Telling Uncomfortable Truths to Progressives

Despite us having learned to be human within capitalist societies, more of us are breaking free from its limiting ideologies. Those ideologies include deep stories about dominating nature, competitive humans, constricted knowing, and perpetual material expansion, which surround us nearly all the time. That is why those ideologies also express themselves within social movements, political agendas, and some of our friends’ social media postings about latest fixation of legacy media. And as those ideologies shape our habits of thought, to separate ourselves from them can be difficult. Which is why it is so heartening to witness more people breaking free and beginning to live differently – and now calling on others to do the same. Whether staying in their jobs and promoting different ways of working, or quitting to make time to create local cooperatives, permaculture projects, emotional support groups, or to promote needed technologies and public policies, many people are improving their lives and those of others.

We do not read about them in the headlines of the legacy media or its echo chambers in social media. More often than not, such people are just getting on with their new way of life. However, we all still live within societies where the various elites jostle for status and control, producing their stupid political agendas and policies in the process. That means it can be helpful when those of us freeing ourselves from capitalism’s diminishing ideologies also try to influence public understanding and public policies. The outcomes from public engagement can seem rather limited, while also generating angry responses from people who have made it their place to influence public attitudes from the confines of dominant ideology. That means that some of the worst commentary from ‘progressive’ social activists and political pundits is directed neither at the right wing nor at institutional power. Instead, their criticism is sharpest for people who break a consensus on what is ‘progressive’ to say, by sharing truths that undermine those stories that allow people to maintain self-esteem through comfortable opposition. I will share a few examples before explaining why this reaction is deeply unhelpful to necessary social change, and then cite some of the wonderful work and people who are not being limited by such negativity.

In the UK, starting from 2015, the politician Jeremy Corbyn was disliked by much of the centrist Left because his presence challenged the idea that we must always find an upside for big business for any policy proposed. In 2020, after the Deep Adaptation paper had energised a couple of years of activism after it had gone viral, I was criticised by the eco-modern centrist environmentalists for not helping climate activism. Such criticism also included some imaginative concoctions that made me seem distasteful to their readers. Many British professional environmentalists applauded that critique, perhaps because maligning the messenger would seem to keep their reformist hopes alive. The alternative would involve asking themselves, as I had done, whether their work was futile, and they were lying to themselves to keep their income, status, and identity.

Fast forward to 2022, and the uncomfortable truth for Western environmentalists is that the ecomodern vision of economies thriving on renewable energy within a stable climate is, I am sorry to say, utter bullshit. Worse, it is the kind of bullshit that will promote destructive policies that damage the environment and indigenous communities. If that isn’t bad enough, it will distract many of us from the need for policies that could help shrink Western economies in as equitable and life-enhancing ways as possible. When looking at the data from organisations as authoritative as the UN IEA, as well as relevant academic studies, it is obvious that ecomodernism is bullshit. Therefore, much of the support for it is due to the corporate and venture capitalists’ interests in further plundering the planet for profit, while distracting us from real change, which requires a Real Green Revolution. Some of the people who are promoting the ecomodern fairy-tale know that it is not possible. That might explain why they demonise people who openly point out the limitations and call for more of a focus on degrowth and re-localisation of economies. But unless environmentalists pursue our freedom from oppression by ideologies maintained by capitalism, we may end up with misanthropic and authoritarian attitudes and proposals.

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Away from the rhetorical performances of people who are concerned that we might flee the ‘house of modernity’, people at the grassroots in communities and local governments have been trying their best to reduce environmental impacts and stimulate dialogues about how to adapt to a more disrupted future – both environmentally and economically. One person doing that within UK local government is Kevin Frea. He is the Deputy Leader of Lancaster City Council. He also established the network amongst the UK Councils that have declared a climate emergency. That is why I was delighted to see Kevin warn of the potential of ecomodern delusions within the reformist Left, in an article in the Morning Star newspaper, which I reprint below. It is also why we wanted to hear from him during a Deep Adaptation Q&A last week.

Kevin will be joining me and other participants on a short sustainable leadership course in Lancaster in June. During the course we explore more critical approaches to understanding the situation we face and how positive change can happen. We depart from the ecomodern lullabies that try to calm us with myths that technology, billionaires and authoritarian leaders will make the bad stuff go away. Instead, we face the present predicament and coming disasters with more sobriety and maturity. It is painful work, but nourishing when shared between brave souls, and I invite you to join us if you can get to the UK next month.

