The challenge of Climate Justice – Talk at Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair 2016

How do we achieve climate justice? It’s a profound and complex question. But in another sense its disarmingly simple. All we have to do is rapidly decarbonise the economy – right? In 2014 it was calculated the global economy needs to decarbonise at 6.2 percent a year, more than five times faster than the current rate, every year from now till 2100. A tall order, but the solutions are simple –  right? After all, to dramatically cut our emissions we just have to rapidly move to 100% renewable energy and do things a little bit more efficiently. It’s just those damn fossil fuel companies and their crony fossil addicted governments who stand in the way – right?

If only! How I wish this comforting story was true.  At best it’s a simplistic one; at worst its an outright delusion –  but one we are all too willing to believe. In truth, to defuse the climate crisis, as well as the wider eco-justice crisis of which it is just one part, we have to engage in a process of organised, egalitarian, de-growth. That is, a historically unprecedented economic contraction and reorganisation of the economy. Obviously capitalism can’t do this. Capitalism has a growth compulsion built into its very fabric. So we will need to embrace some kind of socialism– albeit a totally reconceived version from the industrial-consumer-hierarchical-20th century brand and, we hope, with a strong anarchist twist. But the task is not just to scrap capitalism. Sorry, this revolution is much bigger and more challenging than that. Among other things, we will need to radically localise economies and settlements. Substantially de-urbanize. Embrace simpler, more frugal lifestyles. And, of course, all that implies profound and far reaching cultural change. It need not be a matter of extreme sacrifice to save the planet. There is a strong case the quality of life could be improved for most people within well designed and run new local settlements. Imagine, for example, having a lot of free time, because you only work for money about 2 days a week, thus having much time for arts, crafts, gardening, home-making, learning, personal development. Or thriving within a highly supportive and friendly local community. But while the benefits could be rich, what is certain is that sustainability will not make us wealthier – in fact total wealth and income will be greatly reduced.

How we achieve these huge changes is beyond my scope today. It’s a big subject, which I still grapple with. But, however we do it, that is the task. By the way, do you still want climate justice?  Or do people only want climate justice if they get to keep consumer affluence and convenience? I’m challenging you to consider that we cannot have both.

But, I sense some of you are not convinced. Why can’t green-growth, renewable energy, techno-fixes and smarter, efficient practices solve this crisis? Let me, very briefly spell out four fundamental reasons why not.

The first reason why renewables can’t save capitalism is that they won’t be scaled up in time – unless you also dramatically cut energy demand. The experts predict they will need to roughly double energy supply from current use – and, remember, that is assuming a world of grotesque inequality. You will probably need at least six times today’s energy to provide all 9 billion with a Brunswick lifestyle. But let’s take the more moderate goal. How do you double energy demand, at the same time as massively cutting back on fossil fuels, as we so urgently need to do to reach the 2 degree target? Answer: you have to massively, and I mean massively, scale up renewable energy. But here’s the thing: on the scale needed and the time we have, it won’t happen. While the modern renewables are growing fast, they still only account for 1.3% of rise and fallworldwide primary energy . But big energy transitions take decades; they don’t happen overnight. In their excellent book “the rise and fall of carbon civilization” (2011) Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery show that to meet the 2 degree target and provide for expected energy growth, 2050 wind power would have to supply “twice the most optimistic estimates’ by authoritative bodies such as the Global Wind energy council (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). Solar thermal would have to scaled up ‘four orders of magnitude over current use,’ (i.e 10,000 times) which would be ‘many times greater than even the most ambitious solar farm schemes being discussed for the world’s deserts’ (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). And this is even after factoring in optimistic assumptions for take up of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and nuclear energy. Instead, these experts argue that our only hope is to actively reduce total global energy use 9 (from i.e 500 EJ to 300 EJ), from current levels – the exact opposite of what all governments, global institutions and even green NGOs are planning! And remember, capitalism doesn’t like reductions…

The second reason why the renewable revolution is insufficient is that wind and solar, only produce electricity from stationary power – and that’s a small part of the overall GHG problem. Globally speaking, electricity only makes up roughly 1/5 of world energy use. The other 4/5 comes from a whole variety of sources including transport, industry and heating. So even if tomorrow we moved to 100% renewable electricity, we would only have addressed 1/5 of the problem. Well, you say, let’s just electrify everything and run it on renewables! Well, maybe you could do that for some things like cars and heaters, but it will be difficult for big trucks and aeroplanes. And even if we did that, as John Hinkson points out, we would still have only dealt with 70% of the problem. That’s because the burning of fossil fuels only accounts for about 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 30% comes from a number of causes, including deforestation, the degradation of soil caused by industrial agriculture and the methane generated by livestock farming.

