BOOK REVIEW: ‘Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet’ By Matthew T. Huber | 2022 | Paperback, $27 | Nonfiction, climate | Available at the Seattle Public Library
Matthew T. Huber’s “Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet” is, despite its exciting title, more of a battle to set the record straight than a call to storm superyachts. In it, Huber, a professor of geography at Syracuse University and frequent contributor to socialist magazine Jacobin, offers a strikingly precise analysis of how our current climate movement falls short.
To call Huber’s book timely would be an understatement. The apocalypse seems to have already arrived.
France recorded its earliest heat wave ever, with 11 areas of the country breaking temperature records by June 17. New research shows the Arctic warming at a dangerous rate, which will accelerate global warming even more.
A 20-year drought in the American Southwest has New Mexico on fire and Nevada’s Lake Mead so low that millions in California and Arizona might lose water and power. Electricity in Arizona is no longer optional: 338 people died from heat exposure in Maricopa County last year, and many predict that record will be broken this summer, especially as Phoenix’s unhoused population grows. For Arizonans, access to air conditioning is not so much a luxury as a matter of life and death.
For anyone wondering why we continue to do so little despite concrete evidence that we’ve got to do something or we’re toast, Huber’s book explains a lot.
“If the planet continues to burn,” he writes, “future historians will no doubt find our society puzzling: we clearly understood the gravity of climate change, but did nothing. It is capital and its associated ideologies blocking the changes needed.”
While he is an unsparing critic of capitalism, as might be expected, Huber also spends a good portion of the book critiquing the contemporary climate activists who are attempting to fight it.
The first section of his three-part book looks specifically at how climate activism has led us astray, at least in terms of upon whom we should cast blame. Huber’s big beef is with the idea that changing our consumption habits, and not the global network of production that feeds them, can defeat climate change. In examining the way in which the industrial processes that are out of sight and out of mind for most Americans — Marx’s “hidden abode of production” — contribute more to climate change than our petty personal carbon diets, he demonstrates pretty clearly what we already knew about buying a Tesla; it’s not about saving the environment, it’s just a status symbol.
Climate change, according to Huber, has more to do with stuff like fertilizer production (on which an eye-opening case study is included) or the construction industry, which generates a lot more carbon than even endless morning commutes. Instead of preaching personal austerity, which he argues wouldn’t be enough to solve climate change even if it were adopted wholesale, he thinks we should be looking at things systemically.
Interestingly, Huber doesn’t go in for any cheap shots against the greedy capitalist overlords. He writes, doing so “would be as wrongheaded as the effort to blame climate change on the ‘irresponsible’ choices of individual consumers.”
Instead, he points out that the fundamental logic of capitalism — the “accumulation drive for surplus value” — is a feature of the system sustained by relatively impartial laws of competition and cost. He uses the example of nitrogen-based fertilizer, which relies almost exclusively on natural gas to complete its industrial processes, even when sustainable — but slightly more expensive — alternatives have existed for years.
Huber’s focus on structural issues over individual choices foreshadows the book’s second part, which is dedicated to a razor-sharp class analysis of professional and managerial class (PMC) climate activists. After spending a few chapters shredding PMC solutions like the “degrowth movement,” calls from his fellow academics to join the #flyless campaign, climate activism’s obsession with credentials and technocratic solutions like emissions cap-and-trade, Huber offers an incisive explanation of how all this anti-consumerist environmentalism has been co-opted to obscure the real issue. And, regrettably, to further exclude the working class from the environmental movement.
“One thing that unites these austerity perspectives […] is their professional class location increasingly isolated from the non-college educated working masses. Given the focus on consuming less, ecological politics turned up its nose at the perceived ‘excessive’ mass consumption of workers,” Huber writes. This sneering at the working class is, he argues, misplaced guilt over the PMC’s own excessive consumption.
“At the core of the professional contempt for the working (and consuming) masses is a deeper guilt about their own complicity in the consumer society and the deep contradictions between the equation of professional success with a lifestyle of privatized provisioning,” Huber writes. The issue isn’t working-class consumption, he concludes, so much as capitalist extraction, from which the PMC ironically benefits more.
The solutions he offers to all this misdirection are wonderfully straightforward.
First: expand the definition of the working class to include everyone who sells their labor — including service workers and knowledge workers — so as to ensure a worker’s movement with the numbers required to actually achieve change.
Second: get to work building solidarity among the workers. Do this not by shaming workers for their consumption but by offering a vision of a better, more secure society for everyone.
Finally: use the threat of a complete shutdown of the means of production, which, of course, cannot operate without labor. This can force systemic changes, like a complete overhaul of the electrical grid and the electrification of all industrial and consumer equipment that uses internal combustion engines.
Great! But how?
After reading Huber’s revivifying analysis of how we’ve done everything wrong so far, I was perhaps overly optimistic that the book would conclude with similarly strong suggestions about how to start doing things right.