We have work to do, as most pressure groups, pundits and publications of the Western environmental sector currently flounder amidst the lies of ecomodernism. Whereas it is disappointing to witness British magazines like The Ecologist and Open Democracy stumble into aggressive and divisive defence of ecomodern delusion, in the end ‘the truth will out.’ And although it can be painful to be on the receiving end of misleading and denigrating critique, we can understand the fear that motivates such behaviour. Because it is a fear that we all share and will accompany us for the rest of our lives. It is a fear we can both name and learn from as we celebrate radical responses to our predicament. Because they already exist, as the economic re-localisation chapter in my Deep Adaptation book illustrates. The authors of that chapter have been doing incredible work, free of capitalism’s diminishing ideologies. Matthew Slater has been designing the systems for communities to trade within themselves without using money, as a way to help grow their resilience to future economic and environmental shocks. Extinction Rebellion founder member Skeena Rathor has been rolling out new approaches to help people be in community in ways that embody collaborative and matrifocal ways of organising. Like Kevin, they know it is also time to tell uncomfortable truths to progressives.

Please join us: share your stories of hopes, failures, and successes. Anywhere! But also, via the Deep Adaptation Leadership group on LinkedIn. If you are in the UK next month, please also consider participating in the free Deep Adaptation conference in Lancaster. If you want to be informed of the latest radical ideas and practices in response to our environmental predicament, please sign up to the Deep Adaptation Quarterly newsletter. You can find out about Skeena’s effort to transmute the punishment of her by the British state here.

Here is the video of the Q&A with Kevin Frea and below that is his article in the Morning Star.

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Book review of Burnt, by Kevin Frea, in The Morning Star

The recent trio of IPCC reports have amplified the urgent need for carbon emissions to be reduced by 50% by 2030, starting now. Incredibly, rather than support the demands of the ‘Just Stop Oil’ protestors to halt all new fossil fuel projects (a call supported by the International Energy Agency and the Secretary-General of the UN) the Labour, Lib Dem & Conservative parties have called for the protestors to be ‘cracked down on’ and for their demands to be rejected.

I celebrated at the Labour Party Conference in 2019 when a Green New Deal and a 2030 zero carbon target were adopted in the face of strong opposition from the big Unions and even Labour’s own Environmental Society, SERA. Chris Saltmarsh co-founded ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’, so I opened his book with high expectations. However, reading Burnt alongside other analyses of the necessary changes to the British economy and society, from ‘Limits to Growth’ published in 1972 to ‘Less is More’ by Jason Hickel, I fear that inconvenient truths about reducing energy and resource consumption are being ignored in policy discussions. We’ve had more than fifty years of strategies to address the climate & ecological emergencies yet their collective impact has hardly hindered the machine which is literally laying waste to our life-support system.

Chris sets the scene in a chapter surveying humanity’s dire situation. Perhaps to widen the appeal, it stopped short of the most recent and most apocalyptic predictions..Saltmarsh, like Greta Thunberg, leaves the details to the experts in order to make his next point about justice – the best section of the book. He gives concrete examples of how government programmes and climate interventions all-too-inadvertently hurt some of the people they intended to help. For Saltmarsh, any climate action must be steeped in notions of justice, and that brings us to politics.

He argues strongly that government engagement is a necessary part of the climate response equation, and therefore that the climate movement must win political power, then this remark: “Whichever [strategy] we choose [to win state power], we should really go all in on it.” Burnt, p.127

This is a little bit troubling because the world does not work like that anymore, if it ever did. These are times of fragmentation, plurality, when the subject of protest changes every few months, when most manifestations last a single day, when agents provocateurs and corrosive conspiracy theories attach themselves to every alternative movement. Elections are not won when half the electorate chooses a strategy. Elections are won by political messaging which is broad enough to appeal to half the electorate.

