A speech by the secretary of the Huntsville, AL branch on the nature of individual vs. class-based climate action.

My desire tonight is to connect action on climate change to a working class politics, to directly connect the material interests of the working class to action on this looming issue.

As an exposition, I want to point out some of the way that environmentalist campaigns are framed, and the history of this framing.

I am sure we have all seen the famous picture of the crying Native American in the Keep America Beautiful PSAs. And I’m sure that mostly the feelings that we have regarding that PSA are positive. Don’t literally throw full bags of uneaten McDonald’s food at the feet of a Native American as you drive by — pretty uncontroversial stuff.

But did you know who funded these PSAs? The American Can Company, the Owens-Illinois Glass Co., Coca-Cola, and the Dixie Cup Company.

And here is another question – do you know why they funded this PSA campaign? I am sure that many of us would like to believe, in the classic American sense, that the corporations were simply operating benevolently in the best interest of the country, because they care about the environment and they care about us.

Well, my dear, sweet, naive fellow workers, I regret that I am the one who must inform you of this, but you would be wrong.

You see, originally the conversation around litter and disposable single use products was around production and not consumption. Meaning that there was a strong movement to nip this problem in the bud, rather than stem the tide after the dam broke. In the 1950s, single-use items were fairly new and not nearly as integral to our lives as we see them today. So many people said we should just ban them. Vermont did just that and, following the leadership of Vermont, state legislatures the country round had anti-single-use production bills lined up.

The corporations smelled a threat to their profits. With this ad, and many like it, they were able to change the entire focus of the debate from the producer, the multi-million dollar, international oligopolies with immense political power, to the average, atomized, individual consumer.

So now we have myriad anti-litter laws, but no laws targeting companies, laws like the refillable bottle law in Finland with decreased their garbage output by almost 400,000 tons. We’ve got these anti-litter laws, but no laws remaining like the deposit law that Oregon passed in 1972 targeting corporations that decreased the number of beverage containers used in the state by 385 million.

The rightful ire of the public was  successfully shifted on this issue from the source of power to largely powerless individuals. This phenomenon, turning workers on each other other, convincing them to look to their left or their right but never up, follows a pattern. This happens all the time on any number of issues, whether it be immigration, union versus non union workers, the worker versus the homeless person, and even regarding the subject at hand today, climate change. Capital interests invest huge sums of money to shift the blame from them, from the source of the issue, down to us, so that we are too busy fighting to address the issue, and all the while the capital interests rake in the profits and the working class suffers.

With this frame in place, let’s turn to the topic at hand today — climate change.

The conversation on this topic has been, until very recently, almost exclusively looking at the atomized, individual consumer as the problem. We’ve got websites that will tell us our carbon footprint, but what we don’t have is websites that will tell you how corporations and the monied elite set the structure up such that you must pay them, thus creating the carbon footprint that you do in order to move through the world. We’ve got articles telling us that if we set our thermostats down or up two degrees we would decrease our carbon footprint by so much but next to no effort is spent on why our utility company is still using fossil fuels when we’ve got so many other options.

The through line of much of the environmental talk, the climate change mitigation talk, is that as individual, atomized consumers, we must simply consume less. This talk, as Matt Huber points out in a paper called Ecological Politics for the Working Class, is a recommendation that is hardly likely to appeal to a working class whose wages and living standards have stagnated for almost two generations.

So what he argues for then, and I agree with, is that we ought to offer a different class responsibility for this ecological crisis. Rather than “all of us” as consumers being responsible in some meaningful sense, we aim our focus at the owner class, the international oligopolies, the monied elites.

We must center the source of the problem, the powerful, the corrupted governments, the monopolistic corporations, and identify them as the antagonist in our narrative, because this is the reality.

With the role of antagonist in this narrative no longer being played by the lone atomized individual, we can move from this unhelpful narrative of guilt politics, of telling workers who have been suffering from a program of austerity over the last several decades that, counter-intuitively to them, they are living too lavishly for the planet, because they are in fact not. Workers are suffering.

The only way to ensure action on this important issue, the only way to ensure that we force these international mega corporations and corruption ridden governments to keep us below the IPCC recommended 2 degrees Celsius of warming, is to create a mass movement of workers. And let me tell you, you won’t get hurting workers to rally en masse behind a political program that says their stagnating wages and standard of living is the reason for this crises, and rightfully so.

No, on the contrary, what we will do is connect this crisis and action on it to tangible, material benefits for the working class. Free public housing programs could also integrate green building practices that provide cheaper heating and electricity bills for residents. Free public transportation could fundamentally shift the over reliance on automobiles and other privatized modes of transport. A shorter work week will mean more leisure time for the working class and less energy is used. What we must do then is to connect every issue with the climate crisis. Every plank in the platform for the benefit of the working class must be used to also steer us away from the perils that the looking crisis threatens. We will shift the balance of power in society from the powerful international mega corporations, to the average worker, and in the process will be able to  combat the climate crisis.

Now none of this is to say that, as individuals, it is *bad* to do what we can to lower our energy consumption, and I am certainly not telling you to throw bags full of McDonald’s trash at random folks as you drive down the street.

But what I am telling you is that this message must not be centered in a successful movement for climate change mitigation. We must center the source of the problem, the powerful, the corrupted governments, the monopolistic corporations, and identify them as the antagonist in our narrative, because this is the reality. And in so doing, we must connect the road to corrective action to material benefits for working people. We must center the worker, the people who have been harmed by decades of austerity, in our solution. We must recognize the unique role that labor unions can play, and have historically always played, in organizing the working class to action on any number of important goals, including climate change mitigation. We must organize in our unorganized industries. We must fan the flames of discontent in complacent but organized workplaces. We must flex our muscles in already militant unions in disruptive action strategically aimed at pressuring concessions from the people with the power to make them on behalf of our fellow workers and mother Earth. This is not only the most politically viable path forward, it is the path forward that correctly identifies the problems and the solutions.

The working class need not sacrifice to combat this crisis. In fact, I would argue, we have the world to gain. 

Photo by Luke Richardson on Unsplash

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