Linking Environment Activism and Other Struggles: An Anarchist Analysis

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by Warren McGregor (ZACF)


Linking Environment Activism and Other StrugglesMovements for ecological awareness and protection, such as those against climate change, are making important contributions to social understanding regarding the effects of industrial production and consumption. However, many arguments and analyses against ecological destruction and for environmental protection are seemingly not based on a class analysis and not informed by the lives of working class people. Thus many of these analyses do not question the systems of domination that lie at the root of social inequality and ecological devastation: capitalism and the nation state.

What follows is an anarchist analysis [1] of a way forward for linking environmental awareness and protection to working class and poor people’s issues (as do movements for environmental justice), as an attempt to make these relevant to the majority in our society. In doing so, I argue that ecological protection must be intrinsic to any fight for social, political and economic freedom, as ecological destruction impacts immediately on all our lives and especially those of the working poor. However, it is only a working class-led social revolution against social and economic domination that can ultimately guarantee a world that not only meets all our needs and desires, but a world in which sustainable co-existence with nature is fostered and secured.

What is Anarchism?

For many readers, the terms anarchism and anarchist conjure a variety of images, many of which might not be favourable, and many of which are inaccurate and down-right wrong.

Anarchism [2] is a revolutionary, libertarian form of socialism. It is a political ideology that is against domination of all kinds:

  • economic (capitalism: state or market-led),
  • political (best exemplified in the form of the nation state) and
  • social (in the form of the varieties of hierarchies of power that exist in society between genders, age groups, sexual orientations, abilities, races, etc.).

Because anarchism directs its attention at and seeks to fight against all forms of hierarchy and domination in society, class is not only defined in terms of whether or not you own the means of production, but also whether or not you control the means of social administration and coercion. Therefore, the ruling class is made up of the big capitalists and the managers of the state – in the government, military, state-owned enterprises (parastatals), police and the judiciary/courts. The working class is that which does not own nor control – it produces wealth for the benefit of those who rule and own. However, the working class includes the unemployed, home-based workers, women (especially) who go unrewarded for the daily tasks they undertake to ensure a safe, clean home and meals for the family, those working in the informal economy, etc. Together with the peasantry, who are exploited by landlords, banks and the state, they form the popular classes. It is the popular classes as such that, for the anarchists, have a revolutionary potential to recreate society – one that is classless and stateless; a society without domination or exploitation.

Why am I saying this?

The ideas we have about past and present society, ways of struggling and what we want for the future inform the strategy and tactics we choose to use in attempting to create social change. The key to fighting against both capitalism and the state, to building free, or libertarian socialism, is that we should be seeking always to develop the strength and fighting ability of our organisations of counterpower in the workplaces (revolutionary, or syndicalist trade unions) and the communities (revolutionary mass-based social, or civic movements).

Environmental Destruction is a Working Class Issue – the Production Question

We as anarchists feel that the ecological problem we face is not industry and production in and of itself, but the way production is organised and controlled and how goods are distributed. Most modern industrial techniques make inefficient use of resources (both human and other) and many are based on the use of resources which are scarce (such as fossil fuels, e.g. oil, coal, etc.) and which produce massive waste and huge levels of pollution. Also, much of production is ultimately useless to the vast majority of people who can’t afford the goods produced (gold watches, big houses, yachts, etc.) and who need other goods for their daily needs (housing materials, nutritious food, adequate clothing, etc.). As a result much of what is produced is dumped and literally thrown into the sea [3]. However, anarchists reject the argument that economic development and economic growth always leads to the destruction of the environment. The implication of this type of argument is either that environmental crisis is unavoidable and that we should just “grin and bear it”, or that the world’s economy must be drastically shrunk, and industry replaced with small-scale craft and agricultural production.

What we require, however, is an economic growth and development that takes into account human needs and the availability of resources. For this we need anarchist social economics – and the anarchist society. The problem we are faced with is not excessive consumption, since most people, especially the popular classes, are short of housing, decent health, jobs, transport, education, etc. The problem is wasteful production for the world’s ruling minority. In the anarchist society production to meet the immediate and longer term needs of society will not only be entrenched, but will need to be greatly expanded.

We argue that it is not technology and its development in and of itself that is problematic, but capitalist and state uses of technology that systematically under-invest in useful, necessary and ecologically sustainable technology in favour of “high pollution-high profit” technology and weapons of war for elite power and control.

We also reject a purely “developed” versus “developing world” argument that states that poorer countries (in the so-called “Global South”) are made poor and their poverty and underdevelopment is sustained by richer countries (the so-called “Global North”) who are also the biggest polluters. These arguments also fail to incorporate a localised class analysis and thus fail to see hierarchies of control within all countries. Because capitalism and the state always result in the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few, this means that there is huge inequality in the countries of the “North” between its ruling and working classes.

