Atmospheric Dialectics: A Critical Theory of Climate Change

Atmospheric Dialectics: A Critical Theory of Climate Change by Javier Sethness

“To provide for the permanence of life of the population of each nation of humanity that inhabits the planet Earth is the primary and essential function of politics.”
— Enrique Dussel [1]

“The bourgeoisie live on like specters threatening doom.”
— Theodor W. Adorno [2]

It would unfortunately not be entirely absurd to claim climate change to be the greatest social problem of the twenty-first century. Short of the historical development and proliferation of nuclear weapons, nothing else seems to pose such a dire threat to human welfare as do the projected consequences of climate change; a recent report released by The Lancet, [3] for example, claims it to constitute the greatest threat to human health in this century. The dialectics of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the global climate and the greenhouse effect—which itself dialectically has allowed for the emergence and evolution of life on Earth for nearly four billion years—represents a problematic that, in Dussel’s view[4], joins the mass persistence of global material poverty in constituting the final limit to the age of modernity, the capitalist mode of production, and political liberalism.

Such a conclusion follows from the climatological evidence provided in recent years by Mark Lynas, a British environmental journalist who seems to have assiduously read through and synthesized thousands of reports and studies released by climatologists regarding the various threats posed by climate change and compiled them in his 2008 book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, published by National Geographic. Besides introductory and concluding chapters, Six Degrees is comprised of six chapters, each of which deals with some of the possible socio-environmental changes that will accompany each degree-Celsius increase in the global average temperature that may come about during the current century as a result of human-caused carbon and other greenhouse gases emissions. If more or less correct in its science[5], Lynas’s Six Degrees surely represents a decidedly important contribution to the advancement of social knowledge, and to praxis in defense of life itself more generally. As such, then, it surely should be read and thoughtfully considered by a wide audience, especially those who, in identifying themselves as revolutionary leftists, seek the instauration in history of liberated existence—a project that could find its determinate negation in the ‘realization’ of catastrophic climate change. What this essay sets out to do, then, is to review the breadth of potential negations that Lynas finds in the prospect of climate change and then to discuss some contributions that leftist[6] political thought might have for these problems. I deal here mostly just with climate change, which should in no way be taken to suggest that I find unimportant other socio-environmental problems—it is merely to claim climate change to be perhaps the most pressing problem, and one that hence deserves the treatment that follows.

This work, then, will be comprised of two parts: one which largely follows Lynas in presenting many of the possible future realities he examines in his Virgil-like tour of various potential climate change scenarios in Six Degrees, and a second that critiques Lynas and dominant approaches on climate change more generally from a libertarian eco-socialist perspective. The conclusion here set forth, with Adorno[7], is that “[p]erspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world” as it currently exists, that de-naturalize the “monstrous apparatus”[8] of capitalism, domination, and planetary destruction—life-negating realities that, as Benjamin[9] observes, are too often treated as “historical norm[s]”—and that hence provide actual grounds for hope for the prospect of a happy humanity and a “free nature.”[10] It is to be hoped that the present work, then, constitutes something of an effective means by which to help convince people in the main of the thoroughgoing transformations that they soon must help to effect if total catastrophe is to be averted.

To begin, then: Lynas opens his discussion of some of the likely realities of a world warmer by one degree by telling us that such increased temperatures would cause perennial drought to affect the Great Plains of the western United States, eventually bringing about a “hyper-arid state” characterized by a return to the desertification observed during the Medieval Warm Period, with calamitous consequences for agricultural productivity and hence human life both locally and globally. The upheavals that would follow from such would dwarf the experiences of the 1930s Dust Bowl in the U.S. A global average temperature increase of one degree relative to pre-industrial times also threatens to render Mt. Kilimanjaro ice-free and to degrade Alpine permafrost. Lynas also asserts an average increase of one degree will heat the oceans beyond the threshold at which coral as a species can survive, resulting in the mass bleaching of the coral reefs and the effective eradication of the immense biodiversity that resides in such—the oceanic equivalents of tropical rain forests. Made warmer by increased average global temperatures of 1° C, the oceans may in fact come to produce more frequent hurricanes of greater intensity than previously known to humans. The general trend expected to be felt around the world warmer by 1° C would be one marked by increased incidence of drought and the progressive making-inhospitable of much of the world to human and non-human life.

An average global temperature increase of 2° C, the threshold of warming considered to be ‘safe’ by many dominant global institutions, for its part exacerbates many of the trends of a world warmer by one degree and introduces a few frightening climatic discontinuities. “Marine deserts” are expected to be vast in such a world—large oceanic regions bereft of plankton and phytoplankton. The collapse of such species results from the acidification spurred by higher contact of ocean-water with increased carbon-dioxide concentrations (the dissolving of carbon dioxide in water makes such water more acidic). Such developments would prove disastrous for two important reasons: first, plankton constitute the basis of the life of much of the oceans’ biodiversity, hence acting in much the same way as do plants and trees on land; secondly, phytoplankton serve to remove billions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year. Increased ocean-acidification, then, makes considerably worse the prospects for much of life on Earth.

