September 26, 2014

#ClimateChange alarm — new secular #Puritanism? New #socialism? Maybe not

While I generally agree with the idea that we should be climate change alarmists, even as we learn new threats to our climate, like methane vents and hydrates far south of the Arctic, nonetheless, while not calling climate change worries "socialism," I think Charles Mann is onto something.

Mann, in a long new piece in the Atlantic, talks about doing a better job of communicating climate change. As author of "1491" and "1493," he's arguably a climate historian in small part, therefore has a legitimate "standing" to talk.

That said, first, a few concerns. No. 1, I think to some degree he overestimates the willingness to dialogue of many deniers, "skeptics," and people halfway in that neighborhood.

That said, he's right to note that putting this issue in terms of economics and cost-benefit analysis is bound to fail, because how can we price out something like, say, being unable to grow corn in Texas in 2100, at least like we do today? That itself doesn't go far enough. It still buys into the neoliberal conceit that everything is reducible to cost-benefit analysis.

Example 1? This, about leading "New Environmentalism" neoliberal William Nordhaus:

Nordhaus provides graphs (!) showing how a gradually increasing tax—or, possibly, a market in emissions permits—would slowly and steadily ratchet down global carbon-dioxide output. The problem, as he admits, is that the projected reduction “assumes full participation.” Translated from econo-speak, “full participation” means that the Earth’s rich and populous nations must simultaneously apply the tax. Brazil, China, France, India, Russia, the United States—all must move in concert, globally cooperating.
Problem is, as the European Union has shown, there's a huge difference between a tax and emissions permits. If he can't grasp that, then, yeah, he's going to be a sucker for Nordhaus-style environmental neoliberalism. (Mann also ignores that cost-benefit analysis conservatives, and many neolibs, in the public policy sector have done only mild lifting, if that, for a carbon tax.)

Mann does mildly chide Nordhaus thinking later on, but not nearly enough.

Where does, say, Yellowstone National Park fit into that? If it does, it's a lot more pricey than Nordhaus will admit, if the Colorado River basin is worth as much as $500 billion — per year. More from High Country News, here, on how that was derived. Also from HCN, what price do you put on still-traditional Alaska Natives traditional style of life?

That said, the piece isn't all bad. And, the "good" part, per the first paragraph and the header, is near the bottom.

But, there's more than that.

This graf, which shows that environmentalism wasn't always liberal, is our real starting point:
The bet demonstrated little about the environment but much about environmental politics. The American landscape first became a source of widespread anxiety at the beginning of the 20th century. Initially, the fretting came from conservatives, both the rural hunters who established the licensing system that brought back white-tailed deer from near-extinction and the Ivy League patricians who created the national parks. So ineradicable was the conservative taint that decades later, the left still scoffed at ecological issues as right-wing distractions. At the University of Michigan, the radical Students for a Democratic Society protested the first Earth Day, in 1970, as elitist flimflam meant to divert public attention from class struggle and the Vietnam War; the left-wing journalist I. F. Stone called the nationwide marches a “snow job.” By the 1980s, businesses had realized that environmental issues had a price tag. Increasingly, they balked. Reflexively, the anticorporate left pivoted; Earth Day, erstwhile snow job, became an opportunity to denounce capitalist greed.

And, from there, we move to the worries about "socialism." As someone who often votes for Green Party candidates, but isn't a registered Green, I think Mann is about 60 percent right.

The so-called "Gang Green" environmentalists got in bed with industry after Bill Clinton's election, after all.

But, beyond the idea that modern environmentalism is a new socialism, maybe Mann is right that it's a new Puritanism.

