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From the tar sands to ‘green jobs’? Work and ecological justice


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The ecological and social implications of climate change have – or should – become a central parameter for all discussions of work and capitalism. It is generally agreed that reliance on the burning of fossil fuels as the pre-eminent energy source for production and consumption over the history of capitalism is the critical factor in the ruinous greenhouse gas emissions triggering global warming, which would become irreversible if the earth’s atmosphere were brought to a ‘tipping-point’. The leading scientific estimates project that a rise in average global temperatures of 2°C (and now often just 1.5°C) is the threshold for irreversible climate change; that this can be expected from an accumulation of 1 trillion metric tonnes of carbon in the atmosphere; that we are approaching 600 million tonnes; and that the carbon ‘tipping-point’ may well be reached in 30 years unless carbon emissions can be reduced by 2-5% per year (and now often even more severe reductions). The unrelenting build-up of greenhouse gases has led to the jarring conclusion, drawn by climatologists, ecological militants and union activists, that an exit from reliance on fossil fuels for energy needs to occur with some urgency.

In Canada, the hyper-development of the Alberta tar sands, as well as the intensifying exploitation of both conventional and unconventional fossil fuel deposits across the country, has opened a major political divide over climate change strategies and their implications for work. On the one side, the oil industry, governments and many workers in the oil and gas sectors have sought to lock-in the further tar sands development. They have argued that this could be done through a strategy of carbon intensity (more output per unit of carbon emitted from fossil fuels burned) by ‘green growth’ and a range of ‘market ecology’ measures to shift consumer behaviour toward energy saving. On the other side, many Aboriginal nations and ecological and labour organizations have pushed for a transition to an ‘ecologically-sustainable’ economy built around ‘green’ technologies, a renewable energy regime and ‘green jobs’ that would ‘de-carbonize’ production processes. (For the Aboriginal nations, this also could involve reclamation, if on an entirely different foundation, of traditional territories and economies.) This could be accomplished, it is argued, through ‘Keynesian-style’ public policies that build non-market institutions that embed and guide capitalist markets along a more sustainable and equitable growth path – in effect an ‘institutional ecology’.

For reasons of both theoretical clarity and the political injunction to address climate change, the varied strategies for ‘greening work’ need dissection. If the levels of carbon emissions are to be stabilized, it will be necessary to not be limited by plans acceptable to the capitalist classes and their interest in endless accumulation. An ambitious vision of possible eco-socialist alternatives for Canada needs, we argue, to connect the restructuring of work to wider transformations in the socio-ecological system. This is a key task of the growing movement, in Canada and globally, to stop the tar sands and stand for climate justice.

Work and capitalism

To make earth an object of huckstering – the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence – was the last step toward making oneself an object of huckstering.”
— Friedrich Engels

The current societal addiction to fossil fuels is intimately tied to the dynamics of capitalist production and the exploitative nature of work. Although it is true that humans have always had to labour, and through this interact with and transform nature in order to re-produce themselves as social, cultural, and natural beings, these interactions take on particular characteristics in capitalist society. What, then, are these characteristics? Historically, the loss of direct access to nature – in particular, land – as a means for producers to gain their subsistence for reproducing their households has had important consequences for labour and social life. Understanding some of these peculiar dynamics of capitalism will help us evaluate the possibilities and limits of green work.

Capitalist social relations are characterised by a general situation in which the producing class is stripped of all non-market means of reproduction. That is, workers are market dependent and must sell their labour-power to a capitalist for a wage, with the earnings then used to buy the necessities of life now sold as commodities in the market. Labouring has become the forced commodified labour – or work – of capitalist societies. In turn, capitalists appropriate all of the products and the value realized from the sale of commodities, including any surplus they can earn in the form of profits after their costs are met.

