The coming out party for climate change as an issue of global relevance was the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Since then, the relationship between energy and the economy has only become more political, with citizens across the Global North and South ever more aware of the challenges it poses. In fact, a 2017 poll conducted by Pew across 38 countries showed 61% of respondents view climate change as a major concern, placing it above traditional geopolitics, migration and a failing economic model in terms of perceived threat.
And yet increased public awareness over the last quarter of a century has failed to translate into meaningful action. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the principle ‘greenhouse gas’, were 61% higher in 2013 than they were in 1990. The years following the economic crisis of 2008 saw the largest annual emission increases in history.
But there isn’t just a dissonance between our knowledge of the facts and how we act. There’s also the problem of our inability to model the future with accuracy.
At present the scientific consensus is that two degrees of warming this century is highly likely. While this would present a huge shock to the global order, with unseen levels of migration, declining crop yields and a massive resource crunch, if that was as bad as it got, we would have had a lucky escape.
The reason is that anything much beyond that would see us reach a tipping point. Here a cascade of feedbacks, including desertification and methane hydrate release, would see three degrees lead to four, four to five, and five to six.
Could humanity endure a world six degrees warmer than at present? Perhaps, but with oceans too warm and acidic to maintain life, mass agriculture only possible around the north and south poles, and elevated levels of atmospheric methane – posing problems for anything that breathes – it’s difficult to imagine.
An eternal present: the tyranny of capitalist realism.
How is it possible that ever more people are aware of climate change, as well as its potentially devastating consequences, and yet so little is done? The answer is politics.
Future generations will look back on the the last 25 years and isolate two things in particular. The first is a dramatic increase in carbon dioxide emissions – and with it a further acceleration in global warming. The second is a particular economic model, globalised not only in terms of trade and production, but more importantly a framework which places profit above all else and demands circulation.
This should be understood as ‘contemporary globalisation’, something distinct from the geographical process of the same name – concurrent with it – which unfolds instead as a ‘time-space compression’ made possible by changing technologies.
Contemporary globalisation was an intentional political settlement, founded on a certain set of ideas, and while it maps over the technological and geographical phenomenon, the latter could well have developed without the former.
For contemporary globalisation the end of the Cold War was decisive, with the institutions of mid-century Western capitalism – the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank – combining with a new cultural zeitgeist of capitalist realism – the idea that the end of the world was more possible than the end of capitalism. Here, free markets were no longer understood to be a socially contingent systems, but instead the entirety of reality. The synthesis of these two elements, added to the historic absence of a competing utopia or countervailing geopolitical forces, drove a second belle epoque between 1990 and 2008. Here a specific economic system, based on constantly expanding global markets and the elimination of all friction in circulation (be it cultural, technological or economic), was crucial.
Unsurprisingly, it was primarily in the affluent countries of the Global North where capitalist realism reigned supreme. For developing nations history remained far from over, with the operative logic instead being to pursue higher standards of living, rising wages and greater prosperity. An increasingly integrated global economy, particularly after 1990, permitted the two to fit like pieces of a jigsaw: the cheap labour of a rising China in the Global South made possible the psychic economy of capitalist realism in the Global North. The former got richer, the latter felt richer. In Marxist terms, the base of the Global South made possible the superstructure of the wealthier nations.
And for a while it worked.
But in terms of climate change, this economic and cultural settlement – based on consent as much as coercion – allowed market-based solutions to remain unquestioned until after the crisis of 2008, even when it was clear they weren’t even touching the surface.
While climate change might be a result of industrial modernity, or ‘fossil capitalism’ as Andreas Malm refers to it, for the true believers that was irrelevant. To the contrary, it in fact compounded a blind faith in the ability of technology to solve almost any problem. Just as Watt’s coal-powered steam engine transformed society at the turn of the nineteenth century, similarly green technologies would underpin a similar transition in our own time. The limits of growth would expand once more. After all, capitalism was reality, history was over and nothing really changes.
That set of presumptions, where changes in technology maintain capitalism’s ability to sustain the planet regardless, is referred to as the ‘technological fix’. This often comes in the form of carbon sequestration, geo-engineering and renewables – or a combination of all three.
The technological fix seeks to negate politics by claiming one can change social reality without changing social relations: the rich need not be less rich, disparities in income need not be reduced, consumption of goods and services need not diminish. Faced with an economic system which has failed to deliver rising living standards, this is why self-proclaimed moderates cry “innovation!” This is not a moderate position – it is a zealous one.
