Part One: It's Not About the Climate
Social justice was once synonymous with equal access to modern amenities — electric lighting so poor children could read at night, refrigerators so milk could be kept on hand, and washing machines to save the hands and backs of women. But today's leading left-wing leaders, such as 350.org's Naomi Klein (above right), advocate a return to energy penury and harmonizing human civilization to Nature.
By Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus
SolidarityEconomy.net via TheBreakthough.org
April 29, 2013 - Over the last few decades, humans achieved one of the most remarkable victories for social justice in the history of the species. The percentage of people who live in extreme poverty — under $1.25 per day — was halved between 1990 and 2010. Average life expectancy globally rose from 56 to 68 years since 1970. And hundreds of millions of desperately poor people went from burning dung and wood for fuel (whose smoke takes two million souls a year) to using electricity, allowing them to enjoy refrigerators, washing machines, and smoke-free stoves.
Of course, all of this new development puts big pressures on the environment. While the transition from wood to coal is overwhelmingly positive for forests, coal-burning is now a major contributor to global warming. The challenge for the twenty-first century is thus to triple global energy demand, so that the world's poorest can enjoy modern living standards, while reducing our carbon emissions from energy production to zero.
For the last 20 years, most everyone who cared about global warming hoped for a binding international treaty abroad, and some combination of carbon pricing, pollution regulations, and renewable energy mandates at home. That approach is now in ruins. In 2010, UN negotiations failed to create a successor to the failed Kyoto treaty. A few months later cap and trade died in the Senate. And two weeks ago, the slow motion collapse of the European Emissions Trading Scheme reached its nadir, with carbon prices, already at historic lows, collapsing after EU leaders refused to tighten the cap on emissions.
What rushed into the vacuum was "climate justice," a movement headed by left-leaning groups like 350.org, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace. These groups invoke the vulnerability of the poor to climate change, but elide the reality that more energy makes them more resilient. "Huge swaths of the world have been developing over the last three decades at an unprecedented pace and scale," writes political scientist Christopher Foreman in "On Justice Movements," a new article for Breakthrough Journal. "Contemporary demands for climate justice have been, at best, indifferent to these rather remarkable developments and, at worst, openly hostile."
For the climate justice movement, global warming is not to be dealt with by switching to cleaner forms of energy, but rather by returning to a pastoral, renewable-powered, and low-energy society. "Real climate solutions," writes Klein, "are ones that steer these interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture, or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users…"
Climate change can only be solved by "fixing everything," says McKibben, from how we eat, travel, produce, reproduce, consume, and live. “It’s not an engineering problem," McKibben argued recently in Rolling Stone. "It's a greed problem." Fixing it will require a "new civilizational paradigm," says Klein, "grounded not in dominance over nature, but in respect for natural cycles of renewal."
Climate skeptics are right, Klein cheerily concludes: the Left is using climate change to advance policies they have long wanted. "In short," says Klein, "climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative."
As such, global warming is our most wicked problem. The end of our world is heralded by ideologues with specific solutions already in mind: de-growth, rural living, low-energy consumption, and renewable energies that will supposedly harmonize us with Nature. The response from the Right was all-too predictable. If climate change "supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand," as conservatives decided long ago, then climate change is either not happening or is not much to worry about.
Wicked problems can only be solved if the ideological discourses that give rise to them are disrupted, and that's what political scientist Foreman does brilliantly in "On Justice Movements." If climate justice activists truly cared about poverty and climate change, Foreman notes, they would advocate things like better cook stoves and helping poor nations accelerate the transition from dirtier to cleaner fuels. Instead they make demands that range from the preposterous (eg, de-growth) to the picayune (eg, organic farming).
Once upon a time, social justice was synonymous with equal access to modern amenities — electric lighting so poor children could read at night, refrigerators so milk could be kept on hand, and washing machines to save the hands and backs of women. Malthus was rightly denounced by generations of socialists as a cruel aristocrat who cloaked his elitism in pseudo-science, and claimed that Nature couldn't possibly feed any more hungry months.
