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Climate change: are people part of the problem?

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With the environment in meltdown Martin Empson explains how individual solutions to climate change will not save the planet, and argues for a radical transformation of society
Issue 2169
Mexicans recycling household waste by hand on a landfill site near Mexico City. Hundreds of people live and work on the dump making a few dollars a day by collecting plastic cardboard and metal which is then sold to a local recycling facility <span class=
Mexicans recycling household waste by hand on a landfill site near Mexico City. Hundreds of people live and work on the dump making a few dollars a day by collecting plastic cardboard and metal which is then sold to a local recycling facility

Climate change is threatening the future of the planet. Millions of people around the globe are already feeling the effects of environ­mental damage and are asking what we can do to stop it.

But many also believe that people themselves are a barrier to tackling climate change. We consume too much, they say, and produce so much waste that we are making the planet unsustainable for future generations.

So governments around the world are attempting to come up with strategies to deal with climate change. But they are based on individual or market solutions rather than looking at alternative ways of organising society.

This is because the dominant “common sense” argument is that individual behaviour is causing climate change, rather than anything systemic.

So, French president Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a “carbon tax” last week to “save the human race”. The tax will be levied on individuals and businesses for their use of fossil fuels.

Critics argue that the tax risks penalising some people unfairly. Greenpeace argues that the tax doesn’t go far enough and will “change absolutely nothing in terms of behaviour”.

Rather than blaming individuals in society, we should be asking why we live in a society that is so inherently unsustainable.

Why is our society so inefficient and so badly organised? Why is public transport under-resourced while road transport is supported and encouraged?

The answers to these questions help illuminate what a sustainable society would look like and how we can get there.

Firstly we need to locate the source of the problem. It is not people who are inherently wasteful. It is the economic and social system in which we live – capitalism.

Capitalism has unleashed productive forces on a scale never before seen in human history. Yet it is also a uniquely destructive system.


Because the driving force for production under capitalism is profit, the longer term impact on the natural world is not important. Indeed, the environment is only a source of natural resources for production, or a dump for the waste from that production.

But the productive forces that capital­ism has unleashed mean that the consequences of environmental damage are far greater than at any previous time.

The biggest consequence is the waste products from the burning of fossil fuels – greenhouse gases – that threaten to destabilise the whole climate system, with the potential to destroy life on earth.

Karl Marx showed that because production under capitalism is competitive and is for profit it is also unplanned – and hence irrational. So supermarkets and coffee shops will open new outlets close to where they already have shops – not because they think that will be profitable in and of itself but because they want to carve out their competitors.

There is a huge amount of wasted production that generates no social benefit, such as in the advertising industry.

Meanwhile wind turbine manufacturer Vestas made £50 million in profit in the first quarter of 2009 but still announced the closure of its plant on the Isle of Wight – despite the desperate need for renewable energy – because it wasn’t sure that that level of profitability would continue.

Similar madness could be seen earlier this year with the closure of three Visteon car component plants in the UK. The Visteon corporation is the world’s largest source of car components. Its Enfield plant manufactured plastic parts for cars.

The injection moulding method by which such components are made mean that many other objects can be produced with minor alterations to equipment.

In a rational world, production would have been changed to produce goods that are desperately needed in the battle against climate change.

The workers who occupied the site recognised this. “Our skills – we can make anything in plastic – should be used to make increasingly needed parts for green products: bike and trailer parts, solar panels, turbines, recycling bins, etc.” they wrote.

At a time of economic and environmental crisis workplaces and factories that face closure should be retooled and redesigned to benefit the planet and the workers who face unemployment.


Part of the block to dealing with climate change is the vested interests at the heart of the capitalist system.

Of the top ten global corporations in 2008, eight made their profits directly from the fossil fuel industry – either because they are involved in the extraction of oil, or because they manufacture the vehicles that rely on it.

Such companies have invested billions of pounds in plant and equipment. They don’t want to risk their profits and will do everything they can to protect their wealth and the status quo. This is why oil companies give so much money to US presidential candidates, for instance.

What is shown by the current crises of capitalism is the urgent need to organise production differently. Socialists have always called for a system where “production is for need, not profit”.

The argument for organising in this way is not difficult to win – it makes sense to many people. The workers who occupied at Vestas and Visteon instinctively knew that things could be done differently.

There are similar arguments in every sector of our lives. The economic downturn has thrown thousands of building workers on the dole. Millions of people live in inadequate housing. Those builders should be put to work building new council homes.

Measures like these could be implemented tomorrow. Yet they go against government policy of allowing the market free rein.

We need to build a movement that can challenge those priorities, but can also start to debate how we could organise society differently and create a truly sustainable society that can preserve the planet instead of destroying it.

For more information on the upcoming climate protests at Copenhagen and in London in December, go to »

Martin Empson is the author of Climate Change – why nuclear power is not the answer, which is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » for your copy.

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