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Weekly Commentary — Global Environmental Strain — The Need for New Thinking

2009 July 28
by rahul

Everybody who bothers to inform themselves and is capable of living relatively free of illusions — unfortunately, a small minority — is aware that we are creating severe strains on the global environment that are incompatible with the continuation of modern industrial society in unchanged form. Between the massive human-created increases in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the air, the beginning of the end of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels, the impending exhaustion of key minerals necessary for agricultural and industrial production, and the looming scarcity of water, we see a convergence of crises that is already having effects and will cause much worse ones within the lifetimes of many of us.

Even one of our rare solutions, the 1987 Montreal protocol on the ozone layer that led to the almost complete phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons, has also contributed a new source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Currently, those who want to do something are left with rather unpalatable alternatives. You can ignore the connection of all of these crises with the industrial production that is the source of affluence for perhaps one-third of the world’s population and believe that small, painless changes will essentially solve the problem. Thus, we are told that dealing with carbon emissions will actually lead to economic growth, that weatherstripping our houses is the key to the future, that we need not reduce consumption. This blindness is revealed by the fact that all high-level political talk about carbon emissions is about reducing the current level of emissions. Even if we reduce global emissions by 80% by 2050, as lots of people like to talk about, all that means is that we have slowed down the rate at which we are making things worse; the atmospheric carbon concentration will still increase steadily. Not to mention that “by 2050” is simply a euphemism for “not now.”

Or you can run around like Chicken Little and say that, even if the sky isn’t falling quite yet, it will fall unless we make dramatic changes of the kind that are socially and politically impossible on the necessary time-scale. This approach accomplishes virtually nothing outside of a small community of activists, but it is comforting in a way; you can get some catharsis of your deep existential dread without actually having to do very much.

Or, of course, you can look for individual solutions. These can range from “buying local” and purchasing carbon offsets for the completely ineffectual to significant reductions in consumption and changes in lifestyle, again only for the highly committed few.

Or, says Derrick Jensen in a recent article in Orion magazine, you can forget about the notion that individual cuts in consumption are a political act, recognize that environmental problems are caused primarily by corporate cupidity, and fight the power in the streets the way good old radicals always have.

While Jensen has done signal service for the environmental cause and inspired many to dedicate their lives to it, this article is primarily useful in order to point up the bankruptcy of all approaches to global environmental strain, including those of the left.

He makes much of a statistic that only 25% of consumption is by individuals; the rest is “commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government;” over 90% of water use, he says, is “by agriculture and industry.”

This is truly bizarre. In general, the left often falls down by not recognizing that corporations are us; artificial dichotomization, while it may serve the occasional short-term goal by creating political mobilization, falls particularly short when it comes to issues of gross consumption. It is not corporations that use those municipal golf courses that are supposedly such a scourge; it is human beings. Most of us didn’t have much of a say in structuring the corporate system of production, consumption, and allocation of resources, but then it would be foolish to expect the average person to have much of a say in anything, including revolutions. We contributed by going along with the consumption styles and levels required by that system; those who try to opt out are accomplishing something, especially if their numbers increase.

Even stranger is Jensen’s notion that we need to get out there in the streets to fight an “oppressive system.” It is difficult enough to find an object to protest when it comes to the war in Afghanistan; when it comes to the accumulated effects of high levels of human consumption of the bounties of nature, who are we supposed to picket?

There is no area of political action more important and more in need of new thinking than this. A left locked in comfortable shibboleths will not be the source of this new thinking.

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