The super-storm which struck the East Coast in October 2012 reminded a few more millions of people that we have an ecological emergency on our hands. But how deeply they were reminded of this remains an open question.
The daily ideological spin does everything possible to limit our awareness. President Obama was forced by the storm to acknowledge the importance of climate change, but he immediately offset that step by affirming that Americans are less concerned by the climate than they are about their jobs – as though people’s economic security didn’t presuppose the physical safety of their homes, workplaces, and communities.
Of course, the “jobs” rhetoric depends on each of us thinking only about the present and not about the future; only about our immediate space (perhaps safe for now) – as if the rest of the world, in all its dimensions, can be ignored.
But the emergencies that regularly hit “someone else,” will be our own emergencies before we know it.
There is a deeply ingrained reflex against seeing that such emergency conditions call for a drastic response. The idea that drastic measures may sometimes be needed is easy enough to grasp at a personal level, but when the scale becomes global, the challenge appears so overwhelming that we feel powerless to question established practices.
This is the mind-set that stands in the way of necessary changes. But it assumes that we face the crisis only as individuals. To overcome it, we must act in concert with others.
Such action is not made easier, however, by those who try to reassure us by saying that the necessary changes are not “radical.”
It is understandable that corporate and government leaders want to demonize radical change, because it threatens the whole structure of profit, accumulation, and privilege that they defend. What is regrettable is that their vocabulary of demonization has intruded into the rhetoric of some environmentalists.
The present moment of potential mass mobilization around environmental issues has been slow in coming. There is an enormous level of expectation about what it may accomplish. I could sense this during the huge indoor rally at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre on Nov. 15, kicking off the “Do the Math” campaign (sponsored by 350.org)i for divestment from the fossil fuel industry.
Such moments of expectation are also moments in which long-held assumptions suddenly become vulnerable. One of the biggest of these assumptions is the idea that the economic health of a society requires perpetual growth. The Nov. 15 meeting, with the lead presentations of Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, called this assumption into question.ii
This was a radical step! Rejecting infinite economic expansion – epitomized in the “drill, baby, drill!” mentality that unites Obama to the Republicans – means hitting at what drives the capitalist system. To effectively reject it, we must have no illusions on this point. We must recognize all the inertial forces – both in social institutions and in our personal habits – that have to be overcome. We must develop clear ideas of the steps we must take in order to replace them.
All this means rethinking the roots of current practice. This is the essence of radicalism.
Those who oppose such a step try to discredit radicalism by equating it with extremism. This has become the standard way in which established opinion-leaders have sought to make people recoil from anything “radical.” Because it threatens them, they want us to think that it threatens us.
This is similar to the way in which the U.S. government has tried to intimidate peace activists and whistleblowers, by accusing them of terrorism or of “aiding the enemy.” The idea is to besmirch any activity that can radically threaten the dominant powers.
The associated negative connotation of radicalism has been widely diffused in the commercial media. As a result, certain progressive activists have taken to deploying the term as an epithet against the oil companies. McKibben did this at the Nov. 15 event when he said that the “real radicals” are the corporations that are destroying the environment, whereas what “we” want – rejecting such “radicalism” – is to restore the conditions we enjoyed in an earlier period.
There is a problem here, however. On the one hand, in that earlier period (perhaps the 1950s?), all the expansive forces of capitalism pushing toward the current crisis were already in place.iii On the other, any recovery of what was authentically healthier about an earlier time – e.g., less atmospheric carbon – will require a drastic reduction in energy use, which in turn will depend on a radical reconfiguration of productive activities, social space, and economic power.
It is, of course, essential to curtail drastically the use of fossil fuel. But this is not enough. Nor is it enough to develop renewable or carbon-free energy sources. Every possible external energy-source has its objective limits. Sun, wind, and tides may be in seemingly unlimited supply, but each poses problems of space, dependability, and/or safety when it comes to tapping them. Nuclear power, even apart from its well known risks (dramatized by the Fukushima disaster), poses enormous problems in terms of cost, timeline, and thermal effects.iv
We thus cannot avoid the task of reshaping our social and natural existence, reducing our collective environmental footprint, yet allowing us to continue nurturing and enjoying whatever resources and relations are truly indispensable to a good life.
This will obviously entail eliminating profligate consumption patterns; that much is widely recognized. What is insufficiently stressed, however, is all the resources and energy that are now being used up not for personal consumption (and certainly not for necessary consumption) but strictly for upholding the economic mechanisms and social priorities imposed by private capital.v
The U.S. military – by far the world’s biggest – must become a primary target for cutbacks. It is naturally implicated in any campaign against fossil fuels, not only because it uses so much of them,vi but also because one of its central missions is to enhance the access of US corporations to oil-deposits around the world.
But we also need to think about the ways in which our society grows its food, uses its space, moves its population, and promotes the development and sale of unnecessary or even harmful goods, and also of corrupting and exploitative “services” (e.g., those of banks, insurance companies, and advertising agencies).
Redesigning necessary social activities and eliminating wasteful or harmful ones is a vast challenge, and a radical one. We need to recognize and accept its full implications, and not tarnish the concept of radicalism by applying it to those corporate entities which – by continuing to act as they have always done, only more so – are threatening our collective survival.
i350.org is named for the number of parts-per-million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere that is considered the maximum compatible with preserving species-life; the current level is approximately 390.
iiiThe expansive forces were detailed in Harry Magdoff’s 1969 classic, The Age of Imperialism. On the recent history of capitalism, see the 2009 lecture by Rick Wolff, “Capitalism Hits the Fan,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZU3wfjtIJY
iv“Thermal effects” refers to the fact that water used for cooling nuclear reactors raises the temperature of the larger bodies of water into which it is discarded, thereby causing further release of CO2. Kozo Mayumi and John M. Pelimeni, “Uranium reserve, nuclear fuel cycle delusion, CO2 emissions from the sea, and electricity supply: Reflections after the fuel meltdown of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Units,” Ecological Economics, vol. 73, January 15, 2012, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800911004381 On the prohibitive costs and timeline of a nuclear energy strategy, see Renfrey Clarke, “Why Nuclear Is No Climate Change Solution” (July 28, 2012), http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/51697 On the limitations of various forms of renewable energy, I give a brief summary in my article “Beyond ‘Green Capitalism,’” Monthly Review, vol. 61, no. 9, February 2010, http://monthlyreview.org/2010/02/01/beyond-green-capitalism
vThe share of such resource-use in total economic activity is discussed in my article “Toward Ecological Socialism,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, vol. 12, no. 1, March 2001.
vi“The Pentagon is the largest single consumer of petroleum in the world…. [T]he U.S. military uses enough oil in one year to run all of the U.S. transit systems for the next 14-22 years.” Ryan Schriner, “U.S. Military Consumption” (2003), http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/schrinrj.html