According to Lynas, furthermore, a two-degree rise in average temperatures would likely make the heatwave conditions that killed up to 35,000 people in 2003 annual events in Europe, thus indefinitely ‘normalizing’ such conditions for many Europeans. Lynas foresees a two-degree world experiencing the movement into southern Europe of the subtropical arid belt that currently rests where the Sahara lies, with the adverse consequences for water supply, hydroelectric power, and life generally that is to be imagined to follow from such a development. A two-degree increase in average global temperatures would surpass what NASA climatologist James Hansen finds to be the critical melt threshold for the Greenland ice sheet; beyond this point, claims Hansen, the whole ice sheet could disappear within 140 years, thus irreversibly inundating the land that is home to half of currently existing humanity. The extinction of such famous megafauna as polar bears, ringed seals, and walruses would seem to be inevitable in a world warmer by two degrees, Lynas tells us. Such a world would also witness the near-eradication of tundra biomes and a dramatic northward retreat of the permafrost boundary. These conditions might well make historically traditional ways of life impossible for the Arctic-dwelling Inuit, as well as call into question the very survival of the Uru Chipaya people of the Bolivian highlands, among others.[11]

Recent reports of the effects a two-degree change would have on India show it devastating the country’s wheat-producing northern states as well as contributing to further destruction, displacement, and death from the combination of more intense monsoon seasons, driven in turn by warmer oceans, and increased flooding and mudflows as the ice cover of the Himalayan Mountains goes further into decline. The climatic changes that would accompany these changes might indeed bring about the complete disappearance of glacial ice in the Andes, which currently supplies water to millions in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile; Lynas here obliquely mentions the case of the pre-Columbian Moche and Chimu civilizations, whose decline archaeologists seem to have tied to perennial drought. A two-degree increase in average temperatures is also predicted to significantly reduce the amount of freshwater available in the western United States, thus casting doubt on the role this region could serve for those displaced by drought, and increase desertification in the heartland of the country.

Perhaps most unjust of all, those countries and societies that have contributed the least to climate change are expected to be the worst-affected: the risk of crop failure and increased hunger and starvation will increase dramatically across most African countries, given an average increase of two degrees; Lynas briefly mentions the example of Mali, where up to three-quarters of the population could go hungry under such conditions—up from one-third currently. As he reminds us, preventing mass starvation around the world will be “increasingly difficult” in a world warmer by two degrees, though he does write that the “majority of humanity” will probably survive such warming. The same does not hold, unfortunately, for much of the non-human world: an average increase of two degrees is expected to place a third of all living species of Earth at the risk of extinction.

Lynas opens his discussion of some of the likely realities of a world with an increased average global temperature of three degrees with a grim examination of the decidedly catastrophic changes Botswana and southern Africa generally would suffer in such a world: the “great sand seas” of the Kalahari Desert are expected to begin expanding, much as the Great Plains are expected to have done earlier, and bring about a new environmental regime characterized by features “far off any scale that would permit human adaptation.” Botswana and much of southern Africa, then, would become a space that would “no longer be able to support human habitation,” that would likely dispatch its few surviving residents through famine.

Lynas tells us that evidence regarding how the world would be three degrees warmer, indeed, must take as its reference point the geological period known as the Pliocene, which, occurring between 5 and 2 million ago, predated the emergence of the phenomenon of ice ages and interglacial periods in Earth’s history. According to one study cited by Lynas, the climate of the Pliocene was apparently characterized by an atmospheric concentration of carbon of between 360 and 400 parts per million (ppm)—which is to say, precisely where the contemporary world lies, with its concentration of somewhere between 387 and 391 ppm. Fossil evidence suggests that the Pliocene era had plants, bears, shrews, wolverines, and small horses populating the far northern latitudes of the world, and sea levels 25 meters higher than those that obtain today; ironically enough, it was these climatic conditions that apparently allowed for hominids dwelling in the eastern African forests during the Pliocene to slowly evolve into bipeds. With a global average temperature three degrees higher than pre-industrial times, the Earth may well see the instauration of a permanent El Niño, a climatic event that might well lead to the drying out of Amazonia and the decline of the Asian summer monsoon, two conditions that Davis finds to have synergized with the onset of capitalist colonialism in South Asia and much of Africa to have produced the worst famines recorded in human history—ones that killed between 30 and 60 million people.[12] It is these conditions that many climatologists worry will begin to allow global warming to “generate its own momentum” by means of a series of feedback loops that would reduce humans to spectators witnessing the destruction of much of life on Earth.

A world warmer by three degrees sees the oceans absorbing less carbon dioxide and land-based bacteria breaking down the carbon currently stored in the soils of the world, the total amount of which Lynas tells us to constitute double the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere. Given such dramatic changes, photosynthesis and the carbon cycle itself would likely be effectively reversed. Lynas writes that such an eventuality would add a further 250 ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere and likely raise average global temperatures by an additional 1.5° C. Under such conditions the world would see the decidedly violent drying out and final self-immolation of the Amazon rainforest, current home to half the world’s biodiversity and thousands of indigenous groups—an ecosystem that by itself accounts for a tenth of Earth’s total photosynthetic output. Life would be rendered largely unlivable in those regions that surround Amazonia, as the former “lungs of the planet” collapse into a desert of Saharan proportions. In a world that sees the conflagration of the Amazon, hurricanes with potential speeds of at least a half-category higher than the highest ever recorded—Category 5—are expected to pummel several coastal cities around the world. The Greenland ice cap will quickly go into terminal decline under such conditions, and lakes and relatively unarable land will dialectically appear in the far northern latitudes in place of the receding ice. In such a world, parts of Central America and Australia will experience dramatically more intense drought and the collapse of agricultural productivity; much of these two regions, the current home to over 60 million people, will simply be rendered uninhabitable. An increased average temperature of three degrees will likely contribute to the perennialization of drought in Indonesia and the dramatic melting of the Himalayan glaciers—which currently sustain half of the world’s total human population. These eventualities would result in more intensive flooding in much of South Asia, followed by an eventual decline in the flow of the Ganges River and the near-total disappearance of that of the Indus River together with the desertification of the Indus Basin. Fires will likely plague much of what is currently the western United States, while much of East Africa will be subjected to dramatically increased risks for malaria, dengue, and other vector-borne diseases, as both temperatures and rainfall rates rise on this part of the African continent. A three-degree rise in average global temperatures is expected to eradicate the highly diverse life-forms that currently exist in the mountain regions of the world as well as totally destroy entire reef systems and the boreal conifer forests. Given such conditions, Lynas tells us, somewhere between 10 and 50 percent of Earth’s surface will experience a markedly different climatic regime, and up to fifty percent of all species currently living will be at risk of extinction, as the human-induced sixth mass extinction of life on Earth goes into full swing.

