Ecosocialism in the Shadow of the Pandemic

A Roundtable

June 11, 2021

For at least two generations now, climate scientists had warned that we were quickly approaching a point of no return. And now, we’ve likely crossed that threshold; the only question is how effectively governments might pull off damage control. Despite polar vortexes freezing people to death on sidewalks, subzero conditions in regions where people don’t typically own jackets, and wildfires wreaking havoc from Mexico and California to Brazil and Australia, any sense of urgency—that governments must act now—remains elusive.

This is in marked contrast to state responses to the Covid–19 pandemic, where governments imposed lockdowns and other public health measures, educated national publics, and channeled money into vaccine R&D. The reason behind the different approaches is tragically clear: In immobilizing large swathes of the working class, the pandemic imposed immediate barriers to profit-making in ways that the ecological emergency has yet to do. Both the pandemic and global heating are thus “natural” crises, but ones incontrovertibly linked to a capitalist regime of production that indelibly alter the environment in which we find ourselves.

But in what senses should we think of these crises as capitalist? What might state failures in the case of the coronavirus teach us about the calamities that await us as climate change becomes climate revolution? And what can we even do? For the following roundtable, we have assembled three of the leading ecosocialist thinkers of our time, and they discuss precisely these questions and more. These are questions that we hope readers of Spectre will consider in relation to the strategic projects we so desperately need.

– Tithi Bhattacharya and Zachary Levenson

SPECTRE

In what sense do you understand the coronavirus crisis as a capitalist one? We’re thinking here both in terms of capitalist causes of the crisis, and in terms of the crisis of capitalism it (co)produced. Do you see the twin crises as comparable, and if so, in what sense? Do these comparisons hold when it comes to strategy beyond the state?

THEA RIOFRANCOS

The pandemic was the overdetermined outcome of an expanding extractive and agricultural frontier. These frontiers are conditioned by the laws of motion—a phrase particularly apt for spatially mobile dynamics—of capitalism at a planetary scale: the raw material requirements of the ‘global factory’ (such as mining); new consumer markets for commodified nature (such as trade in “exotic” species); and large-scale, monocrop agriculture (such as soy production for animal feed). These in turn carry ecological, and therefore social, consequences: deforestation; habitat destruction; new zones of human/non-human species interface; and, of course, the spread of zoonotic disease, both in terms of initial infection (“jump”) and in terms of the pathways of virus global spread. And obviously pandemics are just one dire socio-environmental consequence of rapacious extraction and factory farming. Tropical deforestation is the second biggest contributor to global warming; meanwhile, violations of Indigenous territorial rights and the intense exploitation of rural labor are rampant in resource and agricultural hinterlands.

James O’Connor identified two distinct contradictions of capitalism. Both contradictions have been at once revealed and accelerated by the causes and consequences of the pandemic. The second crisis, capitalism’s undermining of its own socio-natural conditions of reproduction, from the planetary and worker health it relies on, was discussed above. The first crisis is that of overproduction, the condition that characterizes decades of secular stagnation: industrial overcapacity at the global scale, deindustrialization in formerly core manufacturing zones, surplus (unemployed or precariously employed) population, and the unmooring of wage labor and the ability to survive.

This situation predated the pandemic but was expressed in the double bind in which workers found themselves: employment (and therefore, income) versus health. This double bind was not just a set of stark choices, but also structured the experience of laboring in schools, factories, slaughterhouses, hospitals, and restaurants, places where workers of all sorts saw the imperative of accumulation take precedence over basic safety measures and oftentimes were forced to foot the bill for protective equipment. In the Global South, where the informal sector employs large portions of the working population, this double bind is even tighter: “starve or be infected.”

I would also add a third crisis: that of deepening socio-economic inequality, both intra- and inter-national. Within countries, we see the unequal burden of the pandemic in terms of infection and death on the one hand and social reproduction labor (“essential workers”) to maintain some semblance of social cohesion on the other. Between countries, we are witnessing unequal resources to control the pandemic’s spread and to maintain income. Exacerbated by the hypo- critical policy advice from the Global North—international financial institutions continue to require neoliberal reforms even as the strictures of austerity and balanced budgets are wildly abandoned from Brussels to D.C.—as well as by the failure to properly fund global redistributive institutions and/or policies. As a result, sovereign debt is ballooning to astronomic levels, which unless lowered or ideally cancelled will merely reinforce the cycle of under-investment in public health, renewable energy, and climate resiliency—in other words, the social infrastructures that protect people from disease and global warming.

ANDREAS MALM

Is there any contemporary crisis that is not fundamentally capitalist in character? The planet is saturated in that mode of production, from seabed and subsoil via surface to stratosphere: capital reaches everywhere, and it is precisely this compulsive expansion into every nook and cranny that drives a steadily rising curve of infectious diseases. Capital cannot stand wild nature existing for its own sake. It has to subjugate it to the imperatives of commodity production.

This, most generally, is the cause of Covid–19—and the fresh Ebola outbreaks in Guinea and Congo, and other zoonotic diseases in the present and near future. Pathogens are pulled into human populations by the process of capital accumulation, which cannot keep its hands away from anything that may be turned into profits—very much including the forests and animals in which those pathogens naturally circulate. In this sense, the ongoing pandemic is a symptom of the global ecological crisis propelled by capitalist development. It then—and this is a first, I would say—curves back upon that same development: Covid–19 has induced a crisis for accumulation, a crisis in the narrowly economic sense, far deeper than the 2008 crash and rather different in etiology. If we see it this way, the two crises—the ecological then bringing on the economic—are related as cause to effect. A full-scale depression has been precipitated by a symptom of the destruction of the natural world.

This is of course a simplification of the story. The spread of Covid–19 has had plenty of other determinants, and so has the ensuing depression, but if we think of the two as fundamentally related in this fashion, we can begin to see that we are now in an era of massive turbulence stemming from the ecological crisis, and there is more to come. The strategic challenge facing the climate movement, ecosocialists, and other progressive forces, not to say everyone with a deeper, material interest in the survival of humanity than in business-as-usual, is to turn these instances of acute disaster into moments of attack on their drivers.

Otherwise, we’ll never break out of the downward spiral. That is virtually a tautology. So far, we have failed miserably during Covid–19: more than one year into the pandemic, there are still no hints of any concerted effort to go after the drivers of zoonotic spillover. There is no movement mobilization, as there was after the extreme European summer of 2018, when the Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, climate camps, and others managed to convert the terrifying experience of those months into an unprecedented wave of climate activism. This time around—possibly because the activists of this particular movement have obediently stayed at home in front of their screens—the disaster has not triggered any corresponding mobilization whatsoever.