Thirdly, even if we address all these issues and move to 100% renewable energy, then there is a very strong case that we are going to have to get by on far less net energy. Why? I am no expert, but from what I understand there are two fundamental reasons. First, because, today, renewables receive a huge, but hidden, fossil fuel subsidy. Think, for example, of all the fossil energy it takes to create a single wind-farm. Oil-based combustion engines are used from start to finish, to mine the material to make the windmills, fabricate them, and deliver the components to the installation site. Then you need to make and pour the enormous amount of concrete needed, and run the required maintenance vehicles. But what happens when we have phased out fossil fuels, as we must? Will renewables be able to reproduce themselves and provide enough energy for society? I think they can, but not as much energy as fossil fuels have provided. Recent estimates suggest that the energy return on solar PV in Spain is only 2.45:1, when reasonable estimates are made of all the energy inputs that go into to making a solar panel. Historically fossil fuels provided us with well above 20 units of net energy – though this ratio is fast declining as we desperately frack and deep sea mine our fast depleting fossil bounty. And there is a second problem with renewables. They are intermittent – the sun does not always shine and the wind blow. This is a big drawback. To overcome it, you either have to build huge amounts of backup plant or work out how to store electricity on an industrial scale – something the science techies do not yet know how to do. In any case, a renewable energy system will be costly. And a costly energy system, means there will be less capital left over for cars, i-phones, big-screen TVs and Pokémon. So renewables won’t sustain “green-growth”.

But my fourth and final point is the real kicker. Suppose I am wrong and we can indeed decarbonise capitalism. What then? I’ll tell you what then – we would still be faced with a huge and ever worsening eco-justice predicament. As Steb Fisher has said, “our sustainability problems didn’t start and won’t stop with climate change”. With all that economic growth, and therefore energy growth, we would still be rapidly deforesting, over-fishing,chemical polluting, degrading the soil and destroying precious habitat. And, according to a report from the CSIRO, there would still be six billion people excluded from the consumer class – you can bet they won’t be peacefully celebrating “green capitalism” to the end of history.

To be clear, and to conclude, we must move to a society run on renewables. We must do this as fast as possible. But for all the above reasons, we will monumentally fail, if we try to do so via mere reforms within our current socio-economic system. Instead we need to build a big, forceful, global, new society movement, demanding  de-growth! Demanding a simpler way! And yes demanding Climate Justice! And not just demanding it, but building and demonstrating the new ways at the grassroots. Our chances may seem slim, but we must try. Needless to say, the situation is urgent. We have no time to waste.



Why we should reject the CSIRO’s ‘Sustainable’ Growth Scenario

The CSIRO has put out a National Outlook Report (NOR), which claims Australia – and indeed the world– can almost triple GDP by 2050 and increase affluent ‘living standards’, while at the same time significantly reducing environmental impacts.

But although the reports findings are likely to be widely accepted – and has already received positive reviews – thoughtful people have ample reason to be critical. I encourage readers to look at Dr Ted Trainer’s review of the paper, which highlights many reasons for skepticism. The most serious being that, in fact, the report does not explicitly state the reasons and assumptions underpinning its key, highly questionable, claim – i.e. that Australia could, if it chooses, massively decouple economic growth from environmental/resource impacts.

My criticism of the report is more basic. It only took me a cursory reading to reject it, simply because I don’t accept the basic assumptions underpinning all 20 of the reports future 2050 scenarios. In my view there are at least three assumptions, all of which crucially undermine its basic claims about ‘sustainability’.

Assumption 1: The Global Economy will face no resource supply constraints to 2050

This is a highly challengeable assumption. For example, a recent peer reviewed paper estimating ultimately recoverable resources of fossil fuel resources, including unconventional, found that total fossil fuel supplies are likely to peak around 2025, with the only uncertainty being how fast they decline thereafter (in the ‘high’ estimate, they plateau until 2050). If these findings are even close to the mark, then fossil fuel supplies – the lifeblood of the capitalist growth economy – may well face major constraints before 2050.

