In capitalist news and corporate media, we are often presented with a binary choice of the environment versus the economy. Both Democrats and Republicans often claim that we can either have a healthy, livable planet or a strong, stable economy, but it’s impossible to have both. Is this really the case? Should we commit to one or the other, or is there a way to fight for the two together?
For a historical example, let’s look to the summer of 1983, when left-wing peace activists with Mobilization for Survival (MfS) organized protests across the world for their June 20th “International Day of Nuclear Disarmament.” MfS was a largely decentralized group, composed of local pro-peace, anti-nuclear affiliates and supported by organizations ranging from the American Friends Service Committee to the Communist Party USA. At one such noble protest, a crowd of activists formed a human blockade at a General Electric factory manufacturing machine guns for the military. This happened to be a union shop, organized under Local 248 of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (now IUE-CWA, a division of the left-leaning Communication Workers of America). By shutting down the plant, the activists aimed to lock hundreds of workers out from their good-paying union jobs.
What was Bernie Sanders, socialist Mayor, supposed to do about the Burlington GE weapons plant protest, when unions and the poor were his key electoral constituency? “Not everybody has the luxury of choosing where they are going to work,” said Sanders to the Burlington Free Press, adding that many of his working class supporters lacked “the money to not go to work” which these peace activists clearly enjoyed, and accusing the activists of pointing “the finger of guilt at working people.” While Sanders and the union were able to negotiate the activists into protesting the factory’s back entrance instead of the front gates, they still refused his advice to protest government buildings instead. In the end, Bernie watched on from the sidelines as eighty-eight pacifists charged into symbolic arrest by local police. There was no sign a single factory employee joined their protest — why would they? The plant was reopened, the workers got back to business, and the gears of the imperialist war machine turned on.
In this sad example, disjoint leftist projects were contorted against each other by the logic of our economy. As the saying goes, “there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism,” and no ethical production either. Every day, we are put to work maintaining a system that goes on to crush us, our families at home, and our brothers and sisters across the globe. In our role as workers, there is often a fundamental conflict between our long-term class interests (for liberation and revolution) and our immediate need to put bread on the table. Just as with this historical conflict over imperialism, we face a similar dilemma today over climate change.
Capitalism has polluted our planet to the point of extreme catastrophe. The icecaps are melting, Texas is freezing, and the acid in the water is killing our damn fish. The billionaires, the capitalist politicians, and their corporate media all regurgitate the same message over and over, asserting that efforts for environmental sustainability are fundamentally opposed to the ever-idolized “jobs.” We have to drive or ride a bus to work and kill the planet in the process. We light our rooms with electricity generated by polluting coal and earthquake-inducing natural gas. We have plastics all around us shipped from halfway across the globe. It’s the climate or the economy, they say. If you want to save the planet, you have to starve yourself and your family, you need to destroy your own way of life. Some supposedly radical activists are still falling right into this trap.
Fast forward to modern London, and we can see the same divisive tactics at play. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a climate activist group in the UK, organized in a decentralized manner similar to MfS and funded by foundation grants, millionaires, and alt-rock band Radiohead. The radical liberal group disavows “politics,” banning its members from forming a Socialist Caucus while actively promoting reactionary subgroups of class enemies like XR Police and XR Landlords. In October 2019, in order to “sound the alarm” about the climate catastrophe, activists climbed on top of London Underground trains and glued themselves to the doors in an effort to prevent hundreds of people from commuting to work. This situation presents a stark example of what not to do to build a mass movement for climate justice. Instead of strongarming the capitalist class into action, these activists turned everyday working people against them. Only a few minutes after unfurling their “BUSINESS AS USUAL = DEATH” banner, the activists were ripped down from the train by the inflamed crowds, thrown to the ground and beaten — no police necessary! Heckled and humiliated by the masses for protesting electric mass transit, the event was widely criticized by the public and quickly disavowed by the rest of XR.
The fundamental flaw with this type of protest is obvious — don’t position yourself as an enemy to ordinary people. This is where socialist organizing differs from radical liberal activism. Workers are not the enemy: “It’s the economy, stupid!” We need to tear down the whole capitalist economic system. Our opponents are the billionaires — the Rupert Murdochs and Elon Musks of the world. We understand that the working class has the potential to be the most powerful political force in the world if it only organized itself. And by working class, we don’t mean gun-mechanics wearing overalls and hardhats — we mean every person that depends on wages, salary or benefits to survive. If we think of workers as the enemy, we don’t stand a chance at persuading them to fight for the environment. Instead, we must recognize that workers are our greatest asset in the fight for peace and nuclear disarmament, for environmental sustainability, and for building a just democratic society that provides for everyone.
Don’t fall into the trap of fighting for Climate over Jobs, or fighting for Jobs over Climate. We must fight for Climate and Jobs. This is the essence of the modern climate orientation that DSA believes in. We are working to unite environmentalists, labor unions, and progressive electoral groups around a common program of the Green New Deal. We propose an unprecedented mobilization of resources to combat climate change by creating millions of good-paying public union jobs, from the municipal to federal levels. We understand that the struggle to save our planet and the struggle for good-paying jobs are ultimately one and the same fight: they are wings of our common struggle against the ruling class. As Bernie often says, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.” Socialism is a politics of unity.
This orientation was on full display on March 7th, at the livestreamed launch event for DSA’s campaign to Pass the PRO Act and win a Green New Deal, where author Naomi Klein argued “We cannot leave climate to the big green groups funded by liberal foundations and guilt-ridden hedge fund executives because climate change itself is class war, and only a resurgent left led by a mobilized and empowered and radicalized working class can fight back.”
U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman joined the event as well, declaring “Let’s unionize every country in the world! Let’s get to net-zero carbon emissions in the next ten years! […] Let’s create hundreds of thousands of new jobs and let’s make sure none of them are in the fossil fuel industry, not one!”
“This dishonest narrative […] that the environment is against the labor movement is false, and we have to reject it.” contended Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, adding “We have to have each other’s backs, we have to prove that we’re serious about a just transition, about good jobs, and that starts with giving all workers power to face their employer.”
The situation we find ourselves in is not hopeless. In 2020, just 10.8% of workers were in a union. That may seem low, and it is, but we must remember that union density was at similarly low levels in the 1930s. With a wave of militant labor organizing and the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, union membership exploded, and labor unions suddenly became a powerful political force. If we want to stand a chance against climate change, we need to win a 21st Century Green New Deal, and that struggle starts with the fight to pass the PRO Act, which would end so-called “Right to work” laws around the country and make it tremendously easier for workers to organize a union.
If you’re concerned about the environment, there’s certainly no harm in riding a bike to work or cutting steak out of your diet. But updating your lifestyle is no substitute for building the political revolution that we need to save the planet. Instead, try coming up with a plan to organize your workplace, or consider signing up for a phonebank shift to pass the PRO Act.