This piece was first published by the late Louis Proyect in September 2018.
About 10 years ago, two young radicals showed up on Marxmail and soon found themselves clashing with old fogies on the list.
One of them was the 19-year-old Bhaskar Sunkara who unsubbed from the list to get away from all the nasty digs against Barack Obama:
I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.
The other was Leigh Phillips, whose exact age I don’t know but he was most likely a Millennial based on the evidence of photos. Phillips began defending GMO on the list, a rather brave stance to take considering the animosity most of the Marxist dinosaurs on the list feel toward chemical/industrial agriculture.
Fast forward, to use a cliché I rather detest, a decade and now we see Phillips writing articles for Jacobin, the latest being one “In Defense of Air Conditioning”. Using Marxist formulations, he makes the kind of case you can read in Spiked Online. In 2006, during a heat wave in London like the kind that we have been suffering through this year, Spiked editor-in-chief Mick Hume wrote an op-ed piece for Rupert Murdoch’s London Times that stated:
Right, get your sun-addled brain around this vicious circle. Environmentalists and the authorities argue that the recent heat waves demonstrate the extent of man-made global warming. If that’s true, then we must need more air-conditioning to cope. But oh no, they tell us, that will cause -you’ve guessed it -man-made global warming.
Verily, they want us to suffer for our sins. The old puritans cautioned only that we would burn in Hell in the next life. The neo-puritans tell us we must burn on Earth in this one.
Air-conditioning and refrigeration do indeed account for a lot of energy. But then, they are technological cornerstones of modern civilisation. Much of the world as we know it would be uninhabitable without air-con. The booming growth of the American South in the past half-century, from the metropolis of Los Angeles to the space centre of Houston, has been possible only because air-con is ubiquitous there.
While Phillips does not quite have the sneering arrogance of Hume, he does say about the same thing:
In fact, if you think about it, the abstemious green options — lifestyle changes, anti-consumption, the retreat from material demands — seem rather compatible with austerity and neoliberalism’s four-decade-long march. If the liberal good guys are all telling us we already have too much, isn’t it that much easier for the bosses to tell us the same thing?
Well, they’re wrong. Nothing’s too good for the working class, including a nice, cool, air-conned bedroom on a blazing summer’s eve. To the tumbrels with the fans of ceiling fans!
You might ask yourself why Spiked, a libertarian cult around sociology professor Frank Furedi, and Jacobin would be making the same kind of arguments. I often wonder whether Bhaskar Sunkara might have a soft spot for the magazine they put out until it went bankrupt, the casualty of being on the losing end of a £375,000 libel case. A couple of TV reporters had sued LM for accusing them of fabricating a story about Bosnians being kept in concentration camp conditions.
The magazine, originally called Living Marxism and shortened to LM in the 1980s, was sold at a bookstore near Columbia. I used to glance at it from time to time, impressed by its state-of-the-art graphics as this photo would indicate. Could Jacobin be its heir, at least visually?
But when I got past the cover, the articles were a real turn-off. Defenses of GMO, fox-hunting, unprotected sex, fast cars, nuclear power plants, assimilation of Native peoples, etc. It was enough to make you throw up.
Guess who once contributed an article to Spiked Online, the successor to LM? None other than our air-conditioning advocate Leigh Phillips. Titled “A Leftwing Case Against Environmentalism”, it repeats the standard libertarian horseshit found in Spiked and its American counterpart Reason Magazine but made more palatable by radical phraseology:
Today’s campaign against economic growth and overconsumption should have no place on the left. While its current austerity-ecology incarnation appears to many progressives as a fresh, new argument fit for the Anthropocene, it is in fact the descendent of a very old, dark and Malthusian set of ideas that the left historically did battle with. It is not that our species does not face profound environmental problems. Indeed, it is precisely because human society confronts such genuine ecological threats that the focus must be on the real systemic gremlins responsible for our predicament, not growth, let alone progress, industry or even civilisation itself.
Quite the opposite of all this misanthropy is what is imperative. There will need to be more growth, more progress and more industry, and, above all, we will need to become more civilised, if we are to solve the global biocrisis.
The air-conditioning article is now the eighth written for Jacobin by Phillips. They are universally in this vein, combining a gee-whiz attitude toward science and technology reminiscent of General Electric commercials on TV in the 1950s with the sort of crude productivist version of Marxism you will find in the Spartacist League and Furedi’s sect from 25 years or so ago before its libertarian turn.
Phillips recognizes that climate change is for real, even as Spiked finally does. To understand how he differs from the revolutionary left, it is crucial to hone in on this statement: “As the climate changes, we have to place as much emphasis on adapting to the warming that is already locked in as we do in mitigating its causes. And as part of this adaptation, we should view air-conditioning in most locations as a right.”
Adapting? Mitigating its causes? Maybe the right course of action is building a mass movement that can force corporations to stop creating greenhouse gases as part of an overall movement to expropriate the expropriators. But don’t expect Phillips to have anything to do with doom-sayers like John Bellamy Foster or Naomi Klein. His affiliations should make it clear that his solutions are within the capitalist system.
