Imperialism relentlessly driving climate change

Youth Strike 4 Climate, Glasgow 24 May 2019

On 1 May, the House of Commons passed a Labour Party motion to declare a climate emergency, thus meeting one of the demands made by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN) which organises the monthly Youth Strike 4 Climate school strikes. The motion also called on the government to aim to achieve net-zero emissions before 2050 and for ministers to outline urgent proposals to restore the UK’s natural environment and deliver a ‘zero waste economy’ within the next six months. Within a few days the government had shown exactly what it thought of such a non-binding declaration by announcing the quadrupling of VAT on solar panels and their associated battery storage systems. ROBERT CLOUGH, HEIDI GRACE and SAM VINCENT report.

Despite many international agreements, most recently the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, there has been no let-up in carbon emissions and subsequent climate change:

  • 33 global banks invested a combined $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel companies between 2015 and 2018. HSBC was the 13th largest investor, while Barclays continues to fund tar sand exploitation in Canada.

  • The oil and gas industry is forecast to spend a massive $4.9 trillion on exploration and extraction of new fossil fuel fields over the next decade; it will drive a coach and horses through the already inadequate Paris agreement.

  • The OECD estimates that there will be a 150% increase in metal requirements and 135% increase in mineral extraction by 2060, with minerals and metal mining already responsible for 20% of emissions even before the manufacturing stage.

  • Backed by the US and British governments, the World Bank is exploiting Third World indebtedness to extend its Enabling Business Agriculture indicator to 80 developing countries, requiring them to establish land titles on all common land to enable its sale to agribusiness multinationals. Between 2001 and 2014, agribusiness land grabs in Africa totalled 56 million hectares. Already, more than 25% of the world’s crops are grown in regions with severe water shortages.

Every indicator shows that while imperialism dominates the world there can be no progress on climate change, and the only conclusion that can be drawn is that a movement on climate change must be anti-imperialist.

XR London action

The House of Commons debate followed two weeks of protests in central London led by XR in the last two weeks of April involving thousands of people who blockaded key roads at Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square and Marble Arch. Over a thousand demonstrators were arrested as police tried to contain and then evict them from makeshift camps set up to organise the event. In terms of its primary aim, the achievement of widespread publicity, the protest was hugely successful. It complemented the UKSCN school strikes, the third of which took place on 12 April and involved thousands of school students across Britain. Such actions show that there is widespread discontent, especially among young people, with the failure to address a climate crisis which threatens the viability of the planet and the future of humanity. FRFI has consistently supported all these actions, taking sound systems, placards and banners along to support the XR events in London, participating in local XR groups and joining the monthly Youth Strike events.

The very success of these actions however also raises serious questions about how the movement can move forward and develop into a serious challenge to the system that is driving ecological destruction and global warming – capitalism. As we said in FRFI 269, ‘Capitalism’s very nature requires it to break every fetter on its expansion. In its imperialist stage, it depends on the looting and plunder of the less-developed nations for its survival. The enormous environmental destruction it has wreaked on the poorer countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America is testament to imperialism’s predatory character. This tendency towards barbarism is even more accentuated in the conditions of global crisis in which we live today...To resolve its crisis, capitalism will accelerate environmental destruction and global warming, whatever the honeyed words of its political representatives.’ This means that challenging climate change means taking on the system that drives it – imperialism. Nothing less will do. Yet the organisations leading the movement in Britain are either sowing confusion by setting their face against what they call ‘politics’, or are in practice acting as outriders for the Labour Party’s opportunist promotion of a Green New Deal.

Gandhi and non-violent direct action

XR and its founders define themselves as ‘horizontalists’, while at the same time developing a bureaucratic host of rules and principles to which local organisations must adhere. While proclaiming their opposition to traditional left or right-wing politics, and their own apolitical character, their ideological standpoint has very reactionary origins. Hence they draw on Gandhi and his espousal of non-violent action to achieve political change, but like all Gandhian enthusiasts, they do not want to know about the role that Gandhi played in the Indian liberation struggle as a defender of the interests of the landowners and nascent bourgeoisie against the revolutionary aspirations of the poor peasantry and the working class, a role which has left the Indian sub-continent divided and in thrall to imperialism.

