Sustainable Work and Just Transition Rather than Labor Society and Climate Catastrophe

Optimizing or Abolishing Capitalism?

Optimizing or Abolishing Capitalism? Sustainable Work and Just Transition Rather than Labor Society and Climate Catastrophe

Workers and related communities are potentially the only ones who have a real interest in sustainable and non-polluting production – and thus in overcoming labor society as we know it. And they are also the ones who will have to bear the brunt of the socio-ecological transformation. If they do not take the central role in defining and practicing the transformation, no such transformation will take place, as social scientist Dario Azzellini argues in his contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds.”

There is a scientific consensus on the need to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius. There is no room to negotiate with nature. Government documents say that it will take a change in the prevailing patterns of consumption and production. But they avoid talking about work, let alone questioning work or unpaid work and linking it to the climate crisis.

When people talk about work, they usually promise “green jobs” in a “green economy.” Both concepts do not question the capitalist model of production and are based on the idea of “green growth.” The quality of work does not play a role here, beyond statements of intent. As studies in various European countries show, “green jobs” are largely low-skilled, the majority are precarious and poorly paid, and about 70% of them are held by men. The question of class is also largely absent. Thus, the question of who is responsible for the most emissions and consumption of resources, and who will pay for the socio-ecological transformation, is lost.

Previous “solutions” have failed

Governments and capital focus on changing consumption and production patterns, but want to keep everything as it is. In production, the focus is on the “technological fix”: Solve all environmental problems with future technological advances. Billions of dollars are being poured into companies around the world that want to suck CO2 out of the air and store it underground or under the ocean floor. The U.S. government alone recently announced $3.7 billion in funding. “Let science, innovation and the marketplace compete to provide the solutions,” industry representatives said of carbon capture and storage (CCS). A U.N. commission, on the other hand, found that carbon removal activities are “technologically and economically unproven, especially at scale, and pose unknown environmental and social risks.”

There is no discussion about drastically reducing resource consumption. Recycling and recycling management are supposed to reduce it. However, the consumption of non-renewable resources has increased no less than the recycling rate in recent decades. On average in the EU, it increased from 10.8 percent in 2010 to 11.7 percent in 2021 (slightly less than in 2020). In Germany, it will be just above the EU average at 12.7 percent in 2021 (12.9 percent in 2019). The EU target of 100 percent circularity by 2050 is obviously unattainable. Countries with high resource consumption have the lowest recycling rates: Norway leads the world with 44.3 tons of annual resource consumption per person, while its circularity rate is only 2.4 percent.

Technology and recycling are important for socio-ecological transformation. However, they have already failed as a solution to the environmental crisis. According to the IPCC, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 will be 12% higher than in 2010 and 54% higher than in 1990, with 42% of the historical cumulative CO2 emission since 1850 occurring between 1990 and 2019, when numerous climate change agreements were already in place. “System change not climate change” is therefore more than a slogan. In the following, I will outline what needs to be considered for a socio-ecological transformation. My central proposal: We need to put work at the center of our thinking.

A crucial instrument from below

Why focus on work when life is threatened by climate catastrophe? We live in a work society. Work is seen as a means to satisfy individual and social needs. Reconceptualizing, reorganizing, and valorizing work as sustainable work is a crucial tool from below to advance and ensure a just transition. Changing production and consumption patterns alone will not lead to the necessary socio-ecological transformation. Employment and labor markets are already changing, and we need to ensure that work itself becomes sustainable in all its aspects. We must also ask whether it is even possible to transform production and consumption patterns without transforming the working society (and vice versa).

What is sustainable work? First of all, “sustainable work” is part of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN for 2030, adopted in 2016, which should be included in global, EU-wide and national policies, but this is not happening with regard to sustainable work. In addition to the very general SDGs, there are elements for a definition of sustainable work in UN and ILO documents, which I will add to. Regarding the UN and the ILO, it should be noted that they insist on a growth logic, and ultimately always end up with “green jobs,” which are linked to a social-ecological transformation within the framework of the capitalist production model (even if the ILO links them to strict criteria).

First, sustainable work does not reduce development to economic or technological aspects. It is in line with the ILO’s model of decent work. Second, work should be based on the needs and potential of the individual and provide not only social and economic security, but also opportunities for personal development. Decent work that promotes development is only possible if the reproduction of work and life is guaranteed. The goal of work must be environmental sustainability. It must not jeopardize the (re)productivity of nature and must ensure that ecosystems can withstand the stresses to which they are exposed. Third, sustainable work is based on an expanded understanding of work beyond paid labor: the concept aims to overcome the artificial separation of productive and reproductive, commodified and non-commodified, and formal and informal work. All activities should be guided by the principle of sustainable work.