South Africa might be a “developing” country, but is, relative to the size of its economy, one of the biggest polluters in the world [4]. The ecological crisis is clearly due to the excessively high consumption of the ruling classes of the so-called “developed” and “developing” worlds and the massive industries created to produce for their desires.

What the Anarchists argue for

We argue for a decentralisation and collectivisation of decision-making and production.

Why? Because:

1. Capitalism is a wasteful socio-economic system that over-produces niche products for the minority who can afford them. It breeds competition between private owners of productive means whose goods are made by exploited wage-slaves and then exchanged through a market for profit and perpetual growth. Most production techniques today use fossil fuels (as mentioned above).

Thus capitalism’s drive is towards profit and expansion and not efficient, sustainable productive practices. Importantly, because of its nature, as to produce things based on exploitation and for sale, it ultimately under-produces for people’s needs [5] and is a system that generates regular crises.

2. States are also responsible for ecological destruction. Competition between states for power and control over people and land leads to the development of huge war industries and war technology adapted for industry. These have obvious serious negative implications for people (injuries, death, refugees, etc.) and the environment (the terrible effects of current nuclear technological failures, etc.).

State-owned enterprises contribute massively to ecological destruction [8]. In South Africa, the nationalised and capitalist enterprise Eskom uses the energy released from burning coal to generate electricity. Eskom has plans to increase its use of coal for electricity. This puts into serious contradiction the South African government’s role in the Congress of Parties (or COP) -17 which took place in late 2011.

Competition between states for resources (such as oil, natural gas, land, etc.) breeds conflict and war not only between countries, but also within countries, e.g. the diamond-funded civil wars of west Africa of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Also, states are not willing to enforce strong ecological protection laws against capitalist bosses and themselves as owners because these would cut into the profits and the states’ own tax revenue.

3. Many solutions to ecological and social degradation don’t question a hierarchical order of social organisation; or if they do they focus on eliminating one form of control while usually ignoring other dimensions of oppression.

Under capitalism, solutions to ecological crises are based on consumer choice – a green consumerism – whereby customers choose to buy products and make choices that will supposedly help to sustain the environment, e.g. buying electric cars and energy-saving light bulbs, going vegetarian or vegan, recycling, living in eco-villages or eco-squats, etc. This form of consumerism, however, is based on an inadequate and incorrect analysis as to where the pollution problem actually lies – at the doorsteps of big industry, not individuals, and certainly not the working class and poor. Green consumerism is then, ultimately, a class-based choice and doesn’t question the role of capitalist production in creating and exacerbating ecological destruction. The majority of people, the working class, does not have the financial ability to afford these products and lifestyle choices (due to the very nature of capitalism) and thus does not have the financial power to shift production to more sustainable, “greener” means.

There is also no evidence to suggest that a “greener” capitalism will adequately provide for society’s energy needs. For example, it may produce fuel efficient or electric cars, but what production procedures were used to make these cars, and how will electricity be provided for them? Energy will still have to be bought, and the many “service delivery” struggles around South Africa show that most of our people cannot afford energy.

Ecological crises DO NOT, however, signal the end of capitalism itself, and we should guard against such thinking. Due to resource pressures, e.g. oil shortages, etc. and people’s struggles, capitalism will be forced to “go green”. However, this transition to different kinds of technology will be, at best, slow and lengthy and will not alter the class relations of who controls what. Also, weapons production, ultimately, cannot by its very nature be green, never mind the devastating impact it has on people the world over.

Calling for more state intervention is another solution offered. However, this model of production and distribution is still not outside a capitalist framework as it serves to centralise control of resources (land, factories, water, air and people) in the hands of those lucky few who manage and control the state apparatus. One needs only reflect on the terrible environmental records of the former East-Bloc countries to see that a centrally-planned or state-led development model is not an automatic solution to ecological and social degradation (Steele, 2002).

Linking the Class Struggle to the Environment

Development and Growth: issues brown and green

The working class and poor bear the brunt of economic and political domination and ecological destruction. Not only are we forced into wage-slavery (for those of us lucky enough to find work), but our class also carries the burden of the externalities of production (those effects of production, like waste and pollution, that the bosses in the state and capital don’t pay for). We also lack the ability to make decisions to affect and control industry.

The working class is forced to perform the most unclean and dangerous jobs – jobs which threaten and take the lives of workers on a very regular basis. Capitalism and apartheid have also forced the majority black working class of southern Africa to live in poorly serviced communities close to production sites where the surrounding air, soil and water are heavily polluted. Unlike us, the bosses and the rulers (including the black politicians and businesspeople) are protected from the effects of their greed and appetite for power by their air-conditioned offices, luxury suburban homes and ostentatious holiday resorts far away from polluted zones.

