Freedom in the Anthropocene
Platypus Review 121 | November 2019
On October 2, 2019, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a panel discussion, Freedom in the Anthropocene, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Speaking at the event were Ashik Siddique (Democratic Socialists of America), Ethan Wright (Zero Hour), Mike Golash (Progressive Labor Party), and Wyatt Verlen (Platypus Affiliated Society). The panel was moderated by Ethan Linehan. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation. Complete audio of the event can be found online.
Ashik Siddique: Climate change has been known about for decades. There is solid evidence since the early 60s of this happening, but for many reasons there has been political inaction. This past year has been a real breakthrough, and it is very exciting how much attention there is around the Green New Deal and youth organizing. It feels like what is politically possible has been shifting really quickly. So as this movement is building for some kind of national political action it is really important to learn and interrogate what caused this crisis. How did we end up at this point in history where all these ecological systems are starting to reach serious tipping points and possibly collapse? Especially for those who are younger, you are going to school with all these expectations about having a career and figuring out what your life is going to look like, but at the same time the Earth is on fire. That is pretty alarming, and a lot of older people are not providing much direction because everybody who is older who is fulfilling a role in power structures has been educated a certain way about how things should work. That is clearly inadequate at this point.
I think this event is being planned with the understanding that the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism. This is the economic system that dominates pretty much everything: our government, how businesses work, how every part of your life is shaped by capitalism and the pursuit of private profits. All this momentum is building around a Green New Deal (GND), and that is super exciting. I am part of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). We are really excited about the GND and figuring out how to organize for it. The DSA is currently the largest socialist organization in America with something like 60,000 members. It has grown a lot in the past two years for many reasons; one is that in 2016 people were pretty upset about Bernie Sanders, so that after Donald Trump was elected a lot of people wanted to join an organization that seems to be trying to address deeper problems with the system that allowed something like Donald Trump to be elected. We understand that there are deeper systemic issues causing it, and there is not going to be a solution to the climate crisis without tackling these deeper issues that are causing inequality, fueled by racism, and all these pre-existing structures of oppression like colonialism and others that go back hundreds of years. The legacy of those things is what lead us to this place where we have this crisis that is threatening to cause the collapse of many systems that organize our society. The GND is supposed to be an explicit nod to the original New Deal that happened in the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression, which was the last big crisis of capitalism. In a nutshell, the New Deal was meant to transform the economic and political system to provide universal services and to set up a welfare state, like a safety net for people who were suffering because of the economic collapse of 1929. It set up Social Security and laid the groundwork for Medicaid, Medicare, and a massive expansion of public housing. That was a response to the failure of free markets to provide those things. There were homeless people dying on the streets and old people with nowhere to go without money. Some people were living in absolute misery. The point of the GND now is to say that for the past forty years, all those safety nets set up over seventy years ago have been under attack for decades by the right wing. Businesses fear those things rightfully as a threat to their own profits. They were supposed to limit the power of these very rich actors to continue pursuing their own profits at the expense of millions of ordinary people. In regard to the climate crisis, the concept of the Anthropocene is really useful to talk about a geological era where humanity is now changing the way the Earth works in fundamental ways. But there is a related concept also talked about by leftist theorists, called the “Capital-ocene,” which is that not just that humans are shaping the way the planet works, but capitalism is shaping the way the Earth works. The evidence for that is all greenhouse gas emitted by humanity since the Industrial Revolution, half of which has been emitted in the past forty years. People often talk about emissions beginning to rise in this accelerating curve from the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s; it is true because that is when coal and oil started to drive the infrastructure of the economy. It has more than doubled since then. So what happened forty years ago? That is the beginning of what many people call the rise of neoliberalism. That term basically marks the transition from the post-World War II economic order, which was a sort of state-regulated capitalism that provided social services, or “compromise capitalism.” After the Great Depression and World War II, the intention was to provide a shared prosperity for people in industrialized modern countries like in Europe, America, Japan, etc. Then in the 1970s and 1980s the situation shifted from that order into neoliberalism, really starting with Reagan in the US, Thatcher in Britain, etc. It shifted from safety-net welfare capitalism to much more of a free market. The point of government is to make sure that markets can function as efficiently as possible, which often meant chipping away at the welfare systems so that corporations and rich people could cover more profits. That coincided with consuming a lot more fossil fuels because corporations were deregulated. Also happening in the 70s was a huge surge in environmentalism. The original Earth Day movement started in 1970 with the result being mass interest in dealing with the environmental crises of the time, which were not understood as climate change but as pollution and smog. All these things were becoming huge problems in cities, so neoliberalism was a response to that. At the same time, all these countries of the global south, places that were often colonized by global north countries, were affected by neoliberalism and were folded into these markets. Countries like China and India were liberalizing and developing according to the Western model and consuming way more. That was not inevitable; there were all sorts of other ways to imagine countries developing. People were talking about a transition to renewable energies in the Jimmy Carter administration of the late 70s, but then came the hard turn to the right. The point of the GND is to say that we need to go back to sort of the fundamentals of what people were talking about in the 1930s. We need to make possible what made the original New Deal possible. It had its own limits that we can talk about, but there was a really massive and organized Left in the United States and other industrialized countries with militant labor unions. There were socialist organizations with mass followings and memberships of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people who knew that capitalism was the problem and it could not be solved in ways that compromise with capitalists.
