The path to a livable future A new politics to fight climate change, racism, and the next pandemic

Stan Cox

Book - 2021

"An urgent call for the political transformation needed to address the common causes of climate change, COVID-19, and racism. "An iconoclast of the best kind, Stan Cox has an all-too-rare commitment to following arguments wherever they lead, however politically dangerous that turns out to be."-Naomi Klein 2020 was a year defined by crisis. For decades, scientists have been sounding the alarm about the urgency of addressing climate change, but it took COVID-19 to demonstrate clearly that the future of human life on Earth is interconnected and at risk. While the virus quickly spread across the globe, extreme weather events compounded the suffering and economic catastrophe. In the U.S., public demonstrations of outrage over the ...murder of George Floyd expanded to include a growing awareness of the pandemic's disproportionate impact on communities of color. In cities around the world, people took to the streets to protest racial inequity in all of its forms. In The Path to a Livable Future, Stan Cox makes plain the connections between the multiple crises facing us today, and provides an inspired vision for how to resolve them. With a deeply informed, clear to-do list, Cox shows us how we can work together to address the climate emergency, white supremacy, and our vulnerability to future pandemics all at once. Our future depends on it"--

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San Francisco, CA : City Lights Books [2021]
Main Author
Stan Cox (author)
Physical Description
171 pages ; 21 cm
Includes bibliographical references.
  • Foreword / by Zenobia Jeffries Warfield
  • Introduction
  • The cruelest year
  • The tangled roots of our predicaments
  • A to-do list for the 2020s
  • People have the power.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A broad-ranging thesis linking the fight against climate change to other pressing current issues. Like the pandemic and questions of food security, writes environmental journalist Cox, climate change is most damaging to minority and impoverished populations. In the U.S., this translates largely to the Black community, opposed to which is a "retrograde, pro-authoritarian, mostly working-class voting bloc" comprised of White supremacists emboldened by the Trump regime. This minority is so committed to retaining White rule that it stands against any progressive effort to let all boats rise. Anti-science, denialist, and violent, this bloc has to be defanged politically before any such progress can be made. Cox argues that it is a duty of government to declare that food security--access to sufficient food, that is--is a fundamental human right "and that in fulfilling that right the desires of private economic interests will have no standing." Moreover, writes the author, the solution to the climate crisis and other significant problems is to delink our economy from rampant consumption. Our transformation to a postindustrial economy led to the "mirage" of thinking that our service-based modalities are somehow more environmentally friendly. As it is, Cox holds, overproduction and overconsumption are two sides of the same coin, and both need to be reined in. The pandemic exposed many things, but foremost among them was "how we overvalue the 'normal' "--when, he suggests provocatively, it may well be that "normal was the problem in the first place." Cox's manifesto is long on description but short of prescription: There are few specifics about how we can bring environmental equity to all corners of society, to say nothing of how we can reduce all our heavy carbon footprints. Still, many of his suggestions are certainly worth discussion. An evenhanded though sometimes vague manifesto for making a new post-pandemic world. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

