Good sense on global warming

Issue: 144

Andreas Ytterstad

Good sense, for Antonio Gramsci, was the “healthy nucleus of common sense”.1 This article tries to make sense of what Gramsci meant by good sense, and seeks to develop his understanding of good sense into a resource we can use to stop runaway global warming in time. Although I conclude by briefly outlining the politics of good sense on global warming, the article is not primarily concerned with how we use good sense on global warming. Before using something we must know what that something is. The something here is the potential we—as human beings, as most people, as working class people across the world—have in our heads to solve the climate crisis. I shall argue in the first most general part of the article that good sense is a conception of necessity, an interest in truth and a relational, emergent morality among those who do not rule our planet. More concretely, the second part of the article will find good sense on global warming in the shape of use value rationality and anti-capitalism, in climate justice and in changing livelihoods prompted by the climate change already under way.

This is not an article about what Gramsci said about global warming. I agree with John Bellamy Foster2 who claims Gramsci did not sufficiently connect his Marxism to nature and physical realities. Some of the recent scholarship on the “ecological Gramsci”3 is too anthropocentric, focused on human beings, and the way we “frame” nature.4 By contrast, the “philosophy of praxis” we need for the age of global warming needs to be much more in tune with nature, and the natural sciences themselves: “In a slight revision of Marx’s principle of historical materialism, we can say human beings make their own history, not entirely under conditions of their choosing but rather on the basis of natural-environmental and social conditions inherited from the past”.5

Nature is not all in our heads. However, Gramsci’s democratic understanding of popular consciousness remains very important for anybody who wants to build a mass movement to stop global warming. In his Prison Notebooks he repeatedly insisted that everybody—not just a privileged few—was a philosopher and an intellectual, with the capacity to grasp “advanced science”.6

The resources of good sense on global warming, in other words, are the consciousness resources of the many. They are not reserved to the few who have read the eloquent writings on nature of Marx and Engels themselves, refined by contemporary ecological Marxists.7 But Gramsci says different things about good sense. This is fine, because good sense really does consist of multiple resources. But I am dubious of some passages where Gramsci seems to equate good sense with Marxism, or with his particular take on Marxism, the “philosophy of praxis”.8 Some interpreters of Gramsci even suggest that the role of Marxism is to create “good sense” in place of “common sense”.9 I disagree and I will stick with the idea that good sense on global warming is a resource that Marxists may or may not learn from and develop further. As Stuart Hall put it: “The ‘good sense’ of the people exists, but it is just the beginning, not the end of politics. It doesn’t guarantee anything”.10

Unfortunately, as I have shown elsewhere,11 Stuart Hall and most readers of Gramsci do not even try to address what a good beginning good sense really is, for anybody who wants to change the world. That is what I intend to do, with examples and illustrations, in what follows.

Some of these examples and illustrations come from my experience of trying to build a popular climate movement in Norway. As deputy leader of Concerned Scientists Norway I have been involved in building two alliances. The broadest one, the Climate Election Alliance, was originally set up in 2011 by Grandparents Climate Action. By the time of the last general election in Norway, more than 100 organisations had joined the Alliance, including the biggest single union, the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees (NUMGE). Together with two other unions, most of the environmental organisations and even the Norwegian Church, NUMGE supported a short book I wrote last year, demanding 100,000 new climate jobs in offshore wind and in transport, while cooling down the drive for Norwegian oil.12

The other alliance emerged from the sponsors of that book. This year we were able to host a magnificent conference called “Bridge to the Future—A Climate Solution from Below”. Attended by 350 people in the House of Literature in Oslo, it was also watched via streaming by more than 1,000 people elsewhere in Norway.13 For parts of that day, the hashtag climate jobs (#klimajobber14), a non-existent word in Norwegian public debate, traded as second only to Ukraine in Norway on Twitter. I have written elsewhere on how the alliance experienced it: “To varying degrees of course, but nonetheless: it was a day we felt that almost impossible feeling of popular empowerment over the present and pending nightmare called global warming”.14

Tempting as it is, I am not going to explain success stories from Norway as a product of good sense on global warming. To detect and strengthen good sense is a question of art, not just of science. But having a scientific understanding of good sense as a resource helps, and it has at least given me some confidence to act upon the statement by climate author and activist Bill McKibben: “Climate change is the single biggest thing humans have ever done on this planet. The only thing that needs to be bigger is our movement to stop it”.15

Conception of necessity—the human being resource

So what then, according to Gramsci, is good sense? Longstanding readers of this journal, like myself, will have seen this description of contradictory consciousness many times before:

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness); one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all of his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.16

This quote is from a note called “Relation between science, religion and common sense”, and it is indeed one of the richest notes on good sense in the prison notebooks. But it is not in this passage, but a few pages earlier, that Gramsci explicitly attempts to define good sense as “a conception of necessity which gives a conscious direction to one’s activity”.17