But there will be more opportunities, unfortunately. New climate disasters will strike in the next months and years—quite likely disease outbreaks also—and every time, the Left, broadly speaking, has the chance to prove that it can redirect the fire against the practices of the dominant classes that bring doom on us all. This is what Lenin and Luxemburg and Liebknecht did during World War I. Our war will last much longer than theirs. We are now much weaker than they were then. Within these parameters, we need to devise strategies for accomplishing what they (very partially) achieved: an end to the deadly destruction. It follows that symptomatic crises are not strategically comparable—or at least not equivalent—to the underlying ecological crisis. If the forecast of more turbulence ahead is correct, the latter should have some rather absolute strategic priority.

Gareth Dale

On the question of causation, we could start by asking what is specifically capitalist about the origination of Covid? Transformations of nature-society relations that are conducive to the emergence and spread of new illnesses are not new. Even in the earliest class societies—the agrarian kingdoms and city states along the Euphrates, Nile, and Indus—the swarming of people alongside livestock acted as petri dishes for the incubation and transmission of pathogens. Humans, engaging in agricultural production and congregating in dense urban groups, were growing more herd-like—just as we were becoming parasitic on domesticated creatures. The commingling of herds initiated a Great Zoonosis, a spewing forth of world-transforming diseases: bubonic plague, measles, mumps, diphtheria, influenza, cholera, and various poxes.

What capitalism brings to the mix is its systemic imperative to accumulate capital. This propels technological progress and an ever-escalating intensity and scale of human interventions in the natural world, with ever-greater potency of blowback, including several environmental drivers of disease: deforestation and other habitat disruption, industrial agriculture, and global heating. In his book, Andreas highlights climate change as a factor in the causation of SARS-CoV-2, a claim that subsequent research has confirmed. The recently emerging viruses (HIV, Nipah, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika, Covid) may be in some respects less fearsome than smallpox or bubonic plague but they are cropping up at a quickening pace. An increasingly global traffic of goods and people whisk them from continent to continent at jet speed—not only diseases of humans but of other animals and plants too.

Much of this analysis is widely shared, and it aligns with the view from the laboratories. A notable example is “How We Got to Covid–19,” coauthored by the epidemiologist David Morens and the immunologist Anthony Fauci. It depicts Covid as a wake-up call, one of a series of “increasingly extreme backlashes from nature” that are arriving in response to “our increasingly extreme” and “aggressive, damaging, and unbalanced” alterations of the environment. Many of the living improvements we’ve enjoyed over recent centuries, the paper argues, “come at a high cost that we pay in deadly disease emergences.”

These environmental alterations have so violently wrenched “the human-microbial status quo” that we can now forecast “the inevitability of an acceleration of disease emergences.” We have, they conclude, “entered a pandemic era,” such that “radical changes” are now urgently required to enable “a more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature.” The priority transformations, Morens and Fauci advise, should include improving sanitation and hygiene, ending global poverty, and reducing environmental distress (for example, call a halt to deforestation and to industrial livestock farming).

We can say Amen to all that—apart from Morens’s and Fauci’s use of the first-person plural. Those environmental aggressions are not instigated by “we, the people” but by they who own and control the means of production: capitalist states, businesses, and landowners. There are several ways in which the intertwining ecological and epidemiological crises are capitalist in dynamic. One is their causation: They’re brought about by the accumulation drive, with its corollaries of a tendency to rising throughput of energy and natural resources (including land appropriation), and this juggernaut is permitted due to the lack of any mechanism internal to capitalism that would ensure a minimization of ecological harm.

As capitalism subsumes more and more of the natural world, ecological and epidemiological crises become endogenous to it.

As capitalism subsumes more and more of the natural world, ecological and epidemiological crises become endogenous to it. Another is the distribution of profit and pain. The current Covid-triggered economic crisis follows an unmistakably capitalist logic: in its first nine months the wealth of billionaires increased by $3.9 trillion while the world’s workers suffered $3.7 trillion in lost earnings. And although at the time of writing there is little visible sign that the crisis will provoke anticapitalist revolt, the calm might be deceptive. A recent IMF report draws attention to a pattern of political unrest that follows mass outbreaks of disease, typically occurring several months or a couple years after the pandemic itself.

SPECTRE

In many ways, the abject failure of governments during the pandemic both echoes and presages paralysis and denial in the face of global heating. What can the Coronavirus experience teach us about how capitalist states are likely to respond as our own cities begin to grow less habitable? And do you see any major differences between the two scenarios, Covid–19 and climate change?

RIOFRANCOS

For all the obvious and fatal flaws of most government responses to the pandemic—especially premature reopenings, insufficient economic support for workers under lockdown, complete disregard for institutionalized populations (from nursing homes to prisons), and contradictory public health messaging—there are some positive lessons to apply from the pandemic to the accelerating climate crisis. With government intervention, rapid, large-scale, and previously unimaginable forms of social change are possible; with the important and worrying exception of reactionary groups and conspiracy theorists, the vast majority of the population will actively support and participate in measures that promote public wellbeing and will even act on the principles of empathy and solidarity to protect others from harm.

Where governments are absent, grassroots groups will self-organize networks of mutual aid. And, just as crucial, the combination of a pandemic, an economic crisis, and the strictures of social isolation did not, as many feared, lead to mass political quiescence. Organizing was challenging. But in the midst of all these contexts, in response to the police murder of George Floyd—and the generalized conditions of racialized economic precarity—the United States witnessed the largest uprising, in numbers and geographic scope, in its history (and by all accounts the most racially diverse demonstrations in the long arc of the struggle for Black freedom). The labor movement remains in dire shape, but workers used walkouts and strikes to win concessions, particularly around protective equipment and hazard pay; the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) saw another impressive bump in its recruitment; tenants unions have increased in number, pushing back against the wave of evictions.

Climate organizers should update their assumptions of political possibility and openings in circumstances of extreme duress—as well as their understandings of how class, race, gender, citizenship, and geography intersect to produce wildly unequal experiences of “hazardous nature,” whether Covid–19 or extreme weather. Lastly, the vaccine rollout also provides clear warning for signs of the prospects of an international, just response to the climate crisis. “Globally uneven” is a euphemism for what has been a starkly unequal regime of life and death, a vaccine apartheid, with the overwhelming majority of vaccinations occurring in the Global North. This regime is enforced by the protection of intellectual property rights above life, and the race on the part of affluent countries to secure sufficient (or, in the US’s case, more than sufficient) doses for their population (that is, “vaccine nationalism”).

