Life and Labor in the Era of Climate Justice



As radicals, it is our job to respond to the very newest political formations, and few have presented themselves with the urgency of the tendencies that have sprung up to address and combat the climate crisis. For the purposes of this talk, let me outline four of these tendencies

1) The first is the emergence of the carbon calculus as an overriding measure of our ability to meet the crisis.  If we cannot afford to allow atmospheric carbon levels to rise to 450ppm,  should we hold the threshold at 400ppm or demand a reduction to 350ppm?   For some climate activists, this is the only important question, and, for those who favor the quickest form of emissions reduction, we must proceed by any means necessary, even if it involves following pathways that are undemocratic. But the most everyday manifestation of this new calculus is the growing habit of assessing the carbon footprint of every product and every personal movement, including acts of labor. Indeed, quantifying the world’s energy throughput on the microlevel of personal conduct is becoming a pseudopolitical obsession. In some ways, it is a perverse spin on the statistical tyranny of the GDP, reducing our actions and our use of material things to a data-set––the outcome of which is a moral assessment of our thermodynamic performance. Carbon-Neutral Man is the goal, a model of ascetic behavior that is the obverse of the wasteful hyperconsumer.

2) The second tendency is the emergence of green governance as a managerial mode, a trend that is more easily discernable at the level of townships or cities, especially in the widespread adoption by urban managers of sustainability goals. Aside from their utility for reforming the administration of government departments, sustainability programs are also aimed at reforming the behavior of middle class citizens; how we travel, where we live, what we eat, and, most important, how we, as models of green conduct, can influence the more recalcitrant classes. For example, the mayor of my city, New York, is best known for eliminating smoking, banning “trans fats” in city eateries, barring the purchase of soda drinks by welfare recipients, and covering the city with bicycle lanes. Much less noted is how his sustainability programs have facilitated the total gentrification of central city areas at the behest of the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) industries which drive the city’s growth machine. As in many other cities, sustainability is easily adopted as marketing cover for the intensification of growth in high-value locations, perpetuating a status quo which could be loosely but accurately described as eco-apartheid.

3) The third tendency emerges from the opportunity offered to us by the Great Recession to launch a new industrial revolution powered by renewable energy. In the absence of any other candidates, green industrial policies have been prioritized as a recipe for economic recovery and the key to green-collar job creation, and have been supported by a wave of eco-keynesianism. Obstacles to the success of implementing these policies are threefold a) the immense political power of the oil and coal lobbies and the vested interest of all other entities, including many trade unions, who are beneficiaries of the fossil economy b) the predominance of the low-road path in developing cleantech industries in cheap labor locations like China c) the belief not only that the green economy should be market-based but also that it is sufficiently driven by the market segment known as LOHAS, or Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, estimated globally at $500 billion, and covering almost 20% of the population in OECD countries.

4) The fourth tendency flows from the concept of climate justice, and focuses on the debt owed to underdeveloped countries for hosting an uneven share of the pollution emitted by the carbon-rich beneficiaries of industrialization. This has been characterized as a global version of the localist environmental justice movement, which sprang up to combat the unjust allocation of hazardous waste to urban and rural neighborhoods with poor populations.  Under the developing rubric of climate change law, those who suffer the most negative impacts of climate change can claim a range of ecological rights, including the right to a healthy and sustainable livelihood. Among other things, climate justice can be seen as simply a carbon-conscious version of the politics of wealth redistribution. It has been applied primarily at the level of the nation-state system, because of the legal attention garnered by international treaty agreements and conventions. But the spirit of climate justice resides very close to home, and is visible in the unequal distribution of resources in our own backyard. When the Anomalous Wave declares “We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis” on an Italian university campus, it has a different meaning than when representatives of the G77 bloc of developing nations make the same announcement at a climate summit. But there is a strong, horizontal kinship between these two refusals to accept the loading of debt–-financial and ecological–onto vulnerable populations in the global South and here at home.

Having briefly identified these four tendencies (not a comprehensive list, for sure), it is now my intent to say a few words about how they affect our demand for sustainable livelihoods (I want to revive this rather outdated term “livelihood” because it suggests much more than what a job or earning a wage, even a social wage, has come to mean for us. A livelihood is a way of supporting our life, and if it is sustainable, then it supports the biosphere and the lives of other species too).

On the face of it, the bedrock principle of sustainability appears to offer a corrective to the condition that we have long called precarity–whether sustainability is viewed from the perspective of long-term central planning aimed at decarbonization and the stabilization of atmospheric balances, or from the standpoint of more local control over the means of subsistence in accord with bioregional balances. In either case, intergenerational stability and accountability to the commons are its trademarks, and both of these are antidotes to the liquidation of certainty about the future which we recognize as the existential kernel of precarity. If the footsoldiers of anti-precarity were looking for a righteous banner to march under, then the urgency and missionary purpose radiated by radical sustainability would fit the bill. Indeed, the global justice movement has seen a notable revival over the last year or so through embracing the broad rubric of climate justice. Some of the activists in question see climate justice simply as the most expedient political vehicle for forcing decarbonization on elites in the global North countries. For others, the driving force is equity and wealth redistribution. These are not mutually exclusive concerns, but one of them is opportunistic and flirts with authoritarianism–by any means necessary!–while the other takes more seriously the social and political complexity of the claims of environmental justice. Why is this distinction is so important?

