How Not to Talk About Climate Change

System Change, Not Climate Change Pic

Two recent letters to the editor in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram illustrate the limits of the conventional thinking on climate change and how we can most effectively fight it. Both are worth examining if the left is to move beyond this myopic — and, frankly, erroneous — understanding of the climate crisis.

Len Frenkel of South Portland, echoes the environmental movement’s longstanding concept of employing individual acts to mitigate climate change. (“As warming threatens planet, humans will have to make sacrifices,” 07/31/2018.)

“There are many actions that we, as individuals, can take without our government’s involvement,” Frenkel writes. “But they will be severe and very unpopular. We need to drastically reduce our carbon footprints.”

He continues:

… We can choose to fly for vacations and trips, or not. We can choose to buy unnecessary stuff, or not. We can choose to have second homes, or not. We can choose to eat animal foods, or not. We can choose to have another consumer child, or not. We can choose to travel to entertainment centers, or not. All of these human activities, which are so popular in industrialized nations, are very serious contributors to the greenhouse gases that cause runaway climate change.

This individualist orientation to combating climate change has long been the main focus of the environmental movement — however, that has changed considerably in recent years as the environmental left has undergone something of a radicalization.

It was, nonetheless, the main argument in Al Gore’s 2006 documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. After expertly and candidly explaining the science of climate change, and highlighting the dangers of rising sea levels, increased “superstorm” hurricanes, and melting ice caps, Gore’s proposed solution is merely for viewers to change their light bulbs, recycle more, drive less, and purchase carbon offsets.

These are all fine, altruistic actions, no doubt. I would certainly never discourage anyone from undertaking any of them. But given the global scale of the climate crisis, the unfortunate reality is individual actions, while no doubt well intended, are essentially worthless in reducing the threat of climate change.

As Martin Lukacs writes of the obvious limits of these small-scale solutions in a 2017 op-ed for The Guardian, “Would you advise someone to flap towels in a burning house? To bring a flyswatter to a gun fight? Yet the counsel we hear on climate change could scarcely be more out of sync with the nature of the crisis.”

Furthermore, the individualist approach to climate change assumes that all Americans share the same carbon footprint — and, as a result, we are all equally to blame for the climate crisis. But that is simply not the case. One hundred corporations — most of them fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell — are responsible for 71 percent of global CO2 emissions, since 1988, according the Carbon Majors Report.

This handful of greedy corporations — and, more specifically, the system of capitalism which places short-term profit above the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet — bears most of the responsibility for despoiling the Earth, and threatening the continued existence of the human race — not working-class people like you and me.

(And while we are holding the guilty parties responsible, the anti-science/anti-intellectual Republican Party, and its decades-long propaganda project of denying the very existence of anthropogenic, or human-induced global warming, also shares a great portion of the blame. We have lost precious decades of proactive environmental action due to the Republicans’ deliberate misinformation campaign.)

Thus, Frenkel’s blanket austerity prescription is misguided. It is the rich, the corporate CEOs, and the fossil fuel companies that should curb their unnecessary consumption — not working-class citizens. Bourgeois elites like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, who criss-cross the planet on a near hourly basis in their fleet of private jets, are the ones who can most afford to do without. Working-class people, on the other hand, must commute to work in order to just survive.

The subtitle of Naomi Klein’s landmark 2014 book, This Changes Everything, puts it best: Capitalism vs. The Climate.

While this understanding that capitalism, not humanity at large, caused the climate crisis may have once seemed radical, it has become much more prevalent on the left in recent years, particularly among young climate activists. This trend is highly encouraging and should be built upon.

However, as Frenkel’s editorial demonstrates, there is still much work to be done to build an eco-socialist left capable of both understanding the roots of climate change, and how to best halt the trend of a rapidly warming planet.

But if Frenkel places misguided faith in small-scale solutions to save the planet, William Vaughan, Jr.’s response letter, also published in the PPH (“Our behavior won’t change, so let’s not pretend it will,” 08/06/2018) dismisses any prospects of hope, entirely.

“Mr. Frenkel writes as if there is some chance we will stop flying, stop buying unnecessary things, and so on,” Vaughan writes. “But there is no evidence any of that is happening, or will happen.”