Dr Graeme Turner, himself a former CSIRO staffer, certainly thinks this is possible. Turner has shown that all current indicators have us on track with the Business as Usual (BAU) scenario of the famous 1972 Limits to Growth report. The BAU scenario, Turner warns, results in catastrophic collapse of the global economy by the middle of the 21st century. The key driver of collapse in the BAU scenario is, again, mounting energy supply costs – the very factor that appears to have been overlooked by the CSIRO. To put it mildly, if the BAU scenario turns out to be on track, then the world in 2050 – including Australia – will look very different to any of the CSIROs 20 scenarios.

Faulty Assumption 2: The world can continue to increase energy supply and mitigate global warming.

All 20 scenarios in the CSIRIO report assume at least a doubling of global and Australian energy supply. But there is a very strong case this is totally incompatible with achieving the “safe” 2-degree climate threshold.

In their book the ‘rise and fall of carbon civilisation‘ Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery show that decarbonizing at the rate needed, while energy growth continues, even at ‘carbon constrained’ levels (i.e to 850 EJ by 2050, up from present 550 EJ), would be unachievable. It would involve, they argue, an implausible scaling up of renewable energy technologies – particularly solar and wind – even when optimistic assumptions have been made about the potential of Coal Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and nuclear technologies. It should be remembered that today solar and wind energy account for a mere 0.4% of final world energy supply (IEA, 2015). But to effectively decarbonize the growth economy by 2050 these technologies would need to supply more than half of world energy. This would involve a level of investment far beyond even the most optimistic projections for these technologies. Thus, Moriarity and Honnery argue that the only realistic way for humanity to achieve a safe climate by 2050 is if energy demand, far from doubling, is actually reduced from present levels. Outspoken Climate Scientist, Kevin Anderson, has made a similar claim.

The CSIRO authors might argue that such critics are overlooking the potential for bio-sequestration – i.e. planting trees to sequester carbon, which makes up a large portion of the carbon reductions in their Australian scenarios. But even if this is possible in Australia – and people should read Trainer’s paper for reasons to doubt it – it is unlikely to make much of difference globally given most regions have far lower per-capita land availability than Australia, and pressing global food problems will only intensify in the years ahead, limiting the extent to which land can be used for reforestation.

Faulty Assumption 3: Australia could be ‘sustainable’ while continuing to take more than our fair share of world resources.

All 20 Scenarios take it for granted that in 2050 the world will, as today, be characterized by global apartheid between rich and poor. Figure 5 on p.8 of the report depicts a 2050 global order in which three billion people will form part of the global ‘consumer’ class. The consumer class is defined as those with annual incomes of at least $12,000 U.S – i.e. less than a third of the current Australian per capita income (a ratio that will be larger, if by 2050 Australia trebles its GDP, as the authors assume). This also means there will be another six billion people – i.e. two-thirds of humanity – who will be totally excluded from the ‘consumer’ club!

All globally minded people should reject this state of affairs, and be working for a more just world order. As Saral Sarkar and Bruno Kern put it:

If we do not want to disregard this global horizon, then we cannot avoid the insight that the people of the industrial countries, but also the rich and the middle class of the Third World, with their ecologically unsustainable mode of production and way of life, are participating in a worldwide chauvinistic selection process, which robs others of their chances of survival.

But, even putting aside the demands of justice, the failure of the authors to think about fair shares, crucially undermines their entire ‘sustainability’ case. One only needs to ask, how sustainable would the Australian and/or world economy be if attempts were made to globalize rich world affluence – that is, the implicit or explicit, global ‘development’ goal?

Predictably, the report never attempts to answer this question. Obviously, its most ambitious, and highly questionable, ‘decoupling’ scenarios would be pathetically inadequate. These scenarios assume a factor four reduction in Australian resource use to GDP. But if by 2050 all 9.7 billion people were to have risen to projected Australia per capita income, world GDP would have to multiply by 20 times present levels. In other words, factor 20 (not 4), resource reductions would be required, just to maintain already too high resource consumption levels. Do the CSIRO authors think that is possible? Or, to take another measure, the global 2050 energy supply target would have to be at least trebled for all people to have Australian 2050 per capita energy consumption (i.e. from 850 EJ to 2100 EJ). And yet, as noted above, the 850 EJ target will, in all probability take us well past safe climate levels.

What then is the answer?

