Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future”

I have, as per my demographic and political / cultural leanings, been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate novels since he started writing them. But I’ve never been moved to review one before The Ministry For the Future.

Read this book, and not just because it imagines a successful path forward. Read it because it does so without down-playing the climate danger, and because it holds the vision of a “post capitalist” world in proper equipoise with the defining necessities of crash decarbonization. Robinson may be just a wee bit optimistic about the manageability of the climate system tipping cascades that now seem to be on the horizon, but in the context of this book, I think this is OK. When you’re done with the opening scene, you will not feel moved to claim that the arc of The Ministry is in any way based on soft-pedaling.

This is not a proper review. Just three points.

1) Read this book, particularly if you’ve been underwhelmed by “Climate Fiction”. In this regard, note this recent opinion piece on Cli Fi. I cite it because it’s erudite in a useful sort of way, and because it gives me a chance to suggest you might be better off reading The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh’s non-fiction book on the challenge the climate crisis poses to literature, than Gun Island, the Ghosh novel it cites and discusses.  And because, when it comes to Robinson’s work, it references only New York 2140, which allows me to quickly opine that The Ministry is a more important book.

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The Pandemic Pivot

Earlier this year, the prolific and admirably lucid John Feffer, currently based at the Institute for Policy Studies, invited me to participate in an international conversation that he called The Pandemic Pivot.

I’m sorry to say that the project’s framing text is already dated, for it talked about the coming second wave. I’m writing this in late October of 2020, and any anyone reading it will know, we’re not embroiled in the third wave. That said, the overarching less is the same, “If the current pandemic is a test of the global emergency response system, the international community is flunking big time.”

Here’s some introductory text, which clearly explains the link between the Covid crisis, and my own work, which is focused on climate and inequality:

“But perhaps the most important takeaway from the COVID-19 experience so far has little to do with the virus per se.

The pandemic has already killed more than a million people, but it is not about to doom humanity to extinction. COVID-19’s mortality rate, at under 3 percent, is relatively low compared to previous pandemics (around 10 percent for SARS and nearly 35 percent for MERS). Like its deadlier cousins, this pandemic will eventually recede, sooner or later depending on government response.

Other threats to the planet, meanwhile, pose greater existential dangers.

At a mere 100 seconds to midnight, the Doomsday Clock of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists now stands closer to the dreaded hour than at any point since its launch in 1947. As the quickening pace of this countdown suggests, the risk of nuclear war has not gone away while the threat of climate change has become ever more acute. If fire and water don’t get us, there’s always the possibility of another, more deadly pandemic incubating in a bat or a pangolin somewhere in the vanishing wild.

Despite these threats, the world has gone about its business as if a sword were not dangling perilously overhead. Then COVID-19 hit, and business ground to a halt.

The environmental economist Herman Daly once said that the world needed an optimal crisis “that’s big enough to get our attention but not big enough to disable our ability to respond,” notes climate activist Tom Athanasiou. That’s what COVID-19 has been: a wake-up call on a global scale, a reminder that humanity has to change its ways or go the way of the dinosaur.

Athanasiou is one of the 68 leading thinkers and activists featured in a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the Transnational Institute, and Focus on the Global South. Now available in electronic form from Seven Stories Press, The Pandemic Pivot lays out a bold program for how the international community can learn from the experience of the current pandemic to avoid the even more destructive cataclysms that loom on the horizon.”

The Pandemic Pivot is actually an engrossing read. Seriously. Check it out.

Why “Planet of the Humans” is crap

Mostly, Planet of the Humans is just so fucking bad. So bad that its good points are useless. It does have some good points – there seem to be a lot of rock festivals in Vermont that claim, incorrectly, to be running on solar. They totally deserve ridicule. But you would never recommend this film to anyone. You’d be carrying water for the fossils if you did. So it’s a failure on its own terms, since it wants, or pretends to want, to bring the truth about renewables to the green movement.  And it may even, judging from the ending, where both Bill McKibben and the Sierra Club are said to clarify their positions, make us a bit more careful about our tactical alliances. But boy oh boy does this guy—Jeff Gibbs is his name—know less than he thinks.

It’s too bad, because his central complaint, that the environmental movement is looking to green tech to save us, and believing quite a bit of nonsense in the process, is pretty legit, though it’s less legit every year, and you wouldn’t know it from this film.  Anyway, this kind of techno-optimism is and has always been a huge mistake, and it throws us to the mercies of the snake-oil salesman and, in general, to the corruptions of capitalist realism.  This is an excellent point, and it could have been made well.  Gibbs could have built a good bit of teaching around it.  But instead he threw so many cheap shots and so much old news into the bucket that it ruined, and I mean *ruined*, the mix.  The truth is that he doesn’t have the slightest idea about how to make his critique in a helpful way. 

