Naomi Klein just published a lengthy piece in the Nation discussing the future of the climate change movement, as well as its broader effects on the political world. In many ways I like this piece, these kinds of acknowledgements of the need for a broad “civilizational paradigm shift” are long overdue. In others, though, I really don’t. Klein’s discussion of action “on all levels” is both hopelessly broad and very restricting. Political responses, such as taxation, nationalization or regulation changes are really represent the least creative and inventive ways to deal with this issue, and in all too many ways stand at odds with some of the more community-based solutions she also brings up.

For all that I, too, disagree with the Heartland Institute and other conservative conspiracy theorists regarding global warming, I’m not quite as willing to write off their fears. Conservative views always tend to re-enforce those in power, and Klein is right to point that out, but there’s more to the fear of a centrally planned state response than a bunch of wealthy white men who don’t want to lose their privileged lifestyles. The best essay I can point to on this subject would be Kevin Carson’s “Thermidor of the Progressives“, which illustrates this re-branding of authoritarian viewpoints under the guise of moderate leftism. Crises like climate change have just as much potential as those described in “The Shock
Doctrine” to galvanize ambitious new regimes to restructure our societies.

The time to wax philosophical about the need for a transformation of our society’s economic and political values is quickly drawing to a close. We need clear and consistent proposals for solutions. This goes beyond “things that should happen” into the realm of “how we’re going to get them”, and at some point that means a very important choice in terms of values, tactics and the overall goals of our movement(s). Perhaps we are finally at a point where we can reach some sort of agreement regarding capitalism, but there’s another unmentionable elephant in the room which we can’t afford to ignore: the state. The government’s role in supporting ecologically destructive corporations goes so far beyond their meagre attempts to mitigate these problems that it has to be considered at least on par with the conservatives Klein mentions. While right-wing think tanks may sound off about these issues, they wouldn’t be issues at all if not for the support and funding of the government – look at the Tar Sands for evidence of that, or urban sprawl or nuclear power.

Assuming that our governments can be quickly or easily re-purposed for sustainable and ecological ends is no less deluded than talk of “clean coal”. Their obsession with development and growth goes beyond petty political alliances with bankers and CEOs, it’s a basic necessity of the state. Klein’s right that any sensible approach to consumerism would likely mean havok for large parts of the economy, but what of tax revenues? How would they fund prisons and war machines, to say nothing of their own colossal bureaucracy? By nationalizing the oil, timber or fishing industries, would the state then need to rely on them to fund itself? And how, then, would we escape the kind of ugly ecological fate that befell the USSR?

It’s not just an issue of whether we act on the issue of Climate Change, but how we act. A top-down approach, one involving carbon taxes or markets, nationalizations and regulations is fundamentally at odds with a grassroots approach which comes from the bottom up. Local economies, organic agriculture, appropriate technologies and participatory decision making can not be imposed from above, but must grow from communities themselves. Organizing “from below” entails an often total lack of support from the government, or even outright opposition. The path of lobbying, on the other hand, involves pulling many punches in terms of our analysis, and devoting amazing amounts of effort to working within convoluted bureaucratic systems.

We shouldn’t underestimate the drawing potential of movements which operate in spite of or even in outright opposition to the government in this sense. If the success of the Occupy Movement doesn’t demonstrate this clearly enough, the rabid “anti-government” ramblings of the conservatives Klein describes must. Since the days of Reagan, American-style conservatism has nurtured a lot of seemingly rebellious language when it comes to the state, even while being some of its staunchest supporters (prisons, debt and military budgets, for instance, have all exploded in this time). This has been very successful because it casts liberals and “the left” as simply advocates of government, statism and central planning.

We, the people of the world, are under threat due to climate change. We cannot trust that our governments will “do the right thing”. We cannot wait until they decide to do so to take action. We need plans which offer options even if we’re encouraged, ignored or actively opposed by the state. The stakes are simply to high to sit around hoping that the next Obama (or Bratina) will be better. If we want things like local, cooperative economies and participatory democracy we’re going to have to invest our efforts in building them, not simply asking for them.

The time is certainly right for a “paradigm shift” in the way our civilization operates. These same issues of explosive growth and catastrophic collapse have been threatening human life since the Babylonians salted their fields with excessive irrigation. Most of these civilizations were not “capitalist” and relied entirely on renewable energy yet every one had a state. Their neighbours which lacked such centralized governance rarely saw these same problems on any comparable scale. Why? Because centralized power is very expensive, and typically requires unsustainable levels of resource extraction. As these resources dwindle locally, expansion is required to keep things running (conquest, intensification etc), which takes even more resources, prompting even more expansion. Capitalism works very well as an engine to drive this system, but that doesn’t mean it’s responsible for all that’s wrong with the establishment. Feudalism, slavery and imperialism worked too, for a time. If we’re going to shift the paradigm of this civilization, we need to examine that civilization itself, and not just the ruling class of the here and now.