The breakdown last November 25 of the Hague talks on ratifying the 1997 Kyoto protocols on global warming was bad news indeed. But it would have been worse had the U.S. gotten its way. Fortunately, Europe, chiefly France, Scandinavia, and Germany, stiffened its collective spine and refused to cave into American demands for the quick and easy fix. What Washington wants is anything that will avoid cutting back on the fossil fuel consumption that propels our industrial economy. Nothing is too ridiculous for U.S. planners. They will feed anti-flatulance diets to livestock to cut down methane production; spread iron filings on the antarctic oceans to stimulate plankton growth; cover the earth with forests (a nice-sounding idea until you realize that it’s junk trees they will need to plant, at the expense of stable old-growth ecosystems, or that forests block the re-radiation of sunlight back into space); and pay off Russia and Ukraine for the emissions they haven’t put out since the collapse of their economies…anything to keep on belching out the fumes here at home.
Hats off to the European green movements and to protesters on the scene who contributed to the de-mystification of this nonsense. But their victory is small consolation for the bleak prospects of contending with global warming. One would think that the fact that this past summer the North Pole melted for the first time in 50 million years would count for something, or that The Hague featured among its official speakers a Scottish representative of one of the six largest insurance groups—insurance being the fraction of capital which for obvious reasons is the most sensible about the dangers ahead—telling the gathering that simple extrapolation of rates of growth (3 percent per annum) and rates of increase of climate-induced damage (10 percent) would lead to the latter overtaking Gross World Product by 2065, in effect bankrupting the global economy. Yet in the face of this, the latest global warming conference showed as much strategic wisdom as a kindergarten class.
The terrible implication to be drawn from this is that the present world-system is already humanly bankrupt and shows no evidence of being able to safeguard the future, hence it needs to be radically transformed if there is to be a future worth having. But between this brutally apparent fact and the effective response to date lies an abyss. A parent faced with incontrovertible evidence that the school bus driver for her children is a raging, out-of-control alcoholic would stop at nothing to have him/her replaced. Yet presented with logically identical evidence for the global capitalist system and its various agencies and apparatuses, people in effect stand around passively and respect the drunkard’s reassurances.
Unhappily, this judgment applies to much of the left, who are supposed to think in terms of transforming the system, but in this matter do little more than complain about the villainy of the establishment and then turn back to other concerns, as though global warming were just another issue to be taken up in its turn or referred to specialists. However, global warming is no separate issue. It cannot be comprehended as a question of injustice or of corrupt state or corporate power—though all of these things enter into it. Nor are there particular victims, though, typically, the poor are taking the severest blows, because they are more in harm’s way.
It is, rather, the sign of a growing breakdown in the metabolism between humanity and nature. Far from being a single issue, global warming signifies a global crisis that conditions all other issues, and where the very survival of the victims—along with the perpetrators and those who try to rectify matters—is placed into doubt. Because this breakdown is plainly driven by the world capitalist system, people of the left have a special opportunity and obligation to confront it—not by dropping everything else they are doing in the way of combatting injustice, but by expanding and radicalizing their understanding of capitalism and its relation to the ecological crisis it has spawned.
Then there is that subset of the left defined by response to the ecological crisis: the greens. We have already observed that th Greens, working with some of the better NGOs, played a constructive role at The Hague. Something of the sort can be said for the Greens in the U.S., where a degree of recognition of global warming is pretty much mandatory. The question, however, is one of sufficiency: have the Greens done enough, or the proper thing?
Here we need to ask: which Greens?, and raise the sore subject of green fractiousness. For present purposes, the relevant dividing line is between the two national green organizations—Green Party USA, and its offshoot, the Association of State Green Parties—long locked in conflict and currently weighing the possibility of uniting. This is a very tangled story, made more difficult to read because GPUSA and ASGP are actually different kinds of organizations. The former is a membership-based, dues-supported body (currently some 1,700 strong), the latter, as the name suggests, is an umbrella linking together state electoral parties; thus there is nothing preventing dual membership of a Green Party in both groups, although ASGP is not open to individual memberships—indeed, state parties can be largely composed of inactive registrants, with a small cadre of leaders who effectively form a kind of bureaucracy.
