“Civilizations are shaped and defined by their priorities: by deciding what things and what relations are valuable” – Jason W.Moore (2015, p.51)
Value must be placed upon transitioning away from fossil fuel technology but also reducing material acquisition and consumption. Pope Francis (2015), a vocal critique of capitalism’s conspicuous consumption and the social inequality and injustice engendered by capitalism, has written, “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world…” (p. 32, emphasis added).
Francis further observes,
The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way ofcontrolling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of the richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. (p. 32-33)
Capitalism has been especially environmentally destructive, in a relatively brief time span, in its voracious requirement for land acquisition and resource extraction. As we are aware, this transformation has been deleterious, in multiple ways. Note this recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO, 2018) in Geneva: “There is consistent and robust evidence that humanity is already operating beyond several ecological limits, with consequences that are irreversible and that could be highly adverse or even catastrophic on a global scale….” (p. 3). The report further notes, “Soil, air and water pollution alone led to nine million deaths in 2015… [And] Taking into account only premature deaths, air pollution costs the world economy about US $225 billion in lost labour income and US $5 trillion in welfare losses…” (p. 9).
And this, as noted by Malm (2022): “In 2021, after 2.2 F of global warming, six IPCC reports, twenty-six COPs and immeasurable suffering for the most affected people and areas, the capitalist world economy generated the largest bounce in total CO2 emissions…in recorded history (Property Will Cost Us The Earth, emphasis in original). To despair would be fatal, and climate fatalism is rampant. As Mason (2015) writes, “Any project to move beyond capitalism has to shape its priorities around the urgent challenge of climate change” (p. 247).
What is to be done?
Seth Klein (2020), in A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, proposes an analogy between the current “existential threat” (p. 6) of climate change to the threat presented during the Second World War by Germany and Japan, in regards to how the Canadian government resisted Hitler and the Nazi’s, writing, “During the Second World War, starting from a base of virtually nothing, the Canadian economy and its labour force pumped out planes, military vehicles, ships and armaments at a speed and scale that is simply mind-blowing” (p. 15). During the war years the government was “…prepared to embrace a level of economic planning, public investment and public enterprise that seemed previously unimaginable” (p. 17).
In support of the war effort, Klein notes, “Remarkably, the Canadian government (under the leadership of C.D. Howe) established 28 crown corporations to meet the supply and munitions requirements for the war effort” (p. 15). Klein wonders why, if we could mobilize in such a way against the threat of the Nazi’s, why can we not similarly mobilize against the climate crisis?
Klein (2020) points out that just as his book was gong into production the pandemic arrived, and again the Canadian government took action. Klein quotes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking on April 1, 2020: “Canada hasn’t seen this type of civic mobilization since the Second World War. These are the biggest economic measures in our lifetimes, to defeat a threat to our health…We all need to answer the call” (p. 375).
Klein (2020) writes
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed and exacerbated all the existing inequities in our economy. It has laid bare the interconnections of the crises we face – the inequality crisis, the poverty and homelessness crisis, the opioid crisis, the employment precarity crisis and the ecological crises. Yet now we seem prepared to at least recognize and begin to repair these interlocking fissures. (p. 377)
While Klein lays out “20 key takeaways” (pp. 366-369) which he thinks are necessary to adequately address the climate crisis, he declares: “The first step is to fundamentally shift our mindset – to truly acknowledge and treat this threat as the emergency it is, and to recognize climate attacks on our soil for what they are” (p. 366).
Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton (2021) write, “First, we need a narrative. Building a different future requires an alternative vision that is at once radical and credible, a common sense for a new time. (p. 228). Naomi Klein (2016) in her provocative book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, writes, “Indeed a great deal of the work of deep social change involves having debates during which new stories can be told to replace the ones that have failed us” (p. 461).
