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Overlooking the Obvious With Naomi Klein

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First off, I want to congratulate Naomi Klein on her inspiring book.  This Changes Everything has helped her readers better understand the germination of a broad based, multi-dimensional climate movement from the ground up and its potential to galvanize and revitalize the Left.  Also, she’s shown the courage to name the source of the problem—capitalism—when so many activists shrink from mentioning the “c” word.  In addition, her focus on the fossil fuel industry as the strategic target of the movement clearly highlights the importance of isolating one of the most malignant sectors of industrial capitalism.

But despite her insightful and inspirational treatment of the climate movement’s potential to change everything, I believe Klein over-states her case and overlooks crucial features of the dangerously dysfunctional system we’re up against.  By putting climate change on a pedestal, she limits our understanding of how to break capitalism’s death grip over our lives and our future.

For instance, Klein ignores the deep connection between climate chaos, militarism, and war.  While she spends an entire chapter explaining why Virgin Airlines owner, Richard Branson, and other Green billionaires won’t save us, she devotes three meager sentences to the most violent, wasteful, petroleum-burning institution on Earth—the US military.[1]  Klein shares this blind spot with the United Nations’ official climate forum.  The UNFCCC excludes most of the military sector’s fuel consumption and emissions from national greenhouse gas inventories.[2]  This exemption was the product of intense lobbying by the United States during the Kyoto negotiations in the mid-1990s.  Ever since, the military establishment’s carbon “bootprint” has been officially ignored.[3]  Klein’s book lost an important opportunity to expose this insidious cover-up.

The Pentagon is not only the largest institutional burner of fossil fuels on the planet; it is also the top arms exporter and military spender.[4]  America’s global military empire guards Big Oil’s refineries, pipelines, and supertankers.  It props up the most reactionary petro-tyrannies; devours enormous quantities of oil to fuel its war machine; and spews more dangerous toxins into the environment than any corporate polluter.[5]  The military, weapons producers, and the petroleum industry have a long history of corrupt collaboration.  This odious relationship stands out in bold relief in the Middle East where Washington arms the region’s repressive regimes with the latest weaponry and imposes a phalanx of bases where American soldiers, mercenaries, and drones are deployed to guard the pumps, refineries, and supply lines of Exxon-Mobil, BP, and Chevron.[6]

The petro-military complex is the most costly, destructive, anti-democratic sector of the corporate state.  It wields tremendous power over Washington and both political parties.  Any movement to counteract climate chaos, transform our energy future, and strengthen grassroots democracy cannot ignore America’s petro-empire.  Yet oddly enough when Klein looks for ways to finance the transition to a renewable energy infrastructure in the US, the bloated military budget is not considered.[7]

The Pentagon itself openly recognizes the connection between climate change and war.  In June, a US Military Advisory Board’s report on National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change warned that “…the projected impacts of toxicloopclimate change will be more than threat multipliers; they will serve as catalysts for instability and conflict.”  In response, the Pentagon is gearing up to fight “climate wars” over resources threatened by atmospheric disruption, like fresh water, arable land, and food.[8]

Even though Klein overlooks the connection between militarism and climate change and ignores the peace movement as an essential ally, the peace movement isn’t ignoring climate change.  Anti-war groups like Veterans for Peace, War Is A Crime, and the War Resisters League have made the connection between militarism and climate disruption a focus of their work.  The climate crisis was a pressing concern of hundreds of peace activists from around the world who gathered in Capetown, South Africa in July 2014.  Their conference, organized by War Resisters International, addressed non-violent activism, the impact of climate change, and the rise of militarism around the world.[9]

Klein says she thinks climate change has a unique galvanizing potential because it presents humanity with an “existential crisis.”  She sets out to show how it can change everything by weaving “all of these seemingly disparate issues into a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity from the ravages of a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system.”  But then her narrative ignores militarism almost entirely.  This gives me pause.  Can any progressive movement protect the planet without connecting the dots between climate chaos and war or confronting this petro-military empire head on?  If the US and other governments go to war over the planet’s shrinking reserves of energy and other resources, should we keep our focus locked on climate change, or should resisting resource wars become our most immediate concern?

