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Class, Diet, Climate Change and Social Justice

Moses Seenarine

(Talk and presentation at the 21st Century EcoSocialism Conference,  
October 11, 2015, University of Santa Barbara, California
organized by System Change, not Climate Change)

Marxist Analysis - The Proletarian Standpoint

In capitalism, there is a sharp contrast between the bourgeoisie or owners of the means of production and/or the managers of that property, and the proletarians who have only their labor power to sell. This distinction is expressed through a diversity of concrete situations in production, reproduction and the community.

The bourgeoisie's monopoly of control over global finances penetrates into national economies and governments, and to the monopoly of access to natural resources. The bourgeoisie are supported by a monopoly of technology, the monopoly over international communication and the media, and the monopoly of the military means of mass destruction. Socialists' are tasked with the challenge to organize a critical mass of socially diverse proletarians who are in a natural conflict with the dominant bourgeoisie capitalist system.

Marxian analysis starts with consciousness of the material conditions in which workers live and interact with others. Material conditions structure workers' consciousness, in addition to their behavior, and there are biased in favor of capitalists. Material conditions also sets limits on workers' understanding of social relations.

For example, workers generally endorse the ruling class social vision, and are thereby complicit in their own oppression. In developing the suffering of the "proletarian standpoint" socialists can help to improve workers' understanding of their objective reality. An examination of workers' differential access to food could help in understanding their daily reality.

Food Justice - Farm Workers

Most people are unaware of the atrocious treatment of farm workers in the US by the agricultural bourgeoisie. Farm workers in the US are not given the same basic rights as other employees, like a minimum wage. Many farm workers are temporarily employed by unscrupulous migrant labor subcontractors who force them to work long hours without breaks in the heat, overcharge for living expenses, and dock workers' pay for minor infractions. Farm laborers work daily with toxic pesticides, herbicides and defoliants without adequate clothing or protection, and lack access to basic health services. They suffer from a lack of educational services inter-generational poverty. Many workers get sick and die prematurely.

With the Pacific fishing industry, Asian workers are forced to work for low or no pay, are beaten and abused, and held captive on the water for months at a time with no means of escape. Thai suppliers gets their fish from trawlers whose crews are often men and boys who have been trafficked from Myanmar and Cambodia. They are sold as enslaved workers by brokers and smugglers to fishing captains in Thai ports and frequently resold out at sea.

Child slave-labor is also prevalent on cocoa farms in West Africa. Boys as young as 11 are sold or tricked into slavery to harvest cocoa beans on some of the Ivory Coast’s 600,000 farms. In the US, farm workers are not unionize and are often part of the informal economy. In addition, they suffer from environmental racism and access to Healthy Foods

Food Justice - Environmental Racism and Access to Healthy Foods

In the US and elsewhere, people of color experience discrimination in the workplace and are at a further disadvantage selling their labor in the capitalist economy. Moreover, many proletarians of color suffer environmental issues like the urban heat island effect, and from environmental racism in their homes and communities.

Capitalists' production facilities are located more in disenfranchised communities since the bourgeoisie and other powerful stakeholders understands the environmental importance of a "not in my back yard" policy. With the promise of desperately needed employment, communities of color are induced to endure pollution released from toxic plants, bus depots, trucking routes, air traffic, etc., and they suffer from higher rates of respiratory problems as a result. In the heat of summer, many residents cannot open their windows because of flies and stench in their neighborhoods.

Capitalist development negatively affects communities of color financially as well, since residential property values decrease with factories move in. And most of the wealth held by people of color is stored in their home. This leads to white flight, ghettoization, and urban blight.

Environmental racism also occurs in terms of access to healthy foods and a healthy life, which should be a right, not a privilege, but this is the way the capitalist food-system operates. Across the globe, communities of color and low-income communities exist in virtual food deserts, without access to the fresh fruits and vegetables they need for a healthy life. In the US, instead of grocery stores, proletarians of color have convenience stores, which are usually liquor stores masked as convenience stores. First nations are also severely affected by food deserts.

The food that is available in these often highly segregated neighborhoods is primarily junk food - highly processed GMOs, high in sugar and saturated fats, low in nutrients, canned and packaged for a long shelf-life. Convenience stores do not carry fresh fruits and vegetables, and many of their packaged foods are expired. To get fresh foods, many poor and minority residents have to travel far outside of their neighborhoods. Children of color are at a further disadvantage while growing up, in the types of foods available in their public schools.

