Naomi Klein, The Intercept:
According to Rich, between the years of 1979 and 1989, the basic science of climate change was understood and accepted, the partisan divide over the issue had yet to cleave, the fossil fuel companies hadn’t started their misinformation campaign in earnest, and there was a great deal of global political momentum toward a bold and binding international emissions-reduction agreement. Writing of the key period at the end of the 1980s, Rich says, “The conditions for success could not have been more favorable.”
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.
This misreading has been pointed out by many climate scientists and historians since the online version of the piece dropped on Wednesday. Others have remarked on the maddening invocations of “human nature” and the use of the royal “we” to describe a screamingly homogenous group of U.S. power players. Throughout Rich’s accounting, we hear nothing from those political leaders in the Global South who were demanding binding action in this key period and after, somehow able to care about future generations despite being human. The voices of women, meanwhile, are almost as rare in Rich’s text as sightings of the endangered ivory-billed woodpecker — and when we ladies do appear, it is mainly as long-suffering wives of tragically heroic men.
All of these flaws have been well covered, so I won’t rehash them here. My focus is the central premise of the piece: that the end of the 1980s presented conditions that “could not have been more favorable” to bold climate action. On the contrary, one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet. Why? Because the late ’80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating “free markets” in every aspect of life. Yet Rich makes no mention of this parallel upheaval in economic and political thought.
…I concluded, as Rich does, that the key juncture when world momentum was building toward a tough, science-based global agreement was 1988. That was when James Hansen, then director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified before Congress that he had “99 percent confidence” in “a real warming trend” linked to human activity. Later that same month, hundreds of scientists and policymakers held the historic World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto, where the first emission reduction targets were discussed. By the end of that same year, in November 1988, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the premier scientific body advising governments on the climate threat, held its first session.
But climate change wasn’t just a concern for politicians and wonks — it was watercooler stuff, so much so that when the editors of Time magazine announced their 1988 “Man of the Year,” they went for “Planet of the Year: Endangered Earth.” The cover featured an image of the globe held together with twine, the sun setting ominously in the background. “No single individual, no event, no movement captured imaginations or dominated headlines more,” journalist Thomas Sancton explained, “than the clump of rock and soil and water and air that is our common home.”
So it really is worth asking, as Rich does: What the hell happened? What interrupted the urgency and determination that was emanating from all these elite establishments simultaneously by the end of the ’80s?
Rich concludes, while offering no social or scientific evidence, that something called “human nature” kicked in and messed everything up. “Human beings,” he writes, “whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” It seems we are wired to “obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.”
When I looked at the same period, I came to a very different conclusion: that what at first seemed like our best shot at lifesaving climate action had in retrospect suffered from an epic case of historical bad timing. Because what becomes clear when you look back at this juncture is that just as governments were getting together to get serious about reining in the fossil fuel sector, the global neoliberal revolution went supernova, and that project of economic and social reengineering clashed with the imperatives of both climate science and corporate regulation at every turn.
…one thing that becomes very clear when you look back on the late ’80s is that, far from offering “conditions for success [that] could not have been more favorable,” 1988-89 was the worst possible moment for humanity to decide that it was going to get serious about putting planetary health ahead of profits.
Recall what else was going on. In 1988, Canada and the U.S. signed their free trade agreement, a prototype for NAFTA and countless deals that would follow. The Berlin wall was about to fall, an event that would be successfully seized upon by right-wing ideologues in the U.S. as proof of “the end of history” and taken as license to export the Reagan-Thatcher recipe of privatization, deregulation, and austerity to every corner of the globe.
It was this convergence of historical trends — the emergence of a global architecture that was supposed to tackle climate change and the emergence of a much more powerful global architecture to liberate capital from all constraints — that derailed the momentum Rich rightly identifies.
Why does it matter that Rich makes no mention of this clash and instead, claims our fate has been sealed by “human nature”? It matters because if the force that interrupted the momentum toward action is “ourselves,” then the fatalistic headline on the cover of New York Times Magazine – “Losing Earth” — really is merited. If an inability to sacrifice in the short term for a shot at health and safety in the future is baked into our collective DNA, then we have no hope of turning things around in time to avert truly catastrophic warming.
If, on the other hand, we humans really were on the brink of saving ourselves in the ’80s, but were swamped by a tide of elite, free-market fanaticism — one that was opposed by millions of people around the world — then there is something quite concrete we can do about it. We can confront that economic order and try to replace it with something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place the quest for growth and profit at all costs at its center.
There is nothing essential about humans living under capitalism; we humans are capable of organizing ourselves into all kinds of different social orders, including societies with much longer time horizons and far more respect for natural life-support systems. Indeed, humans have lived that way for the vast majority of our history and many Indigenous cultures keep earth-centered cosmologies alive to this day. Capitalism is a tiny blip in the collective story of our species.
It is absolutely true that the drive for endless growth and profits stands squarely opposed to the imperative for a rapid transition off fossil fuels. It is absolutely true that the global unleashing of the unbound form of capitalism known as neoliberalism in the ’80s and ’90s has been the single greatest contributor to a disastrous global emission spike in recent decades, as well as the single greatest obstacle to science-based climate action ever since governments began meeting to talk (and talk and talk) about lowering emissions. And it remains the biggest obstacle today, even in countries that market themselves as climate leaders, like Canada and France.
But we have to be honest that autocratic industrial socialism has also been a disaster for the environment, as evidenced most dramatically by the fact that carbon emissions briefly plummeted when the economies of the former Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. And as I wrote in “This Changes Everything,” Venezuela’s petro-populism has continued this toxic tradition into the present day, with disastrous results.
Let’s acknowledge this fact, while also pointing out that countries with a strong democratic socialist tradition — like Denmark, Sweden, and Uruguay — have some of the most visionary environmental policies in the world. From this we can conclude that socialism isn’t necessarily ecological, but that a new form of democratic eco-socialism, with the humility to learn from Indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all of life, appears to be humanity’s best shot at collective survival.
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.