Saturday 30 March 2019

Rethinking some dominant approaches to climate change

Written by Richard Fidler and first published at Life on the Left Blog

The following is a slightly edited text of a presentation I made to open a discussion on this topic at the Free Transit Ottawa membership meeting March 6, 2019. It is now posted on FTO’s Facebook page. – Richard Fidler

Climate change is the most visible, most threatening expression of a larger, planetary ecological crisis, the result of an economic system (capitalism) with an inherent growth and profit dynamic which ensures that the exploitation of natural resources (both renewable and non-renewable) exceeds the carrying capacity of nature. You have read the almost-daily scientific reports, each more alarming than the ones before, on the scope of the crisis. I won’t belabour the point.

Our approach must be informed by, and congruent with, the challenge that crisis poses to the way society must be organized if we are to halt and reverse the ecological catastrophe toward which we are now hurtling.

The Trudeau government’s approach

At Paris in 2015, the prime minister pledged to limit Canada’s share of increased climate warming to no more than 1.5 degrees. That translates into a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) below 2005 levels. The First Ministers agreed to this in 2016.

The federal policy is set out in what they call the Pan-Canadian Framework on Green Growth and Climate Change. It has “four main pillars: pricing carbon pollution; complementary measures to further reduce emissions across the economy; measures to adapt to the impacts of climate change and build resilience; and actions to accelerate innovation, support clean technology, and create jobs.”

Carbon pricing is the key “pillar” and it takes two forms:

1. A carbon tax, gradually increased over time to encourage households and industries to reduce carbon consumption. All revenues revert to the provinces, 90% going to households. A levy on large industrial polluters took effect January 1, and one on fossil fuels will begin in April, initially at $20 a tonne, to increase to $50 a tonne in 2022. Major exemptions are provided for strategic industries, including oil and gas, to protect “competitiveness.”

In fact, carbon taxes will always be limited to ensure that Canadian businesses are not disadvantaged by competitors’ prices and to avoid economic disruption that would motivate greater market intervention. But they are largely ineffective in reducing GHG emissions.

Both the UN Environment Program and the OECD have noted the inadequacy of Canada’s emissions reduction targets.

2. Carbon offset schemes. Businesses invest in environmental projects around the world to balance their own carbon footprints. These projects are usually based in underdeveloped countries, and are designed to reduce future emissions through introducing clean energy technologies or, for example, to offset pollution in the North through promoting reforestation in the South.

An example is “cap-and-trade.” The government sets a cap (limit) on the amount of GHG emissions various industries can emit into the atmosphere. The limit is gradually reduced over time to decrease total pollution levels.

That’s the theory. What it amounts to is issuing permits to pollute, which can be traded on carbon markets like stocks on the stock market. The market sets the price. These schemes essentially give companies (with enough money) a right to pollute, rather than forcing them to reduce pollution.

The system makes pollution a commodity through credits and offsets that allow for financial corporations to profit from polluting industries. Some provinces have adopted similar plans. 

Others are challenging carbon taxes in the courts. The Ford government cancelled Ontario’s cap-and-trade program along with hundreds of renewable energy projects (wind, solar, thermal) already under way.

The fundamental flaw

As James Wilt noted in the Briarpatch article posted to our list,[1] carbon pricing doesn’t regulate emissions, it just puts a price on them based on an arbitrary calculation, the “social cost of carbon,” that tends to ignore the “externalities” — the cumulative emissions, feedback loops, and disproportionate impacts of climate change on countries in the Global South. These are not encompassed in corporate cost-benefit analysis. For business, they are just a cost of doing business.

Wilt describes the carbon tax as “a deeply neoliberal and individualistic” approach that “often excludes or minimizes impacts on fossil fuel corporations while downloading moral and financial responsibility on households that burn fossil fuels for transportation or heating. Perhaps most concerning of all is the way it serves to create resentment for – and siphon energy from – far more ambitious climate policy that would rapidly cut emissions, guarantee jobs, and improve public services for all.”

However, Canadian authorities, far from passively relying on market mechanisms, are quite capable of aggressive action to implement their goals where these are integral to their strategic profit and growth concerns. Missing from the Pan-Canadian Framework is the other, more important component of the Trudeau government’s climate approach: promoting further oil and gas exploitation and export, especially through building pipeline and rail capacity. This endeavour totally conflicts with its carbon-reduction promises.

In 2018 alone, the federal government announced $19 billion in new investments in dirty oil.[2] $4.5 billion went to the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline. (The Parliamentary budget director says the government paid one billion too much.) The new pipeline will triple the quantity of oil transported, at a cost to taxpayers of $9.7 billion. Once operational, it will increase the number of supertankers in the Vancouver harbour from 40 to 600 per year. As the owner of this major pipeline, but also its regulatory authority, the government has placed itself in a huge conflict-of-interest situation.[3]

Bill C-69, now in the Senate, will abolish the National Energy Board (NEB), substitute the Canadian Energy Regulator and establish a separate Impact Assessment Agency with a priority to “foster sustainability.” But as the pipeline owner, Ottawa has a fiduciary obligation to maximize future oil shipments and revenues, accelerate approvals and construction, curtail protests from the public and First Nations, and even counter judicial opposition from the B.C. government.

And that’s not all. Last fall, Finance Minister Morneau announced $2.7 billion in support for investments to encourage oil companies to invest and produce more. In January, Trudeau announced $1.7 billion more in credit lines to the oil industry. And Alberta, frustrated by the delays in the Trans Mountain project, will lease 4,400 railway cars which it says will move up to 120,00 barrels of oil per day by rail by 2020.

Trudeau has of course come out in support of the $40 billion LNG Canada project in northern British Columbia, the largest infrastructure project in Canadian history. LNG Canada is a carbon hog, its construction and operation being incompatible with the B.C. NDP government’s own carbon-reduction targets as well as Ottawa’s.