First of all, it is a mistake to believe that elites are in denial about the ecological crisis in general, or about global warming in particular. They are not at all in denial.  On the contrary, for almost 40 years now, they have been busy hoarding resources in the knowledge that capitalist growth patterns are unsustainable. This, at least, is one way of interpreting the long-term response to the influential Limits to Growth report issued in 1972. In the four decades since the Club of Rome sounded its loud alarm about unsustainable growth, we have seen a sharp, upward redistribution of wealth and resources in almost all developed or developing societies, but especially in the fast-growth economies. The longterm impact of efforts to repossess and hoard assets can be seen quite clearly in the statistics of class polarization.

Not long after the Limits to Growth report was issued, the norms of public provision, which had ensured a degree of social equity in the Fordist compact, fell under attack. Tax reform, fiscal austerity, deregulation and privatization, structural adjustment, crumbling of secure work, and the general shredding of social welfare dramatically eroded most of the postwar gains for workers, and pushed them underwater. The only compensation on offer was a lottery ticket in the speculative housing market–sparking a highly unsustainable round of land development which ended in the worst global recession since the 1930s. In retrospect, it is fair to conclude that the message of Limits to Growth was not ignored. The message did get through to its elite audiences, and they responded by squirreling away whatever resources they could carry off from the commonwealth.

Much of that plunder was extracted by wielding the “power of market forces.” For those who believe that the power of market forces can be put to better ends, the advent of green capitalism has promised a new economic footing in the form of pollution credit markets, carbon taxes, green collar jobs, eco-consumerism, and sustainable development. Liberal advocates of green capitalism argue that natural resources are chronically underpriced because ecologically destructive growth is so highly subsidized. Putting a proper price on these resources is the best way of preserving them, or, in the case of fossil fuel, of stopping us from using them, and it is the most effective way of delivering a more sustainable form of capitalist growth. Critics of this view have retorted that capitalist growth, of any sort, is hostile to nature, and that green capitalism is just a mode of expanding the reach of profit-taking into the world of nature. Capitalism, after all, must create, or expand into, new markets, or it will die. Therefore, they argue, the policy of turning the natural world into tradable commodities should be viewed as a way for capitalism, and not nature, to survive, and, as the eco-marxist will unfailingly tell us, it is just one more desperate, last effort.

This is clearly a debate for our times. If green capitalism (with more than a little help from the state) can spark enough economic fire to create a new generation of green jobs, along with a market supported by a durable base of carbon-conscious consumers, then we will see a new form of legitimation for the cause of capitalist growth. The carbon calculus and the green managerialism I mentioned earlier will  serve as its respective modes of performance assessment and enforcement. On the other hand, the widespread promotion of sustainability as a boost to shareholder value by the world’s most destructive corporations shows how easily it lends itself to greenwashing. Thus we have seen the unlikely spectacle of Rio Tinto, Ford, Shell, Alcoa, DuPont, Siemens, Dow Chemical, and Fiat being hailed as ecological stewards when they pay credence to the “triple bottom line” of economic, social and environmental values. Certainly, there is profit to be harvested from institutionalizing green values. But none of these corporations have offered to factor the degradation of air, water, and soil into their production costs, nor can they really afford to do so.

In this scenario, the ecomarxist rests easy with the conclusion that green capitalism will not be able to avoid destroying the commons. Certainly, this fatalistic mood would be justified in light of the inertia among international climate policymakers in the year since the Copenhagen summit. Even if the political obstacles rapidly dissolved, many have concluded it may already be “too late” to take meaningful action to avert drastic climate change. Surely Gramsci’s maxim–“pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”–was never more relevant than to the mindset of climate politics.

Some prominent ecologists, like James Lovelock, progenitor of the Gaia theory, have argued that to properly confront the threat of climate change,“it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.” This belief, that civil liberties should be suspended until action could be taken, has its advocates, especially among those who favor top-down geo-engineering schemes, involving large-scale manipulation of the global energy balance. Certainly, anything is worth considering if we are to win the race to decarbonize, but not if it puts us on an authoritarian death-march. Let us be clear. The failure to confront the climate crisis is not a failure of democracy, it is the result of the stranglehold of fossil capitalism on democracy.

