Opinion: To Win a Political Revolution, We Need a New Mass Organization / by Jeremy Gong and Nick French

Since Bernie Sanders’s defeat in 2020 and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US left has been largely disorganized. The time is ripe for Bernie and the Squad to create a new mass organization to confront today’s crises.

It’s hard for leftists in the United States to find much to celebrate these days. After the excitement of Bernie Sanders’s victories in the early 2020 Democratic primaries, our hopes were dashed when the center consolidated around Joe Biden and handed him the nomination. The wave of inspiring uprisings against police brutality later that summer was followed by disappointment too, as demands for serious reforms to attack racial and economic injustice were co-opted or sidelined. The Left, as some have put it, finds itself in purgatory.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s administration has turned out to be what his most astute critics predicted: a presidency that, despite some early bright spots, has failed to meaningfully tackle economic inequality, the climate crisis, or much of anything else. Biden’s approval ratings are now at record lows as inflation batters the economy. (It’s unclear whether a last-minute compromise deal with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin on climate, health care, and taxes will salvage the administration’s popularity.) On top of that, the Supreme Court is rolling back abortion rights and threatening our democracy, and Biden and Democratic Party leaders are dragging their feet on any sort of response. The increasingly reactionary GOP now seems set for victory in the midterms.

There are some positive signs: Left-wing ideas are more mainstream than they have been in decades, in part thanks to Sanders’s presidential campaigns. Along with other insurgent politicians like “Squad” members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, Sanders has put policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and free public college into the mainstream. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has nearly one hundred thousand dues-paying members, four members in Congress, and dozens of elected officials at the state and local levels. The labor movement is stirring again, with this year’s successful Amazon warehouse unionization effort in Staten Island, the ongoing wave of Starbucks organizing, and the election of a strike-ready leadership to the 1.3-million-strong International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Still, the Left hasn’t been able to coordinate effective political interventions at the federal level, let alone exercise power. With leftists still a tiny minority in Congress, progressive priorities like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal are off the agenda, and even less ambitious reforms are consistently stymied by conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin. And despite growing their legislative presence, socialists and their allies have failed to expand beyond deep-blue districts.

Sanders’s presidential campaigns brought in tens of thousands of volunteers, millions of voters, and a huge number of small-dollar campaign contributions (many from working-class donors). But it wasn’t enough to win, and the underlying theory of the campaigns — that class-struggle rhetoric and a popular platform of wealth redistribution could turn out masses of working-class nonvoters to carry Sanders to the nomination — didn’t pan out. Despite the popularity of Sanders-style politics and mass discontent with the status quo, socialism remains largely the preserve of young, college-educated professionals in solidly Democratic districts — isolated from the broader working-class constituency it purports to represent.

In a phrase, Sanders’s “political revolution” simply never came.

There are many theories as to why Sanders didn’t win. Part of the explanation, though, must involve the lack of working-class organization (including unions) and left institutions. The defeat and disorganization of the Left and labor since the 1970s has deprived the working class of the struggles and organizations that undergird them — what Friedrich Engels called “schools of class war.” Having never felt the power of collective struggle, many voters were understandably skeptical that Sanders’s campaign would deliver. And with most Democratic voters taking their cues from the corporate media and party elites, Sanders simply didn’t have a strong enough media counterweight.

Today, the absence of mass working-class organization continues to haunt the US left. With the Right putting fundamental liberties like reproductive freedom on the chopping block and the Democrats asleep at the wheel, the time is ripe to build a mass organization that can make desperately needed political interventions. And we think that Sanders and the Squad need to take the lead in building such an organization.

Movements Need Organizations

The Left’s recent defeats — compounded by COVID-19, which has made in-person organizing much more difficult — have fostered demoralization and demobilization. But much of the post-2020 malaise can also be attributed to the inability of activists — let alone millions of ordinary people — to keep participating in a movement that has the power to change the world, especially at the national level, where the stakes are highest. While activists have supported impressive campaigns and righteous protests, millions of former Bernie supporters understandably feel helpless amid political and ecological crises.

Still, there are inspiring examples for the Left to build on. In Richmond, California, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) has beaten landlords and Chevron to win city council majorities on and off for over a decade. The Vermont Progressive Party continues to be a significant force in state politics, even holding the office of lieutenant governor from 2017 to 2021. In New York City and Chicago, DSA-backed elected officials have formed socialist caucuses.

