Goodbye to the future

Goodbye to the future

An environmentalism that appeals to the future will come too late.

Everyone knows that the past is a foreign country, far fewer realise that the same is true of the future. The ability of humankind to engage with the future is, in fact, even more limited than their ability to engage with the past. This is not illogical, for whilst the past is concrete, real, the future is a tangled web of potentialities and causalities, with everything that does happens colliding with everything else that could happen. Quite simply, the future is a fucking mess.

Sadly it is upon this fucking mess that the environmental movement has chosen to construct its entire argument. “We must act today to save tomorrow” is the cry of the global greens. Great sacrifices must be made immediately for a reward launched far into the distant future. But such a reward it is! Yes, it may be far away now, but one day, dear friend, you may not be flooded! You may not starve! You might not even suffer more than you do already!

Such is the dismal promise of environmentalism. It is on this territory that it fought, and it is on this territory that it lost. There are many reasons, but most fundamental amongst them is this question of temporality. “We must act today to save tomorrow” is a slogan as catchy as it is cataclysmically wrong. Firstly, humans will not fight for the distant future. They might struggle for a better wage tomorrow, the protection of a local park or the preservation of their children’s school. The potent and popular struggle against fracking proves this point. Couched in the cold reality of a hulking rig in your backyard, anti-fracking has become the lifeblood of the European environmental movement. People will willingly put their livelihoods and even their lives on the line to prevent immediate material threats, but they will not do the same for the sake of the world in fifty years’ time.

But even if they did, even if humanity upped its cognitive sticks and redefined the territory of its groupthink, the exercise would be utterly pointless. Let us presume such a thing as a “green capitalism” is possible, that the relentless search for surplus is compatible with the preservation of the planet. Whatever this reformed system might look like, it is clear we are very far from it today. In order to leap into this brave new world, a transition of gargantuan proportions is necessary. Firstly we would need to see some of the largest energy companies on earth give up fossil fuels in favour of renewables. In 2012 Exxon Mobil had net profits of $44.88 billion, its total assets amounting to $333.795 billion.1 To bring these numbers into perspective, compare them with the world’s largest wind turbine manufacturer, Vestas, who in 2010 reported net profits of €156 million and total assets of €7.066 billion.2 We mention assets in this context as it is worth thinking of the huge carbon stockpiles possessed by the big energy companies. Exxon Mobil's reserves were 72 billion oil-equivalent barrels at the end of 2007.3 In 2013, Mobil announced it was replacing these reserves at a rate of 115%.4 That Mobil would willingly leave these resources in the ground for a notional payment of 50% of their value, as some have proposed, seems hopelessly utopian.5 Secondly we would have to see a global commitment to sustainable resource extraction. Mining, forestry, fishing, the industrialised harvesting of Earth’s bounty would have to be greatly limited. Given the amount large companies have invested in the means by which these processes are carried out, it seems highly unlikely this will happen anytime soon.

Thus the crux of the matter is not “can you build a green capitalism” but “can you build a green capitalism in time”? This is not an abstract academic exercise, but a race in which there are definite deadlines. Primary amongst these is the 2 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature, which, under current projections, will need to be revised upwards within the next decade.6 This 2 degrees change signals the point at which "dangerous climate change” is unleashed. Given the amount of devastation that already surrounds us, it is sobering to think what “dangerous climate change” might actually look like. In addition to this we have the prospect of global collapse of integral ecosystems. As early as 2006, a third of the worlds fisheries had collapsed, by 2050 it is eminently possible that every single fishery on Earth will have followed suit.7

All the available evidence points to a simple conclusion; even if green capitalism is possible, it cannot be adopted in time to stave off increasingly severe collapses.

