Revolution is not a runaway train but the application of the emergency brake. It is capitalism which is anarchic, extravagant, out of hand, and socialism which is temperate, earth-bound and realistic. – Walter Benjamin
The discourse of global warming flows with terminology that is born from the existing economic system, which is driven to quantify and financialize nature: ecosystem services, biodiversity offsets, carbon offsets, carbon credits, carbon footprints, carbon swaps, cap and trade, subsidies, penalties, tax incentives, tax credits, climate accords, reduction targets, protocols, investments in renewables, green jobs, green new deal, energy transition, fourth industrial revolution, and so on. It is an approach that has a long history, as the English elite in the 17th century also argued that the enclosures that dispossessed commoners would allow for better preservation of natural resources. While proponents of this approach accuse defenders of the status quo of being “in denial of the science,” they themselves are in denial about what needs to be done to put an end to the fossil fuel economy, assuming the matter is as urgent as they claim. The denial can also be found among radical socialists who assume a drastic reduction of fossil fuel emissions can be managed while material progress continues. It may be possible, but the results of that experiment are yet to come.
In the prevailing neoliberal economic order, the belief in a particular definition of freedom is so deeply rooted that solutions to even the direst crises have to be framed in a way that does not encroach on this value—the freedom to get rich, the freedom to buy whatever one can, the freedom to “make something of yourself” (the self-made man syndrome), the freedom to take big risks to gain a big reward. This deeply held value is of course extended from the individual level to gangsterism, to business enterprises and to multinational conglomerates.
Thus the approach to global warming, an emergency that apparently requires drastic action within a decade, is to tweak human desires and market demands, and use incentives and regulations to move the economy in the right direction so that the present system gently slides into a new “green” economy with little disruption to our lives. Even if this approach could work, we must recognize that there is only an illusion of freedom involved. This new regulatory system of rewards and punishments masks the loss of freedom that happens as citizens are herded down a path chosen by an elite that is hoping to profit from this supposed next industrial revolution based on the phasing out fossil fuels.
Veteran energy journalist Andrew Nikiforuk pointed out in a recent article that both the business-as-usual approach and the green-new-deal approach fail to grasp the severity of the problem. The numbers just don’t add up:
To appreciate the ambitious scale of the GND, consider the real global energy picture as set out by Tad Patzek, a professor of petroleum and chemical engineering in Texas. If we divide the days of the year up based on total energy use, he writes, fossil fuels—oil, coal and natural gas—powered the globe for 321 days in 2018. (Fossil fuels provide more than 80 per cent of the energy we consume.) Dams and nuclear power kept the lights on for 15 days. Renewables or repeatables (solar panels and wind turbines need to be replaced every 50 years or so) only energized the globe for about 29 days. And most of that energy came from biomass or wood burning. The GND wants to turn 29 days into 321 days of primary power—in a decade.
Obviously, a radical energy policy would be necessary to reach this goal of 321 days. The green new deal is inspired by US President Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s, but some tend to forget that that program succeeded because the economy was oriented toward waging war and the exploitation of fossil fuels. It was a time when consumers didn’t have much to buy, and people sacrificed, suffered and died. So far the green new deal is being conceived as a gentle transition that will require none of the suffering and personal sacrifice of war, with no war measures, rationing, or submission to authoritarian rule. In the recent climate marches, no one carried banners saying “ration our gasoline” or “put a quota on our air travel.” Yet the need for urgent measures cannot be avoided. The necessary change has to be imposed equally on everyone. Presently, some people make voluntary sacrifices, but the majority look at their own and their neighbors’ wasteful ways and see no point in being the only person on the block to turn off the air conditioning or give up a business trip or vacation. Military spending and the lifestyles of the top 1% do even more to de-motivate the middle class and the poor from giving up the comforts they have. The reductions needed, if we truly have only a decade to turn things around, are much more than a gradual reduction of a few percentage points every few years. It is time to do what would really be necessary to slash fossil fuel consumption in industrialized countries.
So imagine the following as a possible agenda, and hold off on your outrage. It is intended to be provocatively extreme:
- Severely ration gasoline and heating fuel until we learn how much renewable energy can be produced and at what cost to the ecosystem, and what our energy “needs” truly are.
- Restrict the use of air conditioning.
- Nationalize all exorbitantly large residences and partition them for public housing.
- Nationalize all unoccupied residences to make them available for public housing.
- Retrofit buildings for energy efficiency, and redesign urban and suburban environments for high-density communal living.
- Nationalize major sectors of the economy: banking, natural resources, energy, health care, education.
- Eliminate first class and business class air travel and private jet travel.
- Ban non-essential air travel, travel to academic conferences, sports events, junkets etc.
- Ban cruise ship tourism.
- Ban international resort holidays and make citizens travel by train and bus on vacations close to home.
- Cut back on the use of laundry machines and dryers—do laundry by hand, or by the power of stationary bicycles that spin the washing drum.
- Restrict hours for television broadcasts and eliminate content that serves no valuable social function.
- Eliminate vending machines.
- Outlaw bitcoin mining because of all the electricity it consumes, make large cuts in the energy consumed by internet servers.
- Establish a democratic system of governance that will decide which important civil servants will have to travel by air, and which projects of construction and deconstruction require the exceptional use of fossil fuels.
- Establish a system of oversight and punishments for civil servants who abuse their powers.
- Eliminate advertising, parasitic financial services, and all non-essential commercial merchandise.
- Reduce plastic waste.
- Eliminate nuclear weapons.
- Eliminate nuclear power plants.
- Restore damaged ecosystems and manage polluted “sacrifice zones” as safely as possible.
- Stop producing nuclear waste and manage what exists in a responsible manner that will protect the ecosystem for 100,000 years.
- Reduce US military spending by 70%, and eliminate overseas US military bases and the antiquated concept of global imperial reach—other nations can de-escalate their military forces after the US comes down to a level of parity with them.
- Capture military capacities by popular revolt and rebellion in military ranks, then shift military policy to achieving the de-growth revolution, then to defending it from reactionary forces that want to re-establish the capitalist growth economy.
- Shift defense policy and international relations to helping other nations deal with refugee flows and domestic chaos, especially in the former petro-states which can no longer support their populations—large urban populations in places like Alberta and Saudi Arabia may be untenable.
- Re-educate citizens out of their habits of consuming non-essential goods and services and energy-intensive entertainment; educate them to engage in contemplative and artistic activities with the added leisure time they will now have.
- Prioritize equal distribution of the necessities of life. The era of de-growth could easily become an era of panic and fascist reaction, with more inequality arising from scarcity of resources.
- Reduce meat consumption by 50%.
- Send the newly unemployed, resulting from de-growth and de-carbonizing policies, to agricultural collectives for retraining and employment in the new low-energy-intensive agricultural and horticultural sectors of the economy.
- Divert human resources toward education, medical care, and equitable distribution of food and shelter and other essentials.
- Give proper ideological education to the masses to help them adjust to the new agrarian de-growth economy.
- Determine what minimal level of global transportation and communication links will be necessary to allow the peoples of the world to maintain peaceful relations.
- Establish a lifetime salary and social roles for all citizens during and after the period of upheaval. Everyone who can work must be given work.
- Eliminate competing political parties—there is only one party: the party of economic de-growth and de-carbonization—no competing, parties wanting to go back to the old ways can be allowed to form. Remember, it’s a matter of the survival of our species, isn’t it?
- Carry out severe penalties and re-education efforts for all dissidents who attempt to revert society to its former ways—such re-education will be aimed at those who hold onto antiquated notions of “freedom” involving ambitions to stay rich or get rich, gamble, or amass private power through private enterprises, gangsterism etc.
- Outlaw prostitution, pornography and surrogate pregnancy. Commodification of the human body is incompatible with an ideology that is against the commodification of nature.
- Educate boys and girls equally, and protect women’s reproductive rights. The population problem will resolve itself over the next century if this is done, without any need for racist eugenics policies.
- Focus agricultural policy on ending war, foreign interference and plunder of poor nations by wealthy nations. Famines have a long history. They occurred when the world population was much less than the present 7 billion. The “breeding habits” of certain peoples is not the problem.
- Revive the knowledge of indigenous people in order to teach respect for rocks, soil, water, all living things; live low-tech and in harmony with the environment and with all fellow creatures.
- And of course, the most urgent measure of all: ban the use of plastic straws!
It should be obvious that I have written these suggestions in order to provoke a reaction, to make it clear that they may be necessary but are also extremely unlikely to be welcomed, at least by people who are prospering, content with the status quo, or fearful of radical change. Everyone knows that revolutions run the risk of failing and descending into reactionary and counter-reactionary bloodshed, with the revolution discredited by the former ruling class’s propaganda once it gets restored. A displaced ruling class will shed any amount of blood in order to regain power. So I know this agenda will seem ludicrous to many, but if we “listen to the science,” it is what the facts of the situation demand.
Industrial civilization is not ripe for any such revolution also because there has never been a revolutionary situation like it. Revolutions of the past were driven by workers and peasants who wanted their share of what the owners had, and the use of energy resources was going to make it possible, which is why the first great national project Lenin wanted was electrification. In contrast, this next revolution would consist of the working class and everyone else asking to have less.
Nonetheless, we shouldn’t be too stressed out about losing our freedom, or at least our odd concept of freedom. As a saying goes, “It is in sickness that man becomes aware that he has limits and is not as strong as he imagines.” Gabor Maté has pointed out in his many lectures that it is life within our strangely free society that makes us sick. He notes, “50% of North American adults have a chronic illness, either diabetes or high blood pressure, or heart disease or cancer, or any number of auto-immune illnesses.” Thus it has got to the point where we can no longer say (and never should have said, actually) indigenous people lived miserable lives without modern health care and technology. We could actually be healthier in a post-fossil-fuel economy. We might need to adapt Hobbes’ dictum in order to realize that we must submit to a nature-protecting authority (or belief system) in order to avoid lives that will otherwise be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” under capitalism.
Gabor Maté reminded his audiences of another concept of freedom:
When Karl Marx talked about freedom, he talked about freedom in three senses of the word. Freedom for him was, number one, freedom from economic necessity, freedom from the threat to life, freedom from interference by other people, and the freedom to express yourself, to be yourself. That’s freedom. What freedom is there in this “free society,” the “free world,” the “freest society in history”? What freedom is there when people are not free of economic worry, where there’s tremendous uncertainty and fear, and lack of control? When people lack control over their lives, they have no freedom, and they’re physiologically stressed. When they’re physiologically stressed, that’s going to manifest in the form of illness.
The 20th century socialist revolutions adopted many of the measures listed above and experienced a mix of successes and failures with them. The Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions led to massive improvements in social welfare, life span, industrial progress and so on, but they had to carry out massive reconstruction efforts after wartime, and had to adopt repressive measures to react to internal and external counter-revolutionary forces—including hostile nations’ refusals to give food aid during famines, after which these same nations called the famines genocide. As a result, for citizens of capitalist countries, this repression became the single defining feature of socialism, which makes a socialist solution to global warming seem absurd to them—especially if they believe the myth that communism, not famines with complex natural and human causes, killed a hundred million, or a billion, or whatever number is conjured up so often by anti-communist zealots.
These revolutions have much to teach us about how to avoid their mistakes and copy their successes in rebuilding a society from the ground up, but even socialist China now lives with the contradiction presented by the need for a de-growth economy because it has invested so much in promising material progress to its citizens. The American socialist speaker and journalist, Caleb Maupin (whose knowledge of history is laudable) has great faith in humanity’s ability to progress beyond capitalism and find technological solutions to global warming. He finds it regrettable that not more is being done to develop fusion energy, but he appears to be ignorant of how it has repeatedly been the ephemeral hope of technocrats for decades but always fails to deliver. And even if it did, a consequence-free, limitless source of energy might create a new kind of nightmare. What would humans do to the planet if their appetite for energy met no limitations?
Many global warming activists underestimate the strength of the reactionary forces that would strike back at any gains made by an ecosocialist revolution. The entire 20th century was a civil war between capitalism and socialism, yet the lesson seems to have been lost on many now. The European Union recently declared that WWII was a victory over Soviet socialism, which it equated with fascism and blamed for being in an “alliance” with Hitler (a gross distortion of the non-aggression pact which came only after British and French rejection of Stalin’s offer to form an alliance against Germany). Some activists are asking no questions about the billionaires who have thrust a child to center stage of climate discourse and then hidden behind her, and they are marginalizing those who do ask questions, as if debate on this issue should not be allowed.
Activists need to see the stark choice that lies ahead. In this scenario, capitalism is the unstoppable force, and global warming is the immovable object. But citing this old paradox is not so clever because unstoppable forces and immovable objects cannot exist simultaneously. The paradox is flawed because it exists only in the minds of philosophers. If there exists an unstoppable force, it follows logically that there cannot be any such thing as an immovable object and vice versa. In the real world, the matter would be settled one way or another by an unstoppable collision, and when it comes to man vs. nature, nature always bats last.
Capitalism, under a green new deal or business as usual, will lead to collapse, war and chaos, and our eventual return to less complex ways of life. The choice is to let that happen, with all the risks of catastrophic war (including nuclear war) and social breakdown, or to launch the necessary revolution to mitigate the chaos that will come on the way to our destination—which is not the fourth industrial revolution but rather a post-carbon world littered with abandoned tailings ponds, plastic, oil wells and nuclear waste.
Democracy for the Transition out of Fossil Fuels
In 2018, the Canadian geneticist and ecologist David Suzuki spoke to an Australia vlogger and said the following about the ability of the Chinese government to act on environmental problems:
We worked with the Chinese government for three years in an area in Tibet, a big area the size of Italy, that is the source of four of the great rivers… They’re logging the hell out of it, so we worked for three years going to meet with officials and drinking and negotiating, then after that they trusted us. We were saying there are alternatives to logging. They understood that logging in the upper waters caused floods and all kinds of down downstream effects, so we convinced them that we have economic alternatives. They said, “OK, we agree.” Overnight the logging stopped! That’s what you can do when you don’t have a democracy, but I prefer a democracy. I really believe that, but it it’s only as good as how much people are going to be involved in it, and right now we’re not… We also have to live in a very different way. One of the major issues we have to face in the industrialized world is that we are the hyper-consumers on the planet.
What David Suzuki (a geneticists, not a historian or political scientist) fails to note here is that his assumptions about democracy in China are flawed. China has undertaken significant democratic reforms since the Mao era during a time when the Western democracies have undertaken none and come under the control of oligarchs, with inexperienced intellectual mediocrities often being elected as heads of state. In contrast, China’s system of governance has continued to evolve. It is a meritocracy in which the highly educated and competent rise to the top and policies are carried out consistently over many years. Meanwhile, at the lower levels, the reforms allow citizens to nominate and elect candidates at local, regional and national levels. Like all democracies, it is a work in progress. In any case, it is interesting that David Suzuki noted in this instance the ability of the Chinese system to act decisively without corporate interests obstructing the necessary environmental protection. In this interview he clings to a hope that Western democracies could be improved while he seems unaware that not everyone in the world believes Western liberal democracy is the pinnacle of achievement in systems of governance. If you doubt that other nations have evolved better forms of democracy, just ask yourself how Donald Trump ever could have become president if, as under the Cuban democratic model, an elected assembly had the authority to elect the head of state from a roster of qualified and experienced members who rose through the ranks of educational institutions and government.
China specialist Martin Jacques (author of the best-seller When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order) wrote:
… most Westerners still regard China’s present political order as lacking legitimacy and as ultimately unsustainable. In the post 1945 period, Westerners have come to believe that Western-style democracy—essentially universal suffrage and a multi-party system—is more or less the sole source of a government’s legitimacy. This is a superficial and ahistorical position. Western-style democracy does not ensure the legitimacy of a regime in the eyes of its people: Italy is perhaps the classic example, with successive governments over a long historical period experiencing a chronic lack of legitimacy. And what of China? Although it does not have Western-style democracy, there is plenty of evidence… that the Chinese government enjoys high levels of support and legitimacy, much higher indeed than those of Western governments.
As stated above, the salvation of the global ecosystem depends on the rise of single-party states that are founded on a de-growth, non-polluting political economy. If moving beyond fossil fuel is absolutely essential for species survival, then parties based on contrary ideologies could not be allowed. Thus China’s or Cuba’s forms of one-party democratic rule might be models that have something to offer to the world. China’s success is relevant also because its path was chosen as the way to rebuild after the complete devastation caused by decades of foreign domination and war. If the green revolution requires sacrifice, living with less and starting over from zero, surely the peoples who rebuilt after total war have something to teach to nations that lack that historical experience.
The ideas covered here were inspired by a book published in 2015 by Richard Smith entitled Green Capitalism: the God that Failed. I conclude with excerpts from the book. With the eyes of the world focused on the teenager Greta Thunberg, it’s a good time to remember the work of people who have been delivering her message since long before she was born. We are all children trying to fix the world left to us by generations past. We are all adults leaving the world to future generations. As a teenager forty-five years ago, I was appalled to learn how many nuclear warheads had been built. Everyone at some time in life wanted to say, “How dare you?” or “We will never forgive you!” but such sentiments are really beside the point—perhaps just a step in the loss of innocence. To quote Gabor Maté again, “Would you rather be illusioned or disillusioned?”
I’m not one of the bitter old men who denies Greta’s message and her anger, or resents the attention she gets, but my hope is that as Greta’s thinking evolves, she will break free of the people who brought her to Davos and join a revolution against them. The movement is yet to reach the moment of its tennis court oath.
Richard Smith, Green Capitalism: the God that Failed:
… it’s one thing for James Hansen or Bill McKibben of 350.org to say we need to “leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil, the gas under the grass,” to call for “severe curbs” in GHG emissions—in the abstract. But think about what this means in our capitalist economy. Most of us, even passionate environmental activists, don’t really want to face up to the economic implications of the science we defend. That’s why, if you listen to environmentalists like Bill McKibben, for example, you will get the impression that global warming is mainly driven by fossil fuel-powered electric power plants, so if we just “switch to renewables” this will solve the main problem and we can carry on with life more or less as we do now. Indeed, “green capitalism” enthusiasts like the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman and the union-backed “green jobs” lobby look to renewable energy, electric cars and such as “the next great engine of industrial growth”—the perfect win-win solution. This is a not a solution. This is a delusion. Because greenhouse gasses are produced across the economy not just by or even mainly by power plants. Globally, fossil fuel-powered electricity generation accounts for 17% of GHG emissions, heating accounts for 5%, miscellaneous “other” fuel combustion 8.6%, industry 14.7%, industrial processes another 4.3%, transportation 14.3%, agriculture 13.6%, land use changes (mainly deforestation) 12.2%.16 This means, for a start, that even if we immediately replaced every fossil fuel powered electric generating plant on the planet with 100% renewable solar, wind and water power, this would only reduce global GHG emissions by around 17%. What this means is that, far from launching a new green energy-powered “industrial growth” boom, barring some tech-fix miracle, the only way to impose “immediate and severe curbs” on fossil fuel production/consumption would be to impose an EMERGENCY CONTRACTION in the industrialized countries: drastically retrench and in some cases shut down industries, even entire sectors, across the economy and around the planet—not just fossil fuel producers but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions—autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more. Of course, no one wants to hear this because, given capitalism, this would unavoidably mean mass bankruptcies, global economic collapse, depression and mass unemployment around the world…
And the thought of replacing capitalism seems so impossible, especially given the powers arrayed against change. But what’s the alternative? In the not-so-distant future, this is all going to come to a screeching halt one way or another—either we seize hold of this out-of-control locomotive and wrench down this overproduction of fossil fuels, or we ride this train right off the cliff to collapse…
If there’s no market mechanism to stop plundering the planet then, again, what alternative is there but to impose an emergency contraction on resource consumption? This doesn’t mean we would have to de-industrialize and go back to riding horses and living in log cabins. But it does mean that we would have to abandon the “consumer economy”—shut down all kinds of unnecessary, wasteful, and polluting industries from junk food to cruise ships, disposable Pampers to disposable H&M clothes, disposable IKEA furniture, endless new model cars, phones, electronic games, the lot. Plus all the banking, advertising, junk mail, most retail, etc. We would have completely redesign production to replace “fast junk food” with healthy, nutritious, fresh “slow food,” replace “fast fashion” with “slow fashion”… All these changes are simple, self-evident, no great technical challenge. They just require a completely different kind of economy, an economy geared to producing what we need while conserving resources for future generations of humans and for other species with which we share this planet.
Other sources on this topic
Arnold August, Cuba and Its Neighbors: Democracy in Motion (Fernwood Publishing, 2013). From the book cover: “August illustrates how the process of democratization in Cuba is continually in motion and argues that greater understanding of different political systems teaches us to not be satisfied with either blanket condemnations or idealistic political illusions.”
Benjamin, Medea, “10 Ways that the Climate Crisis and Militarism are Intertwined,” Dissident Voice, September 26, 2019.
Butler, Phil, “On the Greta Effect: To Be or Not To Be Right,” New Eastern Outlook, October 2, 2019.
Kill, Jutta, “The Financialization of Nature,” Friends of the Earth, 2015.
Kunstler, James Howard, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation (Grove Press, 2013).
Morningstar, Cory, Wrong Kind of Green.
Orphan, Kenn & and Rockstroh, Phil, “Veritable Uprising or The (Faux) Real Thing™: Greta and Climate Activism in a Wilderness of Projections,” Counterpunch, September 30, 2019.
. In Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (John Wiley and Sons, 2009), xi.
. Andrew Nikiforuk, “The Green New Deal Battles Business as Usual. Both Will Doom Us,” The Tyee, August 21, 2019.
. Samuel Miller McDonald, “We Need a Fair Way to End Infinite Growth,” Current Affairs, October 1, 2019, “Since some fascists on the political fringe have begun to incorporate sustainability and material scarcity into their justifications for nationalist violence, there’s no reason to believe mainstream voices will side with a socialist postgrowth agenda over the fascist variety.”
. The quote has been attributed to Hacène Mazouz.
. Lawrence E. Wheelwright and Bruce J. McFarlane, The Chinese Road to Socialism: Economics of the Cultural Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 1970). For achievements of the Great Leap Forward, an explanation of the famine, and a counter-argument to the notion that Mao carried out a genocide of tens of millions of people, see pages 38-39, 43, 45-48, 60-62. See this leaflet for a summary of responses to common anti-communist assertions.
. Michael Jabara Carley, “The Canadian Prime Minister Needs a History Lesson,” Strategic Culture, September 1, 2019.
. Kerwin Rae, “Why it’s time to think about human extinction (interview with David Suzuki),” December 17, 2018, 53:50~.
. Salim Lamrani, “Five Questions and Answers Concerning the Presidential Elections in Cuba,” Global Research, May 5, 2018. This interview provides an additional information about how countries that are often condemned as undemocratic have evolved new forms of democratic governance.
. Gabor Maté & Aaron Maté, “America in Denial: Gabor Maté on the Psychology of Russiagate,” The Grayzone Project, May 7, 2019.