Here, the market mediates the collective interaction and metabolism with nature that occurs with capitalist production. For each individual capitalist, the primary goal of investment and production is to realise profits, rather than satisfying human needs consistent with ecological sustainability. In this sense, both workers and nature are brought into the production process simply as inputs, as a means to another’s end. In this process, workers lose control over the products of their labour, the labour process itself, and the interaction with nature that this entails. In short, work within capitalism is, at its core, an experience of exploitation and alienation. As the social surplus that results from production is owned privately, decisions on the direction of investment (say, to move from fossil fuels to solar power) also lie in private hands rather than involving workers affected or being democratically decided.

The intrinsic character of capitalism means ‘competitive imperatives’ compel capitalist firms to constantly attempt to lower the costs of production to earn the profits necessary for the accumulation of capital that ensures their survival. To do so and increase the value they appropriate, firms try to increase the length and intensity of the workday, lowering wages, and increasing the productivity of labour through technological development. The last implies using less labour for the same or more output. To maintain or even increase employment with technological advancement, then, the market must grow (or, for an individual firm, at least its market share increase). Fossil fuels have been decisive: they have been the key energy enabler of the machinery necessary for the continual 24/7 production and consumption cycles characteristic of capitalism. Indeed, it is in this fusion that the particular ‘space-time’ dynamic of capitalist production consolidates in the unremitting effort to unhinge accumulation from nature and the constraints of material time and space, in the pursuit of abstract exchange-value in the form of money.

Similarly, demands for better wages, working conditions, or environmental quality all increase the costs of production. Within capitalist social relations, these demands can only be met through lowering profits or – wait for it – more technological change and growth. What we see, then, is that the pursuit of growth becomes the preferred way of mediating social and distributional conflicts necessarily engendered in capitalist production without also changing its underlying social property relationships. This apparent solution, however, raises further contradictions. The unrelenting quest for economic growth causes the unsustainable deployment of fossil fuels leading to climate change, degradation of wildlife habitats, mountains of waste and a host of other socio-ecological issues. In this sense, capitalist growth displaces the conflicts over work and income through time into nature via the buildup of ecological crises and into space in the form of the unequal relations between states and peoples in the world market.

It is this context of the capitalist growth imperative, with all of its social and ecological impacts, that proposals for ‘green growth’ through policies of ‘market ecology’, and for ‘green jobs’ by an ‘institutional ecology’, can best be understood. Each has stood for an alternate path – within capitalism – out of both the climate crisis and the economic stagnation that has gripped the world market since 2008.

Green growth and market ecology

Some may be surprised to see how the economic crisis has re-invigorated neoliberal politics (of freer markets to increase the profits and power of capital) in the form of a strategy of ‘permanent austerity’ imposed on the public sector and workers. An agenda of ‘green growth’ to address climate change, best laid out in the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Towards a Green Economy, and the United Nations (UN) report for the 2012 Rio+20 summit, Working Towards a Balanced and Inclusive Green Economy, has emerged as a core feature of neoliberal renewal.

The environmental crisis, the reports contend, is fundamentally a problem of a “gross misallocation of capital.” The full suite of neoliberal proposals, now with a ‘market ecology’ twist, are offered: removal of subsidies in agriculture; privatization of public utilities to impose market discipline and prices; public-private partnerships with full-cost recovery in the guise of ‘polluter pays’ pricing; leveraging ‘green’ private investment to rebuild with carbon-reducing public infrastructure; promotion of free trade and intellectual property rights to encourage trade and growth in ‘green’ products and technology transfer; to name but a few. Remarkably, in light of the financial crisis, they propose to encourage more financialization: that is, the predominance of financial markets in driving carbon reduction investments through the development of ‘green’ financial instruments. For instance, the insurance industry, given its experience with managing risks in general, is now touted as the best driver of the ‘green economy’, given its capacity to ‘price in’ environmental risks. This will encourage, so the market logic goes, preventative measures and shift relative prices favourably toward ‘green’ production.

