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“Comrades, we need to change”: report from the Ecosocialism: Fracking, Climate and Revolution conference

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Report from the Ecosocialism: Fracking, Climate and Revolution conference held at SOAS on Saturday 7 June 2014

Brian Collier:

This conference was held under the auspices of Socialist Resistance (SR) and Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (rs21) and was a model of revolutionary cooperation on the ground. It consisted of opening and closing plenaries, with two sessions of four simultaneous workshops either side of (a rather late) lunch. There was a good variety of speakers on offer from the two sponsoring organisations, obviously, but also from the Oxford University Fossil Fuel Disinvestment Campaign, the Green Party, Left Unity, Biofuel Watch, the Front de Gauche, Grandparents’ Climate Action, PCS, Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, Frack-Off Manchester, Fuel Poverty Action, Green Left and the Campaign against Climate Change. John McDonnell MP also spoke. It is notable that no one from the International Socialist Network was invited to speak (although I was invited to chair a workshop) and that we were not seriously considered to co-host the conference, despite our longstanding friendly relations with SR. I am sure that this is because we are not considered to have a serious enough commitment to the protection of the environment and especially opposition to climate change. SR have ecosocialism at the heart of their politics and, by the evidence of this conference, there are a large number of rs21 comrades who are passionately committed to this idea, even if they may not use the word ‘ecosocialism’. As catastrophic climate change is the most important issue that the world (and therefore the left) faces in the next 50 years we need to get our act together.

The first speaker in the opening plenary was Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party. She is a very impressive speaker and is definitely on the radical socialist wing of her party. She began by affirming that climate change is the most pressing item on the agenda for any progressive party, but for the most part emphasised her party’s social agenda, saying that our immediate demands should be the implementation of the living wage for all, the renationalisation of the railways and utilities and the defence of the NHS from privatisation. She went on to outline what should be the next steps, firstly the idea of a basic income, which people would get whether in work or not.The first and one of the most important effects of this would be ‘freedom from fear’; working people would not wake up every morning and feel that their jobs (and therefore their homes and the living standards of themselves, their partners and their children) were under threat, leading to a great improvement in the mental health of the nation. It would change wage differentials, as unpopular jobs would not be filled unless they were well paid; she used the example that this might lead to sewer cleaners being paid more than bankers, for example! And it would lead to a big impact upon working hours as people might not choose to work long and anti-social hours if they got a basic income anyway. Which leads us on to her final social point, the gradual progress towards the 21-hour working week (as posited by the New Economics Foundation), which would solve unemployment at a stroke. All these things would lead to a new kind of society that would use less energy, would lead us to want fewer useless consumer goods (because our wants for self-fulfilment would be satisfied in other ways). At the moment we in Britain consume such that, if it were replicated worldwide, we would need three planets to provide the resources (as for the US, don’t ask).Her message was: ‘Be radical, think big!’ A case of the Green talking ‘red’ here, definitely.

Alan Thornett was the next speaker and he did not disappoint, despite having woken up that morning with a problem with his voice. I have been an admirer of him since my schooldays, and I’m now 61! He said that he was pleased that the two organisations were collaborating on such an important issue and that he thought that the event title was very ambitious. His contribution (which was in lieu of Daniel Tanuro, author of Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work, who had to pull out due to family commitments), focused on the question of where ecology stands in the struggle for socialist revolution.

He started off by saying that the science on climate change is now so conclusive that even the BBC probably won’t have Nigel Lawson on any more! But this is no time for levity, we need to look at what’s happening. We are approaching the ‘climate cliff’; this is 2°C in average warming over the entire world, which will have bad consequences in itself; any more than that, say to 4°C and all bets are off. There are tipping points, such as the melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf, which may take up to a thousand years, but could happen in the next century. This will lead to a rise in sea level of somewhere up to nine metres. It’s going to happen unless something drastic is done. Then there is extreme weather, such as Super Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines earlier this year; you can’t blame any single weather event on the warming of the planet, but these things are statistically going to get more common. Ten years ago a tropical storm (‘Vince’) crossed the Atlantic and made landfall in Europe for the first time ever, in Spain. In 2003 a hurricane called Catriona (no relation to Katrina) formed in the Southern Atlantic, again for the first time ever.  We are undergoing what certain biologists call ‘the Sixth Extinction’ (the fifth was the dinosaurs), with half of all the species on the planet under threat. As Alan said, the earth doesn’t belong to us, we’re just stewards, here to hand it on to our descendants; who would want a world without birds or bees (assuming that one without the latter would be able to feed itself without these essential pollinators)?

