A recent study in the journal Nature estimates that the current carbon emission rates from fossil fuels like coal and oil will cause 83 million deaths between now and 2100. That’s more than 1 million deaths per year as a direct result of rising carbon emissions. This number does not include harmful diseases caused by, for instance, water supplies tainted by crude oil, as we saw in Henderson, Tenn., last summer.
Early-20th-century-American radicals had an explanation for this sort of damage: “capitalist sabotage.” The term described destructive practices in the service of profit that are often treated as the mere unintended consequences of doing business. Determining culpability for rising temperatures, ever-expanding ocean garbage patches and raging wildfires is difficult. But capitalist sabotage offers a way to think about environmental destruction that neither exonerates bad actors for lack of clear culpability, nor lapses into conspiracies. It assigns blame for the harm that is done, knowingly, by a whole class of people who have common interests.
Sabotage, now associated with military intrigue and commonly used as a synonym for “undermine,” was first used in France to describe the intentional destruction of employer property by workers. The first to popularize the word “sabotage” in the United States were members of the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW was founded in 1905 by a group of American labor organizers disillusioned with the limited, and often racist and elitist, politics of craft unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The IWW saw the traditional organization of workers sorted into individual trades within an industry as a system that encouraged competition. Organizing all workers into “one big union” eliminated competition between crafts while allowing for the inclusion of “unskilled labor,” which meant welcoming women, immigrants and African Americans who had been shut out of the skilled trades.
Organizing laborers, regardless of skill, sex or race, was not only about strength in numbers. The IWW also incorporated American traditions of mutual aid, socialism and philosophical anarchism, ideas seen as radical and demonized as “alien” in the early-20th century.
A 1916 pamphlet by IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn defined sabotage broadly as “the withdrawal of efficiency.” For workers, this could include everything from slowdowns to the destruction of finished products. Whatever the act, it had to be “conscious” and intentional, not mere vandalism; it had to result in depleted profits or disrupted production; and it could not threaten the life or physical well-being of people.