In a striking example of market fetishism, more prices and more markets are proposed. Nature and pollution are put forward as new zones of accumulation, with the state facilitating the creation of markets and property rights where none existed before. With more complete and transparent markets, capitalist growth will be ‘greener,’ and an energy transition from fossil fuels toward renewables will ‘naturally’ occur via firm responses to more efficient price signals. ‘Green jobs’ follow in due course. The market imperatives that drive capital accumulation and carbon emissions are now offered up, without any sense of paradox or doubt, as the solution to the climate crisis.

‘Green jobs’ and institutional ecology

The long-standing failure of ‘protecting the environment through privatizing it’ has led many environmental and labour organizations to take a different tack. Instead, they have focused on ‘green jobs’ resulting from a ‘green’ restructuring of the capital stock (not the ownership or control of industry) and a change in government policies (not a democratization of the state). The landmark UN report, Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-Carbon World defines ‘green jobs’ as “work in agricultural, manufacturing, research and development (R&D), administrative, and service activities that contribute substantially to preserving or restoring environmental quality.” The criteria of being a ‘decent’ job also need to be met to be considered a ‘green job’. Like other such reports, Green Jobs urges a mix of stronger public investment and regulation with market-based policy instruments: carbon markets; payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes; eco-taxes; and redirection of incentives and subsidies from ‘dirty’ to ‘green’ industries.

Since the economic crisis, this ‘institutional ecology’ project is associated with the idea of a ‘Green New Deal,’ as part of a Keynesian stimulus package to tackle economic stagnation. Government stimulus funds, for example, could be mobilized to build the infrastructure for a transition to renewable – solar, wind, biofuels – energy and other ‘green’ sectors rather than further lock-in a high-carbon infrastructure. The Green New Deal also commonly includes: support for research and development into energy and resource efficient technologies; upgrading public infrastructure and building ‘smart grids’; retrofitting buildings; and expanding public transportation. Such ‘green’ sectors, moreover, will tend to be relatively labour-intensive and thus create more jobs than investment in ‘traditional’ sectors. The basic idea is encouraging ‘green jobs’ via ‘green growth’ (as with the ‘market ecology’ project of the neoliberals) as a central means of transitioning to a low carbon economy.

These policies certainly modify some of the most ecologically abusive features of capitalist production. For the most part, they merit support for at least ‘doing something’. But there are also serious limitations. Note, for example, that according to the UNEP definition oil spills from pipelines carrying diluted bitumen (or ‘dilbit’) from the tar sands could lead to a rise in ‘green jobs’ because employment in environmental remediation counts as ‘green’ employment. The quantitative growth in ‘green jobs’ may not be a proxy for anything more than coping with the ecological consequences of capitalist production – the so-called ‘shades of green’ jobs problem – and the inability to actually address climate change,

Although the Green Jobs report argues that investment in ‘green’ sectors would lead to a net gain in employment, a low-carbon economy would adversely impact employment in industries such as oil and gas extraction. Workers displaced by climate change mitigation policies would thus require the support of ‘active labour market policies’, such as skills re-training, education upgrades, temporary income support, and the like. Such a ‘just transition’ would help workers in carbon-based industries to gain employment in emerging ‘green’ sectors. A number of the ‘green jobs’ reports also suggest that revenues from imposing various eco-taxes might be used to reduce payroll taxes (such as the employer contribution to social security) in order to boost employment. This would produce, they suggest, a ‘double dividend’ of achieving both employment and environmental gains.

It is clearly suspect for a ‘just transition’ to cut taxes on employers and then fund income support out of ‘pollution’, and to adhere to neoliberal fallacies that unemployment is a result of the high cost of labour (and thus workers can be ‘priced’ back into employment). Indeed, the initial Green Jobs report even took up the concept of ‘flexicurity’, implicitly accepting the neoliberal push for labour flexibility with its intent on increasing the precariousness of work and weakening unions.