“… And since we will do nothing,” he continues in his pessimistic letter, “children and grandchildren around the world, as well as many other species, will pay the price for our inactions.”

Vaughan concludes:

“Better to face the music than to hope or pretend there is some chance our behavior will significantly change before it is too late. It never has and it never will.”

Well, shit… I guess it is a good thing I do not have any kids of my own… Perhaps we should all just shoot ourselves, now and get it over with?

While Frenkel and Vaughan are both correct to be alarmed about — even, in fact, to despair over — climate change and the fate of the human species, outright fatalism such as Vaughan’s contributes nothing to the environmental conversation. The left gains nothing by drowning in pessimism — if not, indeed, nihilism.

This does not mean we should be pollyannish about the environmental crisis unfolding in front of our eyes. We should be frank about how dire the situation is. Klein is correct: “We are almost at midnight on the climate clock.”

But Vaughan is flat out wrong that “we will do nothing,” to change “our” behavior. Hundreds of people throughout the globe are currently engaged in environmental activism, protests, collective projects, and lectures aimed at halting the continued warming of the planet. Millennials, in particular, are deeply concerned about climate change and routinely rank it as one of their most pressing issues.

Likewise, there is nothing inherently static, greedy, self-centered or risk adverse about human nature, as Vaughan suggests. And, for that matter, it is not “human nature” that is to blame for climate change. It is capitalism — a system that runs quite counter to humans’ natural inclination for sociability, cooperation, and collective action.

If Frenkel’s letter is frustrating in its myopic approach to mitigating global warming, Vaughan’s leaves readers downright enraged over its flippant, pessimistic tone.

But Frenkel is right in one respect: We do have a choice. We can ditch capitalism as an economic system and save the planet, or we can ditch the planet and save capitalism. The wealthy elite have already made it painfully clear which option they prefer. Now it is up to us to ensure they do not get their way.

 

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

Advertisements

Trump to Planet Earth: Drop Dead

Smokestacks

In a recent conversation with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, Professor Noam Chomsky outlined the two gravest threats to the survival of the human species: Nuclear war and climate change.

“Has there ever been an organization in human history that is dedicated, with such commitment, to the destruction of organized human life on Earth?” Chomsky asked of the Republican Party, which he called the most “dangerous organization in world history.”

“Not that I’m aware of. Is the Republican organization—I hesitate to call it a party—committed to that? Overwhelmingly. There isn’t even any question about it.”

Case in point, President Donald Trump has followed through on his campaign promise to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate change treaty. The unilateral decision, which Trump announced on June 1, was met with strong condemnation from world leaders, and 400 protesters marching in New York City.

The Paris accord is, admittedly, far from perfect. The emissions reductions nations committed to are mostly voluntary. Still, the deal was the best one to come out of the annual, largely fruitless, climate change conferences, since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. And Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal makes the U.S., in the words of the Bangor Daily News editorial board, “a climate change pariah.”

The U.S. is the world’s leading contributor of CO2 emissions.

In his speech announcing America’s departure from the Paris agreement, Trump rehashed the standard conservative argument that protecting the environment is at odds with accelerating economic growth, “creating jobs,” and maintaining a strong economy.

Trump—an ignoramus who, by his own admission, does not read books, newspapers, scientific reports or his own White House intelligence briefings—joins most of his peers in the Republican organization in blatantly denying the science of anthropogenic, or human-induced, climate change, in the first place. While the GOP has long harbored sentiments of anti-intellectualism, its wholehearted embrace of the trend in recent years is perhaps its most disturbing quality.

Yet, there is a sort of perverse logic to the right’s insistence that we can either have a clean, healthy environment and a habitable planet, or a “robust” economy, but we cannot have both. It is the logic of capitalism.

The bourgeois capitalists—particularly those in the oil and gas industry—understand that any environmental regulations or mandated emissions reductions will hurt their bottom line. And they simply cannot allow that to happen. The logic of capitalism demands capitalists maximize short-term profits above all else—regardless of any unfortunate consequences or catastrophes that may occur down the road as a result.

As author, Paul D’Amato explains in his socialism-primer, The Meaning of Marxism, trying to get corporations—or their state-appendages in the government and the military—to “act as stewards of our environment,” is like “trying to get wolves not to hunt.”

