In the next few years, human beings will have the choice whether, on the one hand, to preserve the better shreds of current civilizations or hold onto the possibility to found entirely new, hopefully better civilizations, or, on the other hand, to destroy the possibility for human civilization to continue and head towards human self-extinction. We possess then an awful and, for many, unwanted power at this time. We will be facing opportunities for growth and advancement while at the same time facing compromises that will leave a good number of people dissatisfied and unhappy, as happiness is now conceived. To opt for the first choice, humanity will need to set itself within a very few years upon a new evolutionary course that some may resist and that others may embrace.
The most immediate driver of this emergency are carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion and the rapid warming of the atmosphere and oceans, as well as the acidification of the oceans via the absorption of excess carbon dioxide in their waters, producing an ever higher carbonic acid concentration. Most of our current satisfactions depend, at one or more points in their fulfillment, upon the combustion of fossil fuels, which produces these warming and acidifying emissions. But as Pope Francis astutely observes in his latest encyclical “Laudato Si”, excess carbon emissions are just one instance of a “throwaway society” that attempts to solve its social and economic problems, in part, by ejecting them into a non-human natural world that has been destabilized, partially defiled and denuded by the effects of all that human refuse and all those emissions.
The “throwaway society” concept has been around since the 1950’s but rarely has a figure of a political magnitude of Pope Francis made it his or her own. Naomi Klein has offered a similar critique of “extractivism”, also a concept that is not original with her, though that concept, I believe, places humanity in an irresolvable and unnecessary dilemma: even as hunter-gatherers we have had to “extract” from non-human nature our sustenance. It seems as though the throwaway society concept, as familiar as it is, places us on the terrain of moving from problem to solution, without engaging in extreme self-accusation and self-flagellation for being human; it suggests the possibility of a future balance between human extraction of benefits from non-human nature and restoration of that non-human nature.
And, as news reports and scientific findings tell us, the climate system and the biosphere that depends on it are now “groaning” underneath the weight of the warming that is a direct consequence of anthropogenic carbon emissions and the denuding of forested land for a variety of reasons. We are on target to make 2015 the warmest year on record, perhaps by a large margin. Ocean temperatures are at record levels in many areas of the world. Much of the visible damage is occurring in regions that are still far from the experience of those in the global political-economic power centers in the temperate zones of the Northern Hemisphere. Radical changes in the subtropical and tropical regions as well as in the polar and subpolar regions of the earth are now clearly evidence. More northerly latitudes are showing signs that more and more carbon via methane and now fires, may be being released, signaling possible and dreaded positive feedback loops that have been predicted over the last few decades by climate scientists. In these feedback loops, existing warming triggers new emissions from permafrost and the biosphere, heating the earth much faster than has been the case over the last several decades, taking with them valuable and familiar parts of the non-human natural world upon which our lives depend.
The climate movement in effect and self-professed concerned policymakers have, in my view, never squarely faced both the climate problem and its emergency nature with the appropriate solutions; there are at this late date signs that parts of these groups are waking up. In the 1990’s, the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol as the predominant international climate policy was never tuned to the emergency aspect of the climate crisis, dependent as it was on applying the wrong economic tools to this immense challenge. The rather casual cap and trade mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol, that rest on flawed notions about the role of markets and put off emissions reductions from high-emissions countries into the indeterminate future, cannot be said to have reduced emissions substantially in its various instantiations, with global emissions continuing to climb. The fossil fuel divestment movements and now various anti-fossil fuel movements place the blame on fossil fuel companies while implicitly excusing politicians, climate pundits and our own consumption of products of the fossil fuel companies either directly or indirectly. Demand drives the fossil fuel economy as much or more than supply but the climate movement is riveted by the notion that it could somehow stopper supply via saying “no” over and over again, without a focus on transforming energy demand.
Squarely facing the challenge of climate change would involve an unprecedented national and global mobilization of human and material resources. Locating the terrain of decisive action at the global level has led to a collective action problem where the relatively powerless UN can only exhort and preach comity and where the most resistant nations essentially call the shots. By contrast, nation-by-nation mobilizations, with a degree of international coordination, would be led by various official and grassroots political leaders with the citizenry of as many countries as possible offering active support and engaging their individual energies in a focused manner upon our collective energy and climate challenges. It would not be a bad thing for nations to compete with another to form carbon tax and tariff unions among themselves with the most ambitious nations pushing the envelope in the direction of higher carbon taxes and tariffs. These climate mobilizations must in fairly short order refashion civilization for the long-term, targeting not 20% of 1990 emissions by 2050 but a net zero emitting society by the mid-2030’s or sooner.
