Tag Archives: environment

Top 10 Ways to Save Ourselves From Global Warming

7 Oct

My fellow lobsters, we are being cooked.

I know some of you don’t believe it and others have come to the conclusion there is nothing we can do, but the simple truth is the gas has been turned on, the fire lit and the temperature is slowly rising. There is no significant disagreement amongst our lobster pot scientists about these basic facts. In fact the latest study argues the water is much hotter than previously thought. Our only way of avoiding the rolling boil is to come up with a plan to turn the gas off and then take the steps necessary to implement that strategy. But, as individuals we cannot claw our way to a solution. Lobsters of the world we must join together.

Here are 10 things we can do to start:

10. Read Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything — Capitalism vs. the Climate. This is a great way to become informed about the problem and what to do about it. Klein offers a comprehensive, thoughtful, witty and sometimes personal analysis of how we can still save the planet, if enough people put their minds and bodies into the project. The book is an absolute must-read for every environmentalist and everyone who has ever challenged the status quo.

9. Help create and strengthen local food systems. Build and participate in self-sustaining regional economies. Demand governments get rid of “free trade” agreement language that prevents this or limits measures that would reduce global warming.

8. Escape the clutches of the private automobile. Walk, take public transit, ride a bike, join a car share and demand cities that thrive on human energy in a sustainable relationship with nature. Understand there is a better, healthier life waiting if we evolve beyond homo automotovis. Read Stop Signs — Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay by Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi, an entertaining and enlightening road trip through a car-crazy world.

7. Spread the word that human beings are part of nature and do not have dominion over it. Learn from aboriginal peoples around the world about our place in the environment.

6. Support alternative energy sources. We must quickly replace all carbon-based energy with alternatives, a project that is doable. The barrier is not technological but rather economic and political. The only reason burning fossil fuels is currently cheaper than wind, solar or geothermal is because the carbon-based fuel sector does not pay for the real cost of its emissions.

5. Assert the principle that polluters must pay for all the negative consequences of what they put into the environment. We must calculate the price of repairing the damage caused and add this to their cost of production. Not paying the true cost of production is, in effect, a subsidy. Ending that subsidy will leave most of the fossil fuel industry uneconomic.

4. Get off the consumption treadmill. Every time you think about acquiring more stuff or buying more services ask yourself these questions: Do we really need this? Is this good or bad for the environment? To answer these questions objectively we must understand and combat the marketing/advertising system that twists our emotions and desires to mould us into the sort of consumers that make the most profit for multinational corporations.

3. Elect and support governments that take global warming seriously. Without that we have little hope of success. To ensure that the governments we elect really do what is best for people and our planet rather than what is good for the rich and powerful, we must end the power of money to control politicians.

2. Work to change our current economic system, which is the ultimate source of the problem. We must construct an economy based on human need rather than capitalist greed. The foundation of this new economy must be an understanding that our most basic human need is a safe and healthy environment. To ensure that our economy works for the benefit of all it must be democratic and inclusive, rather than run by and for a wealthy minority.

1. Become part of a mass movement to make all of the above happen. We must come together to say no to any further expansion of carbon extraction. We must blockade the carbon industry into extinction. To succeed we must build a grand coalition of all those who are fighting for a better world. This means environmentalists finding common cause with the union movement, First Nations, poor people, poor nations, liberation movements, anti-capitalists, and with all those who do battle against the many forms of inequality.

Lobsters of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but the chains that keep you on the stove.

Gary Engler

Global warming is caused by capitalist greed

30 Apr

Humans have caused climate change by pumping ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and we must quickly cut these emissions.

True, but what has this got to do with unions?

Well, at their core unions are organizations that bring people together to fight for the common good. This essential truth is reflected in the structure, philosophy and history of most unions.

But exactly whose “common good” a union is fighting for can vary widely.

Is it narrowly defined as immediate job interests of local union members? Is it the common good of all those working in a particular trade? All union members in one industry?

Or is it more widely defined as the common good of every union member? Every worker in a particular country? Of all Canadians? All the workers of the world? Every person in the world? Or even wider as the common good of all life on the planet?

The truth is every thoughtful union member, and especially every union leader, must consider the common good from many different perspectives. Everyone has more than one self-interest and therefore more than one common good.

No one is solely a pipefitter, nurse, front desk clerk; or employee of General Motors; we are also children, parents, residents of a city or town, citizens of a country, inhabitants of a planet who are dependent on a common environment, and much more besides.

But unions often find it easiest to fight for the narrowest common good, the immediate self-interest of workers in a particular trade, industry, or company. Higher pay, improved benefits, better job security — members almost always cheer if a union achieves these things. Fighting for all life on the planet or against inequality is a bit more complicated.