Our limits to growth predicament, which the CSIRO has not effectively refuted, suggests that sustainability – true sustainability – requires a multi-dimensional, transformational process of change, which enables the world to greatly reduce current levels of resource/energy consumption. There is a case this could be done, without causing severe deprivation, and indeed improving the quality of life, even in rich countries. But it could not be achieved in any thing like today’s globalized capitalist-consumer society. In other words this type of society needs to be replaced (not reformed) with utterly new/different social order – in both rich and poor countries – based on i.e. intense localism, a new settlement geography, new non-capitalist economy, participatory governance, and very different cultures – what some describe as a Simpler Way.

What the Western Left should really be saying about war on Syria

Abbott has now taken Australia to (yet another) illegal war on Syria. We should be implacably opposed to this.

We must counter the dominant narrative

The dominant narrative on Syria depicts the conflict as a ‘civil war’ sparked by a brutal dictator cracking down on a popular movement. While it is true that there was, from the beginning, anti-government protests and calls for reform, the evidence suggest, as Tim Anderson has persuasively argued, the military conflict in Syria was/is ‘between a pluralist and popularly supported state, against armed sectarian islamists, backed by western and regional powers.”

But if ‘we’ do ‘nothing,’ what about ISIS?

It’s a myth that the western governments have done ‘nothing’ for the last 4 years. In fact they have been heavily implicated in the war on Syria. To help stop ISIS, and other groups like them, the anti-war movement should demand, as outlined by Hands Off Syria, that Western governments (including Australia):

  1. cease arming, financing, training the so-called ‘moderate’ opposition, most of whom share the same or similar Islamist ideology to ISIS, and many of whom end up fighting alongside them.
  2. cease all military bombings and ‘no fly zones’.
  3. assist Syria/Iraq etc to secure the Syrian borders to prevent the aformentioned groups entering Syria, often ending up assisting ISIS et al
  4. end sanctions on Syria, so they are better able to deal with these terrorist groups.

All the above will enable the (popularly supported) Syrian Arab Army, in coalition with its own allies, to successfully fight off the unpopular foreign backed Islamist militants.

What if the Syrian people want to replace their authoritarian state (though see below myths about Syria & Assad!) and institute a new socialist/democratic order?

In his essay on the similar case of Libya, Libertarian philosopher Takis Fotopoulos set out the following principles, for both national and social liberation, which directly apply to Syria:

  1. We must always remember a basic libertarian principle: it is only the Syrian people who can determine their own domestic and international policies.
  2. Although it is true that states are not sacred, and social liberation is impossible unless peoples live in free confederations of their own communities securing the equal distribution of political and economic power among all citizens, still, national liberation is a precondition for any social liberation.
  3. Neither national nor social liberation can ever be achieved with the help of the very elites against whom both types of struggle are fought. This is why any direct or indirect cooperation of the struggling peoples (and the Left in general) with the transnational elite and its client regimes, in order to overthrow a domestic authoritarian regime, is inconceivable. Historically, there have been cases where peoples who have resisted against an occupying power have asked for the help of other powers in securing their national liberation (e.g. during the national liberation wars against the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, or against the fascist axis in the 20th century). However, the Libyan “revolution” was never part of a national liberation struggle against a foreign occupying power, but a civil war, which can, in fact, be shown that it was instigated by the transnational elite!
  4. It is always up to the peoples themselves to fight for their own liberation, and the only international help they can ever count on is the solidarity of other peoples (never their elites!), which could be expressed, for example, through the formation of international brigades of volunteers to help the suppressed peoples (as in the classic example of the Spanish Civil War).
  5. Therefore, siding with the Syrian “revolutionaries” (who are voluntarily financed, armed and militarily supported by the transnational elite and their client regimes) against the Assad regime (like Gaddafi before it), as suggested by most of the “Left” today, is a blatant betrayal of the above principles.

Debunking the myths about Syria & Assad ….

Myth 1: Bashar Assad presides over a ‘brutal’ dictatorship.

Fact: In response to popular pressure Assad initiated a constitutional referendum which removed the Baath Party’s monopoly and, for the first time, established competitive elections. These were held in June 2014.

