'Green' Elites vs Green Left Populism
How relentlessly blaming disgusting rich people can help us fight climate change
On December 18th, thermometers in Quebec City recorded temperatures of 11.5° (52.7°F), fifteen degrees above the median December high of -4.2° (24.4°F). This bizarre winter heatwave came after a summer marked by completely unprecedented forest fires, affecting all 13 provinces and territories of Canada, which resulted in an area of forest being burned comfortably more than twice as large as the previous all-time record for North America. The fires started weirdly early in the spring and major outbreaks continued into mid-October. 200,000 people were placed under evacuation orders, or one out of every 200 Canadians; two thirds of the population of the Northwest Territories had to be evacuated. All told 5% of the entire forest cover of Canada was burned in one season, releasing truly nightmarish amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and producing clouds of choking smoke that rendered skies blood red all over the continent and eventually reached all the way to Europe.
As climate collapse becomes more acute and less possible for even the most fervent denialists to ignore, factions within the Western ruling classes will belatedly begin to support measures to mitigate it. We have already seen some movement in this direction in the European Union, and increasingly in the Anglo countries as well. In Quebec, all mainstream political parties, even the rightwing ones, profess some degree of environmentalism. It was the rightwing CAQ party that enacted Quebec’s decision to ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035, for example, a decision which preceded an identical policy later adopted by the federal Liberals.
Barring unforeseen political upheavals, green policies in the immediate future will largely be imposed on the population by powerful elites which view ordinary people with hostility and contempt and are deeply invested in maintaining their own privilege and dominance. They will almost certainly ensure that they are exempt from having to suffer any real consequences or quality of life changes themselves, while sacrificing to a lesser or greater degree some of the convenience or affordability that working people have become accustomed to. For example, they will ban the sale of gas-powered cars (in concert with the transitions major automakers are undertaking anyway), but they will not ban the horrifyingly polluting private jets they themselves use to move around. Importantly, this side effect of capitalism’s inbuilt extreme wealth inequality and class rule by the rich does not necessarily imply that such green measures are ineffective, fake or undesirable. Removing gas-powered private vehicles from the roads as quickly as possible, for example, is indeed likely to be an important component in mitigating runaway climate collapse.
Some supposedly green policies, however, are likely to be ineffective or fake, especially as environmentalist concerns grow in popularity among the electorate. Factions of the ruling class will use greenwashing to push through legislation or enact corporate policies which benefit them and do not meaningfully address climate collapse in any way. The oil and gas industry in Canada has adopted this strategy whole-heartedly. Over the past few years they have transformed their industrial lobbying group OSCA (the Oil Sands Community Alliance) into ‘Pathways Alliance’ (website byline: ‘Supporting Climate Action’, description: ‘competitors working together to meet our shared goals’). This is an organization with the ludicrous goal of ‘net-zero’ tar sands, which will be accomplished using expensive carbon capture technology. They want the federal government to pay 75% of the bill for this greenwashed publicity stunt instead of just doing it themselves, and neglect to mention in any of their extensive propaganda that they are only proposing to capture carbon generated by the actual exploitation of the tar sands, and that net-zero oil and gas is by definition impossible because burning oil and gas always releases carbon. In a similar move, the premier of Manitoba recently claimed that tar sand exploitation was ‘renewable energy’; maybe he’s been in touch with Pathways Alliance, which has been shown to meet with Canadian government officials on average four times a day.
It’s also possible that some factions of the ruling class will attempt to enact green or greenish policies that are not just pro-business in the usual obliviously suicidal kind of way but that are actively repressive and antihuman. As disasters become worse and more frequent, the movement of displaced people becomes more difficult to control, and disruptions to the economy destroy stability, social unrest will heighten, and elites will seek novel means of repression. Elites may begin to use environmentalist pretexts to punish marginalized groups, restrict movement, further surveil populations, and so on. Fears of this sort of thing are often expressed on the right as conspiracy theories about conniving liberals using made-up hysteria about the weather to institute draconian restrictions on people’s ability to drive around. An entire conspiracy theory cottage industry has grown up around the ‘15 Minute City’ urban planning movement in the UK, which aims to create dense, liveable neighbourhoods served by highly effective public transit and ubiquitous bike lanes, in which driving will become largely unnecessary. Complimentary strategies to deter driving, such as fees for driving in certain areas on certain days, have been framed by right-wing activists as an attempt to imprison inhabitants.