These efforts are exciting because they elevate the political process above individual candidates and fleeting election campaigns, fuse legislative fights with permanent membership organizations, and create clear and oppositional political identities distinct from the Democratic Party. As labor activist and RPA leader Mike Parker wrote earlier this year, building broader political organization is the “main task when it comes to political action,” not a “side issue.” Organization is how we make Bernie’s “Not me, us” more than a slogan.

Without organization, it’s hard to build, let alone sustain, the type of mobilization needed for Bernie’s political revolution. Massive protests wane without clear demands, let alone a compelling strategy of how to win them. Thousands of progressives either don’t know how to start building campaigns or lack the resources to do so. Movements around important issues get co-opted by corporate Democrats’ reelection campaigns, grant-seeking nonprofits, and prominent social media personalities who aren’t democratically accountable to any base. Ongoing organization is also essential to train onetime protesters into skilled, politically sophisticated, and lifelong movement cadre.

In electoral politics, progressive candidates face enormous pressure to avoid criticizing establishment Democrats. Once elected, lone progressives have few resources to push against the business-friendly common sense at every level of government: corporate candidates can rely on well-funded lobbyists to help write legislation, educate the public, and even mobilize supporters; anti-corporate candidates must do this all on their own. Without a broader organization at their back, it’s no wonder that the progressive politicians we support are not able to be constantly fighting on all fronts at once.

Only mass organization can bring together the resources and the people of the Sanders movement on a permanent basis. The idea of such a party-like organization has been popular on the Left since the end of Sanders’s 2016 campaign, popularized in a 2016 Jacobin article by Seth Ackerman and expanded on recently by many others.

If the Left had a mass party–like organization in 2020, the end of Sanders’s second presidential race wouldn’t have meant losing the feeling that, together, we could change the world. While supporters of Sanders and the Squad can donate to individual election campaigns when asked, there is no way to permanently join and help build the movement these elected officials appear to lead. Many of us called for Sanders to convert his 2020 campaign infrastructure into a permanent organization after the campaign, to no avail.

Such a party-like organization could have helped progressives in Congress and their many supporters win more of the progressive items in negotiations over Build Back Better since 2021. As Ben Beckett argued in Jacobin last fall, Sanders and the Squad could have built a powerful movement to pressure Manchin and Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema by mobilizing with activists, including DSA members, battle-hardened teacher unionists — who led historic mass strikes in West Virginia and Arizona in 2018 — and other progressives. Such a movement might also have pushed the Biden administration to use its bully pulpit or the power of executive action to enact sweeping change (like canceling student debt). The movement to defend abortion rights desperately needs this kind of mobilization today.

In a similar vein, Neal Meyer writes that “mass mobilizations require mass organization. We have to put the days of lone-wolf politicians acting on their own . . . behind us.” A Sanders-led party-like organization with permanent local chapters across the country could have coordinated this movement with progressive electoral challenges in West Virginia and Arizona and pressure campaigns against Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi in California and Chuck Schumer in New York. A mass organization could in turn bolster Sanders and the Squad to fight for a better deal in Congress, as well as support local and state-level candidates nationwide — including in purple or red districts where the Left does not yet have a foothold.

Ultimately, we need something like the organization described here to help convince millions of working people who are disconnected from politics that a better world is possible through collective action, and to sustain mass activity once it’s in motion. That’s how we can build the base that will elect Sanders-style progressives and democratic socialists by the hundreds across the country and grow a movement that can exert bottom-up pressure through mass disruption.

Build Back Bernie

It is premature to write a precise blueprint for what this party-like organization should look like. But there are a few principles that should guide us.

First, socialists and progressives should call on Bernie and the Squad to participate in building and leading this new organization. For better or worse, only these national political figures have the resources and legitimacy to bring together millions of supporters and many disparate threads of progressive activism into a single organization. Their leadership would make the project much more likely to succeed, and sooner.

Second, such an organization should be democratic and membership-based. Local and national leaders should be elected by the members, and members should be able to influence the policy platforms of elected officials like Sanders through conventions and internal debates. As Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle write in a different context, democracy is power: only democratic organizations can give their members a sense of ownership over strategies and campaigns, grow the sophistication and size of their activist base, refine their approach based on real-world experience, and deal with competing ideas without alienating the minority of activists who don’t get their way.

Third, the group should support progressive election campaigns, but also year-round organizing outside the halls of official politics. The history of progressive movements shows that mass disruption, outside of the normal political process, is critical to securing legislative wins. No anti-corporate political project will be successful if the Left isn’t also helping build fighting unions and social movements.

