Opening the breach: Politics of The Post-Carbon World
Pierre CharbonnierPhilosopher, CNRS research fellow at Sciences Po
During the climate summit which took place this past 22nd and 23rd of April, and which was meant to signal the United States’ return to post-carbon diplomacy, the various leaders who took the podium were able to put their best talking points to the test. 1
Joe Biden described the climate challenge as the opportunity for the United States to once again become competitive in a “clean energy” future (by which he meant low carbon), and his envoy, John Kerry, added, “No one is being asked for a sacrifice, this is an opportunity”. Decades of disqualifying environmentalism as a burden on both workers and business owners have paid off: in order to pave the way for a future below 2°C of global warming, a rhetoric of technological possibility and economic opportunism is sweeping everything up in its path. For her part, Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic government’s Secretary of Energy, recycled one of the most well-known metaphors of the Cold War by announcing that open markets and green tech innovations were this generation’s “moon shot”. 2 The historical echo is obvious. As early as the 1940s, American economic diplomacy was making grandiose claims that technological and scientific cooperation would be able to save the world from hunger and war, and that the Manhattan Project’s “Endless Frontier” and the space program 3 theorized by engineers like Vannevar Bush would open technological possibilities to the point that poverty and fear would soon be distant memories. The Biden administration explicitly acknowledges these historical references by calling its research funding bill the “Endless Frontier Act”.
During the same summit, the Director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, somewhat dampened the mood: “I will be blunt. Commitments alone are not enough. We need real change in the real world. Right now, the data does not match the rhetoric, and the gap is getting wider and wider”. 4 But this does nothing to change the political paradigm that has been in place for several months now. The recovery required by the Covid-19 crisis (or at least after the Covid-19 crisis in the North) is accelerating the integration of climate imperatives into the regulation of the world economy. It is now clear that entry into politics of the Anthropocene is not at all based on reconciliation with nature and living beings or on promoting post-materialist values. Instead, it is taking the form of a reinvention of productivity, a new pact between labor and markets, and technological cooperation that is supposed to guarantee global security.
The significance of this reformulation of the ecological and climatic imperative must be appreciated. The political culture born of the environmentalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which adopted certain themes that were critical of industry already used in the 19th century, highlighted the pathologies of overexploitation and overconsumption, of the alienation of humans from their environment, and of the race for power in the quest for growth. Half a century later, the outcome of this environmentalism is ambiguous. In one way, it produced the key players in the fight to impose the issue of the ecological risks and limits of modern development. Rachel Carson, Vandana Shiva, Chico Mendes, and many others have collected data on environmental threats all while forging the central political concerns of the green movement. But in another sense, environmentalism failed to address the fundamental problem it posed, which is the tension between the aspiration for emancipation and how it fits within ecological limits; or to put it another way, between social security and environmental security. A social coalition based on the answer to this dilemma has never been in a position of strength in the game of parliamentary or revolutionary politics.
This is certainly the reason that this political culture is currently in the process of being eliminated, or at least relegated to the edges of the political debate. Ecologists on the ground are obviously doing essential work at the local and regional level on targeted issues such as forest use, biodiversity and wildlife conservation, and agroecology. But it is absolutely astonishing to note that the central theme of both Northern and Southern green movements — in other words, the critique of productivism and its abuses — is being completely reversed by current climate policies. Because the critique of productivism seemed to be an obstacle to the realization of their aspirations for the vast majority (an in particular the working classes trapped in the industrial paradigm), this critique has been deactivated, so to speak, to make way for an opportunistic, and, in fine, productivist environmentalism. The preservation of a habitable oikos and the internalization of planetary limits by the most powerful actors in the international community is taking the form of a reinvention of productivity. Fossil fuels are singled out as the enemy to vanquish, and emissions reduction objectives are formulated in a cautious manner thanks to the “net zero” accounting artifice which leaves the possibility open for compensating for excessive emissions. The stage is then set for what Biden, Kerry, Granholm, as well as Chinese climate negotiation leaders describe: the creation of enormous transition markets, and the implementation of political support mechanisms designed to ensure that the social acceptability of this industrial redirection is not compromised. The French Gilets Jaunes are on the minds of all governments, anxious to achieve the transition without losing their legitimacy, if not by consolidating it.