To add to the confusion of the meaning of ‘green jobs’, there is often a recognition in these reports that a significant portion of the jobs found within ‘green’ sectors are informal, non-unionized jobs with poor working conditions. They cannot meet the test of decent work. This is particularly true of the recycling industry in the Global South: for instance, the informal work of wastepickers or electronics recycling in China. A recent World Bank report circumvents the issue by simply arguing that the requirement of decent work should not be applied to the developing world when planning for ‘green jobs’, as even near subsistence wages might contribute to ‘poverty reduction’. The ILO, in contrast, tends to consider how low wages and poor working conditions are actually what constitute the poverty of these workers. They call for the formalization of these ‘green’ sectors so as to improve working conditions and transform these into decent jobs. Similar problems are, in fact, common to ‘green jobs’ in core capitalist zones.

In any case, efforts to improve workers’ rights, wages, and ecological sustainability run up against the competitive imperatives to lower the costs of production. Without substantial long-term extra-market institutional (or state) coordination, it is quite unclear what can be achieved beyond stimulating initial modest investments in renewable energy and adjustments in regulatory rules. This has been the case even in something as basic as the informal recycling sector. If the transition to decent and ‘green jobs’ cannot be achieved through market mechanisms, then the entire ‘institutional ecology’ project of leveraging the private sector for an exit from the climate crisis will fail. Even with a fundamental break with austerity-friendly fiscal policies and new eco-taxes, substantial collective investments and non-market interventions would be necessary to generate and maintain decent ‘green jobs’.

In this sense, the ‘institutional ecology’ path to ‘green jobs’ shares a great deal with the ‘market ecology’ agenda in depending upon capitalist sector led growth. If the ‘only’ problem is environmental impact, so the logic of both goes, then it is possible to continue to encourage growth as long as the ecological footprint is reduced. And capital accumulation can be ‘decoupled’ from more intensive resource use through more efficient markets and technological improvement, including the burning of fossil fuels. Yet more growth within capitalism has consistently resulted in greater aggregate resource use and carbon emissions, even when relative gains in resource and energy efficiency are achieved. And even the most optimistic scenarios raise serious doubts that, in a long phase of stagnation, continued capitalist growth can be consistent with greenhouse gas reductions. In short, these are technical ‘solutions’ to a broader social problem. These ‘solutions’ to climate change are, to be sure, also political strategies defending particular interests.

Carbon reduction and environmental justice alternatives

The energy sector poses, in the starkest terms, the limits of the ‘green economy’ within capitalism. Rather than lead a transition toward renewable energy as ‘price signals’ register peak oil, the market has increased supply in ‘extreme energy’, with a systemic market failure to register carbon emission constraints. Indeed, the International Energy Agency now refers to a new ‘golden age of gas’ as reported fossil fuel supplies swell. Under current usage patterns, even by 2040 up to 75% of all energy could still be supplied by fossil fuels, provided that the industry overcomes obstacles such as finite fresh water supplies. Canadian oil and gas companies would, of course, be central contributors to supply. At some 173 billion barrels of recoverable oil (and ultimate potential of 343 billion barrels), the Alberta tar sands are generally considered to be the second largest deposit in the world. With conventional oil production in decline, tar sands bitumen now constitutes more than half of production and will continue to increase (and, of course, serves as the single largest source of carbon emissions in Canada). In other words, the projected burning of these reserves for energy would easily breach the 2°C global warming distress threshold which many organizations have highlighted.

The massive capital investment in fossil fuel extraction, further intensified with extreme energy, means that employment in these operations is slight – the lowest of any sector in Canada – relative to output and emissions. Estimates for global employment in the sector are only at about 10 million worldwide. In Canada, employment is about 120,000 including fossil fuel extraction, coal and petroleum manufacturing products and support activities, or well less than 1% of total employment, with tar sands employment assessed at around 20,000 jobs (with totals expected to increase with new developments). The numbers employed directly in extraction are even less: a large portion of employment occurs in planning and development, construction and servicing sites. If many of these jobs are well-paid, they are also surprisingly precarious and insecure as projects and output volumes wind up and down; and they have come to include a ‘second-tier’ of migrant workers with limited rights. The shift to renewables is likely, in almost all forecasts, to have a positive impact on employment during both construction and steady-state operations due to the lower capital-intensity. But this should not be exaggerated (as renewables producers do), as this is still quite capital-intensive production. A shift to renewable energy is neither a solution to the general problem of unemployment in capitalism, nor of the employment instability from climate change.

