From People and Nature
A conversation with Canadian socialist David Camfield about his new book, Future on Fire.
Simon Pirani: Congratulations on the publication of your book Future on Fire. It stands out, in my view, because you avoid pronouncing neat “solutions” to climate issues, you consider actually existing social movements and how they might address the climate emergency. You point to the limited scope of parliamentary politics and “green new deals”, and in chapter 3 argue that mass movements” are “our only hope”. I agree.
You argue that the point of these movements is “to develop the power to force governments to enact the climate justice measures that are needed”. That’s altogether different, you write, from seeking “governing power” (which anyway doesn’t have total control over the state, let alone capital). Movements shouldn’t limit themselves to “pushing the envelope” or holding governments accountable; it’s about applying “relentless and escalating pressure”. I agree.
The question in my mind is: does it make sense to talk about a “mass movement” on climate issues at all? I am not sure that truly mass movements, in response to issues influenced by climate change, will look like “mass movements about climate”. You argue persuasively that the climate issue is always combined with the social issue: you give the example of Haitians being more vulnerable to death in storms than Cubans, because of the different societies they live in. And you quote Naomi Klein saying that “climate change acts as an accelerant to many of our social ills – inequality, war, racism – but it can also be an accelerant for the opposite, for the forces working for economic and social justice”.
Isn’t the reality that – rather than appearing as “mass movements on climate” – mass movements will actually develop in response to immediate, tangible issues, and that the task in hand is to find ways of taking these movements beyond the immediate, to address the larger issues of both climate and capitalism?
Take the “yellow vests” movement in France, which started in response to a tax on diesel fuel. You point out that far-right forces tried to divert the movement along anti-migrant lines, but were successfully confronted by left-wing forces who pushed against social inequality. All this gave rise to one of my favourite slogans, that you quote: “end of the world, end of the month, same struggle”. You write that the yellow vests “forged a powerful link” between climate issues and social issues. But wasn’t the reality actually more complex? Wasn’t that link only realised in a very small, fragile way, that still has to be built upon?
Perhaps the nearest thing we have had to a mass movement on climate issues is the “Fridays for Future” school strikes and the new wave of activism it produced, including the Extinction Rebellion protests, which, at least here in the UK, was cut short by the pandemic. Was this “really” a mass movement? Obviously an impossible question; the answer is surely “yes and no”. But I think it’s worth probing, because, apart from the pandemic, didn’t the movement have some sort of natural limit? The school students were definitely my favourite people: I loved their demonstrations where everyone had home-made placards, and the tired, printed ones handed out by left-wing sects were politely left behind. The students saw the point about the global south, saw the need for far-reaching change … but didn’t have time, capacity, or whatever, to build durable unity around tangible demands. Aren’t tangible demands always a problem for the “climate movement”, if there is such a thing?
Stopping a particular pipeline or road project is very, very tangible. But dismantling fossil-fuel-based technological-economic systems takes us to a different level. No one tangible demand can make that happen.
David Camfield: Let me start by thanking you, Simon, for your interest in the book. I can best answer your question about mass movements about climate by saying a bit about how and when the book was conceived and mostly written.
I decided to write it in 2019 in the run-up to the big youth climate strike that happened in September, and I started to write it that summer. Climate politics was in the air more than ever before. Greta Thunberg and student climate strikers were in the news. I’d taught a university course early in the year that was in part about the ecological crisis and capitalism. It was clear in 2019 that something was happening in Canada: a lot of people in their teens were taking action for the first time, around climate change, and lots of other people were getting involved in building for September’s climate strike. And I could see this was happening in other countries too.
Usually in Winnipeg, where I live, summertime is politically quiet – it’s so cold for much of the year that people aren’t inclined to go to organising meetings, public forums and that kind of thing on warm summer evenings – but the summer of 2019 was really different. So there was a mass movement around climate emerging. There was so much energy but I felt that analysis and strategic thinking were really weak, and that an accessible but rigorous short book was something I could contribute.