Lynas closes his examination of a world warmer by three degrees by observing that northern societies such as those presently demarcated as Canada and Norway would benefit from the longer growing periods such changes would afford them, but also briefly examines the rendering-uninhabitable of “an entire latitudinal belt across the whole width of the globe” and the probable mass migrations of people that will follow. He concludes by mentioning the specter of a resurgence of naked fascism in the less horribly affected Western/Northern societies. Such are some of the realities likely to exist in the world of 2050, Lynas informs us, if “business-as-usual” approaches to the future of life on earth are not soon overthrown.

A world four degrees warmer will present conditions never before experienced in the entirety of the evolutionary course of humans. One effect of transitioning to a world four degrees warmer would be the existence of higher sea levels that would undoubtedly threaten the existence of essentially all human settlements and ecosystems located on the Earth’s coasts, from Bangladesh to Egypt. In addition, such an average temperature increase would likely result in the breakup of the Ross and Ronne ice shelves of Antarctica, which in turn would lead to the collapse of the entire West Antarctic ice sheet; indeed, the historical phenomenon of Earth’s polar ice caps could be altogether absent in a world warmer by four degrees. At this point in the climate catastrophe, essentially no part of the Australian continent would be able to support crop production, and predictions are unfortunately rather similar for the South Asian subcontinent. The story will unfortunately be much the same for most of the globe’s land surface, due to the combination of drastically reduced water availability and violently accelerated evaporation rates likely experienced in a world warmer by four degrees. Mass starvation, Lynas warns us, will be the norm for most humans still existing in such a world; the very collapse of human ‘civilization’ itself is likely. Due precisely to the increased melting of glaciers and polar ice brought about by such warming, the Atlantic thermohaline circulation system may begin to slow down and fail altogether under such conditions, subjecting parts of northwestern Europe to a climate resembling that of Siberia. In other parts of Europe—ones experiencing precipitous declines in rain- and snowfall-rates—the climate that currently prevails in North Africa is expected to move into the center of the continent. Accordingly, the Alps will come to mimic the contemporary High Atlas Mountains, as ice nearly completely disappears from the former for the first time in millions of years. As the permafrost boundary recedes dramatically northward with average temperature increases past three degrees, stored carbon and methane deposits will begin to be decomposed and released, further contributing to the climatic apocalypse.

In a world warmer by five degrees, Lynas informs us, there will come to exist two essentially perennially drought-stricken latitudinal belts, one in each hemisphere: that of the Southern hemisphere will engulf much of southern South America, eastern Africa and Madagascar, and essentially all of Australia as well as those Pacific Islands that still exist, while in the North nearly all of Central America, southern Europe, the western Sahel and much of Ethiopia, southern India, Indochina, Korea and Japan will be similarly affected. Such a world will see a marked decrease in the flows of the Nile, the drying up of the Rimac, and the near-total disappearance of California’s winter mountain snowpack. Under such climatic conditions, the downstream flows of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers are expected to have declined by at least half. In a world hotter by five degrees, the few remaining ‘sanctuaries’ for life on Earth—what is now parts of Canada and Siberia in Russia—would be menaced by summer heatwaves and forest conflagrations that could even provoke disruptions in agricultural production capacity.

Geological evidence from the Earth’s history, Lynas informs us, suggests that a world with increased average temperatures five degrees higher than those that obtained in pre-industrial human history was one that saw alligator-like reptiles and redwood trees residing in a decidedly subtropical climate in what is now referred to as the Arctic. The Arctic ocean was entirely unfrozen during this period of geological time, and no ice was to form there for at least 15 million more years. A warming of five degrees could in addition very well provoke the destabilization and decidedly violent release of ocean-bound methane hydrates, which some geologists blame for the rather dramatic shift the Earth’s climate took toward an extremely hot state 55 million years ago. Apparently, the historical release of such methane took place concomitantly with the mass extinction of life in the deep ocean and the attendant further acidification of the world’s oceans. The warming potential which lies in such methane hydrates beyond the 5° C increase that would cause them to be released could in fact propel the Earth to become another Venus. The destabilization of such methane hydrates, furthermore, has been tied to massive submarine landslides that, in displacing large quantities of water, form tsunamis; an Earth warmer by five degrees, Lynas tells us, would then be further menaced by a higher frequency of these destructive tidal waves, forming as he expects them to in parts of the ocean that hellishly would seem to be boiling masses adorned by burning yellow flames.

Under such climatic conditions, what Lynas calls the “belts of habitability” will recede toward the poles, with parts of northern Europe, Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, Canada, and eastern Russia being the environments of the northern hemisphere in which the potential for life might be least threatened; Patagonia, Chile’s Tierra del Fuego, Tasmania, New Zealand, as well as a now ice-free Antarctica might serve as sanctuaries for life in the southern hemisphere, while highland regions such as those of Ethiopia and Lesotho could act as similar havens in Africa. It should of course not be forgotten that such warming will likely destroy most oceanic life in those latitudes that correspond to the “zones of uninhabitability” on land, as well. The deltas of many of the world’s currently major rivers—the Nile, Yangtze, and Ganges-Brahmaputra—would likely be irreversibly inundated in such a world; agricultural production in these regions would then probably be rendered essentially impossible.