Once you get beyond the pro-solar rock-concert bullshit, Gibbs’ rap against renewables is embarrassingly wrong.  Not all of it, but most of it.  Moreover, it is fantastically dated.  He seems to not even know that the net-energy analysis of renewable energy systems is a thing.  Which is odd, because Richard Heinberg is an expert in this field, and Gibbs embeds him at the center of his narrative. Heinberg, alas, has long been pessimistic about the potential for renewables to produce net energy on the scale we’ll need, and here he says that “we’re getting, in some cases, no energy from these potential options,” which is just what Gibbs wanted. *

Then, unsurprisingly, talk turns to population.  Heinberg’s provides the framing — “There are too many human beings, using too much, too fast” — and then Gibbs takes us off to the Malthusian races, wherein we’re told, by Stephen Churchill (an anthropologist who’s called out as “a scientist”) that “I don’t think we’re going to find a way out of this one.”  The mix goes on, and in it we get exactly one sentence—“our consumption has also exploded, on average ten times per person, and many times more in the western world” — that might in any way be taken as a reference to class, or to class footprints.  As if you could just multiply the number of people by their average impact and, by so doing, get to the fundamental truth of our predicament. 

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The Global Right vs. the Global Green New Deal

The indefatigable John Feffer has just authored an extremely useful report on the global new right, which he has entitled The Battle for Another World.

The report is based on over 80 interviews, including one with yours truly, and it very importantly concludes that a Global Green New Deal is our best chance, this in its promise of a shared international vision and transition strategy that offers a real alternative to both neoliberal globalization and the new right’s pseudo-nationalism. Like so:

“A Global Green New Deal wouldn’t just address the environmental crisis. By creating enormous numbers of well-paying jobs, it would also speak to those left behind by economic globalization. Such a narrative would undermine the new right’s anti-globalist appeals while offering up a positive vision to rally around within and across borders.”

The discussion here is worth reading in full, though I will say that I’m one of the more optimistic voices quoted in it. In particular, I took this occasion to make my pitch for a vision in which a fair shares global climate regime ties together a world of national green deals. Like so:

The Global Green New Deal cannot be solely an initiative of the rich. “If the wealthy countries were to come to a vision of the global GND that involved real public finance for the international burden-sharing mechanisms devised under the umbrella of the Paris agreement—and which have to be animated if we’re to have any hope of holding to the two-degree line, let alone 1.5C—that would certainly get the attention of people in the developing world,” argues Tom Athanasiou.

Obviously, this isn’t what’s happening at the moment. Nothing like progressive internationalism was on offer in Madrid. But this too could change. In fact it has to, as Feffer’s crisply argues in Newsweek, of all places, in a fine short piece called A Global Green New Deal Could Defeat the Far Right—And Save the Planet

Interview with Doug Henwood

On Sunday September 29th, I was interviewed by the excellent Doug Henwood for his Behind the News program. The link is here. Go to 25:04 to miss the first interview but pick up some of the modernist atmospherics of the show’s distinctive soundtrack, which fades into yours truly.

The interview is not bad. I normally hate listening to myself, but this is a half hour of crisp talk that actually explains, in a reasonably coherent way, the theory and politics behind the Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet piece I had in the September 30, 2019 issue of The Nation.

Despair Watch: Jonathan Franzen Edition

Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, recently published a piece in the New Yorker that caused a bit of stir. The piece is called What If We Stopped Pretending?, and let’s just say it’s not particularly optimistic. In fact, its subtitle is “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

You should read Franzen’s piece, not just for itself but because there’s more of this kind of high-tone despair coming down the pike, lots more.  Given this, it would be good if we could all get our thoughts in order. I’ve already done so, because I’m writing a piece on the culture of climate despair. I fired off a letter to the editor, and they actually published it.

Here’s what I said:

“The most exemplary of the new books on climate change—David Wallace-Wells’s “The Uninhabitable Earth” and Bill McKibben’s “Falter”—struggle for an honesty that does not counsel despair. Franzen’s argument, which suggests that attempts to mobilize are at odds with conservation and even with moral clarity, is an unhelpful distortion of the truth. We have the money and the technology to save ourselves. The tragedy, if it comes to that, will be that we don’t do so, even though we can. “

The Green New Deal as a step towards Emergency Internationalism

It’s likely, given the ongoing political insanity, that you’ve missed a key internationalist turn in the US Green New Deal debate.  It was Bernie Sanders’ team that made that turn, though we’re hoping that others (activists as well as politicians) will soon follow along.

