Why didn’t we nip climate change in the bud?
Nathaniel Rich asks that question in an important article for the New York Times Magazine2018 (later) published as a book).
He points out that there was a brief time in the 1980s when consensus was reached on the necessity to take action.
Back then, science was considered uncontroversial. Therefore, a surprising number mainstream politicians recognized the danger facing humanity at the time and pledged to address the issue.
“The conditions for success,” Rich says, “could not have been more favorable.”
The opportunity was squandered because of a reluctance to sacrifice “present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations”, something he attributes to human nature.
Naomi Klein, a Canadian writer rejects that part of the argument with a righteous fury.
She insists that, in fact, the timing could not have been worse, since the late 1980s represented “the absolute zenith” of the neoliberal turn.
Rather than human nature, the problem was that, just as “governments were getting together to get serious about reining in the fossil fuel sector, the global neoliberal revolution went supernova, and that project of economic and social reengineering clashed with the imperatives of both climate science and corporate regulation at every turn”.
Political leaders were staunch supporters of the free market as a regulator of all social interactions. They rejected direct bans on carbon emissions or public spending. The only measures deemed credible centred on creating trading systems that turned environmental outcomes into commodities on which global financiers could speculate – in essence, nominating the most venal people on the planet as the best bet for saving humanity.
We might complement Klein’s account by noting another way that the climate crisis emerged at a particularly inopportune moment.
The 1980s were a decade that saw significant changes in progressive politics.
Many of the core beliefs of the left are rooted in the social movements of 1960s and 1970s. I call that an era dominated and dominated by what. Trigger Warnings I call “direct politics”: a time of collective protests, of grassroots mobilisations with a focus on participatory democracy centred on workers, students and the oppressed.
The advocates of direct politics drew connections between seemingly disparate issues (national liberation, black liberation, women’s liberation, gay liberation and so on) arguing that all manner of social ills required material social change, achievable only if the masses united against the small minority that benefited from the status quo.
As the 1960s saw the end of radicalism, it became more difficult for mass action to be organised in direct politics.
Activist and historian Todd Gitlin notes that, from about the mid-1970s, the formerly prevalent commitment to revolutionary ideals gave way to what he calls “the practical pursuit of reforms”. Many ex-radicals found professional outlets for their activism. Some went on to become academics, while others joined or formed non-governmental organizations, political parties, consultancies and charities.
With protests, rallies and strike organizers becoming smaller and more difficult than ever, leftists got used to making arguments in support of a constituency which had lost its ability to mobilize. Rather than the radical participation associated with direct politics, they embraced a “delegated politics”, in which activists – usually with some sort of institutional authority – advocated on behalf of a largely passive rank and file.
These slogans were different.
Instead of pushing for deep structural change, they became more focused on symbolic or culture reforms, centered primarily on university campuses.
Though many of the demands associated with delegated politics were entirely valid, the new emphasis had profound consequences – and nowhere more so than in relation to climate change.
Global warming is, afterall, quintessentially physical: a process resulting in the peculiar relationship capitalism mandates between humanity and nature.
However, activists now see politics primarily as culture. This allowed corporations to shift the emphasis away from production to the symbolic realm.
Climate became a key front in the culture conflict that has raged more often than not since the 1990s. It was a conflict fought largely at a level of representation.
Progressives abandoned economics in favor of the free market right and sought to inspire change through individual examples (recycling or biking, etc.) or symbolic events like Earth Hour.
Environmentalism is often viewed as a belief system rather than an action. With conservatives pandering to climate scepticism, liberals voted for candidates who promised they “accepted the science”.
These statements of faith, however, do not change the fact that they are made.
Think of Barack Obama’s soaring speech at Cop26.
His oratory could not have been more different symbolically from the outspoken denialism of Donald Trump and the grudging acquiescence that Scott Morrison.
Obama was a neoliberal president, but he had, as Obama later boasted, an impeccably neoliberal presidency. turned America into the world’s largest oil and gas producer.
Obama supported progressives against anti-science Republicanism. This was symbolicism. He only increased the reliance on fossil fuels materially.
Atmospheric CO2 doesn’t care much about culture war. We shouldn’t either.
Global warming is a catalyst for inequality and disproportionately affects the most vulnerable and oppressed people on Earth.
It creates a huge potential constituency to direct politics and a mass, participatory electoral campaign. fundamentally reshape how humans relate to nature – and to each other. Progressives must have a different outlook in order to seize this opportunity.
If we keep fighting in symbolism, the last and best chance of saving the planet will pass us by too.