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Capitalist measures to fix the climate have not worked, as two recent books show, so the key is to link working-class and ecological movements, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Adrienne Buller, The Value of a Whale. On the Illusions of Green Capitalism (Manchester University Press 2022), xi, 335pp.


Matthew T. Huber, Climate Change as Class War. Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (Verso 2022), 312pp.


The central question of both of these books is why we are still in climate crisis, with global carbon emissions still increasing. As Buller asks:

‘why, despite unprecedented public knowledge and concern, as well as commitment (at least rhetorically) from governments; despite the raft of technological solutions and policies we’ve devised; and despite the immediate suffering of so many as the impacts of ecological emergency hit, do we remain so off course from a habitable future and safe present for so many?’ (Value of a Whale [VW hereafter], p.7)

Huber for his part puts the same point even more starkly: ‘what matters is real progress in a rapid and wholesale transition from fossil fuels. And that is simply not happening’ (Climate Change as Class War [CW hereafter], p.2.)

This is a demonstration that the green capitalist measures so far adopted against climate change do not work to reduce emissions. As Buller explains, for mainstream economists, the climate crisis represents a market failure, a result of the lack of a market price for carbon emissions. The solution in this view is therefore to build in such a carbon price, so that the market would then automatically favour lower-carbon developments.

Failure of market mechanisms

The problem is not that governments and markets have failed to act on this diagnosis of the issue. The last couple of decades have seen the development of carbon pricing and trading schemes, offsetting schemes and a whole range of market activity around emissions, all based on the idea that pricing carbon emissions is the solution to the climate crisis. This has enabled the commodification of intangibles like hypothetical future carbon emissions and hypothetical future woodpeckers, and will have helped some people get rich. What it has not achieved, though, is actual reductions in carbon emissions. Buller points out that the EU emissions trading scheme, for example, enabled major polluters to make enormous profits while reducing EU emissions by between an estimated 2% and 0%.

Neoliberal ideology holds that the market is all we need. The ‘invisible hand’ will take care of any necessary developments in society, as long as they are priced properly. The history of carbon pricing demonstrates though that ‘for the “invisible hand” to function requires substantial support from the much more visible hand of public investment and coordination’ (VW, p.67). A consumer-led transition from high-carbon to low-carbon energy, for example, could only take place if the infrastructure for that transition was put in place, which the market is not good at doing.

Huber is similarly clear that the market has shown itself unable to deliver the action needed on climate change, and that what is required is not further tweaks to try to render green energy and other changes profitable, but infrastructure created without being limited by the profit imperative. Both authors also agree that the climate crisis is essentially not a scientific issue, but a political one. Buller states that ‘this is, ultimately, a question of power, and who exercises it’ (VW, p.98), while for Huber, the key is working-class power.

The politics of eco-austerity

This apparent agreement on the nature of the issue, however, gives rise to very different conclusions, as Buller and Huber have diametrically opposed visions of how we should fight and for what we should be fighting. Buller is critical not simply of market mechanisms but of any economic growth, viewing Green New Deal-type initiatives as simply pretending that it is possible to decouple production from ecological damage. What is needed, she argues, is real cuts in production and consumption in the West: ‘there is a sense that this future is necessarily austerian, anti-progress and defined by lack.’ This means that what we have to fight for, in Kate Soper’s words, is ‘a change in attitudes to work, consumption, pleasure, and self-realisation in affluent communities’ (VW, p.279). We have to convince working people in the US and UK that they already have too much and have to accept less.

Buller does not go into the specifics of what such a campaign would need to look like, commenting that ‘it’s an answer that should reflect collectively determined and freely given priorities, wishes and needs’ (VW, p.280). As far as it goes, this is unarguable, but given the obvious difficulties of building a campaign on this basis, it feels rather like ducking the issue. A further, unacknowledged problem is that the idea that what the green movement has to do is to win an argument with working people that they have to embrace personal austerity is, like carbon pricing, now one with a considerable pedigree. If taking the temperature on the climate crisis, as Buller sets out to do, involves an honest admission that if carbon pricing hasn’t worked yet, it is unlikely to do so, a similar conclusion could be reached about eco-austerity.

For Huber, Buller’s conclusion would be an example of much of the climate movement who see that the problem is capitalism, but ‘their political response is to look inward through moralistic invocations to consume less, reject industrial society, and advocate micro-alternatives at the local scale’ (CW, p.123). It has been pointed out before that these are positions which come easier to people who fundamentally have enough. This is often accepted when considering the views and needs of working people in the Global South, but that working-class people in the West may also be poor and may not respond to the ‘politics of less’ is often a blind spot for enthusiasts for degrowth.

