“Cometh the [midnight] hour, cometh the book!”
Derek Wall’s latest book, Climate Strike: the practical politics of the climate crisis, ‘had me’ from its very first page, with this well-chosen quotation:
“We are at the midnight hour, and it’s eco-socialism or death.”
Kali Akuno (2019).
Derek is a long-standing and committed environmental activist who, for many years, held leading positions within the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW), first as Principal Speaker and then as International Co-ordinator. My review copy of his book arrived just as I’d finished the 5C chapter Mark Lynas’s Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency - which makes painfully clear why drastic climate action is needed right now.
And that is precisely what Derek’s book also does in its first two chapters - but what makes Climate Strike so timely and useful is that, in the remaining eight chapters, it also analyses various attempts to build pressure for change, and suggests practical ways in which, via open debate, analysis and increased co-operation, we can try to achieve those changes.
Before moving on to examine some of the important issues raised and examined by the book, one general strength should be pointed out early on: other than Alan Thornett’s comprehensive Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism (2019), you will not find another book on the current Climate Emergency that introduces you to so many valuable thinkers and positive initiatives on all the most critical issues. It is this aspect makes Derek’s latest book such an incredibly rich - and important - book to read.
As a companion piece to it, I would also highly recommend reading his Elinor Ostrom’s Rules For Radicals (2017) - particularly useful for considering possible ways in which to organise a post-capitalist future that is based on co-operation, and doesn’t depend on either markets or state structures.
As the book makes clear, the central dilemma for climate and environmental organisations and activists today is that we need both immediate emergency action to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop the ecological devastation of the natural world, along with a longer-term strategy to create a world that is ecologically sustainable.
One problem for environmental movements, explored in Chapter 8, is the difficulty in persuading enough people of the seriousness of the Climate Crisis, because of the ability of many individuals to banish worrying or unpleasant things - including the Climate Crisis - from their minds. Derek cites George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It (2014), which deals with this phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.
Another book which explores this is Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial (2001), which explains how not acknowledging (as opposed to simply knowing) a threat or an injustice allows people to avoid the need to take action.
Although Derek argues that the ever-worsening Climate Emergency the planet is facing stems from capitalism’s entire economic and social system - based on unsustainable continuous and ever-increasing production, consumption and capital accumulation - he does so in way that is free from any narrow dogmatism.
What this book does do, exceptionally well, is to analyse, in a balanced way, where we are now, and how successful/unsuccessful the various climate campaigns and organisations have been so far. In particular, as regards the UK, there are useful examinations of the roles of the GPEW, the trade union/labour movement, and of social movements like Extinction Rebellion and the YouthStrike4Climate.
But first - a digression!
Derek’s chapter on Green parties, in the UK and elsewhere, was of particular personal interest to me, as someone who - reluctantly - resigned from Grenn Party of England and Wales (GPEW) (and, consequently, as a Green town councillor) last December. So, before dealing with Derek’s observations, I will make some of my own. Now seems an especially good time to do so, with internal elections currently taking place within the GPEW.
As Derek points out, during the late 1990s, the GPEW seemed to be moving towards a more radical ‘left’ position, combining strong environmental and climate policies along with calls for social and economic justice. A further step in that direction was signalled by the formation of Green Left in 2006, which operated as an explicitly ecosocialist and anti-capitalist network within the GPEW.
So, in 2012 - after having voted Green in several elections - I joined the GPEW precisely because of these two developments. Consequently, I was proud to be the Green Party candidate for Copeland (Cumbria) in GE2015. Especially as parts of Copeland were suffering badly as a result of the austerity being enforced by the Tories and the LibDem Coalition - in GE2015, the GPEW (unlike the Labour Party at the time) was the only mainstream party which was calling for a complete end to austerity.
Although, in the end, I resigned because of the unprincipled ‘Unite to Remain’ pact with the neoliberal LibDems - and the way it was ‘pushed’ by the leadership - in GE2019, I’d begun to have misgivings as early as 2016. This was over the large-scale overspending by the Tories in 33 key marginal seats in GE2015 - as exposed, at length, by Channel 4 News. These accounting ‘errors/oversights’ resulted in the Tories gaining a 12-seat majority - with 26 of their MPs having won in those key marginals where it was alleged that they had overspent.
Channel 4 News’ take on the Tory Party’s election expenses issue in GE2015.
The GPEW’s Spring Conference in 2016 took place just after the Electoral Commission had fined the Tory Party a record amount for what they said were “multiple offences.” This seemed to me to be a dangerous development as regards UK democracy, so I moved an Emergency Motion, calling on the leadership to mount campaigns for by-elections in all those seats where there were serious concerns about overspending.
However, although this EM was overwhelmingly passed by Conference, the leadership - which I know was not happy with the EM - said and did nothing. It’s worth recalling that Cameron’s government then went on to call the referendum on UK membership of the EU - with all the unpleasant consequences which have already flowed from that, with others still to come.
The next serious concerns came with the internal members’ on-line discussions which took place before and after GE2017, over whether or not the GPEW should stand candidates in the key marginal seats that Labour either needed to hold or win, in order for them to replace the Tories as the next government. Those on the right of the party argued vociferously (and one or two, unpleasantly) that the “leftwing stuff” (ie. questions of social and economic justice) should be left to the Labour Party, and for the GPEW to focus instead on environmental issues only.
For me, all these concerns came to a head last December, with the deeply-unprincipled pact with the LibDems - a party which by then, it should be remembered, had:
· along with the Tories, imposed austerity for 5 years, & continued to refuse to apologise for doing so
· blocked an opposition attempt to get a VONC in Johnson
· abstained on an opposition amendment to the Queens’ Speech to stop further privatisations of NHS services
· been the first ‘opposition’ party to give Johnson and Cummings the pre-Brexit election they’d always wanted
· a leader who said she would press the nuclear button
· reneged on holding a People’s Vote, with ‘Remain’ as an option
So, yes - a deeply unprincipled pact, with possible electoral gains the main reason for it; gains which Prof. John Curtice was proved right for saying that the Greens would not obtain even one extra seat.