Unfortunately, the situation is actually even worse than this. In July 2011 the respected climate scientist Kevin Anderson made a speech in which he said that averting dangerous climate change is no longer possible.8 The potent effects previously associated of the 2 degree rise were actually based on a series of miscalculations.9 In reality it would only take a 1 degree rise in global temperatures to trigger “dangerous climate change”. 10 Up till now humanity has been cowering from a bullet we thought was speeding towards us. It turns out we’re in shock. The bullet isn’t in flight, its already hit us. The disaster we thought was in the future has actually already happened, now we have a matter of moments to save ourselves. Tomorrow is too late, for we will bleed out long before then. Everything must be done at a ferocious, frantic pace. No future, to survive we must act now.

As an utter necessity we must abandon the future, for we cannot win there. No future, for we will never convince the majority to fight for the sake of a time they cannot imagine. No future, for capital will always defeat any strategy based on a next-ness, for against airy notions of tomorrow’s world, they can posit the cold hard facts of today counted out in wages and jobs. No future, because, right now, there is literally no future, right now we are condemned to collapse.

But “no future” alone is a nihilistic thing to cry. To survive we must couple bleak reality with the utopian impulse. No Future, Utopia Now. Let us jettison the notion of gradual change. There is no time for a transition. Let us pledge ourselves unflinchingly to a utopia. Not a distant one, not an imaginary thrown out into the future, but one we can build right now. One in which work is all but abandoned, in which the liberation of every minority is a priority, in which collective well-being is the only ideology. In which the machines which previously worked against Earth and its inhabitants are turned into the mechanisms of their preservation and emancipation.

The new utopian movement will not be Eurocentric. It will incorporate that which is vibrant right now, the indigenous awakening which dwarfs the struggles in Europe. Idle No More in North America and the anti-dam struggles in the South, have shown a nascent potency which only blossoms when the government sends in cops or troops. Real hope is revealed in the light from burning cop cars outside Elsipogtog.11 The new movement cannot limit itself to that which is legal. As things stand, the destruction of Earth stands well within the law. Actions for its preservation, much less so.

The current system of production poses an existential threat, a threat against which collective action is our only hope. Thus we come to the Luddites - and not out of a primitivist desire for a return to a pre-industrial utopia. What is important about the Luddites was that they recognised that their own welfare existed in contradiction with the welfare of current industry.

“Around and around we all will stand
And eternally swear we will,
We'll break the shears and windows too
And set fire to the tazzling mill.”

How Gloomy And Dark. Luddite Song.

To propose a modern environmental movement based on frame-breaking may sound an absurd anachronism. However, on the day we began to write this piece, villagers in Baha, south-western China stormed a factory that had been polluting their land, smashing its offices and equipment. One of the villagers who participated in the attack is quoted as saying; "we have been living with the factory for 14 years, and we live in dust almost every day and can't sell our rice and other farm products… We need to live."12 Such a lucid conception of the incompatibility of this system of production with the wellbeing of those who live under it must be generalised. Despite this, it is worth remembering that the system is vulnerable in a thousand ways. Just as potent as an anti-industrial strategy would be an intelligent industrial one. When the capitalist class attempted to destroy the green spaces of Sydney in the 1970s, the city’s inhabitants turned to the syndicalist New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF). The BLF passed Green Bans upon the spaces at risk, agreeing that none of its members would work on the sites. The bans would eventually hold up as many as 40 developments worth over $5 billion.13

Despite the bleak reality, there is hope. There are those willing to give up their lives to destroy this collapsing dystopia and build anew amidst the ruins. What we need is a message which captures this willingness, and mechanisms by which it may be challenged to alternately destructive and constructive ends. More than any struggle before this, we need a variety of weapons and tools. We need to materialise solidarity with those still fighting the settlers on their land, and link their struggle with the global battle for survival. Paradoxically, this is a struggle we cannot win as long as we define it in terms of survival alone. We must promise the earth to all those willing to save it.

Posted By

Out of the Woods
Feb 24 2014 07:50

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  • The current system of production poses an existential threat, a threat against which collective action is our only hope. (...) What is important about the Luddites was that they recognised that their own welfare existed in contradiction with the welfare of current industry.

