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.
- 1 Exxon Mobil Corporation, Annual Report for the Fiscal Year Ended December 31, 2012, (February 27th, 2013) http://bit.ly/1gzOvqU
- 2 Vestas, Annual Report, (2010) http://bit.ly/1dsLadt
- 3 Sergey Drachev, Exxon Mobil, http://www.findingpetroleum.com/company/ExxonMobil/7a650637.aspx#ixzz2tJU3RXqC
- 4 Deborah Lawrence Rogers, Why We Should Be Very Worried About Reserve Replacement at Exxon Mobil, (March 5th, 2013) http://energypolicyforum.org/2013/03/05/why-we-should-be-very-worried-about-reserve-replacement-at-exxon-mobil/
- 5 Lisa Friedman, Ecuador Asks World to Pay to Keep Yasuni Oil Underground, (May 1st, 2012) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ecuador-asks-world-to-pay-to-keep-yasuni-oil-underground/
- 6 Oliver Geden, Warming World: It's Time to Give Up the 2 Degree Target, (June 7th, 2013) http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/climate-change-target-of-two-degrees-celsius-needs-revision-a-904219.html
- 7 Richard Black, 'Only 50 years left' for sea fish, (November 2nd , 2006) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6108414.stm
- 8 Kevin Anderson, Alice Bows, “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 13 January 2011 vol. 369 no. 1934 20-44 http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1934/20.abstract
- 9 Ibid.
- 10 Ibid.
- 11 Earth First Journal, Untitled, http://earthfirstjournal.org/newswire/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2013/10/BWy5r36CQAAJeXF.png-large.png
- 12 Gillian Wong, Chinese Villagers Attack Polluting Factory Over Concerns For The Environment, (12th February 2014) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/12/china-pollution-attack-factory_n_4772222.html?utm_hp_ref=green
- 13 LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 'Rocking the Foundations' - the story of Australia's pioneering red-green trade union, (August 14th 2013) http://links.org.au/node/3476