Photo: Christo Sims

Daniel Aldana Cohen

ASA Panel: Moving Backward/Looking Forward: Crisis, Comparison, and History (organized by Mabel Brezerin)

August 9, 2021

I’m honored to be here. As someone who isn’t a historical sociologist at all, but who tries to think historically, I appreciate the chance to converse with such distinguished colleagues. What I lack in experience and expertise, I’ll try to make up for with provocation. After a bit of stage-setting, I’m going to argue that historical work in sociology can undertake an environmental turn in two ways—first, by reconstructing historical sociology in dialogue with environmental science, environmental history, and political ecology, among other fields; and second, by acknowledging—and returning to—the futurological character of many of the discipline’s founding thinkers.

As you can see, I’m going to take advantage of this somewhat informal format to make some general remarks.

Stage-setting. It’s far from obvious that mainstream sociological knowledge production—historical sociology included—has been adequately calibrated to speak to important 21st century developments. Take three examples: the rise of genetic engineering (and biotechnology more broadly), the explosion of artificial intelligence (and revolutions in computing power, more broadly), and the deepening climate emergency (and the broader ecological crisis, including the potential collapse of biodiversity). 

Climate politics are my expertise. I’ll focus on those. Today, a new report was released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As you can imagine, I haven’t had a chance to read it; but I know there will be no surprises. All these reports are essentially the same. As one Guardian column was titled this morning, “The IPCC report is clear: nothing short of transforming society will avert catastrophe.” Transforming society. Shouldn’t that be our specialty? Shouldn’t historical sociology be the synthetic framework for linking environmental and social transformations? 

Historical sociology could be an essential social scientific compliment to earth system science. As someone who has done a lot of work on Green New Deal policy, working closely with legislators in the “squad,” with the youth climate movement, and with other progressive groups, I can assure you that everyone is scrambling to find a theory of change that’s grounded in history. The IPCC knows many things—it does not know how massive social change happens.

It won’t be easy. The great climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert has written that “Humans are producing no-analog climates, no-analog ecosystems, a whole no-analog future.” I think she’s right. We are facing unprecedented levels of migration, energy system change, extreme weather events, infrastructural disruption, agricultural change, and potentially racial violence, to name a fraction of what’s coming. We have no precedent for a world in which a handful of molecules—greenhouse gases—become one of the most important causal factors in shaping social life. Carbon is the ultimate dependent, and the ultimate independent, variable.

And all this will occur in a world in which biology and computing are revolutionized, in which the most important capitalist entity will probably be the Chinese Community Party, and in the context of countless other dynamics that have little to do with the histories and “social facts” of the United States and Western Europe. 

The odds that postwar sociology’s customary categories and debates will explain 21st century social change… are low.

Even if the entire field of sociology were to undergo a Du Boisian turn and a decolonial turn tomorrow—and I would wholeheartedly support that—it would still need to undergo an intersecting environmental turn. I myself am in the early stages of a major research program on eco-apartheid. I’ll be developing theory; I’ve begun collaborative quantitative work; and I’m hoping to synthesize some of these currents of scholarship. One takeaway so far: The stories of power, inequality, and climate change are the same story—and they have been for centuries.

And looking forward, if sociology is in part defined as the social scientific domain that always focuses on inequality, then my friends, few things will transform inequalities like the impacts of climate change, reactions to climate change, and the trillions and trillions of dollars that will be invested to confront climate change. 

So, what can historical sociological work do to inform scholars and publics? 

First, I would argue that we should revisit our historical accounts in dialogue with environmental science. We need to do so in light of theories of racial capitalism and colonialism, and the global histories that this entails. I would also hope to see a kind of mash-up of historical sociology, environmental history, political ecology, and the natural sciences. In short—a systematic environmental turn in historical sociology. We should be thinking about the intersections of capitalist development, landscape transformation, social imaginaries, resource extraction, inequalities, social movement mobilization, and so on. Of course, we are catching glimpses of this already. And undoubtedly, a lot is happening that I don’t know about. 

I do want to highlight in particular the work of Jason Moore, Raj Patel, Andreas Malm, Hillary Angelo, and before them Maria Mies and Immanuel Wallerstein, among many others. Broadly speaking, this is a current of scholarship that has understood the rise of capitalism as a fundamentally global phenomenon, taken account of its relationship to non-human natures, and treated inequalities of race, class, gender, and nation as key causes and consequences. I see this work as broadly consistent with the rise of new work on racial capitalism and colonialism, about which much has been said already during this ASA. In my view, Jason Moore and Raj Patel in particular have done extraordinary work in finessing an analytic framework that links the colonization of the Americas, the rise of capitalism, and the surge in greenhouse gas emissions from massive landscape transformation and fossil fuel use. And this work isn’t just additive: economy plus society plus nature. It is synthetic. Moore’s work especially offers a framework for understanding how economic accumulation required a combination of formal labor exploitation, of the appropriation of unpaid work by slaves, women, and other indentured workers; how all this economic work required specific forms of scientific knowledge, from “race science” to more successful natural science, developed in the past several centuries; this work shows how increases in economic productivity were initially achieved before industrialization, in the contexts of European colonialism and slavery; and this early capitalism, in Moore et al’s telling, went on to define the use of fossil fuels starting in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now Moore may be wrong about a little or a lot. But the work of Moore, among others in this tradition, has the advantage of providing conceptually coherent frameworks, dialoging with historical work across fields, dialoguing with environmental science, and offering holistic accounts of how environmental destruction and modern inequalities are mutually productive. So there is, on the margins of our field, an environmental turn in historical sociology now underway.