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snipfool
Feb 25 2014 22:20
Quote:
There are those willing to give up their lives to destroy this collapsing dystopia and build anew amidst the ruins. What we need is a message which captures this willingness, and mechanisms by which it may be challenged to alternately destructive and constructive ends. More than any struggle before this, we need a variety of weapons and tools. We need to materialise solidarity with those still fighting the settlers on their land, and link their struggle with the global battle for survival.

how will this be done

Out of the Woods
Feb 26 2014 07:58

This is one of the questions we'll be exploring in the blog. There are already a lot of local environmental struggles around pollution, public transport, anti-airport, anti-fracking. The first problem is one of generalisation, how/if these can link up. The second issue is the conditions under which such struggles take on a dynamic of communisation, which probably has to do with large numbers of people being unable to reproduce themselves without taking such measures. With the idea of disaster communism, we're suggesting that climate change might create pressures, or at least potentials, in this direction, as capital and state act as enforcers of misery. But that's all very much provisional, we hope to dig into these kind of questions as the blog develops.

BsAs
Feb 26 2014 15:14

The only progress is natural.

snipfool
Mar 3 2014 19:00

Thanks for humouring such a shit question. I enjoyed your blog and just wanted some more discussion. I've thought about it a bit more now...

I feel like the message that the future is already lost, "No Future", can be taken too far. I agree we should focus on today's struggles around exploitation, oppression and survival, and I can see how class struggle can feed directly or indirectly into environmental struggle, but I'm not convinced that these struggles (if won) will naturally result in environmental utopia. Like, I'm not sure it's the case that a global communised society, production and distribution controlled by the people etc., will necessarily emit less CO2 or not destroy the environment in some other way. Or: I 'm not sure that all environmental issues necessarily manifest themselves as class issues (or vice versa) or that struggling against these social relations will fix all environmental issues.

Surely at all times we must be aware of the impact we have beyond our own relations and beyond the present day? Say we had a global communist revolution but we hadn't observed climate change, or we didn't understand the causes behind climate change, and didn't have a good understanding of our limited resources, is not feasible we'd have, I dunno, automated robots still burning up all the oil?

I feel I have probably misunderstood you or reduced your argument too much, but that's what it got me thinking about.

Steven.
Feb 28 2014 21:01

Just a belated note to say I finally got round to reading this, and it's really get good. Depressing, of course but also inspiring, which is difficult as you pointed out in an earlier blog when it comes to the environment. TBH personally when I start thinking of it I often just try to forget about it and hope for the best, as it does seem like we are already fucked

boomerang
Mar 3 2014 18:32
Quote:
Let us pledge ourselves unflinchingly to a utopia. Not a distant one, not an imaginary thrown out into the future, but one we can build right now. One in which work is all but abandoned

Please explain this.

I think I know what you mean by "work is all but abandoned" - it is the anarchist/communist goal of work restructured so that it is enjoyable and fulfilling and therefore no longer work. This is a goal I support.

However, it doesn't seem at all logical to believe we can do this "right now" or in the early period of an anarchist society. Especially considering the harsh conditions climate change will bring to us. We will have to build clean, green, renewable energy infrastructure, we will have to pour way more labor resources into agriculture, we will have to build public transportation infrastructure to replace cars, and many more tasks. And we won't have any time to spare. Restructuring work to make it fulfilling and enjoyable, to make it no longer feel like work, takes time and creativity and effort and resources, none of which we will have to spare.

Sure, we can make some improvements right away - getting rid of bosses, democratic self-management, etc. But we will need to do our shifts in assembly lines building solar panels or train parts, because it's faster that way, even if boring. We will need to do our shifts in the fields growing food in harsh conditions.

If you can explain a way to abolish work and still keep up with the demands that surviving climate change will place on us and our labor, I'd LOVE to hear it. I'm not contradicting you because I enjoy being right. I'd love it for you to be right and me to be wrong on this. But I don't see a way.

Chilli Sauce
Mar 3 2014 21:54

Good post, although I guess it depends on what you mean by abolishing work. For me, if we've abolished commodity production, bosses, wages, and being tied to one place of production for your livelihood, we've abolished "work" as such.

