Where are all the ecoterrorists? In early 2001, the FBI listed environmental terrorism as the primary domestic threat facing the US. Perimillennial anxiety, and rising ecological concern after the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, made the ecoterrorist a pop cultural staple. The nadir was Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear (2004), in which a group of eco-extremists fake climate disasters for political ends. Crichton appended various denialist tracts to the text, though its paranoid reading of climate politics was a few years ahead of the American right. He was later invited for a secret rendezvous at the White House, having found in George W. Bush an enthusiastic if not critically acute reader.
Fiction fed on reality. The FBI attributed $43 million worth of damage to the two most prominent environmental action groups – the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front – as a result of more than six hundred criminal acts between 1996 and 2002, most of them arson. The torching of a Colorado ski resort in 1998, causing damage worth $12 million, was typical of the ELF’s tactics: targeting sites of environmental destruction or luxury consumption, while trying to avoid injury to human or animal life. The FBI’s intense surveillance of such groups is frequently cited as evidence of its warped priorities, but, at twenty years’ distance, other features of the period seem strange. The ELF’s communiqué from Colorado, issued in the name of the lynx against the encroachment on its last remaining pristine habitat in the state, seems oddly small-scale. A similar statement today would concern itself not with the habitat of a single species in a single state, but with extinction-level events across species, ecosystem collapse and planetary-scale economic and political change. The FBI categorised ‘environmental terrorism’ as ‘single issue extremism’, distinct from organised left or right-wing activism. Now, major climate organisations are on the left of national politics in nearly every country, and are increasingly willing to connect environmental destruction to its systemic roots. These days, $43 million seems a paltry sum.
Forests are consumed in wildfire. Salmon die in heating rivers. Towns burn off the map or sink beneath floods. The kinds of disaster Crichton’s fictional terrorists engineered in order to sway public opinion occur almost every day, and are greeted with insubstantial pledges masquerading as action. The risks identified three decades ago – ice melts, sea level rises, extinctions – have arrived faster than expected, but without an equivalent acceleration of action. The daily business of politics has started to look trivial, if not insane. A Chatham House report, published in September, projects a global temperature increase of 2.7°C by the end of the century if countries meet their current targets; it does not rule out rises of 3.5 or 5°C. Even the best-case scenario is catastrophic: 3.9 billion people exposed to major heatwaves by 2040, with 10 million a year exposed to heat exceeding the survivability threshold. Droughts will be three times worse than they are now; food insecurity as a result of failed crops will risk, if not guarantee, political turbulence and economic collapse, migration for survival, international security crises. The Paris targets adopted in 2015 are dead, or so officials brief in private. The Chatham House report gives a less than 1 per cent chance of meeting them, a less than 5 per cent chance of limiting warming to 2°C.
Confronting the facts can be paralysing. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, one of a number of recent books by Andreas Malm, opens by quoting an observation made in the LRB by John Lanchester (22 March 2007) that terrorism had thus far been markedly absent from the climate movement. That might have been a sign of the times. There was little appetite in the years after 2001 for discussion of the merits of terrorism. Even if the definition is wide enough to include the ELF’s campaign of sabotage and property destruction, climate activists have been at pains to stress their non-violence. But now, Malm suggests, an insistence on pacifism as the sine qua non of the climate movement presents a paradox. Despite the urgency of the crisis and the ubiquity of appropriate targets – the SUV, the refinery, the head offices of major fossil fuel firms – that can be disabled with relative ease, no sustained action against them has been taken. For Malm, this reflects both the ‘general deficit’ of climate action and the particular form of inaction characteristic of activists themselves.
His book is a response to the new climate activism spearheaded by Extinction Rebellion, which Malm believes has been hampered by hippyish pacifism and a spurious theory of political change, based on a pastiche of old liberation movements. Their theory is quantitative: when a sufficient number of people take action, or get arrested, or simply become aware of the crisis, government resistance will collapse into shamefaced resolution. Malm is rightly sceptical of this as a basis for political action, arguing that it lacks any consideration of history, power, money or the individual subject. He adduces testimony from national liberation struggles and civil rights activists to make the point that even committed pacifists understood the advantage of having more troublesome comrades in the wings.
