From Fossil Capitalism to Green Democracy

From Fossil Capitalism to Green Democracy

An interview with Kate Aronoff about her new book Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—And How We Fight Back.

A detail from "Picket" by Tabitha Arnold ( Courtesy of the artist.

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, Lyra Walsh Fuchs spoke to Kate Aronoff, the author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—And How We Fight Back (Bold Type Books).

Lyra Walsh Fuchs: You came to Overheated with years of experience reporting on climate change and advocating for a Green New Deal. Was there anything that surprised you over the course of writing this book?

Kate Aronoff: I initially set out to write about climate denial, but the book became more about democracy. A lot of strains of anti-democratic and climate denialist thinking converge theoretically, and there’s also the fact that people like Charles Koch have funded efforts to erode U.S. democracy.

Walsh Fuchs: For a long time the orthodoxy in environmental advocacy has emphasized our personal responsibility as consumers. You trace how the fossil fuel industry created that myth, naming some of the villains that got us to this point, such as Koch, specific companies, and even particular research papers with outsized influences. Who or what do you think holds the most blame, and what do they owe the rest of the world?

Kate Aronoff: Most blame obviously falls on the fossil fuel companies for spending years after they knew about the existence of climate change actively misleading the public about whether it was happening and what should be done about it. From there, the story gets a little bit more complicated, because there is a spectrum of responsibility. Individual responsibility is a bad way to think about the climate crisis; no one individual is going to transform the energy system, for instance, and no one individual has poured prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Similarly, fossil executives are not bad people, individually. It’s not that they get up every morning and say, “I want to pollute the planet and make politics bad.” It’s that they are they are part of a system that depends on making profits. Corporations have a legal responsibility to make profits, and that process is reliant on the extraction and exploitation of land and labor.

Part of why I write and talk about capitalism is that it helps frame that question of responsibility. The supervillain narrative of the climate crisis, that this tiny group of actors plotted and schemed in order to delay progress, is in some sense very true. But we need to understand that even the worst actors are part of an economic system and a belief system that makes this whole thing work. We have to look at the fact that capitalism is the problem. It makes the fossil fuel industry possible, and the fossil fuel industry, in turn, makes capitalism possible. Without understanding that relationship, it’s hard to make much progress.

It’s a tricky balance, because it’s very helpful to the climate movement to be able to say, “These people did it,” and “These companies did it,” especially as a corrective to all the rhetoric about riding your bike to work and changing light bulbs. But what I try to do in the book is step back a little bit and look at how our social contract makes those dynamics possible. Just kneecapping the fossil fuel industry will not in itself make for a more sustainable world.

Walsh Fuchs: You also write about creating the conditions for a nonviolent economy, bringing together “defund the police” and other justice movements. What are some non-reformist reforms that bring us toward what you call a post-carbon abolition democracy?

Aronoff: I spend the first half of the book looking at how the big solutions to dealing with the climate crisis have been taken off the table and rendered politically irrelevant. The second half of the book looks at what ideas we can put back on the table, as well as new ideas that have cropped up in the last couple decades, specifically since Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives, and Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns. Big movements have put new policy ideas onto the agenda, including the Green New Deal.

Specific non-reformist reforms I point to include nationalizing the fossil fuel industry, in large part to make sure that the transition—which is already happening—is not left up to the worst people on the planet in the energy and private equity industries, and to give workers a say. Another is a federal job guarantee, which has historically been a demand of Black freedom movements, and which can create work that the private sector does not see as valuable, but which is incredibly valuable for dealing with the climate crisis. Defunding the police, which is critical on its own, can free up money in cities for resilience efforts and green jobs. Others include big changes to the global order, like leveraging the role of the U.S. dollar to fund widespread debt relief. We can also make sure that the incredible amount of research the U.S. government already sponsors goes to clean energy technologies, and that the government gets some credit so that its role as an innovator is valued. Then there’s bringing utilities under public ownership and democratic oversight. And rethinking how our borders work, particularly in light of the historical responsibility the United States has for making large parts of the planet uninhabitable. And a four-day work week.

Those ideas are very consistent with the Green New Deal, which essentially rewrites the social contract by saying that we should prioritize what makes for a good life.

Walsh Fuchs: You brought so many different thinkers and activists and organizers into the book. What materials did you keep closest to you while you were writing? What informed your thinking the most?