There are differences between this definition of good sense and the consciousness “implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all of his fellow workers”. The latter description suggests that good sense is something local that belongs to the working class.18 For example, Alf Nilsen proposes, following Raymond Williams, “that we consider the nature and origins of good sense as a local rationality”.19 Such local rationality is often a very useful resource for combating racism inside the workplace, for example.20 It is not so useful in the case of global warming. Local experience can certainly help prompt working class engagement on global warming, as I will show when I discuss livelihood below, but to understand why people choose to fight against global warming, Gramsci’s actual definition of good sense is much more relevant. Elsewhere, Gramsci elaborates on this definition. By necessity he means perceived necessity for most people, that “necessity exists when there exists an effective and active premiss, consciousness of which in people’s minds has become operative, proposing concrete goals to the collective consciousness and constituting a complex of convictions and beliefs which act powerfully in the form of ‘popular beliefs’”.21

Such a conception of necessity on global warming has to do with the amount of greenhouse gases we can emit into the atmosphere. The necessity to act on global warming is developing fast and becoming ever more concrete for people. It used to be about the concentration of carbon dioxide (in parts per million, ppm) a livable atmosphere could endure. In 2006 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated the threshold for dangerous climate change at 450ppm. Prompted by climate scientists like James Hansen, who argued in 2007 that 450ppm was too risky, activists soon began to perceive this necessity more radically. McKibben set up, insisting that the limit should be 350ppm, 50ppm lower than current levels, and spends the first two terrifying chapters of his book Eaarth making sure that we know “in our bones” that “Eaarth is an uphill planet now”, and that “you have to work harder to get where you’re going”.22 More recently McKibben has helped clarify and popularise the idea of a carbon budget. To understand the threshold nowadays, you just have to “do the math”. We have 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide left to burn if we are to have a reasonable chance of avoiding runaway climate change. Stock markets, however, have already priced in 2,795 gigatonnes worth of fossil fuel reserves. In other words, investors have already made a bet that the world will fail to curb emissions. Climate activists, by contrast, now know that: “We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground”.23

The conception of necessity is thus a resource that is not restricted to workers. It is simply part of human rationality. We are essentially better equipped to fathom, and hence potentially to stop, global warming than snails. No simplification of the climate sciences and no metaphor for the carbon cycle will ever convince intelligent animals, like dolphins, of the perils ahead. You can free Willy, but you cannot make him into a philosopher. As Gramsci puts it: “Thought is proper to man as such”.24

The interest in truth—the radical Enlightenment resource

The human capacity to think, however, is also a historical achievement. Gramsci could not have displayed such faith in the good sense of the people without the heritage of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. This heritage is, contrary to what some postmodern readings of Gramsci imply,25 a good thing. When the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class, its best thinkers were passionate about seeking the truth.26 A whole range of thinkers on the environment were much more honest and radical 200 years ago. John Bellamy Foster has drawn our attention to the “Lauderdale Paradox”—that an increase in private riches decreases public wealth, after the eighth Earl of Lauderdale. “’The common sense of mankind’, Lauderdale contended, ‘would revolt’ at any proposal to augment private riches ‘by creating a scarcity of any commodity generally useful and necessary to man’”.27 This revolting state of affairs is now part and parcel of neoliberal hegemony in the shape of carbon trading.28

The conception of necessity, indeed the natural necessity for emancipation, runs through Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, for example: “However our eyes may be dazzled with show, or our ears deceived by sound; however prejudice may warp our wills, or interest darken our understanding, the simple voice of nature and reason will say, ‘tis right.” But the bourgeois versions of universal ideals were always incomplete, even hypocritical. Slavery was rampant in the US when The Declaration of Independence stated that we are created equals, that we should all have the right to pursue happiness, and that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it”.

Because of this hypocrisy the workers’ movement took up such ideals and tried to deepen them, well before Marx and Engels did so explicitly. Paul Blackledge shows that the demand for equality had a double meaning for Marx and Engels. Part of it arose spontaneously from the bodily experience of “crying social inequalities”, but the other part consisted in the radicalisation of the bourgeois universal demands. To Marx, Engels and Gramsci, arguments for universal human freedom did not thus simply break down into the bread and butter issues connected to social inequalities, typically fought over by trade unions. Rather the working class were seen “as potential agents, not only of their own liberation, but also of the universal liberation of humanity”.29

But for politicians and capitalists today the conception of necessity is more rhetorical than real. Another resource of good sense, alluded to by Gramsci, largely explains why. Although many of our rulers understand the danger of global warming, the system they rule—or that rules them—puts severe limits on their actions. Therefore, they are not interested in all the truths about global warming. Good sense is something that needs to be fought for, not something we can passively await:

The philosophy of praxis…does not aim at the peaceful resolution of existing contradictions in history and society but is rather the very theory of these contradictions. It is not the instrument of government of the dominant groups in order to gain the consent of and exercise hegemony over the subaltern classes; it is the expression of these subaltern classes who want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths.30

Three examples will suffice to show that the interest in knowing “all truths” about global warming, the second part of good sense in my reading of Gramsci, is not evenly distributed among human beings.