These subsidies, in total, rule out any possibility of achieving the government’s vaunted carbon reduction goals.

And then there are costs of restoring the tar sands lands, estimated by Alberta’s oil regulator at $260 billion.

Imagine if these amounts had instead been invested in sustainable development and renewable energies.

Since the last election, in 2015, tar sands production has increased by 24%. In November 2018 the NEB forecasted that domestic oil production will grow by 58% and natural gas production will grow by 29 percent between now and 2040. The forecast assumes the feds will implement the carbon tax as planned and that new pipelines will be built to accommodate rising production. Just days ago, the NEB gave its go-ahead to Trans Mountain for the second time, pursuant to the review dictated by the Federal Court of Appeal’s overturn of its initial approval last August.

The government itself acknowledges the failure of its approaches. In a report issued in December the federal department of Environment and Climate Change said the policies currently in place will deliver only three-quarters of the emission reductions required to meet Canada’s Paris target. But the minister Catherine McKenna maintains Canada is on track: she says she is counting on investment in public transit and the adoption of new technologies such as the electric car over the next 12 years to close the gap.

New technologies?

This is a common hope, frequently encountered on the left as well. But it’s an illusion. In an article previously circulated on our list, ecosocialist Ian Angus exploded the myth that geoengineering, nuclear power, carbon storage and other techno-fixes — all of them promoted by the US socialist magazine Jacobin — can be viewed as solutions to climate change.[4]

By way of comparison, a recent study by Robert Gross of the Imperial College of London concludes that the average period required for the adoption of the four most recent leading electrical production technologies — nuclear, gas turbines, photovoltaic (solar) cells, and wind turbines —was 43 years. Adoption was defined as being well established but not yet dominant.[5]

Which means that if we want to avert catastrophic climate change by 2050, we are essentially reduced to using existing technologies.

Putting aside Canadian governments’ commitment to expanding reliance on fossil fuel production and export, which is completely irrational in view of the scientific evidence on the source and pace of climate change, the parallel reliance on market mechanisms to compensate for emissions through carbon credits and technologies (not to mention nuclear) is equally deficient. The central error is the attempt to respond to the climate challenge without challenging the sacred cow of growth and competition for profit of a capitalist system that is 85% reliant on fossil fuels.

Yet the core plank of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is the belief that capitalist growth can be fundamentally “green.”

This illusion is now being challenged even in some unexpected places. Consider, for example, this article in the Fall 2018 edition of Foreign Policy magazine, a prestigious US publication that exists, as it proclaims, “to serve decision-makers in business, finance and government.”[6]

The author, Jason Hickel, argues that the absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is impossible on global scale. There are physical limits to how efficiently we can use resources. Once those limits are reached, any economic growth drives resource use back up.

“Preventing that outcome will require a whole new paradigm. High taxes and technological innovation will help, but they’re not going to be enough. The only realistic shot humanity has at averting ecological collapse is to impose hard caps on resource use…. Such caps, enforced by national governments or by international treaties, could ensure that we do not extract more from the land and the seas than the Earth can safely regenerate. We could also ditch GDP as an indicator of economic success and adopt a more balanced measure like the genuine progress indicator (GPI), which accounts for pollution and natural asset depletion. Using GPI would help us maximize socially good outcomes while minimizing ecologically bad ones.

“But there’s no escaping the obvious conclusion. Ultimately, bringing our civilization back within planetary boundaries is going to require that we liberate ourselves from our dependence on economic growth—starting with rich nations.”

He continues:

“This might sound scarier than it really is. Ending growth doesn’t mean shutting down economic activity—it simply means that next year we can’t produce and consume more than we are doing this year. It might also mean shrinking certain sectors that are particularly damaging to our ecology and that are unnecessary for human flourishing, such as advertising, commuting, and single-use products.”

Alternative approaches

This brings us to alternative strategies and approaches to climate change. Here I think we need to bear in mind three principles in articulating alternatives:

1. The precautionary principle: There must be no deployment of possibly dangerous technologies (e.g. geoengineering).

2. The importance of differentiated responsibilities: The Global North bears primary responsibility for climate crisis, and must contribute disproportionately to efforts to remediate in the Global South, the primary victims. As well, we need to incorporate “grey emissions” (resulting from production in the South for things consumed in the North) in national scenarios. Neither of these principles are present in the Paris Accord of 2015, on which Trudeau claims to base his approach. And I would add a third principle:

3. Social justice. Workers should not have to pay the costs of transitioning from a problem they did not create, and of which they are victims. This means no loss of jobs, income, social protection or labour rights.

In my opinion it is misleading to think that converting all existing energy sources from non-renewable to renewable sources — summed up in the slogan “100% renewable energy by (say) 2050”— will procure the energy needed to maintain existing activities, let alone more extensive ones. Eliminating use of non-renewable energy sources necessitates a complex of immense efforts; fossil fuel accounts for 85% of energy production today. 

Furthermore, the transition itself is a source of supplementary emissions, that must be offset if the carbon budget is not to explode. (Think of the energy required in building electric-powered vehicles to replace the existing vehicle fleet, no matter how composed.)

How are we to offset these expanded energy needs? In a productivist system any gain in efficiency is used to increase production. So we need to reduce global energy consumption, that is, reduce productive and/or transport activities. This means challenging the capitalist growth imperative.

Does this mean de-growth? Some production or services should not degrow but be suppressed, ASAP: coal facilities and mines, oil extraction, weapons production, the advertising industry, glyphosate, pesticides, etc. But others should grow – such as renewable energies, organic agriculture, and essential services (education, health and culture).

