Sabotage? Good behaviour? Workers’ action? Seeking a strategy to tackle climate change

May 13, 2021

A review by LARS HENRIKSSON of How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to fight in a World on Fire, by Andreas Malm (Verso, 2021)

What should we do when airy political promises amount to little more than excuses for business as usual, and when the friendly climate protests have not prevented the world from heading towards a burning inferno? Submissively accept doom or take the climate struggle to a new level?

That Andreas Malm does not preach resignation will come as no surprise to those who know the author – activist and socialist since childhood and today well-known in the radical section of international academia. For those unfamiliar with him, the book’s title should dispel all doubt.

To stoically wait for doom is not an option for most of us, even if some claim to have drawn that conclusion. The book’s final section is a reckoning with intellectuals such as Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen who flirt with that standpoint.

For the rest of us, who either try to do something, or wish we knew how to do something, the question is: what do we do now? It is this question to which Malm devotes most of his book.

Protest at the Swedgas LNG terminal site at Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo from fossilgasfallan

The attention given to the book ahead of publication has mostly concerned the question of sabotage as a method in the climate struggle. Despite the book’s provocative title, this is far from an anarchist cookbook but a thought-through – albeit impatient – contribution to the debate about strategy and tactics in the climate movement.

Malm raises a question posed by the British author John Lanchester: Why has the climate movement not resorted to violence? Given what is at stake is humanity’s survival, it is strange that nobody has started blowing up petrol stations or at least started scratching the paint on city jeeps, Lanchester states, in what Malm refers to as Lanchester’s paradox.

In the latter case, the effort is very small and would make these gas guzzling monster cars almost impossible to own in a city like London.

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The Russian revolution: how emancipatory hopes and antisemitic poison overlapped

May 10, 2021

This draft review appears on People & Nature with thanks to Historical Materialism journal, to which it has been submitted for publication, in an upcoming special issue on antisemitism and the fight against it. 

Review by Simon Pirani of Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, by Brendan McGeever (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). 247 pages.

Download this article as a PDF

In January 1918, two months after Soviet power was established in Petrograd, one of the Red Guard units tasked with securing that power on the ruins of the Russian empire entered Hlukhiv, just over the Russian-Ukrainian border, north east of Kyiv. The unit was pushed out of Hlukhiv by the counter-revolutionary Ukrainian Baturinskii regiment within weeks – but soon joined forces with a group of Red partisans who had arrived from Kursk in southern Russia, and took the town back. A pogrom ensued. The Baturinskii regiment changed sides, claiming they had only resisted Soviet power because the “Yids” had paid them to. The Red Guards, thus reinforced, rampaged around the town proclaiming “eliminate the bourgeoisie and the Yids!”

How many of the town’s 4000 or so Jews fell victim is unknown, but it was in the hundreds. Newspaper reports and eyewitnessed accounts detailed how, for two and a half days, families were lined up and shot, their houses were ransacked and Jews were thrown from moving trains. One report described how 140 were buried in a mass grave. There is no doubt that Hlukhiv’s newly-established Soviet authorities were complicit. After two days of constant killing, they issued an order, “Red Guards! Enough blood!” – but then authorised looting. The synagogue was destroyed and the Torah ripped up. The head of the local soviet then demanded payment from the Jewish survivors.

“In the case of Hlukhiv”, writes Brendan McGeever, “Soviet power was secured by and through antisemitism” (page 48). Within days of the massacre, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, who commanded the Red forces in Ukraine, ordered the recomposition of all Red units in Hlukhiv and surrounding areas; those who resisted were to be shot. McGeever judges that this was “likely” a response to the pogrom. He also shows that the Bolshevik centre in Moscow systematically avoided discussing “Red” pogroms publicly. While Jewish newspapers reported Hlukhiv accurately, larger-circulation Bolshevik newspapers failed to identify the “Red” perpetrators.

The funeral of a Jewish pogrom victim, Ukraine 1919

The Hlukhiv pogrom was a relatively minor precursor to the ferocious wave of terror unleashed against Ukrainian Jews during the chaotic, multi-sided military conflicts of 1919, in which 1-200,000 died. Those pogroms were the climax of a wave that began in 1917, the year of revolution, and amounted to “the most violent assault on Jewish life in pre-Holocaust modern history” (page 2).