But there is another reason as well why unions find it easiest to fight for the narrowest common good. “Looking after No. 1” is what capitalism tells people to do. You are a consumer. Buying more is what life is all about.

In fact, proponents of capitalism argue there is no such thing as the common good, that we are all simply individual consumers and therefore unions are an illegitimate intrusion into the free market. Still, if workers are going to unite for any purpose it had better be limited to stuff like higher pay, something that allows people to buy more and does not challenge capitalism.

So, here’s the reality we face: In so far as a union, its leadership and members have bought into capitalism, the greater the likelihood that union will choose to focus on a very narrow self-interest and ignore such issues as climate change or inequality. Some unions do buy into capitalism despite the fact it does not like workers joining together to fight for any common good, whether narrowly or broadly defined. If it were up to capitalists there would be no unions at all. Capitalists — the bosses — are not our friends. The more people buy into their system the weaker unions are.

And the opposite is also true. The more people come together to fight for the common good, the stronger unions are. The more unions fight for the widest common good, the more people will be on our side and the stronger unions will be. The more unions fight the existing system the stronger unions are.

History shows that the periods of greatest growth in unions were times when capitalism faced widespread challenges and the periods when unions have shrunk, like during the past 20 years, were times when opposition to capitalism was weak.

History also shows that unions have been willing to fight for the widest common good despite opposition from the rich and powerful. Unions were part of the struggle to end slavery and child labour; unions helped win universal voting rights, public education, equal rights, Old Age Pensions, Medicare, the 40-hour work week, paid vacations and numerous other social programs that have benefited society as a whole.

It won’t be easy to stop global warming. Many brothers and sisters earn their living extracting oil, building private automobiles and mining coal, industries that must shrink or disappear to save our planet. Of course this raises difficulties inside the labour movement because it pits narrow self-interest against the wider common good.

But progressive unions were not deterred by similar internal problems in the struggle for civil rights or against sexism and homophobia. As in those battles we must do what is necessary and right. We must demand jobs that do not harm the environment. We must not shy away from battling climate change because there is no more important common good than the health of our environment. We must learn from and work with environmentalists.

But environmental activists must also learn an important lesson from the long history of the labour movement: Capitalism is the problem and certainly not the solution.

The capitalist drive to maximize profits explains the externalizing of environmental costs. Capitalism is a system of small minorities profiting at the expense of others. Private ownership of what are social means of livelihood allows capitalists to make decisions that pass the real costs of industry to communities, workers, future generations and other species.

Capitalism requires growth. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live with less stuff?

If a capitalist economy shrinks for a sustained period the system goes into a crisis. Banks crash, unemployment rises and wars suddenly make sense to rich people in order to get their system growing again.

Supporters of capitalism claim the system is based on freedom and choice, but when it comes to the environment for many people this amounts to the freedom to choose between destroying the planet or having a job. The promoters of tar sands, fracking, coal mining and pipelines are explicit about this. The business pages are full of stories quoting the captains of the carbon-industrial complex as telling us: “You must choose between economic prosperity and what is good for the environment, because you can’t have both.”

With capitalism they are correct.

Yet someenvironmentalists, as well as some union members, look to capitalism for solutions. That’s like expecting Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to tell the truth. A sustainable, democratic economy is incompatible with a system run in the interests of a tiny minority that constantly demands more profit.

Science leaves little reasonable doubt that the burning of currently known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas will push atmospheric carbon dioxide levels past a tipping point, after which rising global temperatures will irreversibly undermine the conditions on which human life as we know it depends.

Despite the evidence, today’s capitalism rests on the expansion of fossil fuel production and use.

In Canada capitalist investment is focused on expanding tar sands production. The promoters claim that these developments will create jobs. But every analysis shows more jobs would be produced if equivalent investments were made in solar, wind and geothermal power. Far more jobs could be produced by investing in domestic employment for domestic markets, in the production and distribution of sustainable local agriculture, clothing, etc. Even more jobs would be created by investments in childcare, elder care, social housing, public transit and other green infrastructure.

More jobs but less profit. Capitalists invest in fossil fuels because corporate profits now largely depend on cheap fuel. Equivalent profits cannot be made meeting actual human needs.

So, unions and environmentalists share a common enemy: an economic system run by and for the wealthiest people in the world.

Together we can fight for a different sort of economic system that will prosper in harmony with the environment. Or apart we can fiddle with capitalism as our planet burns.

Gary Engler

From a speech given on the weekend at the Peoples’ Social Forum Assembly on Climate and Oil & Gas in B.C.

‘The Sixth Extinction’ and our looming catastrophe

24 Apr

Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is warming the planet, melting glaciers and polar ice caps, raising sea levels, causing more destructive hurricanes, floods, and droughts and increasing ocean acidity. So far corporations, governments, electoral parties and the media are largely indifferent.