Obvious measures: Here are just a few of the options (you can add many more):

Rapidly phase out oil, gas, and coal extraction and stop subsidizing fossil fuels

Develop a massive program of public investment in solar, wind, thermal energy

Initiate a massive green housing program focused on energy-efficient social housing for low-income residents, and retrofit existing buildings with electric heat pumps, efficient appliances, and added insulation

Fund public transportation, including urban, rural, and intercity options; construct a pan-Canadian network of electrified passenger and freight trains

Employ people to clean up abandoned wells, tailings lakes, and mining waste to prepare land for return to Indigenous peoples

Break with agribusiness, promote ecological agriculture and work with farmers to reduce agricultural emissions

End production of useless and dangerous things (start with weapons!)

Localize production to the maximum, fight planned obsolescence

Redistribute wealth, refinance the public education and care sectors

Develop new ecologically sound industries to employ workers displaced by suppression of non-renewable resource exploitation – while maintaining incomes and social benefits.

Financing – Major tax reforms, increased high marginal tax rates. And cut useless expenditures, beginning with all military not converted to a home defense militia.

Local action – Yes, but also global measures. And go beyond capitalism. Draw on indigenous buen vivir concepts. And build alliances, anticapitalist coalitions of workers, unemployed homemakers, farmers, indigenous communities, racialized minorities, students, youth, poor against the entrenched fossil oligarchy. Link decarbonization with opposition to capitalist austerity.

In particular industries, unions can develop plans for alternative climate-friendly approaches. 

A good example is the Canadian Union of Postal Workers campaign, “Delivering Community Power.” Establish postal banking, create a renewable energy postal fleet, make post offices solar-powered community hubs for ditigal access, provide charging stations for electric vehicles, etc. Integrate letter carrier services with support to enable the ageing and disabled to live independently.[7]

Green New Deal – The proposal by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), a Democrat in the US Congress and member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), sets out a series of objectives that are quite radical incorporating many of the above demands, albeit within a general framework of “green capitalism.” It has attracted support in Canada. Avi Lewis, an author of the Leap Manifesto, describes it as “the Leap Manifesto, with increased altitude and velocity.”

The DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group released a statement recently supporting the Green New Deal “while recognizing that its resolutions are conversation starters – not complete and adequate blueprints.” The Group proposes improvements such as setting firm target dates (“Decarbonize the economy fully by 2030”), democratizing control over major energy systems and resources, etc.[8]

Also, we need to center the working class in a just transition: Decommodify survival by guaranteeing living wages, healthcare, childcare, housing, food, water, energy, public transit etc.

Demilitarize, decolonize and strive for a future of international solidarity and cooperation.

Ultimately, we need a different kind of government with the political will to lead, coordinate and consolidate the transition, a government based on the support and protagonism of the victims of climate change, not its perpetrators.

These comments borrow heavily from many authors more informed than I am on this topic. In particular, my thanks go to those listed in the footnotes, as well as Daniel Tanuro and Michael Löwy. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are mine and do not necessarily engage Free Transit Ottawa. – Richard Fidler

[6] Jason Hickel, “Why Growth Can’t be Green.”

Monday 25 March 2019

What Do Eco-Socialists Have to Say About the Climate Movement?

Written by Nancy Romer and first published at New Politics

To me the role of eco-socialists is to raise transitional demands, demands that bring a broader understanding of the role of capital in creating climate change and the ways that capitalism can be challenged by working people and people most affected by the vast inequality it has created.

Two criteria seem pertinent to me:

1) How do we articulate what it will actually take to save our planet for the humans and other species? That will require a deep transformation that will include locking out at least the fossil fuel and auxiliary corporations and economy, ending wars and militarization of society, taking up a race- and gender-based liberation politics, and creating a thoroughly transforming social-service safety net that expands human development and allows people to look at the whole of society and our planet and make responsible decisions. Without that transformation, certain sectors—by job, by race, by gender, by class, by region—will continue to exert uneven and inadequate pressure on climate-based decisions.

2) How do we create mass movements, often united fronts of a wide range of people and social-political sectors, that can join together to exert power to make real change? How do we articulate demands that can bring the movements together while keeping those demands just a bit beyond the consensus, prodding the movement forward? How do we engage people in a mass-based struggle so that we begin the process of gaining the kind of power needed for the transformation described above?

I have spent much of my political life working in united fronts, organizational expressions of movements, coalitions, and so on, that put forward mass demands that raise consciousness, build power through the movements, and actually create some of the changes we need, not-quite-adequate as they may often be due to movements’ weakness. I have also been a leftist without too much of a “brand” or group of socialists that I have formally joined. Right now I am in Democratic Socialists of America and feel the broad politics of the organization is what keeps it active, muscular, and pushing.

They are good comrades to the rest of the climate movement—willing to show up, picket, petition, study, strategize, and to be kind and generous comrades. They are well-respected as a relatively new activist organization in New York. DSA existed for many years before Trump, but after Trump was elected the numbers have exploded—presently up to 50,000 nationally and 5,000 in New York City. Yes, DSA pushes for publically owned and operated, 100 percent renewable, energy now or as soon as possible.

Yes, they call for an end to the fossil fuel regime and for a polluters tax. Outside of the “publically owned and operated” part of the demand, these are the demands that our local climate movement has adopted. It is our job as eco-socialists to support the demands of the united front—in this case the Peoples Climate Movement and New York Renews—and push the demands further, specifically toward public power or public ownership of the new renewable energy grid. We need to articulate a fuller politics than can the united front coalitions due to their organizational support and membership, especially in the unions. That “prod” is essential for direction of the coalitions and movement.