Another important blind spot in Klein’s book is the issue of “peak oil.”  This is the point when the rate of petroleum extraction has maxed out and begins to terminally decline.  By now it’s become widely accepted that global CONVENTIONAL oil production peaked around 2005.[10]  Many believe this produced the high oil prices that triggered the 2008 recession and instigated the latest drive to extract expensive, dirty unconventional shale oil and tar sands once the price point finally made them profitable.[11]

Although some of this extraction is a heavily subsidized, financially speculative bubble that may soon prove over-inflated, the temporary influx of unconventional hydrocarbons has given the economy a brief respite from recession.  However, conventional oil production is predicted to drop by over 50 percent in the next two decades while unconventional sources are unlikely to replace any more than 6 percent.[12]  So the global economic breakdown may soon return with a vengeance.

The peak oil predicament raises important movement-building issues for climate activists and all progressives.  Klein may have avoided this issue because some folks in the peak oil crowd downplay the need for a powerful climate movement.  Not that they think climate disruption isn’t a serious problem, but because they believe we are nearing a global industrial collapse brought on by a sharp reduction in the net hydrocarbons available for economic growth.  In their estimation, global fossil fuel supplies will drop dramatically relative to rising demand because society will require ever-increasing amounts of energy just to find and extract the remaining dirty, unconventional hydrocarbons.

Thus, even though there may still be enormous amounts of fossil energy underground, society will have to devote ever-greater portions of energy and capital just to get at it, leaving less and less for everything else.  Peak oil theorists think this energy and capital drain will devastate the rest of the economy.  They believe this looming breakdown may do far more to cut carbon emissions than any political movement.  Are they right?  Who knows?  But even if they’re wrong about total collapse, peak hydrocarbons are bound to trigger escalating recessions and accompanying drops in carbon emissions.  What will this mean for the climate movement and its galvanizing impact on the Left?

Klein herself acknowledges that, so far, the biggest reductions in GHG emissions have come from economic recessions, not political action.  But she avoids the deeper question this raises: if capitalism lacks the abundant, cheap energy needed to sustain growth, how will the climate movement respond when stagnation, recession, and depression become the new normal and carbon emissions begin falling as a result?

Klein sees capitalism as a relentless growth machine wreaking havoc with the planet.  But capitalism’s prime directive is profit, not growth.  If growth turns to contraction and collapse, capitalism won’t evaporate.  Capitalist elites will extract profits from hoarding, corruption, crisis, and conflict.  In a growth-less economy, the profit motive can have a devastating catabolic impact on society.  The word “catabolism” comes from the Greek and is used in biology to refer to the condition whereby a living thing feeds on itself.  Catabolic capitalism is a self-cannibalizing economic system.  Unless we free ourselves from its grip, catabolic capitalism becomes our future.

Capitalism’s catabolic implosion raises important predicaments that climate activists and the Left must consider.  Instead of relentless growth, what if the future becomes a series of energy-induced economic breakdowns–a bumpy, uneven, stair-step tumble off the peak oil plateau?  How will a climate movement respond if credit freezes, financial assets vaporize, currency values fluctuate wildly, trade shuts down, and governments impose draconian measures to maintain their authority?  If Americans can’t find food in the supermarkets, money in the ATMs, gas in the pumps, and electricity in the power lines, will climate be their central concern?

Global economic seizures and contractions would radically reduce hydrocarbon use, causing energy prices to tumble temporarily.  In the midst of deep recession and dramatic reductions in carbon emissions would climate chaos remain a central public concern and a galvanizing issue for the Left?  If not, how would a progressive movement centered on climate change maintain its momentum?  Will the public be receptive to calls for curbing carbon emissions to save the climate if burning cheaper hydrocarbons seems like the fastest way to kick start growth, no matter how temporary?

Under this likely scenario, the climate movement could collapse faster than the economy.  A depression-induced reduction in GHGs would be a great thing for the climate, but it would suck for the climate movement because people will see little reason to concern themselves with cutting carbon emissions.  In the midst of depression and falling carbon emissions, people and governments will be far more worried about economic recovery.  Under these conditions, the movement will only survive if it transfers its focus from climate change to building a stable, sustainable recovery free from addiction to vanishing reserves of fossil fuels.

