Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part III: The Fourth Industrial Revolution

28 09 2019

Kim Hill

Kim Hill, Sep 26 · 13 min read

Part I of this series investigated the corporate interests and fossil fuel companies behind the rebellion’s goal for net-zero emissions. In Part II we looked at XR’s goals, tactics and proposed solutions to the climate crisis, which are all serving capital at the expense of the natural world. In Part III, we dive in to the history of the climate movement, the tactics being used by the elites to co-opt activist movements into supporting corporate agendas, and what those agendas entail.

This article is largely a synthesis of the extensive research of Cory Morningstar into the manipulations of the climate movement by corporations and nonprofits, which is well worth reading, at Wrong Kind of Green, to get a deeper understanding of the actors involved and their elaborate marketing strategies.

Manufacturing Consent

The corporate sector, with its network of think-tanks, lobby groups, business associations, philanthropic foundations, global forums and summits, and co-opted environment groups, has been directing the climate movement towards its own goals for more than ten years. As this video puts it, “idealistic youth are simply being herded into pre-approved movements to create the illusion of a popular mandate for what the ruling classes have already determined to be the best course of action for preserving their dominance and control.”

Corporate power manufactures consent for its neoliberal agenda with a range of tactics:

· Advertising products as ‘green’ to appeal to concerned citizens, directing their energy into lifestyle actions and consumer choices rather than organising collectively to dismantle the global economy.

· Advocating market-based solutions to problems caused by the market itself, such as fossil fuel divestment schemes, that make no difference to the underlying economic system, as it is entirely powered by fossil fuels.

· Promoting over-hyped books and documentaries that offer lifestyle changes, new technologies and neoliberal reforms as solutions, and don’t mention the possibility of direct action or systemic political change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and the recent Ice on Fire are the lead culprits, but there are dozens of these.

· Providing training to activists, to direct them to campaign in ways that are beneficial to corporate interests. Al Gore, who sees the climate crisis as “the biggest investor opportunity ever writ in history” has been doing this for years with the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

· Installing their own leaders into environmental movements, especially young people who have had no experience in grassroots organising. Climate Reality again, and Sunrise Movement, 350, the Youth Climate Coalitions, Zero Hour and others, through youth leadership training programs that offer careers and in some cases opportunities to meet world leaders at global summits.

· Inviting prominent activists to attend and speak at corporate events, to make it look like they really care. The celebrity status of Greta Thunberg is a recent example of this approach. I’m definitely not making a judgement of her choice to accept the invitations, as I probably would have done the same if I was in her position. The point here is that the motives for inviting her are to detract attention away from their underlying agenda of promoting economic growth.

· Providing favourable media coverage to symbolic actions and non-confrontational movements. The BBC and The Guardian have been consistently enthusiastic in their reporting of the XR protests.

· Offering jobs in their foundations and NGOs to effective activists, to direct their energy away from radical change and into reform. Even Big Oil is recruiting, wanting to “harness the power” of young activists, and bring the fossil fuel industry into the movement.

· Recruiting concerned citizens into supporting corporate-endorsed Big Green NGOs, such as Greenpeace, Avaaz, WWF and 350, and soliciting donations for these organisations, while starving legitimate grassroots groups of support, media and funding.

· Isolating people working towards systemic change from the movement, so they can’t be effective. Extinction Rebellion training specifically includes strategies on how to do this.

· Directing activists into electoral politics, to work within the current system. The UK Labour Party supports the rebellion, and in the US the Democrats are supporting climate activist groups. Rebels are then distracted from their goals by party politics, and drawn into compromises for the sake of the party.

· Offering grants and sponsorship, on the condition that the recipients align their goals with those of the sponsor. The Guardian reported on July 12: “A group of wealthy US philanthropists and investors have donated almost half a million pounds to support the grassroots movement Extinction Rebellion and school strike groups — with the promise of tens of millions more in the months ahead.” All on the condition of non-confrontational and corporate-friendly campaigning methods, of course. And among those wealthy philanthropists are oil tycoons.

