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The Danger of Inspiration in a Time of Ecological Crisis

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, has one crippling flaw—it’s inspiring. At this moment in history, inspiring talk about solutions to multiple, cascading ecological crises is dangerous.

At the conclusion of these 18 essays that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection.

The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints.

Klein’s essays in this volume make it clear that she is well aware of those limits, but the book’s subtitle suggests that she is writing not only to inform but also to mobilize support for Green New Deal proposals. This tension runs throughout the book—when Klein reports on and analyzes the state of the world, the prose challenges readers to face difficult realities, but when making the case for those policy proposals, she sounds more like an organizer rallying supporters.

That’s not a dig—Klein is a writer who doesn’t sit on the sidelines but gets involved with movements and political projects. Her commitment to activism and organizing is admirable, but it can pull a writer in conflicting directions.

This critique should not lead anyone to ignore On Fire, which is an excellent book that should be read cover to cover, without skipping chapters that had been previously published. Collections of essays can fall flat because of faded timeliness or unnecessary repetition, but neither are a problem here. As always, Klein’s sharp eye for detail makes her reporting on events compelling, whether she’s describing disasters (natural and unnatural) or assessing political trends. And, despite the grim realities we face, the book is a pleasure to read.

Before explaining concerns with the book’s inspirational tone, I want to emphasize key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises:

+ First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable;

+ capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future;

+ the modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and

+  we face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation.

In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, which Klein states forthrightly:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Fire makes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

Welcome to the third rail of contemporary political life. The question that the multiple, cascading ecological crises put squarely in front of us is, “What is a sustainable human population?” That question has to be split in two: “How many people? Consuming how much?”

It’s no surprise that political candidates ignore these questions, but progressive writers and activists should not back away. Honestly engaging these issues takes us well beyond the Green New Deal.

On the second of those questions—“consuming how much?”—Klein frequently highlights the problem, but with a focus on “profligate consumption.” She stresses the need to:

+  “scale back overconsumption”;

+  identify categories in which we must contract, “including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use”;

+  end “the high-carbon lifestyle of suburban sprawl and disposable consumption”;

+  reject capitalism’s faith in “limitless consumption” that locks us in “the endless consumption cycle”; and

+  make deep changes “not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system.”

No argument with any of those statements, especially because Klein rejects the notion that simply improving efficiency will solve our problems, a common assumption of the techno-optimists. But challenging “overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy” focuses on the easy target: “The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies, but also by reducing the amount of material stuff that the wealthiest 20 percent of people on the planet consume.”

My goal is not to defend rich people or their consumption habits. However, constraining the lifestyles of the rich and famous is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. Here we have to deal with the sticky question of human nature. Klein rightly rejects capitalism’s ideological claim that people’s capacity to act out of greed and short-term self-interest (which all of us certainly are capable of doing) is the dominant human trait. Human nature also includes the capacity to act out of compassion in solidarity with others, of course, and different systems reward different parts of our nature. Capitalism encourages the greed and discourages the compassion, to the detriment of people and planet.

But we are organic creatures, and that means there is a human nature, or what we might more accurately call our human-carbon nature. As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute puts it, life on Earth is “the scramble for energy-rich carbon,” and humans have gotten exceedingly good at grabbing lots of carbon. Not all cultures go after it with the same intensity, of course, but that scramble predates capitalism and will continue after capitalism. This doesn’t mean we are condemned to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and other creatures, but public policy has to recognize that we not only need carbon to survive but that most people—including most environmentalists—like the work that carbon can do for us when we burn those fossil fuels. And once we get a taste of what that carbon can do, it’s not easy to give it up.

As Klein points out, curbing our carbon-seeking is not merely a test of will power and matter of individual virtue; collective action through public policy is needed. I believe that requires a hard cap on carbon—limits that we can encourage people to accept through cultural advocacy but in the end must be imposed through law. A sensible approach, called “cap and adapt,” has been proposed by Larry Edwards and Stan Cox. In a forthcoming book, Cox will expand on a cap-and-ration strategy that could help in “drawing the human economy back within necessary ecological limits,” a follow-up to, and expansion of, his earlier book that made a compelling case for a rationing.

There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult. But that’s the easy part. Much more difficult is the first question—“how many people?”

On the question of population, On Fire is silent, and it’s not hard to understand, for several reasons. First, the Earth has a carrying capacity for any species but it’s impossible to predict when we will reach it (or did reach it), and failed attempts at prediction in the past have made people wary. Second, some of the most vocal supporters of population control also espouse white supremacy, which has tainted even asking the question. Third, while we know that raising the status of women and educating girls reduces birth rates, it’s difficult to imagine a non-coercive strategy for serious population reduction on the scale necessary. Still, we should acknowledge ecological carrying capacity while pursuing social justice and rejecting anti-immigration projects. Progressives’ unwillingness to address the issue cedes the terrain to “eco-fascists,” those who want to use ecological crises to pursue a reactionary agenda.

There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine.

The fact that these questions are troubling and/or impossible to answer does not mean the questions do not matter. For now, my answer—a lot fewer people and a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

If I am nuts, critics have to demonstrate what is unsound about the argument, without resorting to the cliché that “necessity is the mother of invention” and the faith-based claims of the technological fundamentalists.

If I am not, then those Green supporters face a quandary. When mainstream Democrats tell progressive folks that the Green New Deal is doomed to fail because it is not politically viable at this moment, supporters counter, appropriately, by saying that anything less is inadequate in the face of the crises. Those supporters argue, appropriately, that the real failure is supporting policies that don’t do enough to create sustainable human societies and that we need to build a movement for the needed change. I agree, but by that logic, if the Green New Deal itself is inadequate to create sustainability, then we must push further.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan.

Back to what I think Klein is right about, and eloquent in expressing:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.

What kind of person wants to live like that? I can offer a real-life example, my late friend Jim Koplin. He once told me, in a conversation about those multiple, cascading ecological crises (a term I stole from him, with his blessing), “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief.” He was neither depressed nor irrational but simply honest. Jim, a Depression-era farm boy who had been permanently radicalized in the 1960s, felt that grief more deeply than anyone I have known, yet every day he got up to work in his garden and then offer his time and energy to a variety of political, community, and arts groups that were fighting for a better world.

Klein speaks of this grief in On Fire, in what for me were the most moving passages, often involving her young son’s future in the face of this “planetary death spiral”:

There is no question that the strongest emotions I have about the climate crisis have to do with [Toma] and his generation—the tremendous intergenerational theft under way. I have flashes of sheer panic about the extreme weather we have already locked in for these kids. Even more intense than this fear is the sadness about what they won’t ever know. They are growing up in a mass extinction, robbed of the cacophonous company of so many fast-disappearing life forms. It feels so desperately lonely.

The escape from loneliness, for me, starts with recognizing that Jim’s “state of profound grief” was not only wholly rational but also emotionally healthy. When told that even if this harsh assessment is correct, people can’t handle it, I agree. No one can handle all this. Jim couldn’t handle it every waking minute. I don’t handle it as well as he did. At best, we struggle to come to terms with a “bleak and austere” future.

But that’s exactly why we need to engage rather than avoid the distressing realities of our time. If we are afraid to speak honestly, we suffer alone. Better that we tell the truth and accept the consequences, together.

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Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. He can be reached atrjensen@austin.utexas.edu or online at http://robertwjensen.org/.

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