Lynas obliquely explores the likely emergence of mass violence[13] around the world as such world-historical environmental changes take hold: in a veiled critique of primitivism and its proponents, he fears that a great proportion of the world’s current human population would not possess the skills necessary to survive, let alone thrive, with the collapse of ‘civilization’ and the return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles that might become necessary, given the extreme changes that might come in a world warmer by 5° C. Lynas suggests that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle requires ten to a hundred times the amount of land to support each person, relative to that of a settled agricultural community: such a systemic shift would in essence then presuppose a massive “cull” of humanity, or at least one proportionally greater than those culls that would likely accompany the changes in the average temperature of the global climate seen prior to the realization of a 5° C average global temperature increase.

With six degrees of average increase in global temperatures beyond that which prevailed in pre-industrial human history, the Earth’s oceans will likely be bereft of all life save for some organisms residing in the few marine biomes not yet rendered totally anoxic. Lynas however mentions the possibility that hydrogen sulfide, produced by the mass rotting of the carcasses of various formerly living organisms, might kill off these few ocean-residing survivors. “Super-hurricanes” are likely to be regular events in such a world; Lynas suggests that these freak storms may be so powerful as to be able to circumnavigate the globe and destroy most of the forms of life with which they would come into contact. The prospect of the development of methane clouds emerging from the release of methane hydrates in the warming oceans does not seem to be unimaginable, either; Lynas tells us that such methane-air concentrations would likely be highly flammable and perhaps even more destructive than even the most ‘advanced’ weapons yet produced by humans. We are even told that the hydrogen sulfide and methane-air clouds created through such extreme warming might even work to effectively dismantle the ozone layer that currently protects life on earth. It is not inconceivable that the synergy of these life-destructive factors could well reproduce the conditions of the mass extinction at the end of the Permian Age 251 million years ago in which 95 percent of all species went extinct. Lynas rather melancholically informs us that the biodiversity that predated the end-Permian extinctions would not return for another 50 million years after this event. He does, however, suggest that there will likely still remain the possibility of raising crops somewhere in the world, even given the untimitigated catastrophe of a world with an increased average global temperature of six degrees relative to those that obtained in pre-industrial human times. Though Lynas tells us that such changes would not likely wipe out humanity itself, it is certainly true that the vast majority of humans currently existing, as well as that of the future generations that are expected to follow, would not be able to survive under such conditions.

Discussion
“The reason why the totalitarian regimes can get so far […] is that that the outside nontotalitarian world, which always comprises a great part of the population of the totalitarian country itself, indulges […] in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity.”
— Hannah Arendt [14]

“Before the spark reaches the dynamite, the lighted fuse must be cut.”
— Walter Benjamin [15]

If the reports synthesized by Lynas in Six Degrees as well as the general argument he presents are scientifically sound, the potential consequences posed by climate change for life on Earth could well be nothing less than totally catastrophic; the scale of the threat, indeed, is as shocking as it is horrifying. Given the breadth and depth of the environmental and social disasters resulting from climate change that Lynas tells us could soon come to pass, it is perhaps somewhat strange that he refrains from editorializing much during his presentation of the material evidence for such claims in his book, though he does intermittently reveal some of his own feelings on the enormity of the problem. At one point, he muses that humans are “indescribably privileged” to be born into the only planet on which life is known to exist in the universe. He goes on to claim that the conscious destruction of the rich diversity of life on Earth which follows from the changes that will likely be brought about by climate change is “undoubtedly a crime,” one far worse than “the cruelest genocide or most destructive war.” He firmly asserts that he can find no legitimate excuses for “collaborating” with such a criminal process and, citing the precedent of the Nuremberg tribunals, claims neither ignorance nor subordination within hierarchical social apparatuses to constitute legitimate defenses against complicity with the perpetuation of such. Lynas suggests that the “moral path” lies in “actively resisting” the “horrendous fate” that could come about as a result of the processes he examines in Six Degrees and he rather significantly argues that the seeming bleakness of the present situation should propel us not to embrace defeatism but instead radicalism.

These sometimes-legitimate observations of Lynas notwithstanding, we can in all probability say that Lynas’ expressed perspectives in Six Degrees are in some ways surely constrained, as social reproduction more generally is constrained by the profound irrationalities of hegemonic liberal capitalism. The present work, however, is not similarly constrained; as such, it can potentially provide a more honest and thoughtful—that is, expressly radical—examination of many of the questions Lynas raises as well as present some potentially productive perspectives he unfortunately does not consider in Six Degrees.

To begin with, then, it should be clear from the preceding examination of Lynas’s findings that, as Adorno writes, “the world is deeply ailing.”[16] Perhaps the foremost consideration regarding such is quite simply that the changes associated with each degree-increase in the average global temperatures reviewed by Lynas in Six Degrees—indeed, even and especially the more frightening scenarios of warming beyond two degrees Celsius—theoretically could come about in a matter of decades. This is a far cry from the end-Permian mass-extinction event that seems to have occurred over the far broader time-scale of perhaps 10,000 years. If little substantive is soon done to restrict human contributions to climate change, then, the likely future rate of warming probably will be exponentially more violent than it has been during analogous periods of climate change in the Earth’s geological history. It is to be imagined, then, that the intensity of such warming rates will far outstrip the ability of ecosystems and human societies to adapt accordingly. If warming surpasses a two-degree increase beyond pre-industrial average global temperatures, the unfortunate reality will likely be that the death of much of humanity and the marked acceleration of currently prevailing mass-extinction rates will become inevitable. An average global temperature increase of 2° C by itself is, as reviewed above, disastrous enough; indeed, as Kolbert writes in the close of her dark assessment of current warming trends,[17] it is as though technologically ‘advanced’ societies currently are essentially ‘choosing’ to destroy themselves together with much of the rest of life on Earth.

