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05 11 11 Occupy Denialism

05 11 11 Occupy Denialism

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Published by William J Greenberg
How far are we from emitting the 750 billion -- or even the trillionth -- ton? Since 1750, we have emitted 550 billion tons of carbon and the rate is accelerating. If present emission trends continue, we will reach the 750 billionth ton of carbon in 2028, that is, in sixteen years. In order to avoid emitting the 750 billionth ton by 2050 we will need to reduce our global carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent annually.
How far are we from emitting the 750 billion -- or even the trillionth -- ton? Since 1750, we have emitted 550 billion tons of carbon and the rate is accelerating. If present emission trends continue, we will reach the 750 billionth ton of carbon in 2028, that is, in sixteen years. In order to avoid emitting the 750 billionth ton by 2050 we will need to reduce our global carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent annually.

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Published by: William J Greenberg on Nov 15, 2011
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Occupy Denialism:Toward Ecological and Social Revolutionby John Bellamy Foster  This is a reconstruction from notes of a keynote address delivered to the Power Shift WestConference, Eugene, Oregon, November 5, 2011. All of us here today, along with countless others around the world, are currently engaged in thecollective struggle to save the planet as a place of habitation for humanity and innumerable other species. The environmental movement has grown leaps and bounds in the last fifty years. But weneed to recognize that despite our increasing numbers we are losing the battle, if not the war, for thefuture of the earth. Our worst enemy is denialism: not just the outright denial of climate-changeskeptics, but also the far more dangerous denial -- often found amongst environmentalists themselves-- of capitalism's role in the accumulation of ecological catastrophe.
1
 Recently, climate scientists, writing in leading scientific journals, have developed a way of addressingthe extreme nature of the climate crisis, focusing on irreversible change and the trillionth ton of carbon. Central to the scientific consensus on climate change today is the finding that a rise in globaltemperature by 2° C (3.6° F), associated with an atmospheric carbon concentration of 450 parts per million (ppm), represents a critical tipping point, irreversible in anything like human-timeframes. Climate models show that if we were to reach that point feedback mechanisms would likely setin, and society would no longer be able to prevent the climate catastrophe from developing further outof our control. Even if we were completely to cease burning fossil fuels when global averagetemperature had risen by 2° C, climate change and its catastrophic effects would still be present in theyear 3000. In other words, avoiding an increase in global average temperatures of 2° C, 450 ppm iscrucial because it constitutes a point of no return. Once we get to that point, we will no longer be ableto return, even in a millennium, to the Holocene conditions under which human civilization developedover the last 12,000 years. Many of you are aware that long-term stabilization of the climate requiresthat we target 350 ppm, not 450 ppm. But 450 ppm remains significant, since it represents theplanetary equivalent of cutting down the last palm tree on Easter Island.
2
 It is here that the trillionth ton enters in. In the last couple of years, climate studies have determinedthat once we emit the trillionth metric ton of carbon -- counting all the carbon put into the atmospheresince 1750 -- we will have exhausted our cumulative carbon budget. This means that if we burn nomore than the trillion ton of carbon we will still have a reasonable chance (though this may not in fact bemuch more than 50-50) of not exceeding the 2° C, 450 ppm boundary. The trillionth ton of carbon isthus viewed as an absolute cutoff. Growing scientific evidence, however, suggests that it is essential toremain below the 2° C, 450 ppm level. Consequently, some prominent climate scientists, such as MylesAllen at the University of Oxford, have stipulated that we need to target 750 billion tons of carbon as thelimit, which will give us a 75 percent chance of staying below a 2° C increase in global averagetemperature. How far are we from emitting the 750 billion -- or even the trillionth -- ton? Since 1750, we have emitted550 billion tons of carbon and the rate is accelerating. If present emission trends continue, we willreach the 750 billionth ton of carbon in 2028, that is, in sixteen years. In order to avoid emitting the 750billionth ton by 2050 we will need to reduce our global carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percentannually. In order not to emit the trillionth ton of carbon by 2050, carbon dioxide emissions would haveto drop by 2.4 percent per year. This is much greater than the 1.5 percent drop in global carbon dioxideemissions, resulting from the Great Recession in 2008-2009. The longer we wait to make thereductions the steeper the decline required.
1
 
On ecological denialism as a complex social construct see Kari Norgaard,
Living With Denial: ClimateChange, Emotions, and Everyday Life
(Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2011).
2
 
Susan Solomon, et. al.,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106 
, no. 6 (February 10,2009): 1704-1709; Heidi Cullen,
The Weather of the Future
(New York: Harpers, 2010), 264-71.
 