When presented with the evidence, profit-seekers may concede that perhaps something should be done. The claim that climate change is just a theory is used to justify inaction: no particular storm, hurricane or flood can be directly blamed on the burning of fossil fuels; perhaps the sun or tides or other natural cycles are to blame. Anyway, the threat is in the distant future — long beyond normal quarterly or annual financial reports, beyond the four or six year terms of most governing parties.

In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert points to a direct, indisputable connection between rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the increasing acidity of oceans.

A third of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere rains into seas. Carbon dioxide dissolved in water becomes carbonic acid. As aquatic acidity rises, the shells of crustaceans weaken and dissolve. Billions of micro-organisms along with lobsters, oysters and coral reefs can no longer survive. As crustaceans disappear so do the creatures that depend on them as food sources, fishes and land animals like human beings.

Kolbert is a staff writer for The New Yorker who earlier published, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. As its title indicates, The Sixth Extinctionfocuses on epochal species extinctions. Current science records six major extinctions. The Fifth Extinction, the most widely known, wiped out dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It is attributed to a massive meteor strike off Yucatan. The immediate shock wave caused wide destruction. Clouds of dust then enveloped the planet, altering climates and vegetation.

Scientists call the current extinction, the Sixth, the Anthropocene, the human-caused extinction. The capacity of human beings to alter environments can be traced back at least 11,000 years when large animals, like mammoths, began to disappear. Since then, humans have leveled great forests, altered and blocked the flow of major rivers.

For the last 500 years global exchange and industrial capitalism have dramatically transformed flora, fauna and micro-organisms everywhere. Humans have added massive amounts of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to soils and waterways. Our dependence on fossil fuel energy has increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to levels not seen in millions of years.

How much of a threat is rising carbon dioxide levels? The past may give us a glimpse of what could happen.

The Third Extinction, the End-Permian, 250 million years ago, was triggered by a massive release of carbon dioxide — from causes not yet understood. Temperatures soared. The chemistry of the oceans changed dramatically. As waters acidified, reefs collapsed; dissolved oxygen levels fell; aquatic organisms that relied on oxygen suffocated. They were replaced by others that used sulfur as an energy source. These gave off hydrogen sulfide, a toxin to most organisms on land and sea. “Glassy purple seas released poisonous bubbles that rose to a pale green sky.” Ninety per cent of land and ocean species disappeared.

Today rising carbon dioxide levels are measurably increasing the acidity of oceans. Coral reefs are shrinking in the Caribbean, off Australia and elsewhere. Other sea life is already under threat. In early 2014, Vancouver Island scallop producers reported that ten million scallops had failed to mature. British Columbia oyster stocks have also declined dramatically.

The Sixth Extinction leaves no doubt that carbon dioxide emissions are a looming catastrophe, far more serious than the profit-seeking establishment would have us believe. The problem is capitalism, a system that entitles major shareholders and top corporate executives to direct economies in their private interests. Capitalist competition drives corporations to maximize profits. Corporate control of the media makes people believe that profits are more important than employment, decent wages and the environment.

The Sixth Extinction makes it clear that action to cut reliance on fossil fuel energy is needed urgently. It is also a popularly written sketch of the evolution of scientific revolutions. Its many anecdotal asides make it an easy read.

Al Engler

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
 by Elizabeth Kolbert
(Henry Holt and Co.,
 2014; $28.00)


Workers suffer while rich profit from oil sands fever

27 Dec

A clear diagnosis of the Oil Sands fever variant of Dutch Disease may be just what the doctor ordered to rally Canadian workers in the fight against global warming.

A rapid increase in natural resource investment and revenue usually drives up a nation’s currency. This generally makes other industries less competitive and can greatly weaken a country’s manufacturing base.

Widely known as the “Dutch Disease” (named after a period of rapid expansion of the natural gas industry in the Netherlands), this well established economic paradox has become a taboo subject in this country. Canada’s highly class-conscious elite is worried that manufacturing workers might make common cause with environmental groups and even some business sectors to challenge the carbon/profit bomb known as the tar sands.

A recent Pembina Institute/Equiterre report titled Booms, Busts and Bitumen argues that Canada’s economy is facing “Oil Sands fever”. The study points out that the Bank of Canada believes one-third of the Canadian manufacturing sector’s decline has been caused by a more expensive dollar, which rose alongside the price of oil from $.61 US in 2002 to $1.10 US in 2007 (and has hovered near par since). The study concludes that 40% to 75% of the currency increase has been caused by rising commodity prices, principally oil.

The higher price has led to a boom in production and export. Between 2002 and 2012 energy grew from less than 13% of total Canadian exports to over 25%. And if plans to double tar sands production over the next decade are realized, this dependence will increase.

