As I watched Richard Engel’s “On Assignment” program last night, which focused on the unmitigated ruthlessness in the rise and fall of ISIS in the Middle East and beyond, once again the human capacity for violence and even the creation of a cult of death collided with my sense of how good and brave people can be. Despite the growing immediacy of the climate emergency, we also see the growth of movements proclaiming various forms of violent racist xenophobia, from the death cult of ISIS to the cult of hatred and violence spewed by white nationalists in the U.S. and Europe.
I had just read an article by Michael Mann, a friendly critique of Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal. Of course, these two stellar public intellectuals come at the existential threat of climate chaos from very different backgrounds.
Michael E. Mann is one of the top climate scientists in the world, famous for his graphic rendition of exponential growth in the heating of the planet forced by the workings of the global corporate growth economy – the “hockey stick” of exponential growth. Mann envisions mounting broad institutional action to stem the tide of climate chaos.
Naomi Klein became a famous journalist by producing a series of books articulating the the essence of accelerating political-economic changes we experience today. In particular, her book, The Shock Doctrine, explains how “disaster capitalism” dominates and exploits vulnerable nations. Her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, stands as the go-to source for understanding the global political economy that continues to accelerate the climate crisis.
Mann’s problem with On Fire is that he worries that too great an emphasis on collective political protest that links the climate crisis with demands for economic and social justice risks, will alienate independents and moderate conservatives. These folks may be pivotal in mounting serious national climate action. But they may not be so progressive as to support the entire agenda of the Green New Deal. Besides, the Trumpists are sure to yell, “Socialism!” Well, they will do that anyway. However, I am not sure that trope has much traction these days.
Naomi Klein seems to take her argument a step further in On Fire. She pins her hopes on growing collective protest against inaction by the reactionary corporate state. She rejects “market mechanisms” such as cap and trade, which serve mostly to allow big polluters to dodge their culpability. Michael Mann is not so sure we should let such options go. He wants to “decouple” the climate action movement from the progressive social agenda. He also voices a couple of minor inaccuracies in Klein’s essays, but lauds her overall effort.
To Agree and Disagree
Well, I agree and disagree with both these important figures in the public discussion of how to stave off the most catastrophic consequences of the carbon emissions that are central to the global industrial-consumer economy. On the one hand, we should not reject any tactic that might contribute to climate action. On the other hand, some techniques may be more viable and quick to implement than others.
However, in neither case can we accomplish such a radical reduction in carbon emissions without a so far largely unanticipated radical reorganization of society around a very different energy-use regime. Merely rolling out renewable energy production to feed a continuing industrial-consumer culture will be far from enough change. If we look seriously at exactly how to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero in the next decade, we cannot do so without dismantling the corporate state, as we know it.
We have to face the fact that our corporate economy functions on absolute loyalty to the illusion of endless economic growth driven by fossil fuels, which is anathema to any meaningful climate action. It is also inherently inequitable, since, as Peter Kalmus so eloquently explains, the structural flaw in corporate capitalism is that “…money exhibits a gravitational attraction whereby wealth accrues more wealth.” The debt-based fossil-fueled corporate economy feeds a “black hole of wealth” for the few and growing poverty for the rest. A New Great Transformation of society, therefore, would necessarily entail reduction of social and economic injustices along with reduced carbon emissions, overproduction, and waste.
Violence or Community
Whatever path we take, a great deal of chaos and violence is likely to occur. That is where my reaction to Richard Engel’s reporting comes in. Humans are capable of not only vast creativity and kindness; they are also capable of unfathomable violence toward each other and the world around them. What climate-action path can we choose that will also minimize the violence and destruction likely under conditions of growing chaos? I cannot escape the conclusion that re-forming viable communities at the local ecological level may serve us best. Only when humans unite in groups of a size and mandate capable of engendering great cooperation, can we avoid the worst of the violence to come.