To an extent, there is some reason to this line of argument. Humanity, so far at least, has been able to overcome every challenge it has faced, from deadly microbes to larger predators and the turbulence of several ice ages. Each time we have not only prevailed but thrived, primarily as a result of our ability to process information and create tools – technology – in response.
Historically, the green movement has disdained the reasoning of the technological fix, and rightly so. For the most part those pursuing them in relation to the climate – with madcap schemes like blocking part of the sun with a ‘space shade’ in order to manage solar radiation, or removing vast amounts of CO2from the atmosphere through carbon sequestration – don’t want to save the planet, but instead prolong the economic and social system which is killing it – one based on production for exchange, profit and work.
Green politics, at its most radical, has thus insisted that an adequate response must be more fundamental. Within this was an implicit understanding of how history unfolds and change takes place. So while technological determinists understand technology as the driving force of history, and thus the only way to address climate change, radical greens understand social relations and ideas, or even relations to nature, as what really matters.
In this respect, both sides exhibit a bias. But to change history and save the world, this isn’t enough.
How we make history.
The best way to understand technology, how it internalises and shapes social relations in culture, society and the economy, is to view it as one element within a broader ensemble through which history evolves. This is how David Harvey reads the thinking of Karl Marx on the topic – with the author of Capital understanding history as constituted through six distinct but mutually adaptive fields. These are technology, nature, the process of production, the reproduction of daily life, social relations and mental conceptions. All are in dynamic tension, each constantly shaping and being shaped by all the others.
Marx wanted to understand how history was made in order to change it: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. When you think about history as something that complex, and generated by fields which each encompass so much, you soon grasp the limits of emphasising only one.
Elon Musk, for instance, would say technology determines history, as would capitalist realism more generally. This allows it to frame constructed political realities as natural and unchanging. Meanwhile an eco-anarchist might say nature and social relations are all important: maybe if we were all vegan and cycled we would save the planet. Alternatively, Lenin would have said the production process is primary, and that without significant change there the rest is meaningless.
For Marx, however, systemic transformation – what he referred to as moving to a ‘new mode of production’ – would necessitate dealing with all of these categories together. So just as capitalism, defined by production for exchange and wage labour, emerged slowly over a period of centuries, so too would whatever succeeds it. As post-capitalists, and as humans who want to stop runaway climate change, this must inform how we now act.
Given the timeframe within which we are now operating (we have around three decades to completely decarbonise global production while energy demand doubles), this won’t be easy. The answer is to emphasise each moment as part of a broader shift, with the need for new technologies, social relations, mental conceptions, work flows and conceptions of nature. No one sphere is sufficient.
While that might sound extremely hard, a lot of work has already been done. The work of animal rights activists and movements around changed eating habits mean that many now enjoy a very different relationship to nature. And even those of us who are not vegetarian or vegan would find the Cartesian view of other animal species as automatons not only strange but inhumane. One of the major changes in dealing with climate change will be changes in food production and consumption, with meat in particular using prolific amounts of water and land, and generating significant greenhouse gases like methane. That’s not to mention the ethics of animals as commodities.
In response, expect vegetarianism and veganism to become increasingly common in the coming decades. In addition to changed conceptions of nature, changing technology manifesting those conceptions will also matter as, in the coming years, meat substitutes become increasingly authentic and synthetic meat – flesh without animals – finds a mass market. Using far less water and land, and creating far less methane as a by-product, synthetic meat is a far more efficient conversion of solar energy to food than rearing animals – something will probably be mocked in the not-too-distant future.
Meanwhile renewable technologies are making massive leaps forward, as is energy storage. A world which has completely decarbonised production at some point in the twenty-first century is not the wet dream of tech optimists, but seemingly inevitable when you look at the falling cost of PV and wind technologies as a consequence of experience curves. The point, then, is how quickly they are rolled out and who owns them.
Similar questions will need to be answered regarding artificial intelligence, data more generally, and extracting resources beyond our planet. All of these are coming, and with them a new civilisational paradigm – as disruptive as the steam engine coupled with fossil fuels was at the dawn of the industrial revolution. What matters, for post-capitalists, is whether or not we bend the arc of history to ensure that the dividend of these technologies redounds to the emancipation of all of us – not enhancing the profits of a tiny few.
Importantly, in relation to renewable energy, diffusion needs to happen as a matter of urgency. If it doesn’t, warming in excess of two degrees seems close to certain.
Small is beautiful, big is beautiful.
Historically, all of this is anathema to the best traditions of the green movement which, since the early 1970s, have persisted with the idea of growth having limits and the importance of localising production and leading very different kinds of lives.