A February Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study gives a sense of the jobs impact of Oil Sands fever. The Bitumen Cliff notes: “The forestry sector lost close to 30,000 positions. And the manufacturing industry, of course, haemorrhaged nearly a half-million positions. For every new job created in the petroleum sector during the past decade, 30 have been lost in manufac­turing. Across all of the export-oriented goods industries… net employment declined by almost 520,000 jobs in the past decade.”

While the precise job toll is debatable, the rapid growth in tar sands exports has undoubtedly hurt manufacturers.

Despite the obvious link between tar sands expansion, a higher dollar and a decline in manufacturing, corporate sycophants denounce any politician or established organization that draws attention to the relationship.

Federal Leader of the Opposition Tom Mulcair was aggressively attacked for raising the issue as was former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. In response to the Pembina/Equiterre report Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran called the mainstream Pembina Institute “off-kilter … fomenter of oil sands phobia … keen on triggering a nation-splitting debate over the oil sands.” For his part, Sun Media’s Lorne Gunter wrote: “Left-wing environmentalists should just come clean: they hate the oil industry, they hate profits and love big government.”

Both Corcoran and Gunter cited a recent Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME) study lauding the tar sands. It notes: “In recent years, much of the discussion linking the oil sands with manufacturing has included so-called ‘Dutch disease,’ with any supposed relationship being characterized as inherently negative. While the effect of the rising dollar has impacted the competitiveness of the Canadian manufacturing sector, especially exports, the underlying problem was poor labour productivity, lack of diversity among customers, and lower rates of overall capital investment. While increased investment in the oil sands may have strengthened the Canadian dollar, it is by no means the root cause of the challenges faced by Canadian manufacturing. Rather than having a negative impact on Canadian industry, the oil sands are providing a customer base for manufacturers.”

While most sane people would argue it makes little sense for the lobbying arm of Canada’s export-oriented manufacturers to dismiss oil-fuelled currency increases that have added 5, 10 or 30 percent to their costs, the CME is a highly ideological institution. When environmental or labour regulations add a few percentage points to their costs it goes berserk. For instance, before Parliament ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 the CME claimed that reducing greenhouse gas emissions 6% from 1990 levels by 2012 would cost the country 450,000 manufacturing jobs. (Perhaps CME researchers should check to see if they didn’t mistake a minus sign for a plus symbol since the trashing of Canada’s Kyoto commitments through tar sands expansion has contributed to significant job losses in manufacturing.)

The CME tends to represent the voice of its biggest members, many of whom have plants in other countries. They can shift operations to lower-cost jurisdictions or use the threat of moving jobs to force wage and benefit cuts.

But that’s only part of the explanation for the CME’s pro tar sands position. That organization is in fact a mouthpiece for capitalists who are more widely invested than ever before and thus less wedded to particular firms. Without too much difficulty they can move their capital from lower margin to higher profit industries. It’s all about chasing profits and damn the negative consequences for workers.

In recent years the tar sands have been a major source of profit making. The Parkland Institute estimates that oil sands operators realized pre-tax profits of $260 billion between 1986 and 2011 (the public owners of these resources received less than 10 per cent of that sum). Over the past decade Canadian resource companies’ profit margins have nearly doubled the service, manufacturing and “nonfinancial” sectors of the economy. According to a late 2011 calculation, the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange topped $379 billion.

The boom in tar sands profits and stock prices clearly benefits leading Canadian capitalists. A recent Canadian Business magazine profile of the “100 richest Canadians” explains: “Collectively, the individuals on the Rich 100 are worth $230 billion, more than the total gross domestic product of many countries in the world, including New Zealand, Ireland and Portugal. And this year has been one of their best ever. Their combined net worth surged by more than 15% … While the actual economies of Canada and the U.S. aren’t faring particularly well, so long as the U.S. Federal Reserve maintains its stimulus program, stock markets will tick higher.”

The “100 richest Canadians” – and the rest of the 0.01% of top shareholders who control most corporations – dominate corporate lobbying associations such as the CME and they also have significant influence with many think tanks, university departments and news outlets. Like their wealthy patrons, these institutions tend to back whatever generates the most profit (that’s the point of capitalism after all). As a result, there’s little interest in discussing the deleterious job impacts of Oil Sands fever.

But environmentalists and union activists should be making common cause by explaining how tar sands profits that go to the rich and powerful cost Canadian workers hundreds of thousands of jobs. Expansion of the tar sands and the resulting bouts of Oil Sands fever may be good for capitalists but it will further weaken the job market and do great harm to Canadian workers.

 Yves Engler

Workers and their unions must fight climate change

24 Dec

For those of us in the labour movement, tis the season to ponder what good our unions can do in the upcoming year and to renew our commitment to a key principle: What we desire for ourselves we wish for all.