This argument is less novel than it appears. Within the ecological movement debates over the scope, forcefulness and value of direct action led to Sea Shepherd splitting from Greenpeace in 1977; the same debates have recurred across the left since the First International. As the crisis worsens and politicians temporise, Malm obviously expects more people to be attracted to direct action. While he praises increased participation, he also laments the attendant loss of political clarity, and identifies the need for a more confrontational movement that is still intent on capturing the political mainstream, one capable of reining in actions likely to alienate the majority. He argues that climate change is the ‘cumulative effect of action at the level of class’ and that this fact, rather than a generalised and undifferentiated sense of human responsibility, ought to be the criterion for action. To sceptical ears this might sound like a doomed attempt to square the circle, or nostalgia for political organisations that might once have made such judgments. It won’t reassure those fearful of a future racked by disruption and sabotage, but Malm’s tactical example is endearingly small-scale: he proposes a campaign against SUVs, whose tyres can be let down by wedging bits of gravel in the valves.
Malm also celebrates larger-scale action against fossil fuel infrastructure. One is the repeated sabotage of the Dakota Access Pipeline by two Catholic Worker activists, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, who eventually admitted responsibility as a means of increasing their political impact. Another is the mass action taken by the German environmental group Ende Gelände in 2016: thousands of activists broke down fences and seized equipment in order to shut down an enormous open-cast coal mine in Spremberg, along with its associated coal-fired power station, the Schwarze Pumpe. The site was owned by Vattenfall, a state-owned Swedish company. Having won power in part on the promise to leave coal in the ground, Sweden’s Social Democrat-Green coalition was due to divest from the site. But, rather than grasping the opportunity to end some of the continent’s dirtiest extraction in a single stroke, the Swedish government decided to sell the plant to a consortium of Czech businessmen intent on a brown coal renaissance. Malm was himself a participant in the Ende Gelände action. The CEO of Vattenfall, whose brown coal sites in Germany produced CO2 equivalent to Sweden’s annual emissions plus a third, called it an act of ‘massive criminal violence’. The obvious rejoinder – that it is risible to compare the violence of breaking fences with the slower and far greater violence being inflicted on the planet – found little sympathy in the German press.
Both of these actions appeal to Malm because they were politically astute: the American activists advanced their cause by dropping their anonymity; the Europeans chose an appropriate target (a government whose political complexion meant it would find the charge of hypocrisy difficult to weather). He makes a modest judgment of what protests can achieve: they can goad, embarrass or pressure governments to act, but rarely topple or replace them.
From the vantage-point of the potential saboteur, the political orientation of a government matters. Obama bragged about American oil production and millions of acres of fresh exploration in his 2012 State of the Union address, but his administration was responsive to environmentalist pressure in a way that Trump’s never was. The proper planning of protest requires thought about the way government works. Even the most radical activist wants to change its inner workings, if only to make it more responsive to popular dissent. For the vast majority of people who fear disastrous climate inaction but for whom scaling fences and facing arrest or imprisonment is unthinkable, this approach is more easily grasped. Direct action always returns us to basic questions of politics.
Malm frequently observes that climate inaction is a recursive cycle: the longer emissions continue, the more dramatic efforts at mitigation and adaptation must be. As inaction gradually closes off all possible options save the most extreme, political turbulence is inevitable. Inaction from politicians is understandable: significant blocs of voters reward progressive climate rhetoric, but it is less clear that they reward action itself. Beyond the political class, explanations are harder to find. Perhaps the extended temporal frame of climate change invites procrastination, or we are wired to expect basic homeostasis, both political and ecological, or merely prefer immediate personal comfort to the disruption of real change. Malm himself prefers to draw attention to the overwhelming difficulty of confronting the carbon system as a totality, both intellectually and politically.