No more talk: the environment as a geopolitical battleground
The social sciences have often described the way in which the most powerful actors manage to appropriate the criticisms made of them by redefining the terms and implications of this criticism. Here, such a movement is clear: while the questioning of the productivist model made the creation of a green future conditional on the construction of human interdependence ties freed from the capitalist imperative of profit and accumulation, 21st century climate policies use the quest for profit as a lever for reorientation. And behind profit, of course, hides the preservation of power structures linked to the ability to offer work, training, protection, and defending sovereignty. Current climate policies echo the famous phrase from Lampédusa’s The Leopard: “Everything must change for everything to remain the same”. 5
The elements of historical continuity between the world of fossil fuel energies and that of the post-carbon one are therefore significant, more significant than the heroes and heroines of the environmental cause would no doubt wish. But the element of discontinuity is no less massive and impossible to ignore: the geopolitical paralysis that has characterized the last few decades and the COP cycle which seems to be coming to an end. What ends with this is what Aykut and Dahan have called incantatory politics: 6 a climate governance incapable of acting in concreto on the causes of the Anthropocene, and which retreated — for want of anything better — into the affirmation of normative principles as universal as they are abstract. In every way, this long period of climate diplomacy looks like other historic episodes, such as the Briand-Kellog Pact of 1928, for example, which declared war to be illegal. Or the later adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. Regardless of how and through what moral and practical leverage the use of war or the denial of fundamental rights could be eliminated, these declarations defined a normative horizon, a space of possibilities and impossibilities that could only be universal insofar as they were non-binding. The Paris Agreement reached in 2015 was a legacy of this incantatory diplomacy, a real and historically significant achievement in terms of normative affirmations, but an accomplishment that only allowed us to measure the time lost and passively observe the deepening climate tragedy. In contrast, the development of an economically aggressive climate policy, based on the race for comparative advantages in emerging industrial sectors, and which aims to be socially inclusive by integrating mechanisms for promotion through work, is a break from the time of incantation. The post-carbon economy’s structures are in the process of being set up, and the political balance of power is shifting from the struggle against inaction and denial to a struggle to secure the transition’s economic and symbolic benefits. 7
The historic centrality of capitalism therefore shows up once again in a stunning way. since it is through its very own terms and conditions that the response to the crisis — which appeared to overwhelm it beyond all redemption — is being organized.
This new political economy, which combines a return to a Roosevelt style of state interventionism with the technical international cooperation typical of the post-war era, is an ambiguous step in the modernization process. The common objective of the large powers consists of maintaining the energetic intensity of industrial societies all while doing away with what had been the basis of this since the 19th century. George Bush’s statement at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, “The American way of life is not negotiable”, seems to have triumphed: it is only once the technological conditions of a decarbonization without loss of growth, without fundamental changes to lifestyle and social relations are met that the response to the climate challenge began — at the price of passing from 350 to 415 ppm of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. In truth, energy intensification could never before be considered without access to fossil resources found beneath the earth’s surface, to the extent that the relaunching of a post-carbon modernization 8 looks like a sleight of hand, a technological and political gamble whose outcome is totally uncertain. The idea long defended in the rather small circles of ecomodernism, is now implicit in the currently forming development mode.