Fourth, a progressive party-like organization should be working-class-funded, primarily through membership dues. That means rejecting all corporate and billionaire donations, large unreported donations from anonymous sources, and donations from PACs, foundations, or other groups that launder capitalist cash. Campaign-finance statutes complicate efforts to coordinate election spending, but David Duhalde and Seth Ackerman have both explained how such a nonparty political organization could navigate the law.

Finally, this organization should be effectively nonpartisan, meaning it will support candidates running as Democrats and as independents, depending on what makes sense in a given local context. Sanders himself has run as an independent for Congress, but caucuses with the Democrats, and made his biggest impact by running in the Democratic presidential primaries. This flexibility will be needed both to build an independent political brand that resonates with voters sick of both corporate parties and to keep together leftists and progressives who might currently disagree about the long-term future of the Democratic Party. In the near term, though, the organization can appeal to voters who are still loyal to the Democrats or who are worried about the “spoiler effect” in districts where that is a concern.

Along with mobilizing to defend abortion and other rights, activists and groups that believe in this organizational vision should plan local and national convenings to discuss how to make it a reality. We’re members of DSA and believe DSA has an important role to play in backing this effort. But we also believe that a Sanders-led party-like organization must have a broader ideological base than DSA, since today’s fights are for near-term reforms, not for overthrowing capitalism. As with our election campaigns, unions, and protests, our mass political organizations should be open to the millions of people who want to defend democracy and support Sanders’s agenda but aren’t ready to join an explicitly anti-capitalist organization.

Other membership organizations and nonprofits like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, local or state-level political formations like the RPA and the Vermont Progressive Party, grassroots groups fighting for economic and social justice, and progressive unions like National Nurses United, which hosted the People’s Summit after Sanders’s first run in 2016, should also sign on to this project.

A New Political Moment

Sanders has attempted to start a mass membership organization before: Our Revolution, which sprung up in the wake of his 2016 presidential run. For all its accomplishments, though, Our Revolution isn’t suited to play the role of a mass party–like organization right now.

First, though at least some chapters had democratic mechanisms, members were not empowered to democratically determine the national organization’s strategy. Second, Sanders himself was not involved in the organization, which likely hindered the group’s appeal and political effectiveness. Third, as Duhalde noted in 2020, most of Our Revolution’s staff left the organization to work for Sanders’s 2020 campaign, and some of its key early leaders are no longer involved.

That points to another problem with Our Revolution: it was formed at a particular moment (post-2016), with many activists no doubt expecting another Sanders presidential run, and with a particular strategy of attempting to reform the Democratic Party from within. But that political moment is over: Sanders lost the 2020 primary, progressives have largely found themselves marginalized by the Democratic establishment, and we need everyone who was activated by the Bernie campaign and more — including Sanders himself and the Squad — to come together to devise a new strategy. We should reconsider Our Revolution’s strategy of running for internal Democratic Party positions, for instance, and think about establishing a political identity more independent of the Democrats.

The new left has much to be proud of since 2016, but the organizations and tactics that got us this far aren’t enough going forward. If we want to fight for democracy and justice, and build the power to make more ambitious changes in the future, we need to get serious about our strategy. Isolated protests, strikes, and election campaigns have brought many of us into politics. But we need these to add up to more than the sum of their parts so we can wage the struggle that establishment Democrats can’t or won’t.

We know the creation of the kind of group we’re calling for is a long shot. But we’ve seen the ability of Sanders and the Squad to inspire millions, and we believe they have the power to start building the effective, broad left organization that this moment demands.

Jeremy Gong is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in California’s East Bay.

Nick French is an assistant editor at Jacobin.

Jacobin, August 6, 2022, https://jacobin.com/

If Degrowth Is Coming, What Does It Propose for Workers? / by Hannah Hubbard

Forest fire | credit: stockvault.net

In 2015, countries participating in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change rallied around preventing the rise in average global temperatures beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. With an average rise of 1.5–2.0 degrees, scientists predict 70–90% loss of coral reefs globally, an explosion of natural disaster–related deaths, and displacement of up to 1.2 billion people by 2050.

We already stand at an increase in average global temperatures of 1.2 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution and, according to the World Meteorological Organization, there is now a 40% chance that the world will see average global temperatures increase to 1.5 degrees in the next five years. As the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded last year, the world missed its opportunity to prevent many of these devastating impacts and can only hope to prevent the “most harrowing” possibilities — but we need to take decisive action, and we need to do it now.

