I agonized on what to title this short piece, designed to highlight the grave problems facing humanity. Is it too late to reverse the direction of global warming and the inevitable catastrophic effects of climate change, and all the other existential threats to the biosphere? In my opinion, the clock is near midnight, and a blunt assessment and recognition of what the people of the world are now facing, is way overdue. Are we productivist or anti-productivist?
Before I begin my assessment, I think a little personal background will help with my standing on the threats to the biosphere. My awareness actually began when I was in high school in the late 1950’s, but an accounting of my early consciousness will have to wait for my memoirs. The most relevant period began in 2004, when a few of us in a collective called Studies for Global Justice decided to develop a class that we titled “Converging Storms: The Crisis of Energy, Capitalism and the Environment” – Lisa Lubow, Meliza Figuaroa, Kitty Kroger, Adelle Wallace and I took five months in 2005 to develop the seven-week class. My brother Ron Warren helped out on an irregular basis. We met once a week, read dozens of books and hundreds of articles to deepen our own understanding and to develop an extensive reader for the class. At the outset, we decided to base/frame the entire class on physics/science before introducing our Marxist, socialist ideologies.
We gave the first class in the Spring of 2006. The students included members of a number of far-left groups, many independent socialists and a handful of environmental activists, most not necessarily anti-capitalist.
The impact of the class on the roughly 85 participants was varied, but profoundly challenged most of their world views. A few pulled back from ecological activism altogether, though they later returned, but many did not challenge the validity of the information yet urged us to essentially water-down our content and conclusions because it was too frightening and would lead to a feeling of hopelessness. My answer was, and has always been, that if the information is accurate, frightening or not, it is irresponsible not to present it.
We gave the class again in 2008, 2009 and 2010, then again in 2014, 2015 and 2017. In the years between 2006 and 2012, we acquired respect from LA’s environmental movement, but a majority of the organized far left were, in my view, deep in denial. I personally, in a number of public meetings, was called a “kook catastrophist,” a “Neo-Malthusian,” an “apolitical tree hugger,” and many other negative epithets – I haven’t heard any of that in-your-face name calling in the last six or seven years.
So what has changed? Reality. If you have been paying attention and are not mired in rigid ideology, then continued denial is no longer an option. I’m not going to present a bunch of graphs and charts to back up my arguments, but simply lay out what most scientists now think. I’m grounding this conclusion from the Converging Storms reader.
The first session focused on energy – what it is and why it is so important. In this short piece, I’ll keep it simple. Energy is the capacity to do work. Nothing moves without energy. The laws of thermodynamics help spell out the limitations of our access to energy. The First Law states in essence that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form. If this was all there was to it, no problem, but it’s the Second Law that throws a monkey wrench into the machinery. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, often called Entropy, declares that, in any isolated system, everything moves in one direction, hot to cold, order to disorder, unless new energy from the outside is introduced into the system. Fortunately, we have the Sun or we would have frozen solid millions of years ago.
So what, you say? So, nothing moves without energy. The overwhelming source of that energy for the last 150 years has been fossil fuels. Primarily, oil. I’ll wrap it up with a short quote from Stan Goff: The Energy Crisis Is Here, 2004:
The simple fact is that the world system as it is now constituted, in every facet including technological development and population, has been fueled predominantly by fossil hydrocarbons, exclusively and irreplaceably in many sectors by oil. Any analysis that fails to confront this fact squarely is neglecting physics, specifically the THE SECOND LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS. The reason this physical law related to energy is so important is that it is a law that cannot be broken. We cannot “make” energy and when we use it up in work it is gone for all practical purposes.
One more important comment on oil – oil and all fossil fuels are finite. We are now at conventional oil’s plateau of extraction. The only reason we are not experiencing a sharp decline yet is due to extreme measures – fracking, shale oil, tar sands, etc. The Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) is very low on these proxies. And, as conventional oil reserves and extraction decline, so will the EROEI. We are using up hundreds of millions of years of stored solar energy. We cannot get it back.
