Working Class Ecosocialism – stopping climate change and building another world
by Jonathan Neale
This article is about stopping climate change and about fighting for a world based on love and sharing. My argument is that both these projects have to go together. But for either project to work, both climate activists and socialists have to change, fundamentally and fast. And there has to be a deeper change, a change in all humanity.
We may well fail. But with these ideas we have a chance.
Let me explain. I start with climate, and I start with failure.
For thirty years everyone who cares to know has known about the threat of climate change. Over those thirty years more and more world leaders have said louder and louder that the crisis will be upon us, that something must be done, that they promise to do something. And the more the leaders of the world tell us that they will do something, the worse things get.
It is not just that the temperatures continue to rise. It is not just that the temperatures rise faster and faster. The amount of carbon dioxide – CO2 – in the air grows every year, and each year it grows faster and faster. It is not just that the leaders of the world have failed to stop climate change. It is that they have collectively presided over making things worse.
At the United Nations climate talks in Scotland last year Greta Thunberg sent out two tweets. To the leaders of the world, she said: “Blah, blah, blah. Fuck You.”
To us, she said: “Uproot the system.”
That’s the politics of ecosocialism in eight words.
How do we stop climate change? The answer starts from a contradiction. Climate change is an environmental issue, but the solutions are socialist solutions.
We know about climate change because the scientists and the environmentalists have told us, loudly, bravely, relentlessly. Without their messages we would be utterly lost. But their solutions did not work.
The scientists hoped that governments would solve the problem, once they knew. The governments did not and now the scientists are angry and desperate.
The environmentalists looked to the markets. The inner dream of so many environmentalists is to run their own small business. The market has not worked. And now the environmentalists are angry and desperate.
So we need socialist solutions. Here we have a problem. The unions and the socialist parties are the traditional home of socialist solutions. But until recently they saw climate change as an environmental problem – as somebody’s else’s problem. For far too long they have done far too little.
This matters because climate breakdown will not mean the end of the human species. But it will mean drought, famine, hundreds of millions of refugees, an explosion of racism, war, dictatorship and economic devastation. Hundreds of millions will die. Billions will be permanently damaged as people by what they have to watch and what they have to do to survive.
You can read what I have written about this at length elsewhere. I don’t have space to repeat it here. But at some point in the future, climate change will be the overwhelmingly important issue globally.
Now, however, there are ideas now coming from some of the unions, from the climate jobs activists, the green new deal people, the ecosocialists. The details differ, but here are the basics:
About three quarters of global warming comes from the burning of coal, oil and gas, all of which put CO2 into the air. Globally, almost all of that energy is for electricity manufacture, industry, transport and heating buildings.
There are thousands of things we need to do about climate change. But the one that will make most of the difference is to replace all coal, oil and gas with electricity made from renewable energy.
That would require a massive government program, hiring very large number of workers. At a rough estimate, for example, a million new jobs in South Africa, eight million in the United States, or twenty million workers in India.
The main things that climate jobs program would do are:
– Build enough renewable energy, mostly wind and solar power, to supply all electricity.
– A massive expansion in public transport.
– Run all private and public cars, buses, trains and trucks on electricity made from renewables.
– Convert industry so that almost all heating of materials would be done by renewable electricity.
– Convert all homes and buildings so they use far less energy.
– Convert all homes and buildings so they use only renewable electricity for heating.
– Build more renewable energy to supply all the new uses of electricity.
– Build ways of storing electrical energy, and super grids to connect all the new forms of energy.
– When we have enough renewable energy, ban all fossil fuels.
– Stop cutting down trees and cover the world with new forests.
We also want governments to promise one more thing. Every worker who loses their job in the old high carbon economy, like miners and oil workers, gets a new permanent climate job. That’s the decent thing to do. And if we don’t make that promise, it will divide communities, divide unions and divide voters.
All that sounds like a big undertaking. It is. But we already have all the technology we need. We can start right now.
It’s expensive too. But the money is there. The US government under Trump spent enough money on COVID subsidies in 2020 to pay for all the climate jobs all over the world that year. Governments finds the money when they go to war or the banks crash. Every government can tax the rich.
