David Camfield's Blog, Review

Future on Fire: Capitalism and the Politics of Climate Change

Future on Fire offers a compelling argument that only mass movements can bring about a solution to the climate crisis, finds John Clarke

By John Clarke
November 10th, 2022

With this concise book, David Camfield makes a convincing case for the utterly indispensable role of mass social action in the struggle to avert climate disaster. It will be of great use to those who are beginning to consider how they might be part of a collective resistance, but it also engages long-standing points of disagreement on the left over how best to move forward.

Certainly, those who hope for a green capitalism will not find support for their views in this book. Those who place an emphasis on convincing political decision makers to act responsibly in the face of the climate crisis will also find their outlook challenged. Proponents of a focus on electoral methods will encounter strong disagreement, as will those who feel that small-scale ultra-militancy is the best approach.

For Camfield, dynamic, participatory and radical mass movements, drawn from the depths of working-class populations and oppressed people, are utterly essential if we are to challenge capitalism’s assault on the natural world, and lay the basis for a society that can forge a sustainable relationship with the planet on which we live.

The first chapter of Future on Fire provides a succinct explanation of the environmental threat we must confront. It makes clear that the ‘Earth [is] on a path toward between 2.5o and 2.9° warming above preindustrial levels by 2100. That kind of heating is far above the maximum of 2° and the preferred limit of 1.5° agreed to in the United Nations (UN) Paris Accord of 2015’ (p.1). These figures, however, are based on the dubious assumption that the policies that governments have set will actually be adhered to. The enormity of the situation may well be understated.

Beyond even this, ‘climate change is not the end of the story of how human society is changing the Earth System. Many processes are being affected. What some scientists call ‘change in biosphere integrity’ – the extinction of many animal and plant species – is being driven by climate change and other consequences of human activity’ (p.3).

Societal context

At this point, Camfield raises a critical consideration that will shape the arguments he puts forward.

‘How a society is organized is fundamental to how climate change affects people. Poverty makes this obvious: if during a heat wave you can’t get enough drinkable water and access to a cool space because you can’t afford to pay for them, your chances of survival are generally much lower. Similarly, people who are compelled to work for pay in dangerously hot conditions, because they need the money to survive and they won’t get paid if they don’t work, are suffering because of how their society is organized’ (p.5).

From this, the author moves to the conclusion that: ‘The impact on people will reflect the degree to which the sanctity of profit-making and the power of corporate owners reign supreme in a society. How racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression shape societies will also influence how climate change affects people’ (p.6).

Camfield concludes that: ‘The cancer-like growth of profit-driven production is disrupting ecosystems, killing species, and depleting finite resources’ (p11). While working for a society that can be described as ‘ecosocialist’, he suggests that ‘drastic and rapid GHG emissions cuts coupled with reforms that reduce injustice – what we can call a radical GND [Green New Deal] – represent a minimum emergency program’ upon which we must set our sights (p.17).

The second chapter tackles prevalent illusions about the prospects for a green turn by the capitalists and the false hope that governments will be rational and moral enough to respond in a timely fashion to the unfolding climate disaster. Camfield stresses that, while some investment in measures of alleviation will occur, it’s ‘not the values and preferences of individual capitalists (or consumers) that determine how capitalism operates, but the system’s competitive, expansionary, ever-faster logic of profit’ (p.21). On this basis, drastic and rapid emissions reductions will be resisted at every turn.

Camfield challenges political leaders, like Justin Trudeau in Canada, who excel in ‘the art of appearing to be serious about addressing climate change while implementing policies that promote fossil fuel extraction’ (p.23). Social-democratic parties have not followed any fundamentally different path, he suggests, ‘because for them a challenge to fossil capital is inconceivable and because they support the capitalist status quo. The actions required to carry through a just transition are incompatible with its rules, to which these parties’ leaders are loyal’ (p.25). On this basis, Camfield concludes that governments in the coming years can’t be counted on to challenge capitalist interests seriously over climate issues and that ‘getting parties committed to a just transition into office will clearly not be enough’ (p.29).

The third chapter develops the key argument that the struggles of mass social movements are the ‘only hope’ of blocking the destructive course that capitalism is on. As Camfield puts it:

‘Thus the movement’s aim should be to develop the power to force governments to enact the climate justice measures that are needed. This is altogether different from seeking “governing power”, a stance that treats getting “friendly” politicians into office as primary and social movements as secondary while making the mistake of thinking that being in office is the same as holding power’ (p.40).

The author goes to some pains to make clear that the concept of mobilisation that he is advancing goes beyond bureaucratically controlled structures or the self-contained activities of a militant minority. In this regard, he draws on a selection of movements in history that have had major results and drawn oppressed people into struggle. He quotes Leon Trotsky’s observation that ‘the most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events’, and suggests that ‘a mass social movement that doesn’t go that far is still people directly intervening to change society’ (p.34).

Camfield points out that mass action on climate justice must merge with struggles on other fronts. ‘This means that climate justice politics must be “trans-environmental,” as philosopher Nancy Fraser puts it’ (p.52). In light of his earlier and entirely correct observation that the climate crisis will play out along the lines of social, racial and global inequality laid down by capitalist society, this point is well placed and convincing.