As someone who has worked in the union and climate sectors, I can testify that this is a tough row to hoe. Labor is obsessed with its survival, especially in the face of the Janus decision and shitty contracts, with minimal union density among American workers—7 percent in the private sector and 35 percent in the public sector, and steadily declining—so much so that climate issues, truly an existential threat to humans and other living things, do not register as important to unions, so they don’t engage. And a significant sector of labor is busy defending fossil fuel and auxiliary workers: It twists the arms of the rest of the climate movement till it stops saying the words “fossil fuels.”

And yet, if we don’t have the labor movement or some section of the labor movement involved, we won’t have a watchdog for good jobs, we won’t have the legitimacy among working-class people to actually be able to deliver. Unions are at their weakest point since World War II, but they still have more direct power—in politics, in public opinion, in crafting policies—than any other sector besides capital and the Republican and Democratic parties. So we cannot leave labor out of the movement—we need them. And while the rank and file members of many unions are truly further left and have much more radical climate politics than their leadership, so far the organizational and political articulation of those rank and file activists is small, if significant, and needs to be nurtured.

Climate justice activists—racially oppressed and economically marginalized people—have a directly critical view of capitalism and articulate the need to challenge racism and inequality as a motor force behind the climate movement. They seek both a regenerative economy and energy democracy. They often focus on local solutions that come from their direct community experiences. But their direct relationship to the hardship that capitalism, racism, and climate change have brought their communities has made their demands both radical and practical.

They are the most likely sector to call for some sort of reparations, for repair and rebuilding after disasters, for jobs in whatever industries exist. In coalitions they are less likely to call for an end to capitalism or insistence on nationalization of energy. Without people from racially oppressed or economically marginalized groups, we cannot expect to either define an effective future or to win.

While I completely agree with my colleagues that we need to dramatically cut back our energy use, both personal and societal, I worry that the perfect will become the enemy of the good. The demon we must defeat is the fossil fuel industry first and foremost as well as a capitalist economy and culture based on continuous growth and over-consumption. How to stop it without evoking the “nanny state” and a scolding stance is quite frankly beyond me. Yes, it needs to be articulated, but it can’t be front and center. We must look squarely at the worst of the devils—the fossil fuel industry—and drill down.

I would also like to briefly address the issue of divestment from fossil fuels by pension funds, endowments, and others. I have been active in pressing this demand over the last three years as an entry point to engage unions and to score a “win,” which is so badly needed. The point behind divestment is to make fossil fuels a pariah industry and to loosen up money that can be used to fund the development of publicly owned renewable energy and other pro-climate projects such as coops advancing sustainable goods and services.

Right now the governments—city, state, federal—are not doing this anywhere near the rate that is needed. Divestment campaigns help workers—union members and non-members, foundations, and university students realize that “their” money is being invested in industries that can extinguish human life on earth and cause great suffering in the process. Changing consciousness on how we all are complicit in the deadly fossil fuel economy is an important step toward standing up against fossil fuels in particular and in learning about how capitalism implicates us all and thus needs to be changed.

We need to move to 100 percent renewable energy as immediately as possible for the survival of our species and others as well. But to just call out the demand for a nationalized renewable energy system without articulating how it will be funded is not at all realistic. To have a chance at survival we need to start the process of developing that renewable energy now. However, it is not going to be adequately “profitable” for us to rely strictly on the private sector or on our present governments, governments which right now are stuck on militarism and defense of corporate greed through, for example, minimal taxes for the rich and corporations. 

We will need a range of financial instruments, such as government-guaranteed bonds and public banks that will allow pension, foundation, and university funds to invest safely in renewable energy development. Just as an example, right now New York state has only 4 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources.

Hydropower, a questionable form of “renewable energy” adds another 15 percent to the mix. But that leaves about 80 percent of New York state energy coming from fossil fuels. This is not something that can be changed instantly—it will need an enormous amount of development, both of renewable energy sources and infrastructure, to deliver it. Revolutionary politics can help us understand what is happening, but I don’t see any signs that it will be embraced soon enough to make a significant difference in the development of renewable energy in time.

In time is key. A fossil-free economy is not inevitable at all. The ruling class as a whole is mixed on this issue, but the strongest sectors of the ruling class are perfectly comfortable with rising global temperatures, rising waters, and accelerated extreme-weather events including floods, wildfires, hurricanes, and droughts. They are comfortable with millions, perhaps billions, of people perishing in this period. They have not yet come to grips with the reality of those effects of reaching “tipping points” that their best engineers and mountaintop hideaways cannot protect them from.

So we need to see our roles as eco-socialists as two-fold: articulating what is really needed and articulating and organizing around what seems possible—moving the movement forward as quickly as we can. When more and more disasters keep rolling in, when people feel directly affected by the reality of climate change, eco-socialists will have developed relationships within the movement, pushed as hard as possible for demands that are winnable and transformative, and will have a fuller analysis to create more pathways to the world we want.

Nancy Romer, PhD, is professor emerita of psychology at Brooklyn College and an active member of Peoples Climate Movement-NY, Divest NY, Environmental Justice Working Group of the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY (AFT Local 2334), and a senior strategic advisor to Labor Network for Sustainability, a national labor-climate organization. She has been an activist in many social movements over the last fifty years.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

New Zealand Mosque Massacre Suspect Says he is an Eco-fascist

Brenton Tarrant, one of four people arrested for the shooting to death of fifty people at two Mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last week, claims in a 74 page manifesto, to be, amongst other things, an Eco-fascist. The document entitled the “Great Replacement” has been posted at various locations on the web, but all appear to have been deleted now. I haven’t read the full document myself, but it appears that many people have.

A report on the Medium website has published some extracts from Tarrant’s manifesto, and I’m mainly quoting here from this report. Tarrant apparently declares:

“I am an Ethno-nationalist Eco-fascist,” in his manifesto. “Ethnic autonomy for all peoples with a focus on the preservation of nature, and the natural order.”

