No individual solutions

Simon Wells comments on the plans to introduce congestion charges in Manchester

Last week was a bad one for car-owners in Greater Manchester, who, like their London counterparts, are faced with the prospects of a congestion charge in the city centre. And, coincidentally, the government has introduced its national strategy for waste disposal, which could mean charging residents for rubbish disposal through a 'chip and pin' scheme. These two announcements typify the approach the government is advocating to 'solve' the environmental and climate crisis.

The pilot scheme to charge motorists for driving through Manchester is actually another individual tax on top of fuel duty. The advantages, we are told, is that it will reduce congestion, pollution and carbon emissions. That is true enough, as London has demonstrated. However, if you are rich, the congestion charge makes no difference to your motoring habits. In fact the charge could be trebled and it would not worry the managing director of a city business, as he reads the Financial Times in the back seat of his chauffeured car. In fact he is pleased that his journey is now easier, as the less well-off are herded into overpriced and overcrowded public transport.

We are led to believe that revenues from congestion charging will be ploughed back into public transport, but, if London is anything to go by, travelling by train and bus will not suddenly become a life-enhancing experience. For most commuters the daily experience is far from comfortable. As with other aspects of capitalism, the transport system treats people like things.

David Miliband's Waste strategy for England 2007 proposes to give councils the powers to reward people for recycling and punish those who do not by charging for rubbish collection by weight. Already, prior to the May 3 local elections, there was intense media coverage of the change from weekly to fortnightly rubbish collections introduced by some councils. The aim is to bring UK recycling rates up to European standards because currently millions of tonnes of waste a year end up in landfill dumps, adding to greenhouse gas emissions. However, while we are told that the strategy is Miliband's initiative to "wean England off its landfills", in reality what is going on is a concerted attempt by the bourgeoisie state to transfer the cost of combating the growing ecological crisis onto the backs of individual households. The bin charge will force people to recycle and pay for having their rubbish taken through 'chip and pin', locks on bins and cameras at disposal sites to ensure that no-one cheats.

Announcing the strategy, Miliband said: "It provides a range of tools for local authorities, businesses and individuals to do the job. It calls for action from all, without imposing one-size-fits-all solutions." This means that it will be one rule for the capitalists and another rule for the proletariat. The move to congestion charging and 'chip and pin' are examples of how the bourgeoisie is individualising and commodifying the threat to the environment posed by climate change. This is constantly reinforced by the media, for whom only individual solutions can deal with a global problem.

Latching on to this, advertisers now urge us to buy what we are told is good for the environment. This goes for a whole range of products, from washing powder to chocolate. Go into your local supermarket and there is something for everyone to help solve the climate and environmental crisis. In this way we can salve our conscience as we shop - why not pay a levy to offset the carbon emissions if those tomatoes have been flown halfway round the world?

Then there are the companies that seek endorsement for the environmental sustainability of their products and the non-governmental organisations such as the Soil Association and the Rainforest Alliance that are only too willing to cooperate. Thanks to them, we can still feel good about ourselves when we fill up the car with BP ('Beyond Petroleum') petrol or following the example of the neo-environmentalists driving their Toyota Prius.

We have to rigorously combat the idea that there are individual solutions to climate change. It is self-evident that only a global solution is required - and the global working class is the only possible agent. Communists must begin by puncturing the cosy consensus on this question. Conservative leader David Cameron cycles to parliament and installs a wind turbine on his house - if only the rest of us would follow his splendid example! And don't forget your private solar panels, wind turbines, insulation and combined heat and power. Then you can eat less meat, avoid air transport, compost your waste and collect rainwater - if, of course, you can afford the extra expense and don't mind going without a foreign holiday.

And if you don't fancy these lifestyle changes you can always 'offset', can't you? There are plenty of companies that offer to 'sell' you a tree in India to compensate for that tonne of carbon dioxide emitted by your car journey or short-haul flight. You cannot really verify whether or not that tree has even been planted, but it does give you a smug self-satisfaction and excuse you from actually taking part in collective action.

Twenty years ago anyone who recycled was thought of as a bit of an oddball, but now capitalism has appropriated the ideas of a minority - partly as a political diversion, but also paradoxically to make money and thus fuel the further expansion of capital.

The drive is on to make us believe that each individual must reduce their own eco-footprint. We must downsize, be more self-sufficient, lead simpler lifestyles and happily pay our ever increasing green taxes.

None of this can save the planet, but at least such lifestyle changes may help capitalism overcome the barriers that nature constantly throws up. For capital nature is a free resource, to be used and dumped upon. Only when labour is set to work is value added. But that is also the view of the Socialist Workers Party, whose 'Where we stand' column proclaims: "Workers create all the wealth under capitalism ..." For the SWP too nature produces no wealth.

The left swims in its own economistic, nationalistic sea. But the climate crisis calls for a democratic, internationalist and proletarian solution - one which challenges the very logic of capitalism.