Thus, where scientists and environmentalists view the rapidly melting Arctic as an ominous sign of a planet literally in its death throes, the corporate elite see another business opportunity. Indeed, the system of capitalism, and its tendency to turn everything, including the very ecosystem that supports life on the planet, into a commodity may well be the living manifestation of Freud’s theory of man’s subconscious “death drive.”

And despite whatever emerging markets there may be for solar, wind, and tidal power and other forms of renewable energy resources, capital’s reliance on cheap, dirty fossil fuels is unlikely to be abated any time soon–at least, not soon enough to save the planet. ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell intend to forcefully extract every last drop of oil from the planet before their CEOs ever begin to consider a new business model.

As Alyssa Battistoni writes in a Dec. 11, 2015 piece for Jacobin:

Capital came into the world dripping from every pore not only with dirt and blood but also coal dust and oil; it very well may be inextricably bound to fossil fuels to power the contemporary pace and scale of global production. It’s certainly never existed without them.

In other words, we cannot sit back and wait for the innovations of The Market to intervene and save us.

Nor, can we place our faith in individual consumer habits or lifestyle choices to make a significant difference in reducing carbon emissions. For decades liberals and environmental groups have advocated we drive less, bike or walk more, become vegetarians or vegans, and shop exclusively at local businesses.

These are all noble endeavors, no doubt, which nobody should be discouraged from undertaking. But climate change is a global problem of such vast proportions individual lifestyle changes alone will, sadly, prove insufficient in remedying it.

Furthermore, the individualist solutions so long proffered by the “Big Green” groups like the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council incorrectly place the blame for climate change on the entire populations of industrialized nations—not taking into account the vast disparity in class within those countries.

For instance, a working-class person who owns one car and rents a home has a considerably smaller “carbon footprint” compared to a wealthy investment banker who owns multiple vehicles, two “McMansion”-sized homes, a boat, a plane, and spends his time crisscrossing the globe. In fact, just 90 corporations are responsible for generating two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution, according to a Nov. 20, 2013 story in The Guardian.

Thus, climate change really is a crisis created by the bourgeoisie and dumped, like so much garbage, onto the doorsteps of the working class.

Fortunately, many of the “Big Green” groups have slowly moved away from individualist solutions in recent years as the environmental movement has become more radicalized. Groups like 350.org and Greenpeace have adopted more activist-oriented campaigns aimed squarely at ExxonMobil or the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines.

The sub-title of Naomi Klein’s landmark 2014 book, This Changes Everything, speaks to this emerging radicalization in the environmental movement: Capitalism vs. The Climate.

It is clear by now that we cannot rely on presidents, Congress or market-driven solutions to halt the worst impacts of climate change. Only the working class, by seizing the means of production and developing a rationally-planned, sustainable society based not on profit but on human need, can hope to avert climate catastrophe.

“[O]ur economic system and our planetary system are now at war,” Klein writes. “Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Solidarity with Standing Rock

standing-rock

The extreme state violence unleashed on the indigenous protesters at Standing Rock, North Dakota, is not only shocking, but should also be very instructive to all Americans who care about social justice and democracy.

The capitalist state has demonstrated just how far it is willing to go to ensure its profits are secure. Those like the Sioux Standing Rock tribal nations who valiantly stand in the way of corporate profits through their ongoing protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will find themselves on the receiving end of the full force of the state.

In the words of the malicious apparatchik, O’Brien, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, “We shall crush you down to the point from which there is no coming back.”

Consider that the U.S. capitalist state’s unofficial slogan.

The protesters—who refer to themselves as “water protectors”—include the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe along with dozens of other native tribes and non-native activists. They have been camped out at the Sacred Stone campsite for months now to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) which would carry about 500,000 barrels of dirty crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil shale to Illinois. The $3.8 billion pipeline would run directly through the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s treaty-protected land, as well as sacred burial sites. It would also pose a considerable threat to the Missouri River, tribe’s water source.

Rebecca Solnit, writing for The Guardian in September, calls the burgeoning protest movement, “extraordinary,” and “possibly transformative for native rights, Sioux history, and the intersection of the climate movement with indigenous communities.”

