Chris Saltmarsh is the co-founder of Labour For A Green New Deal. As well as being a busy activist, Chris has also written a book, recently released, all about how the scale and critical nature of the climate emergency demands a radical, anti-capitalist, response. The book is called ‘Burnt: Fighting For Climate Justice’, and the conversation I had with him last month went something like this.
So, there’s obviously a lot of bleak news about the environment at the moment. Factor that in with how divided the left feels nowadays, and it must be tiring for you? Your level of productivity is understandable and admirable, but it must be exhausting. What keeps you going?
Yeah, I mean it definitely is exhausting. It can be really difficult to, you know, spend so much of your time working on a crisis that is getting worse. I think a big part of what I hopefully get across in the book is maybe the failures of a lot of movements to really put a stop to it all over the past few decades.
What keeps me going is not just the possibility of stopping the worst elements of the climate crisis but also the possibilities of what a new and transformed economy might look like. I also think there’s something selfish going on in the sense that I’d quite like to not live in a bad society; not live in one with such an unstable ecology. Very often we think about 2050 as a kind of target date in relation to a climate crisis. And yet, in 30 or so years time I’ll still be over the working age and still a few years off retirement.
“It’s very much a question of the world that we live in now, the world we’ll live in for the rest of our lives, and the world that everyone’s children will live in”
If that 2050 marker is the linchpin date in the context of the climate crisis, that’s going to define to a significant extent the world I live in. So for me, my family, my friends, my community, other people I might care about, this isn’t some kind of far off, distant, abstract question. It’s very much a question of the world that we live in now, the world we’ll live in for the rest of our lives, and the world that everyone’s children will live in as well.
It would, of course, be easier to shut off and not really think about it all but that’s not really how I’m able to relate to these things. Getting to work and doing what I can to contribute to a society in the future I’d like to see, one that I would like to live in, is the best way I think to work through the more challenging elements of a crisis. I think, for me, it’s about hope. As long as it’s possible, we have an imperative to work and struggle.
What are your thoughts on figures like George Monbiot?
My approach to environmental and climate politics is rooted in my socialism and my anti-capitalism. Not only that but a kind of desire to achieve what we want to achieve. What I lay out in the book is a criticism of strategies the environmental movement has deployed in recent years and maybe a proposition of what we should be employing in the coming years.
I think, you know, there are people like George Monbiot and other environmentalists who have, you know, done really well for themselves at cultivating a platform around themselves to talk about the environment. And, for a very long time, Monbiot was kind of one of the only environmental voices in mainstream British politics and mainstream newspapers. He’s held down the column he has in The Guardian for a very long time and has made important interventions over the years. I know a lot of people who are environmentalists and climate activists who have been inspired by and really value George Monbiot’s contributions, but I think there’s also an issue where maybe older members of the movement have been, you know, resistant to new evolutions in the movement.
“Older members of the movement have been… resistant to new evolutions in the movement”
For me, there needs to be a shift away from environmentalism as being a kind of marginal, nature-driven, project towards being a political project that is capable of transforming the economy and society but is also capable of mobilising a mass of people and building a social majority in society and in politics.
George Monbiot and others can be frustrating for me because I think they kind of hold on to an anti-politics thing. I should say I don’t think George Monbiot is entirely anti-politics but, for me, anyone serious about climate justice, between 2015 and 2019, would have delivered a reasonable level of support to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party and engage with that in a constructive way.
With Monbiot, I’ve been frustrated with what he’s bringing in that it’s often seemed like he’s been hesitant to support the really impactful elements of the climate movement. I think back to my experience of being in the anti-fracking movement and there was always a concern about why Monbiot and others didn’t support that so passionately. It was exactly the same when I was in the fossil fuel divestment movement as well.
“There’s sometimes a limit of imagination”
I think for someone like George, my sense is that he’s been very hesitant to throw his support and reputation behind movements. Then, basically, as soon as XR came along he threw himself into what was essentially a liberal climate street movement. He does a very good job of positioning himself on the left and lining himself up as a radical, and he’s certainly on the radical edge of climate liberalism, but I’ve been frustrated with articles like one he published recently where he advanced a politics that was quite sceptical of infrastructure.