Unfortunately, his closing case study, which is also his proposed point of entry for the coming climate class war, left a bit to be desired. Huber singles out the existing organized labor in the electrical power sector as a group that could build the type of solidarity necessary to force the United States to green its grid more quickly than others.
The sector, he notes, is already heavily unionized, works in a part of the hidden abode that is actually upstream of many other industrial processes and would provide a base for future electrification of other areas of our infrastructure. Switching to cheap, renewable public power, if such a system could provide free or reduced-cost energy to the public, would also be wildly popular, he adds. Plus, he suggests that if we can guarantee good union jobs to people who agree to give up their position at a coal power plant and install solar panels instead, we’d avoid a lot of the pushback from unions themselves.
While I agree with everything Huber is putting forth here, I think he’s glossing over a pretty significant hurdle. In his chapter on strategy, he devotes exactly four-and-a-half pages to “Political Education and Union Campaigns.” Besides his earlier dismissals of PMC dithering, he doesn’t discuss the media at all.
It’s not that his argument here is wrong — he says people working in production are often acutely aware of the conflict between the health of corporate profits and that of the planet — but it’s incomplete. I don’t know enough about rank-and-file, human-level outreach to offer a prognosis for it here, but I can tell you that no movement will succeed in America if it does not also include a cogent media strategy. I cannot understand how a person who is very much a part of the mass media ecosystem that governs the most media-saturated society in human history can ignore that system so completely.
To build the kind of power he’s talking about, you have to get people to believe in it. To get people to believe in it, you’ve got to undo an enormous amount of cultural conditioning. That’s no small task. We’ve seen time and time again that people can be convinced by media, especially social media, to vote against their own interests.
Earlier in his book, Huber neatly skewers the lie that changing our grid would cost people their livelihoods. He exposes that myth as a cynical ploy from polluters who are looking to pit labor against environmentalism. But Huber himself points out that union leadership has often resisted efforts to green the grid because they believe in — or are even complicit in — that lie.
As evidence, he points out that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) came out against Obama’s proposed closure of coal power plants in 2013. Just last month, the IBEW released a policy brief praising carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) technology. In the words of IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson, it was a way for “coal and gas power plants to stay online and protect the large economic ecosystem and the tens of thousands of IBEW members who work in these sectors.”
The technology has been roundly debunked as a viable or necessary solution to the climate crisis by the Center for International Environmental Law, which criticized it as “effectively providing [greenhouse gas] emitters with a license to pollute indefinitely.”
However, it is widely praised by politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle. Last month, the White House released a “Quad Joint Leaders’ Statement” after President Joe Biden’s meeting with his counterparts in Australia, India and Japan, praising the technology. CCUS is part of almost every net-zero pledge that’s ever been pledged.
And there’s the rub. Any effort to organize workers around a new vision of abundant clean energy would not occur in a vacuum. Rather, it would take place in an arena full of openly hostile politicians, corporate media outlets and even unions, all of which have vastly greater power to distribute information to the working class than the current crop of climate activists.
Hell, as Huber even points out, plenty of climate activists are on board with incrementalism.
I want to be clear that I am not writing as a journalist arguing for more journalism — I wholeheartedly agree with Huber that articles have gotten us nowhere and that all the raised awareness in the world won’t save us — but rather as someone with a deeply pessimistic view of modern American media.
We have, at best, a feckless media industry that is slavishly devoted to imperialism and capitalism. But, more disturbingly, we have a new and terrifying overabundance of media. While this creates disorientation more so than disinformation, disorientation is often worse. If everything you read contradicts everything else you read, is any of it true?
What’s more, I would argue that the overwhelming amount of information the average American is confronted with has fundamentally changed the way we form our views. If there is, as I posit, too much conflicting information for people to parse out themselves, they are much more inclined to seek some sort of shortcut.
This leads to people using identity as a rubric through which to form their worldview, and I don’t mean only things like sexual orientation or ethnicity (although those do apply). I mean that a lot of the staying power of capitalism lies in how much support it has from the people it is exploiting, often because they see themselves as current or eventual beneficiaries of it.
It is trite to scoff at the “American Dream,” but a lot of people are still dreaming it. A lot of the people, in fact, that Huber suggests we can convince to strike for decarbonization.
In such an environment, it goes beyond just convincing the average lineworker that their union president is wrong. Sure, everyone above them, around them, on their television and on their phone is saying that a Green New Deal will kill American jobs, and that’s bad enough, but what if they themselves are also saying it? How do you convince them that they don’t, in fact, know what’s best for themselves?
Huber’s basic strategy is a strong one: you make that person a better offer on a material basis. “Climate Change as Class War” just has to figure out a few more things about how to get that offer across.
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the June 29-July 5, 2022 issue.