 Another way of putting this is that if we burn even half of today's proven, economically accessiblereserves of oil, natural gas, and coal, we will almost certainly reach/exceed the irreversible 2° C, 450ppm, boundary. If we want a 75 percent chance of staying below a 2° C increase, we have to lock upall but a quarter of today's proven economically accessible fossil-fuel resources.
3
 If all of this were not enough, climate change is only one of the rifts in planetary boundaries thatscientists are now pointing to: the others include ocean acidification, ozone depletion, speciesextinction, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land cover loss, freshwater shortages,(less certainly at present) aerosol loading, and chemical proliferation. Each of these has the potential of disrupting the global environmental order on catastrophic levels, and the trends for each (with thepossible exception of ozone depletion) are presently a source of concern. Already we have crossedthree planetary boundaries: climate change, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, and species extinction.
4
 Faced with such enormous environmental problems and the need for massive, urgent changes insociety, our worst enemy, as I have indicated, is denialism. Here it is useful to look at what I call the"three stages of denial" with respect to the global environmental crisis.
5
 The first stage of denial isstraightforward. It is the denial associated with Exxon-Mobil and climate skeptics -- who say either thatthere is no such thing as climate change or that it is not caused by human actions. Sometimes theycontradict themselves and argue both at once. This of course is the inevitable response of capital,which is invariably concerned, first and foremost, with protecting its bottom line -- even at the expenseof the earth itself. The second stage of denial -- often advanced by self-designated environmentalists themselves -- is toadmit that there is a problem, and even to factor in the proximate causes. Most of you are no doubtfamiliar with the environmental impact or IPAT formula. Environmental Impact = Population X AffluenceX Technology. This is a mere truism, where the drivers of environmental impacts are concerned. Itfrequently leads to the notion that the solution is a simple matter of promoting sustainable population,sustainable consumption, and sustainable technology. Nevertheless, this conception doesn't actuallytake us very far, since we then need to explain what drives population, consumption, and technologythemselves. In fact, such multiple-factor analysis is all too often used as a way of denying theunderlying background condition: the capitalist treadmill of production.
6
 The third stage of denial has the look and feel of greater realism, but actually constitutes a moredesperate and dangerous response. It admits that capitalism is the problem, but also contends thatcapitalism is the solution. This general approach emphasizes what is variously referred to as"sustainable capitalism," "natural capitalism," "climate capitalism," "green capitalism," etc.
7
 In this viewwe can continue down the same road of capital accumulation, mounting profits, and exponential
3
 
Myles Allen, et. al., "The Exit Strategy,"
Nature Reports Climate Change
, April 30, 2009, and "WarmingCaused by Cumulative Carbon Emissions Towards the Trillionth Tonne,"
Nature 458 
(April 20, 2009):1163-66; Malte Meinshausen, et. al., "Greenhouse-Gas Emission Targets for Limiting Global Warming to2° C,"
Nature 458 
(April 30, 2009): 1158-62; TrillionthTonne.org; Catherine Brahic, "Humanity's CarbonBudget Set at One Trillion Tons,"
New Scientist 
, April 29, 2009; Cullen,
The Weather of the Future
, 264-71;
International Economic Agency, CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion
(Paris: IEA, 2011), 7.
4
 
Johan Rockström, et. al., "A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,"
Nature 461
(September 24, 2009):472-75.
5
 
