Pray for a Good Behemoth

Try for a moment to imagine what the world’s political order will look like in the year 2075. Of course prediction is the pass time of fools, and anything imagined today about something so far in the future will by its nature become a sort of comedy. Then again, our century at the three-quarter-mark- really isn’t that far off when you think about it. 2075 is only as far from today as today is from 1963. As much time separates us from then as it does us from the assassination of JFK, which for those of a certain age, shows it’s not so far off after all.

So indulge me, then, is this flight of fancy- or rather Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s flight of fancy, for what follows immediately comes from their book of political futurology- Climate Leviathan

By the end of the 21st century one of four global political orders have come into being, each a product of what will be the most important issue for the foreseeable future- climate change. In a version of the first of these futures the world’s two most powerful countries- the US and China- have entered an alliance that aims to use all the powers of the state to systematically decarbonize the world economy without replacing it’s capitalist basis.

The two countries use every tool available from Henry Farrell’s “weaponized interdependence” to military force to compel even recalcitrant petro-states to abandon fossil fuels, and have embarked on a massive infrastructure program in the developing world to establish renewable energy as the sole source of economic growth, in addition to forcefully preventing the exploitation of resources, such as forests, that contribute to atmospheric carbon dioxide. Along with this, and in conjunction, both countries actively pursue geoengineering- whether to cool the earth or to suck carbon from the atmosphere- and on a scale that mirrors the very fossil fuel economy that drove warming in the first place.

This is just one variant of the scenario Mann and Wainwright call “Climate Leviathan”. It’s a response to climate change that clings to both capitalism and sovereignty, which means that an era of global crisis will require a global sovereign- a world empire, just as Thomas Hobbes believed that civil war required the creation of a national sovereign- a leviathan.

A somewhat more difficult future to imagine from our current juncture would be what Mann and Wainwright call “Climate Mao”. It is a global revolutionary government that has dismantled capitalism and forcefully wrenched at least part of the world economy away from carbon and towards sustainable forms of energy. Climate Mao is not democratic but an extreme form of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” whose rapid transformations would almost certainly require violence to achieve its ends.

Mann and Wainwright freely admit that from our vantage point Climate Mao does not seem very likely given the fact that the world’s two most powerful states – the US and China- are so deeply capitalist, even if the latter falsely wears the mantle of Maoisms, and contains a reservoir of revolutionary Marxists adherents and puritans that given the right circumstances might find themselves at the helm of a Chinese state that has been transformed into a hyper-capitalist global juggernaut.

Following Climate Mao in Mann and Wainwright’s four quadrant scheme there is Climate Behemoth to my mind the most likely of their four future scenarios. In a world ruled by Behemoths, sovereignty, rather than going global, has reasserted itself at the national scale. Behemoths might be petro-states whose national interests prevents them from accepting the implications of climate change, or they may accept climate change as a reality, but nonetheless refuse to surrender their powers to a global political order necessary to prevent its worst impacts.

Instead of coordinating with other powers, Behemoths build walls, hoping to deflect the human costs- the flood of refugees and environmental crises- unto weaker states, thus protecting their own populations and their standard of living at the expense of other peoples deemed to possess the wrong creed or color. Climate change denying Trumpian nationalists are one example of the politics of Behemoth, but such anti-environmentalism on the part of conservatives need not be permanent, and may eventually give way to what Nils Gilman calls “avocado politics” that uses panic over the climate to fuel the cultural, racial and security agenda of the right.

It is the last and most hopeful quadrant of Mann and Wainwright’s imagined future politics that at this juncture seems least likely. What they call “Climate X” would entail a democratic, global mass movement that would combine Marxists and indigenous politics. It would be a revolution that would overthrow capitalism, right global inequality, and establish the basis for a sustainable economy that included the interests of both the human and the non-human would.

From the perspective of a middle class person in the developed world today, none of these futures might seem all that plausible, even if it seems our politics have already gone off the deep end. Yet our lack of imagination likely stems from the fact that we have yet to really absorb just how profoundly climate change will challenge our current political and economic order, not in the far future, but over the next few decades (lasting as far as the eye can see). Indeed, these changes are not something we need to wait for, but occur with ever greater frequency- today.

The best glimpse so far for what climate change will look like should we continue on our current trajectory is provided by David Wallace Wells in his apocalyptically titled book The Uninhabitable Earth. Wells first came to widespread attention after a 2017 article for the New York Review of Books with the same title. He was widely attacked in climate change circles for doom mongering and putting people in the “wrong frame” to tackle the problem of anthropogenic warming where the rhetoric has largely centered around our ability to “fix” things were we only to possess the political will.

The problem with this logic, Wells seems to have recognized, was that this optimism was built purely on faith- the belief that technology would be developed and deployed at the scale to reverse the changes we had already caused (and with it the naive premise that we would ever possess such a precise reset button in the first place), along with the blind faith that human reason and benevolent politics would eventually marshal the resources necessary to stop climate change even though neither reason nor benevolence were two things human history are especially noted for.

