Untangling the threads

Submitted by Zac Muddle on 16 July, 2019 - 1:22 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.

There is a lot to unpack in and take from this. One is the need to for care in the scope and angle considered when estimating emissions allocation. The same people who buy proportionately more local/organic/green food and goods, with a wider scope, and a different angle, are missing the point.

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. I comment on emissions allocation, the term “decarbonise”, and reply to a couple of other things.

Understanding society and causality

Martin rightly notes the impossibility of precisely allocating emissions figures “to each segment of society”, and that rough allocations should nonetheless be done. More can be said.

The level of vaguness, and the absurdity of framing given figures as simply given facts, increases greatly the smaller scale you go. The limits run deeper than the imprecision we generally find when measuring, calculating or estimating physical quantities.

Fundamentally, any attribution of emissions to a single institution abstracted from the intertwined social relations within and through which it functions, relies on a particular theory of causality and agency, and a narrowed scope in consideration. Digging beneath this isn’t a facile academic exercise, but is often contested by environmental pressure groups, policy makers, and large companies.

Environmentalists rightly celebrated the step forward this year when the UK’s Committee on Climate Change advocated that for national climate targets “it is essential that the commitment is comprehensive, achieved without the use of international credits and covering international aviation and shipping.”

It is widely recognised that “carbon credits” and “emissions trading systems” are a farce, at best not reducing emissions, if not actively harmful. Attempts to use them to estimate emissions would likewise be rightly rubbished. Yet the flaws of more broadly accepted methodologies, such as those presumably behind the statistics Martin quotes, are also serious.

Estimations at the scale of a countries tend to be more meaningful than for smaller units, but – for example – overlook emissions released in the production process of imported goods and electricity, or the consumption process of exported fossil fuels. Tweaking the formula to give different quantitative figures doesn’t overcome the problems at play. Estimations for, say, a school, face the same methodological limitations, and some; heightened in impact by the smaller size.

Marxists have a sophisticated understanding of the causal relations in society, why and how things happen, who can be the agents of change, and how we can intervene. Workplace environmental activism, as I, Martin and others have stressed, is central, and is already breaking with received methodologies for allocating emissions.

So-called “individual carbon footprints” focus their gaze on emissions associated on our personal consumption, activities outside the workplace and direct empoyee-employer relation. Fairly direct emissions from combustion in personal car use or domestic heating are considered alongside emissions associated with goods and services paid for: public transport, food, goods, etc.

We recognise and are interested in our agency not as consumers, but as labourers, as the working-class. We aim for democracy in our workplaces, control of the economy from the workplace level upwards, rather than through market forces, as consumers. This is necessary for seriously fighting climate change, for building a better society. Yet, the logic and scope of this approach to assessing and tackling climate change runs counter to received, consumption-orientated approaches.

Ultimately, our concern in the fight against climate change is not blame allocation – which is what emissions statistics boil down to – but limiting it with all the resources in our power, in the interests of humanity and nature.

We aim to and can win, as the co-ordinated and organised working-class, power beyond our individual workplaces or campuses (or consumption habits). To halt climate change and confront fossil capital, we must do both, although the latter necessitates the former. Our blame allocation – and recognition of its limits – must reflect this.

Promoting slogans which suggest that it all resides locally, that it can all be tackled in that location, that “net zero” can be achieved in that locality alone, fall short.

Changing, but not illusory?

What is meant by “decarbonise” by comrades engaging in this discussion – or advocated under that slogan – has seemed often unclear or divergent.

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.

Several dictionaries don’t define it, only define it for the “older” definition, or only define it with a “z”. Of those which do, there is significant divergence, but a reasonable proportion do define decarbonize as 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.

This confusion about its meaning by its proponents is a warning sign, although something simply meaning “reduce emissions” would be fine.[1] I do not think it is a co-incidence that we all (mis)interpreted it as such.

Armed with the above hypothesis, I asked a small sample of – politically advanced – individuals as to what they take it to mean, before looking it up. That the majority assumed it meant elimination rather than simply reduction of emissions, with just one dissenter, who sees it as reduce then eliminate, supports my theory.