· Offering support for the movement, and conceding to demands, but using this tactic for self-promotion, to market themselves as sustainable and green without making any real change to their business or governance practices. This brings activists over to their side, and activism becomes an advertising campaign for business.

· Dividing movements into those who accept the promises of green business, and those who see through the greenwash. In this way the movement is undermined by directing energy into infighting, rather than working together towards a clear goal of ending corporate power and control. It leads those who buy in to the promises of green growth to directly campaign against the activists who are defending the natural world.

The goal of the climate movement has become to sustain and expand the system of corporate dominance, in direct opposition to the environmental movement’s goals of dismantling this economic system, to protect and regenerate wild nature. Rebels have become unpaid corporate lobbyists. Big business has seized on popular anger at their abusive practices, and redirected it to prop up the very system that needs to be torn down.

Corporate leadership

In XR’s core leadership team are long-time corporate lobbyists Gail Bradbrook and Farhana Yamin.

Bradbrook works for Citizens Online, a telecommunications industry lobby group that campaigns for ‘digital inclusion’ to get as many people as possible to use their products, and to compel councils to accept the rollout of 5G networks. She has used her leadership position in XR to launch XR Business, a network of corporations who see the climate crisis as — you guessed it — a great business opportunity. The Astroturfing the way for the Fourth Industrial Revolution series of articles explores Bradbrook’s corporate connections and their influence on the rebellion.

Yamin is the CEO of Track 0, a non-profit that supports the goals of the Paris Agreement (a plan for continued economic growth that is completely out of touch with reality) and declares “Getting on track to net zero is an economic imperative as much as a scientific one. The prize is innovation opportunities, and an abundance of technologies and ideas that fuel economic growth, create jobs and fuel the track to a bright economic future”. According to her bio “She is widely credited with getting the goal of net-zero emissions by mid-century into the Paris Agreement.” She is also a member of the Global Agenda Council on Climate Change at the World Economic Forum, and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, a think tank on international affairs.

Who put the fox in charge of the henhouse? That these people are in leadership shows that the rebellion has not been co-opted by corporate interests along the way, but has been wholly contrived from the beginning as a propaganda campaign. The very definition of an astroturf movement. The good intentions and hard work of many thousands of rebels count for nothing when these are the people running the show.

The goal of the corporate backers of the rebellion is to facilitate the transfer of trillions of dollars of government money into corporate profits. It’s a bailout for a global economy that is falling into recession. After the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, people are unlikely to support another bailout, so this time it is being presented as necessary to save us from supposedly catastrophic climate change. The money required is taken from working people in the form of pension funds, carbon taxes and climate emergency levies. It’s all being invested in the energy industry and infrastructure, thereby accelerating the process of genuinely catastrophic ecological collapse.

The Climate Markets and Investment Association states: “Much has been written about the nature and the scale of this economic opportunity. Most recently, the New Climate Economy estimated that bold action on climate change would result in incremental economic opportunities of $26 trillion and 65 million new jobs, that wouldn’t exist with a business as usual approach, between now and 2030.” Interesting how the potential profits are of the same order of magnitude as the amount governments are asked to invest.

For the capitalists, the crisis is that the economy is failing and ‘climate action’ can be used to save it. For the natural world, including any humans who identify as living beings rather than economic production units, the crisis is that capitalism is destroying us, and climate action to keep it going will cause total annihilation. Pick your crisis.

From anti-globalisation to inclusive capitalism

In the 1990s and 2000s, there were massive protests all around the world, against the World Economic Forum, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organisation, which all exist to advance the interests of powerful corporations at the expense of the commons and the third world. These bodies, which are all unelected and have no popular mandate for their existence, spent millions on security and policing to protect their events from overwhelming opposition. The protesters demanded that these bodies be disbanded, and replaced by organisations that represent the people. Instead of conceding, the elites infiltrated, funded, and co-opted the resistance, and built their own mass movement, one that they could control and lead.

Protest has become a commodity, a marketable product that the corporate sector can buy, and the nonprofits are happy to sell for some funding, media attention and good feelings. The protesters themselves are both a disposable product, and consumer of the protest message, sold on feelings of guilt, fear, virtue, and their need to take action.