In Canada many people who were involved in 2019 also took action early in 2020, to support the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en Indigenous people against the Coastal GasLink pipeline which is part of a massive project to extract and export Liquified Natural Gas to Asia. And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. But the way the book was framed and who I imagined its readers would be was very much shaped by that moment.
To get back to your question, although we may well see a mass movement focused on climate action reemerge – maybe in response to an especially disastrous impact of climate change – that kind of movement has limits, as you say. We’re very likely to see upsurges and movements in response to other things affecting ordinary people in the here and now, in a very immediate way, whether it’s the cost of living, racism, attacks on public services, or something else. Those things will be increasingly influenced by the worsening ecological crisis and how capitalists and states respond to it. And then the challenge for supporters of climate justice will be how to relate to that.
I think the example of the gilets jaunes [yellow vests] in France that you mention is very suggestive. You’re right that the link created between the ecological left, or whatever term one wants to use, and that movement, which flared up in an unpredicted way – and had all sorts of problems, of the kind that could make some climate justice supporters decide to stay away, if it happened in Canada or the UK – was fragile. But at least there were real efforts made to actively participate in a politically constructive way. I think that was key.
Given what I’d call the degree of decomposition of the working class in advanced capitalist countries, of fragmentation, atomisation – the weakness of what Alan Sears calls the infrastructure of dissent in workplaces and communities – I think future upsurges of protest and resistance will probably be at least as messy and contradictory as the gilets jaunes were. So the challenge will be to relate to them in ways that are effective and guided by what in the book I call mass movement climate justice politics.
That’s a kind of transitional politics to respond to the situation we find ourselves in today, a politics that can unite people with different ideas about long-term goals. I think that ecosocialism should be the horizon for people who want to get to the roots of the problems we face, but that’s not a basis for uniting people on a mass scale today.
SP: I agree with you about movements being messy and contradictory. I think they almost always will be. Those who sit around hoping for a movement that isn’t may miss the boat – often.
I want to ask you about our connection, as people in countries of the global north, with those in the global south. It’s long been true that the way the global south intrudes into our relatively comfortable world is on migration – a very visible, concrete issue, and one on which generations of socialists and others have combated state racism in the global north, and fought to defend the rights of migrants who arrive in their countries. In the era of climate change, it seems to me that we will have to find ways of going further. In the book you explain very clearly that climate change, and adaptation to it as managed by the ruling class, will always hit the global south hardest. You take quite a sobering, uncomfortable view of this. How do we even start to build unity around these problems?
The Indian farmers’ movement, the battles to defend democratic rights in Hong Kong, and the recent protests by indigenous communities in Ecuador are perhaps just three of the movements that dwarf the rich-country movements we talked about earlier. What’s more, we live at a time when international, and indeed inter-continental, communication has never been easier. But our collective knowledge of, and practical coordination with, such struggles remains patchy.
DC: If our knowledge is patchy, I think our practical coordination is even weaker. Perhaps things are less bad in Europe than in Canada and the US? I could be wrong, but on this side of the Atlantic my impression is that the left, broadly speaking, is more parochial than it was in the late 20th century and early in this century, and I know there are experienced organisers who see things similarly.
I agree we’ll have to go further, for the reason you mention, though defending migrants, combatting anti-immigrant racism, and pushing for governments here to admit more people who want to migrate is also going to become even more important too. People in the south, the imperialised countries, are already being hurt more by climate change and this is only going to get worse, much, much worse, I think.
To be clearer, it’s not just climate change. It’s the effects of climate change and other aspects of the ecological crisis happening at the same time as capitalism’s “long depression” continues, to use economist Michael Roberts’ phrase. But precisely because of that, connected to it, are movements like the ones you mentioned. Some of them have reached heights of militancy and self-organisation a lot higher than anything we’ve seen in the advanced capitalist countries – the imperialist countries – for a long time. I expect we’ll see more like that.
