Bill McKibben’s and the Climate Movement’s Fatal Misunderstanding of the Role of Demand (for Energy/Fossil Fuels)

By Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.

Last week, Bill McKibben penned an op-ed in the New York Times with the title “Obama’s Catastrophic Climate-Change Denial” in response to the Administration’s decision to allow Shell Oil to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Here finally, after years of gentle chiding, I thought, one of the leaders of the US (and worldwide) climate movement would compare the Obama Administration’s rhetoric to the stark reality of the Administration’s negligent policy with regard to energy and climate action.  Obama (whom I campaigned for in 2008) has been treated gently by most progressives in ways that have compromised the content of contemporary progressive politics as well as action on climate change. Of course, the Obama Administration’s actions, such as his EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants are preferable to what is likely the Republicans would have done in office. This McKibben also acknowledges.

But compared to the possibility of destruction of human civilization due to carbon emissions and subsequent warming, the Obama Administration’s climate-related government actions can only be viewed as weak concessions or palliatives. Obama and the Democrats also have, with tepid policy proposals and concerned-sounding rhetoric, partially paralyzed the climate movement and encouraged false hope and paralysis within a movement that might have grown in number and risen up to change our government’s policies on climate (and other issues).

And indeed, on the issues of the Obama Administration’s policy attitude towards fossil fuel infrastructure and exploration projects, McKibben, at the end of the piece does make a convincing case that the Obama style of climate action is the type that

accept(s) the science, and indeed make long speeches about the immorality of passing on a ruined world to our children. They just deny the meaning of the science, which is that we must keep carbon in the ground”

As someone who has been deeply critical of existing climate policy and sees a crucial role for a combative yet policy-savvy climate movement, I have looked forward to the “real” climate movement defining itself more clearly from, applying Yves Smith’s term for false progressives, the pacifying “Vichy” climate movement, enmeshed as it is in neoliberal ideas about government and the economy. Here from McKibben is at least one point of differentiation from the warm, stultifying embrace of the center-right, neoliberal Democratic Party apparatus.

However, as right as McKibben is, on a moral level, to call out the Obama Administration’s hypocrisy, he also, as clearly as ever, displays in his logic a theory of social, economic and technical change that is at best naïve and at worst a catastrophic dead-end for the climate movement and therefore, probably, humanity. In this theory, the role of demand for fossil fuels takes a backseat to the implied political scenario of “stoppering” the SUPPLY of fossil fuels, “keeping carbon in the ground”, as if via the sheer force of a moral-ethical “lid”. I understand and encourage the symbolic power of protests such as those occurring in Puget Sound by valiant kayakers against Shell’s Arctic-bound oil rig but, unfortunately, the climate movement cannot remain only in the realm of symbolism.

If it is any comfort to McKibben and the climate movement more generally, their view of how progressive social change happens is widely shared not only in the climate movement but also more generally on what might be called the “moralistic” liberal-Left, with its roots in the abolitionist movement of the 19th Century.  In this tradition, morality and moral outrage sometimes obscure a fuller understanding of the details of human society that enmesh and preoccupy most people in society as a whole, including their anchoring in economic life and economic preoccupations. McKibben is not the originator but he is a key proponent of a view of society and therefore a political strategy that limits the climate movement to its current fairly circumscribed role in the politics of key industrial and extractive economies on the world stage.

In the course of his op-ed, McKibben, waves off the idea of dealing with what he terms, the “demand side” as the trite, gradualistic and already-tried policy orientation of the Obama Administration and other governments. After a brief paragraph that listed three initiatives of the Obama Administration, only one of which could be characterized as dealing (meekly) with the demand side (Obama’s higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks in the future), McKibben blithely dismisses this aspect of policy and politics, which he obviously doesn’t fully understand, as hackneyed and not the “real deal”:

But you can’t deal with climate on the demand side alone. If we keep digging up more coal, gas, and oil, it will be burned, if not here, then somewhere else.

