‘Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?’ by Bill McKibben reviewed by Thomas Klikauer, Norman Simms


Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Henry Holt and Co., New York, 2019. 304 pp., $17.00 pb
ISBN 9781250256850

Reviewed by Thomas Klikauer and Norman Simms

About the reviewer

Thomas Klikauer (MA, Boston University; PhD Warwick University, UK) teaches MBAs at the Sydney …

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About the reviewer

Norman Simms was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1940, educated at Alfred University and then Washington …

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Ever since Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1990), the author has been known for his writings on what today is called climate change and global warming. The first term is preferred by corporate media because it is less threatening. It gives the impression that you can change the climate just like the temperature on your air conditioning system by a handy dial in your car. Since 2006, the term anthropocene has also become widely used to describe our current geological age as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. This also means that ‘the physical changes we’re currently making by warming the climate will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far,’ (27) as McKibben writes in Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?.

In other words, unlike previous changes in the earth’s climate, today we human beings have the ability to alter the earth’s climate. Some might argue that this ‘we’ means all of us. Karl Marx would have argued that it is not that simple. This so-called ‘we’ consists rather of two groups of key players in capitalism: capital (the owners) and labour (the workers). Marx would also say that the overwhelming power to drive the earth towards the impending Sixth Mass Extinction through global warming comes from capital (the wheelers, dealers, decision-makers – not labour (the factory workers, the farmhands, shop-assistants, teachers and their families).

As a consequence, another newly invented term, capitalocene, places strong emphasis on those who are responsible for global warming, i.e. capital (the money and the bankers) and large corporations (share-holders and managers, lawyers, lobbyists and executives). These corporations that have the ability to accelerate our ecological genocide (Klikauer 2019). They also have a powerful reason for doing so. Over the past three decades, BP alone has ‘made a profit of $332bn’ (Bell 2020: 45) – and British Petroleum is not alone. Perhaps Marx (1867) was hitting the nail right on the head in the following footnote from Das Kapital when quoting T.J. Dunning:

A certain 10 per cent, will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent, certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent., positive audacity; 100 per cent., will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent., and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. If turbulence and strife will bring a profit, it will freely encourage both. Smuggling and the slave trade have amply proved all that is here stated (Marx 1996: 748)

A long time after this passage was written, we might add the following: and at $332bn profit, it will destroy the earth. Euphemistically called resource companies, like BP, are engaged in the global vandalism and mass destruction of our planet. One of the most likely outcomes of this is not that we will destroy the earth, but the earth will destroy us. McKibben says as much. We are well on the way towards this. In fact, ‘a third of the planet’s land is now severely degraded, with persistent declining trends in productivity [meanwhile] ‘there are half as many wild animals on the planet as there were in 1970’ (20f.). Meanwhile in Delhi, ‘the smog grows so think you can’t see the end of the block’ (29) and ‘4.4 million children in Delhi, fully half [the city’s population] have irreversible lung damage from breathing the air’. Around the world, pollution kills nine million people a year, far more than AIDS, malaria, TB and warfare combined’ (30).

Falter is full of such staggering statistics. McKibben also says that ‘in January 2019 scientists concluded the Earth’s oceans were warming 40 per cent faster than previously believed’ (35). The process of global warming is outrunning many predictions made only a few years ago. Much of this change will come at a huge cost, nor is the cost of global warming increasing in a linear way. It is increasing exponentially. Today we know that ‘climate change is currently costing the U.S. economy about $240 billion a year, and the world, $1.2 trillion annually, wiping 1.6 per cent each year from the planet’s GDP’ (44). Apart from economic costs, the human cost will be even worse. For example, ‘if we keep raising carbon dioxide levels, we may not be able to think straight anymore. At a thousand parts per million (which is within the realm of possibility for 2100), human cognitive ability falls 21 per cent’! (55).

Furthermore, ‘even if we hit the UN target of limiting temperature rise to two degrees Celsius, pests should cut wheat yields by 46 per cent, corn by 31 per cent, and rice by 19 per cent’ (61). The world will experience food and water shortages, the degradation of land and rising sea levels. While the British hamlet of Fairbourne might be the first to be evacuated in the UK because of global warming, globally ‘we may see two hundred million climate refugees by 2050’ (65) because of sea-level rise. As we all know from high school science, when water warms up, it expands. Today, ‘the deep sea is now warming about nine times faster than it was in the 1960s’ (74). Perhaps the really bad news – as if this wasn’t bad enough – is that ‘climate change is a negotiation between human beings and physics, and physics don’t compromise’ (109); they tell us what we have to do and, if not, well, it hardly bears thinking about.

McKibben is clear on who has most compromised our survival – large corporations. They knew what they were doing. Already in 1959, the ‘physicist Edward Teller [told] the American Petroleum Institute […] the temperature […] would rise, and when it does, “there is a possibility that the icecaps will start melting and the level of the oceans will begin to rise”’ (113).