People should take inspiration from them even when the differences between conditions there and here mean that we can’t just adopt their methods of organising. And some of those movements will have ripples here. I’m thinking of how, in Southern Ontario, the Indian farmers’ movement helped lead to the creation of a group that helps low-wage South Asian migrant workers take on bosses who routinely violate their rights. There are all sorts of international links like that because of migration.
Of course, to have practical coordination, we have to have organisations here that are strong enough that they can build relationships with people in imperialised countries, and have the capacity to take action in solidarity. But we also need to have the understanding that this isn’t about charity, it’s about solidarity across borders, about being in a common struggle in different conditions in an enormously unequal world. That’s a matter of consciousness.
We need to rekindle internationalism, a consciousness of how an injury to one is an injury to all, internationally. And, sad to say, because of a trend on the left it needs to be an internationalism that rejects the attitude that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” That attitude, which leads to campist politics, is simply reactionary. Aligning politically with China’s rulers, or with whoever else is in conflict with Western governments, is a dead end. Just as aligning with Western governments against them, aligning with NATO, is disastrous.
SP: Yes. You are saying that “climate politics” is, ultimately … all politics. I hope that doesn’t sound trite.
I would like to move on to another, related subject: technologies. In your last chapter, on “ecosocialism”, you argue that technologies, and forms of social organisation, have been created under capitalism that provide the material basis for socialism. You quote Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski, who write that no machine can “simply be taken over, run by new operators but otherwise left unchanged”, but that, nevertheless, there already exists under capitalism “a foundation of planning that a more just society could surely take up and make its own”. I want to probe this further. You point to computerised communications. You think that they could be transformed for more democratic forms of use quite easily and rapidly, and I tend to agree. But not all technologies are easy to adapt; some technologies – nuclear power is an obvious example – will always sit uneasily in democratic socialist views of the future, because by their nature they are best managed by a powerful, centralised state. Technology is never neutral.
Take electricity networks. The number one urgency in terms of climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels, and – as well as all sorts of energy conservation technologies (such as insulating homes and using heat pumps), we, by which I mean society as a whole, will surely want larger, better electricity systems. And we socialists will fight for these to be collectively owned and democratically controlled. These systems will be integrated with other energy systems, and will include big elements of decentralisation. Already, electricity generating companies are spending billions of dollars looking at distributed (i.e. decentralised) generation, which will inevitably become more widespread as the proportion of renewables on the system grows. But they will plan their use in their own interests, not in society’s interest.
Distributed generation, and integrated urban energy systems, in my view have some potential to provide the basis for developing more democratic forms of producing and using electricity. Gauging how great that potential is, and how to realise it, requires a massive collective effort. I don’t see such an effort being made. Some socialists seem to be more interested in geoengineering – the last word in reactionary, state-controlled technology – than in electricity, which will certainly be far more important in the transition away from fossil fuels.
Part of the reason for this, I think, is political. You and I share an assumption that the technological changes necessary will, in the big scheme of things, require a shift of state power. You say so explicitly: you ask what it would take “to launch a transition to a self-governed, ecologically rational society”, and answer: “the prerequisite is political: the transfer of power in some part of the world from the ruling class of the capitalist social order to the vast majority”. But in my view, that approach is entirely compatible with the idea that we have to fight now, prior to such a shift, to obstruct the development of technologies “inimical to the common interest” (to paraphrase the Luddites – the real ones, not the subsequent caricatures). And we have to try to push forward the development of technologies that are more readily compatible with collectivist, democratic – that is socialist or communist – ways of living. Integrated, decentralised electricity systems seem to be a perfect example. And this is a real political question, now. With energy bills going through the roof in Europe, labour organisations are starting to take more seriously the idea of insulation and heat pumps, which are surely first steps towards such systems.
DC: I agree, and I really like the way you put it about opposing technologies “inimical to the common interest” and pushing forward the ones with the best potential. That’s one of many topics my book doesn’t address.
