Local Left-wing Climate Denial and Climate Defeatism
I live in the Bay Area and am active in some local groups nominally committed to fighting climate change. California’s state government has stated its commitment to climate action and has recently passed a raft of measures that certainly express good intentions with regard to reducing emissions, though lack specific and binding mechanisms to achieve those goals. Local activists seem to want to maintain a certain level of ignorance about state policy and politics, though some of them, I have heard, slip away to lobby state government. There is no direct “street” pressure on state government to do more on climate other than a general “anti-fossil fuel” message, which in Sacramento politics is at least the stated intention of many Democratic lawmakers. As I noted a recent piece of mine critical of the climate movement’s genteel approach to climate action, climate action is defined as saying “NO” to various fossil fuel industry practices (fracking, oil trains, and now coal trains) but leaving out mention of the fundamental switch, from fossil to non-fossil energy sources and government’s role therein. How to stop in the most realistic and shortest time-frame California’s fossil fuel addictions in the areas of transport, heating and electricity generation are left mostly on a different “track” than the anti-fossil fuel industry message and the local dangers of oil or coal trains that captivate local activists. There is no public dialogue about further-going policies between Sacramento and the climate movement that involve HOW to transition to a non-fossil fuel dependent society; this is seemingly left to insiders or self-selected or hired policy wonks with the time and means to lobby government.
Over the past 9 months I put together a series of demands that would support the “NO”s that interest local activists but would also push the dialogue between the grassroots and the state government with regard to emissions-cutting actions and policy. I call this the “California Climate Platform”, a draft of which I will publish shortly. I thought that I would be able to interest activists in fighting for the “YES” demands that would actually reduce emissions from their and California’s economy. While after months of agitation in my spare time, there has been some uptake and interest in at least some of the abstract ideas in the Platform, the interest in full-bore activism to push the California state process further seems to be still a ways off, much to my surprise.
This topic is deserving of another piece of writing but it seems to me that there is a kind of left-wing and environmentalist climate denial at work in local activism here and I imagine elsewhere. Facing the fundamental switch of types of energy as well as changes in lifestyle related to conserving and then eliminating the use of fossil fuels, it seems as though local activists fall back on old and reassuring patterns of activism. Local activists seem to yearn for a framework where the evil-doers are conveniently distant and far-away and one’s own purity is assured. In my view, a recognition of the scope of climate action means reckoning with one’s own culpability along with the more profound responsibilities of the extractive industries for funding climate denial and encouraging stasis or half-measures on climate. It also means initiating some potentially uncomfortable interactions with other people, who, for instance, are driving their SUV’s or other highly polluting vehicles and don’t want to entertain any disturbing thoughts while doing so.
It appears that the dominant tendency has been to pour the unique and massive climate “problematic” into the reassuring but misleading templates of left and traditional environmental activism. This means avoiding exactly those uncomfortable confrontations with oneself as well as with other people who must now face “the music” individually and collectively with regard to our consumption patterns predicated on the use of fossil fuels. The words “climate change” are occasionally injected into leaflets or educational presentations but there is no specific politics that is being advocated on a regional, state or national level other than a “NO” to fossil fuel companies, as bogeymen, and the newer more extreme extraction processes.
Within the context of an activist community that then, in my view, seems reluctant to engage in activism that might reduce emissions in a direct and measurable manner, I have much to my chagrin heard some people engage in catastrophizing with regard to the climate, on public email lists. Not having started the fight to cut emissions by fighting for proposals that really cut emissions, these individuals have seen fit to spread panic and self-doubt in the context in which, I would hope, they would be stirred or stirring others to address the climate emergency. While some of the “usual suspects” within the group have started these discussions, people whom to me seem to have a fragile or non-existent understanding of the climate problem or are difficult personalities, the group seems not to have an active “immune system” with regard to climate defeatism and it is accepted by these activists as also a “climate activist” thing to discuss.
Now if this community had indeed been fighting hard for workable proposals that would cut emissions and were experiencing adversity in that struggle, I wouldn’t have a problem with occasional expressions of despair. In my view, people would have “earned” their moments of self-doubt and have had a context within which rational fears and analyses of our dire situation could be discussed. In my view, devoting activist time and energy to pushing against and calling “foul” on fossil fuel companies does little to lead to the technology and lifestyle changes required to emit less carbon; those companies will interfere with efforts to institute such changes in civil society and the economy but limiting one’s politics to “negating” what those companies do will not lead to the movement proposing those changes. The transition away from fossil fuels contains key creative dimensions that do not spring entirely from the activity of resistance or quasi-resistance, in this case protesting the various transportation, extraction and refining projects of fossil fuel companies.