He goes on to say:

“Immigration and climate change are the same issue, the environment is being destroyed by over- population” and “we Europeans are one of the groups that are not over populating the world. […] Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation, and by doing so, save the environment.”

Although Tarrant is an Australian national he sees himself as European, from “English, Scottish and Irish” stock, and advocates a hierarchical economic and political system in which an ethnically cleansed Europe will be free from the influences of cheap labour, foreign trade, and environmental destruction.

Tarrant claims to be ‘anti-capitalist’ in his manifesto and he appears to believe in a globalist conspiracy theory in which “Marxists” exact corporate control over the markets, media, academia, and NGOs. This seems to be more akin to a classical antisemitism conspiracy type of belief, with ‘Marxists’ filling the role of ‘Jewish bankers.’

Nazi Germany employed some anti-capitalist rhetoric in its ideology, but after his rise to power, Hitler took a pragmatic position on economics, accepting private property and allowing capitalist private enterprises to exist so long as they adhered to the goals of the Nazi state. Business groups made significant financial contributions to the Nazi Party both before and after the Nazi seizure of power, in the hope that a Nazi dictatorship would eliminate the organized labour movement and the left-wing parties.

Of course Hitler was anti-Marxist, usually of the ‘Jewish bankers’ variety, stating this in his book Mein Kampf and also his hatred of democracy “because it inevitably leads to Marxism.” Left wing activists were persecuted and often murdered in Nazi Germany, alongside Jews and gay people.

Hitler also admired the British Empire and its colonial system as living proof of Germanic superiority over 'inferior' races and saw the United Kingdom as Germany's natural ally. He wrote in Mein Kampf: "For a long time to come there will be only two Powers in Europe with which it may be possible for Germany to conclude an alliance. These Powers are Great Britain and Italy."

Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, written by Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier contains two essays entitled "Fascist Ideology: The Green Wing of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents" and "Ecology and the Modernization of Fascism in the German Ultra-Right." They linked German Nazism with “traditional agrarian romanticism and hostility to urban civilization”, and that ecological ideas were an “essential element of racial rejuvenation.”

The Nazi slogan “blood and soil” was coined by their foremost ecological thinker, Richard Walter Darré, who meant it to capture a mystical link between race and a particular territory.

This conflation of race and land, quite absurdly in the case of Africa, was present in the South African political and para-military organisation the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, whose leader was Eugène Terre'Blanche, in the era around the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. Terre Blanche means literally in French ‘white land or white earth.’

In more recent times, the British National Party (BNP), under then leader Nick Griffin, before the party imploded, made the argument that climate change offered a great opportunity for the advancement of fascism, with Britain likely not being in the first wave ecological destruction, and an island, with refugees from the worst hit regions wanting to get into the country. The tensions that would arise from this within the British people could be exploited for their political ends, Griffin thought.

The notion of ‘indigenous people’ is captured in this strain of nationalist fascism, a way of life challenged by the arrival of outsiders, who will change the prevailing culture. An insistence on all people in England to speak English, at all times, at least in public, is a common feature of Brexit. I once saw some graffiti in a pub toilet in east London that said: ‘the indigenous people are being discriminated against.’

The United Kingdom Independence Party, largely inherited those voters when the BNP fell apart. They seem to be courting them even more now under their new leader Gerard Batten, who has hired Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), the fascist former English Defence League (EDL) leader, who made anti-muslim sentiment a central part of the EDL’s ideology.  

Whilst the vast majority of the people in the green movement are of the political left, aspects of the movement also bear some ideological blame for a form of eco-fascism. What is known as ‘deep ecology’ sees environmental degradation as a problem caused by ‘too many people’, advocate massive reductions in the human population, usually black and brown people, and strict anti-immigration policies.

Conveniently, they ignore that rich industrial nations, cause much more environmental destruction than the population of Africa and other poor parts of the world. This is a form of eco-fascism, however much deep ecologists try to deny the fact.

All of which means that those of us on the green left, should be aware of this alternative ecological philosophy, and redouble our efforts to challenge their narrative with a just and inclusive green politics.

Sunday 17 March 2019

We need to live differently

Written by Simon Pirani and first published at ROAR Magazine

The bad news about climate change keeps coming: record heat levels in Australia in January, and in the UK in February; increasingly uncontrollable wild fires; shocking leaps in Arctic temperatures. The worst news of all is that the gulf between what scientists say needs to be done and what the international climate talks deliver keeps growing.

At the negotiations in December at Katowice, Poland — which, grotesquely, were sponsored by Europe’s biggest producer of coking coal, among others — the main outcome was agreement on proposals to monitor governments’ actions, albeit in a watered-down version. Delegates did not discuss, let alone improve on, voluntary targets for cutting emissions, agreed on in Paris in 2015; scientists reckon that these put the world economy on course for a potentially disastrous increase in global average temperature to three degrees above pre-industrial levels. The gathering even declined to welcome the latest diplomatically honed report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on the insistence of the US, Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations.

Katowice was the latest round of talks that began at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where it was acknowledged that fossil fuel use is the main driver of global warming and needs to be reduced. Since then it has risen, globally, by more than 60 percent. Governments have signed agreements with one hand and poured tens of billions of dollars per year in subsidies into fossil fuel production and consumption with the other.

The first step to dealing with climate change is to reject the illusion that governments are dealing with the problem. Society as a whole must act.

How to put flesh on the bones of that generalization is not so simple. Should we protest? Try to force governments to invest in renewable energy projects? Take direct action against new power plants? Focus on community energy? All of the above?


In working out what to do about climate change, history is an invaluable tool. An understanding of the processes that made fossil fuels central to human economic activity will help us make the transition away from those fuels.

