Rebecca Solnit is an influential author and activist who has written on social change, feminism, indigenous history, and the environment. A recent piece by Solnit in the May 1 issue of the Guardian is titled “Dare We Hope? Here’s My Cautious Case for Climate Optimism.” It is a tortured and toxic celebration of what Solnit sees as a brave new, carbon-free world now opened up by “the growth of solar power in cheapness, proliferation, and possibility,” and a Biden administration that is “regularly doing things that would have been all but inconceivable in previous administrations.” It is a stance that is all too emblematic of a disturbing trend among a section of prominent environmental thinkers, including Bill McKibben and David Wallace-Wells.
Solnit pays lip service to what science tells us about an accelerating, cascading climate crisis approaching irreversible tipping points. But lest we get too worked up, she warns against “alarmism.” Who could have imagined, she giddily reports, that an incredible new situation would be unfolding before our eyes, citing a climate journalist that “the end of oil is near.” Yes, she tells us, we have to keep up the pressure of environmental activism from below, but things are headed in this positive new direction: “That we cannot see all the way to the transformed society we need does not mean it is impossible. We will reach it by not one great leap but a long journey, step by step.”
There’s just one minor problem with Rebecca Solnit’s new-found optimism: it is utterly and completely out of touch with the reality of the profit-driven workings and planetary plunder of the capitalist-imperialist economic system that rules society and the world... that has brought us to this existential climate brink... and that is the main obstacle to addressing this crisis with the urgency and on the scale required.
Five retorts to Rebecca Solnit’s misbegotten optimism—or why the climate alarm must be sounded even louder, but why there can be hope on a scientific basis.
ONE: Some salient facts about capitalism-imperialism, fossil fuels, and imperialist geopolitics that give the lie to Solnit’s comforting narrative of technological advance and policy change.
Solnit argues early in her essay that the “technological solutions and the success of the organizing to address this largest of all crises have ... grown by leaps and bounds” and extols “countless new [policy] initiatives around the world” by governments at different levels—and goes on to say that “they do not get us to where we need to be, but they are the foundation for further shifts.” In Solnit’s telling, the “foundation” is set and the writing is on the wall: fossil fuels are on the way out.
So let’s look at the state of energy production and consumption. Fossil fuels (as of 2019) still provide 80 percent of world energy needs. The U.S. is the top oil-producing country in the world, a position it has held for 12 years! The vast majority of the world’s cars, including in the U.S., are gasoline-powered. In 1990, carbon-emitting coal and natural gas powered 65 percent of the electricity mix in the U.S.; in 2020, it stood at 60 percent—a mere five percent drop, even as clean energy has grown by multiples. Natural gas remains highly profitable—and a third of all newly constructed power plants in the U.S. in 2019 were powered by this fossil fuel. Indeed, while technological advances have cheapened solar energy, advances in fracking technology have cheapened natural gas production and enhanced its competitiveness in the world market.1
Solnit declares, in reference to the growth of solar power capabilities, that “if you change how we produce energy you change our geopolitics.” Leaving aside the imperio-chauvinist “our” in geopolitics, Solnit glosses over the strategic role of oil and natural gas—and, again, the position of the U.S. as the world’s top oil producer—in great-power rivalry, maneuvering, and bullying. For instance, the tremendous expansion of U.S. oil production has bolstered the U.S.’s ability to impose sanctions on major suppliers of oil, like Iran, with which U.S. imperialism is in conflict while, at the same time, limiting the economic fallout (by filling the supply gap) for countries in the U.S. orbit that rely on Iranian oil. Another example: U.S. imperialism is using its strength in natural gas production to challenge Russia’s market power in Eastern and Southern Europe. Oil also happens to be foundational to the U.S. military and its global reach (about which more in a moment).
Solnit hails how the U.S. has “made a huge U-turn” in climate policy with the Biden presidency. Certainly there is a change since Trump, when climate denialism reigned supreme. But how does Biden’s “U-turn” stack up against what is actually needed to deal with the climate emergency and the urgency of doing so? Dismally.
