By Suren Moodliar, Weimin Tchen and Dave Burt
This year, New Scientist reports, will emulate the last (2015) by becoming the warmest yet recorded.1 This fact represents another addition to an increasingly familiar list of dangerous thresholds that we are burning through. These record temperatures not only signal future jeopardy, but they also index a vast range of silent tragedies, both human and non-human. Their scale is best captured in the new terminology that filters out of the sciences and into popular currency. We now reference our time with a geologic frame, the Anthropocene epoch. Implicit in this scale is a somewhat fatalistic outcome. As with the preceding epochs, the Anthropocene is likely to be finite, punctuated by what Elizabeth Kolbert (2014) calls the “sixth extinction.”2 Sounding the alarm amidst what is now a cacophony of bells tolling, the World Wildlife Fund notes that “the Living Planet Index has declined by 49 per cent since 1970.” To underscore its significance, the Fund continues, “That’s not just the loss of some fish and some turtles. That’s the unravelling of the fabric of an ecosystem that sustains life on Earth.”3 Adding to this planetary perspective, are reports from an ever expanding number of severely impacted communities. Confining ourselves to just a few from recent weeks, intimidating headlines erupt from climate frontlines as diverse as US inner cities, the Niger Delta, Darfur, and Fort McMurray.4
For the broad left and activists concerned that this is too bleak and disempowering a picture, there may be hope. After all, we now understand that the catastrophic climate change we confront is the product of knowable economic and other power relations, and further, that these can be changed. Perhaps better than any other work for popular readerships, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything frames the challenge that comes with our recognizing the economic relationships driving climate change: “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”5 Paul Burkett, writing in this issue, notes the irony that, when it comes to our economic system and its rules, the “system’s propaganda machine urges caution and prudence in all projects of reform,” thereby facilitating in effect, capitalism’s “inexorably incautious utilization of any and all material and social conditions, indeed of life itself, as a means of competitive money making.”
Against the aforementioned propaganda and with a sober realism replacing the fatalism that imbues reportage of each shattered climate threshold, the present issue of Socialism and Democracy addresses the transition away from a fossil-fuel-based economy toward one based on renewable energy. As our wording suggests here, our editorial choices embrace a conceptual pluralism and even theoretical eclecticism to encompass a broadly anticapitalist and socialist-oriented range of perspectives. This inclusivity mirrors much of the diversity of progressive movements and projects engaged in an energy transition that is already underway. As such, in each of our articles, organizers and activists will find much that is of practical value and that may be interrogated as means to further their own work.
Our authors’ collective gaze spans the globe itself (see especially the articles by Schwartzman and Roselund), national and provincial frameworks (see Haas and Sander on Germany, Pillay on South Africa, Diamanti on Alberta), municipal organizing (king on Jackson, Mississippi, Diamanti on Edmonton, Alberta). They also address the UNFCCC and COP talks (see especially Nevins’ interview with Kevin Anderson, Caldwell’s interview with Kandi Mossett, and Schwartzman’s article). In their contributions, Kinder, Feldman, and Burkett offer theoretical, conceptual and strategic frameworks that activists will find valuable as they think about time frames, targets, agendas, and guiding principles. A similar theoretical richness underlies the inspiring organizing work described by Mossett, king, Kastner, and Pillay in their pieces; each invokes principles drawn respectively from Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the organizing practices of the African American Freedom Movement, traditional agricultural practices, and ecosocialism. Notwithstanding the resulting diversity, there are several common threads that bind the issue together: time, technology, institutions, agency, and hope.
At the heart of any notion of transition is a set of claims about time itself. In a popular work, the social critic and former #Occupy activist Douglass Rushkoff has framed fossil fuels themselves as a method of “hacking time” – expending energy that nature accumulated over millennia in a radically shorter timeframe measureable in human lifetimes.6 Ironically, Rushkoff notes, in the transition to renewable energy sources, we still face natural challenges – how to deal with the variable availability of sunlight and wind necessary for the main renewable technologies. He points to the fact that our main storage solutions are chemical ones that return us to the problem of non-renewable extractive activities (mining the rare-earth metals molybdenum and lithium). For the contributors to this volume however, the main problems we face are not primarily technological ones but social ones. Indeed, the variability in solar and wind makes for decentralized installations sharing energy across an electrical grid (see especially the contributions from Roselund, Haas and Sander, and interview with king). As importantly, in his contribution, Feldman turns to a diverse group of leftwing thinkers including Barry Commoner and Seymour Melman whom he labels, “Economic Reconstructionists,” to identify the institutional matrices of technology. These in turn may “serve as a bridge toward changing both political consciousness and economic realities.” Similarly, in his interview, king reminds us with a comment on Uber that technological choices have different resonances and outcomes depending on who is in control.
