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Class Struggle, Fossil Fuels, and Environmental Catastrophe

The excavation of fossil fuels was a one-time bonanza: it provided cheap energy that temporarily quadrupled the earth’s carrying capacity in terms of human population.  Instead of an ever tightening immiseration of the working class and overthrow of the capitalist system, as expected by Marx, the one-time gift of fossil fuels led to a standoff between classes, in which rising profits were accompanied by a population explosion and rising living standards for important parts of the working class.

Although the limits of fossil-fuel based growth are apparent now, and it is clear that both numbers and per capita consumption of the human population will decline, the standoff in the class struggle blocks an adjustment to the planet’s true limits within the framework of the capitalist system.  The working class is not strong enough to impose on the capitalists a steady-state economy with much lower rates of profit, and the capitalists are not strong enough to impose on the working class a much lower standard of living.

Although the international working and peasant classes are not strong enough to take the lead, they are far from powerless within the system.  This is humankind’s chance for a benign resolution of the unfolding crisis.  The following three structural factors give hope that a mass movement may be an effective factor for change:

(1) A popular mass movement can be truly global, as the February 2003 mobilization against the Iraq War showed, while the capitalists do not have an effective global institution of governance in place — and if nations try to act individually, their hands are tied by capitalist competition.

(2) A climb-down from the present unsustainable state cannot be ordered from the top down — it must be a bottom-up movement involving a well educated population.

(3) There is hope that the present institutions will be susceptible to popular pressures, since many individuals in these institutions are aware of the impending crisis.  They fear for themselves and their children, but they see themselves unable to do the right thing on their own.  Responsible individuals in government offices and corporate boardrooms need the masses on the street so that they can do what they see as increasingly obviously necessary.

This bottom-up movement is already happening.  In recent years we have been witnessing the powerful upsurge of an enduring popular environmental movement.  This is a big step forward.  For several decades, the ruling class in the USA was successful in hiding the impending disaster from the world’s masses.  But now the cat is out of the bag, and the knowledge of the urgency of environmental action is beginning to be an important political force.  In order to take advantage of the above structural advantages, the next goals must be:

(a) Work towards an international co-ordination of the many movements springing up.  The masses have to understand that the present capitalist system does not have the institutions in place that would enable it to rationally respond to the impending climate catastrophe, water catastrophe, food catastrophe, and health catastrophe.  The masses themselves must contribute one piece of the puzzle, namely, a global network which co-ordinates the grassroots actions everywhere and harmonizes the demands, in this way enabling the nation states to take necessary steps which they would otherwise be incapable of doing.

(b) Create consensus about a set of environmental reforms which this international movement will fight for, in a simultaneous and coordinated way, in all countries.  We need a series of international grassroots conferences, for example world social forums, hammering out the details of such policies.  Here is some brainstorming about what might be involved:

(b1) These reforms must have, and should unabashedly promote, re-distributional aspects: wage income must be increased, social safety nets strengthened, so that the masses of the earth’s population can afford the changes necessary for sustainable living.  Minimum wages, minimum income for those unemployed, free education including university education, free health care are no longer just nice and lofty goals but they have become necessary for the survival of all of us.  Businesses that go bankrupt or go on strike over the inevitable decrease in their profit rates should be nationalized.

(b2) The environmental reforms must be simple and general such as: a ban on new coal without carbon sequestration, a worldwide coordinated carbon tax, public investment in renewable technology and generous technology transfer, involvement of small distributed producers in energy and food supply (Cuba as an example for organic gardening), re-localization of the economy, free local public transit to get people out of their cars, restriction of birth rates.  Regarding megacities with their shantytowns (which are only possible because of subsidized fuel), we may draw on the experience of the missions in Venezuela.  In the US, Canada, and Australia land-use policies which drains the vast sea of suburbia into transit-oriented high-density neighborhoods surrounded by agriculture, and a shift of consumption to low-impact quality of life issues rather than wasteful and unsustainable toys.  Also water, fisheries, etc.

This is not socialism because private property of means of production is not abolished.  It is a reformed capitalism.  But if these reforms can be pulled off, capitalism will be quite a different animal than what we have today, and there is hope that in the longer run the system will morph into a more explicit socialist system.

Here are some immediate tactical issues coming from the US experience:

(alpha) Those working in environmental NGOs should push for more emphasis on getting people out on the streets, in addition to their work of lobbying and meeting with or writing letters to elected representatives.  They also should make it very clear that environmental justice is one of their first priorities: they will not condone pushing the costs of environmental reforms to those who can least afford them.

(beta) The fight for the environment must be integrated with the fight against Iraq Occupation and for more social justice, health care, minimum wage.  This sends a signal that the capitalist system itself must be reformed, and the increasing power and intensity of the environmental movement will be the catalyst making those old issues solvable.

It is by no means certain that such a powerful and coordinated mass movement will arise in time, but things can move very quickly, especially with the internet.  Nevertheless, there is a large possibility that the necessary adjustments will come through economic breakdown, famines, and plagues rather than through a coordinated global climb-down.  We cannot ignore this and prepare for it as well.  We must foster those institutions which prevent economic breakdown, terrorist attacks, plagues, and famines from catapulting us back into the middle ages.  Cities are centers of human resourcefulness which can become bastions of survival, and in US society, churches can play an important cohesive role.  Therefore

(gamma) Join and strengthen your local church and neighborhood organization.


Hans G. Ehrbar is an economist at University of Utah.



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