Capitalism is killing the planet socialist revolution NYC sign climate change

IMT Theses on the Climate Crisis

Climate change presents a colossal threat to humanity, and has motivated huge protests (particularly by young people) in the last period. Only a socialist transformation of society, with production planned democratically by the working class in harmony with the planet, can end the threat of climate change. This document by the International Marxist Tendency explains our revolutionary program for dealing with the climate crisis. It was drafted before the pandemic for discussion at the 2020 IMT World Congress, but has now been updated in a few places in light of recent events. Since the Congress has been cancelled due to the pandemic, we invite you to register for our online Marxist University, where we will be discussing the climate crisis.

1. The whole world’s attention is focused at the present time on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. But when (if) this initial danger subsides, another—even bigger—existential threat looms: that of climate change.

2. The rainforests are burning. Wildfires rage across Australia and California. Floods are devastating Indonesia and Bangladesh. Whole islands and coastal areas are rapidly submerging. Droughts and famines are creating an exodus of refugees. Heatwaves in Europe are killing thousands every summer. Entire species are disappearing from the planet every day. The climate crisis is not a hypothetical problem for future generations, but is here and now.

3. Mass movements of students and youth have taken to the streets worldwide in response. “The oceans are rising, and so are we,” read one placard in London. Millions have participated in these international protests. In September 2019, an estimated six million people took part in the “Fridays for Future” global climate strikes. Cities in the US, Canada, Germany, Italy, and Britain saw demonstrations of hundreds of thousands.

4. Capitalism is killing the planet. This is the conclusion that many activists have correctly drawn. Hence the demands widely seen on the climate strikes: for “system change, not climate change”; for “planet over profit.” It is the capitalist system—with its insatiable pursuit of profit—that is responsible for destroying the environment, wiping out ecosystems, and polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink.

5. Under capitalism, it is big business that decides what is produced and how it is produced. But this is not done according to any plan. Instead, our economy is left to the so-called “invisible hand”—that is, to the anarchy of the market. Corporations will cut corners and ride roughshod through regulations wherever necessary in order to reduce costs, outcompete their rivals, capture new markets, and maximize their profits. This race to the bottom, however, is not simply the product of “greedy” bosses. It is the logical result of the economic laws of capitalism: a system based on private ownership, competition, and production for profit.

6. The scale of the problem is enormous. The UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) suggests that global warming must be limited to 1.5°C in order to avert environmental catastrophe. To achieve this, total greenhouse gas emissions would need to be reduced by 45 percent by 2030, and reach net-zero levels by 2050. On top of this, large-scale adaptation and mitigation measures—such as the construction of flood defenses and reforestation—must be taken. It is estimated that all of this would require over US$2 trillion in extra investment worldwide every year; around 2.5 percent of global GDP.

7. The science and technology to achieve this exist. Electricity grids could be decarbonized with wind, solar, and tidal power. Cars and transports systems could be shifted to electricity, batteries, and hydrogen. Energy-efficiency measures could dramatically reduce energy demands from households and industry. Pollution levels could be slashed. Food could be grown sustainably. Waste could be recycled. Swathes of forests could be replanted.

8. But these vital steps all require two things: planning and resources—neither of which capitalism is capable of providing. The basis of capitalist production is private ownership and competition, in the pursuit of the profits of a handful of unelected and unaccountable parasites; not planning in order to meet social and environmental needs.

9. Furthermore, where is the money going to come from under capitalism to pay for the dramatic changes required? The world economy is drowning in debt in the wake of the 2008 slump, a decade of austerity, and a new deep depression triggered by the pandemic. Further cuts—not investment—are on the order of the day. Addressing the climate crisis is now the last thing on the ruling class’s mind.

10. The capitalists will not invest in the measures required, for the simple reason that it is not profitable to do so. Indeed, technologies such as renewable energy, which could potentially provide an abundance of green, clean, near zero-cost electricity, fundamentally clash with the profit motive and the market system.