Ethan Wright: Climate change is not an isolated issue. Many people talk about it as one issue that we can solve by one route, but rather the climate crisis is the culmination of perpetuating societal oppressions over the course of millennia. The four main systems of oppression that we discuss in my organization are capitalism, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. We talk about how unchecked capitalism pushes for resource depletion and how profits always come before people. Most capitalistic societies came from times of racism, colonialism, and the patriarchy. How could we ever isolate that idea of capitalism from these other systems of oppression? We see with the colonial exploitation of land that colonizers are usually the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, yet the places that have been colonized (usually the global south) are the ones affected by the crisis the most. Women are more likely to be displaced by climate disasters than men. Women are less likely in these countries to have power in the family structure and less monetary strength, so usually they deal with the impact of climate the most. We all know about the environmental racism that goes into all our city planning, how black and brown kids are twice as likely to get asthma than their white, middle-class counterparts.
The right is not the only problem. We need to talk about the establishment Democrats and the neoliberal perspective of a middle ground to combat climate change. I am familiar from working in Virginia politics with Dominion Energy Inc. It is a big deal in the political world to take money as a donation. They have a lot of political power in legislation. Lately in the Democratic Party there have been efforts to take the Activate Pledge, which means they will not take any money from Dominion Energy. Recently the Virginia Democratic Party announced that they will denounce any Democratic candidate who takes money from Dominion Energy. So that is a win. But for too long have the Democrats tried to find common ground with a right-leaning or moderate Democrat or with independents who do not have a strong stance on the climate crisis. Climate change has been on the backburner of the political agenda because of the convenience and self-interest of capitalism. We see that capitalism has time and time again put the idea of "profit of the few" over the "livelihood of the many." Coming out of the Green New Deal, a lot of people on the right or even moderates have argued against "de-growth" on the grounds that economic problems that would go about changing and would result from shifting to a green energy grid. But we might not even have an economy to talk about in the future if we do not take action now on the climate crisis. We cannot wait around coming up with a plan only after shit has hit the fan because things have already hit the fan.
It is very important to have the youth voice in this movement since we are the ones who are going to be dealing with the ecological devastation of the climate crisis. We should also acknowledge not every perspective is here. We do not have indigenous people, we do not have frontline community youth, and we have to really acknowledge that we do not have all the answers. Again and again it has been white males leading this movement as the people in power. We need to flip the pyramid upside down. We need to see that those who have been affected by the climate crisis, those who have been silenced and oppressed for so long, are actually leading this and coming up with the solutions. Recently I was lobbying Congress with some indigenous youths and other activists. We had member-level meetings with some representatives and senators. They kept saying "the youth is leading this movement" and "the youth have the answers", yet when we actually gave them answers, they would say we do not understand the logistics of congress. To that, I say they are just too scared to break the status quo. This is not something to compromise. If we wait to flip the senate in 2021, then we only have nine years left. This has to be a completely radical and bold revolution that breaks down the status quo and follows the path that the New Deal took after the Great Depression.
Mike Golash: I am going to take a different tack. I do not think I need to explain all the crises we are going through with the environment, racism, the economy, threats of war, and all the various problems that capitalists have created and continue to recreate to maintain their profit system. I am going to explain what the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) is all about and what our approach is to solving some of these problems. We need a plan of action that can transform society. The PLP is a revolutionary communist party. It started in the 1960s in response to the failure of the Russian Revolution. We realized at that time that Russia had returned to a road to capitalism and that it was not developing that communist egalitarian type of society that we had thought possible when the Revolution first began in 1917. Initially the PLP broke off from Russia and allied itself with China. We said, “China is the more revolutionary force in the world.” China is concerned about the problems of the Third World, underdevelopment, people of color, and the struggle against capitalism. Basically, we allied ourselves with the Chinese until 1968 when the Cultural Revolution began. But during the Cultural Revolution, millions of Chinese workers and students rose up and said, “Look, you bureaucrats, you party members, you’re becoming a new capitalist class, you’re establishing privileges for yourselves, and you’re not promoting any vision of an egalitarian society that we had all hoped for.” So over the course of three to four years after evaluating the Cultural Revolution and the mistakes of the Chinese Communist Party, we broke with China. We said, “Look, they’re aligned with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. We’re in the wrong camp here.” So for the next ten years we struggled with ourselves over what was a better approach to fight and transform capitalism and getting rid of inequalities. We came up with the idea that the mistakes of the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution, the strategy outlined by Lenin in his book What is to be Done? is this idea that you cannot transform society with a vanguard party. You need to have a mass party that involves not just a handful of people but a significant portion of the population, and they need a vision of what that future society is like. Lenin’s slogan was “bread, land, and peace”, which was a good idea, but that is not communism. That is just reforming capitalism. Mao’s vision was for land to the peasants and to improve the condition of life for millions of peasantry, but again that is not communism. All these movements continue to maintain the wage system, which simply leads you back to capitalism because the guys that are making a little bit more overtime begin to think that they are better than the people that are making less.
