Imagine a future

Published online 30 December 2012.

in which the human race survives global warming.  What does it look like?

In a likely dystopian future, everyone will die off except a few financial elites, and their servants in the political classes (and the servants of those servants), huddled in McMansions along the newly-desertified Arctic Ocean coasts, what’s left of the race (after the enormous die-offs) pretty much waiting for Earth to become Venus.

The folks imposing Race to the Top upon our public schools are no doubt helping to bring this future into being, with their obsessions with testing, teacher disempowerment, and charter schools.  Researchers know for sure that charter schools don’t really improve the test scores in the aggregate — the point of RttT is to bust the unions and subsidize the corporations some more.  After all, if our political masters are looking to inflate housing bubbles for the indefinite future, those newly-sizzling Arctic Ocean beachfront McMansions are going to be mighty expensive, and so some privileged someone, some corporate school administrator or Teach for America beneficiary, is going to have to be able to afford them.  It certainly won’t be the lower-income students of inner-city charter schools.  No, they get to die when the droughts and plagues kill off American agriculture — the food riots will be the final coup de grace.  Remember, folks — education is what we do to our children, and our children are the future.

So that future hardly makes for a cheery science fiction movie — J. J. Abrams won’t pony up any start-up capital to film that one, since it’s neither about hope nor love, though maybe the die-off of billions would make a good Peter Jackson movie.  (And remember that as you see the Hobbit movies — Jackson was into horror flicks before he got the rights to do Tolkien.)  But I’m sure we can make that future possible.  David Roberts thinks so too, or at least that’s what he suggests in this video:

Climate change isn’t complicated, as Roberts points out: if the human race continues in habit-formed fashion, it’s screwed.  And with EPA administrators leaving because there’s no traction on climate change, well, you know the rest.  I’m sure someone from Monsanto will fill the position admirably.  Nothing to see here — move along.

Some of you may have heard of David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith’s (2007) book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy.  I’m going to attempt a short review of this book, which speculates upon a future which I regard as quite probable, and then move on to my main point, which is that we as a society ought to take an interest in all this futurism because without it we really won’t be looking to know what’s coming.

The major flaw of Shearman and Smith’s book, of course, is that it proposes a post-capitalist dictatorship — and this aspect of Shearman and Smith’s book will please neither the fans of the capitalist system, who imagine that capitalism will last forever, nor the fans of democracy, who think (as the Archdruid does in the link above) that Shearman and Smith are merely repeating the failures of climate change activists.  After all, nobody really wants dictatorship as a solution.  People especially won’t like proposals of a future dictatorship if they are being proposed by a climate scientist (Shearman) who worked on the IPCC reports.  No doubt all of these things caused “The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy” to fade into book oblivion in the four years since it was published.

Now, if you actually read the book itself (omigod we’re not going to dismiss it outright!), you can get a bit more of an idea of the authors’ reasoning.  Climate change is urgent — in fact, it’s far more urgent than the leaders of our liberal democracies are willing to admit.  Domination is the norm throughout history, Shearman and Smith argue, and all of our efforts at democracy here in the US have (as they point out) in fact merely produced corporate plutocracy.  Corporate plutocracy is, as the authors also point out, the problem, the reason why climate change is so urgent and why our democracies are in denial about this urgency.  It’s also the reason why carbon emissions continue to accelerate.  So anyone who really wants to confront Shearman and Smith’s argument will also have to confront the failure of democracy to do anything real about abrupt climate change.  Seriously folks.  If the best we can do is a joke like the Kyoto Protocol?  They imagine that there will be some sort of “office of the biosphere” that will handle all this stuff at some point.  It’s a Plato solution, as the Archdruid points out — philosopher-kings on top.

People who want to confront Shearman and Smith’s argument will also have to confront their critique of classical liberalism.  Classical liberalism is of course the philosophy of John Locke and Adam Smith — the philosophy of small business in the emerging capitalism of 18th-century England and of the settler populations of the New World.  For the classical liberals, everything hinges on the decisions of individuals operating within a context of capitalist economy, and for Shearman and Smith, these decisions generally support what’s good for business, which is then bad for the environment.  Shearman and Smith argue that liberal democracy is responsible for what Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons.”

Okay, if you haven’t read the book, or even if you have, the Shearman and Smith vision looks like some sort of stock “if I were dictator here’s what I’d do” fantasy.  They suggest an eco-elite to run things, and an eco-religion to keep the masses in tune with genuine sustainability.  I don’t agree with a lot of what they have to say — especially their invocation of right-wing nonsense such as evolutionary psychology.  The authors also fail to examine the right-wing Republican content of the “tragedy of the commons” thesis (and you do know that Garrett Hardin was a Republican).  A genuine commons is one defended by the people, out of a commonly-shared notion of self-interest — and it doesn’t fall apart like Hardin said it would.  There is, you see, such a thing as genuinely collective people-power.  Hardin was obliged to alter his thesis after confronted by anthropologists with this fact.

