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Book Review Burnt: A thought-provoking study of the climate emergency – but is it too late for such optimism?

KEVIN FREA is unconvinced that a strategy beginning with the left taking power can get off the ground

THE recent trio of IPCC reports have amplified the urgent need for carbon emissions to be reduced by 50 per cent by 2030, starting now. 

Incredibly, rather than support the demands of the Just Stop Oil protesters to halt all new fossil fuel projects (a call supported by the International Energy Agency and the secretary-general of the UN) — the Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative parties have called for the protesters to be “cracked down on” and for their demands to be rejected.

I celebrated at the Labour Party conference in 2019 when a Green New Deal and a 2030 zero-carbon target were adopted in the face of strong opposition from some unions and even Labour’s own Environmental Society, Sera. 

Chris Saltmarsh co-founded “Labour for a Green New Deal,” so I opened his book with high expectations. However, reading Burnt alongside other analyses of the necessary changes to the British economy and society, from Limits to Growth published in 1972 to Less is More by Jason Hickel, I fear that inconvenient truths about reducing energy and resource consumption are being ignored in policy discussions. We’ve had more than 50 years of strategies to address the climate and ecological emergencies yet their collective impact has hardly hindered the machine which is literally laying waste to our life-support system.

Chris sets the scene in a chapter surveying humanity’s dire situation. Perhaps to widen the appeal, it stopped short of the most recent and most apocalyptic predictions. 

Saltmarsh, like Greta Thunberg, leaves the details to the experts in order to make his next point about justice — the best section of the book. He gives concrete examples of how government programmes and climate interventions all-too-inadvertently hurt some of the people they intended to help. For Saltmarsh, any climate action must be steeped in notions of justice, and that brings us to politics.

He argues strongly that government engagement is a necessary part of the climate response equation, and therefore that the climate movement must win political power, then this remark: “Whichever [strategy] we choose [to win state power], we should really go all in on it” (p127).

This is a little bit troubling because the world does not work like that anymore, if it ever did. These are times of fragmentation, plurality, when the subject of protest changes every few months, when most manifestations last a single day, when agents provocateurs and corrosive conspiracy theories attach themselves to every alternative movement. Elections are not won when half the electorate chooses a strategy. Elections are won by political messaging which is broad enough to appeal to half the electorate.
 
He then sketches out nine policy pillars of a Just Green New Deal, nothing surprising there, except that he didn’t mention any of the problems with gaining traction for the whole idea of greening the economy. 

He could be forgiven if he missed the 2020 paper in the One Earth journal entitled Green Sacrifice Zones, or Why a Green New Deal Cannot Ignore the Cost Shifts of Just Transitions. 

Like many other analyses, it gives scores of reasons not only why there simply aren’t enough resources to green our energy systems, but also why no attempt to do so could be considered “just;” not only are there not enough minerals to go around, so that wealthy countries would control their allocation, but the mineral extraction itself would consume resources, and damage habitats, ecosystems and livelihoods. Given that these ideas were presented in an accessible documentary called Bright Green Lies, no serious treatment of the topic should ignore them.

Just one more piece of the puzzle remains, which is how the left should take power. Many people would find his answer, through the trade unions, surprising. 

He gives many anecdotes about trade union successes, even recent ones, but even I understand that Thatcher and Reagan “broke” the unions for a reason, and New Labour did little to build them up. Now many the unions (with a handful of notable exceptions who despair of the current Labour leadership) could be characterised as de-radicalised and infected by managerialism it takes a vivid imagination to see them rising up and sweeping the Labour Party into power.

Saltmarsh’s strategy seems ill-timed to say the least. He must have started work on the book very soon after Corbyn’s election loss, not an ordinary defeat or a close defeat, but a defeat largely made possible by members of his own party who preferred to lose to the right than win as the left. 

Thirty-five years ago this strategy would have been apposite, five years ago would have seemed improbable but prophetic in the light of Corbyn’s rise, but now? Corbyn has been replaced by a neoliberal unelectable nobody, and the left banished to the outer margins of politics. I for one would not double down on a strategy of Labour winning the next election, or the one after that.

This is after all a climate emergency, and local councils have declared it as such as a direct result of climate strikers and Extinction Rebellion’s campaigning. 

That provides a commitment that future campaigns can and should call upon. This is a greater legacy than Jeremy Corbyn’s two lost election campaigns, but Saltmarsh, who had “moved on” from direct action, considers it only as evidence of XR’s political failure. 

This is a shame because at the local level much can be done, and where Labour is actually allowed to govern. It also offers a viable path to work towards national influence and power, while achieving more immediate changes in the lives of citizens.

Despite its use of past tense in the title, the biggest limitation of Burnt was the whole framing of climate change as something which is coming, and which can be averted. 

Anyone versed in the climate justice discourse knows that global heating is already ruining the lives of the most vulnerable, and will certainly worsen considerably before any of our mitigative attempts can make a dent in it. Talk of evading it is simply naive. 

This false “we can still evade it” also brings with it a relentless focus on a very clear, but very improbable notion of success, which sets us up to fail very badly. 

It is time for the climate movement to admit that it has tried everything and not even come close to tackling the causes of the climate and ecological emergencies, which are very deep, and in which our elites are very invested. A significant amount of effort must now be given over to adaptation to the new reality. In that context, a union powered neo-Corbyn victory and a just Green New Deal might be worth fighting for, or they might not.

But one remark toward the end cast the whole book in a new light and somewhat redeemed it, at least for me. It turned a political what-if into a psychological thriller. 

For one moment, another Saltmarsh, hitherto doubtless cowed into embarrassed silence, piped up with five words. Even though bracketed, it was music to my ears. 

“We don’t have to be optimistic (On most days I’m not) but we can be hopeful.”

That Saltmarsh, hesitant and vulnerable, who stuck his head above the parapet to be shot at by the fake optimists, gets my salute. 

Those five meek words reveal that the louder Saltmarsh, and many big environmentalists besides, are proclaiming to us the comforting lies they tell themselves to avoid the pain of thinking realistically about the future. But neither volume nor repetition are measures of truth.
 
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the book inaccurately dismisses a movement which is all about helping people through climate despair, Deep Adaptation, as “austere primitivism.” Instead, a more sober and inclusive range of ideas, big and small, are being pioneered after despair within that movement, as chronicled in a book about it. If young people could be guided through their despair rather than drowning it under reams (in this case chapters) of wishful thinking, something more impactful could emerge to shape the difficult future they must now live into.

Kevin Frea is deputy leader of Lancaster City Council and the founder of Climate Emergency UK. He originally joined Labour in the ’70s (and SERA when it had eco-socialist tendencies) and then re-joined in 2015 to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign and became a councillor in 2017. He resigned from Labour with several fellow councillors when the new leadership of the Labour Party abandoned the conference net zero commitments, and is now an independent eco-socialist.

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