Malm’s recent work builds on the arguments of Fossil Capital (2016), in which he showed that Britain’s embrace of coal came relatively late – water power remained dominant for decades after Watt’s invention of the steam engine. Fossil capitalism arose from a desire to concentrate industry in cities, thereby avoiding the complex engineering needed to sustain water-powered production, which would have necessitated co-operation between mill owners; it also allowed for a greater concentration of labour, more easily disciplined and exploited. It’s possible to imagine an alternative industrialisation, based on wind and water (but today including solar power), but it would have required far greater diffusion of production and thus resulted in greater bargaining power for industrial workers. Instead, a particular social configuration, stained with smoke and soot, became the pattern of modernity, with fossil fuels powering not only the expansion of capitalism but the political settlements, from imperialism to modern globalisation, built on it.
This historical understanding of climate change has led Malm to some specific conclusions: capitalism, not human beings, is changing the climate; industrialisation itself is less of a problem than the fossil system that powers it; the overwhelming focus of climate activism must be on dismantling fossil infrastructure; the chief problems with technology are the exploitative conditions of manufacture and the destructive ends to which it is put, rather than any more general concern about its destructive attitude to nature. Malm tends to focus on Europe and the US, as the architects and beneficiaries of fossil capitalism – and as polities that are both hugely influential and susceptible to popular pressure. His most recent book, White Skin, Black Fuel, written with the Zetkin Collective, a group of anti-fascist researchers based at the University of Lund, broadens this perspective, using particular historical or national examples to look at the entire fossil system from a new angle.
Consider the Amazon. During the Brazilian dictatorship of 1964 to 1985, the ‘green desert’ of the rainforest was opened up for speculators, gold-diggers and rubber-hunters, who brought chaos and destruction to the forest ecosystem, and everything from disease to torture to its indigenous peoples. The speed and scale of deforestation became a matter of international concern. By the 1990s, ‘cattle capitalism’ had led to more deforestation, with swathes of the Amazon felled for pasture. To follow the supply chains out from the ranches is to see much of the world become implicated in every razed square metre: the beef itself is served on tables in Russia or Italy, but the hide turns up in baseball gloves in the US and dog collars in Sweden, the tallow in shaving cream sold in Tokyo, the guts in the strings of tennis rackets, the hoof or horn in the keys of a piano, or rendered to thicken lipstick. The commodities that have their origin in the destroyed forest criss-cross the globe, each freight journey belching carbon into the atmosphere.
There is a perverse, monstrous sublimity to this vision. The Amazon, as a historic carbon sink, should feature prominently in any serious climate politics. Unlike the examples in Malm’s earlier work, however, the depletion of the Amazon is not directly connected to fossil fuel extraction (the most destructive mining in the Amazon is for minerals, especially iron). Cattle capitalists, like other pillagers of the green desert, are part of a vast sphere of secondary industries that are dependent on fossil capital, and share its rapacity and drive to expand. How far these industries can be divorced from their fossil predicate is one of the more awkward questions for mainstream climate politics; it’s hard to see how the destruction of rainforests, vast rare-earth mines or accelerating soil depletion could be justified even if powered purely by wind or sun.
Some politicians are unfazed by such issues. Jair Bolsonaro pledged during his campaign for the presidency that he would reverse the ‘industry of fines’ with which the Lula and Dilma governments had slowed the destruction of the Amazon. There was, he said, ‘still space for deforestation’: indigenous peoples could ‘adapt or vanish’, and he promised to proscribe the Landless Workers’ Movement. Anticipating his victory, the rate of deforestation spiked by 50 per cent. Five days after his triumph in the first round, Bolsonaro’s choice for foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, declared climatism ‘a globalist tactic to scare people and gain more power’.
Over the past decade, Germany has been the world’s leading producer of brown coal. In 2019 it accounted for 21 per cent of emissions in the EU; in 2018 it was the world’s sixth biggest emitter of CO2 from fossil fuels. Germany’s lignite mines account for seven of the ten largest point sources of CO2 in Europe. Almost no single action would yield as significant a reduction in European emissions as the closure of these mines. But Lusatia, where many of the lignite pits are found, is also a stronghold of the far-right AfD: in 2017, the same year the Grosse Koalition contemplated closing these mines, the party won more than 30 per cent of the vote in the region. In the Bundestag, the AfD climate spokesman, Rainer Kraft, attacked what he called ‘eco-populist voodoo’; the party castigated Merkel for both a ‘disastrous asylum policy’ and a ‘left-green ideologised climate policy’. Under pressure from the AfD, the coal exit commission set an end date of 2038. This concession only emboldened the far right: in 2019, the top AfD candidates for Saxony and Brandenburg (neighbouring lignite states) met at their common border to declare their intention to mine coal for another thousand years – a duration not lit on accidentally by German nationalists.
These two stories form part of the dossier of evidence amassed in White Skin, Black Fuel. Subtitled ‘On the Danger of Fossil Fascism’, the book asks a deceptively simple question: why do so many parties and politicians of the far right traffic in climate denialism? In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński referred to alien Muslim-borne ‘parasites and protozoa’ while authorising the construction of new coal plants as a central platform of the Law and Justice party; his defence minister, Antoni Macierewicz, visited Europe’s biggest lignite facility to declare: ‘Poland stands on coal.’ In Hungary, Orbán’s Fidesz Party has promised undying loyalty to BMW and eternal vigilance against the Muslim migration supposedly sponsored by George Soros. In Finland, the Finns Party combines baseline anti-migration policies with warnings about the illness-inducing properties of wind turbines. In France, Marine Le Pen has claimed that ‘migrants are like wind turbines, everyone agrees to have them but no one wants them in their back yard.’ There are many more examples.
Malm and the Zetkin Collective’s claim is not that far-right parties happen to exploit voter prejudice against both migration and climate mitigation, but that these two things are necessarily linked. They see ‘fossil fascism’ as an emergent political formation, linking ‘primitive’ fossil capital – direct extractors, which can’t survive divestment – with racist politics. Aware of the slipperiness of definitions of fascism, they stick with the term because their new postulate has many of its hallmarks: fantasies of a nation purified of parasitical degenerates and outsiders; an indifference to mass death; emergence in an emergency where significant established economic powers are threatened. Malm is careful not to inflate every action of the authoritarian state into proto-fascism. Only one significant difference between the interwar period and today seems under-examined: the prevalence of street violence in pre-fascist Germany and Italy and its near total absence today.
A British judge, upbraiding Black Lives Matter protesters for blocking flights from London City Airport in 2016, admitted to being puzzled by the link protesters made between racism and climate change. In one sense the link is obvious. Those worst affected by climate change played a negligible role in the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels, except as expendable labour. At a greater level of abstraction, one might expect human exploitation – often determined by race – to be linked to resource exploitation. Certainly, the political formations invested in one are usually invested in the other, and observable co-recurrence is strong evidence in itself. But the necessity of the link proves a little elusive.
The most suggestive connection made by Malm and the collective is the fossil predicate of imperialism, ranging from the flattening of Acre by four British steamships in 1840 through race theorists and empire-builders who used coal-powered steam to extend British control up rivers and across plains. ‘Steam,’ Emerson wrote, ‘is almost an Englishman.’ If the link between fossil power and race is obscure to the post-imperial present, it was obvious to the past. In the words of John Turnbull Thomson, an engineer and early coloniser of New Zealand: ‘What then has coal to do with our race? As far as we know yet, everything.’
As its title suggests, the work of Frantz Fanon is relevant to White Skin, Black Fuel. Fanon saw the link between the laying of railways across the bush – an emblem par excellence for the colonial conquest of nature – and the creation of ‘a native population which is non-existent politically and economically’. His vision of ‘a permanent struggle against an omnipresent death’ takes on a prophetic ecological as well as anticolonial cast. Black thought might offer a more taxing ecological critique, too. The old imperial spirit animated a Columbia undergraduate in 2018, who found internet notoriety after harassing a group of black students. ‘Europeans! We invented science and industry, and you want to tell us to stop because we’re so baaad,’ he shouted. ‘I love white people! Fuck yeah, white men! We did everything!’ W.E.B. Du Bois observed almost eighty years earlier that this boast stirred in him ‘no envy; only regrets’. White steampower and its gargantuan machines gave neither rest nor leisure but made up a ‘vast Frankenstein monster’. ‘It is a Beast! Its creators even do not understand it, cannot curb or guide it. They themselves are but hideous, groping hired Hands, doing their bit to oil the raging devastating machinery which kills men to make cloth, prostitutes women to rear buildings and eats little children.’
The activities of post-fascist parties in Europe – at varying distances from the street movements out of which many evolved – provide much of Malm and the collective’s strongest evidence for an empirical connection between the ardent defence of fossil capital and xenophobic politics. But they also consider Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant, mass shooters and wannabe genocidaires, both of whom were inspired by arguments about overpopulation and resource depletion as well as by ‘great replacement’ theory – a paranoid vision of strategic reproduction and migration by Muslims, aimed at displacing and destroying European culture. White Skin, Black Fuel’s most sobering section considers Srebrenica as the genocidal endpoint of such theories, and a model, in the bleakest possible future, for climate murder. Far-right responses to climate change mutate according to audience: it’s overpopulation and resource crisis and it’s Eurabia, it’s really a communist ploy and it’s a fake, or it’s all China anyway, but actually carbon dioxide is a life-giving gas, and it’s all the devilish work of George Soros.
Fossil fascism is likely to be at its strongest in the early phases of the climate crisis, responding to arguments about the speed and scope of divestment with outright denialism and conspiracy theory, or proffering barbed wire and border walls as appropriate counter-measures. These tactics might work in a world approaching 1.5°C warming, while the effects in developed nations are still limited; it will be much harder if locked-in warming takes the world beyond that. And yet the problem for anyone hoping to head off the worst is the fact that the time to act is now, when the forces of resistance are strongest. As the cases of Poland, Germany and Brazil suggest, the far right has exercised significant power over climate politics whether in office or not. The suicidal insistence on business as usual is not the responsibility of the swivel-eyed alone, but the result of a political dynamic created by more mainstream figures who accommodate to or are cowed by them.
Close to the end of White Skin, Black Fuel, Malm and the collective lay out a helpful taxonomy of denial: if outright denial is currently a fringe position, many of us – and more so our governments – live in a state of ‘implicatory denial’. The CEO of Norway’s state-owned oil company has declared Norwegian oil ‘the most climate-friendly’ in the world, omitting to mention that between 95 and 98 per cent of emissions per barrel come from burning, not extraction. Justin Trudeau told a gathering of oil and gas executives that ‘no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.’ Yet this is exactly what must happen. Few states have gone as far as Denmark and begun to end licensing rounds for hydrocarbon exploration. Trudeau’s line neatly articulates the logical position for any developed state enmeshed in global competition and trade. If it strikes us as irrational, it’s because the whole system is irrational.
Implicatory denial involves individuals as well as states. Malm and the collective worry about what might occasion a reversion from implicatory to outright denial, a matter of concern for any democratic climate politics. For any given individual in a fossil capitalist society, it is rational to take cut-price flights for holidays, travel by car for even the shortest journey, avail oneself of cheap imported meat, use disposable plastics or buy each new iteration of a consumer commodity. These ways of life are produced, supported and virtually required by fossil capitalism itself; it is only from a planetary perspective that they are irrational, even suicidal. A life among absurdities, as Adorno once suggested, requires a careful tending of ignorance, a meticulous aversion to following problems to their cause. Awareness of this terrible disjuncture produces denialism of many kinds, and through that gap the far right may find an entry point. The old fascist formula, ‘we say what you’re really thinking,’ authorises an escape from hypocrisy: ‘we think what your behaviour really implies.’
A century ago, Clara Zetkin – the Marxist theorist after whom the collective is named – could move seamlessly from analysis to action, calling for ‘a special structure … made up of workers’ parties and organisations of every viewpoint’ to prosecute the struggle against fascism. The question of political agency has fewer obvious answers today: how best to act, and to act effectively, are issues that recur throughout Malm’s work. The shape of the answer changes – sometimes he emphasises the need for direct action, sometimes for a disciplined political party – but the essentials remain the same: contempt for greenwashing politicians; hard-edged scepticism about capitalist climate governance; frustration with dithering and strategically inept activists. Malm distinguishes himself from less subtle thinkers in suggesting that it’s possible to imagine a capitalism that sunders itself from its fossil origins and adapts to a warming world, however recalcitrant it has been until now. The death agony of capitalism is not one of climate change’s many certainties. The demand of climate politics is that capitalist governments and states take unprecedented action, of a kind that will in turn transform those governments and states, rarely to the advantage of those currently in charge. Anxiety about this transformation occasionally surfaces in Malm’s writing, especially with regard to mandating and enforcing change on a grand scale and whether this is compatible with the preservation of democracy. The scale of change may breed authoritarians. All climate politics, consciously or not, attempts to shape the nature of future states and their priorities: how centralised they are, how democratic, how powerful the oligarchies, how violent the borders, how accountable the governments.