There is no doubt – and McGeever reiterates it throughout his narrative – that the overwhelming majority of victims in Ukraine in 1919 were killed by “White” counter-revolutionary and Ukrainian nationalist forces, or in territory controlled by them. Neither is there any question that the policy of the Bolshevik leadership, rooted firmly in Russian socialist tradition, was what we might today call “zero tolerance”. McGeever traces how that policy played out in practice.

How is it that the Russian revolution, “a moment of emancipation and liberation”, was “for many Jews accompanied by racialised violence on an unprecedented scale” (page 2)? McGeever answers by focusing, on one hand, on the minority of pogroms committed by (at least ostensibly) “Red” forces, and on the other, on the strengths and weaknesses of Soviet institutions’ response. The strengths, he argues, emanated largely from initiatives by Jewish socialists, including many who remained outside the Bolshevik party in 1917 and joined during the civil war.

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Luddism for the age of robotics

May 5, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of Breaking Things At Work: the Luddites were right about why you hate your job, by Gavin Mueller (Verso, 2021)

Are the technologies developed by giant capitalist corporations – Walmart’s logistics or Elon Musk’s driverless cars – the foundation on which a post-capitalist society can be built? No way, argues Gavin Mueller.

He challenges “Marxist theoreticians” who see “the capitalist development of technology as the means for creating both abundance and leisure”, to be “realised once the masses finally [take] the reins of government and industry” (page 127).

Against these technocratic illusions, Mueller proposes “a decelerationist politics: of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organisation and cultivating militancy”.

Alfa Romeo strikers march in January 1972. The placard reads “the Working Class Goes to Heaven”. From Libcom

Allowing Walmart or Amazon to “swallow the globe” would entrench “exploitative models of production and distribution”, and channel resources to reactionary billionaires, he writes:

Letting technology take its course will lead not to egalitarian outcomes, but authoritarian ones, as the ultra-wealthy expend their resources on shielding themselves from any accountability to the rest of us: postapocalyptic bunkers, militarised yachts, private islands and even escapes to outer space (page 128.)

Given the persistence – in trade union hierarchies and even among leftist writers – of technocratic dogma (fantasies about electric cars or geoengineering, for example), Mueller’s book is very welcome.

He grounds his “decelerationism” not only in texts, but in workers’ struggles to confront, confound or control technologies in the workplace – starting with the Luddites in early 19th century England, who smashed machines that were used by employers to cut pay and tighten labour discipline.   

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May Day greetings to all

May 1, 2021

Greetings on May Day – the day of international working-class solidarity. Here in the UK, spring has arrived.

This photo, and more, are on People & Nature’s instagram account. Please follow on there, if you don’t already. Or on twitter … or telegram … or whatsapp. Or email peoplenature[at]yahoo.com, and I’ll send you email updates.  

Facebook is still blocking links to People & Nature. I have protested, and so have many friends, to no avail so far. You can share this linktree on facebook, which links directly to the latest post on this site.

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China’s CO2 emissions are soaring. But in Monthly Review’s world, they are ‘flattening’

April 13, 2021

Lord help us. While China’s coal use keeps rising, and its government plans for that to continue, there are still “Marxists” out there trying to convince us that China is leading the world to a clean, green “ecological civilisation”.

It’s the editors of Monthly Review in the United States that I’m talking about. They have just published (on line here) an exchange between Richard Smith, me and themselves about this.

My involvement in this started when I had a go at one of Monthly Review’s editors, John Bellamy Foster, on this blog. I wrote that:

□ Foster’s optimism about the Chinese Communist Party leading a “world ecological revolution” was misplaced;

□ His claim that China has made “significant steps toward a more sustainable development” was empty, given the way that the Chinese government has in the last 20-odd years – with full knowledge of the global warming danger – overseen the greatest coal-fired economic boom in history;

□ “Talk of [China’s] massive promotion of wind and solar technology’, without discussing it in this context [of the gigantic coal mountain], is a monstrous delusion”.

The underlying problem is that we live in different worlds. In the MR editors’ world, the Chinese government is part of the solution. In the world I live in, it’s part of the problem.