Aronoff: A lot of things clicked when I went to climate talks in 2019 in Madrid just after reading Globalists by Quinn Slobodian and Worldmaking After Empire by Adom Getachew. I found this book called The Battle for Democracy, which is a collection of essays from Rexford Tugwell, published in 1935 when he was the undersecretary for the Department of Agriculture, which was one of the more forward-thinking experimental nodes in the New Deal Administration, and head of the Rural Resettlement Agency. He’s a really expansive thinker about what democracy means, but he’s limited in the way a lot of the New Deal was, and unable to consider the full weight of white supremacy. I think it gets at a question I’m asking in the book: how can this country be good? I don’t think I learned enough to say whether that’s possible or not. Another book that gave me so much was Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. Du Bois; it is just such an amazing reflection on democracy, and what a radical democracy looks like.

Walsh Fuchs: What do you make of cap-and-trade programs and carbon tax programs?

Aronoff: Carbon pricing, which is the umbrella term for both carbon taxes and cap and trade, is not in itself a bad idea. But the way that we’ve seen it used politically, in the United States in particular, is to distract us from actually existing solutions. In 2009 a carbon tax was floated by Exxon Mobil as being preferable to cap and trade, because cap and trade was what was then being discussed. It was a stalling tactic.

That dynamic is basically what we’re seeing now. We have an administration that is committed to some level of big spending. There are proposals for a Green New Deal, for $1.9 trillion dollars of investment. Not big enough, I would argue. But the zeitgeist has shifted—so now we’re seeing people at the American Petroleum Institute supporting the carbon tax. They’re coming out and saying, “We’re being reasonable,” and “We want an economy-wide efficient solution to this.” Carbon pricing is being wielded as a tool to beat back any actually existing policy. The amounts proposed in the fossil fuel industry proposals are so ludicrously low that they would be pretty meaningless to do anything more than drive very minor behavioral changes.

Walsh Fuchs: I just saw Pete Buttigieg float the idea of taxing drivers by the mile to fund infrastructure projects. He walked it back a few days later by saying that it wasn’t part of the conversation for this particular infrastructure bill, but he’s clearly interested in the idea. And the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus” has proposed something similar. What’s your reaction?

Aronoff: It’s horrible. I haven’t gotten to read in detail about it, but Cole Stangler, a reporter who lives in Paris, calls Pete Buttigieg “the American Macron,” and it seems like the very sort of thing that would spark, rightfully so, a yellow-vest movement. It’s so regressive. We just don’t need to tax people by the mile to pay for infrastructure.

Walsh Fuchs: By the mile is so scary, because you drive so many miles!

Aronoff: Especially if you live in a rural area. There are parts of the country where there is just not transit. It’s a recipe for mobilizing everyone who has to drive twenty miles to get to school or work against you. And against climate policy. It’s horrible. I hope it doesn’t happen.

Walsh Fuchs: Nationalization could obviously be a major tool in building the Green New Deal; you write about how during the FDR administration, that’s also how a number of shops unionized. But you also mention the Supreme Court ruling that stopped the Truman administration from nationalizing steel mills. That decision was limited to that case, but what’s to stop the Supreme Court from stepping in like that again, if there’s a project of nationalization? How should those of us who support the Green New Deal prepare for such an eventuality?

Aronoff: The short answer is really nothing is stopping the Supreme Court.

Walsh Fuchs: I was hoping that that wouldn’t be the answer.

Aronoff: The right has pursued a project to ensconce minority rule for a very long time. That’s the thing that makes climate politics so hostile: this very longstanding anti-democratic project that makes sure that the right wing can hold power no matter how few people are voting for them. So they invest in things like the Federalist Society to take over the courts at every level. Most of the ideas I consider are subject to some level of judicial check, and it’s very difficult to get through Congress, too. There are ways to do it, however, and I unpack a couple of those in the book. I think part of the project with nationalization in particular is just making it seem less weird. Nationalization sounds radical to a lot of people. But, as you said, in the Second World War—in the lead-up to V-J Day—a lawyer for the War Department estimated the government was taking over a plant per week. More recently, after September 11, the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was the largest mobilization of the federal government since the Second World War.

Walsh Fuchs: And they’re unionized, right?

Aronoff: Yeah. Their creation effectively displaced all of the private contractors who were doing that work beforehand. Not to say that the TSA is a model, but nationalization is not so strange in our history. And we bail out fossil fuel companies all the time. We just bailed out oil companies in the most recent crash; they got a ton of money from the federal government. So giving these companies money is not a strange thing. Doing state planning on behalf of the fossil fuel industry is not a strange thing. Nationalization is, I think, less a matter of the big hand of government coming in and picking winners and losers than it is acknowledging that we’ve been picking winners for a very long time. From the tax code to land leasing, there’s a huge array of public policy that keeps the fossil fuel industry functional. If we shift that away to other things, then they actually look a lot less powerful. Fossil fuels have always been a state-supported project, and it’s time for the state to stop supporting them.