On the left similar fears are usually framed through the spectre of ‘eco-fascism’, an ill-defined green reactionary tendency purported to be influential among the alt-right. A journalist once approached me asking to interview me about my Master’s thesis, which dealt with contemporary far-right extremism in Canada. Specifically she wanted my take on how best to combat the ‘rising threat of eco-fascism’. She became quite rude when I pointed out that ‘eco-fascism’ barely exists outside of the fever dreams of ultra-fringe white supremacist activists, and has a near-zero chance of impacting anyone’s lives anytime soon, whereas the denialist climate policies of the actually existing ruling class are incredibly dangerous and absolutely will result in catastrophe, so maybe we should focus on those. In any case, eco-fascism is a popular expression of people’s fear that climate collapse and authoritarianism will collide in the near future. Although both the right and left versions of this fear tend to be misguided in their specifics, the fear itself is completely rational, given the track record of the cruel, arrogant criminals who rule us.
There are factions of the ruling class which will certainly oppose any climate collapse mitigation whatsoever right up until the bitter end, motivated by a mixture of nihilistic free-market extremism and thoroughgoing denial. They will use green policies as a focal point for mobilization, organizing reactionary counter-movements against anything that may help. The character of this mobilization will almost certainly be right-populist, since that is the most vital and dynamic form of right-wing activism today. Right-populism seeks to identify one faction of the ruling class with ‘the people’ and another faction with all that is wrong in the world, and eliminate the latter to the benefit of the former. Typically the ‘enemy’ faction is associated with alien class values, pathological greed, and sneering hatred of the common man, which is all completely correct; where right-wing populists go off the rails is by imagining that these characteristics are not also shared by their preferred faction of evil billionaires.
As we already see today, some parts of the ruling class will double down on appearing green and will occasionally actually impose effective policies out of necessity. This will set off an increasingly bitter front in the ‘culture war’, with the ‘recycling liberal’ versus the ‘F-150 conservative’ thing spiralling further and further. As this continues, it will become more and more common for heterodox leftists, nauseated by the self-satisfied liberals patting each other’s bums, to pick up on more populist ideas about climate policy filtering out of the right. I already witness this fairly often on forums like r/stupidpol, where many self-described Marxists, socialists and anarchists are quick to scoff at green policy initiatives regardless of their content and dismiss them as elite ploys.
The inverse of this is also visible. The inspiration for this article came from a post on a right-wing subreddit complaining about the Canadian government’s newish fuel tax. The poster suggested that maybe the liberal elites passing these taxes should have their private jets banned – an excellent point that I think we should take seriously. But the point is that it’s sometimes possible for right-wing populism to surpass mainstream liberal and even social-democratic rhetoric in its willingness to directly target ‘the elite’; and there is certainly room for right-wing populists to end up adopting left-wing positions if they start to become aware that they are essentially being swindled by another faction of the elite that they claim to oppose.
To recap: it’s likely that good or at least not-bad climate policies will begin to be passed in the near future out of sheer necessity and the growing obviousness of the problem, and these policies will be passed by utterly unlikeable ruling-class liberals with whom leftists will share almost no common ground. It’s likely that fake and/or repressive climate policies will also be adopted by governments and corporations. And it’s likely that right-wing populist opposition to all of the above will grow, and that left-wing populists may be taken in by this rhetoric, resulting in a part of the left being essentially opposed to climate collapse mitigation.
So what do we do? I believe that the antidote to all this is green left populism1: being laser-focused on enacting good climate policies while relentlessly blaming rich people for everything and taking as much as we can away from them. We need to be discerning about climate policy, being able to determine what’s good and what is window-dressing, and we need to usually be taking a ‘yes, and’ approach to everything liberals do, with the ‘and’ being something that will help normal people and enrage people with a hundred million dollars. This is how we get things going while taking the wind out of the sails of the right-populists and deterring the rightward drift of disaffected leftists. There is, obviously, an enormous appetite for populism, and we cannot afford to let the right wing dominate that playing field, especially when their brand of populism simply results in different billionaires commanding the apparatus of the state, while ours results in no billionaires existing.