He focuses on Bill McKibben, rimshotting off Paul Ehrlich of 1970s fame.
To stoke concern, eco-campaigners like Bill McKibben still resort, Ehrlich-style, to waving a skeleton at the reader. Thus the first sentence of McKibben’sOil and Honey, a memoir of his climate activism, describes 2011–12, the period covered by his book, as “a time when the planet began to come apart.” Already visible “in almost every corner of the earth,” climate “chaos” is inducing “an endless chain of disasters that will turn civilization into a never-ending emergency response drill.” 
 The only solution to our ecological woes, McKibben argues, is to live simpler, more local, less resource-intensive existences—something he believes is already occurring.
To that, Mann responds with this riposte:
Poppycock, the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner in effect replies in The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse. A best-selling, telegenic public intellectual (a species that hardly exists in this country), Bruckner is mainly going after what he calls “ecologism,” of which McKibbenites are exemplars. At base, he says, ecologism seeks not to save nature but to purify humankind through self-flagellating asceticism. 
 To Bruckner, ecologism is both ethnocentric and counterproductive. Ethnocentric because eco-denunciations of capitalism simply give new, green garb to the long-standing Euro-American fear of losing dominance over the developing world (whose recent growth derives, irksomely, from fossil fuels). 
Far be it from me to like citing a Forbes "contributor" favorably, but it's true — tar sands oil will get to market somehow. Rather than fight, if it's that much more carbon-intensive than "regular" crude oil, fine. Carbon tariff would take care of that. That said, if we address leakage issues (still a concern), not only is sending this oil by pipeline safer than by rail, it also frees up trains to ship food rather than having it rot.

Back to the neo-Puritan angle, though.

While we don't need 2 billion sub-Saharan Africans lusting after 8 ounces of beef a day from farting, belching, climate-damaging cows, there is, much more than with China, the issue of asking others to wear the hair shirt. That's especially true because, perhaps even more than with Peak Oil, we stand to lose more than them from climate change.

"Puritanism" isn't a perfect comparison. That said, to the degree it works, actual Puritanism promised an eternal payoff to its devotees, as did/do Catholic flagellationist movements. A secular Puritanism doesn't even offer that; all it offers is the moral self-satisfaction of the Puritan thought process.

That said, Mann had even easier targets than McKibben, albeit less-known ones, James Kunstler comes immediately to mind as a nutbar.

Jevons' Paradox comes tangentially into play, and that's that the Western world will also adjust its energy use to new technologies and modes of production. In other words, if those LED lights save electricity, people will use it elsewhere.

However, just when I think the piece is good, overall, even if bumpy?

It gets better, but still bumpy.

Mann warns us that the idea of geoengineering may raise its head up enough to draw more airplay — and more legitimate alarm.
A single country could geo-engineer the whole planet by itself. Or one country’s geo-engineering could set off conflicts with another country—a Chinese program to increase its monsoon might reduce India’s monsoon. “Both are nuclear weapons states,” (David) Keith reminds us.
Let's hope it doesn't get that bad. 

Update, Sept. 26: Naomi Klein's new book may be somewhat over the top in this area, too. That said, so is at least some criticism of it.

Example No. 1 of that? Will Boisvert of The Breakthrough.

Both he AND the "environmental Puritans" are at least partially wrong. I've blogged myself about environmental Puritans, but, I have just as little use for the Nordhaus/Schellenberger types, and I know that's what "The Breakthrough" is about.

At the same time, I do not totally look forward to the new generation of Earth Firsters. A "muscular" environmentalism should have carefully delineated stages of escalation, and should never undertake actions that could harm other humans; no tree spiking. Also, environmentalism comes first; anarchism can sit way in the back of the bus, just like it should have done in the Occupy movement. (Lord, spare environmentalism from a Black Bloc type of infiltration.)


Simon said...

Not sure my post went though but in short any claims that environmentalists are trying to push hair-shirt activism is as close to mark as claiming Obamacare makes Obama a socialist.

Simon said...

So just to be clear do you think when Permaculturalists and Transition Town members plan to live within their local resource base -as much as possible- and aim at values and activities that look at personal growth as well as social capital, that this is 'green puritanism'?

Gadfly said...

I think if those people want to do that **for themselves,** that's fine.

But, with Mann, expecting the majority of the Western world to do that? Yes, neo-Puritanism. I think in some cases, an agenda beyond climate change worry may be involved.

