A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

A Plea for Realism

The Case for Revolution in a Time of Rapid Climate Change

by Brandon AbsherNovember 18, 2019

Socialists of whatever stripe are often characterized as “unrealistic” by tentative liberals and stalwart conservatives. When it comes to health care, for example, those who support Medicare for All are regularly dismissed as reckless utopians. Thus, Democratic primary candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are derided for their supposed lack of concrete plans or inability to “pay for” their proposals. Not to mention such canards as that they are out to “take away your healthcare!” Within this tired vein, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to take another instance, can call the Green New Deal merely “aspirational,” suggesting that “realism” may require significant compromise on the core principles. It sounds nice, Klobuchar seems to say, but let’s be real.

For my part, I’m all for realism. Which is to say that I think everyone, including socialists like myself, should act on the basis of a sober analysis of what is possible or necessary within their concrete circumstances and do their best to envision the strategies that can bring about needed change. That said, I also find significant inspiration in the slogan “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” used in the protests of May 1968. To me, this doesn’t seem like a contradiction.

Let’s consider climate change again. Here in the RPA Mag, Harry Van Der Linden has described at length the desperate state of affairs, arguing that socialists should support the Green New Deal. Essentially, things have to change drastically very soon if we are to avoid genuinely catastrophic changes to the climate and related effects. Even if we make very significant reductions in carbon emissions now on a global scale, there is good reason to believe that the future will be horrifying in many respects. Just recently, a report published in Nature Communications has estimated that 150 million people could find themselves underwater by 2050. If this report is correct, virtually all of Vietnam will be inundated daily at high tide if very significant changes are not made on a very tight timeline. In light of the severity of the threat, it seems like a logical and emphatically realistic conclusion that humanity must come together globally and act immediately to halt carbon emissions as soon as possible.

Yet, in the minds of many, immediate global action is thought to be practically impossible. Consider that the Green New Deal was defeated in a 57-0 vote in the U.S. Senate in March. In fact, the vote itself was largely a political stunt orchestrated by Republicans, with Senator Mitch McConnell dismissing the plan as a “far-left wishlist.” Meaningful federal action on climate change appears dead in the water in the U.S. despite the fact that one of its most populous states is regularly on fire to an extent previously unimaginable. How could one hope to bring people all across the planet together to act given the intransigence of those in power? Tragically, we are supposed to believe, the only realistic way of averting the very worst is itself unrealistic. Possibly, it is thoughts such as these that led Jonathan Franzen to pen his much-criticized encomium to climate despair. Realism seems to tell us that hope is, by now, mere wishful thinking and, in fact, damaging inasmuch as it may prevent us from, in Franzen’s words, “preparing for the worst.”

But perhaps there is a way of untangling this knot. To start, we must take notice of the presuppositions that lead us to believe that immediate global action on climate is impossible. Let me list just a few: (1) Politicians are the only people with the power to make significant change. (2) Ordinary people have power primarily in their roles as voters and consumers. (3) Human beings act largely out of self-interest and only rarely for the common good or a higher cause. And, (4) an ecologically sound relationship to the environment is only instrumentally valuable, and not desirable in itself. I grant that, in a world in which the listed propositions 1-4 are true, immediate global action to halt carbon emissions is practically impossible.

The only catch is, I don’t think they are true. When people come together to demand significant change almost anything can happen. Massive street protests in Lebanon and Iraq in recent weeks forced governments in both countries to resign. In fact, a flood of popular protests all over the globe has led journalist Amy Goodman to declare that “a worldwide revolution is underway.” Of course, governments may always turn to violence to suppress popular revolt and prevent revolutionary change. But, as Fred Hampton, so eloquently put it long ago: “You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” So, politicians aren’t the only people with the power to make significant change and the power that ordinary people possess is not limited to their roles as voters or consumers. Rather, they may act collectively in the streets, in their workplaces, in their schools, and so on to change the direction of history.

Furthermore, ordinary people are very often more than willing to forego some selfish desires and comforts in order to contribute to something greater. Consider all the volunteers who step up to contribute time, energy, and resources in the wake of natural disasters. People help out as they can when they understand that others are in urgent need. In fact, as famed primate researcher Frans de Waal, among many others, has long argued, altruism is likely an evolved trait that human beings share with many other species. The scale of the climate emergency is great and the scale of the response to it must also be great, certainly. But fundamental human nature and psychology is not an insuperable barrier.

Finally, and because it is necessary to insist, an ecologically sound relationship to the surrounding environment, what Aldo Leopold termed “the land,” and to the planet itself is an intrinsically desirable goal. Much of the business of daily life in our time is consumed with what anthropologist David Graeber refers to as “bullshit jobs,” mindless immersion in in depressing and narcissistic social media use, and wasteful and unnecessary consumption of ultimately unfulfilling gadgets and products. As the Epicureans argued long ago, life can be both simple and pleasurable. Indeed, the most pleasurable may be the simplest. If that is so, then a robust social transformation based on a sound ecological ethic is desirable not only because it allows us to avert great catastrophe, but also because it will make us saner and happier people.

Over and over again, we are told to accept misery, degradation, and environmental catastrophe as insurmountable facets of “reality.” This is the “realism” of the ruling order and its emissaries. If they don’t want it, it won’t happen. But as any clear-eyed person can see, it is in fact wishful thinking and solipsistic megalomania parading as hard-headed commitment to the cold hard truth - the petulant orders of spoiled children dressed up as facts of the matter. We can reject these orders. In the name of the planet, we must. The question is only whether we have the courage to be realistic and demand the impossible.