First, the deniers. They are a motley crew. Many who doubt or belittle the danger of global warming may just be ignorant of, or perhaps psychologically predisposed against, the warming and warning signs. But the “merchants of doubt”, especially in the US,31 come from the fossil fuel industry or are extreme free marketeers. Before the Norwegian Progress Party was elected into government, as—horror of horrors—they are now, their climate spokesperson tried to have their national congress vote that they did not believe in the science behind global warming. He has also publicly said that CO2 is something the left has chosen as a substitute for Karl Marx, echoing the conservative and famous denier James Dellingpole, who calls greens watermelons—red on the inside.32 Moronic as this appears, there is a kernel of truth hidden in the campaigns against natural scientists as communists in disguise. They deny global warming not because they have better scientific arguments, but because they realise or half guess that in order to stop it you would need massive government intervention into the economy. This intervention is not just a socialist argument,33 but something famous environmentalists like Lester Brown34 and leading American energy researchers also call for.35 This, of course, is anathema to neoliberals so hard core neoliberalism is not at all interested in knowing “all truths” about global warming.

My second example concerns not only the current “blue-blue” Norwegian government, but the previous “red-green” one as well. Part state-owned, part privatised Statoil have put substantial efforts into convincing the public that Norwegian oil and gas are the cleanest in the world, sustainable, and therefore climate friendly in their own right.36 Former leader of the Norwegian Labour Party, now head of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg has been instrumental in pushing this message across. As Yngve Nilsen has shown, Stoltenberg has, for more than 20 years, been heavily and personally involved in ensuring that Norwegian climate change policy has converged around the notion of “unilateral common implementation”. This means that Norway does not require the signature of international partners, but reserves the right to credit itself for what it has defined as global mitigative measures: “Norwegian export of oil, gas, and gaspower (gasskraft) were defined as such measures, and Norwegian climate change policy consequently came to equal the facilitation of production and marketing of petroleum from the Norwegian continental shelf”.37

More than ten years after Nilsen’s important dissertation, “Don’t mention the oil” is still part and parcel of the hegemony of Norwegian climate change policy. When research challenged this absurdity in the summer of 2013, demonstrating that a limit on Norwegian oil would indeed reduce world emissions,38 climate spokespersons from the Tory Party, the Progress Party and the Labour Party quite simply said they did not “believe” it. Again it is the lack of a real interest in knowing all truths, the lack of good sense, that best explains this other, more specifically Norwegian stripe of denialism.

My third example, the most challenging one perhaps for revolutionary socialists, is how the unions in Norway have responded to the proposed campaign for climate jobs. Do the workers really want to “educate themselves” and challenge the oil-industrial complex39 underpinning Norwegian climate change policies? It is no coincidence, nor very surprising, that so far the unions most solidly behind the idea of a transition away from oil have organised public sector workers. There is less of a conflict between their immediate job interests and the long-term universal interest in curbing emissions than in parts of the private sector. It is more difficult with the Industry and Energy Union, who organise members both in renewable industries and in fossil fuels. Their leader is concerned about the breakneck speed of Norwegian oil exploration at the moment, but refers to our call for climate jobs as a “desktop project”.40 It is even more difficult with the largest private sector union within the Norwegian TUC, Fellesforbundet, with more of their members in and around the oil industry. The union has persuaded the TUC as a whole to be positive towards more oil drilling off the coast of northern Norway.

The various degrees of support in the unions for a worker-led transition to a low carbon economy speak of varying degrees of success by activists and environmentalists in winning the concrete arguments. But they also illustrate what an important new book launching the field of environmental labour studies41 fleshes out more generally: that there are both structural constraints and opportunities for good sense on environmental issues in trade unions. The international working class may objectively have “radical chains”, in the sense implied by Marx.42 If they shook them off, they could pave the way for universal emancipation. But the interest in knowing all truths only exists as a potential resource within the actually existing trade union movement. Climate jobs in Norway at the moment are a little like the demand for an eight-hour day, or even socialism, used to be: A good idea, but could it really work in practice?

The morality of good sense—evaluative realism

Locating an interest in truth at the core of common sense helps us to understand what is good, ie in the obvious moral connotation of the word, in good sense. If we look closer at the moral content of good sense we can see how Gramsci moves easily from “is” to “ought”.43 The Silent Spring described by Rachel Carson,44 a spring where birds no longer sing, is a sorry state of affairs—and so it is speaking objectively, not just as a birdwatcher. The extinction of the golden toad due to loss of mist in Costa Rica is rightfully also, as Tim Flannery shows in his bestseller The Weather Makers, seen as a “warning” of global warming.45 With the projected rate of extinctions detailed in Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees, global warming is an existential question—not in a philosophically elaborated sense but in a mundane self-evident sense. Confronted by the likelihood that up to half of the world species may die out if global warming exceeds two degrees by 2050,46 we need only minimally paraphrase Thomas Paine: “The simple voice of nature and reason will say, ‘tis not right.”

