Chris Hedges blows it — apocalyptic radicalism won't save us, nor should it

I hate to rant, but I’m going to anyway.

I collect “apocalyptica” and Chris Hedges’ Life is Sacred went right into the file.  It was the lines “The planet is dying. And we will die with it” that did it.

I’m only writing this because Hedges is good.  Sometimes he’s very good.  But this is not helpful, and not just because the planet is not dying.  It will recover, as I’m sure, in our less hyperbolic moments, we all know.*  It’s also because this kind of hyperbole is based on a fatal refusal of will, and an overarching pessimism that must be refused.

Here’s Hedges’ concluding paragraph:

“Politicians, including Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, serve the demented ends of corporations that will, until the final flicker of life, attempt to profit from our death spiral. Civil disobedience, including the recent decision by Greenpeace activists to chain themselves to a Gazprom supply vessel and obstruct a Russian oil rig, is the only meaningful form of resistance. Voting is useless. But while I support these heroic acts of resistance, I increasingly fear they may have little effect. This does not mean we should not resist. Resistance is a moral imperative. We cannot use the word “hope” if we do not fight back. But the corporations will employ deadly force to protect their drive to extract the last bit of profit from life. We can expect only mounting hostility from the corporate state. Its internal and external security apparatus, as the heedless exploitation and its fatal consequences become more apparent, will seek to silence and crush all dissidents. Corporations care nothing for democracy, the rule of law, human rights or the sanctity of life. They are determined to be the last predator standing. And then they too will be snuffed out. Unrestrained hubris always leads to self-immolation”

I wish I could remember the name of the fallacy here, the one in which an opinion becomes so large and monochromatic that it overwhelms proportion.   And in this case, even hope.

We can do better than this.

* The fate of our civilization, of course, is more uncertain.

After capitalism? A quick note from a climate hawk

Kudos to George Monbiot, who just wrote one of his good columns.  Really good, though I think the title may be wrong.  It’s called After Capitalism, and it makes the main point clearly and with animated brio.  To wit,

To answer the question of what the world will look like after capitalism, we first have to decide what we mean by capitalism. If it means a system that arises from lending money at interest, then there will be no “after capitalism”. . .  If on the other hand capitalism means something like the current dispensation, which allows a few people to seize much of the wealth generated by everyone, which blocks social mobility, which re-engineers the political system to serve the economic elite, then, yes, there’s a lot we can do about it.

For the past 200 years, men and women have fought stoicly for political democracy. Now we should fight for economic democracy. The natural wealth of the world, its land, its soils, its crops, minerals, water, forests, fish, is limited. The wealth arising from its use and multiplied through all the complex layers of the modern economy, is also limited, bounded ultimately, as the subprime mortgage crisis showed us, by the real value of assets in the physical world. Just as it was wrong for monarchs and aristocrats to concentrate so much political power in their hands, so it is wrong that billionaires and corporations should be permitted to seize so much of the common treasury of humankind: the wealth arising from the use of a finite planet.

We deserve a political and economic system that redistributes both wealth and the decisions about how it is used. Not communism, but an advanced form of social democracy. . .

This last point is critical, because “social democracy” is a variant of capitalism (which is the issue with the title).  “Economic democracy” is a more open-ended notion, and could go either way.  In any case, and at the risk of appearing ridiculous, let me say that there has to be a way forward that does not demand the entire overthrow of the capitalist system as a precondition of social-ecological renewal.  There simply has to be, because given the short time we now have to embrace transformational change – a time too short to evolve and deploy a whole new political economy – the alternative is that we would be doomed.

But we are not doomed.  We’re in danger, sure, but we’re still alive, and can still make our own histories, and it follows that we are not doomed.  Thus it cannot be that “capitalism,” per se, is the problem.  It must be this particular capitalism that’s at issue, and in particular its drive to concentrate both power and wealth within a self-serving and increasingly incompetent elite caste.  All of which, it seems, we are condemned to debate within the cramped and distorting confines of a strange and overarching metaphor, the one in which the problem is something called “growth.”

Which brings us to the “green growth” debate, though it will have to wait.

Todd Stern: Half Right, All Wrong

There was a bit a firestorm in the climate world a few weeks back.  It started after Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change made a speech that included the following comment:

“For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action.  This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved.  This is entirely logical. It makes perfect sense on paper.  The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible.”