Technologies aren’t neutral, as you say. Few people on the left really get that. I quoted Phillips and Rozworski at their best from their book on planning, but Phillips at least is an avowed ecomodernist, a supporter of nuclear power etc. who doesn’t think about technologies that way at all. I just wrote an article on issues raised by a debate between two Marxist writers on ecological politics, Matthew Huber and Kai Heron.
Huber argues in terms of unfettering the technologies we need to address climate change from capitalism. That doesn’t go deep enough, which I think is at least partly why he supports nuclear power. He like some Marxists doesn’t think of technologies as the productive forces of human labour, which in this society generally means the productive forces of human labour as they’ve been developed by capital in the form of corporations or the capitalist state. I think that should be our starting point.
I’ve learned from things you’ve written about how to think politically about technologies that are relevant to climate change and responding to it, like your response to Holly Jean Buck’s book on geoengineering that has influenced some radicals. We need to get better about thinking about technology politically. I know I certainly do. We need specialised knowledge about whatever the technology in question is, like electricity systems, which needs to be demystified for people who aren’t engineers or whatever, and then we need to learn to think about the technology politically in a way that’s canny about who’s making decisions about how it’d be used, who’d benefit, what alternatives there might be, and so on.
Nuclear power, including so-called small modular reactors which we’re hearing more about in Canada, is something more people need to get sharper about. Solar radiation management too, and then there are also technologies involved in agriculture: lab meat and so on. And the example you give about generating electricity from renewable sources and how it’s distributed.
Can you explain the connection you see between retrofitting buildings and installing heat pumps and new decentralised energy systems?
SP. Sure. As far as I understand, many engineers believe that future urban energy systems will combine varied inputs, both centralised (e.g. hydropower or wind farms) and decentralised (e.g. rooftop solar, geothermal heat sources); varied storage facilities (big ones, such as elevated reservoirs, and small ones such as electric vehicles’ batteries); and varied outputs (heat and light in homes, transport charging stations, etc). Computers can be used to manage the whole thing in a way that was impossible until recently. In what I will call “Simon’s socialist utopia”, this combination of technologies will be socially owned, and treat the energy (primarily but not exclusively electricity) as a service, not a commodity. That involves social change and breaking the stranglehold of corporations, who are not completely obstructing integration, but rather making sure it happens in a way that suits them. I expect there are also huge efficiency gains (i.e. reducing the energy throughput) to be made by getting those corporations out of the way, and as a result of other social changes.
Every retrofit with insulation, and every heat pump, will not only in the short term protect people from crippling energy bills (i.e. paying for fossil fuel throughput that is not needed), but in the long term are compatible with the integrated, fossil-fuel-free systems needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Every new investment in fossil-fuel infrastructure – and the world’s richest powers have reacted to the volatility in energy markets caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine by redoubling such investment – moves in the other direction. They lock in fossil-fuelled systems at the very moment when they need to be phased out. The immediate policy issue impacts directly on the issue of long-term technological change.
Technologies are at the centre of the discussion between Kai Heron and Matthew Huber that you mentioned. Huber’s view of reducing greenhouse gas emissions relies heavily on technologies for taking the carbon out of the atmosphere (carbon capture) and other types of geoengineering. He is more interested in big, unproven technologies (nuclear fission) to small, proven ones (distributed generation); and he is sceptical of the manifold technologies, and improvements to the way we live socially, that can reduce the throughput of fossil fuels. I think these views are symptoms of his underlying misconceptions about “economic growth”, social change and the global working class, which are tackled by Heron. What is your view? And what is your view of the “degrowth” writing that Huber is so negative about? Please tell us the main arguments in your article.
DC: Thanks for those thoughts.
About Huber: although he’s right to argue that capitalism is the root cause of climate change, and to argue that class struggle is needed to address it, and that what’s needed is organising that aims to reach beyond people who’re thinking about climate change and engage the whole working class in fighting for solutions that reduce emissions in ways that make people’s lives better, I disagree with him on a number of issues. I agree with Heron’s main criticisms of Huber, although I also have differences with Heron that I touch on in what I’ve written about their exchange.