This is often more difficult for scientists, who tend to have an idea of objectivity that excludes norms and values. I often tell a story of Knut Alfsen, Director of Norwegian climate change research centre CICERO, to illustrate this point. He spoke at the Grandparents meeting in 2011 that kicked off the Climate Election Alliance, as did I. After his talk, which included terrifying graphs of projected warming trends in the 21st century, one of the grandparents, very worried from the sound of her voice, asked Alfsen what we could do to prevent all of this. His reply began by saying that in order to answer that question, he had to “switch hats” from being a researcher to a grandfather himself. Alfsen, an economist and social scientist himself, was in this talk primarily relaying findings from the natural sciences, where hard facts are rightfully often separated from morality or politics, “subatomic particles and natural selection are just facts, and that is all there is to say on the matter”.47 Emissions of greenhouse gases, and the need to curb such emissions, by contrast, are both natural and social facts. Values and morals therefore creep into most lines of research relevant to global warming. The process of adaptation to sea level rise in the Nile Delta, for instance, has been shown to be highly skewed by class. Rich farmers can afford to build sea walls; poor ones cannot, and are therefore forced to make do with fences made of reeds and sand.48

Most people are like grandparents—not like scientists. Andrew Sayer has written a book with the excellent title Why Things Matter to People,49 that explains why, whereas social scientists prefer cold rational description, and tend to see values and morals as things that exist beyond reason, most people do not. In their practical reasoning, and in the ethical dimension of their everyday life, rationality and values, is and ought, tend to merge. That is part and parcel of their good sense, I would add. We do not need to switch hats to care about global warming. Arguably, they incline towards what Sean Creaven calls evaluative realism. If our conception of necessity tells us that we cannot emit greenhouse gases beyond 450 or 350ppm, that is in itself a fact that “provides us with moral obligations by force of logical necessity”.50 Until the is of global warming leads to the ought of slashing emissions from fossil fuels humanity, to repeat the ending of Common Sense by Thomas Paine “will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity”.51

Put differently, the strongest moral convictions come from our deepest held understanding of the facts.52 Gramsci is onto this same point in his note on “Moral Science and Historical Materialism”:

The scientific base for a morality of historical materialism is to be looked for, in my opinion, in the affirmation that “society does not pose for itself tasks the conditions for whose resolution do not already exist”. Where these conditions exist “the solution of the tasks becomes duty, “will” becomes free”. Morality would then become a search for the conditions necessary for the freedom of the will…and the demonstration that these conditions exist.53

Now, how you interpret the good sense conception of necessity, specified further by “a search for the conditions necessary for the freedom of the will”, depends on behalf of which class you are acting. In terms of climate change, you could argue—as our rulers do—that the necessary conditions for solving the task of cutting greenhouse gase emissions already exist, in the shape of market mechanisms. Or you could issue governmental reports for offshore wind, where the idea that wind turbines could replace the oil rigs is not even part of the “mandate”.

But when an environmental representative of NUMGE prepared a note for our book, on the potential for climate jobs in offshore wind, he found that 50,000 jobs were a completely realistic number. To have the world, including Norway, run on clean energy is realistic technically and economically—given sufficient state intervention. The problem is social and political.54 When our leaders appeal to political realism, based on oil and market hegemony, we must respond with what I call natural realism in our book on climate jobs. The foreword to that book by James Hansen is also a good example of evaluative realism; facts prompt morals:

We have, as concerned scientists and citizens of planet Earth, a moral responsibility to widen the sense of what is practical and possible in climate change policy across the world. We cannot simply report the facts to our governments, and then hope for the best. It is now 25 years since I reported some of the early findings of global warming to the US Congress. It is safe to conclude that facts alone will not make them move. Social forces need to be mobilised who can make them do what they claim cannot “realistically” be done.55

Good sense as an emergent and relational resource

James Hansen is very interesting. To have one of the most famous climate scientists in the world resign as Director of NASA to become an activist56 is astonishing, and brings to light the failure of the climate change politics of our rulers. His personal trajectory and his comments above illustrate how good sense, so to speak, becomes visible. In the Prison Notebooks Gramsci usually speaks of good sense as emergent, latent or embryonic. It is only through mass action that good sense becomes manifest: “The social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic; a conception which manifests itself in action, but occasionally, and in flashes—when, that is, the group is acting as an organic totality”.57 This does not happen in “normal times”, says Gramsci, but as the translators of the English Selections from the Prison Notebooks point out in a footnote on the same page, in “the exceptional (and hence potentially revolutionary) moments in history in which a class or a group discovers its objective and subjective unity in action”.

