THE PATH TO A LIVABLE FUTURE
A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic
City Lights Books, 2021
reviewed by Don Fitz
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 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. He dismisses the anti-science and racism of climate denialists such as Trump, strips bare the insincerity of the early Biden administration, and uncovers the lurking dangers of energy denial.
The book goes beyond these. Cox demonstrates that climate change is not a “thing-unto-itself” which can be halted by a quick fix of a few trillion dollars; but, 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.”
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.”
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,” with annual spending on food estimated at $7.5 trillion, making it the largest global industry. His research background means that his analysis of food, land and agriculture is where Cox’s 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.” 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.”
Then, Who Decides?
How then, could a sustainable society reduce energy sufficiently to avoid climate change while providing quality lives and without wrecking global ecology? How will reducing production affect enormous 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 of lower-income households cannot afford as much energy as they need.”
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 that “We need a more serious debate over how to determine which products and services are essential.” Affirming that “the path to a livable future is clearly not going to be a capitalist one,” 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. Cox advocates citizen’s 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 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.” 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.” 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.” In reality, neither of the two big money parties is likely to take “meaningful action” regarding climate catastrophe. If the Trump cabal garners support from disparaging ethnic minorities and immigrants, the DP rallies its base with calls for “more stuff,” yielding it even less likely to advocate producing less of the unnecessary.
It has long been said 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. 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.
Don Fitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an editor of Green Social Thought where a version of this review was first published. He is the author of Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 2020).
I already responded in detail to Stan Cox’s widely-shared article “100 Percent Wishful Thinking: The Green-Energy Cornucopia”(at http://greensocialthought.org/content/100-percent-wishful-thinking-green-energy-cornucopia) in which he argues that a transition to 100% renewable energy is neither technically feasible, nor desirable: see my critique at https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/100-renewables-wishful-thinking-or-an-imperative-goal-9879a8947d1b (updated in our book The Earth is Not for Sale (http://theearthisnotforsale.org). Responding to this review, looking forward to reading Stan Cox’s book,
I will start with what I agree. Yes to his critique of market-based solutions to the climate crisis and to the imperative need to curb wasteful production driven by capital accumulation. Yes to the goal of more equitable access to energy, and kudos to his praise of Cuba’s example of what is possible on many fronts to improve the quality of life for people worldwide.
Now for my critique, not to be disagreeable but rather to provoke rethinking of what is still another argument for degrowth, in particular his opposition to massive expansion of global wind/solar energy supplies. “His alternative to a massive increase in AltE [alternative energy] is simple and obvious: produce a lot less unnecessary stuff.”
But there is a lot a necessary stuff that needs to be produced in the creation of new infrastructure replacing the military industrial fossil fuel complex, starting with wind/solar power and energy storage technologies, electrified public transportation, agroecologies and transformation of urban centers into green cities, all of which entail real economic growth. In what especially should degrow, in a process of global demilitarization is the elimination of the fossil fuel and military infrastructure, which will likewise produce a big economic sector for recycling metals increasingly powered by renewable energy.
“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.” This claim is a big exaggeration, see discussion in my previous critique of Cox’s article noted above. In a nutshell most wind power can be sited in the open ocean, and photovoltaics on already built infrastructure.
Degrowth approaches to confront the climate crisis, in particular having a possibility of meeting the 1.5 deg C warming target, fail to recognize that a sufficient global solar/wind energy supply, greater than the present global consumption level, can eliminate energy poverty raising the global life expectancy to the world’s highest level, while creating the capacity for climate mitigation and adaptation; see my ecosocialist perspective at http://www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net/2020/12/17/a-critique-of-degrowth-an-ecosocialist-alternative/.
Further, this renewable energy supply can facilitate the virtual end of extractive mining by recycling and industrial ecologies. Restoration of natural ecosystems and regenerative agriculture as soil carbon sinks for climate mitigation are important and should start immediately. However, the carbon sink of natural ecosystems will saturate and diminish their capacity even with additional warming reaching the 1.5 deg C target. As the oceans will continue to reequilibrate with the atmosphere, resulting in a carbon dioxide flux to the atmosphere as this gas is sequestered into the crust in permanent storage, direct air capture will be necessary for the foreseeable future, requiring a significant global supply of renewable energy.
Finally we are told that “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. Indisputably, a drastic reduction in dollars spent on health care can accompany a higher quality of life.” Cuba as long been close in matching US life expectancy, but recently the fact that the cumulative COVID deaths per population of the US is 3 times that of Cuba (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality) has likely pushed Cuba above the U.S. at roughly 40 in world ranking.
But Cuba, in spite of her world standard health and education system and being on the cutting edge of ecosocialist development, suffers from energy poverty which translates into a life expectancy below some 40 countries (see my article at http://www.globalecosocialistnetwork.net/2021/07/13/cuba-and-degrowth/). Of course, in the case of Cuba we know that the U.S. embargo is by far the main cause, driving this state of energy poverty. Cuba falls well below the minimum energy consumption per capita required for the highest world standard life expectancy (e.g.Japan is close to the minimum.
Degrowthers consistent advocacy for the goal of a “satisfactory” or decent quality of life for most of humanity living in the global South is not what ecosocialists should advocate, rather every child born on this planet deserves the highest world standard quality of life, with life expectancy being a robust measure of that goal.
David: I am wondering if you could explain the mechanisms whereby energy poverty translates into lowered life expectancy? I know cooking over wood/coal is harmful. Other primary factors?
Good question. A common characteristic of energy poverty is the lack of access to electricity. Another factor is the limit the lack of energy imposes on access to education and health services. Vaclav Smil was apparently the first to emphasize this causation, which the UN recognizes.
The relationship between life expectancy versus energy consumption per capita by nation shows that a minimum of about 3 kilowatt/person (primary energy consumption/population, in power units) is necessary to reach the highest world standard life expectancy, which we take as the most robust single measure of quality of life (you can find this graph in our book The Earth is Not for Sale).
A nation with at least the minimum energy consumption per capita is a necessary but clearly not sufficient condition to achieve a world standard life expectancy with income inequality being a major driver of bad health. This is why the U.S. ranks around 40 in the world in life expectancy despite having an energy consumption level of about 9 kilowatt/person. Two sources for more in-depth analysis:
I shared the borgenmagazine link for its explanation of energy poverty, not of course for its remedy, burn coal! This is an example of how fossil capital pretends to serve people in the global South.
Thanks David. There is considerable discussion around equity and just outcomes, but few attempts to come up with metrics. I suppose defining quality of life, buen vivir, fair share, etc.. will always be subjective to some degree and have fraught cultural implications, but energy allocation and resource footprint seem like good places to start.