Let us now then briefly turn to some of the predictions various climatologists have made regarding the likely extent of climate change in the current century. Lynas tells us that scientists have established “beyond reasonable doubt” that the Earth has warmed by 0.7° C since pre-industrial times (46). The Fourth Assessment Report published in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a possible range of global average temperature increases of between 1.1° and 6.4° C by the end of this century. As Lynas grimly informs us, however, such predictions may indeed be conservative, considering that the various feedback mechanisms that might turn climate change into a self-perpetuating phenomenon are still unquantified and hence excluded from consideration for the IPCC’s conclusions. A rough approximation of the likely effects of such ‘positive’ feedback loops may indeed have led 90 percent of climatologists polled by The Guardian in April 2009 to claim that humanity would fail to limit average global temperature increases to 2° C.[18] Indeed, a study on climate change released in the same month by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more pessimistically realistic than most other climate change predictions as regards the prospect of humanity’s achieving significant carbon-emission reductions in the near future, found that the median global average temperature increase that would likely be reached this century would be 5.2° C and claimed a 90 percent chance that the band of temperature increase reached in this century would be between 3.5° and 7.4° C.[19] The study’s authors are quick to clarify that even their decidedly bleak conclusions might be under-estimates, as they, like the IPCC, also did not fully account for the various feedback mechanisms that could arise with the process of extreme climate change. A more recent report, this one published by the UK Met Office, similarly claimed it plausible that average global temperatures would increase by 4° C by 2060 without serious action aimed at mitigating carbon emissions in the near term,[20] while the Global Carbon Project reported in November of this year that average global temperatures could well increase by 6° C before 2100.[21] A May 2009 study released by Kofi Anna’s Global Humanitarian Forum, for its part, found climate change processes already to be killing 300,000 people around the globe each year. It claims 98 percent of those “seriously affected” by climate change to be residents of less economically developed societies and finds that 90 percent of the total economic losses resulting from climate change are to be borne by such societies.[22]

What is then currently being enacted, in other words, is the effective mass murder of a historically unprecedented number of human beings by the ‘advanced’ capitalist societies of the world—the citizenry and political-economic leadership of the United States and Western Europe, as well as that of the former Soviet Union/Russia, China, and India to a lesser extent. Such potential developments, indeed, seem to be tantamount to humanity’s “collective suicide,”[23] though the ‘realization’ of such a suicide would surely be predated by an effectively genocidal attack on those societies that, as Lynas reminds us, have least contributed to the development of the catastrophic process of anthropogenic climate change—that is, Fanon’s “wretched of the earth.”[24] Those who perish as a result of climatic disruption would not merely die; they would, as O’Neill argues,[25] be killed, and such crimes amount to nothing less than homicide.[26] The occurrence, indeed, of the decidedly barbaric catastrophes that would accompany a rapidly warming world would likely dwarf the torturous brutality to which so many were subjected in the twentieth century and have been during the trajectory of the historically alienated Weltlauf, or ‘world-course,’[27] generally: the horrors that would likely enter history within such a world would constitute the extension and final realization of such historical horrors as the ‘Columbian Exchange’ and colonization and colonialism more broadly, slavery (both formal and informal), apartheid (whether in its South Africa, Israeli-Palestinian, or capitalist permutations), fascism and Stalinist ‘socialism,’ domination—of external nature, the self, and other sentient beings—and brutality and social irrationality generally.

If Western societies and the ‘emerging markets’ of the capitalist ‘successes’ of China, India, Brazil, and others do not soon come to effect a radical overturning of the potentially anthrocidal and even biocidal Weltlauf, then, their failure to act would constitute the final negation of the promises of history, whether conceived of in Hegelian or Marxian terms, as well as that of what Kropotkin[28] sees as the very basis of human society—that is, solidarity; of the promise Arendt[29] sees in the concept of “beginning,” and especially that of each new human birth; of the world that Subcomandante Marcos wishes for, one in which “we all can fit,” in which “peace, justice, and liberty” are not realities alien to humanity[30] ; of Bookchin’s dreams of instituting a non-hierarchical human society that ceases to dominate nature[31] ; of Adorno’s vision of a world in which “no-one shall go hungry anymore,”[32] in which life is to go “without unfulfilled needs” [33]; of Horkheimer’s “truly human society”[34] ; of Benjamin’s conception of a society that has achieved “the abolition of domination” and concomitantly allowed for the blossoming of a “redeemed [humanity]”[35] ; of Fanon’s advocacy[36] of a “new start,” a “new way of thinking,” a “new man [sic]”; of Ahmad’s endorsement of socialism,[37] which he sees as the sublation of capitalism’s myriad cruelties; of the prospect for Marcuse’s “non-repressive civilization;”[38] or, indeed, of Levinas’s very conception of the “miracle of creation”[39] —“the creating [of] a moral being”—or his account of truth:[40] “to encounter the Other without allergy, that is, in justice.” As horrifying as it may be to contemplate, what is currently at hand, if it goes unchecked, would constitute a rather final violation of the new categorical imperative that Adorno, writing after the Holocaust,[41] assigns to us—that is, that humans “arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, [so that] nothing similar will happen.” Were the worst projected consequences of climate change to come about, then, this would mark the final victory of totalitarianism in history—the unveiling, in essence, of the profound brutalities of the capitalist mode of production, which has long made impossible the satisfaction of the human needs of far too many and that “tends toward the extermination of humanity” itself.[42]