11. For example, state-subsidized investment into renewable energy supplies has actually crippled international electricity markets. Flooded with cheap, super-abundant supplies of green electricity, prices have been pushed down, making coal and gas power plants unprofitable to run. This has led to a sharp fall in terms of private investment into new power generation. But households don’t even see the benefit of lower bills, since further government subsidies are provided to prop up the big energy monopolies. In other words, the market cannot solve the problem—the market is the problem.

12. It boils down to a simple question: who pays? The wealth exists, but it sits idly in the bank accounts of big business and is frittered away by the imperialist powers on means of destruction. Just 10 giant US corporations, for example, are hoarding over $1.1 trillion in cash. And total worldwide military spending is $1.8 trillion per year. Under capitalism, therefore, not only do the impacts of climate change fall overwhelmingly on the shoulders of the working class, the poor, and the most vulnerable—but so do the costs of averting environmental disaster, in the form of higher prices, carbon taxes, and austerity.

13. Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish founder of Fridays for Future, has become the face and voice of the international climate strike movement. Speaking to crowds of world “leaders” at Davos forums and UN summits, she warns that “our house is on fire.” “I want you to panic,” Thunberg tells her elite audiences, “and to act.” But her pleas to politicians for urgent action fall on deaf ears.

14. This inertia at the top, however, is not simply due to an absence of political will. Establishment politicians are not passive on this question because they lack determination, but because their primary purpose is to defend the capitalist system, not the future of humanity or the planet.

15. Thunberg has pointed out that scientists are being ignored, and asks for governments to listen to the scientific evidence and advice. But the capitalists and their political representatives will not be persuaded by moral arguments, nor by facts and figures, which they have ample access to. At the end of the day, this out-of-touch elite will not do anything to protect the earth, as their only criterion is maximizing profit at the expense of the rest of us.

Revolution gegen Klimawandel Climate Strike Rally in Switzerland
Image: Der Funke (IMT Switzerland)

16. Some governments have tokenistically declared a “climate emergency” in an attempt to appease voters. But this is an empty phrase when uttered from the lips of these big business politicians. After all, under capitalism, it is not they that really decide. Instead, our fate is left to the caprices of the market.

17. Global action is needed to solve a global problem, but capitalist governments are impotent. Endless climate summits are called and international treaties signed. But this is all so much hot air. Even when agreements are made, these protocols and accords are toothless; the targets non-binding. Under Trump, the US—the world’s largest economy and carbon emitter—has already pulled out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, leaving it dead in the water.

18. At the root of this problem is the barrier of the nation state, as well as that of the private ownership of the means of production. Under capitalism, national governments must ultimately serve the interests of their own capitalist class. Like a thieving band of pirates, they may be able to cooperate for a while, as long as there is enough plunder to go around. But as soon as the loot dries up, the bandits and gangsters will quickly be at each other’s throats. And in this period of protectionism and capitalist crisis, every government is attempting to export its problems elsewhere, leading to “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies, geopolitical instability, and a breakdown of cooperation on international issues.

19. Faced with such impotence, climate strike activists have been taking to the streets en masse—occupying roads and shutting down cities in an effort to force politicians to sit up and take notice. Across the world, millions of students and youth have entered into political activity for the first time, demanding immediate action and systematic change.

20. These mobilizations have filled a new generation with a sense of confidence, power, and purpose. For those protesting, the idea of mass, militant action is now the norm, not the exception. The word “strike” is now firmly at the forefront of young people’s minds.

21. Many activists have correctly concluded that mass mobilization is vital. But we must also learn the lessons from the movement so far, and recognize its limitations. Street protests and student strikes are not enough. Climate activists need to link up with the organized working class and fight for radical political change.

22. This idea of mass mobilization, militant action and systematic change is an enormous step forward compared to the individualistic environmental activism of the past. But, in the absence of a clear and consistent revolutionary leadership, the specter of this old, liberal, petty-bourgeois environmentalism continues to haunt the climate movement. This is most notable in the plethora of weird and wonderful ideas—such as “degrowth” and “anti-consumerism”—that fester in the movement, often dominating the debate and drowning out the radicalism of the student strikers.

