climate hope

At the end of this interview, the environmental historian Jason Moore says, “Capitalism … had its social legitimacy because in one way or another it could promise development. And I don’t think anyone takes that idea seriously anymore.” Which is a very strange thing to say indeed, because economic development is the one promise that capitalism has delivered on, and massively. (This is the chief burden of the books by Deirdre McCloskey that I wrote about here and here.) In fact, and quite obviously, economic development around the world is the chief reason we have a climate crisis, because that development has ravaged our environment — and the global nature of modern capitalism means that that ravaging has been dispersed over the entire globe.

Moore agrees with my friend Wen Stephenson that nothing serious can be done to avert the oncoming climate catastrophe except a world-wide political/economic revolution. Stephenson:

The sheer depth, scale, and speed of the changes required at this point are beyond anything a mere climate movement can possibly accomplish, because such a movement is inherently unsuited to the nature of the task we face: radically transforming the political-economic system that is driving us toward climate breakdown. Given the sclerotic system in which the Green New Deal — the only proposal ever put before Congress that confronts the true scale and urgency of the climate catastrophe — is dead on arrival, mocked even by the Democratic Speaker of the House, the pretense that anything less than revolutionary change is now required amounts to a form of denial.

I am skeptical about this proposal for two reasons:

  1. The revolution would have to be global, because if it happens only in Europe or North America, or both, then global capital will simply shift its attentions and energies to other parts of the world, East and South (which is already where most of the depredations of the environment are happening). But a single, ideologically unified, worldwide political revolution is simply unimaginable.
  2. I see absolutely no reason to believe that any socialist government, local or global, will implement the changes needed to slow climate change. Socialism has a uniformly terrible record in these matters, from the Soviet Union to Chavez’s Venezuela — totally dependent for its social stability on global petrocapitalism — to this little country you may have heard of called China. I strongly suspect that that pattern will continue: when socialist policies throw a spoke into the engine of commerce, and the economy starts to collapse so that there’s less and less wealth to distribute, then socialist governments, like all others, will not hesitate to exploit the environment to become more productive. (Or will become state-capitalists like the Chinese Communist Party.)

Where does that leave us? Well, you can offer a counsel of despair, as Jonathan Franzen does. Now, he says he doesn’t despair:

If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory? Give up on the planet entirely? To borrow from the advice of financial planners, I might suggest a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of them longer-term, most of them shorter. It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically — a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble — and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.

But this is frankly to admit that all the victories are short-term and small-scale. Franzen tries not to think about what’s happening in the longer term and on the global scale.

Does anything remain? Possibly: technological fixes. Any potential fixes are fraught with uncertainty and danger, but more and more scientists are quietly hinting that they just may be our last resort. But why are those scientists being so quiet in their hinting? Largely because almost every climate activist I know of is absolutely and unremittingly hostile to any such proposals. Like my suspicions about global socialist revolution, their suspicions about technological fixes come in two varieties. The first is straightforward and reasonable: Why would we trust the very technocracy that got us into this mess to get us out?

The second one, though, is a little more complicated. I think that many climate activists hate the very idea of technological fixes because if they should happen to work that would mean that the bastards got away with it. That is, if the global capitalist elite that has soo cheerfully and brazenly and heedlessly destroyed the natural world should, at the last moment, pull a technological rabbit out of their technocratic hat that stops the worst from occurring, that would feel like the biggest miscarriage of justice ever, because a group of people who have a very strong claim to the title of Greatest Criminals in History would walk away scot-free and indeed might even be thought of as heroes. It offends one’s sense of justice so profoundly that it’s hard to root for such technological fixes to work, even if they could indeed avert the worst consequences of capitalist exploitation of the planet.

But a planet saved is better than a planet ruined. Even if in the saving the Greatest Criminals walk free.

So I am thinking a lot about the various technological means of addressing climate change. I’m looking for actions less dangerous than the great big global fixes that some of the more imaginative technocrats propose, but that also would have, at least potentially, far greater effects than the strictly local actions that Franzen recommends. Ideas in this post seem to come in twos, so here are two very promising ideas:

The first involves making plants a little better at holding carbon dioxide:

Chory believes the key to fixing that imbalance is training plants to suck up just a little more CO2, and to keep it longer. She is working on engineering the world’s crop plants to have bigger, deeper roots made of a natural waxy substance called suberin — found in cork and cantaloupe rinds — which is an incredible carbon-capturer and is resistant to decomposition. By encouraging plants to have bigger, deeper, more suberin-rich roots, Chory can trick them into fighting climate change as they grow. The roots will store CO2, and when farmers harvest their crops in the fall, those deep-buried roots will stay in the soil and keep their carbon sequestered in the dirt, potentially for hundreds of years.

The second would turn air conditioners into carbon-capture machines:

A paper published Tuesday in the Nature Communications proposes a partial remedy: Heating, ventilation and air conditioning (or HVAC) systems move a lot of air. They can replace the entire air volume in an office building five or 10 times an hour. Machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — a developing fix for climate change — also depend on moving large volumes of air. So why not save energy by tacking the carbon capture machine onto the air conditioner?

Let a thousand such flowers bloom — a thousand ways to address our changing environment that are technologically feasible and highly scalable but do not require the complete transformation of the whole human order. Keep those ideas coming, scientist friends. We desperately need them.

September 20, 2019

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