In the lead up to the school strikes in March, the World Economic Forum released this video advertisement, encouraging young people to join the strikes. As if the strikes are a product, and the youth the target market. Think about that. The very institution that was the target of a massive international protest movement not long ago, due to its promotion of unjust and environmentally destructive practices on a global scale, is now directly advertising a protest movement that appears to have exactly the same concerns.

Instead of identifying the corporate-controlled economic system as the cause of ecological collapse, this new movement is guided to direct their protest at some nebulous ideas about changing atmospheric conditions. A massive, international movement is quite literally protesting against a load of hot air. And somehow, the story that the corporate sector are the saviours, who can fix everything if only we demand our governments bail out the collapsing economy, and give them a few trillion dollars to invest in new infrastructure and energy sources, is rarely questioned. It’s all wrapped up in the innocuous and undefined term Climate Action, which is widely accepted as a worthy and necessary goal, with barely any inquiry into what it actually means.

The World Economic Forum aims for ‘inclusive capitalism’, and as capitalism is an economic system that sees everyone and everything as resources to be exploited, being included in the scheme isn’t likely to be on anyone’s wish list. Our imagination, creativity, skills and wishes to make the world better are turned into innovation, entrepreneurship, and human resources. Our insecurities, ambitions, and basic needs are a resource to be extracted and sold back to us as products, services, and experiences. Every living being, every natural feature, and everything the world needs to survive and live well, is all included in capitalism.

In an economy that sees all of nature and all of human experience as a resource to be traded, even protest movements can have their energy extracted. People power is just another energy source to be harnessed and used to fuel economic growth.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Just as carbon dioxide is captured and used as a resource to suck the last drops of oil from the planet, so too is resistance (a useful waste product of the destructive economic system) captured and used to extract every last drop of our human resources. And the corporate elites have a specific plan for what they want to do with these human resources.

According to their website, “The World Economic Forum provides a platform for the world’s 1,000 leading companies to shape a better future.” I really don’t want to imagine what kind of future a thousand multi-national corporations might envision when they get together. And I don’t have to, as they’ve laid it all out in gruesome detail. It’s called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”

“The revolution could yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labor markets. As automation substitutes for labor across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labor,” meaning the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And “governments will gain new technological powers to increase their control over populations, based on pervasive surveillance systems and the ability to control digital infrastructure.” And “The Fourth Industrial Revolution will also profoundly impact the nature of national and international security, affecting both the probability and the nature of conflict… As this process takes place and new technologies such as autonomous or biological weapons become easier to use, individuals and small groups will increasingly join states in being capable of causing mass harm… the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to ‘robotize’ humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul.”

That’s quite a sales pitch. Extreme poverty, war, surveillance, government and corporate control, and soullessness. These are the people promoting the climate strikes, and using Greta’s message to advance their goals.

The definition of fascism as “a merger of state and corporate power” has been attributed to Mussolini, and is an accurate description of this latest phase of globalization.

Another event promoting the Fourth Industrial Revolution was the Global Climate Action Summit, held in September 2018. Involving a lot of the same corporations as the WEF, and sponsored by Google, Facebook and Amazon, it states in its Exponential Climate Action Roadmap:

“To halve emissions by 2030 requires the implementation and scaling of a set of technologies which are at different levels of development. Mobile internet, cloud computing, big data, apps, smart devices and first-generation industrial automation are mature technologies and can serve as a foundation for big efficiency gains in all industries by providing connectivity and computing. The next technologies down the ramp are artificial intelligence, 5G networks, digital fabrication, smart sensors, the large-scale deployment of the internet of things and drones. These will enable a further level of emissions cuts before 2030. Finally come the technologies which are in a relatively early phase at the time of writing — blockchain, immersive user experiences like virtual- and augmented-reality, 3D printing, gene editing, advanced robotics, and digital assistants. At this stage it’s impossible to quantify their potential impact on emissions, but it can be assumed to be substantial.”