Somehow, it appears that McKibben believes that demand, which he recognizes within the same sentence as literally voracious, can be ignored and the focus must be on supply, which he believes is the place to start climate politics and policy. In the subsequent sentence, McKibben cites a study in the venerable natural scientific (but not social scientific) journal Nature as support for his previous assertions drenched in unrealistic assumptions about human nature and how economies work:

This is precisely the conclusion that a study in the journal Nature reached in January: if we’re to have chance of meeting even Mr. Obama’s weak goal of holding temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, we have to leave most carbon underground.

Contra McKibben’s assertion here, the study in Nature wasn’t endorsing McKibben’s implied theory of HOW to keep “most carbon underground”.   With this rhetorical move, McKibben makes it appear as though his views about society, politics and the economy are “natural” or at least the only ethically supported position based on natural (climate) science, i.e. indisputable.

The Magical Politics of Heroic Abstention/Heroic Blockade

Returning now to the beginning of the op-ed, McKibben suggests an implied theory of social change that is actually quite bizarre given the nature of the climate change challenge, a challenge which he has otherwise done so much to expose and against which he has valiantly agitated for 25 years.   I am 100% with McKibben in supporting the GOAL of keeping as much carbon as possible in the ground. But the MEANS by which McKibben imagines this happening is strange and unscientific, in terms of our best understanding of human societies, individual human beings, and the functioning of the economy.

Before turning to address the Obama Administration’s failings more fully as cited above, McKibben starts by scolding Shell Oil for its lack of responsibility to people and planet, while putting Obama in the role of the enabler rather than a primary moral actor.

No, what’s extreme here is the irresponsibility of Shell, now abetted by the White House. A quarter century ago, scientists warned that if we kept burning fossil fuel at current rates we’d melt the Arctic. The fossil fuel industry (and most everyone else in power) ignored those warnings, and what do you know: The Arctic is melting….

McKibben makes Shell and other oil companies those most lacking in responsibility in climate change, an attitude that is widespread in the climate movement, in particular that part focused on fossil fuel divestment, a cause which I also support. Despite the op-ed’s title, he (still) finds the oil companies, in this case Shell to be the primary culprits.

While a familiar stance in the world of the liberal-left, calls for moral regeneration within and social moral leadership from the corporate world are, I believe, asking way too much of corporate entities like Shell and others. Corporations, in general, are not the leading edge of any moral crusade, generally adopting the rhetoric of such movements only when it is amply clear that their stance is close to, if not trailing, conventional wisdom. Certainly corporations will almost never take stances that endanger their revenue stream and profitability, as would climate action for the fossil fuel sectors.  Effective climate action will be humanity’s greatest moral crusade but it takes an act of perverse creativity, to say the least, to imagine that oil companies will have a major role in leading people away from the use of their product. While the leaderships of the oil companies are adults, to ask the oil companies to foreswear sale of their core products, before the general population foreswears their use, is a little like telling a baby not to poop in its diapers.

Furthermore, to fill out the context of these remarks, the climate movement has not yet held up a positive role for government in the transition to a net zero carbon, climate-stable future.  Some in the “right-wing” of the climate movement are beholden to neo-liberal ideas about the leading role of markets in the economy while others on the “left-wing” of the climate movement are caught in anarcho-communitarian ideas about “communities” making government functions redundant. In my reckoning only the Climate Mobilization, a new and relatively small group, has in the United States held up an activist role for government, commensurate with the challenge of climate catastrophe and the possible end of human civilization. The call of the Climate Mobilization to date has not gotten the traction it deserves. Along with McKibben, the climate movement has been too busy decrying the perfidy of the fossil fuel companies and ignoring what government and the citizenry at large can do to lead society out of its fossil fuel dependence.

Rather than focus on how government and the people can help build the climate-stable future, it would seem that McKibben is waiting for two fairly unlikely events to magically usher in the post-fossil fuel era. On the one hand, the fossil fuel companies would have to heroically abstain from the profits they would achieve from the “carbon bubble”.  Or in another version of this same scenario as outlined by McKibben, government would cease to “enable” the fossil fuel companies and they would then be forced to become “responsible” moral leaders of society as a whole or more particularly the energy industry. This is, in itself a low probability event if asked of any business group, let alone companies who profit from using the atmosphere as an emissions dump.

