The environment: a class issue

– Byron Clark

When environmentalists talk of ecological doomsday (real or imagined) it’s unusual for working-class people, or groups fighting for the working class, to respond. As Alan Roberts pointed out in 1979, in words that are even more relevant today:

“The bulk of the population of the underdeveloped world live continuously with the threat of doomsdays over their heads; but even in the supposedly ‘affluent’ societies, the life of the majority is hardly so unflowed that they can indulge in the luxury of anxiety over some remote apocalypse. There are threats much closer at hand, promising an equally drastic demolition of the world as they themselves experience it – for example, those that affect their productive activities: whether their health will survive over fifty years of working life, whether they will have a job next week, and whether, if they have a job, they will be able to drag themselves out of bed when the alarm clock rings.” (The Self-Managing Environment, p7-8)

Both liberal environmentalists and “workerist” leftists can develop a mistaken view that workers have no concern with environmental issues. Liberals then orient themselves to groups like students and more affluent sections of society, while leftists focus their energy on issues like wages and job losses.

However, workers have a class interest in environmental issues. They, and other oppressed sections of society, are disproportionately affected by environmental destruction and hazards, both in the workplace, where the lowest-paid jobs are typically also the dirtiest and most hazardous, and in working-class communities. As Marxist sociologist Kenneth Gould has put it,

“While owners, managers and investors are able to use the wealth gained from production to purchase housing in environmentally safe areas, those who cannot afford to move to such areas are forced to live with environmental hazards. In this way, each round of economic growth tends to increase the gap between rich and poor, as well as increase the gap between environmentally safe and environmentally hazardous residential spaces.” (Class Conflict and Environmental Justice)

Just as with issues like wages and job losses, the best response to these environmental concerns is through workers organising and taking collective action.

An example of this exists in recent local history. In 1996, former employees of a Carter Holt Harvey sawmill in Whakatane that had closed in 1988 formed “Sawmill Workers Against Poisons” (SWAP). This followed years of frustration over the lack of action by authorities concerning their accumulating health problems, including respiratory problems and illnesses resulting from exposure to pentachlorophenol (PCP), a chemical used in wood production before the late 1980s.

The workers have been fighting for years to get recognition of, and ACC compensation for, their health issues, and have had some success. In 2003 the Health Research Council conducted a comprehensive two-year study into the effects of PCP on workers who were exposed to it. A Department of Labour report published in January this year (Health outcomes for former New Zealand timber workers) concluded that the workers had indeed suffered as a result of their exposure to PCP.

SWAP also fought for the sites contaminated by PCP to be cleaned up. A solution came in 2003 when Waikato University biologists found that some native New Zealand fungi can reduce dioxins in contaminated soils by more than 90%. SWAP coordinator Joe Harawira told the New Zealand Herald that the affected workers had been waiting “a long, long time” for a way to clean up the poisoned sites. “I’m so pleased that, if it is successful, nature is doing the job for us.”

While this example highlights the important role that science can play in cleaning up environmental hazards, it also shows that organised workers struggling for the right to safe workplaces and homes is an important part of the environmental movement as well. As the people who produce all the goods and services in society, workers have a vital role to play in ensuring an environmentally sustainable future, where things are produced for human need, including the need for a liveable environment, rather than for private profit.

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