As a result, GPUSA is partially oriented toward electoral work, but largely grounded in green social movements, while ASGP is chiefly focused on electoral work. The basic distinction deriving from this can be expressed in a pair of terms borrowed from the original German Greens. GPUSA tends to encompass the “Fundi” Greens, gathering together those who, however interested in electoral work, refuse to be bound by it; such people, then, would include the believers in a green mission to “fundamentally” restructure society. ASGP, on the other hand, is committed to an electoral strategy above all else. As it is no more possible for a social order to be fundamentally changed through electoral means than it is to pick yourself up by your bootstraps, to the degree an electoral path is followed, so must one play by the rules of the system and stay relatively more within it. In other words, the ASGP has to be more “realistic”—they are, in the German parlance, the “Realo” Greens. Note that this analysis is not grounded in individual preferences but in two unfolding logics operating independently of anybody’s will and drawing into their orbits individuals of different persuasions and temperaments.
In the scheme of things, playing by the rules of the system tends to get you further than resisting those rules or trying to change them. So it has been the case that ASGP, despite being a smaller organization in terms of numbers of activists, with no dues paying structure, hence no bank account to speak of, nor with the journals and theoretical workers of GPUSA, has nonetheless gone considerably further in the world than its slightly more venerable rival. It was, after all, with ASGP that Nader essentially linked his campaign, and it was ASGP that ran the national convention last June in Denver, and came to be represented in the press as the Green Party as such—though oddly enough, GPUSA also thrived during the campaign as the only national place for individuals inspired by Ralph Nader to join up.
How did the various green players handle the question of global warming during the past election? One would have to say that Ralph Nader disappointed in his attention, or lack thereof, to the subject. In the torrent of Nader’s pronouncements on corporate malfeasance there was little emphasis on the relationship of capital accumulation to the continual expansion of a fossil fuel-based economy, not to mention, the unique challenges posed by global warming. I may have missed something, but it is worth pointing out that Nader’s relative indifference to global warming caught the attention of the Manchester Guardian, which severely criticized him on the subject in the wake of the collapse at The Hague. The Guardian is no hotbed of leftist or green sentiment, yet it reflects a distinctly more advanced European consciousness on ecological questions—and, no doubt, British raw nerves at having recently endured frightful flooding.
Why would Nader, surely the best-informed man in the world on the relationship between corporations and the state, spend so little time on the role this has played in putting the entire future at risk? Perhaps it had to do with the fact that Nader tends to think in terms of legal redress and that it is difficult to overcome global warming with law suits. But I would suggest that Nader’s reticence mainly derived from plain “realo” prudence. If one is running for office and the deck is stacked against you, as is the case for third party politics in the United States, then it makes little sense to call attention to a problem that, no matter how important, cannot be easily translated into bread and butter terms—indeed, that raises very difficult questions like energy taxes and the taking down of powerful industries, with inevitable dislocations of working people, and the reactions of the labor movement to this.
Ralph Nader, for all his courage and the eloquence of his denunciations of corporate America, never posed a fundamental alternative to capitalism. It might also be argued that without the willingness to think beyond capitalism, global warming will always be a peripheral subject.
Some of these considerations apply to the ASGP, Nader’s realo-green patron, though in this case, there was ample attention paid to the problem. The Association of State Green Parties denounced the U.S. for the debacle at The Hague and carefully developed an approach in its extensive platform. The ASGP position on global warming begins by calling attention to the opportunities for restructuring the economy according to the Kyoto protocols and scolds the U.S. Senate for its opposition to this, along with the corporations for focusing only on the “pain of adjustment.” It also calls attention to the U.S.’s prime responsibility to take the lead on change, given the brutal fact that:
- With only 4 percent of the earth’s people, the United States produces more than 20 percent of emissions.
- From 1990 to 1996, total U.S. emissions grew by an amount equal to what Brazil and Indonesia produce every year.
- Per capita, the United States emits 85 percent more than Germany, twice as much as England and Japan, and currently nearly 10 times as much as China.
The platform then goes on to enumerate specific goals: early target dates; avoiding the loophole-dodges dear to U.S. planners, such as trading emission credits, or replacing emission controls with the enhancement of carbon “sinks”; ruling out nuclear power as an acceptable substitute; setting specific guidelines; enhancing the Clean Air Act; supporting the 1992 informal Global Climate Treaty commiting industrial nations to cut back to 1990 levels (the Kyoto Protocol guidelines); banning ozone- depleting substances along with fuel emissions; and finally—and somewhat redundantly—calling for all the industrial nations to lead in an international effort to address the threat of global warming.
