The decade of lame excuses: “Catastrophism” and abrupt climate change

Published online 28 March 2014.

I think that’s how future historians will remember the “teens” — that glorious decade between 2010 and 2020 when we suffered chronically higher unemployment and paid for improved access to health care with something less than 8% of our gross annual incomes and with continuing insurance company hegemonic control over the whole process.

For this is the decade of lame excuses, the decade of “we didn’t have sixty votes” and “Obama can only do so much” and “the Democrats don’t have enough money to contest every race” and “the Republicans invented the sequester” and “Obama can’t close Gitmo” (did I say “Obama can’t close Gitmo“?) and so on.  And that’s not to mention the far more numerous Republican lame excuses that are floated every day!  (I might add that this isn’t about Obama or the Democrats so much as it’s about the decade of lame excuses — if we didn’t think they were credible, we wouldn’t be making so many of them.)

At this point I think that the heartland of the realm of lame excuses, now in the fourth year of this decade, has got to be in the public discussion of climate change.  For how could it be otherwise?  The linchpin of the movement to mitigate climate change is the effort to stop the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, but opinion polls suggest that Keystone XL is broadly popular, and they’ve already created other pipelines that do the same thing (according to a great diary by Lefty Coaster).

Now, I’m OK with climate change mitigation being a lost cause.  It’s definitely not a lame excuse to say “this is a lost cause, but we’re pursuing it anyway.”  What I’m not OK with is this: Lost causes would be much, MUCH more fun if we didn’t have to make and support lame excuses for why we’re not pursuing the SAME cause in a way which might actually stand a chance of winning.

I think we’re also making lame excuses in that we can’t bring ourselves to support this flawed climate-change mitigation movement while at the same time working to improve the movement itself — and in this regard I will discuss a book titled “Catastrophism.”  I will explain below.

So, OK, why is Keystone XL popular?  Well, people believe it will create jobs, and everyone needs jobs.  Climate change activists, however, need to do their jobs in a different, less excuse-creating, way.  They need to stop creating excuses for why they can’t take their movement to the next level, and address issues of capitalism.  What they really need to do is to tell the people “you don’t need jobs — you need to have power over the system so that it will guarantee you a decent living.”  Telling people that Keystone XL will only create a few full-time jobs isn’t working, because only a few is better than nothing.

In other words, climate change activists need to confront capital, the supposed creator of jobs and real-life moocher off of the hard work of you and me.  Maybe they can start with some old-fashioned letter-writing.  Dear rich capitalists: why is it all about you and your profits?  Don’t we deserve decent lives?  This was what Occupy was about.

From this reasoning we can construct a simple syllogism:

1) Climate change threatens human life on Earth.

2) More capitalism causes climate change.

3) Therefore, more capitalism must go.

The immediate solution is obvious: climate change activists must confront the capitalist system if they hope to be successful.  Fossil fuels must be taken out of the realm of commodities and profit and corporate exploitation at the very least.  The grease must, simply put, stay in the ground.  And if the grease stays in the ground?  How will world-society meet its energy needs?  Well, one way to do it would be if the government conducted a crash alternative energy program — although the capitalists are going to get desperate about this, given that today they rely upon oil produced at a rate of 89 million bbls./day, and coal at an equal carbon equivalent.  That’s a lot of energy!  We’re likely to hear the lame excuse of “Omigod the deficit!” in even louder, more shrill, tones.

World-saving becomes so much easier if we abandon capitalism, dethrone the capitalists, and create a world society that is an association of free producers.  There’s even a possible strategy behind this — we’ll call it the “Green-Red Strategy,” since after all the shadow government is into promoting color-coded revolutions these days.  We start by bringing together the people with the Occupy people.  Serve good beer and good food.  Get them talking about joint ventures.

But we can’t wait until capitalism is ended to do something about climate change, say the excuse makers.  Well, if capitalism is allowed to continue to accelerate carbon emissions, will we have done anything at all?  Social movements which are about not doing what it takes are so much less fun.

I get comments now and then along the lines of “Omigod the Soviet Union” when I propose that we end the reign of capitalism upon this earth.  Nobody is proposing the return of the Soviet Union, just as nobody is proposing the return of feudalism or the Roman Empire or the empire of Genghis Khan.  As Kim Stanley Robinson says in the video I just linked: “The problem is that the future is so hard to imagine that we tend to take analogies from the past.”  So there are other ways to imagine the future, and the Robinson video goes into those.  (Watch this video!  It’s awesome!)

But of course we have a lame excuse: “omigod we have an excuse not to think about postcapitalism!” — so let’s just be good little sheep and work harder while the planet dies.  Not.