In the United States, advocates are calling for a “Green New Deal” to redirect innovation toward sustainable enterprise before it’s too late to avoid the bulk of climate change’s devastation. With a Green New Deal, the federal government would provide the job training and economic investment necessary to decarbonize the economy by developing renewable energy, upgrading buildings across the country, and building a sustainable national transportation system. Besides creating upwards of 30 million long-term, full-time jobs in the “clean energy” sector, this program combined with the Climate Jobs Guarantee could advance workers’ rights and the position of labor by building “a powerful labor-friendly coalition” between organized labor and environmentalists and providing guaranteed employment at a baseline $15 dollars an hour with benefits.

Although some have dismissed the Green New Deal as a “radical front for nationalizing [the U.S.] economy,” others question whether it is enough to avoid oncoming climate catastrophe.

Enter “degrowthers” who claim that a Green New Deal only “greens” the “capitalist imperative of perpetual economic growth, which is the true cause of environmental destruction.” The degrowth movement insists that we can’t have our cake (ecological sustainability) and eat it too (while maintaining economic growth at all times) — to truly reduce our environmental impacts, degrowthers believe we must “scale down energy and material use throughout the economy” ultimately “lead[ing] to a downturn in gross domestic product (GDP) growth.”

Degrowthers have reason to be skeptical of the mainstream campaign to decouple economic growth and ecological sustainability. According to one study published in Advances in Applied Energy last year, only 14 of 116 countries surveyed were able to decouple GDP growth from CO2 emissions between 2015 and 2018; even then, those countries continued to add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and some countries that had decoupled GDP and emissions at the time of a previous study had actually reverted to increasing emissions for GDP gains since.

Accompanying worldwide economic growth is also an increase in demand for energy — the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts a 50% increase in global energy use by 2050, which cannot be fully offset using renewable sources. Fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy landscape — fueling about 80% of the United States’ energy-use in 2018 — leaving some to conclude that “peak oil and the slow expansion of renewable energy will result in a decrease in the total quantity of energy available by 2050,” bringing about widespread descaled economic production (i.e., degrowth) whether we like it or not.

Spontaneous economic contraction is a huge concern for workers. GDP, while an imperfect measure for societal welfare, is largely correlated with a country’s standard of living; economic downturns almost always hit lowest-wage workers the hardest and it can take much longer for poor individuals to see true recovery than the rich. Even mild recessions have a distinct racial character, with negative impacts disproportionately impacting communities of color.

Indeed, advocating for degrowth requires serious caution. For example, a so-called ecofascist framing of degrowth might characterize the suffering accompanying a rapid economic downturn as a necessary check on our overconsumption of natural resources. (A damning indictment of the radical ecological movement is that it has, at times, taken for granted the Malthusian notion that poor individuals, immigrants, and those with large families are to blame for climate catastrophe and that the ravages of poverty or economic contraction are a “positive check” on overpopulation.) However, insofar as the degrowth movement has any cohesive action plan (and critics often insist that its biggest downfall is that it does not), it could intersect with some strong labor-friendly policies — and backing these specific policy interventions could prompt more workers to support degrowthers’ vision of a radically reshaped global economy.

For instance, degrowthers are in a much stronger position to advocate for a universal basic income than mainstream green-growthers. A major axiom of degrowth is that our economy needs to descale in many if not most sectors. Since climate change is primarily driven by the “cumulative historical consumption of the Global North,” rich countries need to shrink our economies while concentrating productivity in sectors that are sustainable and necessary. This most likely translates to shorter work weeks: Professor Jared Fitzgerald at Boston College has found that each percent increase in working hours corresponds to a 0.65 percent increase in carbon emissions. Combined with redistributive policies, reducing the world’s working hours could thus be a necessary component to decarbonizing the global economy. While the final bill proposing a Green New Deal erased any reference to UBI due to backlash over the notion of supporting those “unwilling to work,” degrowthers can advocate for UBI precisely for its potential to empower workers to reclaim their time and take up non-growth-based labor.