INTRODUCTION   Throughout the afternoon and evening of November 7, 2020, my family, friends, and I could not take our eyes off the spontaneous street celebrations that had erupted outside the White House and in cities across the country. Hearing that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were projected to win Pennsylvania's electoral votes, throngs came out to celebrate the demise of the Trump presidency. Watching the revelry in Times Square on TV, my mind went straight to the iconic photographs of crowds celebrating on the same spot seventy-five years earlier when Nazi Germany was finally defeated in Europe. The street party back then marked the end of a terrible struggle and the certainty of better days ahead; this time, the joyous eruptions provided only a brief moment of respite from months and years of fear and cruelty. The next morning, it would be back to the fight against authoritarianism, white supremacy, and ecological breakdown, struggles that continue to become more urgent with each passing day. Much effort has gone into drawing lessons from the year 2020, some of them grim, others inspiring. Yet in my view, we collectively have failed to accept the most urgent messages that were delivered to us by that terrible year. There were acknowledgements here and there that the widely expressed desire to "get back to normal" was not going to be either possible or adequate. The Biden/Harris campaign slogan "Build Back Better" implied improvement. However, given the realities we continue to face--a global ecological emergency, a public health system in tatters, economic apartheid, persistent assaults on civil rights and democracy--a better normal is going to be insufficient and wholly unacceptable. As Trump's presidency finally lurched to an end, excitement and support for climate action surged. In particular, the possibility of an industrial mobilization for wind and solar energy rebounded, echoing the enthusiasm that had swirled around the plan for a Green New Deal in 2018-2019. In that pre-pandemic period, with unemployment well below 4 percent, the plan's proponents had emphasized stimulus only in passing. As death tolls and jobless rates soared and wildfires raged, however, many writers, ranging from liberals to democratic socialists, promoted a "green," pro-growth industrial policy as a central element in restoring livelihoods and income lost during the pandemic. Big public spending was indeed badly needed to relieve the economic misery being suffered by millions. But it was also intended to revive the pre-pandemic drive for growth in production, consumption, and wealth accumulation. That drive has always been prioritized over mitigating the ecological degradation, racism, and injustice perpetrated by a political economy centered on the relentless pursuit of profit. Those disasters were having by far their cruelest impacts on Indigenous, Black, and Latino people--the same communities historically denied a voice in the decision-making process. The path to a livable future now involves not just reforming an unjust system, or giving out a little more here and there to marginalized communities, but to co-creating unstoppable movements from all sectors of society in which leadership and decision making are inclusive, democratic, and diverse.  In my previous book, The Green New Deal and Beyond, I focused tightly on the climate emergency and on national public policies that will be necessary to end it. In this book, which zooms out to a wide-angle view of an entire society in rapid flux, I look to the movements now demanding the kind of transformation that's necessary to get us all through the multiple, entangled emergencies that finally got the nation's attention in 2020. Has white America at long last started listening to the rest of the country? The answer had better be yes, because four hundred years of white settler-colonialism--and the failure to pay heed to Indigenous, Black, and Latino examples of a better way--have created the calamities we now face. Prominent among them is climate injustice. Climate impacts are already being felt, and not uniformly. Corina Newsome, a wildlife conservationist at Georgia Southern University told the Washington Post, "Climate change is the most immediate threat for the marginalized people of this country and of the world....But that also means we are the most quick to act."  For example, a Post poll found that "at least twice as many black and Hispanic teens participated in school walkouts on climate change than their white counterparts; they were also more likely to say people need to take action in the next year or two." [i] Anti-racism must involve not only demanding and securing rights and justice but also looking to Black, Latino, Indigenous, and other communities for leadership in transforming the process of change itself.  In early 2021, Nick Estes, an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, cited some encouraging developments under the new administration in Washington--the end of the Keystone XL pipeline, a moratorium on oil and gas leases in the Arctic national wildlife refuge, and restoration of protections for Indigenous sacred sites. "None of these victories would have been possible," wrote Estes, "without sustained Indigenous resistance and tireless advocacy....'green' techno fixes and consumer-based solutions might provide short-term answers, but they don't stop the plunder of Native lands." [ii] The economic and environmental policies now being looked to for a post-pandemic society are heavy on the techno-fixes and every bit as inadequate as those that were promoted before 2020; in fact, they are even weaker, relative to the crises at hand. Without sweeping grassroots action, the forces that pushed us into the multiple crises of 2020--unshakable faith in technology and markets, the compulsion to exploit ecosystems, a belief in growth without limits--will be relied upon in a vain quest to "build back better," to restore the ecologically reckless America that existed before 2020, only this time with more and better jobs, and without a would-be tyrant in the White House. Yes, that's better, but building solar and wind power plants and electric cars will not end the climate emergency. We have reached a stage in which the pre-pandemic model of normal is not only unsustainable; it's no longer survivable. In particular, the time has come for the institutions that have dominated environmental policy for a half-century to yield right-of-way. Michelle Martinez, the acting executive director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, told Politico in 2020, "The environmental movement was born of a colonial narrative, that nature was out there to be explored and to be used....I've had people at mainstream environmental organizations tell me point blank, 'If we start doing this racial justice stuff, we're going to lose some of our funders.' And that risk is real. It's this idea that focusing on racial justice, it becomes less about the environment. And that's simply not true. That's that colonial mindset." [iii] That the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in