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Climate Change As Class War: A Review

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas and Action, December 6, 2022

As the burning of fossil fuels continues to pump up the size of the carbon dioxide layer in the atmosphere, the global warming crisis becomes ever more acute. In its “Code Red for Humanity” warning in 2021, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said: “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth…”

But we’re losing the climate battle thus far. In Climate Change as Class War, Marxist geographer Matthew Huber argues that the climate movement is losing because it is rooted in the “professional class.” He argues that this class lacks the power to defeat the powerful capitalist interests that drag their heals against the kind of drastic cutting back of fossil-fuel burning that is needed. For Huber, the climate movement needs to be rooted in the working class to have sufficient power to enact radical structural reforms needed to effectively fight global warming. 

Huber analyses the existing climate movement as consisting of three layers. First, there are the “science communicators” like James Hansen who try to do popular education about climate change science. A second group are “policy technocrats” with expertise in law or policy studies and work in think tanks, the university world, or non-profits. Their orientation is to craft “smart” policy solutions. A third group are the “anti-system radicals” whose exposure to the science of environmental devastation “leads to a kind of political radicalization.” Huber views these groups as part of the “professional class” and tries to use his theory of this class to explain the politics of the climate movement. Huber pinpoints two features of the climate movement that he sees as sources of weakness: (1) The emphasis on high levels of personal consumption as a factor in global warming, thus leading to a “politics of less” — especially a feature of “degrowth” politics; and (2) an emphasis on science education. “Making climate politics purely about science evades the question of power. It allows us to attribute…inaction on climate change as simply due to misinformation rather than a lack of power.”

Huber appeals to the theory of the “Professional-Managerial Class” (proposed by Barbara and John Ehrenreich) to try to explain the origin of these features of the “professional class” climate movement. Here he points to the centrality of credentials which mediates the access of the “professional class” to the labor market. This includes “the existence of a specialized body of knowledge, accessible only by lengthy training,” degree and licensing programs, professional associations, which he regards as “forms of class organization.” This tends to encourage acceptance of meritocratic ideology which favors decision-making power for managers and professionals. This emphasis on the importance of knowledge and the role of professionals tends to favor the science education emphasis of the climate movement, as Huber sees it.

In the Ehrenreichs’ theory of the PMC their class position is based on their control over cultural and social reproduction. This is how teachers and writers are included in the class. Among both Marxists and libertarian socialists, however, class has historically been seen as an institutional group-to-group power relation in social production, as in Marx’s concept of capital as a social power relation. Looking at it from this point of view, I think the PMC theory tends to paper over a distinction between two different class groups. First, there is a group I call the bureaucratic control class. This group’s class position is based on their relative monopoly of decision-making power, via bureaucratic hierarchies that exist to control labor and run corporations and government agencies day-to-day. This includes not only salaried managers but high-end professionals who work closely with management to control labor and defend corporate interests, such as corporate lawyers, HR experts, and industrial engineers who design jobs and work organization. This class power relation is the basis of the clear antagonism between this layer and the working class. 

It’s noteworthy that school teachers, newspaper reporters, script writers, and nurses all form unions and occasionally go on strike. These lower level professional employees are not usually part of the management apparatus, and don’t manage other workers. As such, they have a structural position like the core working class of manual workers, not the bureaucratic control class. The people in this lower professional layer often have college degrees, and sometimes do show elitism towards the core manual working class. They also tend to have more autonomy in their work. However, the “skilled trades” in the early 20th century often showed elitism towards less skilled manual workers and often had relative autonomy in their work. But we generally regard skilled blue collar workers (such as tool and die makers) as part of the working class. 

Lower level professional employees may be tempted to middle class meritocratic ideology. As such they will be in a conflicted position, as they also share the subordination of the working class position. This is why Erik Olin Wright’s phrase “contradictory class location” is appropriate for this group — a point that Huber concedes.