The injection of “climate defeatism” before the fight is even joined is corrosive, especially coming from people who style themselves as experienced or dedicated climate activists. Some of the problem is in comprehension as people do not want to learn about realistic emissions cutting measures, especially as regards carbon dioxide, a confrontation with what might be termed the “socio-technical” nature of building a society with net zero carbon emissions rapidly. They prefer, it would seem, to tell an old story of oppression of one group of people by another or, exploitation of one group by another.
Social Media Defeatism: Telling it Like it Is…Isn’t
The well-known young journalist and entrepreneur Ezra Klein, founder of Vox published probably the most widely read climate defeatist “manifesto” in 2014, which predicted that the US and the world would fail to manage runaway climate change. Klein listed seven reasons for failure that, as one might expect, were not enunciated from a “voluntarist” type of stance that I am recommending here. In his seven points, Klein, in my view, tries to show himself to be “hardheadedly realistic” by pointing out how difficult climate action will be, even if the will to act can be mustered. Joe Romm presented a fairly thorough debunking of Klein’s pessismistic take on climate change on his blog Climate Progress hosted by the Center for American Progress. Romm has always been more of voluntarist than Klein.
For a young journalist, Klein has achieved a lot and has certainly made a lot more money than many journalists have at any stage of their careers. In my observations of him when he has appeared on television and also in his writing he comes across as a smart but also a somewhat chameleon-like or bland personality, who in a savvy manner knows how to market news rather than make it himself. Vox, his web-based news magazine, functions at times as a stenographer for Democratic Party orthodoxy with a new, “hip” Millenial fillip or twist. He is not someone who sees himself as making history, which is perhaps an OK stance for someone who is supposed to report the news rather than shape the news.
Beyond Klein, who is a professional newsman/editor/reporter, I have run into a few, to me, surprising instances of climate defeatism among some very knowledgeable people with whom I interact, largely, on social media. The commonality among the individuals involved is that they see themselves as functioning as connoisseurs of left-leaning and climate-related news and are quite sophisticated consumers of and quasi-aggregators of that information for others.
I am not going to go into detail about these encounters to attempt to shield these individuals but what I want to point out is that the reasons they give are rational if self-serving for their defeatism or passivity. I would say, as a generality that these individuals are so tuned to absorbing “correct” information and appearing to be savants of some kind that “voluntaristic” risk-taking in the area of advancing controversial positions, i.e. taking a stand, appears unattractive to them. I think intuitively, given that to them and to many others being an activist is still “uncool”, that there are many, many people who have fallen or can fall into this particular position, ranging from quiet withdrawal to sybaritic decadence that accelerates the deterioration of the climate and related planetary systems.
The commonality between Klein and these social media friends of mine may be that they all have a slightly distanced view of the impinging reality which they are quite capable of chronicling in a great deal of detail. They may be captives of their own ability to absorb information but not to assert their perspectives and wishes upon that complex reality that they so lovingly track via various news sources. They are missing, in my view, that social reality is created anew every moment rather than reproduced from facts that are always necessarily of the past. This performative nature of social reality (not in the sense of a stage or rehearsed performance as some use the term but in its original linguistic sense) may elude them in part because their attention to details of what has already taken place. I personally value that attention to detail and to facts but apparently one can also lose sight of one’s own and others’ agency (ability to do) in becoming lost in detail.
Ultimately, without reasonable hope for a better life and the enactment of that hope in social movements and government policy, we will start to see social disintegration and spontaneous anti-social acts of various kinds, originating from, at first, those who are so inclined or who have less to lose in the short term by committing those acts. At the top too, as has already been the case in the neoliberal era, we will see a decreased ethic of leadership and “setting a social example” as a survivalist mentality takes over. Many of our leaders in the US are already using their performance in office as “auditions” for lucrative role in the private sector or on the corporate/governmental speaking circuit when they retire at a young or not-so-young age. If people no longer care about social rules, especially among ordinary and disenfranchised people we may see an increase in both bottom-up and top-down authoritarianism as a counteracting force that will be largely in vain as a means to contain social despair and anti-social acts without offering some realistic new form of hope for people.
Why I am Not a Climate Defeatist
As the forgoing suggests, climate defeatism as a (limited and temporary) self-protective strategy can be rational for individuals in isolation though fundamentally immoral. Given the decades of inaction and therefore the mounting task ahead, it is understandable that some will, in their relative isolation, toy with “giving up” and try to live a “private life”-only in our era of looming climate catastrophe. Others may attempt to share their defeatist attitudes with others or attempt to discourage aggressive climate action because it confirms their personal feelings of defeat and despair.