Note the word exponential in the title. Exponential growth. Exponential climate action. Exponential rate of extinction. All this new technology is predicted to use up to one fifth of global electricity by 2025, mooting any claims of efficiency gains. And another thing: most of these things are weapons and surveillance technologies. This plan has nothing to do with scaling back any polluting or life-destroying industries, and everything to do with going to war, and monitoring, manipulating and controlling the population. I feel I need to repeat, in capitals, that THESE THINGS ARE WEAPONS. And all being passed off as climate action.

Now making weapons would be an entirely appropriate response to ongoing environmental devastation, if the weapons were to be used by living beings acting in self-defence, to drive out the industrialists destroying the land that provides our food, water and shelter. But here the opposite is happening: the industrialists are using the weapons to repress the very essence of our human nature, and control our actions and thoughts, and even our genes. This is the ultimate panopticon: smart cities, smart meters, smart grids, smart appliances, facial recognition, all monitoring our every move, every interaction and every transaction. A world where we talk to machines more often than we talk with other people, and we definitely don’t speak with trees or spirits. Where even lampposts chat with you, and trees are replaced with smart trees. No possibility of dissent or resistance. We’ve been led into demanding our own subjugation and oppression.

If this happened in the real world, the one where people get to think for themselves and act in their own self-interest, the population would rise up and burn down every one of these 1000 corporations, and destroy all their assets and infrastructure. But here in the screen-mediated propaganda-sedated techno-fantasy world, where the only thoughts on offer in the marketplace of ideas are mass-produced corporate-branded delusions, we’re presented with a kid whose script says “I want you to panic” so we do that instead.

I’ll end this section with a quote from Cory Morningstar: “What better way to create a demand for something detrimental to both the environment and the populace, than to package it under climate change solutions, with the lovely and innocent face of Greta. With reality turned on its head, industry doesn’t have to impose its will on the people — the people will impose it on themselves, via Avaaz et al. The people are thus engineered to demand the very false solutions that the corporations have had up their sleeves for years and even decades.”

+ + + + + + + + +

Part IV will look at ways the rebellion might be turned around to serve life instead of profit, and offer some principles for effective action.





The Danger of Inspiration: A Review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

11 09 2019

Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, has one crippling flaw—it’s inspiring. At this moment in history, inspiring talk about solutions to multiple, cascading ecological crises is dangerous. Republished from the Resilience site……

At the conclusion of these 18 essays that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection.

The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints.

Klein’s essays in this volume make it clear that she is well aware of those limits, but the book’s subtitle suggests that she is writing not only to inform but also to mobilize support for Green New Deal proposals. This tension runs throughout the book—when Klein reports on and analyzes the state of the world, the prose challenges readers to face difficult realities, but when making the case for those policy proposals, she sounds more like an organizer rallying supporters.

That’s not a dig—Klein is a writer who doesn’t sit on the sidelines but gets involved with movements and political projects. Her commitment to activism and organizing is admirable, but it can pull a writer in conflicting directions.

This critique should not lead anyone to ignore On Fire, which is an excellent book that should be read cover to cover, without skipping chapters that had been previously published. Collections of essays can fall flat because of faded timeliness or unnecessary repetition, but neither are a problem here. As always, Klein’s sharp eye for detail makes her reporting on events compelling, whether she’s describing disasters (natural and unnatural) or assessing political trends. And, despite the grim realities we face, the book is a pleasure to read.

Before explaining concerns with the book’s inspirational tone, I want to emphasize key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises:

  • First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable;
  • capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future;
  • the modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and
  • we face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation.

In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, which Klein states forthrightly:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Firemakes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

Welcome to the third rail of contemporary political life. The question that the multiple, cascading ecological crises put squarely in front of us is, “What is a sustainable human population?” That question has to be split in two: “How many people? Consuming how much?”

It’s no surprise that political candidates ignore these questions, but progressive writers and activists should not back away. Honestly engaging these issues takes us well beyond the Green New Deal.