Now is not the time, then, to engage in the “lucid consolation” of humor that Critchley[43] advises us to adopt in light of our powerlessness to overturn exploitation and oppression generally. It is instead to seriously and rationally assess the prospect of total catastrophe with which capitalist (post)modernity has threatened the very continued existence of most human and non-human life forms on the only planet that as far as we know has ever given birth to life itself, as well as to evaluate and overturn our own contributions, in both individual and structural terms, to the prospect of such. The task which lies before us is nothing less than the “radical transformation of world society”[44] and the realization of a global ecological society, one that, in marked contrast to global capitalism, would be characterized by social relations that, in Janet Biehl’s view,[45] would not threaten the very material preconditions of continued social reproduction and existence generally with collapse—an eventuality that Earth scientist James Lovelock[46] likens to the instauration in actual reality of the dénouement of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Such a political project is, as Dussel[47] reminds us, more radical and thoroughgoing than any other previously considered, let alone realized. If such a project were also to include the traditional libertarian-socialist emphasis on the eradication of material poverty, class society, and social domination generally—as this author thinks it undoubtedly should—its realization would be made even more difficult. In essence, then, “the forces against which [we] must act,” Adorno tells us,[48] “are those of the course of world history.”

As regards climate change alone, though, the enormity of the problem is potentially staggering and even overwhelming. Lynas tells us (280-2) that the stabilization of average global temperature increases at 2° C relative to pre-industrial times necessitates the peaking of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2015 and a concomitant “safe landing” at a global atmospheric CO2 parts-per-million concentration of 400, or a 450 CO2-equivalent ppm concentration. Basing his calculations off the 2007 IPCC report, Lynas tells us that reaching such targets would require a 60 percent cut in global emissions by 2030 and an 85 percent reduction by 2050, with the U.S. having to reduce its emissions by 85 percent by 2030. Such a trajectory is clearly not the one favored by the world’s dominant elites. According to Lynas, carbon emissions have already soared far beyond the decidedly weak targets established by the Kyoto Protocol (269-70). The legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions as proposed last summer by the U.S. House of Representatives calls for a mere 4 to 7 percent reduction in U.S. emissions relative to 1990 levels[49], while the Senate version of the bill has been tabled indefinitely.[50] The Obama administration, for its part, has consistently rejected calls for the U.S. to reduce its carbon emissions by 40 percent relative to 1990 levels by the year 2020, with its representative Todd Stern dismissing such proposals as “not feasible” and “not necessary.”[51] That Obama himself should have treated the December 2009 Copenhagen summit with the levity he did is, then, unsurprising.

In any case, were a strong treaty to have been enacted at Copenhagen, there is reason to believe that it may already be too late to stave off the worst projected consequences of climate change. Due to historic emissions, it is at this point a fait accompli that global average temperatures will rise by a total of 1.5° C, even if all emissions were somehow to stop tomorrow, and the 2006 Stern report on climate change informs us that the carbon-dioxide equivalent of total greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere was at the time of its investigations estimated to be 430 ppm, just 20 from the level beyond which total climate catastrophe seems to become basically inevitable.[52] It should be said, of course, that Stern finds the “only politically realistic option” to be the stabilization of atmospheric carbon at 550 ppm, a level which Lynas (277) tells us would likely bring about a global average temperature increase of 3° C, together with all the feedback loops that would further increase the rise of global temperatures, and with it hardship and suffering, toward truly apocalyptical levels.

As Lynas warns us, then, “what is politically realistic for humans is wholly unrelated to what is physically realistic for the planet” (280). This contribution is a lucid one, up to a point. It is certainly true that the type of socio-political action considered acceptable by constituted power will utterly fail on the question of climate change, as it so long has on questions of material poverty, economic inequality, and oppression generally. It seems unfair, though, for Lynas to equate the expressed philosophies and interests of the world’s ruling elites and their advocates with humanity in general. It is clear that, were the worst of the projected consequences that are to accompany climate change to come about, such would constitute the determinate crushing of the dreams of ordinary people around the world—whether they be Palestinian refugees, Mexican farmworkers, Amazon-dwelling indigenous groups, or, indeed, the 6.7 billion other humans that currently reside on Earth, in addition to the between 8 and 12 billion that are expected to be exist by mid-century. It is neither most of the people currently living on Earth nor their future children who are responsible for the potentially world-destructive phenomenon of climate change; it is, instead, the leaders and residents of the West/North, in addition to those of Russia, China, India, and Brazil, who are responsible in this sense. It is indeed to be imagined that, were humanity in general to adopt the ‘veil of ignorance’ and enter Rawls’ Original Position,[53] it surely would choose to live neither in a world in which climate change would pose as serious a threat as it does to the flourishing and even existence of much of humanity and life itself nor one in which the relatively privileged and affluent of such a world would submit to and even accept the legitimacy of such economic and political systems as liberal capitalism that are entirely complicit with the factors that have driven and will likely continue to drive this most pressing of social problems. With Horkheimer,[54] then, we can say that “[t]he battle cries of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution are valid now more than ever,” that the principle that both Hegel and Marcuse[55] see in such—“that thought ought to govern reality”—are entirely legitimate, and must be manifested in history desperately soon—for, if humanity does not succeed in undertaking a “radical reconsideration of itself” in this sense, it is entirely plausible, as disturbing as it may be to contemplate, that “there will be no more human history” at all, that “all will be lost.” [56]