By comparison with the appalling behavior of Republicrats, this looks heaven-sent. It is, as well, realistic, if by that we mean feasible within the context of currently established institutions. But this raises a deeper question, for what may be realistic in one context may be irrational in another. There is no a priori reason to assume, for example, that those existing institutions are structured so as to be able to contend with massive threats like global warming. Suppose that the goal of reduction to 1990 levels with which ASGP is comfortable is in fact radically insufficient, and that it will require much deeper cuts, say, by two-thirds, to actually reverse the drive to collapse as against merely slowing it down. That would force a drastic change in vision, unless one were content with the prospect of seeing the global economy bankrupted in 2080 instead of 2065.
The Fundi Approach
While all these figures are speculative, there has been a good deal of intelligent work that concludes that the Kyoto guidelines are insufficient, and that two-thirds cuts in emissions are necessary. These calculations do not enter into the ASGP platform. For GPUSA, on the other hand, they provide the bedrock of its Fundi approach. In contrast to the reassuring tone of the ASGP document, the first part of the GPUSA platform statement on global warming is given over to an elaboration on just how painful global warming is likely to be. We need not elaborate here, except to say that the portrait renders even the insurance extrapolations tame—for these are based on a linear equation—environmental damage increasing by a set 10 percent per annum—while the actual course of events may well reach exponential proportions of damage as different ecosystemic processes interact. As GPUSA’s platform puts it: “the danger exists that rising temperatures will trigger an ever-worsening, runaway catastrophe as the forests, soils, and seas that absorb carbon dioxide die back.” This implies a radically different reading of what needs to be done.
As the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change stated in 1990, in order to stabilize greenhouse gases at non-catastrophic levels, greenhouse gas emissions from human sources would have to be reduced immediately to at least 60 percent below 1990 levels. The U.S. and other industrial countries came up criminally short of this standard in December 1997 in adopting the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for them to reduce their emissions just 5.2 percent by 2012. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify even this token gesture. Even if the Kyoto goals were implemented, global greenhouse gas emissions will still rise 30 percent by 2010 due to increased fossil fuel burning by the newly industrializing countries.
The policy implications are correspondingly radical:
- Phase Out of Fossil Fuels in 50 Years: The U.S. should accept the goal of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide below 1990 levels. In 30 years, carbon dioxide emissions should be cut by 75 percent in 30 years and near 100 percent by the total phase out of coal, oil, and natural gas as energy sources within 50 years. The U.S. should unilaterally adopt these goals and offer assistance to other nations in developing renewable energy sources.
- Phase In 100 percent Renewable Energy Sources in 50 Years: Solar energy income from the sun can provide all the energy we need for a decent standard of living using technologies we already have. Development of renewable energy sources should receive massive public investment.
The key phrase is “a decent standard of living.” Here even the GPUSA does not fully confront the fundamental problem that there are definite limits to the degree that solar and other renewable energies can replace the fossil fuel economy. It is all very well to talk about switching to renewables. But we need to bear in mind that what is non-renewable about carbon-based fuels is the immense concentration of solar energy provided by hundreds of millions of years of geological activity. It is this borrowed time, essentially, which powers the modern industrial society. It cannot be equivalently substituted by ambient solar energy (or its transforms in wind and water power) because of the diffusion of renewable energy. It follows that a society that has overcome global warming and converted to renewable energy cannot be the kind of society to which we have been led by industrial capitalism. A whole new way of life and work—with a different conception of needs—is going to be necessary. It can be a much better way, but it will also be very different, and its envisioning and building will be our greatest challenge in the period ahead.
Thus perceptions of a fundamental wrong drive the call for fundamental change. If rationality is defined by what enhances survival, then it can be argued that the radical, Fundi view is the more rational, and hence the more realistic. But we cannot be glibly ultra-left here, since it can just as well be argued that the Fundi view is indeed unrealistic, because it is too far out to command enough support to get off the ground. Were there only Fundi Greens, in other words, there would be no green presence of any significance, and the Fundi position would be futile and hence irrational.
So both green positions are necessary, and the greatest danger in any potential unification of the greens would be to collapse the two sides into one ideological position. Practically speaking, this means the active preservation of a Fundi green tendency in any future green movement. Without the Fundi Green differentiated from the Realo, the latter would be sucked back into the system and eventually absorbed by the Democrats or some other corporate party. Without the Realo Greens as a growing force in national life, the Fundis would remain merely isolated and narrowly sectarian. They would lack a bridge to the main body of society, across which the activists of the future can pass. Z
Joel Kovel is activist, writer, and teacher.