Yves Rees interviews Jeff Sparrow about his recent book Crimes Against Nature (Scribe, 2021).
You’ve been writing about leftist politics for several decades, but this is your first incursion into the climate arena. What was the intellectual genesis of this book?
I grew up back when activists could still consider environmental issues as a supplement to – or even a distraction from – the core agenda of the Left. These days, the falsity of that becomes apparent as soon as you turn on the news, since climate change now manifests itself not simply in forms traditionally conceived as ‘environmental’ but by the intensification of every social ill. The crisis of the natural world palpably exacerbates oppression, inequality and injustice, so much so that we can no longer think about social justice without confronting the breakdown of the environment.
That was the pragmatic impetus for the book.
Intellectually, reading about climate forced a recognition how much the so-called cultural turn had damaged radical theory, inculcating a deep suspicion about nature that left a generation ill-equipped to grapple with the ecological catastrophe. John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett, Andreas Malm, Kohei Saito: the new generation of eco-socialist writers convinced me that, for Marx at least, the human relationship with the environment was absolutely central to any emancipatory project.
I’m a journalist, not a theorist, but coming to understand Capital as an account of the transformation of nature provided a framework to address, in the context of the environment, political ideas I’d polemicised against elsewhere. In Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, I described a shift on the left away from what I’d called the participatory ‘direct politics’ associated with the New Left towards a ‘delegated politics’ (in which activists sought to deliver change on behalf of a passive constituency) and eventually a ‘smug politics’ (that implicitly or explicitly treated the masses as the main obstacle frustrating schemes devised by ‘progressive’ intellectuals). I thought that similar tendencies dominated discussions of the environmental crisis, which was commonly understood as a result of the supposedly laziness and greed of environmental people. Against that, I wanted to make a case for ‘direct politics’, showing that, historically, the resistance to ecological destruction generally came from below.
As you’ve flagged, a central argument of the book is that, contrary to popular belief, individuals are not responsible for causing or solving the climate crisis. Recycling and KeepCups and reducing our carbon footprint will not save us. This is an argument about contemporary politics, yet you make your case by going backwards into history, with each chapter constructed around a historical case-study. You’re a journalist rather than a historian, so how did you land on this historical approach?
To be honest, I have a similar relationship to history as to journalism: I crept surreptitiously into both fields despite a lack of proper accreditation! Years ago my sister Jill and I collaborated on a book called Radical Melbourne, in which we used a juxtaposition between extraordinary events and everyday locations to create interest in a labour history that might otherwise seem worthy but dry. Crimes Against Nature borrowed that methodology.
Many people aren’t inclined to read about climate change, because it’s terrifying, because it’s distressing but also (perhaps paradoxically) because it’s, well, boring. We know – or at least we think we do – what’s happening; we assume that tracts about climate will simply hector us tediously about our laziness and greed.
A historical approach could, I thought, exploit that assumption, using the unfamiliarity of the past to confound preconceptions about the environmental crisis and its perpetrators.
For instance, before working on the book, I knew nothing about the network of electric cars servicing multiple American cities in the 1890s. The story of Philadelphia’s Electric Vehicle Company – briefly, the largest manufacturer of motor vehicles in the United States, and the largest owner and operator of them – surprises people but it also hints at different political options. If the triumph of the internal combustion engine wasn’t pre-ordained, what other possibilities might there have been?
Likewise, I was astonished to discover the degree of public hostility to plastic bags in the 1950s. And that’s more than merely a diverting anecdote: the story of how corporations consciously and deliberately fostered disposability challenges the common stereotype of selfish consumers insisting on convenience at any cost.
I am reminded of a line from Paul Kramer’s 2017 essay “History in a Time of Crisis”. Kramer calls historians “the archaeologists of roads not taken”, arguing that we can and should seek to rediscover long-abandoned “alternative paths” that suggest new possibilities for the present. To my mind, Kramer’s words encapsulate how you’ve used history in Crimes Against Nature. Does this resonate with you? And if so, apart from the examples above, what “roads not taken” did you discover while researching this book?
