As climate change leads humanity’s march to Armageddon, data surfacing during late 2021 suggests that the march could be much briefer than previously thought. “Nature is starting to emit greenhouse gases in competition with cars, planes, trains, and factories,” asserts Robert Hunziker. The Amazon has switched from soaking up CO2 to emitting it. Likewise, the Arctic has flipped from being a carbon sink to becoming an emission source. Permafrost is giving off the three main greenhouse gases (GHGs): CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide. So much Siberian permafrost is melting that buildings are collapsing as methane bombs explode, resulting in craters 100 feet (30 meters) deep.
As global warming becomes obvious, “climate denial” fades into the sunset. The twin twilight stars replacing it are the “Blah, blah, blah” of inaction and “energy denial.” Greta Thunberg famously ridiculed the “Blah, blah, blah” of politicians who publicly moan grave concern and then vote to do nothing. The scorn had barely leaped from her lips when news broke regarding the Uinta Basin Railway in Utah where “… the Biden administration is poised to approve a right-of-way through the Ashley National Forest that … would enable crude oil production in the basin to quadruple to 350,000 barrels a day.” Not much chance of capping oil with this administration.
The term “energy denial” reflects an intense belief that “alternative energy” (AltE) such as solar, wind, and hydro-power cause nothing but trivial problems, which should be ignored in order to allow unlimited expansion of production. Michael Klare is one of innumerable progressive authors who use justified hysteria over climate change to demand unjustified spending of trillions of dollars on AltE.
Stan Cox whacks all three dragon heads in his new book The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic (City Lights, 2021). He dismisses the anti-science and racism of climate denialists such as Donald Trump, strips bare the insincerity of the early Joe Biden administration, and uncovers the lurking dangers of energy denial.
Going even beyond these, Cox demonstrates that climate change is not a “thing-unto-itself” that can be halted by a quick fix of a few trillion dollars, but rather, is a pernicious stain in an interwoven fabric of oppressive systems. This lays the groundwork for outlining a multiplicity of problems which must be addressed to confront climate change. These include reducing production via a participatory economy, establishing financial equality, and building mutual aid networks.
Core to Cox’s analysis is a concept that runs so contrary to conventional leftist wisdom that many will not speak it, read it, or publish it. He is at the forefront of authors willing to melt the golden calf of AltE. He slams congressional proposals for a “Green New Deal,” noting that they fail to include any plans for restricting fossil fuel (FF) production and merely pretend that increases in solar and wind will cause a reduction in its use. Reduction is not written into the plans because FFs are essential for manufacturing AltE equipment. The book portrays the most troubling aspect of AltE to be its promotion as a panacea. This contributes to the preservation of social structures that are most in need of replacement:
“If we attempt to construct a wind- and solar-powered society that replicates today’s high-energy living arrangements and transportation systems, the result will be the creation of ‘green sacrifice zones’ in nations that have large deposits of cobalt, lithium, and other metals that go into the mechanisms essential to renewable electricity systems” (p. 120).
What Else Is There?
His alternative to a massive increase in AltE is simple and obvious: produce a lot less unnecessary stuff. Within this simple truism, issues of complexity rise to the fore.
Cox continues the tradition of those who realize that increasing complexity leads to an increase in breakdown. More complex systems require more energy to construct, require more energy to function, and are more difficult to fix. Gadgets with 2000 parts are easier to break and harder to repair than are those with 20 parts. Authors such as Joseph Tainter and Richard Heinberg have applied this idea to human systems, explaining that as societies evolve toward more complexity, they require more social energy to maintain interpersonal connections and are more prone to collapse.
Cox takes this concept to a higher level for the US in the 2020’s, especially regarding racial and social injustice, diseases like Covid, and climate change:
“… how can a just transition to a low emissions economy be systematically planned if, due to intolerable heat and humidity in the Sun Belt and Mississippi Valley, wildfires on the West Coast and in the South, constant pummeling by hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, and sea-level rise on all coasts, we become a nation of climate refugees, with the affluent snapping up the safe ground? … We can have ecological sustainability or capital accumulation, but not both” (pp. 127-128).
Entanglements are nowhere more perplexing than in food and agriculture. As Ronnie Cummins points out, “Agriculture is the largest employer in the world with 570 million farmers and farm laborers,” and with annual spending on food estimated at $7.5-trillion, making it the largest global industry. Cox’s research background means that his analysis of food, land, and agriculture is where his light shines most brightly. He points out that soil depletion interacts with all of these, which then feeds into climate change. Techno-fixes for climate change tend to require more land or other inputs. Simultaneous use of multiple techno-fixes requires enormous energy input which then compromises ecosystems.
An example of the complexity is biogas from agricultural, which has been proposed as a source for energy. Cox acknowledges that such energy would not require additional land but points out that “the amount of gas that can be produced is limited by the quantities of food, crop, and animal wastes available” (p. 114). Solar energy is a vastly more popular form of energy, but Cox explains its link to agriculture: “Plans for ‘100% renewable’ energy would require solar installation on at least as many square miles of the Earth’s surface as are now occupied by all food production and human settlements combined…” (p. 68).
Then, Who Decides?
