Ideologies of abstinence
False individual solutions
«The greatest folly is the ‘what you can do' fairy tale. [...] we shouldn't fool ourselves that individual eco-conscious behavior can prevent dangerous global warming»
(Sharon Begley, Sounds Good, But..., in the May 5th, 2008 issue of Newsweek)
Marxists are not in favour of individual solutions to collective problems. We stand for actions of the working class through its political and economic organisations as a way of influencing decisively the course of human history. Any form of individual shortcut (or "long-cut"!) to social change, like boycotting "evil" capitalists in favour of the "good" ones, "life style" manias, focusing on petty issues like political correctness in the language of our leaflets, articles and speeches, individual terrorism or small acts of sabotage and gratuitous violence, just draws attention away from the main issue which is, in the last analysis, organising the workers for the seizure of political power.
Public debate on the solutions to global warming has been clearly dominated by the idea that every little bit helps; while we are not opposed to the idea that children are taught how to save energy and recycle ‑ because this knowledge and civic consciousness will be useful in the future socialist society they will have to build ‑ we do reject the false notion, that is usually imposed on them in schools and TV programmes, that if we all did our share the problem would magically be solved. Even if "all of us" did our share, this would still not be sufficient to compensate for the wider damage being done by the system. Demanding that the passengers drive carefully does not make much sense.
This idea originated in petty-bourgeois circles but was later subsumed by the bourgeoisie as a comfortable way of unloading blame on the bulk of the population for something that the top elite is exclusively responsible for. The petty bourgeois are instinctively prone to moralistic preaching and love the feeling of being allowed for once to make a decisive contribution to the progress of society instead of having to be perennial bystanders as the structure of society dictates to them. This naturally flows from the position of shopkeepers and small capitalists, middle-class intellectuals and well-educated professionals within the capitalist mode of production. Green nonsense gives some of them a belief system and moral obligations that well suit their class outlook.
A typical example of this approach is voluntary individual carbon offsetting. This scheme is based on the carbon trading scam that we have already exposed above, but applied to individuals instead of companies or states. There is a plethora of carbon offsetting companies that sell offsetting certificates (indulgences) to "environment-friendly" individuals, promising that they will compensate for the emissions they caused by flying or doing other activities that produce CO2 - and of course, these "green" companies make a profit out of this system, exploiting the good will of a lot of people. Some airlines already generously offer their customers the possibility of buying a more expensive ticket if they want to fly without feeling guilty... You can thus buy your way out of guilt!
Concepts like "your carbon footprint" are used in the mass media to convey the feeling that the whole problem is about the sum of billions of individual emissions. This is consistent with the typical reactionary approach that blames "human nature" for the ills of society. The truth is that the contribution of workers' life styles to carbon emissions is not very relevant and in any case they cannot do much to reduce them. As we have already underlined, in the European Union the contribution of transport to greenhouse gas emissions is 21%; this includes planes, trucks, public transport and luxury cars used by the rich. We can imagine that private cars used by workers do not influence the emission budget by more than around 10%, and in any case most of these emissions come from commuters that have no real choice. Car pollution and traffic are a problem for other reasons and they must be addressed with a plan of state-run public transport and also with a more rational city planning (beyond a certain extent, commuting is irrational and a consequence of the anarchistic character of capitalist production), but they are not the main reason for carbon emissions in the West, Japan or Australia, let alone in less developed countries.
Small businesses and households in the EU account for an even smaller share of greenhouse gases: 17%. Workers' homes are just a part of this 17%, and most of their consumption is necessary and cannot be reduced if they wanted to. Air conditioning is usually taken as an example of how evil and ecologically insensitive the average American is, but the truth is that also in a country affected by an A/C mania like the USA, "Heating the country releases nearly eight times more carbon" (Wired, ibid.). Also power waste due to things like obsolete light bulbs or appliances is basically to be blamed on capitalism that produces energy-inefficient commodities with a short life cycle. That way they sell more and more often, thus upping their profits.
