Percolations #2:
Thoughts on the Environmental Crisis

July 21, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


“Percolations” is a column featuring some of the thoughts sent to Revolution concerning developments in the world, questions of theory, observations from the work and life of the Party, and ideas on what to do.


From a reader:

These are some thoughts and observations on the accelerating environmental crisis, and some beginning thinking on what we should do.

I want to start with the environmental crisis itself. I recently read The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Some of what I have to say is influenced by that book and thinking about that book. Very striking and pivotal in this book is the contradiction between the fact that she presents a convincing and fairly all-sided and scientific picture of the environmental crisis and its impact on life on the planet, and draws the conclusion that if things continue as they are now, we are likely going to have an extremely serious extinction event and profound environmental crisis—on the order of the five previous major extinctions, most of which destroyed a majority of the species on the planet. She makes the case that this extinction event could change life on Earth so much that it could make it impossible for human beings to live on the planet.

And after having the science (and intellectual courage) to confront that horrific conclusion, Kolbert is still completely trapped within the confines of the horizon of bourgeois right, and cannot see the real possibility or even remote possibility of a revolution in human social relations and revolution in humanity’s relation to the natural world that would put human society in the position of caretaker of the planet, and not destroyer of life on the planet. This expresses very sharply the much more general contradiction that intellectuals, the movement around the environment, and the society more broadly do not see beyond these confines.

This is one particular agonizing expression of the juncture we are at. The question is, how can we seize some freedom out of this?

In terms of where are we at with the environmental crisis now, one thing I have been grappling with is this “tipping point” idea. I think that we have already passed an important “tipping point.” I do think there are problems with the notion of “tipping point” as generally talked about among the scientists and in the movement around the environment. It is a little apocalyptic, a little bit too much all or nothing. And a little too limited to the climate crisis. There is the view that “Once past the climate tipping point, we are doomed.”

There has been a positive role in that the phrase has helped to popularize the extremity of the situation we are approaching, and the notion that there could be a leap to a radically different situation. But this has translated politically into something like: our job is to prevent getting to the tipping point. Hence’s name ( is one of the main organizations mobilizing people to stop climate change): 350 is precisely the level of CO2 in the atmosphere—350 ppm, parts per million—which some scientists have assessed would keep us on this side of the tipping point. (We have now reached 400 ppm, and are going up, up, up.)

But I think a more correct, scientific way to think about it is in terms of qualitative leaps and further qualitative leaps. Leaps in the overall climate and environmental crisis. Leaps that set things on a different trajectory for life on the planet, and which are extremely difficult if not completely impossible to reverse.

There are many signs such a leap or leaps have taken place, which should heighten the urgency to act, not send us into despair. At this point, we have the likelihood of complete summer melting of the Arctic icecap in decades if not sooner. We have this new study that points to the inevitable collapse of the West Antarctica ice sheet, which we wrote an article about. If the study holds up, this will lead to sea level rises of four to 10 or 15 feet, from what I have read. This will happen over hundreds of years, but the point is that the process is irreversible. It will wipe out a huge number of coastal cities and who knows what else. We already have extreme storms, and extreme weather phenomena. We have the great likelihood that in the trajectory we are on, almost all or all of the coral reefs, vastly important ocean ecosystems, will die. We have now devastated rain forests across the planet. Ocean acidification is rising, is a key agent in the destruction of coral reefs, and already is eating up things like some shells of shellfish, and acidification is bound to rise, I have no idea how fast or how much. We already ARE on a trajectory to a really different planet. And not a good one for life forms now on the earth.

The reason to go into this “tipping point” phrase is not just to pick at words, but because it makes a difference how we see things. I don’t think that we should run around saying “we have passed the tipping point” exactly. I do think that a sharpened sense of urgency, on a scientific materialist basis, about the environmental crisis is crucial. We do not want to put a false kind of distance between where we are now and some future tipping point that makes it sound like we are not there yet. We need to deal with the way things really are.

This makes a difference in sweeping and long-range terms. Even if we had revolution tomorrow, even in a number of imperialist countries, we would be dealing with the struggle to become caretakers, not ravagers, of the planet, for a very long time, and we would be doing it under conditions that for quite a while would be getting harsher and harsher—including for things like human agriculture. I don’t think it will be easy to provide food for everyone on the basis of a sustainable and non-exploitative economy. We will need to radically transform all economic relations, build a whole new and different technological base that is renewable, and do this under conditions of extreme drought, floods, rising seas, etc., etc.

This will be a very central, and pivotal, struggle for getting to communism, and possibly even preserving the planet as a place that human beings can live on. And just to be perfectly clear, only communist revolution has any chance of dealing with all of this in a good way.

One of the characteristics of this overall environmental crisis, and particularly the climate aspect, is that it keeps moving fast, faster than scientific predictions on many important dimensions, most spectacularly, the melting polar ice. This is somewhat speculative, but I think part of the reason that this keeps going like this is because leaps are taking place. It is harder for scientists to get a quantitative grasp on leaps taking place, even leaps that unfold over decades and centuries like this one. Again, it seems that we are in the midst of leaps now, they are not something in the future.