The exchange in Monthly Review on line has not shifted my view. And here are a few more thoughts in response.

■ The MR editors refer to “evidence provided in our March Notes from the Editors that China is flattening out its carbon emissions”. There is no such evidence. There is a link to Climate Action Tracker, which wrote:

In the last few years, there had been hopeful signs that China’s CO2 emissions were flattening. However, CO2 emissions rose in 2018 and 2019, and we estimate 2020 GHG emissions will increase by 0.8% in our upper bound and decrease by 7.7% in our lower bound compared to 2019 levels, with most of the drop due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, Climate Action Tracker’s guarded optimism has not been borne out. Chinese statistics, released since that summary was written, show that CO2 emissions rose by 1.5% in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

So China may be “flattening out its carbon emissions” in MR’s world. But in the real world, they are still going up. The main driver is China’s “dirty recovery” from the pandemic, according to China energy researcher Lauri Myllyvirta of Carbon Brief.

China’s president Xi Jinping has repeatedly stated that CO2 emissions will peak by 2030. Many, but far from all, analysts think this target could be reached. But the problem is the target itself, and the Paris agreement of which it forms part. It allows for a frightful amount of climate damage.

This graph, from an earlier post, shows China’s coal consumption (red line), compared to its renewables consumption (green line)

■ The MR editors once again portray China’s coal dependence as a primarily external factor. They couldn’t bring themselves to mention e.g. that China generated 53% of the world’s coal-fired electricity in 2020, or that it approved 46 GW of new coal-fired plants last year. (That is, China just last year approved construction of half as much coal-fired power generation again as Poland’s total). Instead, they underlined:

[China] now has the world’s largest high-efficiency (“clean”) coal power system, with “ultra-low emissions technology” incorporated into 80 per cent of its coal-fired plants, which are more efficient in reducing emissions than coal plants in the US.

Even the sharpest-eyed MR readers might have thought that those “emissions” were the same “emissions” the article had talked about all along – CO2 emissions. They are not. They are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions.

In the short term, it’s brilliant news that these will be blocked by ultra-low emissions (ULE) technology. That helps to reduce the number of lives cut short by air pollution. And of course it is true that new, more efficient plants use slightly less coal to produce the same amount of electricity.

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Strategies for the new climate war

April 6, 2021

Review of The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet, by Michael E. Mann (London: Scribe Publications, 2021). By Simon Pirani

Fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats and oil-funded governments “can no longer insist, with a straight face, that nothing is happening”, Michael Mann writes. Outright denial of the physical evidence of climate change is no longer credible.

So they have shifted to a softer form of denialism while keeping the oil flowing and fossil fuels burning, engaging in a multipronged offensive based on deception, distraction and delay. This is the new climate war, and the planet is losing (page 3).

The enemy’s weapons in this new war, Mann argues, include greenwash, illusory technofixes such as capturing carbon from the air, and deflecting attention on to individual behaviour instead of what companies do.

The Climate Action Tracker thermometer

Mann, a climatologist at the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State University in the US, was in the old climate war, too. He was lead author of a 1999 article featuring the now-famous “hockey stick” graph, showing that temperatures ramped sharply upwards in the late 20th century, out of the range of the previous 1000 years.

In 2001, after the graph appeared in the Third Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate science deniers orchestrated a public hate campaign against its authors, and others who worked with them.

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There’s still time to stop the climate-trashing Silvertown Tunnel

March 24, 2021

As the UK prepares to host international climate negotiations in November, London’s local authority is pressing ahead with a £2 billion-plus climate-trashing tunnel project that is incompatible with decarbonisation.

The Greater London Authority’s Silvertown Tunnel, together with the government’s £27 billion motorway upgrade scheme, makes a mockery of the UK’s claim to be “leading the way” on tackling climate change.

The tunnel project also shows that climate hypocrisy is bipartisan: it’s the biggest spending decision this decade by Labour’s most powerful elected official, London mayor Sadiq Khan. Labour,

Anti-tunnel demonstrators in Greenwich, September 2019

like the Tories, talks “green” – while piling up the most frightful problems for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The tunnel is deeply unpopular locally. The long list of opponents includes four local Labour MPs, four Labour-controlled local councils, eight Constituency Labour parties and 20 Labour branches, the Greens and Liberal Democrats in London, dozens of community, trade union and environmental organisations, groups of doctors and teachers, and a long list of researchers of climate science, air pollution and transport policy.

