Speaking the Unspeakable: Climate Reality vs Industrial Culture

Green.New.Deal_AOC.MarkleyThe Green New Deal (GND) may or may not have much chance as a framework for drafting realistic climate legislation. Not only does a slavishly Trumpist Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, defy Senate tradition and democratic principles to fight any proposal the president does not like. He and his Republican cohorts block anything the Democrats propose, just as they embodied the Congress of No in racist opposition to anything President Obama proposed, even ideas formerly floated by Republicans.

Deep Denial

But an even deeper problem underlies the probable fate of the Green New Deal, even if, perchance, the 2020 elections were to install a Jay Inslee as President and capture the Senate for the Democrats. On the one hand, over 600 organizations, including Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, and 350.org have signed a letter supporting the framework of the Green New Deal. However, in what may ultimately constitute a greater barrier to rational and necessarily extreme societal action to stave off the most severe consequences of climate chaos, including societal collapse, some of the largest environmental groups have refused to sign the letter supporting the Green New Deal.

Among the refusers, according to The New Republic magazine, were “the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Mom’s Clean Air Force, Environment America, and the Audubon Society. Two green groups founded by deep-pocketed Democratic celebrities are also absent: Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and Tom Steyer’s NextGen America.”

Techno-Industrial Culture

Why the resistance from the biggest environmental organizations? In part, these groups object to the exclusion of still unproven carbon-capture technologies from the GND plan. GND exclusion of “market mechanisms” that where tried profited polluting corporations able to manipulate carbon trading but failed to make a dent in carbon emissions, was also a factor. The Sierra Club expressed the need for a more “inclusive process.” Resistance by the non-signers seems to center around what the Green New Deal excludes, such as nuclear power, geoengineering, and market-based mechanisms for trying to limit or sequester carbon emissions.

Here’s the thing. For a long time now, the biggest environmental organizations have depended on the biggest corporations for much of their revenue. These organizations saw financial success by extracting small concessions for big donations. In effect, they were paid off to demand only changes that the corporations considered minor “costs of doing business.” Now they want technologies favoring big corporate interests, included in the GND. The biggest environmental organizations remain captives of the techno-industrial culture.

Most institutions in the U.S. remain captured by the culture of neoliberal economic theory, that is, the ideology of the mainstream economy, which asserts that all good things come from free corporate markets. The climate-denialist and techno-industrial ideologies have infiltrated even philanthropy, to the extent of biasing research funding toward a milder take on the dangers of climate change than demonstrated by hard scientific data.

Resistance to the GND results in part from the fact that the public discourse remains under the control of an ideology that frames the “climate problem” as “fixable” by conventional technologies and market mechanisms that the corporate and financial elites control. That is the stance of the so-called “environmental modernists,” who cling to the dying ideology of technological innovation and free corporate markets as the essence of human progress.

Societal Collapse

There is nothing comfortable about the most precise scientific predictions of climate chaos leading to societal collapse. Nevertheless, with a high degree of certainty, the data show that the self-amplifying processes of system breakdown built into existing and forecasted planetary effects of global warming brought on by the overconsumption inherent in the industrial era. These processes will force the collapse of financial, political, economic, and ecological systems, and finally of society itself, all of which humans depend on for survival and comfort. If we try to hold onto our unsustainable comfort, we will lose the battle for survival.

Collapse is simply outside of the lexicon of big environmental organizations, no less most of the members of Congress or the American population. Nevertheless, the facts of destabilizing changes in climate, global finance, and politics, all foretell an extremely uncomfortable near future approaching human extinction, unless we undertake radical uncompromising climate action now.

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.