And yet, remarkably, the best single synthesis I know of, that links this environmental historical work with cutting-edge earth system science is a book, The Human Planet, written by two well-read natural scientists, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin. Lewis and Maslin have also shown, in Nature, that the first major human intervention in the chemical composition in the atmosphere was in the 16th century, when the Americas witnessed a massive reforestation following the genocide of tens of millions of Indigenous people. That reforestation likely reduced the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere by around 6 parts per million. This likely contributed to the Little Ice Age that historians in particular have recently analyzed. 

Sociologists shouldn’t be getting upstaged by earth system scientists in providing synthetic, analytic, historical accounts that explain how changes in social structure drive changes in global ecology, in a looping causal spiral.

I must also note that some currents of our environmental sociology subfield have also been doing similar work, often in the contexts of a broad research program on environmental injustice focussed on racial inequalities of power and health in the United States. Dorcetta Taylor has been rewriting American political and urban history in terms of a more expansive concept of racialized environmental politics. Kari Marie Norgaard is now linking environmental sociology to work on race formation and Indigenous studies. John Bellamy Foster, especially in his great work Marx’s Ecology, has shown that the materialist tradition of social science—Marx’s work especially—was based on continuous engagement with natural science. Marx was obsessed with soil science; he sent a copy of Das Kapital to Darwin. We could talk about Latour and Science and Technology Studies. All on the margins of mainstream sociology. How did this happen? 

Riley Dunlap and William Catton argued in the late 1970s that sociology had fallen into the Durkheim trap of excluding the non-human natural world, in obeisance to the concept of “social facts.” In response, mainstream sociology ignored, downplayed, and marginalized the challenge. Until extremely recently, the sociology of climate change’s absence from the field’s top journals and departments has been… striking. Embarrassing, actually. Was the ASA so different from the oil companies that have worked to trivialize climate science since the early 1980s? Companies like Exxon and Shell had—on their own staff—scientists telling them that climate science was real and important as early as the late 1970s. Today, activists condemn the oil companies’ self-conscious science denial with phrases like #ExxonKnew. Could we not also say, #SociologyKnew? #ASAKnew? 

So there are resources aplenty, in fact, in the world systems tradition, in the historical work focused on race and colonialism, in the various currents of environmental sociology, to inform a broad environmental turn in the historical sociologies of capitalism, modernity, and the climate emergency. And if this were a much longer seminar, we could dig into all the ways that historical sociological theorizing on events, social movements, ideologies, etc etc, could be retooled as part of an environmental turn. So the point isn’t to burn everything that’s already been done. 

Rather, just as decarbonization will require retrofitting all our existing buildings with new, healthy, all-electric systems, we need to retrofit historical sociology.

Let me turn very briefly to my second idea, which I develop in passing in my current book project, Street Fight: Climate Change and Inequality in the 21st Century City. In my terminology, this is “social backcasting.” I just leave that as a little label, which I’ll explain further another time. 

In any case, my second idea is that we should recognize—and return to—the holistic futurological underpinnings of prior generations of social thinkers. This is a slightly more abstract form of environmental turn, and it applies equally to the study of other new forces that will transform social life, like genetics and artificial intelligence. Marx is the most obvious example. The capitalist world that he and Engels described in 1848 could have been written as a commentary on Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times—a movie that came out almost a century later. Weber’s work was published decades before Kafka’s. And like all political economists, Marx was multi-disciplinary. And his materialism has inspired some of the most holistic, synthetic currents of sociology, history, anthropology, geography, sometimes even political science. Of course, the early 19th century social theorists, like Fourier and Saint Simon, are also of interest as holistic futurologists. As Krishan Kumar wrote decades ago, these thinkers theorized post-industrialism long before the development of the industrial revolution! They utterly scooped Daniel Bell and Alain Touraine (who mostly ignored their forerunners). 

And speaking of Bell and Touraine—their theories of the post-industrial society may seem quaint today. But they were influential! Touraine’s whole concept of new social movements—which underlies almost all work on social movements to this today—flowed from his (deeply flawed) earlier work on post-industrialism. Or consider Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Henri Lefebrvre’s Urban Revolution, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction—a book whose analysis of race and class explains the New Deal just as well as Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself. All these signal works—and countless others could be included as well—all these works were partly charged by ideas about what lay ahead. Their expectations of the future utterly structured their theorizations of their past and present; for better and worse, our schools of social thought are almost all founded in futurological reason. 

