SENIOR ASSOCIATE EDITOR
The left is divided over several aspects of the climate debate. Indeed, even we in the editorial staff of the Greanville Post are divided. There is some overlap among the questions, but I would group them into two main categories:
• Is climate change real? How big and fast is it coming? Is there anything we can do about it? Is it already too late?
• Are some or all of the various “climate movements” being led by “green capitalists,” i.e., people who hope to make money from the crisis? What can or should be done about that?
This controversy has been intensified by the appearance of Greta Thunberg, who is leading millions of new activists but who herself perhaps is being led by “green capitalists.” (I put that term in quotes because they aren’t really green. Capitalism is inherently ecocidal, as I will explain later. ) (1) What are we to make of Greta Thunberg? Should we praise her, or condemn her? Is she offering a teaching/organising moment we radicals can use to put this growing movement on a true revolutionary path?
I will offer my opinions and thoughts on these matters, in mostly nontechnical language.
First, what biases do the scientists have? Well, a few scientists are in the pay of big corporations – indeed, we know that the oil companies lied to us for half a century (https://exxonknew.org/). But most scientists really are quite dedicated to the truth, and their main bias is a more modest one: They want to keep their jobs, so they don’t want to sound too “alarmist.” Thus, things actually may be slightly worse than most climatologists want to say.
Next, is climate change real? Well, I’m convinced it is. The temperatures in the last few years have been the highest since humans began keeping records. Parts of the Arctic are now on fire. The oceans have also been getting hotter and more acidic.
It’s true that the Earth has gotten hotter than this before. But the temperature has not risen this fast before – at least, not since the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.
Is the warming caused by human activities? That question is relevant only because if human activities didn’t cause the current warming, then it’s plausible that we humans can’t do anything to stop the warming either; some people take that as an excuse to do nothing. But climatologists are almost entirely agreed that the warming was triggered by human activities.
How big and fast is the climate cataclysm coming? The IPCC said we’re headed for “catastrophe” in this century unless we make major changes by 2030. My own estimate is that we’re headed for extinction by 2035 unless we make huge changes by 2025. Why is my position more radical?
• First, as I mentioned, scientists want to err on the side of “not being alarmist” because they want to keep their jobs. That effect is even greater in the case of IPCC, which is a bunch of scientists that have to satisfy a bunch of politicians.
• Second, every year there’s a new article that says “climatologists revise models upward again, because measurements show climate changing even faster than last year’s models predicted.”
• Third, although I’m not a climatologist, I’m a mathematician. I did research in differential equations for many years, and also I taught calculus dozens of times, so I understand feedback loops and tipping points better than most people. Climatologists have sometimes omitted these things from their models, and that’s serious.
A feedback loop is a process whose consequences turn into causes, and so the bigger the loop gets, the faster it grows. Second semester calculus tells us that feedback loops cause exponential growth. Take a look at the exponential curve – it may start off small and slow enough to be overlooked and denied, but after a while it’s enormous and growing explosively. There are several feedback loops in global warming, and some of them no longer depend on human activity – we’ll have to work extra hard to stop those. (For instance, warming melts the ice, replacing it with a darker surface, which absorbs more sunlight, hence more warming.)
And a tipping point is a threshold past which things change abruptly. (For instance, the Arctic has become warm enough that it has begun to release some of its immense store of frozen methane.)
Some people say that “nature will bounce back – she always does – she is resilient.” Sorry, but not this time. It’s true that a complex system, such as the ecosystem or the plutocracy, bounces back from small perturbations. But large perturbations break the system and change it into something else altogether. The “Stockholm Resilience Centre” reports that Earth has crossed several of its limits (“boundaries”) for maintaining the system (https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html).
Is it already too late? Are we already doomed to near-term extinction? And when will that happen? Some people are quite certain of their answers on either side of this question, but I claim that we really don’t know, and we can’t know, for the following reasons. This is an unprecedented situation, so there may be stuff we haven’t figured out yet. It is obvious that we won’t be extinct this month, and seems likely that we won’t be extinct for at least another five years. So we have at least that much time left to work on implementing the remedies we already know, figuring out better ways to implement them, and figuring out new remedies. We don’t know, and can’t know, what we might still discover and accomplish if we keep trying in the time that remains to us. On the other hand, if we quit, then we do know what we will find and accomplish. Clearly, we owe it to our children to keep working at it.
What can we do about it? Well, there are physical things, and there are political things. The physical things are the main ones we hear about in the news:
We know what human activities have been contributing to climate change. We need to stop doing those things as soon as possible: Deforestation. Burning fossil fuels. Releasing methane into the air from fracking and other industrial sites. Releasing large amounts of CO2 and methane into the air in the form of farts (yes, farts!) from large numbers of livestock who are being fed the wrong kinds of food to make CAFOs profitable. Pursuing wars.
In addition to halting the bad things, we need to start doing some good things: Build more solar and wind generators for electricity. Plant more trees. Get more people to start gardening. Use biochar in farming. Use regenerative techniques in agriculture. With selective breeding (not genetic modification), produce trees and phytoplankton that will deal with the climate problem better. Spend lots of money on research about other potential remedies.
Individuals can change some little things in their own lives. For instance, change your straws and light bulbs, get an electric car, don’t enlist in the war machine. But the biggest changes we need to make are changes in public policy.
Of course, some of these changes can’t be made instantly. For instance, if we stop burning fossil fuels instantly, we’ll have no trucks to deliver food to grocery stores, and most of us will starve. But we can try to make these changes as quickly as possible.
