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Clean, Green, Class War: Bill McKibben's Misguided War Against Climate Change

Elliot Sperber

Across the USA, people from all types of backgrounds marinate for hours each day in the glow of nationalistic and militaristic news reports and entertainment. From the reverence directed toward its historical wars, to the imaginary wars featured in the entertainment industry, to the virtual wars of drone strikes (which blend politics and entertainment into ideological indistinction), glorification of war is ubiquitous. But though it may be amplified by the pervasiveness and invasiveness of social media, this philopolemia is hardly new. Love of war even presents itself in the demonym used by the people of the USA - by identifying only people from the US (as opposed to Mexicans, Brazilians, Canadians, and other inhabitants of the Americas) as Americans, the designation symbolically claims, and subordinates (i.e., conquers) the entirety of the Americas to US supremacy (a symbolism that, at least since the Monroe Doctrine, has concrete foreign policy analogues as well).

This is hardly, however, the extent of it. Even those who claim to abhor war still recognize war (and, by extension, force) as both admirable and authoritative. Why else does war function as such a prevalent metaphor for serious commitments? That is, in addition to literal, historical, military wars, one finds the term employed figuratively in such policy campaigns as the war on poverty, the war on cancer, the war on drugs, and the war on terror. Ostensibly no stranger to this sensibility, the famed environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben recently added the latest contribution to this bevy of wars: a war on climate change.

While the severity of the catastrophes attending climate change are difficult to overstate, and are no doubt already bombarding us, "the war on climate change" that Bill McKibben proposes does not, however, amount to much more than a proposal to reform (and continue) an other, far less openly discussed, war - class war. This becomes clear as soon as McKibben identifies his war on climate change's enemy as the fossil fuel industry - rather than the political economic system designed to exact, extract, and exploit resources (and to reinvest its gains into exacting, extracting, and exploiting more resources, ad mortem). Abetted by the military (the largest polluter on the planet), the laws, rules and institutions governing this society (rather than the fossil fuel industry alone) compel people the world over to perpetrate unprecedented levels of violence against rain forests, rivers, oceans, and human and non-human animals alike, just to survive. To characterize the fossil fuel industry, which merely fuels these ravages, as the primary enemy, and to argue that it should be replaced by a clean, green energy sector, is deeply problematic.

Like a cleric atop the deck of a fog-enshrouded ship, McKibben peers back into the 20th century and announces that he's spotted the future. Ostensibly committed to peace, he argues for the order of war. And yet, despite these shortcomings, one can empathize to some degree with McKibben's argument. Irrespective of his conflation of cause and effect, one can agree that, yes, we are being bombarded, drowned, and routed by super hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods, droughts, etc., and we need a radical shift in policy. The urgency of the situation beseeches us to overlook his nationalistic argument that "America" should be "the world’s dominant power in clean energy." However, upon closer scrutiny, his suggestions seem stilted. And his argument for a massive project to produce billions of solar panels and wind turbines sounds as though his interest in fighting climate change is limited to considerations of marketability. 

Citing multiple examples from the United States' WWII war effort, industrial mobilization provides several precedents for McKibben's argument for a 21st century "full-scale climate mobilization." Drawing analogies to the industrial-scale production of bombers and other weapons that built up the US military, McKibben's repeated references to "World War II-type national mobilization," "industrial mobilization," "global mobilization," "the mobilization effort," and "a wider mobilization," leads one to question whether the idea of producing technologies that will supply current levels of energy consumption are in any way flawed (as though we really need to prioritize producing mountains of disposable plastic cups, bottles, and other toxic garbage while driving non-stop in the "millions and millions of electric cars" McKibben envisions, despite "the fundamental law of road congestion"). Wouldn't it be easier, and mitigate climate change even more effectively, to just produce less? But that would harm economic output, which McKibben doesn't seem to question. Repeatedly invoking the precedent of World War II, McKibben argues that, just like then, we can build "a hell of a lot of factories" that will create "an awful lot of jobs" constructing solar panels and wind turbines, never examining why we need to create such high energy output, or so many commodities, in the first place. 