Phillips is involved with the Breakthrough Institute, a think-tank founded in 2003 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. On their website you can find articles hailing fracking as a model for alternative energy development and nuclear power. The board of directors includes Reihan Salam of the National Review and Rachel Pritzker, from the Chicago billionaire clan that was one of the main backers of both the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. So, you can see the six degrees of separation without trying too hard. Jacobin>Phillips>Pritzker>Democratic Party>Jacobin.
Phillips sees air-conditioning as a basic human right that the state should guarantee, something equivalent to health care, housing and education under socialism. Unfortunately, air-conditioning requires a different infrastructure than supplying aspirins or antibiotics. It is based on energy consumption that is creating the greenhouse gases that are heating up the world. Most people would understand that as a contradiction unless you are a latter-day Doctor Pangloss like Leigh Phillips.
He castigates a Washington Post reporter for questioning the wisdom of “Las Vegas, football in Phoenix” and other attempts to build unsustainable cities in the desert. He also defends the use of air-conditioning in shopping malls that Pope Francis included as one of the “harmful habits of consumption.”
After acknowledging the drawbacks to air-conditioning, including its huge appetite for electricity, Phillips believes that it is sustainable when alternative energy sources like nuclear power and hydroelectric dams are used. Of course, you might expect someone like Phillips to be a supporter of nuclear power but what about hydroelectric dams? Aren’t they okay? After all, “Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power.”
My guess is that someone like Phillips is just as dismissive of Indigenous peoples as his pals at Spiked are. For productivist freaks like Mick Hume and Leigh Phillips, what’s the point of living in “primitive” conditions. Tch-tch. So barbarian when you can move to a city in Ontario and live in an electrically heated apartment rather than in a seal-hunting village near the Arctic Circle.
In 2013, I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “The Inuit in a Melting World” that described the environmental impact on both cities and countryside by these massive dams. I cited the press notes for a documentary about Inuits living on the Belcher Islands in Canada:
Hydroelectric mega-projects near Hudson Bay send power to many cities in North America. Spring runoff from wild rivers is held behind dams and released into the bays in the winter months when energy demand is highest.
This reversal of spring runoff disrupts ocean currents and influences the dynamics of sea ice ecosystems in the bay, reversing the seasonality of the hydrological cycle. Belcher Islands residents have noticed the effects for many years, but many concerns continue to go unaddressed.
Due to winter input of freshwater from reservoirs, sea ice freezes and breaks up differently. The dynamics of these critical sea ice habitats for eiders and other wildlife, such as polar bears, are now less predictable. A number of winter die-offs of eiders have been documented, while the larger scale effects are poorly understood.
Indigenous peoples living near the dams are also in danger of being exposed to mercury, a poison that is accumulated in large bodies of water impounded behind dams as the article “Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities” points out.
Finally, hydroelectric dams are a major producer of greenhouse gases, a function of the vegetation at the bottom that accumulates just like mercury before being converted into methane. The Guardian reported that a billion tons of carbon emissions are produced each year. The critical literature on hydroelectric dams is extensive. I recommend Donald Worster’s books, most of all “Rivers of Empire”.
Worster takes aim at the mega-projects associated with the New Deal, a model for the kind of socialism Jacobin contributor Corey Robin identifies with. Most of all, Worster examines the unsustainability of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix whose air-conditioners are powered by the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam. Author of a biography of John Wesley Powell, a 19th century explorer who was the first to look closely at the Southwest, Worster describes the way in which such cities were made possible against all ecological wisdom:
In 1878, Powell published his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, which laid out a concrete strategy for settling the West without fighting over scarce water. Powell wanted to stall the waves of homesteaders moving across the plains and mountains. Instead, he wanted to plan settlement based in part on the cooperative model practiced in Utah by Mormon settlers, who tapped mountain snowmelt and the streams, lakes and rivers it created with irrigation ditches leading to crops. Powell wanted to organize settlements around water and watersheds, which would force water users to conserve the scarce resource, because overuse or pollution would hurt everyone in the watershed. Powell believed this arrangement would also make communities better prepared to deal with attempts to usurp their water.
“Any city — Los Angeles, for example — would have had to deal with these local watershed groups and meet their terms,” Worster says. “For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains … hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place. So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”
Powell’s utopian vision also focused on self-reliance. Farmers would spend their own money, not government funds, on the dams and canals needed to get water to them, and their use of water would be tied to their land. They wouldn’t be able to sell their water separately to cities or syndicates. But that was all too much for a nation desperate to expand, says Worster.
“A number of Western congressmen said, ‘Oh wait, whoa, this is too radical. There’s too much planning in this. There’s too much regulation. There’s too much community control. This is not the American way.’ It would interfere with rapid development. It would interfere with free enterprise.”
John Wesley Powell was a prophet. That’s the kind of people our environmentalist movement of today needs, not people shilling for the nuclear power and hydroelectric dam industries.