By J.A. Myerson
When I began to write this essay, there were cars floating on Wall Street. It sounds like some sort of trader lingo, perhaps describing General Motors stock, but individual automobiles were in fact riding Hurricane Sandy’s surge merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily down the capital of capital. Enormous gusts of wind outside my window carried distant sirens, and messages online carried news of power outages, flooding, inaccessible evacuation routes, infrastructural damage, and, eventually, heartbreaking deaths.
As usual, it is difficult to express appropriate distress when something like this happens. Compounding the distress, there is an “as usual” factor in the first place. The Onion, also as usual, provided gave eloquent voice to my sense. “Nation Suddenly Realizes,” the headline read, “This Just Going To Be A Thing That Happens From Now On.”
Weird weather is now way weirder than ever before, and the weirdness amplification is on track for exponential increase, as our carbon output continues to exacerbate the climate crisis. Hurricane Sandy has come after a summer so hot and dry that the Department of Agriculture had to designate more than half of all American counties “disaster zones.” Three-quarters of the United States’ cattle acreage were in drought, and half of its corn crop was rated very poor to poor. Wildfires in Colorado that consumed hundreds of homes were due in large part to the previous winter, which had brought “scant snow” to the Rockies. A friend of mine is haunted by an image she encountered in Oklahoma: fish baked into the hot, cracked earth where a lake used to be.
Lists like these seem sophistic, at a certain point. Every year, people like me are able to point to the recent weather, which is the weirdest it’s ever been, knowing full well that the next year’s highlights are likely to eclipse what’s going on right now. DARA International’s September 2012 Climate Vulnerability Monitor report predicted that one hundred million human beings will die climate-driven deaths over the next eighteen years—before Sasha Obama turns thirty. 80 percent of the slaughter will be in low-emission countries. A capitalistic genocide to make the killing of communism and fascism look merciful.
The environmental movement’s two biggest political operations, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, have formally endorsed and spent millions to support a Presidential campaign predicated on automobile-worship. Thanks to the Ohio-centric mandates the electoral college places on Presidential campaigns, not just cars but also coal has its virtues routinely extolled to great applause from Democrats. The hall at Charlotte’s Democratic National Convention was also very pleased about the toppling of an uncooperative dictator, subsequent to whose summary rape and execution, the country’s oil was privatized.
No one ever brought the climate up at any of the four debates—the first time this has happened since 1988, when we started to know about the carbon problem. To the contrary, the candidates took one occasion to compete for supremacy of fealty to the climate’s mega-villain, the fossil-fuels industry. “We’re actually drilling on more public lands than the previous Administration,” President Obama bragged, “and the previous President was an oilman!” Governor Romney nonetheless castigated the President for having “cut permits and licenses on federal land and federal waters in half.” This is half as good as the policy we need, but, as Obama answered, even that half-good policy is “not true, Governor Romney.”
The President later told MTV’s Sway that he was “surprised” that the crisis “didn’t come up in one of the debates,” despite the two whole evenings in which the candidates, unencumbered by questions, were given gaping leeway to discuss whatever they wanted, or just repeat themselves. I’m referring here to the two debates “moderated” by men. It was one of the female moderators, though, CNN’s Candy Crowley, who put the issue in starkest relief, when she offered contrition for her neglect to “all of you climate change people,” as though this were the passion project of a minor interest group rather than the murderer in advance of one hundred million people over the next eighteen years.
Activists call this phenomenon “climate silence.” Three hours before the MTA was shut down in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, about thirty people gathered in Times Square to unfurl a parachute bearing the words End Climate Silence with a picture of a hurricane. The event had come together with a day of planning, in which time the parachute was painted at the home of Duncan Meisel. Meisel does social media for 350.org, which sent an aerial photo of the event to its e-mail list during the storm, urging subscribers to share the photo on Facebook.
“Climate change is an ecological reality,” Meisel told me in Times Square. “But it’s also a political reality.” Blame for the latter goes partly to “our elected officials, our supposed leaders, who aren’t doing their job right now,” but ultimately resides with the fossil fuel industry, which is “trying to undertake the biggest heist in planetary history” by “selling our future for trillions of dollars.”
Bill McKibben, founder of 350, laid the problem out with austere clarity this summer in Rolling Stone. If we are to retain any hope of slowing down the climate-fueled genocide, we have to make sure that we don’t pump more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The problem is that the value of the richest industrial sector in the history of capitalism depends on the 2,795 gigatons of carbon it is already planning to release. As McKibben wrote, “You can have a healthy fossil-fuel balance sheet, or a relatively healthy planet—but now that we know the numbers, it looks like you can’t have both. Do the math: 2,795 is five times 565. That’s how the story ends.”
