This is dogs years ago — pre-Paris, actually — but it’s interesting, at least to me, as a period piece. How to make a bottom-up global climate regime both fair and strong, in a world that does not enjoy a legitimate and democratic global governance regime? Not a trivial question
(An shorter version of this review was published in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2014)
COUNTDOWN: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?
Little Brown, 2013, 513 pages
During his recent book tour, writer Alan Weisman told me that Paul Ehrlich, he of The Population Bomb, said that “Countdown is the best book on population written in decades.” It’s a nice line, and a considered judgment (see Ehrlich’s own review), and I have no reason to dispute it. Countdown is a good book and a fine read. It crosses dangerous ground, and while it stumbles, it does not fall. If it’s read closely and fairly — a big if these days — it will be helpful.
Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him a friend. But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism. They’re not the same thing, of course, but I still hesitated before reviewing it.
First up, what’s this “Malthusianism,” and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda. It does this by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to. It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.
Is Weisman, then, a Malthusian? No, he is not. He gets close, but he doesn’t drink the cool aid.
Climate Denialism has peaked. Now what are we going to do?
It was never going to be easy to face the ecological crisis. Even back in the 1970s, before climate took center stage, it was clear that we the prosperous were walking far too heavily. And that “environmentalism,” as it was called, was only going to be a small beginning. But it was only when the climate crisis pushed fossil energy into the spotlight that the real stakes were widely recognized. Fossil fuels are the meat and potatoes of industrial civilization, and the need to rapidly and radically reduce their emissions cut right through to the heart of the great American dream. And the European dream. And, inevitably, the Chinese dream as well.
Decades later, 81% of global energy is still supplied by the fossil fuels: coal, gas, and oil. And though the solar revolution is finally beginning, the day is late. The Arctic is melting, and, soon, as each year the northern ocean lies bare beneath the summer sun, the warming will accelerate. Moreover, our plight is becoming visible. We have discovered, to our considerable astonishment, that most of the fossil fuel on the books of our largest corporations is “unburnable” – in the precise sense that, if we burn it, we are doomed. Not that we know what to do with this rather strange knowledge. Also, even as China rises, it’s obvious that it’s not the last in line for the promised land. Billions of people, all around the world, watch the wealthy on TV, and most all of them want a drink from the well of modern prosperity. Why wouldn’t they? Life belongs to us all, as does the Earth.
The challenge, in short, is rather daunting.
The denial of the challenge, on the other hand, always came ready-made. As Francis Bacon said so long ago, “what a man would rather were true, he more readily believes.” And we really did want to believe that ours was still a boundless world. The alternative – an honest reckoning – was just too challenging. For one thing, there was no obvious way to reconcile the Earth’s finitude with the relentless expansion of the capitalist market. And as long as we believed in a world without limits, there was no need to see that economic stratification would again become a fatal issue. Sure, our world was bitterly riven between haves and have-nots, but this problem, too, would fade in time. With enough growth – the universal balm – redistribution would never be necessary. In time, every man would be a king.
The denial had many cheerleaders. The chemical-company flacks who derided Rachel Carson as a “hysterical woman” couldn’t have known that they were pioneering a massive trend. Also, and of course, big money always has plenty of mouthpieces. But it’s no secret that, during the 20th Century, the “engineering of consent” reached new levels of sophistication. The composed image of benign scientific competence became one of its favorite tools, and somewhere along the way tobacco-industry science became a founding prototype of anti-environmental denialism. On this front, I’m happy to say that the long and instructive history of today’s denialist pseudo-science has already been expertly deconstructed. Given this, I can safely focus on the new world, the post-Sandy world of manifest climatic disruption in which the denialists have lost any residual aura of scientific legitimacy, and have ceased to be a decisive political force. A world in which climate denialism is increasingly seen, and increasingly ridiculed, as the jibbering of trolls.
For some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on, I can stand to watch this. Which is in much contrast to just about every other recording I’ve ever seen of myself.
Except for my foot.
This, by the way, is from Sane Society, a new, small, ambitious internet talk show hosted, in Berkeley, by Tom Palmer. See the show’s channel here.
Originally published by Yes! magazine
You don’t have to leave America to go to the Third World. I, for example, live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and here, as in all northern megacities, crushing poverty surrounds the comfortable precincts. I can’t call it “extreme” poverty, for of course it cannot compete with the despair endemic to, say, the north African drought zones. But when an organization like Remote Area Medical feels compelled to bring its traveling free clinic to The Oakland Coliseum (now, officially, the Oracle Arena), and when thousands stand for long hours to receive basic care they could not hope to afford, the problem is nonetheless clear. This last April, when the good folks at RAM pulled up stakes and left Oakland for their next stop, it was Haiti. The America they were leaving was not the “exceptional” America of the official dream.
Obviously, there’s lots to say about this. And much from which to avert our eyes. But what else is new? The apologists say that the poor will be with us always, so how is poverty in Oakland California in any way “news?” Or poverty more generally, given the now routine brutalities of the new economy? Or insecurity and suffering more generally still, given the precarious state of the whole global system? And what, finally, has any of this got to do with climate? The answer, simply put, is “everything.” Which is to say that while most economic-justice activists don’t spend much time thinking about the climate crisis, it’s become ridiculously easy to argue that the deficit / budget / tax battle that’s now raging across the wealthy lands of America and Europe is going to have outsized impacts on climate politics both domestic and international. That in fact it already has.