The details are below, but here are the two key takeaways:

  • The national emissions reductions targets that most climate emergency groups have been advocating (e.g. 100% net zero by 2030, or even 2025 in the case of the British Extinction Rebellion folks) are effectively impossible if they are conceived in purely domestic terms.  They are also insufficient.  But Sanders has embraced a justice-based global framework that allows him to advocate for a properly scaled US reduction target, in this case 161% by 2030, and to do so coherently. 
  • Sanders’ internationalism is important because it extends the (usually all-domestic) Green New Deal vision to include the US fair share of an international emergency climate mobilization. In so doing, it points a path forward that animates the Paris Agreement (and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanism) and holds out hope for an effective planetary mobilization. This is a critical move, because only a global Green New Deal can succeed.

For a bit more detail, see below.

***

Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal plan leverages a key idea—that a true emergency climate mobilization requires nations to do their fair share in the global effort, rather than just acting within their own borders.  And it makes a very concrete proposal for how to put this idea into play.

Sanders based his proposal, and his specific estimate of the US’s fair share, directly on ideas that EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute have developed in their joint Climate Equity Reference Project, and that the Civil Society Equity Review coalition has been promoting for years.  

I recently had a prominent piece in The Nation which tells this story.  It’s called Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet, and it argues that a fair shares approach to international cooperation is essential to any even plausibly successful global climate transition.  Specifically, it proposes that a global Green New Deal can best be kickstarted through a proliferation of national green new deals that are structured to support international cooperation as well as domestic transformation.  The side effect, a very welcome one, would be the animation of the Paris Agreement and its not-yet-functioning ambition mechanisms. 

Sanders’ plan calls for:

“Meeting and exceeding our fair share of global emissions reductions. The United States has for over a century spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere in order to gain economic standing in the world. Therefore, we have an outsized obligation to help less industrialized nations meet their targets while improving quality of life.  We will reduce domestic emissions by at least 71 percent by 2030 and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36 percent by 2030 — the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161 percent.”

These are big numbers, and they underlie another big number in Sanders’ proposal: the offer of $200 billion in support to help developing countries reduce emissions.  The Sanders team derived this figure by looking at the projects in the Green Climate Fund portfolio to estimate what it would cost to achieve that 36% reduction in developing countries.

This is a big ask, particularly given today’s political situation, but it would be more likely to help trigger global cooperation than the almost-purely-domestic “net zero 2030” target that is so prominent within the climate emergency movement, a target that suggests that wealthy countries need only reduce their emissions within their own borders.  As if by de-carbonizing their domestic economies they would have done their fair part in the planetary mobilization.

The Climate Equity Reference Project has long argued that such a view is both ethically and politically nonviable.  But Sanders’ proposal marks the first time a major American political figure has taken anything like a coherent global fair shares position, and it is particularly notable for being embedding within a visionary domestic Green New Deal, in which the effort of financing a viable global climate transition would absolutely not be freighted upon the poor people of the wealthy world.  His fair shares vision is intimately linked to other agendas for progressive taxation, reduced military spending, taxes on fossil energy, and so forth.   

It’s important that climate activists—street activists and policy activists both—engage with the core ideas here.  We need a real debate about global climate justice, and that debate has to happen no matter who becomes the next US President.  For, just as radical decarbonization won’t happen in the US without a Just Transition, it won’t happen in poorer countries without a globally fair system of both mitigation and adaptation support.

Take a look at Only a Global Green New Deal Can Save the Planet.  It’s not long, and its written to help start a conversation about the emergency internationalism that we’ll need if we’re to stabilize the climate system in time. 

Unflinching Truth, Unwavering Hope

I just published, in the Earth Island Journal, a very brief review of “the two exemplary climate crisis books of the current moment.” They are, in case you were wondering, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells, the newbie, and Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? , by Bill McKibben, the elder. I also comment, in passing, on a few other recent climate books, which I find less exemplary.

The State of the Climate Movement

Recently, the Great Transition Initiative ran an extended online debate which it called The Climate Movement: What’s Next? Participants were asked to give special attention to three questions:

What is the climate movement’s state of play?
What has worked, and where has the movement fallen short?

System change, not climate change?
Does defusing the crisis require deep structural and value changes, or can “green capitalism” get us there?

Do we need a meta-movement?
Does the climate movement need to build overarching alliances with environmental, peace, and justice movements?

Bill McKibben started the debate rolling with this fine piece. My contribution, which I called Globalizing the Movement, is here, and also below. You can find all of the featured contributions at the debate page here.

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