A historical sociology of social theory’s futurology might remind us that there is nothing new in reorienting sociological analysis around new developments, and adjacent forms of knowledge.

Let me end with a simple idea that exemplifies these arguments. 

Imagine including summaries of the research of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in an introductory sociology syllabus—and in a historical sociology syllabus. This might seems weird. But think of the productive “breach” this could cause. In the wake of an IPCC report summary, one could read Shelly, Marx, Weber, Du Bois, and others, in terms of how they thought about the futures of science and capitalism. In the wake of an IPCC report summary, one would have to include texts on the relationship between resource extraction, inequalities, and the rise of racial capitalism, colonialism, “modernity,” etc. In the wake of reading an IPCC report summary, one might look to historical sociology for big stories about big social transformations that could guide our thinking and actions today. 

Historical sociology needs to undertake an environmental turn. And the climate emergency would be easier to tackle if the public in general, and mobilized political actors in particular, had an adequately calibrated environmental, historical sociology to think with.


Hot & Bothered, a new climate politics podcast for the 99% that I’m co-hosting with the journalist Kate Aronoff, is growing up. In our first episode, we talked to Bill McKibben and Tara Houska. You can read more and listen here at the Dissent magazine website. They’re hosting the show.

Our second episode, featuring Naomi Klein, just went up today.

In a perfect world, you’d be able to listen to it on a fancy Stitcher app embedded in this blog post. But I’m not good enough at this computer to make that world a reality!

But you can see my efforts here:

Also, you can find us at the iTunes store (*****please rate us there*****). And we would love love love to get your comments, questions, complaints, and any other feedback on social media, via #hotbotheredclimate. (Because #hotandbothered: you just don’t want to go there.)


First, the climate talks in Paris were a nail-biter. Then they were brutal disaster and a brilliant success at the same time. Now we’ve all moved on. Or have we?

Now that the emotional dust has settled, Kate Aranoff and I have hosted an audio blog (basically a one-off podcast) with Dissent magazine that parses what went down in Paris.

In Dissenting Climate: After Paris, What’s Next? we did a recap of the recaps; Kate taped a report from Paris, where she hung out with climate justice activists mobilizing around the talks, from French anti-fascist organizers to the global indigenous movement; and I interviewed Timmons Roberts, a leading scholar of climate politics and long-time observer (and sometimes participant) of global climate summits.

Sometimes you just have to talk it out.

Kate’s segment is great because it’s so rare that you get to hear one—never mind four or five—distinct voices from the global climate justice movement. And in my interview with Timmons we covered a ton of ground, from rich countries’ lack of follow-through on their promises of climate finance to the global south, to Timmons’ argument that we’re now seeing in Rhode Island the emergence of a real coalition behind a kind of green new deal that could inspire analogous efforts in other regions.

Along with the blog, we’ve posted links to all the articles and documents that came up during the show.

Part of this “audio blog” experiment is to see what it might look like to do a podcast that bridges the narrower audiences for climate wonkery, climate justice activism, and climate news with the broader world of people who care about politics and care about justice, but who are struggling to find a way to connect to the climate issue. The good news is, Kate and I aren’t done, yet. There could be more talking cure coming. But more on that later.

This is just a place-holder to note that I’m eagerly awaiting the May 2016 release of an issue of Public Culture—a fantastic academic and cultural journal—on the theme, Climate Change and the Future of Cities. An essay of mine on São Paulo, called “The Rationed City,” will be in the issue. Long timelines in academia are frustrating. But worry not! Sea levels will be rising for millennia, thanks to the carbon already emitted by human civilization. So there will be lots of time for readers to digest the issue and take thoughtful action.

(From the Huffington Post)

(From the Huffington Post)

Is Greenpeace on a roll? Forget the kayaktivists for a moment. They’re also doing something interesting on Greece, using a touch of their symbolic capital to draw attention to the country’s potential for economic-ecological solar win-wins. This is just a quick note following up on my piece on the lesson’s of that country’s fiscal water-boarding, austerity and climate politics. I’m not delving into details.

But here are the basics. Greenpeace has set up an Indiegogo campaign called Solarization of Greece, which opens with they pretty attractive subhead “From Austerity to Abundance.” The basic logic is pretty straightforward:

With energy poverty being one of the most dramatic symptoms of the Greek crisis (6 out of 10 households are struggling to pay their energy bills), investing in the abundant sun, the country’s biggest asset, will be key to a Greek recovery.

It will help us put money back in real people’s pockets by reducing their energy bills, it will help put people back to work with new skills and opportunities, and it will help support a renewable energy revolution that is sweeping the globe.


Currently, hundreds of millions of Euros are wasted every year importing expensive oil for power generation onto the so-called “Island of the Sun”, while the island’s most generous energy source remains underutilised. Worse still, people living there continue to face serious energy shortages.

