capitalism takes measures to deal with climate change, such as investment in renewable energy, this is often done in a harmful manner. Eva gave an example of a new wind farm in Greece that will be built on a previously protected island, which will necessitate the deforestation of the island.

Other examples were given during the discussion, including a struggle against a hydro-electric plant in Graz, Austria described by Nico. This plant has faced huge opposition, partially because the costs of constructing it are being borne by the state, but all the profits will go to private shareholders. The plant will be fairly inefficient, providing electricity in winter for only 3 homes!

Aiden from Canada commented that market based solutions to produce green energy will often impose ‘eco-austerity’ on ordinary people, a massive $12bn hydro-electricity plant in British Columbia will end up increasing energy bills by $30 over the next 70 years in order to subsidise the operators profits.

A particular focus of the discussion was struggles against raw material extraction. Eva reported on a number of struggles across Greece, including one forest which companies wish to mine under. But even the preparatory work for this has been highly destructive, turning the water nearby red and leading to the death on an entire flock of sheep who drank this water!

Eva also raised about victories of similar struggles in a number of countries, such as in Romania where mass protests forced the cancellation of mining permits in a virgin forest area, although some of these companies are now taking the government to court demanding compensation.

The mining industry can be very polluting, Eva gave figures from a 2015 study showing that just 40 mines in the US contributed 62% of water pollution. Not only does this then pass the burden of cleaning this up onto tax payers (at $160m a year), but is restricting the amount of water suitable for drinking.

This is then further compounded by cost-saving measures driven by austerity and cuts. The example of Flint, Michigan was given where the local authority used water polluted with lead and bacteria in order to save money. This has led to 12 people dying. Whilst the reaction of ordinary people has been to donate and send water supplies to help the residents of that city, the authorities tried to cover the issue up.

The discussion also covered many other areas, from food production to the socialist attitude towards nuclear power. Norman from England and Wales pointed out that there are two types of environmental catastrophes – natural disasters which we can only minimise the impact of, as well as human made ones, including oil spillages such as at Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. But increasingly, human actions in altering the environment in an unsustainable way, including climate change, can provoke more devastating and more numerous natural disasters.

One important contribution from Per- Ake from Sweden highlighted that in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, capitalism’s destruction of the environment forms a stark contrast with the little known environmental measures taken in the early years of the revolution. These included nationalising the forests, mines, lakes and rivers, creating the world’s first nature reserve, and the term ‘biosphere’ came from ecologists working in the USSR in the 1920s.

In concluding the discussion, Nicolas from Belgium pointed out a 2013 study that just 90 companies are responsible for 2/3 of all climate emissions, similar to the recent figures that 70% of all CO2 emissions come from just 150 companies. Market solutions will not fix the planet, a collective approach is needed.

He cited the evolution of the slogans of environmental campaigners at summits as examples of this been recognised amongst a wider layer, with the slogan “There is no Plan or Planet B” at the 2009 Copenhagen summit, whilst in Paris at 2015, many protesters used “System change, not climate change”. We need to explain how the necessary change, is “Socialist change” and how bringing into public ownership, under democratic workers control and managements, the key sectors of the economy will give ordinary people the power to reorganise society as part of a democratic plan that can both meet the needs of ordinary people and those of environmental sustainability.

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August 2017