The hard to face fact, for many, is that the last almost two hundred years of industrial production and extraction, primarily capitalist, has been possible because of fossil fuels, particularly oil – including the exponential growth of the world’s human population.
Since this is a personal piece, I’ll make what should be a sobering comment on population – when I was born in 1941, 4 ½ months before Pearl Harbor, also, the same day, July 22, that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the planet’s human population was about 2.1 billion. In 1841, a hundred years before, the population was about 1.4 billion. In one hundred years it grew by less than one billion. Now, only 77 years later, the human population has almost tripled to about 7.6 billion. And that massive growth, in the same period, has been accompanied by increasing toxification of land, sea and air and has helped lead to massive species declension and die offs. Many scientists now think we are in the world’s sixth mass extinction and have dubbed 1950 as the beginning of a new epoch, the Anthropocene. This is where a number of international scientific organizations are currently at:
As of August 2016, neither the International Commission on Stratigraphy nor the International Union of Geological Sciences has yet officially approved the term as a recognized subdivision of geological time, although the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the Sub commission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS)of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), voted to proceed towards a formal golden spike (GSSP) proposal to define the Anthropocene epoch in the Geologic Time Scale and presented the recommendation to the International Geological Congress on 29 August 2016.
Okay, let’s move on to some more details about the sources and negative consequences of climate change, other than the burning of fossil fuels. As the ice caps melt, particularly in Greenland and Antarctica, fresh water enters the oceans. If all the glaciers on Greenland melted, the world’s seas would rise about 22 feet. If the same happened in Antarctica, where around 70% of the world’s fresh water is stored, the sea levels could rise well over a hundred feet. Here is an example of an article from our first reader – we still included it in the 2017 edition, “Melting Planet: Species are Dying Out Faster Than We Have Dared Recognize.” When we first developed our reader, most scientists understood that the glaciers on Greenland were sliding toward the sea at a frightening pace, about a meter a year. Now they are moving three meters a year.
As I was writing this about the glaciers in Greenland, I received an e-mail from my brother. The headline read: “in just 30 minutes, greenland’s helheim glacier lost 10 billion tons of ice to the ocean” (Pakalolo Community, Tuesday, July 10th, 2018).
The crisis of ocean acidification, caused by the absorption of 30-40 % of the CO2 out of the atmosphere, including rivers and lakes, has been compared to anthropogenic climate change and called the “evil twin of global warming”. Coral reefs are already bleaching and dying off the world over at an alarming rate, contributing to species extinctions.
We also covered how all of the above negatively impacts human health. No space here, but it’s not a pretty picture.
The overall point I’m making is that, in only a short 15 years, the mainstream scientific consensus gave us around 100 years to deal with, and begin to mitigate, most of the issues mentioned above. Only “scientific outliers” were projecting worst case scenarios in the early 2000’s. Unfortunately, the mainstream consensus now agrees with the “outliers” on just about everything.
By this point in the class, we had pointed out the looming, inevitable, catastrophic events facing not only the earth’s biosphere but life on earth as we know it. Sadly, we may now have already passed many tipping points and, when the music stops, guaranteed, there will not be enough chairs.
We then introduced the capitalist system. I gave a presentation that included why the system had built in to its structure an imperative to expand/grow.For those interested in a detailed explanation on why capitalism must expand, take a look at a talk I gave at a Socialist Party meeting back in 2015. Go to You Tube, Socialist Party, LA Freedom School: Capitalism and Austerity, Gene Warren Jr.
I make the argument that capitalism cannot stay healthy for long without expansion, without growth. Most environmentalists, and in my opinion, most Marxists, believe that capitalism only has a tendency to grow, that those at the top control and guide the system as if it were an empty vessel, divorced from the real world. A downside of such a position is that most environmentalists and, sadly many Marxists. wrongly conclude that the system can be regulated into sustainability. Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.