Cheap solar energy will not only provide immediate financial relief for families, it will also drastically reduce expensive oil consumption, and create much needed jobs; particularly among the young.

They’ve even made a cute little video:

Greenpeace’s ED, Kumi Naidoo, drives the point home on in a Huffington Post piece:

Greece’s short-lived ‘PV Spring’ of 2009-2013, driven by a feed-in tariff scheme, provided a glimpse of the country’s real solar potential. Within five years installed solar capacity jumped from 47 to over 2,500 megawatts. A total of €4.5 billion was invested in modernising the energy sector and created around 50,000 jobs. In all, around 100,000 Greek families benefited from the rise of the solar PV industry in one of the European countries most renowned for its sun.

Today, Greece is in a position to do much more.

Now obviously you can’t turn around Greece’s equivalent of a Great Depression with an Indiegogo campaign. In part, because as that video shows, the intrinsic cuteness requirement of online feelgood campaigns gets grating—fast. Still, if the environmental movement shifts harder in this direction—low-carbon economic development, timed well, and widely communicated—it’s only for the good.

Solar panels alone won’t save us. But greens piling on to solarize Greece wouldn’t just give that country’s leftist political project a shot in the arm. (Um, and why wasn’t Left Platform leader and #grexit hawk Panos Lafazanis plumping for this kind of thing since January to all who would listen?) The green movement would also benefit from taking this kind of fight more seriously, building alliances with fighting political movements in the looming battle against ecoapartheid.

Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen arrested in front of the White House in August 2011

Former NASA climate scientist James Hansen arrested in front of the White House in August 2011

All over the internet, you can find reputable climate scientists circling the wagons around mainstream views on sea level rise. Why? Because climate scientist James Hansen, formerly of NASA, and 16 other scientists have released a study, not-yet peer-reviewed, that projects sea levels could rise by up to 10 feet by the end of this century—way faster than earlier studies have suggested—swamping cities like Shanghai and New York.

There are good reasons to both embrace and reject this study without reading it (or being able to understand it). 1. Hansen is one of the world’s leading climate scientists who has often been a bit of a hawk, out in front of the crowd, and subsequently been proving right. But 2. Hansen has increasingly joined up with activists, making his dire predictions suspicious—maybe he’s just trying to prime the climate action pump. But fascinating as all this is from a social studies of science perspective, it’s missing the point! Namely: that the most dangerous sea-level rise is probably avoidable through decarbonization.

On this point, actually, much more “mainstream” approaches agree. As Ben Strauss puts it, summarizing his research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

By the end of this century, if global climate emissions continue to increase, that may lock in 23 feet of sea level rise, and threaten 1,429 municipalities that would be mostly submerged at high tide. Those cities have a total population of 18 million. But under a very low emissions scenario, our sea level rise commitment might be limited to about 7.5 feet, which would threaten 555 coastal municipalities: some 900 fewer communities than in the higher-emissions scenario.

Put more simply, some sea level rise is inevitable. But the most catastrophic outcomes depend on how much carbon we emit. The danger that cities face is a dependent variable. This is actually not remotely obvious to the world of climate resiliency, where designers and policy entrepreneurs specialize in fortifying cities from bad weather while remaining, in practice, ambivalent about the root causes of this danger—namely, carbon emissions.

(PS: why ultra-rapid sea level rise is a real prospect)


Back to Hansen. I find it strange that while techies and financiers obsess over “black swans“—implausible but possible catastrophic developments—climate activists and scholars are huffing that Hansen et al’s study is just a particularly grim scenario. So were World War 2 and the 2008 financial meltdown. And yet neither posed a threat to civilization on the level of climate change. All smart people should worry about plausible outlier scenarios.

In other words, the climate community might benefit from a little less respectability politics, and a little more creative thinking on cities and climate change. While oceans swollen by global warming threaten to swallow our cities, mainstream climate debate still accepts a bizarre division of labor: countries are supposed to pass carbon taxes and energy policies, little communities are supposed to install solar panels, and cities are supposed to fortify themselves. When we accept this framework, we disarm one of our most potent low-carbon weapons: cities, and the whole wide range of political actors who take urbanization as their object of struggle.

In fact, changes to the urban form, necessary under all scenarios, and potentially funded by the mountains of idle cash lurking in our economy, could slash carbon emissions by a massive amount, directly and indirectly, without building a single solar panel or windmill. The New Urbanist Peter Calthrope estimates that by 2050, the US could meet half its decarbonization targets through pro-density planning alone. Even if it were just a quarter, the effort would be essential. Further emissions reductions could be achieved indirectly by reducing the private consumption of so much unnecessary stuff (produced elsewhere) by redirecting city-dwellers’ time and energy, away from buying unneeded crap and toward spending time with other people (playing sports, watching plays, getting drunk, etc) in ways that safe, dense urban spaces facilitate.

This approach need not have anything to do with “green austerity” (which is a terrible idea). There are ways of pursuing such an urban agenda in ways that would dramatically improve the quality of life of the poor and working class.

We should treat the Hansen study not as a threat to scientists’ reputation for comfortably conservative estimates, but as fuel for the intellectual and political work needed to survive the 21st century. And that includes boldly transforming and decarbonizing the city.

Courtesy of the Guardian liveblog. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Instant reaction: 6 theses on the climate politics of the Greek crisis #oxi #climate

  1. Those who consume a lot are prepared to slash the consumption of those who already consume less
    1. We already saw w the Volcker shock in the US that this could be waged from above, as a proxy class war, for a short period of time
    2. We now see how this austerity can be imposed indefinitely (or at least, this is what Eurozone elites are hoping to do PIGS countries, and especially Greece), pitting nations against each other
    3. Eco-apartheid is a real prospect, and the EU is not a firewall against it but, perhaps, its most likely champion
  2. Austerity can be imposed in and by liberal democracies—but not indefinitely. There are forces on the right and left who will challenge it, and they may succeed by banding together. They won’t necessarily care about carbon concentration in the atmosphere. Climate activists should be very careful to not line up behind austerity. (Just repeating “green jobs” a hundred times a week is not enough; when push comes to shove, the substance of outsiders’ economic plans will be subjected to ruthless scrutiny)
  3. Germany: One of the world’s most advanced countries, on the energy front, is also the most powerful enforcer of austerity in terms of economics. It is very much a model for future climate politics, but not an attractive one!
  4. By analogy, the European Union, with Germany its most powerful member, sends a similar message: pro carbon reductions, friendly to austerity, prepared to enforce intense internal stratification, and suffering, to keep the current elites in power. Note that Syriza is one of EU’s most progressive governments on the migrants question. European elites, on the other hand, have only awful news for future climate migrants
  5. If a version of the proposal that Tsipras and Varoufakis presented to the Eurogroup before the referendum—a leftist, redistributive austerity—is revived and implemented (maybe w promised debt restructuring), we’ll learn how viable a leftist austerity is in the absence of wartime mobilization. If EU and IMF elites were less caged in by their own rigid ideologies, more flexible in their self-interest, and more interested in the future of climate politics, they would have welcomed the Syriza left austerity proposal as an opportunity to experiment with this different model. If they were even smarter, they would have committed to invest EU structural funds into things like solar energy (and retrofits, etc) to revitalize Greece’s productive sector in a far-sighted way. I’m not saying that I support leftist austerity. But I would interested to see it in action. I hope I don’t have to
  6. Some mid-term lessons for climate activists:
    1. We must take economically populist positions and win by marching the democratic road, or the sacrifices we eventually demand (whether minor and sectoral or broad and sweeping) will have to be imposed by massive economic and political violence, and end up reinforcing criminal inequalities, or those sacrifices will be refused by other populist movements
    2. We need serious macro-economic thinking to make ideas like selective de-growth more than a slogan: how can the everyday economy of most people keep thriving even if long-strategic sectors like fossil fuels and the manufacture of polluting crap (fast fashion, “Secret Santa” gifts, etc) are wound down; the biggest liability of the leftist #oxi and especially #grexit camps in Greece is the lack of a real short- and mid-term plan to revive their economy if Greece ends up leaving the Eurozone
    3. Syriza rose in part out of disgust with austerity, but much of their credibility (rightly) came from being political outsiders, and hence the plausibility that they could tackle corruption (including of heavily concentrated private media) and shatter the oligarchy; climate politics are a politics of alignment; climate activists need to show that we’re not just against a few fossil fuel companies, but that we are credible partners of a coalition that will go after corruption and oligarchs (which exist in every country). We need to be ready to fight these other fights from the start.
    4. The Latin American pink tide was enabled by a boom in commodity exports, largely to China. It’s an extractivist model that’s bad for the climate, and bad for those economies. Greece can’t go down that road. Leaving aside questions of organization, culture, social movement structure, etc, Syriza could teach interesting lessons about the prospects of a mass leftist movement transforming society without plumping coffers with easy commodity export money. It could also be a laboratory for a clean energy start-up economy if its economic planners are clever and committed enough

(Sorry – too much rush for links)

From the March 2015 print edition of Labor Notes.

From the March 2015 print edition of Labor Notes.

We should all be able to work fewer hours. Shortening work hours, while raising the salary floor and instituting transparent worker-driven scheduling, could free up time for us to spend with loved ones in low-carbon leisure, while establishing the conditions for an equal division of care work.

This isn’t an idle fantasy. Elements of the European labor movement have shown that steps can be taken in this direction even under capitalism. Most exciting to me is a Dutch labor law that lets most workers unilaterally reduce their hours, while keeping pro-rated wages and benefits. This isn’t just about your average work day. It also implies a different idea of what a green job could be. More on that in a minute.

