Against the State of Green

Really good report from the UK Climate Camp here. It’s the best treatment of the difficult and unresolved issues around the green movement, class, and politics I’ve read in a while, not just because of the author’s personal brilliant theoretical synthesis, but because it narrates a live and still very diffuse debate.

This is the real sticking point in the whole controversy, it seems to me:

All of the Climate Campers were at pains to emphasise that they were not hostile to mining communities and were aware of the intrinsic relationship between climate change, class exploitation and capitalism. They also all underlined that they were not ‘official’ representatives of Climate Camp. This was undoubtedly one of the lines that separated the trade unionists from the Climate Campers, the union officials having a much more unproblematic relation to being a representative of the working classes. The Climate Campers were definitely from the more anti-capitalist wing and it might have been interesting had someone from a more single-issue perspective been present. Paul Chatterton, activist and Leeds University academic, gave a well reasoned presentation about the need for a ‘just transition’. After underlining the importance of avoiding a climate change ‘tipping point’ of a four degrees rise, he emphasised that environmentally based politics were ultimately against ‘mindless, ceaseless growth’ in the form of neoliberal capitalism. ‘Just transition’ would share out the costs of climate change equally, through a ‘green new deal’, ecological Keynesianism creating a ‘green collar economy’. This would amount to the re-nationalisation of energy production and a rejection of the market.

I must admit that the concept of a ‘green new deal’ makes me want to strangle the planet with a couple of spare plastic bags. It’s the realist corollary to the utopian elements of Climate Camp, but such an uncritical acceptance of a social democratic solution ignores the problem that capitalist social relations would still remain in place. It would be compatible with the development of an authoritarian, biopolitical state, obsessed with the administration of life. It is quite easy to imagine a dystopian ‘green new deal’ that continued the valorisation of capital alongside a work-ethic based morality all too conducive to the more sanctimonious elements of environmentalism. Chatterton did mention that a ‘green new deal’ might lead to less work and more holidays, a rare acknowledgement that climate change might not necessitate new regimes of scarcity. There is in this a trace of what was missing in the conference, a sense of possibility not embedded in soft focus ‘somewhere else’ utopianism but in an immanent engagement with capital’s apparatus of capture. However, a ‘green new deal’ is unlikely to deliver the kind of simultaneous refusal of scarcity and production that might begin to construct a genuine anti-capitalist response to the exigencies of climate change. It hardly amounts to a critique of wage labour.

Ian Lavery, President of the NUM, underlined the gulf between the NUM and Climate Campers through his refusal to engage with Paul Chatterton’s case for ‘just transition’. Remarking dismissively that he was in the bar during Chatterton’s talk, apparently what was needed was a ‘just transition’ to clean coal. Throughout the conference the NUM’s concentration upon clean coal raised questions about the contradiction of trade unions being not only a bureaucratic appendage to the marketing of labour but also a possible focal point for resistance and the reproduction of communities tied to a particular industry. Lavery’s work ethic was committed to coal rather than a green collar economy. He left shortly afterwards in his big car to go to another meeting. Oh, the life of the full time official.

The focus on new technologies as a general fix for climate change always threatens to introduce a Hollywood blockbuster narrative: ‘And then there was clean coal…’ While the viability of clean coal is in doubt, any present development of it is reliant upon capital being able to extract value from it. The same would go for the development of renewables. It is unlikely that an exclusive focus on technology can really challenge the relation between climate change and the reproduction of capitalism.

Do read the whole thing.

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