Politics & Policy

Fossil-Fuel Divestment — Part 2

The target is fossil fuels, but the goal is an end to economic growth.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 2 of a three-part series. Click to read part 1 and part 3.

You may not have heard of the fossil-fuel divestment movement yet, but you will soon. While the campaign to have universities sell off any stock they may hold in large fossil-fuel companies is still in its infancy, the effort has spread to hundreds of campuses in just the past few months. This ambitious crusade to save the planet from global warming by crushing the world’s fossil-fuel producers is the brainchild of Bill McKibben, arguably America’s foremost environmentalist, and leader of the campaign to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. In the first installment of this three-part series, I traced the origins and development of the movement. Now it’s time to uncover the troubling ideology that stands behind the fossil-fuel divestment campaign.

Bill McKibben is against economic growth. America is flirting with another recession, and the agony of unemployment continues — especially among the millennials. That students should in such circumstances be flocking to the banner of a man who is hostile to the very idea of economic growth is extraordinary. McKibben breaks here with mainstream liberals as well as with conservatives. The core message of his 2007 book, Deep Economy, as well as 2010’s Eaarth, is unmistakable: He seeks not growth, but “controlled decline.”

As McKibben sees it, “our whole civilization stands on the edge of collapse.” The last couple of hundred years of human history, he points out, have been “a very atypical time. A giddy time, high on oil.” Since the fundamental arrangements of modern life depend on fossil fuels, McKibben is convinced that averting global warming requires a winding-down of modernity. And that means trading our ideals of economic growth for a new ethic of economic retreat. McKibben is selling the idea that decline is good.

So does he want his student supporters to languish unemployed? Does he crave a new Great Depression? Not exactly. He is arguing for a return to relatively self-sufficient local communities, especially when it comes to food. Modern agriculture feeds huge numbers of people at a very low price. Yet industrial farming is carbon-intensive, from the fertilizers, to the combines, to the planes and ships that transport all that produce around the globe. McKibben wants to undo this system with a large-scale return to the land. Labor-intensive (rather than carbon-intensive) agriculture would form the nucleus of a new, quasi-peasant society. Relatively self-sufficient local farming communities would be protected not only from global warming, but from capitalism’s cycles of boom and bust.

It’s a sweeping vision, encompassing not only a return to rural areas, but a new, decentralized food-production system extending from the rural farms to suburban backyards to urban rooftops. Americans would consume pretty much only locally grown food. Many would go vegetarian, while the rest of us would use meat more as a garnish than as the center of our meals. Food would cost more, choice would be drastically reduced, and putting meals together would take a great deal more effort than it does today. Automobiles would become rare and expensive, and transcontinental and transoceanic air travel would largely be replaced by Internet-based video chats and cyber-tourism. McKibben even wants to develop local forms of money designed to keep goods close to their points of origin.

De-linking localities from national and global economies would reduce growth and spell the end of the consumer society. The fabulous array of choices provided by modern capitalism would disappear. Yet this unwinding of modernity and the associated sacrifice of economic growth are the prices we must pay to save the planet from catastrophic warming. Or so McKibben says.

Although he sometimes presents his back-to-the-future vision of an economically static and agrarian America as something we all need to adopt, his larger body of work suggests that this is the society he actually wants to create, global warming or not. McKibben is a communitarian leftist. He’s fine with wealth redistribution and reshaping the economy via regulatory decree, but what he’s really angling for is not Keynesian pump-priming but rather a government-primed revival of pre-industrial communal life. That world of tight families and interdependent neighbors, says McKibben, was far more satisfying than our hyper-individualist, consumer-driven, tech-saturated present. He explains that his attraction to this pre-industrial social model long predated his encounter with the “greenhouse effect” in the Eighties.

Knowing that McKibben is profoundly hostile to modernity on entirely non-weather-related grounds raises a question. Might his climate catastrophism have more to do with his yearning for a post-carbon communitarian utopia, and less to do with sheer physics, than he now lets on?

The Rolling Stone article that launched his fossil-fuel divestment movement gives no hint of what sort of society McKibben actually wants, or why — other than countering global warming — he might favor it. In the article, it’s all about “math,” and only one side of the equation at that. These days, McKibben has plenty to say about all the industry he wants to shut down, and yet he tells us virtually nothing about the economic and social consequences of that loss.

What McKibben now leaves unspoken may actually be the most important part of his argument. Yes, there is more to happiness than material possessions. Family, friends, and community are what count in the end, and capitalist modernity is often in tension with these essential human goods. Unfortunately, McKibben mischaracterizes the American way of life as a worship of possessions as ends in themselves. That is unfair. Meaning in America has traditionally come from faith and all that it elevates, including family and work. Moral balance does need to be restored, and yet we cannot repeal modernity. We’ll need to work with the modern world, not against it, finding ways to harmonize community and faith with the economy we have. Living in an increasingly isolating, secular, and materialist universe, McKibben’s young followers seem intent on turning climate apocalypticism into a substitute religion. That won’t fill the gap. You can run from the economy, but you can’t hide. And catastrophism alone will not a morality make.