I will briefly review here why I am not a climate defeatist, even though I am not meaning here to claim that I am in some way exemplary or worthy of emulation. These are reasons that anyone can adopt as their own:
- People have the capacity to anticipate and plan. The climate catastrophe is fundamentally a failure to plan, given the largely foreseen consequences of fossil fuel use that were gradually recognized as fundamentally destructive starting in 1969 with much resistance from the fossil fuel industries. This failure can be overcome, in part by timely action and planning.
- Most people have the ability to empathize with others to some degree. Valuing the experiences of those already affected by climate change and, more particularly with global warming, the young and future generations will require a development of empathic capacity beyond what is now cultivated in our contemporary society.
- Most people want to think of themselves as good people or a source of good within the larger human community. They often then would comply with rules that would be preservative of the earth if they understood them to be good rules that made them good people and had good effects. Such good or better rules should be instituted by governments as part of mobilizing for climate change.
- With an incentive to learn either via noticing the dangers of a changing climate or a rising movement to prevent or ameliorate those changes, most people will be able to comprehend what is required of them and of political leaders to take the necessary steps to transition to a net zero carbon-emitting society. There is basic but no advanced science or technical knowledge to understand the fundamentals that would be the basis of effective climate policy.
- Human beings now have the ability to intervene in weather and climate processes, i.e. higher risk geoengineering, in ways that will have some unwanted side effects but will buy some time, especially with regard to the effects of extreme heat on people and on the geo-systems at or just above the surface of the earth. These geoengineering techniques can so far do little for ocean acidification. Geoengineering is not a solution to fossil fuel dependence, local pollution from fossil fuel related processes and combustion, nor exhaustion of finite fossil fuel reserves. In sum, higher-risk geoengineering is not a silver bullet and not perfect yet we find ourselves in a highly imperfect situation. Also, the assumption of the environmental movement that some pre-industrial Eden can be restored, is at this point in time counterproductive: we do live irrevocably, until the collapse of our civilizations or extinction as a species, in the Anthropocene. However unlike the theories of ecomodernists, moral commitments and climate ethics are integral to shaping the Anthropocene, i.e. making it better.
- We now have the technological tools to eliminate anywhere from 70% to 90% of the carbon emissions from advanced industrial societies without substantial conservation efforts. Adding in conservation efforts and some lifestyle changes we can achieve a net zero carbon emitting society within 15 to 20 years in most national economies. Technological innovations are not necessary though might make some aspects of life more pleasurable or reduce emissions further, faster.
- The fiscal tools of the modern state, discovered in the middle of the 20th Century by Keynes among others, enable the conscious and potentially democratic transformation of monetary value in day-to-day transactions by the creation of public goods through public spending and the diminishment of public bads via taxation and rule-making as well as the more conventional setting of interest rates. These fiscal tools can be deployed with sufficient political pressure to create the net-zero carbon infrastructure needed to reduce or eliminate the climate threat in a timely manner. There is no shortage of money given the political will to deploy that money-power to rescue humanity and civilization.
- While neoliberalism and the growing plutocracy in many developed and rapidly developing nations has undermined the legitimacy of political institutions it is still rare that the political servants of plutocrats can rule without some form of social contract and semblance of democratic seal of approval, however faint and corrupted. The requirement that leaders obtain some form of legitimation from the populace means that there is room for a climate movement to demand that governments act to preserve humanity and civilization via effective climate action. Almost nowhere on earth now is there a completely authoritarian or totalitarian regime with the possible exception of North Korea that can confidently remain in power without attempting to gain popular support. So there is almost everywhere room for a voluntaristic climate movement to make a difference and galvanize support.
Some climate defeatists may find all of the above as looking at the world “through rose-colored glasses”. I would challenge those individuals to look individually at each of these bullet points and to judge whether they are unrealistic ideas only in the sense that they do not support a depressive world-view, a view within which perhaps that would-be climate defeatist may be enmeshed. One feature of the depressive view of the world, is that one’s own agency is counted as irrelevant to the meaningful course of events.
In the end, I maintain that climate defeatism is a choice, a choice that some are entitled to make. However, I believe that choice should remain a private one, not because it contains so much dangerous “truth” but because to promote that orientation to the world is tantamount to a form of evil at this point in history. As I have already stated, climate defeatists remove human agency from the picture for a variety of reasons and from a variety of angles. If we seek to restore or hold onto meaning in our lives, we have no choice but to fight together the climate catastrophe that we have caused and transform the energy basis of our societies.