How then could a sustainable society reduce energy sufficiently to avoid climate change while still providing for quality of life and without wrecking the global ecology? How will reducing production affect enomous disparities according to race, gender, impoverishment, and location? Who decides what to reduce and how? The author answers by returning to ideas from his previous book, Any Way You Slice It, and combining them with concepts of participatory economics. Subtitled The Past, Present and Future of Rationing, that book refuted the assertion that rationing would limit the ability of poor people to attain basic necessities. In his current book, Cox explains that rationing would be a central part of reducing resource inequities:
“The phase-out [of FFs] must be accompanied by systems to ensure … much more equitable access to energy. Today, more affluent, predominantly white households have much higher than average consumption of energy in all forms, while millions of lower-income households cannot afford as much energy as they need” (p. 85).
Since the largest source of GHGs is unnecessary production by the corporate class, plus their luxury waste via “conspicuous consumption,” the focus of rationing must be on producing vastly fewer wasteful products and more of those required for human existence. Cox concludes, “We need a more serious debate over how to determine which products and services are essential” (p. 102). Affirming that “… the path to a livable future is clearly not going to be a capitalist one” (p. 87), he suggests that economic decisions cannot be left to “Blah, blah, blah” politicians. Instead, they must be discussed far more broadly: “Those who are affected by the rules must be the ones who make the rules and also monitor” the use of resources (p. 88). Cox advocates citizens’ assemblies as the beginning point of deliberation that would feed into a multi-layered administration that would finalize and carry out polities.
As an example of how such a participatory economic system could work, Cox details how Cuba responded to the Covid crisis by collecting information from patients and doctors at neighborhood medical offices and then sending that information to clinics, which summarized it and passed it to national health decision-makers. Far from producing health care less efficient than in a market economy, Cuba’s system of health care rationing via participatory input allowed it to have a more successful response to Covid than did the US.
While rationing systems and participatory economics are essential components of a new society, they are the mechanistic parts. Humanity will not be reborn without passionately adopting a deeper understanding of social relationships. For this, Cox looks to mutual aid, which fuses a world view with ongoing actions of helping others in need.
It is fitting that one of the first examples Cox gives of mutual aid is the United Farm Workers of the 1960s, which provided farmworkers with basic provisions alongside mobilizing for labor rights. After all, labor unions throughout history have supported those on strike. The workplaces of the world are where humanity collectively produces those things required for our survival.
The book also describes how the Black Panther Party offered free clinics, sickle-cell anemia screening, and the Breakfast for Children program. Huey Newton called them “survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution” (p. 145). Such visions of people helping each other from an inner desire to do so is reminiscent of Che Guevara’s conception of the “new man,” a dream that became the germ of the Cuban health system.
Even the best analyses suffer an occasional fault, and this book is no exception. Though others may skip over it, I spent so many years opposing incinerators that reading this line evoked a “Huh?” from me: “Medical wastes can harbor pathogens and therefore usually must be incinerated” (p. 34). Actually, even the worst human pathogens do not require anywhere near the 2000 degree heat that incinerators reach for their destruction. Autoclaves work fine for medwaste and do not create the variety of toxins that incinerators do. Fortunately, calling for burning medwaste was a stand-alone lapse that actually runs counter to the author’s overall perspective of advocating the most environmental solution available.
The other problem, however, recurs. Though frequently chastising the Democratic Party (DP) for inaction, the author turns to them for solutions: “We must show them [DP] that they are mandated to represent the will of the people, not the Silicon Valley tycoons, the natural gas extractors…” (p. 140). In reality, neither of the two big money parties is likely to take “meaningful action” regarding climate catastrophe. When the Trump cabal garners support from disparaging ethnic minorities and immigrants, the DP rallies its base with calls for ‘more useless and fall-apart gadgets’, yielding it even less likely to advocate producing less of the unnecessary. Looking to the DP to restrict overproduction seems a bit like asking the KKK to resolve racism.
It has long been said, and in many ways, that problems cannot be solved by relying on individuals and institutions who created them. The novel crisis of climate change nested within intertwined social problems calls for new ways of thinking – ways which are manifested in new mutual aid groups, new trade unions, and new political institutions.
Overall, The Path to a Livable Future may be the most serious and thought-provoking new book on climate change available. It challenges shortcomings of dominant paradigms and offers alternatives that do not shy away from dilemmas.
The proposed solution that is most likely to be scorned is the assertion that it is possible to reduce production without harming the world’s poor. It is worth noting that Cuba has attained a longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rate than the US while spending less than 10% per person per year of that spent in the US. Indisputably, a drastic reduction in dollars spent on health care can accompany a higher quality of life.
When Cox goes through methods of cooling during hot summers and the energy needed for agricultural production, he carefully explains not only the complexity of each but how they fit into the nexus of systems affected by and affecting climate change. The threat to humanity’s existence from climate change is far too profound and connected to far too many other intricate difficulties than to simplify it with slogans for quick fixes. It is well past the time to face hard decisions of how to reduce obscene levels of corporate production instead of fiddling with perpetual energy fantasies while the planet burns. •
A version of this article appeared in Green Social Thought.