Rowan Fortune reports back from today’s UK Student Climate Network strike to ask, what is the politics of today’s environmentalism?
14 February 2020.
On a grey winter day amongst the sterile architecture of Westminster, with its glass skyscrapers and perpendicular gothic, chants rang out of ‘Who owns the streets?’, ‘Who owns the future?’, and ‘Where the fuck is the government?’ – the last intoned in the tune of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’. In some parts of the assembled crowd parents accompanied toddlers, while further along teenagers in black hoodies donned masks ranging from scraps of fabric to skulls, goading the police with taunts.
Two days before, I attended a fatigued Labour debate about the party’s future (whether it even has one) after a crushing General Election – the largest political formation of the Left in Western Europe still arguing its very raison d'être. Compare that to the angry demands of students for global transformation, and one sees the degree of the Left’s potential and perilous disconnect.
Whereas the electoral Left and the Lexit sects agonise over whether we should triangulate around the fascist culture war, and the Labour Right dreams wistfully of an impossible return to the Blairism of a bubble economy, school pupils put us to shame with their bold insistence on a realist radicalism. Those who face a world without a future know that there is no room to compromise: the dichotomy is simple - socialism or extinction.
Talk to young climate strikers and their urgency in the context of climate crisis and injustice is another world from fantastical obsessions with electoral pragmatism that seeks after a nonexistent centre ground. What, after all, is the third way between the end of the world under capitalism or an eco-socialism that can overcome such an existential threat?
The angry optimism of the young is incomparable to the cosy pessimism of a recently defeated movement whose ultimate coherence depended too much on delaying contradictions until after achieving a parliamentary majority that never materialised.
As always, socialists still have much to learn from the young, the oppressed, and workers, all of whom were represented in today’s march. Equally, there is no scope for sentimentality. Greta Thunberg, an icon of the student strikers and a target of relentless misogynist and ableist culture-war attacks, is no sentimentalist – she has been consistently willing to call out failed strategies and condemn the unwillingness of the establishment to act on the threats facing us. We must be brutally self-critical during a time when an area the size of Britain has been destroyed by the Australian bush-fires, rendering much of the country uninhabitable.
The Nature of the Crisis
Half of global warming since the Industrial Revolution has happened in the last 25 years – since the first UN Climate Change Conferences (COP) met in 1995. They meet, they talk, they fail to agree, and the crisis not only gets worse, it gets worse faster. The reason is simple. The political elite represents the economic elite, and capitalism needs growth.
This is not a failure of imagination. Our priorities favour profit and war. Fossil capitalism means that banks invest $150 billion a year in new fossil-fuel projects. Governments contribute a further $5.2 trillion a year in subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry.
And all of this means wars – chiefly, oil wars in the Middle East. Moreover, a new generation of far-right leaders – Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Orbán, and Johnson – peddle nationalism and racism. Attacking minorities – migrants, Muslims, Roma, others – and blaming them for the social crisis.
It is a strange situation when children grasp this better than socialists. On the march, an older member of Extinction Rebellion (XR) tried to take Mutiny to task for its analysis of creeping fascism. Having not read the thesis put forward by the likes of Neil Faulkner, Walden Bello, and John Bellamy Foster, they argued that it was a mistake to equate the contemporary Right’s insidious strategies with the street violence of the 1930s.
But this distinction is precisely the one creeping fascism explains, with a class analysis that grasps how so many in the middle strata of British society have embraced climate-change denialism, while many supporters of the Green-Brown alliance in Austrian and Danish society have embraced eco-fascism.
Only eco-socialism, the democratisation of workplaces that eclipses the profit motive with a realisable plan to overcome this disaster, can answer our plight.
Compare such naivety to the clarity of people as young as ten shouting in favour of climate-change revolution. Against this, the police were understandably sullen, and no wonder when they were so often faced down by children. The state’s uniformed thugs looked less like the defenders of a triumphant capitalism, and more the confused little napoleon’s they are. Children shoved cameras into their faces and they could only respond with impotent theatrics, pushing teenagers around like over-compensating authoritarians.
Equally, taking on board Thunberg’s anti-sentimental approach, it is not enough. Going on a strike every Friday, repeating the same set of actions week-after-week, with smaller and smaller crowds evidencing inevitable protest fatigue, demonstrates the need to move from protest to resistance.
XR lack a coherent politics, and the police have now adapted to their always-flawed strategies, but nonetheless they understood that to break the consensus of indifference meant disrupting the normal running of society.
Moreover, as reassuring as it is to see students taking on the crisis, adults have to step up too. There was a small union showing today from the likes of Lambeth Unison, who are to be praised, but it was not enough and it was far too insular.
While union bureaucracies prevaricate on losing jobs associated with polluting industries – ignoring both the scale of the threat and the considerable work to be done in transitioning to an ecological economy – they do not defend the interests of workers, but their own immediate, institutional concerns.
There are many reasons to hope, but not if we leave all the work to the children.
Rowan Fortune is a West London activist and student of utopia; his anthology of utopic fiction, Citizens of Nowhere, demonstrates the genre's enduring relevance.