Let’s look at some examples. Canada is banning the sale of new gas-powered cars in a decade. What’s the yes-and? Yes, ban ‘em; and, pull out all the stops to fast-track a state-owned national energy grid based completely on hydro, wind, solar and nuclear, and subsidize the electricity which everyone will need in order to charge electric vehicles to the point where it is significantly less expensive than filling a tank up with gas. It helps normal people because it will result in cheaper cleaner electricity, and it pisses off evil rich people because it takes energy companies out of their hands and deals a death-blow to the oil industry. Win-win.
Here’s another one: Canada has two new carbon taxes, levied primarily on gasoline and natural gas, which will raise the price of fuel significantly. This will be particularly difficult to manage for people who heat their homes with natural gas. Wealthier people can just install heat-pumps in their homes, which are cleaner and over time, cheaper than gas heating, and they are; but even with government rebates they cost tens of thousands of dollars, putting them beyond the reach of most people. In any case, everybody I know rents. The yes-and here is yes, tax gas; and, along with the national energy grid mentioned above, put people to work installing a system of geothermal heat-exchange pumps all through Canadian towns and cities. Geothermal heat-pumps are a) by far the most energy-efficient form of heating and b) characterized by being very expensive to build and then very cheap to operate, exactly the kind of project it makes sense for the state to finance. This would help regular people by providing jobs and slashing electricity bills and would anger rich people by once again taking energy out of their clammy little hands.
And here’s another: like that right-wing commenter said, as we progressively ban gas cars, we should absolutely ban private jets, and why not, limousines too. The civil disobedience climate activists in Europe have gotten a lot of bad press, including from leftists, but one of their stunts that was universally popular was when they blocked private jets at a German airport. Everybody hates people who travel in private jets, and nobody wants to sacrifice anything while rich people are still doing whatever they want. Make it clear that we won’t settle for less than rich people taking trains.
Speaking of trains, here’s another ‘and’ for the gas cars thing. People are, obviously, looking around and being like, if I can’t drive anymore, what the fuck am I supposed to do? Outside the cores of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, pubic transit is a pathetic joke in Canada, and even in those three cities it’s pretty cringe compared practically any town in Europe. Even more concerning, if that’s even possible, is the fact that Canada, a country basically consisting of a thin strip of cities in a long straight line along the US border, doesn’t have high-speed rail. If you want to get from Thunder Bay, Ontario to Toronto, Ontario you have to get in a car and drive for fourteen and a half hours (or fly). Existing Chinese bullet trains could make the trip in less than four hours, and their new generation of maglev trains could do it in two and a half. Massively expanding Canada’s transit network, both in terms of urban public transit and a new network of bullet trains, would help working people immeasurably. It would provide a huge number of good jobs, first of all, while making our quality of life infinitely better and reducing the need to drive. It would also connect Canada’s far-flung cities properly for the first time, allowing people to live in places like, for example, Thunder Bay without (correctly) feeling like they are completely cut off from civilization. This would massively reduce housing pressure in Canada’s major cities and encourage the growth of our mid-tier cities, helping regular people be able to afford houses again. And the best part is, if we did this by re-nationalizing CN Rail (CN stands for Canadian National – ever wonder why?) it would infuriate a cabal of capitalists to no end at the same time.
We can’t reactively oppose things like getting gas cars off the road, but we can’t let them get away with doing shit like that without giving us decent public transit, either. All climate policies should help regular people and make rich people angry. This is just common sense – but it also maybe, just maybe, would help the left start winning an election or two, if the ostensibly left-wing parties like the NDP ever regain their backbones and become able to take aim at the ruling class again. It can also give restless lefties something to throw their energy into rather than drifting away into the embrace of wacky right-wing conspiracy theorists, and win over right-wing conspiracy theorists who come to realize that sickening capitalist ghouls don’t have the best interests of the everyman at heart — as well as winning over regular unpoliticized people who can see the clear benefits of these policies and who enjoy seeing rich people squirm. It can give unions, activist organizations, local governments and individuals a platform and a way to think about climate change moving forward. It can revitalize a defeatist, doomery environmentalist movement and give us all something to look forward to. We can do this, and we must. Let’s get used to thinking ‘yes, and’ and relentlessly demanding more for ourselves and less for the rich.
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A term which, bizarrely and unbelievably, I seem to have coined, or at least I can’t really find other references to it anywhere online.