Feedback: Transport and climate change – a reply to James Woodcock

Issue: 109

Mark Thomas

In International Socialism 108 James Woodcock took issue with some of Paul McGarr’s arguments about the role transport under capitalism plays in the growing threat of climate change (see
International Socialism 107). In particular, James offers some sharp criticisms of the idea that public transport is the solution to
the environmental and other costs of transport under capitalism. In doing so, James challenges many of the solutions that most socialists, and by no means just revolutionaries, have looked to as the basis of a radical transport policy.

James instead proposes that walking and cycling rather than public transport form the centre of the transport solutions we
should propose. He makes a number of arguments for why this should be the case, but the one I consider the most important
and which I will focus on is the implication for greenhouse emissions and hence climate change.

h2. Renewables

The thrust of James’s case is that the focus on public transport is misplaced as it will fail to achieve the necessary reductions in
emissions. His argument is that any motorised transport will use fossil fuels or nuclear power until sufficient sources of
renewable energy are available, and that this can only be achieved in the long term, while the threat of climate change is
urgent. Yet is it the case that the barriers to the extensive introduction of renewable energy are so steep as to preclude their
rapid introduction? Paul McGarr offered a strong case why this is not the case, which James does not challenge. In other words
James is mistaken when he separates the battle for renewable energy from the task of transforming our transport system.

Surprisingly, some environmentalists are equivocal about renewable energy sources, and I suspect that what lurks behind this is a belief that industrial societies per se are ecologically unsupportable. Reservations about the viability of renewables also
disarm us in the face of the growing campaign to persuade us that nuclear power is the only solution to the climate costs of fossil fuels.

h2. Patterns of employment and provisions

As James points out, if we wish to place pedal and foot power at the centre of the transport system, then patterns of employment and provision (at the very least the location of food outlets) need to be radically altered. He is right to point to the way capitalism rips up jobs, forcing people to commute long distances, or the
way the growth of out of town supermarkets reachable only by car has both increased pressures on many workers and contributed to rising greenhouse emissions. He is right to suggest we should fight for the availability of both jobs and provisions near where people live. There are battles which can be fought in the here and now over these issues, and James gives some good examples.

But is it possible to conceive of a complete reorganisation of the economy and society along these lines? Surely under capitalism,
with its relentless logic of capital accumulation and constant restructuring of employment patterns, increasingly of course on a global basis, we would be fighting at best defensive battles. But even in a future society the level of democratic control and conscious planning required to realise James’s vision would not be
available overnight. A communist society would initially inherit the employment and residential patterns of capitalism, and this would take time to unpick.

Now, all this might seem like the ABC of Marxism, but in the absence of such a reorganisation workers will be faced with the need for motorised transport to get to work and shops, etc, let alone visit friends, family and leisure facilities. The demand for walking and cycling as an immediate and overall solution to our transport needs as opposed to an expansion of public transport then becomes merely utopian and risks lapsing into a moralistic cry of what we ‘should’ do without providing the material basis for its realisation.

Now, of course, this is certainly not to oppose fighting to extend and improve cycling facilities, as indeed Paul does in his article (contrary to what James claims). But to counterpose this to fighting for better, cheaper and environmentally cleaner public transport is mistaken. James is left suggesting that renewable energy is a long term demand, yet completely reorganising employment, housing and retail structures is a short term goal. This seems untenable to say the least.


James’s article also seems to contain too many concessions to ideas of ‘localism’, an idea widespread inside large parts of the
environmental movement. The thrust of these arguments is to seek an answer to the problems created by globalisation in the
existence of an internationalised economy as such rather than in capitalism as a specific mode of production. The remedy is sought in calls to minimise international trade and to seek to establish economies based on ‘local’ self-sufficiency only.