Take the recent and greatly hyped Earth Day Summit convened by Biden—with its high-sounding pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions (carbon and methane). Climate Action Tracker forecasts that even if all the announced carbon reduction targets by the major carbon-emitting countries were met (and note that none are binding and there are all kinds of loopholes), the world would still be on track for global heating of 2.4 degrees centigrade, which is beyond the threshold of catastrophic climate breakdown.2 This is nothing to feel “optimistic” about.
The worst-case scenarios for Thwaites are grim. It is the widest glacier on the planet, holding enough ice to raise the sea level by more than two feet. Below, satellite images of the western portion of the Thwaites ice front on March 2, 2019, and on March 6, 2019, after a large section of what had previously been called “ice shelf” crumbled into a flotilla of icebergs. Photo: Courtesy of Rob Larter/ British Antarctic Survey
TWO: The workings of the capitalist market are not, as Solnit suggests, destined to put an end to fossil-fuel-based production nor put the fossil-fuel industry out of business.
Solnit salivates about a new day: “If we see how impossible our current reality might have appeared 20 years ago—that solar would be so cheap...that fossil fuel corporations would be in freefall—we can trust that we could be moving toward an even more transformed and transformative future.” But there is no market magic of cost cheapening to “trust” in, that leads to a fundamental draw-down from fossil fuels.
Let’s look at ExxonMobil, the largest non-government-owned energy company in the world. Has this global corporation responded to calls for saving the planet by getting out of fossil fuels? Obviously not. Has the steep reduction in costs of generating solar and wind power compelled ExxonMobil to rethink its oil/natural gas foundations? No. So how has this giant unit of profit-maximizing capital responded to the perils of an ever-warming planet and competitive renewable energy challenges?
Essentially in three ways: a) dropping projects that were not performing well and focusing production and investment (we’re speaking billions of dollars) in the more productive fossil-fuel basins that straddle Texas and New Mexico and pouring huge amounts of investment capital into newer, potentially highly profitable, oil and gas fields off the coasts of Guyana, Mexico, and Mozambique; b) cutting costs by downsizing and laying off workers; and c) moving aggressively into carbon capture and storage technologies—unproven but potentially lucrative technologies—that will enable oil/natural gas companies like Exxon to continue to pump carbon into the atmosphere while supposedly “balancing out” these emissions with the promise of removing an equivalent amount of carbon from the atmosphere at some future date.3 This is not fossil fuel in “freefall,” as Solnit describes.
Yes, solar-based technology is advancing rapidly and energy companies in Europe are putting more capital into solar and wind. Yes, there are tremendous market pressures on the fossil-fuel sector (and so too for solar!). But the global oil-natural gas sector is not disappearing, nor are carbon emissions being reduced in any way close to what is needed to avert catastrophe. In fact, global energy-related carbon emissions in 2021 are on course to their second-largest increase in history! Solnit’s “long journey, in small steps” is at once delusional and obscenely out of sync with the state of global warming.
In the case of the U.S., there are huge investments in the fossil-fuel sector—technology, oil-field development, etc.—that must be recouped (and this includes bank loans underwriting these investments). And fossil fuel is deeply embedded in the infrastructure of the U.S. economy and U.S. imperialism’s highly profitable supply chains of global exploitation. More solar energy is entering into the energy grid of the U.S. But to make the larger-scale changes that are necessary for the wide adoption of solar and wind power, not to mention a transition to an actual zero-fossil economy, the energy transmission and storage infrastructure of the U.S. would have to be massively overhauled and new infrastructure built... far beyond any current government proposals.4
And let’s return to Solnit’s proclamation that “the end of oil is near.” Now that the U.S. economy is rebounding from the pandemic, oil prices are rising and that is a market incentive for continued drilling and exploration.