All this is driven by capitalism and in particular the anarchy/organization contradiction, blindly. Again, only communist revolution makes it possible to overcome this, to increasingly enlist the collective efforts of humanity as a whole in solving these problems and moving beyond the anarchic ravaging of the planet. It is really glaringly obvious that this is the case, yet few can even talk frankly about this because of the ideological encirclement of communism. You often hear the argument, including from Bill McKibben, one of the main leaders of the climate movement, that the situation is too urgent, “we don’t have time” for revolution. Well, we are already in a phase of qualitative change—we can’t tell where it is going—do you want to deal with that with capitalism and its anarchy? Or with socialism and communism?

In terms of the interpenetration of this with revolution and how it could shape revolutionary crisis, I think that there are different ways things could go. How fast will a revolutionary crisis emerge? How quickly will the environmental crisis manifest and in what ways? All of this is not settled. But I do think that some things are true already. We already had Katrina, and there is a great likelihood of other Katrina-like events very closely linked to climate change. We had one in New York City with Hurricane Sandy. There is already the impact of drought affecting international relations, e.g., in Syria, in parts of Africa, to name a few.

Right now in the U.S., the social movement around global warming is one of the more important on the terrain, even as it is shackled and limited in important ways. I do think that the question of the environment is probably one of or perhaps the most important basic moral/political question that commands the attention and allegiance of students on campuses.

I feel that in the midst of all that we are taking responsibility for, we need to find the ways to give attention to this. I have been glad to see some good articles. I felt that the relatively recent IPCC report article by Orpheus Reed was hard-hitting and passionate and I really liked it. Also the article more recently on the collapse of the Antarctic ice. Both did capture the kind of urgency I am talking about.

I think that we have to really hit hard and keep hitting at the contradiction between the very obvious fact that this whole crisis is driven by rampaging capitalism, and the political absurdity that hardly anyone with standing in the movement around the environment or in intellectual life can even talk about this, or wants to. The McKibben polemic by Raymond Lotta hit this spot and we should keep hitting it.

One important point about the scientists. For all the conservatism, wanting to be politically “objective,” i.e., not take a political stand, and all the shortcomings in relation to communism that they have in common with all the intellectuals now, there is one really important positive thing. On a social question of immense importance, the scientists are lined up on one side, saying “there is a huge environmental crisis, and global warming, driven by human society, is objectively true.” That helps. We need more from them, but that is very important.

This links up with the question of students. I think that one way of looking at it is that one basic quality that students feel is what you might call the moral imperative to take care of the planet. Some of this gets expressed in very narrow terms right now but it is very important. And many get channeled into narrow and technological/reformist solutions. But there is a very broad and strong impulse.

And there are counteracting trends. I heard someone tell about going to a conference which was a national gathering of the divestment movement. Unfortunately, we missed a lot of the conference. One plenary session was led by “climate justice” forces steeped in identity politics. There were students there from across the country, many very new to political life, with deep concerns about the environment, many willing to talk about capitalism.

But this session was led by a line which told these students (almost all white) that they could not talk about the situation with climate change in the world as a whole—they could only let the voices of the oppressed communities who were victims of climate change speak about their direct experience of confronting this. And this was put forward in a way where the students enthusiastically applauded these speakers and felt that they were standing with the oppressed.

But what could be more in line with the fundamental interests of oppressed people—and everyone—than to tell the truth about what is actually, scientifically happening to the environment of the planet and to make everyone aware of the enormous dangers—and to urge people to act? Horribly narrow and anti-scientific identity politics is a big problem in general on campuses. But here, where the planet is at stake and the verdict of science is clear—global warming is real and human society is driving it, and the future of humanity and the planet is on the line—the problem stands out even more sharply. Identity politics rules out talking about the truth of what is happening to the planet, rules out busting out of the confines of the daily routine and insisting that everyone confront reality.

And whatever miserable confines identity politics tries to set, the seas continue to rise and the storms and droughts get more intense, and species die off at accelerating rates. The question is whether the people will shed the ideological shackles, including identity politics, and confront reality and change it. I am not saying that identity politics characterized the entire conference, or characterizes the whole movement around divestment of fossil fuels, I don’t think it does, but what happened at the conference points to a real problem. And it also underscores the importance of the point that there is a scientific verdict on the objective reality of climate change and environmental crisis.

I think that in terms of stepping up our efforts, and thinking about how to do this in very concentrated ways, the campuses should be a major focus of our efforts. Because of both this point of the “moral imperative” among students and also the presence and role of scientists on these campuses. And more overall, because of the crucial role of students and campuses in society.

In whatever we do, I think that one really important objective is to find the ways to hit again and again at this point that capitalism is behind this, and to win others over to take this up. There is a dual point—on the one hand, this will greatly strengthen the struggle around climate. And on the other, putting the onus on capitalism in this way (with us playing a critical role of advocating for revolutionary solutions and for communism and the new synthesis) can have a very important and positive effect on the intellectual life on these campuses overall.

This is not the plan we need for how to take all this on. But I am raising these questions and thoughts to contribute to that plan.


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