Where then, asked Alan, does this leave the Marxist tradition? Well, we didn’t have a very good 20th century, to say the least. Marxists have tended to see, in a Stalinist way, nature as an externality, a free good to be exploited, rather than to see ourselves as part of it which Marx did in some of his early works, The German Ideology, and in Volume 3 of Capital. We on the left have always tended to describe our relation to nature in ‘productivist’ language.Alan gave an example of when he worked in Cowley making cars; he said that the union was proud of the exemplary working conditions and wages and that they even had a certain measure of workers’ control. However, they never questioned the anti-social and environmentally destructive nature of the product that rolled off the end of the line.  He now thinks that they should have done.

Conference flyer

SR considers ‘ecosocialism’ a fundamental part of its political identity and that ecological issues should always be central to any analysis of society. We, as socialists, look forward to a revolution which will fundamentally alter the social relations of society; we don’t want to inherit a desert after all. Lots of the damage is being done now and will be long-lasting; we will still find it difficult to defend the planet after a socialist revolution.

Next came Michaela from the Oxford University Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign.She and her fellow students were concerned about climate change and wanted their university to disinvest in fossil fuel shares.  She pointed out that in order to not fall over the ‘climate cliff’ of 2 degrees we need to leave 80% of currently known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Instead of this Oxford University has now a contract with Shell to investigate new ways of extracting them, including Arctic drilling and fracking. The campaign has been targeting JCRs to get them to pass motions against this stupidity and so far has done this in 25 (about a third). They also have links with the Oxfordshire Fossil-free Campaign, which is a broadly-based movement.

After a short break we divided up into workshops on: Marxism and Ecology; Zero Growth and Productivism; Food Sovereignty and Land Grabs and, the one I chaired, The Ruling Class and Climate Change.  I made sure that I introduced myself as a member of the International Socialist Network (of Bradford and Leeds branch, by the way!)  I found it difficult to take notes during this meeting and thus will have to rely on my impressions of it, as I chaired.The two speakers, Amy Gilligan made the fairly standard points that despite paying lip service to the need to address climate change, they find it practically impossible to put in place any effective measures to stop it.In the recent Queen’s speech almost all the measures were environmentally unfriendly and the only sop was the levy on plastic bags! Obama acknowledges the reality of the problem, but is shackled by big business and the free market ideology, which prevents him from actually doing anything about it.

The discussion was wide-ranging, taking in almost all the various opinions except outright denial. Various comrades argued against the debilitating effect of ‘catastrophism’ for example. Jonathan Neale explained that this could be overplayed, that this isn’t the end of the world. Most people would survive, it was just that the world they survived in would be a significantly worse place, with worse politics as the ruling class took measures to ensure that they wouldn’t be more disadvantaged than necessary when the rest of the world woke up to who was responsible. It would be the worst catastrophe since the Black Death, he said, but this time it wasn’t an ‘act of God’, we’d know who to blame. Jonny Jones argued that we shouldn’t just eschew technological fixes, it might be that we’d have to try them and in this he was joined by Amy Gilligan. Phil Ward was against this, both solar panels and wind turbines relied on rare elements and we didn’t know if there were enough of these in the world and what the effect would be on the communities living near where they would be mined. He was much more pessimistic than Jonathan Neale in that he thought many more would die and there would be just a few living in Northern climes in what used to be tundra areas.

Richard Atkinson:

Gareth Dale (rs21) and the economist Özlem Onaran (Socialist Resistance) led a session on 'Zero growth and productivism'. Gareth, in a wide-ranging introduction, emphasised the newness of the very idea of 'growth' which, applied to a nation or economy, only began tentatively to be explored in 17th century England before being systematically developed by Adam Smith and the Physiocrats in the 18th. Even then it was a theory for the ruling class, a capitalist understanding of the meaning of capitalism, until the 1920's - Marx and Engels were ambiguous and critical. It was the twin failures of social democracy and Bolshevism, unable to offer a decisive transformation away for capitalism, that led the left into fetishising growth as the only means to improve working class conditions.

Özlem then explored the ways in which growth had become both unsustainable and largely unrelated to most people's living standards and how zero growth, an essential target, could be managed only with large-scale redistribution of wealth and income: globally from North to South; nationally from rich to poor and within the working class as well - and how Left Unity's economic policy, which she had helped produce, was designed with this in mind. Green 'New Deals' she emphasised would not be enough. While slightly enlarged in discussion I felt that this short meeting could only introduce an issue with vast implications about the nature of capitalist growth and for the aims of socialist change.

The second session in the afternoon consisted of another four workshops. Richard went to Fracking.

The session on fracking, introduced by Eva Barker and Stephen Hall brought out, I thought, how unevenly this new but vital struggle had developed, with most of the London left yet to grasp its importance. So Eva had to explain just what fracking was - a menu of extreme energy techniques - and why it had to be opposed - which probably wouldn't be necessary at a socialist conference in the North West. She emphasised the need to unite disparate wings of the movement and keep them united - particularly the direct actions camps and local residents. Stephen emphasised the urgent need for systematic political, as well as direct, action and suggested taking the issue into the unions - with the BFAWU the first to come out in opposition to fracking - mass mobilisations in opposition to the proposed legislation legalising fracking underground, regardless of opposition from landowners and residents of the land above.

