The Climate (and Climate Justice!) Movement Cannot Remain a Genteel Environmentalist Movement

By Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.

In my last piece, I noted how little the climate movement and its leadership generally understood about the demand for energy and fossil fuels, or at least strategically continue to gloss over their importance.  I may have been too dramatic in calling this lack “fatal” but it is “fateful” and a critical blockage to the growth it needs to experience rapidly.

But there is I believe a political-strategic “reflex” within the current climate movement that is as or more damaging to the growth of the movement and a laser-like focus on stabilizing the climate system and creating the basis of human civilization in the post-carbon era. There is in my observation a naïve belief that by adding up all of the LOCAL environmental damages caused by fossil fuel extraction that one necessarily arrives at a GLOBAL, holistic understanding and movement to fundamentally alter humanity’s energy and transportation systems.  Philosophers might call this a “fallacy of composition”: the erroneous belief that the parts, if listed serially or together, will represent the whole. Climate movement activists think to themselves perhaps that these local damages are an “added perk” in their war against fossil fuels but I believe, unfortunately, that the movement has had over the last several years a tendency to devolve into the “same-old, same-old” environmentalism that has always been the concern of a fairly small minority of the world’s population.

I see this in many places both in local activism here in Northern California as well as in national discussions and events featuring well-known figures in the movement.   The fight against various “extreme fossil fuels”, battles that were chosen several years ago by Bill McKibben and reinforced by James Hansen as concrete symbols of global warming or at least rampant use of fossil fuels, have, it seems to me, become, not by the intention of either McKibben or Hansen, self-justifying local struggles that look very much like old-style environmentalism. With anti-fracking movements, for instance, the local damages of fracking, including contamination of the water-table, tend to become the focus of activism rather than the idea that fracking signals the end of “easy” fossil fuels as well as our society’s OVERALL deadly dependence on fossil fuels. One PART of another PART of the fossil fuel use/climate change problem starts to be taken for the WHOLE of the struggle.

The climate movements tendency towards hoping the parts would add up to a whole was on full display at a state-wide march and rally earlier this year in Oakland, CA called the “March for Real Climate Leadership”, sponsored largely by the anti-fracking and food-action group Food and Water Watch. The objective of the demonstration, though not entirely apparent from the title, was to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown to oppose fracking, a practice that he has allowed in the state to date.   From the podium and elsewhere in the demonstration, anti-fracking was considered to be the litmus test for “real climate leadership”. At this rally, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose climate and energy policies are not particularly “green” was held up as the example whom Brown should follow, simply because Cuomo helped institute, under much political pressure, a fracking ban in New York State.   That Brown, for instance, was pressing for a 50% renewable energy standard by 2030 (itself not that radical a stance as an intention but better than Cuomo’s energy policy) didn’t seem to make it into the speeches on the podium that I was hearing. Also unknown to most marchers was Cuomo’s miserable record of support for public transit, where New York State has historically had something of a leadership position on a national scale in the US, a nation that has systematically under-invested in public transport. So given the choice between Brown and Cuomo, the former probably wins the “climate leader” sweepstakes, though neither approximates what is required for actually effective climate action.

To be against fracking, which of course I am against, has then become a litmus test for caring about climate, yet while omitting a discussion of fracking as a PART of the larger fossil fuel endgame of ever-more-costly “extreme” fossil fuel extraction and the monumental challenge of transitioning to a non-fossil fueled civilization. Yes, many core anti-fracking activists believe exactly that climate change is the most serious issue but their POLITICS for public consumption remains that of activists who are stirring up LOCAL concerns about water contamination, water overuse in arid areas, and truck traffic around fracking sites. Yes, these concerns of environmentalists and some local inhabitants of effected areas may appear to be “gifts” to the climate movement but the climate message, the message of a complete energy transition that implies many new ways of doing the mundane tasks of life and new machines and structures to make that doing possible, is being submerged in the old-style NIMBY environmentalist message.

Even in the supposedly radical, “climate justice” movement, a veiled version of conventional environmentalist concerns is reproduced, in a manner that is strangely comfortable for old-style environmentalists. The climate justice movement “mirrors” the concerns of narrow environmentalism but puts them into a new context represented by political agents who look different often because of their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. These new political actors focus usually on the local damages associated with the extraction, transport and refining of fossil fuels. The climate justice name is a spin-off of the well-justified environmental justice movement that seeks to point out the injustices and local pollution created by industrial and extractive sites positioned usually in or near poor and ethnic/racial minority neighborhoods.  One instrument used by the environmental justice movement is the civil rights lawsuit, claiming that a particular industrial practice is discriminatory against groups because of their race.