However, shifting the lens somewhat, Kinder returns our focus to energy and technology by invoking the notion of “fossil capital” to argue that we need to understand the infrastructural importance of the energy matrix with its implications for politics and class structure especially when we periodize capitalism itself. Energy transitions therefore require understanding the “complex web of socioeconomic relations that have led to fossil fuels being the dominant source of energy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries…” Before answering his title question, “How much and what kind of energy does humanity need?” Schwartzman establishes that US imperialism and its global footprint can best be understood and engaged in terms of their relations to fossil capital. However, his pragmatic calculus also suggests that liquid oil may be the least harmful fossil-fuel source to power a transition away from fossil capital. This prescription and the prior observation regarding imperialism indicate that activists cannot separate energy issues from the politics of war and peace and, further, that energy politics and transitions will inevitably have to engage, involve, and confront both states and the imperial hierarchy of states.
In their review of the Energiewende, Haas and Sander shed light on the multi-class coalitions and conjunctural opportunities that have made real progress toward an energy transition possible in one powerful state, Germany. They also show that such progress is feasible to the degree that it opposes corporate power and expands the options available to workers and non-bourgeois citizens. The latter are seen as especially strategic at the municipal level, where public ownership of renewable energy sources may benefit entire communities hosting such solar- or wind-powered facilities. In his comments on the city of Jackson, Mississippi, king notes that one obstacle that his organization, Cooperation Jackson, will have to overcome is a state law permitting only energy utilities to sell electricity to the grid. Of course, this fact implies action that must outgrow the local. At the same time, Diamanti, in setting modest expectations for what can be achieved at the provincial level, especially in a fossil-fuel dependent economy like Alberta’s, emphasizes city- and metropolitan-level strategies.
If this preview of arguments to come suggests that institutions and social relations matter as much as, if not more than technologies, it nonetheless remains true that technologies matter. As we move forward with the energy transition, corporations and states will increasingly offer technological solutions for the sequestration of carbon and other problems attendant to fossil capital. Burkett provides us with a four-pronged elaboration of the Precautionary Principle by which any technological offering should be evaluated. Although he suggests that the Principle’s application can best be realized in a social system committed to the progressive de-alienation of human life, it is also a tool that emerged in response to capitalism and that may be used to challenge the system. One technology available to working people and especially small farmers is described by Rachel Kastner in her article on regenerative agriculture. The associated techniques build on traditional knowledge and pre-capitalist farming techniques which, if taken to sufficient scale, promise to sequester carbon on a substantial scale, perhaps even reversing the upward trend in atmospheric carbon concentrations. As importantly, this technology and its prospective diffusion to small farmers in both the Global North and South, meets the standards of the Precautionary Principle: these are tried and tested; they have demonstrable beneficial consequences; their alternatives, especially industrial agriculture, have been shown to have harmful impacts; and, the technology is “open source” and not proprietary; in effect it is available for scrutiny by both consumers and other producers.
If Kastner’s contribution identifies the place of small farmers and rural working-class communities in the energy transition and in building food security, it is consistent with the other contributions that speak to “the myriad climate-justice movements whose struggles constitute a [multi-dimensional and transnational] class struggle,” to borrow from Schwartzman’s framing. Devan Pillay’s remarks on the South African trade union movement suggest definite, albeit hesitant and sometimes faltering, moves toward an ecosocialist agenda. This is exemplified by a remarkable resolution advancing demands for a socially-owned, renewable energy sector. That resolution (appended to Pillay’s interview), was adopted by South Africa’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which organizes autoworkers.
Our interview with brandon king reflects on agency in another working-class institution, the cooperative. In his remarks, king localizes the institution in the struggle of the black working class in the US South. He takes this further to suggest the organic logic by which cooperatives must scale up if they are to serve their members and redress historical injustices. Rather than focusing inward on the accumulation of resources within the cooperative, he states that Cooperation Jackson has an interest in federating with other cooperative structures. Moreover, coop members are likely to also have an interest in pursuing political power since matters like transportation and energy cannot be solved at the coop level alone. This multi-faceted and multi-scalar organizing is also invoked by the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Kandi Mossett in her interview conducted by Robert Caldwell. The network’s Clean Power Plan is articulated with other commitments to food sovereignty, water justice, and the more generalized struggles associated with indigenous sovereignty in a settler-colonial state. Her activism uses global-treaty processes as strategic venues to address indigenous claims and to relate more broadly to frontline communities. Mossett also urges us to recognize that we must not confuse official proceedings with the kinds of people-to-people relationships and solidarity that can be established in such processes.