Life styles can be changed, but as a part of a social transformation and not on an individual basis while business goes on as usual. From a Marxist point of view, forcing such a change onto the workers is even worse than just preaching it. This is what Green parties aim to do with the increase of consumption tax on oil, gas, power, etc. For the general interests of the ruling class and not just those of the "greedy oil companies", as Gordon Brown defined them ("also known as... oil companies" commented a UK TV programme), this green proposal is welcome because it gives an ecological flavour to an anti-working class measure. Especially in the North European countries, this has been used to force a shift from progressive income tax (they were traditionally relatively high there) to regressive indirect taxes.
Chris Huhne, MP, is the shadow Environment Secretary for the British Liberal Democrats. We cannot but recognise that he is very explicit in his explanation of why his pro-capitalist party supports those measures. In a 2006 article , he enthusiastically quotes the following fact sheet published by the Danish National Environmental Research Institute:
«Sweden is undertaking an overall tax shift replacing taxes on income with taxes on energy, transport, and pollution amounting to several billion Swedish kronor. Estonia, in 2005, decided to lower income taxes by 6 per cent and substitute them in part with new environmental taxes.»
Huhne's comment explains (in the typical liberal jargon) their plan and motivation:
«There is even a "double dividend" with positive environmental effects and benefits for employment and competitiveness. [...] It is precisely this green tax switch - from taxes on income from work on to taxes on carbon emissions and other pollutants - that Britain needs today. [...] We need fairer and greener taxes, but not higher taxes overall.»
Here we provide our translation into plain, proletarian English:
«We don't really care about climate change but we can use it as an excuse for something else ("double dividend"). In fact, it can be used as a justification to pursue a policy that is good for the bosses ("benefits for employment and competitiveness"). We can replace direct taxation with indirect taxation ("not higher taxes overall"), thus shifting more tax burden onto the working class ("fairer taxes") and reducing the taxation on profit ("income from work"). This is what the British bosses need ("what Britain needs").»
As a matter of principle, we oppose the increase of indirect taxation like VAT because it is a regressive form of taxation. It hits in a uniform way the wealthy and the poor, while the traditional left-wing position has always been in favour of progressive taxation like income tax, imposing a higher rate (not just a higher absolute amount) on higher incomes.
Indirect taxation is a return to the Nineteenth Century or, in other words, to Thatcherism and Reaganomics. It is a well known fact in Britain that the end of Margaret Thatcher was caused by her attempt to introduce an extreme form of indirect taxation on a local basis, the infamous poll tax (a per capita fixed tax that made no distinction at all between different income levels).
This attack on the living standards of the working class was met by harsh resistance. The Marxist tendency in Britain, organised at that time in the Militant tendency within the Labour Party (now Socialist Appeal), had a leading role in the mass movement that opposed the poll tax. Thousands of people refused to pay; mass demonstrations were staged in several cities, as well as the collective burning of tax bills and picketing against Thatcher's bailiffs and their offices.
Opposing indirect taxation is part of our political heritage and we will not give it up just because it comes with ecological pseudo-justifications attached.
It can be easily shown that the ruling class in the imperialist countries is pursuing an agenda on fuel prices that is exactly the opposite of the interests of the exploited. They try to reduce the oil prices at the source, by squeezing more oil out of the poorer oil-exporting countries for less money, while at the same time they increase the price of oil for the average consumer through indirect taxation.
Today's skyrocketing oil prices are only partially an expression of the low supply compared to demand for oil. The exhaustion of oil reserves will become a reality one day, but such a scenario is still quite far off in the future. The steep rise in the price at source (now over $130 per barrel) is more directly related to the failure of US imperialism in Iraq, the strength of Iran and its grip on the neighbouring Iraqi territory, the loss of control by the USA on energy producers like Venezuela and Russia, the instability of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime (the weak link of the OPEC) has recently been doing its best to give some oxygen to its imperialist friends by increasing production and therefore acting as a scab against tougher oil exporters (President Bush would probably call them "rogue exporters") like Iran and Venezuela.
Also "pipeline wars" in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, aimed at creating efficient long-distance supply alternatives for the West, have not really delivered. All this can be summed up in one sentence: the price of crude oil is growing mainly as a consequence of the difficulties experienced by the White House in keeping its grip on the former colonial peoples.
