Will climate change saints save the Earth?

In writing my last diary on climate change, I was advised that "if you're not working on solutions you're just spinning wheels." I am not going to name the author of this comment -- this is not a call-out diary. But I will say that it is indeed important that we continue our work on climate change. Protests should continue, publicity needs to continue, and we should continue to sway the public and the political class. We no doubt continue in the tradition of Catholic (and other) philosophies with their emphasis upon good works.

We do, however, suffer from a rather poor spelling-out of the problem that is supposedly addressed by our good works. As I suggested in the previous diary:

all of the optimistic press releases about climate change now look like PR, we don't seem to know what we're doing with climate change, and the social change requirements for climate change mitigation appear quite daunting.

In light of this reality, being a climate change saint isn't of much use to the world all by itself. If we don't know what we're doing, doing it more virtuously will be something we do for ourselves, not for the planet. The climate change itself will not be directly affected by our aspirations to sainthood.

Now, I periodically get responses from these diaries telling me, for instance, that more capitalism (regulated or whatever) will solve all of our climate change problems. We should just wait, then, for the capitalist system to take its "natural" course, and in time alternative energy will become so cheap that nobody will use fossil fuels anymore. The alternative energy entrepreneurs, then, will save us, as good climate change saints are wont to do, and make an earth-shaking profit in the business. Nobody promoting this line really has much to say, however, about the "natural" course of the capitalist system itself. Given that capitalist profit has become intensely more a matter of government-sponsored financial engineering while the growth rate is plummeting to zero (as the culmination of a four-decades-long trend), the economic survival of the system is not insured.

And never mind that the capitalist system hungrily devours the planet -- as Fred Magdoff points out:

...resource problems—both renewable and nonrenewable—are real and are only going to get worse under the current political-economic system. Everywhere both renewable and nonrenewable resources are being used unsustainably by the above criteria. In some countries the high population relative to agricultural land and the lack of dependable quantities of exports to purchase food internationally creates a very precarious situation. However, the general resource depletion and ecological problems—at the global scale, as well as within most countries and regions—are primarily the result of the way capitalism functions and economic decisions are made.

And never mind the disastrous effects of climate change itself on the capitalist system, harsh even by conservative standards. Notwithstanding all these trends, the general "realist" assumption in this regard is that the capitalist system was, is, and will be more stable than the planet being transformed into a trash dump under capitalism. Does anyone else here see a problem with this sort of thinking?

I also get responses from people promising technical panacea solutions for global warming. We're going to have machines which will suck the CO2 directly out of the atmosphere, they tell me. So far, however, I have no proof that any such machines will exist on anything more than either paper or pixels on a screen.

Here's a heads up to the technophiles with aspirations of sainthood: please don't tell me about your panacea fixes. If I'm the first person to hear that my concerns about global warming are much ado about nothing, then what of your solution? If you're sitting in your workshops telling yourselves "hey I've got this great machine which will undo climate change! I think I'll tell Cassiodorus," then, really, how great is your solution? I'm so minor a blogger that I have to publish at DailyKos.com and Firedoglake.com to get an audience instead of having my own blog. If you've got something real, tell Bill McKibben and James Hansen. Or, better yet, tell Guy McPherson, who gives speeches like this:

I would think that if you were all so correct, he'd know better than to tell us we're doomed. I'm sure that after all your information checks out with those people, they will tell me that you're right, that we can all relax, and that the problem has been solved. Persuade them first, then me. Tell those who are most likely to persuade the world that you are right and they are wrong. They want to be wrong, and if you were arguing what they argue you'd want to be wrong too.

What I am saying is that there are some ways in which climate change sainthood is not achieved. Can climate change saints save the Earth at all? Not directly -- but perhaps indirectly. In the movies, of course, the natural world and the world-society exist as a backdrop for heroes whose actions save the Earth in one way or another -- and this is the pattern one can see from James Bond through Star Trek. In real life, however, the natural world and the world-society are not ordered by a movie director arranging a quick, cheap solution for the world's eco-protagonists so that the whole drama can be conveniently filmed -- and, no, God is not the world-society's movie director. So what do we do?


My mission in this diary is to tell you this: your task as a climate change saint is to change society. You need to change our world-society because the current world-society is incapable of dealing with climate change. In fact, even if you thought you were doing your good works to actually do something about the climate change situation itself, you were wrong about that, because, all by themselves, your good works won't do anything to stop accelerating greenhouse gas emissions. You can stop patting yourselves on the back now, and adopt that attitude of humility for which Catholic saints are noted.

Even stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, the pet project of 350.org, is mainly intended to prove that we can make our politicians respond to climate change, rather than to actually stop the mining of tar sands, because TransCanada has long made it clear that the tar sands will somehow reach a market.

The same goes for the other "solutions." Alternative energy is something we do for ourselves -- it won't bring the extincted species back, nor will it force the methane clathrates back into the ground  Alternative energies do not have to replace fossil fuel energies -- they can supplement fossil fuel energies unless said energies can be kept in the groundGeoengineering may very well wreck the ecosystems just to keep it cool enough for us. Divestment? As long as oil is profitable (and if the technologists really had an effectively profitable solution to oil addiction you'd see those stocks plummet -- are they plummeting yet?) its industry will have investors. Stopping Keystone XL is still a fine goal -- as is empowering the public to act in numerous other ways -- but this is only so because collective problems demand collective solutions.

Taking the collective nature of the problem seriously, your first task as a climate change saint is to help others around you cope with the realities of a system which requires participation in unfair "markets" for their labor. Since four out of five of THEM experience poverty at some point during their lives, you would do well to deal with the fact that they can't deal with climate change because they are too busy "making a living." This, then, is what my diaries about "socialism" were about -- the idea of socialism is one in which the human race is imagined in a revolutionary way to be free from economic compulsion to the extent necessary to deal with climate change. In this regard, you work to nurture human versatility, as the innate quality of the human species most likely to get everyone out of the mess we're in.

The best the climate change saints can do is to provoke social change, such that the world-society will arrive at a coherent response to climate change. The word "revolution" is important, but only seriously in David Graeber's definition, in which a revolution ushers in a significant change in political common sense over a short period of time. There are, of course, the arts and technologies, but advances in these will only achieve coherence as part of a global strategy of ecological stewardship, to end the Sixth Extinction and bring about a period of natural equilibrium. Activities such as community gardening, solidarity, divestment, and communism (with a small "c") are revolutionary chores, things everyone should do as a matter of habit.

My point about climate change saints, then, is this: climate change saints aren't worth anything if they're only doing it to adorn their resumes. Collective problems require collective solutions. Awaken the collective -- there will be a role for everyone.

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Yes, exactly.

BruceMcF's picture

I'll add my standard Institutionalist disclaimer of "this capitalist system", since the socieconomic systems we understand best from empirical social scientific study are the socioeconomic systems in existence ...

... but the grease in the ground are assets. Owned or controlled primarily by large transnational corporations. And under our current capitalist system, large transnational corporations simply do not allow trillions of dollars of assets be rendered null and void without a bloody last stand fight to retain them as assets. The loss of their share of trillions of dollars of assets is organizational death for many of them, and a massive loss of power for all of them.

Changes that enable wedges between those corporations and corporations that do not have a direct stake in the grease in the ground are essential, but if we succeed in breaking their power, it will be more akin to the defection of some (mostly young) members of the aristocracy to the revolutionary side in Revolutionary France. It will not be the smooth, continuous evolution that all too often is painted under the "climate saint" vision.

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