Therefore we must organise and mobilise for the struggle against capitalism and the state for a democratic and sustainable economy and society. We need a big movement of the working class and poor – a counterpower – that would, for example, fight for conversion of power stations to clean technologies for free electricity provision, for free and quality public transport, for sustainable growth to improve living standards worldwide, for cleaner, safer working environments. These organisations would also exist as centres of democratic social education and training, developing an anarchist counterculture equipping us for the road of struggle ahead and for the future society beckoning us towards it.

We must organise and fight for an ecologically-sustainable development and economic growth in order to deal with poverty and under-development. We will still need a massive programme of house-building, provision of electricity, water, food, etc. and large scale ecologically-sustainable industrialisation is vital to this end.

Industrial technology holds a number of advantages over small-scale craft production as to meeting the ends of development and growth. Industry can produce many types of goods on a larger scale and at a faster rate than craft production, and can thus not only increase the level of economic growth, but also help shorten the working day, and free us from many unpleasant jobs.

A safe environment is a basic need for the workers and the poor of South Africa, the region and the world. The environment is not just something “out there” such as the veld [7] or the sea. The environment also refers to where people live and work. As such, we can distinguish between “green” ecological issues (like wildlife, trees, etc.) and “brown” ecological issues (like workplace safety and community development). The two are obviously connected: brown ecological issues (like lack of sewerage facilities) directly affects green ecological issues (like marine life) when authorities dump waste into the oceans. Also, human-exacerbated climate change will have devastating effects on the world’s poor and development in terms of destructive floods and disastrous droughts. Tackling brown issues must generally take into serious consideration green environmental conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.

The class and ecology struggles

Many working class people in South Africa have been alienated by the actions of sections of the local environmentalist movement. These sections generally focus their attention on wilderness and wildlife conservation and climate change, and tend to be based amongst a white middle class. The contrast in focus of struggle is revealed when, for example, environmentalists strongly supported the state’s establishment of nature reserves. But many of these reserves were established by the forced removal of rural communities, who lost their land and access to natural resources such as fishing areas and building materials. The campaign to save the St. Lucia nature reserve that began in 1989 generally failed to consult the people who lived in the area, many of whom had been forcibly removed when the reserve was set up. To add insult to injury, many of these nature reserves were (until the 1990s) reserved for “Whites only” and can only be enjoyed by those with leisure time and money. These practices can only breed contempt for conservation issues and programmes among the poor, the majority of whom are black.

Related to this is the fact that few environmental organisations in South Africa address environmental issues of direct relevance to the working class. To use the distinction we drew above, many focus on “green” environmental issues as opposed to the “brown” environmental issues that working class people tend to emphasise. We do not, however, support the drawing of a simple distinction between “brown” and “green” issues and having that as a battle line for separate struggle. We do not uncritically support struggles that focus solely on one issue. We must defend “the veld” and the wondrous beauty and necessity of nature – an intellectual, emotional and physical need for human life and development. We do not reject “green” issues, but seek to use “brown” issues to mobilise people for organisations of counterpower around both “brown” and “green” issues.

Thus we must organise and fight for sustainable technologies and safer working conditions, but not at the cost of the workers and the working class. We cannot accept job losses and an increase in the costs of services imposed on the working class and poor by a company (whether controlled privately or by the state) seeking to remain competitive in a “greening” capitalist environment.

The working poor must engage an environmental justice that builds the capacity and the strength of our organisations to fight against capitalism and the state – against oppression and hierarchy. We need to continue to build working class counterpower by focusing on winning demands from those who rule; but we need to make sure that in fighting for these day-to-day gains, these struggles act in building the strength of our organisations – using this terrain of struggle as the working class gym, so to speak [8]. We should always make sure that in waging this fight, we are not co-opted by capitalism and the state and their agents – that our demands are won and not lost to the idea of building the nation, or to accept that our fights are threatening jobs. The nation exists for the ruling class; job loss serves to accumulate profit!

COPs and robbers?

With these perspectives in mind, we must seriously question working class mobilisation for COP-17 and other such conference calls. Did our presence at COP-17 build the power of our social movements and worker organisations? What will happen now that the activist party in Durban has passed? Did our presence there contribute to building a counterpower to both capitalism and the state, or even to ecological degradation?

We also need to ask questions of the conference itself. Was COP-17 a site of decision-making or another in a long line of meaningless ruling class talk shops? If the United States was one of the notable absentees to signing any resolution (as this might jeopardise profits and the balance of global power), will any COP-17 mandate carry significant power? Of course not, and the results of the conference were a major disappointment to environmental activists both local and international, many who move from one conference to another yet achieve no positive result. There is still no change to South Africa’s macro-economic strategy and its use of productive resources. Thus, surely we need to question what we are aiming for and how we seek to get there.