The tunnel, a terrible idea long before Covid-19, looks even worse now: long-term transport projections are being rewritten and Transport for London desperately needs financial and Read the rest of this entry »


Global heating, droughts and storms fuel violence against women

March 1, 2021

By ORTHALIA KUNENE, a South African writer and grass roots activist in her community

The fight against climate change is not only a struggle to keep our planet liveable. For many women, rising temperatures can be a direct cause of violence.

Understanding connections between heat and violence is increasingly important as we witness the warming of our planet, and anticipate more intense and longer-lasting heatwaves.

In most parts of South Africa, temperatures already often exceed 40°C.

While violence in South Africa has often been attributed to its unique historical, social and

Photo by Extinction Rebellion, Nelson Mandela Bay

economic characteristics, the potential contribution of physical environmental factors, such as heat, has largely been ignored.

But a study using data from all 1158 police wards in South Africa documented higher levels of violence, including homicides, during periods of high temperature.

In Tshwane, Gauteng Province, a study assessed five years of temperature and crime data – and found that the number of violent crime incidents was about 50% higher on high-temperature days, compared with low-temperature days and with random days selected from the dataset after the warmest and coldest days had been extracted.

Another study in the same area noted seasonal patterns in crime, with violence most frequent in the summer months.

Francina Nkosi, national coordinator for Women Affected by Mining United in Action (WAMUA), says: “Around the world, climate change-induced crises have been shown to worsen violence Read the rest of this entry »


1921-2021. The Kronshtadt revolt and the workers’ movement

February 26, 2021

One hundred years ago, on 1 March 1921, sailors at the Kronshtadt naval base took up arms against the Russian Soviet government. In 1917, those sailors were on the front lines of Russia’s two revolutions, which overthrew tsarist autocracy and the capitalist government that succeeded it. Those struggles brought to power the Soviet government, the first in the world claiming to rule on behalf of working people. (The soviets were workers’ councils.) After defeating the counter-revolutionary “Whites” in the civil war of 1919-20, that government’s Bolshevik leaders faced an explosion of protest by the very workers they claimed to speak for, that culminated in the Kronshtadt revolt. The movement demanded not only action against economic inequality, but also the restoration of the soviet democracy and free speech won in 1917. Today People & Nature publishes an article by Simon Pirani, describing the 1921 workers’ movement, its political aspirations, and how the Bolsheviks, by suppressing it, took a decisive step towards authoritarianism. The article builds on research for Pirani’s book, The Russian Revolution in Retreat: Soviet workers and the new communist elite (2008). CONTINUE HERE

Rebel sailors on the battleship Petropavlovsk, at Kronshtadt, during the March 1921 uprising. Photo: Granger Historical Picture Archive


Electric cars are no panacea. The government’s focus on them is a sham

February 23, 2021

By SIMON PIRANI

The UK government has put electric cars at the centre of its disastrous climate strategy, which doesn’t even aim for half the needed greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

The focus on electric cars – which goes together with a gigantic £27 billion road-building programme – is opposed by researchers of climate science, transport policy, engineering and urban planning. Their advice has in practice been ignored.

The Labour leadership is happy with the electric cars narrative, leaving researchers and campaigners outside parliament to point out that electrification, without an immediate, giant

The numbers need to go down

shift towards public transport, cycling and walking – and away from individually-owned cars – will never come close to decarbonising transport at any meaningful pace.

In the run-up to the international climate talks in Glasgow in November, it is vital that the government’s cynical PR strategy is unmasked.

Support for electric cars was a highlight of the government’s ten-point plan for a “green industrial revolution”, announced in November. Sales of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030 – that is, after the most vital decade for action on climate has already passed.

The plan includes a promise of about £2.8 billion to subsidise manufacture of, and infrastructure for, electric cars – just over one-tenth of the cost of the £27 billion national road-building Read the rest of this entry »


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