The Poverty of Environmentalism: II

A while ago, I read a post by Richard Heinberg on resilience.com titled, “You Can’t Handle the Truth,” after the famous line of Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie, “A Few Good Men.” Resilience.com is an excellent source for all sorts of analyses and opinion on the climate crisis, sustainability, and strategies for global-warming mitigation and adaptation.

Heinberg is an economist who has written a strong argument for The End of Economic Growth in his book of that name (New Society Publishers, 2011). He is one of a small group of economists who recognize the fatal flaws of neoclassical economics.

These “deviant” economists have criticized the dominant economic ideology of our time: endless economic growth (the Empire of Globalization) as the engine of human progress. Heinberg’s point in the resilience.com article is twofold.

First, most people know that something is terribly wrong with the economy, the climate, and our national and international political processes. Second, most who are aware, including most environmentalists, implicitly deny the depth and urgency of the problem.

Calif.Wildfires_Stuart_Palley-20140216_06

Unprecedented California Wildfires  ~  Wired.com

As we move toward a New Great Transformation of society forced by global economic growth, rife with unknowns, it is more difficult to “handle the truth,” than to figure out what the truth is. David Wallace-Wells’ article, “Time to Panic: The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us,” in the New York Times, got it right. The crisis is now and we have much to fear.

The Decline and Fall of Electoral Politics

The preference for “none of the above” was widespread in the 2016 electoral season. I characterized it as a fight between “The Charlatan and the Huckster.” Clinton was widely perceived as dishonest, not trustworthy, and beholden to Wall Street. While it is hard to imagine that she does not understand it, her interest in the climate crisis seemed weak and obligatory.

Clinton’s attitude exuded disinterest born of corporate affiliation. An interventionist Democrat, insufficiently interested in consequences of political or military action, she too often looked for clues as to “Who Should we invade next?” Her State Department was too quick to support the military coup that overthrew democratically elected President Manuel Zolaya of Honduras. But her greatest weakness was the portrait the extreme right painted of her as dishonest.

Trump, the certified narcissistic sociopath who deployed his demagoguery very effectively, played on the fears and resentment of many Americans in a time when many had lost ground in seeking the American Dream. Michael Moore predicted he would win because Moore knew the attitudes of the American working class. Trump’s Tropes pandered to white working-class resentment of economic and social power-loss by focusing on hate, bombast, Hillary bating, and climate denial.

You Can’t Build a Wall to Keep Out Climate Chaos

The narcissistic sociopath continues his demagogic climate denial while he diverts attention from ubiquitous corruption in his administration by fear mongering demands to “build the wall” on our southern border. His “M.O.” is to double down on whatever inanity he last spoke. At least with Hillary, we would have had a relatively stable (in the very short run) period of business as usual as the climate crisis built.

Now, after two years, corruption prevails and Trump’s henchmen continue dismantling any federal program that either protects the environment in some small ways or protects the people from damage by the corporate state and its empire of globalization. The crisis deepens from the failure of national and international action to counter the destructive forces of deregulation, extreme inequality, and climate chaos. What’s a citizen to do?

As Bruno Latour puts it in his book, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime (Polity Press, 2018), we desperately need to rethink the role of humans on planet Earth and learn new ways to inhabit the Earth. The alternative is societal collapse.

The Poverty of Environmentalism: I

Environmentalism is stuck at a crossroads. A couple of years ago, I went to Denver where I presented a paper titled, “Calculating Survival: The Role of the Social Sciences” at the Summer Seminar of the National Social Science Association (NSSA). In the paper I argued that the biggest problem with climate change is not technological, it is sociological. We have all sorts of technical means of reducing carbon emissions, But we seem at a complete loss regarding how an entire society could possibly implement them.

Colorado Rocky Mountains_google.images

Rocky Mountain High

The green slopes of the Front Range near Denver contrast strongly with Santa Fe’s sparse green of our late summer “monsoon season.” Neither will survive our failure to attack accelerating climate disruption aggressively to achieve net-zero carbon in the biosphere. Everyone seems to think “they” will take care of the problem.

 

The NSSA is an association of social scientists most of whom teach in community colleges and universities. They work on diverse problems in the social sciences and emphasize effective teaching and learning strategies. My paper argued that the problem of mounting an adequate effort at climate action is not really a matter of technology; it is essentially a problem of societal transformation. That is the purview of the social sciences, which have not done much at all to illuminate this issue. How can we instill widespread recognition of that fact if the public discussion of climate policy focuses on pie-in-the-sky new technologies?

Stagnation of Vision

Nothing much has changed in the last couple of years, except for more dire warnings from the IPCC and from diverse scientists studying various impacts of climate destabilization. Environmentalism is still mostly in bed with the Corporate State. Most climate-crisis discussions focus on new energy technology and ignore the deep changes in society and culture needed to reach critical emissions reduction targets.

Some supposed environmentalists call themselves “eco-modernists” because they believe that we can have our modern industrial economy and “manage” the environment too. They emphasize replacing carbon-intensive purchases with products that have a low carbon footprint. They imagine that we can “decouple” modern economic growth from the climate the same way the industrial system sustained its growth for 200 years: technological innovation, new materials, and new product development. I don’t think they pay much attention to the numbers. Such sci-fi technologies are long-shots with little prospects for success. Even if they could be developed, we just do not have time to wait. Climate chaos is now and it is rapidly accelerating.

We do not have the time to do a lot of high tech research and development. We must reduce carbon emissions and restore diverse ecosystems around the world within the next decade if we are to have a chance of at least partly re-stabilizing the climate and the ecosystems that depend on it. If we do not, widespread crop failures, starvation, climate-refugee migration, resource wars, and societal collapse will follow.

Societal Change Like You Would Not Believe

To get there from here will require deep societal change, not new technology. In fact, we must rapidly revive and update a wide range of technologies that do not rely on heavy energy inputs, while we quickly “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it.

What we need is exactly the opposite, for example, of Bill Gates’ imaginary new-technology, some “energy miracle” he wants rich nations to invest in order to keep the pace of the high-energy globalized economy. Actually, neither we nor the planet can afford such utopian dreams. Gates has assembled a collection of some of the world’s richest billionaire “entrepreneurial philanthropists.” I call them “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club.” He wants the 20 richest nations to collaborate with them to fund research and development of new high-tech energy production systems. They are way off base. [See my article on Bill Gates’ Big Mistake, for the details.]

We will resolve the climate crisis not by racing further down the same energy-intensive path that caused the problem. We have appropriate technologies; we must conserve energy, consume less, and reduce our carbon footprint now. We are unlikely to achieve the necessary deep cuts in carbon emissions unless we face the fact that it will require comprehensive changes in how we live, work, and produce, profound changes we have still not yet acknowledged. The “Green New Deal” is at least a conceptual step in the right direction.