Apolitical Environmental Movements Will Not Solve the Climate Crisis — in fact, they’re making it worse

The increased prominence of Extinction Rebellion over the past few years has given renewed energy to an important discussion within the environmental movement: should, and indeed can, environmental movements be truly apolitical? It may at first seem trivial: political or apolitical, left-wing or right, the planet is undeniably suffering at the hands of human activity, and without intervention, its days are numbered. Besides, in the face of claims to the contrary, perhaps movements founded on non-violent direct action are inherently political, regardless of the volume of their protests against this classification – a question for further thought and exploration. The wave of green parties gaining traction, most prominently but by no means exclusively in Europe, represents a heightened mainstream awareness of the threat global warming poses, and the growing consensus that meaningful action to cut carbon emissions, protect our wildlife, and keep global temperature increases below 1.5º can no longer be delayed, or treated as a political football. Apolitical climate movements aim to span the divide between the left and right, putting the survival of our biosphere, rightly, above what can often justifiably be perceived as the daily playground games of electoral politics, and the ego-driven greed for power. However in doing so, apolitical climate movements fail to acknowledge the root cause of the disaster they are so keen to avoid — a cause which is rooted in politics, economics, and ideology.

Capitalism is, both by ideology and design, incompatible with our planet. An ideology so focussed on infinite growth, on ‘more’, and on exploitation cannot reach its ultimate conclusion, here or elsewhere: its foregone conclusion is continuous growth, without cease. On a finite planet, with limited resources, and where we live alongside so many other animals, in a fragile but functional natural ecosystem, such exploitative growth is simply unsustainable. It might be argued that capitalism is a human system — invented by humans, maintained by humans, and used to control solely humans —; anyone who believes that the chain of greed and exploitation stops with the workers in society need only look to the statistics: 20 firms are responsible for a third of global carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the desperation for fatter and fatter profit margins, as incentivised by the structure of the system, has lead to 60 banks investing $3.8 trillion in fossil fuels since the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, pumping money into industries that are rapidly pushing our planet to, and beyond, its sustainable limits. When growth and profit are the overwhelming aims, everything is assigned a value, everything can be bought and sold, and everything is at risk. The longevity of the planet is nothing, compared to the lure of higher profit margins, greater returns, and bigger investments going forward; oil in the ground cannot be left when each drop, dark and dirty to the naked eye, conceals, beneath, shining dollar signs, and the promise of a few extra zeros on tomorrow’s paycheque.

Having established that capitalism is incompatible with the sustainability of our environment, and indeed represents the primary cause of its catastrophic breakdown, I turn to the consequences of such a claim in the political arena. Apolitical climate movements aim to move beyond political differences — it’s not about capitalism vs socialism, left vs right, free markets vs state intervention. Extinction rebellion have taken huge strides to preserve their apolitical status, denouncing the use of an anti-capitalist sign at a protest last year, and fervently avoiding party affiliation; the fact that Roger Hallam, XR co-founder, launched his own political party last summer does somewhat undermine this, although for the sake of this article, I will overlook this, to treat the two groups as separate entities, and to avoid the need to discuss what has now become something of an embarrassment. This determination to keep XR neutral and “beyond politics” totally misses the point: an entire wing of political belief in the UK, Europe, US, and elsewhere is grounded in conservatism, free markets, and capitalist ideology. With a focus on business, and a belief that markets can solve all problems, conservatism strengthens the grip of capitalism on society, forming policies which push people to adhere to the system, broadening the reach and appeal of exploitative practice, and developing the structural inequality and superimposed socioeconomic hierarchy which encourages compliance through the myth of social mobility: be a well-behaved capitalist cog, and one day, perhaps, you’ll operate the machine. Deregulation, privatisation, and laissé-faire economic policy drives capitalist sentiments, deepening the foundations of the ideology, and its footprint on our environment, realised in the holes drilled to extract the oil which feeds the insatiable appetite of wallets and bank accounts. This materialisation of conservatism and the politics of the right is at odds with the survival of our planet. This movement cannot be apolitical.

The failure of XR, amongst others, to draw the connection between capitalism and the political right, and the breakdown of the natural world undermines absolutely their objective. By failing to highlight the root cause of the problem, XR are fighting a losing battle, refusing to target the real problem, instead preferring to mobilise millions of people in demanding aimless action. Human beings by default are not predestined to enact such devastation on our own habitat; moreover, the system propped up by those who benefit from it is nothing but a runaway train, hurtling towards catastrophe, and no longer with a driver in the cab to push on the breaks. By actively neglecting to acknowledge this, XR is strengthening the divide between politics and the environment, inadvertently (I hope) reinforcing the narrative that if enough people make enough changes in their day-to-day lives, the planet will miraculously be saved. I point, again, to that statistic: 20 firms make up a third of carbon emissions. Metal straws are a sustainable alternative to their plastic counterparts, but they aren’t going to save the biosphere. By propagating this fallacy, XR is handing politicians a get-out-of-jail-free card, opening them up to making meaningless promises, and agreements to ‘review’ and ‘modernise’ climate policy, always within the existing embedded capitalist structure, and the economic ideology of ‘more’ which underpins it. In part, it’s difficult to blame those 20 companies: they’re acting in a system which not only allows, but violently encourages and necessitates such morally corrupt greed in order to facilitate survival in a competative market. By no means do I excuse their actions, or shift all blame elsewhere: it is evident, however, that if it weren’t these 20 firms, it would be a different cohort, a new group of rich white men in expensive fitted suits, pushing their workers to produce more and more, for less and less compensation, and with fewer and fewer concerns for the destruction their practices leave behind.

So, where next? Apolitical climate movements aren’t merely unhelpful: they proactively sabotage the environmental movement, failing to recognise the overarching factor which has pushed us dangerously close to the edge of a precipice from which return is certainly impossible, and installing an ever-growing wedge between political and economic ideology, and its consequences on our habitat. These movements provide politicians with a free-ride, the echos of meaningless policy promises floating back from over their shoulders as they sail off into the sunset of profit and climate crisis, care-free and unaccountable. If we are going to save the planet — and I fervently believe that we can —, currently-apolitical movements must accept, with unquestioning certainty, that capitalism is incompatible with sustainability, and must use this to hold politicians to account, to create meaningful change, and to mobilise millions not around unachievable goals within this economic structure, with a wilful resistance to the radical, but instead around a economic and political overhaul, bringing the billions who are suffering at the hands of capitalism along with them, and demonstrating that there is an alternative. Otherwise, I can see no escape from the conveyor-belt of crises which are no longer a distant potential, but which are actively unfolding on our doorsteps and in our home. There is no more time to waste, no more deadlines to set, miss, and mourn. With a touch of humour, perhaps, but nevertheless a painfully blunt and poignant message, I finish with a short quote from British folk singer-songwriter Beans on Toast, taken from a track on his 2019 album: “and if we don’t act now then the planet dies”.

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