And, it's not realistic human psychology. I mentioned Jevons Paradox. Here it is:

Simon said...

Even if Climate change wasn't one of the biggest threats facing humanity, ecological overshoot in itself will eventually lead to problems causing massive loss of life. So even if not morally -which is a big issue in itself- it would be in the developed worlds interests to live within the global resource base.

I've heard it said all life are maximizers and will if given the change expand and exhaust resources to extinction. Seems we are no better.

Your argument reminds me of an argument put forward that we should concentrate on population control esp in 3rd world because the 'West' will never voluntarily consume less. Somewhat like an addict. & to a point I agree many people -apart from those ignorant of the situation- cannot overcome short term biases and are no better than a gold fish eating too much food til they die.

But surely the moral thing would be to try and hope that can be overcome this, like the sort of restrictions and rationing during war times that people mostly accepted.

Having said that once a amount wealth and needs are met by material comforts little additional happiness is gained by additional wealth. So I and many others would argue increased happiness and well-being can still be increased via authentic life experiences and social capital. So even if consumption was restricted happiness can still increase.

With due respect what your arguments seems -at least to me- to say is that people are both morally and psychologically selfish and we can do little -nor should we- to change that.

Or if you are making some sort of ideological argument that freedom to consume overrides existential concerns that is just bizarre.

& Even if you take a purely business like approach depleting your natural capital base and acting in a way that will kill or destroy the wealth of your consumers, for short term profits is bizarre boarding on lunacy.

BTW I'm quite aware of Jevons so would advocate resource efficiency and consumption taxes of resources so even if the car does allow you to drive further, but you use rather and ration those gains, it will cost you.

Lastly maybe a circular -though less affluent- socially enriching steady state economy for developed nations- while aiming at increasing living standards in developing nations to get them to a similar position is possible- isn't a given but the profligate consumption based economy of today has no future.

So if there is any agenda it is the rational use of resources and enriching personal and social life in a sustainable and resilient manner. If that is neo-Puritanism I'm all for it.

Gadfly said...

Actually, if you'll allow me to call them neo-Puritans, let's say they're similar to non-neo-Puritan ardent environmentalists ... the Ehrlich types.

If we agree that the West is past its "load limit," none of these folks are volunteering to "exit the mother ship," if you catch what I mean, and I don't mean starting a Moon colony.

Sorry, but I think Mann is spot on.

Until a McKibben says, "Yes, let's do this.... " and "Oh, by the way, that means the US can only support 50 million people, and I'm willing to be one of the ones who die early," I'll side with what Mann says.

Simon said...

Why would 'these types' need to exit the mother ship? Such a stance is flawed as my brother saying well if I'm so worried about climate change don't use ANY electricity at all.

Rather than resort to a medieval eco hair-shirt existence I can live within a global eco footprint while using electricity and still be in a logical consistent position both ethical and resource wise. It's about stabilizing and reducing co2 emissions not expecting everyone to stop using electricity.

In fact there are ways to live in a carbon negative way using some technologies, eco activities including conservation and living locally etc that are far from hair shirt.

& carry capacity depends on how the society is organized and how much each individual consumes and wastes. The Blue Economy work might take your fancy and combined with steady state economies may still allow many of the activities we have today. But even that is far removed from a consumption based cheap fossil fuel economy that basically looks to strip mine the earth and use the atmosphere as a global dump.

Again the whole point of the Transition Towns and Permacultre among others, is to design systems that give a good life while maintaining and actually in many cases increasing natural capital so you don't have to resort to conceptual absurdities like asking people to go about shooting themselves to save the planet.

Sure call me a hypocrite for flying when the rest of the passages on the Titanic want to go full steam ahead even when told there are icebergs ahead. I will sit back and sip the champagne with the rest of you.

& I do think we will hit the wall and I'm pessimistic anything will change.

But please attempt to come up with something better than I need to shoot myself to be consistent.

Like my point about electricity I don't have to kill myself to stop using resources -esp when people like you won't change- rather it is living within the ecological footprints that won't destroy the natural services the world provides.