Yes, I like Kramer’s idea of ‘emancipatory energies … trapped between layers of accumulating sentiment’. If, for instance, we look back at the early history of the automobile, we find considerable popular opposition to the new machines, with working-class children habitually stoning drivers who ventured onto their streets. That sentiment wasn’t necessarily an anticipation of modern environmentalism but rediscovering it does challenge the conventional wisdom about lazy Americans instinctively craving gas guzzling vehicles.
Of course, when those who opposed capitalist innovations were defeated, they were relegated to patronising footnotes in histories based on linear narratives of technological progress.
That’s why I like the idea of ‘salvage’ advocated by China Miéville, Richard Seymour and their comrades. It’s not so much that history offers us a road not taken: it’s that we can, perhaps, fashion new weapons from the historical detritus we find.
In my book, I spend a lot of time on William Morris’ exploration of how art, labour and nature relate because it’s fascinating and important, but also because these questions always mattered for a certain socialist tradition (Marx and Engels but also people like Robert Blatchford of Merrie England fame). So what can we take from that? What detritus can we repurpose and use?
Or think of the Indigenous resistance to the European colonisation of Australia, generally presented as a noble but intrinsically doomed effort to hold back progress.
I argue (both in the book and in a subsequent essay for Overland) that 1788 should be recognised as a clash between different forms of labour, a war between a society in which Indigenous people consciously and deliberately fostered ecological diversity, and another in which wage labour meant the ceaseless expansion of value.
If we recast the Frontier Wars in that light, they reveal another, perhaps less expected, aspect. Indigenous production of use values can inspire us, not to look back but to gaze forward, to imagine the relationship between humanity and nature that lies beyond the yoke of capital.
If, as you argue, climate change intensifies all social inequity and hence must be a core concern of the left, how do we explain the leftist enthusiasm for industrial initiatives that actively destroy the natural world? I’m thinking particularly here of the ALP’s continued investment in fossil fuels. Why are we stuck in this ‘jobs versus climate’ mentality, and how do we get out of it?
It’s helpful to go back to first principles here. Humans have, always and everywhere, changed the natural world by seeking food, making clothes and building shelter. As a species, we need to interact with nature – and the name for that interaction is ‘labour’.
For most of human history, the relationship with the environment was direct and unmediated. Most people laboured on the land, altering the world in ways that were transparent to them. That meant, in a pre-modern world, the human relationship with nature could, under certain circumstances, be less destructive, even beneficial.
The rise of capitalism necessitated a fundamental change, not least because the new system required the forcible dispossession of the rural population from their traditional lands to create a layer of people who could not support themselves other than by selling their labour power to capitalists. In other words, the modern working class came into being through the violent severance of longstanding relationships between people and nature. That’s why, as I’ve mentioned, the early labour movement so often invoked the environment: in the 1840s one Chartist noted how, in his youth, ‘the very trees possessed an individuality’ but during his adulthood ‘animal life appeared to be extinct’ and ‘nature was out of fashion.’
The subsequent normalisation of wage labour meant that later generations of working-class people lacked such memories, increasingly spending their lives in industrial landscapes entirely devoid of organic life, with nature seemingly extraneous and external: an exotic luxury that only the rich could appreciate.
That sentiment fostered – and was fostered by – a Promethean strand in leftwing thought, a tendency to downplay the complex dialectic between people and nature in favour of a socialism predicated on human mastery of the environment. The Soviet Union under Stalin saw the most extreme manifestation of this, as per the extraordinary campaign waged in the 1930s under the slogan ‘War on Nature’. But social democracy developed its own version of the same idea – in the book, I quote Amanda Lohrey’s description of how, as a Labor Youth member in the 1970s, she and her comrades enthused about the destruction of Lake Pedder as a modernisation necessary to uplift the Tasmanian working class.
Such ideas are still around. But I do think the horrific scale of the environmental crisis now challenges that old separation between workers and nature, even if simply because the effects of warming are experienced so disproportionately by working class people. Heat waves pose real health risks to builders and others who labour outside; fires and floods threaten the homes of the poor much more than the mansions of the rich. The Covid-19 pandemic, an indirect consequence of ecological breakdown, showed how precarity and casualisation intensified the experience of environmental disasters.
