How can a socialist organisation in a rich country with a huge carbon footprint ignore climate change? How can it remain completely aloof from the growing movement to stop climate change?
Australia’s largest socialist organisation on campus is Socialist Alternative, and their record on climate change is almost non-existent. They have a pamphlet on the issue (published some time ago, rarely seen on their stalls). They show up at big protests to sell their magazine (which occasionally has an article on why market solutions won’t fix climate change). In 2008 they had two members who were involved in organising the Melbourne Climate Emergency Rally, but have not lifted a finger since on climate issues. Their forte is handing out leaflets and putting up posters, but they wouldn’t even put up posters for the Switch Off Hazelwood protest on their regular poster runs.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the climate change movement is the lack of youthful and energetic new activists: much of the backbone of the movement is older, experienced or not, coming from suburban groups. The campus environment groups are small and just starting to come together to organise for climate movement events.
Socialist Alternative, who believe in the need for conscious political leadership of the working class (and students) on all matters of oppression, have a claimed 100 members in Melbourne. They have active clubs on several campuses. How much could their membership contribute if they really tried to support the climate movement? Even without abandoning other priorities, they could have a big impact.
Previously I reviewed their publication From little things big things grow, a manual of organisational principles by Mick Armstrong. Extrapolating from this, as well as reports of what their members have said at times, the reason they aren’t involved in environmental campaigns is because they don’t think they can recruit new members out of it.
Whaaaaaat?! Capitalist industries are creating a planetary disaster that threatens mass extinction and billions of deaths, perhaps even the end of advanced technological civilisation, and they think they can’t recruit people to the socialist cause out of it? Do they really think this? Can their aspired leadership of the working class really ignore such a fundamental issue?
In reality their lapse is partially due to the lack of independent environmental activism on campus: as I found in reviewing Armstrong’s book, they think that they can only recruit on campus until they grow by an order of magnitude (or the class struggle increases to such a level that “ordinary workers” would join a socialist organisation). If recruiting is all it’s about, then it doesn’t really matter what issue it happens on – the easiest at hand, like same-sex marriage rights or Palestine is fine.
Back to those (claimed) 100 or so members in Melbourne. As I wrote in my review, if they recruit all (or most of) the young people on campus who are interested in radical politics, then divert them into a self-sustaining sectarian (even sisyphean) build-the-party routine, then they will in all likelihood block the development of campaigns on new issues (like climate change) which those people would have otherwise have gotten into. Having one group with a virtual monopoly on a campus' politics is a problem!
Why don’t Socialist Alternative see the potential for climate change to radicalise people? Do they think their (mainly young) membership will just ignore the world falling down around them? The prospect of witnessing, over their lifespan, a descent into a Mad Max world of barbarism? This is not a normal threat. It is not going to go away. It does not lend itself to business-as-usual solutions of capitalist market economics: the rulers will not fix it for us.
Once enough climate tipping points are passed, climate change will be irreversible and all we can do will be to wait for the full effects to be felt. The fact that the full effects are only felt after the event means that it’s a new type of problem for socialists, who are (unfortunately) used to only reacting to the latest crime of capitalism, like unemployment or war that is tangible right now. It requires socialists, too, to go beyond business-as-usual activity of the reactive type.
If runaway climate change occurs, I strongly suspect that continuing to fight for socialism will be an exercise in utopianism: socialism is based on the idea that there is enough for all to share equitably. In a world of runaway climate change, this will quite likely be off the agenda. We can expect millenarian religious cults to grow, violent fascist and xenophobic movements, land grabs and so on, but what point would there be in joining the socialists when your individual survival may be counterposed to that of others around you?
Climate change threatens to destroy the material basis for building socialism. And the tipping points are looming very close: already, methane is starting to escape from the clathrates at the bottom of the Arctic ocean. If this continues and accelerates, it will put enough greenhouse gas into the atmosphere that not even bizarre geo-engineering strategies are likely to save us in time (assuming they are even feasible).
I don’t know whether or not I want Socialist Alternative to join the climate movement; at times I (and others) think they resemble a millenarian cult themselves. They aren’t necessarily a constructive participant in movements. On the other hand if they are getting in the way of building a climate movement, then they need to change or be bypassed. Maybe the latter is what will happen. Maybe they can reinvent themselves and play a helpful role. I hope their members read this and think about it.