A review of “Climate Strike, the practical politics of the Climate Crisis” by Derek Wall

Derek Wall’s new book on the practical politics of the climate crisis is very welcome, particularly given his ambition to stimulate strategic thinking. I thoroughly recommend both this book, and Derek’s general approach to political debate. Derek is a very long standing environmentalist, and is a former co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales GPEW), and was for many years that party’s International coordinator: so he is well placed to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement. There are parts of Derek’s argument that I find convincing, and other parts that I find less persuasive. This review should be read as a hopefully constructive engagement in the debate over strategy.

Derek poses two questions very clearly. Firstly, that there is paradox between the urgency of acting immediately to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but that is combined with a more long-term strategic goal of working to a more sustainable economy. Secondly, this interlinks with a further challenge that the political methods and activities may be inadequate to achieve either the short-term urgency, or the longer-term strategic aims. As Derek observes that too often:

Much of the debate over climate change works with the following model: Campaigners rouse public opinion, the public votes for politicians concerned with climate change, the politicians win elections and introduce policies.to reduce emissions. Problem solved.”

Derek provides a critical evaluation of the history and functioning of Green Parties; of individual lifestyle changes; of proposals like the Green New Deal; and of social movements. His commentary is well informed and interesting.

In particular, Derek refers to the Australian academic, Sidney Tarrow, in relation to the discussion of social movements, this is worth exploring further. My acquaintanceship with Tarrow is through his work studying the cycles of radicalism, revolt and repression in Italy, which he sought to build into a general account of how political processes go through cycles of disruption and incorporation, and his framework of understanding is rich and nuanced. In particular, it is worth taking into account that Tarrow’s political context was a nation state with much less settled legitimacy than the UK, one that only dates back to 1861, and that had been constitutionally reestablished in 1946 only after war and civil war, and where there was an uneasy settlement between a mass communist party, and a Christian Democrat establishment. The lack of popular legitimacy for much of the population, and the recent history of civil war, lowered the threshold for individuals to move into non-constitutional forms of revolt. Tarrow’s analysis observed that where there are unresolved social tensions, then if a closed political system allows no resolution to the crises, then this opens the door to novel and innovative forms of political activity: in Italy spiralling through huge strikes, mass demonstrations, autonomist forms of counter culture, and both neo-fascist and left wing violence and terrorism. He also discussed the cycle of incorporation, where gatekeeper organisations absorb repertoires of what have been novel forms of political action, and allow individuals to enter into mainstream politics. This can also deepen the radicalism of individuals who reject such incorporation.

Using this framework to understand the evolution of Green Parties, and The Extinction Rebellion and School Strike movements, we can perhaps see how the electoralism of the Green Parties, even in the case of relatively radical parties like the GPEW, might effectively make them part of a political system that inhibits rather than promotes solutions to the crisis. To an independent observer outside of green politics, the image that the Green Party in England and Wales chooses to project would be that they have possibly deprioritised climate change and environmentalism, in favour of identity politics and enthusiasm for the EU. To me, their commitment towards being a small but conventional political party seems stronger than their commitment to furthering radical environmentalism.

Derek makes intelligent comments about Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the School Strike movement. Arguably, while adopting a seemingly radical demand for urgent action, they have been weak in articulating what action they are demanding, it is easier to understand what they are against, rather then what they are advocating. Furthermore, they have arguably slotted into the pattern that Derek has described of raising public awareness, seeking the election of politicians who will enact climate friendly policies. XR have tended to promote climate change as a moral rather than political question, and therefore to underestimate structural obstacles to action. XR have also adopted a particular range of activities, that require that their activists are physically available for protests (and to be arrested) and which do not easily fit into the lifestyle of working people; and part of their repertoire involves costume, performance and music, that pegs the political demands very much to a particular, and for many an exclusionary, cultural identity. Whilst XR and School Strikes’ framing of their own position has been moral, they have also been framed by others, curiously benefiting from an establishment acceptance which has presented them sometimes as a variant of conformist opinion, to which politicians and mainstream commentators pay lip service.