The old framing of ‘jobs versus climate’ will still get trotted out but on a warming planet it’s much easier for environmentalists to point out how the perception of nature as distinct from (even opposed to) humanity reflects a historical crime – the violent dispossession that brought the working class into being.
This era of human-induced climate change is often called the ‘Anthropocene’. However, that term, which places the blame on humanity itself, could be seen to reinforce the narrative that humankind is inherently hostile to nature–which, as you show, is an ahistorical fallacy. ‘Anthropocene’ can also imply that all humankind is equally responsible for environmental destruction—which also couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m curious to know what you think of the ‘Anthropocene’ concept. Criticisms aside, it has been widely adopted as a shorthand for our undeniable impact on the environment. Do you find the term useful, or do you prefer alternatives like ‘capitalocene’? Or are you not that invested in these semantic questions?
I’m sympathetic to the argument behind terms like ‘capitalocene’ but I’m not hugely concerned by the terminology. Certainly, the insistence on attributing climate change to the species as a whole is pernicious, creating space for far-right ideas – including overt eco-fascism (if people are the problem, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to just … get rid of some). At the same time, a preoccupation with labels often accompanies a presentation of the issue simply in terms of ideas, as if a correct framing would in itself resolve the problem. It’s a tendency to which writers, academics and others invested in the cultural realm are particularly prone, and thus one against which we must fight.
Ideas matter, of course, but ultimately the environmental catastrophe boils down to power. The basic climate science has been pretty robust ever since the 1990s. Yet, even though both the problem and the solutions have been understood for decades, the world continues to warm. Why? Not because of a lack of knowledge but because fossil fuels are deeply entwined with the processes by which the wealthiest people on the planet enrich themselves. Until they are defeated, the destruction will continue.
This brings us to capitalism. In the book, you’re unequivocal on this front. “Capitalism will kill the planet. It must be replaced,” is your conclusion. What is your vision for a post-capitalist economy?
Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine we could formulate environmental policy without reference to the imperatives of the market. How might we respond to climate change then?
Under such circumstances the crisis would become immediately less daunting. We have known for decades what needs to be done; we have the technology to do it. We could systematically and equitably address the problem, curtailing destructive practices and throwing resources into repair and rehabilitation.
That sounds like complete utopianism but of course it’s not. In the book, I discuss how, with the onset of the Second World War, Britain entirely re-organised its spending priorities, so that the 7.4 percent of national expenditure allocated to defence in 1938 became 55.3 by 1943. That astonishing transformation rested on economic planning, with a war cabinet taking almost complete control of the country’s resources and directing them with a singleminded determination to national survival.
The process wasn’t democratic but it did rest, as the economist Pat Devine argues, on two related pillars: the active support of British workers determined to win the war and the provision by those workers of accurate information to the decision-makers. A planned economy requires public participation to forestall Soviet-style bureaucratisation – which is why the response to the climate emergency requires an unprecedented expansion of democracy.
We need, in other words, a society based on democratic planning, one in which ordinary people use their intimate knowledge about their own workplaces to inform a central plan as to the uses to which our collective resources are put.
As I’ve said, we know that, for vast stretches of time, Indigenous Australians (and many other peoples) lived in ‘use-value’ societies, cultures in which human labour was not subordinated to the expansion of value but was instead devoted to transparent outcomes like the production of food. We also know that while such societies changed the natural world (as all humans did so) they were able to do so in ways that fostered ecological diversity, not destruction.
We must do the same.
We live, of course, in a very different world to that which prevailed prior to 1788. But, in many ways, the differences should make the task easier, not harder. Indigenous people governed their collective labour through ritual, culture and tradition. Today, science and technology mean that that we have a clearer understanding of how we affect the world and how it affects us.
One only has to consider the mechanisms maintaining, say, Amazon’s inventories to realise that the systems by which a modern economy might be collectively managed already exist. The vast corporations of twenty-first century capitalism regulate their internal operations by processes that could be rendered both transparent and democratic, transforming such organisations into institutions to serve rather than threaten humanity.
A planned economy might seem a long way away – and perhaps it is. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary. Capitalism, like cancer, grows blindly and incessantly, expanding year after year, decade after decade. It’s fundamentally incompatible with the natural world. Either it goes or we do.