23. All of these ideas, at heart, are a regurgitation of the reactionary arguments presented by Thomas Malthus, the early 19th century economist, who asserted that famine, poverty, disease, and widespread mortality were all the result of “overpopulation.” Today, the same argument appears not only in the form of “there are too many people”; “too many mouths to feed”—but also that “we are living beyond our means”; that “we are all consuming too much.” In other words, that it is ordinary people—not the system—that are to blame for the environmental crisis.

Revolutionary Change Not Climate Change Climate Strike Rally Fightback
Image: Fightback (IMT Canada)

24. Frederick Engels answered Malthus directly long ago, however. “Not enough is being produced, that is the root of the whole matter. But why is not enough being produced?” Engels rhetorically asked. “Not because the limits of production—even today and with present day means—are exhausted. No, but because the limits of production are determined not by the number of hungry bellies but by the number of purses able to buy and to pay. Bourgeois society does not and cannot wish to produce any more. The moneyless bellies, the labor which cannot be utilized for profit and therefore cannot buy, are left to the mortality figures.”

25. Malthus’s apocalyptic predictions were also disproven empirically, as advances in agricultural technique enabled larger populations to be sustained, and with higher nutritional levels. Similarly, today, the technologies already exist to produce far more, but without the environmental degradation and destruction associated with the capitalist system. The problem—as Engels remarked—is that capitalism cannot profitably utilize these productive forces.

26. Unsurprisingly, the apologists of capitalism go along with this neo-Malthusian charade, suggesting that we must club together and make “ethical” individual choices—recycle more; fly less; go vegan, etc.—as a solution to solving the environmental crisis. After all, the focus on individual actions and personal lifestyle choices plays a useful role for the ruling class, distracting ordinary people from the real task at hand: to fundamentally transform society along socialist lines.

27. The “solutions” that flow from this individualistic mantra are entirely reactionary. In essence, they are just a “greenwashing” of austerity—telling workers and the poor that they must tighten their belts to solve a problem created by the capitalists and their rotten system.

28. To the “anti-consumerists,” we must ask a very simple question: who is consuming too much? The millions of working-class households in the so-called “developed” world that must choose between heating and eating? The masses in the so-called “developing” world who struggle to feed their families? The workers and poor across the planet who live in a state of poverty amidst plenty?

29. Indeed, as statistics show, a member of the global 1 percent is responsible for 175 times the carbon emissions of someone in the bottom 10 percent. And the poorest half of the world’s population contribute towards only 10 percent of total lifestyle consumption emissions, compared to 50 percent from the richest 10 percent. This “emissions inequality” is only a reflection of the general eye-watering economic equality that is inherent within capitalism.

30. Workers are not stupid. They can see the rank hypocrisy of the establishment and their political spokespersons telling ordinary people to “make sacrifices” for the sake of the planet. Meanwhile, the superrich capitalist elite live on another planet entirely, accumulating obscene levels of wealth and flying around in private jets. Hence the mass gilets jaunes protests in France, against Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to impose higher fuel taxes on workers; or the mass movements seen recently in many ex-colonial countries against the IMF-imposed removal of fuel subsidies.

31. Socialists must oppose all such measures, including so-called “carbon taxes.” These taxes typically fall on household consumption—on fuel or energy—and not on business, shifting the burden onto the shoulders of the working class and the poor. Such taxes are reactionary and regressive. And, in any case, they do not solve the climate crisis, but are just another austerity measure. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the yellow vest protestors, demanding that the capitalists—not the working class—pay for this crisis.

Klimastreik Climate Strike Rally Austria
Image: Der Funke (IMT Austria)

32. Blaming “consumerism” and “growth” is a red herring. Environmental damage is not caused by industrialization or growth, but by the way in which production is organized and controlled under capitalism. Far from providing efficiency, competition and the profit motive lead to a race to the bottom, creating enormous levels of waste and pollution. Corporations build obsolescence into products in order to sell more. A huge advertising industry attempts to convince us to buy things that we don’t need. And companies like Volkswagen actively cheat and break environmental regulations in order to cut costs and boost profits.

