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Contra Bill McKibben's Reformism

By Javier Sethness

14 September, 2010

As has been reviewed on Notes Toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism recently—as can be seen through basic knowledge of some of the various disasters that have befallen many of the world's peoples in recent memory—anthropogenic climate change is becoming something of a catastrophe. To term the catastrophe currently being enacted a “disaster,” as did Mexico KlimaForum 10 in July [1], would be a gross understatement. To paraphrase Elizabeth Kolbert [2], 'advanced' industrial societies are essentially destroying themselves by means of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the Earth's climate systems—though it must be added, rather significantly, that such societies are also destroying humanity in general, as well as life itself. Basing his recommendations on various reports published by climatologists, British environmental journalist Mark Lynas concludes that global greenhouse-gas emissions must peak by the year 2015 if there is to be a chance for a stabilization in the increase of average global temperatures at 2°C beyond those that prevailed before the onset of industrial capitalism in 1750 [3]. Progress toward this goal was violently negated by the U.S. Senate's tabling in July of consideration of legislation aimed at reducing U.S. society's contributions to global warming; in light of such, little can be expected to be achieved at the 2010 Cancún and 2011 South Africa Conference of Parties (COP) climate-negotiations. Humanity, in sum, is losing; it is being sacrificed in a rather final manner to capitalism and the state: if the climatological reports Lynas cites are to be believed, an average-global temperature increase of 2°C, for example—a warming-target far lower than that which can be expected to follow from the alarmingly inadequate response taken to date by global society vis-a-vis the specter of climate catastrophe—would see dramatically more acidified oceans, the complete disappearance of the Andean glaciers, and widespread starvation in much of the world—that is to say, starvation far more widespread than today, when over a billion people starve.

How one is to approach the prospect of such horrors is certainly an open question. For his part, Bill McKibben, environmental writer and founder of 350.org, declares in his most recent public communiqué that he's writing to “get [his readers] fired up,” announcing that he's presently engaged in a “Solar Road Trip” (his means of transportation does not seem to be solar-powered) that aims to deliver to President Obama a solar panel installed in 1979 on the White House roof by the Carter administration, with the hope that doing so will “spur Obama to pick up where Carter left off” [4]. It is unclear what McKibben means by this: it is to be hoped that he does not wish Obama to emulate Carter's support for Shah Reza Pahlavi, opposition to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and the dispossession by Indonesia of East Timor or his rejection of calls for reparations to brutalized Vietnam. McKibben seems to hope that presenting the solar panel to Obama will remind him of the years before the accession of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, an era before the time in which “we” reportedly “stopped thinking carefully about the future” [5].

This latest circus act on McKibben's part is nothing short of moronic and infantile. The fact of the matter is not that the rationality of transitioning toward a post-carbon society run on renewable energy is merely a consideration that has slipped Obama's mind but rather that Obama's institutional position as defender of the “petroleum civilization” [6] and the capitalist mode of production precludes him from considering rational plans to address looming climate catastrophe. This should be obvious, especially to someone who has spent as much time and effort reflecting on the climate predicament as McKibben seems to have; unfortunately, such considerations do not seem to be obvious, whether to McKibben or more generally. To be clear, then: Obama is not the agent to whom one should be addressing her or his concerns regarding climate change, let alone any other significant threat to human welfare. He is, as Max Ajl has rightly observed, a “world-killer” [7]: an uncaring, reactionary force—Benjamin's Enemy [8]. He is as disconnected from addressing pressing world-issues as Tsar Nicholas II was vis-a-vis the urban poor of St. Petersburg who in 1905 thought they would petition their grievances to the tsar and were subsequently massacred.

Of course, such criticisms of constituted power are not to be found in McKibben's writings. Rather against all evidence—indeed, in light of considerable evidence to the contrary—McKibben asserts in his 2010 book Eaarth that “in Barack Obama we've finally got a president using centralized power to good ends” [9], and similarly claims “Obama [to be] doing lots of good practical things already” on climate change in a 7 September article on the “symbolic solar road trip” to Washington, D.C [10]. Any attempt by McKibben to justify such positions would be absurd: they are clearly refuted by Obama's horrific treatment of the Copenhagen climate negotiations last December.

Just as the hegemonic system McKibben mystifies—capitalism—must be dislodged and abolished, so must McKibben himself come to be displaced as leader/father of contemporary movements against climate catastrophe. His politics are legitimational and reformist; they are inappropriate for the scope of the present catastrophe. This should not, though, be taken to mean that the masses of individuals presently involved with McKibben's 350.org—those, that is, rightfully concerned about anthropogenic climate change—are necessarily tied to the perspectives he advances. Indeed, it should be said that the human prospect could be served well by the development of rhizomatic movements comprised of 'climate radicals' that leave behind the politics endorsed by McKibben and all other reformist apologists.

Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights advocate. He blogs on climate change and other issues at http://intlibecosoc.wordpress.com

[1] Miguel Valencia, “Political Platform for Klimaforum10 by Mexico's Grassroots,” Culture Change, 9 August 2010
[2] Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006), p. 189
[3] Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)
[4] “An Appeal from Bill McKibben,” Countercurrents, 8 September 2010
[5] Ibid
[6] Silvia Ribeiro, “Crisis climática y destrucción programada de bosques,” La Jornada, 17 July 2010
[7] “Obama: World-Killer,” Pulse, 18 December 2009
[8] “On the Concept of History” (1940), trans. Dennis Redmond
[9] (New York: Times Books), p. 128
[10] “A Symbolic Solar Road Trip to Reignite a Climate Movement,” Yale Environment 360, 7 September 2010