However when extended to climate change, the environmental justice idea, now “climate justice”, has, in my view, troubling and politically self-defeating aspects. I will agree with one premise of the climate justice movement, that is is likely that many times some of the poorer inhabitants of the world are feeling and will feel the worst effects of climate change FIRST. However, this important observation is put into a traditional Left conceptual framework that points out a mal-distribution of goods and bads in the current generation. Lazily, it seems to me, the global climate problem is poured into the “template” of environmental justice: the claim is made that climate change victimizes mostly the same groups effected most by local pollution and that the imbalances in a global climate system, affecting everybody and more particularly the young and future generations, can be overlooked in favor of the injustices occurring between members of the current generation.

But there are severe ethical and political problems with this switch of focus from the welfare of the young and future generations and the disparities in the welfare of adults in the current generation. There is also, strangely, the reproduction of exactly the NIMBY concerns of environmentalists of all classes, concerns that have been pioneered and funded by the comfortable and the very wealthy. Climate justice would seem to be lobbying for a fairer distribution of the right to be as concerned about local pollution or the local effects of climate change as the wealthy elite. Climate justice activists look at the differential effects of fossil fuel industry activities, it appears, with an eye towards civil or criminal damages based on discrimination. Or alternatively, the policy outcome of the climate justice approach would seem to be to more fairly distribute the burdens and costs of adaptation to climate change rather than slow it or reverse it. Frighteningly, among all the laudable impulses harnessed to the climate justice idea, the big picture system-wide energy “switch” that must happen is often lost in the accounting of local and differential damages either directly from fossil fuel industry activities or indirectly from the undirected effects of climate change.

Why is it “Genteel”?

It may seem strange that I am linking together two seemingly disparate groups with somewhat different sets of concerns and very different demographics and calling their politics “genteel”. With one group, the traditional, generally white environmentalists, who are now calling themselves climate activists, many readers may already understand the direction I am taking. On the other hand, with the second group, mostly people of color and some of whom are poor or certainly working class, it might seem odd to apply the word “genteel”. I will try to explain.

“Genteel” generally refers to aristocratic/upper class or wannabe aristocratic/upper class attitudes or cultural milieu. Someone who acts in a “genteel” manner, either has considerable financial and cultural resources or pretends that they do. To act in a “genteel” manner means that one pretends that one is “above it all” and not striving to achieve social status or wealth but already possessing that status or wealth in some form. One aspect of gentility is then to act as either one is “beyond desires” or can pick and choose at will which of one’s desires one fulfills at which point in time. If one places oneself in the role of helper, putting aside one’s own needs, one is not necessarily flirting with gentility but the two social roles can be viewed as analogous. A “genteel” approach to helping overlooks the gritty details of life and creates a smooth and “attractive” finish to the acts of philanthropy or assistance, a “feel-good” moment for the helper and, maybe, the helped too. Through helping, a person can feel “bigger” than they were before, though this observation is not at all a condemnation of helping others, one of the primary binding ties of human families and societies.

The traditional environmental movement is not exclusively populated by people with genteel aspirations or who grew up in a milieu that some might call “genteel”. However it is not a far stretch to say that environmentalism is one of the pet political projects of parts of the “genteel” “old-money” upper classes or newer money that wishes to emulate “old-money” culture. These groups are usually distinguished by storing their wealth in land that may or may not be inherited. Environmentalist causes are more likely to be supported by landowners of varying sizes including differentially, due to greater monetary wealth, large landowners of considerable means, gentleman/gentlelady farmers and foresters. If you hold title to lots of land and do not see it as a means to generate income but more to preserve wealth, you will be more likely to be anti-development and pro-restrictions on land use, two of the mainstays of NIMBY environmentalism and preservationism.