33. It is the profit motive, not economic growth itself, that is the problem. We live within an economic system that relies on the constant consumption of commodities and accumulation of profits. The capitalists produce not to meet needs, but to make profits. So if goods are not sold, businesses and industries close down and millions of workers lose their jobs.

34. This is why calls from certain quarters of the green movement for “zero growth” and “degrowth” are reactionary. “Zero growth” under capitalism is called a recession—and it is the working class and the poor who are made to pay. In essence, the “degrowth” demand is an argument for permanent recession and permanent austerity.

35. The whole emphasis of “degrowth” theory is wrong—and thus activity harmful. The question must be one of production, and how we produce; not of consumption and “consumer choices.” What good are individualistic boycotts in the face of the anarchy and chaos of the market? We need a rational plan of production, with democratic control over the economy; not individual boycotts and “ethical consumerism.”

36. Even if we, as a society, wanted to reduce our collective consumption, how would this be possible as long as production is entirely owned, controlled, and decided by the capitalist class? How would we shrink the meat industry? How would we go about limiting the population? Who would decide what, and how much, is produced? Simply to ask such questions demonstrates the absurdity of this individualistic environmentalism, and the reactionary nature of Malthusianism in all its varieties.

37. The coronavirus crisis has massively exposed the limits of this individualistic, neo-Malthusian, regressive approach. The whole world economy has ground to a halt. Planes are not flying. Streets are empty. Demand for oil has collapsed. Household consumption has plummeted. The result is that global carbon emissions are estimated to fall by 8 percent this year. Yet this same level of emissions reduction is needed every year for the next decade in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

38. We can therefore see the reactionary limits of “degrowth” ideology. As the pandemic paralysis shows, under capitalism, such dramatic changes can only be achieved in a completely chaotic way, at the cost of plunging the economy into a severe depression, with mass unemployment, poverty, and starvation. And even these changes barely scratch the surface of what is necessary. Clearly, a systematic transformation of production—and of the whole of society’s organization—is needed to reduce emissions on the scale required.

39. What is needed are not personal lifestyle changes, cuts to individual consumption, or a regression to a more primitive form of production (so-called deindustrialization). There are enough resources produced already for every person on the planet to live a comfortable and decent life. If these were distributed in a rational and equitable way, there would be enough for everyone, without any additional production or waste. What is needed is systematic, fundamental, and international economic change.

40. Under capitalism, technologies and techniques introduced to increase productivity can turn into their opposite and destroy the potential for growth altogether. This can be seen with recent developments in agriculture, where the indiscriminate use of insecticides and artificial fertilizer have decimated insect populations, impoverished the soil, and polluted the water supply. On a wider scale, it is seen by the way in which industry and transport pumps out pollution and carbon emissions, destroying the natural world upon which the whole of human society ultimately depends.

41. This is a confirmation of what Marx explained in Capital, discussing the nature of agricultural production under capitalism: “All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility … Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology … only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the laborer.”

42. None of this is an argument against technology and industry, or in favor of “deindustrialization,” however. Rather, it is an argument against private ownership, the anarchy of the market, and the profit motive. It is an argument in favor of socialist planning; of using science and technology in the interests of people and the planet, not the profits of a tiny few.

43. In short, it is a class question. Who owns? Who decides? The anarchy of capitalism is destroying the environment. We need to plan—rationally and democratically—how we utilize the planet’s resources; what technologies we need to develop and deploy. But, as the old saying goes, you cannot plan what you do not control; and you do not control what you do not own.

Climate Revolution Socialist Appeal
Image: Socialist Appeal (IMT Britain)

44. In many countries, liberal organizations and political parties have attempted to take over, co-opt, and derail the climate movement, sapping the demonstrations and their demands of their radicalism. NGOs such as Greenpeace have often bureaucratically placed themselves at the head of the movement, preaching a “broad church” strategy. Activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, meanwhile, fall into the same trap, depoliticizing protests and appealing to politicians across the political spectrum to “come to the table.”