While it’s true that your morning commute is inefficient in every sense, and you purchase many things you don’t really need, the idea that the answer to climate change is consuming less energy – that a shift to renewables will necessarily mean a downsizing in life – feels wrong. In fact, the trends with renewables would point to the opposite: the sun furnishes our planet with enough energy to meet humanity’s annual demand in just 90 minutes. Rather than consuming less energy, developments in wind and solar (and within just a few decades) should mean distributed energy of such abundance that we won’t know what to do with it. When combined with the technologies of artificial intelligence, robots with strong sensory-motor coupling and asteroid mining, you suddenly see a society beyond scarcity in energy, resources and, most importantly, labour.
Fully automated luxury communism is green populism.
This is the vision that must be offered in response to climate change. One that accepts changed relationships to nature, especially other creatures, but which demure from green-primitivism or going ‘back to the land’. For those who do so, it will be a matter of choice rather than necessity.
In this world we need not travel less, nor no longer enjoy crops and foodstuffs from other parts of the planet. Quite the opposite – seeing the great feats of humanity and the beauty of the Earth will be the birthright of all. Life will be easier with ever more time given over to leisure rather than work. What would be the meaning of life? Well, that would be for you to decide.
This is a populist vision that understands the potentials of the present that is soon to come, seeking to shift them to a higher purpose. Fully automated luxury communism is not inevitable, and alternative scenarios are possible: rentism and artificial scarcity are just as plausible as abundance; war and mass destruction as likely as permanently cheaper clean energy. Fundamentally, though, any effective green movement must grasp these technologies or lose. Evolution has no reverse.
What’s more, this populism must be global, reconciling the needs and interests of the poorest countries with the wealthiest. The transition to renewable energy in the Global South – which will enjoy the most abundant and cheapest energy anywhere on Earth – will be made possible by technology transfer and reparations for historic injustice through the form of a global carbon tax. Decarbonising the economy won’t just save the planet, rich and poor, it will give electricity to the hundreds of millions in sub-saharan Africa and South Asia currently without it. It will underpin a level of technological catch-up unthinkable to those who associate large, centralised infrastructures with energy generation and distribution.
But this populism will need to be pitted against contemporary globalisation, whose model privileges the free movement of goods and capital over people, and whose emphasis on borderless trade – often the default even among leftists – is the essence of the commodity fetish. This model has limited the possibility of states to decarbonise at speed, often through procurement rules centred around fair competition, something well documented by Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything.
Woke globalisation will not deliver the change we need, whether its environmental or economic, and a longing to break with the established order must be conjoined with the impulse to create energy abundance by moving away from fossil fuels. As Paul Mason writes:
“From George Square in Glasgow to Syntagma Square in Athens, there was always a Catalan flag waving above the crowd. I never understood until now that those flags were an essential part of the story. The “breakup” narratives of modern Europe – whether they are pulling away from nation states, currencies, free movement zones or the EU itself – are all driven by a central fact: the current settlement does not work.”
Pretending otherwise is woefully inadequate, and any green populism, at the micro or macro-level, must be alive to that. A break with fossil fuels and neoliberalism must also be a break with the current global order.
The final aspect of green populism is the recognition that states matter, and electoralism is important. For much of the last several decades, the green movement has favoured small-scale, local projects, with genres of activism which favour self-transformation, experimental togetherness and immediacy. All of this is worthwhile, and should not be dispensed with, but radical greens must understand that only states, the greatest instruments of collective action yet created by humans, can pull off what is needed.
So what does ‘pulling it off’ look like? It means the Global North completely decarbonising by 2030 and the Global South by 2040. This means countries across Europe and North America will need to reduce CO2 emissions every year by 8% in the 2020s, with the same holding true for poorer countries over the following decade.
This will require huge levels of consent, alongside the mobilisation of states in something akin to a war effort. Fortunately, people need jobs – until robots perfect sensory-motor coupling – and there are many public goods like universal health, education and housing, which should be folded within a broader project for ecological transformation and social renewal.
Populism doesn’t mean bowing to the lowest common denominator. It means seeing what people want and relaying it through a technological paradigm whose social relations are yet to be decided. It means saying ‘here is a path to limitless abundance’, rather than calling for civilisation to be placed in a straight jacket.
By understanding history as evolutionary flow, we can continue to build that project in the now – in ideas, in production and consumption models, in relations, and in technologies. Importantly, however, this must be combined with a vision of progress and inevitable destiny, with the incumbent organisations of democratic representation – states, unions and parties – the handmaidens to a radically different world.