Earlier this year, political philosopher John Gray published a rumiation on demands for climate change action on the part of ‘green’ movements in the developed world – thought-provoking reading that will be relevant for years to come. In it, he argues that the ‘green thinking’ of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, while responding to the alarming science around climate change issues, ignores various realities in its demands regarding the future. As Gray puts it: “Green movements at the present time are expressions of magical thinking – attempts to ignore and escape reality, rather than understand and adapt to it.” Is such criticism fair? And if so, are current green movements potentially counter-productive, as Gray suggests?
Gray begins his argument by raising a question that is both straight-forward and striking: what would the wider consequences be if the demands of Extinction Rebellion were met – that is, to decarbonise the UK economy by 2025 and end the use of fossil fuels worldwide? In geopolitical terms, the sudden drying-up of incomes to countries such as Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia, Gray posits, would mean a collapse of those governments, and the result would not be a more stable or more enlightened government, but anarchy or an even more authoritarian or extremist government. Such situations would probably be worse for the environment and worse for the world more generally, than the alternative of a slower transition to net-zero emissions under existing governments. Yet, as Gray says, there is never any discussion of such possibilities. People prefer to believe in the eventuation of a perfect and harmonious world, because it is comforting and offers meaning to our present existence. Such utopias are deeply embedded in the Western conscious and have been since the spread of Christianity; previous thinking was that the world was more cyclical, sometimes more harmonious and other times more chaotic, but never progressing to an ideal end.
On the point of geopolitics, I find Gray persuasive. Recent Libyan history shows that things can go from bad to worse, and Venezuela is an example of the disruption that lower oil revenues can bring. It is difficult to think of recent counter examples to Gray’s argument for countries whose economies are based on fossil fuels.
Another way in which Gray finds green movements to be ignoring reality is in economic thinking. Many, but not all, green groups today mix environmental action with economic programmes involving massive redistribution of wealth. This reminds Gray of the communist regimes of the 20th century, which were responsible for much of the most egregious environmental damage of the period. As an example, he cites the slaughter of around 180,000 whales to satisfy production quotas in the Soviet Union – only around 30% were utilised for any economic purpose, but the quotas drove several species to the brink of extinction. Other examples include the destruction of the Aral Sea after it was used for irrigation, and the purposeful extermination of the sparrow population in China (which backfired by reducing grain production).
Gray acknowledges that green groups are not advocating for a state socialist command economy like those of the Soviet Union or 1960s China. Yet he points out that the practical workings of a ‘green economy’ have never been clear, and claims that: “Green proposals involve a drop in material living standards for large numbers of people, and any such fall will be unsustainable in political terms.” To back this claim up, he points to the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests in France and asserts that “the principal beneficiary of Hilary Clinton’s election pledge to shut down the coal industry has been Donald Trump.”
To my mind, Gray is right when he says that a drop in material living standards for many would be politically unworkable, and he is nuanced enough to accept that not all green policies impose heavy costs on the poor and the working majority. But green movements would respond that a zero-carbon global economy would be more productive than a more polluting economy (and most economists would today agree with them). I think Gray would also agree, but would argue that it is the break-neck timeframes demanded by green movements that would make living standards fall for many.
Timing, in fact, is one respect in which Gray has good grounds to label green thinking “magical”. Back-of-the-envelope calculations for a conversion of the USA to 100% renewables by 2030 found that something around US$1 trillion dollars would need to be spent per year, every year until 2030. This money could probably be sourced, but to accommodate the necessary increase in productive capacity, capacity growth would have to be at around 5%, whereas the USA has never expanded by more than 2% above its long-run economic potential for short periods. (When it has been at 2%, it has resulted in inflation or recession afterwards). Thus a 2030 target is not realistic (despite most of the US electorate desiring it), and the 2025 goal for the UK that Extinction Rebellion is targeting is not really of this world.
In reality, if the UK stopped all non-renewable power generation by 2025, it would probably experience irregular power outages at a significantly higher rate than today, because without fossil fuels and nuclear energy, only a portion of energy demand could be met. (In the longer term – say the current legislated target of 2050 – such outages could be avoided.) They would be enough to become a huge political issue, following considerable disruption and inconvenience. A recent BBC article exploring the ramifications of blackouts lasting several days outlined the numerous consequences of such outages, and none of them are pretty – hospitals not fully functioning, food rotting, transport systems halted, and water and wastewater systems failing to pump are amongst the impacts, not to mention the inability to charge smartphones or laptops.