The concentrated physical force, motive power and heat that can be derived from burning coal was central to the industrial revolution of the late 18th century, and so to the consolidation of capitalism in the Global North. Harnessing energy from coal, and disciplining labor, went hand in hand. The technologies of the so-called second industrial revolution of the late 19th century — steam turbines, electricity networks and the internal combustion engine — multiplied coal use exponentially and produced demand for oil.

But it took a further sea change in the world economy, in the mid 20th century, to escalate the global warming danger to its present level. The increase in global fossil fuel use accelerated in the post-war boom, paused briefly after the oil price shocks of the 1970s and has hurtled upwards ever since. Earth systems scientists who study the impact of economic activity on the natural world — of which global warming is a key aspect — name the period since the mid- 20th century “the great acceleration.”

Who or what, exactly, consumed all these fossil fuels? Mostly, fuels are used by and through large technological systems, such as car-based transport systems, electricity networks, urban building systems and industrial, agricultural and military systems.

Analyzing these technological systems — and the way they are embedded in social and economic systems — is the key to understanding the relentless rise in fossil fuel use, I argued in my book Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption.

Take cars, for example. For sure, technological change helped catapult them to prominence: the internal combustion engine was a cardinal innovation. But it took social and economic change to make cars the predominant mode of urban transport.

In the US in the 1920s, the car manufacturers pioneered automated assembly lines and turned the car from a luxury into a mass consumer product. They dreamed up planned obsolescence and other marketing techniques, and they used political muscle to sideline — and sometimes sabotage — competing forms of transport such as trolley buses and railways.

In the post-war boom, US car use ascended to a still-higher level, thanks to massive state investment in highways. Suburbia proliferated: working people moved into single-family detached homes in unprecedented numbers, with US house-building rising from several hundred thousand a year in the 1930s to more than one million a year during and after the war. Home ownership via a life-time of mortgage debt was part of the deal; front and back gardens, and cars, were another. Other — but not all — rich countries embraced this urban development pattern.

By the 1980s, some cities outside the rich world began to get car-jammed. In the US, the manufacturers mounted largely effective resistance to sporadic state attempts to regulate fuel efficiency. Gas-guzzling SUVs arrived: rather than encourage drivers to use smaller, lighter models, the car makers popularized family vehicles that were classed as trucks and therefore allowed by law to do fewer miles per gallon. US sales of these peaked in 2000 at 17 million per year.

So those now working to create carbon-free cities are up against not just a clever piece of technology (the internal combustion engine), but the economic and social structures that have created urban transport systems based on cars, i.e. fuel-intensive mobile metal armchairs.

Car-based transport systems are wildly energy-inefficient ways to get people from place to place. For example, Atlanta, US, a spread-out city dominated by suburban housing and car transport, has 11 times the greenhouse gas emissions per head of Barcelona, Spain, which has a similar number of people, with similar income levels, but is more compact, with better public transport and a relatively car-free center.

In the same way, fuel-intensive industrial agriculture is an outrageously energy-inefficient way to feed people and most cities’ constructed environments are energy-inefficient ways to house people. Other areas of economic activity — such as military production and the advertising industry — are destructive for broader reasons, and fuel-inefficient too. Just as in the case of urban transport, these systems were shaped by relationships of power and wealth and persist as such.

Superb research by the Climate Accountability Institute has shown that nearly two thirds of carbon dioxide emitted since the 1750s can be traced to the outputs of the 90 largest fossil fuel and cement producers, most of which still operate today. The Institute’s most recent list includes, in the top ten, Saudi Aramco, Gazprom of Russia, the National Iranian Oil Company, ExxonMobil from the US, Pemex of Mexico, Royal Dutch Shell and China National Petroleum Corporation.

A list of the companies that control fossil fuel consumption — electricity producers, metals and engineering consortia, car makers, construction companies, petrochemicals and agriculture giants — is much longer and more complex, because fossil fuel consumption is so integral to all types of economic activity. But the power relations are the same.


Because most fossil fuels are consumed by and through these large technological, social and economic systems, appeals to reduce individual consumption can only have a limited effect.

Take the car drivers in Atlanta. They live in the world’s richest country and drive some of the world’s most energy-inefficient cars. But they are trapped in an urban transport system that makes it almost impossible — especially for those with children — to perform basic functions, like the school run or buying groceries, without a car. Moreover, fuels are consumed not only on their individual journeys, but in car manufacturing, the construction of roads and parking spaces and so on.

Certainly, egregious consumption of fossil fuels and of consumer goods is a symptom of a sick society. Millions of people in the rich world work long hours and spend the money they earn on material goods in the belief that those goods can make them happy. But the ingrained alienation of which consumerism is part has to be challenged by striving for social change. Moral appeals are not enough.

The fate of the French government’s recent proposals to increase fuel taxes is a cautionary tale. The plans were presented as an environmental measure. But, despite claims by right-wing commentators to the contrary, people saw them for what they were — the latest of a long-standing series of measures to impose neoliberal austerity policies. That triggered the “yellow vests” revolt and the policy was reversed.

In the Global South, a focus on individual consumption makes even less sense. Most fossil fuel use is by industry, including energy-intensive processes (e.g. steel and cement manufacture) moved from the Global North in the 1980s and 1990s. It was China’s industrial boom, which centers on making goods to export to the Global North, that in the mid- 2000s caused the country to overtake the US as the world’s largest consumer of commercially-supplied fuels.

Research in India highlighted the minimal role of the poorest people’s individual consumption. Of India’s incremental greenhouse gas emissions in the three decades from 1981 to 2011, just 3-4 percent was due to an electrification drive that brought 650 million people, mostly in the countryside, on to the network for the first time. Most of the rest came from industry and smaller urban populations.