By way of brief excursus, then, perhaps one of the most important elements in the struggle to stave off the worst excesses of projected climate change would be an attempt at trying to understand some of the reasons for the current predicament. To begin with, it would seem that anthropogenic global warming has come about largely as a result of the discovery and mass consumption of fossil fuels since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Its breadth and depth has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the non-realization of a transition to clean, renewable energy, a historical possibility that seems to have been largely negated by the not insignificant role that Big Oil has played in polities around the world as well as the relative unprofitability of rational alternatives to a petroleum- and coal-based economy within the prevailing economic system. The emergence and long-sustained victory of a mode of production that valorizes economic profit above all else, however, surely bears much of the blame for the problematics of the current situation, for capitalism, according to Bookchin,[57] makes “the plunder of nature into society’s law of life.” Quite simply, the self-expansion of capital—the move from M to M’, in Marx’s formulation—stands radically at odds with the protection and maintenance of ecosystems and, indeed, life itself. [58]

Schainberg[59] posits the existence of a ‘treadmill of production’ in growth-based economies, whether capitalist or ‘socialist,’ whereby the three dominant forces of society (capital, labor, and government) come to support perpetually increased economic growth, whatever its adverse effects on the environment or human society—capital, to maximize profits; labor, to retain employment, wages, and hence survival; and government, to allow for the collection of the tax revenue on which it depends. Following Schainberg, James O’Connor[60] claims to have found a ‘second contradiction of capitalism’ beyond the one originally identified by Marx: in his view, competition among profit-maximizing producers under capitalism leads inexorably to the degradation of the finite natural resource base of such an economy and ultimately thus undercuts the very possibility of the future continuation of such. Sachs’s[61] endorsement of a “politics of sufficiency,” in which individuals and human populations take only as many resources from the planet as is necessary for survival and moderate comfort, is then entirely fanciful insofar as the capitalist mode of production exists. Just as “[w]rong life cannot be lived rightly,”[62] in this sense, so cannot an economic system that acknowledges no limits to growth and that in turn demands economic growth, often exponential, as a precondition for economic viability and ‘success,’ both individual and institutional—and that in turn analyzes problematics and critique from a perspective of profitability and ‘pragmatism’ —protect nature.[63] The failure of the historical realization of the Marxian dialectic—the overthrowing of capitalism by the proletariat and the subsequent establishment of socialism—and the concomitant victory of the capitalist ruling class across nearly the entire globe also goes some way in explaining the prevailing state of affairs, for it is to be imagined that a relatively non-hierarchical series of either workers’ states or anarchist communes, coupled with the Marcusean-Hegelian realization of reason in social relations generally, would have served as a better framework in which to approach and ultimately overturn the problem of climate change than has liberal capitalism.

Furthermore, the “introduction of power as the only content of politics, and of expansion as its only aim,” which Arendt[64] sees as having accompanied the rise of capitalism and the historical victory of the bourgeoisie, is arguably central in understanding the present predicament, as is consideration of the fact that the historical onset of bourgeois rule simply re-entrenched the historical exclusion of the majority of people from effective participation in the management of society, together with the social alienation that results.[65] For Arendt, such factors synergize to effect the eradication of questions of right from the general consciousness and replace such with imperatives to obey and conform with existing arrangements—a bourgeois formula that she sees as having been instrumental in the development and ‘success’ of totalitarian movements and regimes, and one that, given the negations climate change will likely introduce into history, is unfortunately still highly relevant today. Moreover, the persistence of social isolation and loneliness in many societies, of the “experience of not belonging to the world at all”—additional factors that Arendt[66] finds to have made possible the rise of totalitarianism in history—is also deeply troubling in this respect. It should further be said that it is rather unlikely that a global political system that has failed to substantively punish countless Nazi war criminals as well as the ‘individuals’ Idi Amin, Haile Mariam Mengistu, Augusto Pinochet, Royal Dutch Shell Corporation, Henry Kissinger, Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, and Tony Blair for their myriad crimes against humanity and the Earth—and, indeed, that is often run by these same oppressive and repressive forces—would succeed in neutralizing the social forces most responsible for historic and future climate change, regardless of whether the latter essentially destroys much of life on earth. The marked failure of the general recognition that “the Jew is a human being”[67] —that the excluded, oppressed Other, whether human or non-human, is a subject worthy of concern—surely also goes some way in explaining some of the present problematic, as does Fotopoulos’s[68] claim that at the heart of many current socio-political ills lies the problem of the concentration of power. Behind all of these analyses, of course, stand those of Horkheimer and Adorno[69] and of Bookchin,[70] who find not just capitalism but social domination, and especially the domination of nature, to be the fundamental problematic of human history.

As seemingly overwhelming, then, as the threat of climate change seems to be, and as fundamental and deep-seated as the factors that contribute to such arguably are, this should not be taken to mean that we can or should do nothing. As Lynas reminds us (271), this is the time for action, not resignation. The traditional environmentalist suggestion to ‘reduce, reuse, and recycle’ is hardly irrelevant at the current moment, if reduction here is meant to be taken as a radical one, at least in terms of the various superfluities that much of the population of many Western societies consume. Reduction must not, of course, be made into a general prescription, for the materially impoverished of the world surely need more consumption rather than less. It is nonetheless clear that a dramatic transformation of energy systems to clean, renewable sources is desperately needed. Kolbert’s brief exploration of space-based solar power—a project that would involve launching photovoltaic array-laden satellites into space, where they would collect many times the amount of energy available to Earth-based solar plants, and having them beam back the collected energy to Earth[71] —seems rather promising in this regard, however unlikely the prospect of such projects under prevailing conditions, especially given the current global economic downturn. Were any such seemingly radical project to be executed under currently prevailing socio-political conditions, though, it is to be imagined that the benefits of such would follow the legacy of much of historical scientific advancement and hence be distributed in economically and nationally/regionally discriminating ways. If such projects were to be based on consideration of economic profit, that is to say, it is more than likely that such developments would fail on both ecological and human grounds. The concept of “solar communism,”[72] then, represents a more rational and humane alternative to that which currently exists. Less fanciful, perhaps, is Lynas’ recommendation (297-8, 300) that the destruction of the Earth’s tropical rainforests be halted, for he says that doing so could be crucial to keeping global average temperature increases to the 2° C threshold; it seems that the drastic reduction of meat consumption, especially in the West, could also be instrumental toward this end.[73]