On the second of those questions—“consuming how much?”—Klein frequently highlights the problem, but with a focus on “profligate consumption.” She stresses the need to:

  • “scale back overconsumption”;
  • identify categories in which we must contract, “including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use”; [I do wish people would get off the back of meat consumption and point the finger at industrial scale agriculture instead…]
  • end “the high-carbon lifestyle of suburban sprawl and disposable consumption”;
  • reject capitalism’s faith in “limitless consumption” that locks us in “the endless consumption cycle”; and
  • make deep changes “not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system.”

No argument with any of those statements, especially because Klein rejects the notion that simply improving efficiency will solve our problems, a common assumption of the techno-optimists. But challenging “overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy” focuses on the easy target: “The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies, but also by reducing the amount of material stuff that the wealthiest 20 percent of people on the planet consume.”

My goal is not to defend rich people or their consumption habits. However, constraining the lifestyles of the rich and famous is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. Here we have to deal with the sticky question of human nature. Klein rightly rejects capitalism’s ideological claim that people’s capacity to act out of greed and short-term self-interest (which all of us certainly are capable of doing) is the dominant human trait. Human nature also includes the capacity to act out of compassion in solidarity with others, of course, and different systems reward different parts of our nature. Capitalism encourages the greed and discourages the compassion, to the detriment of people and planet.

But we are organic creatures, and that means there is a human nature, or what we might more accurately call our human-carbon nature. As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute puts it, life on Earth is “the scramble for energy-rich carbon,” and humans have gotten exceedingly good at grabbing lots of carbon. Not all cultures go after it with the same intensity, of course, but that scramble predates capitalism and will continue after capitalism. This doesn’t mean we are condemned to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and other creatures, but public policy has to recognize that we not only need carbon to survive but that most people—including most environmentalists—like the work that carbon can do for us when we burn those fossil fuels. And once we get a taste of what that carbon can do, it’s not easy to give it up.

As Klein points out, curbing our carbon-seeking is not merely a test of will power and matter of individual virtue; collective action through public policy is needed. I believe that requires a hard cap on carbon—limits that we can encourage people to accept through cultural advocacy but in the end must be imposed through law. A sensible approach, called “cap and adapt,” has been proposed by Larry Edwards and Stan Cox. In a forthcoming book, Cox will expand on a cap-and-ration strategy that could help in “drawing the human economy back within necessary ecological limits,” a follow-up to, and expansion of, his earlier book that made a compelling case for a rationing.

There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult. But that’s the easy part. Much more difficult is the first question—“how many people?”

On the question of population, On Fire is silent, and it’s not hard to understand, for several reasons. First, the Earth has a carrying capacity for any species but it’s impossible to predict when we will reach it (or did reach it), and failed attempts at prediction in the past have made people wary. Second, some of the most vocal supporters of population control also espouse white supremacy, which has tainted even asking the question. Third, while we know that raising the status of women and educating girls reduces birth rates, it’s difficult to imagine a non-coercive strategy for serious population reduction on the scale necessary. Still, we should acknowledge ecological carrying capacity while pursuing social justice and rejecting anti-immigration projects. Progressives’ unwillingness to address the issue cedes the terrain to “eco-fascists,” those who want to use ecological crises to pursue a reactionary agenda.

There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine. [I’ll offer one, and it’s well below one billion – https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/losing-our-energy-slaves/ ]

The fact that these questions are troubling and/or impossible to answer does not mean the questions do not matter. For now, my answer—a lot fewer people and a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

If I am nuts, critics have to demonstrate what is unsound about the argument, without resorting to the cliché that “necessity is the mother of invention” and the faith-based claims of the technological fundamentalists.

If I am not, then those Green supporters face a quandary. When mainstream Democrats tell progressive folks that the Green New Deal is doomed to fail because it is not politically viable at this moment, supporters counter, appropriately, by saying that anything less is inadequate in the face of the crises. Those supporters argue, appropriately, that the real failure is supporting policies that don’t do enough to create sustainable human societies and that we need to build a movement for the needed change. I agree, but by that logic, if the Green New Deal itself is inadequate to create sustainability, then we must push further.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan.

Back to what I think Klein is right about, and eloquent in expressing:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.

