We Require Less a “Climate Freeze” More a Great “Climate Activation”

By Michael Hoexter

The psychiatrist and social commentator, Robert Jay Lifton had a far reaching and oddly hopeful op-ed in the New York Times, in which he comments upon a “climate swerve” in public opinion. While the United States still leads the world in climate denial and Republicans are seemingly still united around denying the human contribution to climate destabilization, Lifton points out that recent polls have shown that:

“Americans’ certainty that the earth is warming has increased over the past three years”


“those who think global warming is not happening have become substantially less sure of their position”

Lifton outlines the social psychology of the moment:

“Falsification and denial, while still all too extensive, have come to require more defensive psychic energy and political chicanery”

Lifton then goes on to discuss how the notion of fossil fuel assets as “stranded assets” might provide a means to make more real the unreal and far away concept of climate catastrophe. Lifton brings in an apt analogy to the calculations of risk by insurance companies and investors related to the growing climate threat:

“Can we continue to value, thereby make use of, the very materials most deeply implicated in the demise of the human habitat? It is a bit like the old Jack Benny joke in which an arm robber offers a choice, “Your money or your life!” And Benny responds, “I’m thinking it over.” We are beginning to “think over” such choices on a larger scale.”

He then uses the notion of “stranded assets” to suggest that fossil fuel companies have “stranded ethics” as they seek to serve their shareholders but not the public at large.

Lifton points out that ethics are the lifeblood of social movements and social change. Lifton feels that there was a shift in awareness among high-level bureaucrats and political leaders during the nuclear arms race, where the ethical message of the nuclear freeze movement penetrated and enabled a resolution of the nuclear arms race between the then superpowers. As then, Lifton suggests that maybe now a “climate freeze” might be a catalyst for linking ethical impulses to concrete action for nations to act on climate.

Lifton is to be applauded for addressing climate change, our generation’s greatest challenge, and actually providing a ray of hope as to how action might be taken on climate. He is right to highlight the importance of ethical impulses in a successful movement to change the energy basis of society and cut emissions overall.

Besides these points of agreement, I have serious reservations regarding the metaphor that he has chosen, the idea of a “freeze” for a number of reasons having to do with his as well as the currently dominant understanding about the scope of ethical concern and action, a focus on what might be called “negative ethics”.  Additionally, this type of ethics undergirds misconceptions about economics that also reinforce passivity with regard to climate action. Negative ethics also seems to rule in those parts of society where Lifton’s words will resonate most, among them the climate movement itself and the liberal-left public sphere to which it is attached. Lifton, I believe at least in this op-ed, is reinforcing a conception of ethics and then of the politics and economics that flow from that ethics that will slow the progress to effective climate action. To be fair to Lifton, himself, he is not committing himself to the “freeze” concept, only that I see in it reflected some of the self-imposed limitations of the movement which he is addressing.

Prohibitions and Injunctions in Ethics

I believe Lifton is prey to a stereotype or limitation in how we understand ethics that tends to reduce ethics to prohibition or inhibition of action, a “negative ethics”, rather than the encouragement or support for (certain) actions. The biological foundations of human behavior, thinking and therefore ethical thinking at the cellular, micro-anatomical level exhibit a distinct dividing line in the functioning of nerve cells, also called neurons. Inputs from neurons to other neurons can be classified as either inhibitory or excitatory of the downstream neuron. Once they reach a certain threshold of inputs, nerve cells then conduct an impulse in the form of a wave of neurochemical activity called an action potential, which in turn leads to the release of inhibitory or excitatory chemicals at the other end of the cell to interconnected neurons or non-nerve tissue responsive to the nerve’s chemical signal. The balance between inhibition and excitation yields not only human behavior but all animal behavior of various kinds. As in specific complex behaviors there can be no pure expressions of either type of neuronal activity, it may be that a shift in the balance of inhibition and excitation in observable behavior is caused by the coarser, larger scale changes in behavior that are associated with concentrations of hormones spread through the bloodstream.

