When environmentalist and activist Matthew Crighton began speaking at the event ‘Can the left now speak clearly on climate change?’- organised as part of Lighthouse Book’s Radical Book Fair - he was quick to assert that he was speaking, as a lifelong socialist, from a place of constructive rather than outright critique of the UK left and their approach to the cataclysmic threat climate change poses. From this position - having been situated comfortably within socialist circles in England and Scotland for nearly 30 years - Crighton is in a prime position to clearly see the manner in which the left are responding to climate change, and therefore also the ways in which the British Left falls short of confronting what is now a tangible, urgent problem. As the world begins to experience the more serious effects of manmade changes to our climate – from the wildfires that resulted in the complete destruction of the town of Paradise, California, to the migration across South and Central America of essentially, environmental refugees, there is a growing and pressing sense that the world has turned a page when it comes to climate change. There is a sense that the time to speak out has actually come and gone, with a seemingly insurmountable effort now needed to effectively combat the problem (and people wonder why teenagers and young adults are increasingly nihilistic).
Crighton, speaking to an audience at the Assembly Roxy – the location for the Radical Book Fair – focused on the insufficiencies found in the response of the Left over a period of decades. This was less reactionary than might come across, due to his consistent reminders that the Right, with their ‘deference to big business’ were definitely bigger foes, but also his timely reminders that as socialists, there is a duty to own up to the self-voiced admission that climate change is the 21st century’s problem to solve. For Crighton, who came into his political own in the 1970s and 80s, a ‘political and intellectual development shaped by Marxism’ meant ‘focusing on anti-racism, feminism, industrialism, the ever present threat of nuclear war’ and led to the pervading thought on climate change being one of ‘we have other stuff to be getting along with’.
‘All aspirations for a fair and better world will melt away in the face of unchecked climate change’ was the thought Crighton left the audience with before opening up for discussion. However, this was as light in tone as possible when facing up to the issue of climate change - with Crighton’s cheerful reassurance that ‘confronting climate change will not be easy but is necessary’ serving as the launchpad for the tone of discussion. It was refreshing to see different approaches addressed on the Left - from ‘revolutionary Marxists to Social Democrats’ - without discussion becoming heated or impossibly entrenched. Crighton was particularly frustrated with the ‘mode of thought’ he felt was prevalent at lobbying groups such as ‘Friends of the Earth’, whereby the consensus was that ‘we won’t tell them how bad climate change is, because we want those in government to do something, and if we tell them how bad it’ll be, they’ll backpedal and shy away from the nature of the issues’. To Crighton, it was clear this wasn’t the manner in which to tackle the problem, but he was always respectful of difference of opinion, whilst all the while calling for a change of approach.
Expertly chaired by a representative from Lighthouse Books, the panel also touched upon the way the problems of climate change were sometimes funneled into being represented as simply one of the struggles on a list of issues whose root cause could be attributed to capitalism. Crighton expressed frustration at conversations he had had over the years where people had simply come to the solution that climate change could be solved via the ‘struggle for socialism’. This dangerous attitude undermines climate change, treating it as non-systemic, with the speaker touching upon the dangers of a ‘mindset of building workers power and then issuing solutions to problems’ rather than working from the other way round.
Overall, the talk and the debate that followed – where, for once, ‘this isn’t a question more of a comment’ musings were actually welcome – were engaging and instructive. This was the case even for those in the audience like me, a slightly hungover newcomer grappling with guilt at my lack of knowledge of the complexities at the response of the Left to climate change. The frank manner in which the problems of the Left were laid bare without judgement was impressive. I left feeling informed, optimistic that continued open and constructive debate and self-reflection will help when it comes to constructing a radical, Leftist take on a solution to climate change.
*Illustration by Emily Donnelly*