What is not acceptable is that the burden of increasing oil prices is loaded onto the shoulders of the working class in petrol-importing countries and - even worse - that energy inflation is further aggravated by "green" taxes. By the way, since, as explained above, the energy consumption of working-class households cannot be reduced in a relevant manner, green taxes on the final consumer will not really have the effect allegedly hoped for. It will just result in the exacerbation of daily tribulations for low-purchasing-power families.
Oil multinationals and middlemen are to be hit by fiscal measures, not the workers or "Third-World" exporting countries.
It is just too easy to blame industrialism and economic development as such for the problem of global warming. This reactionary stance is irresponsibly spread by organisations and individuals of various political leanings and has often leaked into the ranks of left-wing or progressive organisations, especially by means of the jargon of the anti-globalisation movement. Among several anti-globalisation theoreticians, the Gospel of Zero Growth or even negative growth has become quite fashionable.
Basically, they propose to stop the development of the productive forces and possibly also to destroy some of them - incidentally, we would note that this is what capitalism usually does through wars in order to limit the overproduction of capital.
This insane idea has been criticised several times by the Marxist tendency. In a brilliant article titled "Sustainable de-growth": a reactionary idea , comrade Jérôme Métellus explained:
«[...] pollution and other risks connected to the energy industry depend, not on "growth", but on the basic mechanisms of capitalism. As a consequence, they will not disappear as long as this system itself is not overturned. Only rational and democratic planning of the economy and energy resources will allow for a reconciliation between the development of the productive apparatus and the ecological equilibrium of the planet. [...] Far from reducing production, a socialist organisation of society will result in the liberation of productive forces from the fetters of a capitalism in full decline.»
Jérôme clearly demonstrates in his article that the theoretical grandfather of all those theories against economic growth and development is the petty-bourgeois utopian Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, accused by Marx of dreaming of rolling back the wheel of history.
De-growth gurus like Professor Serge Latouche are always favourably cited by reformist leaders like Fausto Bertinotti (ex-leader and hijacker of the Italian Communist Refoundation Party). Unfortunately, what sounds very smart and "post-modern" in the clean and aseptic halls of La Sorbonne, has a very poor taste in a "Third-World" slum, where economic growth is a vital need, or even in a working-class neighbourhood in the Parisian banlieues where survival for the proletarians depends on capitalism "continuously revolutionising itself" (in the words of the Communist Manifesto).
This little problem is of course recognised by the proponents of stagnation or de-growth, who are all very wise and intelligent men and women, and it is replied to with a score of subtle variants of the anti-growth theories, some of them limiting the need to stop the economy only to physical goods (but energy and physical inputs are consumed in the production of any good, physical or immaterial), some others implying different de-growth patterns for advanced and underdeveloped countries.
In the last analysis, this is just Malthusianism or a revival of the unscientific and discredited "findings" of the Club of Rome in 1972 (The Limits to Growth, ) when this group of academics and incompetent economists proclaimed the non-sustainability of unlimited economic growth in the face of limited resources, predicting an early end to world economic growth because an intrinsic ceiling would be reached. All these theories do not address the real point, which is what kind of economic development we need and how this depends on production relations and their legal mirror image - property relations. What is unsustainable is the profit-driven economy (growing, stagnating or receding), not mass production and consumption in itself.
The productivity of labour can compensate for the limitedness of resources, as happened, for instance, with food. The following graph  shows the constant growth of food production per capita in the last half century:
Hunger has clearly a different explanation than Rev. Malthus thought.
A sense of proportion is also needed when we have this kind of discussion. Accelerated development of the productive forces in the last few centuries had a profound progressive content and for the first time in history made poverty and exploitation unnecessary. Of course, capitalist development in itself does not abolish poverty and exploitation (this task belongs to the international socialist revolution), and in relative terms it could be argued that capitalism actually intensifies them.
Ecological sensitiveness, forest conservation (implemented for the first time by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution), care for animal welfare, understanding and accounting of the effect of our action on the planet... all these steps forward in human interaction with nature are only possible as a by-product of economic, social and scientific advancement.
Neglect of human impact on nature has been around for the whole history of civilisation. Only primitive communist societies, like those in prehistoric times, as well as North American natives or some tribal African communities, display a certain respect for the environment. Nevertheless, also in that case it is mostly of a ritual and symbolic character, for example, ceremonies to thank the spirits of wild animals for providing meat or to apologise to them for the need to hunt game.