MALM

As I write this, people are watching in horror as their houses float by in New South Wales. Where one year ago unprecedented wildfires turned this part of Australia to a sooty wasteland befitting of a frontline in World War I, now torrential rains have caused “once-in-a-century” flooding. But it is of course no longer “once-in-a-century”: These swings between cataclysmic extremes are just what climate science has predicted as the ever-deteriorating abnormal–normal of our times. Now what is the Australian state apparatus doing? It is sending flood warnings, ordering evacuations, closing off bridges, dispatching helicopters to pick up people stranded on rooftops, announcing disaster relief such as temporary payments, encouraging people to work from home, and so on.

It looks pretty much like the kind of measures taken to combat Covid–19. The failure is as abject on both fronts: Our capitalist state apparatuses can seek to alleviate the worst of the disasters once they are underway, but they are utterly incapable of stopping them from happening in the first place. We are taught this lesson every day. Yesterday (March 20, 2021), the Conservative party of Canada voted down a proposal to recognize the climate crisis as a real thing. The same attitude holds sway over the government of Australia and indeed every other government in an advanced capitalist country, in deed if not in word. Nowhere is the emergency addressed at its roots. Nowhere is fossil fuel combustion being phased out at the speed of, say, one tenth of it every year. Nowhere is fossil capital in the throes of a swift and sweeping abolition.

Experience suggests that capitalist states will continue to scramble for some patchy response to the latest disaster, while presiding over expanded fossil fuel combustion and deforestation and all the rest of it. Just witness Australia. It persists in expanding its coal production for export. The world’s largest coal exporter is, quite literally, burning and drowning its own country to death (not to speak of others). But there must, of course, come a point where this most superficial disaster management cannot work any longer. (Already the flooding has hampered vaccination efforts in Australia—one disaster blocking the efforts to withstand another.) Eventually the capacity to keep the symptoms in check will be fatally eroded. What happens then?

The equivalent of the vaccine—that dreamed-of exit from the nightmare of zoonotic spillover—is solar radiation management. That is one way to reduce temperatures on earth that does not tinker with capital accumulation or private property. The National Academy of Sciences recently released a report on solar geoengineering, advocating a US research program, opening for deployment and arguing for keeping all options on the table. But every such report places one option on the table while holding off others. As critics pointed out, where is the National Academy of Sciences report on immediate nationalization of fossil fuel companies and shutdown of their production? Solar geoengineering is now the pseudo-solution towards which capitalist states are sliding. Depending on how bad things get how quickly, the slide might accelerate. And the Left, one should point out, is not exactly well prepared for it.

DALE

In respect of government responses to the twin crises, I’ll begin with the denial of climate change. Its risks were already known four decades ago but the knowledge was suppressed—calculatingly, and with the help of lavish bribes from the fossil fuel and auto sectors, as in the US under Reagan. Nowadays the risks of climate breakdown are widely known, and yet, at the global level, nothing significant is being done to mitigate them—as is revealed each month by the measurements at Mauna Loa. Government responses to global heating mostly take the form of half measures and palliatives. For example, in Britain the government’s climate initiative of autumn 2020 was summed up by the BBC—the state broadcaster—as “the PM’s climate vision: 10 steps forward, 10 steps back?” Ten steps back—and this despite Her Majesty’s Government’s much trumpeted commitment to green leadership in the run-up to the UN Climage Change Conference (COP26) talks in Glasgow this autumn.

At face value, the response of states to Covid appears altogether different. Governments did, quite quickly, recognize the threat. But the deeper tendency here too has been to deny and obfuscate. For years prior to Covid, public health experts had been predicting epidemics similar in scope and lethality to the influenza of 1918. These warnings were widely ignored. When an epidemic did appear, in the shape of Covid–19, the initial response in China was to persecute the whistleblowers. Elsewhere, notably in the US and Britain, governments dithered. Had governments acted rapidly and in unison, with the aim of saving human lives, had they shut down all air travel (or at least subjected all passengers to quarantine) and implemented a robust test–trace–isolate–support regime wherever an outbreak appeared, Covid could have been eliminated entirely. Instead, it will be irritating us, or worse, for a long time to come.

Can we learn from the differences in states’ responses to Covid? Some patterns can be discerned. Recent experience with an epidemic evidently matters, particularly if mask wearing had become normalized. Geographical factors do too. Small remote islands are likely to escape the worst, as are countries with young or sparse or less mobile populations who spend much time outdoors. Liberal democratic governments headed by far right authoritarians (Bolsonaro, Trump) have been notoriously inept, but the presence or degree of democratic government itself does not correlate strongly with the Covid mortality rate (or with the stringency of lockdowns). Some autocratic regimes suppressed the virus relatively successfully, particularly where a muscular state-capitalist regime (such as in China and Vietnam) has for decades been whipping the populace and the business sector behind the national targets required for catch-up industrialization, but so too did some democracies—both newly consolidated ones (Taiwan, South Korea) and the older, “highly ranked” sort (New Zealand, Norway).

Of the world’s most liberal political cultures, those that have long been neoliberal zealots who favor individualistic and libertarian values, some fared quite well (Australia, Iceland), but in others (US, Britain), outcomes have been dire. In the United States and Britain, an exacerbating factor has been the long-term decay and corruption of the political class: kleptocratic, too close to the business elite, and riven between its various factions, prone to political polarization and paralysis, its public health system and other state capacities eroded by privatization and, altogether, unable to act in the long-term interests of capital—in respect of Covid–19 and much else too. (When Moody’s recently downgraded the UK’s credit rating, it cited “the weakening in the UK’s institutions and governance.”)

Nor do we see a significant correlation between governments that responded robustly to the pandemic and those that have taken climate change (relatively) seriously. Norway protected its citizens from Covid in the here and now but, through continued drilling, is hell-bent on despoiling the Arctic for ever more. China stamped out the virus, but its post-Covid recovery is fueled by a frenzied burning of coal—just as its recovery from the 2008 crisis had come through the splashing of almost unimaginable quantities of cement. Initial hopes that Covid would prove a wake-up call, opening eyes to the dangers of environmental blowback, have come to naught. Since the onset of crisis, rates of deforestation have absolutely soared and a large chunk of bailout money has taken the form of no-strings-attached cash for carbon-intensive companies. Of government stimulus spending, a lower proportion in the current crisis has been tagged as green stimulus even than followed the 2008 crisis—and much of it, then as now, is green in name alone.
To set the problem in theoretical perspective, consider world order in its capitalist character. As a system of competitive accumulation, capitalism generates a steep-sided global hierarchy of wealth and power and also a political-military structure of nation states. The states system channels capitalist competition, amplifying “North–South” economic polarization, and, through patriotism, binds working people to “their” capitalist state. As the system is not only anarchic but competitive and crisis-prone (conditions that are only heightened in the neoliberal age), instability and the creation of “risk” is a constant.

