I recently found myself in a part of Mississauga, Ontario (a bedroom community of Toronto), in which more than 90% of the visible landscape (excepting the sky) appeared to consist of concrete, in the form of pavement, asphalt, buildings, and such. The remaining 5-10% — rows of evenly spaced short trees, shrubs, a few patches of mowed lawn, and windows — looked like one could easily peel them off to reveal the concrete beneath them.
It had been a while since I’d found myself in such a scene, so there was some aesthetic and emotional revulsion to the experience. But what it reminded me of is that our entire social and technological order — from buildings and infrastructure to art forms, values, and religious and family planning practices (or lack thereof) — needs to be reinvented from the ground up so as to accommodate ecological principles. And very soon.
Of course, we’ll muddle through for a while as things slip and slide out of whack in the coming decades. And, of course, the concrete would get buckled and overlaid by grasses and trees and birds and things if we humans were to disappear altogether. Concrete is, in any case, a lesser worry than plastics, radionuclides, and a heavily carbon and methane spiked atmosphere.
But unless we do it decisively, Marshall Plan style, our future does not look very good.
That’s been a message of radical environmentalism for decades. It’s also, more or less, what Bill McKibben argues in his recent New Republic piece “A World at War” — a piece that echoes and amplifies what he and others managed to recently inject into the Democratic Party National platform recently. So what was once radical is now fairly common sense to many of us.
McKibben’s comparison is not to the post-War reconstruction known as the “Marshall Plan” (as was Al Gore’s in his book Earth in the Balance), but to the war effort itself, particularly in the industrial mobilizations and executive actions it called for. Impending climate change, with its associated traumas to come (some of them already here for some of us) — floodings of coastal cities and island nations, droughts and desertifications, uncontrolled forest fires, movements of refugee populations, wars over resources, bleaching coral reefs, massive ecosystem disruptions, and all the rest — is a war on the scale of the first two “world” wars, if not greater. “World War III is well and truly underway,” McKibben writes. “And we are losing.”
His argument has a strong consensus of climate scientists (and some military strategists) behind it, and it voices their thoughts better than most of them dare to. For McKibben, this war is manifestly not a metaphor — of the sort we’ve gotten used to through the wars “on drugs,” “on poverty,” or “on cancer.” “Carbon and methane,” he writes, “are seizing physical territory, sowing havoc and panic, racking up casualties, and even destabilizing governments.”
If we are at war, then, it would seem to be carbon and methane that are our enemies.
This is a useful way to spin things, in part because it externalizes the enemy. Carbon and methane are elements of nature, elements that have gone awry; they are literally pollution (matter out of place), a defilement. The way to win a war against things that have gotten into the wrong place is by rounding them up, quarantining them, putting them out of action — for instance, through carbon capture. “Keep it in the ground” is, in this sense, one part of a larger strategy, a strategy we can all get on the side of.
I call this a way of “spinning” things not because I think McKibben is up to something nefarious. I take spinning — and metaphor, and rhetoric — very seriously, because I don’t think it’s actually possibly to separate it from “the truth.” Truth is rhetorical because it is linguistic; it requires language to be spun into existence.
(But I also wouldn’t reduce truth to language or “text.” Truth is indicative or revelatory in the sense that it takes the form of an indication, an encounter, an experience, a production and transmission of meaning. Truth doesn’t just sit there; it moves. Something is truthful to the extent that it resonates with and in a broader set of realities. Exxon’s long denial of climate change given their scientists’ own knowledge of it is, in this sense, truthless and dishonest — it was an attempt to manufacture a truth that wasn’t truthful to the genuine concerns of those it was bound to affect, nor even to those of its own who knew better. It was ugly all along.)
That means that I don’t find the distinction between war as metaphor and war as reality to be all that useful. Metaphor is reality — it’s what communication is made of. The important questions are about its efficacy, its evocativeness, its communicativity.
It’s useful to depict this “war” as one not between people, or between particular socio-economic systems (we’ll get to that), but as a war of natural forces gone haywire — carbon and methane that have gotten out of place. But that’s also too easy. McKibben knows that — which is why he writes not only about the eco-industrial efforts and political will needed to fight the enemy (which this article is very good at), but also, elsewhere, of the corporate lobby groups and others who are fighting for the other side.
To call those people “traitors” raises too many other questions — like “aren’t we all traitors?,” “don’t we all consume the goods with the utter dependency of addicts?” and “who among us isn’t without sin?”