He then sketches out 9 policy pillars of a Just Green New Deal, nothing surprising there, except that he didn’t mention any of the problems with gaining traction for the whole idea of greening the economy. He could be forgiven if he missed the 2020 paper in the One Earth journal entitled “Green Sacrifice Zones, or Why a Green New Deal Cannot Ignore the Cost Shifts of Just Transitions.” Like many other analyses, it gives scores of reasons not only why there simply aren’t enough resources to green our energy systems, but also why no attempt to do so could be considered ‘just’; not only are there not enough minerals to go around, so that wealthy countries would control their allocation, but the mineral extraction itself would consume resources, and damage habitats, ecosystems and livelihoods. Given that these ideas were presented in an accessible documentary called Bright Green Lies, no serious treatment of the topic should ignore them.

Just one more piece of the puzzle remains, which is how the Left should take power. Many people would find his answer, through the trade unions, surprising. He gives many anecdotes about trades union successes, even recent ones, but even I understand that Thatcher and Reagan ‘broke’ the unions for a reason, and New Labour did little to build them up. Now most of the unions (with a handful of notable exceptions who despair of the current Labour Leadership) could be characterised as neutered, de-radicalised, infected by managerialism and representing much more middle-class interests and many Tory voters; it takes a vivid imagination to see them rising up and sweeping the Labour Party into power.

Saltmarsh’s strategy seems ill-timed to say the least. He must have started work on the book very soon after Corbyn’s election loss, not an ordinary defeat or a close defeat, but a defeat largely made possible by members of his own party who preferred to lose to the right than win as the left. Thirty-five years ago this strategy would have been apposite, five years ago would have seemed improbable but prophetic in the light of Corbyn’s rise, but now? Corbyn has been replaced by a neoliberal unelectable nobody, and the left banished to the outer margins of politics. I for one would not double down on a strategy of Labour winning the next election, or the one after that.

This is after all a climate emergency, and local councils have declared it as such as a direct result of Climate Strikers and Extinction Rebellion’s campaigning. That provides a commitment that future campaigns can and should call upon. This is a greater legacy than Jeremy Corbyn’s two lost election campaigns, but Saltmarsh, who had ‘moved on’ from direct action, considers it only as evidence of XR’s political failure. This is a shame because at the local level much can be done, and where Labour is actually allowed to govern. It also offers a viable path to work towards national influence and power, while achieving more immediate changes in the lives of citizens.

Despite its use of past tense in the title, the biggest limitation of Burnt was the whole framing of climate change as something which is coming, and which can be averted. Anyone versed in the climate justice discourse knows that global heating is already ruining the lives of the most vulnerable, and will certainly worsen considerably, before any of our mitigative attempts can make a dent in it. Talk of evading it is simply naive. This false ‘we can still evade it’ also brings with it a relentless focus on a very clear, but very improbable notion of success, which sets us up to fail very badly. It is time for the climate movement to admit that it has tried everything and not even come close to tackling the causes of the climate and ecological emergencies, which are very deep, and in which our elites are very invested. A significant amount of effort must now be given over to adaptation to the new reality. In that context, a union powered neo-Corbyn victory and a just Green New Deal might be worth fighting for, or they might not.

But one remark toward the end cast the whole book in a new light and somewhat redeemed it, at least for me. It turned a political what-if into a psychological thriller. For one moment, another Saltmarsh, hitherto doubtless cowed into embarrassed silence, piped up with five words. Even though bracketed, it was music to my ears.

“We don’t have to be optimistic (On most days I’m not) but we can be hopeful.”

That Saltmarsh, hesitant and vulnerable, who stuck his head above the parapet to be shot at by the fake optimists, gets my salute. Those five meek words reveal that the louder Saltmarsh, and many big environmentalists besides, are proclaiming to us the comforting lies they tell themselves to avoid the pain of thinking realistically about the future. But neither volume nor repetition are measures of Truth.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the book inaccurately dismisses a movement which is all about helping people through climate despair, Deep Adaptation, as ‘austere primitivism’. Instead, a more sober and inclusive range of ideas, big and small, are being pioneered after despair within that movement, as chronicled in a book about it. If young people could be guided through their despair rather than drowning it under reams (in this case chapters) of wishful thinking, something more impactful could emerge to shape the difficult future they must now live into.

Kevin Frea is Deputy Leader of Lancaster City Council and the founder of Climate Emergency UK. He originally joined Labour in the 70’s (and SERA when it had eco-socialist tendencies) and then re-joined in 2015 to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and became a Councillor in 2017. He resigned from Labour with several fellow Councillors when the new leadership of the Labour Party abandoned the Conference net zero commitments, and is now an Independent Eco-Socialist.