It can be confusing for environmental movements that someone who’s respected like George Monbiot, uses his significant platform to undermine a political project that is moving towards something like the Green New Deal which is very reliant on investment in infrastructure, and materially transforming the economy.
There are voices still prominent in the environmental movement that are reluctant to build things for the economy to grow, even within the short term. This nature-led environmentalism, where the perception is ‘If you’re building a big infrastructure project then the first assessment has to be, for example, how a particular animal habitat is going to diminish’. Of course, that needs to be considered but I think there also needs to be more considered in the calculation. If we have 10 years to decarbonise rapidly, what are the things that need to happen and what kind of sacrifices need to be made? There’s sometimes a limit of imagination.
What do you think it will take for everyone to unify behind some sort of meaningful environmental policy change? It feels like we’re seeing more and more of these freakish natural events in places much closer to home. They’re happening on our doorstep now and it sort of feels like we’re waiting for some sort of Titanic moment to then suddenly go ‘Oh shit. We need lifeboats because we’re sinking’. What do you think it’s going to take for us all to collectively get behind something?
Yeah, I think that’s really interesting and you’re right to point that out. What I’ve found about the climate movement is that, you know, until probably around the last few years, climate change was seen as something that – if it’s going to happen at all – will happen in the future. And then the argument became ‘it’s happening now, but it’s happening in the global south’. And that was a very well meaning argument because it was talking about questions of justice and that idea that you might not be feeling it now, but there are now people around the world who are.
What we’ve seen in the last couple of years though is evidence of climate change happening everywhere. I think the effects will be felt more harshly and more frequently in some parts of the world compared to others, and that’s down to geography and that’s down to economics, but we’re now in a situation where really quite shocking, extreme weather is happening pretty much every year. There’s seemingly annual wildfires in California and other parts of the US and Europe for example.
“We have this really strange kind of media cycle where one day the news will be about the extreme heat, and then the next day it will be extreme flooding”
We have this really strange kind of media cycle where one day the news will be about the extreme heat, and then the next day it will be extreme flooding. And sometimes, this will be in the same country. With all this happening, I guess it’s important to ask if these events catalyse a kind of popular support for radical politics? I think, not on their own. What we saw in 2019 was that there was a kind of surge in the climate movement. There were youth strikes mobilising in the street, there was XR mobilising in the streets, you had campaigns for a Green New Deal politically.
Personally, I think they all kind of co-produced each other in some ways but I also think they came about off the back of the same stuff. There were, for example, some quite big climate reports that came out that summer. One of them was about the fact we had 12 years to climate change, one of them was about Hothouse Earth, and that summer was one of the first where it felt like extreme weather in the global north was really starting to penetrate.
I think what they all did in different ways was to really ratchet up a level of concern. Not only a concern for the climate crisis among the public but also support for radical solutions too. There was that period when XR were taking really media-worthy actions, the youth strikes were getting a lot of attention, and Green New Deal campaigners were pushing the Labour Party into a much more radical position.
And actually, during that period just before the pandemic, we started to see increased public support for policies like net zero by 2030 and bringing various elements of the economy into public ownership. So I guess the point I’m making is, as activists and as a movement, we need to be prepared to almost use and take advantage of these moments of extreme weather. We can’t rely on that producing support for our programme alone. You know, I think if we were just to sit back and say ‘Well, you know, the world’s going to carry on burning even worse. So, we’ll get mass support for our programme eventually’ that would be very naive.
We essentially need to do the work of politicising these moments, we need to talk about why they’ve happened, what the root cause is, the injustice of them happening and then trying to transition that into, well, this is our propositional politics. I think, fundamentally, for me, if we want to build social majority for something like the Green New Deal it needs to not just be about the impact of climate change but actually wedded to people’s material needs as well.
