What keeps us from stepping back?
We are cornered. Forwards and backwards we are stuck. In front of us we see global heating and flooding closing in on us, and backwards we dare not look because our culture has always did more than enough in word and image to carve the specter of impoverishment into our souls. 'Going backwards' has been made a specter?
Yes, what makes us move forward? Why do we plunge into new worries every day on our way to more? Ambitions? I like to believe you but stick to the ghost of pauperization myself. The risk of poverty. Of slipping back the social ladder. That is the real beast. It lies on our shoulder, and lurks everywhere, at every turn it can pop up, pulling us into the depths via a spiral of setbacks. Restrictive policies (via prohibition, quotas or heavy taxation) in Western societies immediately evoke fears of recession, unemployment, and international image damage, and then make everyone dig in their heels.
And so we continue to compete fiercely innovating because we have to win in order not to lose, meanwhile, falsifying the ekomodernist decoupling fable ‒ "we don't have to transition away from our growth-based system because as technology goes on, we'll be able to decouple enconomic growth from its environmental impacts" ‒ by offshoring emissions to upstream supplier and mining countries. Thus, in those countries, nearly 200 new coal-fired power plants are under construction, and 230 are planned. The decoupling hypothesis is a pipe dream because practice shows that any gain in ground by new technology is wiped out by rebound (such as larger and even more complex products, and more demand).
But now? Now that this axiomatic progress, fanatically promoted by governments and international institutions such as the OECD, threatens to imply an increasingly horrible future, the public debate devotes just a little more attention to backstep scenarios (restriction, contraction, degrowth) rather than ‒ as it did until recently ‒ sending such ghosts flashing through the room like a streaker.
How are journalists and experts currently cautiously trying to unravel this special ghost story? And where exactly does the shoe pinch to pave a safe road to net-zero by limiting our production and consumption? And so: What keeps us, individually and collectively, from stepping back, and curtailing our life styles and economies to such a degree that they fit perfectly with stable climate dynamics.
The first discussion unfolded recently when the German Greens came under fire because their green expansion policy made the evacuation of Lützerath, where hundreds of young people have for several years been united in shaping a primitive lifestyle and forging it into a stronghold of resistance to Germany's fossil energy hunger, indispensable. Special units destroyed in a few days everything there that had been manually constructed, and wiped out everyone. Gründlich. And so for a few days the growing divide between the minority who do want to dampen emissions super fast and safely at the cost of major cuts to their lifestyles, and the majority who just want (or need) more and more, came into super clear focus in media coverage, all the more so since a journalist (Christian Baars) from the national broadcaster ARD took advantage of this opportunity to sharply contrast two directions for solutions by asking in a short video how you could, as a government, at the same time protect the sharply increased emissions from private jets, and, by claiming force majeure, not keep your government promise to acutely stop the use of lignite. Schellnhuber ‒ a leading climate researcher who, under the influence of Ian Dunlop, has been trying to crawl out of the IPCC frame of common-sense mitigation politics ‒ coolly proposes in that video to give everyone a private emissions budget of 3 tons. That would, of course, converge the accessibility (to goods and services) of all classes pretty deeply, and especially put the elite consumptively deep into reverse. But Habeck (Germany’s minister of energy and climate) does not want to know anything about such a severely restrictive intervention with regard to any product or service, and at most wants to steer the energy transition a bit via a slowly to be introduced product pricing. His elan is a perfect business-as-usual copy of the age-old capitalist industrial policy (towards increasingly large-scale global production) which, while mortgaging the future with paternalistically presented utopian plans ‒ see the planned German green hydrogen bridges to Namibia and the Brazilian northeast coast which will require masses of fossil energy to get them up and maintaining ‒ promises everyone a much richer lifestyle in the long run. And the majority is fine with it. They feel cared for, and that's the point of that paternal we-overlook-this-reasonableness. More bratwurst tomorrow.