McKibben understands perfectly well that abandoning the bulk of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves could spell the end of the American economy as we know it. In fact, he’s depending on it. Yet since awareness of his broader goals might prompt the divestment campaign’s foot-soldiers to think twice about what they’re fighting for, McKibben has apparently opted of late for artful silence on Life after Oil. This hole in his argument becomes a gaping canyon when we consider his other abandoned theme: peak oil.

Until just late last year, the notion that we are near or past “peak oil” was central to Bill McKibben’s thought. Peak-oilers claim that fossil-fuel production is moving beyond its high point. As McKibben put it: “The great storehouses of oil beneath the earth’s crust are now more empty than full.” Peak-oilers warn that dwindling world oil supplies are sure to produce financial crashes, war, famine, disease, and mass death. That is why McKibben was not the only peak-oiler to recommend moving to villages to survive on locally grown food.

McKibben used to speak of peak oil and climate change in tandem: “[We’re] running out of oil and running out of atmosphere,” he wrote in both Deep Economy and Eaarth. In 2010 he claimed that the peak-oil thesis could no longer be denied. He even pointed to November 12, 2008 (when an important international agency seemed to accept the concept), as the day legitimate debate over peak oil ended. Keep that in mind next time someone tells you the argument over catastrophic global warming is over.

Just three years after McKibben consigned peak-oil denialism to the dustbin of history, peakism itself looks ready for the broom. Drilling techniques like hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and other technologies for tapping so-called unconventional oil have ushered in a new era of fossil-fuel abundance. And it has all followed the classical economist’s playbook. As oil scarcity forced prices up, technical innovations once too costly to consider increased supply. Mistaken end-of-oil predictions have been issued since the dawn of the industrial age. All have been swept away by technological breakthroughs driven by the law of supply and demand.

While a few peak-oilers hold out, McKibben himself seems to have surrendered. Not scarcity but fossil-fuel abundance is our problem, he now says. His divestment campaign is essentially an attempt to induce peak oil artificially, via political pressure.

Yet if McKibben’s peak-oil doomsaying was wishful thinking, the strategic calculation behind it actually vindicates critics of policies like cap-and-trade and carbon taxes. McKibben (mistakenly) invoked peak oil because he (rightly) understood that at current levels of technological development, economic growth requires fossil fuel. Peak oil was his post-growth dream come true. Now that he has realized that there’s actually “too much” fossil fuel in the ground, his efforts to bottle it up are a last-ditch move to salvage his no-growth goal.

Eco-critics like Bjørn Lomborg and Jim Manzi have been highlighting the same trade-off as McKibben for years. Their core point is that the cost of paring back carbon emissions often outweighs projected benefits. In other words, carbon caps kill economic growth — with devastating human consequences. McKibben’s longstanding hope that an end to fossil fuels would spell the end of our modern, growth-based economies derives from essentially the same calculation. Unlike mainstream liberals, McKibben is forthright enough to acknowledge the anti-growth effects of his eco-activism — or at least he used to be frank on that score.

If McKibben now downplays his long-term goals, Naomi Klein lets it all hang out. Currently completing a book-length version of her incendiary 2011 article in The Nation, “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Klein is open and in-your-face about her politics, just like her Occupy comrades. Conservatives, she says, accuse the climate movement of being a “Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism.” Klein happily embraces the anti-capitalist charge. She sees global warming as the greatest gift the American Left has ever received, an issue adaptable enough to confer an aura of scientific credibility on virtually every pre-existing hard-left policy goal. In her eyes, climate change creates the most powerful argument against capitalism since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

To Klein, conservative climate denial is nothing compared to the liberal pretense that climate action won’t tamper with the underlying logic of our economic system. She aims to turn that system “upside down,” and she tweaks liberal environmentalists for their “phobic” refusal to openly finger capitalism, with its perpetual quest for growth, as the root of our climate problems.

Klein wants a new kind of economy, heavy with taxes and regulations, an economy that resurrects “the idea of planning . . . based on collective priorities rather than corporate profitability.” How to pay for the expensive transition to this brave new economy? Simple, says Klein: Nationalize the oil companies. Someone is going to come up with an excellent reason not to call this socialism, I’m sure. Until then, I’ll just go ahead.

Yet if Klein is plumping for socialism, it’s not the old Soviet kind. That was industrial state socialism, every bit as obsessed with economic growth — and every bit as polluting — as its capitalist rival. Klein is looking for the same sort of no-growth, communitarian localism advocated by McKibben, and she means to use state power to achieve it. Want to put high-export, high-carbon farms and factories out of business? Just ration energy-intensive long-haul transport. Sure, the transportation system will be socialized, but it will be socialism on behalf of McKibben’s post-modern peasantry. In this scenario, food and goods will have to come from next door. 

Funny, but none of this came up at Harvard last fall before the student referendum that jumpstarted the national divestment campaign, or in media coverage since. In the final installment of this article (to be posted tomorrow), we’ll have a look at the sorry state of campus debate over climate change and divestment, and what that tells us about politics and culture in America now.

 Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This is the second installment of his three-part article.


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