Imperialism is setting in place a future that increases the debt and dependence of colonized and formerly colonized peoples, heightening global misery and exploitation. The governments of fossil capital aren’t committed to nature-based solutions that necessitate respect for Indigenous sovereignty. The goals of the imperialists are money and power, capital and control. The climate movement can no longer proceed as if our goal is persuading such governments to act.
Revolution is thus a practical and measured response to the unfolding climate catastrophe. Given the decades of capitalist failure to transform production while there was still time to keep temperatures within a degree of pre-industrial levels, revolution has gone from being a possible response to the world’s ramifying crises to the most likely response. Revolutionary social upheaval will result from the mass migration of people fleeing floods, fires, and droughts, rioting for food, shelter, and energy, and seizing what is rightfully theirs. It will result from armed, indignant, and racist reactionaries fed up with government “overreach” and willing to take power into their own hands in the name of self-defense. The question is the direction revolutions will take: toward the abolition of eco-apartheid and the establishment of equitable and livable societies or toward the entrenchment of authoritarianism, fascism, and neofeudalism. That this is the question makes political transition the primary issue confronting us on the Left.
The Politics of Transition
A decade ago in Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti highlighted the fact that the climate crisis is a political crisis. While others were — and still are — presenting climate change in moral and ontological terms, Parenti recognized the imperative of generating the political will to take on and defeat the capitalist system driving global heating.8Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos, Bold Type Books, 2012, 226. This recognition enabled Parenti to name the underlying contradiction. We need a powerful Left capable of using state power to confront and redress the grossly and globally unequal impacts of climate change, but we don’t have time to build one.
The very structural problems that our political systems pose to addressing climate change present barriers to building a strong left counterpower. The fossil fuel sector’s deep pockets hold lots of politicians. Few elected officials are confident that their constituents’ stated concern with the unfolding environmental catastrophe reflects support for sacrifice or change, especially in the wake of decades of imposed austerity and the upward redistribution of wealth. For most political campaigns, climate change is not a winning issue. It’s no wonder, then, that the only approach to transition tolerated by the US political establishment is the one most congenial to fossil capitalism and the US’s own geopolitical self-interest; like the elites of other countries in the capitalist core, they plan to defend themselves from the worst of global heating while strengthening their borders against the inevitable wave of climate refugees. This is a world of eco-apartheid: an imperialist regime of capital accumulation predicated on the exploitation of non-human nature and racialized peoples in sacrifice zones stretching from peripheries to centers.
Given the barriers presented by electoral politics, mass demonstrations and civil disobedience seem a promising avenue of change. As momentarily satisfying as these activities can be, they fail to dwell in the problem that makes them available as alternatives: the failure of capitalist democracies. Mass demonstrations are effective when they can influence political decision-making. But this presupposes the presence of deciders willing to make hard, potentially unpopular choices, which returns us to the general political impasse. What is the use of calls for change if no one who can make change hears them?
Given this political impasse, many climate mobilizations target market players, whether consumers, banks, non-profit institutions, or corporations. The aim of targeting drivers of gas-guzzling SUVs, for instance, is to generate lifestyle changes. This, and other consumer-oriented actions have laudable goals.9“COP26: Activists deflate tyres on ‘luxury’ cars in Glasgow,” BBCNews, 12 November 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-59254298 Yet personal consumption expenditures in the US have steadily increased since the 1970s (notwithstanding the steep decline and rapid recovery in 2020 due to the pandemic). Absent changes in production and policy, efforts focused on voluntary changes to consumption will remain inadequate.
Divestment has emerged as a movement strategy: activists pressure universities and museums to sell off their investments in oil and gas companies. The movement scored a visible victory in September 2021 when Harvard University announced it would eliminate indirect investments in the fossil fuel sector, having already eliminated direct investments. However, critics of divestment as a strategy point out its lack of real-world impact. Not only does shaming institutions into divestment fail to prevent fossil fuel companies from raising capital, but as a strategy it presumes a social body united around shared values, as if there were not people energized by the prospect of more oil and more drilling. For all the school children skipping school on Fridays, there are just as many isolationists concerned about energy independence and drivers who associate engines with freedom. When division goes all the way down, the supposition of shared values doesn’t hold — in fact, the absence of these shared values is precisely the problem that deadlocks capitalist democracies and makes revolution likely as well as necessary. Shameless politicians can’t be shamed because they are not isolated and alone; they have constituencies concerned neither with capitalist exploitation and inequality nor with climate change.
In 2011, Parenti faced the political problem climate change poses to capitalist democracies head on:
The fact of the matter is time has run out on the climate issue. Either capitalism solves the crisis, or it destroys civilization. Capitalism begins to deal with the crisis now, or we face civilizational collapse beginning this century. We cannot wait for a socialist, or a communist, or anarchist, or deep-ecology, neoprimitive revolution; nor for a nostalgia-based localista conversion back to the mythical small-town economy of preindustrial America as some advance.10Parenti, Tropic of Chaos, 241.
We were out of time a decade ago. But Parenti was too optimistic even then. Even as his analysis details the ways imperialism heightens the deadly impact of climate change across the array of countries eviscerated by colonialism and militarism, Parenti ultimately thinks that the capitalism we’re stuck with can help solve some problems, especially if it is accompanied by an appreciation of the need for state action and technological advances in carbon sequestration.11Parenti, C, A Left Defence of Carbon Dioxide Removal: The State Must be Forced to Deploy Civilization-Saving Technology, Has It Come to This? Editors: J.P Sapinski, Holly Jean Buck, Andreas Malm, pp. 130-143. Parenti implies an either/or between capitalism and civilizational collapse, as if capitalism itself were not a destroyer of cultures and communities, as if its continuation were not the driver of collapse. He’s right that time has run out. He’s right in his broader argument regarding the need for the state. And he’s right that there are elements of the present system that can and must be deployed in a green communist transition. Where Parenti falls short is in abandoning the project of a socialist seizure of the state and reconstruction of society.