The Primitivism of Climate Activism

A shortlisted piece in the Non-Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2021

Labour is the source of all wealth, the political economists assert. And it really is the source — next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth. But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.” – Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature 

The predominant debate that rages in environmental activist spaces is that between a ‘just transition’, the construction of nationalised green energy proportional to the deconstruction of current greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting power infrastructure whilst retraining fossil fuel workers to take up work in new green energy infrastructure, and ‘shutting down the coal industry’, which seems self-evident. The just transition, to its credit, doesn’t immediately create a devastating labour crisis but its logistics remain rarely elucidated; that is, how would states manage to essentially buy out fossil fuel operations and construct nationalised green energy when multinational corporations have every reason to not allow that whilst also holding all the leverage. Nonetheless, the logistics are largely irrelevant at this stage; it still exists as a long term goal and even then, it’s simply insufficient. 

It has made the rounds recently, the news that the Amazon rainforest now emits more CO2than it removes from the atmosphere. It is estimated that to prevent a self-compounding climate disaster, the maximum concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere cannot exceed 350 parts per million (ppm); the current concentration is 405 ppm. In a fantasy hypothetical, say that this immediately ceases increasing; the best case scenario now is that forest bodies max out their efficacy and begin producing diminishing returns in terms of absorbing CO2 and the worst possible scenario, which is much more likely, is that the atmosphere decays to such an extent that forests become net emitters rather than net reducers. To digress slightly, the great misconception of current Western climate activism is only operating on a national scale but moreso is the idea that climate change is caused by man’s domination over nature. That if we co-existed with nature as equals and ceased exercising authority over it we could prevent climate catastrophe. 

This is wrong; capitalist destruction of nature, even space-capitalist notions of terraforming planets to make them inhabitable, is simply an overextension of the relationship that man has always had with nature. That of the environment maker. Indigenous Australians built complex aquaculture systems that are potentially some of the oldest stone structures in the world and there is evidence to suggest that the Incas participated extensively in slash-and-burn agriculture. The notion that man is both above nature to the extent that he can engage in unnatural processes such as capitalism but also holds the obligation to reduce himself to the level of nature in order to prevent climate catastrophe is prescriptive and anti-materialist. The history of man is the history of tools, whether it be the stone hammer, aqueduct or spinning wheel. Just as it is a shoddy carpenter that blames his tools, it’s a shoddier carpenter still that disrespects his tools and is unable to maintain them. Nature is the ultimate tool of man and must be sustained as such. 

The particular primitivism my title addresses is the fear of ‘unnatural’ methods of GHG reduction. Green energy is natural because it’s the direct process of harnessing naturally occurring energies, such as heat energy in solar power. Nuclear energy is unnatural because the process of splitting an atom doesn’t occur in nature, independent of humanity of course. Which is the kicker; we are part of nature. Everything we do is natural for it is done using naturally occurring materials. Capitalism, further, is not unnatural. Historical materialism teaches us that capitalism is a stage of human development which has outlived its usefulness and thus must be overthrown. It is the negation of the negation; it negated feudalism and so must be negated by socialism. 

The issue here is that people apply the social relations of capitalism to the forces of production occurring under capitalism. Nuclear waste being dumped on stolen Indigenous land is not an inherent feature of nuclear power; racism is a feature of capitalism not of energy production processes. Capitalism is a socially totalising force but it’s made up of interrelated processes that don’t dominate humanity; things such as capitalist productive forces, capitalist social relations and labour processes that existed prior to capitalism. Take the recent nurses strikes for example. Do people believe that nursing as a practice is capitalistic? The healthcare industry of course is corrupting, but nursing and care work can’t be said to be motivated by profit incentives. Wage slavery, yes, but this is simply a recognition of how capitalism contorts labour processes which are older than it and will outlive it. 

What I come to is that these processes are not about the moralising labels of capitalist or socialist, they’re about the material good that each process produces. Coal has outlived its usefulness; nuclear has a level of use remaining but ultimately green energy is the most feasible and least dangerous system of energy production. It remains insufficient, though, without a means of removing currently existing GHG emissions from the atmosphere; to this end I uphold carbon capture technology, which has been described as “not real” and “greenwashing” by sections of the Australian left. Ideas such as “clean coal” and solar radiation management (SRM) are greenwashing, because they maintain fossil fuel infrastructure. People are commonly of the misconception that carbon capture exclusively refers to reducing CO2 output from coal fired gas plants; this is false, direct air capture (DAC) is a far more developed process and is entirely compatible with green energy. Further, it can’t possibly be greenwashing because it’s impossible to implement in market systems. There is no social use value, therefore no potential profit, to gaseous CO2; the only idea corporations have come up with is selling it to soft drink companies and then it would just end up back in the atmosphere anyway. 

Further, it’s very real. Klaus Lackner of Arizona State University has developed what is essentially an artificial tree that is one thousand times more effective at trapping CO2than regular trees. In Iceland, researchers have mixed CO2 and hydrogen sulfide then injected it into basalt rock and found that it solidifies into a limestone-like substance in less than 2 years. That’s an insanely fast turnaround and it bypasses the problem of gaseous CO2 being difficult to store safely. Joe Biden proposed it as a vague buzzword but don’t let that deter you from a very important technology. As J. W. Mason describes, responding to climate change should be like responding to war. Just as the US invested rapidly in military infrastructure prior to WWII and created vast numbers of jobs and demand which in turn created more wealth to reinvest into military infrastructure, the exact same process should be applied with clean energy. In some ways the US during WWII was almost centrally planned, in the same way that the USSR under the NEP was centrally planned; free markets existed but were directed towards the production of particular goods through government investment. It shows the necessity of government intervention in production beyond simply nationalising energy and it shows the importance of direct oversight by state forces in the transition between fossil fuels and renewable energy. But it isn’t sufficient to simply halt our course; we have to actively reduce the CO2in the atmosphere and that must be done through carbon capture and embracing everything that technology gives us.