Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 10, 2018

Making sense of Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth”

Filed under: climate,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 1:21 am

I just finished reading last Sunday’s NY Times Magazine article “Losing Earth” by Nathaniel Rich on the failure of elites to respond to the climate change crisis between 1979 to 1989. Since the author is the son of leading liberal pundit Frank Rich, it should not come as any surprise that it is something of a morality play with Al Gore, Friends of the Earth staff member Rafe Pomerantz and James Hansen on the side of the angels and John Sununu, Bush ‘41’s Chief of Staff, playing Satan.

In such a personality-driven article, you don’t get any sense of the institutional and social pressures that led to inaction. Indeed, you might even draw the conclusion that if Sununu had been more enlightened, the planet would be in much better shape today.

The article has generated angry denunciations by Naomi Klein in Intercept and Alyssa Battistoni in Jacobin. They agree that the main flaw of the article is that keeps talking about “our” failure to respond to the crisis, an analysis that does not address the class distinctions that shut the door on mass participation to avert climate change. Battistoni writes: “Rich recognizes that the problem is political, but again, he draws the wrong conclusions. At one point, he wonders, “if science, industry and the press could not move the government to act, then who could?” I don’t know — how about the people?”

For her part, Klein writes:

And yet we blew it — “we” being humans, who apparently are just too shortsighted to safeguard our future. Just in case we missed the point of who and what is to blame for the fact that we are now “losing earth,” Rich’s answer is presented in a full-page callout: “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way. Nothing, that is, except ourselves.”

Yep, you and me. Not, according to Rich, the fossil fuel companies who sat in on every major policy meeting described in the piece. (Imagine tobacco executives being repeatedly invited by the U.S. government to come up with policies to ban smoking. When those meetings failed to yield anything substantive, would we conclude that the reason is that humans just want to die? Might we perhaps determine instead that the political system is corrupt and busted?)

I think their critiques are well-taken but why would you expect anything different from the NY Times? Years ago, Alexander Cockburn wrote a piquant critique of FAIR, with its frequent campaigns against the NY Times and the Washington Post for dispensing ruling class propaganda. Why, he asked, would you expect them to write anything that did not promote the interests of the class it serves? Of course, with this in mind, you have to ask yourself why both newspapers have been functioning as PR flaks for Jacobin for almost a decade now.

My attitude toward the Rich article was somewhat more positive since I saw it as a briskly-paced examination of how inside-the-beltway maneuvering takes place. You know the sort of thing I am talking about. As sports radio is to the machinations taking place in the NY Yankees management before a trade deadline, so is this article to how climate change  policy-wrangling took place three decades ago. It makes you want to bathe in a disinfectant.

Both Klein and Battistoni seem to think that Jacobin and the DSA honchos are like men and women on horseback riding in to save the day. Klein is practically breathless:

These are the stakes in the surge of movement-grounded political candidates who are advancing a democratic eco-socialist vision, connecting the dots between the economic depredations caused by decades of neoliberal ascendency and the ravaged state of our natural world. Partly inspired by Bernie Sanders’s presidential run, candidates in a variety of races — like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Kaniela Ing in Hawaii, and many more — are running on platforms calling for a “Green New Deal” that meets everyone’s basic material needs, offers real solutions to racial and gender inequities, while catalyzing a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Many, like New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and New York attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout, have pledged not to take money from fossil fuel companies and are promising instead to prosecute them.

These candidates, whether or not they identify as democratic socialist, are rejecting the neoliberal centrism of the establishment Democratic Party, with its tepid “market-based solutions” to the ecological crisis, as well as Donald Trump’s all-out war on nature. And they are also presenting a concrete alternative to the undemocratic extractivist socialists of both the past and present. Perhaps most importantly, this new generation of leaders isn’t interested in scapegoating “humanity” for the greed and corruption of a tiny elite. It seeks instead to help humanity — particularly its most systematically unheard and uncounted members — to find their collective voice and power so they can stand up to that elite.

I hate to sound like an old stick in the mud but I doubt that electing Sandernistas will have even the slightest impact on climate change. The truth is that it will take many years for a Sanders type administration to occupy the White House and even when in power it will have its hands tied when dealing with the massive inertia the capitalist system imposes on governmental action.

To reverse climate change requires revolutionary action and that is something that is beyond the DSA’s capability to carry out. Given every opportunity to present their analysis of the environmental crisis, both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez never really make clear that capitalism is the main obstacle to climate justice. Corporations will always put their profits ahead of social need, even if alternative energy sources in the USA begin to resemble the kind of advances being made in Europe and China. Given the need to avoid red ink, corporations will always fall back on fossil fuels even if they are supposedly “clean” such as natural gas.

Ultimately, humanity will need to abolish the private ownership of the means of production in order to ensure that its future needs are safeguarded. If you think that Donald Trump is a fascist danger right now, you haven’t seen capitalism in its final, most deadly stages defending itself against the rabble. Twenty-five years from now, when the struggle had reached a fever pitch, you can surely expect George Soros’s son to be funneling money to Richard Spencer and the Proud Boys. I guarantee it.