The uncertain gamble of green modernity
After more than half a century of questioning the modernization process, after the existential crises of the Second World War, after the epistemological and moral jolts caused by the realization of the extent of ecological damage, modernity is still not dead. We could even say that it is being reborn exactly where it should be dead and buried: in the creation of a response to the climate challenge. At a moment when it seemed impossible to move forward, and the future looked like it would be a rather tragic negotiation with the collapse of an intellectual and economic paradigm, the dream of modernization is regaining strength. It is no longer even a matter — as Ulrich Beck said in the 1980s — of creating a careful, reflective modernity, 9 but of triumphantly transforming failures into opportunities. It is a matter of transforming the prospect of a planetary crisis into a source of creativity, in order to once again surmount the obstacles that nature loves to place in the path of homo sapiens.
The clearest impasse that this paradigm risks running up against is, of course, the still excessive environmental cost it will present to the Earth-system. Even assuming that CO2 emissions stabilize at levels compatible with minimal damage, the productive effort required to create the new infrastructure required will not be pulled out of thin air. Global electrification, which involves the rolling out of new smart grids and the generalization of batteries in vehicles and transport systems, entails transferring the extractive load of fossil resources to other minerals such as lithium, graphite, and cobalt. 10 The petrostates that developed in the Middle East and Latin America during the period of decolonization and The Great Acceleration are being profoundly destabilized 11 while new mineral booms are reshaping the fate of Ecuador and Bolivia. 12 Here again, the continuity with the old world is clear: there is a clear ecological and political halo around these new supply chains and new methods of production, and this provides arguments for those who want to add to the problem of the carbon budget the problem of a more general resource budget. 13 Greenhouse gas offset systems also raise technological and geopolitical questions: Can we count on geoengineering and, if so, through what model of governance? How much agricultural land will be swallowed up to ensure the biological storage of industrial emissions? The matter of food security has been added to the climate dilemma, adding yet another dimension to these already complex issues.
But one thing is nevertheless clear: the creation of a global, decarbonized economy in no way guarantees a future free of the problems of limit and risk. We find ourselves in a tragic situation. On the one hand, the climate effort should not be relativized, much less discouraged by maximalist arguments that would risk making it appear vain or out of reach. On the other hand, the methods chosen to accomplish this undertaking raise new threats; they displace conflict zones, extractive pressures, and power relations between strategic actors, and they naturally redefine social divides between the transition’s winners and losers — all in a context where climate change will be felt regardless. The creation of a decarbonized economy is a universal imperative. Yet the path that is emerging connects this process to the Chinese Communist Party’s and the American political establishment’s consolidation of power. We can see there the typical tensions of technological modernity which, since the 19th century, has been chasing after the negative consequences of its own innovations by cobbling together institutional and material responses to the crises it causes.
Despite these constraints and uncertainties, the principal geopolitical actors have already prepared the ideological basis of their future reorganization.
Following a phase of “dirty” development that was necessary to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, China is envisioning the coming decades as a reconciliation with the biosphere in the form of symbiotic sovereignty that has its roots in ancient philosophy. Biodiversity and land protection measures are a part of the creation of a national narrative in which the quest for prosperity will reconcile both social and ecological relations. The developmentalist state is calling itself into question in order to give the appearance of a responsible leader on the international stage at the same time it is laying the groundwork for high-quality production methods that respect the unity and harmony of nature. Xi Jinping’s declaration at the April 22nd summit is a striking example of eco-sovereigntist prose. 14 We can see elements of deep ecology, which glorifies the sublime natural and the respect it commands, as well as clear ecomodernist elements which present the future of development as integrating ecological norms into the productive regime through technological innovation, and, of course, strategic elements which present China as a guarantor of climate justice, meaning the right for less advanced nations to develop. All these elements connected together show a concern of embodying an anti-imperialist universalism, a universalism that is not expressed in the so-called “Western” terms of human rights.
For its part, the United States is also in the process of giving shape to their historical philosophy. This is much easier for us to comprehend, since it is largely rooted in the history of the 20th century, the New Deal, Roosevelt, and the war effort. The bet made by Biden and his team of a transition that protects both investors and workers (“win-win”), that aims to break up the “fossil coalition” 15 that carried Trump to power by bringing large segments of capital and labor to the side of the climate fight, evokes the discourse of national unity in the face of the crisis, of the mobilization of means and intelligence, and of the honest worker in the face of an absolute enemy. The success of this bet is still very uncertain because it depends on the capacity of Republican opponents to react in the internal political game, and, of course, on the immediate effectiveness of these proposals on the scale of a four-year term.
