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Fossil fuels and class politics in British Columbia

| June 3, 2014
Photo: flickr/Frank Kovalchek

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The first lesson we must learn, therefore, is that if it looks like class struggle and acts like class war then we have to name it unashamedly for what it is. The mass of the population has either to resign itself to the historical and geographical trajectory defined by overwhelming and ever-increasing upper-class power, or respond to it in class terms (David Harvey, 2005: 202).

Let's start with stating the obvious. We live in a global capitalist society driven by profit and corporate competition that requires continual growth of the economy of at least two per cent to three per cent annually to avoid recession. British Columbia has become a global epicentre of fossil fuel extraction, processing and transportation because of the imperative requirement of large corporate forces for ongoing capital accumulation fueled by cheap energy.

With all the promise of alternative energy, there is no equally efficient source of energy capable of powering this entire system at a better rate of profit than fossil fuels. This is why locally and globally, we are locked into a system that keeps us fossil fuel dependent, why fossil fuel issues have a stranglehold over provincial political discourses and why B.C. is long way from developing an alternative energy economy that meets social and ecological needs.

At the same time, fossil fuel use is killing the planet. The recent news of Antarctic glacier melt is but the latest terrifying glimpse of what the future holds. This reality should trump all other questions, but at present, it is a rather inconvenient and impolite side discussion within the province focused on business-as-usual economic concerns. The new NDP leader, John Horgan for instance, claims he will outdo Premier Christy Clark in declaring B.C. "open for business."

How do questions of "class" enter the picture?

The scenario above is driven by actual human beings with vested interests whose wealth depends on maintaining this system intact. We may all, to some degree, have investment in the present economy because it provides jobs, tax revenue to support collective infrastructure, but surveys show time-and-again that the majority British Columbians are concerned about climate change and don't want B.C. to be a fossil fuel driven energy superpower.

This is class politics, in other words. It is not "the people" that are at the forefront of championing this fossil fuel economy against any alternatives. It is the corporate CEOs, the shareholders, the investment bankers, the marketing companies, the corporate lawyers, the conservative pundits that lock us in to this particular future against any substantive alternative.

That is why we can say that we are not in this together, that this great problem we are now facing is not "anthropogenic" climate change. All humans do not all equally contribute to the problem of climate change. Nor do we all equally invest in the system that leads to climate crisis. The crisis we presently face is "capitalist" climate change, driven by those who champion a certain kind of economy that serves the interests of a certain group of people.

Seeing the problem this way points the way to unique solutions. Those of us that recognize that humanity is facing an unprecedented crisis and that the fossil fuel economy is driving humanity towards global ecocide, cannot sit on the fence. Moving forward requires moving beyond a false sense of universal brotherhood to the recognition of who one's allies really are.

"Whose side of the fence I am on, and who is there with me?" In other words, solutions lie in an unapologetic class analysis leading to an active re-alignment of class forces.

Fossil fuel capitalism operates within neo-liberal economics and politics where even the pretense of social solidarity and justice has been increasingly abandoned. But the climate crisis is opening up political and ideological space to discuss the entire system we live in (that is, the centrality of capitalism). There are signs that both economic crisis and ecological destruction are de-legitimizing political systems and helping people to question capitalist ideologies that ignore the social and ecological costs of fossil fuels.

It is because this system excludes populations from both economic activity and political participation that new antagonisms and struggles are developing. One only needs to observe among many other examples the plebiscite in Kitimat, the growing challenges to Kinder Morgan in Burnaby, or the intervention by the UN special rapporteur, James Anaya, over the concerns of proposed projects in First Nation territories.

There are political and activist forces coalescing today within British Columbia to challenge not just fossil fuel interests, but also the systemic forces that drive large capital. They are challenging fossil fuel capitalism at the point of production and extraction, and attempting to network allies amongst the traditional environmental forces. New forms of radical militancy and mobilization guided by systemic analysis mark a reversing of the de-politicizing tendencies of our times and a return to politics and history.

Brad Hornick is a Vancouver writer and the co-editor of ecosocialistsvancouver.org and systemchangenotclimatechange.org.

Photo: flickr/Frank Kovalchek

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