Bashar won with 88% of the vote. Moreover the election was legitimate. The world media recognised the massive turnout, both in Syria and from refugees in Lebanon (77.4%). Election observers came from India, Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa, Iran and Latin America, along with non-official observers from the USA and Canada (KNN 2014). The participation rate in Syria’s 2014 wartime election (73.4%) was far higher than any presidential election in the USA(between 52% and 60%)

Myth 2: Bashar Al Assad leads a sectarian ‘Alawi regime’, where a 12% minority represses a Sunni Muslim majority

Fact: Syria maintains a secular administration, with widely popular multi religious support, which has guaranteed religious freedom in what remains to this day a Muslim-majority country. Syria is a common home to many ethnicities and 23 different religious groups, and has always been a place where all were free to believe and live out their creed, all relationships were characterized by mutual respect.

Myth 3: Bashar Assad has no popular support.

Fact: The Syrian state is far from perfect. Many Syrians want change, because of poverty, corruption and the political police. But evidence suggests the majority of Syrians liked Assad and support the secular state. As Assad himself points out, how could he have maintained power for over four years, if he did not have a substantial base of popular support? Evidence from several sources suggests he does:

  • A poll in late 2011 by Qatar showed that a 51% majority of Syrians wanted Assad to stay
  • Three Free Syrian Army leaders (all of whom collaborated with al Qaeda groups) in Aleppo, said the Syrian President had at least ‘70 percent’ support in that city
  • An internal NATO study in 2013 estimated that 70% of Syrians supported the President, 20% were neutral and 10% supported the ‘rebels’


Critical reflections on a Left Edition of ABC Q/A

Like any good lefty I tuned into the ABCs Q & A program on Monday night, given that Naomi Klein, Tariq Ali and Laurie Penni were on the panel – three prominent members of what Takis Fotopoulos calls the ‘globalist left’. But rather than cheering them on from the Telly, the discussion revealed the depth of my disagreement with this kind of left, which is today hegemonic on the global scene.

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A letter from Saral Sarkar – New arguments for socialism in the 21st century….

saralsarkarBelow is a letter from prominent eco-socialist Saral Sarkar which I am republishing here. It was written in response to a debate that I was having with a U.S activist who was skeptical (like most) about the need for socialists to advocate for an egalitarian contraction of industrial economies, towards a simpler egalitarian society. Saral’s letter outlines four critical reasons why this is, today, necessary.

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The Four Tectonic Splits within the Global Left

It occurred to me recently that there are four central tectonic splits within the worldwide left. The first two are relatively recent and the last two are more enduring. Like the tectonic plates that shift beneath the surface of the earth, these represent fundamental cleavages between different tendencies, parties and groups under the broad umbrella of the worldwide left. And, like tectonic plates, these positions clash. Making matters worse, adherents of each typically don’t talk to one another, at least in order to aid mutual understanding, let alone resolution.

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Book Review: The Ecological Hoofprint

Tony Weis’ new book, the Ecological Hoofprint is an outstanding work of activist scholarship. Even though, at a personal level, I was already aware of some of the problems associated with the industrial livestock industry, the book helped to both deepen my understanding and increase my moral and intellectual concern about the issues involved. I found Weis’ central contention – that ‘the deindustrialsation of livestock and the demeatificaiton diets are central to the hope of a more sustainable, just, and humaecological hoofprintne world,’ (p.12) – to be overwhelmingly persuasive.

The central aim of the Ecological Hoofprint is to challenge and expose the many unrecognized costs and problems associated with what Weis calls the growing ‘meatification’ of diets. The title is, of course, an allusion to the now well-known ecological footprint, which has successfully raised awareness about the unsustainable nature of high consumption lifestyles more generally. In the same vein, the Ecological Hoofprint seeks to draw ‘attention to the resource budgets and pollution costs that are embedded and under-accounted for in production and consumption’ of livestock (p. 129).

A related aim is to challenge the way in which dominant development narratives uncritically take for granted high-meat consumption. The livestock industry has used a range of strategies – most noticeably the (misleading) claim that meat is an indispensible source of quality protein – to reinforce the association between high meat consumption and successful societal development. Weis shows how this has influenced future development goals, such as the widely promoted imperative to ‘double food production’ by 2050. Such projections come with embedded assumptions about the continual ‘meatification’ of diets. As Weis points out ‘the scale of chronic hunger (nearly one billion) and malnourishment today, and expected population growth (more than two billion) still does not come close to adding up to a doubling scenario, which also must be understood to contain an uncritical expectation that meat consumption will continue to rise rapidly’ (p.3).

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