So rather than a capitalistic or exploitative relationship to a given tract of land and/or the fauna on the land, the gentleman/gentlelady environmentalist takes a more aristocratic or indifferent view of the potential income from that property.  Or alternatively they view that land as an asset, which they endow with their own set of personal values and meanings while they own it, yet ultimately also keeping in mind perhaps the eventual market value of that land asset upon sale. Thus the notion articulated here that environmentalism tends towards the “genteel”: that land or animals and plants on the land are not a source of income or sustenance but a good in themselves. Presupposed is that income and sustenance are derived elsewhere or one’s self-worth is detached from one’s income and consumption. I would submit that critical to the concept of gentility is the notion of the genteel person being distanced from the need to (visibly) gain income from activities.

Another source of support for environmental appeals is the idea of saving innocent victims, in particular charismatic animals, with whom people tend to also identify. As with charity to the less fortunate, helping save relatively helpless animals gives many people a sense of satisfaction but also, as the psychologist Alfred Adler would observe, superiority, or a need to have a sense of a “bigger-than” self, something that may be associated, more troublingly, with narcissistic personality trends. This is not to say that love of animals or helping them is “bad” only that there may be less felicitous psychological side effects associated with that focus at its extremes.

The common thread here between both groups, the genteel/wannabe-genteel and the rescuers of “innocent” non-human creatures or ecosystems, is that the activist/individual/patron is foreswearing or making a show of foreswearing human and social appetites and interests for that of non-human creatures and the natural environment. This can appear magnanimous, just as the genteel/wannabe-genteel may sometimes appear in their (occasional) philanthropic endeavors. Much traditional environmentalism relies on these appeals to the “generous helper of animals” role for support and for funding. There is sometimes concomitant with this “helper” role a distaste for the striving, appetite-driven world of commerce and the mundane world more generally. Perhaps one might infer that this is pleasurable because it creates a temporary imaginary world in their minds that emotionally insulates them from aspects of human drives and society which they, particularly, find disturbing and distasteful.

Left-Wing Gentility Past and Present

In my view, the climate movement cannot learn much about overcoming the limitations of a genteel view of society and humanity from the contemporary Left. As much as in the environmental movement, there is a curious gentility in some of the politics of the current Left, a distance from popular life, attitudes and appetites, even as the contemporary Left tends to grasp much more accurately than the contemporary right-wing the numerical statistics reflecting economic and sociological conditions in which many live. While strategically ignoring the macro-social trends that engulf society, the right-wing has made political hay off the left-wing’s gentility or genteel appearance.

In the 19th and early to mid-20th Centuries, the Left was seen as and was in fact an advocate and celebrant of the needs and wants of a large portion of the urban population and some rural populations, especially landless peasants and farmworkers. The Left supported ordinary people’s desires for food, shelter and recognition because these were so obviously lacking for a vast majority. The anti-clerical and anti-religious Left also was a place for a small though influential minority to explore sexual and creative impulses that were shunned in conventional bourgeois society; the Left’s political and economic opposition to the status quo was one pole or support for a bohemian cultural “space” that sometimes adjoined but was not reducible to left-wing politics.

On the other hand, the Left, since the mid-19th century, has defined itself as a political tendency that seeks to stymie or rid society of the effects of greed and rampant acquisitiveness, either shaking its head in disapproval (the liberal version) or threatening to sanction greed and overturn the capitalist system (the socialist/Marxist/left-anarchist version) based as it is on the wish to accumulate unbounded amounts of money. So while on the one side, the Left stood as an advocate for human needs it also was a place where excesses in appetites were stigmatized or made a function of a diseased and historically-specific social-economic system, i.e. capitalism.

The latter attitude has made the Left a place comfortable for people with a disdain for “money-grubbing”, which in the framework I am developing here is associated with real or wannabe gentility. On the Left, those so inclined could express a genteel attitude towards money while trying to avoid the appearance of utter snobbery and naivete. The Left has always attracted, as one of its constituencies, a segment of people from upper-class or middle-class backgrounds who have looked down upon the careerism and acquisitiveness of capitalists and the broadly defined bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie. So the appetite for more things and for growing wealth/savings was always viewed as suspect, especially as one proceeded further to the Left. Alternately, in the liberal version, the acquisition of things and money would need to be tithed via contributions of money or time to various causes; the liberal attitude is not that greed is universally “good” only that it must be segmented off from non-business social spheres or perhaps accompanied by good intention in the business world. The “sharing” economy though not necessarily politically Left or liberal at all is in a way the ultimate in wrapping acquisitiveness in feel-good rhetoric.