The larger point is this: The expansion of solar and wind power capacity is NOT, in and of itself, bringing about, and will not bring about, the rapid reduction and actual elimination of fossil fuels that is so urgently needed. Why?
In a capitalist-imperialist economic and political system—the foundation of which is privately owned, competing blocs of capital that exploit laborers worldwide—there is no society-wide means, no direct mechanism, no governing power to set rational priorities... to allocate resources according to social need and environmental sustainability. Here’s the cold truth about fossil fuels and global warming: To seriously deal with climate change, you would have to put the oil companies out of business, seize their assets, and leave most of the oil in the ground.
For that to happen and for society to interact with nature in a sustainable way, you need a socialist revolution. A revolution to overthrow this system... to create a new state power and socialize ownership of the means of production and forge a planned socialist economy—the radically different economic foundation—that makes it possible to utilize society’s resources collectively and to unleash people to go to work on the environmental emergency in the interests of world humanity and protecting the planet.
THREE: In Solnit’s feel-good story of inexorable progress towards renewable energy, the oil-powered U.S. military is conspicuously missing.
I’m speaking of America’s massive machinery of death and destruction in the service of empire. America’s military is the single largest institutional consumer of oil in the world and history’s greatest carbon polluter. An important 2019 study of the U.S. military’s “massive hidden impact on climate” points out that the military’s dependence on fossil fuels is built-in, given the U.S.’s “open-ended operations around the globe with the life-cycles of existing military aircraft and warships locking them into hydrocarbons [fossil fuels] for years to come.”5 Not that any person of conscience should want this U.S. military to now operate “renewably.”
This Revolution special issue focuses on the environmental emergency that now faces humanity and Earth’s ecosystems. In this issue we show:
- the dimensions of the emergency...
- the source of its causes in the capitalist system, and the impossibility of that system solving this crisis...
- a way out and way forward for humanity—a revolutionary society in which we could actually live as custodians of nature, rather than as its plunderers.
FOUR: Some “dirty little secrets” about “clean energy” under profit-maximizing capitalism-imperialism that Solnit ignores.
Solnit waxes enthusiastically about a “stunning” report from the think tank Carbon Tracker that describes, in her words, how “current technology could produce a hundred times as much electricity from solar and wind as current global demand; prices on solar continue to drop rapidly and dramatically; and the land required to produce all this energy would take less than is currently given over to fossil fuels. It is a vision of a completely different planet.” No, this is techno-utopianism grafted on to an intolerable capitalist-imperialist planetary status quo.
Let’s be clear. Saving and protecting the planet requires the massive, rapid transition to renewable energy sources. And solar power will be critical. But that must be part of a radical transformation of how we live, work, and produce the necessities of life, what we consume, how we move about. It requires putting an end to imperial domination and plunder of the oppressed countries of the global South, whose populations are suffering the greatest consequences—right now—of climate change caused by this expand-or-die system of capitalism-imperialism.
As for Solnit’s “vision of a completely different planet” driven by new technologies, consider electric vehicles (EVs) that are so much the rage. The lithium-ion cells that power most EVs rely on raw materials like cobalt. Mining cobalt produces hazardous waste that leaches into the environment. Extracting the metals from their ores causes harmful air pollution. Some 70 percent of the world’s cobalt supply is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where workers, including tens of thousands of children, are subjected to horrific, life-destroying working conditions in so-called “artisanal mines.”
Or consider that the world’s lithium is either mined in Australia or regions of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. This mining draws down water available to indigenous farmers and herders. Now there’s investor pressure to seek out profitable new sources, like deep seabeds... with all the attendant threats to the health of the oceans. All this to perpetuate the monumentally irrational and wasteful private-auto-based economy and culture—with its long-distance, highway infrastructure, with its logic of vehicles taking precedence over people in urban space. No wonder General Motors is such a champion of the EV.6
This is not a solution to climate change!