What kind of person wants to live like that? I can offer a real-life example, my late friend Jim Koplin. He once told me, in a conversation about those multiple, cascading ecological crises (a term I stole from him, with his blessing), “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief.” He was neither depressed nor irrational but simply honest. Jim, a Depression-era farm boy who had been permanently radicalized in the 1960s, felt that grief more deeply than anyone I have known, yet every day he got up to work in his garden and then offer his time and energy to a variety of political, community, and arts groups that were fighting for a better world.

Klein speaks of this grief in On Fire, in what for me were the most moving passages, often involving her young son’s future in the face of this “planetary death spiral”:

There is no question that the strongest emotions I have about the climate crisis have to do with [Toma] and his generation—the tremendous intergenerational theft under way. I have flashes of sheer panic about the extreme weather we have already locked in for these kids. Even more intense than this fear is the sadness about what they won’t ever know. They are growing up in a mass extinction, robbed of the cacophonous company of so many fast-disappearing life forms. It feels so desperately lonely.

The escape from loneliness, for me, starts with recognizing that Jim’s “state of profound grief” was not only wholly rational but also emotionally healthy. When told that even if this harsh assessment is correct, people can’t handle it, I agree. No one can handle all this. Jim couldn’t handle it every waking minute. I don’t handle it as well as he did. At best, we struggle to come to terms with a “bleak and austere” future.

But that’s exactly why we need to engage rather than avoid the distressing realities of our time. If we are afraid to speak honestly, we suffer alone. Better that we tell the truth and accept the consequences, together.





Saving the Planet is More Than Just Switching to Renewables

3 05 2016

I’m too busy sawmilling, wiring up power stations, and crushing apples right now to write much on DTM, though if the current ‘drought breaking’ rain continues, I will have an opportunity to write another update…. in the meantime, enjoy this article, a true breath of fresh air, even if it makes mo mention of Limits to Growth….

Photo credit: Bush Philosopher – Dave Clarke via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND. Article cross-posted from Local Futures. Written by Steven Gorelick.

Among climate change activists, solutions usually center on a transition to renewable energy. There may be differences over whether this would be best accomplished by a carbon tax, bigger subsidies for wind and solar power, divestment from fossil fuel companies, massive demonstrations, legislative fiat, or some other strategy, but the goal is generally the same: Replace dirty fossil fuels with clean renewable energy. Such a transition is often given a significance that goes well beyond its immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions: It would somehow make our exploitative relationship to nature more environmentally sound, our relationship to each other more socially equitable. In part, this is because the fossil fuel corporations — symbolized by the remorseless Koch brothers — will be a relic of the past, replaced by “green” corporations and entrepreneurs that display none of their predecessors’ ruthlessness and greed.

Maybe, but I have my doubts. Here in Vermont, for example, a renewable energy conference last year was titled, “Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change.” The event attracted venture capitalists, asset management companies, lawyers that represent renewable energy developers, and even a “brandthropologist” offering advice on “How to Evolve Brand Vermont” in light of the climate crisis. The keynote speaker was Jigar Shah, author of Creating Climate Wealth, who pumped up the assembled crowd by telling them that switching to renewables “represents the largest wealth creation opportunity of our generation.” He added that government has a role in making that opportunity real: “Policies that incentivize resource efficiency can mean scalable profits for businesses.”[1] If Shah is correct, the profit motive ­— in less polite company it might be called “greed” — will still be around in a renewable energy future.

But at least the renewable energy corporations will be far more socially responsible than their fossil fuel predecessors. Not if you ask the Zapotec communities in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, who will tell you that a renewable energy corporation can be just as ruthless as a fossil fuel one. Oaxaca is already home to 21 wind projects and 1,600 massive turbines, with more planned. While the indigenous population must live with the wind turbines on their communal lands, the electricity goes to distant urban areas and industries. Local people say they have been intimidated and deceived by the wind corporations: According to one indigenous leader, “They threaten us, they insult us, they spy on us, they block our roads. We don’t want any more wind turbines.” People have filed grievances with the government (which has actively promoted the wind projects) and have physically blocked access to development sites.[2]

It seems that a transition to renewable energy might not be as transformative as some people hope. Or, to put it more bluntly, renewable energy changes nothing about corporate capitalism.