The strategic rivalry between the United States and China therefore stems from the fact that their plans have many points in common. They are entering into competition for the same economic and political benefits, which come from the great climate transition. But they don’t just share an industrial reorientation plan: they also necessarily share the uncertainties of this bet, meaning the risks that its failure would entail. This could be because the decarbonization process is too slow, because it runs up against unsurmountable ecological barriers, because it does not generate enough social hope, and therefore is not very motivating, or because it is immediately buried by the fossil coalition’s renaissance. In a scenario where political decisions are both overtaken by the Anthropocene and hijacked by opposing social forces, the entire ideological and regulatory edifice of the capitalist transition collapses, and with it all hope for the future. For in this case, there would be no Plan B.
This is why two questions must keep us awake at night. First, are we really trapped by this historical outlook? Does the reinvention of a post-carbon productivity and modernist thrust necessarily confirm the perspective of a lesser ecological evil? Secondly, does the European Union have the means to build itself around a narrative similar to that proposed by the US and China?
The political breach: working with and against green capitalism
Let us start with the former. The geopolitical and social chain of events of post-carbon arrangements is presented to us as a necessity because it is deeply connected to certain ideological beliefs and inertia inherited from the past. I attempted to highlight them in Affluence and Freedom 16 by describing how nature and territory had been viewed as limitations to be overcome within the framework of a political rationality designed to stimulate the conquest of productivity. Paradoxically, it is this pact that is still at work in the development of current climate policies, perhaps at its most effective, since it could allow millions of workers to be reintegrated into an economy that is up to the challenges of the anthropocene. However, everything seems to be done so that collective emancipation cannot claim self-limitation as a condition. Everything seems to be done so that we don’t have to ask ourselves the political question about the forms of freedom that are born from the increase of productive forces. But how many more boundaries can we push back on before the modernist machine burns itself out for good?
Some certainties have nevertheless been put to the test these past few months in ways rarely seen in the recent past. The anxiety caused by the Covid-19 crisis has allowed certain taboos related to debt, state intervention, and apparently intellectual property rights to be lifted. The fear motive has helped to unlock protective mechanisms that had been considered counterproductive for some 40 years. And the convergence of this health crisis with the climate crisis, of which it is in some respects only a small-scale rehearsal, reinforces these mechanisms for containing the crisis: if it is a matter of rebuilding an economy capable of absorbing shocks and once again offering a historical perspective of progress, then we might as well kill two birds with one stone and develop a post-Covid economy that is also climate-friendly.
We are therefore justified in wondering if, among the protective mechanisms put in place in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, liberation from an energy intensive economy could find a place. If we must retain the theoretical and political possibility of another restructuring of the social pact, different from the American and Chinese variations of ecomodernism, it is not only because the prospect of a green capitalism is insufficiently radical at the level of ideas, and because it safeguards most power relations as they currently exist. This is undoubtedly the case, and it was already the case with social democracy, the post-colonial developmentalist state, or any political arrangement established after a major crisis. The specific problem posed by perpetuating the growth-based development mode into the 21st century is the disconnect between the forms of life, desire, and justice that it has produced, and the material constraints it runs into. This is where degrowth thinking will always be absolutely right, whatever one thinks of their strategic approach, their anti-modernism, or even the choice of the term “degrowth”: the material flows that underpin the world-economy are disproportionate, they are not sustainable. From this perspective, the creation of a green capitalism seems like a process of psychological denial. We are all saying to our collective self, “I know, but still”. Given the choice between a reorganization of productivity promising that little or nothing will change about our lifestyles — and I am referring here to lifestyles of the industrial North — all while saving the planet, and a questioning of the ideological and practical schema of productivity that demands we live differently in order to increase our chances of saving Earth and probably of increasing global justice, the most people will choose the first path rather than the alternative because they perceive the second as an uncertain undertaking. This stems not only from the inertia of decision-making and power infrastructures, which need continuity to make incremental changes, but also from the inertia of social structures and collective desire.