- A. The Economy.
- B. The Environment.
- Article IV. The Economy and Economic Development in the New Socialist Republic in North America.
- Section 5. The System of Public-State Ownership is the Foundation of the New Socialist Economy.
FIVE: Hope on a scientific basis. Confronting the reality and enormity of the climate emergency, and acting on it in the interests of humanity and protection of the planet. Revolution, nothing less.
In the face of this unprecedented planetary emergency, the choice is not, as Solnit would have us believe, between fatalistic “passivity into the collapse” of a planet that some see as too far gone to save, or her upbeat foolishness about capitalism-imperialism that masquerades as “cautious optimism.”
The situation is not hopeless. But time is not on our side, so let’s not squander it.
If we come to grips with the actual problem—this system… if we take up the real solution—the revolution to overthrow the U.S. imperialist colossus and create a society and world in which humanity can flourish and become fit caretakers of the planet... then there is hope on a scientific basis. Bob Avakian has developed the new communism, which is the scientific method and approach, the strategy, and the vision for this revolution. He has authored the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America that maps out what to do right after the seizure of power, so we can actually go to work on building a whole new emancipating society and saving the planet. There are no guarantees that we can reverse this climate crisis... but this is our only chance.
As A Declaration, A Call to Get Organized Now For A Real Revolution puts it: “We need a revolution—a real revolution. And this revolution is possible.”
Capitalism-Imperialism Is Destroying the Planet...
Only Revolution Gives Humanity a Real Chance to Save It
A Special Resource Page
1. U.S. Energy Information, Energy Power Administration,” Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States, March 18, 2021; Stephanie Tsao, Richard Martin, “Overpowered: Why a U.S. gas building spree continues despite electricity glut,” S&P Global Market Intelligence, December 2, 2019. [back]
2. Climate Action Tracker, Warming Projections Global Update, May 2021. [back]
3. “’Is Exxon a Survivor?’ The Oil Giant Is at a Crossroads,” New York Times, December 10, 2020. [back]
4. Solnit in her article, for example, lauds “the astonishing news that on the afternoon of Saturday 24 April, California got more than 90% of its energy from renewables.” What she does not say is that, while this day is notable in progress, as an LA Times column noted, the peak “94.5% figure—… was fleeting, lasting just four seconds.… [It did not] include Los Angeles, Sacramento and several other regions. It came at a time of year defined by abundant sunshine and relatively cool weather, meaning it’s easier for renewable power to do the job traditionally done by fossil fuels. [And, at the same time] California … was also burning a bunch of natural gas and exporting electricity to its Western neighbors.” As the LA Times column acknowledged, even while cheering this like Solnit, “It’s impossible to say exactly how much of the Golden State’s own supply was coming from renewables.” (emphasis added) Electricity can’t yet be stored at large enough scale, and mainly has to be consumed as soon as it’s produced. While fossil fuels are a form of “storage,” renewables most often lack that form of storage and the electricity they generate goes into the grid upon production. Massive transformations and investments in the transmission (grid) infrastructure are therefore needed to facilitate the large-scale—and sustainable long-term—shift needed from fossil fuels to renewable energy, to meet current demand within the framework of the existing capitalist-imperialist system. [back]
5. Oliver Belcher, Patrick Bigger, Ben Neimark, Cara Kennelly, “Hidden carbon costs of the ‘everywhere war’: Logistics, geopolitical ecology, and the carbon boot-print of the US military,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 2019. [back]
6. See Hiroko Tabuchi and Brad Plumer, “How Green Are Electric Vehicles,” New York Times, May 4, 2021; Tara Lohan, “Will the Race for Electric Vehicles Endanger the Earth’s Most Sensitive Ecosytem?,” The Revelator, March 10, 2021 (Center for Biological Diversity); Farhod Manjoo, “There’s One Big Problem With Electric Cars, They’re Still Cars,” New York Times, February 19, 2021. [back]