It is debatable whether industrialism actually extended the scope of human destruction of nature to a qualitatively higher level, like some moralistic environmentalists want us to believe. Of course, the growth of the world population on a planet dominated by capitalism has multiplied the potential for "human-caused" damage to the environment, but that would only be a partial view of things. Inefficient and ecologically unsound and non-sustainable practices also existed in the past. If more than 6,600 million of us all lived like our ancestors did, there is no guarantee that our "ecological footprint" would be much smaller - but our life expectancy certainly would.
An example is the extinction of natural species. This is not a recent phenomenon at all. On the contrary, what are new are the recognition of the problem and the concept of biodiversity.
Human societies caused the extinction of hundreds of species long before the industrial age, just by hunting, farming and transforming the natural habitats in many ways. Elephant birds are an example. These gigantic 3-metre tall birds lived in Madagascar and were completely wiped out by the actions of the island's human population before contact with the Europeans was established.
More to the point: urban human societies have always used non-renewable raw materials in a way that harms the environment. Also oil was used, to make tar for lighting and insulation, although the consumption of fossil fuel was clearly much lower than it is today. Wood was collected and burned in a way that implied the destruction of forests and the release of significant amounts of CO2. That was no problem for the atmosphere because of the tiny world population, but it did have nasty hydro-geological side effects at times.
Also today, underdeveloped societies are not an ecological model, quite the opposite. It's been calculated that in the so-called "Third World" two billion people cook in primitive ways or using inefficient stoves, resulting in huge consumption of wood and therefore significant carbon-dioxide emissions (though they are still giving only a small contribution in comparison with industrial activities). According to Mr Vijay Modi, an engineer at Columbia University, a Third World family of five could easily save one ton of wood every year just by using newer (and more expensive) stoves (10 Fixes for the Planet, by Anne Underwood, Newsweek, ibid.). We have already mentioned the huge impoverished population of the Niger Delta: the irrational and inefficient usage of fuel there makes the Delta the highest single contributor to greenhouse gases in the world.
Frugal, traditional life styles are clearly not a way out.
Socialism in one planet
Fossil fuel and capitalism
Brian J. Baker found amusingly silly the idea that somebody could ask himself where does all this fossil fuel come from and question the usage of non-renewable energy sources. He wrote:
«There were however those in the early days of the industrial revolution who questioned the use of stored energy, which had taken millions of years to produce under conditions of intense heat and pressure, in a century or two which is a blink of an eye in geological terms.»
We do not really know who he is referring to here. Refusing to use fossil fuel is clearly not our position, nevertheless there is a grain of wisdom in what those unnamed critics said. The point is that capitalism has massively used fossil fuel since its beginnings, thus building the whole fabric of world economy upon a relatively unreliable base.
Humans have used fossil fuel for a very long time. For example, we mentioned tar above. However, no society prior to capitalism has ever developed such a complete dependence on fossil energy. And we know that dependence can easily turn into addiction. Addictions are especially harmful when the substance you are addicted to is only available in a limited supply: withdrawal can be experienced. The anarchic nature of capitalism implies that this mode of production is relying on non-renewable energy sources as if these were eternal. They exploit what there is and do not prepare for the future. In this context the emergence of the problem of global warming has simply accelerated the crisis that would have occurred in any case at some point. As soon as the most exploitable reserves are depleted, the extraction costs of oil, gas and coal would become too high to consider them as viable energy sources even if emissions were not taken in account.
In 1936, the Venezuelan journalist, writer and politician Arturo Uslar Pietri coined the phrase "to sow petrol" ("sembrar el petróleo") as a metaphor of a correct usage of oil for Venezuela:
«Oil, instead of being a curse converting us into a parasitic and useless people, has to be the lucky conjuncture that allows with its sudden wealth to accelerate and to strengthen the productive evolution of the Venezuelan people under exceptional conditions.» 
