Climate denialism among progressives

Climate denial is the preserve of god-fearing, right wing nutters right? Certainly, the denial of climate science is favourite pass time of shock jocks on the right. But what about climate politics?  That is an entirely different matter. It cuts both ways. For instance on the progressive side, there is an enormous amount of bullshit and tech-hocus-pocus to the effect that we can have our cake (modern dentistry, antibiotics, consumer culture, highly progressive technology, ‘progress’) and eat it also (i.e. that we can do all the above ‘sustainably’). There is an almost complete denial of the fact that institutional and ideational forms of social emancipation which, in the West, we have  [quite rightly] naturalized and made effectively ‘non-negotiable’ – have an intrinsic and ‘inelastic’ relationship with energy/material throughput; that social complexity is a low entropy phenomenon and expensive.

Think for example (a) of the idea of human rights and the complex social/institutional structures needed to give it substance;  (b) of all the nuts and bolts of the Keynesian welfare state (KWS); (c) of all the dominant forms of feminist thought and practice that centre on access to the capitalist labour market; (d) of the very specific forms of emancipation associated with a universal right to independent living and autonomy for people with disability —  these are undoubtedly great achievements! They are even ‘non-negotiable’ – in the sense that the very suggestion of trade-offs in these areas (bar perhaps the more extensive manifestations of the KWS) is increasingly taboo in mainstream political culture. Even right wing conservatives, feel the need to suggest that reducing state expenditures on disability provision will clear the way to better provision, greater autonomy, and more independence through well-functioning markets (clearly a stupid idea). They don’t have the bollocks  or honesty (usually) to reject explicitly or overtly, the goal of independent living in itself. But at the same such welfare  provisions do depend upon economic growth. The state and the market are co-evolved and co-dependent. You can’t have one without the other.

In the world of capitalist-welfare economics, all consumption is good – because all economic transactions, all movements of people, goods and capital, and all transformations of nature directly or indirectly, generate fiscal transfers to pay for public infrastructure and services. There is no ‘trivial consumption’ in this sense. And because of this, at such time when biophysical limits to growth begin to undermine the growth machine, these non-negotiable cultural and political priorities  will be ‘negotiated.’ Precisely because ‘nature bats last’ resources are limited and the enduring focus for political conflict. However taboo such a conversation may be right now, in the face of systemic resource constraints, we will negotiate our priorities, choices will be made, incommensurable interests and experiences will be compared and traded-off against each other.

It is disingenuous or self-denying for liberal academia and the sustainability industry to suggest otherwise. It is precisely those laudable social commitments that form a kind of climate denial.  They [religious conservatives and neo-cons] deny the science. We [progressives] deny the social-political implications.  How do these forms of climate denial relate to each other?  If we are to find a sustainable political economy that might nurture some kind of global civilization for, let’s say, one or ten millennia, then it seems likely to me that SOME aspects of land-based, family-based, traditional conservative thought and practice might have to come into the conversation – might have something to offer. I am thinking of : (a)  the resurgence of indigenous practice and ‘traditional knowledge’ [which separate from an instrumental alignment with diversity politics within liberal capitalist states, is not in itself necessarily ‘liberal’ in the sense of being aligned to rational / moral individualism, (individual) human rights (as opposed to say a ‘land ethic’) etc; (b) conservative traditions associated with Aristotelian/Thomist virtue ethics – Macintyre, William Ophuls’ most recent works, Adrian Pabst and John Milbank (c) the social-catholic tradition of distributism (d) any kind of bioregionalism – if taken seriously ….all of which would be well placed to have an interesting conversation with   (e) certain anarchist traditions, some (f)  libertarian ideas (e.g. Kevin Carson’s Homebrew Industrial Revolution) ,  (g) Wendell Berry (a tradition of his own),  (h)William Morris etc.

The problem we have now is not simply or even most importantly the denial of climate science. It is a discourse that aligns denialism versus truth/facticity, with right versus left, and good versus bad. A conversation across the lines can’t take place when the choice is Clinton versus Trump; and it will never take place when liberals think that they have all the answers, that the science of climate change doesn’t pose terminal/existential questions to both the consumer economy BUT ALSO cosmopolitan diversity politics AND social democratic redistributive projects. As far as I can see, with regard to climate, Trump, Clinton, Obama and Trudeau are on the same side. I am with Paul Kingsnorth on that.  Look at Trudeau! – Could there be a more attractive poster-boy for progressive politics? – He just signed off on pipe-lines for big oil!  Clinton/Obama – global free-traders on steroids.  In what way is he, or are they, more progressive than a pro-life conservative Catholic distributist who would at the same time challenge the market economy and wants a more embedded but culturally conservative form of political economy involving substantial aspects of livelihood, gift economy, reciprocity – and a definition of the good life that centres family over wealth/acquisition and consumption?  Both sides are in denial. Self-preservation might lead me to side with the distributist…without any illusions. But there may be really interesting possibilities that we can’t see for want of a conversation across the tracks.