As a result of environmental racism, communities of color suffer from higher rates of diabetes and heart disease. Workers of color suffer from lower quality of life and life expectancy than their white proletarian counterparts. It is not that poor and minority groups like greasy foods and do not know how to eat healthy - it is more a matter of access.

Capitalist Backlash - Feminism and Standpoint Theory

Although women (like men) tend to endorse the socialized, sexist structures and practices of society and their lives, they at the same time have feelings of unease that do not fit within these oppressive structures. For centuries, feminists have explored how females of all classes are oppressed under the guise of history and tradition within patriarchal divisions, identities, and cultures. Feminist standpoint theories use Marxist insights to focus on the social subordination of women by examining how the ruling male bourgeoisie structures the material relations in which all sexes are forced to participate. Marxists-feminists have argued that the personal is political, and perspectives furnished by women's lives provide objective "standpoints" equally as valid as the proletarian standpoint.

Interestingly, an increasing number of male transsexual members of the bourgeoisie are claiming to be female, not poor or black. Not surprisingly then, radical feminist analysis is defined exclusively as a curse, not cultural or class analysis. Unfortunately, many third wave female members of the proletariat have accepted this received vision of "feminist postmodernism" and are endorsing this blatantly biased and misogynist framing of Marxian insights.

It is claimed that there are no transcendent truths of identity categories such as women or female, and to argue that there is equates to transphobic essentialism. And even though femaleness in rooted in biology, while class and race are socially constructed, the essentialist stick is not used to suggest that class and racial identities do not exist. The essentialist stick is not used to de-platform “single-issue” cultural activists and demonize “crass” Marxists. Maligned as TERFs or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, many working class women are afraid to organize and talk about reproduction, sisterhood and other normal female issues, which reinforces their class and sexual oppression.

It the pursuit of supposed inclusivity, why is only feminist standpoint theory viewed as transphobic? The reality is that there are plenty of cultural and religious argumentation that are actually transphobic, but these groups are not similarly demonized.

Academia is one of the primary sites of bourgeoisie knowledge production, and this erasure of the lived experience of half the world's population, females, is not without precedent. The earlier erasure in archaeology and anthropology of female history and culture was part of a backlash against Marx, and his assertion that pre-capitalist formations embraced sexual equality. This long history of erasure reveals the male bourgeoisie's perception of the various threats represented by identity movements, and dismantlement of feminism is their highest priority.

In contrast to the essentialist framing of female standpoint theory, feminists scholars like Sandra Harding have argued that an objectivity that "requires 'point-of-viewlessness'" is philosophically and politically bankrupt. Instead, these feminists argue that certain points of view can and should count as cognitively authoritative to create a "stronger" objectivity. A objectively valid criticism of oppressive social forms needs to start from the perspectives of the proletariat, but it must also include reflections afforded by women's experience as well as that of other oppressed peoples.

Marxism and Identity Politics - The Proletarian Standpoint Redux

Women, people of color, indigenous, immigrants and other groups comprising the proletariat often feel that their specific experiences and oppressions are largely ignored and sidelined under capitalism, as well as within mainstream socialist and progressive circles. In the developed North, socialist leadership is predominantly male and white, and their experience do not reflect the suffering endured by most workers.

Mainstream Marxists, on the other hand, are critical of identity politics, which tends to draw attention away from common interests instead of communicating across ethnic, cultural and religious boundaries. Socialists point out that culture is used to designate certain groups for persecution. And, the assertion of various identities by the proletariat plays into imperialism's strategy of substituting a "conflict of cultures" for a conflict between the bourgeoisie and the working class.i

Under the guise of celebrating cultural difference, ethnicity obscures the interests most working people have in common by emphasizing relatively superficial aspects of our social world.

Almost all political, cultural, and religious identities value upward mobility, and are complicit with bourgeoisie neoliberalism and unbridled capitalism. Further, nature and biodiversity are oppressed under all of forms of identities in the name of “progress.”

Identity politics can be opportunistic and predatory. For example, political Islam organizations use works of charity as a means of indoctrination into membership. Political Islam defends the sacred character of property and legitimizes inequality and all the prerequisites of capitalist reproduction. They are not means of support for the working class struggle against the system which is responsible for its misery. Worse, they are reactionary on matters like the status of women in Islam, and on non-Muslim citizens. But political Islam is not exceptional.

