Climate Change and the Politics of Responsibility

Ecological problems require serious solutions.

(Mirza Zahidul Alam Shawon / Flickr)

An Austrian economist, Leopold Kohr, used to end his lectures with an analogy. Suppose we are on the progress train, powered by growth and resource use and moving forward fast, with the neoliberal economists cheering us on. What would be the appropriate reaction if we were to learn that there was a massive gulf lying a few miles ahead on the track?

The economists would urge us to go onwards, pile up a head of steam, hoping to hurdle the gap. Others suggest that the brake may be in order. Kirkpatrick Sale, relaying this anecdote, writes that progress “is the myth that assures us that full-speed-ahead is never wrong. Ecology is the discipline that teaches us that it is disaster.”

Alex Gourevitch would have been one of the kids cutting class during Kohr’s lectures. As he writes, he is “skeptical of environmentalism.” Why? Environmentalists are misanthropes: they “tend to see the development of industry, and the wider attempt to dominate nature, as wrong, perverse, and the source of man’s domination over man.” They are also card-carrying members of the small-is-beautiful cult, waving around copies of Desert Solitaire, muttering about “civilization,” and generally being useless.

Dismissing such nitwits, Gourevitch writes that “the control and manipulation of nature is a good thing.” Exhibit A is Hurricane Mitch. When this natural disaster — and Gourevitch tells us, “there are always going to be these natural disasters” — killed more people in poverty-stricken Central American than did Hurricane Andrew in developed Florida, we saw the buffer effects of industrialization.

He does not mention that industrialization giveth and industrialization taketh away. Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,833 people, receives no notice. Most of those who died did so because of the breakdown of the levee system surrounding and protecting New Orleans. That system broke because of unusually powerful storm surges, the result of the destruction of the coastal wetlands which used to tamp down their severity. Calling for more so-called “control and manipulation of nature” in reaction to these facts is pure ideology.

It is not in short supply.

Gourevitch makes three main arguments to dismiss environmentalists as politically useless.  One, science does not “tell us how to act.” Two, environmentalism has trouble linking itself to mass politics, in part due to its reliance on an “appeal to fear.” Three, small is bad, big is better.

Regarding what science does or does not tell us, I have a few observations that don’t require a PhD degree in atmospheric climatology. If we burn all of the earth’s coal, readily accessible oil, and natural gas, there is a near-certainty of a 4-degree-Celsius or higher increase in global average temperature. James Hansen thinks that there is a reasonable chance of setting off runaway feedback loops that will turn the planet to Venus. There is a virtual scientific consensus that even allowing 2 degrees Celsius of average global warming will set off cascades of catastrophe around the planet — droughts, famine, and crop failures.

Science doesn’t tell us how to act, but it does tell us what will be the consequences of acting a certain way.

For Gourevitch, these are “social questions.” So if we put enough nuclear plants in Africa to power air conditioners and hydroponic crop systems, we can stave off mass dieoffs. With enough industrialization Bangladesh can build dikes high enough to prevent a quarter of its land mass from being inundated. We can tie massive balloons to the Seychelles so that they don’t go underwater, and drop magma on the top of mountains so that as animals and plants move higher in response to climactic change they won’t run out of mountain.

If these measures sound off-the-wall, that’s because they are. Ecological problems are not resolvable through endless technofixes. That’s a problem, since technology is Gourevitch’s escape hatch from the absurdities of his argument, which relies on both dismissing science and not even bothering to argue with what it says.

How to best do both at the same time? Well, he says that even if the science is right, the politics is wrong: “Environmentalism is one of those movements that have had trouble finding and establishing majoritarian connections.”

First of all, is this a problem? Does any mass movement proceed by trying to mobilize the majority?

In any case, a pragmatic response would be to try to establish exactly those connections, not to naturalize apathy.

Take something very simple. Probably a sixth of Americans are unemployed, and the industrial plant is at only 70 percent capacity utilization. A lot of Americans could be set to work in government-sponsored programs to build a coast-to-coast high-speed railroad network along with arterial and capillary branches tied into municipal mass-transportation systems. Alongside that initiative one could imagine massive government-propelled programs to build alternative energy systems.

This would not reduce emissions to zero, as in the more extreme versions of primitivist fantasies. But it would reduce them quite a lot. Alongside that could come population re-distributions: new cities linked to the rail lines, emptying out the metastatic suburban spaces and allowing for their conversion into carbon dioxide absorbing greenbelts. Such a program would not solve all of America’s complex social issues. It is not even anti-capitalist, although many capitalist sectors would rage against the political effects of full employment, never mind the petroleum companies which would be furious about re-engineering America in a way that would erode their profitability. It also would not please the more purist ecologists. But it is a simple scenario of a framework within which a temporary red/green alliance is possible.

An anti-environmentalist polemic which is not helpful when it comes to the global North becomes absurd when applied to the global South.

Revisit hurricanes. The relevant comparison is not hurricanes’ impact on the developed global North versus on the underdeveloped global South. It is in looking at the uneven impacts hurricanes have had on different regions of the global South. Gourevitch does not know that after Hurricane Mitch hit Nicaragua, the most resilient rural regions were ones in which farmers were practicing agro-ecology, thereby reducing soil erosion and maintaining topsoil cover.

Agro-ecology is possible without population transfers and with low levels of re-skilling and even lower levels of capital expenditure — it reduces poor farmers’ need for unaffordable capital-intense inputs which tend to involve emissions. When Hurricane Michelle slammed Cuba in 2001, only five people were reported dead — this in a semi-industrial poor and sanctioned country of the global South. Algeria has fitfully pursued industrial modernization for decades. The result is that it imports half its food at an annual cost of billions of dollars. Which development paths are easier for capital poor countries: those of agro-ecology-using Nicaraguan rural regions or the rush to heavy industrialization? Even in terms of concrete policies or development clusters, to prioritize the “progress” of capital-intense industrialization makes no sense given real choices in front of real countries, many of which are currently and correctly prioritizing food sovereignty.