As portions of the working classes of advanced industrial societies became more affluent, some of the rationale for a pro-appetitive stance by the Left became weakened. Many on the Left shifted their attention to the developing world, which in the mid-20th Century was gaining independence from the European colonial powers but was still mired in post-colonial poverty and victimized by imperialist and neo-imperialist warmaking and subversion by wealthy nations. One needed to look further afield to identify needs and wants that one could politically sanction from a left perspective.

Also in the mid-20th Century, the economies of developed capitalist countries became increasingly dependent upon stimulating and channeling household consumption towards potentially profit-making offerings of goods and services; the development of advertising and marketing techniques that appealed to people’s wants and needs started to provoke a response in some on the Left opposing “consumerism”.   The spreading of mass media, first radio and then television, funded by advertising, opened a communication channel for commercial messages to reach almost every household in industrialized societies. As the consumer culture flowered in the 1950’s and thereafter aided by televisions in almost every household, the Left started to create a counterculture. In the popularity of Euro-American folk music, non-Western tribal cultural artifacts, and surrounding cultural practices on the Left and later the broader counterculture, we have expressions of a search for authenticity that opposes consumption or at least the consumption of mass-produced or otherwise commodified goods.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, heightened awareness of power differences between men and women and people of different races and ethnicities made more complicated the notion that there was simply a single struggle against a single capitalist or multinational corporate enemy or group of enemies. In the area of sexuality and power differences, the questioning of, in particular masculine sexual wants, as well as consideration of interpersonal power dynamics dispersed across classes, shifted the Left away from an earlier “pro-appetitive” position with regard to sexual liberation in a simplistic, unidirectional form. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s then effectively emphasized potential dangers associated with sexuality in general and the indulgence of those appetites across all cultural groups, reinforcing an existing trend towards traditional anti-appetitive morality and, in some religious fundamentalism.

In terms of economic and acquisitive impulses, the uniting of different groups of workers with different social statuses due to a history and continuing reality of racism in the US made more complicated the project of a “people” or “working-class” coming together to demand a bigger share of the economic pie. With in the 1970’s seemingly fewer “dragons to slay” in the area of dramatic material need in the developed countries, increasingly the Left became more focused on race and gender power dynamics or, alternatively, world economic trends that might have seemed distant to ordinary people in the metropolitan centers, who had become fully engaged in consumer society via a combination of adequate incomes for many, easy consumer credit and an ever-cleverer and more pervasive consumer culture.

In the 1980’s to the present, being Left or very liberal in the United States in particular, has come to mean having a complex and sometimes contradictory relationship towards human appetites that is hard for those not caught up in the Left’s political sub-cultures to understand or desire to emulate. The now very much educated middle-class Left has become considerably divorced from or has had, for a long time, no clear political “program” that addressed the consumer culture that dominates much contemporary social interaction in workplaces, in homes, and in public places. If one conceives of human beings as driven by various appetites, the Left had a conflicted and somewhat contradictory approach to their own personal appetites as well as to those of most working class people. While the Left has been more sympathetic to those in want and need in the abstract, it has not had a unified political-economic program to offer, that is comprehensible and well-communicated to a majority of society.

By contrast, the Right in this period, particularly in the US, practiced and honed, via the institutions of talk radio and later on Fox News, its now well-established discourse of mocking liberals and the Left for being elitists who do not understand the basic acquisitive drives, core concerns, and comforts of ordinary people, consumers. The Right came to be seen as more in tune with people’s individual and familial dreams for material well-being and personal self-definition via shopping and buying, which in our consumer society, are close to how people have come to identify themselves.

So a climate action movement or a climate justice movement that is some amalgam of the environmental movement and the Left has inherited both groups “genteel” attitudes towards consumption and the appetites which capitalism stimulates and/or attempts to satisfy. The supposedly more left-wing climate justice movement has adopted what might be called a “left-green” utopian view of a small-scale tribal society that is explicitly at some remove from present day realities in urban/suburban life. That ideal of a tribal society also, like the genteel environmentalist or leftist, disowns or repudiates the acquisitive impulses which remain a central part of contemporary life. In the cultural frameworks promoted by climate justice activists, these acquisitive impulses and strivings are assumed not to exist or are attributed to the oppressive dominant culture, which is being resisted or overthrown in the scenario in which, in its occasional more radical-sounding rhetoric (i.e. “Flood the System”), the climate justice movement sees itself triumphing.