While the behavior and actions of more complex systems cannot be reduced to their simpler system components, there appears to be in our ethical systems as well as in our thinking about economics traces of this simpler, more basic dividing line between excitation and inhibition. The simplest ethical formulas which are often the “business end” of everyday ethics are commandments that either proscribe certain negative behaviors or prescribe positive behaviors. The former can be called prohibitions and the latter injunctions or mandates. Confusingly in legal terminology, the word injunction is also used to describe prohibitions but the root, “to enjoin” means to “admonish” or “order” someone to do a recommended or mandated action.

The most famous expression of the contrast between prohibitions and injunctions in the parts of the world shaped by Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition are the Ten Commandments from the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Bible. The Ten Commandments contain two injunctions (‘observe the Sabbath’ and ‘honor your mother and father’) and seven to eight prohibitions (you shall not steal, shall not kill, shall not commit adultery, shall not bear false witness, shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, shall not covet your neighbors goods, shall not have other gods other than the singular God, shall not take the name of God in vain). The religious scriptures of many religions contain innumerable injunctions and prohibitions though the portable, memorable and influential Ten Commandments are clearly biased towards prohibitions, which are also the commandments most often cited in popular culture. As the religious ethics contained in this and other religious scriptures have had strong influence on the secular legal codes of the world, they are of longstanding influence and therefore interest in the secular world.

The association of ethics with the inhibition of action, i.e. with prohibitions, is widespread in current popular understandings of what is good or what it means to be a good person. In popular perceptions of the roles of moral authorities such as government actors like the police or religious figures, they are often seen as representatives of inhibitory impulses versus the spontaneous “animal spirits” of the population as a whole. Similarly, the ideologically-weighted division of the economy into a relatively spontaneous market and an inhibitory government has been pre-formed by the modeled economic agents embedded in the neoclassical economic paradigm taught as dogma at every level of academia. The impulse to act is, in this economic model, supposed to originate in the private sector, and is expressed via market activity. In neoclassical thinking, government in the most unrealistic frameworks has no presence at all and in those accounts that include government action, those actions are for the most part an inhibition or distortion of the assumed to be “good” or “normal” impulses to act and do business of market actors. Libertarianism is the simplified political fiction that government is only or always incipiently coercive, inhibitory, and almost never creative;blocking action rather than creating, supporting or enjoining positive actions.

In religious ethics, it has seemed as though, at least through the filter of modern post-Calvinist capitalism, has tended to emphasize a “negative ethics”, an ethics of “thou shalt nots” over an ethics that includes “thou shalts”. Though I am not personally in accord with many of its ethical teachings, the Catholic Church, in some ways a relatively vital institutional remnant of a pre-capitalist way of life, is relatively strong in the area of enjoining parishioners to do certain acts, though some are purely symbolic, others are social or charitable. Within secular philosophical ethics, the difference between positive (injunctive) and negative (prohibitive) ethics is underexplored.

The currently dominant political and economic philosophy, neoliberalism, has a strong preference for confining ethics to negative, prohibitive ethics. The conservative political philosopher of the post-War period, Isaiah Berlin, distinguished between negative liberty and positive liberty as two, in his mind somewhat contradictory ethical-political value orientations. Negative liberty is “freedom from” social bads while in Berlin’s terminology positive liberty is “freedom to” experience social goods. In a regime that is premised on negative liberty, the state tries to minimally interfere with the population, very much the stated ideal though not the reality of neoliberalism; negative liberty is the “cover story” of neoliberalism. In a regime that emphasizes positive liberty, the state would provide social supports that enabled more people to, for instance, receive healthcare, afford to take vacations, provided childcare to enable women to work, etc. Berlin’s elevation of “liberty” to describe all of the highest values of society is itself a questionable choice that supports his bias towards negative liberty, one would be more likely to call what he terms “positive liberty”, more general social welfare and social equality.

