Ecosocialist Notebook
Ecosocialist Debate

Jacobin and ecomodernism: Two replies

Climate & Capitalism readers David Schwartzman and David Walters respond to criticism of Jacobin magazine’s special issue on climate change.


Introduction by Ian Angus

My article, Memo: To Jacobin: Ecomodernism is not ecosocialism, published yesterday morning on Climate & Capitalism and MR Online, has already been shared hundreds of times on Facebook and been reposted on a variety of sites, and has attracted quite a few comments, here and elsewhere. Most of the comments I’ve seen have been favorable, but I expected disagreements and I wasn’t disappointed. As examples, here are two that I’ve promoted from the Comments section, with permission from the authors.

Our Comments Section is open: Let C&C readers know what you think.


DAVID WALTERS:

Tsk, tsk. I expected a bit more from Ian on this rebuttal to Parenti. I have this issue of Jacobin and though I always enjoy many of its articles (and dislike as many) I have not read the Parenti piece. Largely because I don’t find him, generally, particularly insightful on anything. Parenti, like Trotsky, and like Louis or most of us are not really *qualified* to comment knowingly in this regard. We are all quite outside the expertise needed. So we rely on others.

Trotsky may have been wrong on atomic energy, but he certainly didn’t have his head up his ass on this. It was, and *remains* an informed position and that he did in fact view future advent of atomic energy that would replace, or might replace coal or oil, is factually accurate. France did *exactly* that in getting off of oil and coal as did the United States with oil. The US continued to use coal however, France did not. The two carbon footprints are noticeable for each country in the difference in their footprint sizes. It is particularly large for the U.S. and small by European standards for France. One can, again, argue the merits of this or that form of energy, on can’t argue that Trotsky’s prognostication was very accurate. Thusly, head, not in ass.

On some of the actual specific issues involved. I do agree with Ian Angus that “Carbon Capture” is something of a fraud (he doesn’t use that term, I do but he implies it). It can be done. There is a large Dept. of Energy Plant that was running in North Dakota (I think) that removed CO2 (and CO) from coal-burning. It is the only plant in the world that I believe is running or was successful.

But Parenti’s thing here is directly from the atmosphere. It has already been demonstrated by the U.S. Navy despite what Angus notes about the same Navy looking for better methods of doing it. The problem is that it uses (by the Navy and every proposed system) vast amounts of the electricity produced by the nuclear reactors on the submarine.

I’m all for the R&D by anyone who can efficiently help lower CO2 in enough time to make a difference! But honestly it’s probably better to use the most efficient form of solar energy for this: photosynthesis in the growing of massive amounts of trees and restoring vast tracts of prairie land where it won’t interfere in farming. The bottom line that Angus implies is that it’s damn expensive to conceive of doing this mechanically from the atmosphere directly.

The more interesting thing, IMO, is not Parenti but Angus’ non-take on ecomodernism. There is little substance in his charges against them (there is, actually, but Angus fails to document this). I have of course a lot in common with some aspects of ecomodernism, which in someways is a helluva lot closer to the actual Marxist outlook on what is needed to solve the environmental crisis than, say, the Greens or Greenpeace, Joseph Romm or others Angus defends or quotes. All of whom are reactionary de-development types to varying degrees. The ecomodernists’ problem, generally, is that they look to purely technological solutions and eschew social ones.

I’ve debated, interestingly both ecomodernists and Greens over their adherence (in some case for the former, not all or even a majority by any means) to natural gas. Both green-wash this dangerous fossil fuel and ignore the long-term consequences. More another time, perhaps.


DAVID SCHWARTZMAN:

I have a much more positive impression of the Jacobin issue in question, “Earth, Wind, & Fire” than Ian Angus. Starting with its strongest articles, Alyssa Battistoni emphasizes that “working-class movements must place social and ecological reproduction at the heart of their vision of the future”. A leader in this effort is Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (http://unionsforenergydemocracy.org/).

Yes, Peter Frase does discuss the issue of geoengineering, but argues any such approach is not a substitute for decarbonization, the end of fossil fuels and we certainly can’t trust the capitalist elites to implement geoengineering for us. He mentions in his list the only geoengineering which is inescapably imperative, the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, permanently burying it, which needs to begin asap along with rapid decarbonization of energy supplies. I say imperative because the sequestering of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil/crust, and bringing (and keeping) the atmospheric carbon dioxide level, now 400 ppm, to below 350 parts per million (ppm) is an essential goal (see Hansen et al., 2017; yes I know he supports nuclear power but that isn’t the value added in this paper). This goal must be coupled with a global 100 percent transition to renewable energies (mainly wind and solar) in the next few decades.

Jacobson’s Stanford work on this transition is outlined in this Jacobin issue; this is invaluable research, but we should fully understand it will not be achieved within market capitalism. Rather, radical changes in the political economy are necessary for this energy and societal transition. Further, the end-use energy needed by 2050 is more likely double the level they come up with, in order to eliminate energy poverty worldwide, and have the energy needed for climate mitigate and adaptation as well as other challenges.

I agree with Angus that Christian Parenti is rather glib in his description of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), but the technology under development, reacting carbon dioxide and water with basalt rock is probably the most feasible on a very large-scale, along with replacing industrial/GMO agriculture with agroecologies. And yes it would require massive levels of energy, and water (seawater is abundant as a supply) to be successful in meeting the goal of less than 350 ppm. That is why the future needs of clean energy are very likely more than the present global consumption level corresponding to 18 trillion watts (more on this subject in my three 2016 papers noted in references cited. To be sure Parenti doesn’t invoke an ecosocialist transition, rather the need for public ownership, state action, but isn’t that a necessary component in the struggle that ecosocialists should promote?

