Britain: Extinction Rebellion protests – How to save the planet?

Climate change protest in London on 12.4.19 (photo: Mary Finch)

Courage, determination and ingenuity have been on display among the thousands of people coming together in the creative and colourful protests coordinated by Extinction Rebellion in London and elsewhere.


These characteristics will be of enormous value if we are to build the type of movement urgently needed to not only draw attention to environmental destruction but to halt and start to reverse it.

One placard’s message, “I apologise but I don’t know what else to do”, summed up the desperate motivation of some of the protesters. Perhaps the greatest contribution is the significant questions posed by the protests about what programme, tactics and strategy are needed to secure a safe environment for future generations.

There is a growing mood for serious action and change. The school student strikes and these protests are an expression of the understanding that the Tory government is incapable of doing what is needed. 

Scientists warn that time is running out. We do what we can, as individuals, reusing plastic bags and recycling – and we should. But people ask: is this enough to stem the crisis?

The school students’ slogan of ‘system change not climate change’ recognises the deep-going transformation of society that is needed. For others, however, it means arguing for change within capitalism. But capitalism is a blind, unplanned system where the only driving force is the need to maximise profits. The change that is needed is socialist.

For example, the cement industry internationally is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions and makes fat profits for its bosses. A socialist programme would mean decisions about what gets built and how would be democratically made.

A socialist plan for ‘green’ production could include taking over the eleven million empty homes in Europe to house the homeless. It would need to include ending homes for profit by nationalising the profiteering housebuilding corporations and the banks under democratic workers’ control and management.

In this way, we could build sustainably, crucially building carbon-neutral council housing. This could also create jobs with trade union rates of pay – as a step towards a democratic, socialist plan for the economy.

To really and finally stop capitalist destruction of our living standards and our planet, we need to replace this rotten system with socialism. As we go on to explain, it is the millions-strong working class that has the potential power to do that. 

Marx on the environment

Karl Marx, one of the founders of scientific socialism, wrote in his famous work, Capital, that: “Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the Earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as good heads of the household”.

Without doubt the current rulers of the earth’s possessors, the 1% of billionaires, bankers and big business bosses, i.e. the capitalist class and their political representatives, are incapable of improving the earth for its future inheritors. Instead they are selling off the family silver to the capitalists to plunder and destroy in the interests of their profits.

Capitalism is a social system based upon production for profit not social need. A ‘rational’ organisation of production, necessary to respond to the urgent situation, is impossible because capitalism is also a blind system. Marx’s analysis showed how capitalism exploits nature, just as it exploits the working class.

Marx and his co-thinker, Engels, explained that when the capitalists brought the working class together in the factories and other workplaces to maximise exploitation and therefore profit it was also creating its own ‘gravediggers’. It is in the workplace – first and foremost – that the working class comes into conflict with the capitalists. It’s also in the workplace that workers have the basis for collective organising against the bosses. Through experience workers learned that it was necessary to link up with other sections of their class through building trade unions. And also to fight for an independent political voice that represented their interests against the parties who represented the bosses.

Working class

Today the enormous potential strength of the working class is not often on display, largely due to the failure of the trade union leaders to offer a fighting way forward. But when workers strike it is impossible to ignore. Extinction Rebellion (XR) was able to grind London to a halt for a few hours through audacious actions. But what are the lessons of that action and what is needed?

When London Underground workers strike the City loses billions of pounds. In January 2003, just two train drivers, inspired by the mass movement against the Iraq war, were able to prevent the delivery of arms destined to supply troops deploying for war. What’s more, workers, because of their role in production, also have the potential to organise society, to create the energy and things we need.

XR has claimed its protests are the biggest displays of civil disobedience in decades. They aim to mobilise 3.5% of the population. That is the number of workers who were on strike against austerity in November 2011. And XR are yet to achieve the numbers involved in the sustained mass movement of non-payment that defeated the poll tax, which involved 18 million people. They were organised on a democratic local and national basis through the anti-poll tax unions to defend families against bailiffs and evictions, to frustrate the courts and, ultimately, to bring down the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Today an urgent task for the environment movement is the removal of the Tory government and its replacement by a Jeremy Corbyn-led, anti-austerity government, with socialist policies.

XR poses a vital question when they say that they “don’t trust our government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary”. They demand that the government tell the truth and commit to a zero-emissions Britain by 2025.

However there is no basis for hoping that the crisis-ridden Tories can deliver this – they are split and paralysed, mainly by Brexit. Nor can we hope that the planet destroyers will change their ways. Instead we need an alternative. This is the idea of a socialist democratically planned and organised economy and society. To usher it in requires a movement and the urgent building of a mass workers’ political voice by transforming Labour into a fighting socialist workers’ party. The first step should be to deselect those Labour MPs who defend the market system.

Economic and political power must be taken out of the hands of the destroyers of the planet, the handful of capitalists who control industry and society. In Britain, this would involve the taking over of a handful of monopoly firms that control 80-85% of the economy. Compensation would be given to the ex-owners and particularly to the small shareholders on the basis of proven need. But the present horrors of capitalism will continue to exist, indeed, will be perpetuated, if this system is not replaced by socialism. We cannot control what we don’t own.

Social cooperation and human solidarity

Socialists are also internationalists. Environmental degradation does not recognise national borders, and an alternative requires planning on an international basis. This would provide the basis for social cooperation and human solidarity on an international level, a prerequisite for the protection of the environment and the conservation of natural resources.

There is no shortage of ways capitalist destruction of our environment impacts our lives and the future. This motivates those who have joined and supported the environment protests. Tropical forests are being decimated, as profiteering agri-bosses plant mono-crops of wheat, soy, and palm oil. Some estimate that by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. Extinction threatens more and more species. As XR puts it “catastrophic climate breakdown will cause food collapse, destroy communities, kill millions, and render many more homeless.”

Now Greta Thunberg has backed the idea of a climate general strike. A general strike could give hope to millions of workers and youth and the wider population that there is a force in society capable of challenging the environmental destruction and austerity hell of capitalism – the working class. But who would organise it? It would need to be democratically organised in the workplaces and the trade unions. It is not inconceivable that the capitalist class would be forced to make concessions then out of fear of such a movement developing and challenging their right to rule.

XR’s call to arms says that: “Another world is possible, and it’s just within reach. It’s going to take everything we’ve got to get there.” Most importantly it is going to take ideas of what we need and how to achieve it. Socialist ideas are still the best ideas on offer for the type of change we need. Let’s organise to fight for socialism.

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April 2019