This is a response to an article by Bill McKibben on the development of the climate movement. For context, check out the original article.
The Climate Movement—Looking Ahead
The climate movement has had some major successes. The efforts that stalled the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline were a real accomplishment. Tens of thousands had pledged to commit civil disobedience if the Obama administration approved the pipeline, which long seemed like a foregone conclusion. Following years of organizing, political engagement, and protest, it became the first major fossil fuel infrastructure project to be rejected on the basis of its climate impact—a huge feat.
Particularly important was the growth of fossil fuel divestment activism, stimulated in large part by Bill McKibben and 350.org, which provided a way to get involved on climate change for a new generation of activists. I was one of them. As we built divestment campaigns on our college campuses, we stoked discussion of climate change throughout society. Through our efforts we also developed our intellectual and political autonomy. Friends I worked with formed a national student-led divestment organization and then went on to found Sunrise, now campaigning for the Green New Deal (GND).
And yet the climate movement can and must grow stronger. In my view, the movement has yet to develop the full analysis of the problem it hopes to solve, and consequently its full, autonomous identity. I lay out what I believe to be the full analysis in my essay on the next steps of the climate movement, but I’ll recount some main points here.
We have known for over 10 years that in order to keep warming to 2°C we must reduce carbon at rates thought to be incompatible with economic growth. The only historical instances of deep emissions cuts have happened in the context of economic recession or upheaval. One question in particular should have animated climate activists’ thought and action over the past several years: How do we rapidly reduce emissions without creating the sort of economic turmoil that could force populations to oppose the transition to renewable energy? It remains the question that should drive our analysis today.
Thankfully, the discipline of ecological economics describes how we could establish a non-growing, steady state economy that ensures the well-being of the public even as growth ends. The economy is, after all, just a human construct that—unlike ecological limits—humans can decide to change. When noting the differences between the New Deal era and the GND resolution, McKibben says that “our main goal is not ending an economic depression but the full-scale decarbonization of the economy in light of the climate crisis.” However, as described above, the GND must consciously include policies necessary to avoid an economic depression. Climate activists’ main goal is not just an energy transition but the creation of a steady state economy that provides the stability needed to complete the transition. The sixth mass extinction currently underway and other severe ecological crises—which lack a large political movement of their own, but also threaten our survival—also require an economy that can allow for shrinking consumption without falling apart. Ultimately, the economic goal of profit maximization must be replaced by the goal of meeting basic human needs within ecological limits.
This is where the political and cultural implications come in. Without the illusion of unlimited growth, which is sold to the public as the best (and only) way to improve their economic situation, there is no longer any excuse for extreme inequality. Without growth, redistribution is the only way to address unmet material needs—untenable to elites who want to maintain and expand their wealth and power. Serious climate action thus tramples on elite priorities in general, not just those of the fossil fuel industry. Furthermore, bringing about this egalitarian steady state economy is only conceivable if the public gains control of economic and political decisions from which it is currently excluded, and begins to question and cast off the consumer culture that it’s taught to embrace. In this way, full-scale climate action requires the movement to establish authentic democracy and culture, and tramples on elite rule itself. Our analysis has thus far been too narrow—there is more to creating a sustainable civilization than the energy transition alone. We must create a society built to respect ecological limits and learn to live within them.
In his article, McKibben recalls his path towards activism, noting that he spent 15 years attempting to communicate the nature of the problem to others. But he claims that he was “analyzing the problem incorrectly.” To the extent that he was attempting to speak truth to power, he is right. For example, Exxon knew about the severe risks of climate change around 1970 and simply concealed its knowledge—those in power already knew the truth. The idea that informing elites of the damage they’re causing will lead them to change course is a misunderstanding of how power works in our society. Those in power knowingly destroy people and planet in pursuit of profit and control, obscure the public’s sense of reality, and repress corrective social movements, with collapse the only possible result. But to the extent that McKibben’s efforts were aimed at informing the public—the right audience for generating a mass movement to challenge these power systems—that is exactly what must continue today. We face issues that demand we know something about the nature of the climate, about energy, about culture, about the workings of our economy and our political system, and about power and the history of the movements that have driven social change. Citizens must have some knowledge of these topics if they’re to respond rationally to the crises we face, and neither schools nor the media provide it.
Activists must recognize that our only hope of spreading the required level of understanding is through independent media and education institutions. We should also recognize that phenomena like climate denial wouldn’t exist without industry’s control over society’s information systems. Ron Arnold, a longtime Vice President of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE), a corporate think tank, bragged about it: “Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement . . . We [CDFE] created a sector of public opinion that didn’t used to exist. No one was aware that environmentalism was a problem until we came along.” An activist-controlled means of society-wide communication will only become more important as the movement grows and business feels increasingly threatened. The only “catastrophic threats” highlighted by corporate media will be activists’ program for creating a sustainable society, and the increasingly hysterical narratives will only be countered if activists can speak for themselves and reach large numbers of people. McKibben observes that the urgency of the climate crisis forced activists to “move beyond education to confrontation,” but while nothing ultimately changes without confrontation, the need for education never ceases. Education and action must continue simultaneously.