On the other side of the coin, McKibben and others in the movement imagine what Naomi Klein calls “Blockadia”, various acts of civil disobedience by members of the movement, literally “stoppering” fossil fuel extraction projects, thereby literally “keeping the carbon in the ground” by sheer moral force or by representing a moral example.   We have such an heroic example of this, this weekend in Seattle, facing Shell’s oil rigs bound for the Arctic. I am all for this type of protest that has great symbolic value but despite this heroism and symbolism, climate politics, unfortunately needs to be much more. It does involve, in some way, as Klein has stated “changing everything”.

McKibben and the climate movement seem to be imagining that, in ways that remain unstated, these heroic acts of resistance or, given the forces arrayed against them, the power of the symbolism of their actions themselves would “force” people not to buy and use fossil fuels. Alternatively, and I would wish for this unlikely outcome, they hope that people and governments would have an “ah-ha” moment upon observing the heroic blockades and suddenly “invent the post-carbon future,” with no specific demands from the climate movement other than “stop” or maybe a vague call for “100% renewable energy”.

Effective Climate Action = Transformation of Demand + Alternative Supply

The “demand-side” cannot be so easily dismissed both in designing effective climate action/climate policy and more generally in any realistic understanding of the economy. The Keynesian Revolution in economics, still unfortunately controversial but a significant advance over non- and pre-Keynesian economics, pointed out that human wants and needs plus the social sanction to purchase goods and services, i.e. money/credit, drive economic activity and the business cycle. In fact the end of the fossil fuel age will occur, barring some unforeseen disappearance of the supply of these fuels, when demand for them will have shriveled up. That demand will shrivel up because governments and people together design policy and act so as to make fossil fuels superfluous for a functioning complex society.

McKibben in his oped betrays an unbelievably narrow understanding of how demand for fossil fuels drives the fossil fuel economy and therefore most of the positive forcings on global temperatures. McKibben and the climate movement must come to understand that people buy fossil fuels and the devices that use those fuels because they want to use ENERGY, the helpful “genie” of the economy. And most people are using that energy not primarily because they have a fascination with energy or its direct physical effects like the sensation of kinesis. Energy is an “intermediate good” for almost all activity in our current economies, the satisfactions which people require to live or desire to live what they believe to be a better life.

It is strange that this needs rehearsing but the demand for fossil fuels or alternative sources of energy exists because people want to travel, regulate the temperatures of their immediate environments, connect with other people they know, receive goods and services they enjoy.  The energy per se is secondary to the goals that people have in our current societies. People don’t generally desire the energy they desire what the energy can do for them or make easier for them to do.

It is from a psychological standpoint understandable though fatally wrong for members of the climate movement to simplify the conflict into a moral contest between the evil fossil fuel industries and the good climate movement. The actual terrain of effective climate action is and will be in persuading politicians and the public to transform via savvy political actions, via policy, and via everyday decisions the demand for energy and the type of energy produced. This is a more daunting task for those prone to see the world in black and white, good vs. evil, as this will require people to engage in an all-fronts battle to persuade their neighbors, friends, and relatives to contemplate a change in lifestyle and politics before it is too late for succeeding generations.

To be fair, though not beloved of McKibben and “Blockadians”, the more mainstream parts of the climate movement have embraced a tepid demand-side policy, carbon pricing, often in weakened forms, such as in cap and trade.   The most direct effects of carbon pricing at appreciably high levels will be to suppress demand for fossil fuels and perhaps to shape demand for energy by making low- or zero-carbon energy more attractive. However, carbon pricing-only or pricing-based models of climate action are based on wishful, even magical thinking about the role of markets in innovation and producing new energy and transport systems. They also, in some forms and in isolation, can penalize the poor and can overlook critical functions of government unrelated to regulating and shaping market activity, for instance the mobilization of resources, as in wartime or for other high national purposes, for public ends.