Electricity networks are at the center of the fossil-fuel-dominated energy system. In 1950, their share of global fossil fuel use was about one tenth; now, it is more than one third.

Electricity systems, like cars, were a great innovation of the late 19th century. Their first phase of development, culminating in the post-war boom, depended on big centralized power stations, usually coal fired.

The stations are inherently inefficient. Roughly speaking, for each unit of energy they produce in the form of electricity, two units are lost in the production process, mostly as waste heat — which produces the steam clouds we all see rising from power stations’ cooling towers. Global average thermal power station efficiency (i.e. the proportion of the fuel’s energy that comes out as electricity) has been rising since the early 20th century, from around 25–30 percent to 34 percent for coal and 40 percent for gas, now. But it will never get much higher for physical reasons.

In the 1970s, when the realization dawned on political elites that fossil fuels were neither infinite nor cheap, environmentalists pointed to the energy losses in conversion processes as the key potential source of savings. Burning coal to produce electricity, which is transmitted to electric heaters in people’s homes, was like “cutting butter with a chainsaw,” the sustainable energy advocate Amory Lovins argued in the US Congress.

He advocated “soft energy paths” that would combine a culture of energy efficiency and a transition to renewables: homes designed and built to need the minimum of heat; solar panels and windmills; attention to energy flows through systems.

More than 40 years ago, Lovins described these as the “roads not taken” by governments who defended incumbent corporate interests rather than use energy technologies wisely. Despite the discovery of global warming in the meantime, these roads are often still bypassed. So are the energy-saving potentials of more recent technologies, most significantly, networked computers and the internet.

These products of the “third industrial revolution” have made it possible to supersede the old fossil-fuel-heavy centralized networks with integrated, decentralized systems reliant on multiple producers of energy. Improvements in renewables technologies (solar pumps, wind turbines, heat pumps and so) have helped.

But in the three decades since the global warming effect was discovered, “smart grid” technology has scarcely been applied. For one thing, networks are operated by companies whose business model is to sell as much electricity as possible. Distributed generation systems — where the network collects electricity from many renewable sources and parcels it out efficiently — scare them. Community-based decentralized electricity ventures are forced to compete with the established corporations on unequal terms.

A briefing paper by engineering researchers at Imperial College, London, last year argued that, to move the UK’s electricity and heat systems away from fossil fuels, a “whole system approach” coordinated by “one single party” is required. The implication (which the researchers did not spell out) is that state agencies have to co-ordinate the transition. What other “single party” could? And such a strategy has been fiercely resisted by the UK’s “big six” energy companies and their friends in the Tory government. This is a good example of how corporate dominance and “competition” dogma are obstructing the technologies needed to tackle global warming.


There are no easy answers to the historical crisis produced by three decades of government inaction in the international climate negotiations. I will suggest three steps.

The first step is to reject the discourse produced by these negotiations, that the governments have the situation under control. They do not.

The talks process has produced and reproduced its own discourse, cut off from the world where 16 of the 17 hottest years ever recorded were in the last twenty years — and where school pupils, from Australia to Sweden to Belgium, go on strike about it. It is welcome, in my view, that school pupils are not only urging governments to declare a “climate emergency” — which seems like the very least they could do — but are also seeking ways to take matters into their own hands, by demanding to learn climate science.

Social movements, working people’s organizations and communities concerned about climate change could all adopt similar approaches: not only of demanding governments act, but also of acquiring the knowledge to guide collective action of our own; not only of urging legislative “green new deals,” but of blocking corporate fossil-fuel-intensive projects and developing our own post-fossil-fuel technologies. There is already a rich history of both types of actions — from protests against fracking or the Dakota Access pipeline, to community energy projects and workplace-based “just transition” initiatives — to be built on.

A second step is to reject spurious techno-fixes, which obscure the reality: that to move away from fossil fuels we need social and economic change; we need to live differently.

The current focus on electric and driver-less cars, is a great example of this. Electric car technology will probably not cut carbon emissions much, and may not cut them at all, unless the electricity is generated entirely from renewables. And while countries such as Germany and Spain have taken the important first step of raising the proportion of renewable-generated electricity to a fifth or a quarter, the really hard part — creating mostly- or all-renewables systems — is still ahead.

A more attractive prospect is for cities to become places where people live with better, healthier transport systems not dependent on cars. Technologies such as trams and walkways and bicycle-friendly infrastructure can help. Electric cars’ main social function, by contrast, is to preserve car manufacturers’ profits. Why help them?

Such changes to urban transport — superseding one technological system with another — means breaking the resistance of the centers of power and wealth (fossil fuel producers, car makers, road builders, and so on) who profit from them.

The same is true of other technological systems. To remake the relationship between town and countryside, to move urban built infrastructure away from the current energy-intensive model — which would end energy-intensive construction of wastefully heat-hungry housing — means breaking the resistance of property developers, building companies and their friends at all levels of government. To move towards fully-integrated, decentralized electricity networks means breaking the resistance of incumbent electricity companies.

Such shifts, combining technological, social and economic change, are the third step towards change.

These shifts, in turn, point towards deeper-going transformations of the social and economic systems the underpin the technological systems. We can envisage forms of social organization that replace corporate and state control of the economy, advance collective and community control, and, crucially, in which employed labor — a central plank of profit-centered capitalism — is superseded by more meaningful types of human activity.

Such a social transformation — a break with an economic system based on profit and a parallel break with politics based on the false premise that “economic growth” equates to human well-being — would provide the most solid basis for the sort of changes in technological systems that are needed to complete the move away from fossil fuels.

The fact that social and labor movements have aspired to such transformations for two centuries or more and have not yet achieved them suggests that there are no easy ways to do this. And I do not intend to offer trite formulae for success. But an understanding that technological change is interdependent with social and economic change, and that we should resist the temptation to think of it separately, is crucial.