So there is a common “squeamishness” and “looking away from” the less morally attractive desires, i.e. contemporary human beings relationships to things and to the conveniences of contemporary society, that is shared by these political groups. Rather than face and address these desires that drive much social and economic activity, most of these would-be leaders make as if these aspects of humanity don’t exist or are easily suppressed by moral pressure or innuendo: only their opponents or those that are less morally refined and dwell in the seamier side of life would be concerned about them.

Engagement with the Appetites and Transformation of Demand, Our Only Hope

To negate or deny most people’s contemporary wishes and (material) hopes does not seem to be a promising place to start any popular politics, let alone a politics that must of necessity “change everything” regarding energy and transportation within a span of a few short decades. As I noted in my last piece, much of the climate movement practically denies the demand for energy as a foundation of our civilizations, just as some of their/our opponents deny the impacts of fossil energy extraction and combustion on the global climate. Alternatively there are a very few in that movement that embrace or openly flirt with neo-primitivism, itself based on layers of idealization of tribal life. Overcoming its own mental blockages, the climate movement must turn to engage with the demand for fossil fuels, a component of which are human appetites in their diversity and how energy enables those appetites to be partially satisfied.

Locomotion, heat, cool, human conviviality and connection, the search for individual/group cultural identity and useful/even beautiful products, services and experiences are the desired outcomes that people seek from the use of fossil fuels or from the output of businesses & government agencies that depend in part or in full on fossil fuels for the energy to produce those goods and services. A movement that is currently and rightfully calling to “keep carbon in the ground” would have to answer to people who are looking for the services enabled by the combustion of those fossil carbon compounds:

  • “Where are we to get those energy services in the near and more distant future?”
  • “Are we to heroically abstain from the satisfactions that we currently gain from the energy or derivatives of that energy? Wouldn’t our heroism in this case be equivalent to those who attempt to blockade the sources of these fuels?”
  • “Why aren’t you, the climate movement, addressing us directly? Are you hoping that we wouldn’t notice the impacts of what you are implying by your demand to ‘keep carbon in the ground’?”

For the climate movement to assume that these services will spring up, as if by “the invisible hand” once, somehow, the movement has, it is hoped, strangled the sources of extreme or other fossil fuels by blockades or divestment, is to strain the credulity of most people/consumers/citizens or simply ignore them as important players in the drama.

The “supply side” focus of the climate movement, at least its left-ward wings, is in fact a fairly elitist affair, hoping for a small minority of shareholders, investors, and blockaders to “force” society to give up fossil fuels. This would also resonate with its “genteel” avoidance of the “baser” desirous side of economic demand for energy and services/goods that it enables. If the climate movement imagines it can change the minds of the many by converting a very few of the elite, then it would pursue that strategy appealing in part to the tastes of (a portion of) that elite. Such a strategy, however, contains many political and ethical pitfalls.

The elitist and/or supply-side approach is a low-probability, as well as relatively undemocratic, way to change “everything” about our energy consumption habits.  It also leaves wide open to opponents of climate action the role of political and cultural representatives of material and social wishes, hopes and dreams of ordinary people. Instead of looking away, a broad-brush yet realistic plan or plans should be laid before the public regarding how most of their needs and some of their wishes will be met without emitting carbon within a very short time period. It is not obvious to much of the public that forgoing fossil fuels will be easy or that they are aware of ready-made solutions available to them. It is incumbent on the climate movement or parts of it to lay out that plan or at least a plausible outline of how presently energy and transport will be decarbonized.

I am convinced, given current atmospheric carbon concentrations and the rate at which we are adding to those concentrations, that an easy transition where all existing energy uses are nearly seamlessly met by zero-carbon energy sources is not possible. A spirit of conservation and stewardship of the earth must enter into decisions regarding how to use energy and how governments should invest in zero-carbon emitting infrastructure and components of a future zero carbon energy and transport system. Some of these investments might immediately add convenience and new enjoyments to end users while others will entail a cultural transition that may impose for a time some burdens, i.e. represent a sacrifice of some combination of time, money, and attention.

