Using “Climate Solidarity” to Remedy Climate Alienation

Jeremy Brecher’s interactive online book Climate Solidarity: Workers vs. Warming is first and foremost a call to action for people and organizations to build a working-class environmental movement that can address the imminent threat of climate change, as well as the ongoing attacks on workers’ rights. With the pending Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME likely to strike a blow to public sector unions, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s ongoing assault on environmental protections and President Trump’s decision to remove the US from the Paris Climate Accords, the important insights offered by this book could not be timelier.

Brecher’s perspective on climate change and work offers a sharp and refreshing contrast to the “jobs vs. the environment” frame that is so commonly portrayed in the mainstream media. Beginning from the basic fact that working people wake up each and every day to engage in some productive economic activity in order to make a living and that this activity, to varying degrees, also contributes to climate change, he attempts to answer the following key questions:

How is such a paradoxical state of affairs possible?

How did we get in such a state?

How can we change it?

How can the working class transform itself to fight for climate protection and ultimately to reverse climate alienation?

To inform his discussion, Brecher develops this concept of “climate alienation,” which is derived from the classic Marxian theory: alienation of labor. In simple terms, alienation of labor refers to a condition in which workers labor not for their own individual and collective ends, but rather for those who control their labor. According to Brecher, climate alienation represents a particular form of the alienation of labor: “Producing through our own labor the greenhouse gases that are destroying the climate on which we all depend. It is a form of dehumanization in which we use our own human capacities for our own destruction.” Just as labor solidarity is the prescribed antidote to the alienation of labor, Brecher poses the book’s title, “climate solidarity” to remedy climate alienation.

Rooted in the historical traditions of the labor movement, Climate Solidarity reads like a handbook for labor leaders and activists, providing tools for interpreting the situation — including a gentle reminder of our history of collective action — and a framework for taking action to remedy the problem. To this end, the book is roughly organized into three conceptual blocks: climate and work (Chapters 1-2), worker movements (Chapters 3-4) and labor-climate solidarity (Chapters 5-8). At just 83 pages in length, it is packed with information and insight into the relationship between labor and climate change, as well as the emerging movement to confront the dual contradictions of capitalism.

According to Brecher, our current state of climate alienation can be traced back to the beginnings of the modern world, when two intertwined and evolving systems came to characterize human activity: the nation-state system and the capitalist economic system. Human life, of course, can’t be reduced to these institutions, Brecher contends, as there are still “communities, regions, religions, subcultures, voluntary associations, the ecosphere, bioregions, and many other overlaid patterns of human organization.” However, the nation-state and capitalist system have shaped the use of human labor and the use of fossil fuels over the long-term history of the modern world, thus laying the foundation for the current relation of labor to climate change as climate alienation.

Apart from detailing the nature of the problem in the opening chapters, Brecher, who also authored Strike!, reminds us that he knows a thing or two about working-class mobilization by reviewing the nuts and bolts of workers’ movements, and then applying some of his earlier analyses to the current crisis. In particular, he calls for a more expansive understanding of the concept of solidarity to address the climate crisis. Not just solidarity in supporting the job interests of any particular group of organized workers, but also supporting the common interests of all workers. In other words, Brecher argues, solidarity needs to be both all-for-one and one-for-all, which means workers must pursue their own interests in a way that is congruent with the common good, “otherwise the result is a travesty of solidarity in which overall class and social needs are sacrificed to those of a special interest.”

For those looking for real world suggestions of what they can be doing now to address the climate crisis while simultaneously ensuring good jobs for workers, Climate Solidarity offers a comprehensive “worker climate action” plan in Chapter 7. Free and less than 100 pages in length, I recommend interested readers to head to their computers or local library and download a copy to read for themselves. The book, which is one-third of “The Climate Insurgency Trilogy,” is available along with its two sister titles on the website of the Labor Network for Sustainability.

Happy reading and solidarity forever.