This emergent dimension58 often depends, in turn, on the relational dimension59 of good sense. James Hansen makes no secret of the very bad relations that have developed between him and the US Congress over the years. Gramsci refers to good sense in the note entitled “Subversive” in the Prison Notebooks adding that the Italian word for subversive contains in it a critical first phase of class consciousness against “officialdom”. Politically this consciousness can be mobilised by the right as well as on the left.60 However, as Gramsci goes on to write, “the lower classes, historically on the defensive, can only achieve self-awareness via a series of negations, via their consciousness of the identity and class limits of their enemy”.61 Although global warming in the abstract concerns all living life, a “spirit of cleavage”62 between those who rule and those who do not, is necessary to put good sense in motion. The blue-blue government we just elected in Norway is a horrible symptom of bourgeois hegemony. Seven of its ministers come from the denialist, racist Progress Party. As I write these lines, it is opening a cleavage the climate movement will need to sharpen even further in the coming period.

Use value rationality and anti-capitalism

The second part of this exposition of good sense on global warming is more concrete. All aspects of good sense must always be understood in particular contexts, but this is especially so for the relational and emergent resources of good sense briefly described above. The emergence of protest movements by definition happens in certain times and places. In this section I will look at how use value rationality and anti-capitalism emerged as elements of good sense, and in the next one I look at climate justice and livelihood.

Gramsci did not write that good sense was the healthy nucleus of common sense until late in his life in prison, in 1932.63 His emphasis on truth, though, is detectable in his much earlier political writings. In June 1919, in the midst of the emergence of factory councils in Turin, he wrote that: “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is to achieve a communist and revolutionary act”.64 In my dissertation I propose that Gramsci discovered good sense during this period of workers’ struggle,65 and then wrote about what he learnt more abstractly in the Prison Notebooks many years later. Here he writes of how the newspaper he edited, L’Ordine Nuovo, discovered how the workers developed “certain kinds of new intellectualism” and tried to “determine its new concepts”.66 As workers began to run the factories themselves, their perception of the purposes of that production began to change. Through seeing the factory “as a producer of real objects and not of profit”, the worker gave “an external, political demonstration of the consciousness he has acquired”.67

Put in the terms of Andrew Collier,68 the truth that workers began to arrive at was a use value rationality on the brink of replacing the exchange value rationality that penetrates not just the economy but the entire social life of capitalism.

One illustration of use value rationality is the Norwegian biodiversity law, according to the Environmental Ministry among the most ambitious and far-reaching in the world. In its declaration of principles it lines up three fundamental ways we value nature. We have intrinsic value (egenverdi), use value (nytteverdi) and experiental value (opplevelsesverdi). All three sets of values can be subsumed under use value rationality because all of them primarily involve qualitative reasoning of the sort we would understand by practical sound judgment, which—incidentally—is also how good sense is referred to in English lexicons. Any interference in nature should negotiate between all these fundamentals, said the chief developer of the biodiversity law at a seminar I attended a few years ago. But while the authorities (pretend to) negotiate these values, exchange value continues to be fundamental to the metabolic relationship between capitalism and the environment.

Indeed, it is easier to grasp the generality (and variety) in use value rationality by way of its negation through exchange value rationality.69 Paul Burkett has shown how respondents behave in surveys made within the discipline of “contingent valuation analysis”, which is specifically aimed at setting a price on environmental goods, including those related to global warming. Burkett finds “common sense resistance” against price setting across cultural divides.70 Joan Martinez-Alier contends that a great many of today’s environmental conflicts are rooted in opposition to the commodity fetishism of capitalism “that sees only one way to value the world”.71 Indeed, it is not difficult to find use value rationality and climate justice as both latent and emergent examples of good sense on global warming. This particular bit of anti-capitalism runs through environmental history. From the British poets responsible for the impulse called “back to the land” to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the US in the early 1960s; from the “wilderness idea” to the deep ecology of Arne Næss; from the workers in Manchester in the 1840s to Chico Mendez and the rubber tappers in Amazonia in the 1980s72, there is opposition to a system that values everything in money, and ignores the intrinsic value of life, of human beings and of nature.

I remember reading intricate discussions in this journal,73 of whether Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism was too perfect an explanation to be accepted. I perceived it as a very abstract thing that explained too much. How can you ever break free, if—as Raymond Williams put it so wonderfully—capitalism reduces us to consumers, “stomachs or furnaces…being a very specialised variety of human being with no brain, no eyes, no senses, but who can gulp”.74 But it becomes more plausible if we perceive commodification not as an abstract theoretical category, but as “the historical development of the tension between the requirements of money-making and monetary valuation on the one hand, and the needs of human beings, of sustainable human development, on the other”.75 Such a view might explain why “Our world is not for sale!” was such a potent message in Seattle in 1999. As Naomi Klein and social movement academics have noted,76 some of those sentiments hibernated after 9/11 and resurfaced in the climate justice movement with the slogan “Our climate is not your business” used outside venues of carbon trading. Klein, author of No Logo,77 was the chief speaker at the opening rally of the “people’s assembly” in Copenhagen in 2009. Her concluding words express the opposition to exchange value rationality on global warming rather eloquently: “Life may be coming to an end, because of too much obedience. We need a global mass movement. Think of it as the mother of all carbon offsets”.78