Our party took a long time to realize this, but I think the whole revolutionary movement that started with Marx realized that we have to get rid of capitalism, and the strategy developed at the end of the 19th to the early 20th century has not worked. We have to reevaluate it and move forward. You have to build a mass party of people who are committed to this communist vision. What is that vision of communism? It means 1) abolishing the wage system because as long as there is a wage system, there will be inequality; 2) waging an all-out strike against all the ideologies that capitalism created to hold back the working class, e.g. racism, sexism, nationalism. We need to win people away from the panoply of ideologies. We need a better understanding of what a vision of a better society is all about. We are confronted now with a series of crises; the New Deal in the 1930s was the reformist response to a crisis. Franklin Roosevelt literally called JP Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller into the White House and said, “Look you guys, if you aren’t willing to spend a little bit of your money to help reform this system, then it’s going under. Look what the workers did in Russia, we’re next.” That was the origin of the New Deal: the mass movement of the Russian Revolution and in the streets of this country that convinced the capitalists to make some reforms. Of course, unfortunately, the outcome of those reforms was the Second World War and eighty million workers were killed. Now we come to another major crisis with the environment, and again the reformist says “we must reform this system, we must have the GND, we must spend less on fossil fuels, we must have more solar power, more nuclear power, we have to do away with meat and eat more vegetables.” All those are good things, but the reality is you still have the capitalist system. Until we eliminate capitalism, until we build a revolutionary movement to carry out that historic task, then we are not going to solve these problems. I call upon you to think: do you want to join with us and build a revolutionary movement of workers all around the world? We have not grown quite as much as DSA in the USA, but in Pakistan, which has been overwhelmed by the climate crisis, our party has grown by leaps and bounds because in a sense they are at the center of these climate issues. We all need to get on board and develop an ideology and an organization that is committed to getting rid of capitalism, not just simply to reform it. We do not need to get better politicians or intellectuals to figure out ways to make capitalism work better. No, this system has to be destroyed. We have to work in different organizations like churches, community organizations, and unions to win people over to the school of that revolutionary idea.
Wyatt Verlen: The key issue in this on-going debate on what the Left's response to climate change and to the Anthropocene is or should be, is to what extent the political economy of the world can continue to present an opportunity for revolutionary change in the face of massive changes in the natural world. We have to ask ourselves really deep questions about the concepts in this debate such as nature as a category, man as a category, and this idea of the Anthropocene, which is now being used for political purposes, but in the past the age of man has been thought of as something very positive. To be clear, I accept all the findings of the IPCC, and I accept as a baseline for discussion that all of their scenarios are valid for the scenarios that they actually depict in terms of emissions: so RCP 2.0, RCP 4.5, RCP 6.0, and RCP 8.5 (representative concentration pathways). I also accept the assumption of 3 degrees celsius climate sensitivity per doubling of carbon from the pre-industrial average of 280 parts per million, which is generally in the IPCC's range of 2 to 2.5 degrees per doubling of carbon, but I think there are serious doubts we have to put on the most extreme interpretations of the science. First, that we are already on RCP 8.5, which is considered to be the worst of the worst scenarios. RCP 8.5 makes certain assumptions that are actually really absurd. We are not actually on the track for those anymore, including that we are going to have continuous or near continuous population growth. We are very far from that. We have emerging demographic crises globally, and we have seen at least some flattening in terms of population growth, which is a problem in and of itself. [With RCP 8.5] We would also be seeing very little if any decrease in coal usage; in fact we would see a rise in coal usage and very little increase in energy efficiency, which is really not the path we are on currently. [With RCP 8.5] Finally, there is the assumption that there will be no intervention by the international community in climate issues. This scenario is very far from being an actual baseline, yet many leftists continue to assert that we should use it as a sort of warning to the world. That is not a valuable strategy to increase the potential for human freedom. Pay attention to what climate change actually is, which is radiative forcings, or basically how much energy is absorbed or reflected by our climate system. There are positive forcings, which increase temperatures e.g. greenhouses gases like methane, CO2, etc. And there are negative forcings such as aerosols, which decrease temperatures. Far from being magical solutions or wishful thinking, the injection of negative forcings into the atmosphere is already occurring. In fact, concurrent with most coal emissions is a small emission of negative forcings like aerosols into the atmosphere, preventing the climate system from going into total disrepair. We need to really believe in the power of humanity to move to a final stage in the development of human freedom, which would be the ability to alter our own climate system. I find it difficult to accept what the Left continues to claim, namely that we do not have the power to do something. We are already acting with intentionality to make a massive difference in the climate system. What is being said is that we are not a species with any sort of power. If we have no power over nature, then how are we going to, as Horkheimer, who read Nietzsche, "all become supermen"? It is all of us or none of us. It strikes me as backwards to claim that we have to stop, return to Hobbit villages, and not aspire to greatness for all. It is an occultation of our real power in favor of a mythical system that we can only understand when it negates our freedom but not in such a way as to lend ourselves more control over it. We should remember that, historically speaking, the Right has long been associated with anti-industrialism. We must recognize that the task of the Left is not to reverse the course of industrialism but rather to change the social totality of industrial capitalism from one of inherent unfreedom to one of a flourishing freedom, a redemption of history. This may seem strictly theoretical and as an abstraction from the real world by a well-to-do Platypus intellectual dreaming of an alternative universe, but I think that nothing could be further from the truth. We should find ways to abandon fossil fuels. We will be on the ideal timeline for human liberation if we can build a mass socialist movement. Fossils fuels make us beholden to the ground, the Earth, and the dirt. I want humanity to move beyond the ground, the Earth, and the dirt to nothing but our sheer creative and productive energies. Fossils fuels are likewise finite, where I think the genuine Left should aspire to the infinite. We should not abandon them because we have to or else the uncontrollable god of the atmosphere will seek revenge upon us. We should not seek this because we believe in a stagnate apocalypticism, but rather because we believe in a creative messianism in which humanity must free itself from constraints the world brings us. We have to decide the world we want. That is to say, we have to be able to decide what kind of environment we want to build for ourselves, whether for recreation, aesthetics, etc., as opposed to the world where we must survive or else nature will have its way with us. If we recognize that this is apocalypticism, this idea that the climate system is going to get back at us for our sinful ways, we also have to recognize the way in which since the collapse of the Christian right in the United States, the Left has recently taken upon themselves the mantle of moralizing, apocalyptic, and prophecy-oriented pseudo-politics. But the historical task of the Left is to be messianic, not apocalyptic; it is to be free, not moralistic. At the dawn of the industrial age, the right-wing forces declared that the forces of capital were so hidden and so mysterious that it was impossible for us to find, to beat, and to transcend them. Are we still leftists though if we were to declare that as well? Impotence is not a leftist value, but the Anthropocene ideologues wish to declare us as such, impotent in the face of vast changes. The future must not be paternal and agrarian, but rather it must be free and human because the Anthropocene, the age of man, is nothing but the raw potential for such a reality as being not only human but the peak of human greatness. To quote Nietzsche: "He who does not wish to see the height of man looks all the more sharply at what is low in him and in the foreground, and thereby betrays himself." Let us look for the height of man, and let us not betray ourselves and our leftism.