Similarly, those steeped in neoliberal thought, at the extremes libertarians, hold up an unrealistic ideal of liberty as the absence of the influence and power of government. The notion of mandates and injunctions for government to do good are generally alien to the fantasy version of the state in neoliberal and libertarian ideology. However adherents to the neoliberal-libertarian philosophy often display an extra-ideological attraction to the exercise of military power or shows of military might. The neoliberal political philosophy and political strategy of the current right-wing in fact revolves around the continuous satire of good intentions, especially those emanating from the leftward portion of the political spectrum, and predicting confidently that those intentions for reform will be always ultimately futile. With this attitude of often-vituperative mocking amplified by multiple right-wing media outlets and the patronage of right-wing billionaires, it is not surprising that those on the nominal or real Left have tended to confine themselves to, in caution, criticizing social “bads” while hesitating to present ambitious plans for social change in a progressive direction.

The Climate Movement Has Been Biased Towards an Ethics of Prohibition

As has been typical for many environmentally-focused movements, the climate movement has been united around saying “No”, an ethics of prohibition, while neglecting an ethics of injunction directed at individuals or government actors. The climate movement in the United States has been focused lately on blocking the actions of the fossil fuel companies either via physical blockades, legal action, or divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Alternatively or in tandem, sections of the climate movement have attached themselves to the idea of a carbon price, which can be viewed as a “soft” prohibition or at least a policy based in negative ethics. Supposedly the positive outcomes of a clean energy, energy-efficient economy will spring indirectly from the imposition of the carbon price, so this approach is absolutely in accord with a prohibition-only negative ethics.

While there is general agreement in the climate movement that we need to transition to “clean energy”, general agreement that energy efficiency is a good thing, and some emphasis on energy conservation, there are widely disparate views on a range of social and environmental remedies and issues out of which no cohesive political agent or program has emerged. The movement is not unified, for instance, around a renewable energy support policy. There is also little unity regarding actions or policies to support energy efficiency and energy conservation. Nuclear energy is a highly controversial issue in the movement, with some seeing climate action as an extension of the earlier anti-nuclear movement while a minority see nuclear energy as either an adjunct to renewable energy or, among a very few, even the preferred option. Such disunity and diffuseness is not conducive to producing a series of policy-oriented injunctions for action.

In the area of broad social outlook, it appears as though some environmentally-oriented people strive for a society very similar to the current society but without fossil energy while others support varying degrees of social downsizing or shrinkage and sometimes a return to less technological, smaller-scale society, modeled on earlier, tribe-based communities. These preferences or preferred utopias are often assumed and not part of a serious public discussion of alternatives or, even more seriously, part of policy proposals or a political program.

From my observations as a participant in the movement and also from simple logical entailment, those individuals who would be preferentially attracted to the messages both of the conventional environmental movement and now the climate movement, would seem to be those that would tend to choose prohibitions over injunctions. The environmental movements have for a number of decades seen their role as being that of the inhibiting conscience of a destructive and wasteful industrial/consumer society. Focusing on the problems of over-population, the byproducts of consumer society and toxic waste/emissions are not the preoccupations of the average participants in contemporary societies. The tendency of the movement in day-to-day policy discussions has been on the side of prohibition or inhibition rather than that of mandates and government creation or facilitation of alternative forms of social organization or production.

The climate movement cannot continue to reproduce the stance of the traditional environmental movement vis-à-vis the broader society because climate action must not just inhibit certain actions but, to be successful, must systemically transform society. Climate action and climate concern are directly based upon a scientific theory and a scientific consensus around that theory, that human societies and the human species face an immediate crisis that will lead to the eventual demise of human civilization and perhaps humanity itself. Climate science and the theory of anthropogenic global warming is not a tendential or speculative analysis of selected scientific findings but analysis based on a rising mountain of scientific data. The energy basis of societies, a central component to their functioning and existence, must be thoroughly remade.

