Workers, Not Technocrats, Can Secure a Sustainable Planet

Liberals believe that the greatest obstacle to necessary climate intervention is a lack of social awareness and professional leadership. The real problem is the absence of a militant, worker-led climate stabilization program.

Schleswig-Holstein, Kiel: Smoke rises from a German power plant on December 7, 2022. (Frank Molter / picture alliance via Getty Images)

It is no secret now that younger generations are beset by eco-anxiety and climate distress. According to the Lancet Planetary Health, these sentiments have become a truly global phenomenon, prevalent throughout high-, middle-, and low-income countries. Meanwhile, the environmental movement has long been plagued by a pervasive sense of pessimism about the prospects of its own success.

Hannah Ritchie, an environmental scientist and the deputy editor of Our World in Data, felt compelled to introduce an urgent sense of optimism into the climate debate. In her book Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet, Ritchie seeks to represent “a generation of young people that want to see the world change” but are overwhelmed into inaction by apocalyptic news bulletins and government indifference.

At its best, Ritchie’s book overturns the conventional wisdom of consumer-driven lifestyle environmentalists — whose theory of change is as muddled and misguided as their anxiety is high — to restore a collective sense of control over our shared future. Nor is Ritchie willing to lull her readers into a false sense of security by identifying easy technical fixes to combat climate change. “The problems in this book won’t solve themselves,” Ritchie stresses, but instead “will take the creative, determined effort of people spanning a range of roles.” In this way, Ritchie recalls David Graeber’s ultimate, hidden insight about the world: it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently.

However, in a clear reflection of her own professional-class proclivities, Ritchie errs in identifying the agents who will remake the world, delegating the task to innovators, policymakers, funders, and, most importantly, “brave individuals and private companies.” Accordingly, her proffered pathway to climate stabilization is paved with carbon taxes and other inadequate market-oriented solutions — an anachronistic defense of ineffective liberal policy prescriptions that sheds light on a new set of sensibilities and alliances among mainstream climate activists.

It is true, as Ritchie argues, that combating climate change is neither completely impossible nor reassuringly easy. The outstanding question is who will lead the charge.

Science Communicators and Policy Technocrats of the World, Unite . . .

In Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet, Matt Huber offers a schematic tripartite typology of professionals in the climate political scene: science communicators, policy technocrats, and anti-system radicals. Socialist critiques have primarily focused on the latter grouping, which is responsible for degrowth, an inchoate academic and social movement that expresses a generalized disaffection with our emissions-intensive industrial societies. The mainstreaming of certain neo-Malthusian varieties of the degrowth movement, whose preferred program of aggregate reduction and eco-austerity would further disempower the working class, is no replacement for the worker-led majoritarian climate movement needed to rapidly and democratically decarbonize our economies at scale — while making working-class people’s lives better, not worse.

The mainstreaming of the degrowth perspective put forth by anti-system radicals is troubling. But we should be equally attentive to the simultaneous emergence of a new generation of science communicators and liberal policy technocrats whose messaging is designed to manufacture popular support for ineffective market-oriented decarbonization strategies.

Ritchie’s Not the End of the World illustrates an increasingly coherent alliance among different groups of mainstream climate professionals. The new crop of credentialed climate experts tends to share Ritchie’s critique of sensationalized media reporting on the climate crisis, which they worry transmits an impending sense of doom that paralyzes society into an apathetic acceptance of planetary collapse. For Ritchie, this observation comes from personal experience: in her early twenties, incessant doomsday prophecies had convinced her that she no longer had any future worth living for. Years later, Ritchie came to view miscomprehension of the scale and nature of the problem as the fundamental barrier to effective climate action.

Another encumbrance, according to Ritchie, is political polarization, which she sees as preventing the necessary cooperation to combat biodiversity loss, climate change, deforestation, and environmental pollution. In other words, there is no time for political football; problem-solving should be delegated to impartial technocrats.

To exemplify this point, Ritchie draws a parallel with the scientific community’s successful defense of the ozone layer, which she depicts as “the climate change of its day.” In her retelling, a trio of Nobel Prize–winning scientists discovered that human emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were destroying the ozone in the stratosphere, but their discoveries were maligned by self-interested industrialists and political players. Eventually, a public pressure campaign led countries to adopt the Montreal Protocol, which regulates the production of ozone-depleting substances, in 1987. Since its adoption, there has been a 99.7 percent decrease in CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances.