  1. Excellent post. I find Klein especially predictable and tiresome, and I sometimes wonder whether she is writing to satisfy a liberal/left market. She seems to popularize subjects that have already been written about in a more insightful manner by others. Anyway, I agree that the survival of our species and many others will require revolutionary action.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 10, 2018 @ 2:36 am

  2. There is now no non-violent way to reverse climate change. Even with unrestrained action, it is probable that there is now no physical possibility of reversing climate change. The time for action was 1973-1979, the time of the two oil embargoes (post Israeli war Arab Oil Embargo, 1973; related to the Iranian Revolution oil embargo/price gouge revenge 1979); this was the period of the Watergate-climax Nixon Administration, Ford Administration, and Carter “energy crisis” Administration. Politically, the election of Ronald Reagan killed the possibility of U.S. climate change action.

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — August 10, 2018 @ 2:38 am

  3. In fact it has been the much neglected &
    maligned Green Party that has consistently
    called for a Green ‘New Deal’.
    Some of us old folks with good memories,
    remember Murray Bookchin’s scathing
    criticism of Bernie’s anti- ecological stances
    during his ‘socialist’ regime as Burlington

    Comment by Rick Sprout — August 10, 2018 @ 2:40 am

  4. I saw this yesterday directly from Utube and I thought, that was a damned interesting report. The report very plausibly lays the blame for the death of humanity at the feet of lobbyists for Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute. But I wonder if that is really only 90% of the story. The remaining 10% being what the role of the leadership of the military industrial complex was when this was happening in the 1980s.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — August 10, 2018 @ 1:45 pm

  5. It always seems to me that whenever anyone on either side of the political spectrum, speaks of the climate crisis, one of the first thing they talk about is the problem of the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel industry is not the problem. The problem is our cars first transportation system and the fact that it is the great taboo to speak truth about corporate capitalisms most important commodity…the automobile. Every car that has ever been built has put about 44 tons of Co2 into the atmosphere during its lifetime. Automobiles and their body parts now litter the landscape of the planet. Traffic violence kills about 1.25 million people a year, mostly in the poorer regions of the earth. Corporate advertising feeds our addictive, diseased preoccupation with the automobile and people concerned with the climate crisis engage in magical thinking about green cars. But the truth is that green cars are vapor-ware and are just another corporate marketing platform. The lack of discussion about our cars first transportation system in relationship to the climate crisis speaks volumes about corporate capitalism control of our daily lives.

    Comment by Al — August 10, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

  6. Al, how true.
    In addition to that I read somewhere not long ago that the meat and dairy industry contributes even more to global warming than all the planet’s motor viehikels do. OK cows and pigs might not kill a million people a year in accidents. But it would not surprise me if some one were to point out that eating meat kills 20 million people a year by causing cancer or something like that.
    One of the problems that existed from the very beginning of the global warming crisis is that the earlier that drastic measures would have been taken the greater the resistence would have been to the plans because the need for the drastic measures would have questioned by more people. Yet the longer it took (takes) to implement drastic measures the greater the ambivelance was (is) to such measures because of their apparaent futiiity.
    I am curious if any scholar anywhere has worked up a calculation as to how much time industrial civilization could continue if we seriously rationed meat and dairy products, and within 5 years reduced automobile and airplane travel 80% per person world wide, and with 10 years reduced automobile travel 98% and airplane travel 90% (pp) compared to what it is today.
    Of course I recognize those reductions would have to be off set by huge increases in train and bus travel. (By the way, what about motorcycles and scooters? Should the use of these be condoned if they are made with catalytic converters and four stroke engines? ) Then if we added up all of the other less obvious drastic measures such as killing almost all the world’s dogs and cats, or trying to cover the artic ice with insulation how much time wouid we gain? Is there even anyone on the planet with the education that qualifies them to even be capable of making such an estimate? Can anyone flash forward?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — August 10, 2018 @ 9:41 pm

  7. To Curt Kastens:
    To begin answering your “flash forward” type questions, I offer comment #2, above, the article at the following website,


    and the article “How Dangerous Is Climate Change?, How Much Time Do We Have?” which can be linked from the website I cited here (at the bottom of that page, before the comments).

    Comment by manuelgarciajr — August 10, 2018 @ 11:34 pm

  8. Manuel,
    Thanks for the links. The two hundreds years off estimate does not seem so alarming. Yet your second link mentions that some scientific alarmists are talking about a 30 to 40 year range.
    I recently learned that it takes 8 times more energy to melt a kilo of of artic ice than it does to raise the temp. of that ice on degree. That information really solliditfied my position in the 30 to 40 year alarmist camp. An ice free artic is now projected by 2050. That might not be ice free for the whole year. Yet the amount of time that the artic is ice free will increase each year.
    What is worse is that I doubt that the artic would have to be completely ice free to cause an increase in rain in the artic region due to evaporation. Of course it is not hard to imagine that regular rainfalls in trunda region will greatly accelerate the thawing of the permafrost. It is my understanding that right now the melting of the permafrost contributes very little to overall global warming.
    With much more frequent rainfall in the artic region how much longer would that be the case? Therefore it is not hard for me to imagine that even long before the Artic Ocean is ice free the increased area of open ocean will cause greater evaporation and more rain (in areas where there is no agriculture) and more permafrost thawing which will affect world wide agricultural production before the Artic is ice free. I hope that I am wrong. I think that the answer will be clear one way or the other in the next 10 years.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — August 11, 2018 @ 7:22 am

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