Power is held principally in the competing units—capitals and nation states—with only weak supervisory institutions at the international level. The institutions tasked with ensuring certainty and stability in the supply of natural resources (and labor) to capital are nation states. They pick up the tasks businesses cannot accomplish, seeking, inter alia, to enable the sustained exploitation of nature. Yet this “protection” of humans and nature is organized principally at the national level, whereas the circuits of capital, and the biosphere, are planetary.

The setting of rules and conventions to manage global risk and construct stability is a task appropriated by the hegemon and its powerful allies, and by international law and international organizations. This is, then, a system as if designed to wreak environmental havoc and to prevent it being mitigated. It brings fossil-fueled prosperity to upper layers in the North and the pillaging of natural resources to the South. The hegemonic powers—Britain and later the US—achieved their standing through constructing and dominating a global hydrocarbon economy. As US supremacy at last begins to wane, the approaching inter-hegemonic era will likely be one of systemic chaos.

These forces are playing out in largely similar ways in the Covid crisis, for instance in vaccine nationalism, vaccine diplomacy, and vaccine imperialism. A difference is that if a state deals effectively with Covid–19, its citizens and businesses benefit immediately. If, by contrast, a state slashes carbon emissions within its jurisdiction, the benefits spread out on the wind. A war on global heating would benefit everyone, above all the world’s poor, without favoring those nations that reacted with alacrity and resolve. In the case of Covid, however, if countries with deep pockets and established pharmaceutical industries rapidly achieve herd immunity through mass inoculation programs but fail to share vaccines with poorer countries, condemning them to repeated bouts of disease, this could return to haunt the vaccine imperialists by enabling the virus to spread and dangerously mutate in the South.

SPECTRE

Much of the mainstream discourse on the climate crisis imagines a technical (or even a technological) fix, whether through policy instruments, R&D, or something else entirely. How do you understand this discourse and what are its limits?

RIOFRANCOS

Technologies, including “green” technologies needed to mitigate the climate crisis, are economic, social, and political phenomena. They are produced via the spatially dispersed supply chains that characterize global capitalism, chains that begin in the extractive zones where rare earth, copper, lithium, cobalt, and myriad other minerals are wrested from the earth, leaving in their wake environmental contamination and social dislocation. These supply chains travel through the deep grooves carved by centuries of colonial, imperial, and now neocolonial relations between core and periphery. From the planetary mine to the planetary factory, technologies are produced through the exploitation of nature and workers. Technologies in turn mediate increasingly complex, world-spanning production networks: innovations in mapping, communications, transportation, artificial intelligence, and more enable flexible, just-in-time production—and new frontiers in labor discipline.

Technologies are thus social relations. These relations are obscured in the final product; perhaps more so than any other, the subset of commodities we call “technologies” appear bereft of any trace of their earthly ingredients or the human hands that took part in their creation. In addition to encoding relations of production, screens and apps, and behemoth servers are enmeshed in every facet of our existence, including our most intimate moments—and increasingly so, given our socially distanced and evermore virtual existences.

Technologies are also political. Technological advancements are often artifacts of political decisions, whether or not those involve anything approaching democratic participation; indeed, the secretive and technocratic context of the security state is where many now quotidian technologies first originated. More broadly, innovation (including the Covid vaccine) so often involves private profit from initially public investments in research and development.

But technologies are political in a more substantive sense. Or rather, we ought to treat technologies as the outcome of power relations that they are. Who controls the production of green technologies, from initial design to fabrication? How rapacious is the extraction they will require? Who has the right to consent to that extraction, or not? Who bears the environmental and social burden of e-waste? How are the end products distributed? These questions exceed the facile binary of ecomodernism versus techno-pessimism.

Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) provide a concrete illustration of these dimensions and questions. LIBs, which were initially commercialized for the Sony camcorder, have emerged as essential green technology for decarbonizing transportation (the sector responsible for one-third of US emissions) and storing intermittent solar and wind power on renewable grids. Vast, global supply chains connect the sites that extract raw material inputs to those that refine and process them so they can assist in electric charging and discharging, to those that manufacture battery cells, assemble those cells into the packs and modules that can power an electric vehicle, to retail shops, consumers, and, eventually, the transnational trade in used vehicles, as well as the equally transnational flow of spent batteries and waste, destined for materials recovery and dumps.

The extractive requirements alone sketch a map that includes Chile, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, and China; although this global extractive frontier is ever shifting with, for example, lithium projects planned from Mexico to Portugal as well as in Nevada and California. The shifting commodity frontiers evidence a global race to dominate supply chains in which states play a key role incentivizing the corporate exploitation of new deposits. State “dominance” of battery production, from extraction to manufacture, is increasingly framed as a matter of national security; electric vehicles have been converted into potent symbols of geopolitical prestige. Of course, with rapid expansions in extraction—many market analysts predict another global commodity boom on the horizon in part due to the mineral requirements of green technologies like batteries—comes social protest, and communities from Europe to South America are contesting environmental contamination and territorial dispossession in the name of fighting climate change.

These nascent developments pose difficult questions for ecosocialists with an internationalist orientation. How should we respond to the mutation in neoliberalism, evidenced by more direct state involvement in the development of new sectors? How should we orient our programs and tactics to the spatially dispersed, unequal, and exploitative production of the very technologies that enable the rapid decarbonization—especially rapid in the Global North, given historic responsibility for the crisis—that we advocate for? What would it take to link environmental and Indigenous movements located at these technologies’ extractive frontiers with workers who labor at Tesla factories facing an uphill battle for unionization? These questions do not admit of easy answers. But one of the most important tasks for ecosocialism today is to imagine and mobilize for a transition to renewable energy that is radically less intensive in mined materials than that of an electric vehicle in every garage.

MALM

The discourse produces a steady stream of illusions that we can weather the storm without transforming or even reforming the social order. Bill Gates is now (again) the high priest of this faith. There seems to be something particularly alluring about a billionaire—one of the richest living men to boot—having a technical manual for how to avoid a climate disaster. If those who rule society know what do to, the rest of us can sort of relax, can’t we? At least that’s the message being sold, it seems (and bought by those still loyal to the ruling classes).