Climate justice and livelihood

Use value rationality and anti-capitalism are fairly long-standing features of good sense, very relevant for the fight against global warming. The call for climate justice, by contrast, is more recent. It more clearly illustrates the emergent dimension of good sense, and is also more regional and culturally specific, emanating primarily from the Global South towards the Global North. Formally it is enshrined in principle 7 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which states: “In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, states have common but differentiated responsibilities.” At the UN climate summits, some of the strongest moral appeals for radical global cuts in emissions have come from small island states such as the Maldives, who even brought in Mark Lynas as an adviser to their negotiating team in Copenhagen. The conception of necessity has driven Maldivians to take an uncompromising position, insisting, based on scientific projections, that the country “will disappear into the sea” if targets are not set at 350ppm, that is at 1.5 degrees global warming.79 An even more radical climate justice perspective has emerged from Bolivia, echoing the important Cochabamba Conference in April 2010. Pointing not only to the historical debt of the Global North, but to the right for future atmospheric space for development, the demands of the climate justice activists in Cochabamba included a target to stabilise temperatures to one degree of warming and 300ppm, a full rejection of carbon markets and a “Universal Declaration on the rights of Mother Earth to ensure harmony with nature”.80

The language of Mother Earth, Pachamama, reminds us of the importance of indigenous communities and cosmologies to the development of the climate movement. Some of the more principled rejections of exchange value rationality come precisely from the indigenous organisations present at such summits. Slogans against the green economy, because it was seen as a greed economy, were everywhere to be heard at the 50,000 strong demonstration against the sequel to the Rio Summit in 2012. “La Tierra no se Vende, La Tierra se Defiende!” (The Earth is not for Sale, the Earth is for Defending!)81 No wonder that quite a few authors highlight agency from the Global South, and indigenous communities in particular, when they look for alternatives to neoliberal hegemony.82

Yet environmental justice has a history in the Global North as well, among anti-racists, (eco)feminists and among the poor in US cities.83 Good sense is relational, not only between North and South, but between classes within countries as well.84 And although some cosmologies may be better at expressing outrage in their good sense, the emergence of climate justice can be explained by more material factors. It is when global warming begins to be experienced and perceived as a human, social and political problem in its own right that climate justice may come to appear as the healthy core of common sense rather than a lofty ethical command. The class rage after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was well captured by the television series Treme. J Timmons Roberts suggests that:

a high-water mark of the infant climate justice movement so far may have been when on 28 October 2002 thousands of activists marched for “climate justice” in the streets of Dehli, India, during the [UN conference of the parties to] the Kyoto treaty. In their Dehli Declaration, they affirmed that “climate change is a human rights issue—it affects our livelihoods, our health, our children and our natural resources”.85

This idea of livelihood, encapsulating both the natural and social conditions of a decent life, seems to me a promising way of anchoring, and perhaps globalising, environmental justice. At the heart of a host of environmental concerns there is a profound experience of conflict. The other side have gone too far now; they have industrialised, polluted and emitted too much. They have chopped down too many trees, killed too many wild animals or meddled too much with the gene pool. It is the sensation that some limit has been crossed that puts our livelihoods at risk, which gives room for all the reflection and moral outrage, all the repentance and utopian visions, competing for good sense on global warming, and a host of other environmental issues as well.

Although Raymond Williams did not speak of good sense, livelihood was a concept he did develop in his ecological writings. This idea steers clear of two faultlines, “the received and dominant concept of the Earth and its life forms as raw material for generalised production” on the one hand and on the other hand the idea of “an apparently unmediated nature”. Williams wants to “avoid a crude contrast between ‘nature’ and ‘production’, and to seek the practical terms of the idea which should supersede both: the idea of ‘livelihood’, within and yet active within, a better understood physical world and all truly necessary physical processes”.86 Livelihood is good sense for how we depend both on each other and on nature. When people speak of their livelihood, it is therefore a good place to look for good sense on global warming. Indeed, it is the rift in the metabolism between the ecosystem and modern capitalism87 that makes so many people in so many places worry for their livelihoods.

Summary and a few conclusions

As this article went to press, popular climate movements were on the rise again. On 21 September there were protests around the world against global warming with many of those involved raising radical anti-capitalist demands. The demonstration in New York was the largest ever on the issue. Just a few days before, the alliance between unions, environmentalists and the Norwegian church launched a campaign for 100,000 signatures demanding: “Put a brake on Norwegian oil extraction—100,000 climate jobs now!”. These signatures will be collected up until 13 March 2015, when the next “Bridge to the Future” conference will be held in Oslo, where big national and international trade union leaders, bishops and environmentalists will be on the platform.88

The burning need to cut emissions fast has united many different people to put pressure on their leaders. I have called this “conception of necessity” the first resource of good sense on global warming, a resource every sane thinking person on this planet can have, but something Barack Obama and most leaders of this planet merely pretend they have. In reality they are not so interested in the truths of global warming as they are in protecting business and national interests. Such an interest in truth, the second resource of good sense on global warming, is greater among the oppressed and among the best parts of the trade union movement. That is why it is so crucial to develop climate change solutions from below.