XR and US imperialist soft power

For an equally reactionary source of ideas, XR leaders turn to a book by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why civil resistance works published in 2011, supporting the authors’ contention that their research proves that non-violent movements are more successful than violent movements. Chenoweth is a highly-paid Harvard professor. She provides the academic front for a book which is crudely reductionist, codifying struggles in all sorts of different conditions and complexity to shoehorn them into a small number of variables so they can be subjected to statistical analysis. Her co-author provides the political link:

  • She was lead foreign affairs officer in the US State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), where she worked on both policy and operations for the Afghanistan and Syria wars;

  • she has worked with the European/NATO policy office of the US Department of Defence, and at NATO HQs in Brussels;

  • she now directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the US Institute of Peace. ‘Marine General Anthony Zinni reminded Congress in 2011 about the US Institute of Peace: “You will find the Institute’s competent work behind practically every American success in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has undertaken missions from the Balkans and Sudan to the Philippines and Somalia...[it] is like the Marine Corps or Special Forces for foreign affairs and peace-building”’ (FRFI 256).

In February, Stephan co-authored an article in the Washington Post endorsing the US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela, and painting the would-be usurper Juan Guaido as a non-violent democrat. Stephan is a leading figure in the projection of US ‘soft’ power. US imperialism’s interest in non-violent movements is that they provide a cloak for the provision of funds, training and other resources in countries where the US seeks regime change, all on the pretext of supporting ‘democracy’. In the case of such movements active in countries against autocracies which are seen to be inimical to US interests, the promotion of non-violence is to ensure that opposition does not fall under the leadership of the working class and oppressed. Their book is just pro-imperialist propaganda.

Maintaining middle class leadership is the aim of the complex structures and sets of instructions promulgated by XR, such as a 20-page document on how to organise an action, their liberal notions of the role of the police, the supposedly inoffensive character of the British prison system, or the idea that the ruling class will be persuaded to accept the complete reorganisation of society provided its members are not named and shamed. The XR leadership wants to turn action on and off like a tap, and as we write, has turned it off. Maintaining this completely arbitrary approach to action will inevitably mean excluding ‘disruptive’ influences by invoking XR’s ‘non-political’ character. There will be no place for anti-imperialist or anti-capitalist politics since this will involve naming and shaming politicians or the chief executives and directors of the banks or the giant monopolies responsible for ecological destruction and for 70% of the world’s carbon emissions. If local XR groups want to take the movement forward then they will have to break the fetters imposed by the national organisation and operate in an open and democratic way, allowing the free expression of different political views.

Youth Strike 4 Climate

The Youth Strike monthly events organised by UKSCN have been the most positive aspect of the struggle against climate change. That thousands of school students have a level of political consciousness that means they are prepared to go out on the streets in such a spontaneous way, ignoring all the sort of rules that XR would impose, and showing a refreshing openness to political ideas, is immensely positive. The young organisers of UKSCN do not share the same reactionary shibboleths of the XR leadership. However, they express concern at appearing overtly political, and it is not as yet clear as to whether this means that they do not wish to appear tied to a particular political organisation or party – which is fair enough – or whether political organisations or political views have to be excluded from determining the direction and character of future actions – which would be political censorship.

Participation in UKSCN decision-making depends on responding to polls on social media – an atrophied form of communication – or through a successful application to join the national group organised via Slack workspace. Although this is described as being open, real involvement through open meetings does not happen, and both local and national groups operate as a form of unaccountable hierarchy whatever UKSCN’s claim to ‘horizontal’ organisation. While this may not have been a problem in the early months of UKSCN’s existence – it was established in December 2018 – a movement cannot be built through the organisation of monthly strikes alone. It requires day-to-day engagement with school students and young people, and a readiness to relinquish control to allow a free debate of the movement’s direction. This will be-come more pressing as schools and colleges break up for the summer – what would UKSCN propose to do in this period for instance to prepare for the 20 September international general strike called by Greta Thunberg and the international Fridays for Future movement? It would be tragic if an absence of actions results in the dissipation of all the energy shown in the last few months.

