Reading The Crisis
A range of books, each with a distinct line of enquiry, can map a path through the ecological crisis, says Nagraj Adve
WHEN SPEAKING to college students about global warming, one question invariably comes up: “What are the possible ways forward?”
In climate change literature, the answers to that question falls under three broad heads: technological and/or mainstream market solutions; decentralised models and grassroots initiatives, for both a bottom-up and top-down approach; and radical transformation, usually advocated by Marxist ecologists who view the crisis as rooted in capitalism.
A delightful example in the ‘tech’ category is Risto Isomäki’s 64 Ways to Absorb Carbon and Improve the Earth’s Reflectivity (Into Publishing, 2009). Those ways include storing carbon in anthills, or in sea water, and using magnesium cement instead of the energy- intensive cement currently produced! This lucid book has feasible suggestions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and yet obviously reflects a capacity to think out of the box. One work that adamantly refuses to budge boxed boundaries is the influential The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge, 2007). It presents a number of taxation, pricing and technology policy measures for mitigation, adaptation and international collective action in arguing that “reducing emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is feasible” and what’s more, its costs “can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year”.
James Hansen, among the world’s most respected climate scientists, says (Storms of My Grandchildren, Bloomsbury, 2009) there’s no way to solve the problem without phasing out coal emissions. He pushes for energy efficiency, renewable energy, and a rising tax on carbon-based fuels, as does scientist-activist Vandana Shiva who thinks a carbon tax — on corporations — is the way forward (Soil Not Oil, Women Unlimited, 2009). Hansen also, to the dismay of many environmentalists, advocates nuclear power, specifically fast breeder reactors. His science is brilliant, politics not quite, and he’s silent on equity. But to be fair, he’s stuck his neck out on coal and shale.
Unlike Hansen, Praful Bidwai (The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis, Orient BlackSwan, 2012) is vehemently anti-nuclear, and sees hope and change in the ‘renewables revolution’, particularly grid-connected solar photovoltaic and wind. He discusses local initiatives on solar power and also presents decentralised models that include varied sources of energy, looking at their “local availability, costs, ecological impacts and local communities’ access to and control over them”. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (Penguin, 1990) touches on local initiatives (in the US) and ends by advocating ‘deep ecology’, a need to “change the way we think”, emphasising that the human species doesn’t belong at the top in every way, but is one species among many.
The criticism that technological solutions or mainstream economics’ approaches to the deepening and varied ecological crises ignore what Jonathan Neale calls “the underlying problem – capitalism” (Stop Global Warming, Bookmarks, 2008) is valid. Not only should we cover the world with wind turbines and solar power, “ordinary people have to take control of the economy” and break the power of profit; produce for need instead. Rather than despair about whether and when this will happen, John Bellamy Foster, a prolific Marxist ecologist argues (The Ecological Revolution, Cornerstone Publications, 2009) that “the struggle for ecological revolution is firmly rooted in the principle of hope”.
Ecological crises are so complex and urgent that we need to work at all levels, simultaneously. Push for clean technologies, not just grid-connected but also in decentralised forms, by which there is greater scope for people’s control over their use. Strengthen grassroots initiatives, for they contain not just seeds of hope for the future, but also are a barrier against a right-wing backlash fuelled by environmental crises and resource constraints. And deepen the ongoing struggles, for equity and against capitalism, with an ecological worldview.
Adve is a climate change activist.