As a consequence of Exxon’s secret corporate knowledge, ‘the company (and other oil giants) built their new oil drilling platforms with higher decks to compensate for the sea level rise […] they […] knew [what was] coming’ (115). By 1991, oil companies understood ‘greenhouse gases are rising due to the burning of fossil fuels […] no one disputes this fact’ (115). If Exxon would have released what they knew instead of burying the truth, ‘no one would have said, Oh, Exxon is just being alarmist’ (116).

Corporate lobbying and right-wing politicians, Fox propaganda TV, PR henchmen and spin doctors came in handy when covering up the truth about global warming and telling voters that Toxic Sludge is Good for You. As expected, with Donald Trump reaching the White House, things got worse. ‘Trump’s news diet [is] centred on the Fox News cable network [Trump agrees with what] climate deniers had so assiduously cultivated [He] believes that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese to cripple American manufacturing’ (121).

Ideologically, such conspiracy narratives are have their predecessors in the ramblings of Ayn Rand (155), who supplies the American right-wing with an ideology of hyper-individualism and the l’idée fixe of a free market. How an interest symbiosis between US conservatives and right-wing billionaires works is explained in Mayer’s Dark Money (2014). This symbiosis involves the right-wing Koch brothers and the equally right-wing Mercer family, right-wing politicians and, of course, ‘Rupert Murdoch, the planet’s dominant communicator’ (182).

Meanwhile in US politics, ‘only 8 of 278 Republicans in Congress were […] willing to acknowledge that man-made climate change was real’ (188). This is how big money (donated by corporations), lobbying (paid for by corporations), corporate media and politics work hand in hand against the truth of global warming. Despite all this and more that cannot be mentioned here, McKibben’s book fulfils part one, two and three of American Marxist analyst E. O. Wright’s threefold concept of: a) critique of society; b) alternatives; and c) how to get there.

Falter is extremely valuable on Wright’s first part because it tells us in great detail what we should expect in the coming years when global warming is going to bite with increasing intensity. The book is rather weak, however, on Wright’s second point. McKibben does not provide a theory of alternatives, even though he is very clear on where we have to go – an environmentally sustainable existence. As McKibben says, ‘[t]he power of people is not yet mobilized in sufficient strength to outweigh the financial majesty of the fossil fuel industry, and so we continue down an ever-hotter path’ (288) to global destruction.

Despite many setbacks and the rise of authoritarian populism worldwide – the overtly anti-Semitic Hungarian Orbán, the Hindu-racist Modi, the dictatorship-wishing Bolsonaro in Brazil, the killing maniac in the Philippines Duterte, the lying Boris Johnson in the UK, the racist, conman and cheat Trump in the US, etc. – McKibben remains surprisingly optimistic. Perhaps because ‘in 2017, amid Trumpist triumphalism, polls found that 61 per cent of Republicans and 93 per cent of Democrats wanted to maintain or increase spending for economic assistance to needy people […] Ayn Rand has carried the CEOs, but not the rest of us. By and large, humans continue to believe in humanity’ (290). But for how long?

McKibben goes even further in his optimism. He proposed two routes that are possible avenues of combatting global warming. He suggests that ‘we have two new technologies that could […] prove decisive if fully employed. One is the solar panel, and the other is the nonviolent movement. Obviously, they are not the same sort of inventions: the solar panel (and its cousins the wind turbine and the lithium-ion battery) is hardware, while the ability to organize en masse for change is more akin to software’ (291).

Despite Trumpism, we in the West are making progress on the financial side of global warming. McKibben notes, ‘by 2018, after New York City and then Ireland had announced they were divesting, Shell Oil called the campaign a “material risk” to its business in its annual report’ (295). Disinvestment seems to bite. Against the apologists of neoliberal deregulation and the ever-elusive free market, McKibben conjures up a powerful argument. Nevertheless, Falter concludes on another uplifting note: ‘When far more young people tell pollsters that they identify with socialism more than with capitalism, they don’t mean they want to live in North Korea; they mean they want a fair chance, not the loaded system they’ve inherited’ (348).

In the end, our democratic system is driven by money, the structural imperatives of capitalism and corporate media engaged in what the philosopher pair Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer once called mass deception. McKibben is intensely aware of that. As a consequence, while advocating solar panels he is also conscious of the dangers of capitalism itself and the power of right-wing politics and the corporate media. A twofold route out of the trap of global warming and the politics that supports it therewith affirms both ecological alternatives but also political activism.

19 March 2020

References

  • Bell, Alice 2020 Beware of oil executives in green clothes: BP could derail real change The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/14/oil-execs-environmentalists-bp-change-oil-climate
  • Klikauer, Thomas 2019 Accelerating Ecological Genocide Counterpunch https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/06/07/the-accelerating-ecological-genocide
  • Marx, Karl 1996 Capital, Volume I Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 35 London: Progress Publishers
  • Mayer, Jane 2014 Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right New York: Doubleday
  • McKibben, Bill 1990 The End of Nature New York: Anchor Books

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