Identity Politics in Climate Change Hell

Do you want to save the biosphere or boost your own brand of politics? You can’t do both.

By George Monbiot. Published on Comment is Free, 22nd August 2008

If you want a glimpse of how the movement against climate change could crumble faster than a summer snowflake, read Ewa Jasiewicz’s article, published yesterday on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site(1). It is a fine example of the identity politics that plagued direct action movements during the 1990s, and from which the new generation of activists has so far been mercifully free.

Ewa rightly celebrates the leaderless, autonomous model of organising that has made this movement so effective. The two climate camps I have attended – this year and last – were among the most inspiring events I’ve ever witnessed. I am awed by the people who organised them, who managed to create, under extraordinary pressure, safe, functioning, delightful spaces in which we could debate the issues and plan the actions which thrust Heathrow and Kingsnorth into the public eye. Climate camp is a tribute to the anarchist politics that Jasiewicz supports.

But in seeking to extrapolate from this experience to a wider social plan, she makes two grave errors. The first is to confuse ends and means. She claims to want to stop global warming, but she makes that task 100 times harder by rejecting all state and corporate solutions. It seems to me that what she really wants to do is to create an anarchist utopia, and use climate change as an excuse to engineer it.

Stopping runaway climate change must take precedence over every other aim. Everyone in this movement knows that there is very little time: the window of opportunity in which we can prevent two degrees of warming is closing fast. We have to use all the resources we can lay hands on, and these must include both governments and corporations. Or perhaps she intends to build the installations required to turn the energy economy around – wind farms, wave machines, solar thermal plants in the Sahara, new grid connections and public transport systems – herself?

Her article is a terryifying example of the ability some people have to put politics first and facts second when confronting the greatest challenge humanity now faces. The facts are as follows. Runaway climate change is bearing down on us fast. We require a massive political and economic response to prevent it. Governments and corporations, whether we like it or not, currently control both money and power. Unless we manage to mobilise them, we stand a snowball’s chance in climate hell of stopping the collapse of the biosphere. Jasiewicz would ignore all these inconvenient truths because they conflict with her politics.

“Changing our sources of energy without changing our sources of economic and political power”, she asserts, “will not make a difference. Neither coal nor nuclear are the “solution”, we need a revolution.” So before we are allowed to begin cutting greenhouse gas emissions, we must first overthrow all political structures and replace them with autonomous communities of happy campers. All this must take place within a couple of months, as there is so little time in which we could prevent two degrees of warming. This is magical thinking of the most desperate kind. If I were an executive of E.On or Exxon, I would be delighted by this political posturing, as it provides a marvellous distraction from our real aims.

To support her argument, Jasiewicz misrepresents what I said at climate camp. She claims that I “confessed not knowing where to turn next to solve the issues of how to generate the changes necessary to shift our sources of energy, production and consumption”. I confessed nothing of the kind. In my book Heat I spell out what is required to bring about a 90% cut in emissions by 2030. Instead I confessed that I don’t know how to solve the problem of capitalism without resorting to totalitarianism.

The issue is that capitalism involves lending money at interest. If you lend at 5%, then one of two things must happen. Either the money supply must increase by 5% or the velocity of circulation must increase by 5%. In either case, if this growth is not met by a concomitant increase in the supply of goods and services, it becomes inflationary and the system collapses. But a perpetual increase in the supply of goods and services will eventually destroy the biosphere. So how do we stall this process? Even when usurers were put to death and condemned to perpetual damnation, the practice couldn’t be stamped out. Only the communist states managed it, through the extreme use of the state control Ewa professes to hate. I don’t yet have an answer to this conundrum. Does she?

Yes, let us fight both corporate power and the undemocratic tendencies of the state. Yes, let us try to crack the problem of capitalism and then fight for a different system. But let us not confuse this task with the immediate need to stop two degrees of warming, or allow it to interfere with the carbon cuts that have to begin now.

Ewa’s second grave error is to imagine that society could be turned into a giant climate camp. Anarchism is a great means of organising a self-elected community of like-minded people. It is a disastrous means of organising a planet. Most anarchists envisage their system as the means by which the oppressed can free themselves from persecution. But if everyone is to be free from the coercive power of the state, this must apply to the oppressors as well as the oppressed. The richest and most powerful communities on earth – be they geographical communities or communities of interest – will be as unrestrained by external forces as the poorest and weakest. As a friend of mine put it, “when the anarchist utopia arrives, the first thing that will happen is that every Daily Mail reader in the country will pick up a gun and go and kill the nearest hippy.”

This is why, though both sides furiously deny it, the outcome of both market fundamentalism and anarchism, if applied universally, is identical. The anarchists associate with the oppressed, the market fundamentalists with the oppressors. But by eliminating the state, both remove such restraints as prevent the strong from crushing the weak. Ours is not a choice between government and no government. It is a choice between government and the mafia.

Over the past year I have been working with groups of climate protesters who have changed my view of what could be achieved. Most of them are under 30, and they bring to this issue a clear-headedness and pragmatism that I have never encountered in direct action movements before. They are prepared to take extraordinary risks to try to defend the biosphere from the corporations, governments and social trends which threaten to make it uninhabitable. They do so for one reason only: that they love the world and fear for its future. It would be a tragedy if, through the efforts of people like Ewa, they were to be diverted from this urgent task into the identity politics that have wrecked so many movements.


1. Ewa Jasiewicz, 21st August 2008. Time for a revolution. Comment is Free.