On degrowth, I’d describe my position as “degrowth adjacent”. Whatever my disagreements with some degrowth thought, it at least takes ecological limits a lot more seriously than Huber and other left ecomodernists. There are biophysical constraints, planetary boundaries, that anyone trying to address climate change and other aspects of the ecological crisis needs to reckon with. If we want climate justice – for me, that’s shorthand for a transition from fossil fuels and the other sources of greenhouse gas emissions that at the same time makes life better for the global working class, peasants and other exploited and oppressed people, as opposed to one that makes most people’s live worse in one way or another – then that means that people in the South need to be able to use more energy at the same time as they transition.
Because the transition from fossil fuels can’t happen overnight, and emissions globally need to drop fast, that means that emissions need to fall even more sharply in the advanced capitalist countries, to allow imperialised countries to use more energy and resources while at the same time moving away from fossil fuels.
In the rich countries, that means we need a transition from fossil fuels and a reduction in energy demand. And it’s not just about energy and fossil fuels; it’s also about resource use. There are limits to how much forest we should cut down, how many rare minerals we should dig up, how much plastic we pollute, how many species go extinct, and so on, if we want to stop the ecological crisis from getting even worse and begin ecological repair. Degrowth thought generally grapples with all that, as it rejects the ideology of economic growth that we’re saturated with under capitalism.
But there’s a range of degrowth thought: Gareth Dale wrote an excellent short piece on that. To what extent its supporters grasp that the crucial driver of energy and resource use today and more broadly of the global ecological crisis is capital accumulation, and that capitalism is inherently ecologically destructive, varies a lot. Some are closer than others. And there are ecosocialist degrowth thinkers who hit the nail on the head.
But I think it’s ultimately always unhelpful to talk of “growth” and “degrowth” in general, without being clear about specifically what is growing or shrinking. And the political conclusions that degrowth thinkers draw from their analysis also varies a lot. Some are awful, and easy to criticise. Some aren’t as bad, but still deserve critique. Others are very good.
That said, I think it’s a mistake for Marxists to engage with degrowth thought by caricaturing it or reducing it to its weakest versions. That’s not going to be very persuasive, and it’s a barrier to dialogue and learning from degrowth. I think some Marxists, especially in the imperialist countries, are influenced by our social environment in ways that make us quick to dismiss ideas raised by degrowth thought that we shouldn’t reject, because they’re well-founded scientifically, but that we reject – because they have implications for the working class in these countries that are somewhat challenging.
But the climate justice reforms we need, and eventually a transition to ecosocialism, would mean that people here – and not just the rich or really well-off middle-class people – would live differently, if we’re thinking about all this in global terms. It wouldn’t be the same way of life, more or less, except that the cars would all be electric cars and everything else would be electrified, though we do need to electrify everything. I think George Monbiot’s line about private sufficiency and public luxury is right, and important for all supporters of climate justice.
SP: Is there anything else you can tell us about your book and why people should read it?
DC: It aims to tackle the question “how could we win climate justice?” in a way that’s accessible to anyone who supports climate justice. It doesn’t talk much about what we’re trying to achieve, since a lot of good stuff has already been written about that. It focuses on how climate justice could be achieved.
And it tries to say a bit about something a lot of people shy away from, which is what happens if rising emissions make it unavoidable that temperatures will eventually rise more than 2 degrees above average pre-industrial levels, to try to challenge all-or-nothing thinking, without in any way backing down from trying to limit heating to 1.5 degrees or at least as close to that as possible.
So it’s a short book that I hope people who’re new to climate politics will want to read, as well as people who’ve been thinking about these things for years.
□ About the photo. A demonstration on 4 October in Kampala, Uganda, against the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), the region’s largest fossil fuel infrastructure project, supported by TotalEnergies of France. The protest was completely peaceful, but nine demonstrators were arrested and as of today are still in custody. You can sign a petition calling for their release here. The photo is from Stop EACOP’s twitter feed, courtesy of Nile Post.