Political issues crystallising around broader cultural identities, and the resulting flame wars are very much part of contemporary culture, where a number of political issues for example Scottish independence, Brexit, or Covid 19, have created very polarised views, and where disagreement is seen to go beyond mere opinion, and be seen as an almost existential challenges. Overcoming this tendency towards polarisation is a strategic necessity, as it is an obstacle to building broader coalitions necessary to achieve change.

One of the areas where polarisation is most apparent is the way that climate change denialism has become entwined with certain right wing, cultural-political identities, which has further polarised the debate among non-scientists about science.

Misunderstanding over the significance of the normal distribution of differing opinion among scientists; and a blurred distinction between mature and developed understanding compared to areas of continuing debate and controversy, has fed a scepticism about science itself.

Historically, the socialist left had been great defenders of the philosophical tradition of scientific realism, the theory perhaps best articulated in the modern era by Stathis Psillis: that mature scientific theories are broadly true. Human beings are part of an actually existing material reality, and can gain knowledge of that reality by interacting with it, through work, experimentation, and the development of theories which are validated by their consistency with the rest of mature scientific knowledge, and through their ability to repeatedly predict physical behaviours and processes. Lakatos made the useful observation that an indicator of truth approximation for a theory would be if it demonstrated a progressive problem shift, such that it reinforced or resolved complementary problems in other areas of science; and Psillis explores the degree to which Kuhnian paradigm shifts often preserve a great deal of mature theory, and therefore their conceptual revolution represents a great deal of continuity as well as change.

Derek draws attention to the essentially ecological standpoint of Karl Marx, and while Marx is just a political theorist among many political theorists, and not someone who carries any scriptural authority, the rootedness of Marx’s thought in the relationship of human beings with the natural environment through work in order to create and recreate our own material surroundings, and satisfy our biological needs is a valuable insight. It is this emphasis on work interacting with an actual existing reality that has inspired the traditional left approach to science. By a strange coincidence, Derek quotes as an inspiration the French mathematician/philosopher Jean Cavaillès, who died as a hero of the French resistance against Nazi occupation, which curiously parallels the life of Christopher Caudwell, that most sparkling of British left intellectuals, who was cut down at just 29 years old on the first day of the Battle of Jamara, while fighting fascism in Spain; and who posed perhaps the best defence of the traditional socialist approach to Science in “The Crisis in Physics” and “Illusion and Reality“, among other works.

To simplify his body of complex ideas, Caudwell argued that capitalist society had an uneasy relationship with science because there is a division between the class that generates ideology from the class who interacts directly with nature; and the individualist ideology of bourgeois liberalism, which grew up as a desire to overthrow the constraints of feudal obligations in pursuit of an abstract freedom, has reinforced the status of scientist as disinterested observer outside nature.

A number of thinkers, from Eric Hobsbawm to Andre Gorz, drew early attention to the receding significance of the traditional working class as an agent of political change, and there has been a shift in emphasis by the political left from the arena of production towards inequalities of consumption; and to questions of identity and oppression. However, it is in the area of production, in its broadest sense, that human beings have the greatest impact on the environment, and we should note that Caudwell’s point about ideology being generated by those who are not directly interacting with the natural world is a caution for much of the modern left, as well as supporters of the conservative status quo.

Derek’s argument is that the climate crisis is indissolubly linked to the capitalist mode of production, through the compulsions of that economic and social model towards accumulation and consumerism. The expression “mode of production” derives from Marx, and contrasts capitalism as a particular historical era, from say feudalism, or classical slave economies. Derek’s usage is conventional and has merit.

However, it is worth unpacking slightly. In Marx’s preface to a “Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy” (a good book title to choose for playing charades), he developed a body of ideas first referred to in “the German Ideology”, that the driver of human history is the interaction with the physical world through collaborative work, which through a process of innovation and refinement advances the forces of production, i.e. the technological endowment of any particular era, and because human needs, and the world we build and rebuild, is based upon consumption and through iterative transformation of the physical world, then these forces of production change by innovation over time. The relationship with nature and the forces of production entail particular relationships between people; and resulting legal and ideological superstructures, including property relations, which shape those relationships of production.