Infrastructure and food is always going to be needed. If doing the occasional day in the field or couple hours in the assembly line is the cost for having a varied, rewarding, and participatory role in the process of social production, I'm okay with that and I don't think it means that we've failed to abolish work as a separate sphere of social activity.

After all, we can harvest in the morning, build solar panels in the the afternoon, and blog after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a farmer, operative, or blogger. wink

boomerang
Mar 5 2014 16:50

Thank you for your reply.

Chilli Sauce wrote:
Good post, although I guess it depends on what you mean by abolishing work. For me, if we've abolished commodity production, bosses, wages, and being tied to one place of production for your livelihood, we've abolished "work" as such.

Point taken. But it could still be hella boring and arduous even under those conditions. That would still feel like work to me!

Chilli Sauce wrote:
Infrastructure and food is always going to be needed. If doing the occasional day in the field or couple hours in the assembly line is the cost for having a varied, rewarding, and participatory role in the process of social production, I'm okay with that and I don't think it means that we've failed to abolish work as a separate sphere of social activity.

If climate change does get really bad, which seems quite likely, I'm afraid we won't be talking about the occasional day in the field or a couple hours in the assembly line. At least for the first generation, we're going to have a crazy amount of work to do, fighting for our survival. My guess is we'll be working longer and harder than we (we in the privileged parts of the world, at least) worked under capitalism.

Agricultural systems will be crashing, our entire industrial system needs to be redesigned, ditto our entire transportation system, the billion plus people who even now need to have sewage systems and clean water infrastructure built, who live in shacks and need adequate housing built.

Climate change will also create tens of millions - possibly hundreds of millions, possibly billions - of climate refugees. If things get bad enough, we'll be seeing mass migration to parts of the world now scarcely inhabited, the last places on Earth capable of supporting human communities. We'll need to be building towns and cities from scratch.

If things get bad enough, we aren't talking the occasional shift in the field or assembly line, we're talking long exhausting days of monotonous labor. We can make it less monotonous through job rotation, and the knowledge that we're working for the survival of our species will probably sweeten the bitterness, but to say "work is all but abandoned" seems a weird statement to make given this context.

Chilli Sauce wrote:
After all, we can harvest in the morning, build solar panels in the the afternoon, and blog after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a farmer, operative, or blogger. ;)

Hopefully our grandchildren will get that luxury!

Would still love to hear from the Out of the Woods authors about this. And by the way, this is a great blog! Loving your work so far.

Out of the Woods
Mar 5 2014 18:26

Hi, we're not ignoring you. We just need to work out how best to respond to comments - should we use this account, individual accounts, or respond in future blog posts? There's pros and cons to each so we've just been doing none of the above while we figure it out. These are really good points though, and the kind of questions we want to provoke with this blog.

For now, will just say the question about anti-work politics while responding to climate change is a big one, and we'll be returning to it repeatedly in future blogs. We also want to talk about climate refugees and agricultural production under climate chaos. Sorry that's a bit of a fudge, but there's several ways to go about answering these, and we have a few ideas for future posts addressing (not necessarily solving!) all these issues.

This blog is a long term project, and it's perhaps inevitable we'll raise as many questions as we answer, at least at first. But hopefully over time we'll build up more of an overlapping, richer picture as we return to these kind of questions from different angles.

boomerang
Mar 5 2014 22:02

sounds good! i'll be following your blog so when you address the issue of work / anti-work in the context of climate disaster, i'll be reading.

Out of the Woods
Mar 11 2014 21:10

Hey, sorry for the delay in answering comments, we've been trying to work out how we want to answer people, and Ive been a bit snowed under with work.

I agree that revolutions in themselves do not guarantee the creation of an environmental utopia. Obviously the society we create through revolution is ultimately produced by people struggling in that revolution, and if those people have no interest in protecting the Earth then the Earth won’t be protected.