What is required, to act quickly on climate, is a thorough-going change, though not exactly an inversion of how our society uses energy, i.e. a return to tribal life, idealized by some. We have opened the “Pandora’s Box” of using mechanical energy to do work for us and we will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. A return to a simplified tribal existence is not a prescription for rapid, decisive climate action. We must together change our society’s metabolism of energy and chemicals that are either in limited supply (such as phosphorus) or create unacceptable damage to the ecosystems that sustain us and the species we depend upon to live.   We must tread more lightly upon the earth and the atmosphere, keeping in mind that we are irrevocably in the Anthropocene and cannot put the “genie” back in the bottle. I am not with the self-proclaimed “eco-modernists” who minimize the challenge of climate change, is has seemed for the purposes that these sophists can twit those with environmental sensibilities and “green” morality.

Climate activists and climate policy cannot just suffice themselves by saying “no” to fossil fuels and holding the producers of those fuels entirely responsible for our predicament. They need to realize that their movement is a multi-issue, multi-sectoral movement to make it possible for people, in the very near future, to foreswear fossil fuel use and still realize many of their current goals: to have families, see their relatives, make friends, accumulate some goods of value to them, have valuable employment, etc. To ignore these strivings, the basis of demand for fossil fuels and energy more generally, is to concede to the fossil fuel economy and the status quo, the immediate welfare of human beings at the expense of the our and future generations welfare in the future.

To do this involves embracing an enormous, government-organized building project to restructure energy use combined with a moderation of energy use, curtailing at least for a few decades the wasteful and luxuriant use of energy enabled by the current relative cheapness of fossil fuels.   I have outlined some of the components of this project here, here and here.   In short summary form, this involves, electrification of all powered machines in our society, structuring urban/suburban infrastructure to enable low-energy or human powered alternatives like bicycles, electric bikes, and walking and frequent electric buses. Buildings can be built or retrofitted to the Passivhaus standard, reducing the need for energy input to buildings and enabling more of the local energy demand to be generated on site, depending on the use of the building itself and its location. Energy generation should be largely from renewable sources, mostly solar and wind, buttressed by energy storage and by a wide-area supergrid to match energy generation with demand. I remain agnostic with regard to the role of nuclear energy, which carries with it much higher risks and longer deployment timeframes than most forms of renewable energy. However, I cannot dismiss out of hand that some of the most dangerous aspects of nuclear energy can be dealt with by improvements in the technology.

There exist already advocacy groups, practitioners, and “fans” of each of these individual measures or technologies but it is up to the climate movement to create an overarching vision and drive to push these individual solutions to their full potential. This has not happened to date, as the climate movement has remained either focused on heroic resistance or credulous belief in carbon pricing alone.

Coda on Demand in Climate Ethics

I am open in recognizing that some version of rule-based ethics is one of the primary drivers for effective climate action: if we rely on narrow self-interest as some claim that we can, we will never transform our energy systems in time to spare future generations a climate hell and possible extinction. I prefer a deontological ethics which places survival/saving the human species at the top of a nested list of ethical goals (teloi); I do not see how other ethical stances could lead to anything close to effective climate action.

I surmise that McKibben and others in the climate movement are loath to discuss the demand for energy and for fossil fuels in particular because they feel that this gives ethical justification to the fossil fuel industries, as noted above their supposed primary opponent. Demand for fossil fuels certainly gives BUSINESS justification for the existence of the fossil fuel industry but that in no way is ethical justification.   That people are addicted to nicotine and buy cigarettes is not an ethical justification for the tobacco business but it explains the (still) ubiquity and size of that industry as well as the difficulties that people face in quitting smoking. As some people know, to adopt a “just say no to cigarettes” attitude enables some people to quit but others require techniques of slow withdrawal and use of various palliatives along the way. Social prohibitions may help but they are not the only “tools” for quitting. Despite this, nicotine is not required for people to live and is an individual choice, so people always have a choice to quit smoking.

As noted above fossil fuels and the supplementary energy they provide are different than tobacco use or other mind-altering substances in that they enable other goods and services to be delivered upon which our lives depend. The ethical choice that we face is not “saying no” or “failing to say no” but “which means do we use to make fossil fuel use redundant in a rapid enough manner so we can continue our lives and enable those of the next generations”.

