No Soft Landing

As Clive Ponting calmly states in his up-date of my old standby, A Green History of the World, 1991, now published as A New Green History of the World, 2007, "the world is clearly approaching a crossroads". He sees the potential collision between continuing high energy consumption and the realities of declining oil and gas production being headed off, at the last moment, by Global Warming - a rampaging environmental reality over which we have demonstrated a complete absence of control and which threatens to take the planet into uncharted territory. Ponting writes, in his measured tones, "before the world has to cope with a shortage of fossil fuels it is likely to have to face the far more severe environmental problems caused by their consumption over the last two hundred years".

The recent advances in increased energy efficiencies have done nothing to stem the overall pace of consumption: we continue to dump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at ever increasing rates. The first decade of this century has seen the CO2 concentration increase an average of 2 p.p.m. per year as against 1.6 p.p.m. for the last decade of the twentieth century. By 2016 we may well exceed 400 p.p.m., a 55% increase over pre-industrial levels.

Ponting dismisses the possibility of a near-term technological fix for these rising levels and is similarly disdainful of the ability of liberal democratic nations to make major reductions in energy consumption. In any case, it is the developing world that is contributing most to the CO2 build-up; China alone is expected to contribute over 40% of future emissions. He believes the prospects for the world's climate look bleak. Rising average temperatures across the planet continue to exacerbate the inherited environmental problems of deforestation, soil erosion, salinization, drought, loss of wildlife and urbanization while rising sea levels have the potential to destroy coastal infrastructure and thus severely impact world trade, including the shipment of oil.

Into this doomsday scenario now steps Morris Berman (The Waning of the Modern Ages, Counterpunch, September 12, 2012) who reviews the deep historical currents that have swept us into the gyre (to switch metaphors). He references the work of two historians, Immanuel Wallerstein and Christopher Chase-Dunn, who adhere to the World Systems Analysis school (an off-shoot of the Annales school of French Historians led by Fernand Braudel). Their analysis is simple: we are experiencing the end of capitalism, the tail end of an ideological arc that, they suggest, spans from about 1500 to 2100. This arc is characterized by three phases: mercantilism, or commercial capital during the 16th and 17th century, industrial capital in the 18th and 19th., and now the waning days of financial capital where money creates money (e.g. through interest, arbitrage, hedging and derivatives). They point out that the last time the West experienced a change of this magnitude occurred during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as the medieval world slowly began to give way to the modern era.

The end of feudalism was precipitated by an environmental catastrophe, The Black Death, which destroyed up to a third of Europe's population and thus greatly increased the value of labor. This last fact, together with the growth of trade, the establishment of towns and increasingly centralized Royal governments spelled the end of local, feudal arrangements of land, the military and agricultural labor. Now the Modern Age, underpinned by Capitalism, is threatened by Global Warming - the only viable response to which is a dismantling of the ethos of capitalism, of perpetual growth, of an increasing standard of living - and a return to something equivalent to the energy-use levels of pre-industrial society, via, perhaps, what Naomi Klein calls Eco-Socialism (Capitalism vs. the Climate, The Nation, November, 2011).

Now you know why the Right is so adamant in its denial of climate science: it has connected the dots. As Berman puts it, "the Right is not fooled: it sees Green as a Trojan horse for Red". Ponting, Berman and Klein thus agree: protection of the commons is, in all likelihood, impossible without a thorough re-thinking of western societal values. Klein writes,

"The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits….These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress.”

Meanwhile, the leading edge of conventional, commentariat thinking on the crisis is occupied by the likes of Al Gore and Thomas Friedman who espouse market-based solutions such as developing alternative energy and buying green products and, most radically, developing a system of carbon trading: a sort of Corporate Green Capitalism. They are, of course, living in denial. Capitalism is part of the problem and can never be a part of the antidote demanded by the existential threat of a devolving environmental system. They can help us drive deeper into the problem, perhaps, by buying us a few years but offer no prescription for avoiding calamity. Their, and other neo-liberal solutions will, at best, merely slow the inevitable on-rush of climate instability and environmental degradation; but, as Ponting points out, a few years here or there is unlikely to see the development of a viable technological fix.

Even Klein has a tendency to adopt platitudinous panaceas when she writes,“The real solutions to the climate crisis, are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power." Our global program of reining in corporate power starts when? As Berman trenchantly observes, there is no diet cheesecake to be had, "To put it bluntly, the scale of change required cannot happen without a massive implosion of the current system. This was true at the end of the Roman Empire, it was true at the end of the Middle Ages, and it is true today". Naomi's unlikely prescriptions for a new civilizational paradigm, listed under such headings as Ending the Cult of Shopping, and Taxing the Rich inadvertently confirm that there will be no soft landing.

Berman quotes Shadia Drury who writes in Alexandre Kojeve: The Roots of Postmodern Politics,

"Modernity’s inception and its decline are like those of any other set of political and cultural ideals. In its early inception, Modernity contained something good and beguiling. It was a revolution against the authority of the Church, its taboos, repressions, inquisitions, and witch burning. It was a new dawn of the human spirit—celebrating life, knowledge, individuality, freedom, and human rights. It bequeathed to man a sunny disposition on the world, and on himself….The new spirit fueled scientific discovery, inventiveness, trade, commerce, and an artistic explosion of great splendor. But as with every new spirit, modernity has gone foul….Modernity lost the freshness and innocence of its early promise because its goals became inflated, impossible, and even pernicious. Instead of being the symbol of freedom, independence, justice, and human rights, it has become the sign of conquest, colonialism, exploitation, and the destruction of the earth.”

Modernity has been subsumed by its underlying ideology of Capitalism, now Global Warming is likely Modernity's Black Death. Bring it on.