Considering just how urgent mitigating climate change is, it seems positively odd that McKibben fails to consider far more direct modes of doing so (such as restricting plastic production to essential - e.g., medical - use only). To be sure, while "mobilization" may be appropriate in certain circumstances, what is arguably just as important in tackling climate change (if not more important) is de-mobilization (and rest). And though McKibben may not be familiar with them, just as World War II provides examples of rapid industrial production, World War II also provides pertinent examples of how people learned to live without certain things.

Perhaps most relevant to the issue of climate change and rationing, commodities such as nylon, oil, and meat were rationed during World War II. And since by some measures meat production is responsible for even more greenhouse gas than fossil fuels, rationing (or, better yet, banning the commercial production of meat altogether) would reduce greenhouse gases far more rapidly than McKibben's building plan. Beyond the ethical imperative to not torture animals, curtailing meat production would not only eliminate the production of greenhouse gases; it would allow the rain forests and other ecosystems destroyed in the creation of pasture and feed for livestock to regenerate, simultaneously halting CO2 and methane proliferation and absorbing it. And it's a hardly incidental benefit that the tons of water used to raise and process meat could be used to ameliorate climate change-exacerbated drought the world over.   

Furthermore, though it's less well-known than either CO2 or the notoriously potent greenhouse gas methane, water vapor is also a tremendously important greenhouse gas, one with a powerful feedback loop that amplifies global warming. That is, as the climate heats up and ice melts, and soil dries out, and water evaporates (spreading deserts and extending droughts), more and more vapor enters the atmosphere, heating the planet further still - melting more ice, producing more vapor, ad infinitum. The one trillion tons of ice that disappeared from the Greenland ice sheet between 2011 and 2014, for example, didn't simply vanish; they transmogrified into hundreds of trillions of gallons of liquid water and water vapor that, by further heating the planet, has added to the power - as well as to the mass - of hurricanes, typhoons, storms, floods, and other extreme weather events. And this is only accelerating. But while this vapor heats the planet and, when concentrated, creates catastrophic floods, this vapor can also be absorbed by, and stored in, marine and terrestrial plants.

In addition to the fact that plants convert CO2 into oxygen, because plants absorb and store water, conserving and restoring plant life is arguably just as crucial as building excessive energy capacity. And because forests and other ecosystems regenerate more or less independently, when left alone, this requires far less work than building all those solar panels and wind turbines (in factories that, by the way, would likely result in clearing land of a considerable deal of plant coverage). Restoring ecosystems and conserving vegetation doesn't need to be limited to non-urban areas, though. In addition to decontaminating them (when necessary) and leaving forests alone to regenerate, plants just as easily flourish in cities. Beyond building 'green roofs' and street level gardens (akin to the World War II-era "victory gardens" that supplied 40% of people's vegetables, as McKibben reminds us), much of the space devoted to cars (streets, freeways, gas stations, parking lots, etc.) could be dedicated to the growth of trees and vegetation. By absorbing both CO2 and water vapor, trees and urban gardens, not to mention spontaneously growing plants, would cool cities, improve air quality, and make cities more livable, all while mitigating global warming and providing food. Because they require space that could be used to grow plants, a serious commitment to mitigating climate change should also ration, or ban altogether, the toxic private car - at least from urban areas. If during World War II the use of public transportation increased by close to 90%, as McKibben notes, there's no reason why this can't be replicated today, improving the well being of the climate, as well as that of human and non-human animals. 

Rather than the "industrial mobilization" McKibben advocates, then, in many respects demobilization could be at least as effective at mitigating climate change, and could be implemented far more rapidly. When methane-producing, ecosystem-killing dams are dismantled, for instance, entire ecosystems can quickly and spontaneously recover. And, as it's part of World War II history, McKibben may appreciate the fact that, in the decades leading up to the war commercial fishing in the North Sea led to the virtual extinction of fish. But, because of a commercial fishing moratorium (imposed by the threat of German submarines, and other martial maritime dangers), by the end of the war the ecosystem had regenerated itself. Following this precedent, moratoria should be imposed immediately on the commercial fishing industries presently devastating the oceans (wiping out entire species of coral, fish, and mammals, not to mention gigatons of carbon-storing, oxygen-producing phytoplankton).  