All Wells does, then, is to try to lay out what is likely to happen should the world continue to do exactly what it has been doing since climate change was widely acknowledged as a looming threat to the human future- which means next to nothing. The nightmare he thus presents isn’t a fantasy, but a version of our most likely future. And it is nothing short of a nightmare.

In the coming decades climate change will stress to the point of collapse the systems upon which modern civilization and our current historically unprecedented lifestyle depend. Take the food system: by 2050 we could be living in a world with 50 percent more people than today who will need to be fed on 50 percent less food as climate change devastates grain yields. (50) Just to feed ourselves meat and dairy production will need to be cut in half. (54) And the food we will grow will have become much less nutritious as the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere, counter-intuitively, will negatively impact the nutrient profile of the world’s most important crops. (57)

Within the same time frame, water- both too much and too little of it- will transform the world as we know it necessitating that whole cities be moved. In less than two decades much of the world’s internet infrastructure could be inundated by sea level rise. (62) Major cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Kolkata might be permanently flooded. (64) Tens of millions of people globally affected by inland flooding. Much of the world will suffer near permanent states of drought with water scarcity likely to become an increasing source of civil disruption and interstate conflict.

As we exit what has been for humanity a climactic Goldilocks period, the Holocene, and enter the Anthropocene driven by the impact of human built systems, nature will have her revenge like Godzilla appearing from the deep. By 2070 Asian megacities could lose up to $75 trillion from the impact of ever more powerful storms. (82) Forest fires such as the ones that recently ravaged California could be up to 60 times more powerful. Tropical diseases will spread farther and farther north.

Heat waves in certain regions will make it unsafe for human beings to spend any time outside in non-air conditioned environments. The Haj to Mecca might be made impossible. Much of the ocean’s life will have suffocated to death.

It’s not hard to imagine a truly radical politics emerging in such a scenario, most of which are quite terrifying. A racist and Islamophobic right- wing emboldened by the flood of refugees, or a nihilistic left driven to Kaczynskite terrorism in an attempt to disable an industrial society rushing towards ecocide.

Indeed, any politics capable of addressing climate change will need to be radical from the standpoint of today given the sheer scale of the changes would be necessary to decarbonize the world economy. As Wells puts it:

“The scale of the technological transformation required dwarfs any achievement that has emerged from Silicon Valley- in fact dwarfs every technological revolution ever engineered in human history, including electricity and telecommunications and even the invention of agriculture ten thousand years ago. It dwarfs them by definition, because it contains all of them- every single one needs to be replaced at the root, since every single one breathes carbon, like a ventilator.”(180)

The problem with the wholesale replacement of our current fossil fuel based economy with a carbon neutral one, thus, has much less to do with technological solutions (which in areas such as transportation and electricity are both abundant and increasingly cheap) as much as it is a political and economic crisis- the need to uproot vast numbers of people from whole sectors of the economy, and with it the basis of material well-being within entire countries.

In a recent interview with Wells the environmental scientist Valcav Smil bluntly described the difficulty of our position this way:

This is what I’m telling you. It cannot be simply done without wrenchingly, massively centering our economy. It cannot be done on the margin only. It has to be done on a very large scale to have a large-scale global effect. And it has to be done in China, and in India, eventually, not only among the rich countries. It is the scale of the problem which is most important. We have many known solutions, we have many technical means how to fix things, we are pretty inventive, and we can come up with more, and better things yet. But it’s a thing to deploy them in time and on the scale needed. That’s our major problem, scale.

To do a dent [sic] in this global need for water, gas, oil, electricity, carbon emissions, whatever — to make that dent, you are talking about billions and billions of tons of everything. Let’s say if you want to get rid of coal, right? We are mining now more than 7 billion tons of coal. So, you want to lower the coal consumption by half, you have to cut down close to 4 billion tons of coal. More than 4 billion tons of oil. You want to get rid of oil and replace it with natural gas? Fine and dandy, but you have to get rid of more than 2 billion tons of oil.

These are transformations on a billion-ton scale, globally: (A) They cannot be done alone by next Monday; (B) they will be wrenching with huge economic consequences; and (C), what we can do, and the Chinese can do, the Indians can not. The Indians published a new paper a few months ago saying, “Coal will be our No. 1 fuel until 2047.” “

And this pessimism doesn’t even take into account what will happen within the large number of states whose economies are almost completely reliant on fossil fuel extraction- highly fragile states such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Among the richer economies who will exactly will be responsible for plugging the fiscal hole that opens up when the Canadian tar sands are closed, or will take charge of dismantling the fracking industry that has overnight transformed the US into the world’s leading oil exporter?