our health care, food, and transportation systems was obvious; how to make those systems more robust and adaptable was less apparent. Disparate responses to the pandemic also illuminated and exacerbated the exploitation of Black and brown communities and workers, while further whipping up the white supremacism that Donald Trump had been promoting over the previous four years. When the broad-based Black Lives Matter-led uprising against the police war on Black people swept the nation and world in 2020, it inspired all of the nation's movements for justice and sustainability, providing a roadmap for the way forward. During the Minneapolis protests that followed George Floyd's killing, activist Tamika Mallory delivered an electrifying speech in which she said, "This is a coordinated activity happening across this nation, and so we are in a state of emergency...America has looted black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here, looting is what you do. We learned it from you. We learned violence from you. If you want us to do better, then damnit, you do better." [iv] Mallory's message applies even more broadly. In addition to stealing the land and enslaving people to farm it, white settler-colonists plundered and violated the land itself, wreaking havoc upon the interconnected system of soils, waters, habitats, and atmosphere of the continent. One result of this relentless assault has been severe erosion not only of soil but also of health and quality of life in marginalized communities, both urban and rural. This erosion became increasingly clear through the uneven manner COVID has impacted communities of color. Racial, economic, and environmental justice issues thus emerged from 2020 even more deeply entangled than they were before. Debates over when to declare that workers and the goods and services they produced are "essential" were more about profit and prejudice than about ensuring supplies of basic necessities. The "essential" designation resulted in the increased exploitation of already exploited workers and communities on the one hand, and favoritism toward ecologically destructive businesses that cater to the affluent on the other. In this book, I argue not only for an end to labor exploitation and systemic racism but also for a more serious discussion of the hard, collective decisions that must be made regarding which goods and services must be produced and which should not be produced at all. At one point in writing The Green New Deal and Beyond, I had made an argument for what might be called consumers' climate strikes, asking readers in part to "imagine the impact of audacious mass boycotts of air travel, or house and car buying." In early 2020, as I was making final edits on the manuscript and re-reading those words, I thought, "Yeah, right, what are the chances that's going to happen, ha, ha?" But at that very moment, as I sat there shaking my head, news reports were emerging of a highly contagious respiratory disease hitting Wuhan, China. Within weeks, the unthinkable was happening. Air travel dropped 95 percent; the world's passenger aircraft fleet was almost completely grounded. Human civilization survived a halt in air travel but now is once again threatened by its resumption.             The racial justice, climate, and public-health emergencies jointly present us with grave challenges throughout society. In the pages ahead, I focus on three interconnected sectors of the economy where they converge in many ways: energy, land use, and food. The roots of the crises that collided in 2020, and the heavy impacts they will have on our future, are so intimately interwoven that these problems must be resolved all together, or they will never be resolved. Accordingly, it was clear to me they could not be dealt with individually, each in its own chapter. I therefore decided to work through the various entangled roots all at once, weighing the actions that will be necessary to resolve it, and finally, seeking ways to overcome the material and political obstacles to such action.             How to overcome the seemingly insurmountable barriers to necessary action? I confess that I've long been at a loss in answering that question. But then watching the nationwide revolt against systemic racism unfold, as well as repeatedly marching and rallying with my fellow residents of Salina, Kansas, people from all its communities brought me new optimism. I believe that the confrontation with systemic racism that began sweeping the nation in 2020, reaching even as far as little Salina, has created a political opening. Getting through that opening, however, will be only the beginning, and navigating the rough terrain on the other side will require a lot of improvisation. Setbacks are certain but not fatal. The terrain ahead started looking rougher than ever on January 6, 2021, when a violent white mob stormed the U.S. Capitol with the aim of nullifying the outcome of the presidential election. Afterward, the Guardian noted that the insurrection was far from the first of its type: "Mobs of white Americans unwilling to accept multi-racial democracy have successfully overturned or stolen elections before: in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873 and New Orleans in 1874, and, in Hamburg, South Carolina" in 1876. [v] By repeatedly attacking the institutions responsible for enforcing racial justice after the Civil War, such violent mobs managed to shut down Reconstruction after barely a decade and thereby maintain white supremacy as the law of the land for another nine decades. The Capitol insurrection failed, at least in its immediate goal. But the assault on multi-racial democracy is, I fear, as serious as it was in the 1870s, and far from over. In the tumultuous fall of 2020, Angela Davis observed, "So many struggles have been about bringing the marginalized into the fold of the democracy, and that is where we make many mistakes. W.E.B. DuBois argued that democracy could not remain the same and respond to the needs of those who had been previously enslaved. The democracy itself would have to be transformed, and new institutions would have to be created...We are now preparing to do work which should have happened over 150 years ago." ***   [i] Sarah Kaplan, "Climate Change Is Also a Racial Justice Problem." Washington Post, June 29, 2020. [ii] Nick Estes, "Biden Killed the Keystone Pipeline. Good, but He Doesn't Get a Climate Pass Just Yet, Guardian, January 28, 2021. [iii] Zack Colman, "Environmental Groups' Greatest Obstacle May Not Be Republican Opposition," Politico, February 5, 2021. [iv] "Activist Tamika Mallory's Speech Goes Viral: 'We Learned Violence from You!'," TheGrio, May 30, 2020,   [v] Lois Beckett, "'The Past Is So Present': How White Mobs Once Killed American Democracy," Guardian, February 22, 2021. [vi] Jessic Zhu, "Prison Abolition, Democracy and Capitalism Are Interconnected, Say Angela Davis and Astra Taylor," Stanford Daily, October 15, 2020. Excerpted from The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic by Stan Cox All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.