The problem is that we’re not making these changes as quickly as possible. Governments are dragging their heels on this stuff. The Republicans deny climate change altogether. The Democrats accept the reality of climate change, and they claim to be doing something about it, but most of them are lying. For instance, Barack Obama claimed to be working to save the climate, but he ended up helping to greatly increase the USA’s production of fossil fuels, to make a few rich men richer.
And so we have lots of protest demonstrations, urging the public to get involved, urging the government to make policy changes. And this political issue, like most political issues, is dominated by vested interests. Peace demonstrations are not heard over weapons companies; healthcare demonstrations are not heard over insurance companies; and climate activists are not heard over fossil fuel companies. What most of these demonstrators have not yet understood is that money is influence, and so the only way to end rule by the wealthy class is to not have a wealthy class, and that will require a very different economic system. In sum, capitalism has got to go. To implement that will require a truly massive educational (and consequent political mobilisation) movement, for the wealthy will not give up their privilege without a fight.
Ecocide started accidentally. Thousands of years ago, when we humans were few and our technology was all biodegradable, there was no way that we were capable of injuring nature. Or so we thought. Actually, some of the world’s deserts may be a result of farming without understanding. And what about today?
Here, again, I’m more radical than most of the climate movement. As I see it, capitalism – or more broadly, the institution of private property – is inherently ecocidal. That can be seen by a simple analysis:
• Any kind of trade – for labor, food, rent, debt, oil, etc. – increases inequality by favoring the trader who was already in the stronger bargaining position. Thus it concentrates power, which corrupts.
• Property separates us and destroys our sense of community and our concern for maintaining the commons.
• Any kind of trade has externalized costs – i.e., unmeasured harms that are borne by the community and environment, not the buyer or seller. These costs include ecocide.
Still, it’s hard for most people to see this. After all, our culture has been immersed in private property for 10,000 years. We take it for granted; it’s part of “normal” life. Who could imagine that there’s anything wrong with it? Who could see that it is ultimately the cause of war, poverty, all the ills of the world? There are plenty of well-intentioned people calling for a kinder, gentler capitalism, not seeing that that is impossible. Asking the right questions would take them too far outside mainstream thinking.
For me, the most remarkable example of that is Naomi Klein, who has been promoting progressive ideas for years, apparently with the best of intentions. Her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine” was a great indictment of neoliberal capitalism, but she apparently left open the door to the idea that other kinds of capitalism might be better. Her 2014 book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” did not live up to its title: She mostly recommended reforms, not an end to capitalism. At no point did she carry out what I have called a “simple analysis” a few paragraphs ago, to show that capitalism is inherently ecocidal.
This omission by Klein was almost described by Klein herself, in her 2011 article “Capitalism vs. the Climate.” In that article she pointed out that both conservatives and liberals are in denial about climate change, but in different ways.
• Conservatives claim that climate change can’t be real, because if it were, we’d have to change our entire economic system.
• Liberals (and perhaps most progressives) claim that climate change is real, but believe that it can be addressed without changing our entire economic system.
Klein herself, in that article, claimed that radical changes are needed; but what does “radical” mean? In her subsequent writing she has shown that what she calls radical is what I would call mere reforms, and inadequate. As I see it, Klein herself is in the liberal denial she described.
Capitalists are destroying the ecosystem, on which even they are dependent. When the ecosystem totally collapses, they will live only a little longer than the rest of us. It is hard to understand their motivation, but I can speculate about it. I have come up with many explanations; here are the two that seem most plausible to me:
• They are ignorant. In the past their wealth has always protected them from the consequences of their actions; they do not realize that this time is different. The fact that they are rich merely tells us they are “smart” about some things; they may be very stupid about other things.
• They are captives of the system. Our economic system compels the “players” to think short-term, and compete against each other for short-term profits. Anyone who gives a higher priority to anything else will fall behind, and will cease to be a player.
In conclusion, here are my opinions about the politics of today, and what to do about it:
• Be grateful for Greta Thunberg. She is awakening millions of new activists. It may be true that they are starting off in the wrong direction, following “green capitalists,” but at least they’re starting off. Perhaps we can awaken them to a better understanding after a while, building an anticapitalist movement inside the climate movement. The cult of personality may be good for starting a movement, but after a time the movement may depart from its origins. A couple of weeks ago I attended a Thunberg-inspired climate demonstration and handed out to many new activists a leaflet I had written on why capitalism is inherently ecocidal (https://leftymathprof.wordpress.com/climate-far/).
• Support the Democrats’ Green New Deal, but be wary of it. It could be used by “green capitalists” as a mechanism to enrich themselves at everyone else’s expense. The Green New Deal is the best thing within reach right now, but maybe the movement to support it will improve public awareness enough so that a better deal will come within reach.
• Support social democrat Bernie Sanders for president. Again, he’s not everything we could hope for in a president, but he’s a step in the right direction, the best step currently within reach, far better than any other candidates who have any real chance of winning. Support Bernie as though our lives depend on it, because they do.
• But don’t stop your other, more radical activities. The campaign to elect Bernie makes people more receptive to ideas even beyond those Bernie promotes. Continue writing and handing out leaflets on why we need a global ecosocialist revolution.
Good luck to us all. Viva la revolución.
(1) There’s overwhelming evidence, as documented by several credible analysts and critics, that Thunberg is indeed wittingly or unwittingly collaborating with most of the prominent global corporate-controlled faux environmentalist/climate change NGO flora. See for example here, here, and here.
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First iteration, 10.07.19
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