It may help some to come to the “which means” choice by means of a prohibition or a symbolic “stoppering” of fossil fuel extraction but that is not the only road. I would argue that for some that “stoppering” is a distraction and is dependent upon protestors feeling, implicitly that they are taken care of already, so they have the enormous luxury of saying “no” in a symbolic manner. The bigger ethical questions in my view are

  1. Am I willing to engage in an enormous and risky popular political struggle for the benefit of future generations, often opposing large corporate and vested interests?
  2. Am I willing to work on the enormous project of refashioning the energy, energy-using and transportation systems of the world?
  3. Am I willing to, perhaps temporarily, sacrifice certain conveniences to preserve the world for future generations or, alternatively, trade-off one convenience or pleasure for another?

Rather than shut out demand, climate ethics must engage with both the social-psychological and the monetary bases of demand. Similarly climate politics must do the same or face continued marginalization.


19 responses to “Bill McKibben’s and the Climate Movement’s Fatal Misunderstanding of the Role of Demand (for Energy/Fossil Fuels)

  1. financial matters

    Great post. I like Blockadia and as we are moving into more extreme extraction this is building useful coalitions. McKibben is also doing great work in having institutions consider their investments in fossil fuel industries. These are important social mobilizers and you acknowledge the importance of changing social orientation.

    We need to outgrow the current austerity politics so we can enact your ideas of a war mobilization to combat climate change. This is the sort of stimulation package that can enable us to grow into a more sustainable future.

    • Michael Hoexter

      Generally agreed. Unfortunately “Blockadians” are focused too much on restriction of activities and not enough on expansion of socially and environmentally positive activities. They think “blocking the bad” implies or contains building the good. In my view, one doesn’t imply the other.. therefore this piece.

      • financial matters

        With our politics and corporations so entwined I think a multiprong approach is good. As the bad gets more in our face rather than far away I think it builds up resolve for alternatives.

        I thought this was a good piece in Jacobin

        “Activists’ decision to target corporations reflects a growing conviction that the government is unresponsive to popular demands because it is unwilling or unable to stop the abuses of the corporate world (this view is supported by recent statistical findings that “the public has little or no influence” on policy). While these movements can change corporate behavior, we believe that they can also influence government policy in ways that direct pressure on politicians cannot.”

  2. J Christensen

    Good points!

    Corporations can not be expected to do anything that will reduce profits, even in the short term, they are legally, duty bound to maximize profits to their shareholders. Governments will not knowingly upset the economic status quo in a way that could have a near term negative outcome; that would be a potentially suicidal form of interference for any political party. This is a reality that I have slowly had to come to accept, that there is no fast way to get where we need to go.

    The only option left is to begin to modify our preferences, changing the demand to which rationally behaving markets must eventually respond. Don’t expect that to happen instantly though, because business still wants wants us to buy the things they already make or wish to make and will use every tool at their disposal to keep their game going. This makes space for competition which should be supported by democratic governments, especially the ones claiming to support free markets.

    There are environmental groups (the David Suzuki Foundation for example) out there that do support this approach by providing how to tips on reducing personal environmental impacts in even the smallest ways; everything from making your own more environment friendly cleaners to riding a bike more often to calling for improved public transit. Some of these tips are generating new business opportunities for enterprising souls looking for ways to get started with little available capital. This is the type of grass roots movement that can gain traction.

    Jobs=sales=more jobs, that’s what makes a sustainable economy, whatever the products traded in the economy happen to be; they might as well be things that don’t destroy the environment.

    • Michael Hoexter

      I think that the changing of preferences is partly an individual process but partly a group and political process. I am not for turning inward and everybody focusing on their own individual consumption to the detriment of civic activism, for instance on public transportation and biking, as well as on a bigger scale energy and climate policy. So I am for both individual and also group changes that only will come about with political changes and the fights that they will probably entail.

      • J Christensen

        I don’t deny the importance of group or political activism. As I pointed out the dissemination of information about environment friendly alternatives can play an important role in helping to shape a new economy by making us aware of better choices that are open to us. If those choices lead to more environmentally sound business opportunities, that gives the politicians something they can safely get behind and support, act upon.