If, however, few or none of the more rational courses of action still open to humanity are taken in the near future, it may become necessary to engage in some form of defensive geo-engineering of the climate, such as the launching of reflective mirrors into space or the mass spraying of aerosols in the atmosphere, in an effort to try to avert some of the more horrifying possible futures that Lynas describes to us. As long as the existent forms of social relations exist, it is to be expected that any such program would be highly problematic and far from rational or legitimate—the advent of such may well blunt the need for the reduction of carbon emissions and would thus condemn the Earth’s oceans to certain death—but it is to be expected that it would be less horrible than the projected consequences of the essentially business-as-usual approaches favored by the dominant classes of the world.

This of course should in no way be taken as an endorsement of currently prevailing constituted power. The argument advanced here has repeatedly stressed the dire need to radically break with the total insanity of capitalism and its reformist apologists. Now more than ever is the time for humanity to awaken from the social alienation propagated by liberal capitalism and other repressive ideologies and come to engage on a mass scale in truly radical collective action designed at overthrowing the currently prevailing Weltlauf. The task that lies ahead is not one that can be realized by any One, for “[t]he only possible Messiah is a collective one,”[74] and it is not one that will be achieved, as both liberalism and traditional religions tell us, through patience and waiting but rather through our own efforts at “bringing about [its] coming.”[75] The “monstrous, horrible world”[76] brought about by global capitalism and domination generally that threatens the very continued existence of much of humanity and life itself on Earth must be resisted. It is our task to become like the communist partisans of Mikis Theodorakis and Maria Farantouri’s “O Antonis,” who fight alongside and in defense of the Jews—those excluded, marginalized, and condemned by prevailing society, those who have been reduced by constituted power to “debased, enslaved, abandoned, contemptible” beings.[77] We must come to adopt the “existential revolt” of Marcuse’s ‘Great Refusal,’ whereby “the whole organism, the very soul of the human being” comes to rebel against “organized and socialized destruction”[78] and bring about a “real state of emergency,” one that could represent actual hope for humanity in its struggles against both fascism and world-destruction alike.[79] The creation of such life-affirming resistance is, as Arendt[80] claims, the very precondition for the creation and defense of a world “fit for human habitation,” one in which humanity can in fact exist.[81]

How such a movement might be born, nurtured, and developed in existing society is of course a decidedly important question to consider, and one whose answer may in fact prove depressingly debilitating, considering the climatic changes that will likely come about if matters are not made radically otherwise. It seems rather unlikely, for example, that Americans, Western Europeans, and Chinese will suddenly in general adopt strictly vegan diets and concomitantly engage in insurrections aimed at removing world-destructive elites from power, as necessary as these developments may indeed be at present. Given that it is the most materially impoverished of the world who are suffering and likely will suffer the most from the changes wrought by global warming, this might give Marxist critics of society further reason to work for the abolition of the rule of the bourgeoisie. Were environmentalism in the main not to have been historically reduced to being “institutional, Band-Aid, and reformist,”[82] as Speth explores in detail,[83] it could have served as a potential ‘exit-point’ from the ruling absurdities of capitalism.

The tragic reality, of course, seems to be that none of these potentially critical philosophies holds much sway in much of the popular consciousness today. In much of the West, where the epithet ‘socialist’ is often used as an insult in mainstream politics, Marxism has been indivisibly linked to the horrors of Stalinism and the Soviet Union, while much of environmentalism has seemingly given up its radical potential in favor of accommodation with existing society; anarchism for its part is associated with nihilistic violence as well as advocacy of Hobbesianism. The role that the culture industry[84] has played in serving to assimilate the exploited masses into the imperatives of prevailing society and neutralizing the critical potential of many social theories seems undeniable, as does the normalization of the “banality of evil”[85] directed against various others—European Jews, Vietnamese, Palestinians, Iraqis, women, children, non-heterosexuals, the materially impoverished, social ‘undesirables,’[86] non-human animals, or the planet Earth itself—within the dominant culture of many human societies. In this sense, the palpable excitement expressed in recent memory over the accession of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States reflects many of these decidedly anti-social maxims; the rather absurd acceptance by many of Obama’s empty rhetoric regarding ‘hope’ and ‘change’ may indeed thus serve to repress contemplation of the decidedly life-negating threats posed by unchecked climate change as well as serious action aimed at mitigating such. As Horkheimer warns us, “the affirmative spirit in which the horror of reality is not sublated will only serve to eternize it.”[87]

None of this pessimism, however, should be taken to mean that reality need be the way capitalist reformism and its defenders would have it, with all the injustices and horrors that entails; it is instead to dialectically hold out the possibility of a radically different and better world, one whose birth could perhaps be helped along by means of serious-minded, rational approaches to problems as serious as catastrophic climate change, together with compassion for its many victims, both human and non-human. Nonetheless, the pessimistic desperation often evinced in this essay is meant in part to hold out the dire possibility that human history may indeed come to an end before even having transcended the “pre-history”[88] of capitalist barbarism if the prevailing Weltlauf is not somehow overthrown.

Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights advocate. He blogs on climate change and other issues at http://intlibecosoc.wordpress.com

http://www.anarchist-studies.org/node/484

~ by Cory Morningstar on August 24, 2010.

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