It’s when you really try to get a grip on the sheer scale of this transformation, a transformation that I very much believe to be necessary, that Mann and Wainwright’s political predictions move from the implausible to the seemingly inevitable. Yet if I were a betting man I’d sadly have to put all of my money on Behemoth.

I say this despite the fact that the climate left is politically in the best position it has ever been, and as the future shadows of what might become Climate X- in the form of massive global protests and an increasingly activist youth- have become visible.

This rising chorus to save the planet has intersected with a very real and justified revolt against inequality, such that the two causes have become confused. It is always easiest to have one villain rather than several and for this reason it is now de rigueur among the left to blame climate change on the 20 or so multinational companies that dominate the global economy and concentrate its wealth. Yet while this analysis is at root true, it skillfully elides the fact that it is only through these entities that the stuff of middle class life is obtained. While socializing or heavily taxing these corporations would certainly move us in the direction of economic justice, and would help pay for a transition away from our carbon based economy, it does nothing to address the fundamental issue driving the environmental crisis and its political constraints in the first place- namely the need to support mass consumption and the entirely understandable instinct of people to not allow that consumption to be taken away, even, and perhaps especially, in places where middle class societies are only now taking root.

It’s this middle class based panic over the loss of current or expected levels of consumption that I think the more likely load-star for right-wing movements than Gilman’s “avocado politics”.  Gilman fears the right will move from outright denial to full scale embrace of the frightening reality of climate change and will use this fear to justify its log held policy agenda of restricting immigration and even further empowering the security state.

Given the fact that much of the right is funded by fossil fuel interests, at least in the United States, it’s hard to see how this could happen. And unlike what Trump did in the 2016 election, which was mobilize a latent xenophobia which had rightfully been previously excluded from American politics there doesn’t seem to be a large population of people waiting to be mobilized if only right-wing cultural policies and green environmental concerns were brought into alignment.

Rather, the right has been able to appear populists to the extent it has presented itself as the defender of the lifestyle of a middle class that fears being crushed in the vice of inequality and the state. This is the lesson to be gleaned by the mass protests such as that of the Yellow Vests in France, which were sparked by moves by the state against middle class consumption for the purpose of environmental protection.

Gilman is certainly correct when he points out that a kind of merger between right-wing and green politics is not without historical precedent in that Nazism exhibited a kind of proto-environmentalism. But what this misses is that Nazism was much more a kind of Malthusian consumerism. Hitler with his re-conceptualization of Lebensraum as both living space and “lifestyle” essentially claimed a right to starve rival peoples if that was the only way German consumers could enjoy the same standard of living as their American counterparts.  

Severing this nearly 50-year-old link between consumption and mass politics the democratic variant of which has been called “the consumer republic” is something likely to be a long process, precisely the kind of patience we can seemingly no longer afford. And while I have no idea how to untangle this Gordian knot, I am almost certain it is our primary problem.

What we are experiencing is a strange reversal of normal time scales where geological forces are running faster than political ones, where human systems appear inert and immovable while the seemingly eternally solid earth melts away at speeds we can see. Thus, we might gain insight by acknowledging our inertia rather than dreaming it away, which means we’re unlikely to face unprecedented challenges by creating hitherto unseen political forms- good or ill- but will likely be confronted by all the horrors Wells describes while still clinging to political institutions and an international system that in more ways than it doesn’t resembles that of today.

On the geopolitical side that means a multipolar world of states rather than some version of global empire whether wicked or benign, meaning a world of Behemoths. It’s a fate whose more benevolent possibilities Mann and Wainwright for some reason elide. We will likely see more Trumpian Behemoths obsessed with defending the indefensible and even seeking to extend the reach of carbon into the economy. And it’s possible that Europe will see Behemoths driven by the kind of avocado politics predicted by Gilman. Yet one can at least hope that we’ll witness the appearance of “good Behemoths” as well.

A good Behemoth would be a state whose politics had become sufficiently green that almost its entire domestic and international agenda would be driven by environmental concerns. It would be a state (and eventually if successful an alliance of like minded states) that used all of its sovereign powers to respond to climate change and its related environmental crises. It would extend its influence globally both in aiding foreign citizens lawfare against climate destroying corporate interest and grassroots indigenous environmental movements. It would fund international research in creating alternatives to carbon, invest in its own, and conditionally in other state’s, resilience in the face of climate events, structure its trade based on carbon footprint. It would above all seek to present the world with a model of what a decarbonized middle class society could look like in the hope of winning over middle classes elsewhere of its feasibility.

In other words, had the state not existed the climate crisis would have forced us to invent it. For it is only through something like a state that collective priorities can be transformed into binding policy and law. A world state may not be on the horizon, but just like in our current geopolitical world, size does matter. Given the realities of geopolitics the bigger and more powerful such a good Behemoth is the more global will be its impact. Absent their arrival we might have little chance of avoiding crisis at a scale that would make them impossible.