At this time of year, while many of us focus on gifts, it is easy to desire the latest gadget, that new car or even a remodelled bathroom. But, most of us would agree, in the grand scheme of human priorities, certain fundamentals are more important than simply acquiring more things.

For example, decent housing, nutritious food, public education, a safe and loving atmosphere to nurture every child and access to quality healthcare would all be understood by most union members as essential, rather than as simply “stuff” that would be nice to possess. In other words, when we come together in a union we acknowledge certain basic social priorities. Thus the first unions fought for a living wage, the eight-hour day, public schools, pensions etc., not simply more money. Without the basics of life, being able to buy more things is meaningless.

And that’s how we need to think about our environment and especially global warming.

There is nothing more important than a healthy environment. Without that, all the other fundamentals — food, housing, education, family, leisure, pensions etc. — are at risk. If human activity, in the pursuit of accumulating more stuff, destroys the liveability of our planet, we will have done a great wrong to all creatures, including ourselves.

And the best evidence we have is as categorical as science gets. Humans have caused climate change by pumping ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and we must quickly cut these emissions.

Here’s how one leading climate change expert put it earlier this month:

“We need a radical plan for cutting emissions to avoid the radical repercussions of climate change,” said professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre, based at the University of Manchester in England. “To do this, industrial countries have to cut energy use by around 8-10% each year or 60-70% over the decade, and we have to start now.

“Low-carbon supply and incremental reductions are no longer sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. We have to have early, rapid and deep reductions in emissions and this can only be achieved in the short term through reductions in energy use.”

Will corporations that dominate the world economy provide us with the “rapid and deep reductions in emissions” that scientists tell us must happen soon to avoid environmental catastrophe? No.

Rather than cutting back on emissions we see corporations invest billions in the tar sands, fracking, offshore drilling and digging up more coal, because all are profitable.

Our current economic system requires ever expanding profit. As a result, if corporations were people they would be diagnosed as psychopaths. They are ruthless in the single-minded pursuit of profit. Psychopaths feel no empathy for their victims. They do not care if the consequences of their actions could soon be the overheating of our planet to the degree that our grandchildren no longer have a habitable environment.

So who will fight to protect our planet?

For 175 years unions have fought for justice, democracy and to make life better for all. We helped end child labour and slavery. We fought for universal franchise and equal rights for all. These battles required enormous sacrifices to overcome opposition of the rich and powerful.

Sacrifices will be necessary as well to stop global warming. Many brothers and sisters earn their living extracting oil, building cars and mining coal, industries that must shrink or disappear to save our planet. This raises difficulties inside the labour movement.

But progressive unions were not deterred by similar contradictions in the struggle for civil rights or against sexism and homophobia. Similarly we must not shy away from battling climate change.

Unions must defend our common interests. There is no more important common interest than the health of our environment.

Gary Engler

Do we have enough time to fix global warming?

13 Dec

Even Vladimir Lenin was surprised when the Russian Revolution began in 1917.

Is this just an interesting historical tidbit or a profound example of how fast seemingly stable political, social and economic systems can collapse?

The subject of how long lasting our current system really is comes up frequently in discussions about global warming and what we can do about it.

Usually the conversation goes something like this:

“Scientists tell us we’re getting close to the point of no return. We don’t have much time left to drastically cut our carbon emissions.”

“Yes, but corporation keep investing billions in the tarsands, in coal, in building ever more private automobiles. The oil sector, that’s where the money and jobs are.”

“Even the people who understand global warming is a problem need jobs.”

“Governments pay lip service to combating global warming, but in reality they follow the money too. Big corporations buy them off. They run everything.”

“The problem is capitalism. Capitalists require ever-expanding profits and will do anything to keep them flowing. That’s just the way the system is.”

“So what can we do about it?”

“Get rid of capitalism.”

“How likely is that?”

“I guess it depends on how many people come to the same conclusion and are willing to do what it takes to change the system.”

“In other words, it’s hopeless.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Look around, people don’t care. They’re too busy shopping or worrying about their own private problems. People are too scared to join a union, let alone overthrow capitalism.”

“Things can change, very quickly.”

And that’s where the story about how the Russian Revolution surprised everyone comes up.

For those of us who understand the importance of acting quickly to reduce carbon emissions and that capitalism is incapable of dealing with this urgent problem, the question of how fast we could build a new, environmentally friendly economic system is critically important.

Is there time or are we cooked? Literally.

The answer depends, in large part, on one’s views about how “revolution” occurs.