The firestorm?  Basically, Stern was attacked for turning his back on the 2C target.  See for example, Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones here, and Foreign Policy here, and all sorts of other public and list-bound communications, many of them from the South.  Even the EU was upset.

Stern then issued a clarification, which did in fact clarify.  The emphasis here is mine:

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Hansen's smoking gun

Remember when climate change was something our grandchildren were going to have to deal with?

That was then.  Today, we’re in a different world.  It’s impossible to say exactly when we made the transition, though the usual sense is that it occurred sometime between, say, 2010 – a catastrophic  year in which, for example, Pakistan (as in “nuclear-armed Pakistan”) suffered floods so epic and destructive that they actually pushed the population down the ladder of development — and, say, 2012, the year in which the dust-bowlification of the American heartland became a fact on the ground.

James Hansen uses a more scientific dating system.  In his new paper, Public Perception of Climate Change, written with Makiko Sato and Reto Ruedy and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on August 6th, he proceeds by setting a formal baseline, which he does in terms of the three decades from 1951 to 1980.  These were the last of the old epoch.  Since then, we’ve no longer been in the Holocene, but rather have been busily drilling ourselves further and further into the Anthropocene.

Or, to use Hansen’s favorite metaphor, we’ve been busily loading the “climate dice.”  Back in the Holocene, two faces of the dice were (red) “hot,” two were (white) “average,” and two were (blue) “cold.”  Today,

“we find that actual summer-mean temperature anomalies over global land during the past decade averaged about 75% in the “hot category”, thus midway between four and five sides of the die were red.”

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Rio+20 — a brief bottom line

I was considering writing a Rio+20 review, but what’s the point?  There are plenty of them on the net, and in any case, you’ve probably made your own judgements already.

Do note, when deciding who to believe, that despair is not our friend.  Not that “hope,” as we usually know it, is much better.  But the challenge before us is clearly to save ourselves, and as much of First Nature as we can, and in this regard, it’s helpful to know — if only as a matter of pacing — that humanity’s total footprint is about twice as large as it was back in 1992.

Speaking of pacing, the schedule to flesh out the Sustainable Development Goals proposal calls for action by 2015, which is the same year that the climate negotiators have penciled in for their next big breakthrough.   Lots of luck to everyone, ourselves included.

Meanwhile, and for the record, here is The People’s Sustainability Treaty on Equity, which I was pleased to work on.  And here’s a good site for the Peoples’ Sustainability Treaties as a group.


I picked my favorite “Rio was not a disaster” piece.  It’s by Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network, and it’s called Renewed Political Commitment Obtained.  I would have added “at least on paper” to the title, but this is not TWN’s point.  Which, to be clear, is that Rio was a successful defensive battle, and that — at least on the “Common but differentiated responsibilities front” — we have lived to fight another day.

In any case, before being too blue about Rio, keep in mind the state of the climate talks.  Until we have a breakthrough on that front, we can’t really expect transformative change on any other.  At least not at the inter-governmental level.

Best thing on post-Durban so far, IMHO

Can I pick out one article or commentary and say that it’s the “best piece” on Durban so far?

I nominate Looking Beyond Durban: Where to from Here? by Navroz K. Dubash, a policy activist at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.  It’s short, it’s diplomatic, it’s well-informed by what other commentators have argued, and most of all its forward looking.  It focuses, that is, on the real issue, which is “Reconceptualising Climate Equity” after Durban.

You should read the whole thing, but here’s the key bit:

“A re-formulated approach to climate equity should embrace an important distinction between responsibility for an action or culpability and responsibility to respond, or a duty (Rajamani 2011b). An approach that combines attention to industrialized countries’ historical responsibility for the problem with an embrace of the responsibility to explore low carbon development trajectories is both ethically defensible and strategically wise. Ironically, our own domestic national approach of actively exploring “co-benefits” – policies that promote development while also yielding climate gains – suggests that we do take climate science seriously and have embraced responsibility as duty. However, by focusing on articulating rigid principles, rather than building on our actual policies and actions, we weaken our own position. Is accepting a responsibility (understood as duty) to explore low carbon development pathways (as part of a larger package that keeps focus on industrialised country culpability) a slippery slope towards ever more onerous commitments? The answer depends, in part, on the domestic policy and regulatory framework that India establishes to implement its chosen approach of pursuing co-benefits. If this framework is robust, leads to domestic actions that actively explore low carbon options, and to tangible carbon gains, then India is well placed to defend itself against further demand

Development without Carbon: Climate and the Global Economy through the 21st Century

Elizabeth Stanton, an economist at the Stockholm Environment Institute who is active in the Economics for Equity and Environment (the E3 Network), has done a service in Development without Carbon.  It’s a crystal-clear paper that lays out a simple framework for thinking about equitable development within a constrained emissions space — like this planet.  It’s goal, particularly, is to show that traditional economic models are not up to the job, but that the job itself remains doable.