9 Million Jobs from Climate Action: The Inflation Reduction Act

By staff - Blue Green Alliance, August 2022

A new analysis commissioned by the BlueGreen Alliance from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst finds that the more than 100 climate, energy, and environmental investments in the Inflation Reduction Act will create more than 9 million good jobs over the next decade—an average of nearly 1 million jobs each year.1,2 That includes more than 6 million jobs created over the next 10 years by grants, loans, and tax credits and nearly 3 million jobs stimulated by new loan guarantee authority for the U.S. Department of Energy. The bill’s broad investments will also help sustain the millions of existing jobs in the clean economy. 

Few pieces of legislation this century have come close to such sweeping potential for good job creation. With robust application of the bill’s strong labor standards, many of these jobs in growing sectors like clean energy, clean manufacturing, and efficient buildings will offer workers good wages and benefits. To advance economic and racial justice, registered apprenticeship programs, targeted investments, and equitable hiring practices should be used to prioritize job access for low-income workers, workers of color, and workers in environmental justice, deindustrialized, and energy transition communities. 

In short, the bill’s unprecedented investments offer an unparalleled opportunity for workers and communities to capture the economic gains of the growing clean economy. Below is a synopsis of some of the jobs that the Inflation Reduction Act will create.

Understanding Sunrise, Part 2: Organizing Methods

By Dyanna Jaye and William Lawrence - Convergence, March 24, 2022

Sunrise melded mass protest, electoral work, and distributed organizing to great effect, but 2020 upended its plans and forced a reassessment.

Sunrise Movement grew from a labor of love by 12 young people, including the two of us, into the most prominent climate justice organization in the country. We put the Green New Deal on the map, strengthened the Left insurgency in the Democratic Party, and helped drive youth turnout to defeat Trump in 2020. Climate change became a political priority for the Democratic Party, and Sunrise directly influenced Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

In the last year, though, despite a few impactful protests demanding ambition and urgency from Congress, Sunrise members and observers alike have noted a loss of strategic clarity and organizing power compared to 2017 through 2020. And it’s not just Sunrise: the entire Left has struggled to make the jump from punching upwards in the Trump era to winning material reforms in the Biden era.

In this essay, we’ll pull back the layers of Sunrise’s organizing model: how we actually recruited young people and united them in a structure for collective action. We’ll first discuss the major influences on Sunrise’s organizing and run through how it all played out in practice, the good and the bad.

We share a diagnosis that a central shortcoming in Sunrise’s organizing model was the absence of a sustained method of mass organizing at a local level, which left us nowhere to go once we could no longer rely on the fast-but-shallow growth of distributed organizing methods. We’re proud of the movement’s accomplishments while humble about its shortcomings. We offer our reflection in the practice of learning together in public; we hope our transparency can empower the next generation of movement builders—in Sunrise and across movements—to lead transformative organizing for the next era.

Understanding Sunrise, Part 1: Strategy

By William Lawrence - Convergence, March 14, 2022

Sunrise Movement made climate change a key political issue, but new conditions require new theory and strategy.

The state of Sunrise Movement, one of the more successful and visible U.S. Left organizations to emerge in the last five years, reflects trends in the broader Left. We hit a high-water mark with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ February 2020 victory in the Nevada caucus. Shortly after, the revenge of the Democratic establishment and the COVID pandemic halted all momentum and put Sunrise into a rear-guard attempt to salvage what could be won in a Biden administration. The underwhelming first year of that administration has left us floundering.

Today, a private and public reckoning is well underway. A new generation of leaders is taking account of Sunrise’s successes and failures, and working to design the next life of the movement. Early Sunrise leaders—of which I am one—are in the process of moving on, and handing over leadership of this youth organization to a more youthful cohort.

As a leader in Sunrise’s development from its founding in 2017 through early 2021, I feel obliged to offer an evaluation of our strategy and methods. My aim is to offer a detailed account of Sunrise’s aims and influences, in order that the next generation of strategist-organizers both inside and outside Sunrise may learn from what we did well, while overcoming our limitations.

You can consider just about every word of this essay as a self-critique and a practice of learning in public. As ever, I write with deep appreciation for all the climate justice fighters who find a place to place their hope amidst the looming dread of this crisis.