But we do not necessarily have to view the choice between green capitalism and voluntary self-limitation as an ideological divergence. Rather, we must see in these models two possible futures that have a dynamic relationship. What we must try to imagine is what is politically and socially possible with the current gamble on decarbonizing capitalism. We can approach this perspective in two ways.
First, this process has a dampening effect on social and political creativity. The acceleration of the energy transition occurs without major social and ecological damage, it creates greater support for the political elites deemed responsible for diverting the meteorite, and it preserves the possibility, at least for the wealthiest people on this planet, of living under the same material model as in past decades. The cult of freedom can be seen in the access to individual electric modes of transport that are still inexpensive, and the sphere of individual and domestic existence remains impervious to ecological and territorial constraints. The management of energy demand is done mainly through the development of more efficient machines, and subtle incentives limit the rebound effect. Elon Musk and the entrepreneurs of the electric revolution are glorified, and the prevailing value system of neoliberal regulation of capitalism is safeguarded. Metaphorically, the curve is taken without needing to brake, without the political elites fundamentally questioning themselves. Once we round the bend, the world wakes up from the climate nightmare saying, “Was that all it was?”
In a much more realistic scenario, the development of climate policies goes hand in hand, more or less voluntarily, with more profound social changes. The elimination of fossil fuel lobbies would change the landscape of power relations within the economy and would allow a more accurate understanding of the role of science in society to be restored; the industrial effort of the transition would alter the balance between labor and capital, tending to favor the former; urban design would change to integrate new forms of mobility and to make energy savings possible; supply chains, particularly in the agricultural sector, would become shorter, and the link between producers and consumers would become closer; the adoption of electric transport technologies will help society to integrate new time constraints and relationship to space into its behavior; legal responsibility towards future generations will help to limit the corruption of the public sphere by the market, while the countries exporting critical minerals organize their equivalent of OPEC and force us to a certain sobriety. Capitalism is not dead, but a series of lateral efforts — whether intended or unintended — are reshaping social relations and the anthropological profiles that populate Earth.
In this second scenario, the practical and institutional necessities of decarbonization are not closing the door of history by installing a hegemonic and all-purpose development mode, a final step in the stages of economic growth described by Rostow in the 1960s. On the contrary, they lead to a deepening of the collective reflection on the links between productivity and emancipation. There is no doubt that the great structures of modernity will be transformed, but it is not yet clear whether these changes will contribute to suppressing the desire for change (or, if we want to put it in a positive way, to securing a socio-economic formula that works well no matter what) or, on the contrary, to stimulating it. But in the second hypothesis, we must be ready to conceive of and articulate together the new aspirations that emerge when societies, lured by the first hint of the new freedoms that are offered to them, decide to not be satisfied and ask for more.
From this standpoint, the degrowth movement’s error was presenting the drastic limitation of consumption levels as an absolute precondition for any desirable future, as if the physical observation were enough to bring about a historical movement and a realignment of social interests, as if it were enough to see the problem to overcome it. Within this framework, the inevitable change in energy regime would be conditional upon an ideological revolution that for the moment is not only beyond the grasp of our social systems but is also counterproductive because it is far too uncompromising and therefore easily criticized for its impracticality. But it could, however, be that the required culture and institutions for this self-limitation are not so much the initial condition of this change as their progressive effect. The few examples given above allow us to imagine that certain social and cultural consequences of green capitalism will open the door to new material and social arrangements, which in turn will generate new ideas, new interests. The universe of total production, as Bruno Latour says, is not abandoned following the sudden and dogmatic realization of its evils, but in the course of a progressive integration process of norms of existence brought about by a socio-historical beginning, which is green modernization.