Facts alone seldom move scientists, but two facts are becoming clearer, and have started to move people, and encourage “labour movement participation in global warming activism”.89 Fact one: Emissions are going up, up, up. Fact two: They need to come down, down, down. One reason why people and trade unions are beginning to move is due to evaluative realism, the third part of the “healthy nucleus” of common sense in this article. The growth of protests, and in the case of Norway at least, of popular alliances, also illustrates the fourth and fifth resources, the relational and the emergent dimensions of good sense on global warming. Put simply, more people are getting angrier.

In the second part of this article, I have shown how movements themselves, working class movements and environmental movements, past and present, have developed good sense relevant to the fight against global warming. We have seen the spread of use value rationality and anti-capitalism, and the emergent feeling of climate (in)justice, prompted by changes in the climate that are already destroying the livelihoods of people. None of these consciousness resources are conclusive of good sense on global warming. Indeed, the full meaning and potential of good sense on global warming will only be disclosed in future mass struggles.

Finally, the most difficult question: What is the politics of good sense on global warming? The short answer is, I fear, that there is none. Or perhaps better: good sense on global warming facilitates a great variety of political strategies precisely because it consists of multiple resources, and because good sense on global warming is being developed—fast—by climate movements themselves. Autonomists may grab hold of one resource, and fight for the appropriate protest tactic accordingly. That is what seems to have happened with the radical wing of the climate justice movement.90 Social democracy may incorporate snippets of another resource to renew and regreen itself and the capitalist hegemony it has come to terms with long ago.91 That is what is happening now in Norway.

A revolutionary Gramscian politics of good sense on global warming must, by contrast, be both all-embracing and interventionist in character. It must be all-embracing because all the resources of good sense on global warming must be strengthened if we are to create truly great mass movements. We need to strengthen our understanding of the science and seriously explore all the uncomfortable truths of global warming, not just the ones Al Gore tells us about. We need to fight for climate jobs for workers in the rich North but we also have to build climate justice solidarity with people who have nothing in the Global South. One of the things I have learnt through the building of climate alliances in Norway is the need to tolerate, indeed encourage, all kinds of climate solutions from below.

Part of the interventionism, Leninism if you prefer, must be not just to strengthen each and every resource of good sense, but to bring them together to the best of our capability. Lenin argued for expanding trade union consciousness, which tends to be locally based, into a socialist consciousness. Socialists need to be “tribunes of the people” reacting with moral outrage on behalf of all oppressed groups. In the age of global warming, we must take this even further, to include everything that breathes in our common biosphere.

Jonathan Neale is, I think, onto the same interventionist approach when he writes: “In most cases we are talking to people who have green ideas in their heads about climate change and socialist ideas about economics. Our job is usually to bring the two sides of their heads together”.92 A revolutionary Gramscian and Leninist perspective is about trying to give coherence to the resources of good sense, in a way that opens the door to a different, working class led solution. In a revolution this strategy may be as concrete as the demands of the Russian one, for land, bread and peace. As global warming runs apace, such concrete demands may arise as the appropriate ones again, especially if the wager on working class leadership turns out to pay off again in the fight against environmental destruction. The ecological Marxist Paul Burkett believes, as does the present author, that it will, seeing the working class as:

the only systemically essential group that directly experiences the limitations of purely economic struggles over wages and working conditions as ways of achieving human development, given the increasingly communal and global character of the environmental problems produced by capitalist production.93

If the global working class fights in earnest, for jobs, for the climate and for the planet, there is a chance that we can win a sustainable world. That is my bet, and the reason why my main focus as an activist in Norway is on the climate jobs solution. If I am right about the existence of the healthy consciousness resources outlined in this article, it is a reasonable bet. At the very least, good sense on global warming should help power the optimism of the will that socialists need to have, when we join and build climate movements wherever we are.


1: Gramsci, 1971, p327.

2: Foster, Clark and York, 2011, pp215-247; Foster, 1999, pvii.

3: See Ekers and others, 2013.

4: Ytterstad, 2014.

5: Foster, Clark and York, 2011, p291.

6: Gramsci, 1971, pp9, 323, 347, 424.

7: Foster, Clark and York, 2011; Foster, 1999; Malm, 2007.

8: Coben, 2002, p269; Gramsci, 1971, pp345-346, 386-387, 423, 462.

9: Boggs, 1976, p71.

10: Hall, 1991, p125

11: Ytterstad, 2012, pp25-26, 68-71.