One example: in high and medium concentration population areas of the world, governments should design and invest in frequent electric bus routes perhaps partially powered by a solar “skin” that could produce perhaps 5-8% of the buses energy use and function as emergency power. Such buses might be outfitted with conveniences like Wifi to enable telecommunications and use of commute time for recreation or work. The advent of the battery electric bus makes bus operations, in terms of total cost over a 8-10 year period, cheaper than a diesel bus even without a sufficiently high carbon price.  With the partial exception of the option of a solar “skin”, these buses in different designs are available right now on the market. They could be powered largely or completely by renewable energy depending on how charge stations were set up and power purchase agreements were negotiated with renewable power plant developers. They could use dedicated bus lanes on existing limited access highways and arterial roads in those nations that have invested in that type of infrastructure.

While battery electric buses have not yet made it into the consciousness of many transit advocates, it is now considered in certain areas of low-energy transport advocacy and urban design a consensus position, that transit routes would be supplemented by a variety of human powered or low-energy transportation modes like bikes on dedicated, protected bikeways separated from car traffic and pedestrians. Urban design and real estate development trends would and should be shaped by the new transportation infrastructure and behavior patterns.

The public bus has to date had a lowly status in high-emitting, high-energy using societies of the world and, for some, especially those who do not have the means to buy an automobile but yearn for one, the bicycle is considered to be a second-best form of transportation. There are hopes of the electric car more rapidly becoming cheaper and more capable at prices accessible to most consumers, though Elon Musk does not appear as sanguine as one might expect about the prospects of a mushrooming of electric vehicle sales on their own. Also the distraction of robot cars is brought up as if it solved the question of how transport is powered (it doesn’t) and the critical timeframe in which we have to work. Many transit advocates are enamored of rail and other marquee transit projects that would seduce jaded car owners into transit. I personally enjoy riding well- maintained rail and see a key role for it in replacing carbon-dependent transportation technologies. But to move rapidly, some tradeoffs in luxury and convenience must be contemplated on a mass-scale.

Mass-scale Conservation and Self-Control of the Appetites Requires their Recognition

With the example of a frequent electric bus network plus biking, I am suggesting that a new social contract with regard to mobility and energy use more generally is required to meet the climate crisis in developed and rapidly developing countries.   For many people to voluntarily postpone, modify, or let go of their habitual use or dreams of enclosed personal vehicles powered by whatever energy is available (fossil or electric from renewable or nuclear sources), the public discussion must recognize and in some way validate their desires and needs for mobility, privacy, and connection with other people, goods, and services.

The genteel conventional environmental movement, the genteel Left, and the genteel climate movement cannot take leadership roles in an appropriately rapid climate transition without recognizing the hopes and aspirations of most energy users for comfort and convenience as well as the hopes of most people for income, meaningful work, and monetary savings. The very gentility that assumes that “all is taken care of” and that dramatic gestures of self-denial or assisting needy others are the substance of climate action, ignore the vital role of energy use and forms of employment related to it in everyday life in many societies. That this energy still is drawn 85% from fossil sources, means a massive transition needs to happen very rapidly and that includes conservation-mindedness and conserving actions, as well as a redirection and support of the economy’s job creation mechanisms.

Such actions to conserve cannot be genteelly “implied” by slogans like “keeping carbon in the ground” or a primary focus on divestment from fossil fuel companies. A public discussion of mobility and stationary energy-use choices is required and cannot be assumed by simply imagining a miraculous stoppering or abstention from fossil energy by activists hopeful of a repeat of the triumphs of the Indian independence movement or the American civil rights movement.

Conservation Efforts Must Paradoxically Banish Fiscal Austerity and Support Low Impact Indulgences

There is an entire mien or personality-type that celebrates abstemiousness and the frustration of desires as a lofty personal virtue.  Some of these people are complete hypocrites in that they indulge themselves while they preach that others must forgo pleasures. There are others who try to live a life devoid of overt indulgence and succeed to varying degrees. Among the latter group are some environmentalists and climate activists.  Advocates of the suicidal and climatocidal trend towards fiscal austerity that emerged after the 2008 financial crash, attempt to mobilize the enthusiasm for self-denial to strangle the public sector/government budgets or misappropriate government’s powers for the wealthiest and most fortunate.