        Indeed the same organization regularly organizes petitions for submission to government on the very issues about which you write Michael.

        My personal experience is that while my own efforts at contacting politicians or supporting their campaigns gains little effect in terms of action in support of my wishes, the collective efforts of organized groups
        sometimes gains traction. I still believe in democracy and continue to write to politicians as an individual so that at least my voice is heard and recorded.

        It’s really only when enough dollars move in a different direction that politicians begin to take notice. We only spend a little on political donations each year, however our purchases amount to tens of thousands of dollars making that a big part of our speaking voice.

  3. Thomas Bergbusch

    I think the best way “to keep carbon in the ground” is to work with the carbon cycle, to improve storage of airborn carbon in the ground, through better use of grasslands in Africa, the Americas and Autralia! All the measures to stop carbon emissions are nowhere near sufficient, but rehabilitating graing land, especially through the expansion of ruminant herds, appears to be very effective. The conditions for doing this are not that exacting: all it takes in political will and a bit of popular understanding. The longer-term changes that are required to make sure the planet remains livable are many, but soil scientists say the solution is in front of our eyes. Why not take a look at : “Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth by Judith Schwartz, or Tony Lovell’s or Ichsani Wheeler’s presentations at the TEDX Dubbo event, a couple of years ago.

    • Michael Hoexter

      Sequestering carbon in the soil and in growing biomass is one part of the solution but I think you are missing a huge portion of the problem if you ignore the “digging up and burning” part of the carbon problem. It may seem clever to ignore it because it is so obvious but I don’t think it is that clever an idea to miss this “portion of the elephant” standing in the room.

  4. You raise important points Michael.

    If only tangentially, your post reminds me of a paper I just read entitled “Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid” by Timothy Schoeckle:

    My expertise relates to telecom, not energy, but I’ve been somewhat familiar with smart grid developments, dating back to the 1990s. What strikes me about this paper is its claim that the massive stimulus-funded smart meter deployment triggered in part by stimulus funding, is a step in the wrong direction, since it is likely to support a continuation of the existing reliance on carbon-based baseload generation, centralized & vulnerable grids, and outdated utility/regulatory business models rather than to support a truly intelligent and sustainable system of micro-grids, distributed renewable generation and more localized and democratic control of energy systems. I was also positively impressed that Schoeckle made key references to the work of Amory Lovins and Jeremy Rifkin, whose views on this topic I greatly respect.

    If you have time and interest, I’d appreciate your thoughts on the paper. I believe you already have my email address. Thanks.

  5. Roy Stacey

    Gee, I guess I will continue to kill untold generations by driving my 1993 Cadillac. I could have replaced it years ago, but why? It is paid for, has a smaller motor than many new offerings, and gets a reasonable 24 mph on the highway where most of its miles are obtained.

    Frankly, a $2 fed gas tax or even higher, might do much more to curtail demand, get people to replace their existing vehicles with ones more economical -assuming they can “afford it”- as those cell phone bills are a bitch.

    I have zero faith in our federal government to do anything more than spend inordinately on ‘defense’ to ‘save’ us from non-existent enemies when the clearest danger is from our own consumer lifestyle. Sure glad I’m one of those wrinkly boomers who won’t need to concern himself much longer with this stuff.

    • Michael Hoexter

      I think you are trying to be funny or charming. I don’t think our generations destroying the prospects of future generations for a decent life is a laughing matter….

  6. Exactly my sentiments about the 350 and other protesters. They’re full of complaints, but without many viable solutions. How about buying those proven reserves from the oil companies, requiring them to invest in alternatives?

    What kinds of alternatives?

    New Urbanist (mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly) neighborhoods can cut vehicle miles traveled roughly in half. If FNMA underwriting requred all new construction be like that, no more sprawl would be built.

    New Urbanist neighborhoods of 13 dwelling units/acre and more support transit, which burns roughly 1/8th the gas per passenger mile traveled.

    Insulating and conservation are economic *now*… no fancy batteries required, and these measures pay for themselves.

    Where would we get the money to compensate the oil companies for their $27 trillion in proven reserves? The same place we got the money to give the financial sector $16 – $29 trillion after Lehman Bros. declared bankruptcy.

