For Global Justice Against Global Warming

In Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning (South End Press, 2007), George Monbiot makes the case for how the United Kingdom can cut its greenhouse gases by 90 percent. Heat has been published in several editions suggesting that the strategy for cutting greenhouse gases can be applied to other capitalist countries in the Global North. In the book, Monbiot seeks to prove that the capitalist North can hold onto its privilege while "joining what must become the world's most powerful political movement."

After giving a speech on climate change, Monbiot was asked, "When you get your 80 per cent cut, what will this country look like?" To which, another member of the audience answered, "A very poor third-world country." So in the book, Monbiot sets out to show that a 90 percent cut doesn't mean we have to "ditch the comforts ... which I – like all middle-class people in the rich world – now take for granted" (i.e., privileges of racism, classism, colonialism and empire). He writes that:

Whether or not we enjoy the soft life ..., it is politically necessary to discover the means of sustaining it. This book seeks to devise the least painful means of achieving a 90 per cent cut in carbon emissions. It attempts to reconcile our demand for comfort, prosperity and peace with the restraint required to prevent us from destroying the comfort, prosperity and peace of other people. And though I began the search for these solutions almost certain that I would be unsuccessful, I now believe it can be done.

Now, I'm not saying that Monbiot is not opposed to the oppression of the Third World, but how he frames his book as preserving the capitalist North from becoming "a very poor third-world country" is problematic.

First, it important to note that the term "Third World" was originally a self-description of members of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. It was a way to distinguished themselves from the capitalist North and the "Communist" North. The term has been twisted by the capitalist North, the self-declared "First World," in order to devalue the Global South and place itself at the top of a hierarchy. Because of appropriation of "Third World" by the capitalist North, the Third World now calls itself the Global South.

I've posted a caution against overemphasizing global warming as a reason to go vegan, because it can obscure the problem of humans exploiting other animals. I would make the same sort of caution to Monbiot and the readers of Heat with regard to obscuring the need for global justice.

While Monbiot believes it is "politically necessary" to sustain the privileges that "all middle-class people in the rich world ... take for granted," I think just the opposite is necessary. It's clear that Heat is written with White middle-class people in the Global North in mind. It assumes this dominant elite can solve the problem while still retaining it political supremacy. This strategy means acquiescing to the political status quo. The reason it is thought "politically necessary" to comfort the oppressors is precisely because as the dominant group they have the power, while people of color, poor people, and the people of the Global South are kept powerless.

However, in order to fight against global warming, I'm convinced we must fight for global justice. For those of us who are privileged by racism, classism, and/or (neo)colonialism this means being allies to those on the exploited side of these forms of oppression. That is, we need to acknowledge that the privileges White middle-class people in the rich world take for granted come from the exploitation of people of color, poor people, and the Global South. It's backwards to fight global warming by sustaining these privileges of the "soft life." Instead, I believe we should be refusing to perpetuate these privileges and work to challenge the systems and ideologies that sustain them.

But white people have a right

But white people have a right to comfort!

But to look on the bright side, Monbiot is (based on what you've written here) at least acknowledging that it is the North's fault that we have global warming. He's not trying to blame wood-burning stoves in India or the fact that people in China want cars...just like the millions we Northerners already have.

I guess I'm not so much bothered by the idea that people in the North can re-tool and retain "comforts" if it were truly sustainable and just (a big if), but when people in the North balk at the rest of the world living like we do and then try to blame everyone else for doing so as well, that's when I get frustrated.

But of course that kind of "retaining" comforts must also come with massive wealth transfers back to where the wealth was stolen from in the first place (which should include energy efficient technology). That seems like the place where Monbiot's approach would most likely fall short.