This article first appeared in The Anvil, Vol 4 No 3, published in June 2015.
Now that the East-West Link has been put to bed by the new Labor Government in Victoria, the mainstream environment movement is turning its attention to climate change. In particular, it seeks to achieve something practical by closing Hazelwood power station, the most intensive greenhouse gas polluter in Australia. It’s a worthy objective, but the means used will be crucial to prospects of achieving continuing and timely climate change mitigation in Australia. And given Australia’s position as the most greenhouse gas intensive society in the developed world, failure here would be a setback for prospects globally.
The Old Divide and Rule
Under capitalism, capitalists not only exploit their employees and despoil the environment in the pursuit of profits, but they exercise control over investment decisions. Capitalists decide what gets produced, how it is produced and whereabouts it is produced. They decide this, of course, on the basis of what is most likely to produce a good return on investment. Even those few capitalists who take account of social or environmental criteria necessarily give overriding priority to making a profit. If they don’t, they go broke.
When the interests of profit conflict with the interests of the environment, the capitalists’ first response is the old divide and rule. Workers in environmentally destructive enterprises are put in the position of defending their livelihoods by defending their bosses’ environmental vandalism. The bosses cry crocodile tears over the prospects of unemployment for their workers and, in large scale cases, the destruction of communities (needless to say, there is a different tune played when these same bosses axe jobs to increase their profits). Capitalist control of the economy pits the short term interests of workers against the environment, to the political benefit of the capitalists.
The Biggest Climate Vandal
Hazelwood power station in the Latrobe Valley is the biggest threat to the climate in Australia today and its closure is a burning necessity. Effective mitigation of greenhouse emissions in Australia can’t be done otherwise. The current owners, International Power, have been responsible for emitting 16m tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually for 19 years, while they made large profits every year. Given that the dangers of climate change were known well before they bought Hazelwood, International Power shouldn’t be compensated – they should be prosecuted.
A Just Transition
There is a conflict between society’s need to avert dangerous climate change and the workers’ need to protect their livelihoods in their Latrobe Valley communities. It can only be resolved in favour of both if it is resolved to the detriment of capital. Only by ripping the economic resources of society out of the hands of the capitalists can communities dependent on environmentally unsustainable activities re-orient to sustainable ones. In the case of Hazelwood, this would mean the confiscation of International Power’s assets in order to fund a just transition. To fund such a transition for the entire Australian economy, however, would require the assets of most of corporate Australia. We’re effectively asking for the abolition of capitalism.
And so the question arises – who can abolish capitalism and how can we manage to do it? Again we say the only way to abolish capitalism is through workers’ revolution. By organising in the workplace and taking control out of the hands of the capitalists we can stop the capitalists destroying the environment and begin active reconstruction of economic processes. We can use the campaign to close Hazelwood to open discussion with workers who want to save the planet, but don’t want to become human sacrifices in the process.