In the counter-hegemonic spirit of Gramsci, then, we look for ways to counter the liberal consensus that the ecological crisis can be managed, and fixed, by some technical adjustments to business as usual, by some combination of reforms to our personal conduct and those of capitalist institutions. We also look for ways to counter the darker, more coercive vision of a world of heavily fortified resource enclaves, governed by a “lifeboat ethics” which views any effort at sharing resources more equitably with the world’s poor as a prelude to ecological shipwreck. The fourth tendency I outlined above–the case for climate justice–is the most promising candidate for the job. Why so?

First of all, climate justice challenges the assumption that the advanced economies can solve the climate problem on their own through focusing on some upmarket sector of global production and consumption. To the contrary, climate justice insists that no one can be left behind, and that the green wave must lift all boats or else we will all sink. Second, climate justice, like the most effective social movements, is driven by an abolitionist goal; in this case, the abolition of an oppressive debt, which imposes the most negative impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable and marginal populations. Adding to the claim of right of these populations is the moral standing that flows from their own low-impact lifestyles, among the least ecologically harmful. Third, climate justice stands at the head of a broad international movement that includes government officials as well as civil society groups, lawmakers as well as activists, peasants as well as workers, rebels, and artists. Moreover, its people’s summit meeting earlier this year was held in a center of indigenous socialism, Bolivia’s Cochabamba, notable in this regard as a Latin American counterpoint to the petro socialist capital of Caracas. The open deliberations of the democratic process at Cochabamba were nothing if not a striking contrast with the backroom deal-making that characterized the Copenhagen climate summit.

That said, it is not all that easy for labor advocates in the global North to make connections to a movement dominated by indigenous rights and the cause of sufficiency agriculture. Where do urban workers in our fully industrialized societies find sustenance in the Cochabamba ethos of Living Well (buen vivir) as opposed to Living Better (which is associated with plunder and unlimited growth)?  While they may share the same enemies, enriched and empowered by thirty years of neoliberalism, the interests and priorities of urban workers are not the same as those of dispossessed campesinos and rainforest communities. In the global North, the slow food movement is probably the closest in spirit to Cochabamba’s agrarianist consciousness, and its zeal for local control, healthy provision, food security, and self-organization has been surprisingly contagious. But this movement has had its own labor problems, as Margaret Gray will discuss later this morning in more detail, since food activists ritually ignore the dependence of their idealized small growers on underpaid and marginalized migrant workers.

For urbanized workers knocked to the ground by the recession, the wave of eco-keynesianism that underpinned stimulus spending in many countries held out the bright and righteous promise of green jobs. The social justice element of this promise rested on the concept of a “just transition” to a post-fossil economy. This phrase–“just transition”–was pushed into drafts of the Copenhagen Accord by the International Trade Union Confederation, but it was dropped from the final text. Intended as a guarantee for those displaced or sidelined by the transition to a low-carbon future, the phrase also resonates with the force of basic ILO rights regarding workplace democracy. But, given the longterm prospect of mass joblessness and precarity, now is the time to insist that the current demand of the institutional labor movement for a “just transition” should go well beyond retraining for green jobs and other wage protections. Just transition should stand for a vision of sustainable livelihoods with or without a job, whether in the form of a basic income or some other green dividend from the ever-growing GDPs of rich nations. Otherwise, many of us will be facing a world without income or work because the “people formerly known as employers” no longer know how to behave like stewards of livelihoods, and are clearly chasing the goal of maintaining their rate of profit through new models of unpaid labor: productive consumerism (prosumerism), guaranteed internships, work-as-welfare, the economy of amateurism, and all varieties of rampant rent-seeking.

To conclude, it is fair to say that the national campaigns for green jobs have already lost some momentum–the pendulum in some national legislatures here in Europe and now in North America has swung from the eco-keynesian moment to what looks like a more prolonged era of public austerity. Austerity is a very bad climate in which to argue for green policies because the longstanding public perception of environmentalism is one of liberal elites asking workers to lower their standard of living as a concession to nature. Now, the mentality of austerity threatens to relegate red-greens to the same corner as financial elites who sought lavish help from the public treasuries and who are now insisting that workers and students ought to pay their debts by accepting savage budget cuts and public sector layoffs. Carbon-conscious labor advocates have worked hard to alter this perception that sustainability does not equate with sacrifice. Most recently, the belief that a system-wide response to climate change would be a job-builder and not a job-killer attracted the support of many unions who had dragged their feet, or voiced opposition, over the years to environmental policymaking. With the commitment of the “just transition” to fairly distribute the costs and benefits of low-carbon policies, some of the doubts about the viability of a unified red-green front had begun to recede. It’s very likely that the impact of the new austerity politics will set back the green-labor cause (and it is intended to do so) but there can also be no doubt now about the political potential of synchronizing the movements for social, economic, and environmental justice–a potential that has gotten a big boost from the climate crisis. Indeed, and this may seem like a good place to end, if the climate crisis did not exist, it may have been necessary to invent it so that this synchrony could finally occur.

* Paper presented at the international conference ”Lavoro in frantumi”,  Universita’ di Bologna, 25 November 2010.




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