Degrowthers also invite us to reimagine work and consumption in a world that has eschewed growth for growth’s sake. Degrowthers blame the “capitalist economic model” for producing a society which prioritizes “corporate profits, over-production and excess consumption” over “social and ecological well-being;” degrowth’s “logical implication” is to challenge this economic model since, as political economist Güney Işıkara posits, “[o]nly under social ownership of the means of production can we extend democracy to the realm where resources are allocated and limits are defined.” In pursuit of this, ecosocialist scholars like Stefania Barca argue that “degrowth should aim for a truly democratic, workers’ controlled production system, where alienation is actively countered by a collective reappropriation of the products of labor and by a truly democratic decision-making process over the use of the surplus.” To this end, degrowthers could support a transition to “alternative political economic arrangements” by advocating policies that specifically encourage the growth of worker co-operatives, public banking, and the public provision of essential goods.

The Green New Deal, if ever passed, would be a tremendous step forward for raising minimum labor standards while decarbonizing the U.S. economy. But the degrowth movement implores us to remain unsatisfied by anything short of a “fundamental overhaul of the way our economies work.” And the exact contours of this transition could make all the difference; as Işıkara concludes, “[a]voiding ecological collapse” may be “more closely linked to the emancipation of the working classes than it appears.”

Hannah Hubbard is a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School. She is involved in the Consumer Protection Law Students Association, Street Justice Coalition, and Lambda. She has interned at the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Roxbury and the National Consumer Law Center in Boston. Hannah is also an Editor for Unbound: Harvard Journal of the Legal Left and an Article and Executive Content Editor for the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender.

Portside, May 20, 2022, https://portside.org/

The United States is Exceptional, Just Not in the Ways Any of Us Should Want / by Aviva Chomsky

Debunking the Myth of American Exceptionalism | Credit: TRANSCEND Media Service

Three years after the end of World War II, diplomat George Kennan outlined the challenges the country faced this way:

We have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.

That, in a nutshell, was the postwar version of U.S. exceptionalism and Washington was then planning to manage the world in such a way as to maintain that remarkably grotesque disparity. The only obstacle Kennan saw was poor people demanding a share of the wealth.

Today, as humanity confronts a looming climate catastrophe, what’s needed is a new political-economic project. Its aim would be to replace such exceptionalism and the hoarding of the earth’s resources with what’s been called “a good life for all within planetary boundaries.”

Back in 1948, few if any here were thinking about the environmental effects of the over-consumption of available resources. Yet even then, however unknown, this country’s growing wealth had a dark underside: the slow-brewing crisis of climate change. Wealth all too literally meant the intensified extraction of resources and the production of goods. As it happened, fossil fuels (and the greenhouse gases that went with their burning) were essential to every step in the process.

Today, the situation has shifted — at least a bit. With approximately 4% of the world’s population, the United States still holds about 30% of its wealth, while its commitment to over-consumption and maintaining global dominance remains remarkably unshaken. To grasp that, all you have to do is consider the Biden White House’s recent Indo-Pacific Strategy policy brief, which begins in this telling way: “The United States is an Indo-Pacific power.” Indeed.

In 2022, the relationship between wealth, emissions, and climate catastrophe has become ever clearer. In the crucial years between 1990 and 2015, the global economy expanded from $47 trillion to $108 trillion. During that same period, global annual greenhouse-gas emissions grew by more than 60%. Mind you, 1990 was the year in which atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) first surpassed what many scientists believed was the level of safety — 350 parts per million, or ppm. Yet in the 22 years since then, more CO2 and other greenhouse gases have been emitted into the atmosphere than in all of history prior to that date, as atmospheric CO2 careened past 400 ppm in 2016 with 420 ppm now fast approaching.

Inequality and Emissions

Growing global wealth is closely associated with growing emissions. But the wealth and responsibility for those emissions are not shared equally among the planet’s population. On an individual level, the wealthiest people on Earth consume — and emit — far more than their poorer counterparts. The richest 10% of the world’s population, or about 630 million people, were responsible for more than half of the increase in greenhouse-gas emissions over the last quarter-century. On a national level, rich countries are, of course, home to far more people with high levels of consumption, which means that the larger and wealthier the country, the greater its emissions.

In terms of per capita income, the United States ranks 13th in the world. But the countries above it on the list are mostly tiny, including some of the Persian Gulf states, Ireland, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Switzerland. So, despite their high per-capita emissions, their overall contribution isn’t that big. As the third largest country on this planet, our soaring per-capita emissions have, on the other hand, had a devastating effect.