This March, Labor Notes followed a polemic attacking unions’ silence on overwork with “How Shorter Work Hours Can Help the Climate and Women’s Equality“, my interview with Professor Tom Malleson, the author of After Occupy: Economic Democracy for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2014). In the interview, Tom argues that,

The crucial idea is work-sharing. Instead of an employer hiring one worker for 40 or 50 hours a week, the employer should hire more workers for fewer hours. We should be aiming for a 35- or even a 30-hour week. This would mean a little less money and less consumption. But if the jobs offer security, health, and pension benefits, then the evidence shows that once people get used to working fewer hours they come to love it and don’t want to go back to longer hours.

Malleson draws on examples of European labor reforms, achieved by unions, like the Dutch provision on cutting the work week. And he shows how shorter work hours would be better for the climate and for women. To be clear, Tom and I both feel that it’s important to raise the wage floor and to lower the wealth ceiling (by a lot). This isn’t about “green austerity” for workers and the poor. It’s about democratizing the economy, and working life along with it. (And of course, high mass consumption was never anything other than a self-consciously elitist, puritanical project in search of profits and in fear of democracy. And this is just a tiny smattering of what’s been written on this issue.)

After_occupyNow, obviously there’s no way to persuade hundreds of millions of workers to work shorter hours and to reduce their consumption without building out new infrastructures—social and material—that make really rewarding, inexpensive free time possible. In my essay Seize the Hamptons, I lay out one such vision. I focus on how we might urbanize low-carbon leisure by improving the quality of life in densifying suburbs through expansive cultural amenities, and by expanding workers and poor peoples’ access to the wild via regional infrastructures for mass vacationing.

There’s also the obvious issue that in the US today, part-time work is a catastrophe, not a solution. Pay is usually terrible. And as Michelle Chen has recently made clear, so-called “flexible scheduling” is a hellish practice that is destroying working people’s lives. In our Labor Notes interview, Tom talks about the importance of firms conceding “time sovereignty” to workers. That is, workers decide when they work. As the planet’s carbon budget plummets, though, we need steps we can take right now.

Waiting for each star to align is a luxury we don’t have. I don’t see a point in trying to organize to legally shorten everyone’s work week. That won’t fly in North America right now. (But note, unions all over Brazil are campaigning for a shorter work week, including a 30-hour work week for nurses; time isn’t a luxury just for the wealthy.) But we can aspire, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, to mandate the option of shorter hours, without sacrificing health and other benefits, without cutting the rate of hourly pay, and without granting bosses tyrannical powers to schedule working hours at short notice and without workers’ consent.

Maybe any government subsidized “green jobs” should offer workers the option to reduce hours and pay, but keep benefits. Or vice versa (if the worker’s partner, say, has benefits that cover the whole family). Maybe unions could experiment with such options in labor contracts. This kinds of tradeoff is not, by any means, an alternative to the bigger fights for universal healthcare, fully funded public pensions, and other forms of social security. But I do think it’s worth thinking creatively about what a “green job” actually consists of.

labors_timeThe bigger and more creative the conversation, the bigger and more creative our demands and coalitions will become. Decent part-time work isn’t, on its own, a silver bullet for a fossil fuel-powered capitalism that is inherently anti-democratic, dangerous to human survival, and profoundly unjust. But in the present context, it’s what André Gorz called a non-reformist reform, one formulated “in view of what should be made possible in terms of human needs.” As the planet changes, so do our needs, and so must our demands.

But revolutionary beginnings only appear to come from nowhere. We also need to re-master the history of earlier struggles within U.S. unions for shorter work weeks.

A green economy will only work if we democratize the workplace.

A dry irrigation canal in the hills near Cochabama, Bolivia, as pictured in 2008. Photo by Daniel Aldana Cohen.

A dry irrigation canal in the hills near Cochabama, Bolivia, as pictured in 2008. Photo by Daniel Aldana Cohen.

When infrastructures let us down, our first instinct is to hunt for technical answers to technical problems. Engineering. Economics. But politics and social structures are wrapped all up and around our pipes and aqueducts. Same goes for the economic and physical models we use to interpret how these will work in practice. What if simply asserting basic egalitarian values, then setting up social institutions to ensure that these determine our access to precious resources, worked better than even the most ingenious pricing schemes and algorithms?

I’m getting ready to travel to São Paulo later this spring to do research on the drought and water shortages there. I thought I’d lay out some tentative ideas, based on previous work, to help benchmark my evolving thinking. These days, my work on cities and nature is focused on climate change, and mainly the link between low-carbon policies and urban struggles over the built environment. Of course, water plays a major role. As the world warms, sea levels rise. It can get ugly. In the US, Katrina and Sandy showed us what that looks like. In the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan was orders of magnitude more devastating. But even a wet city like São Paulo, ordinarily used to convulsive, annual floods, can also suffer massive droughts. Broad climate trends are a thousand times easier to predict than chaotic weather. At least locally, at least given present knowledge, climate chaos works in mysterious ways—and through socio-natural landscapes that politicians and capitalists have treated with stunning disdain to make a quick buck.