However I am convinced that the collectivities a revolution would forge would encourage a radically different perspective on the way we interact with natural systems. The bonds that are developed in any kind of struggle with power tend towards the creation of a feeling of community, and a community which is interested in its own preservation at that. As we are reliant on things like fisheries, forests and rivers to survive, the community generated in a revolution would naturally tend towards their defence, especially given that those that are destroying said fisheries, forests and rivers are the very people a revolution would be struggling to overthrow.

This is not to say that things like this blog are pointless because people will develop an environmental consciousness later, but rather that things like this blog are part of this natural tendency towards the preservation of the things our communist society will need. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say we are already in the revolution (hence No Future), and that these collectivities are already being forged in the struggles we are fighting.

Hope that makes sense, and thanks for your comment.

Out of the Woods
Mar 13 2014 19:35

Hey Boomerang, again, apologies for not getting back to you sooner.

So I think climate change is going to get really bad. That much is certain. It seems to me like we are already in the midst of a disaster, but so far it has been a disaster only suffered by the poorest and most vulnerable in our global society. This will inevitably change as the situation deteriorates.

In order to survive, let alone thrive, we are going to have to give up on the state and capital alike, and take control of our own preservation. For me, the forming of networks of solidarity based in reciprocity and mutual aid isnt some stage which needs performing before the "proper revolution", but an act of simple necessity. We are going to need to work out ways to feed, clothe, warm and entertain ourselves as we are abandoned by conventional mechanisms of social reproduction.

This may sound like a lot of work. But thankfully we have many hands to make it light, not all of them human. I dont share the terror of the rich white men at the growing population (*coughs* Attenborough), for surely this is a source of energy and invention which can help us survive the coming devastation. Similarly I have great faith in technology and it's liberatory potential as OOTW have covered here. It also wont be work in the traditional sense if we abolish the social relations of wage labour (thanks Chilli Sauce), though I agree that wont necessarily stop it being gruelling.

Ultimately I think we can build a post-work utopia amidst the ruins. The building part may require some toil, but I think there are many ways we can prevent this being too arduous.

Thanks again for your comment,

OOTW.

Steven.
Mar 15 2014 14:53

A new NASA funded study has basically recommended communism as an antidote to catastrophe:
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2014/mar/14/nasa-civilisation-irreversible-collapse-study-scientists

Chilli Sauce
Mar 15 2014 16:11

Thus putting NASA far to the left of the Democratic Party:

The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels."

Out of the Woods
Mar 20 2014 07:17

Steven, Chilli Sauce,

Yes the Motesharrei study is interesting, and its good that they discuss inequality. However, this quote has got my attention;

Quote:
In both scenarios, Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most "detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners", allowing them to "continue 'business as usual' despite the impending catastrophe."

I havent read the full study yet, but it seems that they presume that "the Commoners" wont do anything as their world collapses around them and "the Elite" survive largely untouched. Now, Im not suggesting that NASA would call for a libertarian-communist revolution, but you'd think they might discuss the likelihood of social unrest should this kind of situation develop.

OOTW.

kingzog
Nov 1 2015 20:53

That NASA article a bit silly. The Roman Empire didn't "collpase", same for Han and so on. Each of these systems decayed and then transitioned, some took centuries. none saw anything close to popular depictions of civilizational " collapse", however. None saw a regression into total barbarism(and in cases of mass violence, war was the cause, not some Hobbesian nightmare as is always depicted in Apocalypse fiction today). In the example of Rome even, there is a great deal of continuity between it and the subsequent "barbarian" kingdoms of the Lombard's, Vandals, Goths and so on, followed by the Arab's, Carolingians, etc.

The average person living in the Empire even saw an improvement in living standards despite the decline of urban centers and central administration- in fact it was probably due to the decline of the empire; the cities of antiquity were essentially "consumer cities," living off slave wealth generated on rural plantations, rather than the "producer" cities of wealth generation we are familiar with today.

Anyway, NASA should stay out the history business, and future historical prediction buisiness, and stick to space.