Which brings me to the new film, This Changes Everything, based on Naomi Klein’s best-selling book and directed by her husband, Avi Lewis. I saw the film recently at a screening hosted by local climate activists and renewable energy developers, and was at first hopeful that the film would go even further than the book in, as Klein puts it, “connecting the dots between the carbon in the air and the economic system that put it there.”

But by film’s end, one is left with the impression that a transition from fossil fuels to renewables is pretty much all that’s needed — not only to address climate change, but to transform the economy and solve all the other problems we face. As the camera tracks skyward to reveal banks of solar panels in China or soars above 450-foot tall wind turbines in Germany, the message seems to be that fully committing to these technologies will change everything. This is surprising, since Klein’s book flatly contradicts this way of thinking:

“Over the past decade,” she wrote, “many boosters of green capitalism have tried to gloss over the clashes between market logic and ecological limits by touting the wonders of green tech…. They paint a picture of a world that can function pretty much as it does now, but in which our power will come from renewable energy and all of our various gadgets and vehicles will become so much more energy-efficient that we can consume away without worrying about the impact.”

Instead, she says, we need to “consume less, right away. [But] Policies based on encouraging people to consume less are far more difficult for our current political class to embrace than policies that are about encouraging people to consume green. Consuming green just means substituting one power source for another, or one model of consumer goods for a more efficient one. The reason we have placed all of our eggs in the green tech and green efficiency basket is precisely because these changes are safely within market logic.”[3]

Overall, Klein’s book is far better at “connecting the dots” than the film. The book explains how free trade treaties have led to a huge spike in emissions, and Klein argues that these agreements need to be renegotiated in ways that will curb both emissions and corporate power. Among other things, she says, “long-haul transport will need to be rationed, reserved for those cases where goods cannot be produced locally.” She explicitly calls for “sensible relocalization” of the economy, as well as reduced consumption and “managed degrowth” in the rich countries of the North — notions likely to curdle the blood of capitalists everywhere. She endorses government incentives for local and seasonal food, as well as land management policies that discourage sprawl and encourage low-energy, local forms of agriculture.

I don’t buy everything about Klein’s arguments: They rest heavily on unquestioned assumptions about the course of development in the global South, and focus too much on scaling up government and not enough on scaling down business. The “everything” that will change sometimes seems limited to the ideological pendulum: After decades of pointing toward the neoliberal, free-market right, she believes it must swing back to the left because climate change demands a huge expansion of government planning and support.

Nonetheless, many of the specific steps outlined in the book do have the potential to shift our economic system in important ways. Those steps, however, are given no space at all in the film. The focus is almost entirely on transitioning to renewables, which turns the film into what is essentially an informercial for industrial wind and solar.

The film starts well, debunking the notion that climate change is a product of human nature – of our innate greed and short-sightedness. Instead, Klein says, the problem lies in a “story” we’ve told ourselves for the past 400 years: that Nature is ours to tame, conquer, and extract riches from. In that way, Klein says, “Mother Nature became the mother lode.”

After a gut-wrenching segment on the environmental disaster known as the Alberta tar sands, the film centers on examples of “Blockadia” — a term coined by activists to describe local direct action against extractive industries. There is the Cree community in Alberta fighting the expansion of tar sands development; villagers in India blocking construction of a coal-fired power plant that would eliminate traditional fishing livelihoods; a community on Greece’s Halkidiki Peninsula battling their government and the police to stop an open pit gold mine that would destroy a cherished mountain; and a small-scale goat farmer in Montana joining hands with the local Cheyenne community to oppose a bevy of fossil fuel projects, including a tar sands pipeline, a shale oil project, and a new coal mine.

Klein implies that climate change underlies and connects these geographically diverse protests. But that’s partly an artifact of the examples Klein chose, and partly a misreading of the protestors’ motives: What has really driven these communities to resist is not climate change, but a deeply felt desire to maintain their traditional way of life and to protect land that is sacred to them. A woman in Halkidiki expresses it this way: “We are one with this mountain; we won’t survive without it.” At its heart, the threat that all of these communities face doesn’t stem from fossil fuels, but from a voracious economic system that will sacrifice them and the land they cherish for the sake of profit and growth.