To reiterate: the houses burned up in Colorado plus the fish baked into lakes in Oklahoma plus the flooded streets of Manhattan are chump change next to a climate collapse that is inevitable unless the richest industry in history is forcibly devalued by eighty percent. The required response, in other words, is the public seizure of a massive amount of private wealth. The required response is abolition.
Naturally, the short-term beneficiaries of long-term genocide approach the cognitive dissonance of their situation with considerable incoherence. Only from a place of deep intellectual confusion could Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson reassure the Council of Foreign Relations that climate change is “an engineering problem and it has engineering solutions” such as “[moving] crop production around.” See? It’s as easy as forcibly relocating the population of Iowa. Thanks, engineering!
The petro-executive collective known as the US Chamber of Commerce offered similarly sage advice in a comment submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency, which contended that “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” The physiological adaptation phase should be interesting. According to DARA, it will begin with the extermination of one hundred million Africans and South Asians and Caribbean and Pacific Islanders who lack the evolutionary advantages of immunity to diarrheal infections, heat and cold illnesses, hunger, malaria and vector borne diseases, meningitis, environmental disasters, air pollution, indoor smoke, occupational hazards and skin cancer.
The torture of having to choose between resource extraction profitability and an earth hospitable to human life does not just produce crazy behavior in the ownership class; the self-conflict is national. American capitalism increasingly resembles that of a petro-state, Matt Stoller points out at Naked Capitalism, by which he means that a simply enormous portion of the country’s capital stock is invested in fossil fuels. The reason this is such a profitable investment is that, as a nation, our economy, infrastructure, and livelihoods all depend, to varying extents, on the product. It’s cheaper, allegedly, than other sorts of energy.
If this is puzzling to most Americans, for whose daily experience the chief downside to oil, as candidates reliably note, is how expensive it is as the gas pump, it is nothing like as shocking as the truth, which is that oil is lethally cheap. If the price of oil accurately communicated the danger posed by its consumption, gas would be prohibitively expensive. That would, per the genocide in progress, be a good thing.
As long as carbon doesn’t dig into our individual pockets, human beings are reasonably good at handling the cognitive dissonance by effectively ignoring the crisis. After all, it is very difficult, even for those who elect to confront the crisis, to get a sense of the scale. What is one really to make of the massacre of one hundred million humans over eighteen years? The numbers become so devastating that they lose comprehensibility.
The self-conflict isn’t only ubiquitous, it is ideological-cultural. The story America wants to believe is that capitalism freed the world, which does not admit of the story that is unfolding, in which the same forces that enabled capitalism to lift so many people out of poverty are the ones accelerating a genocide. The industrial revolution and the rise of rational economics were supposed to have concluded the era when agricultural slumps brought entire national and international economies into depression. Today, market liberalization combined with state subsidy return us to agriculture-fueled depressions over entire global regions. How does a complicit cog come to terms with the completion of this historical loop? How to dismantle a national mythology?
So far, people seem to lean heavily on climate silence as a coping mechanism—a willfully—imposed calm before a collectively-exacerbated storm.
The President of the United States, for his part, touted his three-pronged record to MTV:
1) Doubling of fuel-mileage standards—to the scale that Michael Dukakis campaigned on in 1988, which he proposed should take effect in 2000.
2) Doubling clean energy production—an investment increase whose modesty is plainly visible in the charts from the aforementioned Matt Stoller article.
3) Negotiating targets in Copenhagen—which McKibben described in Rolling Stone as a “face-saving” measure “that fooled very few.”
This is unsatisfying tripe, but Obama is incapable of advocating for something as radical as the abolition of a huge portion of his petro-state’s capital stock, which is the only satisfying non-tripe. There is no capitalist response sufficient to solve the crisis available to him, and Obama is a capitalist, the head of a capitalist party vying for control of the capitalist government of a capitalist country. There is no way he can be the one to propose the abolitionist solution; that has to come from the mass of people. There must be a new abolitionist movement in the United States.
The United States has abolished an industrial practice of this scale before because its ethical price was intolerable. That practice was chattel slavery. The agricultural economy fueled by that industrial practice was at the very nexus of global market power; textiles from Southern cotton fueled Britain’s industrial development into the uncontested financial and military giant of the world, which it remained for decades.