AS: In response to Mike about the GND being a reformist project of capitalism, I think that is really an important concern. Right now the GND is advocated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and any number of Democrats. A New Deal is a big framework that presents really ambitious goals for how to bring our economy to zero emissions quickly, but it is not specific about how to do that. Bernie Sanders probably has the most ambitious platform of any Democratic candidate right now, but there are many details yet to be filled in. If there is not a mass organized Left really pushing for the most liberatory, expansive, aggressive versions of the GND, then it is very likely to be co-opted by capitalists and become very reformist and just another way to save capitalism for the 21st century. In the DSA, we recognize the very urgent need for transition right now. We need to decarbonize the economy very quickly in the next decade, maybe two decades, otherwise we will not be able to organize very much after that. Things will really start to fall apart in very scary ways. I feel a strong sense of urgency around that. In the next few years we need to start building this mass movement. We do not really have a choice but to work within existing power structures as flawed and as limited as they are. We must try to organize for and win non-reformist reforms that build power and create radical potential for working class people, e.g. Medicare for All.
MG: We are talking about changing the social relationships that exist in society. In a capitalist society the social relations are exploitative. You have a group of people who own and control the means of production and exploit millions of workers to make their profits. We have to get all those workers together into a cooperative movement and get rid of the capitalists and change that basic set of relationships to one of cooperation rather than exploitation. That does not preclude participation in the reform movement, but what are you doing there? Are you just trying to help the capitalists maintain their system? Or are you trying to build an organization with workers to get rid of the system altogether? Unless you have the outlook of transforming the system and changing the basic relations that exist within this society, none of this will come to fruition. You will just get a different group of capitalists making money for themselves. You will still have poor people exploited daily. You will still have racism and sexism and all these other problems that exist in the social relations under capitalist society. The bottom line is that you have to build this mass revolutionary party to change the basic relationship that exists among human beings on this planet.
EW: In my Environmental Economics course, we are reading Free Market Environmentalism by Terry Anderson and Donald Leal, and it talks about mitigating the climate crisis through capitalism, with which I vehemently disagree. It talks about how property rights, self-incentive, and deregulation would actually benefit the efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. In reality, as we have seen already, it would lead to greed, corporations exploiting natural resources, and putting profits of the few over the many. We see that instead of property rights being an incentive to protect the environment, they lead to deregulations that advance the climate crisis. With corporate greed and profits over people, there will never be a solution, so we must have this radical flip called the Green New Deal and a just transition towards a sustainable lifestyle on Earth. We must have a revolutionary change in our socio-economic system. We have the information, resources, and technology for systematic change and a cultural shift towards a green energy grid, but we are not taking action because we are warned of an economic depression. But we are already on the verge of recession, and it would only be heightened by the climate crisis coming to a tipping point.
WV: The issue may not necessarily be the climate. The whole issue seems designed with voting for the Democratic Party in mind. Instead we really must look for a way we can fundamentally alter the political economy of the world. The way we do that is through a mass socialist party engaged in pursuit of revolution, not reforms. Fundamentally, even a reform like the Green New Deal will only reinforce capitalism and put us at a disadvantage through innovation towards an unnecessary end. To repeat again, the idea that we are headed towards some apocalyptic RCP 8.5 scenario is not a reasonable assumption. How can we create a political economy that is so free and so altered fundamentally that we can pursue ways that we can barely even imagine right now? The climate in-and-of-itself is value-neutral. It is not a moral point. It is simply a system that we live under. Our goal is to transcend all such systems, not merely just accept them and alter our own lives for the sake of them.
Each of you spoke of different ways that the working class is divided through capitalism, with someone mentioning racism, sexism, nationalism, etc. specifically. In my studies I am particularly interested in the rise of the age we are in, neoliberalism. Now with the flood of information through the rise of technology, how do we also combat fake news that continues to suppress and divide the working class?
MG: I do not like the term “middle class.” It implies that it is okay to have poor people on one side and rich people on the other and then people in the middle who are really enjoying a decent life. In the working class exploited by the capitalists, some of them are better off than others, but that is an issue. Racism is used to divide the workers and to super-exploit minority workers. We are trying to convince white workers, for example, that it is in their interests to fight racism. In other words, racism hurts everyone because it keeps us divided. Similarly, sexism divides men from women. If we are divided, then we are less effective in fighting the battle. You cannot just tell women to join with the white guys and fight together. You need to address the special exploitation that women are faced with. The LGBT community also faces special forms of oppression. You have to address their issues and win the majority to support those struggles. We can use all forms of communication to do that, but we have to understand that there is a material basis to these forms of oppression, and they lead to more exploitation of the people that are victimized by them.