If green community organizers and social movements initiate nonprofit forms of socially responsible banking, production, and exchange that help people survive systemic breakdowns, they will earn valuable public approval and respect.  If they help organize community farms, kitchens, health clinics and neighborhood security, they will gain further cooperation and support.  And if they can rally people to protect their savings and pensions and prevent foreclosures, evictions, layoffs, and workplace shutdowns, then popular resistance to catabolic capitalism will grow dramatically.  To nurture the transition toward a thriving, just, ecologically stable society, all of these struggles must be interwoven and infused with an inspirational vision of how much better life could be if we freed ourselves from this dysfunctional, profit-obsessed, petroleum-addicted system once and for all.

The lesson that Naomi Klein overlooks seems clear.  Climate chaos is just one DEVASTATING symptom of our dysfunctional society.  To survive catabolic capitalism and germinate an alternative, movement activists will have to anticipate and help people respond to multiple crises while organizing them to recognize and root out their source.  If the movement lacks the foresight to anticipate these cascading calamities and change its focus when needed, we will have squandered a vital lesson from Klein’s previous book, The Shock Doctrine.  Unless the Left is capable of envisioning and advancing a better alternative, the power elite will use each new crisis to ram through their agenda of “drilling and killing” while society is reeling and traumatized.  If the Left cannot build a movement strong enough and flexible enough to resist the ecological, economic, and military emergencies of declining industrial civilization and begin generating hopeful alternatives it will quickly lose momentum to those who profit from disaster.

Craig Collins Ph.D. is the author of “Toxic Loopholes” (Cambridge University Press), which examines America’s dysfunctional system of environmental protection. He teaches political science and environmental law at California State University East Bay and was a founding member of the Green Party of California. 

Notes.


[1] According to rankings in the 2006 CIA World Factbook, only 35 countries (out of 210 in the world) consume more oil per day than the Pentagon.  In 2003, as the military prepared for the Iraq invasion, the Army estimated it would consume more gasoline in only three weeks than the Allied Forces used during the entirety of World War II.  “Connecting Militarism and Climate Change” Peace & Justice Studies Association https://www.peacejusticestudies.org/blog/peace-justice-studies-association/2011/02/connecting-militarism-climate-change/0048

[2] While the military’s domestic fuel use is reported, international marine and aviation bunker fuels used on naval vessels and fighter aircraft outside national borders are not included in a country’s carbon emissions total. Lorincz, Tamara. “Demilitarization for Deep Decarbonization,” Popular Resistance (Sept. 2014) http://www.popularresistance.org/report-stop-ignoring-wars-militarization-impact-on-climate-change/

[3] There is no mention of the military sector’s emissions in the latest IPCC assessment report on climate change to the United Nations.

[4] At $640 billion, it accounts for about 37 percent of the world total.

[5] The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest polluter in the world, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest American chemical companies combined.

[6] The National Priorities Project’s 2008 report, titled The Military Cost of Securing Energy, found that nearly one-third of US military spending goes toward securing energy supplies around the world.

[7] On page 114, Klein devotes one sentence to the possibility of shaving 25 percent off the military budgets of the top 10 spenders as a source of revenue to confront climate calamities—not to finance renewables.  She fails to mention that the US alone spends as much as all those other nations combined.  So an equal 25 percent cut hardly seems fair.

[8] Klare, Michael. The Race for What’s Left. (Metropolitan Books, 2012).

[9] WRI International. Resisting the War on Mother Earth, Reclaiming Our Home. http://wri-irg.org/node/23219

[10] Biello, David. “Has Petroleum Production Peaked, Ending the Era of Easy Oil?” Scientific American. Jan. 25, 2012. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/has-peak-oil-already-happened/

[11] Whipple, Tom. Peak Oil & the Great Recession. Post Carbon Institute. http://www.postcarbon.org/publications/peak-oil-and-the-great-recession/

and Drum, Kevin. “Peak Oil and the Great Recession,” Mother Jones. Oct. 19, 2011. http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/10/peak-oil-and-great-recession

[12] Rhodes, Chris. “Peak Oil Is Not A Myth,” Chemistry World. Feb. 20, 2014. http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/10/peak-oil-and-great-recession

http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2014/02/peak-oil-not-myth-fracking

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