To rapidly build the foundations of a net zero carbon emitting civilization, it will require the mobilization of a great deal of material resources, enabled by the spending of governments, both by the use of fiat money on the national level and via collected tax revenue on high-emitting activities on the regional and local levels. To engage in mass group conservation of the type required means in a number of areas of life violating the enthusiasm for across-the-board self-denial and engaging in what some might view as paradoxical “indulgences”. My message here should not fit existing templates, as some might want to see it.

Money for the purposes of building the new infrastructure for a sustainable society will be plentiful yet focused on effective outcomes. Vast wealth and income inequalities between social classes and economic sectors must be radically diminished by effective climate and social policies, otherwise people will not see the justice in their sacrificing what they have known from the fossil fuel era for the unknowns of the post-fossil fuel era. This is not the vision of the abstemious austerian or the “genteel” Leftist or environmentalist. It is a full-scale mobilization of a broad range of human motives and appetites to do the necessary work to save civilization as well as continue many of the enjoyments that make human civilization worth saving.


5 responses to “The Climate (and Climate Justice!) Movement Cannot Remain a Genteel Environmentalist Movement

  1. Why sell left and right? Well, presumably, people are still buying the targeted message, and industry needs the PR – Pavlov’s dinner bell usually propels a better undetstanding of what people are thinking. It’s unconvincing to discriminating consumers and sounds like targeting people, sounds like George Mason. The military does this best anyway.

    Remember the halcyon days? Where the media warned of the rip off, where the environment wasn’t something the FBI protected for exclusive elite use, and a day of work wasn’t an exercise in running the gauntlet, if it can be found at all. Look at this enthusiast, replace reliable motorcycle with peace of mind, a cleaner environment, or modest post war homes, ignore the oil and metal – since we can’t escape that anytime soon: He’s a rebel. What will elite paranoia and their data decide to do with people who aren’t fooled, aside from drown them in messsaging – knowing what they are doing to them overseas in the name of oil and metal?

    You can’t defend ripping someone off. Hiding it behind academia, public relations and shop worn politics, claiming that this is the way it is – while ignoring how costly this is. They don’t have time for semantic auto-eroticism, instead, have to pick their crap up off the ground and run from bombs. Tragic, but this resistance to known limitations is going to burn up the world, and no humpty dumpty hedge fund is going to run along and see an opportunity, since they too will be overwhelmed.

  2. One idea amongst those who voice anti-consumerist opinions I find damaging in particular is wanting to forgo mass production in favor of self sufficiency. However specialization is the key to sustainability. Having everyone attempt to cover their basic needs, i.e: by growing their own staples, soldering together and installing their own photovoltaics, comes with a great loss of efficiency.

  3. The complaint here, as I understand it, is that Bill McKibben and James Hansen and the Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch and the anti-fracking movement and the rest of the “climate movement” (Hoexter’s term) is not following the proper and realistic strategy, as defined by Hoexter. The movement won’t, and it can’t because it is a movement, not a unified organization.

    Those who don’t remember it very well – or at all – might imagine the civil rights movement of the 1960s was controlled by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. MLK and SCLC ware certainly important, but the fact is, they had a lot of competition.

    There was Malcom X, Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali and the Black Muslims, who took a quite different approach and appealed to an entirely different religion. There was Huey Newton, Eldrige Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, Bobby Seale and other Black Panthers, who were not in fact particularly violent, but who explicitly did not promise non-violence. There was Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which did pledge non-violence, but whose goals were more directly political than those of SCLC.

    James L. Farmer, Jr. and the Congress of Racial Equality, which created the original Freedom Riders, was another important organization in the mix. They did more organizing in the urban North than SCLC and SNCC. Thurgood Marshall and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Worked more with legal and lobbying than with direct action.

    This is just a bare beginning of a description of the disparate and sometimes conflicting personalities and organizations that all together made up “the movement” in the 1960s. It wasn’t all about civil rights. There was the Student Peace Union, Students for a Democratic Society, various Committees Against the War in Vietnam and, toward the end of the 1960s, an emerging militant feminism. In addition, some mainstream politicians also tried to ride the wave.

    The point is, it was a movement. That means similar and shared goals expressed through multiple organizations with a variety of tactics and strategies. It was not, and is not, just a question of “whatever works.” All of the tactics and strategies of the civil rights and beyond movement “worked” to one extent or another. Each organization appealed to somewhat different groups of people. All together, the movement shook up the society and forced “the establishment” to yield on a number of points that previously seemed firmly established.