Furthermore, a recognition of the necessity of planning not only provides us with a vision for the future, it also informs strategic thinking today. A use-value society relies on democratic participation – and that’s something we can start building now. To prevent the ruination that so palpably looms, we need social movements on the scale of those that transformed the word in the sixties and seventies. That means mobilising ordinary people, involving them in decisions and building their collective power. To put it another way, the struggle against those who are destroying the planet can help create a democratic alternative to them.
If social movements are vital here, does that mean that climate-conscious individuals should focus their efforts on collective organising (as opposed to, say, reducing their individual carbon footprint)? And if so, what kinds of collectives do you see as being key–existing structures like unions, or newer activist organisations like Extinction Rebellion and Blockage Australia, or something else altogether?
A distinction between ethics and politics becomes important here, I think. Obviously, we should try to live ethically; we should do our best to be good people. But while ethics might inform politics, mistaking one for the other is simply a category error. You won’t prevent global climate change by the moral choices in your household, and it’s disastrous to imagine that you could.
For a start, as I argue in the book, many of the destructive practices that ordinary people initially resisted have now been (deliberately and consciously) baked into the structures of their lives. The auto industry and its agents successfully curtailed public transport options even as they promoted a suburbanisation based upon the private car, with the result that most working people, especially those with kids, simply can’t manage if they don’t drive.
The fossil fuel lobby now wields that reality as a weapon. You mentioned the ‘carbon footprint’ concept. In the early 2000s, BP hired the PR firm Ogilvy and Mather to popularise that term, via an advertising campaign inviting readers to check their own footprint on a handy calculator. Why? Because framing carbon pollution in terms of individual ‘footprint’ creates an implicit equivalence between the individual citizen and BP itself. Sure, BP might manage some 19 000 gas and oil stations worldwide but, hey, you have a carbon footprint, too – so who are you to judge? Furthermore, the seemingly uncontroversial injunction that we should all take responsibility for our own emissions sets ordinary people an impossible task. As a study by MIT students demonstrated, if you live in America, you could sell all your possessions and live on the street and yet your carbon footprint would barely decline.
In the name of environmentalists, BP thus urged people on a course that (as the corporation knew full well) would only result in disengagement, cynicism and apathy.
Climate activists should not follow a path laid out by our enemies, and we must resist the framing of the movement as an aggregation of smug little saints. The mass mobilisation necessary to genuinely fight global warming will enrol millions of people – and many of them will drive cars, forget their keep cups and mix up their rubbish with their recycling.
As to the forms of collective organising a global climate movement might inspire, that’s a fraught and difficult question.
In the book, I talk about the potential for a revived trade unionism, noting how the environmental crisis now makes itself felt in many workplaces. Workers at Amazon, one of the biggest employers in America, labour in stifling ‘fulfillment centres’ disproportionately affected by the heat waves associated with the climate breakdown. The same warehouses concentrated and spread the Covid-19 virus, another product of environmental collapse. Just as the New Unionism of the 1890s focussed on the toxic conditions in previously unorganised industries, the current attempt to unionise Amazon has a logic that might, perhaps, integrate industrial and environmental demands. We shall see!
Certainly, in the past few years, we’ve seen a repeated pattern in the climate movement, one in which new strategies and organisational paradigms arise, make rapid and spectacular breakthroughs, and then confront unforeseen obstacles that they struggle to resolve. Think of Fridays for Future and the school climate strikes, which brought huge numbers onto the streets before the disruption of the pandemic. Think of the spectacular emergence of Extinction Rebellion, with its campaign of direct action – and think of the repression that confounded its supporters. In some ways, the respectable electoralism of the Teals and the unruly protests of Blockade Australia represent two different responses to the same impasse.
To me, that recent history indicates that people desperately want a climate movement, and they will give a hearing to any approach that promises results. But it also suggests that important strategic questions remain unresolved and will continue to bedevil environmental activism until they’re definitively settled.
Those of us interested in history might take note. There’s useful work to be done drawing out, for a new audience of climate activists, old debates about the nature of the state, the role of the Labor Party, models of organisation and so on.