In short, sustainable work is a holistic approach. It involves looking at economic, social, and environmental issues as an interrelated whole. Moreover, in order for the socio-ecological transition to be a just transition, different levels need to be taken into account. These include social security for those directly affected by job loss, as well as class, North-South relations, and gender.

Class question and North-South justice

Contrary to the neoliberal credo of individualizing responsibility (whether for health, retirement, or climate protection) and viewing it in isolation from living conditions, the class question must be posed. In order to limit global warming to less than 1.5°C, annual per capita emissions should be limited to a maximum of 1.9 tons of CO2 with immediate effect. The poorest 50% of the world’s population caused 1.4 tons of CO2 emissions per capita in 1990-2019, a total of 11.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the top 10% were responsible for 48%, and the top 1% for 16.9% of emissions. 77 million people, one hundredth of the world’s population, are responsible for 50% more greenhouse gas emissions than 3.8 billion people, the poorer half of the world’s population, and their emissions are growing faster.

So this is also a North-South issue. But the class gap in per capita emissions in many countries is now greater than the gap between many countries in the Global North and Global South (excluding the historical cumulative emissions burden). The top 10% in Russia and Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and East Asia are responsible for 10-30% more CO2 emissions than the top 10% in Europe. In turn, they are responsible for six times more greenhouse gas emissions than the bottom 50% in Europe. Therefore, the fight against climate change is and must be a class struggle.

The question of North-South equity is central here. The calculation of emissions by country favors the Global North. It ignores the historical cumulative emissions that continue to have an impact, the origin of the emissions (fossil fuels, as in the Global North, or deforestation and land use change, as often in the Global South), and the size of the population. For example, the U.S. ranks first in the world with 20.3% of historical cumulative CO2 emissions from 1850 to 2021, followed by China with 11.4%. In terms of total population, China is not even in the top 20.

Colonially shaped roles

This gives rise to a special responsibility on the part of the Global North towards the Global South, which is also more severely affected by the climate catastrophe. However, it is not fulfilling this responsibility, either by drastically reducing emissions or transferring important environmental technologies, or by paying reparations. Even the climate funds for the Global South agreed at climate summits have hardly been disbursed. The Global North wants to retain global control and technological leadership in the transformation process. As in the previous commodity boom, the Global South is once again being forced into the colonial role of primary resource supplier.

Meanwhile, the “sustainability initiatives” of the Global North are producing displacement, environmental destruction, and land grabs in the Global South: through solar and wind farms, hydrogen production, dams, monocultures for biofuels and the new mining of rare earths. Coal mining is being replaced by lithium mining, which requires 6,000 liters of water per kilogram of lithium. The 2019 coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia is said to be linked to the country’s rich lithium deposits. Faced with the accusations, Elon Musk tweeted, “We coup against whomever we want.”

Social reassessment of work

It is immediately apparent that the majority of “green jobs” go to men. The socio-ecological transformation is pushing women out of paid work. For this reason, too, a social re-evaluation of work and a perspective exit from the working society are indispensable. To this end, the division between supposedly “productive” and “reproductive” work must also be addressed and tended to eliminate. An important step would be to no longer consider labor as a commodity, but as a question of commons. This means, on the one hand, that labor power is no longer lost – as it is under capitalism – when it is not bought, but used according to need and ability. On the other hand, unpaid work can no longer be so easily made invisible and socially and economically coerced.

The maintenance of labor power as a common good also implies collective control and decision-making over labor power. This is linked to the ideal goal of placing the means of production under the collective democratic control of workers and communities, i.e. socializing them. What this process looks like can be seen around the world in hundreds of recaptured factories under workers’ control. There are no layoffs, and questions of ecology, health and social issues become central to the workers as soon as they are able to discuss issues other than wage increases with a horizon of change.

Are the necessary measures possible while maintaining the capitalist mode of production and the resulting social model? I think not. Therefore, the struggles around them will not be easy. Discussions that place labor at the center of sustainable development are taking place in some alliances of trade unions, social and environmental movements, and in academia.

Workers and communities (as a collective subject) are potentially the only ones who have a real interest in overcoming the working society as much as they have an interest in sustainable and non-polluting production. And they are also the ones who will have to bear the brunt of the socio-ecological transformation. If they do not take the central role in defining and practicing the transformation, there will be no such transformation. To the objection that all this is impossible, it must be said that history is not linear and that humanity created capitalism and therefore can also abolish it.

Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; the German version can be found here. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look:

Image: Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)


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