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The State Will Not Save Us From Climate Change


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At Public Books, geographers Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, who coauthored the recent book Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future, argue that it is folly to expect the “capitalist state” to do anything meaningful to combat climate change. In contrast to some socialist thinkers who believe that the state, under progressive political, is our only hope, Mann and Wainwright write that there is no historical evidence to suggest that the state is capable of disciplining capital to the extent that our climate emergency requires. Our only hope, say Mann and Wainwright, lies with non-state movements. Here’s an excerpt:

To argue that our only hope of meeting the Paris commitments lies with national governments is to argue that sovereign territorial nation-states are the only hope for stable human communities of the future. This is a political or ideological claim, not an environmental or scientific one. The claim that the state (and inter-state cooperation) has the best shot at saving civilization is not based on the state’s proven capacities for environmental management, its record of mitigating environmental damage, or the historical achievements of “sustainable” states. The record on these fronts is actually not good. Instead, the emphasis on the state stems from its unique capacity to organize our collective lives. The implicit premise is that if anything will allow us to avoid the violence toward which we seem to be hurtling, it is the state—or better, the unification of capitalist states, collaborating to save life on Earth. This is a premise worth questioning …

Our point is not simply that if a green capitalist state could be realized, it would not be as good as a climate politics that rejected the state as its principal means. Rather, it is that such a state is, if not impossible, almost unbelievably unlikely. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise. Indeed, all the available evidence would suggest that the state has almost always played a key role in the creation of this mess, not to mention the violence that has preserved it. There is, however, considerable evidence to suggest that non-state actors—including in the Canadian case many Indigenous groups who explicitly reject the state—are much more likely to create the conditions for the kind of change the moment demands. In the key fight against the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion in British Columbia, for example, Indigenous and allied organization and opposition on many fronts have had the biggest positive impact on Canada’s disastrous climate trajectory. Partly for this reason, the general consensus in the climate justice movement in British Columbia is that the sooner that Indigenous rights and titles are fully realized, and the influence of the Canadian or any other state has been reduced across their territories, the better off we’ll all be.

Image via Public Books.