We need to do this on a global scale. If we don’t fix this problem everywhere, we fix it nowhere.
Moreover, we have left everything so late that we need to cut CO2 emissions by at least 95%. Right now more than 60% of those emissions come from the global south. We can’t stop climate change without cutting those emissions too.
We have waited a generation for them to act. They have not. They will not. We need to build a movement that can replace them with people and parties and movements who will act. In doing that, we are up against all the powers of the political and corporate world. It will be the struggle of our lives, for the future of humanity. To win that struggle, we need enormous power on our side.
There is only one place we can find that power. We need radical mass movements with support from the majority of working people and small farmers all over the world. Factory workers in China, farmers in Bangladesh and warehouse workers in the United States are not going to support movements that talk about how we have to sacrifice to save the planet. It will not happen.
We need a climate movement in a different spirit. A movement that says simply – We have a choice. We can go to hell with climate change. Or we can have jobs for millions upon millions of working people. And in the global south, we can build homes, build industry, expand public transport and education and health care for all. We can do it all with renewable energy. We can stop climate change and make poverty history across the world.
That, we can build a global movement on.
We need to be clear, though. It will be hard to build mass movements, but only governments can do what needs to be done. Only governments have the resources and the money. That means the movements will need to be the governments.
We cannot save the planet without the power to save the planet.
That also means being very clear about who changes the world. I said earlier that climate activists and socialists need to change. But climate activists and socialists are not who will change the world. The majority of humanity, the working people and peasants, are who will change the world. Humanity needs to change too.
But for that we need a different kind of socialism too.
We need to start out by saying what socialism is, because there is a lot of confusion about what the word means. More deeply, there is confusion about what kind of world we are fighting for.
It is easy to understand why people are confused. Here we have to tell the truth. Many crimes have been done in the name of socialism. Ecological disasters, ethnic cleansing, invasions, torture, police racism, immigration controls, patriarchy, abortion control, sexual harassment, homophobia, Islamophobia, bombing from the air and endless lies.
Communist dictatorships did those things. In somewhat different ways, so did elected socialist governments. Some were better, some were worse, but they all did some of those things, at home and abroad.
Moreover, elected socialist governments have all administered parts of the capitalist system. The Labour Party in Britain, the ANC in South Africa, the Democrats in the United States have all run racist police departments, cut public services, broken strikes, imposed austerity and neoliberalism.
No wonder people are confused now about what socialism means. But the hundreds of thousands of activists who first built the socialist movement, more than a century ago, knew what kind of world they wanted. And it was not what they got.
So our starting place is to get back to their vision, back to bedrock. Here are the basics, a few simple principles: Equality, Caring, Democracy at Work.
Equality starts with everyone paid the same money each week. The socialist movement took a formula from Karl Marx: ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.’ That means everyone gets the same basic pay. But some people get more services or money because they have special needs, because of a disability or trauma, or because they are caring for a child or another adult.
That is what a fair and equal world would look like. That is not our world now. But we can fight here and now to make incomes more equal. That means fighting for a minimum wage, then a higher minimum wage, higher benefits for the unemployed and the disabled, higher pensions for everyone and tax the rich. It means rent controls and subsidies for food and energy.
Above all, it means organizing unions and supporting every fight for more wages, better conditions and more benefits.
Equal pay is the starting point, because everyone deserves the same. But it’s only the start of fighting for every kind of equality. Social inequality is a system with many faces – racism, sexism, homophobia, hatred of trans people, indigenous people, immigrants, Dalits, traumatized people, the poor, the needy, the addicted and the desperate.
Each of these kinds of inequality is an aspect of a whole world view that justifies inequality. Each inequality is enforced through bullying, verbal cruelty and violence. The logic is always the same – these people are different and therefore unequal and therefore vulnerable, so let’s hurt them.
Socialism is equality of every kind, for everyone. Socialism is love, respect and sharing equally.