In respect to green thinking’s call for socialism, I am not sure that Gray’s criticism is on point. Movements such as Extinction Rebellion support democratic processes, even though there are some authoritarian shades to some of their demands/actions. With the environment being elevated to the highest priority and democracy maintained, I think it would be unlikely that a future ‘green government’ would end up inflicting more damage on the environment than previous ones. (The promised workers’ paradise of the Soviet Union did not turn out to be that, of course, but although it did hold elections, there was only one choice on ballot papers.) A better criticism, to my mind, is that when environmental action is coupled with calls for economic redistribution, it alienates those people who support environmental action but not economic redistribution. To form a broader coalition around environmental priorities which enjoys large popular support, and then determine a realistic way of achieving them most quickly with a minimum of other changes, would be a more effective way of making environmental progress. Of course, the environment and economic policy are strongly linked, but there are many economic policy choices open to achieve similar environmental outcomes. Coupling environmental action with economic change carries the danger of causing mistrust of the movement, raising the suspicion that it is the economic changes which are the more important to the activists.
To Gray, the theoretical solution to the environmental crisis would be a ‘steady-state economy’ in which technological advances are used simply to increase leisure (and presumably environmental efficiency) rather than increase production and consumption. But he knows this would be politically unworkable, especially as the human population increases. In this respect he makes a valid point that larger human populations take away wild habitat for other animals, thus decreasing biodiversity and often inducing emissions from land-use changes. The global population has been increasing by around 80 million per year since around 1982, and though the percentage increase is slowly falling, this undoubtedly puts a strain on the environment, chipping away at efficiency improvements. Population is a thorny issue for some environmental campaigners, as procreation is quite reasonably seen as a human right, and talk about population is understandably seen as an attack on the poor by the wealthy; in terms of climate, the counter argument is that population growth is generally occurring in countries where the carbon footprint per person is significantly lower than other countries. There are a couple of problems with such a contention – the first is that most Western countries have non-negligible population growth rates (Germany perhaps the lowest at 0.2%, Australia perhaps the highest at 1.3%). Two million extra US citizens each year is not contributing to a reduction in carbon emissions. The second is that growing affluence in developing countries over coming decades will raise emissions per person in the areas where most population growth is occurring. For instance, the population of India increased by 32% between 1997 and 2016, while its emissions per capita rose from 0.94 tonnes/person/year to 1.92 tonnes/person/year. While, per person, this emissions rate is dwarfed by those of Australia (16.2 tonnes/person/year) or the USA (15.0 tonnes/person/year), the increase (of 165%) in absolute emissions has turned India into the third largest national emitter in the world.
The failure to acknowledge the problems that population cause is another example of the ignorance of reality on the part of environmental campaigners, to Gray’s mind. (This is not to say he would not agree that the high consumption of those in the developed world is also a big part of the problem.) At the heart of this, Gray contends, is a belief that humans have power enough over the world to shape it into what they wish, a belief that has risen across the developed world as the belief that God had such power has declined. The failure to acknowledge that humans cannot fully control the climate crisis risks exacerbating it, for the reasons discussed above.
Gray himself sees a possible future in something like what was suggested by James Lovelock in his 2014 book A Rough Ride to the Future. In this, technology is used to replace farming with synthetic means of food production to maintain an increased population, allowing some farmland to be ‘rewilded’, thus supporting the environment. This would constitute a kind of ‘sustainable retreat’, an acknowledgement that humankind is at the mercy of the environment, forced to change its ways in order to survive. (It is unclear how likely a prospect Gray sees this as being.) This might be perceived as a pessimistic view, something Gray is often accused of holding. But Gray’s track record in prediction is remarkable, and one must be careful when criticising his views. Unlike many thinkers of his time, he has been correct in predicting, amongst other things, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8, the return to the practice of torture in liberal democracies and the re-emergence of the far-right in Europe.
I think that (although it may not be his point) Gray overlooks an important purpose that environmental movements serve. I often remember someone at an IFRF TOTeM in the 2000s focussed on cement manufacturing getting up to make a point during an open discussion. It was environmental activists, he said, that had raised the issue of NOx, SOx and heavy metal emissions from industry. Today’s engineers would be horrified to think of the level of these pollutants that had previously been considered normal. Without the environmental movement, such emissions would have continued, to the detriment of everybody.
Gray might be right, then, about the unrealistic thinking of much of current green thinking, and that there are considerable dangers to it. But history also shows the important benefits of green movements, creating political pressure that eventually gets transformed into practical action for the good of the broader public. I suspect Gray would argue there has been a qualitative change in the level of “magical thinking” that makes current thinking unhelpful, but perhaps a dash of idealism diluted by the pragmatism of the wider public will be something that works. As ever, time will be the judge.