Tuesday, May 14, 2013

End of an Epoch

That the Mauna Loa carbon dioxide measurements have crossed the 400 ppm threshold is a fact whose significance is more psychological than scientific. Yet it has been of great psychological significance for me, in that it has forced me to look squarely at some hitherto inconceivable realities.

Even a quick glance at the Mauna Loa data shows that, despite seasonal fluctuations, the overall, year-over-year trend seems to be linear. Since the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the result of the interaction of several complex systems--the global economic system, technological developments, forest and aquatic ecosystems--to have an output that is so, pardon the pun, straightforward is hard to explain without a means of comprehending those systems as a totality.

How is it that, despite two decades of scientific consensus, international summits, and the like, we proceed at a steady pace toward a threshold whose significance is more scientific than psychological: 450 ppm, at which point several irreversible climate changes will likely be triggered? Mainstream social science and journalism point to partial causes or vagaries: political will (or rather, its absence); the collapse of the Soviet Union counterbalanced by the industrialization of China and the other BRICS; European conservationism overwhelmed by the tar sands and fracking gluttonies of North America; etc.

The fundamental cause, however, is that capital, in its prolonged phase of imperial monopoly, is too heavily invested in the exploitation of existing fossil fuel reserves to be able to swallow any large-scale disinvestment or devaluation of those reserves through state action. The fundamental motive force driving the seemingly inexorable rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is capital accumulation. It is fundamentally a social rather than a natural phenomenon. That it is linear and not--thank capital for small favors--exponential is a symptom of a fundamental contradiction of capital that Marx diagnosed over a century ago: The tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

Thus, in 55 years of rigorous scientific observation, we have seen a global increase of 80 ppm: A linear rate of increase of about 1.45 ppm per year. If that rate remains constant, we can expect to hit 450 ppm within about 35 years, by 2048.

There are many natural processes that could accelerate it: For example, the saturation or destruction of natural carbon sinks (e.g. oceans, permafrost, rain forests). The science explicating those dangers is either too tentative, or too poorly understood by me, for it to factor into my presentation at this point. On the other hand, the social phenomena that could slow the increase are things I have given some thought to: Either a global economic crisis that temporarily halts capital accumulation, with all the human suffering that would entail, or a political decision in one or more major industrial nations to dramatically reallocate human labor away from the maintenance and operation of existing, carbon-spewing capital stocks and infrastructure.

Since such a decision would be tremendously destructive of existing capital values, it would, in fact, require a revolution. And so the question becomes: Is there any chance at all, in the next 35 years, of those who are consciously opposed to the organization of human life on capitalist lines being able to carry out such a decision?

If the answer to that is no, or at least a probability of negligible measure, then the science requires a dramatic re-evaluation of political priorities. As powerful as Marxism may be as a method of critique--i.e., as a means of understanding and predicting the destruction that is being perpetrated by those who rule us--its utility as a guide for positive political action was premised on a conditional hypothesis: That the working class would come to a conscious understanding of its own interest in and capacity for revolutionary reconstruction of society after the capitalist class had created the material prerequisites for a higher order of social organization, and before the capitalists had managed to destroy those material prerequisites. In Rosa Luxemburg’s words, the choice facing humanity was that between socialism--understood as a classless society based upon a level of technical development and productivity of labor sufficient to allow the steady and expansive satisfaction of human needs--or barbarism.

If we reach 450 ppm, however, then even if the working class were to take power, it would do so in a context of runaway climatic feedback processes, sea-level rises sufficient to inundate major cities (and even entire nations), dramatic desertification of the world’s bread-baskets, deadly heat waves in some of the most densely populated regions of the planet, etc. Marxism as a method of critique would tell us that new scarcities will give rise to new oligarchies, new distributions of power, and new modalities of exploitation and oppression. Marxism as a mode of critique will tell us that the moment for its realization has passed, that its fundamental positive hypothesis has been invalidated, not as a moment of a self-devouring dialectic of negativity but as an inexorable consequence of physical processes triggered by humanity but escaping its control.

The choice, then, is not between socialism and barbarism, but between various flavors of barbarism. And there may well be some flavors of barbarism which label themselves socialism--and those may well be preferable in respect of the equity with which sacrifices are shared--but they would not be what historical figures like Marx or Engels or Luxemburg or Trotsky had in mind. The conclusion that I must reluctantly draw from this is that humanity had an epoch, a window of opportunity lasting about 100 or 150 years, in which it could have taken the necessary political steps to become more truly human. And instead, we squandered those years on genocides and purges.

A further conclusion that I have reached, that I am not able to derive as rigorously but that seems to follow from the foregoing, is that the main tasks of the moment are neither political nor economic, but ethical or moral. We can only aspire to rule the world if we can aspire to understand it. With the natural processes that will delimit the range of possible political actions so hard to predict, politics remains the domain of the tactical and particular, and universality returns once more to the form of the maxim.

Here are a few such maxims for consideration:

  1. Be Welcoming to the Stranger: Island nations will be inundated, as will low-lying regions (e.g. most of Bangladesh). Much of the tropics will become uninhabitably hot. Continental cores will become inhospitably dry. There will be mass migrations of humanity. Will those migrants be met with razor wire and bullets, or food, water and shelter?
  2. Do Unto Others as You Would Have Done Unto You: Not least because, what befalls one place and people could soon overtake others. Enlightened self-interest is the motivating factor.
  3. Heed the Scientists: The level of specialized knowledge necessary to predict the climatic results of increased carbon forcings is far beyond what any one human mind can encompass; that is why we have computers. The point is not to place scientists in a position of unquestioned authority, as if they were some new priesthood, but to cultivate a valid understanding and healthy respect for the often contradictory and agonistic process of scientific investigation and debate--an understanding and a respect that are largely lacking in many world cultures, including the U.S.
  4. Minimize Further Damage: Beyond the obvious, this means not trusting blindly in the possibility of a technological fix. For example, there has been some speculative talk of distributing aerosols or nanoparticles in the upper atmosphere to increase its reflectivity, and bounce out some of that warming sunlight. That could be wonderful, if and only if it is established first of all that it will not tip the global climate over into a new ice age, and that the compounds in question will not be toxic to existing life forms, etc.

This is as far as I have been able to take it. Crises de conscience are never very pleasant to endure; still less endurable are real crises of the lived environment.

Very well: It’s not my burden alone to carry. As Rabbi Tarfon said: "It is not on you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it."

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