A techno-optimist genre of ecological Marxism is not enough to avert the climate crisis

Climate protest
Huber calls for a “proletarian ecology” that seeks to insure that the working class is able to access the basic needs of life. Background image: Climate protest in Sydney on August 7. Photo: Peter Boyle

Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet
By Matthew T Huber
Verso, 2022
312 pp, $32.99 

Over the course of the past four decades or so, various genres of ecological Marxism or ecosocialism have emerged.

Matthew Huber’s book Climate Change as Class War falls into the techno-optimist genre represented by Leigh Phillips’ 2015 work Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, published by Zero Books.

While there is much in Huber’s book I agree with, there is also much with which I disagree. That point aside, it is a book that ecosocialists, ecoanarchists and degrowth proponents should grapple with, because it takes the notion of class struggle seriously — unlike large segments of the climate movement.

In his introduction, Huber asserts that the climate movement is losing the battle to achieve meaningful climate action. He argues for a new ecological Marxist perspective that identifies climate change as a class issue — one that defines the climate struggle by focusing on production rather than consumption and defines class in terms of people’s relationship to the means of production.

He argues that at the present time the climate movement is dominated by a professional class, which includes NGO staff, scientists, journalists, think tank analysts, academics and students. In the Global North, this class formation emerged in full force in the post-World War II era, along with mass deindustrialisation. In contrast to the traditional working class, the professional class engages in mental labour or knowledge work. Huber argues that, in contrast to this highly compromised stratum, only the working class has the capacity to defeat the entrenched power of the capitalist class and serve as the linchpin of a mass popular climate movement that begins to take meaningful climate action.

In Chapter 1, Huber argues that industrial capital — which includes mining, manufacturing, agriculture and construction — is responsible for the bulk of global greenhouse gas emissions. For example, in 2015, 54.8% of global consumption of energy occurred in the industrial sector, 7% in the commercial sector, 12.6% in the residential sector, and 25.6% in transport. Conversely, while the industrial sector in the United States consumed only 34% of energy, transport consumed 39% in a society “based upon decentralized suburban housing, automobility, and long-haul trucking”. Ironically, at a smaller scale, this characterisation applies to Australia. Huber maintains that China has evolved into the centre of world commodity production, with most of consumption occurring elsewhere.

Huber focuses in Chapter 2 on nitrogen-based fertiliser, the backbone of the Green Revolution, which, while contributing only 2.5% of global emissions, relies on oil-powered tractors, pesticides and other industrial inputs — additional sources of emissions.

In Chapter 3, Huber argues that professional climate politics contains bourgeois and radical variants. The first variant consists largely of scientific communicators, who believe that climate science knowledge will spur climate action/behaviour, and policy technocrats, who believe that conservative policy-makers can be won over with smart climate policy designs, such as market initiatives. The radical variant calls for system change, not climate change and by and large believes that small-scale alternatives and anti-consumerism will erode capitalism as the overarching driver of climate change.

Huber takes issue in Chapter 4 with the degrowth movement, which promotes reducing consumption and living simply — at least on the part of most people in the Global North. He maintains that some radical academics argue that the working class in the Global North have contributed to the ecological crisis through an “imperial mode of living” that relies heavily on resources expropriated from the Global South.

Huber fails to make a distinction between those segments of the working class who are compensated for their alienated labour with a wide array of consumer items, and those who are deprived of the basic essentials necessary to maintain their sustenance and good health. Many of these workers are concentrated in the Global South, but are also among racial/ethnic minorities and women in the Global South and North.

He takes a swipe at fellow academics, such as Kevin Anderson — for choosing to fly less or not at all — for allegedly “viewing consumption as the most viable political action to address climate change”. Huber does admit that opting to fly less has the potential to stimulate discussions about the large-scale changes needed to address the climate change crisis. Indeed, aeroplanes serve as pivotal components of the capitalist world system, moving people and commodities around the world in its drive for profits.

For the most part, I whole-heartedly agree with Huber’s contention that a “class politics would articulate a confrontational approach where the capitalist class must degrow so that the working class can see growth in material security and basic human freedom”.

In Chapter 5, Huber calls for a “proletarian ecology” that seeks to insure that the working class is able to access the basic needs of life: food, energy, housing, transport, etc. He points to the US Green New Deal (GND) as a worthwhile evolving program that seeks to restructure the power grid toward zero-carbon energy sources, investing in green public housing, expanding public transport, etc. Huber argues that GND politics seeks to merge working-class and ecological interests into the politics of life. In my view, a radical GND would need to go beyond existing GND schemes by requiring large-scale public investment, public ownership and stringent regulation of emissions.

Given that the electricity sector is one of the most unionised sectors in the world in generally and in the US specifically, Huber argues in Chapter 6 that workers need to start building “ecological unionism” within this locus of struggle. For him, “eco-socialism is workers’ power plus electrification of the whole world”. However, in Chapter 7, Huber lowers his expectations by arguing that a targeted and sectoral union strategy is more realistic given the immediacy of the climate crisis instead of seeking to “change ‘everything’ about society at once”.

He maintains that given socialism is not likely to be achieved any time soon, socialisation of the electricity sector is a more achievable endeavour. While Huber does touch upon the work of various ecosocialists, such as Michael Loewy and Ted Benton — largely dismissively — he focuses on degrowth advocates as exemplars of radical climate activism.

In his conclusion, he opts to side with techno-optimists such as Phillips who has argued that we must promote a Good Anthropocene through economic growth and a wide array of technological innovations, such as new materials to replace steel and concrete, improved battery storage technologies and electric cars. However, this Promethean perspective fails to grapple with the limits to growth and so-called green technologies reliant on resources that are in short supply and often require labour-intensive and polluting methods to extract.