Shearman and Smith fail to examine the possibility that dictatorship is the norm in historical society because of historical human subordination to various and sundry regimes of political economy such as the agricultural empires, feudalism, and capitalism. Ellen Meiksins Wood does a good job discussing this stuff — her book “Democracy Against Capitalism” suggests that democracy is so feeble because capitalists keep it significantly out of the economic realm.  Conversely, dictatorship, the antithesis of democracy, emerges out of extra-democratic power, power not responsible to the people — and, historically, extra-democratic power has not shown much caring for the environment (although Shearman and Smith can find a few compromised counter-examples).  The lack of dictatorial caring for the environment is not arbitrary — the reason for this, I would argue, is that dictators are largely shaped by the paths they took in becoming dictators, and the process of becoming a dictator is antithetical to caring for mother Earth.   If placating financial interests is what you do to become King of the Mountain, then placating financial interests is what you’re going to do when you’re on top.

But it’s not terribly hard to imagine Shearman and Smith’s suggested future actually happening!  Corporate plutocracy will keep bumbling along, pulling those financial strings and quelling the occasional revolt or two, until even the major players are obliged by the resultant crisis atmosphere to stop and admit that they’ve used up the biosphere that used to support the enormous population they rule.  Then you have mass death, elite panic, and a late attempt by the apparatus serving the 1% to fulfill Shearman and Smith’s vision.  Seems quite possible!

You know, if you you would like to see all this material about global warming and possible futures summarized, with a big scoop of eco-socialist optimism at the end, you should read the “Look Inside!” section of Hans A. Baer’s (2012) Global Capitalism and Climate Change: The Need for an Alternative World System — and also take a look at the Google Books version.  I don’t know if you want to buy this book outright — I’m sure Baer is a great guy and all, but the price they’re asking for his book is not really all that legitimate.  The fact that Baer is only in hardback exacerbates this situation.  Capitalist bookselling, wouldn’tcha know.

Baer goes through all of the above topics — authoritarian solutions to environmental problems, the Kyoto Protocol and other business “solutions” to global warming, and so on.  It’s easy to believe that Baer’s solution — ecosocialism — is the correct one, it’s just not easy to figure out how we’re going to get there from here, which is why the Shearman and Smith book is so provocative and worth reading.  Anyhow, you can see from Baer’s compilation of green and socialist initiatives toward the end of his book how “utopian” his positive alternative to Shearman and Smith’s dictatorship really is.  The forces militating for a better world (i.e. ecosocialism) are still outnumbered, disorganized, and for the most part not even ideologically “there” yet.  We know now that Occupy was broken up by the FBI — h/t to Bobswern’s excellent diary — how easy is it going to be for the next movement to assert itself?

Nonetheless we must imagine the positive futures as well, even if they don’t really look like they’re going to happen.  The point of this exercise is that we are to become our own science fiction writers.  We are to use our powers to break the spell of Hollywood space opera, and imagine a real future for ourselves.  The assembled intellectual powers of the establishment — the secret teams, the military-industrial complex, the IMF/ World Bank/ WTO/ WEF quartet, the big meeting societies like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the governments, the Fortune 500 and so on — are not going to imagine our futures for us.  They have as a group completely failed to imagine a realistic future.  They fill in the blank space left behind by the disappearance of a future by inputting forty-year-old dreams.  They can’t perform this act of imagination because they sit atop a system predicated through high-entropy domination, and their game is almost up.  Paul Krugman dawningly confronted this in Thursday’s NYT.  “Is growth over?”  he asks.

What do we know about the prospects for long-run prosperity? The answer is: less than we think.

The basis for the elite’s hegemonic control over the masses is shrinking.  You could see this in this year’s election, with the major parties’ obvious appeal: “The other guy is worse.”  Nobody is promising utopia anymore.  It’s no longer believable.  Elections are all this crap about fear now.  The next political promise to disappear will be that of economic progress, as Krugman dawningly suggests.This isn’t to say that those at the top aren’t secure in their positions atop the pinnacles of the global economic and administrative hierarchies.  They are.  The thing to remember is that their power is ritualized.  The whole system is based on its continual, ritual, performance.  Eventually the dissent of the masses against this whole dreary ritual, in which we dig our own abrupt-climate-change-induced graves, will show up as a performance in its own right.  It has to.

(also at FDL)


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