The Green Left would say that we need to correctly identify the enemy, and that it isn’t carbon and methane. But nor is it all of us. It is a specific system of relations.
How, then, to identify this system? That’s the tricky issue.
To call that system “capitalism” (as many on the left would) means having to define that term in a way that doesn’t let the “state socialisms” — the Soviet Union, Communist China, Chavez’s petro-state of Venezuela, et al. — off the hook. That’s doable: conceived in the way that world-systems theorists and others have defined it — in structural-historical terms and on a global scale — capitalism is a system of competitive accumulation based on commodification. It involves the transformation of complex relations and living substances into productive forces within monetary economic relations. And it inherently aims to maximize that, which makes it expansionist. The system must grow in order for competition to succeed in rewarding the “successful” competitors. And that system is one in which national economies are positioned one way or another no matter how much they try to resist some of its effects.
But having an enemy like capitalism (so defined) is no less abstract and faceless than having one that consists of (out of place) carbon and methane. More to the point, it’s less conceivable (as Fredric Jameson has put it) to envision the end of capitalism than it is to envision the end of the world. We can hardly think an “outside” to capitalism today; our utopian impulses are too atrophied. Or just too… utopian.
So we could try to be more precise and call the enemy fossil-fuel capitalism, or carbon (and methane?) capitalism, or even just fossil-fuel industrialism. That leaves some form of post-carbon eco-industrialism as a potential part of the solution, at least for now. It makes it possibly to ally with industry, with entrepreneurs and do-it-yourselfers and policy makers and lobbyists of many kinds (as McKibben wisely tries to do).
And we can add that the problematic kind of capitalism (if we choose to use that term) has nothing, or little, to do with whether a country or polity favors markets or governments or tradition or electronic plebiscites to make decisions about one thing or another. Seen as a system and trajectory of relations — towards commodification and accumulation, and therefore towards the constant cannibalization and/or expansion of its “resource base” — fossil-fuel capitalism can coexist with many kinds of governance, from the secretive, single-party patriarchal authoritarianism of China to the rambunctious, quasi-democratic plutocracy of the United States.
That means that post-carbon post-capitalism could work with many forms as well. No need to revolutionize everything all at once (even as Naomi Klein argues that we can and should; and even as many of us realize there are all kinds of other wars to attend to that aren’t encompassable within the wars of climate and capitalism).
So one of the questions raised by the notion that climate change is World War Three is the question of the enemy. Is a changing climate the enemy? Might it even be Nature (which McKibben, back in 1989, had argued was “ending”) in a suddenly hideous, vengeful, and demonic guise?
A second question is about mobilization: what will this war effort’s Pearl Harbor be? McKibben addresses that briefly, but it’s clear from his discussion that we’re not there yet. Pearl Harbor is more likely to come through a million little shocks (and a million little awakenings) than through a sudden single, sharp and vicious attack on complacency. But we will see.
A third question is about the frontlines. If the “battlefield,” as he writes, where “enemy forces have seized huge swaths of territory” is “the North,” with its disappearance of “another 22,000 square miles of Arctic ice,” then the battlefield is one where humans really are at threat from a truly vengeful and horrific demon-Nature, a Nature 2.0, an Eaarth. And the battles are generally taking place far away, where carbon is amassing, ice is melting, and islands are slowly going under.
On the other hand, if the battle is over the movement (out of the earth) of that carbon and methane, the laying down of pipelines for its transportation, the deals for selling it and making it profitable to do that, and so on, then the frontlines are in the fields of Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Iowa, Alberta, and Eastern Europe (where frackers and extreme oil hawkers ply their wares), the Indian reservations of British Columbia and South Dakota (across which pipelines are being built), and offices in Washington, Houston, London, Moscow, and Tokyo. And on Wall Street, too. Everywhere, in fact, where decisions are being made to continue fossil-fueled business-as-usual or to build alternatives to it.
I’m not convinced that war is the best metaphor (or description) for all that is happening around us in connection to fossil-fuel induced climate change. We’ll need more than one metaphor, in any case. But if war it is, there will be many fronts for waging it.
Here is but one of them:
All of that is to say is that we are in for a war of metaphor, alongside the war of war. It will be, as Bruno Latour calls it, a “war of the worlds.” And we have yet to figure out exactly what that means.