Now, at the very moment modern energy arrives for global poor — something a prior generation of socialists would have celebrated and, indeed, demanded — today's leading left-wing leaders advocate a return to energy penury. The loudest advocates of cheap energy for the poor are on the libertarian Right, while The Nation dresses up neo-Malthusianism as revolutionary socialism.
Left-wing politics was once about destabilizing power relations between the West and the Rest. Now, under the sign of climate justice, it's about sustaining them.
Part 2: How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor
Progressives once championed state-led projects to advance human and economic development like FDR's (left) Tennessee Valley Authority. Today, despite enjoying the fruits of a modernity created in many ways through such public efforts, they urge a return to low-energy lifestyles and promote decentralized, market-driven proposals. A true progressive vision for the 21st century should — and will — be shaped more by leaders in the developing world who have no illusions about energy poverty, like Dilma Rousseff of Brazil (right), than by Western environmentalists.
June 10, 2013 - Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity.
Hope came in the form of World War I. Congress authorized the construction of the Wilson dam on the Tennessee River to power an ammunition factory. But the war ended shortly after the project was completed.
Henry Ford declared he would invest millions of dollars, employ one million men, and build a city 75 miles long in the region if the government would only give him the whole complex for $5 million. Though taxpayers had already sunk more than $40 million into the project, President Harding and Congress, believing the government should not be in the business of economic development, were inclined to accept.
George Norris, a progressive senator, attacked the deal and proposed instead that it become a public power utility. Though he was from Nebraska, he was on the agriculture committee and regularly visited the Tennessee Valley. Staying in the unlit shacks of its poor residents, he became sympathetic to their situation. Knowing that Ford was looking to produce electricity and fertilizer that were profitable, not cheap, Norris believed Ford would behave as a monopolist. If approved, Norris warned, the project would be the worst real estate deal “since Adam and Eve lost title to the Garden of Eden.” Three years later Norris had defeated Ford in the realms of public opinion and in Congress.
Over the next 10 years, Norris mobilized the progressive movement to support his sweeping vision of agricultural modernization by the federal government. In 1933 Congress and President Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. It mobilized thousands of unemployed men to build hydroelectric dams, produce fertilizer, and lay down irrigation systems. Sensitive to local knowledge, government workers acted as community organizers, empowering local farmers to lead the efforts to improve agricultural techniques and plant trees.
The TVA produced cheap energy and restored the natural environment. Electricity from the dams allowed poor residents to stop burning wood for fuel. It facilitated the cheap production of fertilizer and powered the water pumps for irrigation, allowing farmers to grow more food on less land. These changes lifted incomes and allowed forests to grow back. Although dams displaced thousands of people, they provided electricity for millions.
By the 50s, the TVA was the crown jewel of the New Deal and one of the greatest triumphs of centralized planning in the West. It was viewed around the world as a model for how governments could use modern energy, infrastructure and agricultural assistance to lift up small farmers, grow the economy, and save the environment. Recent research suggests that the TVA accelerated economic development in the region much more than in surrounding and similar regions and proved a boon to the national economy as well.
Perhaps most important, the TVA established the progressive principle that cheap energy for all was a public good, not a private enterprise. When an effort was made in the mid-'50s to privatize part of the TVA, it was beaten back by Senator Al Gore Sr. The TVA implicitly established modern energy as a fundamental human right that should not be denied out of deference to private property and free markets.
The Rejection of the State and Cheap Energy
Just a decade later, as Vietnam descended into quagmire, left-leaning intellectuals started denouncing TVA-type projects as part of the American neocolonial war machine. The TVA’s fertilizer factories had previously produced ammunition; its nuclear power stations came from bomb making. The TVA wasn’t ploughshares from swords, it was a sword in a new scabbard. In her 1962 book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson described modern agriculture as a war on nature. The World Bank, USAID, and even the Peace Corps with its TVA-type efforts were, in the writings of Noam Chomsky, mere fig leaves for an imperialistic resource grab.