In Joseph Nevins’ interview with the Tyndall Centre’s Kevin Anderson, the UNFCCC COP process is scrutinized. However, Anderson introduces another dimension to consider in globalized activism – flying to international gatherings. Here he challenges activists to engage in thinking that is at once ethical and strategic. Flying is a “carbon-fuel-intensive and emissions-spewing activity” that has global justice consequences. Raising “the welfare of those in poverty today requires improved access to energy,” but given that there is a “set budget for global carbon emissions,” “flying, or any other high-carbon activity, imposes constraints on others… If I put a foot on a plane, I am effectively telling a poor person elsewhere that they have to cut their already meagre emissions.” In other words, it matters who represents working people at international gatherings, and our organizing needs to strictly identify which among the many gatherings necessitate air travel, offering such strategic benefits as to merit the deepening of our carbon indebtedness.
Throughout history, societies have confronted conjunctures where radical changes were necessary to ensure their survival. Sometimes these were due to external reasons: threats of invasion, climate changes, loss of markets, etc. Often these were for reasons internal to the social relationships and practices of the society; these may include population pressures, civil strife, and resource depletion. Never before our present social arrangements, however, have all human societies been threatened at once. Regrettably, that is the situation that all of humanity confronts today. The contributors to this issue have provided tools to uncover the social relationships that need to be changed in order to mitigate the threat. They have also offered concepts and technologies that we may use to develop alternative social arrangements and relationships with nature. Their contributions identify the subjects of change – indigenous people, super-exploited working people, industrial and even extractive-industry workers, small farmers, activist intellectuals and environmentalists, and even the more prosperous middle classes. They also identify the institutions that need to be targeted, developed, and changed; these include trade unions, cooperatives, local government, global treaties, and ultimately the state itself. Taken together, these global subjects and institutions embody a global working class coming to consciousness and an agenda of de-alienation in the making. They embody hope.
1. Le Page, Michael (2016) “2016 will be even hotter than 2015 – the hottest year ever,” New Scientist, January 20.
2. Kolbert, Elizabeth (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt In Chapter 5, Kolbert introduces us to the notion of the “Anthropocene” and demonstrates how humanity has altered nearly half the planet’s land surface and is acidifying the oceans.
3. World Wildlife Fund (2015) Living Blue Planet Report: Species, Habitats and Human Well-being, 60.
4. In the United States, the National Resources Defense Council warns that the anticipated 2016 summer heatwaves will be hotter and longer than previous years, noting that “children, the elderly, low-income households and communities of color are especially at risk from extreme heat.” See NRDC, “Tracking ‘The Silent Killer’” May 26, 2016,
https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/tracking-silent-killer-heat-health-fs.pdf. Regarding the oil-rich Niger Delta, the head of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation has finally conceded that military solutions are not feasible in addressing resistance from residents of this oil-rich region, “The military cannot stop or solve the problem of militancy in the Niger–Delta region. I will have to go back to my brothers, they are our brothers; we will go and dialogue with them.” Daily Post, May 25, 2016, http://dailypost.ng/2016/05/24/fg-ready-to-negotiate-with-niger-delta-militants/.
In Darfur, where a climate change-related drought has exacerbated centrifugal tendencies within the Sudanese state, the situation continues to be notoriously difficult; the UN Independent Expert on Human Rights warns that “the security situation remains fluid and unpredictable.” Daily Mail April 28, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-3564461/UN-rights-expert-warns-Darfur-security-unpredictable.html.
In Alberta, an entire city was evacuated as a wildfire burned out of control following an “unusually dry and warm winter.” The city itself had grown to 9 times its 1970s population as a result of the tar-sands oil boom that befell the region, expanding onto indigenous lands along the Athabasca River, earning the town of Fort McMurray the nickname, “Fort McMoney.” See Kolbert, Elizabeth (2016) “Fort McMurray and the Fires of Climate Change,” The New Yorker. May 5 http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/fort-mcmurray-and-the-fires-of-climate-change. See also, Deranger, Eriel Tchekwie (2015) “Canada’s Tar Sands Aren’t Just Oil Fields. They’re Sacred Lands for My People,” The Guardian. June 23. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/23/canadas-tar-sands-oil-fields-sacred-lands.
5. Klein, Naomi (2014) This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 20.
6. He sums this point up: “Nature stores energy on a very different timescale than human combustion technologies can burn it…” See Rushkoff, Douglas (2013) Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. London: Penguin Books, chapter 3.