But beware, behind the rugged reasonableness of Habeck, the ghost has done its work. Want to know? Habeck and Lindner and Scholz are infused with one thing: "Money is at the wheel." Their situation: Rheinmetall has an order book full of contracts for tanks and ammunition, and the Bavarian carmakers are eager to construct with their halls full of robots and Ukrainian labor with shiploads of Swedish stainless steel even more beautiful Mercedes cars and even more graceful BMW's for the global elites. But only if the German government continues to furnish those giant industrial complexes (not to mention Bayer) where bizarre amounts of global capital reside, with cheap energy and stable traffic infrastructure, the international capital market will continue to allocate them cheap money. If Habeck puts one foot in the way of the private jets, all the rich liberals will fly out of the country. See what is currently happening in Norway. DE and NL are floating on very cheap money. Not just the companies, the governments too. One wrong move and they are downgraded. See there the real reason that keeps them from stepping back, the specter of impoverishment that drives them. Especially now. Cause they need hundreds of billions for the expansion of their military strength in addition to ever increasing healthcare costs and high energy transition costs.
The second discussion unfolded in the days following the battle of the mega-basin at Sainte-Soline. A broad coalition of activists, led by Les soulèvements de la Terre (Earth Uprising), carried out an attack on the tech-fix of large-scale agriculture. Soulèvements de la Terre is a french decentralized movement that has many roots: anti-nuclear energy, anti-nuclear storage, land squatters (ZADs), organic farmers, boy scouts, distribution networks (organic stores and markets), and repopulation initiatives of local and regional bodies. Their goal: "We want to build a movement that links the settlement of young farmers, land grabbing, and self-organizing self-sustaining communities. The reclamation of land is a historical necessity. It can only happen through an active and determined struggle for the deconstruction of the most harmful manifestations of the agro-industrial complex".
Well, they succeeded in making that link quite nicely. The governing and intellectual elite were shocked by the massive and diverse nature of their storming of the mega-basin in Sainte-Soline on March 25. It caused such a pain to the Minister of the Interior's eyes that he hastily proposed to ban them. And that, dear friends, finally provoked clear discussions in the dominant media about the major controversies within the current decision situation around how to collectively face the ecological emergency. I have chosen Salomé Saqué's interview with Dominique Méda, a prominent sociologist with extensive life experience and government contacts, because Méda (a) outlines a realistic restrictive scenario and (b) clearly identifies the ghosts blocking its implementation. Because of the language, I quote some bits from her responses.
- At about t = 28 min, Méda estimates the severity and extent of the required reorganization as follows: "I prefer to use the term "reconversion" rather than "restructuring." An intellectual reconversion means a complete change of paradigm. But when I say reconversion, it is also because I think of the industrial and employment changes that would have to be made. That is, if we are not careful, all our jobs will be impacted by this turnaround, so I would say it is both a great opportunity and a tremendous risk.
If we blow it, we lose our jobs in the car industry, we lose our jobs in many sectors, so we need to know how to make the right decisions and if we do it right, we can create many jobs. Very different jobs, very useful jobs. Maybe if we were even more intelligent, we could change the way companies work. More on a human scale, break with the insane international division of labor, relocalize main productions, create shorter circuits, etc. This requires extraordinary anticipation.
It requires radically coordinated policies, that we stop thinking in boxes, it requires ecological planning. What we need is a general secretariat for ecological planning. We need to plan 20 years from now what new jobs we are going to create. How are we going to re-skill people? The people who now work in the car industry, in garages. Who handle combustion engine cars. How are we going to do that? Do we make the electric car, do we put everything on bicycles, do we set up new transportation systems? This all has to be thought through and fully coordinated. It takes a lot of money. A lot of anticipation is needed, and we also need to consult with the regions and with the social partners. We need to get everyone back around the table. That's why I say it's an absolutely gigantic project. Our whole society has to be redesigned.
- On the specter that blocks the government to initiate the reconversion, she says (at t = 25): "I don't think Macron is an unkind man at all, he has his own convictions, but you know, I did the same thing he did at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. I have many friends from the ENA, but they don't understand me, we don't understand each other. But their fear is that our national debt and reputation will become such that the financial markets will grow reluctant to finance our loans and projects, so they are taking the safe bet in that regard. I do understand them and to get out of this we have to make an absolutely gigantic effort. It's all very complicated."