Of course, rationing and imposing moratoria on ecocidal practices such as commercial fishing, logging, and the production of toxic materials, such as plastics, would slow economic production substantially; but if our priority is effectively mitigating climate change's harms, as opposed to making money, slowing economic production is crucial. Moreover, rather than exacerbating existing poverty, the phasing out of ecocidal industries, such as the fast food industry, could lead to the elimination of poverty; we simply need to produce necessities, such as food, housing, healthcare, and transportation, for their own sake, rather than in exchange for money. Among other benefits, this would eliminate the conflicts of interest that result in such absurdities as food producers refusing to grow, and willfully destroying, tremendous amounts of food each year in order to keep up prices, and market forces driving vulnerable populations from necessary housing in order to develop luxury housing for people who already have more than enough. 

Unfortunately, McKibben's "war on climate change" only indirectly addresses these structural inequities. Although it might alleviate unemployment, "help ease income inequality," and clean up the environment to some degree, simply replacing the toxic fossil fuel industry with a clean, green energy sector would do little to correct deeper, systemic problems - such as poverty, slums, our hypertrophic prison system, militarism, and other injustices emanating from our exploitative political economy (one that could be maintained by green cops, and by green armies, just as easily as by their fossil fuel counterparts).

All of this leads to a serious consideration. Instead of regarding the inability to act on climate change as a result of inertia or incompetence, perhaps we should begin to regard it as willful. After all, who now sincerely doubts that pollution and greenhouse gases create the conditions that produce the ecological calamities that largely harm the poor? And how can we overlook the related fact that the owners of the world have a substantial incentive in ridding the planet of the billions of people whose existence alone threatens their property and privileges? Indeed, allowing climate change to kill the poor would not only be more convenient than policing, fighting, locking out and locking up billions; by claiming that it's inevitable, the owners of the world can watch the ecological holocaust unfold with a relatively good conscience. When one considers this, along with the fact that the affluent classes dictate social policy as well as the regulation of the pollutants responsible for the climate calamities bombarding the (mostly) poor, we may begin to see that the failure to halt the proliferation of notoriously toxic gases is comparable to a type of passive chemical warfare. Isn't that what it amounts to? And, relevantly, there is a World War II precedent for just this type of inaction as well. While the Red Army was losing millions in their march toward Berlin, the US intentionally delayed invading Europe in order to allow the Nazis to further weaken the USSR, which the US, Britain, and others regarded as a threat to their property (and the rule of money) ever since the October Revolution.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that climate inaction amounts to a willful omission designed to cull the world's poor, it is nevertheless difficult to deny that action is being both stymied and ignored. Obama, for instance, who promised in 2008 to vigorously tackle climate change, has done much of nothing. And though some may argue that, whatever his shortcomings, McKibben should at least be commended for arguing for action, this argument is undermined by McKibben's approach which, at best, amounts to a plea for reform (and, at worst, comes off as a pitch for a business opportunity). 

Rather than McKibben's "war on climate change," adequately mitigating the harms associated with climate change (which are inseparable from poverty and exploitation) requires an entirely new, emancipatory political economy, one that produces necessities for human flourishing for their own sake, rather than for exchange. Instead of producing new machines, what's more crucial is that we turn the existing ones - such as the war machine - off. And though McKibben is correct in pointing out that climate change involves war, he grievously misidentifies the enemy. Climate change is not the enemy; it's merely one of the many harmful effects of our biophagous political economic system. This is what needs to be eliminated. But such a transformation requires something greater than war. It requires peace.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, lawyer, and geographer. He lives in New York City, and can be reached at