On the other hand, this does not mean that the Left should a priori reject all technologies on offer as false solutions. That is an all too common reflex. In a long article just published in Historical Materialism, Wim Carton and I examine one technology that is moving to the top of the agenda: direct air capture, or machines for filtering CO2 out of the air and concentrating it so it can be stored underground. It has the potential to reduce the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. But it can only do so if two basic premises are fulfilled: first, additional tons of CO2 are not constantly added to the atmosphere (that is, fossil capital has ceased to exist); and second, the captured CO2 is actually buried in stones under the ground, not used as an input in other commodities.

If it is utilized as soft drink fizz or synthetic fuel or some other commodity that can be sold on the market for a profit, the CO2 soon returns the atmosphere—it’s not sequestered, merely recycled. Unsurprisingly, this emerging technology is about to be captured by entrepreneurs who see in the CO2 a raw material for further profit. They don’t want to shelve it underground: They want to sell it for others to consume, since that alone can yield an increment on their investment. So, the promise of direct air capture can be fulfilled, we argue, on the condition that it is freed from the suffocating property relations.

Something similar applies to renewable energy technologies. They can come into their own and entirely replace fossil fuels only if the prevailing relations are modified or even revolutionized. As long as the goal of energy production is profit, it doesn’t matter how cheap renewables become—the cheaper they become, in fact, the less profit they generate for big energy producers, compared to good old oil and gas, which fetch a higher price on the market because human labor is required to generate them. The sun shines for free and the wind blows without human effort. That’s why the price of renewable energy technologies tends toward zero in the long run and the relative price of fossil fuels must rise—to the detriment of the former, as long as energy producers strive for profit. However much BP talks about going neutral a few decades down the road, this is the hard calculus that primes that and other companies to continue to drill as much as they can. As long as they earn more money from oil and gas, that’s what they’re going to do.

There are promising technologies for helping us to end global heating and even reverse it. But they will not serve these purposes as long as they are trapped in capitalist property relations.

In short, there are promising technologies for helping us to end global heating and even reverse it. But they will not serve these purposes as long as they are trapped in capitalist property relations and the ideologies of fixes they engender. If we want technologies substituting for fossil fuels and undoing their damage, we need to liberate them—us, that is—from the existing social order. This is the truth the mainstream discourse cannot absorb.

DALE

Covid–19 could have been eliminated using simple techniques: social distancing, wearing face masks, restrictions on mobility, and hand washing. Even the most sophisticated of these, face masks to shield against airborne pathogens, were in use as early as the thirteenth century. Likewise, beginning fifty years ago with the widespread recognition of its seriousness, global heating could have been largely mitigated using a mix of basic and complex but long-established technologies: plant trees, weatherize buildings, switch from industrial agriculture to agroecology, from meat-heavy to mostly vegetarian diets, from private cars to public transport, planes to trains, and from coal and oil to wind and solar. Such transformations would have required formidable social mobilization to defeat the forces that have staked their wealth and status on hydrocarbon-based infrastructure. It would have required challenges to the heartbeat of the economic system, capital accumulation, and to the growth fetishism (to borrow Mike Kidron’s term) that accompanies it.

Closely bound up with growth fetishism is a second defining fetish of modernity, technology, with its promise that major social and environmental problems can be resolved through a technological fix. In respect of environmental ills, the logic is to marginalize remedies that require socially transformative change in favor of resolution through technological innovation—the owners and managers of which, not coincidentally, reap windfalls. The technological fetish arises from a basic mechanism of capitalist economy: Innovations unlock market success, enabling businesses to steal a march on rivals, to charge technological rent and to accrue super-profits. It plays to the churn of continual novelty, the development of ever-new product lines as the means to ensure a firm keeps ahead of the pack.

Technology fetishism appeals to the Left as much as to the mainstream. The early days of the internet offer an example. It was greeted as a tool of liberation, of equality and democratic participation, with little attention paid to the power relations in which it was entangled: its control by corporations and states that proceeded to construct a surveillance capitalism and social media as a digital dystopia. Similar dynamics apply today, with the nuclear boosterism of a section of the US left, or with Aaron Bastani’s techno-utopian proposal that asteroid mining is the key to mitigating climate change and will bring opulence for all. This, the pie-in-the-sky road to socialism, plays to the fantasy that we can all live like billionaires without the need to confront issues of extractivism and the pollution that come with it, North–South inequality, or wealth redistribution.

The greatest tech fetishists, however, are they who own and profit directly from the innovations they champion: businessmen such as Bill Gates whose recent book on climate change can be read as a marketing pamphlet for the technologies in which he has invested a small slice of his large fortune; or Richard Branson and Elon Musk, both of whom have announced climate prizes to be awarded for the invention of a new technology that can mitigate climate change. (Branson’s, announced to much fanfare in 2007, was never awarded, and its publicity has been quietly retired. Musk announced his prize earlier this year, to widespread mockery.)

Here, then, is a conundrum of green innovation. When is it a sober response to the challenge of, say, reducing emissions, and when is it a techno-fetishist indulgence? Is, for example, the electric car a sine qua non of a successful green transition? Or is it a “very American answer” to climate change: another new product to encourage the junking of existing models and the purchase of new ones; to keep the wheels of accumulation spinning, to ensure that every driver continues to haul two tons of metals and plastics everywhere they go; and to undermine alternatives such as social measures to lessen the need to travel or to expand and improve public transport until it provides a universally realistic alternative to the car?

While electric vehicles are firmly established, further horizons are continually appearing. The news cycle churns out reports (often lightly edited corporate press releases) on the latest advances: artificial trees that can suck carbon from the breeze, marine solar farms that can create methane for conversion to hydrogen, trains that the hydrogen can fuel, and so on. These stories become part of our background music, lulling us into the belief that the new tech, having been shown to work, can simply be scaled up and plugged in. It’s a state of mind that reflects a characteristic experience of the age: When we desire a commodity we simply click on a button and, hey! presto it arrives at the front door tomorrow; its prehistory of labor and nature—the minerals extraction and production and distribution and so on—are further from us than ever.

In this connection some critics refer to the comfort blanket that techno-optimism provides. Oil and coal can be burnt because we’ll capture and store all the carbon, biomass can be burnt and all the carbon stored too (BECCS, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage), and planes can fly on biofuel or batteries. These technologies do exist, at least on the drawing board, and most of them are central to government and international agency programs for tackling climate breakdown, including the Paris Agreement. But none of them will be of much avail until at least 2050, and many will generate terrific blowback, for example in the form of habitat destruction and food price spikes due to biofuel and BECCS. When Holly Jean Buck, in After Geoengineering, pitches Carbon Capture and Storing as a major tool with which to counter global heating, she remarks, perfectly plausibly, that “it’s not going to happen under capitalism,” at least not at a significant scale. The problem in boosting for a not-gonna-happen technological fix is that it lends cover to the cynical corporate agenda: “We can keep pumping the oil, for CCS will soon be here to catch and bury the emissions.”