The mostly male leadership of identity groups are infamous for corruption and predatory opportunism, but so too are unions and workers organizations. There are differences between chosen and assigned identities, especially as it relates to oppression. And given centuries of dehumanization, there is a need for cultural and female empowerment.

How do we organize within and across sex, ethnic and cultural lines? For ecosocialists, the challenge is to overcome the sexual and cultural divisions by removing the oppressions that give them significance. This means supporting females, oppressed nations and peoples, and helping them to understand larger, common interests like ecology and the environment. Marxists development of the proletarian standpoint can and must become more inter-sectional and include insights from diverse identity groups, but also nature, animals and plants, that cannot theorize a standpoint. Who can objectively represent the interests and lived experiences of biodiversity?

Marx on a Global Warming Diet – Inter-sectional Plant-based Standpoint Theory

Food is an essential part of the contrast between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and influences the proletarian experience in various cultural settings. For example, in the developed North, there are food deserts, and many workers eat poorly with a diet that consist of more processed, unhealthy fast foods. Diet and capitalism also affects Earth's natural environments, so how can Marx's insights be applied to plants, land and marine life, and underground biodiversity?

What if we applied Marxist analysis from the standpoint of inter-sectional plant-based activists? What would their critique of carnist-normative behavior and compulsory animal consumption look like? Inter-sectional, plant-based standpoint theory could offer an in-depth anaysis on how carnism is structured by the bourgeoisie, and normalized among the proletariat of all identity groups. It could include an analysis of how carnism relates to oppressed minorities, migrants and indigenous peoples. In addition, plant-based standpoint theory could examine how carnism affects aspects of the objective world of plants, animals, and biodiversity. And, it could explore the daily oppressions plant-based activists experience among family, friends, co-workers, groups and other aspects of society.

Inter-sectional plant-based standpoint theorists argue that bourgeoisie carnist-normative structures and behavior are at the root of our current ecological and social crisis which includes rapid loss of biodiversity, destruction of natural resources, human displacement and impoverishment. Fueled by international capitalism and trade agreements, compulsory animal consumption among proletarians in the developed North and the growing middle class in the Global South is causing a food, land and water crisis that more adversely affects the poor, women, people of color, and those in the Global South.

Across the world, more wealth equates to more meat, and more meat equals more heat. Demand for animal products is set to increase by 50 percent from 2013 to 2025, and 70-100 percent by 2050. Over-consumption and the type of diet being used are of the essence for understanding resource use and greenhouse gas emissions. The beefed-up diets of the expanding global middle-class could lead to chronic food shortages, water-scarcity and run-away global warming.

Structuring Bourgeoisie Carnism

Governments, donors, and development agencies have all been active agents in the expansion of animal-based agriculture by pushing for aid and policy reforms that promote livestock production as part of modern development and as one of the main means of solving global poverty and hunger. Government policies and trade agreements are further driving demand for animal products by encouraging the globalization of Western diets and consumption patterns, and by facilitating animal products at artificially low prices via subsidies on livestock feed. Every year, American taxpayers pay $38 billion to subsidize meat, fish, eggs and dairy.

The lobbies for eggs, cow's milk and animal carcass production, are well-organized, and many politicians minimize and ignore the climate and diet issue due to conflicts of interest. Worldwide meat production has tripled over the last four decades and expanded by 20% in the past decade, while greenhouse gas (GHG) have risen 61% from 1990 to 2013. The neoliberal animal-based lobbies corrupts the political process and prevents the implementation of meaningful climate solutions.

One Oxfam report detail the large carbon footprints of food and beverage companies. The emissions from only ten companies - Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever - rank as the 25th most polluting country in the world.

When presented with meat, dairy and eggs, we are socially conditioned to view them as delicious, as opposed to viewing these animals as pets, in part because of carnist culture and advertising that glorifies eating animal products. Our emotions are colonized by bourgeoisie carnism, and we remain blind to one of the worst crimes in history – the horrors of life in factory farms.

Part of de-colonizing our diet is to de-colonize our emotions for nonhuman animals considered as manufacturing raw material in a rapidly consolidating industry in which a few companies control the entire supply chain, from feed to packaged foods. For example, two foreign companies, Brazil's JBS and China's Shuanghui, now control nearly half of US pork production. Local communities of color in the US are forced to suffer from environmental damage to feed workers and bourgeois far away.

In the US, the neoliberal political climate is preventing livestock's growing greenhouse gas emissions from being addressed. For example, in response to USDA newsletter that suggested ‘Meatless Monday,’ one Senator promised to “eat more meat on Monday,” and within 24 hours, the newsletter was taken offline, and the department issued a statement saying that it “does not endorse Meatless Monday.” More ominous, the White House ignored recommendations from a nutritional panel that environment and sustainability should be included in dietary guidelines. Under pressure from the farm lobby, the Obama administration concluded that the pyramid- and plate-themed guidelines were not “the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.”

The TPP trade agreement will open markets in countries that currently protect domestic farmers with tariffs. Japan, for example, agreed to slash its tariff on imported beef from 38 percent to 9 percent over the next 15 years. And the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause in the TPP allows corporations to challenge regulations imposed by member governments in international court, for example, local and state regulations on factory farms.

Carnism and the Environment

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, worldwide consumption of meat has increased from 23 kilograms to 42 kilograms per-capita between 1961 and 2009. The current per capita consumption in Germany of 88 kg per year is more than twice the global average. The U.S. per-capita annual meat consumption is around 117 kg, which is some 30 times higher than in India, with the lowest per-capita annual meat consumption of 4 kg.

People in developed countries are, on average, consuming nearly double the quantity of meat products compared to their counterparts in developing countries. However, as middle-income earners in developing nations rapidly boost their meat consumption, pressure is growing on farmland, forests and water supplies.

According to the FAO's 2006 report, 70% of agricultural land and 30% of the global land surface are used by animal production. The livestock sector is the leading cause of reduction of biodiversity. In the past 40 years alone, 52% of all the world’s wildlife has disappeared, with agriculture, urban development, and food energy production identified as the major threats. Around 30% of biodiversity loss is linked to livestock production, owing to its contribution to deforestation and land conversion, monoculture agriculture, overgrazing, degradation of grassland, and desertification. Livestock production threaten some 306 of the 825 terrestrial ecoregions, and 23 of 35 global biodiversity hotspots.

Species-rich habitats are being converted to pasture and feed crops as human appetite for meat swells. When we eat a steak, we may be killing a monkey in Brazil, and when we eat a chicken, we may be killing a parrot in Argentina. By 2050, some countries may require a 30-50% increase in land for meat production which will result in further deforestation and extinction.

Animal production is a leading source of global water consumption, while over 750 million people lack access to clean water. It takes 1,847 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, 718 gallons to produce one pound of pork, and 518 gallons to produce one pound of chicken. In contrast, it only takes 34 gallons of water to produce a pound of broccoli, 26 gallons for a pound of tomatoes, and 302 gallons for a pound of tofu. You can save more water by eating one fewer pound of beef than you could by not showering for an entire six months.

Alarmingly, livestock production's footprints include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and other GHGs, that have a larger cumulative effect on climate change than from each gas added up individually. And unless livestock's emissions are reduced along with fossil fuels, they may set in motion various environmental feedbacks that result in the surpassing of climate change tipping points. One scientific study concluded “dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed 2C.”

Especially bad is red meat, which consumes 11 times more water and results in five times more climate-warming emissions than chicken or pork. Significantly, meat has less protein than beans, lentils and many vegetables produced with a fraction of the emissions generated by livestock production. Experts have said that cutting back red meat consumption is a better way to cut carbon emissions than giving up your car.

Carnism and the Poor

The UN projects that the world's population of 7.2 billion will increase by 2050 to reach 9.6 billion. Food demand will increase by 70 percent, and daily per person calorie intake will rise to 3,130 calories. Food is a major part of climate change, but it is also essential for survival, security and equity.

Worldwide, 2 billion people live primarily on an animal-based diet, while double that amount, or 4 billion people, live primarily on a plant-based diet. In fact, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimated that calories lost from feeding cereals to animals could feed an extra 3.5 billion people.

The funding of livestock and feed crops in the less developed world is a form of neocolonialism since the supply chain is controlled by multinational corporations, and the animal-based protein and crops are largely exported to Northern, developed countries. A massive land grab by big animal-based businesses is leading to displacement across the Global South. Private militas force locals off their land, who are then forced to migrate. This leads to loss of traditional agricultural knowledge and heirloom seeds.

In addition to land rights, top soil preservation in the global South is a climate justice issue since overgrazing results in the displacement of thousands of indigenous and local groups. And, the Global South continues to subside the North through virtual water.

The expansion of soybean production and ranching in former rain-forested areas in South America has led to widespread loss of biodiversity and local incomes. Throughout the Global South, overgrazing causes severe land degradation, and has been a major factor in wars in Darfur and Syria. Livestock is destroying valuable top soil and food shortages in 2008 led to civil unrest in 28 countries. Increasingly, livestock production is leading to global conflicts, migration and impoverishment of millions to benefit the appetite of a global middle-class and the agricultural bourgeoisie.

Red meat consumption is on the rise globally, and it is common knowledge that over-consumption of red meat may lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality. Spillage of waste generated by factory farming threatens humans, fish and ecosystems with microbes that can cause gastroenteritis, fevers, kidney failure, and death. In contrast, cutting back on meat consumption could help end hunger by 2030.

Lived Experience of Plant-based Individuals

Like other proletarians, plant-based individuals suffer from the dominant bourgeoisie culture in the usual ways such as classism, sexism, racism, etc. But in addition, they have to endure the complicity of almost the entire working-class in the exploitation of nonhuman animals.

For example, vegetarians in Pakistan are almost as an ‘outcast’ due to their dietary habits. They face derision, curiosity, surprise, a bit of coercion and allegations of being a ‘Hindu agent’ only because they choose to eat differently from most working-class members of their society. Among the Muslim population, consuming and presenting meat to guests is considered a question of social prestige and not of religion. And, eating vegetables regularly is generally considered a sign of poverty or as a lack of 'progress.'

Being a vegetarian in Pakistan is almost an act of rebellion. There are many people who turn vegetarian after witnessing animal cruelty, but then are abandoned by friends because they refuse to eat meat alongside them. Their social isolation and traumatic knowledge leads to frustration, compassion fatigue, and depression.

EcoSocialist Denialism

The popular film, Cowspiracy, shows how prevalent the denial of livestock greenhouse gas emissions is in the environmental movement. This espousing of hypocritical values represent a blind spot in environmental analysis and undermines other environmental goals like preserving forests, biodiversity and a habitable climate. Further, it reinforces the complicity of socialists and the working-class environmentalists with the agricultural bourgeoisie and their rapid expansion and industrialization of livestock production, and capitalist neocolonial exploitation.

For example, Kerry McCarthy, the new shadow environment secretary in the UK Labor Party, compared meat to tobacco and was immediately slammed by the farming industry, the media and the party's own rank and file members as being ‘out of step’ and ‘whacky.”

However, the working-class may not be completely aware of just how damaging the effects of livestock production is and may become upset when they realize that ecosocialists did not warn them about the impacts of their food on climate change. Moreover, they may be willing to change their eating habits if they are educated on the issues.

System Change - Plant-based Revolution

System change is difficult, complex, integrated and inter-related. It may be mutually contradictory and hypocritical. It may situational and contingent. It may be evolving and ever changing. System change may involve personal behavioral change and community re-education. It may involve critically assessing organizational and individual consumption.

Individuals and communities are socialized, conditioned and indoctrinated by the capitalist system. In many ways, even ecosocialists are part the system and are complicit in our own exploitation and endangerment. The consumption of animal products is a leading cause of CO2 emissions, nitrous oxide and ammonia, which contributes to acid rain.

Ecosocialists can help to overcome sex, ethnic and other divisions by prioritizing the interests of the poor, women, people of color, the Global South, and people on the periphery of capitalism. In the North, a focus on proletarian health issues, environmental racism and tactical struggles against Tar Sands, KXL pipeline, etc., are important and could help to further more strategic interests like ending private ownership, and establishing worker and community control.

These tactical strategies are useful in forcing capital to make some concessions, and to slowly build the social and political conditions which allow an advance towards socialism. Along with our individual choice in boycotting animal-based agribusiness, these could help towards the dismantlement of capitalism, ending global hunger, and reduce our collective carbon and environmental footprints as well.

Petition - Put Meat on the Agenda of Climate Talks!


i Neil Davidson. 1999. "The trouble with 'ethnicity.'" International Socialism, Autumn.

Dr. Moses Seenarine is a plant-based father and activist, founder of Climate Change 911, and the author of Voices from the Subaltern (2004), Meat Climate Change (2016), and "Who's (h)eating earth?" (Forthcoming).