I also think that the present crisis may be the new normal, that is, without permanent yearly expansion of at least 3%, the capitalist system will continue to stagnate or contract. At present, ten years later, the majority of people have not yet recovered from the Great Recession. As it all begins to unravel, if the workers and oppressed people of the world, from the bottom up, do not overthrow it and replace it with a democratic, egalitarian, collectivist system, then the capitalists themselves will replace it with some form of a totalitarian command economy. It will not be capitalism, but something far worse.
Okay, so now I’ll get to the core of what I was asked to focus this piece on and make it clear why, at this juncture, I am still in a tiny minority. Many people in the radical left – Marxists, democratic socialists, anarchists – now agree with, at some level, most of what I have alluded to above. More and more folks are now identifying as ecosocialists. Here’s the rub – there are two camps that are, in a practical sense, diametrically opposed to one another.
The majority view thinks that the problem we face is essentially one of redistribution, that once we overthrow the ruling classes, we can ramp up production and end scarcity, thus bringing relative equality to the world. These folks are the productivist camp that make up the overwhelming majority of socialists/ecosocialist in the world.
I represent the anti-productivist camp. Unfortunately, the stamp, anti-productivist, doesn’t sound positive, and it’s not in many ways. But, too bad something like sustainable production wasn’t adopted – it wasn’t so we’re stuck with what we have.
In my opinion, the best book on the subject is by Richard Smith, “Green Capitalism: The God That Failed” (WEA and College Publications 2016). Richard is a longtime friend (35 years or so) and we both came to anti-productivist views independently. He was on the east coast most of the time and I’ve always been on the west coast. I bring up his book because I think everyone should read it. Also, because I’m now using Richard’s participation in a workshop on eco-socialism, at the Left Forum in New York City a couple of months ago, to help emphasize my argument.
The panel was titled “Radical Visions and Strategies for the Environmental Movement.” The sponsors were New Politics Magazine, DSA Climate Change Working Group, System Change Not Climate Change. Nancy Holmstrom. With New Politics Magazine moderating. The other panelists, besides Richard, who represented System Change Not Climate Change, were Kate Aronoff of “In These Times,” Ashley Dawson of College of Staten Island and Nancy Romer of Brooklyn College.
I wasn’t there, but I got a thorough report from Gabe, an SP comrade, who attended. He said Richard’s talk on the seriousness of the threats sounded very much like mine – during the discussion period, someone said something to the effect of “Oh my God, you paint a bleak picture. What is your program to mitigate the problems?” Richard responded, and I’m paraphrasing again, “end all industrial extraction and production today”.
Of course, the statement was somewhat hyperbole, but only somewhat. It brings most radicals up short, ‘get out of here, the capitalists will never go for that’. Exactly – it’s the point Richard was making and a point I similarly make. And, I also add, if capitalism is not stopped, overthrown and replaced with a democratic system/ecosocialism soon, then the looming disasters will take down the human experiment and all higher life forms with it.
To make things worse, when we do overthrow capitalism, we cannot continue industrial production and extraction like we do now. We have to dramatically pull back. More stuff for those at the bottom, around the world, for sure, but the long-term solution will have to be found in massive cultural shifts to quality over quantity. Less stuff, more leisure time. I know this sounds utopian, but the laws of physics will prevail, whether we like it or not. Let me quote myself, and end with this comment, which those that know me have heard before:
Mother nature doesn’t care whether she is pillaged and raped authoritatively, or democratically.
Gene Warren Jr. came of age in the 1950s as a ‘rebel without a cause.’ It wasn’t until the mid 1960s, already married, with two children, that he focused his rebellion in the civil rights/black liberation and anti Vietnam War movements. By 1968 he self identified as a revolutionary Marxist and after membership in a number of revolutionary socialist organizations, was a founding member of Solidarity in 1986. He is also a member of the Socialist Party and DSA, and self identifies as an ecosocialist. He currently teaches one class at USC film school and has spent his entire working life in the movie industry.
Coming soon – The Ecosocialist Issue.