This is not simply about new ways of living, of the superficial modification of urban landscapes and diet, but a series of transformations that affect all dimensions of coexistence, from law to the balance of power, from modes of production to employment dynamics, from representations of science to forms of legitimacy. However, once this new policy of productivity has been set in motion, with all the ensuing consequences, it is possible that people will start to ask for more. After having tasted the benefits of a socio-economic regime freed from its most destructive and alienating characteristics, perhaps a majority will want to continue down this path, even if this is not the scenario envisioned by the leaders of green capitalism. This is the fundamental ambiguity of the Green New Deal’s projects. They can be understood as instruments for maintaining the status quo, for re-legitimizing a capitalism that has become responsible and sustainable, or as a deeper transformative impulse. This is both the weakness and the strength of this platform: its strength because in principle it is able to unite political actors driven by very different interests and ideals, from the most trivial profit to the most demanding social revolution; its weakness because this unifying movement is partly built on a misunderstanding. Between the Biden team’s use of certain elements of the Green New Deal to rebuild U.S. economic diplomacy and the progressive movements seeking to harness the transition’s potential for social and racial justice, there is a great divide. For in the second, more challenging option, a hypothesis of democratic and sustainable socialism emerges. This hypothesis can be expressed ex cathedra as the natural consequence of principles of justice, or as a philosophy of ecological history, but it is more likely to come about from a domino effect of changes that give rise to others, and which eventually work their way up to the national government. Given the uncertainty about the historical development of climate policies, the possibility remains of new forms of politicization of society.
It could very well be that the means used to save capitalism from its own ruin, from its own contradictions, will lead to overcoming the apparent fatality of a now universal eco-modernism, based on the electrification of those same needs, and on the transfer of the extractive burden of fossil fuels to other minerals. In this hypothesis, the task of the environmental and social justice movement is not to oppose green capitalism and its lies head-on, as if it were a matter of life-and-death conflict and a matter of truth. Rather, it would consist of identifying, in the mechanisms of decarbonizing the economy, the levers that would allow us to re-politicize needs, to redefine the role of the State and its elites, and to make another mode of development, another mode of organization, desirable for the greatest number of people. The task would be to exploit the breach created by reinventing productivity (and in particular the power given back to workers and technicians in a more labor-intensive economy) to make them the basis of a more exacting socio-ecological demand. The principled opposition to green capitalism certainly satisfies theoretical aspirations, which are legitimate in and of themselves, but they only have a secondary strategic role. The real challenge lies in the ability to understand what erodes the desire for capitalism within society, which in turn weakens the mechanisms that fuel the legitimacy of the quest for growth. From this point of view, the political response to the material deadlock of modern economies no longer appears as utopian, or as the abstract construction of an ideal removed from collective experience (if only that of a cutting-edge minority), but as a social tendency concretely at work in practice.
The hypothesis of a European transformation
To conclude, we can consider the second question, concerning Europe. The uncertainty between the soporific or, conversely, the unintentionally regenerative potential of green capitalism varies greatly from one region of the world to another. 17 The United States and China have real capacity to mobilize vast resources and territory to create a decarbonized growth economy. This is primarily due to the geo-ecological characteristics of these two political formations, both of which benefit from vast, extractive heartlands that are either under their own jurisdiction or through various neo-imperialist processes. Between the Appalachians and Alaska on the one side and the pioneer frontier of Central Asia on the other, are the necessary resources for a politically conservative decarbonization. In fact, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the very definition of the “net zero” objective is not an echo of the geo-ecological opportunities shared by the world’s two major powers, both of which are continental empires with sparsely populated and geologically rich spaces at their disposal that enable strategic resources to be extracted and vast territories to be reforested in order to recreate carbon sinks.