As in the same issue Daniel Aldana Cohen says:

“We shouldn’t ask whether we must get out of capitalism so that humans can survive [I would add biodiversity as we know it]. We must ask how and when…The idea of a last stimulus aligns with the best instincts of those who call for a Green New Deal [better a Global GND]. But that program is often reduced to a few bullet points, ignoring the fact that climate politics and economics in general are now identical. Climate politics are the field of struggle on which the central social and economic struggles of the coming decades will be decided – from raising revenues and allocating investment to structuring employment and shaping the built environment.”

We also find in this Jacobin issue a strong critique of cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions and much more valuable material. I didn’t find any support for nuclear power in this issue, maybe I missed it. And finally, I do strongly agree with Angus that the absence of discussion of the U.S. military is a big gap. It is not only the fact that the military is a huge polluter and its global expenditures are now close to $1.8 trillion per year, but its service as the oil (and strategic metal) protector to the Military Industrial (Fossil Fuel Nuclear State Terror and Surveillance) Complex is arguably the biggest obstacle to achieving the required level of global cooperation needed to implement in time a prevention program to avoid climate catastrophe above the levels we already witness.

To conclude, I don’t find Jacobin becoming a voice for ecomodernism with a leftish veneer, at least not judging from this excellent issue. Recognizing that even now wind/solar technologies are available for a near future global 100 percent clean energy transition is valuable knowledge that should inform an ecosocialist movement, likewise the knowledges and practices of agroecologies from around the world. And let us participate in building such a movement that is committed to multi-dimensional/transnational class struggle of sufficient power to send fossil capitalism into the Museum of Prehistory so our children and grandchildren can enjoy the display.

And let’s not be too picky in objecting to phrasing like eco-socialism rather than ecosocialism (I was described by Frase as a Marxist biologist, rather than a Blochian Marxist biogeochemist, big deal!).

References cited

  • Hansen, J., et al. (2017). “Young people’s burden: requirement of negative CO2 Emissions,” Earth Syst. Dynam., 8, 577–616.
  • Schwartzman, D. (2016a). ‘Beyond eco-catastrophism: the conditions for solar communism’, in Panitch, L. and Albo, G. (eds.), Socialist Register 2017, Monthly Review Press, New York, pp.143-160.
  • ——– (2016b). ‘Should we reject Negative Emissions Technologies except for organic agriculture?’, February 5, http://www.cnsjournal.org/should-we-reject-negative-emissions-technologies-except-for-organic-agriculture/.
  • ——– (2016c). “How Much and What Kind of Energy Does Humanity Need?,” Socialism and Democracy, 30 (2), 97-120.

My bio: David Schwartzman is Professor Emeritus, Howard University (biogeochemist, environmental scientist, PhD, Brown University). Chair of the Political Policy and Action Committee of the DC Statehood Green Party. International Committee member of the Green Party of the United States. Website: www.solarUtopia.org.

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Posted in Climate Change, Ecosoc Notebook, Ecosocialism, Energy, Movement Building, Nuclear

3 Responses to Jacobin and ecomodernism: Two replies

  1. Roger Annis September 26, 2017 at 3:12 pm #

    I very much appreciated David’s comment on militarism contained in his reply to Ian (as I appreciated Ian’s original comment on the matter). Two key dangers of militarism in today’s world should be stressed. One is the very real threat of war, including, heaven forbid, its nuclear variant. The NATO threats and buildup against Russia and the U.S. threats against the Korean peninsula are extremely dangerous and concerning.
    The other danger is the political ramifications of the rampant militarism that we see in today’s world, specifically, how it disempowers the progressive social and environmental movements. It is hard to imagine a solution to the global warming emergency so long as the large countries of the West enjoy such freedom of maneuvre in exercising their foreign policy aggression. We need governments that are genuinely committed to radical reductions of all the waste and excess of capitalist, consumer society that is fueling global warming. We need to simultaneously eliminate the wasteful and disempowering wars and militarism. I cannot imagine the one without the other.
    My writings on these matters are here:
    http://rogerannis.com/category/environment/
    Regards,

  2. Phil Ward September 27, 2017 at 9:00 am #

    I’m glad you mention waste and excess, which are the key issues. Those of us who are skeptical of the feasibility (or indeed, desirability) of replacing the current energy supply system wholesale with RE are routinely accused of wanting some for of “de-development” and consigning most of the world’s population to perpetual deprivation. What our accusers do not address is the scope (and necessity) for a reduction in energy usage because of the enormous waste that the capitalist system produces. I’ll give one petty example: private ownership of motor cars means that they are unused 95% of the time. An ecosocialist society just would not tolerate that.

    I would expect that in the advanced capitalist countries around half of economic activity is socially useless.

    This issue of waste – in all its forms – has to be addressed first, because all new energy systems will be ecologically damaging and deplete the earth’s resources. They therefore have to be as small as possible.

    This is something Jacobson and Hansen don’t consider as they are not ecosocialists; their strategies are designed to be consistent with capitalist growth.

    On nuclear weapons: this week’s New Scientist has an account of how the US has made much of its nuclear arsenal more “efficient” (MAD is now probably a redundant concept) and also considers the increased potential for hacking and “mistakes”. In the current febrile atmosphere, the chance of nuclear war due to error is much increased.

  3. Paul van Linden Tol September 28, 2017 at 7:50 am #

    I actually found Parenti’s article quite vivid on describing the havoc “climate change” causes on human beings, especially the poor and minorities. The article has also shows insight specifics on big city problems. Maybe the solutions he wrote about are not the strongest, but then again I have some questions about Angus’s solutions as well ( Back to small entrepreneur peasant Farming?).

    Aldana Cohen’s article was particular strong and forwarns that we have to be aware not wander into a form of Green Capitalism. Definitely Socialisy

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