Simon Pirani is author of Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. His previous writing as a historian includes The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24: Soviet workers and the new communist elite (Routledge, 2008) and Change in Putin’s Russia: Power, Money and People (Pluto, 2010).

Saturday 16 March 2019

Schools, climate strikes and internationalism

Written by Jonathan Neale and first published at The Ecologist

I loved the school students’ climate strikes last month. The energy, the jokes on the placards, the smiles, the hopeful faces. The students in Brighton marching by the railway station, chanting ‘F*** Theresa May’. I had all those kindly, patronizing, adulty feelings. But something deeper too.

I have been a climate activist since 2004: endless protests and phone calls and emails and meetings in small rooms, week after week, year after year, all the time trying to give other people hope. When I spoke at meetings people would ask – But how can we do it? How can we force the powerful the act? In every country, on every continent, someone always asks that question. Because everyone wants to know the answer.

I would try to invent an answer, and then lie alone in the dark in the middle of the night and wrestle with despair. But now I have seen a power that can change the world.

First steps

If young people all over the world come out of school and stay out of school, the cities will stop. The workplaces will stop, because so many people need to go look after their children.

The young people would have immense moral force. They can occupy the parliaments. The police will not and cannot beat and gas and kill all the children. Nor will the soldiers. Nor would we let them. And if it is all over the world, it will be a power such as Earth has never seen.

The kids could make the rest of us brave and decent, and we could follow them out of work into the squares and the halls of power until we win.

We are not anywhere near that now. These are one-day strikes. Who knows how long the strikes will last? How far they will spread? What exactly do they want?

I fantasize we will go all the way this time. I know we won’t. Great historical movements do not work like that. But the process has begun.

International movement

What I can now imagine, many can now imagine. It will be possible for millions to begin working out how to use their power, with apocalypse in their future and a lifetime of making history ahead of them.

I have seen another thing. For forever I have had to listen to experts telling me we would never be able to convince people by scaring them shitless about climate change. They told me, and you, how people were too short sighted and greedy and stupid and unwashed to grasp what the enlightened understood.

Now I know that we climate activists have persuaded hundreds of millions. The first part of our work is done. The real work commences.

Another thing is so big people hardly comment on it. The internationalism. The strikes started with one young woman in Stockholm, spread to Australia, back to Belgium, on across parts of Europe, even came to Britain, are going to be global this Friday, and will not stop there.

As I watched the strike reports, Nancy Lindisfarne and I were finishing a book on class and male violence. The last chapters - a joy to write - were about the exploding resistance to rape and sexual harassment.

Tracing the history of the last few years, the same thing jumped out at us – internationalism. The movement leaps, from the riot against rape at India Gate in Delhi in 2012, to Rhodes University in South Africa, to Buenos Aries and across Latin America, to the women’s marches against Trump, to the MeToo movement in the US, to the Chinese MeToo and the Indian MeToo, to Stormy Daniels and Blasey Ford, just two women, to hundreds of thousands protesting for legal abortion in Argentina, to the conviction of Cardinal Pell in Australia, to three million women in Kerala joining hands to defend the dignity of their menstrual blood, to demonstrations of millions around the world on International Women’s Day last week.

Increasing visibility

These movements are only the beginning, and the earthquakes will threaten all established power.

You can see that same internationalism - the leapfrogging power of example and shared messages - moving as quickly in the climate strikes. It’s partly social media, and partly that our experience is growing more alike across the world. It’s partly migration and Skype.

There is one imbalance. Everyone sees what happens in the US, but people in the US have trouble seeing anything in the rest of the world. That sucks. Let’s change it.

The movement and the internationalism are a property of our age. It is the same this week in the great crowds and strikes against the tyrants in Sudan, Morocco and Algeria. That is how it was in the Arab Spring eight years ago too, which spread throughout the Arab world and south to the rest of Africa, to Greece and Spain and to Occupy in the US. That Spring, like MeToo, like the climate strikes, was a movement of the young.

The young are changing, which means the world will change.

Against the walls

Internationalism matters right now. The solution to climate change must be global, because the atmosphere we breathe is global.

Our movement has tried for global agreement at the top, between the existing governments, tried long and hard, and failed utterly. That’s why we know that we need mass movements from the grassroots, pushing upwards. But those movements have to spread from country to country, each encouraging the others, because in the end we have to win this globally.

Internationalism matters too, because this is the age of The Walls. Trump’s wall, Netanyahu’s wall, the migrant-hating spreading across Europe, the drowning pool of the Med, the xenophobia in South Africa, hating Muslims in India, hating Roma in Hungary, and Brexit.

Internationalism matters in Britain this week because the politicians are leading us into a racist Brexit. Many on the left are tailgating the racist right. They say it would be wrong to have another referendum, because the majority would vote to remain. They say we have to leave because we can only change the world by ourselves, on our own, in our little island. That is a mistake about how we can change the world.

Internationalism matters now because in the lifetime of the today’s climate strikers, heat and its consequences will drive hundreds of millions from their homes. One solution will be the Walls around the World.

Changing the world

We will be climbing these walls, clambering out of the sea, our children in our arms, begging the men and women with the guns to let us through. Or we will be the ones standing on the Wall, gassing the refugees, shooting them, shoving them back into the sea or the desert or the barbed wire.

But the children of Earth are showing us another way. Internationalism makes it possible to learn to welcome the needy because they are our brothers and sisters, and because we can only change the world together.

This Author

Jonathan Neale is a writer and was secretary of the Campaign Against Climate Change for several years. He is the editor of One Million Climate Jobs, and blogs with Nancy Lindisfarne at Anne Bonny Pirate.

Watch some of the 5,000 youth that marched in London, England on Friday