In July’s IWGB National Deliveroo Committee, as well as suggesting coinciding strikes with the 20th September Climate Strike, I argued for responding to Deliveroo's recent attacks in part by shooting down their greenwash and counter-posing it some demands that would reduce fossil fuel consumption and improve our working conditions. This went down well with some. I kept what I was proposing in clear proportions, easily explained without any demand to "decarbonise Deliveroo", which would have confused and miseducated more than clarified.

Other replies

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. I noted that “the size and strength of the environmental movement in recent decades has limited it as much as its strategy”, and that this has been more decisive than other factors in the limited horizons.

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, 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”. My memory of when I started seriously looking climate activism, the pinnacle, the glowing gem of the movement, was widely seen as the “Climate Camps”. These ran yearly from 2006-11, bringing together lots of activists who would take action to shut down particular fossil-fuel sources or power-stations, and the like.

They also had workshops, and many saw their role as within a wider movement, but ultimately their focus tended to be on stopping this or that harmful project. I don’t dispute the vital role they played, but we have rightly critiqued there limits (see, for example, Todd Hamer in Solidarity 487).

Since then, my engagement with environmental struggles – a treehouse occupation against a road construction, protest camps and direct actions against coal mines and power stations, mass mobilisations and creative campaigning against fracking – is not, I believe, anomalous, but typifies much of the environmental activist left. Much needed, often heroic, creative and inspiring work – but 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. See, for example, my article in our 2017 bulletin at Ende Gelände, a German climate camp, reproduced in the latest edition of our climate pamphlet, or Workers’ Liberty’s instrumental role in Workers’ Climate Action.

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.

The “green bans” movement is something Workers’ Liberty rightly point to. It’s worth noting that while disputes were about “particular sites” – no-one is disputing the importance of individual sites – their success was in their organisation beyond individual sites. To stop a given building project, threats of workers due to work only there would have limited effect, although very positive nonetheless. Their real power was to threaten strikes across all building sites of the contracted companies.

What he says on Stanford is not directly disagreeing with my previous article. I would add, though, that his conclusions – that improved sustainability has increased environmental activism – is not really evidenced by what he says. The campaigning group in question has existed since 2000, well before Stanford’s changes, and it is not clear that these changes have in themselves boosted it.

[1] There are complexities behind and difficulties ascertaining this, too, of course, but of a different order of magnitude.


Submitted by Martin Thomas (not verified) on Tue, 30/07/2019 - 02:40

The activity Mike describes as "institution-by-institution" would be better described as defensive.

Especially since 2009, much climate activism has been reactive and defensive: stop (this or that) fracking (project); stop Keystone XL; stop Adani (a big new coal mine being built in Australia). Even the Ende Gelände protests in Germany have really been defensive, to block coal shipments for short periods in protest at the growing use of coal for electricity generation in Germany as nuclear power has been scaled down there.

Everyone involved, I think, knows it's reactive and defensive. It's just that, with the whole movement on the back foot, those defensive battles have seemed more winnable, and thus mobilised more numbers, than the "Million Climate Jobs" or "Green New Deal" sort of positive and generalised demand.

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. That will not be a step backwards, a drag on the big demonstrations and general-political challenges. It will complement them and augment the base for them.

Yes, there is scope for much fudging in assessing the net carbon emissions even of so large a unit as a country. There is also scope to cut through that fudging. Our response should not be "oh, no point worrying about what the British government does, since country-level emissions figures are dodgy anyway", but to push for a better "net zero", counting "imported" carbon emissions. I'm sure Mike agrees.

A net-zero world will not be a composite of lots of net-zero sub-units. No electricity-generation facility, not even a wind-farm, will be net-zero. No way of travelling, not even walking or running, will be net-zero. On the other hand, oceans and forests will be net carbon-absorbers.

Yet 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.

I see no good reason to be prissy about "net zero". It's not a universal template (again: no mode of travel will be net-zero), but it's a usefully vivid target for many large institutions. In this area as in many others, figures do not have to be precise to be useful.

When I cycled this morning to the university library, that was not "net zero". But the journey in a "gas-guzzler" car would emit 3kg of carbon dioxide. By public transport, about 150g. By bike, about the same if you include the carbon emissions incurred from producing the bike and extra food for the rider.

Compared to 3kg, 150g is pretty close to "net zero".

The same sort of calculation can be done for workplaces and campuses. It won't produce exact figures, but if a good approximate calculation shows a figure close to zero, then that will be a victory, not just a statistical fudge.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.