The Toolkit for Sustainable Work
When asked to imagine what sustainable work would look like, people envision different possibilities, as shown by this sample of participants in the Allied Grounds conference.
The United Nations has come up with its own guidelines. Economic and human development, technological innovation, decent work and ecological production: here’s their astonishing proposal to redefine sustainable work. As formulated by the UN, sustainable work may or may not be compatible with the parameters of endless capitalist growth. Since the latter has indeed proven to be unsustainable, sustainable work may or may not be truly sustainable. The notion and insitutionality of sustainable work is therefore a terrain of struggle.
In its “green” capitalist version, sustainable work is embedded in the long duration of capitalist development. Adopting the framework of sustainable work will provide social and economic security, opportunities for personal development, the empowerment of women and minorities, and the immediate reforestation of the Amazon forest. The endless growth of capitalism will get its green certification as long as public and private actors share the same best practices: embracing green growth narratives, commodifying critical minerals and other natural resources to accumulate as much “green” capital as possible, implementing diversity management, and, of course, replacing plastic bottles with catchy rainbow reusable ones.
If sustainable work remains capitalist work, shaped by the profit imperative, it will also remain commodified, productivist, unequal – including along gendered, racialized, imperial lines – and extractivist. The capitalist version of sustainable work is promoted by the discourse of “ecological transition from above,” which promises to address the ecological crisis with market-based techno-fixes. If left unchallenged, the most likely outcome will not be a transition at all, but rather an “energy expansion” that adds the environmental damage of “green” mining to the climate change caused by fossil fuels.
Ecological transition from below
But a specter is haunting the globe… and its name is working-class environmentalism, with its sinister “ecological transition from below. Get ready!
How does the sustainable work envisioned by the ecological transition from below differ from its “green” capitalist double? In our understanding, it is first and foremost decommodified work, producing use values that directly serve the needs of communities, based on workers’ control over what, how and how much to produce. This includes the need for healthy metabolic exchange with non-human ecologies, and thus the work of transformative ecological reparation. It implies a liberation from capitalist labor, which is shaped by the profit imperative of endless growth.
In fact, sustainable work is also less work, and not just for those currently fortunate enough to have permanent jobs. Countering the productivist work ethic by producing only what is collectively deemed necessary creates more time to share care work and to spend the remaining free time in self-fulfilling activities beyond necessary work. In order to work less while guaranteeing a good standard of living for all, a radical redistribution of wealth is necessary, both within countries and internationally. This means challenging the current socio-ecological neo-colonialism – in which some areas dominate the technological frontier, others provide the raw materials and others the cheap labor – in the direction of a balanced international division of labor.
Working-class environmentalism is a fantastic animal. It has countless heads with eyes of different shapes and skins of many colors, clawed paws to cling to the ground, and wings to fly beyond our current reality of alienation and greenwashing. It is not a chimera, however. In different parts of the world, people are struggling for sustainable work beyond capitalism. These struggles are led by workers in the broadest sense, not just factory workers, but also the unemployed, unpaid and paid reproductive workers, subordinated intellectual workers, etc.
Often, these experiences also seek to address power relations within the working class, attempting to build solidarity across gender, race and colonial lines. From indigenous land occupations in Latin America, to reclaimed factories in Argentina, Greece or Italy, to self-managed soup kitchens, clinics, shelters and social centers around the world, workers are already producing goods and services in and against capitalist social relations. These experiments in self-management are articulated with struggles within capitalist workplaces and movements to expand and decommodify welfare services. Together, these struggles constitute a countervailing force, an element of working-class rigidity that challenges the ecological transition from above. Moreover, they offer glimpses of how a future society might consciously and collectively regulate its metabolic exchange with non-human nature, beyond the individualism and short-termism inherent in market-driven production.
If you are tired of the dull best practices of “green” capitalism, why not try the beastly practices of working-class environmentalism? There are no set guidelines, just wild lines, which you can find below in the archive of working-class environmentalist experience and the map of characteristics of sustainable work. The map and archive are far from exhaustive, but they cover different sectors and countries, reflecting a broad understanding of the working class and the possibilities for rolling back the ecological crisis. End of the world, end of the month, same struggle!
