Can Climate Change Unite the Left?

To avoid catastrophe, we must seize corporate polluters’ wealth. And to do that, we must change everything.

In December 2012, Brad Werner, a complex systems researcher… [presented] at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco…. ‘Is Earth F**ked?’ (Full title: ‘Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism’)….

The bottom line was clear enough: Global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that ‘earth-human systems’ are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When a journalist pressed Werner for a clear answer on the ‘Is earth fucked?’ question, he set the jargon aside and replied, ‘More or less.’

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner described it as ‘resistance’—movements of ‘people or groups of people’ who ‘adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture.’ According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes ‘environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by Indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.’ Such mass uprisings of people—along the lines of the abolition movement and the Civil Rights Movement—represent the likeliest source of ‘friction’ to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.

This, he argued, is clear from history, which tells us that past social movements have ‘had tremendous influence on … how the dominant culture evolved.’ It stands to reason, therefore, that ‘if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamic.’ And that, Werner said, is not a matter of opinion, but ‘really a geophysics problem.’ Put another way, only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything.

Social movements, such as the fossil fuel divestment/reinvestment movement, local laws barring high-risk extraction, bold court challenges by Indigenous groups and others, are early manifestations of this resistance. They have not only located various choke points to slow the expansion plans of the fossil fuel companies, but the economic alternatives these movements are proposing and building are mapping ways of living within planetary boundaries, ones based on intricate reciprocal relationships rather than brute extraction. This is the ‘friction’ to which Werner referred, the kind that is needed to put the brakes on the forces of destruction and destabilization.

Just as many climate change deniers I met fear, making swift progress on climate change requires breaking fossilized free market rules. That is why, if we are to collectively meet the enormous challenges of this crisis, a robust social movement will need to demand (and create) political leadership that is not only committed to making polluters pay for a climate-ready public sphere, but willing to revive two lost arts: longterm public planning, and saying ‘no’ to powerful corporations.

Naomi Klein

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