McKibben asserts that the movement must grow stronger, which is significantly determined by the number of people involved. I agree; we should aim to have millions participating. But just as important, the movement must grow in autonomy—participants’ intellectual and political preparation for self-government. That the GND idea has been put forward is a sign of activists’ increasing autonomy. But as I write in my essay analyzing the movement, it remains a resolution, with concrete policies yet to be determined. Activists must develop this transition plan ourselves based on our own analysis of the problem, incorporating the policies needed to establish a steady state economy. Beyond that, we ought to cultivate a comprehensive public understanding of the destructiveness of elite rule that demonstrates its utter illegitimacy. We must also develop within ourselves and the public the self-confidence and participatory habits necessary to replace elite rule with a self-governing citizenry.
The Need to Work towards System Change
“Going forward,” McKibben writes, “we must fight for the changes we know we need to make for a livable planet.” As explained earlier, evidence seems to clearly point to the need for a fundamentally different economy, not just a transition to renewable energy. He suggests that “If we replace fossil fuels with sun and wind, the effect will inevitably lead to at least some erosion of the current power structure.” But system change will never happen incidentally—it must be an explicit goal, and we must try to understand how to make it happen. In a truly sustainable future there will be no solar billionaires, or billionaires of any kind, because a non-growing economy requires limits to inequality. When we don’t question the deepest assumptions on which our society is built, such as whether anyone can justifiably claim to deserve such unlimited wealth, it leaves untapped the transformative clarity and moral outrage that a full-scale climate movement needs.
“I don’t know the final destination,” McKibben acknowledges. “While I don’t know how to change the ‘system,’ the urgent nature of the climate crisis doesn’t let us simply put off action.” Though we cannot predict exactly what a sustainable society will look like, we certainly know its broad outline. And though we are limited in our understanding of the dynamics that cause social transformation, we should be wary of becoming content with what we don’t know, which will keep us from gathering as much knowledge as we can to guide the process. McKibben’s thinking shapes the worldview of many people trying to address climate change, who may get the impression that transformation isn’t necessary or that a path towards it isn’t knowable. Activists should always be striving to better understand how to create the society we need. There are ways forward if we recognize system change to be necessary.
Opportunities for a Meta-movement
Climate change is clearly a symptom of overwhelming human demands on this finite planet, an expression of limits to growth. It is also a symptom of societies under elite rule, an expression of our deficit of democracy. This crisis demands that we create an all-renewable economy that serves the public without growth, only possible if the public deepens democracy and wins the ability to bring it about. I don’t think climate activists yet recognize the extent to which this platform naturally aligns us with other movements.
For example, McKibben observes how climate change fuels conflict, as in the severe drought that provoked the Syrian Civil War, which links climate and anti-war activists. But there is a much stronger connection that hasn’t entered mainstream activist analysis: There are no prospects for globalized air travel and shipping without oil. If climate activists aim to create a world that isn’t powered by oil, we also challenge the US government’s ability to maintain a global military presence. But empire is a shared priority for US elites, and a less mobile future will be opposed by not just the fossil fuel industry but all major sectors of business. Are we preparing for that opposition? Are we nurturing these connections with the anti-war movement? It’s hard to imagine anti-war activists could do more to constrain military interventions abroad than support a transition away from oil. We don’t yet appreciate both the elite priorities threatened by serious climate action and our natural connections to other movements.
Seeing how limits weave through the problem of climate change and its solutions is essential. Even as activists have sought to link concerns over economic and racial justice to climate action, we’ve underestimated the extent to which a sustainable society must foreground equality. A non-growing economy establishes limits on our consumption and forces us to learn how to share. It forces us to reckon with the extreme inequality that to this point has been justified by the illusion of limitless growth. Overcoming the inequities that other movements aim to eliminate becomes essential, not just desirable, if a sustainable economy is to be achieved.
In developing these ideas, I concluded that climate activists have been defining themselves far too narrowly. To address the climate crisis, we must change our economy and our political system and develop an ecological culture. In other words, we must create a new society. To do that, we must cultivate a citizenry ready and willing to step into the role we’re currently denied: that of self-governing equals.
People are waking up to the threat of climate breakdown, due in large part to the efforts of the movement. We owe incalculable gratitude to Bill McKibben, who has had a major role in building it. The question now is whether we have an analysis broad enough to address the crisis at scale. I believe the ideas above must be incorporated into the eventual GND legislation and the movement’s plans, and be well-understood by the public. Elsewhere I write about a broad public education campaign that I think is necessary to help citizens understand our interconnected problems and how their actions fit into a vision of full-scale transformation. I want to find others who are excited to create this education campaign to join with and make it happen. It’s time for an enlightened public to revoke its consent for a corporate state that stands in the way of a sustainable society.