Class and the green movement

In Huber’s view, the key to understanding these views is the domination of the green movement by members of the professional managerial class (PMC). This is a concept originally developed by John and Barbara Ehrenreich, noting the specific nature and interests of white-collar, highly educated managers and professionals. Huber does not see the PMC as an actual separate class, in the Marxist sense of having a necessarily different relationship to the means of production than does the proletariat, but follows Eric Olin Wright in refusing ‘to classify such professionals as a class per se, but “as occupying a complex contradictory location within class relations”’ (CW, p.119). Members of the PMC still have to sell their labour in order to live, but they are likely to have at least some autonomy in their day-to-day work. They also, as educated knowledge workers, are likely to see knowledge as pre-eminent.

That the green movement is full of and is shaped by such knowledge workers provides a context for understanding the common green insistence that education in the science of climate change and knowledge of the climate crisis is the answer, both for leaders and the general public. These are frequently seen as pre-requisites for action, as demonstrated in Buller’s introductory question, of why, despite such knowledge, action is still not forthcoming.

This is not to argue, of course, that knowledge of the science is a bad thing, but such a focus does have the obvious potential to lead to the conclusion that insufficient action is the result of insufficient knowledge. From there, it is a short step to a division between enlightened PMC climate campaigners, embracing voluntary austerity and the ‘politics of less’, and the ignorant masses, clinging to their overconsumption and their junk food. It is small wonder that the populist right has been able to portray the climate crisis as an issue used by liberals against the people, as indeed Buller notes, commenting that ‘resistance to the perception of anti-democratic “elite” climate politics perceived to place unjust burdens on the working poor is widespread (if not always in good faith)’ (VW, p.277).

A movement dominated by members of the PMC can more easily adopt a stance based on guilt about personal consumption than a movement based in the working class. The degrowth, consumption-centric view of the climate crisis, however, as Huber points out, contains two major omissions: production, and power. A politics of climate change based in carbon guilt erases both of these, as Huber illustrates in a discussion of campaigns among academics to avoid flying. ‘Carbon guilt confuses material privilege - a level of comfort and security - with the power to control the material organization of energy production. You might feel privileged to fly on a plane, but the airline industry gains the profit from your privilege’ (CW, p.147).

As Marx referred to the ‘hidden abode of production’, so, Huber argues, production is the hidden abode of the climate crisis. Our task is to take on high-carbon production, both the well-known, like fossil-fuel energy generation, and less so, like cement production. There is no way to rig the market to encourage these industries voluntarily to transform themselves into green versions. They will have to be compelled, so the question is how.

For much of the green movement, it appears that the answer is essentially to avoid the question. As Huber makes clear, the concentration in some parts of the movement on withdrawing from the consumer products of industry through hyper-local projects like micro-grids and artisanal produce markets is based in the same utopian-socialist thinking that Engels criticised in the nineteenth century. This is the theory that it is possible for individuals to withdraw themselves from capitalism and that, if they do, the system itself will simply wither away, or be changed out of all recognition through ‘a cultural change of common senses’ (CW, p.171).

This was not the case in the nineteenth century, and it has not become any more of a practical reality since. As is often said, Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens. Capitalism has shown considerable ability to cope with individuals attempting to withdraw from it. There are also specific problems with the details of the visions of ecological living often proposed here. An ideological concentration on the very local can be a barrier to credible solutions to specific high-emission production. In energy, for example, local grids accentuate the problems of intermittency in wind and solar power, which can, on the other hand, be ameliorated by national or international grid planning. This type of green thinking also ignores ‘how these small-scale alternatives will attract popular support from the masses of struggling working people without the time to devote to these labor-intensive activities’ (CW, p.170).

Fighting the system

What is required instead, Huber argues, is a mass movement of working people. This cannot be built on the basis of carbon guilt and self-denial, but only by recognising that the material interests of the working class and the interests of planet are not opposed but have a common enemy in capitalism. This for Huber is the value of Green New Deal type proposals, as they offer tangible improvements to living standards for working people now, not just the negative if substantial benefit of the prospect of less catastrophic extreme weather. This is also true of other campaigns to benefit people and the climate together, such as campaigns for decent rural bus services.

It is important that this is not uncritical approval for anything labelled Green New Deal when it is in the hands of reformist politicians. Huber has commented elsewhere on the way in which Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act has moved from the Green New Deal’s vision of public infrastructure to concentrating on incentivising home owners to buy green-energy kit. This shift provides a reminder that publicly owned infrastructure will have to be fought for, as will good green jobs. Huber makes the important point that green jobs are not automatically good ones, noting the precarity, poor working conditions and poor pay in the green-energy sector, which can only be overcome by union struggle.

Neither Buller nor Huber, presumably, would disagree with the premise that to respond to the climate crisis, we need everyone. The real question is then what is most likely to build a mass movement of working people: the prospect of material gains in the here and now, or voluntary austerity? Buller’s answer is the latter, but this does not explain how such calls for embracing sobriety and self-restraint will be made persuasive now when they have not been in the past. For Huber, the outstanding questions are around how we build such a campaign in and through the trades unions and the unmentioned role of revolutionary socialists. These do not detract however from the importance of understanding that to a problem of capitalism, working-class power is the answer. We won’t deal with climate change by self-flagellation. We will only do so by building a mass movement prepared to fight.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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