Humankind stands at the cusp of its gravest challenge, and the prospective survival of the species itself hangs in the balance. While there is a clear attempt on the part of many invested in the status quo to depict this crisis as debatable or the product of “fuzzy science,” the reality is that an unprecedented and near-unanimous consensus exists among all credible sources that indeed the predicament is real and the window of action is rapidly closing. Against this backdrop of deniers and the potential disempowerment inherent in dire predictions, a global movement has arisen to meet the challenges of climate change in all of its dimensions – from the social to the ecological, and as to both its short- and long-term impacts.
Brian Tokar’s essential new book, Toward Climate Justice, chronicles the theoretical foundations and pragmatic aims of this emerging global movement. In so doing, the work embodies a critical spirit that embraces challenges by seeing them as equivalent opportunities, and yet does not shirk from starkly depicting the magnitude of the crises before us. Tokar’s clear prose and seasoned perspective guide the reader through a heady understanding of the climate change controversy and the creative, dynamic responses being offered. While no single work can encapsulate the totality of these defining epochal inquiries, Toward Climate Justice renders itself indispensible simply by being eminently rational in the face of impending chaos. This is as much a testament to Tokar’s presence as it is to the thesis advanced.
The premise of the book is contained in the statement that the climate crisis perhaps “can indeed help us envision a transition toward a more harmonious, more humane and ecological way of life” (98). Tokar rejects the apocalyptic tendencies reflected in some anti-authoritarian left thinking, and instead seeks to radically reclaim “hope” as an essential and sustaining component for building a movement capable of fending off cataclysm and interposing a new vision at the same time. But this is not a false hope of the sort plied by “green capitalists” and their ilk at every turn, and Tokar thoroughly debunks many of the standard alternatives bandied about by the power elite, from nuclear power and biofuels (a net climate change contributor) to carbon markets and offsets (which perpetuate the inequalities that brought us to the brink in the first place). At the same time, options such as wind and solar are explored in terms of their viability as part of a future that likewise includes reductions in energy use and increased efficiency.
On the nuclear question in particular, Tokar puts forth his most eloquent and passionate pitch. The anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and ’80s is cited as a primary precursor of today’s global justice and climate justice movements, and its successful intervention has prevented even a single new nuclear plant from being brought online in America since Three Mile Island. Tokar exposes the centralizing, toxifying, and bankrupting qualities of nuclear power, and likewise points out that it is a failure both in terms of its inputs (destructive uranium mining that impacts indigenous communities and the environment) and outputs (deadly wastes that cannot be sequestered or disposed of in any feasible manner) alike. It is further cogently observed that nuclear power feeds directly into the interests of “a police state – due to the massive security apparatus necessary to protect” its volatile workings (87).
Against this, Toward Climate Justice propounds a vision of a radically decentralized, solar powered, democratically governed, and locally controlled future. Applying the tenets of “social ecology” in which he is unequivocally steeped (Tokar directs the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont), a “reharmonization” of social and ecological issues is proposed that devolves upon long-range thinking, the rejection of all forms of domination, and political activity aimed at producing a rich ecological consciousness. One of the salient points demonstrating this inherent social-ecological nexus is that “those who contribute the least to the problem of global warming will continue to face the most severe consequences” (24), a point echoed by others who have explored in-depth the disparate burdens of climate change faced by communities of color and impoverishment (e.g., Hoerner and Robinson, 2008).
Tokar further investigates the emergence of a vibrant, multifaceted climate justice movement that seeks to address the underlying roots of global warming, which necessitates calling into question the workings of the entire capitalist model as well as the socio-political edifice that serves it. Notions of “greening” capitalism and democratizing the “permanent war economy” are rejected as merely extending “a way of life that can only continue to devour the earth and its peoples” (124). Still, Tokar is no anti-civilization nihilist rooting for “collapse” to open a space for the emergence of a new world; rather, he grasps the deeper reality that “our very survival now depends on our ability to renounce the global status quo and create a more humane and ecologically balanced way of life” (52). In order to accomplish this, we must “evolve a broad, counterhegemonic social movement that refuses to compromise its values and settle for partial measures” (124), lest we find that our narrow window of opportunity is forever closed.
Undoubtedly, there are those who will criticize Tokar’s uncompromising perspective – including some who are otherwise aligned with his broader thesis about the urgency of the historical moment in which we find ourselves. For instance, a number of potentially likeminded climate justice advocates have embraced nuclear power as part of the potential solution, including James Lovelock and Stewart Brand (78), and especially James Hansen, a pioneer in climate science and an early voice warning of the dire consequences of human-caused global warming (Farley, 2010). Those with a more scientific bent in particular will point out that Toward Climate Justice is longer on rhetorical descriptions than it is on hard science, and indeed the work would benefit from the inclusion of more sober analyses that demonstrate unstintingly how and in what manner certain climatic and ecological thresholds are being crossed in a mutually-reinforcing and almost certainly irreversible manner (e.g., Rockstrom, et al., 2009).
Still, likely readers with a movement-oriented perspective will find much to be informed about and inspired by in Tokar’s important and persuasive book. The reality is that for much of the public, science remains a mystery, and many misconceptions abound as to even relatively simple climate-related matters such as photosynthesis and the seasons (see Somerville, 2010). What we most urgently need are pragmatically-grounded calls of the sort that Tokar is issuing, namely ones that integrate the best qualities of environmentalism, philosophy, social science, and creativity (cf. Nisbet, et al., 2010). It is in this integrative vein that Toward Climate Justice spectacularly succeeds, as a holistic and accessible reminder of the stakes that we face and the indomitable spirit that is rising up to meet the challenge.
Farley, John W. (2010). Our last chance to save humanity? In Monthly Review 62(4), September.
Hoerner, J. Andrew and Nia Robinson (2008). A climate of change: African Americans, global warming, and a just climate policy for the U.S. Oakland, CA: Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative.
Nisbet, Matthew C., et al. (2010). Four cultures: New synergies for engaging society on climate change. In Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6(8): 329-31, August.
Rockstrom, Johan, et al. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. In Nature 461(24): 472-5, September.
Somerville, Richard C. J. (2010). How much should the public know about climate science? In Climatic Change, October 21, DOI 10.1007/s10584-010-9938-y.
Tokar, Brian (2010). Toward climate justice: Perspectives on the climate crisis and social change. Porsgrunn, Norway: Communalism Press.