I’d like to probe you on the relationship between writing or storytelling and political change. Your CV suggests a deep commitment to the written word. You’ve authored over ten books, published countless articles and edited the literary journal Overland. Yet, from your answers above and our in-person conversations, you also seem wary of overstating the importance of such work. In contrast to the storytelling-evangelist Rebecca Solnit, who writes things like “stories trap us, stories free us, we live and die by stories” and “the change that counts in revolution takes place first in the imagination”, I sense you’re more ambivalent about the political efficacy of writers and their tales. Is this an accurate assessment?
Obviously, ideas matter. In certain circumstances, writing can capture imaginations, even change minds. But books don’t just float in the air. They depend on a particular material infrastructure – and as soon as you think about that, the limitations of writing become obvious.
Geoff Dyer’s got a great line about how, in the modern era, writers’ studies ‘resemble the customer service desk of an ailing small business.’ Those of us who also work in higher education understand just how much of our work services the colossal corporation that is the contemporary university.
To put it another way, though authors love to self-mythologise, when we publish books, we’re not (for the most part) speaking truth to power so much as telling a small group of like-minded people stuff that they’re already inclined to believe.
As Auden said, poetry makes nothing happen – and, with all due respect to Rebecca Solnit, neither do stories. It’s people – ordinary people in their millions – who create social change.
In the era of climate catastrophe, the future depends on mass mobilisations, which is why we should push back against models of social change that allocate pride of place to literary intellectuals and their imaginings.
Writers can serve, perhaps, as an adjunct to the movement we need. That should be more than enough for anyone!
Given that we’re having this conversation for Australian Policy & History, it feels apt to think about your book through a policy lens. Your main stress is obviously on collective organising and mass mobilisations, but what – if any – do you see as the policy implications of your book? If policymakers were to read it, is there anything you’d like them to take away?
That’s a difficult question simply because ‘policy’, in the sense we’re discussing, conventionally means the facilitation of precisely the processes I’m decrying. A government that doesn’t deliver economic growth quickly becomes a government in crisis – or, more likely, an opposition. Obviously, any efforts to weaken the power of fossil capital should be welcomed but the underlying problems remain structural rather than conjunctional and that’s not something policy wonks can or will address.
The environmental catastrophe represents the historic failure of a relationship between humanity and nature established a few hundred years ago. We need now to establish a different social order, and that requires a new kind of politics, organised from the bottom rather than the top.
As Frederick Douglass one put it, ‘we are not to be saved by the captain, at this time, but by the crew.’
Crimes Against Nature is a clear-eyed book, frank about the gravity of the climate crisis and the powerful forces that stonewall meaningful change, but it’s also infused with hope about the potential for ordinary people to imagine and create a better world. What is giving you hope at present?
There’s a quote attributed to Brecht that I think about in this context: ‘Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.’
Precisely because the environmental crisis intensifies every other crisis, we’re entering a period of tremendous volatility. Consider the last few years in Australia: catastrophic bush fires (linked to climate change), a deadly pandemic (spurred, epidemiologists say, by human intrusion on previously remote ecologies), unprecedented floods (related to the warming climate) and now, quite probably, a global recession (intensified by a war over energy resources and by crop failures triggered by heat waves). That’s the era in which we now live, a time in which it would be foolish to expect tomorrow to look anything like today.
Instability doesn’t necessarily result in progress, but it does mean other options suddenly become more viable. The emergence of Covid-19 resulted in Scott Morrison, of all people, implementing a massive boost to welfare – a measure that, only months earlier, every respectable commentator would have dismissed as impossible.
Change is coming, whether we like it or not. That might mean the growth of the far right, on the rise in many countries. But there are other options.
All over the world, ordinary men and women are better educated and more cosmopolitan than ever before, plugged into a communication technology that previous generations would have regarded as almost magical. It’s easy to forget that, only a few years ago, the Black Lives Matter struggle mobilised (according to some estimates) more people globally than any social movement in human history.
An extraordinary potential for change exists.
Of course, the biggest fossil fuel companies plan to spend nearly a trillion dollars on new gas and oil fields by 2030.
They’re betting on humanity to fail – I’d prefer to back us to win.