The McKibben-Hedges “debate” — a thought

Published online 24 October 2009.

The point of this diary is to alert the Orange-reading public to the “McKibben-Hedges debate,” from a recent piece in Alternet.  Yeah, I know, it’s not really a debate.  The Alternet piece makes some important connections and I think you should all read it carefully.  What this core contention between the two writers is really about, I argue, is power.

The history of power is a record of how various forms of power consolidated themselves into the current global state of domination.  The outcome which the history of power has been preparing up until now will be a sort of massive humanity-wide global murder-suicide.  The fundamental leap which will make the drama of human self-extinction possible, I argue, was capitalism.  Capitalism made capitalist discipline possible as a form of power, and capitalist discipline will bring power to a point of confrontation between the global complex of control and the simplification of the biosphere which will signal our failure as a species at the art of taking care of nature.  Thus it’s time to end capitalist discipline.  Capitalism will take care of itself.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

I don’t know how many of you have actually been to the McKibben-Hedges debate on Alternet.  It’s pretty good stuff.

Before this piece was featured on Alternet I caught the opportunity to exchange online posts with Bill McKibben on RLMiller’s liveblog of last Monday.  The discussion netted McKibben’s agreement on two important points which I’ve been stating and restating in a number of previous diaries here:

  1. Mark Lynas put it out in his book Six Degrees that a global warming of six degrees Celsius would be catastrophic for the whole of civilization — well, as I’ve pointed out in several places, we’ve already burned enough carbon to heat up Earth six degrees, and we’re just at this point waiting for the feedback to kick in.  This is, in fact, what informs James Hansen’s call for a return to 350 ppm in global atmospheric CO2.
  1. We need to begin a serious debate, here, on the prior actions which must be taken before we on planet Earth can keep the grease in the ground.  Bill McKibben admitted that, for practical reasons, he wasn’t the person to start that debate.  However, McKibben admits that the “keeping the grease in the ground” goal is implied in what Hansen suggests is necessary.  From Hedges’ piece:

NASA climate scientist James Hansen has demonstrated that any concentration of carbon dioxide greater than 350 parts per million in the atmosphere is not compatible with maintenance of the biosphere on the “planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” He has determined that the world must stop burning coal by 2030–and the industrialized world well before that–if we are to have any hope of ever getting the planet back down below that 350 number. Coal supplies half of our electricity in the United States.

If we are to judge McKibben by the activist program he has set up, McKibben wants to raise consciousness about the 350 ppm goal by organizing public protests.  This is indeed a useful thing to do.  It is, however, only a small step to doing something about the real problem, the problem which has loaded the atmosphere with enough carbon dioxide (already!) to make the whole civilization crack.  It is also puzzling that McKibben has to “come around” to the keep-the-grease-in-the-ground idea (see his earlier response to it, in my question to him at Scripps College in early last year).

Hedges’ responds to Bill McKibben appropriates the message of anarcho-primitivist writer Derrick Jensen.  It will be no use to raise consciousness if the fundamental problem of the “corporate state” can’t be solved:

We can join Bill McKibben on Oct. 24 in nationwide protests over rising carbon emissions. We can cut our consumption of fossil fuels. We can use less water. We can banish plastic bags. We can install compact fluorescent light bulbs. We can compost in our backyard. But unless we dismantle the corporate state, all those actions will be just as ineffective as the Ghost Dance shirts donned by native American warriors to protect themselves from the bullets of white soldiers at Wounded Knee.

Hedges then quotes Jensen on the matter of the “industrial civilization” which is “systematically dismembering the planet.”  OK, two things:

  1. Jensen’s bias, if we can call it that, is in favor of the survival of larger animals (at the end of The Culture of Make Believe he describes himself as a defender of salmon and frog habitat).  “The planet” will repopulate itself, if necessary, with the cockroaches after we’re gone as a species.  Oh, it might take a few million years, but it’s happened before — check out Michael Benton’s “When Life Nearly Died” — but it will happen.

The problem, of course, is that if we can’t learn how to take care of the natural environment, we humans will die off as a species.  This should be evident from the data on abrupt climate change.  It is highly unlikely that any other future intelligent species will arise on planet Earth to describe what happened to us, in the billion or so years Earth has left for life, if we humans do indeed die off.

So environmentalism is really about us, the human species.  Can we get power over ourselves, so that we can take care of nature?

  1. the threat of the “corporate state,” or “industrial civilization,” or “industrial capitalism” or whatever is, in Hedges’ text (and Jensen’s for that matter) vague.  There is a fundamental truth to Hedges’ thesis, which comes in the middle of his critique:

We can, and should, live more simply, but it will not be enough if we do not radically transform the economic structure of the industrial world.