To function as merely a brake, as an inhibition on the tendencies of the current society, is in no way appropriate or sufficient to the task of remaking that society. The climate movement must interact directly with those facets of the society that create and reproduce the existing social and economic order so as to steer them towards a sustainable solution with regard to the climate, as well as create an overall more sustainable society. Along the way, it must address issues like economic inequality, racial injustice and divides, and more general ideas about what constitutes a “good society”. Some relish the thought of overthrowing the existing social order as a function of personal preference or cherished ideological fantasy but if vested interests put up barriers to such a transformation, violent overthrow or coups d’etat are not unthinkable steps along the way. Climate action cannot consist of simply a surgical “transplant” of a new energy system into our current societies as some of the critical instruments involved in an energy and climate transition are social and economic in nature.

Required: A Great, Sustained Activation of Social and Economic Resources for the Climate

While the role of inhibiting/prohibiting further fossil energy development and to eventually unwind and shrink those industries is one role of the climate movement, to elect a “climate freeze” as a master strategy, is to consign the climate movement to a reactive and ultimately trailing role in shaping the transition to a more sustainable society. Rather than simply reacting to the “moves” of the fossil energy industry and attempt to block or “freeze” them, there needs to simultaneously be an effort to replace the services offered by fossil energy led by government initiatives and spurred by a principled and creative climate movement. A “freeze” is a defensive and ultimately unambitious strategy, while replacing the services offered by those industries and simultaneously curtailing their activities is the required offensive strategy to “win” the battle.

Rather than focusing as the overarching goal on “freezing” or inhibition, there needs to be a sustained, directed activation of social and economic resources, oriented towards energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy infrastructure in both public and private enterprises. This activation of social and economic resources does not replace shrinking and unwinding the economic and political power of the fossil fuel industries but instead accompanies and strengthens the orientation of those whose focus is saying “no” to what we recognize as being destructive to the viability of the planet. Much human and real economic potential has been underutilized by the combination of the long-term financialization of the economies of the developed and rapidly developing worlds as well as the aftermath of the Great Recession/Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. Unemployment and underemployment are in many regions at very high levels.

The emphasis on activation of these resources is not a matter of my personal or ethical “tastes” for inclusion of positive ethics but simply a reflection of the task at hand: the intended effect of choosing a “climate freeze” is to initiate a decrease in carbon emissions which will only happen if society is stepwise redesigned to emit less carbon. The supposedly “blocked” fossil energy from the freeze will only be truly “blocked” or reduced, if the world’s energy-using societies reorganize themselves to either use less energy overall or use less fossil energy by replacing it with clean energy. It would be engaging in magical thinking to assume that either the market or political actors by an automatic, unreflective process would spontaneously supply these reductions in emissions after a “freeze” had been declared.

With or without a declared “freeze”, it is exceedingly unlikely and also undesirable that market-based instruments and mechanisms will reorganize the major pieces of infrastructure required to reduce emissions rapidly. That reorganization or replacement to proceed at all rapidly would require a focus by both government and private actors in coordination on some positive plan or plans that involves public and private investment of financial resources. Those actors, led and regulated by governments, would need to prepare and plan the social reorganization and creation of new cleaner infrastructure, pay for labor and pay for materials to construct and put into operation that new cleaner arrangement of social resources. The neoliberal “replacing broken markets with new markets” approach shuts out of the process, knowledge that public and some private actors possess about what can curtail emissions now and in the next several decades.

Furthermore, politically, there is considerable naïveté contained in the assumption that climate action consists of political leaders and the climate movement declaring a “stop” without regard for any resulting gap in energy input or services dependent upon energy. The seemingly duplicitous politics of the Obama Administration with regard to climate and energy become somewhat more comprehensible though still lamentably weak and contradictory, if we were to substitute the words “lifeblood of the economy” for “oil and gas”. Lacking imagination and in the thrall of faulty neoliberal ideas about money, government and the economy, politicians do not yet have enough confidence that they can frustrate and downsize the powerful fossil fuel industries by government action while building a clean energy infrastructure.

