I’m going to start with a memorable passage from the graphic novel, The Watchmen, in which super genius Anthony Veidt is discussing super-being Dr. Manhattan (whose human name is Jon) with a reporter:
“VEIDT: Jon? Right-wing? (Laughs) If there’s one thing in this cosmos that that man isn’t capable of doing it’s having a political bias. Believe me … you have to meet him to understand. I mean, which do you prefer, red ants or black ants?
NOVA: Uh…? Well, I don’t have any particular preference…
VEIDT: Exactly. Well, imagine how Jon feels.”
It makes a lot of sense. How could a being so much more powerful than us, who could destroy the Earth with a thought possibly concern himself with our politics? Obviously he wouldn’t; any more than we would take a side in a battle between two warring ant-hills.
Of course, there is no Dr. Manhattan in the real world. But that doesn’t mean that that basic logic doesn’t apply in some cases. Case in point: The Earth. It is a convenient comparison, since Dr. Manhattan is essentially a god, while the Earth has probably been worshipped as a god by more cultures than any other entity on the planet. And, like with Dr. Manhattan, it makes perfect sense that the Earth, an entity so old that the entire history of the human species is barely visible on its timeline, would care very little about human politics even if it had a consciousness. The processes that shape the Earth extend thousands of kilometres down through layers of molten rock, and billions of kilometres out into space. Even the thin veneer on which we, and the rest of the Earth’s biosphere, exist, admits us as only a bit player. We humans are outnumbered by an unimaginable number of insects and microbes. The natural systems that shape our lives, from the inner workings of the cell to the global climate, are so elaborate that we will probably never fully understand them. Of course, in recent decades we have learned that we have an impact on the Earth. But even the damage we’re doing through climate change is filtered and magnified through a bewildering array of complex natural systems, from Siberian permafrost to Atlantic algal blooms to meltwater deep under Greenlandic ice sheets. Gaia is bigger than us. She was here long before we showed up, and will almost certainly persist long after we are gone. Like Dr. Manhattan, she simply doesn’t care about our petty little arguments.
Its about a week past Earth Day, the traditional day for environmentalist soul-searching, but I think it’s still an appropriate time to reflect on this fact. It’s an obvious fact, and one that has been made by many other people besides me, but it has been forgotten by far too many people who profess to care about the environment. Many seem to have come to believe that Gaia is a socialist, and that the best way to spare ourselves from her wrath, particularly in the form of climate change, is to overthrow capitalism.
This is not a new perspective, but it has been made popular by Naomi Klein’s recent book, This Changes Everything. And there is a certain truth to it: We would probably have an easier time dealing with climate change if the profit motive wasn’t constantly getting in the way. Political philosophies of all varieties are the present-day detritus of historical struggle. Socialism, capitalism, fascism, and all other political movements are nothing more than the accumulated intellectual baggage of past political battles. While, from a human perspective, some political ideologies are certainly better than others, none of them is a perfect model of reality, and none of them contains a fully-formed solution to a problem as big and inscrutable as climate change. It would be an astonishing coincidence if they did.
I think that most people who have given the climate problem more than a moment’s thought realize this, and that’s why I find it hard to resist seeing the “capitalism vs. the planet” narrative in a very cynical light. It often seems to be little more than a thinly-veiled attempt by traditional socialists to co-opt environmentalism for their own political advantage. That makes perfect sense from the perspective of socialists, for whom Gaia would be an excellent ally.
But while this might be good for socialism, is it necessarily good for environmentalism? I suspect that the answer is no, based mainly on the phenomenon of Al Gore. Al Gore is, of course, the most famous climate activist in the world. He was one of the first people with a significant public profile to really call attention to the seriousness of the problem, with his movie/film phenomenon, An Inconvenient Truth. Here’s the problem, though: Al Gore is an ex Democratic Vice President and a failed Democratic candidate for President. In the polarized political climate of the United States, that meant that republicans saw anything associated with Al Gore to be bad. As soon as Gore stamped his political brand on climate change, Republicans turned away in revulsion. That’s why today we have Republican senators throwing snowballs on the senate floor in an attempt to argue that climate change isn’t happening.
With that in mind, is it really a good idea to associated climate activism with a socialist ideology? If the political mainstream rejected climate action because of its association with Al Gore, then what do you expect them to do when it is associated with Karl Marx?
Keep in mind that there is nothing in this argument which says that the “capitalism vs. the climate” proposition is factually wrong. It may very well be correct that we can’t address the climate crisis without first eliminating capitalism. If it is true, however, then we’re probably screwed. Socialists have been trying to challenge the fundamental basis of capitalism in Western societies since before the turn of the 20th century, and but for a few very isolated and deeply problematic cases, they have never succeeded. We have a few decades to respond to climate change, if we’re lucky. Do you really want to make it contingent on a socialist revolution that has failed to happen for over a century?
So by all means work towards socialism, if that’s what you want to do. But in the meantime we have to try to answer the climate crisis by any means necessary. That means capitalistic market incentives, such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes, in addition to explicit government support of more sustainable technologies, and radical environmental justice movements. It means a role for consumer activism and maybe even the intervention of a few benevolent billionaires. All those mechanisms have their problems, but at least they can be implemented without a fundamental re-ordering of society.
Like Dr. Manhattan, the Earth transcends politics. It is a physical, chemical, and biological entity which recognizes no ideology. That means that while politics will inevitably play a role in fixing climate change, they need to be limited to an instrumental concern. This is the mindset that we need, because the unfortunate truth is that everybody will have to make political compromises in order to solve the problem. If we insist on trying to make Gaia a socialist, or a capitalist, or a feminist, or anything else, then we will accomplish nothing more than undermining our own fragile existence on Earth that much faster.
I leave you with these wise words from rapper Prince Ea:
And to betray nature is to betray us,
to save nature, is to save us.
Because whatever you’re fighting for:
Racism, Poverty, Feminism, Gay Rights,
or any type of Equality.
It won’t matter in the least,
because if we don’t all work together to save the environment,
we will be equally extinct.