The conduct of Go Wellington demonstrates the struggle between capitalism and environmental justice.
Environmental justice refers not only to environmental impact, but the full participation of those affected. ‘Sustainability’ is the current buzzword amongst politicians, generally meaning the capacity of capitalist practices to dodge points-of-no-return for environmental reproduction. However, working people are disproportionately affected both by environmental degradation and capitalist solutions; as phrased by Karl Marx, “Capitalist production [works] by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker.”
Public transport is often touted as a solution, with companies such as Go Wellington subsidised by local government. This approach is insufficient, primarily serving capitalist ends. Resources must be managed in service of human and environmental need, rather than profit.
One line currently popular amongst politicians goes, ‘You don’t have to choose between sustainability and profit.’ In fact, green practices can increase profit; avoiding waste cuts costs, and there are enormous PR advantages to going green.
But where there’s a choice between sustainability and profit, it’s not hard to guess which wins out. Go Wellington recently brought a fleet of 60 diesel buses from Scania, citing ‘better environmental performance.’ This fleet has better performance than the previous fleet, utilising clean diesel, but trolley buses are zero-emission. However, trolley buses in Wellington are underused, costing more to maintain than diesel buses. Go Wellington has a monopoly on the trolley lines, and the ratepayer subsidises them for it, but the company does not deliver. For Go Wellington, appearing green generates greater profits than actually going green.
Transport is the dominant source of air pollution worldwide, and despite corporate green initiatives it is a growing industry. Although scattered cranks dispute the evidence, there is consensus amongst climatologists that human carbon emissions are contributing to a change in climate that breaks from previous patterns. In fact, climate change has exceeded predictions in some areas, while rising at a consistent rate of 0.1c a decade. A debate has developed about how to rework capitalism. This is difficult in large part because human and environmental factors are taken as ‘gratuitous,’ as commodities to manipulate for the sake of capital.
Energy is central to this debate, and workers have played a critical role in energy struggles. Between 1976 and 1985, port unions took industrial action to keep nuclear ships out of the country; central government finally caught up in 1985. Safety standards for nuclear energy have improved since then, but this demonstrated that while politicians may drag their feet over energy issues, workers don’t. However, National’s Employment Contracts Act and Labour’s more recent Employment Relations Act (ERA) both outlaw industrial action for political reasons. Therefore the bus drivers of Go Wellington cannot legally play a role in energy struggles, and must tolerate the cumbersome, noisy and polluting diesel behemoths brought by Go Wellington. It’s up to politicians to ‘regulate’ capitalism through ineffective devices like the Emissions Trading Scheme.
Under capitalism and the ERA, the only influence allotted to workers comes through consumption. ‘Ethical capitalism’ is a creed obsessed with consumption; Trade Aid stores are scattered across the globe. However, products from Trade Aid or Commonsense Organics cost more than Pak N Save. Go Wellington drivers are on a starting rate of $12.72, so ethical consumption isn’t necessarily a huge priority. More degradation occurs at production than consumption anyway, and consumers have little influence over production; best demonstrated by The Body Shop, which has grown increasingly exploitative despite a greenie consumer base.
Capitalists often posit that technological innovations are the solution. However, we have the technology to expand trolley lines, or give the existing ones priority; a lack of technology isn’t the problem. Before the Industrial Revolution, privatisation of land was already causing permanent ecological devastation and unequal development. The Industrial Revolution merely intensified the subjection of land and labour-power to capital. The causes of ecological degradation lie in exploitative social relations, not technology in itself.
Immigration is a pressing issue where environmental justice is concerned. As the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has observed, “The implications [of global warming] for immigration in Australia and New Zealand are poorly understood.” Tuvalu, a Pacific nation consisting of scattered islands and atolls, is disappearing under rising water. This is a difficult issue for capitalists to address, because capitalist immigration policies are geared towards cheap labour. Our only immigration agreement with Tuvalu is the Pacific Access Category, which requires an offer of employment. The Refugee Convention does not recognise environmental refugees, and neither Australia nor New Zealand has shown any interest in amending this. In addition, those awaiting approval for refugee status in New Zealand have limited access to essential social services.
The welfare of migrants and refugees is a peripheral concern, unlike their capacity to produce wealth for capitalists. When disgruntled drivers quit in February 2007, Go Wellington began recruiting immigrants through agents in Fiji. These agents discouraged their customers from joining the union, and granted them only temporary work visas – so that the company could cut costs on labour, and the country could get rid of the drivers when necessary. Although the workers got wise and joined the union contract, this incident demonstrates the clash between the demands of capital and those of migrant workers. The only acceptable solution is the freedom of workers to move based on their own needs, rather than the needs of the capitalist class.
These days, terms such as ‘corporate accountability’ and ‘triple-bottom line’ have entered mainstream political discourse. Because anarchy exists in capitalist production, market solutions do nothing to simplify the problem; emissions trading schemes in Europe and New Zealand open up new share-markets, and industries such as eco-tourism have no consistent standards. This problem is too important to be left to capitalists and politicians, to Go Wellington and the City Council.
Worker-run businesses are demonstrably more efficient, more responsive and healthier for workers than centralised ones – factories such as Zanon Ceramics in Argentina, or Sanitorios Maracay in Venezuela, lead the way. There are other informative examples. When Cuba’s economy collapsed in the wake of the USSR, urban agriculture allowed workers direct control over agricultural production. Workers in Havana now have significantly greater access to nutrition than most city-dwellers, and their practices avoid the environmental degradation of agribusiness. According to the WWF, Cuba is now the only country developing sustainably. What these solutions have in common is simple; they cut bosses from the equation and allocate resources on the basis of need. This is only a start. The demands of land and labour-power must triumph over those of capital.