The surge of political candidates who are advancing a democratic eco-socialist vision, connecting the dots between the economic depredations caused by decades of neoliberal ascendency and the ravaged state of our natural world, comprise humanity’s best shot at collective survival, writes Naomi Klein.
observing that "from Japan to Sweden, and Oman to Texas, a global heat wave is setting records, igniting wildfires, and killing dozens all across the world." Meanwhile, over at The Intercept, award-winning journalist and best-selling author Naomi Klein (right) has an excellent piece written in response to Nathaniel Rich's recent New York Times article, "Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change."
While Klein acknowledges that Rich's "novella-length piece represents the kind of media commitment that the climate crisis has long deserved but almost never received," she nevertheless makes a compelling case that it is "spectacularly wrong in its central thesis."
Following is an excerpt from Klein's well-informed and insightful piece.
According to Rich, between the years of 1979 and 1989, the basic science of climate change was understood and accepted, the partisan divide over the issue had yet to cleave, the fossil fuel companies hadn’t started their misinformation campaign in earnest, and there was a great deal of global political momentum toward a bold and binding international emissions-reduction agreement. Writing of the key period at the end of the 1980s, Rich says, “The conditions for success could not have been more favorable.”
And yet we blew it – “we” being humans, who apparently are just too shortsighted to safeguard our future. Just in case we missed the point of who and what is to blame for the fact that we are now “losing earth,” Rich’s answer is presented in a full-page callout: “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing, that is, except ourselves.”
Yep, you and me. Not, according to Rich, the fossil fuel companies who sat in on every major policy meeting described in the piece. (Imagine tobacco executives being repeatedly invited by the U.S. government to come up with policies to ban smoking. When those meetings failed to yield anything substantive, would we conclude that the reason is that humans just want to die? Might we perhaps determine instead that the political system is corrupt and busted?)
This misreading has been pointed out by many climate scientists and historians since the online version of the piece dropped on Wednesday. Others have remarked on the maddening invocations of “human nature” and the use of the royal “we” to describe a screamingly homogenous group of U.S. power players. Throughout Rich’s accounting, we hear nothing from those political leaders in the Global South who were demanding binding action in this key period and after, somehow able to care about future generations despite being human. The voices of women, meanwhile, are almost as rare in Rich’s text as sightings of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker – and when we ladies do appear, it is mainly as long-suffering wives of tragically heroic men.
All of these flaws have been well covered, so I won’t rehash them here. My focus is the central premise of the piece: that the end of the 1980s presented conditions that “could not have been more favorable” to bold climate action. On the contrary, one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet. Why? Because the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life. Yet Rich makes no mention of this parallel upheaval in economic and political thought.
. . . Why does it matter that Rich makes no mention of [this upheaval] and instead, claims our fate has been sealed by “human nature”? It matters because if the force that interrupted the momentum toward action is “ourselves,” then the fatalistic headline on the cover of New York Times Magazine – “Losing Earth” – really is merited. If an inability to sacrifice in the short term for a shot at health and safety in the future is baked into our collective DNA, then we have no hope of turning things around in time to avert truly catastrophic warming.
If, on the other hand, we humans really were on the brink of saving ourselves in the ’80s, but were swamped by a tide of elite, free-market fanaticism – one that was opposed by millions of people around the world – then there is something quite concrete we can do about it. We can confront that economic order and try to replace it with something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place the quest for growth and profit at all costs at its center.
And the good news – and, yes, there is some – is that today, unlike in 1989, a young and growing movement of green democratic socialists is advancing in the United States with precisely that vision. And that represents more than just an electoral alternative – it’s our one and only planetary lifeline.
Yet we have to be clear that the lifeline we need is not something that has been tried before, at least not at anything like the scale required. When the Times tweeted out its teaser for Rich’s article about “humankind’s inability to address the climate change catastrophe,” the excellent eco-justice wing of the Democratic Socialists of America quickly offered this correction: “*CAPITALISM* If they were serious about investigating what’s gone so wrong, this would be about ‘capitalism’s inability to address the climate change catastrophe.’ Beyond capitalism, *humankind* is fully capable of organizing societies to thrive within ecological limits.”
Their point is a good one, if incomplete. There is nothing essential about humans living under capitalism; we humans are capable of organizing ourselves into all kinds of different social orders, including societies with much longer time horizons and far more respect for natural life-support systems. Indeed, humans have lived that way for the vast majority of our history and many Indigenous cultures keep earth-centered cosmologies alive to this day. Capitalism is a tiny blip in the collective story of our species.
