Crimes Against Nature: Capitalism and Global Heating
By Jeff Sparrow
Scribe, 2021. 232 pp., $29.99
“The mainstream discourse around climate change gets nearly everything wrong,” left-wing Guardian columnist Jeff Sparrow told Green Left in conversation about his new book, Crimes Against Nature.
So, in response he has attempted, without being dishonest, to write “an optimistic book”.
Sparrow believes environmentalism should not be a “desperate rearguard action”. We should be aiming to make “the planet better rather than just less bad”.
His main argument is that climate change is not the fault of the majority of the population. More than that, ordinary people are the key to realising solutions.
Crimes Against Nature consists of thirteen interconnected essays surveying the history of how capitalism has produced the climate emergency.
Its building blocks are history, politics and culture. Even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is summoned to illustrate the birth of the factory system.
Sparrow uses the Marxist historical materialist method while avoiding doctrinaire language. Each chapter unfolds as a narrative, telling a story based on historical research, making the whole book eminently readable and compelling.
The book begins with the history of the internal combustion engine-driven car. He shows that it is not the case that working-class people accepted the arrival of cars on their streets happily.
In fact, they were first seen as dangerous to the community culture of walking and playing on the streets.
The automobile industry had to marshal the combined forces of modern public relations and ultimately the state to make car culture at first acceptable and then an exalted part of capitalist freedom.
Pedestrians who were run down were disparaged as “jaywalkers”. The term was created by the car manufacturers to transfer onto ordinary people the responsibility for managing the hazard of sharing streets with cars.
In another chapter Sparrow gives the history of how human beings came to feel alienated from nature, through the development of the wages system central to capitalist production. He says that Australia’s First Nations people found the idea of selling their labour power to someone else “utterly horrifying”.
His point is that, while it is easy to think that humanity is fundamentally hostile to nature, in historical terms “we’ve only lived as we do now for the merest blink of an eye". While ecological damage has been appalling, there is also a basis for hope.
More than that, he stresses that it was not the relatively primitive technology that the invaders used that ruined the Australian landscape. It was “the social system that deployed technology in certain ways, replacing the choices of humans with the blind agency of capital".
Through making different, non-capitalist choices humanity can find a way out of the situation we are in.
In other chapters Sparrow explains how fossil fuel corporations have worked overtime to convince us that humanity is responsible for the planet’s bloated carbon footprint. They guilt-tripped people into trying to find personal solutions to carbon pollution.
“They gaslighted us into anti-pollution campaigns they recognised would not work, while they forestalled the solutions they knew existed,” Sparrow writes.
He is caustic about “green capitalism”, the idea that sustainable technologies will displace fossil fuels without disrupting capitalism. He warns that, in previous capitalist cycles, when new technologies established themselves they tended to actually increase the consumption of the previously used resources.
An example is the development of petroleum, which did not curtail the trade in whale oil. It made whaling far more efficient, to the point of nearly exterminating whales.
Similarly, the use of petroleum has made logging far more profitable and ecologically disastrous, even though burning wood for fuel has become largely outmoded.
When it comes to solutions, Sparrow links the rank-and-file industrial militancy of the “green bans” era NSW Builders Labourers Federation to the Greta Thunberg-initiated school kids’ climate strikes. The climate strikers provide “a hint of what a global mobilisation of organised labour might achieve,” he says.
Sparrow finishes with simple things that people can do to bring about the change that is needed.
He begins by saying we should be suspicious of attempts to blame crises on ordinary people. “Don’t be guilt-tripped into supposed solutions based entirely on personal responsibility,” he says.
He warns us to recognise and oppose environmental solutions that merely advance the interests of capital.
We have to expect opposition and learn to argue the case so that working class people will engage with radical explanations. He calls for democratic campaigning and organisation in workplaces and communities.
Above all else, he says we should maintain hope. “Don’t let the past blind you to the future,” he writes.