With a population of around 330 million, the United States today has less than a quarter of either China’s population of more than 1.4 billion or India’s, which is just under that figure. Four other countries — Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan — fall into the population range of 200 to 300 million, but their per-capita gross domestic products (GDPs) and their per-capita emissions are far below ours. In fact, the total U.S. GDP of more than $19 trillion far exceeds that of any other country, followed by China at $12 trillion and Japan at $5 trillion.

In sum, the United States is exceptional when it comes to both its size and wealth. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn then that, until 2006, it was also by far the world’s top CO2 emitter. After that, it was surpassed by a fast-developing China (though that country’s per capita emissions remain less than half of ours) and no other country’s greenhouse gas emissions come close to either of those two.

To fully understand different countries’ responsibility, it’s necessary to go past yearly numbers and look at how much they’ve emitted over time, since the greenhouse gases we put in the atmosphere don’t disappear at the end of the year. Here again, one country stands out above all the others: the United States, whose cumulative emissions reached 416 billion tons by the end of 2020. China’s, which didn’t start rising rapidly until the 1980s, reached 235 billion tons in that year, while India trailed at 54 billion.

Having first hit 20 billion tons in 1910, U.S. cumulative emissions have only shot up ever since, while China’s didn’t hit that 20 billion mark until 1979. So the U.S. got a big head start and, cumulatively speaking, is still way ahead when it comes to taking down this planet.

The U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) arguesthat excessive emitters like the United States have already used up far more than their “fair share” of this planet’s carbon budget and so, in fact, owe a huge carbon debt to the rest of the world to make up for their outsized contribution to the problem of climate change over the past two centuries. Unfortunately, the 2015 Paris Agreement’s voluntary, non-enforceable, and nationally determined limits on emissions functionally let rich countries continue on their damaging ways.

In fact, nations should be held responsible for repaying their carbon debt. The world’s poorest people, who have contributed practically nothing to the problem, deserve access to a portion of the remaining budget and to the sort of aid that would enable them to develop alternative forms of energy to meet their basic needs.

Under the fair-share proposal, it’s not enough for the United States just to stop adding emissions. This country needs to repay the climate debt it’s already incurred. USCAN calculates that to pay back its fair share the United States must cut its emissions by 70% by 2030, while contributing the cash equivalent of another 125% of its current emissions every year through technical and financial support to energy-poor nations.

Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal proposal adopted the concept of the “fair share.” True leadership in the global climate fight, Sanders has argued, means recognizing that “the United States has for over a century spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere in order to gain economic standing in the world. Therefore, we have an outsized obligation to help less industrialized nations meet their targets while improving quality of life.”

On this subject, however, his voice and others like it sadly remain far outside the all-too-right-wing mainstream. (And if you doubt that, just check Joe Manchin’s recent voting record.)

Are We Making Progress Thanks to New Technologies?

In 2018, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report on our chances of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade — the goal that the countries involved in the Paris Agreement, including the United States, accepted as their baseline for action. It concluded that, to have a 50% chance of staying below that temperature increase, our future collective emissions couldn’t exceed 480 gigatons (or 480 billion tons). That, in other words, was humanity’s remaining carbon budget.

Unfortunately, as of 2018, global emissions were exceeding 40 gigatons a year, which meant that even if they were flattened almost immediately (not exactly a likelihood), we would use up that budget in a mere dozen years or so. Worse yet, despite a Covid-induced decline in 2020, global emissions actually rebounded sharply in 2021.

Most scenarios for emission reductions, including those proposed by the IPCC, rely optimistically on new technologies to enable us to get there without making substantive changes in the global economy or in the excessive consumption of the world’s richest people and countries. Such technological advances, it’s hoped, would allow us to produce as much, or possibly more energy from renewable sources and even possibly begin removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support the likelihood of such progress, especially in the time we have left. No matter how much new technology we develop, there seems to be no completely “clean” form of energy. All of them — nuclear, wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, biomass, and perhaps others still to be developed — rely on massive industrial operations to extract finite resources from the earth; factories to process them; facilities to create, store, and transmit energy; and, in the end, some form of waste (think batteries, solar panels, old electric cars, and so on). Every form of energy will have multiple dangerous environmental impacts. Meanwhile, as the use of alternative forms of energy production increases worldwide, it hasn’t yet reduced fossil-fuel use. Instead, it’s just added to our growing energy consumption.