If you believe that major change only happens after long years of organizing by dedicated, professional revolutionaries building a party that can lead the masses into a brave new future, then human beings today are probably like a lobster in a pot just before the chef turns on the burner: “I don’t know what all the fuss is about. This water seems quite comfortable to me.” It’s doubtful if we have the time to develop the cadre necessary for taking over a system as complex and all-encompassing as world capitalism.

On the other hand, if you believe in the power and ability of ordinary people to rise up when confronted by a crisis that affects us all, then it is possible to be optimistic. If the system you want to build begins with working people around the world taking over the reins of the economy and replacing capitalist minority rule with economic democracy, then that could happen relatively quickly. Yes, it still requires “leaders” working hard, talking and organizing, but history offers many examples of ideas spreading quickly and then people acting upon them.

The critical element — the “objective conditions” — already exists. Capitalism itself has created an economy overwhelmingly dominated by social labour. This gives the working class the potential power to take over almost every part of the economy in the vast majority of major economies around the world.

Most people in most countries are workers. If we chose to do so, we could easily expand one-person, one-vote decision-making into every area where people work collectively, which is most of our economy. We could limit private property to what is truly private and doesn’t give an individual power over others. We could move to a system of social ownership where multiple democratic owning communities based on the appropriate level of government — local, state/provincial, national, international — replaced corporations. If we did these three things the system of greed that propels capitalists to earn profits, regardless of the consequences to our environment, would no longer exist.

Saving the planet from global warming and ensuring a future for our grandchildren are powerful incentives for billions of working people to participate in this necessary global movement.

Can it happen quickly enough? Yes.

Will it happen quickly enough? That is up to us.

Gary Engler 

Unions should lead the fight against global warming

4 Dec

What is working class culture?

This question arose as part of a conversation about convincing members of Canada’s newest union, Unifor, to make saving the planet from climate change a priority.

“You’ll run up against working class culture,” said a friend who considers himself an anarchist.

“What do you mean?” I responded.

“Consumerism. High paying jobs with lots of overtime to buy ever more stuff, two cars, a big house in the suburbs with NASCAR and hockey on the two big screens in the basement, plus Housewives of Vancouver on the TV in the kitchen,” he said. “And how many thousands of your members build cars, dig up the tarsands and work in oil refineries? How can people with jobs like that ever be environmentalists?”

The first response I thought of was: “Are you saying soldiers never turn against war? Because history proves they do,” which spun the argument in another direction.

But the subject of working class culture lingered. Is there one and is it defined by consumerism? Or are there many, including ones opposed to the “culture” that TV tries to convince us is how we all live?

And regardless if there is only one, or many, where does it/they come from? Does culture simply happen or is it imposed upon us? Is it something that we can consciously build?

Certainly working class movements in the past have sought to educate themselves in an attempt to create an explicitly anti-capitalist culture. Many social democratic, anarchist and communist groups, including unions, grew into mass movements precisely by challenging the dominant ideology and suggesting an attractive, believable alternative. Rather than bemoan, but accept, the culture that rulers imposed on the working class, social democrats, anarchists and communists instead talked and listened to their fellow workers, convincing them that an alternative to capitalism was desirable, possible and necessary.

Those of us who understand that capitalism is environmentally unsustainable must do the same work today. We must inform people about the importance of immediate action to slow global warming and fix other ecological rifts that threaten human existence on our planet. We must challenge the notion that capitalists will solve environmental problems when in fact they are the ones who profit from mining the tarsands and building the pipelines which threaten our children’s and grandchildren’s future. We must point out that constant economic growth (unsustainable on a finite planet) is at the core of capitalism. But most important of all, we must offer a vision of an alternative to capitalism. This system must be environmentally sustainable, more democratic, provide a comfortable life and be fun to build.

One such alternative to capitalism is economic democracy. This means replacing master-servant relations with workplace democracy, replacing capitalist title with equal human entitlement and replacing corporate ownership with social ownership. The essential ideas of economic democracy are: Expanding one-person, one-vote decision-making into every area where people work collectively, which is the vast majority of our economy; Limiting private property to what is truly private and doesn’t give an individual power over others; Replacing corporations with multiple democratic owning communities based on the appropriate level of government, local, state/provincial, national or international.

In an economic democracy individual greed could not overrule the collective good, which would be determined by democratic means. When the majority of people understand the causes and dangers of global warming, their governments and collective enterprises would become agents of change rather than barriers. Entrenched interests who profit from spewing ever more carbon into the atmosphere would not control them. If workers and communities ran industries, such as the automobile and oil sectors that must change or disappear if we are to make the necessary drastic cuts in carbon emissions, they would be a lot less likely than profit-addicted corporations to blackmail society into supporting private interests that damage the environment. Worker and community owned enterprises would support just transition strategies to move jobs from polluting to sustainable industries. They would also be much more likely to promote an alternative culture of artistic leisure over mindless consumerism.