45. The problem is that climate change is political. It is the capitalists and their system that are responsible for wrecking the planet. Linking up with bourgeois parties and appealing to big business politicians is worse than futile—it is harmful, since it actively waters down the movement’s program and leads activists down a dead end. These establishment politicians defend the interests of the capitalist class, not the needs of society and the environment. The movement must not place any hopes or trust in them, nor in the NGOs and liberals attempting to hoodwink radical young climate strikers.

46. Support for Green parties has risen in some countries on the back of growing environmental concerns and a general distrust of traditional establishment parties. But fundamentally, the Green leaders are just liberals, who do not challenge the system or see the division of society into mutually opposed classes. The example of the new Conservative-Green coalition government in Austria is very telling. Its anti-working-class program can essentially be boiled down to two demands: reduce immigration, and reduce emissions. This has caused the “progressive” mask of the Greens to slip, revealing their true, ugly face.

47. In the other direction, positive steps have been taken to link the environmental question to left-wing political demands. Most notably, the proposal for a Green New Deal (GND) has become a battle cry for the left in the USA and UK. In early 2019, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez presented a resolution in Washington calling on the federal government to curb carbon emissions by investing in renewable energy supplies and creating green jobs. Going further, a motion for a “Socialist Green New Deal”—based on public ownership and democratic control of the economy—was passed at the 2019 Labour Party conference in Britain.

48. But, in reality, the GND slogan is a bit of an empty vessel, capable of being filled with whatever content one desires. This is shown by the variety of supporters who have signed up to AOC’s Green New Deal, including right-wing Democratic presidential candidates such as Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar.

49. These vague GND proposals generally amount to a Keynesian strategy of attempting to regulate and manage the capitalist system. But capitalism cannot be managed. It cannot be tamed and made “green.” As long as the economy is based on production for profit, it will be big business that dictates to governments, not the other way round. In short, rather than offering “system change,” the Keynesian demands of the Green New Deal seek to save the capitalist system from itself.

50. One oft-cited study showed that 100 big companies (mainly fossil fuel producers) are responsible for over 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, it was revealed that just 20 companies have generated one-third of all CO2 since 1965. Similarly, only around 3–10 percent of landfill waste in advanced capitalist countries comes from households; the rest is mainly the result of large-scale industrial processes, construction, and mining.

51. All of this highlights where the real blame for the environmental crisis lies. And it demonstrates clearly the solution: bring these companies and industries under common ownership and democratic control, as part of a rational, socialist plan of production. Only then can we bring about a sustainable economy, where rising living standards are not in contradiction with protecting the planet.

52. In private hands, the major monopolies generate obscene levels of waste and environmental damage. Nationalized under a socialist economic plan, however, they could employ modern green technologies to slash emissions and pollution in the space of a few years, while providing quality food, shelter, education, transport, and healthcare for all.

53. By combining the best scientific minds with the skills of workers in industry, under democratic workers’ control, we can put all of society’s technological abilities and resources at the service of humanity and the planet. The Lucas Plan from 1970s Britain shows the potential. Here, organized workers from the military and aerospace industry drew up a detailed proposal, demonstrating that the same factories, machines and employees could be retooled and redeployed to produce renewable technologies and advanced healthcare equipment, instead of missiles and arms. The workers were ultimately sold out by the parochial Labour and trade-union leaders. But the creative power of the working class to plan production was demonstrated clearly.

54. The example of the Lucas Plan demonstrates the possibility of—and need for—a “climate transition.” There is no reason why a move to green industries, and the closure of polluting ones, must lead to unemployment. Workers can be retrained; factories can be refitted. But this requires public ownership, workers’ control, and an overall plan of production. Left to the market, the mothballing of obsolete industries can only lead to a permanent scar on working-class communities, as the former mining areas of Britain and the Rust Belt in the USA show.