It’s true that the world’s wealthiest countries have achieved some gains in decouplingeconomic growth from rising emissions. But much of this relatively minor decoupling is attributable to a shift from the use of coal to natural gas, along with the outsourcing of particularly dirty industries. Decoupling has, as yet, made no dent in global greenhouse gas emissions and seems unlikely to accelerate or even continue at a meaningful enough pace after these first and easiest steps have been taken. So almost all climate modeling, like that of the IPCC, suggests that new technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere will also be needed to counter rising emissions.

But negative emissions technologies are largely aspirational at this point. Instead of counting on what still to a significant extent remain technological fantasies, while the wealthy continue their profligacy, it’s time to shift our thinking more radically and focus, as I do in my new book Is Science Enough? Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice, on how to reduce extraction, production, and consumption in far more socially just ways, so that we can indeed begin to live within our planet’s means. Call it “post-growth” or “degrowth” thinking.

Make no mistake: we can’t live without energy and we desperately do need to turn to alternatives to fossil fuels. But alternative energies are only going to be truly viable if we can also greatly reduce our energy needs, which means reconfiguring the global economy. If energy is a scarce and precious resource, then ways must be found to prioritize its use to meet the urgent needs of the world’s poor, rather than endlessly expanding the luxuries of the wealthiest among us. And that’s precisely what degrowth thinking is all about: scaling back the mindless pursuit of production, consumption, and profit in favor of “human wellbeing and ecological stability.”

Abandoning Exceptionalism

In April 2021, President Biden made a dramatic announcement, setting a new goal for U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions — to reduce them 50% from 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. Sounds pretty good, right?

But given that this country’s CO2 emissions had hit a high of 6.13 billion tons in 2005, that means by 2030 we’d still be emitting three billion tons of CO2 a year. Even if we could reach net-zero by 2050, our country alone would, by then, have used up one quarter of the entire remaining carbon budget for the planet. And right now, given the state of the American political system, there’s neither a genuine plan nor an obvious way to reach Biden’s goal. If we stay on our current path — and don’t count on that if the Republicans take Congress in 2022 and the White House again in 2024 — we would barely achieve a 30% reduction by 2030.

At this point, there’s no guarantee we’ll stay on that path, no matter the political party in power. After all, consider just this:

+ In 2010, about half of the new vehicles sold in the United States were cars and half were SUVs or trucks. By 2021, close to 80% were SUVs or trucks.

+ In 2020, more than 900,000 new houses were built in this country, their median size, 2,261 square feet. Most of them had four or more bedrooms and 870,000 had central air conditioning.

+ President Biden’s infrastructure bill, signed in November 2021, included $763 billion for new highways.

And let’s not even talk about the military-industrial-congressional complex and war. After all, the Department of Defense is the single largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels and emitter of CO2 in the world. Between its worldwide bases, promotion of the arms industry, and ongoing global wars, our military alone produces annual emissions greater than those of wealthy countries like Sweden and Denmark.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to the climate-change meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, in the fall of 2021, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry insisted repeatedlythat the United States must work to bring China on board. Joe Biden too kept his attention focused on China. And indeed, given its greenhouse gas emissions and still-expanding use of coal, China does have a big role to play. But to the rest of the world, such an insistence on diverting attention from our own role in the climate crisis rings hollow indeed.

A 2021 study shows that almost all of the world’s remaining coal, not to speak of most of its gas and oil reserves, will need to stay in the ground if global warming is to be kept below 1.5 degrees centigrade. Back in 2018, another study found that even to meet a 2-degree centigrade goal, which it’s now all too clear would be catastrophic in climate-change terms, humanity would have to halt all new fossil-fuel-based infrastructure and immediately start decommissioning fossil-fuel-burning plants. Instead, such new facilities continue to be built in a relentless fashion globally. Unless the United States, which bears by far the greatest responsibility for our climate emergency, is ready to radically change course, how can it demand that others do so?

But to change course would mean to abandon exceptionalism.

Degrowth scholars argue that, rather than risking all of our futures on as-yet-unproven technologies in order to cling to economic growth, we should seek social and political solutions that would involve redistributing the planet’s wealth, its scarce resources, and its carbon budget in ways that prioritize basic needs and social wellbeing globally.

That, however, would require the United States to acknowledge the dark side of its exceptionalism and agree to relinquish it, something that, in March 2022, still seems highly unlikely.

Aviva Chomsky is an American teacher, historian, author, and activist. She is a professor of history and the Coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts

Source: Counterpunch, March 25, 2022, https://www.counterpunch.org/