As the massive devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have frighteningly illustrated, climate change is no longer some abstract, distant threat. The effects are unfolding now, right in front of us. Climate change, more than any other urgent social issue, represents perhaps the gravest, most dire threat to humankind’s continued existence.
Capitalism—a system that eschews planning and concern for future generations in the interest of short-term profit—is killing the planet. While liberals point to capitalism’s excesses and individual consumer choices as the main drivers of global warming, this narrow perspective fails to understand the precise nature of capitalism. It is, in the end, an inherently exploitative system that reduces everything—including the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet—to a commodity.
There is little doubt the climate crisis is quite dire. Climate scientists warn we must make dramatic reductions in CO2 emissions if we are to avoid a four-six degree Celsius rise in global temperature. (Scientists and world leaders view anything less than two degrees as the “safe zone.”)
As Naomi Klein writes in her latest book, No Is Not Enough, “We are almost at midnight on the climate clock.”
At the same time, however, the left gains nothing by drowning in pessimism and despair–if not outright fatalism–in discussing global warming. So many leftists are downright bleak when it comes to assessing mankind’s ability to adequately confront the climate crisis.
Chris Hedges’ Sept. 10 column, titled “The Great Flood,” is characteristically dour.
“Droughts, floods, famines and disease will eventually see the collapse of social cohesion in large parts of the globe, including U.S. coastal areas,” Hedges writes. “The insecurity, hunger and desperation among the dispossessed of the earth will give rise to ad hoc militias, crime and increased acts of terrorism.”
This is, no doubt, an enitrely plausible future scenario—unless, of course, we act now to topple capitalism and overthrow the ruling elites that have poisoned our planet. But Hedges does not even entertain the latter prospect. Indeed, his piece offers no blueprint for actions readers might take or environmental groups they could join.
He instead continues to outline his dystopian, climate-ravaged society:
We will react [to climate change] like most patients with a terminal disease as they struggle to confront their imminent mortality. The gradual diminishing of space, perception and strength will weaken our capacity to absorb reality. The end will be too horrible to contemplate. The tangible signs of our demise will be obvious, but this will only accelerate our retreat into delusional thinking. We will believe ever more fervently that the secular gods of science and technology will save us.
But this ignores the vast numbers of people throughout the globe who are taking action to halt—at least as much as is now possible—the effects of climate change.
The environmental movement has undergone something of a radicalization in the last decade or so. Many of the leading environmental groups, including Greenpeace and 350.org, understand that it is capitalism–or, at the very least, the extractive oil industry– that is the cause of the climate crisis. These groups have, in recent years, engaged in targeted campaigns singling out top corporate polluters like ExxonMobil and the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines.
Much of this radicalization has been driven by the college students and young people who make up a significant part of the environmental left. These young people understand fully well the grave threat global warming poses to their future, and the future of all life on Earth.
Anjali Appadurai, then a student at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, seemed to speak for young activists throughout the world when she addressed the U.N. Climate Summit in Durban, Africa, on Dec. 9, 2011.
“I speak for more than half the world’s population,” said Appadurai, then-21-years-old. “We are the silent majority.”
She went on:
You have given us a seat in this hall, but our interests are not on the table. What does it take to get a seat in this game? Lobbyists? Corporate influence? Money? You’ve been negotiating all my life. In that time you have failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises.
… There is real ambition in this room, but it’s been dismissed as radical, deemed not politically possible. Stand with Africa. Long-term thinking is not radical. What’s radical is to completely alter the planet’s climate, to betray the future of my generation, and to condemn millions to death by climate change. What is radical is to write off the fact that change is within our reach.
Hedges is difficult to peg, politically. He describes himself as a socialist, but his writing typically has more of an anarchist-bent. (Perhaps Hedges is best characterized as what Jacobin editor, Bhaskar Sunkara calls an “anarcho-liberal.”)
While Hedges correctly points to the fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries as the driving forces behind the decades-long corporate campaign to cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus of climate change (“They fear that a rational, effective response to climate change will impede profits,” he writes), he stops short of singling out the system of capitalism.
In the absence of any course of action one might take, readers are left feeling depressed, demoralized, and politically disengaged. “The damage suffered by Houston, Tampa and Miami is not an anomaly,” Hedges concludes. “It is the beginning of the end. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
Shit… I guess it is a good thing I do not have any kids, in that case…
When Hedges, in some of his books and other columns, does offer suggestions for how readers might fight back, they tend to be vague and unspecified. He often calls for leftists to retreat into “self-sustained communities”—a tactic that reeks of petit bourgeois, “buy local” campaigns.
But we cannot simply disengage from capitalism while the rest of the world around us literally burns. Our goal must be to smash the system and create a new one.
None of this is to suggest we should be pollyannaish about climate change. Indeed, the inverse of pessimism devoid of hope is perennial—and often delusional—positive thinking, a phenomenon Barbara Ehrenreich explores in her 2009 book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.
That said I fully disagree that “hope is a bourgeois construction,” as an ultra-left commenter said last year at a public talk I attended at the University of Southern Maine. (Most people present at the talk, including the speaker, disagreed with this statement.)
Whether we deem the proverbial glass “half-empty,” or “half-full,” our job as socialists is not merely to interpret the world, as the philosophers of our time have. Rather, the goal, as Marx once wrote, is to change it.
We owe it to ourselves and, especially, to future generations, to do everything within our power to prevent the worst impacts of climate change—no matter how bleak the situation may be. Succumbing to despair and pessimism does nothing to fulfill that obligation.
In the words of the Swedish punk-rock band, The Refused, “I’d rather be forgotten/Then remembered for giving in.”
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