Socialist Worker

Is a green future possible?

As the global movement to save the planet grows deeper, Martin Empson spoke to Sarah Bates about a new book on what caused climate chaos—and how we can stop it

Issue No. 2661

Extinction Rebellion actions have reinvigorated the climate movement

Extinction Rebellion actions have reinvigorated the climate movement (Pic: Guy Smallman)


What’s behind the decision to produce System Change not Climate Change?

The school climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion (XR) and others have opened up debates about how you can end the destruction of the environment. 

We’ve seen an emergence of a new environmental movement.

“System change not climate change” is a popular slogan on the demonstrations—but this can mean all sorts of things to different people.

What we wanted to do with this book is put an argument that you have to fundamentally challenge capitalism if you want a sustainable society.

Capitalism puts fossil fuels before anything else, and accumulates wealth just for the sake of it.

Since 1988 just 100 fossil fuel companies have been responsible for 71 percent of global emissions.

Fossil fuels were key to the development of industrial capitalism, and today ditching them would mean unprecedented financial losses for the bosses.

So to win a sustainable society, you have to tackle the logic of capitalism.

The book really is a combination of arguments about why capitalism is the problem.

But it also looks at issues of plastic, biodiversity loss, agriculture and many others.

It ties these questions together and argues that ultimately socialism is the answer to climate chaos.

We hope the book can help to arm radicals of all different traditions with arguments to help clarify what we need to do in the movement.

How has the urgent mood around climate change shaped the book?

If you had said to me at the beginning of the year that major trade unions would be discussing strikes over the climate I wouldn’t have believed you.

The call for workers to join students on a general climate strike on 20 September has found an echo. 

We don’t know what will happen in September.

But the actions of the students and XR have opened up new arguments and debate in the workers’ movement and trade unions about workers being part of that struggle.

We have examples to draw on. In one chapter of the book, two Canadian socialists write about the enormous environmental impact of mining oil tar sands.

They describe how indigenous people, workers and others have formed a formidable coalition. 

There is enormous potential for 20 September.

We’re starting to see meetings with the Campaign Against Climate Change, trades councils and those on the left.

People are having serious discussions about how we can organise to take action.  This has never happened before.

Socialists should get involved in the new environmental movement.  

And people should make links with other movements.

For instance, there was a big Stand Up To Racism summit in Manchester recently and a key discussion was about climate refugees.

As climate change deepens, racism will be directed at those fleeing natural destruction. Anti-racist activity will be part of the response.

It’s not just about one day of action on 20 September. It’s about building a movement to fight in the longer term. 

What arguments should socialists take into the environmental movement?

We need more theoretical discussion about the climate crisis, analysis of capitalism and the roots of ecological catastrophe.

The book also looks at the Anthropocene—the theory that Earth is entering a geological period shaped by human intervention.

There’s more detail about what Karl Marx had to say about the natural world.

And contemporary debates are taken up around the importance of being involved in social movements.

We need to tie up different strands of revolutionary politics into coherent arguments.

Can you get an ethical capitalism? Should socialists support a Green New Deal radical programme of reforms? Should we have a vegetarian diet?

The book takes these arguments seriously. But it argues that the crisis is part of the nature of the society we live in, and that individual action isn’t the end point. 

Activists should deepen their understanding of the nature of the environmental crisis. It’s not just climate change, but biodiversity loss, a crisis of the natural world, what agriculture has done to the forests and so on.

The book talks about “transformative system change”. What does this mean and why does it matter? 

I think this is one question where socialists have something different to offer the environmental movement.

Because we argue the solution doesn’t lie in a nicer or “greener” capitalism.

The system’s use of the natural world degrades it for profit and also destroys human life. Socialism is the answer.

This is a way of ordinary people coming together and planning democratically how the economy should run.

Under socialism, everything would be discussed and decided in every college, school, call centre, every workplace. 

Ordinary people who go through a revolutionary process will not only transform society but also their own relationship to the natural world.

Can we build a sustainable society? It’s not just about tinkering around the edges but about a completely different world. 

It is possible to undo some of the damage that capitalism has done and organise society in a different way.

System change not Climate Change book launch at Marxism Festival—10am Saturday 6 July. With Ian Angus, Martin Empson and others. Go to marxismfestival.org.uk

‘We depend on exchanges of matter with the natural world’

Marx and Engels viewed humans as part of and dependent upon the rest of the natural world.

They began from the fact that we cannot do anything unless we obtain food, air, water and other essentials from the world around us.

Nature, Marx wrote, is “man’s inorganic body”—that is, an essential part of us that is not contained in our biological organs.

“Man lives from nature, ie nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die.”

Because we are physical beings, we have always depended and always will depend on exchanges of matter and energy with the rest of the natural world.

That mutual dependence is the first principle of historical materialism, but if we stop there, we miss the next principle, that the ways in which humans obtain the necessities of life from nature have changed through history.

In order to understand the specific relationship between any particular social order and the natural world, we must look beyond humans as physical beings and examine the concrete social circumstances in which they produce and reproduce.

That’s particularly important with capitalist society, which has separated most humans from the natural world.

Extract from a chapter ­written by Ian Angus


‘Organised socialists should be at the heart of movement’

The Green New Deal in the United States sets forth a plan for a national mobilisation to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, investments in infrastructure and carbon-free energy would develop millions of well-paying climate jobs in ten years.

Included in this is prior consent from Indigenous people if their land is impacted in any way, as well as a just transition with wage and benefit guarantees for all workers that would be affected by the job losses.

This proposal has already had a major impact on the political terrain in the United States.

A Green New Deal is urgently needed today.

It can provide a real alternative to the right-wing populism that is drawing many disaffected people to its cause, and put forward progressive options for a better life that actually challenges capitalism itself.

This is a moment to build strong alliances that can put workers, Indigenous people, youth and racialised communities first.

It can become a movement that fights for economic, racial and social equality and take on the logic of the system.

Organised socialists should be at the heart of this movement.

Extract from a chapter written by Carolyn Egan and Michelle Robidoux


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