After I’d made the decision to resign, I became aware that other GPEW members had done the same - or were seriously thinking of doing so. More recently, several articles on London Green Left’s Blog have shown that many members have a variety of concerns about the direction in which the GPEW now seems to be drifting.
Last month, Dee Searle - who resigned from GPEW in June this year, after 4 spells as a member of the Green Party Executive (GPEX) - identified what she called the ‘Leadership Clique’ as one of the main problems, questioning whether the GPEW will be able to be saved from it:
A more recent article from David Taylor asks the question whether the Green Party change tack to become a real force for change:
I would strongly recommend that these 2 articles should be read, before people read Derek’s chapter on Green parties.
And now - back to Derek’s book! It is in Chapter 4 that he deals with Green parties: in particular, arguing that there exists a conflict between the (often, but not in all cases, right-of-centre) origins of many Green parties - which were initially concerned with mainly ecological and environmentalist issues, with little or no focus on questions of social and economic justice - and the need for a fundamental political critique of the capitalist system itself.
More recently however, the GPEW (as with several other Green European parties) seems to be moving back somewhat to its more rightwing/conservative origins, rather than moving on to develop a class analysis of the Climate Crisis, to or build strong links with the labour movement.
More significantly, the GPEW’s Climate Campaign Committee, of which I was a member in the early stages - despite its members’ great efforts - failed to shift the party into launching a strong national campaign over the Climate Emergency. As a consequence, in 2018, it was Extinction Rebellion that really raised public awareness about the crisis the planet was facing - although, to be fair, several local Green parties and councillors had made significant progress in getting local Climate Emergencies declared.
In fact, typical of Derek’s fair and balanced approach throughout this book, as well as making criticisms, he also points out that the GPEW, and other Green parties, can still have positive impacts - for instance, by continuing to help raise awareness of the Climate Crisis, and by proposing some useful structural changes. However, at present, the GPEW still fails to support the fundamental transformation of the mode of production which, ultimately, is vital to stopping Climate Breakdown.
As Derek makes clear from the start, Extinction Rebellion (XR)’s main weakness is that, at present, it still frames the Climate Emergency as more of a moral issue, rather than the political and economic one which, at heart, it is. Consequently, its main focus is on influencing public opinion, so that politicians and governments will then be put under pressure to act.
Whilst XR’s initial actions (along with the school climate strikes) certainly - and spectacularly - helped push the Climate Crisis up the political agenda as regards the general public, some of XR’s continuing actions have also resulted in the loss of a degree of sympathy (especially amongst sections of the working class).
XR’s ultimate problem, though, is that it fails to really consider power relations, or to adequately consider the different impacts of the Climate Crisis on different - often marginalised - social groups. As pointed out, XRUK really needs to develop ties with and connections to much wider networks and identities - rather as Earth First! did.
Several XR activists have been considering/calling for such steps, especially since the Autumn Uprising in October 2019 - including the development of a precise political and economic examination of what is meant by the slogan ‘System Change - Not Climate Change’. In particular, what ‘System’, and what ‘Change’?
Encouragingly, XR Scotland is currently considering a Reflection Piece (which apparently originated with XR Edinburgh), with the view to reaching out in precisely the way recommended by Derek’s book. Covid-19 permitting, the plan is to discuss and reach consensus on these issues at a Scottish People’s Assembly, to be held this October:
In fact, XR Scotland has already made a public announcement in solidarity the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and is aware how the climate and ecological emergencies have been caused, and are still bing driven, by specific capitalist-linked aspects such as colonialism and white supremacy, as well as by capitalism’s ‘normal’ production/consumption/accumulation cycle per se.
As Derek makes clear in his final chapter, in order to build the momentum needed to force though the changes that need to happen, a range of strategies are required - including the central one of base-building. As the ultimate aim has to be moves to ecosocialism, he highlights the importance of Marxism in understanding today’s global heating crisis created by capitalism.
Amongst the strategies considered for achieving this are steps for greater co-operation between Marxist groups which recognise the need for ecosocialism. In particular, Derek mentions the work being done by Kali Akuno and others in the US, around Cooperation Jackson (Mississippi), and by People’s Strike, with which Kali Akuno is also involved:
As many ecosocialists will already know, several books are useful in developing a Marxist understanding of what Marx called the dangerous “metabolic rift” between humans and the natural world which the ‘logic’ of capitalism creates. One which Derek examines is Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm, (2018), which provides a readable survey of the main Marxist attempts to theorise the ecological crisis. Other important Marxist contributions to this debate include both John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology (2000) and Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (2017).
In fact, there are already early signs of this kind of base-building happening in the UK, with Socialist Resistance and Mutiny currently working together to create Anti-Capitalist Resistance (ACR)- a new revolutionary Marxist organisation, based on the need for ecosocialism:
Plans have just
been finalised for an ACR weekend school, from 12 -13 September, on the theme
or Disaster Capitalism:
Derek’s well-argued case is that, ultimately, we need a post-capitalist ecosocialist society. From the most recent developments - XR Scotland’s Reflection Piece, moves to create a new revolutionary Marxist organisation based on ecosocialism, and Left Unity’s recent adoption of an explicitly ecosocialist position, it seems that Derek clearly has his finger on the pulse of the environmental movement. This is most definitely a book to read, to discuss and - most of all, to act on.
The clock IS ticking!
Allan Todd is a member of Left Unity, an ecosocialist/environmental and anti-fascist activist, and author of Revolutions 1789-1917