Apologies if this next question sounds completely insane / part of some therapy session, but I’ve been worrying recently about how ludicrously wealthy people like Jeff Bezos seem to be prioritising going into space over the critical threat posed by the climate emergency. Are they just going to leave us behind, do you think? When you see them mucking about with their space rockets, what’s going through your head as an environmentalist? For me, it just feels so dystopian seeing billionaires flying off into space when the world’s on fire. Anyway, I’m curious to get your thoughts on it…
I think what first comes to mind for me here is that we’re seeing those contrasting images happening in the same news cycle. You’ll have these kind of opulent billionaires putting money into getting themselves into space. You’ve got Jeff Bezos stepping back from his role at Amazon because… space. And yeah, having that in the same news cycle as the extreme weather, death, and injustice we’re seeing… for me, it just says so much about the total irrationality of capitalism as a system.
“For me, it just says so much about the total irrationality of capitalism as a system”
We’re living in an economy where you have these people who, if not the, are close to the wealthiest people that have ever existed in human society and they have just far more money than they can do anything with personally. I think all of this stuff is just because there’s a surplus of credit, and too much money. Like these individuals, and these companies, accumulate so much capital and there’s just not really much to do with it so they’re like ‘Well, yeah, why don’t I just spend some money on going to space because what else am I going to spend it on?’
It’s just such a crazy system where that is even allowed to happen. Like in politics more broadly, in the UK but also in Europe and a lot of countries globally, things over the past 10 to 20 years have been defined by this kind of austerity logic where it’s seen that spending public money through investing is a bad thing, that it’s a dangerous thing that causes financial crises and causes ordinary people to lose out; that it causes us to be insecure and precarious.
But all the money in the world is there, and it’s being hoarded. And it’s not to say that if we didn’t have a shift in our politics we wouldn’t be able to stand but to see those two things put up against each other, I think is really jarring. I think it’s a real indictment of the failure of a capitalist economy that we live in.
“We live in this economy where profit is a priority and even meeting the most basic needs of people is very much not the priority”
For me, I’m not against the idea of going to space. I’m reasonably sympathetic to the desire to get out there and explore space. It wouldn’t be the main political issue I’d campaign for but I’m not hostile to space exploration and the scientific benefits and the technological innovations that it can bring. I do, however, think that’s something that needs to be done by public sectors and by governments collaborating across nations rather than by these individuals who have accrued historic levels of wealth by exploiting people and nature.
We live in a capitalist economy where making profit for either an individual or company is a primary aim. And as long as that’s the case, it’s going to be basically impossible to invest and spend in transforming the economy to one where we can see climate justice. And yeah, that’s the crux of it. I think all of these particularly terrifying and, as you say, dystopian features of that are bad and scary and weird but that’s what it boils down to. We live in this economy where profit is a priority and even meeting the most basic needs of people is very much not the priority.
I want to end this conversation on something of a positive note. Is there hope, Chris? Can we save the world? Because it feels like, at times, we can’t. Is there hope?
I think that there is hope. I think, as I said, for me we have to be hopeful and we have to cultivate hope. I think as activists we have to cultivate hope. Not from a delusional sense of we are definitely going to win, because I think there needs to be a degree of realism. I think people can see the extreme weather that’s happening and understand that we’re in a bad position but I think what we need to do is articulate a radical and transformative kind of politics that talks about meeting the challenges of the climate crisis, the environmental crisis, but also the broader economic injustices that we see.
We have to say ‘we can resolve these’, we have the means at our disposal, we have the ideas, we have the resources to do this – the question is of political will. At the moment, the structures in place will not allow it and that is what we need to transform. We need to tell that story, and tell people this is possible. And, as long we have that possibility there’s hope.
“I think we have a chance and if we have a chance then we should definitely have hope”
What we experienced in 2017 and 2019 was, in one sense, being very close to winning state power but also, in another sense, being very far away from it. I think rather than abandoning that as a terrain of struggle, we need to learn the lessons of our experiences in the Labour Party in the UK, and the experience of others working through political parties in other countries. And yeah, we need to continue to put forward that transformative politics of climate justice in the political mainstream with the aim of being able to hold the levers of state power.
That for me is where the hope comes from. We have a compelling brand of politics that people, I think, do support and will continue to support more. We also have a strategy for building power and winning power. That’s not to say we’ll definitely be successful in this, but I think we have a chance and if we have a chance then we should definitely have hope.
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