Labour’s Green Transformation

It would be equally tragic if the movement compromised with politicians or political parties promoting their version of the Green New Deal such as Labour and its The Green Transformation: Labour’s environment policy. The notion of a Green New Deal has been around in different forms for some years. Its origins lie in a document produced by the New Economic Foundation (NEF) in 2008. One of the authors was Ann Pettifor, now economics adviser to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It gained significant traction with its adoption by the radical wing of the US Democratic Party, in particular Congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. NEF chief executive Miatta Fahnbullah claims ‘The idea is simple, an unprecedented mobilisation of resources to achieve 100% renewable energy and eliminating greenhouse emissions...while creating millions of jobs and lifting living standards.’ It has been adopted by UKSCN, encapsulating what it calls five principles:

  1. Totally decarbonise the economy of the United Kingdom through a government-led, ten year mobilisation for a just and prosperous transition.
  2. Create millions of new well-paid and secure jobs ensuring sustainable and meaningful livelihoods for all workers.
  3. Massively reduce social and economic inequalities with investment targeted in communities where it is most needed in the UK.
  4. Protect and restore vital threatened habitats and carbon sinks, and ensure the provision of clean water, air, and green spaces, securing a safe and healthy environment for all.

The fifth principle, building ‘a resilient society prepared for impacts of climate change that are now unavoidable’ presents a shopping list of the vulnerable that need particular protection, including ‘ de-industrialised communities; the global south; deprived rural areas; communities of colour; migrant communities; low-income workers; women; the elderly; the homeless; people with disabilities and young people’ – pretty much the whole of humanity outside the ruling class, so it is not clear who would do the protecting, especially of the ‘global south’ in an era of rampant imperialism.

Green imperialism

Labour’s Green Transformation ‘offer’ – its management-speak for policy – can only be compared to Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned. There is not the slightest recognition of the eco-destruction caused by British mining or oil multinationals, or the vast tracts of land that are being seized and then exhausted by unsustainable monoculture. There is waffle about how ‘Tackling the underlying drivers of environmental degradation will require a fundamental rebalancing of economic power, so that economic decisions are made by the many who will suffer the consequences of climate change rather than the few who benefit from it’ (p5). This boils down to proposals to take the railways, water and energy back into ‘public ownership’. But in the case of rail, this will take 15 or more years because re-nationalisation will only take place after existing operating franchises expire. In the meantime there is a commitment to completing the HS2 line and extending it north – a ruinous and eco-destructive project.

The document promises that ‘Labour also properly commits to supporting climate mitigation and adaptation efforts led by the countries in the Global South’ (p7). In other words, Labour in government will support countries taking steps to deal with the results of eco-destruction and climate change, but not with the causes: the ruinous Third World debt which forces the developing nations into imperialist bondage, and the predatory role of the giant extractive monopolies with the City of London, British banks and companies in the lead. Instead, the document merely proposes to ensure that ‘UK aid does not support fossil fuel projects’ or to promote ‘UK Export Finance support for the energy sector towards low carbon projects in place of its overwhelming support for fossil fuel projects’ (p13). In short, state finance will still be used to grease the wheels of imperialist plunder. There is not the remotest indication that Labour would dream of challenging the banks and extractive monopolies.

Domestically, a Labour government would ‘create a National Transformation Fund that will invest £250bn over ten years to help place our economy on a low carbon, sustainable footing’ (p13). Presumably some of this would be used to ‘position the UK at the forefront of the development, manufacture and use of ultra-low emission vehicles’ (p11). But where are the raw materials for these new vehicles to come from? Asad Rehman from War on Want makes the point:

‘In this new energy revolution, it is cobalt, lithium, silver and copper that will replace oil, gas and coal as the new frontline of our corporate destruction. The metals and minerals needed to build our wind turbines, our solar panels and electric batteries will be ripped out of the earth so that the UK continues to enjoy “lifeboat ethics”: temporary sustainability to save us, but at the cost of the poor.’ (The Independent, 4 May 2019)

Rehman characterises this as a ‘new form of colonialism’, where countries like Britain resolve their individual climate problems through new forms of plunder of developing countries, calling out Corbyn and the Labour Party in particular for ignoring the global impact that their green programme would have. Focusing on what a Labour government would do to improve the environment within Britain when the real problem is British imperialism’s relationship with the rest of the world is social chauvinism.

There is an overwhelming need to build a movement against climate change. It is not something that can be done with periodic highly-controlled exemplary actions or by monthly strikes: we cannot prepare for the Fridays for Future general strike that way. Nor will it be built on an anti-political standpoint, or be one that claims to be politically independent, or one that imagines that a Corbyn-led Labour government is the answer. The movement has to be absolutely clear: imperialism has created the environmental and climate crisis, and imperialism in crisis will only accelerate this destruction. Breaking imperialism’s hold on the world is therefore central, and to meet our obligations here, we have to fight for an end to the debt bondage that crushes the developing countries, and an end to the looting and plunder which underpins it, by removing monopoly ownership and control of their resources.



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