The political imaginary of a climate justice movement cannot be confined, therefore, to a market-led energy transition, either spurred by further institutional coordination or not. It can become a vital example of societal political alliances co-joining in programmatic alternatives. At the scale of the workplace, this struggle has formed around the notion of a just transition. As noted above, this is set narrowly as retraining policies for workers as fossil fuel extraction is phased-down and workers shift to indeterminate prospects elsewhere in the economy. Workers and communities adjust as the capitalist classes shift to value extraction in new ‘green’ sectors. A more ambitious just transition would extend workers’ collective rights and point toward new socio-ecological relations. That is, a militant rejection of the quantitative commodification of nature and life, for a transition to qualitative growth in de-carbonized and de-commodified sectors of production and work.

Such an ‘eco-imaginary’ is a rupture with the chase after ‘green jobs’ in a thoroughly commodified society. It could inform specific interventions at the scale of workplaces and building workers’ collective capacities:

  • incorporation of carbon reduction strategies within collective agreements through clauses on reductions of the carbon footprint, energy committees, and adjustment plans for jobs impacted by climate change.
  • workers’ plans forged to extend best-practices for carbon reduction in labour processes and between workplaces.
  • building democratic planning capacities for plant conversion to sustain capital equipment, workers’ skills and community infrastructure as ecologically-responsible production norms are internalized.
  • participatory planning structures built at the level of local wards for carbon reduction and ecological clean-up in neighbourhoods.

An energy transition extends beyond particular labour processes, and the fossil fuel branches of production, to the energy sector as a whole. In providing the general conditions facilitating production and consumption, the energy sector tends to be both highly concentrated and monopolistic, as well as highly decentralized and diversified. An energy transition entails concerns not only with the phasing out of fossil fuel production (and immediate limits on extreme energy such as the tar sands) and the reversal of neoliberal privatization of power supplies. It also needs to be conceived in terms of ‘energy democracy’: public ownership and control; diversity, decentralization and localization in production and control; and transparency and accountability in ecological impacts. For the most part, renewable energy production also fails miserably on all these accounts.

Here energy conservation and renewable technological conversion need to link to ‘structural reforms’ that push beyond capital:

  • democratization and participatory planning over centralized energy production and supply systems.
  • reduction in the massive capital intensity involved in fossil fuel and nuclear production to give developmental preference to a diversity of direct and local production.
  • redistributive energy supply and pricing strategies.
  • publicly-supported technological transfer to equalize renewable energy access globally.

If it is quite wrong to expect climate change to be resolved by more markets and more technology, it also cannot be limited to an energy transition. Some have recognized and challenged these limitations, however. In its response to climate change, the International Transport Workers’ Federation put out a remarkable statement advising that “there is no alternative but to progressively liberate key sectors of economic life from the imperatives of profit and consumption … [and to expand] social and democratic ownership of industries that produce emissions … to prevent further damage to people and the environment and to plan an equitable and orderly transition to a low carbon economy.” This ecological directive is consistent with the long-standing socialist case for de-commodified production in an egalitarian world order. The core left programme is also strikingly carbon-reducing in its implications:

  • a sharp reduction in standard worktime to share-out work and increase the time for democracy and self-management of workplaces.
  • a shift from private to public transit in electrified systems tied to ‘transit justice’ and ‘free fares’.
  • the extension of de-commodified public spaces in terms of parks, museums and galleries, and cultural and recreational spaces.
  • the mass public expansion of the caring sectors.
  • universalization of free post-secondary education for all age groups.
  • dismantling of military production and mobilization of civil brigades for ecological restoration.

