Because of the interest in my review of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, I’m posting an article originally published (slightly edited) in the October 1995 issue of News & Letters. (Yesterday I posted a review of another McKibben book, The End of Nature.) The article focuses on global warming, and includes a critique of a 1995 piece by McKibben. The original title appears below.
Global warming: deaths in Chicago, capital’s momentum
After this summer’s heat wave that killed over 700 people, few in Chicago doubt the reality of global warming. Now comes the draft report of a United Nations panel of 2,500 scientists from around the world, cautiously approaching the same conclusion. The increasing scientific consensus is that we are seeing the beginning of its climatic effects.
Theory and computer models predict rising sea levels that will inundate some coastal cities, islands, wetlands and beaches, creating millions of environmental refugees; more frequent and more extreme droughts, heat waves, fires and floods; the vanishing of some forests.
Hardest hit will be the poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, tropical Latin America and the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Already deprived of economic resources to deal with the dislocations, these countries will likely suffer the greatest crop losses.
Squarely facing such disaster, Congress has boldly decided to–slash funds for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases! They are even slashing funds for research on climate change, just as in every environmental area they are cutting research funds and restricting the public’s right to know. Their motto is, What we don’t know won’t hurt us, and we’ll hurt anyone who tries to let the people know.
One pitfall of the environmental movement being on the defensive, as it is now, is the risk of our goals being narrowed to the protection of all the legal and regulatory gains won by years of hard struggle. “Such a narrowly pragmatic vision is potentially paralyzing,” warns Bill McKibben [in an article titled, “Not So Fast”] in the July 23 New York Times Magazine, precisely because it is possible to address some environmental problems within that framework.
McKibben argues that such an approach omits the “more systematic troubles”–like global warming–that result from “civilization’s basic momentum.” There is no technological quick fix for global warming. The urgent need is to sharply reduce the release of greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane into the air.
That can only be done by drastically cutting use of oil, coal and natural gas. “This could not happen in a world that closely resembles ours,” observes McKibben. “The only way out of this dilemma is to rethink what we mean by ‘development.'”
The problem is that McKibben cannot conceive of a fundamental change in social relations, and therefore neglects the class basis of “civilization’s momentum.” Consequently the radical change he advocates is confined to individual behavior, as if that did not grow out of a social base. His agenda is a narrow one of reducing population and living standards: “an all-out drive for deep thrift, for self-restraint, for smaller families.”
McKibben’s economic critique is that “we” are “addicted to growth,” and the concept of development he advocates differs only quantitatively from the dominant one: “The systemic environmentalism…has one question to ask: ‘How much is enough?’ How much convenience, how many people, how much money?”
McKibben exhibits the capitalist ideology that equates living standards with consumption, and that subsumes all economic activity under consumption, spiriting away accumulation of capital. In capitalism, production drives environmental destruction, and it is production for production’s sake, not for satisfying human needs. The overriding fact is that world carbon dioxide emissions come mainly from production.
The sphere of consumption is bound to the needs of production. For instance, dependence on cars is built into the physical structure of suburban sprawl driven by the greed of real estate “developers,” racist white flight and capital flight from urban labor revolt.
Consequently, nothing short of a revolutionary restructuring of society, from production to man/woman relations, can turn around “civilization’s basic momentum.” It is true that we are faced with systemic environmental crises, from global warming to species extinctions, that demand a radically new kind of development. Narrowing the new concept of development to austerity can only be a barrier to the real need: fully human development.