Now it’s the scientists

Published 30 October 2013.

(crossposted at Firedoglake)

Everyone, I don’t know if you caught the most recent Naomi Klein thing in Common Dreams (well, via that silly publication The New Statesman, which is hosting the equally silly Russell Brand):

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

So now it’s the scientists who are telling us that “we’re doomed.”  But we’re not really doomed, are we?  The one variable, as Werner pointed out, is revolt — the people who participate in the protests are those who could save the planet.  Russell Brand talked about this in my last diary, just like Chris Hedges talked about it back in ’09.  It should all be coming together.Of course, the concept of “we’re doomed” is embedded in the way we see things — the future appears to us now as an endless procession of more capitalism, more exploitation, a worsening climate, and so on.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  Paul Prew expresses it nicely:

The question to be asked, really, is whether we proceed with capitalism until we reach an ecological bifurcation point that leaves the habitability of the earth in question for the vast majority of the population, or we reach a social bifurcation point that leads us to a social system of production that is dissipative, nonetheless, but does not threaten the flowing balance of nature.

I might add that the systems theory perspective, the perspective shared by Paul Prew and Brad Wenner, really doesn’t consider “free will.”  Rather, human behavior is regarded as essentially habit-formed — we will behave in the future as we have in the past.  So the difference between the systems-theory future and the real one is a matter of what we choose to do.Oh yeah, and this is about global warming.  Klein transitions her essay into a discussion of climatologists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows.  Here’s how Klein summarizes their thinking:

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”. Which is fine, except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted).

I feel the economic analysis here is a bit misstated.  Klein herself is famous for her evisceration of the shock doctrine, in which economies are crashed through “austerity planning” to benefit corporate bottom lines; as a piece in HuffPo from last year pointed out, austerity’s big winners prove to be Wall Street and the wealthy.  So, honestly, GDP isn’t our political class’s central concern — the problem is that both government and the economy have become conduits for the profits of an owning class.  Maybe that’s why practically everyone in Congress voted for one version or another of an austerity budget during the 2011 budget impasse.Sure, in the Golden Age of Capitalism (1948-1971) our leaders made a fetish of GDP, and this formed the foundation for today’s accelerating carbon emissions.  However, it appears that we are in a “where do we go from here?” phase.

Now, maybe the carbon-burning fetish, last year at 89 million bbls./day and an equal carbon-dioxide-equivalent in coal, will let up a bit with austerity planning.  The idea is that economies that are screwed will burn less carbon — you can see this trend in the EIA statistics for Greece, for instance.  But the energy savings of global austerity planning won’t be significant enough to matter as a genuine mitigation of global warming, and they will come at an extraordinary toll in human suffering without really changing anything about the exploitative nature of the capitalist system or the general unfreedom of working people within the system.

Also, I think the idea of “revolt” in the Klein piece needs a bit of broadening.  What counts as effective revolt?  Does it have to be civil disobedience along the route of the Keystone XL pipeline?  Let’s think about that some more.  After all, that’s capitalism that has to go, or at the very least we have to keep the grease in the ground.

At any rate, you have two choices: 1) revolt, with maybe some hope coming down the pipeline, or 2) bland acceptance of a vast, sometimes pleasurable, capitalist world-system without a future.  Though I’m sure the same folks who brought us global warming denial will say it’s all a plot to — well, whatever they think it’s a plot to do.

(I might add, as a final note, that institutional investors have already started to worry that we won’t be extracting all of the available carbon — Yves Smith has a piece on this at Naked Capitalism, via someone named Rory Johnston.  If you want to see the doomsayers, look in the comments section…)


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