Are Fair Skies Possible?

By: Stan Cox   Posted on

A Review of Brian Tokar's book Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Justice (Porsgrunn, Norway: New Compass Press, 2014).

This expanded edition of Brian Tokar's book is a concise, valuable summing-up of the most important issue facing humanity today: how to stop runaway climate chaos while at the same time achieving justice in the distribution of economic power, resources, and the hard work of ecological renewal, both within and among countries.

The first edition of this book was published in 2010, and, Tokar notes, a lot has changed since then. Like the original, the 2014 edition starts with a description of the predicament facing the people of Earth and a short history of the hapless, doomed-from-the-start international climate negotiations that have dragged on now for more than a quarter-century. There follows the heart of the book, starting with a recap of the evolution of the climate justice movement since the term "climate justice" was coined in 1999.

The movement, writes Tokar, has been led by three prominent currents: "diverse indigenous and other land-based movements"; an existing movement for environmental justice in the United States, led by African-American, Latino, and Native American communities who have long been disproportionately assaulted by ecological degradation of all kinds; and, in Europe, the global justice and anti-globalization movements. He cites a host of organizations and movements, including the Climate Justice Alliance, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, La Via Campesina, the Labor Network for Sustainability, and Rising Tide. These and other groups have challenged the ossified, corporate-friendly system of intergovernmental climate negotiations. Tokar describes how in Durban in 2011 and Warsaw in 2013, Occupy- and Arab-Spring-style protests outside the climate talks challenged the traditionally docile approach of "civil society" groups that had joined the discussions going on inside. He mentions the huge, historic People's Climate March of September 2014, which happened soon after he completed his book.

Tokar takes note of an unmistakable trend: "Today, the leading edge of climate justice organizing is often with those who are challenging the expansion of extreme forms of fossil fuel extraction around the world." He cites the struggles against mountaintop removal by coal companies, tar-sand mining, extension of the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking for natural gas, and export terminals for liquefied natural gas, adding, "It remains to be seen whether these efforts contain the seeds of a fully unified opposition to extreme energy projects throughout North America." Nevertheless, they are having, he believes, "an essential catalytic effect on the broader climate movement."

He sums up the climate justice movement's current situation this way: "We need to envision a lower-consumption world of decentralized, clean energy and politically powered communities. Like the antinuclear activists of 30 years ago, who halted the first wave of nuclear power in the U.S., while articulating an inspiring vision of directly democratic, solar-powered towns and neighborhoods, we need to again dramatize the positive, even utopian, possibilities for a post-petroleum, post-mega-mall world," fulfilling "the promise that reorienting societies toward a renewed harmony with nature can help spur a revolutionary transformation of our world."

But in the process of working for such a world, it will be necessary to beat down, hard and often, what Tokar calls "false solutions," most prominently nuclear power, shamelessly being pushed by lapsed ecological thinkers Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame and Gaia theory's James Lovelock; "clean" coal; biofuels, which Tokar rightly renames "agrofuels"; geoengineering; and the most sinister scheme of all, markets in emissions. He puts to rest any idea that trading of carbon emissions and offsets can accomplish anything but the preservation of business-as-usual.

Tokar gives a thorough, and thoroughly depressing, tour of the Congressional circus that surrounded the ill-fated 2009-10 climate bill. The centerpiece of the bill was a carbon trading scheme that, Tokar writes, would allow companies "to postpone their own greenhouse gas reductions by buying offsets," a "Trojan Horse provision of the climate bill that threatened future climate progress." The bill also would have barred EPA from regulating emissions of greenhouse gases. Advised by the notorious Environmental Defense Fund, lawmakers designed the climate bill to be as capitalism-friendly as they could, in the hope that would be acceptable to the economic powers that be and their servants in Congress. But despite that, Tokar notes, Capitol Hill was swarmed by more than 2300 lobbyists, and the bill was festooned with numerous "blatant giveaways" to the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries. Even with all that, the bill was too radical for majority in Congress, and it sank.

Tokar writes,

"Today, it is clearer than ever that a much more forward-looking, even revolutionary approach is necessary to reduce climate-destabilizing pollution and achieve meaningful steps toward a fossil-fuel-free economy. Such a transition threatens the global economy's most powerful corporate empires; indeed the very shape of modern capitalism is a product of fossil-fuel expansion and is sustained by the myth of 'cheap' energy. Not only is the evolution of the economic system historically inseparable from the exploitation of fossil fuels, but, as a recent report from the UK's Corner House research group explains, 'the entire contemporary system of making profits out of labor depended absolutely on cheap fossil carbon.' To meaningfully challenge this system requires not only a resolute opposition to the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, but a rethinking of the underlying assumptions and beliefs of our society . . ."

(A year and a half after publication of Tokar's book, the global climate talks in Paris lived up to the very low expectations that climate-justice activists had had. The 2015 Paris Agreement encourages but does not require the rich nations to collectively provide $100 billion annually by 2020 for climate mitigation and adaptation in less developed countries. Prospects are dim that any such amount will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, the agreement quashed more explicitly the notion of compensation for past and future climatic disasters, stating that its language on loss and damage “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”)

In the final two chapters, on social ecology and utopian aspirations, Tokar lays out his vision of how the revolutionary transformation can happen. As the leading figure in the social ecology discipline/movement—which was conceived and championed for decades by the late Murray Bookchin—Tokar is the person to listen to on this subject. He writes, "Bookchin's reconstructive outlook is rooted in direct democracy, in confederations of empowered communities challenging the hegemony of capital and the state, and in restoring a sense of reciprocity to economic relationships, which are ultimately subordinated to the needs of the community."

Tokar is by no means naïve about the prospects for building such a world. He presents a long list of questions that remain to be answered: Can this transformation be realized in the face of terrible obstacles? Can local efforts coalesce into a "movement of movements? Can we challenge entrenched power without suffering burnout on one hand or co-optation on the other? Can a movement for social-ecological renewal emerge to create a genuinely transformed political order? This is where he thinks ecological breakdown could actually offer help: "Perhaps the climate crisis, along with the continuing meltdown of the neoliberal economic order of recent decades, can indeed help us envision a transition toward a more harmonious, more humane, and more ecological way of life."

That hope was echoed in Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, published around the same time as Tokar's book. Klein wrote, “Rather than the ultimate expression of the shock doctrine—a frenzy of new resource grabs and repression—climate change can be a People’s Shock, a blow from below. It can disperse power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it in the hands of the few, and radically expand the commons rather than auctioning it off in pieces.” In short, Klein believes, climate change can deliver “a civilizational wakeup call.”

Even as we recall that, historically, ecological disasters have rarely prompted movements for total transformation of societies, we must hope that Tokar and Klein are right in their predictions—that there's something different about global climate chaos. But as both authors urge, the climate can't make a revolution for us; we must do that ourselves. In that spirit, Tokar concludes his book with Bookchin's observation that "If we don't do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable."