Sunday, November 30, 2014

Capitalism vs. the Climate

The title above is the subtitle to Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything (Simon & Shuster: 2014). Though it’s not as pathbreaking as Klein’s previous book The Shock Doctrine, it’s still a much-needed review of what global warming really means and what really must happen if an earth hospitable to humans is to have a fair chance of survival. In a nutshell, if our earth is to continue as a human home, capitalism has to go. Or change. Or go through a mutation that would mean it was no longer the profit-driven, growth-mad capitalism we know. This is because the logic of capitalism, especially the “grow-or-die” paradigm that drives modern corporations to put profit and growth above all other concerns including life on earth, is proving to be—especially concerning the fossil fuels that are its engine—hostile to civilization, humans, and life on earth generally. As we all know (except for some of the ‘denialists’ in our U.S. Congress), burning fossil fuels like coal and oil produces an inevitable by-product: carbon dioxide. This has been happening at an accelerated rate since at least the 18th century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and its accumulated effects (a kind of CO2 bubble that traps warming air in the atmosphere) are now heating up the planet beyond anything seen since the dinosaurs. The Copenhagen climate conference of 2009 issued the warning that we now live with: if the accumulated warming of the planet exceeds 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), it will set in motion unstoppable changes in our climate like sea level rise that will be catastrophic to large swathes of the inhabited globe, not to mention drastically acidifying the oceans (making shells and coral unable to form). In short, anything over 2 degrees and we’re all cooked. The problem, as Bill McKibben noted in his recent book Oil and Honey (see my blog “Global Warming’s Big Three Numbers,” Oct. 23, 2013), is that the proven reserves of the major fossil fuel producers amount to about 2,795 gigatons, which they must, according to capitalism’s dictates, sell for burning. But in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees, the planet can only tolerate the burning of about 565 gigatons. That means that the fossil fuel companies would have to refrain from using 80% of the reserves that constitute their wealth; and more, they would have to stop doing what they’re now doing via fracking and tar sands and offshore drilling, i.e. adding to those burnable reserves.  So you can see the situation (and, as Klein vividly points out, the denialists do see it very clearly, which is why the Koch Brothers among others are spending small fortunes to deny and muddle and in any way discredit and short-circuit the science of global warming): it’s either capitalism as we know it, or life as we know it. One or the other has to go.
            Needless to say, this is a most dire situation. International corporations now rule the world. They control governments (like ours), international trade, and can keep and have kept individual countries from doing anything to save themselves (see my Nov. 10 blog, “Inmates Control the Asylum,” which discusses how the WTO ruled that Canada’s use of “buy local” standards to encourage its renewable energy industry was illegal, a restraint on trade). Trying to get them to agree to keep their assets (oil and coal) in the ground to benefit a vast planetary Other seems like the sheerest folly. And it probably is. As Klein puts it early on in her book,
..(this is) what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time (40).

What Klein lays out, however, is first, the urgent need to win that battle and keep that fuel in the ground; and second, the possibility that people power, whole districts, regions, nations of people, could make it happen if they joined forces. Pie-in-the-sky it may be. But what Klein is convincing in demonstrating is that there is no alternative. Either we change the way the world does business, or we die. And ‘changing the way we do business’ means far more than corporations simply refraining from using assets, or finally admitting that global warming is real and their products are responsible.  It means actually using some of their accumulated wealth, our accumulated wealth, to help the poorer nations develop. It means reparations—no other word fits the case, and the comparison with abolitionism and the more recent demands of African Americans is intended—from those who have done most to pollute the planet to those who have already suffered and stand to suffer more if nothing is done. It means paying the climate debt the developed nations owe for the three centuries of pollution by which they grew rich; it means, oh horrible word, redistribution. In other words, either the wealthy already-industrialized nations (Britain, the U.S., most of Europe, Canada) and their corporations agree to help (via donations or taxes, both of money and technology) the developing nations bypass the carbon-intensive stage of industrialization by going straight to renewables and mass transit; or, by refusing to help, guaranteeing that the mass burning of carbon-based fuels by those developing nations trying to catch up (India, China, Brazil, and countless nations in Africa) will push the entire planet into a warming trend that will doom us all. That is the analysis and those are the stakes in this ideological battle. It’s either continuing with the policy known as extractivism (mountaintop removal to get at coal more cheaply; fracking that pollutes precious aquifers; in short, a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth typical of capitalism); or moving to a policy and mindset of stewardship—that is, taking from the earth only in a way, common among indigenous peoples, that concerns itself with fostering the fertility of soil, plants, animals and the earth upon which all depends.
            And impossible as it seems, there are examples, as Klein points out, of small pockets of human communities beginning to do just this. She points to “transition towns,” for example, the first of which in 2006 was Totnes, an ancient market town in Devon England. In a movement that has spread to more than 460 locations in more than 43 countries, “each (transition) town tries to design what the movement calls an ‘energy descent action plan’—a collectively drafted blueprint for lowering its emissions and weaning itself off fossil fuels” (364). Town residents discuss everything from increasing food security through local agriculture to building more efficient affordable housing. Another example closer to home is Greensburg, Kansas. Devastated by a tornado in 2007, Greensburg was almost totally rebuilt by local government efforts on a “green” plan (406-7). The new buildings like the hospital, city hall, and schools have “all been built to the highest certification level issued by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.” The town has become a virtual laboratory for low-energy lighting, green architecture, waste reduction, and power generation via wind turbines that produce more than locals need. The other point of hope for Klein is the movement by Indigenous peoples to stop high-polluting energy projects like Alberta’s tar sands (by blocking the pipelines without which the dirty tar sands oil is useless) and hydraulic fracking. Klein cites two important rulings in Canada that offer this hope. First, in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia in 1997, the court “ruled that in those large parts of B.C. that were not covered by any treaty, Aboriginal title over that land had never been extinguished and still needed to be settled” (371). Native people there concluded that they still had full fishing, hunting and gathering rights to that land. In 1999, another ruling, the Marshall decision, established that when First Nations in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia signed “peace and friendship” treaties with the British in 1760, they did NOT
…agree to give up rights to their ancestral lands. Rather they were agreeing to share them with settlers on the condition that the First Nations could continue to use those lands for traditional activities like fishing, trading, and ceremony (371-2).

If these rulings were extended to cover the Alberta tar sands region, it would mean that Indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere would have veto rights over the use of their lands by corporations that, by their damaging extractive processes, make native use of that land impossible (what use are fishing and hunting rights in lands polluted by crude oil?). As Klein puts it, “No one has more power to halt the reckless expansion of the tar sands than the First Nations living downstream” (375).
            Klein of course has no illusions about how great a shift in power such a transformation (from extractivism to stewardship) would represent in our world. As she writes,
..moving to renewables represents more than just a power shift in power sources but also a fundamental shift in power relations between humanity and the natural world on which we depend. The power of the sun, wind, and waves can be harnessed to be sure, but unlike fossil fuels, these forces can never be fully possessed by us. (394, emphasis added.)

The point she is making, though, is that if we humans want to live in a hospitable world, in the world as we have known it for thousands of years, we have no choice. We must either change worldviews—from one based in the unbridled individualism that undergirds Western culture, that sees the earth and all other animals as exploitable, buyable objects unrelated to us, to a new/old view of the “collective, the communal, the commons, the civil and the civic” in which we see ourselves as embedded in, as continuous with the earth and all her creatures—or perish from our arrogance. In order to make this momentous shift, Klein, again employing the comparison with abolitionism (Chris Hayes first made this argument in a 2014 essay in The Nation, “The New Abolitionism”), insists that rather than using economic arguments (carbon trading, renewables are cheaper), climate activists must use moral arguments to define the struggle. She quotes David Brion Davis (historian, author of Antebellum American Culture):
“The abolition of New World slavery depended in large measure on a major transformation in moral perception—on the emergence of writers, speakers, and reformers, beginning in the mid-18th century, who were willing to condemn an institution that had been sanctioned for thousands of years and who also strove to make human society something more than an endless contest of greed and power.”

That, Klein writes, is what those who argue for sweeping changes in moral perception must do if humanity is to survive this latest threat. And indeed, they must do more than argue. They must use every tactic known and unknown—protests, blockades, sabotage, more—that will resist and overcome the money and corporate and national/international power that will be galvanized to oppose them. For it is already known to what lengths entrenched power will go to stop the people of the world from gathering, feeling, and exercising their strength to close the gap between rich and poor individuals, rich and poor nations. Abolition required a deadly Civil War after all. Here, though, the stakes are, if anything, far higher than ending the horror that was slavery. Here, the stakes involve the death and destruction of entire islands, entire populations, entire species, the planet as the life-giving source we depend on, that we, in fact, are. What, in the end, could be more crucial than that?

Lawrence DiStasi

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