    Similar goals and multiple strategies – that’s how the climate movement is going to be, because it is a movement, not not an army controlled from the top down. It also seems that the climate movement is developing into a climate justice movement. Perhaps those organizations that emphasize justice and equality will be more successful in pushing today’s establishment off its business-as-usual course than those more narrowly focused on lobbying for the environment.

    That’s a good thing. We’ve got a real movement started here. There’s no reason to stop because there are a few hints at possible success. That’s reason to push harder until we see real, unequivocal success, not a symbolic gesture here and there. We should grow only those parts of the economy that that are compatible with a healthy environment, and shrink those parts that degrade or destroy the evnvironment.

    If we can take a lesson from the 1960s, it should be that a number of strategies work toward the same general goal. We should not waste our time criticizing organizations that are not among the corporations and parties who control our society. Pick an organization that makes sense to you, and focus on making that as effective as possible at lowering emissions, developing clean energy and sharing depleting resources as equitably as possible.

    Push today’s establishment for results. Don’t worry about whether you are following a movement, or leading it. Worry, if you must, about whether you are being effective, or wasting your time.

    • Michael Hoexter

      My concerns are exactly with the effectiveness of the climate movement. Your initial misinterpretation of what I have written, that I think the climate movement is an integrated organization that follows directives, seems to function as your excuse to dismiss my very careful criticisms that are based on a lot of experience agitating and interacting with people in this movement. You may not want to engage with these criticisms for any number of reasons, but they are not dependent on the idea that the climate movement is an integrated organization.

      The climate movement, while it has various tendencies, seems to congregate around the ideas of certain leaders or certain long-standing political tendencies and organizations that pre-exist the climate crisis or whose worldview was shaped, in my opinion. The amount of uniformity of views and types of actions, at least to date, is alarming, even though there is no unifying organization. People tend to follow leaders, I have noted, in a way that I have found to be quite shocking given the fact that some of these people style themselves as rebellious radicals.

      If we look back on the “tapestry” of the civil rights movement we are looking at it from today, at least in the way you present it, we overlook that those tendencies did not consider themselves part of the “Kumbaya” ecosystem that you are presenting us with. They grew and split from each other through people criticizing each other and they did not often reach out and join hands, realizing that they were part of the same movement. So I think you are presenting a distorted view of history, in a way through rose colored glasses.

      In any case, I think the climate movement is MUCH, MUCH too beholden to stale ideas about activism and also to traditional environmental organizations that don’t understand the climate challenge. So, I don’t think of myself as starting a political tendency, so much as putting out what I think is a truthful vision of the world that pushes people to think hard and, I hope, become better and more effective activists, wherever they situate themselves.

      If you don’t want to engage with the substance of those criticisms or representations (and they are not necessarily “derogatory” as some within the schisms in the civil rights movement became in their discourse) that is your choice. But I believe your inference that I see the climate movement as an integrated organization seems to be a way for you to avoid coming to terms with what you might have read here.

  4. I am glad to see the insight that enormous amounts of capital are needed for this transition. While designing HINA, a 100% solar power source for the 150,000 people on Maui, I was surprised at how huge the monetary amounts are.

    We’ll need to build one of the biggest solar systems on the planet, with 700 MW, about 4 square miles of solar panels and add a 220 MW hydro storage. The cost of both of these is a staggering $4 billion, probably coming down soon to $2 to 2.5 billion. This is beyond the scope of current solar companies, who feel comfortable up to $100 million.

    However, HINA is profitable, because it replaces $250 million in annual fuel expenses. The thrilling outcome is that (without interest) HINA could be paid off from 10 years in fuel savings and then produce electricity for free for decades.

    Interest rates are the determining factor, if these huge investments can be profitable. At 3% or 5%, HINA will produce electricity below the current cost of diesel generators. At 8% interest it becomes difficult.

    The United States has 2,000 as many inhabitants as Maui. Simple multiplication indicates a need for $6 trillion in capital to move to solar. I doubt that the current capital market will be able to provide $6 trillion of 3% money for long-term investments, when it is so easy to put the funds into schemes that seem to generate three times as much. However, the solar-asset-based investments will generate revenue long after the schemes have gone bust.

    Who will step up to the plate? Will government provide funding? Will investors realize the value of asset-based investments? Or are we waiting for China to fund and build it?