Reviewing Monbiot’s Heat

Book Reviewed:

Heat:  How to STOP the Planet From Burning 
George Monbiot
Cambridge, MA:  South End Press, 2007

George Monbiot’s latest book is arguably the greatest threat emerging to the "know-nothings" of today who deny global warming and the threat of climate change to human existence on the planet:  it is a clearly written, hard-headed analysis that refuses to accept platitudes, no matter how helpful to his own position they might be.  Monbiot, a British journalist, makes Al Gore look like a wimp.

Monbiot reports a scientific paper from a man named Colin Forrest.  Forest’s argument, simply is summed up:

If in the year 2030, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain as high as they are today, the likely result is two degrees centigrade of warming (above pre-industrial levels).  Two degrees is the point beyond which certain major ecosystems begin collapsing.  Having, until then, absorbed carbon dioxide, they begin to release it.  Beyond this point, in other words, climate change is out of our hands:  it will accelerate without our help.

The only way we even have a chance to keep this from happening, according to Forrest, "is for the rich nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent by 2030."

In Heat, Monbiot tries to examine if it might be possible to meet this extremely difficult threshold.  In this book, Monbiot "seeks to show how a modern economy can be decarbonized while remaining a modern economy."

To begin, he focuses on addressing carbon dioxide emissions in the developed countries, arguing that until we can do it in these countries, then we really cannot complain about the increasing emissions of a developing country such as China.  As he points out, the average person in China produces 2.7 tons of carbon dioxide a year, whereas a citizen of the United Kingdom produces 9.5 tons, and the average American, 20 tons.

Recognizing the need to drastically reduce CO2 emissions in developed countries, Monbiot-after disemboweling "the denial industry"-systematically works through the changes needed to plausibly reduce these emissions in different sectors of the economy.  He examines our homes, as well as the energy production, transportation, travel, retail and manufacturing industries.  He asks "how much energy can renewables supply?," while also examining the realistic possibilities of a reorganization of our energy production industry.  And he critically examines claims by many alternative advocates.  He believes he has succeeded in every area, with the single exception of air travel, in which, he admits, he fails.

Unlike many "thinkers" who willingly place the burdens on others, Monbiot argues that if we are going to cut greenhouse emissions by 90 percent, then the cut must apply to everyone; in other words, we each must drastically restructure our lifestyles.  He argues that energy tax plans will not work, as the rich will push costs onto the poor.  He rejects any type of "big brother" statist option, arguing that political opposition would halt this way out-and that it couldn’t work anyway.  He argues that the only way that is practical, and that has a chance of being adopted if everyone is subject to it, is a rationing system. 

In other words, once we figure out how much carbon can be emitted in a year, then that amount would be divided by the population of a country and that would be its national allocation.  How that was allocated nationally would be up to a country’s politicians, but the general idea would be equality.  Each person would then have to reduce his or her year’s carbon production to the amount allocated.  

There’s no question this would reduce our standard of living-but the reality of climate change allows no alternative, if not for us then for our children.  The issue of equity becomes overwhelming. 

Monbiot suggests that we can do this and retain the status quo, albeit at a somewhat reduced level.  He has not convinced me of that.

Although he talks about addressing the carbon dioxide emissions of both the cement and retail industries, Monbiot does not address corporations themselves.  One of the things we know about capitalism-whether one likes it or not-is that without some type of serious regulation, corporations will produce anything that will sell for a profit, regardless of ecological consequences.  This simply is no longer tolerable-nor acceptable-if it ever was.  For example, there is no justifiable argument for allowing General Motors to continue to produce the Hummer-and I actually believe that is true of any SUV and probably most large pickups, as well as many fuel inefficient cars.

However, I’m not sure that regulating capitalism would be sufficient.  There may be no viable option short of creating a generally new production, distribution, and exchange system in the world.  One thing is for certain:  continuing to allow corporations to operate without extensive governmental regulation-despite their many problems-is a guaranteed road to disaster.

Ultimately, this would also mean a repudiation of Empire and all related means by which the United States government attempts to dominate the rest of the world.  Not only would this reduce the ecological threat from war, but it would mean we would not have to send loved ones off to fight every few years.

However, even if we do cut emissions by 90 percent, it is not certain that we will win.  The challenge to human survival is great.  To even have a chance, though, we need to take an approach as rigorous and clear-sighted at that advanced by George Monbiot.  Anything less is sure invitation to human extinction.

Kim Scipes is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana.  Along with other courses, Scipes teaches Sociology of the Environment.

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