For those of us in the labour movement, tis the season to ponder what good our unions can do in the upcoming year and to renew our commitment to a key principle: What we desire for ourselves we wish for all.
At this time of year, while many of us focus on gifts, it is easy to desire the latest gadget, that new car or even a remodelled bathroom. But, most of us would agree, in the grand scheme of human priorities, certain fundamentals are more important than simply acquiring more things.
For example, decent housing, nutritious food, public education, a safe and loving atmosphere to nurture every child and access to quality healthcare would all be understood by most union members as essential, rather than as simply “stuff” that would be nice to possess. In other words, when we come together in a union we acknowledge certain basic social priorities. Thus the first unions fought for a living wage, the eight-hour day, public schools, pensions etc., not simply more money. Without the basics of life, being able to buy more things is meaningless.
And that’s how we need to think about our environment and especially global warming.
There is nothing more important than a healthy environment. Without that, all the other fundamentals — food, housing, education, family, leisure, pensions etc. — are at risk. If human activity, in the pursuit of accumulating more stuff, destroys the liveability of our planet, we will have done a great wrong to all creatures, including ourselves.
And the best evidence we have is as categorical as science gets. Humans have caused climate change by pumping ever more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and we must quickly cut these emissions.
Here’s how one leading climate change expert put it earlier this month:
“We need a radical plan for cutting emissions to avoid the radical repercussions of climate change,” said professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre, based at the University of Manchester in England. “To do this, industrial countries have to cut energy use by around 8-10% each year or 60-70% over the decade, and we have to start now.
“Low-carbon supply and incremental reductions are no longer sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change. We have to have early, rapid and deep reductions in emissions and this can only be achieved in the short term through reductions in energy use.”
Will corporations that dominate the world economy provide us with the “rapid and deep reductions in emissions” that scientists tell us must happen soon to avoid environmental catastrophe? No.
Rather than cutting back on emissions we see corporations invest billions in the tar sands, fracking, offshore drilling and digging up more coal, because all are profitable.
Our current economic system requires ever expanding profit. As a result, if corporations were people they would be diagnosed as psychopaths. They are ruthless in the single-minded pursuit of profit. Psychopaths feel no empathy for their victims. They do not care if the consequences of their actions could soon be the overheating of our planet to the degree that our grandchildren no longer have a habitable environment.
So who will fight to protect our planet?
For 175 years unions have fought for justice, democracy and to make life better for all. We helped end child labour and slavery. We fought for universal franchise and equal rights for all. These battles required enormous sacrifices to overcome opposition of the rich and powerful.
Sacrifices will be necessary as well to stop global warming. Many brothers and sisters earn their living extracting oil, building cars and mining coal, industries that must shrink or disappear to save our planet. This raises difficulties inside the labour movement.
But progressive unions were not deterred by similar contradictions in the struggle for civil rights or against sexism and homophobia. Similarly we must not shy away from battling climate change.
Unions must defend our common interests. There is no more important common interest than the health of our environment.