None of this is to discount the importance of technological innovation to the goal of emissions reduction. Consider, for example, wind farms. Probably much of the world should be carpeted with them. However, while turbines are powered by thin air, they are not made of it, but of concrete, steel, copper, glass fiber, and rare earth minerals. Some of these materials require highly pollutive mining, typically in countries of the South, with mines surrounded by toxic lakes and workers and communities suffering.

Or consider high-speed rail. To construct the first one hundred miles expansion of new track in England, around fifteen million tons of concrete will be poured. Under present technologies, one ton of concrete releases a ton of CO2. As a source of greenhouse gas emissions, only coal, oil, and gas are worse.

New technologies to produce cement and steel using different energy sources, or to reduce the rare-earth components in turbines, could lessen the ecological harms occasioned by the gigantic construction projects that a green transition will require—although it would be reckless to take such advances for granted, given the timescales and costs involved.

SPECTRE

What do you see as the role of the state when it comes to possible climate solutions? On the one hand, it’s clearly a capitalist state; on the other, it has the capacity to effect substantial change, whatever this might look like. So, what do you think this might look like, this role of the state? What does the capitalist nature of this state mean for the limits of any state-directed change? Is it still possible to use the state, and if so, what might this look like?

RIOFRANCOS

For the foreseeable future, state action is essential to combat the climate crisis and create the conditions for ecosocialist flourishing. The state has the capacity to respond to movement demands to “keep it in the ground” by eliminating all fiscal support for fossil fuels, implementing supply-side restrictions on hydrocarbon extraction, fining firms for pollution, and, ultimately, nationalizing the industry with the goal of phasing it out of existence. Relatedly, the state has the power to enforce a just transition for fossil fuel workers as well as the communities, municipalities, and states that rely on oil, gas, and coal companies for economic activity and tax revenues. A just transition is an empty concept, and will never attract worker support, unless it is backed up by institutional and financial commitments that maintain salaries and benefits—and green recovery investments to develop new sectors in place of the extractive ones.

A just transition is an empty concept, and will never attract worker support, unless it is backed up by institutional and financial commitments.

More generally, state coordination is essential given the complexity, scale, and scope of an energy transition that, unlike any previous transition, would be the result of political choice, to stave off unfathomable harm, and at a speed far outpacing prior shifts to coal or oil. Electrifying mass transit; siting transmission lines, solar arrays, and wind farms; redesigning grids to function with intermittent power sources; ensuring public safety in the face of extreme weather, flooding, and sea level rise; regulating toxic and greenhouse gas-spewing factory farms; building millions of units of green social housing. This is just a taste of what is required; a transformation in all realms of social existence is currently unimaginable without a significant role for an expanded, and better financed, public sector.

This does not imply that the state, or some more revolutionary political form, immediately supplants the private sector; nor does it mean that confronting climate chaos and building the foundations of egalitarian climate safety entails a top-down, rigid, or authoritarian statism. Regarding the first point: the planet can’t wait for us to dismantle the value form. Neither can the masses of people who are currently suffering from the morbid symptoms of fossil capitalism. Capitalism can never fully internalize the costs of social or natural reproduction, the conditions of value accumulation.

Despite these facts, green capitalists already exist; the state should regulate them—channeling their activities to socially beneficial uses rather than venture capital vanity projects—tax them, protect renewable energy and green tech workers’ rights to organize, and, at the same time, build the public sectors’ direct capacities to, for example, own, manage, and distribute renewable energy. Regarding the latter point, this transition is an opportunity to experiment with democratic socialism in its fullest sense: alongside, complementing, and—in the case of the energy system—even nested within state ownership at various scales, there are inspiring possibilities for worker control, consumer cooperatives, Indigenous land and resource sovereignty, and community ownership.

MALM

These are incredibly difficult questions, hard to answer in this format. But we know three things: first, the state, as you point out, has the capacity to effect substantial change; second, actually existing capitalist states will not of their own accord shut down the sources of global heating; third, the organs of the working class are not in a shape that would enable them to smash and replace bourgeois state apparatuses in the short term, which is the term that counts in climate politics. This leaves us in a quandary.

The way out of it that I can see—as a scenario that is at least conceivable—would be for popular forces outside the state to exert sufficient pressure to compel it to start exercising its capacity. In the Global North, we have some prefigurations of what this might look like, even if they are tiny, tenuous, and weak: first Obama and then Biden shelving the Keystone XL pipeline; the Danish state responding to the climate mobilizations in 2019 by cancelling all further licensing of oil and gas in its part of the North Sea; the German state reacting to Ende Gelände by setting up a commission to decide on a date for phasing out lignite coal (settling on the wholly unacceptable year of 2039, the balance of forces not yet being in our favor); the Portuguese climate movement defeating a wide range of extraction projects, and so on.

Examples of such “small victories” can be multiplied. But for this kind of extra-parliamentary mobilization to force the state to crack down on fossil capital as hard as it should, the pressure would evidently have to be ramped up, perhaps by several orders of magnitude. Can that happen? I find it easier to imagine than organs of popular self-rule—soviets, räte or something of the kind—materializing in the timeframe we are speaking of and seizing political power, October-style.

But there is a big but here. If a process of transition were to get underway, impelled by forces from below and outside the state, it is unlikely to halt at reforms in energy production and consumption. It might well be in the nature of such a process that it calls the whole way of doing politics—how decisions are made in society, by whom, on behalf of what class interests—into question. If a train of this kind is set in motion, it might not stop at zero fossil fuels; it could be a vehicle of popular power that ultimately transcends existing structures of bourgeois democracy.

How exactly that would play out is anyone’s guess—these are mere speculations. A credible theory of dual power can, I think, be outlined only when the organs of popular power have begun to bud (thus Lenin and Trotsky theorized dual power after the emergence of soviets—not in, say, the 1890s). Put differently, these processes have to be studied while they are brought into existence through concrete political action on the ground. Such action begins by raising the basic transitional demands and trying to amass force behind them—first of all, an immediate end to all production and consumption of fossil fuels.