It was once possible to believe that climate change might produce rational, meliorist, collectively-minded solutions. The last thirty years, and the past decade chronicled in White Skin, Black Fuel, should have disabused us of that notion. But belief in the saving power of climate awareness is obdurate in climate activism, as shown by the Guardian’s eschatological headlines or Extinction Rebellion’s exhortation for us all to acknowledge the emergency. If only we knew, we would act in the right way. But there is no obvious point at which knowledge tips into action; in an increasingly mediatised political sphere, spreading awareness ends up as a substitute for action itself.
Despite a disproportionate number of denialists on its airwaves and in its newspapers, climate change is one of the few issues that has not been embroiled in Britain’s culture war. And yet this country exemplifies the difficulties of decarbonisation: despite having the most ambitious emissions targets of any developed nation (and having enshrined them in law), it consistently fails to enact policies that might enable these targets to be met. Boris Johnson’s net zero strategy suggests that the new green tinge to his political persona may last a while, but it is a lonely position in his party, and the Treasury’s reluctance to fund a transition at the necessary scale is obvious. The carefully co-ordinated but lacklustre early achievements of COP26 – a promise to stop deforestation in a decade’s time, depending on the mood of national parliaments; a promise to deliver decarbonisation financing that was supposed to have been delivered by 2020 – suggest it’s unlikely to deliver the showy victory essential to Johnsonian politics. The UK’s official Climate Change Committee, an impeccably establishment organisation, declared in its latest report that the past year has been one of ‘climate contradictions’, with statements of ambition belied by delays in bringing forward legislation and net zero reviews pushed back indefinitely. When legislation does appear, the report notes (with mandarin understatement), it is ‘short of the required policy ambition’.
Malm describes the many disappointments – and the reduction in ambition – since the first COP was held in 1995. Early proposals took the mantra of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ seriously, advocating more stringent targets for countries that had profited from historical emissions and a binding penalty mechanism to help fund development for countries without fossil power. By 2015 these had weakened into non-binding ‘nationally determined contributions’, which the largest emitters are still failing to meet. (A recent study suggests the global rate of reduction needs to increase by 80 per cent for there to be any chance of the Paris goals being met; here, though far from alone, the US is the major culprit.) International agreements are brutal lessons in the art of the possible, but even the most hard-nosed realist might think that the behaviour of the richest countries has veered between the myopic and the abhorrent. As the Sudanese delegate put it in Paris, this diminution of ambition meant ‘asking Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dependence of a few countries [on fossil fuels]’. It was signed anyway.
There’s a deeper question here: how wide is the scope of human agency? Humanity has proved itself powerful enough to change the climate at a planetary level, to spark off chains of extinctions and permeate wildernesses with microplastics. But this was inadvertent, even if the destruction has been prolonged by its beneficiaries. Whether human beings have the collective capacity intentionally to reverse this planetary effect isn’t clear. The question of agency has a bearing on a number of other issues: whether technology can save us; whether a climate-adapted future looks like Western consumer capitalism with a transformed energy base and less waste, or whether such a transition will necessitate a break with the proliferation of luxury commodities and the underlying obsession with acceleration and expansion; even the precise alloy of determination, optimism and melancholia with which one approaches climate politics.