The choice of Halkidiki as an example actually undermines Klein’s construct, since the proposed mine has nothing directly to do with fossil fuels. It does, however, have everything to do with a global economy that runs on growth, corporate profit, and — as Greece knows only too well — debt. So it is with all the other examples in the film.

Klein’s narrative would have been derailed if she profiled the indigenous Zapotec communities of Oaxaca as a Blockadia example: They fit the bill in every respect other than the fact that it’s renewable energy corporations, not fossil fuel corporations, they are trying to block. Similarly, Klein’s argument would have suffered if she visited villagers in India who are threatened not by a coal-fired power plant, but by one of India’s regulation-free corporate enclaves known as “special economic zones”. These, too, have sparked protests and police violence against villagers: In Nandigram in West Bengal, 14 villagers were killed trying to keep their way of life from being eliminated, their lands turned into another outpost of an expanding global economy.[4]

And while the tar sands region is undeniably an ecological disaster, it bears many similarities to the huge toxic lake on what was once pastureland in Baotou, on the edge of China’s Gobi Desert. The area is the source of nearly two-thirds of the world’s rare earth metals – used in almost every high-tech gadget (as well as in the magnets needed for electric cars and industrial wind turbines). The mine tailings and effluent from the many factories processing these metals have created an environmental disaster of truly monumental proportions: The BBC describes it as “the worst place on earth”.[5] A significant shrinking of global consumer demand would help reduce Baotou’s toxic lake, but it’s hard to see how a shift to renewable energy would.

Too often, climate change has been used as a Trojan horse to enable corporate interests to despoil local environments or override the concerns of local communities. Klein acknowledges this in her book: By viewing climate change only on a global scale, she writes, we end up ignoring “people with attachments to particular pieces of land with very different ideas about what constitutes a ‘solution,’ This chronic forgetfulness is the thread that unites so many fateful policy errors of recent years… [including] when policymakers ram through industrial-scale wind farms and sprawling… solar arrays without local participation or consent.”[6] But this warning is conspicuously absent from the film.

Klein’s premise is that climate change is the one issue that can unite people globally for economic change, but there’s a more strategic way to look at it. What we face is not only a climate crisis but literally hundreds of potentially devastating crises: there’s the widening gap between rich and poor, islands of plastic in the oceans, depleted topsoil and groundwater, a rise in fundamentalism and terror, growing piles of toxic and nuclear waste, the gutting of local communities and economies, the erosion of democracy, the epidemic of depression, and many more. Few of these can be easily linked to climate change, but all of them can be traced back to the global economy.

This point is made by Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of Local Futures, who explains how a scaling down of the corporate-led global economy and a strengthening of diverse, localized economies would simultaneously address all of the most serious problems we face – including climate change.[7] For this reason, what Norberg-Hodge calls “big picture activism” has the potential to unite climate change activists, small farmers, peace advocates, environmentalists, social justice groups, labor unions, indigenous rights activists, main street business owners, and many more under a single banner. If all these groups connect the dots to see the corporate-led economy as a root cause of the problems they face, it could give rise to a global movement powerful enough to halt the corporate juggernaut.

And that really could change everything.

##

[1] Shaheen, Troy, “Climate change may have economic potential for Vermont” VTDigger.org, Feb. 20, 2015.

[2] “Defining and Addressing Community Opposition to Wind Development in Oaxaca” Equitable Origin, updated January 2106.

[3] Klein, Naomi, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon and Shuster, 2014), page 90.

[4] “Nandigram Violence a ‘State-Sponsored Massacre’” Countercurrents.org, August 9, 2007.

[5] Maughan, Tim, “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust” BBC Future, April 2, 2015.

[6] Klein, op. cit., page 287.

[7] Norberg-Hodge, Helena, Localisation: Essential Steps to an Economics of Happiness, Local Futures, 2015.