Valuing Labour: The Human Story withing the Climate Crisis
In our initiatives to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions et al, merely establishing measures adapting to climate change will be insufficient. Radical system change is required, and a form of eco-socialism has been proposed. Amidst the wide range of often abstract ideological and philosophical debates revolving around responses to the climate crisis, there exists a concrete and practical human narrative and relational matrix that should not become obscured or disappeared within the debate.
If jobs are to be lost due to economic restructuring and the phasing out of destructive resource extraction and fossil fuel technology, how do we replace these lost jobs; employment that assists in sustaining families and communities? It remains imperative and important to recognize the dignity of labour, and a socially just transition away from work contributing to the Earth’s destruction. As Chomsky, Pollin and Polychroniou (2020) point out,
…consider the mineworker in West Virginia who was cheering at a Bernie Sanders rally until Sanders said that for any change and decent survival, we must stop producing coal. No applause for that line. That would mean losing his job, and there’s not much attraction in an alternative in the growing service industries or installing solar panels, which, other reasons aside, would mean losing his pension and health care, which were won in hard union struggles and are tied to employment. Lose your job, and you lose not only personal dignity but also the means of survival (pp. 45-46).
Hern, Johal and Sacco (2018) write pragmatically of social relations in the tar sand community of Alberta’s Fort McMurray:
It’s easy to sit in Vancouver or Portland and say that the tar sands have been shut down, but it’s a lot harder to say when you’re sitting on Franklin Avenue [Fort McMurray] having a beer with people whose lives would be catastrophically affected… (p. 105-106).
Hern et al (2018) describe a vibrant, thriving, community amongst inhabitants of the tar sands site of Fort McMurray.
“Fort Mac is a hometown, a family town, and a town full of resources. You don’t have to go any farther than the colossal recreation center – MacDonald Island Park, or Mac Island. Mac Island is like a megamall with pretty much every sporting, and recreational facility imaginable – a library, rock climbing, four ice sheets, indoor turf field, pools and waterslides, curling sheets, giant dance and fitness studios, a major gym, a childcare center, conference facilities, indoor playgrounds and more… Of course, all of it has been heavily sponsored and in many cases totally paid for by oil and energy giants” (p. 106).
Mary Robinson (2018), first female President of Ireland, dedicates one chapter of her book to the story of Canadian Ken Smith. Smith was nineteen years of age when he started working in the lead-zinc-copper mine at Brunswick Mine, Bathhurst, New Brunswick. Smith, along with 1500 other mineworkers, lost their jobs when the mine was closed in 2013. Following the closure, Smith and his family relocated to Fort McMurray, where “His new job as a heavy -equipment mechanic would pay twice what he had earned back in Bathhurst” (Robinson, 2018, p. 112).
Working in the tar sands of Fort McMurray, Smith, who had been involved with the union while working in the Bathhurst mine, eventually became President of the Unifor Local 707A, comprising some 3500 Suncor Energy oil sand employees. As union President, Smith worked closely with Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Robinson writes that, “The ITUC’s just transition strategy means finding jobs for affected workers who want them, providing training for those who need it, and ensuring decent pensions with health care for workers who cannot find new jobs” (p. 122). As Smith points out, in his opinion and experience, “Fossil fuel workers will not resist change…as long as we take the fear out of the transition” to non-fossil fuel technologies (p. 121). In December of 2015, as a union delegate, Smith attended the Paris UN climate summit. Following one session, Smith introduced himself as a fossil fuel worker, acknowledging his acceptance of scientific facts surrounding the climate crisis:
The trick, Ken said, was ensuring that workers such as himself – and their families – would not be left behind in the transition to clean energy. “[Fossil fuel workers] hope we’re seeing the end of fossil fuels for the good of everybody,” Ken told the room. “But how are we going to provide for our families? We’re going to need some kind of transition. We’ve moved out there, we’ve invested in that industry – and when it ends, we’re going to be left holding the bag.” (p. 120).
Smith’s words evoked a “rousing standing ovation” from those present.