I added a little on the threat of underground coal gasification - burning coal seams in situ - in coastal areas and the ways in which fracking raised large and general political issues to do with democracy, the powers of the state, and the control exerted by capital. Other points to come up included police behaviour at Barton Moss and Balcombe and attempts by fascist groups to infiltrate the movement.

Brian Collier:

I went to the session on Climate Crisis: revolution and alternatives.  The two speakers here were S. Savier (Front de Gauche) and Nancy Lindisfarne (Grandparents’ Climate Action and rs21).This was an intriguing discussion, both speakers emphasising the centrality of ecology to socialism. The comrade from Front de Gauche said that the only way to tackle the linked economic and ecological crises was to shift to ecosocialism as capitalism uses more resources in eight months than can be renewed in a year, which he described as ‘death by corporation’.He pointed out that there is no clear separation between the state and the market: neoliberalism actually means more state intervention, it is just that it is concentrated in surveillance and discipline rather than welfare, something that Bourdieu recognised a couple of decades ago. Neoliberal newspeak talks of liberty while we are policed and our only ecosystem is wantonly laid waste; there is a need for a concerted campaign of counter-propaganda.Front de Gauche are calling for an end to the Fifth Republic and a ‘citizens’ revolution’ to rewrite the constitution and strip the president of his monarchical powers. Comrade Savier argued that need new forms of democracy, and that we should emphasise the ‘commons’ as against the market, but all our forms of commons are under attack.

Nancy spoke of ‘intergenerational justice’. The group she belongs to takes inspiration from the Norwegian Grandparents’ Climate Justice Campaign and the American group, the Gray Panthers. The phrase ‘intergenerational justice’ comes from the ex NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s book Storms of My Grandchildren; the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity.  She was adamant that revolution was the only answer, that our current weak form of ‘democracy’ was incapable of saving the planet. The meeting generally agreed.The problem that the Front de Gauche had, said Savier, was that the Communist Party seemed not very interested in ecosocialism, which he found surprising. Given the record of official CPs here, right up to the Chinese CP now, some of us were not so shocked.

The final plenary was particularly good. It started off with Fiona Brookes, the national coordinator for the Campaign against Climate Change talking about the crucial UN conference on climate in Paris next year. She said that this was our last chance, we couldn’t afford another Kyoto or Copenhagen and that, if there was no satisfactory agreement that the time for demonstrations and protest was past, we had to fight. We had to bring major cities around Europe to a halt by involving students and trade unions, there was no alternative. She was followed by Claire Walton of Fuel Poverty Action, who also linked austerity and climate and also advocated direct action.

The day was summed up by Jonathan Neale of rs21, a long time climate activist and for a number of years the secretary of the Campaign against Climate Change. He re-iterated what he’d said in the meeting I chaired and, indeed, what he says in his excellent article in the latest issue of Socialist Resistance, entitled ‘Climate Change and Socialists’. If the climate crisis starts affecting the ruling class they won’t suddenly say, ‘Hey guys, you know what, we were wrong’. They will bring out the iron fist to ensure that their rule continues, but they will justify this by using extreme green rhetoric: in effect we will have ‘green fascism’, not in the sense that we have it now, with a few romantic thugs tagging along to the anti-fracking movement, but in the sense that we will have an authoritarian state violently enforcing policies that protect the ruling class in an extreme situation. We need to act before we get there. Jonathan pointed out that socialists have had a dismal record over the environment and that Greens have had to point out all the problems. The trouble is that they have come up with environmentalist solutions, which are based upon morality or the market, and in neither case will they work. We have ignored the problems, but it is only socialists who have the answers. Trouble is, we can’t just turn up and tell people that, having been missing before. We need to earn our respect in campaigning against the kind of society that is inexorably leading us towards catastrophic climate change during which a billion people might die. Only if we are the best fighters will people listen to our solutions. 

This was a great conference with an extremely high intellectual content. It was also very competently organised, after a very small initial hitch. I’m sorry we in the IS Network weren’t asked to be involved, but I know why that is, I think. We are very good on certain issues, feminism in particular, which is not surprising given the reasons that we split from the SWP, and we should be very proud of that. We are also not behind the game when it comes to anti-fascist work and rank and file trade unionism. Where we are woeful is on the environment and especially climate change (which should be the major thing the left concentrates on, not to the exclusion of other important issues, but it should always be in our sights). SR complained that the agenda for the ‘regroupment’ conference was too full, but they also critically noted that the environment was conspicuous by its absence. 

SR are committed ecosocialists and they see in rs21 a group that takes that agenda seriously. They look at us and don’t see such partners. Comrades, we need to change.