The State vs the climate

This post is about “politics qua politics,” a topic I hoped to avoid writing about. I read something from a thinker I hold in high regard, and I feel like it deserves a rebuttal. But if you’re burnt out on talk about political parties and the like, feel free to skip this.

After a great deal of thought, Sandra has concluded that “anarchism” doesn’t offer a solution to climate change (in the time scales necessary for any meaningful mitigation).

Her “solution to climate change depends on working government,” because “anything else is too slow.”

I think she’s mistaken. There are several reasons why I don’t believe that electoral paths to climate protection are worth pursuing, but I want to talk about how long and difficult this path actually is. I’ll focus on the US because I’m most familiar with its politics, but also because it is the world’s biggest barrier to mitigating climate change. The US military alone is probably responsible for more CO2 emissions than any other entity on Earth.

What would it take to transform the climate-obstructionist US government into a climate-protectionist US government? Our ruling class has made it clear that they will not address climate change — at least not until they’ve wrung every penny out of their fossil fuel investments — so “using the government to solve climate change” means taking control of the government. How does that work?

The Republican party needs to be completely removed from power. They remain steadfastly committed to climate denial, and they’re willing to do anything to maintain their power — regardless of the platform’s unpopularity among the electorate. Unseating these Republicans requires a Democratic party ready to abandon “bipartisanship” and fight hard and dirty to guarantee a solution to climate change regardless of those how unpopular that platform will sometimes be (e.g., most Americans will be strongly opposed to laws requiring people to drive significantly less often, and use smaller vehicles). These Green Democrats would have to be willing to engage in court-packing, gerrymandering, and voter disenfranchisement just to level the playing field.

But getting there would necessitate a total takeover of the Democratic party by climate hardliners. Anyone who’s been paying attention to party politics since 2016 is well aware that the centrists who currently control the Democrats care a lot more about preserving that control than getting their party to actually accomplish anything (a phenomenon sometimes called “the iron law of institutions”). These people hate Bernie Sanders more than they hate Joe Manchin, and a sufficiently ambitious climate policy will look a lot more radical and threatening to them than the social democracy advocated by Sanders.

So a recipe for using the government to solve climate change involves:

1) Assembling a climate movement that’s bigger and more enthusiastic than anything Sanders managed to put together in 2016 and 2020

2) Using that movement to take control of the Democratic party

3) Using this Green Democratic party to defeat the Republicans (who, at this point, will be bolstered by support from the centrists and many liberals)

4) Actually fighting climate change

I’m skeptical of this approach because I’ve actually been involved in a rather lot of electoral organizing since 2016 (especially for someone who was never a big fan of it). Recent history shows pretty strikingly that this work has a poor return on investment for the working class. My actual experiences with actual politicians (and wannabe politicians) are precisely what convinced me of the need to recommit more fully to anarchist praxis. Why should we bother with steps 2 and 3, when direct action can take us from 1 to 4 without wasting energy, money, and time on election cycles. The important thing to underscore is that step 1 needs to happen either way, and we’ve barely started that.

I don’t have a “program” to advocate. I am convinced that the fight for a livable climate is fundamentally an ideological one. Property rights (which the right wing equates with “freedom”) and human rights have always been at odds. The last two to three centuries of Liberal Modernity have attempted to thread that needle — almost always, property rights win out when they are in direct conflict. Oil wells, coal mines, gas fields, and all of the infrastructure that help turn those raw materials into energy + greenhouse gasses are pieces of property with monied owners (assholes like Joe Manchin and his best friends). Our society currently values these concrete things more than “abstract” notions like “future generations deserve to enjoy a life without scarcity on a habitable planet.”¹

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can choose a different set of beliefs — and most relevantly, we can make the change quickly.

Which is why I will not go back to putting so much of my energy into the electoral terrain of struggle, and I discourage other anarchists from making that mistake. Like Sandra, I understand that the things that I had been doing are probably not going to work, and I’m still working out what a climate solution looks like. Unlike her, I’m skeptical that governments will be involved in any positive way.

[1] Somebody could point out that climate change will usher unprecedented property destruction; this process has already started. But this culture is also bad at weighing things that are happening now and have obvious causes against things that might happen in the future and have probabilistic causes. I am loathe to call for more “rational” decision-making, because this invariably involves sweeping loads of ideology under the rug (like assigning a monetary value to a human life). Instead I want people to understand that the value of human life can’t be measured on the same scale as commodities (and that maybe other things necessary for life, like water and housing, shouldn’t be treated as commodities either).