The Southern power elite, whose faults, needless to say, were many and grievous, were just as resolute then as Exxon CEO Tillerman is today that the abolitionist project is an absurdity because of its enormous cost. Here’s an excerpt of a speech given before congress by Rep. James Henry Hammond (D-SC) on February 1, 1836:
“There are about 2,300,000 slaves at this moment in the United States, and their annual increase is about 60,000. Sir, even the British Government did not dare to emancipate its enslaved West India subjects without some compensation. They gave them [the owners] about sixty percent of their value. It could scarcely be expected that this Government would undertake to free our slaves without paying for them. Their value, at $400, average, (and they are now worth more than that) would amount to upwards of nine hundred millions. The value of their annual increase, alone, is twenty-four millions of dollars; so that to free them in one hundred years, without the expense of taking them from the country, would require an annual appropriation of between thirty-three and thirty-four millions of dollars. The thing is physically impossible.”
The thing, it turned out, was physically possible. Unfortunately, a lot of the physical activity required was in the waging of a terrifyingly bloody civil war. Though the oil industry’s historic willingness to kill non-violent opponents and Steve Coll’s description of Exxon Mobil as a sovereign unto itself which exercises its own foreign policy may keep us up at night, they are not actually dispositive. After all, abolitionism did not spread from the 1830’s to 1861 by agitating for war, nor did the Civil War begin in 1861 as an abolitionist venture. Thus far, no states are threatening to secede from the union over fossil fuel abolition, not least because no one in the government is proposing fossil fuel abolition.
War is not required to abolish fossil fuels, but organizing heft and finesse are. At Waging Nonviolence, George Lakey likens the ego-justice movement ahead to the Civil Rights Movement and provides a useful framework for understanding the latter’s organizational thinking. “Organizers learn to speak the language of those they are connecting with,” he writes, “in our case, people who are ambivalent in their analysis and vision but are daily becoming clearer about their interests.”
Sometimes those ambivalent in their analysis and vision but increasingly clear about their interests include unexpected figures. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he of the $25 billion portfolio, endorsed President Obama on Thursday, specifically contending that Hurricane Sandy has clarified his interests. “Our climate is changing,” Hizzoner wrote. “And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be—given the devastation it is wreaking—should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
I have heard experienced organizers pose their profession’s central question thus: “Who can give you what you want, and how can you exert pressure on them?” Well, who can abolish fossil fuels? The government, sure—but not just the government. Somebody, after all, actually owns that massive amount of capital stock. And they didn’t have a great day with Sandy temporarily destroying downtown Manhattan. The New York Stock Exchange had to close down, insurance companies will have tens of billions of dollars to pay out, and hedge fund holders’ fossil fuel money could be spent quite profitably elsewhere.
Mayor Bloomberg poses an interesting challenge to organizers, insofar as he can be a harbinger of an intra-1% conflict between the New Yorkers with the banks and the Texans with the drills. If he is serious that Sandy “should be enough to compel all elected leaders,” of which he is one, “to take immediate action,” he has a couple of handy ways of starting the trend, beyond his nameplate donations to the Sierra Club, etc. He could, were he so inclined, spread $20 billion around to thousands of different groups attempting to confront the climate crisis, and still be a multi-billionaire. Otherwise, he could talk to his buddies and attempt to marshal some major capital investment in renewable energy to drive down its price, giving it a competitive advantage with the fossil fuel industry. Better yet, the man could do both.
One lesson, at least, can be gleaned profitably from the Civil War, in thinking about a modern abolitionism: the movement succeeded by forming a symbiotic relationship with one side of a national fissure. Abolitionism benefited from adopting the Union, and the Union benefited from adopting abolitionism. Michael Bloomberg is no Abraham Lincoln, but misery, as the clown says, acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, and we got plenty of misery.
The trick is exerting pressure. We are very lucky that some courageous and difficult activism is taking place around the Spectra Pipeline, Via Verde, a similar pipeline in Puerto Rico, mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia, the sundry attempts to pump the Alberta tar sands and throw another blanket of carbon atop the heating earth, and other front lines of struggle. 350.org is undertaking a large mobilization to get colleges to divest from the fossil fuels industry.
These measures are good, but will have to expand manifold in the coming days, years, and decades in order to sufficiently dramatize the crisis to propel change. The struggle to abolish the fossil fuel industry cannot be accomplished only be anarchists and greens, so marginalized and criminalized by the Green Scare. Liberals, who appeal to compassion in defining their political viewpoint, will have to start putting in a lot more sweat equity than they have so far, to the tune of being willing to go to jail, routinely, in the tens of thousands. Compassion is lovely, but action is what’s needed.
None of us can save the hundred million people who will die over the next eighteen years, but we can hope to help the hundred million that come next. Sandy is gone, and abolition is before us.