AS: With the rise of different social media platforms controlled by big tech companies, it is alarming to see how high extremism on the right, for example, is rising. There is nothing comparable on the Left. There are left-wing independent organizations and people reaching lots of people, but on the right there is funding from billionaires and reactionary forces. They have been creating networks of misinformation on climate change for decades. We need to build alternative platforms on the Left and hopefully a cohesive voice presenting a coherent alternative to the far right. Mainstream corporate media is not going to present climate change in the way that will lead to liberatory solutions.
EW: We see the climate denial movement through ages of fossil fuel billionaires. The "reduce, reuse, recycle" initiative was actually pushed by the fossil fuel industry to take the focus away from carbon emissions. We also have the "ban straws" movement. We only tackle what we call "climate sins" that are somehow devastating to the environment when in reality, individual plastic pollution, especially straws, is two percent of the plastic pollution in our oceans. We should be talking about the military-industrial-complex-sized issues. We need education on the resources to mitigate the fake news epidemic coming from the extremist right.
WV: I worry about the fixation here on neoliberalism because neoliberalism is just a phase of capitalism. Going back to the old model of the Keynesian or New Deal era, or going back to the "notably revolutionary" time of the 1950s -- these are absurd ideas on their face. Why is there a focus on stalling or preventing industrialization, or "de-growth"? That should not be an emphasis for the Left. The Left historically has been about liberating humanity from not only the constraints of what men do to other men, but also from nature. Fundamentally we have to continue that tradition if we are going to defeat capitalism, which requires a revolution. We have to build a mass movement to move towards socialism, which is the socialization of the means of production and distribution, not merely nationalization or worker cooperatives or whatever people pass off nowadays as socialism.
This might be an outside perspective as someone who is not well-versed on capitalism or socialism, but I am an environmental science student, and for me I believe in the intrinsic value of the environment and biodiversity in protecting our climate. Why do we need to entirely remove capitalism to solve climate change? I am thinking about addressing climate change first, even if that is driven by the private sector under regulations by the government. If we are on a net zero emissions grid and clean energy, that takes away so much of the problem of climate change that also feeds into things like poverty, sexism, racism, and environmental injustice. If we can fix that infrastructure first, do we have to do it in the same step as overcoming capitalism? That seems like a huge feat rather than going with smaller reforms. Are we prioritizing ourselves by wanting to have social reform, to change humans and give them complete freedom over the future? Is that putting us before everything else on the planet?
AS: I am less optimistic that we are not on the “worst case scenario” path. It is important to take seriously the possibility of that worst case scenario; even the midrange scenarios are pretty bad. When we talk about “we” or “this is the climate crisis for us,” it is important to recognize as socialists that there are different people already suffering from the effects of climate change. Throughout the global south, even a foot or two of sea level rise would displace tens of millions of people. Even in the U.S., the impacts are already building up. There are plenty of scientists warning of two meters of sea level rise by the end of the century. The IPCC says it could be nine or ten. Every time the IPCC comes out with a new report, they say it is even worse than they thought. I agree that we need to resist some forms of apocalypticism that actually could lead to authoritarian capitalist responses. We need to think about what the more liberatory reforms are. The flip side of that is that perhaps it would be harder to do everything at once, as opposed to more incremental reform. I would answer with a question. Why has there not been a mass climate movement so far? We hear a lot about free market solutions that just have not happened without public support for them. If we want to really build a mass movement for climate change, then we need to really ask what the constituencies for such a movement are. Who are the people that will make this happen? Part of that constituency is the people who have the most to lose because of climate change. We must figure out what solutions from those communities can activate people enough to make this a real mass movement because the reality of climate change is also the reality of inequality. The people that are already doing well in this economy are going to keep doing well for a while while other people suffer. In order to actually build mass political support as quickly as we need to, we must have more of these anti-capitalist solutions, but that does not have to mean abolishing capitalism in the next decade. I take a more sequential view with my revolutionary perspective. Ultimately there is a necessity for a revolution against capitalism, but there is a wide range of perspectives about how we can get to that point. We must make sure we do all these things to decarbonize in the next few years to prevent some of the worst case scenarios from happening. We need to figure out how to plant the seeds of providing more space for revolutionary potential like winning some of these non-reformist reforms that build working class power and start to change the social relations so that people have space to demand more. If you try to just ram through policies to reduce emissions that end up hurting working class people, then people are going to rebel against that. Working class people have been dealing with austerity policies for decades.
EW: The climate crisis is a personal issue. There are faces behind these death tolls and the displacement. It is quite a privileged thing to say that we are not in an apocalyptic scenario. We are the privileged ones in the colonized areas that do not have to deal with these issues. I would consider what just happened in the Bahamas to be one of the most apocalyptic things that has ever happened. We see these climate refugees have no home to go back to. On the issue of reforming capitalism, I feel as though a lot of the push-back against the socialist movement has been coming from the Reagan era. We do not acknowledge how influential Reagan was when it came to fear-mongering over big government and regulation. The climate crisis started because of capitalism. The only way we can combat it is moving slowly towards a socialist society. Without this, there is no way that power does not equal greed. There is no way that unchecked or even checked capitalism will ever fully reverse the effects of climate change.