  7. Hoexter takes issue with the criticism of Shell, by whom he refers to as the liberal-left. (By the way, terms should always be redefined by authors who use them, who and what are the liberal-left as you are describing them in this instance?)

    Hoexter says that the corporation is adults, but it is much more than a group of adults. Further, he says they sell product, and unconvincingly suggests that if they were asked to do otherwise, it would be like asking a baby not to be a baby.

    Well, how about going out of businees, like adults if that makes more sense, who realize they serve no purpose other then accelerating the destruction of our world? There is more profit and growth to be had, presumaby. What kind of adults are they then? Ones that poop if they can’t make money?

    Corporations are legally persons under the law, with rights far beyond those of human beings, including babies who automatically poop. Aside from totalitarian aspects of this legal arrangement, and it follows Democracy, policy is implicitly out of Obama’s hands and delivered by Shell. This is Chomsky’s argument, but it sounds much more convincing then undermining resistance in a way that at once sounds so dimissively arrogant.

  8. Lewis Gannett

    I’m delighted that Michael Hoexter gives a thumbs up to The Climate Mobilization, the U.S.-based group working for WWII-scale mobilization to end use of carbon-based fuels (I am a member of TCM). But Hoexter’s Bill McKibben complaints puzzle me a bit. Sure, it’s critical that we reduce demand for fossil fuels, and that we confront the necessary lifestyle changes (it reminds me of excellent Mexican complaints about the American War on Drugs: “If you’d just stop buying the damned drugs, the cartels would disappear”). But since when has McKibben denied that consumerism needs a crash diet? Meantime, what’s wrong with focus on extraction and government facilitation of it? Shouldn’t we take advantage of such great big fat obvious targets? By virtue in part of its simplicity, “Keep it in the ground” is a very powerful message. Hoexter is quite right to frame the climate crisis in moral terms, and to point out that President Obama fails that test. It’s a point that can’t be made too loudly: climate change is the most profound moral test of our times. Right on!

  9. Fair points, but I want to speak up in defense of the power of pricing to draw forth new usage patterns and technologies. Walmart completely transformed the supply chains for physical goods by reducing the cost of labor and materials (for better or worse). Imagine what they could accomplish if they turned their cost-cutting eye of Sauron onto energy costs (like if we had a huge carbon tax). Every important choice families make would be pushed in the right direction on the margin, e.g. on the square footage of housing they buy, where they live and work, whether to put their home improvement dollars into insulation or granite counter-tops, etc.

    But you’re absolutely right that prices alone won’t solve everything. For one thing, there’s a role for government in speeding along the development and commercialization of new technologies like batteries and so forth. Second, and more importantly, carbon pricing doesn’t really work for controlling the effect of land use on GHG emissions. I mean, you would have to do an annual tree census or something and charge people a carbon tax for reduced biomass! No, you really would need pretty direct government regulation of land use to tackle climate change. I am not looking forward to that conversation in the national policy sphere.

  10. Annette Schneider

    You have covered a lot of relevant points in this article. I think that it is a case, not so much that the “Heroic Abstention/Heroic Blockade” stops us focussing on more practical solutions, but that we climate activists read too much science and have the imagination to picture the future, or rather the lack of future. I have a friend in the climate movement who has been arrested many times for blockading. He is an Emeritus Professor of Astrophysics and he imagines that the future inhabitants of this planet may be insects and reptiles. We have many more of these highly educated people in “Front Line Action on Coal” who are willing to lock or chain themselves to mining machines or occupy premises of fossil fuel lobby groups.

    Despite boundless incentives to involve myself in the more sensible and socially acceptable transition to renewable energy (a member of my family is just patenting a new ocean wave power device), I can still see no solution which will give us the slightest chance of a future other than insisting on a complete halt to the use of the more damaging forms of fossil fuel like coal, tar sands and unconventional gas. Conventional oil extraction is more acceptable to me, but only if it is used as a transition fuel and in limited supply. We must not drill for oil in the Arctic because without the pressure to change we will not change.