Consider one case: the company Total. This is the single largest private corporation in France. It is now planning to go into the Arctic to expand its production of fossil gas. The French state, and President Macron more particularly, is preparing to fund this latest offensive of fossil capital with tax money. This is how capitalist states operate: They assist corporations in pouring even more fuel on the planetary fire. Now there should, one would hope, be a mass movement in France—no foreigner to social revolt—targeting Total with all sorts of militant protest and demanding that the company be nationalized, instructed to terminate fossil fuel production, and transformed into an entity for drawing down CO2, instead of adding more to the atmosphere.

Imagine such a movement existed. Perhaps a catastrophic heatwave in France could call it forth. Imagine, further, that it would succeed and the French state actually expropriate Total, the main capitalist company of that nation. Would such a reform—which corresponds to the most basic knowledge of what needs to be done to stave off unlivable climate catastrophe—be compatible with institutional status quo? Or would it set off a process of reordering the very state apparatus and its relation to classes?

We do not know. We can only start finding out by kicking these things off and taking it from there, following the internal logic of transitional demands until they have been fully met. This, to me, is communist politics: working in and with existing movements—however feeble they might be—or even creating new ones from scratch, with the ultimate aim of projecting power through the state. Will this mean popular power remote-controlling the state or ultimately constituting itself as the new state? We shall see.

DALE

Capitalist states have presided over a system that has brought the Holocene to an end, the uniquely benign and stable era in the earth’s climate which sustained human life and civilization for eleven millennia and will never be recovered. By that yardstick, which seems a reasonable one, they have already failed. But might they yet achieve, so to speak, an “E” grade rather than “F,” by acting to prevent the worst-case scenarios? Can an analogy be drawn between the rise of welfare states and the construction of what has been called the green state (a.k.a. the environmental state or ecological state) today?

From the get-go, capitalist states have in a sense been welfare states and environmental states. They have always taken some responsibility for the education and health of citizens, and for the social reproduction of the laboring classes. They have always shaped the construction of natural environments, aligning them with capital’s needs for cheap resources and costless sinks and, where necessary, tempering excessive despoliation in the interests of “sustainable” accumulation. Welfare states in the fuller sense, however, were constituted in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in response to working class battles for improved conditions of social reproduction, and in response to the interests of businesses in a healthier and more educated workforce and of states in social stability.

The greatest gains were achieved where workers’ organizations were strong and militant, especially in imperialist countries that had cornered large slices of the world pie, in periods of economic nationalism (when states could access captive savings pools), and when GDP growth rates were high. Although these achievements were cemented into institutions, such as the National Health Service in Britain, they are subject to continual contestation from capital. They have to be won, again and again.

Struggles to achieve “environmental states” are like those for the welfare state writ large. “Environmental” demands—for a world in which all can breathe clean air, in which ocean life is protected from carbonic acid and over-fishing, and in which the terrors of climate change are mitigated as far as we possibly can—represent the continuation of the struggle for humane conditions of work and social reproduction. A direct line connects the white phosphorus used in nineteenth century London’s match factories which brought necrosis to the jaws of the matchgirls, whose strike sparked a wave of industrial militancy that birthed the “new unionism,” and the phosphorus crisis today. Struggles over the workplace environment are continuous with the key goals of the environmental movement, and most of the worst effects of climate change and pollution are anyway visited upon working class and racialized people, poorer communities, and countries of the Global South. The environmental crisis, however, imposes itself at the global scale; its overcoming requires remaking the world to a degree that progress in the provision of pensions, healthcare, and other dimensions of welfare at the national level did not.
In recent decades the antiwelfare pushback, under the banner of neoliberalism, represents a formidable obstacle to confronting the climate crisis, in that it undermines state-interventionist capacities. Yet that is not to say that a reprisal of the pre-neoliberal age would offer a remedy. The age of statism was also that of the Great Acceleration of resource use and greenhouse gas emissions; one of its key moments, the US oil grab in the Middle East, was initiated by the most social democratic of presidents, Franklin Roosevelt. State-capitalist economies during the second world war and the Cold War, whether organized around the dollar, ruble, or renminbi, were operating under fundamentally the same logic as the successor economies today, with the same addiction to fossil fuels and a near-identical growth ideology.

Capitalist states, then, are the cause of the climate crisis and a barrier to its resolution, yet they are the only forces capable of mobilizing the resources necessary for a Green New Deal (GND). Left to themselves, they will ensure that any GND remains the plaything of corporations, will come marinated in greenwash, will fire the starting gun for a new round of neocolonial resource grabs, and will fail as a response even to the climate crisis itself, let alone to the multiple other dimensions of environmental collapse. To avoid that fate, radical struggles are needed that are simultaneously for and within the GND; movements that place their faith not in government but in the capacities of people themselves taking collective action to defend the natural environment and to remake the world at this critical moment in its human and natural history.

SPECTRE

Beyond advocating this or that policy platform, what should socialists be doing to reverse the effects of climate change? We want to reflect on socialist strategy: electoral, confrontational, and everything in between. What are the limitations of the various modes?

RIOFRANCOS

There are many excellent ideas and policy proposals for confronting climate change. What is usually missing, including on the Left, is a theory of power for how we get from current conditions to ecosocialism. I have argued above that novel forms of public investment are necessary, as are worker democracy and community participation. All of these, however, are the outcomes of organized political action that leverages collective power, raises expectations about what we want and deserve, targets those who currently make decisions that shape our planetary future, and deploys tactics in an escalating tempo until what politicians and bosses tells us is impossible becomes inevitable.
But what is the source of our leverage? It is enacted by articulating collectivity where atomization and alienation prevail, by apprehending our economic, social, and institutional locations such that we understand who we share those locations with and how we can act in concert with them. It is by coming together as workers, students, tenants, and constituents, and withholding the labor, obedience, rent, and votes that powerholders rely on that we can begin to leverage our world-making capacities.
Climate action, in other words, will happen through a renewed and radicalized labor movement; through students ready to strike until the “adults in the room” enforce stringent targets; through tenants forming unions and claiming their right to a green, democratic city; through voters refusing to elect incumbents and defecting to insurgent, socialist candidates who embrace a radical Green New Deal and whose ascent to the halls of power is a precondition for wielding state apparatuses to ensure socio-natural survival and flourishing. These are the spheres of our everyday lives and the terrains of climate action; only through the diligent work of organizing people where they are at, in the places they live, work, care, learn (and more!) and through (and against!) the institutions that organize political activity, can we hope to save the planet and ourselves.

MALM

I am inclined to say: we need all of the above. When scientists imagine how the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere can be drawn back down, they tend to envision a plethora of methods, because the challenge is so enormous: no single technology can do the trick. There is so much CO2 in the air that there will have to be direct air capture, reforestation, regenerative agriculture, enhanced mineral weathering, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, kelp forests, and so on and so forth—all with a role to play, some big, others small. We need to think in a similar fashion about strategies and tactics for bringing on the transition.

The transition will be messy, contradictory, shot through with antagonism, as turbulent as the ecological crisis itself, or it will not be at all.

The great intellectual model here—a book I’m currently recommending to everyone—is The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. I don’t think a more important book about climate politics has been written, at least not since Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Anyone who cares one iota about this issue has to read it. I can go on praising it for a number of achievements (which is not to say that it is flawless, politically or literally), but here I will only point out one. The Ministry for the Future demonstrates that the transition will happen by a spectrum of tactics—organized sabotage and square occupations, electoral victories and renegotiated missions for central banks, the defection of sectors of state apparatuses to the side of the resistance, the proliferation of workers’ cooperatives, strike waves—all of the above, and more. The transition will be messy, contradictory, shot through with antagonism, as turbulent as the ecological crisis itself, or it will not be at all. The wonderful effect of this novel is that one closes it with the feeling that it could—not likely, but just possibly—take place in the real world.

DALE

Let’s begin with the story of Barack Obama and the COP summit in Copenhagen. It’s a morality tale for our times, which Jonathan Neale vividly recounts in his book, Fight the Fire. The backdrop was a growing and buoyant climate movement in its various strands: NGOs, climate camps, climate justice campaigns, and more. Most activists were understandably thrilled by Obama’s victory after George W. Bush’s presidency. Here at last, they thought, was an American president who would take climate change seriously. The COP was special that year, due to the expiration of the Kyoto Treaty—the treaty that Bush had refused to sign—and the need for its replacement.

Agreement was eventually found, between President Obama and President Xi: the Copenhagen Accord. Obama and Xi then met the leaders of Brazil, South Africa, and India (presidents Lula and Zuma, and prime minister Singh), who signed up to it. But when published, it contained nothing but fine words and fudge. It stated, in Neale’s paraphrase, that “there would be no mandatory cuts in emissions for any country in the world.” In future, “every government could choose whatever increase or decrease in emissions they felt like.” Particularly pitiful was the US’s pledge to reduce emissions, given that, as the world’s major source of greenhouse gases, it ought to cut them rapidly and provide generous assistance to poor countries.

In response, the marches dried up. Climate activists, their hopes punctured, shrank away. The major environmental organizations, Neale goes on, moved from climate campaigns to other issues. “Everyone, the leaders and the rank and file, knew that hope had suffered a historic defeat. It would be four more years before anti-pipeline protests by indigenous First Nations communities in Canada showed us a way for grassroots revolt, and the movement again began to grow.”

Those antipipeline protests in Canada and the US have been inspirational in so many ways. One is that issues of climate emergency knitted together with local issues of environmental pollution and Indigenous rights, served as a reminder that, if the climate crisis is a global issue, the climate movement forms through local battles for justice and against oppression. Another is in the variety of methods deployed. Since 2008, writes Ruth Hopkins, “we’ve protested, pleaded with elected officials, taken fossil fuel giants to federal court, and ultimately at Standing Rock, laid our bodies in the path of bulldozers.” Rail routes and highways were blockaded, and in Canada, solidarity demonstrations were called, and student strikes too. Pressure from below pushed President Biden to cancel Keystone XL.

The Keystone and Wet’suwet’en struggles and the Ende Gelände campaign against a lignite-fired power station in Germany are models to follow when it comes to keeping the “oil in the soil and the coal in the hole.” This is not to say that pipelines should not be blown up. Attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure could well be justified; we’re facing a climate emergency after all. But “blow ‘em up” tactics require small groups to form an elitist vanguard isolated from the rest of the movement, and they risk provoking a repressive onslaught that demoralizes resistance.

Tackling the climate crisis requires shutting down pipelines and airports, but also rebuilding: a remaking of the world. A task of socialists is to link the two fields: blockade Keystone XL and campaign for climate jobs. The latter has gained added urgency in this year of soaring unemployment. Trade unions need to be won to the cause of shutting down fossil fuel infrastructure; environmentalists need to be won to the centrality of workers to the remaking of the world economy that the climate crisis requires.

Whether that transition is compatible with current levels of energy and resource throughput is the subject of some debate, in which we should err on the side of realism, against “green growth.” Consider three examples: electric vehicles, nuclear, and renewables. If the world’s vehicle fleet were replaced by electric vehicles, the planet’s lithium reserves will literally all be mined; and the mining itself is immensely energy intensive. To this, the green-growthers respond with the observation that lithium was only discovered as a chemical for batteries in the 1990s; in ten years’ time, they surmise, a new method will surely be found. Perhaps it will. But it would be rash to bet the future habitability of the planet on speculative hopes.

On nuclear power, a recent essay in Jacobin calls for its ramping up to fill the energy gap when fossil fuel sources are decommissioned. Now, even leaving aside issues of uranium supply and safety and hazardous waste, for nuclear to power the world, at the current US level of per capita energy consumption (we’re internationalists, right?), it would have to be multiplied 88-fold. To visualize that, take the current number of nuclear plants worldwide, four hundred and forty, and raise it to 38,720—and then, if you also envisage GDP growth, raise it further. A similar arithmetic applies to renewable energies.

Wind, solar, and geothermal, taken together, comprise roughly 2 percent of total global primary energy supply. In Fight the Fire, Neale argues that these sectors could “replace all our current uses of energy. Then we can double the amount of energy humanity uses. And then we can double it again” without “making climate change worse.” Again, this seems too gung-ho. In the case of wind, solar, and geothermal power, and assuming that world per capita energy consumption was lifted to the current US level, the multiplier would be circa 850. For every wind farm, build another 850—with a pouring of concrete in quantities I mentioned above. I see such projections as far-fetched, and reliant on self-deception or escapist fantasy.

The alternative requires taking a hard and honest look at materials and numbers, and emphasizing “shutting down” as much as “building anew.” For the time being, however, that debate is for the café. In practice, socialists on both sides can find common cause around a set of demands and practices: the disrupting and decommissioning of fossil fuel infrastructure and the demand for displaced workers to be given alternative employment in renewable energy and other “green” sectors, and the rebuilding of movements that can form counterhegemonic coalitions, finding common interest among energy sector workers agitating for a “just transition,” Adivasi communities resisting coal expansion in Chhattisgarh, the Fridays for Future rebellion of school students, and many more.

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