That’s what we’re working towards. But we can fight here and now for every kind of equality. Every campaign for black lives matter, against sexual violence, for freedom, for Palestine, against war, against invasion, against Islamophobia, for every strike and every school walkout.
Caring for each other is the second pillar of socialism.
In our world, people lie awake at night afraid that they will lose their home, that their child is sick and they can’t pay the doctor, that the heating or the water will be cut off, that the car won’t start, that their lives and their loves will disintegrate. When poverty walks in the door, the proverb has it, love flies out the window.
Socialism is the end to all those fears. We take care of each other collectively. Local and national governments make sure everyone gets what they need. No one is homeless, because governments build enough public housing. Health care and dental care is free for everyone when they need it. Education is free from primary school to graduate school. Everyone who can’t work gets benefits. Public transport is free.
Free means we all pay for it together, from our taxes, and people get what they need according to what they need
And we take care of the people who get left out or degraded now. The traumatized, the raped and abused, the addicted, the elderly and disabled, the kids struggling at school, the kids in care are treated with respect, and have someone kind and wise to talk to.
If we can end the fear, we could love so much more easily.
So here and now we fight the evictions of our neighbors on the streets, we volunteer at food banks to help feed the hungry, we organize tenants and campaign for public housing. Hospital workers defend public health, and the rest of fight health cuts as a community.
Many other socialist causes are like this. We have a vision of another world, we fight for it in this world, in thousands of struggles, step by step, but always with our eyes on the prize.
Democracy is the third pillar.
The socialists who began the movement were all agreed. Working men and women, everyone, of every color had to have the vote. That was the road to power. Socialism would mean freedom, not dictatorship.
Moreover, look at the mass movements for democracy all over the world – Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, Bahrain, Algeria, Egypt, Belarus, Russia, Syria, Mali, Guinea and Bolivia. The uprisings against dictatorship have been the largest and most important mass movements of working class people in the last decade.
And I have felt the yearning for democracy, for equality, in every one of the social movements of the last twenty years. People want their organizations, parties and unions to be democratic. Not fake democracy, real democracy.
Nowadays many socialists are of two minds about democracy. But we cannot, and we will not, build a socialist movement strong enough to change the world unless we are democratic heart and soul. Working class people know too much history, have too much experience.
Colonialism is dictatorship too. Invasion is dictatorship, no matter who invades, whether in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine or Palestine.
Democracy is also the political form of equality. One person, one vote. And democracy was not given to us. Our ancestors, workers and small farmers, fought for democracy so they could change the world.
But voting democracy is only a beginning, and it is nothing like enough. Whoever we elect, the same ruling class rules. The deep problem is that work itself is a dictatorship. You do what you’re told, or you lose your job. From the moment you clock in, sign in or walk in, the eyes of the supervisor are upon you, until the moment you walk out.
That is our experience every day of our lives. From the age of five or six, school starts to teach us how to live in the dictatorship. The experience of subordination changes us, forms of, and radiated outward to structure every relationship in society, from the playground to the old people’s home to the parliament. The dictatorship of work bends and breaks our personalities to fit.
That’s why every political institution, even in a voting democracy, bends and breaks to the power of the market, the corporations, corruption and profit.
The solution is workplace democracy. We vote for the supervisor, the manager, the head teacher, the chief executive. We have workplace meetings every week where we can make decisions together, by voting, and replace the managers whenever we want.
Each workplace elects delegates to a city wide or regional meeting of work representatives. And those meetings elect people to work congresses of whole industries, regions and countries. Those representative bodies take the decisions about what work needs to be done, what things we to do. Together, we organize our work to meet human need, not profit.
But even that will not be enough. For the market is deeply undemocratic. I worked for a cooperative for years, and the market forced our management to behave like any other management so they could make a profit. The only solution to that is not just for the workers to take control of each company. It is for the working people as a whole to make the economic decisions to meet human need, not profit.
We need a movement to save the planet and change the world. That’s an enormous challenge, but those are the circumstances we find ourselves in, and something must be done. It is time to make our love for each other the greatest power on Earth.