MG: I think that a lot of people put their emphasis on fighting for more solar panels or cleaning up the water that we need to put into the strategy of making revolution. In terms of the day-to-day struggle, we are trying to deal more with the effects on working people and what is already happening with the climate like people mentioned with the storms in the Bahamas, the heat waves in Pakistan, people losing their homes along the oceans, farm workers in California and in Florida. As the temperatures have risen, the conditions of life have deteriorated, and it is extremely difficult on working people. We are talking about closing coal mines and throwing people out of jobs. The capitalists have a plan for climate change; they do not want catastrophe. They want a system that still works and makes them money. They do not want to deal with the fact that coal miners and oil fracking workers are losing their jobs, that people will lose their homes if they live too close to the ocean, or that people work in hot areas that are life-threatening, or the old people who cannot stand extended heat waves and wind up dying. Those are the type of issues that we want to deal with in the reform movement. The capitalists are going to take care of solar power and stuff like that because that is part of saving their system. We want to take a different approach to getting rid of their system and in the meantime help people who are adversely affected by climate change.
WV: Climate is going to change to some extent, but most places are still very inhabitable. There are places certainly on the margins that will definitely need forms of adaptation, and we should be providing that. We should be extending the gains of progress to everybody when we do have a revolution. What is our relationship to the environment? In a parable by Max Horkheimer, a Marxist of the Frankfurt School, a little man asks his rich friend for a job. His rich friend cannot give him a job and says that this is because the economy is bad and it is just the way things are. Horkheimer uses this story to show how obscure our relations to one another are in capitalism. In this debate as well, there is no sense of an actual relationship between us and the natural world. Instead, nature appears as the abstract climate system that we do not fully understand and cannot fix. All we can do is mitigate our own actions. The assumption that we do not have the power to change the environment is reactionary. We do have the ability. We know of negative forcings and how they work. All we need is a system that develops solely to enhance human freedom: that fear of big government I think any good socialist should have as well. The state arose in capitalism, partially to defend capitalism. Harping on Reagan distracts from the real goal here, which is to liberate humanity totally from this capitalist system.
You mentioned that the climate crisis is due to capitalism. Could you elaborate on that? What is the relationship between capitalism and climate catastrophe? I understand that the crisis is in part due to greed and profit and people thinking we can use as many resources as we want, that the Earth is there for us. But I don't see the major global division. It is not only brown or black people that are suffering. This is coming from someone who is upper-middle class. I live on my own, I work, I do all the stuff. I have a tiny apartment. I am white. I follow all these things, and I do not see capitalism. I just see people suffering. Why focus on capitalism? Sure everyone needs equality, which is great, but still the underlying issue is climate change. I think the crisis has even brought countries together because we all now have a common basic interest, which is we want to stay alive so we need to fix our planet and our system.
MG: Capitalism, in its essence, is based on exploitation. It is based on maximizing profits. On the question of energy production, what is the cheapest way to produce the most energy? The capitalist will stop to say, "Look, we have various alternatives like solar power, nuclear power, hydroelectric power, coal, oil, natural gas." And they do an analysis and say, "The cheapest way to produce the energy we need for a modern industrial society is to do fracking and oil extraction, less coal because that's difficult to mine and puts lots of pollutants in the air." So they make their decisions based on how much money they can make in the process. Using those criteria, that is why we think it hurts the planet and people, damages the environment, and makes for a bleak future for everyone. Normally the way that things work in a capitalist society is that the people that are black, brown, or indigenous often feel the brunt of those policies first and then over time they get to you and me. It is like what the Lutheran minister in Germany said: "First they came after the trade unionists, then the communists, then the Jews, and now they're after me." That is the progression of how capitalism works. As long as they keep us divided and keep us thinking that we all have different interests, they rule and maintain their system.
EW: The climate crisis disproportionately affects people of color and minorities, but it affects everyone at some point. Yes capitalism is about maximizing profits and minimizing costs. What would a company do? Would they rather have more money or be more sustainable? Easy answer to that, at least from a capitalist perspective. The Earth is never going to be put first in a capitalist society. A lot of indigenous youth like to say that we do not own the land. It is borrowed by us and passed onto our next generations. What we are doing is exploiting the land and taking away from the next generation(s).
AS: It is worth discussing what capitalism is. Why does capitalism inevitably cause environmental destruction and hurt people? Fossil-fuel corporations are a core part of the problem. You talked about how you feel like you are environmentally conscious. You probably try more than a lot of people to not pollute or reduce your carbon footprint and do all these individualized things that we have been conditioned to do. Why is plastic such a problem? Single-use plastics are the cheapest way for companies to package things. We should be asking the question “why are these companies producing so much plastic?” It is a problem of production, and the production is controlled by capitalists. They just do what is cheapest. The solution to that for most socialists and leftists is workers should have more control over production. If companies were controlled by workers democratically, normal people would say, "we don't necessarily want to produce things that we know are hurting the environment so let’s think about producing this stuff differently.” There are other technologies that would be less destructive for the environment, but because capitalists control these companies they just do what is cheapest, which is the most destructive thing for the environment, for workers, and for people. That is a basic socialist principle that workers should control what they produce. We talk about climate change as if we are all equally responsible for this problem, like it is humanity or something, but there is a relatively small number of people who are disproportionately responsible: the capitalist class. We need to consider ecological limits, and we have heard from leftists who disagree. I do agree that the concept of nature as something pure or separate from humanity is not correct. Indigenous people have always thought of humanity as something that is both part of the environment or nature but also a force that shapes it. With the Anthropocene we can think about how humanity can shape it in better ways. That requires moving beyond a capitalist form of organizing society, beyond one purely driven by extracting materials for profit.