When it comes to Europe, things look very different. From a geographic and physical standpoint, Europe is the only economic power in the world (perhaps with Japan as well) that has arrived at a state of demographic near-saturation or, in any case, one that has very few empty spaces. The fact that Norway — one of the continent’s rare countries that has within its borders such a large ecological margin — is not in the European Union is certainly not an accident: it would not be reasonable to put such an asset into the communal pot. Bereft of the colonial territories that made up a good portion of Europe’s past wealth, is now merely the metropolitan heart of a former maritime empire that had its own extractive margins. The free market and technological advantages gained before the war allowed it to not become completely stunted, but the potential of that scenario remains, given that the ecological and territorial constraints are being directly felt in the old continent, which is also the small continent. It would certainly be risky to state that Europe is condemned to degrowth by its morphological characteristics, but it is no doubt at least predisposed, or perhaps even encouraged to.
In order to avoid framing the issues only in neo-Malthusian terms, which would compare demography and territory in a narrow-minded way, we must instead reflect on the historical link between socialism and growth, or between sharing and braking. In France in recent years, François Ruffin has helped popularize the seemingly idealistic slogan “Fewer possessions, more connections”, which calls for scaling back our consumption patterns in the hope of rejuvenating social solidarity. But is this really that naïve? As we know, the partial socialization of the economy was made possible after the war by increased productivity and access to cheap resources (which were at least made so by the externalization of risks). In other words, Western Europe’s social model maintains a deep connection with growth, a connection that has its roots in Enlightenment progressivism and the Marxist theodicy of production. The welfare state’s crisis subsequently anchored in the dominant political representations the idea that this social model had to bend to competition in order to safeguard its conditions of existence, and this is how neoliberalism was able to present itself as the savior of welfare. But the question of the relationship between socialism and productivity can be looked at in reverse. By defining a collection of inalienable social rights, a set of unconditionally accessible public infrastructure, a sphere of social relations can be defined that is beyond the reach of the law of the market, even when the latter presents itself as a vehicle for growth. In other words, in one case, economic socialization depends on the conquest of productivity gains and comparative market advantages, and in the second case, the market is obliged to occupy the space that emerges once rights and infrastructure have been substantially defined and guaranteed “whatever the cost”.
The slogan “Fewer possessions, more connections”, or George Monbiot’s “Private sufficiency, public luxury”, can then be taken as political guides without requiring the population’s abrupt conversion to voluntary simplicity and Gandhi’s precepts. More simply, they are the result of a practical constraint imposed on socialism: insofar as it can no longer be conceived of as a side effect of the economic sphere’s expansion (the productivist paradigm of profit-sharing), it is redefined as a principle of limitation, as a political will that brings about a change in the economy’s dimension. This reversal of the hierarchy between growth and redistribution can be seen, for example, in the introduction of car and appliance sharing networks, in the development of recycling, repair and renovation, which prevents new objects from being added to the market and the accumulation of waste, in public health policies that limit avoidable pathologies, and of course in tax systems that prevent the creation of excessive and ecologically costly private fortunes. There are many examples that prove that sharing may not lead to economic acceleration, but on the contrary to the optimization of material and resource flows.
In a context where Europe has little chance of enjoying the biggest benefits of green modernization as Beijing and Washington envision it, as well as not having a pressing need for growth for development purposes, the scenario of unlimited post-carbon economic growth is — more so than any other part of the world — a risky gamble. We must therefore view Biden’s modernization prophecies as much as Xi’s symbiotic development from a distance: the “infinite frontier” is not available to us, and we certainly do not need it.
It would be better to look at the stationary economy predicted by J. S. Mill in 1848, or at the idea of the “economic problem” becoming obsolete as imagined by Keynes in 1930. The decarbonization of the world economy will be a test for Europe, in which its attitude towards the future will be defined. The imminent transformations of our economic and technical environment may produce what the “great acceleration” did in the 1950s: a depoliticization of existence, absorbed in the outlet of consumption and an apparent social peace. But they can also bring about a re-politicization of needs, of time, of space, which cannot be reduced to the upper classes’ demand for a better quality of life.
