Untitled negative emissions op-ed from ep. 33
When I first concluded that atmospheric greenhouse gas removals are absolutely necessary, I was preparing to call a railroad signal control room and inform them of the blockade of an oil train. This was in the summer of 2017, the first time smoke blackened the skies over the entire North American west coast. This moment culminated years of full-time organizing to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure, during which I vehemently rejected any discussion of negative emissions.
The reason for my conversion that day was simply that it became clear to me we are past tipping points. Our collective survival—that of our own species and virtually or literally every other—is now contingent not only on the cessation of fossil fuel extraction, but on totally uncertain measures to halt the feedback loops we have already initiated. We are in a desperately perilous and tragically stupid situation.
How long can we say it's almost too late before we say it's too late? How long will we say this is happening faster than we predicted before we simply acknowledge it's happening exactly as fast as it is? If climate change has any overarching lesson about ourselves to teach us, it is that the objective reality of a situation is far less significant in shaping our understanding than psychological need. The landscape of climate perceptions is vast, but in virtually every case these perceptions map tidily to broader narratives about the nature of the world and our place in it. The extent to which the data fit the mental schema we construct is, at best, of secondary importance.
In other words, we can characterize this landscape of perceptions in terms of degrees and varieties of denial. Certainly, explicitly dismissing the reality of the ecological crisis, amidst the towering infernos and raging storms, is a particularly clumsy and overt form. But is the faith of western liberal democracy's most ardent opinion columnists that the existing institutions of power will inevitably address the problem any less absurd? Are $15/ton carbon taxes and net zero pledges without any underlying policy detail any less a wanton plunge into a world crafted by psychological need than saying: this isn't happening, this isn't real? And at a certain point in the global trajectory, don't some of the primary narratives of the climate movement also become a form of denial?
There is no truly definitive way to establish we are past tipping points, or what, if anything, will survive the processes we have unleashed. But whether someone is even capable of concluding that climate collapse has become self-perpetuating is a function of, rather than some evidentiary standard, the extent to which it is psychologically bearable and how it relates to a broader worldview. I will therefore not traffic in ecological inferences, but in a reframing of the sociopolitical implications of searching for a path to survival in greenhouse gas sequestration.
Currently, talk of negative emissions is highly predictive of a defense of the status quo and continued extraction of fossil fuels. If you follow these dialogues at all, you probably guessed why I mentioned at the outset that I became an advocate for negative emissions while blockading an oil train. It is to say: I could not possibly be any less motivated to defend the existing order or to justify further resource extraction. I have spent the majority of my productive adult energies blockading roads, ports, train tracks, and refineries, aiding with pipeline shutdowns, organizing tree sits, and enduring multiple phases of surveillance and federal investigation. Burdened by the grief of a quarter-century long losing fight for a living world, if I could give my young self any advice it would be to fight harder, take greater risks, and be more implacably hostile to the ascendant forms of power.
Of course, talk of negative emissions has become a default rhetorical device in the absurdist theater of institutional climate politics. As our crisis deepens, those tidy emissions curves that plummet to (net) zero by, say, 2050 require more and more totally speculative carbon sequestration, and they even do so without sacrificing consumer choice. If we want to continue to undo the conditions that make life possible for a little while longer, we can take the yellow curve, and fix the damage later by waving the negative emissions wand a little harder. If we're feeling like sobering up and accepting our godlike powers of destruction now, we can take the blue curve, and rely less on sorcery and mist and shadows and currently nonexistent technology.
But just like having a mustache and being vegetarian doesn't make you Hitler, the fact that some people invoke negative emissions disingenuously doesn't mean it's inherently disingenuous to do so. In fact, it's particularly strange territory to cede to the dead-eyed technocrats managing our world into oblivion. An acknowledgement that the existing sociopolitical order put us onto a trajectory toward extinction that only speculative measures can potentially take us off of is hardly an unassailable defense of that order. To me, this is about as assailable as it gets. That our survival relies on the deployment of unproven technologies is the most decisive argument one could possibly encounter in favor of a revolution.
This revolution would necessarily consist of a fundamental shift in what the anarchist anthropologist David Graber described as the politics of large heavy objects. The terrain of possibility for stabilizing global ecology is largely unexplored because that exploration requires the deployment of massive infrastructure, and such infrastructure is currently under the control of sociopaths. Reflecting heat back to space with mirrors, destroying methane with massive arrays of photocatalytic reactors, distributing crushed silicate rock over agricultural lands to accelerate the flux of atmospheric carbon into the earth, the direct capture of GHGs with modified cooling tower technology—all of these paradigms require things like trucks, workforces, and factories. They all require access to, and control of, large heavy objects.
It is heartbreaking to imagine what would have been possible if something like the level of resources that went into figuring out how to drill horizontally to fracture underground rock formations for gas and oil had gone into figuring out a means of collective survival. But what acknowledging we are past tipping points achieves is a decisive understanding that the people who control the large heavy objects are not looking for a means of collective survival, and that if we want to, we have to take the large heavy objects away from them.