We might look at this and ask, how?  Hedges comes close to a real critique when he argues:

The reason the ecosystem is dying is not because we still have a dryer in our basement. It is because corporations look at everything, from human beings to the natural environment, as exploitable commodities. It is because consumption is the engine of corporate profits. We have allowed the corporate state to sell the environmental crisis as a matter of personal choice when actually there is a need for profound social and economic reform.

We need to get even more specific, though, if we want to translate Hedges’ message into practical action.

McKibben and Hedges have this in common: they have an interest in empowerment, for the sake of taking care of nature.  But whereas McKibben’s interest is in “things we can do now,” Hedges wants to guide readers to a view of the whole picture, to show what needs to be done.  But to actually DO what needs to be done is the trick to be mastered.

The question of how we are to do what needs to be done can be answered, in my opinion, with a bigger “big picture” than the one Hedges provided.

According to Kees van der Pijl, the capitalist state originated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the resultant form of governance in the UK qualified as the first “capitalist state.”

As I said in a previous diary, capitalism is only defined by its cheerleading propagandists as “trade.”  Capitalism in fact defines a SYSTEM in which an economy (with required participation for nearly everyone) is dominated by profit-making businesses.  Corporations look at (in Hedges’ words) things as “exploitable commodities” because they are profit-making businesses.  And corporations can dominate the world, as such, thanks to the intervention of the corporate state, which sets the rules for what corporations can and can’t do.  As I said in the abovecited diary:

Markets, moreover, are not a natural phenomenon, arising like weeds in one’s garden — markets require an extraordinary degree of governance (whether private or public) to create.  To have a market there have to be a number of things in place: routines for reaching price agreements, publicity and transportation networks, forms for recording transaction data, storage facilities, and (most importantly for the argument here) a “legal framework defining ownership and appropriate forms of transfer of ownership of property, backed by the ultimate sanction of force’ (Hutchinson et al., p. 91).

Thus an essential element of the capitalist system has always been capitalist governance, embodied in the capitalist (or at least the pre-capitalist) state.

Now, if we are to date capitalism back to 1688, we need to confront its history.  The history of capitalism is the history of capitalist discipline, of its spread around the world and of its ever-increasing control over what we do.  Capitalist discipline defines our work routines; but it also sets a picture of the world as a collection of (in Hedges’ words) “exploitable commodities,” the world view which motivates the corporations.  It defines the extent to which we have been transformed into consumers for the sake of corporate profits.  It defines the extent to which “the public” has become a bunch of suckers for anti-global-warming propaganda.  It defines the extent to which the world’s land has been zoned as “real estate.”  Lastly, it defines the extent to which survival is made dependent upon the money economy, with the resultant destruction of our native abilities to live off of the land as a means of blocking the exits so that we are trapped inside said money economy.  This, more than anything else, is the main measure of the system’s power over us.

Historical capitalism appeared benign from an environmentalist perspective because the process of capitalist-disciplining the world was in its early stages, previously, and had not yet metastasized into its current form.  We are past that time.

Global murder-suicide factors into this equation at the point at which an infinitely hungry and all-powerful profits system confronts natural and social worlds impoverished by capitalist discipline to the breaking point.  Abrupt climate change is a foreshadowing of that point, the point of death.  If we are to avoid that death, we will need to bring an end to capitalist discipline.  We will thus need power over capitalist discipline, and the system it feeds.

What I’ve suggested from the get-go is that there will need to be an alternative form of discipline, one attuned to the actual task of taking care of the planet — and that is ecological discipline.  Bringing ecological discipline into being will be your primary task.

Now, I do not want a bunch of responses telling me “overthrowing the system is too hard” and “we have to work with what we’ve got.”  I am in fact suggesting that we DO work — at a very micro level — with what we’ve got.  The level I’m suggesting is so micro, in fact, that it evades the attention of the most paranoid FBI or NSA agent reading this diary right now.  They can’t force us to work for the system, you know, and this will be especially so after the system fails to deliver on any of its promises.

The thought that the environmentalists need to think about a life after capitalism appears to be the thought which is getting the most cognitive resistance here.  Get over it!  Start thinking!  Yeah, that means you!

And as for “overthrowing the system” being “too hard,” nobody’s asking you to do everything all by yourself, or right away.  But think of this — what if the capitalist system were to vanish in a number of places, leaving behind confused and starving people in its wake?  Would you bring it back, because “overthrowing the system is too hard”?  A better move would be to create an alternative to the system in the places where it’s possible.  This, after all, is what the Zapatistas did.

And I don’t want a bunch of crap about how everything will be solved in Copenhagen in December.  It won’t.  Copenhagen is a photo-op.


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