Malm is less uncertain: ‘The grotesque concentration of resources for burning at the top of the human pyramid is a scourge for all living beings; an effective climate policy would be the total expropriation of the top 1 to 10 per cent.’ He obviously loathes apologias for quietism and inaction, usually from writers ensconced near the top of that pyramid. Instead he proposes an ecological version of Pascal’s wager: a radical eco-modernism might eventually run aground on its own contradictions but is the only progressive politics possible in society as it currently exists. Were such a project to end in failure, the situation in which it would leave us – severed from fossil fuels, with radically reduced inequality, society mobilised towards decarbonisation – would be a far better starting point for the next step.
Melancholy colours most left-wing discussion of climate change. In the same period that global heating became the object of international concern, the forces claiming to represent a systemic alternative began their political retreat. Prescient leftists, picking through the rubble at the end of history, recognised that the emerging climate crisis was a problem that could not be solved by market forces. In 1992, Perry Anderson wrote that there was a new opportunity for ‘the classical arguments of socialism for intentional democratic control’. If there must be ‘an environmental revolution comparable in significance only to the industrial and agricultural revolutions,’ he wrote in A Zone of Engagement, ‘how could it be other than consciously realised – that is, planned?’
The broadening of the climate movement in the last few years gives some reason to hope that the left is renewing itself on an ecological premise. (It is certainly what the far right thinks: the coincidence of Earth Day with Lenin’s birthday is a staple of talk radio bloviating.) Recent defeats for the movements most closely allied with the Green New Deal (those associated with Corbyn and Sanders, and the fate in Congress of Biden’s Recovery Bill), and the marginal status of most of its champions, suggest a less positive interpretation: even as the intellectual case for a systemic condemnation of capitalism on ecological grounds grows, the political forces that might act on it are following an inverse curve. That such a case against capitalism looks plausible, however, is a mark of how far politics has moved in the past decade.
Anderson’s argument can be taken further. If the scale of the environmental revolution is on a par with its antecedents, its effects should be felt at the organisational foundations of human society itself; it would be odd to expect the certainties of historical socialism – about technology, industry, or even the means and agents of revolution – to be the only things to survive. From this perspective, what is perhaps most remarkable about the past decade, as the catastrophe has made itself known in fire and flood, is that political parties, states and even the intellectual categories used to analyse them have remained largely unaltered. Over the past decade they have seemed to fracture without truly breaking. It’s hard to imagine these conditions can endure for another decade.
The plethora of books trying to give substance to the Green New Deal; How to Blow up a Pipeline’s hunger for direct action; the mutilated and inchoate politics of many European Green parties; the preference of many Western writers and intellectuals for a politics of inaction and capitulation; even Malm’s multi-tasking as historian, activist, philosopher and political strategist – all these can be understood as indicative of the absence of climate organisations capable of serious intervention in the political sphere. As a strategist, Malm is a theorist of kairos – the use of the opportune moment – and suggests that direct action groups use moments of climate crisis to target fossil infrastructure directly – a coal mine for every wildfire perhaps. But, as he writes in White Skin, Black Fuel, a pure climate crisis is hard to imagine. Its effects will be uneven, taking the form of refugee crises prompted by civil strife or deaths from overwork in pitiless wet-bulb temperatures. There will be no flashpoint in the climate crisis, no moment with a self-revealing logic so clear as to be incontestable. Direct action can be a form of pedagogy, but it requires allies in press and politics. It is striking that in 2021 only two environmental champions of global standing come to mind, both politically anomalous and equipped with soft power rather than legislative force: Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
White Skin, Black Fuel ends without prescriptions, and without the usual exhortations to action. Perhaps this is to allow the reader to dwell on its most unsettling theses. Malm and the collective are no doubt right that ecological and anti-fascist causes coalesce with every fraction of a degree of warming. Their hesitance in recommending a course of action, though, might be the last symptom of the political difficulty charted in the book: nobody is sure what balance of intransigence and realism is needed, or even which of the traditional methods of mobilisation might motivate governments to act at the scale required, in the time required. A bathetic postscript traces the effects of the pandemic on the climate crisis. We have seen concerted action on a huge scale, but it has been various, unequal and nationalistic, with rescue packages, particularly that of the ECB, heavily tilted to emission-intensive industry: oil companies, utility companies running coal-fired plants and car manufacturers. Elections across Europe suggest that the forces of fossil fascism might be in retreat. But the pandemic has been fertile territory for conspiracy theories and the climate movement that was so obviously gaining strength in 2019 has yet to recover. If the book’s diagnosis is correct, any remission in the fossil-fanatic far right can only be temporary.