Environmentalists in and outside the union movement should not cite “working class culture” as an excuse to avoid raising critical issues about the jobs we do. Hundreds of millions of workers have proved capable over the past two centuries of managing the contradiction of opposing capitalism while seemingly dependent on capitalists for their jobs. Pointing out how capitalists use jobs to blackmail us into supporting their interests helps people understand why capitalism is the problem, not the solution. Rather than being a barrier to environmental understanding the fact that capitalism cannot do what is necessary to repair the damage it has already done, is a powerful argument in favour of building a working class alternative to the current system.

Strong, democratic, environmentally conscious, militant unions are one of the keys to success in this project. Such unions do not shy away from difficult but necessary discussions.

Gary Engler

Economic democracy is the solution to global warming

18 Oct

Why are greenhouse gas emissions not being drastically curtailed? As carbon dioxide levels rise, temperatures rise, oceans become more acidic, polar ice caps melt, sea levels rise, the atmosphere absorbs more water. Floods, hurricanes and droughts become more frequent and more destructive.

Science makes it clear that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, natural gas—and biofuels.

In September 2013 scientists on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their conclusion: the burning of fossil fuels at current levels will lead to devastating warming within this century. In 2012, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study reached the same conclusion. This was a surprise since it had been financed by Charles Koch and led by Richard Muller, one of the few reputable scientists who had remained a global warming sceptic. Shortly after the release of the Berkeley study, the U.S. association of meteorologists, who had not taken a position on global warming, announced that they accepted the science.

In the face of the scientific consensus and worsening natural disasters, corporate capitalism responds by investing billions in fracking, tar sands, deep sea petroleum development, and expanding pipelines.

Although some individual capitalists are alarmed by global warming, capitalists as capitalists focus on maximizing profits. In theory, green industry could be just as profitable, but profits are made on existing corporations. In resource extraction, materials processing, agribusiness, manufacturing, international trade, communications, and finance, profits are based on cheap energy from fossil fuels.

Supporters of the system claim that capitalism empowers individuals. Capitalism has actually pushed individual enterprise to the fringes of economies. No more than ten percent of populations are self-employed. In Canada and the U.S. ninety percent depend on wage and salary work. Although capitalism gives individual capitalists title to means of livelihood—title that is bought and sold for private profit—wage and salary workers are actually engaged in cooperative, coordinated social labor.

Corporations, capitalism’s dominant institutions, are minority-owned collectives that dominate markets, monopolize supplies, and control technologies. The twenty largest transnational corporations have more revenues than most governments.

Corporate governance is neither democratic nor egalitarian. Those with the most shares have the most votes. Less than one in four own any corporate shares. Most corporate shares are owned by less than five per cent of populations. Major shareholders and top executives, who combined are less than 0.1 percent of populations, control most corporations.

Under capitalism, the productivity of social labor has substantially increased. Aided by technology and expanding markets, humankind can now deforest entire continents, level mountains, dam major rivers, deplete mineral reserves, and fish sea life to extinction. Meanwhile, private title allows corporations to give priority to profits and to externalize environmental costs, to pass these on to communities, workers, future generations, and other species.

In the 1970s, neo-conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan initiated what are now called neo-liberal policies. Taxes paid by corporations and the wealthy were cut. Laws and regulations were changed to make it more difficult for unions to organize and to make gains in collective bargaining. Public utilities and services were privatized. Capital was freed to move abroad in pursuit of cheaper labor, lower taxes and weaker environmental standards. As capitalists got richer, they gained more capacity to dominate political agendas and to manipulate the media and the outcome of elections.

So long as capital-owning minorities are entitled to direct economic and political activity in their private interests, private profit will take precedence over human wellbeing. The alternative is economic democracy. With economic democracy, community ownership would replace corporate ownership. Everyone—wage and salary workers, the self-employed, the unemployed, students, and the retired—would have a right to a voice and equal vote in their communities’ economic decisions. Workplace democracy would replace master-servant relations.

When everyone is equally entitled, communities will focus on meeting human needs, on providing employment and social services, on sustaining and improving the quality of present and future life. Instead of focusing on what is the most profitable, communities—responsible to all equally—would aim to balance employment opportunities with available labor. Public revenues would be balanced with needed social services. Imports would be balanced with exports. Industrial activity would be deliberately limited to the carrying capacity of environments.

Humankind cannot afford to delay action until the system changes. We must act now to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As individuals we can walk instead of driving, live in smaller residences, travel fewer air miles, eat less meat and choose produce grown organically. But so long as capitalists are entitled to direct economies in their private interests, corporations will continue to externalize environmental costs. The corporate media will continue to identify happiness with consuming more. Most employment will continue to depend on capitalist profit.

