Climate change requires system change

Factory in Perafita, Porto, Portugal. Photo: José Moutinho via Flickr (CC BY).
Factory in Perafita, Porto, Portugal. Photo: José Moutinho via Flickr (CC BY).
Understanding environmental destruction as a systemic problem is a starting point for a different way to deal with the climate crisis.

It is not that humanity is inherently bad for nature; it is that capitalism runs on alienation and destruction.

Youth strikes and Extinction Rebellion actions have pushed the climate crisis up the agenda over the last couple of years. The audience for debate on green ideas is incomparably larger than it was even in the run-up to the climate summits at Copenhagen or Paris.

While Covid-19 has put a temporary stop to mass campaigning on the streets, it has also given a new urgency to the warnings that destroying the environment threatens us all.

Given this, however, we cannot continue to be unspecific about the action required to address the climate crisis. At some point, we will have to move from a position of simply calling for action to setting out our vision of how we could get to a post-climate-crisis world.


There can often be a tendency in the green movement to focus on individuals making changes to their personal lifestyles. The problem with this is that it fails to understand how individual choices are shaped and constrained by the system in which they are made.

Contrary to neoliberal ideology, we are not simply rational consumers, making the most individually beneficial choices in a free market. We are social actors, doing the best we can in situations where we often have little choice at all.

If, for example, you work in an out-of-town distribution centre and your shift starts at 4am, your public-transport options for your commute are going to be limited. Casting individual carbon footprints as a personal choice would enable those who have more control over the conditions of their lives to look down on those who don’t. It would do little to change the underlying problem.

The justification for focusing on individuals has often been a counsel of despair: governments and corporations are not going to act, so the only thing left is personal action. A conclusion that individual action is the only way forward is an acceptance that we have no power to force governments and corporations to act in the way that we would like.

It is not that humanity is inherently bad for nature; it is that capitalism runs on alienation and destruction.

It is effectively an argument that the system cannot be changed. This, unsurprisingly, is an understanding of the situation with which many of these governments and corporations have been quite happy.

Systemic change 

As climate scientist Michael Mann commented recently, we know that the fossil-fuel industry has funded "deflection campaigns", which are "aimed to divert attention from big polluters and place the burden on individuals". Instead, Mann argues, "we need systemic changes that will reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, whether or not they care".

The scale of the youth climate strikes in 2019 in particular has now made the argument that individual changes are all we can do seem less like realism than defeatism.

When we have four million young people striking worldwide for system change to address the climate crisis, the idea that we can force government action seems much more plausible to many more people than it did only a year or so beforehand. A call for system change is however only the beginning, not the end of the conversation. 

What sort of system change we call for is determined by our understanding of what has gone wrong in the current system. Our theory of how environmental destruction comes about has material consequences.


If the general consensus is allowed to become that climate change is the fault of selfish individuals making bad choices, this will then serve as a justification for policies aimed at nudging or compelling those individuals into ‘better’ choices.

If we conclude that humans are an over-numerous plague on the natural world, then restrictions on population movement and population growth would be an obvious outcome.

In either case, the possibilities for blaming working-class people, for using the climate crisis as an excuse to attack jobs and living conditions, is clear. The potential for the climate crisis to be weaponised by the elite is real. 

Understanding environmental destruction as a systemic problem of capitalism is a starting point for a different way to deal with the climate crisis. It can underpin campaigning for things like a just transition to a sustainable infrastructure, for accessible and affordable public transport, for improved housing stock to reduce domestic emissions. Importantly, these sorts of demands would improve working people’s lives now.

Restoration of rural bus services, for example, would be a real benefit to large numbers of people even if we weren’t facing a climate crisis. They are campaigns which we can build in working-class communities, not at or despite working-class people. 


These are immediate responses to the current environmental crisis, but we have to fight for them in the clear understanding that capitalism will go on throwing up environmental crises until it is overcome.

That a future, non-capitalist society could live sustainably as part of the natural world is shown by Marx and Engels’ analysis of how capitalism works on the environment.

It is not that humanity is inherently bad for nature: it is that capitalism runs on alienation and destruction.

In some quarters, the idea that we should look to Marx and Engels for ecological answers is a counterintuitive one. Marx and Engels have been accused of being fundamentally uninterested in ecological issues, anthropocentric in their thinking and wedded to the idea of progress as opposed to sustainability.

Socialism, in this view, is inherently un-green, unable to respond to the ecological crisis unless it becomes ecosocialism by moving away from Marx’s ideas. In fact, Marx and Engels’ ecological thinking is essential for understanding what it really means to call for system change to save the planet. 

This Author

Elaine Graham-Leigh’s new book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is published by Counterfire (May 2020).