But one of the great gains of capitalism is its welding together of different societies into a single world system, and this
development is central to the huge transformation in human productive power wrought by the rise of capitalism. This is not to accept the prevailing international division of labour and
inequalities of course. Alex Callinicos makes the point in his book An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto:

‘Why should international economic connections be treated as a priori undesirable? It is undoubtedly an obscenity that farms in Zimbabwe produce flowers and mange-touts for export while millions of local people go hungry. But, equally, why should rural producers return to the vulnerability to vicissitudes of weather and
disease that was their unavoidable fate in premodern times?’1

The question is whether an internationally organised economy is necessary for what Marx called the material preconditions of
communism. In other words, the kind of expanded democracy that we place at the heart of our vision of communism depends on the enormous gains in human productivity that capitalism has created but cannot place at the benefit of the majority of humanity. It is difficult to see how this is compatible with a locally based selfsufficient economy in anything like the foreseeable future, and we need to direct our attention to the internal transformation of the global economy, not its break-up into smaller units.

h2. Limitless growth?

Now, does a commitment to abundance as an essential precondition of communism imply limitless economic growth, which is ecologically unsustainable? As Paul Burkett points out in the October 2005 edition of Monthly Review, although this is certainly what many ecological critics of Marx hold to be the case, it involves a fundamentally mistaken view of Marx’s vision of communism.2

For Marx, abundance is not the complete satisfaction of all conceivable material needs (it is hard to see how that would be
possible) but the eradication of all basic and most of what we might call our secondary needs. So, even on the basis of what capitalism has developed we could reasonably aspire not just to feed everyone on the planet, but also provide a varied and interesting diet. However, luxuries—caviar, say—could not be made universally available. But the point for Marx is that
capitalism makes it possible for humanity’s fundamental needs to be addressed, thus removing the material basis for the division of society into classes.

But Marx’s real focus is with the free and all-round development of human capacities, not with the growth of material production and consumption for its own sake. Central to that is the
expansion of free time to explore those capabilities. Thus beyond a certain point of material satisfaction, further rises in
productivity would involve not greater material consumption, but reductions in the amount of labour time required to satisfy the material necessities of life. There is no reason to hold that Marx’s
vision of communism and a sustainable environment are in conflict.

I make this point not because I think James rejects it, but because some environmental writers and campaigners do reject it and use it to question whether any form of industrial society is
ecologically sustainable. James’s arguments weaken our response to those claims.

h2.Waste and energy efficiency

Equally, it is not just a question of taking over and reproducing the existing form of economic organisation as it exists under
capitalism. So, for example, another crucial part of any serious programme addressing climate change is the eradication of the
huge amount of waste generated by capitalism. In an essay written over 30 years ago a former editor of this journal, Mike Kidron, looked at the US economy for the year 1970 and suggested, on a conservative estimate, that over 60 percent of output was waste. These figures need to be handled with care, as Kidron was interested in estimating what was wasteful from the point of view of capitalism, not from the vantage point of a future socialist society. Nonetheless, it is very suggestive, and certainly the scope for eradicating enormous socially unnecessary waste—
from advertising, through the built-in obsolescence of goods, to military production and so on—is surely very great.3

The massive use of renewable energy sources, the wholescale eradication of waste and widespread adoption of energy
efficiency savings point to the solutions for climate change. James’s emphasis on an immediate reorganisation of work and
provisioning to place walking and cycling at the centre of our transport system leads us away from focusing on these political
battles, and is in danger of leaving us with little to say to the real needs of millions of workers who face chronic transport problems.

h2. Partial demands and revolution

Tackling climate change means demonstrating that the solution requires the reorganisation of society, that we face not technical but political barriers. It means raising demands in the here and now that can begin to address these problems, and can win workers to seeing their capacity and interest in fighting for things that will improve their lives and make the environment more sustainable. Of course, any partial demands under capitalism run
the risk of being subverted by capitalism. So James argues that improvements in public transport simply encourage the rich
to use their cars more as traffic congestion is alleviated. But this simply suggests further measures are required to discourage car use. Ultimately it points to the limits of reforms under capitalism and the necessity of a revolutionary transformation of society. James’s arguments, despite his intentions, are in danger of taking us away from the direction of a real onslaught on the political structures of capitalism and towards the cul-de-sac of focusing on
individual behaviour.

1: A Callinicos, An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto (Cambridge 2003), p131.
2: P Burkett, ‘Marx’s Vision of Sustainable Human Development’, Monthly Review, vol 57, no 5 (October 2005), pp34-62.
3: M Kidron, ‘Waste: US 1970’, in Capitalism and Theory (London, 1974). I owe this point to Pete Gillard.