Published online 10 January 2013.
Living like a monk, under capitalism, will do nothing about global warming. But I’ll tell you what might work…
I suppose this is the newest, most popular conversational trend among the well-heeled now. Buy a Prius, install energy-saving lightbulbs, and stop using so much energy, so you can feel you are “doing something” about global warming. (Or at least talk about those things.) Oh, and leave the capitalist system alone, because (as Saint Margaret Thatcher put it) “there is no alternative.”
Maybe a new trend in monastic living will be advertised to suit the vows of austerity that will accompany the declines of fortune among, well, the middle class — especially the Black and brown middle classes. It will fit current trends in policy, with the chained CPI for Social Security, the Grand Bargain, and so on. I suppose it only seems romantic if you’re rich and white. The uber-wealthy can have Marie Antoinette fake peasant villages where they can save energy when guilt over abrupt climate change becomes too pressing or something like that.
But really, folks, what we are talking about here is a class-based approach to abrupt climate change. Oh, maybe you don’t feel so rich compared to your neighbors (and one of my neighbors bought into her plot for $950,000 back in ’06, so I know what you mean), but, globally, you’re rich. If you live in a rich country and your ecological footprint is 12 times the size of the average Indian’s ecological footprint, you no doubt feel significantly responsible for accelerating greenhouse gas emissions.
But here’s the catch: how is “consuming less” under capitalism a one-size-fits-all solution? Eh?
Large portions of the world’s population live like monks now — but not because they want to. I’m talking here about the world’s poor. You know, that one out of every eight children who go to bed hungry, and so on. The global capitalist system keeps great masses of people poor — they’re the folks who make all that cheap stuff we Americans buy in the stores. The stuff is cheap because their labor is cheap. The world’s poor — specifically the world’s urban poor (and as Jeremy Seabrook tells us, urban poverty is significantly different in character than rural poverty) — no doubt want to consume more fossil energy, so they can have food, shelter, jobs, and so on. They aren’t going to want to live like monks.
So when the oil producers produce, well, are we just going to tell the world’s ambitiously undernourished people that they don’t deserve a share of that 74 million bbl.day global oil burning habit? I can tell you how that’s going to play out. The Powers That Be in the poor nations, oh sure they’re not always nice folks, but they’re going to say “hey we need fossil fuels to develop,” and the whole “let’s live like monks” thing is going to be limited to well-off folks with guilty consciences. And everything will continue along in its merry way until Earth turns into Venus.
And it’s easy to imagine what would happen if enough people actually stopped consuming fossil fuels to make an economic impact. The price would go down! Less demand means lower price. Fossil fuel “producers” don’t produce for you, they produce for an anonymous “market” that can have any shape it wants depending on who are the buyers. That is, they do that under capitalism.
Now, of course, the proactive response is for the world to arrange Third World “development” on the basis of alternative energy. That is the point of the Aubrey Meyer Contraction and Convergence schtick. It’s a good thing for what it is. Unfortunately, Meyer, like the rest of the world, is too fixated on “emissions” control. For all the good communism it brings to the world, it’s still a consumer-based approach. My criticism is, in a nutshell, this: the consumers are never going to put together a global boycott of oil within an economic context of universal dependency upon capital. So you either get rid of capital, with some massive share-the-wealth initiative that grants every family on Earth a solar panel or whatever, or you enact a producer-based approach to climate change. Here’s how you do it — the producers of oil and coal (yeah, and tar sands kerogen and so on) must phase out production. It’s called “Keep The Grease In The Ground.” Bill McKibben, on the problem:
This record of failure means we know a lot about what strategies don’t work. Green groups, for instance, have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs.
and the solution:
At this point, effective action would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it’s burned.
So you need a producer-oriented approach to actually mitigate abrupt climate change. You cement the thing through an international treaty to phase out fossil fuel production. It’s an ecosocialist move — the only way you’re going to get the world behind it is by a fundamental leveling of the economic playing field between rich and poor nations.