We shouldn’t just extrapolate from high-profile failure, though. Small-scale success can also teach at least provisional lessons. So I’m revisiting the first real research I did on socio-ecological tensions with a decent resolution, namely journalistic work on I did on the aftermaths of Bolivia’s water wars. And in particular, a magazine piece I did on a water law that transformed the lives of a million farmers (sadly, the website “update” has killed the formatting of the piece). Key to the story is a water engineer who realized, after years working in Pakistan, that he had been looking at water all wrong:

The man behind Bolivia’s new irrigation laws is a tall, pale, charismatic water engineer and NGO director named Juan Carlos Alurralde, known to most as Oso Andino (Andean Bear). When I visit him in a spacious conference room in his buzzing office in the Zona Sur, an affluent suburb of Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, Bear is wearing jeans and a black long-sleeved T-shirt. His beard is trimmed, and his hair is drawn back in a ponytail. In 1999, Oso returned to Bolivia after working for several years on one of the world’s largest irrigation systems, in Pakistan. “That project was very technical,” he tells me. “When I arrived in Bolivia, I realized the central theme wasn’t one of engineering or design, but of rights. The legislative and regulatory frameworks, those are the central debates. To a community, what’s the use of a beautiful irrigation structure if you don’t have judicial security over your water?”

But even there, judicial security is just the beginning. The next, deeper question, once the collective right is established, is how do you manage water scarcity? Or, how is that right made manifest? Is access rationed by currency? Or something else? The stakes were high. When Bear got involved, the Bolivian government had already failed 32 times to fix its water laws in just a few years. This was going to be tricky.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Oso convinced a Canadian agency, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), to finance an innovative research project. The IDRC had been working on water issues in the Andes since 1996. Unlike the much larger Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), from which it is entirely independent, the IDRC is a crown corporation devoted to research with a view to development. (In other words, it doesn’t finance traditional development projects such as water pumps or dams, but mostly studies by Canadian and foreign researchers.) Oso’s proposal to the IDRC was a blend of hard science and social science. Armed with a $270,700 grant, he and a number of colleagues from his NGO, Agua Sustentable, teamed up with Tiquipaya’s irrigators to map the area’s networks of water distribution. They then plugged their findings into MIKE, cutting-edge water modelling software developed by the Danish Hydraulic Institute.

“We took a real situation,” he tells me, still glowing with enthusiasm, “where there are real people, real systems, real demands for water—everything real. And we invented a new model called a ‘rights map’ that reflected the usos y costumbres [uses and customs] with GIS, so you can see, visually, on the computer, how the water is distributed and what the demand is. We introduced the neo-liberal government model, and we modelled using the usos y costumbres, and we compared them. We had two parameters, efficiency and equity. And the result: the government model was less efficient and less equitable. Yes, the government model worked, theoretically, when the rain fell the way it was supposed to. But in Bolivia the climate varies tremendously. In years where there was a lack of rainfall, their model would provoke tremendous conflict. The Andean model knows how to distribute the water deficit without conflict, and the mathematical model proved this.” Oso’s subsequent work has had its share of critics, but none of those I spoke to suggested that his initial study was flawed.

So first—yes, research works. But second, what the research tells is kind of interesting. The price mechanism works when there’s lots of water. But when there isn’t, because of climate change’s local mysterious ways, the neoliberal price model’s no good. Those downstream from the water source are the most vulnerable to having their water cut off. If they can’t afford to pay, they’re screwed. If those upstream can’t afford to pay, they just grab what they need. What about all the other ways that needs vary in complex agricultural communities?

So Evo Morales’ revolutionary, indigenist Bolivian government, in which a prominent irrigator sat as Senator (you can also meet him if you read the full piece), ultimately passed the water law that Bear, working with the country’s irrigators, helped research and formulate. This was a triumph of social science and social movements working together in a dynamic political context. And one million farmers is a seriously constituency. But one million people is also one twentieth of metro São Paulo’s population.

And as I detail in the piece, the robust uses and customs in question here have been worked out, in small groups, over hundreds of years. (Or at minimum, if you accept certain scholars’ critical positions, the somewhat weak uses and customs have been around for only a few dozen years.)

What in metro-regional urban governance could possibly compare to those kinds of established grassroots democratic practices, honed and repeated in the intimacy of a village less populated than a single large megacity block?

But flip the question around, and use it as an assumption for a thought experiment. What if the lesson of Bolivia’s water law is treated less as a surprise than a reminder: yes, of course, people can work out and address their needs under chaotic physical conditions better in dialogue than by applying an abstract mathematical formula. You can decide that everyone gets equitable water access, and then work backwards to figure out the best institutional, social, political processes needed to achieve that equitable outcome. Start with the social values, then go from there. Who says local democracy only works in the ultra-local context of the peasant village?