- About the fears of each citizen, she says (at t = 30): "We have to tell people: come on, let's all reconstruct this society. And we rebuild it by being as fair as possible. Why it has to be fair? If people lose their jobs, they don't want an ecological transition at all. If they have no alternatives and are not helped, they will resist, they will be angry. It cannot be that there are millionaires who take everything. How else will you get people to go along ?
Moreover, they have to work two more years, their salaries are not increased, and at the same time they see millionaires doing what they feel like doing. That is not possible. We cannot continue to live in such a society and it is not in such a society that we can build something together. So it is very worrying."
And there we see how Méda brings us to the key question: How do you prevent millionaires from doing only what they feel like, and through that spending behavior tightly determine what we can and cannot do?
Whose will becomes law?
The issue is that the current paradigm (of our mutual dealings) allows everyone to accumulate large reserves, and thus get a large regulatory influence on what others must do to get income, and on what they can buy with it.
Whereby those relocatable private reserves (including their pension and insurance savings funds), essentially may control the destiny of everyone’s existence. Whereby, in fact, we are all constantly in the situation of having to constantly fear the whims and caprices of both the finance providers and the managers and leaders who dance to their tune.
They use their reserves to govern the dynamics of the processes in which we must operate (produce, distribute and consume). They make us dance like puppets in their systems and constructions. They largely lock up our individual and collective self-determination, via the threat of losing position if we do not do what they want us to do. In this context, note the frequency (especially at t = 40) with which "the will of the finance sector" pops up in the discussion between Clare and Charlie about the recently published IPCC synthesis report.
It is that lock that we must unlock in order for us to make a turn toward simple (without much fuss) zero-emission survival. That lock must be opened if we are really to dare to limit ourselves
And yes, of course, people with very high incomes and old people with lots of savings can keep up their green image by buying a BMW whose aluminum piston heads are manufactured with solar power in Dubai, and having a 25000 euros heat pump installed that uses twice as much electricity per year (i.e. 3500 kwh) as the total consumption of an average family. But if we really do urgently need to severely limit energy demand – for example, because emissions have to go to zero much faster than currently budgeted in the Green Deals because the ekomodernist tech-fix is going to use up the remaining carbon budget much faster than currently foreseeable – then people do need to be able to turn a U-turn to go emission-free. However, to then overcome the fears (i.e. of poverty and social degradation) that immobilize them today, their survival dynamics need to be totally disconnected from the regulatory (enforcing) power of the large reserves, their financial interests in the current fossil-fuel driven economies, and their gangs of profit-maximizing money-dealers.
The firm grip of the large reserves on everyone's maneuvering space (on everyone's turning circle) can be loosened by making everyone's sphere of life more self-sufficient, and disconnected from capricious input channels and thus also from the regulatory powers behind those dependencies. This is achievable by providing everyone (ev. groupwise) in time with essential means of livelihood, and dressing up that allocation fairly equally and highly shielded (by making some assets non-tradable).
Such an intervention will produce a society in which everyone will be working much less in series in long inter-competitive production lines, but will be operating in parallel in interaction with material and biological processes. That parallelism will produce convergent value development within the population. And that is essential for smooth democratic governance, and a robust sense of community.
Conclusion: We need to shake up social justice much more radically and fundamentally than has been proposed so far. Had investors taken the climate threat seriously 20 years ago ‒ "Our house is on fire. We look the other way, and can't say we didn't know" Jacques Chirac said at the 4th Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 ‒ and materialized zero-emissions in all new infrastructure, this would not be necessary now, but now that, in the wake of the American Conservatives, they have continued to seek profits exclusively in fossil-guzzling globalizing production capacity and means of transportation, and are now forcing us, through their money valves, to continue to operate docile within those structures so that they can stretch the exploitation (return on investments) of their improperly invested reserves for as long as possible, it seems legitimate to me to disable (through legislative reforms concerning acquisition and transmission of property) their financial grip on our way of existence.
Otherwise, we won't get any limitation on our lifestyle realized, we will continue to collectively cast the +4°C scenario in concrete, and we as mankind won't last long any more.
Jac Nijssen, 2023
This article has been written April 2023
A Dutch version was published on duurzaamnieuws.nl at 25 april 2023
See French version here.