Isolated individual action has little impact, but human activity does transform the natural environment for good and ill. Capitalists can pass on environmental costs; humankind cannot.

We can begin by acting together to reduce damage to the environment. Some action—far too little—is already being taken to cut dependence on fossil fuels. Cities can be reconfigured so that most people can walk or bike to work, to school, to entertainment and recreation.

Investment in public transit can reduce dependence on private automobiles. With current technology, wind and solar energy could be much more widely used. Geothermal and waste heat networks would further reduce fossil fuel emissions. Governments could speed up development of cheap, safe, plentiful sources of energy. Public investment—freed from nuclear weapons interests—could determine whether breeder reactors would eliminate radioactive waste, and whether thorium reactors would eliminate the danger of meltdowns.

International agreement to raise average tariffs from the current five percent to thirty percent (as in the 1950s and 60s) would increase local production in agriculture and manufacturing, replacing fossil fuels with human energy. The revenues raised would help provide governments with the funds needed to redirect social labor to more sustainable ways of meeting human needs. Substantially increasing taxes on corporations and the highest incomes would further increase public revenues and would have the added benefit of reducing the money available to promote narrow capitalist agendas.

Communities can act now to assert their right to veto damaging industrial activity. Parties and coalitions can be formed to give priority to human wellbeing. Campaigns for electoral reform can make governments more transparent and responsible to general human interest. Expanding social entitlements, the right to food, housing, education, health care, employment and basic income would reduce dependence on capitalist profit.

Al Engler

Capitalism or a healthy environment — time to choose

4 Oct

If all you care about is making more stuff, capitalism may be the best system ever. But if you want to save the planet from environmental catastrophe our current economic system is a dead end.

I remember in my socialist youth often being told: “Your ideas sound good but that’s just not how things work in real life.”

Today, in my socialist sixties, these same words seem appropriate as an analysis of mainstream environmentalism.

Here is the harsh reality:

Capitalists make huge profits from destroying the planet. The capitalist drive to maximize profits explains the externalizing of environmental costs. Capitalism allows small minorities to profit at the expense of others. Private ownership of what are social means of livelihood allows capitalists to make decisions that pass the real costs of industry to communities, workers, future generations and other species.

Worse, capitalism requires constant growth because it always needs more profit. Making ever more profit is what motivates people to make investments. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live with much less stuff?

All the evidence shows capitalism is really lousy at dealing with declining markets. Every time the economy shrinks for a sustained period capitalism goes into crisis. Banks crash, unemployment rises and wars are often necessary to get capitalism out of its crisis.

Supporters of capitalism claim the system is based on freedom and choice, but when it comes to the environment for many people this amounts to the freedom to choose between destroying the planet or having a job. The promoters of tar sands, fracking, coal mining and pipelines are explicit about this and in fact go even further. The business pages are full of stories quoting the captains of the carbon-industrial complex telling us what amounts to: “You must choose between economic prosperity and what is good for the environment, because you can’t have both.”

If we continue with capitalism they are correct.

Yes, some so-called environmentalists do look to capitalism for solutions, but that’s like asking the fox to fix the henhouse. You can’t be a serious environmentalist and support capitalism. A sustainable economy is incompatible with a system that constantly demands more profit.

Now that the human population has passed seven billion, it should be obvious that we inhabit a planet of finite resources. But population growth is not the problem. Human energy remains our most precious and underutilized resource. Once basic material needs for food, clothing, housing and healthcare have been met, human wellbeing depends less on consumption than on opportunities for education, employment, social participation and social recognition.

Science leaves little reasonable doubt that the burning of currently known reserves of coal, oil and natural gas will push atmospheric carbon dioxide levels past a tipping point, after which rising global temperatures will irreversibly undermine the conditions on which human life as we know it depends.

Despite the weight of evidence and the urgency of the problem, capitalism rests on the expansion of fossil fuel production and use.

Around the planet trillions of dollars are being spent to develop massive deposits of shale oil and gas. In Canada capitalist investment is focused on expanding oil production from tar sands. The promoters claim that these developments will create jobs. But the funds required to extract and transport that fuel will create far fewer jobs than would be produced if equivalent amounts were spent on the development of solar, wind and geothermal power. Far more jobs could be produced with investments in the production and distribution of local agriculture, clothing, shoes and communications products. More jobs would be created by investments in childcare, elder care, social housing, public transit and other green infrastructure.

But capitalism prefers investments in fossil fuels because corporate profits now largely depend on cheap fuel. Equivalent profits cannot be made meeting actual human needs.

So, we have some important choices to make: Support capitalism or support the environment. Build a different sort of economic system that can prosper in harmony with the environment or fiddle with capitalism as our planet burns.

Gary Engler

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