These demands could easily be extended. They should be at the centre of any ecological justice movement. In practical outline, they present a possible future directly connecting a de-carbonized energy regime to quality-intensive, democratized work, and from there to the provisions of everyday life as social need. They are essential to overcoming the claims of the neoliberal period has had on our political imaginary, even in activist circles, and the claptrap of carbon markets and ‘greening growth’.

Beyond green jobs

An alternate agenda for the democratization of work, and over the production and supply of energy, is ecologically necessary and economically feasible. Significant political hurdles exist, however.

The fossil fuels energy regime has been integral, we have argued, to capitalist development and is embedded in the entire economic structure, from energy to transportation to plastics to agro-industry and all else. In Canada, the entire spectrum of energy corporations are a central component of the power structure, with the financial industry intricately linked to the financing, insurance and speculative interests of the oil and gas sector. The Canadian state has, moreover, had a central strategic objective for over three decades of turning Canada into the pre-eminent 21st century energy superpower, steadily building the Canadian accumulation regime around this prospect. This strategy entails running down conventional oil and gas resources, and increasing the exploitation of ‘extreme energy’ via drilling in the Arctic and deep seas, fracking for shale gas, ‘tight oil’ recovery and, of course, the mass mining of the tar sands. As a result, climate change policies in Canada have been all but completely absent. Alternate decentralized energy development, on the one hand, and democratically controlled public power provision, on the other, have been wholly lacking in coordinated state support.

Divestment from fossil fuels is a necessary condition for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions, and thus a core demand of the climate justice movement. It is politically inconceivable to isolate a transition out of fossil fuels from a project of democratizing the state and a vision of a post-capitalist society. The ecological crisis is deeply intertwined with the modes of energy usage internal to the production and consumption patterns of contemporary capitalism – endless accumulation, overconsumption alongside hideous inequalities, the environment served up as a dumping ground for industrial waste, the ceaseless commodification of agriculture spaces and wetlands. The massive destruction of the boreal forest for the toxic mines of the Alberta tar sands is only the most visible and violent landscape produced by this mode of development.

Anti-fossil fuel campaigns, however, too often remain confined within the market logic of the ‘green economy,’ trading-off a measure of ecological re-mediation for more capital accumulation. Any number of the market-based policies to address global warming commit this folly – through carbon emissions trading, feed-in-tariffs, conversion tax incentives, and so forth. The notion of shifting ‘brown work’ into ‘green jobs’ suffers from the equally crippling illusion that climate change might be technocratically managed by supplementing market pricing with a few ‘green’ institutional supports, without any rupture in the existing matrix of political institutions and social forces. These ideological confusions about markets and technological fixes too often provide cover for further tar sands development, as deftly utilized in the propaganda bombardment from the Canadian oil and gas industry.

It is ‘capitalism as a system’ that is the central obstacle in the transition to ecologically responsible production, work and energy regime. Marx pointed out in the Grundrisse that capitalism has a general disdain for nature apart from the use-values it can appropriate (and the accumulation regime in Canada particularly commits this sin). And this contempt extends to workers apart from the value their labour produces. “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility… whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.” This arises not from whim or malice on the part of individual capitalists, even if overt scheming and greed has always characterized the oil industry. It emerges from the competitive imperatives to maximize profits and thus continually to annihilate space (as both natural and built environments) by the acceleration of time through productivity enhancement (enabled by the energy from fossil fuels). The accumulation of capital is, historically and to this day, the accumulation of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere.

In the urgency to tackle climate change and to halt the extraction of the most destructive fossil fuel source on the planet, there is a normal inclination to take the detour of ‘market ecology’ and ‘green work’ in the hope of preventing further damage. But the political calculation of ecologists, unionists, and socialists needs to be as ambitious as the challenges at hand are large. This is to insist that a rupture with the existing paradigm of production and work is needed – ‘ways of living’ as the early ecology and socialist movements envisioned. Solar communism, anyone?

Greg Albo and Lilian Yap are at the Department of Political Science, York University, Toronto. This essay is adapted from their contribution to A Line in the Tar Sands: Struggles for Environmental Justice.

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