Sustainable Work Map
Beast Practices #1: Recuperated Industries
VioMe – Thessaloniki
BIOME is a self-managed industry in the North of Greece. Decisions are taken collectively by the workers and the local society. the products that VIOME produces reflect an alternative relation to the environment and includes cleaning products made with natural ingredients. As BIOME workers write in their web-page, “To the big industries and their advertising campaigns that are trying to convince us that the most important issue is the duration of the wild rose scent, we reply that the most important is not to suffer from skin or repiratory diseases, not to need to clean a plate for 10 minutes spending litres of valuable water, not to need to abuse your washing machine in order to clean your clothes and most importantly not to starve in order to wash, spending a whole day’s salary to buy detergents.”
- http://gskk.org – Greece Solidarity Committee Cologne (GSKK) to Vio.Me
Commons as a practice
Berlin – referendums
The Berlin constitution includes the possibility of referendums which result is binding for authorities. The social movements and the left discored this as possibility to organize around basic issues and push a public debate. Surprisingly, most of the referendums initiated by the left and social movements over the past 10-15 years achieved the quorum of participation and the majority of the votes. We present here two examples.
The former inner city airport of Berlin is the biggest inner city open space without constructions in the whole of Europe. It was (and is) of huge interest for city developers, investors etc. An alliace of organizations and movements proposed and started a referendum to preserve the place as public park and prohibit any construction. On May 25, 2014 the referendum passed with 64.3 percent of votes in favor, preserving a vital space for nature, Berlin’s inhabitants and natural air circulation.
Deutsche Wohnen & Co. enteignen: Expropriate huge real estate companies
The 2021 Berlin referendum “Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen & Co.” was held and passed in Berlin in 2021. It proposed the exprpriation of real-estate companies owning more than 3,000 units in Berlin and pass the apartments to communal public housing comanies. The total number of housing units in question is at least 243,000 rental apartments (around 17% of Berlin’s rental apartments). The proposal was approved by 57.6% of voters. Although the referendum is binding and the city government did not elaborate a law for expropriation but installed an expert commission with many conservative lawyers to analyse if expropriation was possible. Surprisingly, in September 2023 the commission came to the result that the expropriation is possible and the compensation can be well below market prices. The campaign announced to start a new referendum proposing an expropriation law, that would then be binding if accepted in the referendum.
Coop57 is a cooperative of financial services based on solidarity and committed to social transformation. It focuses on social economy and solidarity projects. Decisions are taken in a democratic way and it is self managed. Many of its project include sustainable objectives.
DIY your future
- Replace the colour “green” for red. Green has been abused so much in neorliberal discourses, we need to struggle against capitalism.
- Your work should be valued not because it contributes to growth, but because it contributes to care and ecological repair.
- Work in solidarity and care should be valued as it’s positive impacts multiply and spread all over society and even in non human environments.
- Struggle to reduce your work time.
- Create cooperatives that are trully self-managed, contribute to positive environmental healing, and do not reproduce unequal power relations amongst workers.
- Make sure that the material used in your work is recycled. Electrification of transport for example is not enough if all the materials to createvehicles are non sustainable.
- Solidarity and collective decision making at the local level, such as referendums, can help escape political divisions and bring people together for ecological repair.
- Seek for commoning practices in workplaces, at home and beyond.
The ‘Working-Class Environmentalism’ workshop consisted of: Alistair Alexander, Dario Azzellini, Lorenzo Feltrin, Francesca Gabbriellini, Nelli Kambouri, Gorana Mlinarevic, Jaron Rowan, Sotiris Sideris.
This project was conceived at the Berliner Gazette’s annual conference 2023 entitled ALLIED GROUNDS.
All text and images: Creative Commons License 4.0 (CC-BY 4.0). All images were taken at the ALLIED GROUNDS conference.