Comrades, we are not saying not to go to conferences like those, but we would stress that we, as activists, ask ourselves these questions and decide where our struggles would be better focused if we decide against going to protest. We should also make decisions based on honest and democratic reflection of the benefits (like networking and popularising our struggles) and losses of attending such protests (like using precious limited resources and energy sending comrades to workshops and marches for a few days, and at the behest of organisations that we don’t control).

We should use protests and other forms of demonstration to build sustained mass formations of counterpower. Our protests should reflect and energise mass structures and not be, as it seems today, something of a “rent-a-crowd” substitute for organising and/or re-energising mass formations. We must not allow our movements to be used to swell the ranks of protestors so as either to placate NGO sponsors, or the authoritarian, undemocratic desires of leaders [9]. These structures should be strong and sustainable enough so that they exist and grow between events. This we see as opposed to a politics of summit-hopping, which could rob activist organisations of vital resources and energy and which might see little achieved in the way of having demands met.

Environmental justice and the working class – for anarchism!

As stated above, revolutionary mass organisations are required to fundamentally challenge and defeat capitalism and the state. These organisations of counterpower must seek to use mass direct action to achieve their goals as opposed to elections and lobbying to put new or different leaders into the ruling class. These electoral and reformist strategies only serve to perpetuate our subjugation to authority and domination. Throughout history, the working class and poor have only ever achieved rights through struggle!

This struggle has to be international. We must work towards global popular class solidarity against the exploitative and consumerist upper classes. We should not let ourselves be drawn into divisive “developed” versus “developing” world arguments and characterisations that ultimately divide the working class into nationalities; but seriously challenge and destroy divisions within the class based on race, gender, nationality, etc. We must come again to the realisation of working class commonalities across borders.

It is the consumerist upper classes, the capitalists and the state bosses, that are the real polluters – the real enemy! We have nothing in common with them! We should be organising against capitalism and the state, as single-focus protest movements (for electricity or water), vital for organising people in their communities, can easily be sidelined and might also not seek to build links across the popular classes.

Anarchism offers us that path. It is a path that develops the fighting capability of our organisations to move away from petitioning the state and capitalist elite for a few more crumbs from the table of the ruling class. Anarchism offers us the path of class struggle to move towards claiming an entirely new table for ourselves, one at which all can feast as equals.


  1. This piece is an edited version of a discussion document presented by the author at the October 2011 International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) annual Political School held in Cape Town.
  2. For a thorough examination and explanation of what anarchism is, its historical origins, and debates around anarchist strategy and tactics, see M. Schmidt and L. van der Walt’s book titled Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. Published by AK Press.
  3. For example, huge amounts of plastic waste are being deposited into oceans causing waste dumps twice the size of the United States; see:; see also to read about some of the effects of ocean dumping.
  4. See for a list of the world’s leading carbon emitters.
  5. See Herbert Read’s Kropotkin: Selections from his Works.
  6. See, for example the harmful effect on Venezuelan society and ecology inflicted by the state-owned oil company, the Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA, Petroleum of Venezuela), the fifth largest oil company in the world, in the documentary film Our Oil – and Other Tales by the Gattacicova Collective; see also J. Cock’s book titled Going Green: People, Politics and the Environment in South Africa for figures of pollution in South Africa and land degradation by the early 1990s.
  7. An Afrikaans word meaning field, usually used in English to denote a wide and flat open rural space.
  8. A term coined by the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta (see the ZACF’s James Pendlebury’s article titled Tangled Threads of Revolution at: and an idea also developed in Rudolph Rocker’s Anarcho-syndicalism.
  9. For an account of the COP-17 protest mobilisation and presence, see a piece by the ZACF’s Jonathan Payn titled Towards a Truly Democratic Left: an Anarchist Assessment of the DLF at Cop-17 detailing the exasperating experience of many activists who were part of the Democratic Left Front entourage, at: and a pre-COP-17 analysis by the ZACF’s Shawn Hattingh titled Not Another Fucking COP Out at: .


  • Cock, J. (1991). Going Green: People, Politics and the Environment in South Africa. Oxford University Press.
  • Pendlebury, J. (2009). “Tangled Threads of Revolution: Reflections on the FdCA’s “Anarchist Communists: a Question of Class””. Available at: Accessed on 11 November 2011.
  • Read, H. (1942). Kropotkin: Selections From His Writings. London: Freedom Press.
  • Rocker, R. [1938](2004). Anarcho-Syndicalism, AK Press: Edinburgh/Oakland.
  • Schmidt, M. & van der Walt, L. (2009). Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism. AK Press: Edinburgh/Oakland.
  • Steele, C.N. (2002). “The Soviet Experiment: Lessons for Development”, in Morris, J. [ed.]. Sustainable Development: Promoting Progress or Perpetuating Poverty?. London: Profile Books.