Some references:

The Manifesto


Complexity and the Global Food System

Usually, our papers are written from the premise that in an era of limits, in the Anthropocene, the arc of complexification is unsustainable and thus humanity is presented with a wicked dilemma, namely:

What is the smallest metabolic scale (i.e. the flows of energy and materials sustaining society) and ecological footprint necessary to support a globally integrated, cosmopolitan, liberal-democratic, science-based and technologically progressive civilization?

We use this question repeatedly to explore the implications that our environmental choices have in relation to political economy, culture, and personality structures. If there are indeed limits to complexity (and thus growth), where should we concentrate our efforts and in what areas might we be willing to (or be forced to) change, relinquishing orders of complexity. This raises very difficult questions with regard to many cherished norms and systems in our society such as social cohesion, distribution of wealth, healthcare systems, and personal freedoms.

From a limits perspective the growth in the scale and complexity of human activities is as astonishing as it is unsustainable. At the dawn of the human Odyssey, the human brain itself was possibly the most complex entity in the universe (Chaisson 2001:139). Using a measure of ‘free energy rate density’ measured in ERGS per gramme per second, Chaisson contrasts the complexity of a galaxy (0.5), a planet (75), a typical plant (900), an animal body (20,000), a human brain (150,000) and modern society (500,000). ‘Not surprisingly a group of brainy organisms working collectively is even more complex than the totality of its individual components’ (Chaisson 2001:139). With language and culture the network of connected brains engendered a step change in complexity, in turn accelerated by writing and the integration of human societies across the planet. The connectivity of the Internet represents yet another order of magnitude increase in complexity (McNeill and McNeill 2003, Christian 2005).

What we suggest is that our capacity to manage global life support systems depends upon limiting (see: Peter Victor and Tim Jackson‘s work on ecological economics) or even reversing (see: DeGrowth movement) economic growth, either of which would require limiting the scale of human complexity. The global food system provides some useful examples of what a ‘degrowth’ economy, might involve:

Food systems have always been a significant focus for complexification during the course of human development. At each stage – from hunter-gathering, through simple horticulture, agrarianzation, the development of food markets and food processing, right through to the global agribusiness and food commodity markets – the system-wide embedded energy or ‘transformity’ (Odum 2013) associated with average food items has been rising steadily (Transformity is a measure of energy of one kind needed to make one unit of energy of another kind. It provides a way to conceive the unit energy embedded and transformed across multiple biological and cultural systems and scales in (re)production of a given order of complexity.). This is very clear if one considers the entropic cost associated with rising number of processes involved in production, processing, packaging storage, transportation and consumption of food i.e. the number of people, the quantity of materials, the complexity of the logistics – all of which have to be sustained by flows of energy. Reducing the entropy-cost of food, would in principle, increase the ecological space available for the biosphere and/or other societal functions (perhaps sustaining an Internet). At least conceptually, reducing the cost of complexity in the food system is not difficult to imagine. Such a process might involve variously:

·         reversing the globalization and even the regionalization of production and supply chains

·         a concerted re-localization of not only of food production but of the culture of consumption (including recipes, social contexts, cultural meaning etc)

·         reducing or eliminating secondary processing and packaging

·         changing the mix of vegetable, cereals and meat towards the former

·         changing the types and quantities of meat consumed as well as the manner of consumption

·         reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers and the recovery or organic, rotational and permacultural production systems.

·         eliminating the use of processed sugar

·         the ‘re-embedding’ of food supply into cultural, social and spiritual/religious life i.e. a reduction in the role of both state and market in food production and a recovery of household/community production systems rooted in the principle of reciprocity (in the sense of Karl Polanyi 1944, 1968; Quilley 2012).

The social and economic impacts of a degrowth food systems would be diverse. There would be a number of benefits (public health, community engagement) but also problematic consequences (more time devoted to food production, job loss in the food sector). These changes would amount to a system wide loss of complexity and a decline in global productivity. Extending this to the Greens’ idea of ‘trivial consumption’, from a systems perspective there is no ‘trivial consumption’, it all contributes to the overall function of the global system. Simplification of whole sectors of the economy would have unintended and difficult to predict feedback effects on all other areas of economy and society.