Europe, which lacks a founding narrative that is able to replace the myths of imperial universalism and the free market, could find the beginning of an answer to this lack in these transformations. One can reject the idea that Europe was the birthplace of modernism, but there is no doubt that it was the first to link modernity and energy intensity. Perhaps it is now time to put Europe at the forefront of another political proposal, one that is less reliant on the mindset of conquest that prevailed when it was thought that the Earth was infinite, a mindset that is now obsolete.
- This text was first published by le Grand Continent on 14 June 2021.
- Giovanni Russonello, “On Climate, Biden Takes On ‘Our Generation’s Moonshot’”, The New York Times, 23 April 2021.
- Bush Vannevar, Science, the endless frontier. Report to the President on a program for postwar scientific research, by Vannevar Bush, director of OSRD, Washington, Government printing office, 1945.
- Emiliya Mychasuk, “Climate summit as it happened: Biden caps event with green jobs and co-operation message”, Financial Times, 23 April 2021.
- Aykut Stefan C. et Evrard Aurélien, Une transition pour que rien ne change ? Changement institutionnel et dépendance au sentier dans les transitions énergétiques en Allemagne et en France, Revue internationale de politique comparée, Vol. 24, no 1, 2017, p. 17‑49.
- Aykut Stefan Cihan et Dahan Amy, Gouverner le climat ? : vingt ans de négociations internationales, Paris, France, Presses de Sciences Po, 2014.
- Daniela Gabor, “Private finance won’t decarbonise our economies – but the ‘big green state’ can”, The Guardian, 4 June 2021.
- Beck Ulrich et Latour Bruno Préfacier, La société du risque : sur la voie d’une autre modernité, trad. Laure Bernardi, Paris, France, Flammarion, 2008.
- Cédric Philibert, La transition énergétique va-t-elle manquer de matières premières ?, Révolution énergétique, 17 May 2021.
- Pétriat Philippe, Aux pays de l’or noir: une histoire arabe du pétrole, Paris, France, Gallimard, 2021.
- Riofrancos Thea, Resource Radicals From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador, Duke University Press, 2020.
- Simon Lewis, “Four steps this Earth Day to avert environmental catastrophe”, The Guardian, 22 April 2021.
- Full Text: Remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Leaders Summit on Climate, April 2021.
- Thomas Oatley, Mark Blyth, “The Death of the Carbon Coalition. Existing models of U.S. politics are wrong. Here’s how the system really works.”, Foreign Policy, 12 February 2021.
- Pierre Charbonnier, Affluence and Freedom: An Environmental History of Political Ideas, Polity Press, 2021.
- See Adam Tooze, Chartbook Newsletter #17 Realism & Net-Zero: The EU Case, March 2021.
Pierre Charbonnier, Opening the breach: Politics of The Post-Carbon World, Jan 2023, 89.
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The Green Deal is the New Social Contract
Autumn 2021: for avowed climate activists — of which I am one — this is an autumn full of contradictory signals. On one hand we see the rise in climate anxiety, geopolitical paralysis on the other, and a European political response which is both strong and weak. The publication of the 6th IPCC report in … Continuedlire l'article
A Conversation With Frans Timmermans
Are we witnessing the birth of “war ecology”? Will the Kremlin’s use of gas as a weapon have an effect on perceptions of the transition and, more broadly, of European action? We must realize that Europe must be sovereign when it comes to energy and that our sovereignty can only be built on renewable energy. … Continuedlire l'article
“I am interested in Europe as an ecological problem”
What is Europe to you? I am not an expert on Europe, but I try to differentiate between Brussels-Europe — meaning the post-war system that linked European States — and what, in my opinion, represents 98% of what we report on Europe in the media and opinions, and this is the Europe that interests me. … Continuedlire l'article