But the protest has been met with vicious repression by local police forces in riot gear and the National Guard, along with heavily armored private security forces assumed to have been hired by Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation funding DAPL. In a highly disproportionate display of force similar to the state’s response to largely peaceful protests in Ferguson, Missouri, police have used tear-gas, attack dogs, pepper spray, and sound cannons on the water protectors.

The police violence reached a frightening crescendo on Nov. 20, when a protester, 21-year-old Sophia Wilansky, was severely injured by what eyewitness accounts claim was a concussion grenade hurled directly at her. Wilansky’s left arm was grievously maimed during the explosion, which destroyed arteries, soft tissue, nerves, muscle, and bone, according to the Guardian. It remains to be seen whether she will need to have the arm amputated.

Officers are now denying they ever used concussion grenades on the protesters, claiming instead that protesters set off the explosion. Wilansky’s father, Wayne Wilansky, calls this account, “bogus nonsense.”

Video recordings of the night of Wilansky’s injury show the police and Morton County Sheriff’s Department officers using water cannons on protesters in sub-freezing temperatures.

Make no doubt about it: This is a terrifying act of carnage against peaceful protesters.

And where is President Barack Obama during this assault on American citizens…? It is a good question. He and the Democrats–still licking their wounds after their stunning surprise electoral defeat in this month’s presidential election–have been conspicuously silent about Standing Rock.

Earlier this month, Obama addressed the stand-off in his typically aloof, bureaucratic manner. In an interview with Now This News, in which the president tepidly broached the prospect of having the pipeline re-routed, he said:

“We are going to let it [the standoff] play out for several more weeks and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.”

Obama went on to criticize “both sides” in the struggle, falsely suggesting that the First Nations protesters and the state forces are equally to blame for the escalation of violence.

“I think that my general rule when I talk to governors and state and local officials,” Obama said, “whenever they are dealing with protests–including, for example during the Black Lives Matter protests–there is an obligation for protesters to be peaceful, and there is an obligation for authorities to show restraint.”

He went on,

“I want to make sure that as everybody is exercising their constitutional rights to be heard that both sides are refraining from situations that might result in people being hurt.”

But this assessment of the situation at Standing Rock is a disingenuous false equivalency. “Both sides” are not at fault, here. There is really just one side in this conflict that is employing violence and disproportionate force: The state forces, in the form of the police and the National Guard.

Furthermore, the law enforcement officers have military-grade weapons, including water cannons, rubber bullets, attack dogs, tear gas, mace, and grenades. The peaceful water protectors, meanwhile, have signs, banners and … some tribal drums. Thus, even if we are to accept Obama’s false claim that both camps are equally guilty of engaging in violence, this conflict hardly constitutes a fair fight.

As cultural studies philosopher, Theodor Adorno wrote, “Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities.”

All of this is to acknowledge that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the state is not a neutral arbiter in instances of class struggle. We are taught in school that the U.S. government operates with a system of “checks and balances,” to ensure the equitable distribution of power among competing groups (women, minorities, labor, business, immigrants, etc.).

But the state actually has a self-serving objective: The advancement of capitalism–at any cost.

As Marx and Engels observed in The Communist Manifesto, the capitalist state is little more than a “committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Or, as Paul D’Amato writes in his socialism primer, The Meaning of Marxism:

“In a society based upon massive concentrations of wealth on the one end, and poverty and low wages on the other, one billionaire has more political clout than even millions of workers.”

The point here is that the state (or, more specifically, the fossil fuel corporations like Energy Transfer Partners, which essentially control the state) has a clear financial interest in building the Dakota Access Pipeline. If it must maim–or even kill–unarmed citizens in order to achieve this end, so be it.

This is why piecemeal reforms are ultimately not sufficient to curb capitalism’s relentless thirst for ever greater profits. The entire system is incompatible with human needs–including the maintenance of a healthy, sustainable planet habitable for human life. Capitalism is literally killing the planet. It must be dismantled.

And that is why supporting the water protectors at Standing Rock, in whatever manner one is able to, is the most important thing progressives can do right now.

“Without clean water we are nothing,” one activist said. “You can’t live off of oil. You can’t drink oil.”