Capitalism vs. the Climate: a rejoinder

Naomi Klein has an interesting and much discussed recent article in The Nation. To grossly oversimplify, her argument goes as follows. Segments of the right are vehemently opposed to any acknowledgement, let alone measures to address the climate crisis, because the way in which climate change would need to be dealt with given its scale would mean the overthrow of the capitalist based order, and the imposition of a truly revolutionary progressive agenda.

So let’s summarize. Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency. We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South. Of course, none of this has a hope in hell of happening unless it is accompanied by a massive, broad-based effort to radically reduce the influence that corporations have over the political process. That means, at a minimum, publicly funded elections and stripping corporations of their status as “people” under the law. In short, climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.

Everything in the above agenda I fully support, but then Klein makes what I feel is a grave error that could doom any effort to transform society in a way that would address the scale of our environmental predicament. She, is, in effect as blinded by ideology as the right wing she wishes to dethrone.

This can be see is the way that she throws overboard a whole group of scientists and thinkers who are asking themselves one fundamental question: how can we halt or contain climate change and allow technological civilization to survive?

Far from learning from past mistakes, a powerful faction in the environmental movement is pushing to go even further down the same disastrous road, arguing that the way to win on climate is to make the cause more palatable to conservative values. This can be heard from the studiously centrist Breakthrough Institute, which is calling for the movement to embrace industrial agriculture and nuclear power instead of organic farming and decentralized renewables. It can also be heard from several of the researchers studying the rise in climate denial. Some, like Yale’s Kahan, point out that while those who poll as highly “hierarchical” and “individualist” bridle at any mention of regulation, they tend to like big, centralized technologies that confirm their belief that humans can dominate nature. So, he and others argue, environmentalists should start emphasizing responses such as nuclear power and geoengineering (deliberately intervening in the climate system to counteract global warming), as well as playing up concerns about national security.

She has articulated the essence of our dilemma, but fails to see it as a dilemma, that we are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. By characterizing the crisis of Anthropcene as a issue of progressives vs capitalist, Klein misses the ugly truth of the matter. We may have little choice but to “double down” on the very need for technology that got us into this crisis. Like her, I pray that we can create some alternative decentralized and sustainable economic and political system, and think the search for such a path should begin immediately. Like her, I admire the poet-farmer Wendell Barry, unlike Klein and Barry, I realize we do not have 50 years to figure out whether sustainable poly-culture can supplant our massive reliance on mono-culture. 9 billion mouths to feed, the product of technological civilization’s success, is doubtless going to require a huge amount of genetic engineering in the name of increased yields (and hopefully lowered environmental impact). This is the case whether or not I like or embrace that fact. In the same vein coming up with some ideas as to how a massive geo-engineering is a necessary form of insurance give our desperate situation.

Nuclear energy, is much less a PR device to win over “hierarchical” and “individualist” opponents to the policies necessary to stem global warming, than the only solution we have at our fingertips that would allow us to contain on the our impact on the planet without abandoning the majority of human beings that would be imperiled were our technological civilization to be abruptly unplugged. This is the conclusion not of technological junkies, but of deep environmentalist such as the revered James Lovelock.

Klein thinks the right will be unmoved by the kind of environmental genocide unleashed by allowing climate change to run its course.

As the world warms, the reigning ideology that tells us it’s everyone for themselves, that victims deserve their fate, that we can master nature, will take us to a very cold place indeed. And it will only get colder, as theories of racial superiority, barely under the surface in parts of the denial movement, make a raging comeback. These theories are not optional: they are necessary to justify the hardening of hearts to the largely blameless victims of climate change in the global South, and in predominately African-American cities like New Orleans.

Oddly enough, this critique exactly mirrors what some on the right (with a good deal of justification) see as the callousness of radical environmentalism which recognizes the potential human cost of jettisoning technological civilization in the midst of 9 billion people alive on earth. To quote perhaps the most famous radical environmentalist- Ted Kaczynski- better know as the “Unibomber”.

For those who realize the need to do away with the techno-industrial system, if you work for its collapse, in effect you are killing a lot of people. If it collapses, there is going to be mass starvation, there aren’t going to be any more spare parts or fuel for farm equipment, there won’t be any more pesticide or fertilizer on which modern agriculture is dependent. So there isn’t going to be enough food to go around, so then what happens. This is something, that as far as I’ve read, I haven’t seen any radicals facing up to.

Far from abandoning the world’s poor to the ravages of climate on the basis of an atavistic racism, the spread of Christianity, perhaps detrimental in any other ways, may make such coldness less not more likely from the right than from the left. This, after all, is what happened in the best (perhaps only) example of a localized, Third World climate crisis that we know- in Darfur- where developed world Christians were the loudest voice is bringing an end to the slaughter.  The world is a complicated place, and any ideology- left or right- blinds us to the opportunities and dangers in its complexity.

Given the scale of the change in human living that will be required to mitigate the impact of not just global warming, but the Anthopocence more generally, Klein misses the fact that the most necessary allies for such a change, are exactly the ones that the left will find so difficult to deal with (and for many good reasons) that is the religious. After all, from both a humanist and a religious perspective what is required is nothing less than a spiritual revolution in how humanity relates to nature, even if we have to take the fight politically for those who can not, or refuse to see, the dangers we face.


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