Youth Strike for Climate55. This highlights the need for the environmental movement to link up with the labor movement. In some countries, the climate strikers have correctly reached out to the trade unions for support. Greta Thunberg herself has urged workers across the world to join students on global walkouts. Occasionally, unions have backed this call, promising to strike or protest alongside young activists. This is the correct approach. This is not just an issue for young people, but something that affects all workers.

56. The organized working class must be at the head of the fight against climate change. Groups such as Extinction Rebellion, however, act in such a way as to sideline the labor movement, by focusing exclusively on a strategy of direct action and publicity stunts. Their aim is to “raise awareness” by gaining media attention, often by attaching themselves to buildings and transport, or shutting down roads. In one failed case, activists considered using drones to force London’s Heathrow Airport to close. But nobody from the network even thought of contacting union members in the airport, where staff (including baggage handlers and pilots) were discussing potential strike action. A strike of these workers would have paralyzed the airport—and helped raise the consciousness and confidence of workers everywhere—far more effectively than the irresponsible antics of Extinction Rebellion.

57. Instead of these frivolous and apolitical actions, the climate movement needs to base itself on the mass mobilization of workers and youth around clear socialist demands. The power of the organized working class, armed with a socialist program, would be unstoppable. As the Marxists have always stated, not a lightbulb shines and not a wheel turns without the permission of the working class.

58. Left-wing political and social movements are on the rise around the world. The task is to take the militancy and radicalism of the student climate strikes into the wider labor movement, with workers and youth fighting together for bold socialist environmental policies. Such a program should include demands to:

  • Nationalize the big energy monopolies, fossil fuel corporations and transmission networks under democratic workers’ control, taking our energy supply out of the hands of the profiteers and oil barons. Under public ownership, we could provide mass investment in renewable energy and phase out fossil fuels, whilst simultaneously cutting prices for consumers.
  • Expropriate the construction companies, and take the land and banks into common ownership. In this way, we could undertake a mass public program of insulating existing homes and building new, high-quality, energy-efficient social housing.
  • Bring all transport—ride-hailing services, railways, metro networks, buses, trams, airlines, and shipping—into public ownership. Replace the current chaos with a green, high-quality, wide-ranging, coordinated, integrated, and free public transport system. Nationalize the car manufacturers and aerospace industry under workers’ control in order to invest in green vehicles and airplanes.
  • Put all natural resources—including the land, mines, rivers, and forests—under public ownership and democratic control. Capitalism and imperialism must not be allowed to ravage and ransack the planet for the sake of profit. Implement a mass worldwide program of reforestation and flood defense construction.
  • Kick big business out of the universities. Research and development should be publicly-funded, democratically decided, and oriented towards the needs of society and the planet, not the profits of multinational corporations.
  • Implement democratic workers’ control and management in all nationalized industries and public services, with a worker-led Lucas Plan model to transition from polluting sectors into green industries and jobs.

59. Far from ignoring the question of the environment, Marx and Engels took a deep interest in the subject. But their conclusion then, as ours is now, was that ending the destruction of the natural world would never be possible under a system where capitalist anarchy reigns. A harmonious development between humanity and nature is only possible on the basis of a conscious, socialist plan, as Engels explains:

60. “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.”

61. Only with the socialist transformation of society can we satisfy the needs of the majority in harmony with the environment, instead of generating profits for a parasitical minority. The science and technology exist to deal with climate change. But under capitalism, these forces are destroying planet earth, not saving it. Socialism or barbarism: that is the future before us.

Revolutionary Change Not Climate Change Banner Socialist Revolution NYC
Socialism or barbarism: that is the future before us. / Image: Own Work

Want to get involved? Drop us a line to join the fight for socialism in our lifetime:


Click to Donate

ISSUE 23 IS OUT NOW!
Click to Subscribe to Socialist Revolution Magazine

US IMT Logo

Socialist Revolution is the official publication of the US Section of the International Marxist Tendency.
Contact us at info@socialistrevolution.org or 646-791-6279
STAY CONNECTED