Socialism’s all the rage. “We Are All Socialists Now,” Newsweek declares. As the right wing tells it, we’re already living in the U.S.S.A. But what do self-identified socialists (and their progressive friends) have to say about the global economic crisis? In the March 4, 2009, issue, we published Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.’s “Rising to the Occasion” as the opening essay in a forum on “Reimagining Socialism.” TheNation.com will feature new replies to their essay over the coming weeks, fostering what we hope will be a spirited dialogue.
A few weeks after taking office, Steven Chu, Obama’s Nobel Prize-winning energy secretary, gave his first interview, with the Los Angeles Times. The reporter asked him about climate change. “I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” he said, describing the computer models that showed the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada would melt ever faster in the years ahead. Should that happen, he said, “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.” And he added, “I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going” either. Well.
In Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher’s very fine essay, the most important section is about what has changed: first, the economic carnage all around us, but second–even more important–the wave of environmental destruction crashing over our heads. I’m definitely not a laissez-faire, Ayn Rand, libertarian capitalist. (Is anyone anymore? Alan Greenspan is calling for nationalizing the banks.) But I’m not sure I’m much of a socialist either, because both those faiths seem to me rooted in an earlier moment–a moment when we had some margin. A moment when the problem was growth and how best to make it happen and share its fruits.
That’s not our problem anymore. Our problem is how to deal with a crisis that will define our world for the foreseeable future. In November the International Energy Agency announced that all its earlier rosy forecasts about oil supplies were wrong–in fact, the world’s oilfields are facing “natural declines” in yield of about 7 percent a year. The fuel for free-market fundamentalism and Marxism was fossil fuel, and we’re not going to have it. (Or to the extent we do, and that extent would be coal, we’re not going to be able to burn it without triggering even more climate chaos.) The atmosphere that birthed all our ideologies held about 275 parts per million CO2. Now that number is 387 parts per million, which is why the Arctic is melting. Our foremost climatologists tell us that the chief goal of any politics for the twenty-first century has to be getting that number back down below 350, because the current elevated levels are “simply not compatible with keeping a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed.” All that is frozen melts into the sea, or something like that.