Such climate mobilizations involve using the money-power and fiscal instruments of currency-issuing governments, as has happened in wartimes past, to mobilize people and organizations of people like businesses to “do the right thing” by the climate and future generations. Many human and material resources that are now currently devoted to other purposes and pursuits will be focused upon the rescue of civilization, while resources not devoted to the mobilization will continue to be used to maintain and develop our civilizations so they may be and become more worthy of saving. Carbon taxes and tariffs will be one means of redirecting society away from highly polluting activities. Still, and this is still a heterodox view within climate policy circles, positive and creative engagement of government and the public as a whole is required alongside the “subtractive” disincentive of carbon taxation and tariffs. Beyond carbon taxation, effective climate action by governments must achieve a full-employment society that is substantially more egalitarian than the current global society characterized as it is by a plutocratic system within which a few billionaires have inordinate wealth and influence over the political process.
Some of the reason that this challenge has not been faced over the 25 year history of climate policy and politics, even by those who have known better, is that, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, the political-economic philosophy of neoliberalism has ruled national and international government policy and politics for the last several decades. Neoliberalism edits out the leadership and creative role of government and the citizenry, insofar as that government supports the general social welfare of the polity and humanity as a whole. Instead neoliberalism preaches obeisance to an ill-defined market philosophy, where “markets” support the interests of the wealthy and the financial sector to the detriment of the real economy and society at large.
Of course the concerted campaign of climate denial in many powerful nations, mostly in the Anglophone world has also delayed climate action, diverting public discussions to whether climate change is happening rather than what to do about the increasingly obvious climate problem. Climate denialists are for the most part also committed neoliberals who entertain unrealistic ideas about markets as being almost always superior to government. Neoliberals and climate denialists both appeal to a paranoid core that is stronger in some people than others, that is always critical of the potential power of governments. Grasping that climate change required more social coordination via government action rather than less, those with a primary commitment to neoliberalism have always either openly opposed climate action or sought to soften it from within.
Climate campaigners and policy advisors have ignored the most powerful instruments available for effective climate action because climate policy, including the carbon-pricing-only focus of the Kyoto Protocol and now tax-only or fee-and-dividend advocates like James Hansen, are tailored to the diminished expectations of the era of neoliberalism. The dominance of neoliberalism on both the established political Right and Left and also the various wings of the climate movement is a tragic circumstance, the consequences of which must be brought to an end in very short order for humanity to effect its self-rescue.
Voluntarism and Determinism
That humanity faces a momentous collective and individual choice, based in part on ethical considerations, means that there is substantial room for voluntary action or “the will” to play a role in humanity’s self-rescue. Humanity is outfitted with a biology that enables people to imagine, create and consider options, exert choice and thereby create new actions not largely determined by biological predisposition or a predetermined evolutionary program. There are substantial areas of constraint via physics, chemistry, biology and social and economic history but also some degrees of freedom to transform our social relationships and tool-making/tool-use and thereby, indirectly, our and future generations’ biological being over the longer term, for both good and ill.
In the political realm, climate action is not just a matter of choosing between pre-existing sides, as is the case in many political struggles. The “side” that will save humanity or at least salvage some of its better parts, needs to be shaped by a massive public education and organizing campaign as well as individual self-education given misinformation about the role of human will, ethical intention and government in the neoliberal era. Then it is not just a matter of choosing the current political side that says that it is “concerned” about climate action and/or ventures a few lukewarm climate policies. Effective climate action means ensuring that ambitious policies are actually implemented that have concrete effects on emissions and greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and oceans. Political choice both in the voting booth and in grassroots and self-described “radical” political contexts has often meant people have had to choose from two pre-existing alternatives; the climate challenge requires people to shape via force of will the option that will save our species, in part via learning and far, far superior public information about climate solutions. This means a good deal of work and effort of will by individuals and groups of individuals.