Where Marx and Marxists had long viewed industrial capitalism, however terrible, as an improvement over agrarian feudalism, the New Left embraced a more romantic view. Before the arrival of “progress” and “development,” they argued, small farmers lived in harmony with their surroundings. In his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful, economist E.F. Schumacher dismissed the soil erosion caused by peasant farmers as “trifling in comparison with the devastations caused by gigantic groups motivated by greed, envy, and the lust for power.” Anthropologists like Yale University’s James Scott narrated irrigation, road-building, and electrification efforts as sinister, Foucauldian impositions of modernity on local innocents.
With most rivers in the West already dammed, US and European environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and the International Rivers Network tried to stop, with some success, the expansion of hydroelectricity in India, Brazil and elsewhere. It wasn’t long before environmental groups came to oppose nearly all forms of grid electricity in poor countries, whether from dams, coal or nuclear. “Giving society cheap, abundant energy,” Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1975, “would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.”
Elaborate justifications were offered as to why poor people in other countries wouldn't benefit from cheap electricity, fertilizer and roads in the same way the good people of the Tennessee Valley had. Biomass (eg, wood burning), solar and efficiency “do not carry with them inappropriate cultural patterns or values.” In a 1977 interview, Amory Lovins added: “The whole point of thinking along soft path lines is to do whatever it is you want to do using as little energy — and other resources — as possible.”
By the time of the United Nations Rio environment conference in 1992, the model for “sustainable development” was of small co-ops in the Amazon forest where peasant farmers and Indians would pick nuts and berries to sell to Ben and Jerry’s for their “Rainforest Crunch” flavor. A year later, in Earth in the Balance, Al Gore wrote, “Power grids themselves are no longer necessarily desirable.” Citing Schumacher, he suggested they might even be “inappropriate” for the Third World.
Over the next 20 years environmental groups constructed economic analyses and models purporting to show that expensive intermittent renewables like solar panels and biomass-burners were in fact cheaper than grid electricity. The catch, of course, was that they were cheaper because they didn’t actually deliver much electricity. Greenpeace and WWF hired educated and upper-middle class professionals in Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg to explain why their countrymen did not need new power plants but could just be more efficient instead.
When challenged as to why poor nations should not have what we have, green leaders respond that we should become more like poor nations. In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argued that developed economies should adopt “appropriate technology” like those used in poor countries and return to small-scale agriculture. One “bonus” that comes with climate change, Naomi Klein says, is that it will require in the rich world a “type of farming [that] is much more labor intensive than industrial agriculture.”
And so the Left went from viewing cheap energy as a fundamental human right and key to environmental restoration to a threat to the planet and harmful to the poor. In the name of “appropriate technology” the revamped Left rejected cheap fertilizers and energy. In the name of democracy it now offers the global poor not what they want — cheap electricity — but more of what they don’t want, namely intermittent and expensive power.
From Anti-Statism to Neo-Liberalism
At the heart of this reversal was the Left’s growing suspicion of both centralized energy and centralized government. Libertarian conservatives have long concocted elaborate counterfactuals to suggest that the TVA and other public electrification efforts actually slowed the expansion of access to electricity. By the early 1980s, progressives were making the same claim. In 1984, William Chandler of the WorldWatch Institute would publish the “The Myth of the TVA,” which claimed that 50 years of public investment had never provided any development benefit whatsoever. In fact, a new analysis by economists at Stanford and Berkeley, Patrick Klein and Enrico Moretti, find that the "TVA boosted national manufacturing productivity by roughly 0.3 percent and that the dollar value of these productivity gains exceeded the program's cost."