Is it? Malm and the collective spend some time on political formations – green nationalism and Trumpism – that straddle conservatism and the far right, but the more general question of conservative responses to climate change is beyond their scope. Given the strength of right-wing politics in core emitter countries, the question is urgent. If conservatism is increasingly devoid of thinkers native to its tradition, and the positions of mainstream conservatism are drifting in response to the theatrics of the far right, the tendencies examined in White Skin, Black Fuel ought also to emerge on the mainstream right – as has happened in the US. A strain of conservatism that builds on the chauvinism of Le Pen or Paul Kingsnorth – shading from the nationalist to the exterminationist – might prosper even as outright denialists falter. Any movement that intends to make climate the central issue of politics should expect new attempts from the right to profit from it.
Climate optimists flog their case most aggressively around each COP meeting. They see in Paris’s 1.5°C target a consensus widely adopted where none existed before, however flimsy its enforcement and lax its pursuit. Each advance in decarbonisation technology is hailed as the long-awaited turning point. Green business rhetoric is treated with infinite credulity, or seized on as proof that the meliorist dream lives on. The most perfect expression of this tendency came in a missive from Bob Sternfels, McKinsey’s global managing partner, which was intended to quell disquiet among younger consultants. ‘Why do we serve high-emissions companies?’ he asked. ‘Because that is where the emissions are.’ His argument is couched in an unholy hybrid of social justice argot and corporate bromide: ‘McKinsey won’t always get this right … we are also a work-in-progress ourselves.’ Of course McKinsey is unlikely to get it right: it can’t tell Shell or BP that they must stop all exploration, that they must effectively go out of business. The optimists are right that the argument is now over the form and speed of the transition, rather than its necessity – a fact that sometimes leaves the climate left arguing against positions already vacated by its opponents. Malm is right that questions of form and speed are euphemisms for how many people will die, how much of the earth will become uninhabitable, and how many unpredictable tipping points will approach while we’re busy respecting the profit margins of these companies. Perhaps CEOs and their pet optimists should also heed Malm’s warning that the current ‘Gandhian’ cast of the climate movement will not endure conditions of increasing desperation.
Malm and the collective rest most of their hopes on a ‘spontaneous disillusionment’ with capitalism provoked by confrontations with climate change. The slogans of school strikers and climate protesters are their measure of this instinctive anti-capitalism. A basis for climate hope is always fragile, though one might be found in the plummeting price of renewables or the agonisingly slow process by which the old social democratic parties and trade unions are coming to recognise that 21st-century elections will be fought on how, not if, to make the transition. Elsewhere, Malm has been less circumspect: in place of capitalist torpor, and inspired by some responses to the pandemic, he envisions a radically transformed state, thinking globally, planning, rationing, expropriating – effectively, a socialist state of exception.
For those convinced that it is impossible to circumvent politics, either by direct action or through a state of emergency, the task remains to construct, from the imperfect tools available, a viable ecological platform. In its most optimistic form, this might be a politics of public affluence and civic-mindedness; of green urbanisation and the economies of scale permitted by city living; of vast public projects; of cutting-edge decarbonisation technology combined with rewilding and afforestation; of unstinting international effort to decouple the promise of human flourishing from dependence on the infrastructure of death. Most pressing is the matter of organisation: any such programme would need to garner the support not only of metropolitan liberals and the young, but to penetrate and revive the atrophied organisations of the old working class, to appeal ruthlessly to the desire of parents to hand on a better world to their children, and to recruit one pillar of the community for every activist or street prophet. It would need many more leaders and allies, interpreters and defenders at every level of culture. Such a movement would require a bonfire of pieties and a willingness to use the state as never before. The obstacles are formidable, above all the fossil-funded oligarchy lodged at the centre of Western politics. White Skin, Black Fuel charts many of the risks facing progressive politics in a post-carbon era, but it would be foolish to dismiss such a politics as utopian. It is on utopia that we now depend.