On ‘Environmental Catastrophism’


Last year in Monthly Review, I debated Eddie Yuen, an anarchist who believes it is a mistake for radicals to focus on telling the truth about the global environmental crisis, because “awareness of climate crisis does not necessarily lead to increased political engagement.” Not only can such awareness lead to apathy, he wrote, but “environmental catastrophism is very likely to be mobilized by economic and national elites to reinforce existing inequalities and expand enclosures, commodification, and militarization”.[1]

I never expected to hear similar arguments from a Marxist, much less one I respect as much as Sam Gindin, a long-time leader of the labour movement in Canada, who is now an adjunct professor at York University and co-author of the Deutscher-prize winning book The Making of Global Capitalism.

But Gindin has indeed made a very similar argument, in a recent Jacobin article, “Unmaking Global Capitalism” and in a subsequent exchange with Vancouver ecosocialist Brad Hornick in Rabble.[2]

In his Jacobin article, Gindin issues a particularly strong warning against “environmental catastrophism”, which he characterises as “declarations that the end of the planet is only decades away if capitalism isn’t radically changed now”. He also calls such declarations “fearmongering” and “crisis-mongering as a mechanism for overcoming popular passivity.”

Challenged by Hornick to answer, “Is there or is there not a crisis?”, Gindin replies, “If it is clear the world is going to end in 20 years, we should say so” – but then he immediately warns again that we should not “purposely exaggerate the possible timing of that end in the false hope that this will help mobilize people.”

Like Yuen, Gindin warns that “environmental catastrophism … may just reinforce a sense that we are doomed and can’t really do anything about it … [or] encourage people to jump aboard illusory market-based ‘solutions’.”

In my Monthly Review articles, I showed that there is simply no evidence for, and a wealth of evidence against, the claim that talking about environmental crises causes apathy or strengthens the right. Rather than repeat those arguments, I want to raise three questions about the supposed problem of “environmental catastrophism”, which Gindin evidently believes is a real problem in the left today.

1. Does anyone on the left actually claim that the end of the world is 20 years (or even a few decades) away?

Ecosocialists and other environmental activists frequently discuss projections made by scientists about how long current CO2 emission levels can continue without causing tipping points between, as the noted British climate scientist Kevin Anderson puts it, dangerous climate change and extremely dangerous climate change. The fight to build a better world will become much more difficult if such thresholds are crossed, so it is important for us to know when they may occur, and what their physical and social impacts might be.

But to my knowledge no one – literally no one – says the world will end if we don’t radically change capitalism by then.

We’ve come to expect such misrepresentation from right-wing climate change deniers – the people who invented the label “environmental catastrophism” as an insult – but not from serious radical scholars.

2. Is anyone on the left purposely exaggerating the crisis in order to overcome mass passivity?

As we’ve seen, some on the left argue that the public can’t handle the truth about the environmental crisis. They say we should temper our message lest we frighten people into apathy or conservatism.

Most ecosocialists and other green lefts take exactly the opposite approach. The social and ecological revolution we envisage requires decisive action by a knowledgeable majority, so it is our duty to get the facts out to the broadest possible audience. As the great socialist ecologist Barry Commoner wrote: “I have chosen to speak out about the scientific evidence of the origins of the environmental crisis; the alternative courses of action that might resolve it; and the right of the public – rather than propagandists or scientists – to make that choice. This was my duty to science, to the people whom science must serve, and to the survival of a civilized society.”[3]

We tell the truth as best we can, but climate change is a complex subject, so we may not always do this as well as we should. If Sam Gindin disagrees with what we write, I hope he will tell us how to improve.

But there is no justification for impugning the motives of radicals who are seriously trying to translate scientific findings into popular articles and action programs.

3. Should the fight against climate change be a priority for socialists today?

This is the most important question. For many on the right and a few on the left, accusations of “climate catastrophism” are code for “climate change isn’t very important”. I hope that isn’t Gindin’s view, but his articles are not clear.

The closest thing to a mass environmental movement in North America today is the fight against the extraction, transportation and use of fossil fuels. Across the United States, anti-fracking protests have mushroomed, and the fossil fuel divestiture campaign has won significant support on many campuses.

In Canada, campaigns against pipelines and tar sands exploitation have mobilised tens of thousands in meetings, rallies and marches, won legal decisions and a municipal referendum, and have helped many to better understand the anti-environmental nature of the profit system. These campaigns are explicitly connected to a host of critical social issues, including internal colonialism and indigenous rights, public health, food and water safety – and, of course, to global warming.

So I’m surprised that Gindin doesn’t say one word about those campaigns, let alone urge socialists to take part. Instead, he tells us to “frame the issue of the environment” by linking it a list of progressive concerns that he oddly calls “a broader struggle”, although none of them is currently the focus of any significant movement at all.

Movements such as the fight against pipelines, fracking and tar sands are responding to a global process that, as John Bellamy Foster recently wrote, “is progressively erasing previous distinctions between workplace exploitation and environmental degradation – as capitalism universally undermines all real-material conditions of production.”[4] Rather than trying to reframe these movements to fit a socialist-business-as-usual mold, socialists should celebrate and build them – and learn from them.

It is only by building actual movements for concrete objectives like stopping pipelines and fracking and coal mining that millions of people can come to understand the need for broad social change – and it is only by participating in such movements that socialists can develop and promote a credible program for 21st century socialism. If we believe that we have exclusive possession of the revealed word – or if we act as if we do – we will be irrelevant to the real movement, which will develop in directions and ways that we cannot predict.

Although he says that “we face a grave environmental crisis”, Gindin doesn’t seem to agree that in our time every serious socialist must be an active environmentalist – that socialists must be ecosocialists. Indeed he seems to counterpose socialism and environmental activism, asserting that what he calls “permanent protest” is a distraction that “replaces the politics of transformative change”.

If the environmental crisis is as serious as the best science says, then a “politics of transformative change” that doesn’t place a high priority on resisting capitalism’s war on the planet will be unable to carry through any serious change at all.

* * *

There is much in Sam Gindin’s articles that I agree with, and I’m pleased that he is participating in the ongoing discussion on how to challenge capitalism in a time when the organised left is weak. I’m disappointed that he appears not to grasp the significance of the global environmental crisis for socialist politics and strategy. I hope he now understands that “environmental catastrophism” is a red herring that doesn’t contribute to serious discussion within the left.

Above all, because I respect his many contributions to struggles for social justice, I look forward to seeing him on the front lines of this battle as well.

[Ian Angus is editor of the ecosocialist journal Climate & Capitalism, and co-author of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket, 2011).].

Notes

[1] Ian Angus, “The myth of ‘environmental catastrophism’“, Monthly Review, September 2014; Eddie Yuen, “Reply to The myth of ‘environmental catastrophism’“, Monthly Review, December, 2014; Ian Angus, “A reply to Eddie Yuen“, Monthly Review, December, 2014.

[2] Sam Gindin, “Unmaking global capitalism”, Jacobin, June 2014; Brad Hornick, “On the environmental question, Sam Gindin has got in wrong”, Rabble, July 3, 2014; Sam Ginden, “Reply to Hornick: If only…”,Rabble, July 4, 2014. All three articles have been republished in The Bullet.

[3] Barry Commoner. “Reply to Ehrlich and Holdren”, Environment, April 1972.

[4] John Bellamy Foster, “The Epochal Crisis”, Monthly Review, October 2013

 

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