Even so, today's progressives signal their sophistication by dismissing statist solutions. Environmentalists demand that we make carbon-based energy more expensive, in order to "harness market forces" to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Global development agencies increasingly reject state-sponsored projects to build dams and large power plants in favor of offering financing to private firms promising to bring solar panels and low-power "microgrids" to the global poor — solutions that might help run a few light bulbs and power cell phones but offer the poor no path to the kinds of high-energy lifestyles Western environmentalists take for granted.
Where senators Norris and Gore Sr. understood that only the government could guarantee cheap energy and fertilizers for poor farmers, environmental leaders today seek policy solutions that give an outsized role to investment banks and private utilities. If the great leap backward was from statist progressivism to anarcho-primitivism, it was but a short step sideways to green neoliberalism.
But if developed-world progressives, comfortably ensconced in their own modernity, today reject the old progressive vision of cheap, abundant, grid electricity for everyone, progressive modernizers in the developing world are under no such illusion. Whether socialists, state capitalists, or, mostly, some combination of the two, developing world leaders like Brazil’s Lula da Silva understand that cheap grid electricity is good for people and good for the environment. That modern energy and fertilizers increase crop yields and allow forests to grow back. That energy poverty causes more harm to the poor than global warming. They view cheap energy as a public good and a human right, and they are well on their way to providing electricity to every one of their citizens.
The TVA and all modernization efforts bring side effects along with progress. Building dams requires evicting people from their land and putting ecosystems underwater. Burning coal saves trees but causes air pollution and global warming. Fracking for gas prevents coal burning but it can pollute the water. Nuclear energy produces not emissions but toxic waste and can result in major industrial accidents. Nevertheless, these are problems that must be dealt with through more modernization and progress, not less.
Viewed through this lens, climate change is a reason to accelerate rather than slow energy transitions. The 1.3 billion who lack electricity should get it. It will dramatically improve their lives, reduce deforestation, and make them more resilient to climate impacts. The rest of us should move to cleaner sources of energy — from coal to natural gas, from natural gas to nuclear and renewables, and from gasoline to electric cars — as quickly as we can. This is not a low-energy program, it is a high-energy one. Any effort worthy of being called progressive, liberal, or environmental, must embrace a high-energy planet.
Part 3: End of the World — or Decline of the West?
Global warming allows the West in general — and Europe in particular — to put itself back in the center of history at the very moment it is moving to the margins. Apocalyptic environmentalism is not simply old Christian wine in new bottles, but rather a uniquely narcissistic variant of it. What makes us special, we Western greens tell ourselves, is not simply that we love and understand nature better, but that our generation has the power to save it.
June 10, 2013 - Modern societies have been dealing with environmental problems since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that so many people began to see pollution and rising population as signs that human civilization was fundamentally unsustainable.
In his 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over … At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Shortly after Ehrlich predicted that, between 1980 and 1989, food shortages would cause 4 billion people to starve to death — 65 million of them in the United States.
Ehrlich’s pessimistic book was followed by a raft of similar predictions. The Club of Rome not long after would publish The Limits to Growth, which claimed its computer models proved the world would soon run out of resources. Former World Bank economist Herman Daly in the 80s argued that the world must forsake further economic growth so as to not exceed the Earth’s environmental carrying capacity. In 2009, a prestigious group of natural scientists argued in the journal Nature for the existence of nine biophysical planetary boundaries, including for things like fertilizer and land use, beyond which human societies risked catastrophe.
In his sizzling new polemic against apocalyptic environmentalism, The Fantacisim of the Apocalypse, French philosopher Pascal Bruckner reminds us that, stripped of scientific trappings, our modern tales of environmental catastrophe are identical in structure to the Christian story of apocalypse. “I am trying through ecology to heal the wound that was opened by humanity’s split with nature thousands of years ago,” the seminal environmental thinker Murray Bookchin wrote in 1974. It is a story of our fall from grace in Genesis leading to the end of the world in Revelations.