But simply blaming capitalism isn’t enough. It is absolutely true that the drive for endless growth and profits stands squarely opposed to the imperative for a rapid transition off fossil fuels. It is absolutely true that the global unleashing of the unbound form of capitalism known as neoliberalism in the ’80s and ’90s has been the single greatest contributor to a disastrous global emission spike in recent decades, as well as the single greatest obstacle to science-based climate action ever since governments began meeting to talk (and talk and talk) about lowering emissions. And it remains the biggest obstacle today, even in countries that market themselves as climate leaders, like Canada and France.
But we have to be honest that autocratic industrial socialism has also been a disaster for the environment, as evidenced most dramatically by the fact that carbon emissions briefly plummeted when the economies of the former Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. And as I wrote in “This Changes Everything,” Venezuela’s petro-populism has continued this toxic tradition into the present day, with disastrous results.
Let’s acknowledge this fact, while also pointing out that countries with a strong democratic socialist tradition – like Denmark, Sweden, and Uruguay – have some of the most visionary environmental policies in the world. From this we can conclude that socialism isn’t necessarily ecological, but that a new form of democratic eco-socialism, with the humility to learn from Indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all of life, appears to be humanity’s best shot at collective survival.
These are the stakes in the surge of movement-grounded political candidates who are advancing a democratic eco-socialist vision, connecting the dots between the economic depredations caused by decades of neoliberal ascendency and the ravaged state of our natural world. Partly inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, candidates in a variety of races — like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Kaniela Ing in Hawaii, and many more – are running on platforms calling for a “Green New Deal” that meets everyone’s basic material needs, offers real solutions to racial and gender inequities, while catalyzing a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Many, like New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and New York attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout, have pledged not to take money from fossil fuel companies and are promising instead to prosecute them.
These candidates, whether or not they identify as democratic socialist, are rejecting the neoliberal centrism of the establishment Democratic Party, with its tepid “market-based solutions” to the ecological crisis, as well as Donald Trump’s all-out war on nature. And they are also presenting a concrete alternative to the undemocratic extractivist socialists of both the past and present. Perhaps most importantly, this new generation of leaders isn’t interested in scapegoating “humanity” for the greed and corruption of a tiny elite. It seeks instead to help humanity – particularly its most systematically unheard and uncounted members – to find their collective voice and power so they can stand up to that elite.
We aren’t losing earth – but the earth is getting so hot so fast that it is on a trajectory to lose a great many of us. In the nick of time, a new political path to safety is presenting itself. This is no moment to bemoan our lost decades. It’s the moment to get the hell on that path.
– Naomi Klein
Excerpted from “Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not 'Human Nature'”
August 3, 2018
Excerpted from “Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not 'Human Nature'”
August 3, 2018
Related Off-site Links:
Scientists Aren’t Impressed with New York Times’ New Story on Climate Change – Joe Romm (Think Progress, August 1, 2018).
Experts: If We Don’t Stop Climate Change, California Fires “Will Seem Mild In Comparison to What’s Coming” – Democracy Now! (August 9, 2018).
The World Is Losing the War Against Climate Change – The Economist (August 1, 2018).
U.S. Military Is World’s Biggest Polluter – Whitney Webb (Eco Watch via Mint Press, May 15, 2017).
In a Summer of Wildfires and Hurricanes, My Son Asks “Why Is Everything Going Wrong?” – Naomi Klein (The Intercept, September 9, 2017).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• Quote of the Day – August 29, 2017
• The Neoliberal Economic Doctrine: A View from Australia
• The People's Climate Solidarity March – Minneapolis, 4/29/17
• The Paris Climate Talks, Multilateralism, and a "New Approach to Climate Action"
• Earth Day 2017
• "It Is All Connected"
• Standing Together
• Standing in Prayer and Solidarity with the Water Protectors of Standing Rock
• A Record High
• Prayer of the Week – April 24, 2017
• Earth Day 2015
• Quote of the Day – September 19, 2014
• Something to Think About – April 22, 2014
• Carrying It On
• Quote of the Day – May 31, 2011
• A Lose/Lose Situation
• In a Blow to Democracy, U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Corporate Personhood
• Making the Connections . . . Then and Now
Opening Image: Photographer unknown.