Walsh Fuchs: You also write about the jobs already disappearing in droves.

Aronoff: Last year, oil prices crashed and 120,000 people in the oil and gas sector lost their jobs. Yet we still seem to be having at least a decade-old conversation about the nature of the fossil fuel industry. Even fairly progressive ends of the climate movement are still paying lip service to the idea that the fossil fuel industry is an abundant source of unionized work, which it is not. These jobs have always been subject to boom-and-bust cycles, and to the broader trend of union-busting. No one has killed more jobs in the extractive sector than coal, oil, and gas CEOs.

Part of going after the fossil fuel industry involves peeling off parts of what the coalition has very smartly built. They build that coalition by arguing that they provide these good jobs, and there’s a very easy empirical case to make that they are not doing that.

I think the problem with what we call a “just transition” has been that there haven’t been meaningful alternatives on offer for people in places that have been historically reliant on these industries, and that affects way more than just the people going into mines or manning oil wells. Teacher salaries depend on extractive revenue in many places. Still, we capture relatively little of the wealth that comes out of the fossil fuel industry compared to somewhere like Norway, another big fossil fuel producer. It’s understandable that people don’t think a transition will be just, because they’ve never seen one play out. Any just transition that looks to transition workers into training for jobs building wind turbines that might exist a hundred or two hundred miles away is a lost cause. I don’t think we deal with the climate crisis at the scale it demands without transforming the welfare state.

Walsh Fuchs: What would transforming the welfare state look like? What are some just transition jobs?

Aronoff: There are a lot of folks who have been thinking through this, especially in places like Appalachia. It looks like Medicare for All. It looks like a federal job guarantee. Today, we don’t really have a safety net; the government just scrambles to catch people. There is a lot of work to be done transforming the energy basis of our economy. Not everyone has to move to do that, certainly. But a lot of people will want to move if there’s well-paid work elsewhere. And in a system of healthcare that’s tied to employment, that is logistically difficult and very expensive. That’s another reason why Medicare for All would support people to participate in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

We have to go beyond incentivizing solar and wind companies to create jobs through tax credits. We really need to think beyond that. There’s a lot of valuable work to be done as part of the transition, but we also need to consider working less. There are what David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” that don’t need doing. The United States is tremendously overworked, in part because unions have been destroyed. I talk in the last chapter about a four-day work week as a means of making life a bit more pleasurable—and there are nice climate benefits to that as well. Beyond people commuting a bit less and offices not having to turn on their heat and their lights, there’s an opportunity to have low-carbon leisure. I worked probably ninety hours a week working a full-time job and writing this book in the last year. I couldn’t do the sorts of leisure that one would hope, and I ordered meals instead of cooking for myself. I ordered more shit online than I ever needed. It’s embarrassing to admit. I didn’t need to do that and it didn’t make me happier. Even with a federal job guarantee, I don’t want to fetishize work as the thing that we should be pushing toward. Dignified work would both be more meaningful than it is today and leave more time for things that are not work.

Walsh Fuchs: Can you describe a day under the Green New Deal, or under post-carbon abolition democracy?

Aronoff: It’s Friday, the weekend has started. You’re off from your job making $35 an hour caring for the elderly—a unionized, public-sector job you found through an American Job Center. Last night you facilitated a meeting of your social housing complex’s residents association to decide on whether to use a new batch of federal funds for installing a handball court or swimming pool. Now it’s Friday, and you’re not working, so the options are endless. You could wake up and smoke legal weed, if you so desire, take a walk to a beautiful public park, maybe see a play put on by actors who are being paid through a twenty-first century equivalent of the Federal Theater Project, meet up with friends who are also on their three-day weekend, go barbecue some high-quality affordable lab meat on a public grill, and drink wine grown by farmers who are paid to sequester carbon in their soil. If you want, you can end the day by taking free public transit to the beach to watch the sunset. That was a very New York–centric vision and the kind of thing that sounds good to me, but I would like to think the goal of a Green New Deal is to give people the freedom to experience the kinds of leisure of their own choosing that capitalism makes really difficult.

Walsh Fuchs: That sounds like the best day ever.

Aronoff: Yeah, I’m pumped.

Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at the New Republic and a member of Dissent’s editorial board. She is the co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need A Green New Deal, the co-editor of We Own The Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, and the author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet—And How We Fight Back, out now.

 Lyra Walsh Fuchs is the editorial assistant at Dissent.