Bruckner has long been a darling of the French media and avant-garde. His prior book, The Paradox of Love, was a critically acclaimed best seller, and was published in English earlier this year. But Bruckner’s Apocalypse inspired Le Monde to dedicate four full newspaper pages to denouncing him as a kind of reactionary. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Bruckner is an environmentally minded liberal who accepts that global warming is a serious problem that must be addressed. What Bruckner is after in Apocalypse is the religiosity that has become mixed up with legitimate environmental issues, like climate change, turning them into Biblical fables, rather than problems to be solved.
Bruckner argues that there are “two ecologies: one rational, the other nonsensical; one that broadens our outlook while the other narrows it; one democratic, the other totalitarian.” The first views environmental problems as side effects of development that are solvable through human ingenuity. The second views them as signs that human civilization, based on its attempts to control nature, is fundamentally unsustainable.
More psychologist than political scientist, Bruckner sees a kind of self-aggrandizement at the bottom of both post-colonialism and environmentalism. The guilt Europe expresses for its colonialism, Bruckner argued in an earlier book, is a way for it to assert its continuing hegemony in the face of declining influence. That is, Africa is failing not because of bad leaders, geography, culture or internal political dynamics but rather because the West remains so powerful.
Bruckner is after bigger prey than apocalyptic environmentalism per se. In this book and his books on love, happiness and colonialism, he is out to understand the contemporary Western mind. When he writes, “The prevailing anxiety is at once a recognition of real problems and a symptom of the aging of the West: a reflection of its psychic fatigue,” he is describing problems that only afflict those of us at the very top of the global economic heap.
Global warming allows the West in general — and Europe in particular — to put itself back in the center of history at the very moment it is moving to the margins. Writes Bruckner, “What a relief to know that we are not living in a little province of time but in the historic moment when time itself is going to be engulfed! What presumption, and what naïveté, to believe that we are at the pinnacle of history!”
Apocalyptic environmentalism is not simply old Christian wine in new bottles, but rather a uniquely narcissistic variant of it. What makes us special, we Western greens tell ourselves, is not simply that we love and understand nature better, but that our generation has the power to save it. The Greatest Generation got to defeat fascism and Communism while in the post-Cold War era, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials get to defeat an “adversary that is dispersed to the four corners of the earth and that can have all sorts of faces.”
There is thus, in the fanaticism of the apocalypse, equal parts misanthropy and narcissism, self-loathing and self-aggrandizement. “Behind their lamentations,” Bruckner writes sardonically, “the catastrophists are bursting with self-importance.”
In the end, it matters not a whit what we say; the world ignores our cautions. The United States and Europe rose to wealth and power by industrializing agriculture, burning fossil fuels and manufacturing for export. Now, as China, India and Brazil get rich the same way, the West stands in judgment, “The prophet is not a great soul who admonishes us,” writes Bruckner, “but a petty fellow who wishes us many misfortunes if we have the gall not to listen to him.”
The remedy to such nihilism, Bruckner argues, is the celebration of abundance, resilience and life itself. Bruckner demands that we not project our neuroses upon China, India and Brazil, but instead embrace their emergence as modern, powerful nations. Perhaps we have some wisdom to offer. But some humility is probably in order as well.
Since Ehrlich made his famous prediction, the global death rate declined from 13 to 9 deaths per 1,000 lives, and India’s fertility rate declined from 5.5 to 2.5, thanks not to forced streilizations and cutting off food aid, as Ehrlich advocated, but due to the continuing development and modernization of Indian society.
If there is to be a solution to global warming, then it is as likely to come from the rising powers of the global East and South than the superannuated precincts of the West. “Old men like to offer good advice,” Bruckner writes, quoting the 18th-century philosopher François de la Rouchefoucauld, “in order to console themselves for no longer being in a position to give bad examples.”
Reprinted with permission from the San Francisco Chronicle.