Sunday, November 1, 2009

Workers and the World Unite

‘The world-wide crises starkly poses the need to construct new world-wide relations of production and exchange that are substantially more decentralized, participatory and egalitarian than the relations which currently exist, at the same time as being ecologically sensitive. The construction of a new energy system, based on a much higher proportion of renewable energy use than currently exists, is a fundamental part of this process’. So says Kolya Abramsky, editor of a new book entitled ‘Another Energy is Possible: Sparking a World-wide Energy Revolution’ (AK Press), who is also helping to organise a major international conference as a follow up.

He notes that ‘The expansion of the renewable energy is, seemingly, taking a paradoxical form. On the one hand the sector has until now developed incredibly slowly, non-linearly and in comparatively few places in the world. On the other hand, resource scarcity, climate change, surplus finance capital, and militarized conflict in oil rich regions are all material pressures pushing towards a rapid global expansion. The urgency of “peak oil”, and especially climate change, are ushering in a new scenario. The end of “the fossil fuels era” may be postponed, but it cannot be prevented. In all probability it cannot even be postponed for much longer. A transition beyond petrol is no longer an ideological choice. It is increasingly a necessity imposed by material constraints. Already demand for renewable energy infrastructure far outstrips supply. The renewable energy sector seems set to become a new global growth sector’.

And he concludes ‘It is no longer a question of whether a transition will occur, but rather what form it will take. Which technologies will it include and on whose terms and priorities? Who will pay the costs and who will reap the benefits? Who can harness the necessary global flows of capital, raw materials, knowledge and labor? Rather than being a technical inevitability, transition will be the result of an uncertain and lengthy process of collective struggle’.

I think he’s right- these are crucial questions. But he also right that, as he puts it, ‘the transition process is actually a process of great uncertainty’, with their being ‘diverging strategic choices and perspectives as to the best way of bringing about social and technological change, and the extent to which this can take place within existing power structures, or whether it requires a more confrontational approach towards these power structures and the construction of new social relations’.

This can lead to conflicts between, for example environmentalists, many of whom are opposed outright to coal and nuclear energy, and worker organizations in these sectors who are predominantly in favour of worker led efforts to clean up these sectors. There was, for example, the recent infamous episode during the battle over the Kingsnorth coal plant when, rather insensitively re working the ‘Coal not Dole’ slogan from the 1984 Miners Strike, Greenpeace used the slogan ‘Put Coal on the Dole,’ with one riposte from the left being ‘where are the French Secret service when your need them?’, harking back to when the French Secret service blew up Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior boat.

We have to do better than this. The fight over jobs at Vestas on the Isle of White brought trade union and green groups together, and that’s the way ahead. But there are some major issues looming. Can fossil fuels be cleaned up, or will that simply delay the process of switching over to renewables. Can nuclear power be seen off, even though it’s supported by many unions? Can we get global agreement on cutting emissions without undermining the aspirations of those still living at or even below subsistence level? How can the costs and benefits of going green be fairly distributed? How do we create a movement to ensure that when renewables are adopted it is done right?

It can certainly be done poorly. For example, Germany is often cited as a wonderful example of how many jobs can be created in renewable energy (250,000 so far) but many of these are in the east, where low wages and poor conditions are common- in non union companies. Meanwhile the biofuels boom risks creating many terrible jobs in the developing world, and if left to global capitalism, undermining food production.

We don’t want renewables at any price. The old counter culture view of the 1960/70s was that we wanted an alternative technology AND an alternative society. That remains true. This wont happen automatically- it has to be fought for.

The UK’s Trade Union Congress has called for a ‘just transition to a greener economy’. The TUC report 'A Green and Fair Future', says that ‘support for environmental policies are conditional on a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy, and on the creation of opportunities for active engagement by those affected in determining the future wellbeing of themselves and their families’.

That’s a good starting position. But it is defensive. We need to be more proactive and create a better future, locally and globally.

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