The substantial ethical dimension to effective climate action then means that this is, of necessity, a “voluntarist” (will- or choice-driven) movement rather than one that is wedded to a purely deterministic political-social philosophy. Determinism and voluntarism play roles in the climate movement discussion as it has developed so far. There are some activists who see their role as to simply educate the public about climate change until such time as the public is upset enough about climate change to demand action or institute actions on their own. This more deterministic view accepts as a “natural fact” people’s self-assessment of their welfare and also a fundamental self-interested focus of human beings. In a deterministic view, there is not a lot of room for either the moral ethical persuasive efforts of leaders/activists or that of receivers of climate-related messages: they will act when they are forced to act by circumstance and no sooner. Ultimately this is climate activists allotting themselves a passive role and not embracing a role that “makes history”, a preference for passivity that I find surprising.
If we look back at political history as well as current events, it is those political sides that possess a voluntarist attitude, an ability to engage in serious strategic thinking, and exertion of a political will-to-power that almost invariably win political contests. The right-wing has had enormous political success in winning both ideological and electoral contests with a policy portfolio that actually undermines popular welfare and interests through clever and willful manipulation of cultural attitudes and prejudices. The Right’s success is due to a combination of financial backing from wealthy financial interests, a sense of entitlement to win, and generally superior tactical and strategic orientation than its opponents on the moderate Left. They have also shifted the terms of the debate on economics, almost entirely into the right-wing neoliberal framework and therefore dominate the discourse of what is possible to actually implement via government policy. Now most nominally “left” parties are so initimidated by the Right and so lacking in their own independent perspective that they represent simply a milder version of the political program of the Right.
There, however, can be extremes of “hyper-voluntarism” on both the Left and Right which defeat their own purposes by blotting out important contours of political, social, economic, and now scientific reality to just act without a viable strategy and without effective communication with the public at large. In the climate movement, some wish to express their individual conscience by simply throwing themselves at various targets, like fossil fuel extraction projects and sites or trying to create utopian eco-communities. These actions may temporarily “feel good” or assuage individual consciences to those who do or fantasize about doing them but such acts cannot be relied upon to form the basis of a considered strategy to transform society and human behavior for the better with regard to climate.
To fully face the climate challenge requires a well-informed, “can-do” attitude on a mass scale, an attitude that has been undermined by decades of diminished expectations, misinformation and also depoliticization of the general population. In this context, it is also imperative to face and understand strains of climate defeatism that might undermine efforts to rouse and inspire people to propose and fight for policies that will address the problem in the most rapid manner possible.
Climate Defeatism’s Corrosive Effects
I have lately encountered at fairly close quarters a few instances of climate defeatism that have led me to be concerned, along with some introspection on my part, that this is as significant a threat to putting into place rational climate policies, i.e. a climate mobilization, as either traditional climate denial or the imprint of neoliberalism on climate policy proposals. Climate defeatism probably needs no definition but here is one: it is the notion that we have already “lost” the battle to stabilize the climate and are headed for climate Armageddon.
Starting first with my own introspection: it is, admittedly, an extremely daunting task to face the climate challenge. It is personally hard for me to write from a stance of moral exhortation as I find such a stance to be in itself fraught with danger. I am as enamored as many other people of the excitements, comforts and seductions of our current fossil fueled society. I enjoy travel a great deal and I also am not immune to enjoying the conveniences of using automobiles, fueled for the most part by fossil fuels. Yes, I can imagine alternatives now to these excitements and satisfactions that may be as or more satisfying and fulfilling but that is not the same thing as putting into action a workable plan to transform our society. That our leaders, including movement leaders, have failed to put forward realistic plans to cut emissions and transform society, makes the writing of this more onerous, writing which will make me few friends and perhaps some enemies.
For humanity to “take a new evolutionary path” and to take account of and transform its own satisfactions for the sake of future generations, is an act that means mustering much “optimism of the will” (as Antonio Gramsci and Romain Rolland called it) while keeping an eye trained on reality (“pessimism of the intellect”). It is understandable that some may not feel this optimism or may temporarily lapse into cynicism or despair.
Ultimately, if we as a generation, want to think of ourselves has leading and having led a(n ethically) “good life”, we will need to overcome these internal and external barriers to pushing forward with effective climate action. We must individually and collectively reorder our priorities in ways that may cause some internal pain but also involve rewards both familiar and unknown. At the same time, I am of the belief that we should have a language for understanding the opposite of or opposed forces to living this “good life” in the shadow of climate catastrophe, one of which is climate defeatism.