It is the combination of forces of production and relations of production that comprise a mode of production. Of course, the relationship between human beings is not always harmonious, and there are conflicts of interest between different classes of people, both through their differing relationship to the forces of production, and through social, legal and ideological conflicts. According to Marx’s schema, while the evolution of the forces of production is an engine of change, the ideological and institutional superstructure and forms of property ownership inherited from the past can be a constraining factor, which can create political tension and crises.

So can the forces of production be uncoupled from the mode of production? The world’s current technological endowment of an industrial society is not necessarily unique to capitalism: particular components of it have been developed not only during late feudalism, but also under centrally planned socialist societies. There is a comprehensive discussion of the evolution of such technology in Vaclav Smil’s “Energy and Civilisation”, which describes in some detail how our modern, urban civilisation has inherent, globalised technological foundations that are not only the result of generations of accumulated labour, and difficult to replace; but also how our current urban civilisation continues to improve living standards for millions, despite the distressing persistence of inequality and poverty. Ernst Gellner in “Nations and Nationalism” discusses how the particular requirements of such industrial civilisation, that grows beyond the face to face relationships of small villages and towns, inevitably entailed the development of such institutions as the nation state, of independently recognised exams and professional qualifications, a legal system and standardised weights and measures. Benedict Anderson observed that the same process of industrialisation led to the development of maps and borders, and to the artistic concept of the “everyman”, or universal architype, in novels and films. Industrial society is the foundation, both culturally and technologically, of our civilisation, whether or not capitalism endures, and underpins the livelihoods of the majority of the world’s population. So industrial society, and some aspects of the social relations necessary for it are to a degree independent of capitalism.

So is overcoming the capitalist mode of production a necessary precondition for preventing climate disaster? If the answer to that question is yes, as Derek argues, then we have a very deep crisis without obvious solution. The paradox of climate change being that the economy can simultaneously be satisfying human need in the short and medium term while at the same time, creating long term, potentially catastrophic physical limits to its own sustainability, and that short term satisfaction of human need makes it much harder to generate political momentum to solve the longer term crisis.

Capitalism, over the few hundred years of its history, has exhibited enormous powers of adaptation. Former structural elements such as the gold standard for money, colonial empires, and the cotton, tobacco and sugar trades being based upon slavery, have seemed at various times to be necessary features, but have been superseded. As recently as one hundred years ago, the technological basis of the American economy was primarily based upon wood burning for energy, and more farmers relied upon horses and mules than mechanical power. As there have been technological shifts then new corporations have developed, and while companies founded upon, for example, fossil fuels have great financial power, the big beasts of contemporary American capitalism, such as Facebook and Amazon, have only existed for a relatively short time.

My belief is that while there is a strong moral and economic case for socialism replacing capitalism, the political and social conditions for this to happen are simply absent within foreseeable timescales, and certainly not fast enough to address climate change. On the other hand, there are behavioural and technological changes that could be made which are potentially compatible with capitalism, that can nevertheless move us towards a sustainable industrial economy. The danger is that in our society divided by class, with powerful institutional interests supporting the status quo, then the necessary changes could be either not implemented at all, implemented too late, or implemented at the expense of the living conditions of working people.

What is necessary is for the left to engage with the debate about the necessary technological changes to the productive base of society. By advocating technological changes that both reduce carbon emissions and also preserve living standards, then we will draw attention to, and can campaign to overcome, any political and economic obstacles. The stronger the resistance to necessary change, the more radical the political response required to drive forward change. However, this does need a specific engagement with the technological challenges, and their social impacts.

Derek’s argument is that it is possible to have a more sustainable, and happier society based upon satisfaction of human need without as much consumerism as at present, and through organising ourselves on a more cooperative basis, based upon collectivism, such as community ownership. This is almost certainly true, but the question is whether such a society is achievable in reasonable timescales, based upon our current starting point, and with the forces, social, political and ideological, at our disposal. That is not to say that those seeking to achieve such an objective are wrong, just that I am sceptical of their prospects of success. Nevertheless, in politics different routes and objectives can complement each other, as streams unite to form a river. As none of us know exactly what will and will not work, then we should be supportive of each other.

You can preorder the book on Hive https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Derek-Wall/Climate-Strike–The-Practical-Politics-of-the-Climate-Crisis/24851809