As the scale of the climate crisis becomes ever more apparent, the most popular books on the subject bare increasingly urgent names. This Changes Everything and On Fire by Naomi Klein, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells and The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell might all sound like title suggestions for Hollywood’s next big disaster movie, but each is a meticulously researched work of non-fiction; their dramatic conclusions not the result of hyperbole, but fact.
The ‘sixth great extinction’, another terrifying phrase, has been in popular circulation since the publication of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction in 2014. The last extinction event, the Cretaceous-tertiary, took place around 65 million years ago and likely resulted from an asteroid collision whose explosive power was more than a billion times that of the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Within decades three-quarters of all species, including the dinosaurs, likely disappeared.
Something similar is happening today, albeit more slowly. But rather than an asteroid being the cause for such a catastrophe, now the cause is us — or more specifically, our present economic model. Blaming humans is misguided: after all, we have existed for more than 200,000 years; capitalism for only 200.
Mainstream thinking is beginning to acknowledge this. Sir David Attenborough recently caused a stir when he spoke of how “the excesses the capitalist system has brought us have got to be curbed somehow”. This was a major intervention from a much loved public figure — it’s a rare occasion indeed when a knight of the realm uses the ‘c’ word.
Yet while Attenborough excelled in explaining the problem, when it came to what should be done about it, he was rather more restrained. A few weeks later, discussing the protest group Extinction Rebellion, he expressed disagreement with their tactics. “You have to be careful that you don’t break the law,” he said, adding that disruption to people’s daily lives was unacceptable. This was followed by a call to arms that was individualised and pitifully small-scale. “Don’t waste anything,” he intoned. “Don’t waste electricity. Don’t waste food. Don’t waste power.”
The gap between Attenborough’s radical diagnosis — that we are destroying the very conditions for much life on Earth — and his proposed program, borders on pathologically irrational. By the century’s mid-point we could see more than 100 million climate refugees, crop yields falling in many parts of the world and the Amazon and Great Barrier Reef facing oblivion. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are already higher than at any point in several million years, while Covid-19, the third distinct coronavirus to emerge this century, can be attributed to deforestation and species displacement. As Andreas Malm writes, “One might regard Covid-19 as the first boomerang from the sixth mass extinction to hit humanity in the forehead”. There will be many more.
Yet despite all of this, it is apparently a step too far to disrupt people lives. In the face of acidifying oceans, expanding deserts and two degrees of warming this century, the response appears to be little more than using a cold wash for your clothes and cycling to work. Completely absent is any account of politics or even the most basic analysis that society functions as it does to favour certain interests.
Of course, Attenborough’s conclusion, alarming in diagnosis but ambivalent in prescription, shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, such a position has been the default of green politics for decades; a movement which has been outstanding as an oppositional force but incapable of building coalitions beyond lifestyle or outlining viable alternatives. The vital question is not whether we should consume less — although we should — but how quickly we can decarbonise our energy systems and, shortly thereafter, sequester Co2 to minimise further warming. If humankind is responsible for climate change by virtue of becoming an accidental Prometheus, it stands to reason that the appropriate response requires collective action without precedent.
This is also reflected in the politics of many national green parties, including the Green party of England and Wales. It will surely be a matter of historic curiosity that the principal legacy of the party’s one MP at Westminster was to reject a soft Brexit so as to ultimately enable a hard one. But however you feel about Britain’s departure from the EU, either outcome is incredibly minor compared to what is coming this century.
As with Attenborough, here too one sees a chasm between diagnosis and prescription. The Green party claims to favour rapid decarbonisation, yet the necessary steel would seemingly have to be imported from China — given they don’t wish for it to be made in the UK. Likewise, the party wants to eliminate fossil fuels immediately but rejects any use of nuclear energy — something necessary if you favour an immediate shift. In its last manifesto, the party championed net zero emissions by 2030 but offered little by way of an industrial strategy to get there.
Labour, by contrast, not only had a detailed plan for decarbonisation, but also had it costed. It was in this context — one of the greenest manifestos by a major party in history — that a senior Green party politician, Molly Scott Cato, said she would have voted for Yvette Cooper instead of Jeremy Corbyn.
Stroud, the seat where Scott Cato stood on the Unite to Remain ticket in the 2019 election, would see the Tories win by a margin of victory smaller than her share of the vote. The shift from critique and consciousness-raising to offering a serious political alternative is yet to happen.
Underpinning this is an absence of consideration around what coalition has to be built and, most importantly, who is the agent of change. In Labour’s ultimately doomed vision last year, such questions were answered through a partnership of central government, social movements and organised labour. For Attenborough, the analogue is individual consumers changing their energy company to Ecotricity. For the Green party — at least until electoral reform comes about — it doesn’t appear to exist at all.
Individual action is useful, of course, but the challenge is so much bigger than that. We need to reconsider agriculture in its entirety and connect the dots between climate change, deforestation and Covid-19 (something which, remarkably, the Greens have so far failed to do).
If nothing else, the 2020s needs to be the decade that greens, and green socialists, get serious about the scale of necessary change and the question of state power. The comfort zone of local action and saying ‘small is beautiful’ is risible given the extent of the challenge, no matter how good it makes us feel.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.