In this narration of events, concerned citizens empowered scientific experts and policy technocrats to combat the malign interests of industrial giants and their political stooges. The same formula, including the eschewal of the democratic arena of competing political interests, should therefore be adopted to combat climate change and other present-day sustainability issues.

But the ozone layer story and the current crisis are not analogous phenomena. The abatement of greenhouse gas emissions, unlike CFCs, cannot be accomplished without disrupting our fossil fuel–based energy systems. And it is fossil fuels, not chlorine molecules, that have enabled our industrial development. Thus, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns, tackling the issue of global warming will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The problem exceeds the technocratic penchant of professional climate activists, whose primary concern is accurately accounting for and managing the ecological and environmental impacts (“externalities”) of our economic systems of production, and instead requires mass action and social transformation to overcome the capitalist property relations undergirding unsustainable strategies of accumulation.

Ritchie acknowledges that “when our economies run on fossil fuels, we’re at the mercy of those that produce them.” Rather than mute acquiescence, however, there has been growing public protest and political resistance to fossil fuel companies. In the United States, for example, eight states and three dozen municipalities have filed lawsuits against the oil majors for intentionally deceiving the public about the climate crisis.

According to Ritchie’s theory of change, which is predicated on a scientifically informed citizenry empowering enlightened policymakers, the enabling conditions for a rapid transition away from fossil fuel–based energy sources have all been met. Yet oil and gas producers continue to rake in record profits and domestic oil production reached an all-time high in 2023. Clearly we need some other kind of intervention.

The Working Class Holds the Power

The divergence between liberal expectations and material realities is the result of a naive theory of social change. Protecting our public commons and collective social well-being against the acquisitive interests of corporate shareholders has always required political contestation. The historically unprecedented disruption of our industrial-energy complex necessitates a majoritarian countermovement capable of forcing a rapid transition to net-zero emissions. Power and planning, not persuasion and price signals, must be our focus.

To Ritchie’s credit, she recognizes that we need to make people “feel like it’s making their life better” in order to “get everyone on board with shifting to a low-carbon life.” Rather than convincing people to optimize their carbon footprints, which transforms citizens into ethical consumers, “our societal image of sustainability needs to change.” Unfortunately, Ritchie’s professional sensibilities still seem to result in a blind spot regarding the material conditions of the working-class majority. Here it is worth quoting Ritchie at length:

The final thing you can do is think about how you spend your time. The problems in this book won’t solve themselves. The average person will spend around 80,000 hours at work throughout their lifetime. Pick a great career where you can really make a difference and your impact could be thousands, or millions, of times greater than your individual efforts to reduce your carbon footprint.

It’s clear from reading this passage that Ritchie thinks in terms of careers rather than jobs, and understands careers to be freely selected. Consequently, she encourages young aspiring professionals — the book’s presumed audience — to choose them wisely. Of course, for the majority of workers, navigating the labor market is a very different experience. Without some combination of university credentials, family connections, and professional networks, most people’s personal preferences are extinguished by the laws of motion of the capitalist market economy.

Although working-class people are not usually in a position to freely design their careers to maximize their positive environmental impact, they are far from powerless. On the contrary, as Matt Huber argues, our attention should be focused on resuscitating the labor movement and “recovering workers’ militant capacity to strike and force elites to concede to radical demands,” especially among the rank-and-file utility workers who can leverage their strategic power over electricity generation and transmission networks to force a rapid decarbonization of the grid.

Ultimately our problem is not a lack of social awareness and professional leadership, but a political system that privileges the profits of the few at the expense of an inhabitable planet and a sustainable future for all. To resist the imposition of a new liberal technocratic common sense, which would doom us all to climate catastrophe, we need to nourish a positive vision of a socially just and worker-led climate stabilization program.

As French demonstrators declared during last summer’s pension reform protests, “Fin du monde, fin du mois, même combat.” The end of the world and the end of the month are the same fight.