Essentially, though, this diary is about making lame excuses, not about the future.  And here I’d like to look some lame excuses coming from people who know about capitalism and who therefore ought to know better.  The excuse-makers have in fat created an edited volume to further theatricize their drama: “Catastrophism.”  This book was written by Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, and James Davis with a foreword by Doug Henwood.  Mind you, I deeply respect all of these people — they are among those who know better — but I think they’ve gotten a bit caught up in the zeitgeist.

The problem of the authors of “Catastrophism,” however, is not that of the climate change mitigation movement.  They’re afraid that climate change will be too depressing a topic, and will turn people off from movement participation.

Here’s their concern.  From the Amazon page:

The authors of this collection argue that the lens of catastrophe through which so many of today’s issues are examined distorts understanding of the dynamics at the heart of numerous problems, such as global warming, ultimately halting progress and transformation.

This is the lame excuse of “Omigod if the public knows about how bad the environmental crisis has become it won’t transform the system!”  Now, I don’t have this book, and I won’t have it in the future, either, unless one of its authors shows up in the comments section of this diary and we arrange for me to have a review copy.  So there may in fact be a compelling argument in there which I haven’t been able to read.  But I did read what was online about it, and I did read the debate in the Monthly Review about one of its chapters.  And, with only this reading, I think I have enough information to be able to pinpoint the foundation of its argument.The Monthly Review debate was between Eddie Yuen and Ian Angus — Yuen is one of the authors of the “Catastrophism” book, and Ian Angus is an ecosocialist from Australia who often writes for the Monthly Review.

Let’s first take a look at what I think is Eddie Yuen’s best argument:

My contention is that the disjunction between the severity of the catastrophe and the inadequate solutions offered by mainstream environmentalism often leads to a politics of fear that is paralyzing rather than radicalizing.

Now, this is a credible contention.  And Yuen does cover himself admirably here — the problem is not just with the severity of the catastrophe, but also with the inadequate solutions offered by mainstream environmentalism.  Frankly, though, I think his concern here does not offer a good fit with the real world.  Here’s my best take on it: most of the American public does not in fact recognize that the “solutions offered by mainstream environmentalism” are inadequate.  So they aren’t apathetic about climate change and Keystone XL for that reason. What keeps Americans from endorsing and saying “no” to Keystone XL then?  I think the real reason is that those in favor of Keystone XL have addressed in their propaganda what is in fact America’s main concern: jobs.  Never mind that Keystone XL will create almost entirely lousy part-time jobs and nothing else.  That’s better than nothing.Solution: if you want to solve the problem of impending runaway climate change by appeal to the public, you have to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, both about climate change and about capitalism.  This means telling everyone that there’s an impending disaster in the works with climate change, it means getting in the trenches and debating the hard science of this disaster, and it means telling people that its primary cause will be the continued operation of the capitalist system.  (I have gone over the reasons for this in numerous other diaries already.)  If the current climate change movement is proposing “solutions” which are all broadly inadequate, well, that’s something we work on later.  But the first order of business is to mobilize the public against the fact that nothing of interest is even being attempted by our government as regards climate change.

Let’s move on, though, to Ian Angus’ best counter-argument to Yuen:

That is why his (Yuen’s) failure to discuss contemporary environmental justice movements is a significant omission. Those experiences show that growing awareness of the planetary emergency has not caused apathy or strengthened the right, but is actually promoting a global radical opposition to reactionary policies and authoritarian solutions.

Now, this might be the case, and it might not be the case.  (I myself think Angus is correct.)  But, as I pointed out with Eddie Yuen, we can all point to some rather more obvious causes of “apathy” or the rise of the Right that have nothing to do with “catastrophism”.The environmental doomsayers are only saying what they see.  Climatologist James Hansen, even if his solution is inadequate, is saying what he sees.  The opponents of “catastrophism” need to be able to distinguish between three types of action:

1) the actual preparation for coming eco-disaster, which might be a good thing.

2) the promotion of the “ideology of catastrophism,” which the authors of “Catastrophism” have denounced.  I’m sure that the effect they describe is real, but I think its real-life extent is debatable.

3) the creation of theories about society which include the possibility of total environmental devastation.  Just as we once theorized the possibility of total nuclear war, now we can theorize total environmental devastation.

In the real world, then, 1) and 3) are good actions, because we need to take into account the possibility that the human race could really screw up climate change, and visit large-scale disaster upon itself.  2) is a bad action, but what is its significance?

My conclusion is this: those who worry about “catastrophism” need to reason through precisely what it is, what phenomenon in the real world it is, they’re criticizing.  The climate change mitigation movement doesn’t appear to be succeeding, but not for the reasons they proclaim, so their excuses are not legitimate, and therefore lame.



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