There are strong grounds on which to conclude that capitalism is taking us down an extraordinarily destructive pathway. In the face of this, we may agree that the construction of a very different society is required but this still leaves the obvious need to find forms of action in the shorter term that can avert catastrophe. In this regard, the case for mass social mobilisation around climate justice that Camfield sets out is an important one.

Irreversible impacts

The fourth chapter focuses on a very important consideration when it comes to the movements we must build. As Camfield suggests, we are already well past the point where very major climate impacts can be averted. It is essential to recognise this, but it can also be a source of disorientation and mistaken approaches.

As Camfield points out, some people have gone over to the view that if emissions aren’t drastically reduced by 2030, a deadline set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, then ‘it’s game over folks’ (p.53). He responds forcefully to such a despairing conclusion.

‘Quite simply, the world won’t end if we learn that future warming over 2° has become inevitable, with the prospect of feedbacks further accelerating climate change. It won’t be “game over” for the billions of people alive at the time. Instead we would find ourselves facing an even more frightening future. The need for a “comprehensive reorganization of human societies in the reasonably near term” would become even clearer than it is today, but “who will survive, and how they will live” would be even more of a question’ (p.55).

The author makes clear that an intensified climate crisis, with even more dreadful impacts, would generate authoritarian ruling-class solutions that would abandon hundreds of millions of people to unspeakable suffering. In this situation, ‘the fight for what we can call just adaptation will also grow in importance as the climate scenario worsens’ (p.56).

That an inevitable part of our future will involve adapting to the major effects of environmental degradation can’t be disputed, and Camfield is quite right to focus on this important point. However, he chooses to stress the possibility of this taking the form of an unstoppable catastrophe and the necessity to continue fighting in the face of the very worst circumstances.

He draws on examples that correspond to this grim scenario, referring to the ‘post-apocalyptic’ resistance of Indigenous people to murderous colonial dispossession (p.62) and the desperate defiance of Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto, in the face of Nazi genocide (p.65). Closer to the end of the book, Camfield goes so far as to assert that: ‘Even if it turns out that capitalism does so much damage to the Earth System that ecological apocalypse becomes eventually inevitable, it will still make sense to fight for ecosocialism as palliative care for humanity’ (pp.74-5).

That we are going to face worsening climate impacts and that the society we want to create will have to deal with these for generations to come, is indisputable. However, should we fail to prevent the decimation of populations and the elimination of the economic basis for developed societies, we may cling to existence in the face of civilisational collapse, but we will not build or sustain socialism.

Revolutionary eco-socialism

In presenting his case for ecosocialism in the final chapter, Camfield begins by stressing that the mass social movements he has argued for throughout the book ‘are also the key to any possibility of breaking with capitalism and starting the transition toward a self-governing society with a non-destructive relationship to the rest of nature – ecosocialism’ (p.67).

Camfield goes on to argue that: ‘Quite simply, we need a society that’s organized to meet human needs while maintaining a non-ecocidal relationship with the rest of nature’ (p.69). He advances the notion of ‘a self-governing social order in which climate justice could be fully attained, along with liberation from all forms of oppression. More broadly, we can think of it as an ecological civilization’ (p.69).

Contrary to the view of green socialism that some others advance, Camfield is clear that: ‘Getting radical green left forces to form the government within existing state institutions would not bring about this transfer of class power’ (p.73). This ‘would require the creation of new highly democratic institutions through which the vast majority of people can govern themselves in all spheres of society, and for these institutions to replace those of the existing state’ (p.74)

Camfield concludes with a passage taken from the 2014 Lima Ecosocialist Declaration that is entirely in line with the case he has made for mass mobilisation and the socialist transformation of society.

‘If there is any escape from climate change and the global ecological crisis, it will emerge from the power of struggle and the organization of the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, with the understanding that the struggle for a world without ecological destruction must connect to the struggle for a society without oppression or exploitation. This change must begin now, bringing together unique struggles, daily efforts, processes of self-management, and reforms to slow the crisis, with a vision centred on a change of civilization, a new society in harmony with nature’ (p.75).

As I observed at the outset, while Future on Fire will be very useful to those who are new to ecological and other social struggles, it sets out a firm perspective and tackles some of the major disagreements on the broad left over the fight for a just and sustainable society.

The central role it assigns to mass social action and its insistence that electoral strategies must be subordinated to this are valuable considerations to take into the struggle for climate justice. The challenge it poses to notions of transforming the institutions of the present capitalist state into mechanisms for creating an ecosocialist society is a vital consideration.

In offering an endorsement for this book, James Hutt has referred to it as a ‘powerfully concise and brilliant primer on the connections between climate change and capitalism.’ In that light, I suspect that Camfield would see his book as a contribution to a work in progress. It will be valuable part of a process of debate and discussion and a tool to take into the practical tasks of building movements.

We are living at a time of interwoven crises within capitalist society, over which the threat of utter environmental catastrophe looms largest of all. Those who are fighting back in this situation and those who are looking for the means to do so, would do well to read this book and consider the lessons it has to offer.