Monday, March 23, 2015

One World , Two World-Views

Nothing is so stimulating as bitter polemic, and in that spirit I have been breathlessly immersing myself in the Battle of the Ecomoderns and the Environmentalists (see previous posts, 2/16 and 2/20), most recently in this devastating review of Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything by Will Boisvert on the Breakthrough Institute's website. At issue are two authorial sensibilities: one female, intuitive, given to deep emotion and grand designs, the other exactingly male, scientifically rigorous, skeptical, dismissive. But beyond that chasm in sensibility, what Boisvert highlights is a truly interesting and important distinction between two conflicting approaches to the climate crisis--and much more.

Klein starts from the premise that corporate capitalism, in its untrammeled pursuit of profits, cannot supply the framework for reducing carbon emissions and converting to a sustainable global economy. Within the family of eco-socialist, communitarian, localist, organic environmentalists, she argues for speedy and absolute conversion to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and tidal (but not hydro, with its devastating ecological side effects), and she celebrates the transfer of power this might entail from the centralized hierarchy of a corporate and financial elite to the local councils and peoples who might administer the new sustainable economy, with its reductions in transport, heavy industry, militarization, consumption. One hears the music of natural religion, and even the Goddess, particularly when these themes are amplified by Boisvert's jaundiced critique.

On the other hand, Boisvert and others like him at the Breakthrough Institute are perhaps less acutely sensitive to the ideological music of their own arguments than they should be. Call it Scientism, their world-view assumes technological solutions to the problems not just of climate change but of poverty and human encroachment on the natural sphere. They see the twin forces of market economics and technological advancement leading to consolidation of the human population in densely aggregated-- and thus ecologically efficient--metropolises, freeing up tracts of marginally cultivated land to return to its natural condition, as in the reclaimed New England forest. They imagine, without really drawing out the timeline, that techniques of carbon capture will save the climate from over-consumption of carbon fuels without any need for market tampering, and without the romanticized inefficiencies of solar and wind entering the equation. Above all, they promote cheap, clean, dense, infinitely expansive nuclear power as the answer to the energy question.

Without taking time to explore the many nuances of this clash of visions, the stark difference in energy policy is the one I want to highlight as we look ahead to the Paris conference. Will the individual national plans for carbon reduction (the INDCs that are supposed to be piling up at UN headquarters in coming weeks and months), will these plans for energy conversion be looking to the traditionally 'sustainable' methods of solar, wind, hydro, possibly tidal or geothermal? Or will they envision a major expansion of the nuclear sector--a technological 'silver bullet' but arguably also a Pandora's box of safety and security issues, along with the unresolvable issue of toxic waste, and enduring questions about relative cost? Of course the answer won't be either/or: the 195 COP 21 nations will file 195 variants on 'the solution,' and there will no doubt be some mixing and matching of these divergent approaches. In the long run, though, the world is heading towards a crossroads: different energy technologies can co-exist, but the corporate capitalist systems of control are inherently hegemonic. Either that hegemonic system will survive and indeed direct the global energy transformation (or take us over the cliff), or it will give place, as Klein proposes, to a different regime altogether. That's a big set of questions--and a good reason to embroil oneself in the evolving answers.

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