The Great Climate Activation Requires Realistic Economic Foundations

The call for an activation of real resources to reduce global warming emissions is not simply a rhetorical device or a series of personal choices by individuals or business leaders wrestling with their consciences. Instead for such a mobilization of resources to occur in reality requires a series of economic policy decisions by governments, especially at the national level, informed by the appropriate, realistic economic models. Lifton’s evocation of the Jack Benny joke about the robber demanding “your money or your life” is here more appropriate than perhaps Lifton intended. Rather than see money as a transparent means to help make choices related to individual or organizational tastes among different products and services, as is typical in conventional economics, evoking an existential choice between life and death correctly mirrors the choice awaiting human societies facing their own self-induced destruction. The deployment of the instrument of money by governments as well as, in a subsidiary role, individual consumers and businesses, is inevitable if we want to have a chance at self-rescue of human civilization.

However the foundational choice is not as Lifton has described, the choice of individuals or individual investment entities to reroute their money in response to the possible stranding of fossil assets. This would be a reactive and uneven process, yielding hesitant action and overlooking investment in changing critical public infrastructure maintained or owned by governments or only transformable by government initiative. Rather the primary decision facing society as a whole is the deployment of the money and regulatory systems of governments to mobilize underutilized human potential as well as fund and direct the re-design and reconstruction of the pieces of infrastructure that lock in civilization’s dependency on fossil fuels.  Relying exclusively on private sector decision-making as the motor of climate action is relatively impotent “climate Pigovianism”. Lifton’s account is consistent, unfortunately, with climate Pigovianism.

We use fossil energy and depend upon it because both the critical and many of the desired relationships, goods and services in our lives depend on it. Those relationships and the production of those critical or desired goods in turn depends upon a physical infrastructure built or optimized to use relatively cheap fossil energy to produce goods and electricity and to transport goods and people. Overall that energy-using infrastructure of the built environment as well as critical pieces of connecting infrastructure must be rebuilt to enable the large-scale use of renewable energy and to use energy more wisely and strategically. Governments, in particular those that control their own currency, are the only entities that in current societies have the financial means and moral and fiscal responsibility to transform the connecting infrastructure of society.

Additionally, and importantly, widening economic inequality, overall economic fragility, and exacerbating racial inequality with a strong economic component will only be mitigated or solved if government reroutes the flows of liquidity (i.e. money and credit) in the economy, enabling greater economic rewards for labor, distributing those rewards more widely and more fairly and facilitating production of useful, more sustainable goods. The return to a full employment policy, retooled to focus on the climate challenge is a necessary component to achieving economic stability in a time of increasing climate instability and the rapid reconstruction of the energy and transportation systems, itself an intentional disruption of the economy. The climate Pigovian focus on investment choices of consumers and businesses leaves out of the picture the supporting and stabilizing role of government spending, often in excess of taxes collected`q to achieve full employment. An ethic of public works, a seemingly forgotten type of ethical injunction, must be returned to the vocabulary of political leaders and citizens alike to enable both the reconstruction of society’s relationship to the environment as well as its currently fractured, malfunctioning and unjust internal relationships.

It is maybe appropriate to rephrase the Jack Benny joke as “Our money or our lives”: our governments must spend money to activate economic resources like labor and the appropriate raw materials to reconstruct society so that current generations and future generations may survive and flourish. Additionally governments must redirect the flows of money within the private sector via regulation and investment/incentives to mobilize additional resources to re-work society to enable economic rewards to be distributed more equally and fairly. Public finance will lead and individual finance will follow, directed by incentives and regulations to targets that either do no further harm or actually help stabilize the geophysical and ecosystemic bases of our livelihoods.


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