WV: We need not get rid of capitalism for the sake of the environment. We should choose to get rid of capitalism because we want a freer society without the contradictions that capitalism creates. Capitalism can continue itself indefinitely. I am not convinced that without a socialist revolution, capitalism will destroy humanity and the world. That would run against capital's interests. I am certain that there is a better future that is possible, but we really have to be asking better questions of ourselves as leftists. Why do we actually want to overcome capitalism? It should not be based on some moral conception of a so-called need. It should be based on a conception of human freedom that is deeper than merely being subject to the environment or being subject to the wage labor system.
Capitalism is problematic because it is fundamentally a human-centered philosophy and economic system. You mentioned exploitation over cooperation. You said the Earth is never going to be put first in a capitalist society. One could argue that capitalism offers human freedom, blah blah blah, but what about the rest of the world? One of the audience questions said that biodiversity is intrinsically valuable. I would like to ask more and dig deeper. What is the Left's response to changing that fundamental philosophy or perspective one needs to live in this world? How do we take into account the rest of the world and Earth systems?
We were talking about the separation of nature. But we are nature. We came from nature. We live in nature. We depend on nature. We do need to preserve nature. We need to shape nature. We need to be the ones that decide what our environment is. We need to at least leave a certain percentage of nature natural. Biodiversity comes from that. There are lots of animals and plants that are adapted to this specific environment right now, and the rate at which the climate is changing now will diminish those. The plants and animals are not able to adapt as fast as we are. How do we consider that with the climate change issue?
People do not consider other places in the world where that relationship is very intrinsic. For example, the people who depend on the rainy season or the dry season to determine when to grow crops. People are not aware of the damage that is happening in the rest of the world. As an anthropologist, we study very specific cases. For example, I recently read about Somalia and the droughts and how the village elders have not seen extended droughts ever in their whole lifetime. Because of that, their animals are dying. They are not able to plant crops. The poor are moving into the cities where the infrastructure cannot support big wave migration of people.
EW: We have not mentioned the industrialization of the agriculture system, specifically monocultures. We have become a people of corn, enabling the mass extinction across the world. We have genetically modified our food preventing animals to feed and increasing methane emissions from cows. We have to decolonize our food and promote sustainable agriculture because that promotes biodiversity and allows for regenerative processes. Animal migration patterns have changed. Many animals are becoming invasive to other ecosystems. I recently became interested in "half-Earthing", where we leave half the Earth for nature to completely take its course. This would never happen, especially in a capitalist colonialist society where land and profit dominate. Our Earth has this innate power to heal itself, yet capitalism keeps exploiting that and keeps pushing against biodiversity.
AS: That is a fundamental question that needs to be worked out on the Left. I think the question about degrowth gets at a tension in environmental politics on the Left. What do we need to do and how? What takes priority? Human needs? Planetary needs? How can that be resolved? To caricature it, I think there are some folks that are saying, "Yes! De-growth! The economy under capitalism is too big!" But even self-described socialist governments have just been focused on growth, and that has been environmentally destructive. We need to shrink the overall impact and move to systems that use fewer resources and provide more room for nature. On the other hand, there is the eco-modernist perspective about intensifying the usage of technology for ecological ends and human needs. From my eco-socialist perspective, people are not against the use of technology, but the question is about what will really be effective in meeting human needs while also trying to promote regeneration and not extract more than cultivating nature or the environment, in ways that allow for future generations to keep using it. What is going to allow more human flourishing in ways that do not require depriving human or non-human communities? I do not have easy answers. None of us do. We have to ask holistic questions about what will meet peoples' needs while also allowing a future for non-human forms of life. I think agriculture is a really basic question because on the one hand, there are people who suggest we "go back to the land" and pre-capitalist, pre-industrialist forms. But there are real questions about if that can produce enough food for all the people alive today. I think there are really interesting ideas around agro-ecology and regenerative agriculture that do not suggest getting rid of all technology. It just means changing the way things are done so we are not using methods that are unsustainable on any definition. As we try to figure out what is the most liberatory form of reshaping our system, we do need to contend with basic ecological questions about what materials go into our systems of production. That is a question beyond capitalism or socialism. It needs to be figured out regardless of our economic system.
MG: The idea of building a cooperative communist type of society is to bring man and nature into more harmony. Capitalism just does not think like that. The air is about 20% oxygen and 80% nitrogen, but it was not always like that. When life first began to evolve on the planet, the air was overwhelmingly nitrogen, but the interaction of animals and plants living, dying, and growing transformed the atmosphere into what we have today. We do not want to upset that fundamental balance. With cutting down all the trees, you can re-forest. When you mine uranium or cobalt, you can regenerate the land. You do not have to just dig up the stuff and leave a big pile of trash and move on. Whatever damage you do in the short run, you can refurbish and restore. I think that is the type of outlook we have to have, but capitalist society will never have that outlook. Capitalism has the outlook for maximizing profits. That is their first call and screw everything else. I think a collective communist society has a different set of values and outlooks in the relationship between man and nature. I also think that technology can help us achieve a lot of goals of a better world, not only for ourselves, but for all the plants and animals that exist alongside us.