12: Ytterstad, 2013. The book was followed by a sequel on how to cool down Norwegian oil (Ryggvik, 2013), also financed by NUMGE, together with the Norwegian Civil Service Union.

13: Videos from the Conference, two of them in English, can be seen at our website

14: Ytterstad, forthcoming.

15: McKibben won the 2013 Sophie Prize for environment and sustainable development in Norway, which further popularised this quote-go to

16: Gramsci, 1971, p333.

17: Gramsci, 1971, p327.

18: It also seems to suggest that good sense belongs to men, but I see such masculine connotations as a product of conventions of Gramsci’s time. When I cite “man” in this article, I mean human beings.

19: Nilsen, 2009, p124.

20: Hall, 1996, p432.

21: Nilsen, 2009, pp412-413.

22: McKibben, 2010, p86.

23: McKibben’s “Do the Math” article, originally in Rolling Stone, was also published as a foreword to another book with some good sense on global warming, written by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark called The Burning Question: We can’t Burn Half the World’s Oil, Coal and Gas: so How do we Quit?” (Berners-Lee and Clark, 2013).

24: Gramsci, 1971, p347.

25: For example Nun and Cartier, 1986.

26: Harman, 1998; 1999.

27: Foster, Clark and York, 2011, p55.

28: Lohman, 2011.

29: Blackledge, 2012, pp52-53.

30: Gramsci, quoted in Thomas, 2009, p452, my emphasis.

31: Hoggan, 2009; Klein, 2011; Oreskes and Conway, 2010.

32: See Lynas, 2012, for a critique.

33: Neale, 2008.

34: Brown, 2009.

35: Jacobsen and Delucci, 2011.

36: Ihlen, 2007; Nilsen, 2001; Ryggvik, 2013; Skjærseth and Skodvin, 2003.

37: Nilsen, 2001, p195.

38: Fæhn, 2013.

39: Ryggvik, 2010, 2013.


41: Räthzel and Uzzell, 2012.

42: Marx, 2000, p256.

43: I write much more about this in my dissertation. See Ytterstad, 2012, pp45-47, 204-229.

44: Carson, 1962.

45: Flannery, 2005, pp114-122.

46: Lynas, 2007, p168.

47: Creaven, 2007, p16.

48: Malm, 2013.

49: Sayer, 2011.

50: Creaven, 2007, p17.

51: Paine, 1997.

52: Collier, 2003, is also very good on this point.

53: Gramsci, 1971, pp409-410, 432.

54: Jacobsen and Delucci, 2011.

55: Ytterstad, 2013, pp11-12,21-27.

56: Gillis, 2013.

57: Gramsci, 1971, p327.

58: Ytterstad and Russell, 2012; Ytterstad, 2012, pp50-52.

59: Ytterstad, 2012, pp47-50.

60: Ytterstad, 2012, see also Robinson, 2005.

61: Gramsci, 1971, pp272-273.

62: Thomas, 2009, p438.

63: According to Peter D Thomas this was a crucial year, for the coming together of Gramsci’s philosophical “moments” (Thomas, 2009, ppxix, 39).

64: Gramsci, 1977, p68.

65: Ytterstad, 2012, pp46-47.

66: Gramsci, 1971, pp9-10.

67: Gramsci, 1971, p202.

68: Collier, 2003, pp23-36.

69: Foster, Clark and York, 2011, p39.

70: Burkett, 2009, p73.

71: Martinez-Alier, 2006, p274.

72: Guha, 1999, brings out use value rationality within environmental movements and thinkers very well.

73: Some of it was occasioned by Alex Callinicos’s book Marxism and Philosophy (Callinicos, 1983a); see also Callinicos, 1983b, for a glimpse of that debate.

74: Williams, 1989, p216.


76: Reitan, 2012; Ytterstad and Russell, 2012.

77: Klein, 2000.

78: Ytterstad and Russell, 2012; Ytterstad, 2010.

79: Alstadheim and Stoltenberg, 2010, pp29-30. Although, as Patrick Bond (2012) has documented, outright bribery of the Maldives by Western countries, particularly the US, has contributed to stifle some of its good sense at international summits of late.

80: Bond, 2012, p198.

81: Personal observation (20.6.2012) and translation.

82: Carroll, 2010; Foster, 2009, pp52-53; Vetlesen, 2008.

83: Bond, 2012, p167; Guha, 1999.

84: Wilkinson and Pickett, 2010; Ytterstad, 2012, pp47-50.

85: Roberts, 2007, p296.

86: Williams, 1989, p237

87: The metabolic rift is the key Marxist insight on the relationship between humans and nature, according to Foster, Clark and York, 2011.



90: Lahn, 2013; Reitan, 2012.

91: Jens Stoltenberg is surprisingly candid about how Norwegian social democracy is using capitalism to solve “the greatest challenge of our time”, in an interview book on Norwegian climate change policy he himself asked for (Alstadheim and Stoltenberg, 2010).

92: Neale, 2010.

93: Burkett, 2009, p300.


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