Part 1 of this essay, which you are reading now, focuses on Sunrise’s strategy, including our demands, rhetoric, and relation to the US party system. Part 2 will look at Sunrise’s methods of organizing.

I hope these essays not only illuminate our specific choices and why we made them, but demonstrate how the theoretical concepts on which we build our organizations actually shape their development. Sunrise’s successes owe much to the theories underpinning our strategy and methods, and our failures reveal much about where these theories fall short. I hope my reflections on these recent experiences may aid in developing better theory to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Challenges and perspectives of a just transition in Europe

Transit Equity Day: Livestream 2022

We Will Build the Future: A Plan to Save the Planet

By various - Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, January 10, 2022

The most scandalous fact of the current period is that 2.37 billion people are struggling to eat. Most of them are in developing countries, but many are in advanced industrial states. Governments in developed countries say that there is not enough money to abolish hunger or any of the other afflictions of the modern era, whether it be illiteracy, ill health, or homelessness. However, during the pandemic, the central banks of these countries conjured up $16 trillion to protect the wavering capitalist system. Resources were readily available to save firms, but not to save hungry people: that is the moral compass of our times.

In this period, the research institutes of the capitalist states have set up new entities and published a slew of reports offering supposed remedies to ‘save capitalism’. Among these new institutions are the Council for Inclusive Capitalism (whose partners include the Bank of England and the Vatican) and the B Corporation Movement. The World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Financial Times have made the case for a ‘great reset’ to make capitalism ‘more inclusive’. ‘The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world’, says WEF Founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab. Those who have brought us to the threshold of extinction and annihilation claim that they know how to fix our world. As expected, their ‘inclusive capitalism’ offers no clear programme, nothing beyond empty rhetoric.

Meanwhile, in mid-2021, twenty-six research institutes from around the world began to meet and discuss the production of a draft programme to address the current crisis. Under the leadership of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – Peoples’ Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP), our meetings produced a document called A Plan to Save the Planet. That plan is published in this dossier. It is intended for discussion and debate.

Read the text (PDF).

A Green New Deal for all: The centrality of a worker and community-led just transition in the US

By J. Mijin Cha, Dimitris Stevis, Todd E. Vachon, Vivian Price, and Maria Brescia-Weiler - Labor Network for Sustainability, January 2022

This paper argues that labour and community-led advocacy efforts towards a just transition are fundamental to delivering the promises of a Green New Deal (GND) and a just post-carbon world. To this end, an ambitious, far-reaching project was launched by the Labor Network for Sustainability, a non-governmental organization dedicated to bridging the labor and climate movements, in Spring 2020 called the “Just Transition Listening Project’’ (JTLP).

Over the course of several months, the JTLP interviewed over 100 individuals, including rank-and-file union members, union officials, environmental and climate justice advocates, and Indigenous and community advocates to understand what makes transition “just,” what opportunities exist for a broad coalition to advance a GND-style proposal, and to document the struggles facing working people and communities across the U.S. In doing so, we utilize the tools of political geography to examine the politics of spatiality, networks, and scale as well as the geographical and spatial dimensions of policy and political-economic institutions. We are particularly mindful of two spatial dynamics.

First, that transition policies, particularly in a hegemonic country like the USA, have global implications. The industrial transition that took place from the 1970s to the 1990s, for example, bred nativism because it cast other countries as the cause of the problem.

Second, critical geographers have pointed out that environmental justice (EJ) has been neoliberalized in the U.S. as a result of its operationalization, spatialization, and administration, starting with the Clinton Administration. Because JT is rising on the national and global agendas, we pay close attention to whether these dynamics that affected EJ are also operating with respect to JT, as well as how they can be contained.

This research is particularly timely given the ongoing federal governmental efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and provide basic economic and social supports. The process of the JTLP parallels the goals of the GND–intersectional efforts rooted in community knowledge for the development of a people-led GND. This paper details the process of the JTLP and the prospects for intersectional, broad-based movements that are the only way a GND can be realized.

Read the text (Link).

Just Transition Alliance: COP26 Media Report

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