WV: The so-called Green Revolution in the 1970s averted famine in many areas of the world. Industrial monoculture has enabled vast swaths of humanity to eat far better than they could have prior. As the Left we have to call into question the idea that indigenous people are somehow more noble than others. The populations that live in the most advanced societies have the highest capacity right now for revolutionary change, which they could then extend across the world to everybody. I think our goal is human freedom for everybody. By saying we are only on the side of indigenous or Third world people, we are essentially saying that we do not care about them because will not extend the gains of the industrial technological society that we have created to those people. A revolution in the center of the world (the US, the EU, China) would have far greater impact than yet another Third World nationalist revolution, even if it is fought over climate change or ecological issues. We have already seen in the global south groups like the Zapatistas and Rojava all claim to be fighting some sort of ecological war, but these groups have been unsuccessful in creating a universal socialist revolution, which is our goal as the Left. We want socialism for everybody. We want to extend the gains of humanity to everybody.
WV: In this conversation we have to move away from this older environmentalism that is a relic of the New Left, which is itself a product of the failures of the Left. We need a new sort of environmentalism, a fundamentally leftist outlook seeking for humanity to fully realize its own power in a benevolent manner. We must move away from this idea that we are on the verge of collapse or that capitalism cannot survive its own feats. We should be able to create, as humans, the world we want to live in through building a revolutionary form of socialist political economy. That is a goal worth far more than any attempt to go backwards to New Deal economics or to pre-industrial forms of agriculture. We must transform the way we do industry from one that is unfree and alienating and that hurts a wide swath of humanity to one that benefits all and changes the very way we relate to each other. The goal of humans realizing their own potential is one of the most important goals of the genuine Left.
MG: I have been a revolutionary for a very long time. When people are young, most have a tendency to be revolutionary. They see the world and think it needs to be changed, but it is hard to sustain that over a lifetime. I think of people like Jerrold Nadler, who is now head of the House Judiciary Committee, I went to college with him, and he was a revolutionary then, and now he is a reformed Democrat. Juan Gonzales, you see him on Democracy Now, I went to college with him. He was a revolutionary then, and now he is whatever he is. Harold Ickes, who was Chief of Staff during the Clinton administration, was a revolutionary at Columbia in the 60s with me. What they missed is that they did not join a revolutionary organization. You need an organization that collectively struggles with each other to keep yourself on a positive course. The forces of capitalism, the radio, the TV, the smartphone, and the culture tend to draw you to an individualist “I’m going to make it” type outlook. It is very hard to resist that unless you are part of a revolutionary party that is trying to transform society. You should really think about joining a group like the Progressive Labor Party. Become part of the effort to develop yourself, develop other people, and to build a working class movement that can actually transform the world and make this world a better place for all working people, today, tomorrow, and future generations.
EW: The climate crisis is personal. It is more than numbers. It is people. It is animals. It is the atmosphere. It is all intertwined, and for us to actually mitigate this crisis, we must tackle all forms of oppression, all forms of exploitation and colonization, capitalism, racism, sexism, ableism, etc. This is a call to action now. This is something that we cannot solve by just sitting and talking on panels. This is something you have to take to the streets and be loud enough until they must hear you. Truly we are a movement that is too loud to not be heard. There is no time to compromise or find a middle ground. This is the most urgent and vital crisis that our generation, prior generations, and future generations will ever face. So, yeah, Green New Deal!
AS: I agree that just focusing on neoliberalism is not sufficient. Capitalism is the problem, and we need to move beyond it. But before the neoliberal turn happened, there was this moment when maybe capitalist countries could have gone on a softer path. A pivotal time was when President Jimmy Carter during the oil crisis suggested the need to reduce consumption. People were talking in the mainstream about the need for a common sacrifice without pointing to any enemies or people who are most responsible for that crisis. Within a year Reagan was elected, and the entire world went on the high consumption path. In this moment we need to resist that kind of call for sacrifice that does not point to enemies. I think there is a need to question the way we consume and live, which is not to say that we all need to feel bad about how we consume, but we need to be moving to a less ecologically intensive way of consuming. Public transit needs to be more accessible to everybody. We must change infrastructure that way. Rather than having a system that prizes private luxury and public deprivation, we need to move toward public abundance and private sufficiency. As an individual you should not need to horde resources to make yourself comfortable and feel okay. There should just be public goods provided. That should be baked into both our near-term solutions in a GND and the more radical revolutionary potential. There is a serious need to question what progress looks like in relation to nature. You mentioned the Green Industrial Revolution, which improved people's quality of life for the past century but is not sustainable under current material systems. We do need to think about how to provide abundance for all but without just replicating these capitalist techniques. It is important to build revolutionary potential in the global north and wealthy countries that are the centers of capital, but the potential of indigenous people and people in the global south is still really crucial because the proletariat of the world is in the global south. They are the working class producing all of our products. From a classical Marxist perspective, they are the proletariat, and they also have revolutionary potential. If workers can organize in places like Bangladesh, India, China, and Vietnam for their own liberation, then that has huge implications globally. As leftist socialists in the global north we need to think about how we can build toward a world revolutionary movement in solidarity with those people because liberation for all people cannot mean providing the industrialized Western standard of living for everybody. That is literally not possible. Parts of the global south have way more advanced Left revolutionary potential than we do in the United States right now. We need to be internationalist in our perspective and not just assume that socialists in the West are going to provide a better standard of living for everybody. We do not need to think about the indigenous as noble savages or whatever, but they have sustainable techniques that could have systemic use. We need to figure out what that looks like globally.| P
Transcribed by Erin
Hagood, Ethan Linehan, Emilio Fogarty, and Jason Roland.
 Verlen’s remarks on RCP 8.5 reference the following source: <https://judithcurry.com/2015/12/13/a-closer-look-at-scenario-rcp8-5/>