Thursday, September 06, 2007

And Speaking of Climate Change and Social Change... is an interesting column (found via Lenin's Tomb) published in The Guardian, a relatively progressive but far from radical daily newspaper in the United Kingdom, called "It's capitalism or a habitable planet - you can't have both" by Robert Newman.

Newman observes:

We are caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of climate change and peak oil. Once we pass the planetary oil production spike (when oil begins rapidly to deplete and demand outstrips supply), there will be less and less net energy available to humankind. Petroleum geologists reckon we will pass the world oil spike sometime between 2006 and 2010. It will take, argues peak-oil expert Richard Heinberg, a second world war effort if many of us are to come through this epoch. Not least because modern agribusiness puts hundreds of calories of fossil-fuel energy into the fields for each calorie of food energy produced.

Catch-22, of course, is that the very worst fate that could befall our species is the discovery of huge new reserves of oil, or even the burning into the sky of all the oil that's already known about, because the climate chaos that would unleash would make the mere collapse of industrial society a sideshow bagatelle. Therefore, since we've got to make the switch from oil anyway, why not do it now?

After talking in broad terms about some possible approaches to dealing with the crisis, he concludes:

To get from here to there we must talk about climate chaos in terms of what needs to be done for the survival of the species rather than where the debate is at now or what people are likely to countenance tomorrow morning.

If we are all still in denial about the radical changes coming - and all of us still are - there are sound geological reasons for our denial. We have lived in an era of cheap, abundant energy. There never has and never will again be consumption like we have known. The petroleum interval, this one-off historical blip, this freakish bonanza, has led us to believe that the impossible is possible, that people in northern industrial cities can have suntans in winter and eat apples in summer. But much as the petroleum bubble has got us out of the habit of accepting the existence of zero-sum physical realities, it's wise to remember that they never went away. You can either have capitalism or a habitable planet. One or the other, not both.

Read the whole thing!


Leyna said...

"Only by breaking up corporate power and bringing it under social control will we be able to overcome the global environmental crisis."

Hi Scott,

I like the fact that the author argues this point throughout the article. I have been finding that, over the past two years or so, a lot of the responsibility to "go green" is being put on the Canadian populace. Although it is true that we need to reconceptualize the way we think about our quality of life and the impacts this has on the environment, we also need to duly acknowledge how most of our world's pollution comes from capitalist production.

The problem is that most people don't understand capitalism and/or are ok with this system. We would need a crackdown on capitalism.

I'd like to know what you think on this subject. Do you remain optimistic that Canadians will become worried enough that they will attempt, as a collective, to oppose global production?


Scott said...

Hi Leyna!

That's a great question....

Whatever happens, it is unlikely that any opposition amongst Canadians to global relations of production will occur in a linear way -- that is, it won't just be worry about the environment leading to a rational decision to work to make things different. However, I think one reason to think that much more substantial collective efforts to create change than currently exist are, in fact, possible is that there are vast reservoirs of resentment and rebellion among ordinary Canadians, particularly the most exploited and oppressed. These days, that usually gets quite individual expression, but that can change pretty quickly, and the intensifying problems that are likely to come with peak oil and climate chaos could contribute to catalyzing a shift towards more collective expressions. As well, I see implicit opposition to capital in almost any struggle of significance and not just in the stereotyped struggles by formally organized waged workers at the point of production, because most collective efforts to change things are trying to change something that is related to how capital organizes our lives. That happens all the time, and peak oil plus climate chaos will give people in Canada more reasons to engage in various sorts of struggles, and some of that will be implicitly anti-capitalist whether or not it makes the leap to explicit anti-capitalism.

All of which means that I think there is potential for much greater levels of struggle seeking (either implicitly or explicitly) to challenge aspects of how capital organizes our lives. However, the privilege that has come from being a settler society of the global north is and will continue to be a powerful pressure towards collective expressions of struggle that work at least in part to reinforce privilege rather than transform things for everyone. And ideologies of nationalism and racism and the like are always powerful tools to mess with progressive movements, and in the crisis-ridden environment suggested by this post, they would have lots of raw angst to work with. And skillfully manipulated fear can be very demobilizing, as North America saw after 9/11.

So I think more stuff will happen, but how exactly that will play out, I don't know. In a very real sense, it is up to all of us how it happens.

I would add that the shape of struggle in Canada is likely to be heavily, heavily influenced by what happens to movements within the United States.

And I would also add that of course we need to do whatever we can wherever we happen to be, but I also wouldn't be surprised if much more serious challenges come from peoples in the Global South...which I'm not saying to disown our responsibility here, just being realistic about where things are likely to originate.

And, of course, when I saw you used the word "optimistic" I couldn't resist including the old clichee from Gramsci about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. :)

Anyway, I hope that's the sort of answer you were looking for.

What do you think about the question that you asked?

Leyna said...

Hi Scott,

I like your Gramsci reference. I admit I am something of a pessimist. :)

Revolution and change can only take place when people feel discomfort, a point you confirmed in your reference to groups such as labour movements whose struggles arise in resistance to their oppressions. In Canada, we have the gloss of comfort; we have capital in the form of dollar stores and television sets helps to alleviate some of the discomforts of poverty, for instance. Also, with discrepancies in who feels discomfort here in Canada, struggle against social ills is not unanimous. If anything, the groups who enjoy priviledge crush dissent and opposition.

In the case of the environmental crisis, it is the fauna and flora of ecosystems as well as the people living in less developed countries that are feeling the chaos. We Canadians have our air conditioners, an endless supply of food and sufficient amounts of fuel for SUVs. It is only when famine hits or fuel runs out that Canadians will realize that global warming is a serious issue.

I do believe that redemption is possible, but only when we come to terms with the fact that it is in our best interest to change. Oh, and power needs to be distributed too. :)