Friday, July 16, 2021

Next Steps: Violence? Policy? Adaptation? Acceptance?

Ezra Klein wrote a compelling piece about Andreas Malm's book How to Blow Up a Pipeline. We're not doing enough to stop the trainwreck we're driving, but is violence the answer?

"Decades of climate activism have gotten millions of people into the streets but they haven’t turned the tide on emissions, or even investments. . . . 'Here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start,' Malm writes. 'Announce and enforce the prohibition. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.' . . . Malm offers two answers for the resolute nonviolence of the climate movement. The first is “strategic pacificism,” the belief that nonviolent protest is more effective than violent resistance. . . . He has no answers for those who fear the probable political consequences: an immediate backlash that sweeps enemies of climate action into power, eliminating even the fragile hopes for policy progress. . . . Elsewhere in the book, Malm is firmly opposed to tactics that could signal contempt or hostility for the working class. But the consequence of a wave of bombings to obliterate energy infrastructure would be to raise the price on energy immediately, all across the world, and the burdens would fall heaviest on the poor. . . . . Higher energy prices are political poison, which is, according to leaked audio, why Exxon Mobil supports a carbon tax: The company knows that any politician who dares propose such a tax will do more to harm the climate movement than to help it. . . .

Still, violence is often deployed, even if counterproductively, on behalf of causes far less consequential than the climate crisis. So skepticism of the practical benefits of violence does not fully explain its absence in a movement this vast and with consequences this grave. To that end, Malm quotes the writer John Lanchester, who asked, in 2007, whether the absence of eco-violence was because 'even the people who feel most strongly about climate change on some level can’t quite bring themselves to believe in it.'. . . . Many climate activists choose an asceticism in their own lives that they wouldn’t dare ask of others, not because they believe it to be wrong, or unnecessary, but because they fear political annihilation. Most vegans I know avoid meat in part for climate reasons, but they know it would be disastrous to the causes they care about if President Biden demanded that all Americans do the same. It’s true that there is a discordance between the pitch of the rhetoric on climate and the normalcy of the lives many of us live. I don’t see that as a revelation of political misdirection so much as a constant failure of human nature. We are inconsistent creatures who routinely court the catastrophes we most fear. We do so because we don’t feel the pain of others as our own, because there are social constraints on our actions and imaginations, because the future is an abstraction and the pleasures of this instant are a siren. That is true with our health and our finances and our loves and so of course it is true with our world."

I completely agree, but in far less poetic terms, that we're wired to seek out immediate rewards for our own perceived survival (including seeking out entertainment and vacations abroad that we think we deserve), and it's a big ask to pay attention to the consequences of our actions. People aren't worse than they once were; we just have access to so much more stuff that we think we need in order to have a successful life and reproductive potential.

On Biden's proposals, he says, "It is better than nothing; it is not nearly enough," which is likely how it will be from here on. We'll never get enough because what will heal the planet will too completely erradicate the lifestyles we've come to expect. Damage over there doesn't stop the desire to continue enjoying life over here. We're just dumb animals feathering our nests in the best way we can find to do. 

While we focus on reducing GHGs, now we also have to find ways to adapt to the new reality. Klein concludes,

"But when I spoke to Moreno-Cruz, his realism didn’t seem much more realistic, and he knew it. 'We need to provide adaptation measures and investments to the majority of people on the planet,' he told me. Adaptation is a monstrous challenge, arguably harder and pricier than simply reducing emissions would be. It requires infrastructure, migration support, income and food security, and much more, and the financing must flow from rich countries to poor countries. 'At that point, it becomes very similar to mitigation in the sense that our incentives in the rich countries to protect the poor countries are not aligned,' Moreno-Cruz said. We underestimate the horrors humans will adapt to. There is no expanse of suffering that guarantees a compassionate response. The wreckage of the coronavirus is a reminder that even the deaths of family members, friends and neighbors will not inevitably transform our politics. . . . There is nothing we should not prepare to try, but even if we invent the fuels of the future, we will need policymakers to deploy them over the cries of industries that want to profit from the machines and oil wells of the past. . . . We are engineering a world that is so much worse than it need be and that will be lethal for untold millions. . . . Humanity has spent thousands of years building the social organizations and technological mastery to insulate itself from the whims of nature. We are spending down that inheritance, turning back the clock. I don’t believe this reveals our true preference for the world our descendants will inhabit. I believe it reveals our deeply human inability to take the future as seriously as we take the present."

For thousands of years, philosophers have written about our horribly fallible human nature that only a rare few have been able to restrain or rise above. We know what needs to happen, but we can't find the will, as individuals and as a social collective, to do what's right for the future when it costs us our enjoyment of the present. It's a shame that more people don't actually love cycling everywhere and the challenge of living in small spaces with very few things. It's too bad that living simply didn't take off with elites and celebrities, paving the way for a different world. So it's too often seen as a life of poverty, and we need to prove our status through fancy things in order to make connections in our culture. So here we are.

ETA: There will always be these guys:

So, how's that going for ya?


Lorne said...

Av very insightful essay, Marie, that captures our many flaws as a species. I sometimes wonder if this is the common fate of life on other worlds. Do sentient beings reach a plateau where their technology surpasses their evolution, leading to the destruction of habitable planets?

Marie Snyder said...

The fact that Indigenous Peoples lived sustainably here for tens of thousands of years makes me think it's not the only possible path of creatures with an advanced pre-frontal cortex. But we've started down this road of status through wealth, and I can't see any way to turn a corner at this point. Individually, yes, but not collectively.