Notwithstanding Uslar Pietri's pro-capitalist ideas, this concept has been reused several times in the Venezuelan political debate and can be applied to the relationship of the whole of humankind with all non-renewable energy sources as well. The state oil company of Venezuela, PDVSA, "re-nationalised" by Chávez and now turned into a major financial resource for the propulsion of the "social missions" introduced by the left-wing government, declares to have the aim of "sowing oil" to develop and transform the country and to alleviate its social problems, in order to eventually free Venezuela from its complete dependence on oil income.  The social improvements in Venezuela, obtained just with very partial measures that have not abolished capitalism so far, give us just a tiny example of what could be possible if fossil fuel, this free gift from the distant past of our planet, were used to promote a thorough social transformation of human society.
It is the alternative one has when one wins a big amount of money at a lottery: one can spend everything in luxurious cars, expensive trips and big villas, and when the money is over one will be in big trouble just to pay for the car insurance or the house expenses; or this same patrimony can be invested carefully and intelligently (one can use it to pay for one's education, for example).
From a broad historical point of view, capitalism is wasting our fossil heritage to produce weapons and to finance wars, to delay its replacement with a more progressive mode of production and support the obsolete bourgeois institutions, and to preserve scandalous luxuries for the ruling class. In the process, it is also creating gigantic ecological problems such as global warming.
A transitional programme
From what I have written, we can derive some political conclusions that can define a draft transitional programme on the issue of climate change. A transitional programme was defined by Trotsky as a bridge between the current conditions and consciousness of the masses and the final aim of international socialism.
As far as climate change is concerned, such a programme can be outlined as follows:
Expropriate the commanding heights of the economy (and the biggest polluters) without compensation, in order to give the workers control over the economic levers of society, a pre-condition for reorganising the productive system and the life style of the masses (and the rich!) in a more rational way.
No confidence in the capitalists' "treaties" such as Kyoto. We denounce the greed of the US imperialists who refused to sign even the mild Kyoto agreement, but at the same time we expose the futility of such treaties that will never solve the problem as long as the world economy is in the hands of the capitalists, and are actually often used to promote counter-productive measures.
Abolish "cap & trade" systems and implement strict policies on individual plants. This policy must be enforced at zero cost for the workers; if an employer claims to be unable to meet the conditions required, the company's books must be opened to workers' representatives and the company eventually expropriated under workers' control.
No to new regressive indirect taxation, even if "justified" by alleged ecological concerns. Hit the profiteers and middlemen, not the average consumer who often has no choice but to use a car.
No to "green" sackings. We support serious measures against polluting companies but this cannot be done at the workers' expense. The alternative is not between accepting pollution or sacking workers - there is a third option: sack the bosses! The ecological rationalisation of production must involve workers' control and the preservation of every job.
Organise an international plan for adaptation to predictable, inevitable climate changes with public funding and under the control of the population involved.
Promote a scientific appraisal of the problem. Teach the scientific basis for climate change in schools, giving adequate space to genuine scientific debates on the issue. No brainwashing of our children with ideologies of inaction and abstinence that distort their perception of the responsibilities behind this disaster and make them underestimate the scope of the problem. Counter the penetration of capitalist arguments within the workers' organisations and the Left.
Raise state funding for renewable and rational energy sources. The economic viability of different technologies often depends on long-term R&D investments that cannot be sustained by short-sighted profit-driven private labs controlled by energy multinationals.
Stop using food as fuel and all irrational agrofuel madness (state subsidies and imperialist "ethanol diplomacy"). Fund public research to develop safe alternative forms of biofuel (second and third generation), that do not affect the availability of food in any direct or indirect manner (such as the use of algae for example, rather than maize).
Climate change is a global question, and it requires a global solution that only international socialism can provide. Rational planning of the economy on a world scale is necessary to tackle the problems posed by this issue, but this planning can only be organised in a democratic way with the active participation of the masses. This is what we call workers' democracy, and it is our aim.
This question is directly connected with the control of energy supply and sources, decisions that have a strategic significance for the future of the human species. This poses once again the question of the ownership of natural resources and the means of production. As John Reed said in Baku in 1920, only with social revolutions in the imperialist strongholds as well as in the less developed countries, "the last foundations of capitalism will collapse, and then the peoples will endeavour to create a social order in which not only oil but everything produced by human hands will belong to the working masses".
[All web pages were retrieved on May 1st, 2008]