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Kevin Anderson meets Dave Roberts

In early 2011, when I first read “the Anderson Bows paper” (the actual title of which is Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world) I did so too quickly.’s Dave Roberts, in what I shall call his “Brutal Logic Trilogy,” was a much closer reader.  His trilogy, which takes off from the paper, is published here, here, and here, and is essential reading, as is the paper itself.  Though if you’re short of time, it’s probably better to listen to this talk by Kevin Anderson, in which he presents the paper’s main conclusion and also riffs rapidly and revealingly about many of the surrounding issues.

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Naomi Klein’s Capitalism vs. the Climate

Naomi Klein’s Capitalism vs. the Climate is both excellent and remarkable.  Though, when I saw it sourced (by the new climate blog Planet3.0) as being from “the American hard-left magazine The Nation” I almost choked.  I am, I confess, a man of a certain age, and I remember what “hard left” used to mean.

I don’t think of The Nation as being “hard left.”  Nor Klein for that matter.

Anyway, her title is catchy, but also a bit misleading.  Most of her case isn’t against capitalism in itself, but  against “capitalism-as-usual,” or “contemporary capitalism,” or “the corporate sector, with its structural demand for increased sales and profits.”  Which is I suppose what you’d expect, this being a reasonable piece.  Because it’s not at all clear that we’re up against capitalism in itself.  What we know for sure is that we’re up against this capitalism.  That we either fix it or it’s “game over,” as Jim Hansen recently put it.

Klein touches only lightly on the really tough issues in the climate and capitalism debate (yes, there is one!), which she does – cleverly? strangely? — in the “Ending the cult of shopping” section.  This is where we get the problem of “growth” (the most confusing abstraction of them all) and the reference to Tim Jackson’s definitional book Prosperity without growth (download the original report here for free).  The problems of redistribution, and of desire (the democratic disciplining of desire) are only suggested.  In other words, there’s not really much here about the problems of capitalism in itself.

Which is fine with me, at least for now.

There are people out there writing books about how capitalism (the thing itself) is absolutely and intrinsically incompatible with the continuation of human civilization as we know it – and Klein, at least to my mind, has done us a major service by taking a different tack.  It seems to me that she’s not taking an abstract position, but speaking, concretely, for renovations so grand and sweeping that we’d have a hard time recognizing them as “reforms,” in the old sense.

I should speak for myself.  And my view is that, while the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism, it’s also a manageable one.  Which is to say that we’re not already doomed.  But to save ourselves, we have to create a different kind of capitalism.  Nothing more is possible in the limited time left before us – the climate clock really is ticking – but it’s actually quite a lot.  Recognizing this is radical enough for me.

Africa — Leapfrogging to the future?

Christian Aid, with the help of some friends (full disclosure: EcoEquity is among them) has just released an excellent report entitled Low-carbon Africa: Leapfrogging to a green future.  The report is interesting on two levels.

First, it makes the case that..

“Africa is able to deliver clean and sustainable energy to millions of energy-poor people across the continent without increasing greenhouse gas emissions” …  It has the “renewable power potential to drive a green economic expansion across the region.”  To wit “an abundance of resources and its sustainable development ambitions give Africa a real advantage when it comes to renewable energy.”  And that, “with access to a ‘leapfrog fund’ from global mitigation finance, this could lay the ground for a low-carbon future.”

Second, it raises the question of a “leapfrog fund.”  Which comes to this — given the pressing need for energy services in Africa, and given the importance of providing these energy services on the basis of renewables, does Africa not have a claim against the global climate finance system, whatever it turns out to be, for the technical and financial support that will be needed to ensure rapid, low-carbon development?  And, if so, who should foot the bill?

Continue reading “Africa — Leapfrogging to the future?”