Systems theory speaks of controlling variables that determine the states of many other, apparently unrelated variables. In social systems, I believe the politics of large heavy objects is one such controlling variable. There is no way to shift these politics without fundamental, revolutionary change throughout our entire society. Negative emissions should be the terrain of the destroyers, not the defenders, of the status quo, and should be pursued alongside militant opposition to continued fossil fuel extraction.
I'm occasionally proud of my rhetorical devices, but I don't think this one is remarkable at all. It seems, if anything, screamingly self-evident. But what I am saying is almost entirely absent from climate discourse. Why is this the case? I believe it is because we are living in an era where politics is, for most people most of the time, largely a venue for niche self-expression and identity affirmation more than it is the instrumental pursuit of tangible goals in the external world.
This state of affairs was predicted, with uncanny precision, by Ronald Inglehart in his 1977 book The Silent Revolution: Changing Values Among Western Publics. In it, he describes what he terms the post-materialist shift, the changes that began with post-WWII hyper-abundance in affluent societies, in a generation that was reasonably confident it would not face material scarcity. With those aspects of the hierarchy of needs met, Inglehart predicted generational shifts in emphasis toward self-realization and increasingly specialized modes of reasoning and expression. He described how expanding access to education and electronic media were transforming everyone into political specialists and commentators, predicting—long before social media—our current age of discordant debate and wildly diverging epistemologies.
But he also described how this new, hyper-participatory politics, while oppositional, would be less concerned with the instrumental pursuit of tangible goals. He described, in other words, that uncanny mixture of serious opposition and a lack of any real strategic imperative that characterizes everything from the Paris uprisings of 1968 to the US Capitol riots of 2021. Jonathan Matthew Smucker's Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals applies the post-materialist lens to the Occupy movement, so rich in momentum and lacking in cohesive strategy.
Climate politics, for all its deadly seriousness and non-negotiable timelines, is no exception to this trend. Positions are crafted in the language of strategic utility, but they have an uncanny tendency to affirm unique aspects of group identity, to be exercises in niche language and reasoning. One useful way to classify climate perceptions is in terms of the degree of opposition of one's politics. On such a continuum, we move seamlessly from the absurdity of insisting that precisely the entities that created our crisis will begin to fix it any day now to the absurdity of invoking academic language about unexamined perspectives and local frames of reference (the “beginning of an ethnography” style of politics) as a substitute for any concrete program of action in the corporeal world.
Group psychology tells us that the opinions of groups are more extreme than the average opinion of a group's individual members, and that the more sequestered a group is in its own logic, the more pronounced this tendency will be. The process whereby people adopt positions of little utility is, like the climate system to which these positions ostensibly refer, a feedback loop.
And then, even without all the temptations to useless self-expression laying around in our hyper-technological society, there is the question of grief. To say we are past tipping points is to attempt to psychologically integrate an inarticulably painful truth. One anthropologist's list of a few dozen traits common to all human societies ever documented includes “demonstrably false beliefs”. Even on an earth of infinite abundance and dazzling beauty, people inhabited narratives about how death isn't real and we're going somewhere even better and even more beautiful when we die. Convincing arguments can be made that the human mind, in most cases, is not strong enough to acknowledge the realities it is capable of perceiving. Why should the end of the world be an exception?
But of course, when painful truths are confronted, we get more out of that confrontation than pain. We see a new terrain of possibility open up before us. Therapists and researchers often speak of trauma as a stimulus that is too overwhelming to experience, and of healing as a phase where that stimulus, before losing its power, becomes more consuming and painful than ever before. I am by no means saying that acknowledging the self-perpetuating nature of ecological collapse means that it loses its emotional impact, but there is a thrill and a beauty to accepting the adventure of survival on its own terms.
When I look back on what I've done to halt the destruction of the world, it mostly seems pretty ridiculous and self-evidently inadequate. But what I'm proud of, and arguing for, is that I consistently adapted to new conditions, trying out new paradigms as the ecological and political situations rapidly evolved. When I was young, I believed in conservation biology and militant confrontations in National Forests and federal environmental law. When it became clear that wasn't working—that the ecological crisis was coming for “protected areas” just as quickly as anywhere else—I shifted my focus to shutting down industrial infrastructure. When it became clear we were past tipping points, I shifted my focus to a combination of restorative measures and to sciences like anthropology and psychology, in an effort to refine old political strategies and develop new ones. Whether or not what I've done is particularly savvy on its own terms, it hasn't been static.
This metric can be applied to most climate politics with appalling results: has the agenda, and the means of pursuing it, changed as rapidly or dramatically as the global ecological situation, or the broader political situation? In most cases, the answer is emphatically negative. This is a guarantee of extinction. If anyone or anything is going to survive, it will be because we moved faster than what's coming.