Or consider “cheap energy,” something which Gourevitch claims is a reality for the global North and should be the future of the global South. Does it even exist? That people have not yet paid the costs of the “cheap” coal and oil which powered the Euro-Atlantic rise to industrial modernity does not make the energy those fossil fuels produced “cheap.” Pushing payment into the future is one thing with the national debt. It is another when it means hurricanes, desertification, crop failures, and typhoons (this presumably is an “appeal to science”; it is worth noting the vapid manner in which Gourevitch immunizes his argument from any kind of criticism from ecologists). Furthermore, the hurricanes he invokes as the specter looming over the un-industrialized global South are exactly those which will become more frequent as anthropogenic climate change accelerates.

So has energy ever been “cheap”? Should it be made yet cheaper? That hasn’t been Europe’s answer, which has made energy increasingly expensive so as to lubricate transitions to more sustainable living patterns. Anyway, very little energy is required to dramatically improve human living standards. If seven percent of contemporary energy usage were added to the energy use of the 1.6 billion people living in the world’s poorest countries, their Human Development Indices could double.

In any event, the capital grants which could purchase means of power generation for everyone in the global South are no more a “live” political struggle in the global North than is much else. Were consciousness to advance to such a level that such grants were a realistic political prospect, so would be revamping global North consumption patterns. If the status quo continues our carbon output is literally going to destroy the South.

Is this also the “appeal to fear” of which Gourevitch warns? If so, I’m not into it. He miscasts the core ethic of ecology, which is that the people currently on the planet have an obligation to the people who will come after us. That includes the generation which is not yet able to participate in politics.

This is not a politics of fear but a politics of responsibility.

The massive campaigns to propagandize the American public about anthropogenic climate change and to dismiss the science reflect the understanding that the ethic of responsibility to the future is something which needs to be deflected and dispersed. Tying that ethic into ongoing political struggles won’t be easy. An environmentalism which insists that workers at herbicide plants should quit their jobs because they are destroying the Earth is an environmentalism which is deaf to the tone of political struggle and peoples’ lives. That doesn’t mean environmentalism is bad. It means some environmentalists are making questionable political choices.

Gourevitch also insinuates that environmentalism has no mass appeal. This is just wrong. Silent Spring was a bestseller. The everyday lives of Americans provide more examples. The archetypal suburban experience of barbecuing in a grassy backyard is a simulacrum of cooking food over the fire in the outdoors. Millions cultivate gardens in their backyards or summer escapes. They do it for fun. It is opportunist — not to say dishonest — to ignore what many Americans choose to do in their leisure time or what cultural experiences those activities recall when ridiculing thinkers who consider environmentalism a central plank of the Left.

Finally, Gourevitch says small is shit, and that big is good. He presents this as bluff common sense. It is nonsense. A complex society need not be large. Indeed, the larger a society, the more that it is unlikely that it ever be appropriately complex, because the bigger a society, the more schematic the plans on which it will be designed, the more disruptive it will be of the natural environment it seeks to re-order and make legible. To replace a smallness fetish with a bigness fetish is to sidestep the question of the appropriate size for human communities.

But to this he also has a pat answer. He rejects “federated, small-scale self-sufficient production communities,” and says: “I don’t think there is anything attractive in that vision.” Put to the side the point that such a vision would be an almost unimaginable improvement for the lives of the overwhelming majority of the world’s inhabitants, most of whom have so little choice in their lives, a third of whom are living in semi-proletarianized rural poverty, another third in urban slums, and another sixth as lower-class industrial laborers.

Put to the side, too, that so many have to live so badly with such massive damage to the world for Gourevitch to find the small-scale unattractive. Or did he think that the glass and metal and energy required for dense large-scale human habitation just appeared without gouging the raw materials which go into them out of the earth? Does he even take seriously the arguments of those who have proposed that a rational future would have more dispersed cultural centers than is currently the case?

One gets the sense that for Gourevitch socialism means a world much like the one in which the more affluent leisure classes of the global North live, only for everyone. I don’t see that happening too soon. In the real world, in any conceivable near-term socialism, there will be some hard work to do. It need not be unpleasant. And what is unpleasant will have to be shared. To get there from here means mass politics. It doesn’t seem too much to ask that a genuine internationalism at least take some account of the fact that survival for many people is far from assured given the current pace and trajectory of climate change.

In his rush to skewer liberal consumer-class environmentalists, Gourevitch seems to have forgotten the small people and their very real and desperate struggle. To that struggle both activists and ordinary people give their time, their bodies. Some, their lives. They do not get to sit around and philosophize about the rationality and worthiness of their struggle. This does not mean they don’t deserve criticism. It means that those outside the struggle ought to deliver their reflections and problems with it respectfully.

Still, what Gourevitch has produced is not all bad. The shotgun marriage of lifestyle anarchism and ecology deserves criticism, as do some strands of consumerist metropolitan environmentalism. But not this kind of criticism. The few useful nuggets he has unearthed arrive swaddled in layers and layers of contempt for the tens of thousands of people in the Anglophone world who are desperately trying to preserve a livable planet, and arrogant dismissal of those in the coal country or in broad swathes of the global South for whom environmentalism is a fight for survival, not some effete aesthetic.

To have so little regard for those fighting that fight is deplorable.