    Don’t you agree that political change must come from the ground up? How are we to mobilise people to take themselves out of their comfort zone if we are not prepared to do it ourselves? It is not just a lifestyle change that our civilization is in need of, it is a citizen driven mobilization. It is not the loss of our civilized comforts that we are risking; we are, as most educated and aware people know by now, on a trajectory to the extinction of all large lifeforms on the planet. Not only will most of our children die from drought, fire, famine, superstorms and floods, but the melting of the ice caps is putting strain on the planet which is causing more severe volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

    We do not have the time for gradual change, in fact the inevitable meltdown of the global economy is one of the occurences which may save our species. I have nothing against the transition to renewables, just do it quickly, people, or we will not have the power to cook our meals and keep a light on in our homes when the crash comes. The golden days are over. If any members of our species survive the murder/suicide we are engaged in with our “business as usual,” how do you think they will remember us? I’m facing the courts in a couple of weeks for locking myself onto a railway track and allegedly stopping 14 coal trains. At least I can say that I gave it my best shot. Go get ’em, , Greenpeace and everyone who gives a damn about anything other than their next paycheck.

  11. Nick Palmer

    Michael Hoexter. Firstly, I don’t recognise what you have taken from the publishings of 350.0rg as an accurate representation of their whole position. Secondly, your argument seems to be based on assumptions that “demands of the economy will trump all” therefore we can’t modify it. Try a little thought experiment. Imagine that there were no available alternative sources of energy, or they would be way too expensive to support this type of consumer society, yet the science, as now, still said that continued creation of excessive greenhouse gases would, in due course, severely mess things up for civilisation. If the conventional demands aka greeds of the people continued, we would have an irrational situation develop unless those demands were greatly modified either by law, dawning moral comprehension or force.

    Perhaps the last few decades since the yuppy “greed is good” generation arrived on the scene have warped the perceptions and theorising of economists. We have seen consumerism-as-lifestyle grow exponentially, driven by economic ideas that the market is everything and the massive growth of pyschology driven advertising, design and marketing professionals – all responding to, and profiting from, a “demand” but an insane, irrational, ultimately disastrous demand.

    You wrote:

    “While the leaderships of the oil companies are adults, to ask the oil companies to foreswear sale of their core products, before the general population foreswears their use, is a little like telling a baby not to poop in its diapers”

    Perhaps if we altered this analogy by bringing the age of the infant up to about 2 or 3 – the mental age of the mass of consumers, whose needs have been infantilised into greeds by the aforementioned irresponsible professionals, we might think it easier to teach a child of that age not to poop until the time is appropriate or it will suffer consequences.

    The TV series “Life on Mars” had the premise that, for all the problems back then, the hero ultimately chose to live back then rather than now because life was more genuinely satisfying. If one looks at the Earth footprint site one can see that their calculations indicate that we “passed sustainability” in, you guessed it, the 70s before yuppie ideology dawned and swept all rationality away.

    Would it be too much to ask to instruct the terrible two year old (aka the modern consumer bamboozled by admen and manic marketeers who in turn take their validation from economists) that restricting demand for a while to the level it was in the early 70s might help, until innovation, ingenuity, efficiency blah blah blah improved the supply of genuinely needed goods and we could regain what some might think of as lost ground?

    BTW, is the J Christensen commenting here late of Jersey? If so, hello John from Nick!

  12. Robert Guercio

    I stink it’s much simpler. Bill knows we have to stay on offense and we should not kowtow to politicians who want to do the right thing and kinda do it. They do not deserve awards. And the Shell deal in the arctic is a BIG deal. It’s breaking into Unchartered waters. And for that reason alone it is an egregious offense. As far as corporations being legally bound to produce profit… They are ethically and morally bound to produce profit not in the short term but in the long term. And for those corporations willing to forsake the future to appease the now they deserve everything coming to them. Shortsightedness is not leadership! And the leaders of large companies better start getting the message that if they can not see around the curvature of the earth to the next age dawning then they better start hiring people who can. The reality is volatility will soon set in on companies with short term memory complex. Not to worry, they will not suffer… It is their shareholders and stakeholders that will inevitably pay the price.