Imagining alternatives to deter the climate crisis must be aligned with socially just practices. Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton write (2021), “First, we need a narrative. Building a different future requires an alternative vision that is at once radical and credible, a common sense for new times” (p. 228); Mary Robinson (2018) reflects:
All of us…bear responsibility…The threat to our planet may be dire, but the potential opportunity is also historic – the chance to stop an existential threat, to conquer poverty and inequality, and to empower those who have been left behind and neglected” (p. 32).
As reported by the International Labour Organization (ILO) authors in their “ILO Future of Work Research Paper Series” (Montt, Fraga &Harsdorff, 2018).
Environmental degradation thus increases inequality, signaling a fourth channel by which jobs and the environment are related. Groups at risk include populations not covered by national social protection systems, workers in the informal economy and many migrant workers…People in poverty are generally more exposed to hazards and disasters, as they have lower access to resources to adapt to climate change, including land, credit, agricultural inputs, participation in decision-making bodies, access to technology, social insurance and training (p. 11).
Finally, “…indigenous and tribal peoples and the rural poor are especially vulnerable to environmental degradation that limits the provision of ecosystem services” (p. 11). Klein (2020) proposes that the state “respect Indigenous title and rights…” and, “Ensure Indigenous communities and nations are full partners in the development of our climate emergency plans” (p. 368). As observed in a World Health Organization report (WHO, 2021) “Many Indigenous peoples and local communities have acted as knowledgeable keepers of land and seascapes and are crucial leaders in biodiversity protection” (p. 42).
Reclaiming the Commons
Writing in The Guardian, Rob Evans (April 17, 2019) noted “Half of England is owned by less than 1% of its population…”; This sort of private ownership of once common land exists globally, especially in the North. An effective transformation would witness a return to common and collective stewardship of the earth that is once again freely accessible to the people.
As Mason (2015) insists, “We lie at a moment of possibility: of a controlled transition beyond the free market, beyond compulsory work” (p. 290). Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton (2021) indicate, “We want neighbourhoods that bustle with life, public housing and spaces of everyday luxury attentive to human needs; we aspire to fulfilling work that takes seriously the dignity, worth and extraordinary capability contained in all of us” (p. 220).
In a post-capitalist (Fisher, 2021; Mason, 2015) world, affordable housing and global health care would exist; child care would be taken for granted; schools would be sufficiently staffed and education would be free; freely accessible green space would be omnipresent; wages would match the cost of living.
The future is now
Reflections in both Part One and Part Two of this essay reflect much of my recent reading regarding the climate crisis, primarily from writers on the left who’ve proposed an eco-socialist alternative to capitalism’s outrageous contribution to the climate crisis. It is clear to me from my reading that green initiatives embedded within capitalism will not suffice in reversing the climate crisis, and a radical shift, a new paradigm, is required. I’ll conclude with Malmo (2021):
Imagination is a pivotal faculty here. The climate crisis unfolds through a series of interlocked absurdities ingrained in it: not only is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism…it is also easier, at least for some, to imagine learning to die than learning to fight, to reconcile oneself to the end of everything one holds dear than to consider some militant resistance (pp. 142-143, emphasis added).
Chomsky, N. &Pollin, R. (With C.C. Polychroniou) (2020). Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. London & Brooklyn: Verso.
Fisher, M. (2021). Post Capitalist Desire: Mark Fisher, The Final Lectures. London, England: Repeater Books.
Hern, M., Johal, A., & Sacco, J. (2018). Global Warming: and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: MIT Press.
Johal, A. (2015). Ecological Metapolitics: Badiou and the Anthropocene. New York & Dresden: Atropos Press.
Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.
 Am Johal of Vancouver, B.C. has written an intriguing book, Ecological Metapolitics: Badiou and the Anthropocene (Atropos Press, 2015), in which text Johal explores the challenging French philosopher Alain Badiou’s thinking/writing in relationship to the human interrelationship with nature, ecology and politics.
 Robinson’s book provides a heartfelt narrative of ordinary women from around the globe who became involved in their local communities in forms of resistance to the climate crisis.
 For a recent critique of such initiatives, see Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It (2021), by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert.