Our social, cultural, and personal expectations are intricately and desperately caught up in the momentum of the existing petroleum-based economy. Even should we be told in unqualified terms that industrial expansion must stop tomorrow or we pass the point of no return, another pound of carbon emissions will spiral the climate into an unstoppable and life destroying warming process, we fear the cost of changing the economic machinery so much we would risk all to continue another day. No one feels these more intimately than the working class people.
The ordinary working class family's immediate concerns are too pressing to give thought to a future 20 or even 5 years from now. The car needs to go into the shop next week. Bills need to be paid yesterday. The interest on the mortgage is accruing faster than the savings account. Always a little behind, credit cards, medical bills, bank loans, the squirrel cage spins so quickly, getting off seems more treacherous than trying to keep up. The lives and livelihoods of a vast majority of the working class are too dependent on the system today to be concerned with the uncertainties of tomorrow. Their lives proceed deliberately at best, one day at a time.
When environmentalists scream about deforestation and unsustainable practices in the wood products industry, and the industry screams back about profit margins, land management, and machinery investments; the men and women who work in the woods or at the sawmill for a living are caught in the middle. They just can't stop working when there are creditors at the door. It's either save their jobs or save the forest.
While company executives or owners can adjust by raising prices, laying off employees, or diversifying investments, the workers are likely to lose their entire income, their security, their home, their community, and often their family. This dilemma becomes an even more pressing double jeopardy when you realize that the job will be lost in the long run anyway if changes aren't made now.
Large portions of the international economy are based on the extraction of critical natural resources. Any cutbacks in the use of those resources causes a huge ripple throughout the industry, starting with those who mine the resources, working its way back through all the manufacturing stages, and finally into the financial earnings on anticipated corporate profits. Whether lumber and housing starts, oil and automobile manufacturing, or water and the electronics industry, everyone's job is based on steady marginal increase. The entire capitalist structure is based on increased growth, returns on profit, returns on investments, and the very concept of interest itself. Once that stops, the system grinds to a halt, and the working class people will feel it first.
In the United States, this situation is accented by the dynamics of the global market. Transnational corporations are now freely tapping labor pools all over the world, either by building manufacturing plants in developing countries or using the facility of the internet to outsource telephone services. The U.S. labor pool is feeling the pinch. What are essentially "good business moves" by large U.S. companies are cutting at the very heart of the American working class.
The working class's only real tool for confronting the increasingly powerful corporate hand in the work place is the labor union. Unfortunately, the story of the labor union in the United States is a sad story of corruption and anti-communist propaganda. Labor unions began to assemble in the United States at the turn the twentieth century. Due to considerable hostility from large business interests, however, union membership hovered in the range of ten to fifteen percent of the workforce until after the great depression and the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which provided guidelines and laws to protect unions and union members. In the next twenty years, labor union membership steadily climbed to a peak of about a third of the workforce in the mid-1950s. At this point, the effects of McCarthyism and red-scare tactics from big business led to a steady erosion of American labor unions. Today less than 12 percent of the workforce belongs to a union. Despite being the largest and most influential force in the world, without organization or strong unions, labor is at the mercy of corporate agendas. Steady cuts in health benefits, pension plans, and real wages have turned the working class into little more than indentured servants in the American workplace. Add the influx of low wage immigrant workers from Mexico and Latin America and the situation only deepens.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg–the melting iceberg. As the price of gasoline climbs with diminishing petroleum production, it will hit the middle class hardest. The lowest classes are already strapped. Many live in the city and don't have long commutes if they have jobs. Their problem will be food. But the middle class has been farmed out to the suburbs and commuting costs may soon be the second largest household monthly expense, behind the mortgage payment. While the top ten percent of the income bracket will be able to fold energy costs into their income with some modest tightening, the middle class will be cutting back in every phase of their life just to survive. Whether it be the forces of migrating populations caused by a changing climate or the price of gasoline or both, the working class people, primarily of the United States, will feel it first and feel it hardest.
What can be done? The first task is addressing the combined problem of global warming and peaking oil production. That means decarbonization. For the working class, relocalization is a step in the right direction. In the very simplest of terms, this involves doing whatever is possible to take the petroleum out of the equation, condensing the community, living closer to the job, using mass transit, making the automobile the last choice for transportation, not the first. For Americans this will be a difficult cultural adjustment. We have lived in our cars for generations. Cars have become our way of life. Short of some momentous change in the personal transportation industry, however, working class Americans, more than anyone else in the world, must cut automobile use by eighty percent or more. If this doesn't come about on its own, financial pressures will assure that it happens nonetheless. This is the working class jeopardy. They really have no choice in the matter.