Published online 4 November 2011.
A while ago, a good friend told me she thought we were “doomed,” and that the future was hopeless. Now, from the perspective we currently share, it sure looks as if we’re doomed. One of the most important psychological facts contributing to our current dinosaurian state is that we misrecognize the seriousness of our social problems. Life-threatening phenomena such as abrupt climate change are not urgent, whereas problems such as unemployment appear dramatically urgent to the public, but can’t really be solved within the existing system of political economy.
But the real problem here is that we have no real hope. Instead, we have false hope, the “hopenchange” that we were sold with Obama’s 2008 campaign. Part of what counts as “the left” these days has taken the psychological task upon itself of debunking false hope. So, okay, we debunk all the false hopes. What are we left with? Despair? Resignation? Acceptance? Should we kill ourselves now and avoid the rush? Or maybe we should just think of protesting as another form of partying, something fun to do until world society collapses? Rather, there is one, and only one, real solution to the problem of false hope, and that is genuine hope. Genuine hope is attainable! But to attain genuine hope, we need a revolution. Check below the fold to see how this can be realized.
Apparently the “we’re doomed” meme has made it onto network television. (Personal disclosure: I don’t own a TV — I heard of this from a friend who did.) Some time ago ABC released a presentation called “Earth 2100,” which laid out the case for the notion that we’ve screwed up planet Earth beyond recognition and that at some point we will be made to pay.
Now I would never accuse ABC or its parent corporation Disney of doing anything original. More likely than not the material for Earth 2100 has been cribbed from Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees. The story behind Lynas’ excellent book is that Lynas holed himself up in a library and read everything that had been written about climate change in order to produce a picture of the future as it probably would be.
The worst-case scenario Lynas presents is one in which the methane deposits at the bottom of the ocean erupt explosively, wiping out nearly all life on Earth in a mass extinction comparable to that of the Permian-Triassic boundary, 251.4 million years ago, which was also a global warming event. With the hindsight of paleoclimate knowledge about the Permian-Triassic boundary, Lynas tells us that “human releases of carbon dioxide are almost certainly happening faster than any natural carbon releases since the beginning of life on Earth.” (254) As for the ultimate end of all this, Lynas describes:
It is not too difficult to imagine the ultimate nightmare scenario, with oceanic methane eruptions near large population centres, rapidly wiping out billions of people, perhaps in days. (255)
And then there is the prognosis given by James Hansen in Storms of our Grandchildren. Hansen, if you recall, was the scientist who argued that if we are to have an Earth vaguely resembling the one that exists today, we will have to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million. This was the figure which inspired Bill McKibben to form 350.org — the only organization AFAIK that does global warming activism. At any rate, Hansen argues that if we burn all of the fossil fuels, Earth will end up looking something like Venus:
After the ice is gone, would Earth proceed to the Venus syndrome, a runaway greenhouse effect that would destroy all life on the planet, perhaps permanently? While that is difficult to say based on present information, I’ve come to conclude that if we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty. (236)
Now, if you were wondering if it were yet possible to escape the worst-case scenarios, the answer is “sure,” but not under the parameters set by the current system. Keep in mind that carbon dioxide emissions are accelerating, and that the basic truth granted by Raupach et al. was confirmed by FishOutofWater this morning. Remember that if you want to stop the producers of fossil fuels from producing, they will use their power as suppliers of a necessary product to demand compensation for the opportunity cost they’re being asked to bear. Who dares defy the Saudis now?
So, of course, there is certainly good reason to believe we’re doomed. Protesting against the Keystone tar sands pipeline will do nothing in this regard. To reiterate: human beings will burn all of the fossil fuels, Earth will turn into Venus, and global civilization will collapse.
Under the current dispensation, “solutions” to the problem of abrupt climate change all entail some form of economic compromise: keep the economic system as it is, while dealing with global warming, and everything will be fine. None of them are going to work. Alternative energy will merely supplement fossil energy unless fossil energy is forced to halt production. I’ve already detailed the problem with cap-and-trade (currently the only politically feasible solution) in a diary of two years ago, and the carbon tax thing will always be something the corporations will be able to evade. Once again, the most real of proposed solutions is the least palatable: keep the grease in the ground. Hansen proposes something similar, though he seems to have an abiding faith in the ability of the coal companies to create a “clean coal” alternative which I don’t have.
Meanwhile, the capitalist system, which coordinates our business today, will become less and less rational, with all social institutions being re-coordinated to prop up the privileges of the 1%. I wrote about this in detail during the Bush era — it’s even more true now. It’s why “pressuring Congress” will only work when it’s done in a direction in which Congress, and its owners among the 1%, want to go already. It explains why all of the pressure tactics of the Firedoglake team have been for nothing. I mean it now as I meant it then: the neoliberal 1% has won.
As Earth’s climate worsens, the vise will be tightened upon the vast majority of people living in world-society, for the sake of a principle of profit which will render the non-owners of capital, the 99%, irrelevant. Hastening the flight into the vortices of wealth and power will be the fact that you will still have to be “too big to fail” if you are to qualify for the next bailout. There is, in short, no future for you.
The only real problem with the prognosis of doom and despair is that it comes out of a prerevolutionary perspective. We are limited by our common perspective as participants in the current social reality, in which false hopes abound and in which despair counts as sobriety. To change our perspective, a revolution will be necessary. To encapsulate:
1) False hope as the advertising pitch of a discredited system
2) Despair as the underground “samizdat” debunking of false hope (see e.g. Chris Hedges)
1) Hope as the redemption of the human race
2) Hard work to create a restorative society out of the shell of the old, grasping one
What we need, then, is a revolution of hope, after which the hard work of piecing together society’s relationship to the natural world can begin in all seriousness.
Of course, I am not recommending any old revolution. The revolutions of old (e.g. the French and Russian Revolutions) were for the most part national affairs, unpredictable in their outcomes, and characterized by coup d’etats in government. Those revolutions were byproducts of a developing capitalist system. The capitalist system is now in decline, and so now we must reflect upon the curious crossroads which this has brought us to.
Specifically, we will need a revolution in which social co-ordination is not dependent upon capitalist business. Before now, social co-ordination has been made through the various agencies of domination, the empires, religious hierarchies, City Hall, the paterfamilias, or whatever. These entities were either swept aside or co-opted by the capitalist system, in which money directs people to move. Thus our revolution must create a society that is an alternative to both capitalism and patriarchy.
Prerevolutionary political struggle reflects the false hopes of this era. The 1% own 42% of the wealth, and can thus buy nearly all of the politicians and continue to insulate themselves from the rest of society while promoting policies that do not help. Indeed it is so that the Democrats are generally better than the Republicans within the milieu of the political class — but to rely on the sort of reformism produced by big money politics in this era is to miss the urgency of the situation. This video still lays it out:
Revolutionary political struggle must bring together two constituencies: not the Democrats and the Republicans, but rather the greens and the reds. The greens are concerned with the ecological health of the planet, which is the most important point of our revolution. The reds are concerned with the well-being and the political power of the masses, which must be reorganized if the goals of the greens (apart, of course, from the career goals of “environmentalists,” which have more to do with what Jane Hamsher calls the “Veal Pen” than anything else) are to be achieved. But, generally, and apart from bringing together green and red constituencies, the revolution must create a rebirth of genuine hope, hope for the future of the human race.
Currently, the best hopes for a global revolution of the sort I’m discussing are to be had from the Occupy movement. There are, to be sure, local rebellions against capitalism, but these are widely dispersed and not really unified just yet.