Naomi Klein v The Times Roy Scranton: Mobilization to Fight Climate Change or Surrender?

I have a good friend, a professor of English Literature, who I often go out with to see plays, band performances and movies. Lately, we’ve also been having a running text message and email debate about various political issues. In an earlier exchange, he described himself as, “not philosophically opposed to the Republicans” but since they “have gone the furthest off the deep end,” he finds himself a “Democrat by default.” He also sees Joe Biden as the only realistic alternative to Trump, despite his considerable flaws as a candidate. Friends though we are, we couldn’t be further apart on this. I abhor the modern Republican Party and everything it stands for. Long ago it betrayed whatever legacy it had as the more progressive major American political party, founded in part by émigré socialists who fled the abortive wave of revolutions that hit Europe in 1848. My personal view is that Biden will be a disaster as the Democratic presidential nominee. I still prefer Bernie Sanders to all the rest, despite his own flaws and contradictions.

When on 9/17 I texted my friend that I was watching Naomi Klein speak at Cooper Union about the Green New Deal, he sent me a recent New York Times article by Roy Scranton, entitled, Climate Change is Not World War. Scranton served in the U.S. Army from 2002 to 2006, including a fourteen-month stint in Iraq. Afterward, he got his Ph.D from Princeton and is now a professor of English at Notre Dame. A consistent theme runs through Scranton’s work: We are doomed and there is nothing we can do about it. We’re Doomed. Now What? is in fact the title of his 2018 collection of essays on war and climate change. But in this more recent Times piece, Scranton takes aim at the idea of a World War II or New Deal-like mobilization to deal with climate change and related human induced environmental destruction.

Scranton, who’s most recent book is, Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature, is knowledgeable on this issue and does make some valid points about the limits and possible dangers latent in the World War II analogy. As he points out:

“More than 30 million Americans were uprooted from their homes and migrated across the country for military or economic reasons; the 16 million service members among them were stripped of their civilian identities and then shuttled through a vast national bureaucracy in the greatest experiment in social mixing and mass indoctrination in American history.”

A bit later Scranton continues:

“Meanwhile, free speech and labor organizing were curtailed, Americans of Japanese descent were interned in concentration camps (as were draft resisters), families were separated, careers were derailed, and young people’s educations were disrupted. The nation was swept by waves of racial hatred, primarily against the Japanese, whom many Americans thought deserved to be exterminated.”

And a bit later:

“Total mobilization during World War II also led to the birth of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower would in 1961 define as the “military-industrial complex.” Annual military spending (adjusted for inflation) skyrocketed from less than $10 billion before the war to nearly $1 trillion during it, and except for a brief dip between the end of World War II and the Korean War, has never sunk below $300 billion, whether the United States was at war or not.”

Surely, this is not what we want and Naomi Klein actually addresses this very issue in her new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. The three dominant motifs related to dealing with climate change on a massive scale are: 1) the New Deal of the 1930s; 2) the World War II mobilization and; 3) the post-war Marshall Plan that helped to revive Western Europe. Klein acknowledges that:

“Each precedent has its own glaring weaknesses and contradictions. The U.S. military alone is, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the largest consumer of oil in the world. And warfare, with its devastating costs to humanity, nature and democracy, is no model for social change. The climate threat, moreover, will never feel as threatening as Nazis on the march…”

She continues:

“The wartime mobilizations and huge rebuilding efforts afterward, were certainly ambitious, but they were also highly centralized, top-down transformations. If we defer to central governments that way in the face of the climate crisis, we should expect highly corrupt measures that further concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few big players, not to mention systematic attacks on human rights.”

Klein is also rightly critical of the “New Deal” analogy as well. She observes that the original New Deal fell short of its main goal of pulling the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression and that its programs overwhelmingly favored white, male workers. As she says, what is needed is not simply the 1930s New Deal “painted green” or a “Marshall Plan with solar panels” but a plan that provides for:

“[W]ind and solar power that is distributed and, where possible, community owned, rather than the New Deal’s highly centralized, monopolistic hydro and fossil fuel power. [B]eautifully designed, racially integrated, zero carbon urban housing, built with democratic input from communities of color – rather than the sprawling white suburbs and racially segregated housing projects of the postwar period. We need to devolve power to indigenous communities, smallholder farmers, ranchers, and sustainable fishing folk so they can lead the process of planting billions of trees, rehabilitating wetlands, and renewing soil – rather than handing over control of conservation to the military and federal agencies, as was overwhelmingly the case with the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps.”

Though doomsayers like Scranton are not climate change deniers, there are still plenty of them out there buttressed by Koch Brothers and fossil fuel co money. As Klein points out, sadly the divide has hardened over just the past decade or so. There was much more consensus on the issue of what we humans are doing to the environment back in 2007-8 than there is now. Today’s deniers believe (and have been encouraged to believe) that the idea of a comprehensive mobilization to arrest climate change and environmental destruction is nothing more than a sneaky, surreptitious attempt to take away their freedoms and the lifestyle they are accustomed to.

Klein is brutally honest in admitting that the deniers aren’t entirely wrong. As she points out, while they are clearly incorrect on the science of global warming, they are not necessarily about the possible political consequences of climate scientists’ findings. She notes, “[They] may be in considerably less denial than a lot of professional environmentalists, [who] assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying ‘green’ products and creating clever markets in pollution.”

However, though the “broad strokes” of the type of planning Klein lays out in On Fire, will require radical change they do not necessarily portend a bleak, updated version of George Orwell’s 1984. They include: more, better, low cost and, wherever possible, free public transportation, energy-efficient housing, smart electrical grids and a massive research effort to ensure we are using the best methods possible; recovery of the art of economic planning for community transition away from fossil fuels, transitioning workers into stable, secure “green jobs,” like building subway cars, installing wind turbines and cleaning up extraction sites; reining in corporate power and creating new subsidies for renewable energy and responsible land stewardship; relocalizing production wherever possible; ending the “cult of shopping” and reducing the amount of stuff the wealthiest 20 percent on the planet consume and, finally, to pay for a lot of this by taxing the “rich and filthy,” and cutting bloated military budgets.

The point of the title of a previous work by Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate is that, whether you like it or not, whether you are on the left or the right politically, the climate crisis is going to change your life, in fact it’s already happening. This can be managed by either by collective, cooperative international planning and action, with democratic and local community input, or we can continue to do what a lot of the world has been doing: turning to increasingly authoritarian forms of government, individual nations battening down the hatches, walling up, looking for scapegoats and eventually going to war over what’s left of habitable land and access to food and water. If you think that under current trends anyone’s life, liberty and property will be sacrosanct, except for a highly select few, you are sadly mistaken. We have got to try to stop the trajectory we are on, while there’s still time.

There is, of course, no guarantee we will win. We may only make things less worse or perhaps fail entirely. But when I see millions of people, all over the world voicing their demand for action, led by intelligent, energetic young people, terrified of what the future may hold for them and their kids, how can I not join them in the fight for a better future, win or lose?

While there is still time another approach is possible,

“Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium.” No, Prof. Scranton, it’s not everyone’s belief, it’s the belief of climate change deniers, it’s the belief of most of planet’s power elite, politicians and corporate leaders and it’s up to the rest of us to take action to change things.

“The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City