See John Bellamy Foster, "Capitalism and the Accumulation of Catastrophe," forthcoming
Monthly Review 63
, no. 7 (December 2011): 1-17, where the three stages of denial are put in the context of anoverall accumulation of catastrophe under capitalism.
6
 
Allan Schnaiberg introduced the treadmill of production critique in his book
The Environment: FromSurplus to Scarcity 
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), based on earlier Marxian conceptions.
 
economic growth -- while at the same time miraculously reducing our burdens on the planetaryenvironment. It is business as usual, but with greater efficiency and greater accounting of environmental costs. No fundamental changes in social or property relations -- in the structure of production and consumption -- are required. This is the magical world view advanced by such diversefigures as Al Gore, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken, and Jonathon Porritt -- if not ThomasFriedman, Newt Gingrich, and the Breakthrough Institute, as well. From a policy perspective, this normally divides into two streams, one state-centered and the other market-centered. Green Keynesians like to think that we can ameliorate our environmental problems(and our economic problems too) by having the state promote economic growth through the creation of green jobs. Green Schumpeterians, like Friedman, Gingrich, and the Breakthrough Institute, offer as asolution green technological innovations, supposedly a natural outgrowth of the market -- but usuallyseen as requiring additional subsidies to corporations to harness its full strength. Here too the promiseis one of heightened economic growth on greener terms, equated simply with greater energy efficiency. The main problem, which all of this denies, is the nature and logic of capitalism itself. Capitalism, as itsname suggests, is quite simply, the system of capital. Its sole purpose is the accumulation of capitalthrough the exploitation of human labor. It is a grow-or-die system dominated by the 1% (the capitalistclass) and giant corporations. It is prone to periodic economic crises, and constant -- and todaydeepening -- unemployment. Capital accumulation and economic expansion occur by means of grossinequality and monopolistic competition, generating a war of all against all and a world of waste. Thewider public/social/natural sphere is an object of theft -- a realm in which to dump "externalities" or impose unpaid social costs, which then fall on nature and humanity in general. Endless capitalism requires unlimited economic growth. Economists generally consider a 3 percentaverage rate of economic growth over the long run as absolutely essential for the stability of thecapitalist system. Yet, if we were to have a continual 3 percent rate of economic growth, world outputwould expand exponentially by around sixteen times in a century, 250 times in two centuries, and 4000times in three centuries. Already we are overshooting planetary limits -- consuming resources as if wehad multiple planets at our disposal, undermining the very basis of our existence.
8
 What then is the alternative? The answer is a cultural-power shift -- opening up the world to thecreative efforts of hundreds of millions, even billions of people, and unleashing a process of sustainablehuman development. Today the world Occupy movement is showing the way. It is time, as NoamChomsky contends, not simply to Occupy Wall Street but to go on to "Occupy the Future."
9
As the99%, we need to take direct action with respect to the environment: locking up the three-quarters of theproven, economically available oil, natural gas, and coal (remembering always that the poorestcountries have to be allowed to develop while the richer countries need disproportionately to pay thecost); blocking the Canadian-U.S. tar sands pipeline; and imposing a carbon fee at the point of production (i.e. at the oil well, mine shaft, and point of entry) -- the funds from which would be returnedimmediately to the population on a per capita basis, so that those with the largest carbon footprints,predominantly the corporate rich, would be the ones that paid. (This is the proposal of U.S.
7
 
See Al Gore,
Our Choice
(New York: Rodale, 2009), 346; Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins,
Natural Capitalism
(Boston: Little Brown, 1999); L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen,
ClimateCapitalism
(New York: Hill and Wang, 2011); Jonathon Porritt,
Capitalism: As If the World Mattered 
(London: Earthscan, 2007); Thomas Friedman,
Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a GreenRevolution
(New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008); Newt Gingrich,
 A Contract With the Earth
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); and Michael Shellenberger and Ted
Nordhaus, Break Through
(New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
8
 
Charles Morse, "Environment, Economics and Socialism,"
Monthly Review 30 
, no. 11 (April 1979): 15.
9
 
Noam Chomsky, "Occupy the Future," November 2, 2011, NationOfChange.org.

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