Climate Authoritarianism

Police at Climate Camp

Ever since the 1970’s, when he launched the so-called Gaia hypothesis, writer and biochemist James Lovelock has held a controversial place in environmental thinking. While the majority of the scientific community back then rejected his theory of the planet being a giant self-regulating organism, it was warmly embraced by the environmental movement. Here it took an almost religious expression, draped in a language of mystique and spirituality, which perhaps Lovelock never approved of.

As of late, the more than 90-year old scientist has returned to the limelight, entering the climate debate in a manner some might view as surprising. Not only does he claim that nuclear power is a “clean” energy source that should be wholeheartedly adopted by both industrialized and developing countries, he also singles out population growth in poor countries as the fundamental cause of climate change and the greatest threat to our planet.

In an interview with The Guardian in March 2010, Lovelock’s perspective grew even dimmer when he questioned the very idea of freedom and democracy: “We need a more authoritative world,” said Lovelock. “We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It’s all very well, but there are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can’t do that.” His conclusion is that “it may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

People losing their minds

If only it were just Lovelock who made these kinds of statements, they might have been rejected as the rattle of an old and resigned professor. But Lovelock’s position has become increasingly common among both scientists and activists in the climate movement who are desperate for rapid change.

This reaction might seem comprehensible, given the critical state of our planet. It is undeniably true that if we are ever going to have a chance of avoiding runaway climate change – with all the catastrophic consequences for human beings and other life forms that this involves – we need vastly more decisive policies than what we have hitherto seen.

This precarious situation, however, is no reason to lose our minds. The diagnosis and remedy of Lovelock and others who share his mindset provides us neither a good understanding of the climate crisis nor promising alternatives for action.

It is evident for most of us that nuclear power can hardly be called “clean” as it creates ever expanding stores of radioactive waste. Similarly, as many have pointed out, the most serious growth problem is not in the number of people on the planet but in the level of consumption in countries that do not have rapid population growth. Who would be the enlightened despots that Lovelock is calling for anyway? And what reason do we have to believe that these rulers would act more altruistically than the ones we have today?

Lovelock’s assumptions

Those who want to dismantle Lovelock’s reasoning have plenty of good arguments at hand. Still, we have to attend to the assumptions of Lovelock’s worldview.

First, Lovelock’s analysis of the climate crisis rests on a biologically reductionist metaphor of modern human beings constituting a planetary super-organism. “Human populations” are understood in the same manner as populations of termites. What this point of view misses is that human reproduction rests on an ensemble of social and cultural factors. This misanthropic outlook denies human beings’ ability to cooperate, act in solidarity with one another, and plan social development. Herein lies the leitmotif of Lovelock’s authoritarian and anti-humanistic advocacy for population control and the abolition of democracy.

Second, Lovelock conceives remedies for climate change in purely technical terms. In his case, this leads him to supporting the technocratic promise of expanded nuclear power. Again, social and cultural factors are relegated to the background. Lovelock’s reasoning suggests that the best and only way to manage the present crisis is to ignore social issues such as poverty!

The social nature of the climate crisis

Nothing could be more wrong. These two assumptions have to be turned upside down if we are to see the reality of our situation.

First, the difficulties of cooperation in our society are not naturally given. These are social problems, which in most instances, are born out of socially created hierarchies and uneven distributions of power and resources. The collapse of the climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 is a plain example. This failure was not due to unwillingness among wealthy nations to discuss the climate issue. Rather, it had to do with their unwillingness to transcend the inequalities among social groups and nations. That rich countries, who for decades have built their unsustainable energy consumption on the exploitation of other countries’ resources, should help pay for the transition to renewable energy in poor countries was roundly rejected by most Northern negotiators.

Second, the climate challenge has a more far-reaching character than merely solving technical problems. It is not the absence of benevolent technology that prevents the transition to a sustainable energy system. For example, the choice of Finland – where I reside – to pursue nuclear power is not due to scarcity of alternative energy sources. Finland is rich in renewable energy resources such as forests, bioenergy, and waterpower. Like other countries with a high level of energy consumption, the potentialities for energy efficiency and reduced energy consumption – without undermining the social welfare – are enormous.

The problem is that the whole debate is locked into the structure of the present economic system, where increased energy consumption is viewed as synonymous with increased social welfare. Moreover, remedies such as nuclear power are inextricably tied to technocratic tendencies in society that put national experts and engineers in control of political decisions about the design of production. Would a dictator be able to solve this social problem? I doubt it. To remedy this impasse of social problems, a democratization of Finnish society is required.

We need more democracy

To conclude: It is frightening that Lovelock promotes such antidemocratic and obfuscating ideas in the autumn of his life. It is even more disturbing that many others in the climate movement share his perspective. The problems and contradictions facing us are of a highly social nature. Our inability to handle the climate issue on both the local and global level is rooted in our inability to deal with social inequalities. In countries like Finland, technocratic management of society is the problem. The remedies lie in creating space for truly popular democratic processes at the expense of technocratic rule.

We need a more democratic world. We’ve not become “too egalitarian.” Rather the world has become a more technocratic place where very few people can have a say in matters of public importance. It is necessary to radically change that.