So then how might a metro-regional population go about aligning infrastrucutre systems and neighborhoods and values and disaster practices? How, in other words, could a city reconnect itself to its citizens, ensuring that everyone gets the basic resources they need to survive, and even flourish? The answer isn’t easy. Even in the city of Cochabamba proper, with less than a million inhabitants, I found that residents struggled to get anywhere close to their dream of a democratic water utility. Then again, Cochabamba in the mid-2000s was perpetually shaken by massive political upheavals; and it utterly lacked the kinds of financial resources available to a prosperous mega-city. If the premise is that egalitarian values and cooperative practices are the priority, then disaster governance, which by its urgent nature is already improvisational and ad-hoc and experimental, could make those priorities the object of its experiments. Use the energy and focus of the disaster environment to put equity first, and use problem-solving resources to figure out the implications. Then research and write up the story of what worked. Success in decently resourced cities like São Paulo could make it easier for poor cities like Cochabamba to secure funding from development banks for analogous practices there.

“Social resiliency” would then mean something other than a happy result we still do not know how to attain, never mind define. It would refer to experiments with democratic processes that make the best of a difficult situation, and that take the insistence on equitable outcomes—everyone gets the water they need as their foundation, their starting point.

Anyway—as I suggested above, research works. This is all just ground-clearing to clarify some questions. I’m looking forward to what I’ll find in São Paulo. As in more recent work with the Superstorm Research Lab, looking at many actors at once, I’ll be especially interested in comparing and contrasting high-level government agencies’, and grassroots groups’, projects and imaginaries. I know I’m unlikely to find, in practice, an unfolding of a socio-spatial, processual utopia. I do expect, though, that reflecting on basic principles and democratic possibilities, in addition to the usual empirical research on this and other cases, will deepen my perspective. As the Brazilian social theorist and political actor Roberto Mangabeira Unger has recently written:

We understand a state of affairs by grasping what it can become in a range of circumstances: the understanding of the actual is inseparable from the imagination of the possible—of the adjacent possible, of what can next happen or of what we can make happen next.

Fifty Shades of Low-Carbon Leisure

You’re at the theatre on the edge of your seat. You’re in bed, wiping sweat off your face in a moment of contemplative bliss. You’re gazing down at a frothing river from a rocky ridge. Not every moment of pleasure—shared or private—comes at the expense of something else. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But there is unambiguously good pleasure—good for the body, for the soul, and for every human being alive. There’s more than enough to go around. We have all the hormones and nerve endings we need to be happy. To spread the love just requires an equitable distribution of resources—and a little less carbon in the sky. Could climate politics raise goosebumps?

Your typical discussion of climate psychology assumes that climate action is more than anything about sacrifice. That’s obvious enough, right? George Marshall, in his entertaining book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change explains why people are unimpressed by “a narrative of responsibility, austerity and future hardship.” But what if doing what it takes to stop climate change felt good? I’m not talking about the (sometimes obnoxious) sense of self-satisfaction that comes from protesting a fossil fuel company. Nor the pleasant (er…) feeling of clicking an online donation to I’m talking about the pleasures of culture, of the flesh, of the wild.

I didn’t invent the concept of low-carbon leisure. (I think Tim Jackson and Juliet Schor and André Gorz get the credit for that—at least in my universe of knowledge.) But I’m running with it. This post is meant to tie together a few little essays I’ve done in the past few months, where I’ve tried to ask how we can urbanize low-carbon leisure. What’s the relationship between these pleasures and the city (including prospects for escaping it)? Also, I made the picture above.

In the middle is the essay I wrote for Jacobin, Seize the Hamptons. To boil it down, the rich are causing the most carbon emissions, even if they live in Manhattan. One pleasurable solution (besides taking their money, and their Hamptons) is to build up cultural centres in the densifying suburbs, and low-carbon (rail and coach) access to the wild beyond city limits. There are historical precedents. See the French workers in that photo who busted their ass in a massive strike to force the government to grant them two weeks paid vacation, plus discounted rail passes (which apparently extended to rail cars for bikes). We can do this.

In another essay, Is Climate Change Big or Small?, I drill in on the question of culture. Climate change isn’t some distant future thing. There’s a dread to it that assaults us now. But the key is to tackle it in the now. Pleasurably! The pleasures of culture and the flesh are entwined. Right-thinking bourgeois have always been suspicious of artists. And they were right to be. Right-thinking fossil fuel industrialism is incompatible with the wild pleasures of the flesh that our free imagination—uncorked by the arts all around us—insists that we explore.

Last, in Forget Fertility, Get Feral, I’ve said even more about the wild, and about how yoking this whole climate project on our kids and grand kids, or even worse, yoking our despair on our kids and grand kids, gets us nowhere. Nowhere! To prevent climate chaos, we need to start now. There needs to be pleasure at the other end. And for lots of us, that means getting out of the city; rewilding not just our land, but our own selves. See if you can catch the BDSM reference. It won’t be hard. But it’s past the halfway mark.

The work I linked to above by Schor, Jackson, and Gorz is foundational to all this stuff. And there’s a whole literature on “queer futurity” I want to now explore for its connections. But I’m already pretty sure that we could stand to be a little less puritanical about low-carbon leisure than its founders have been. A condom is better than a steak—for the environment, and for the body. (Well, obviously there are exceptions, like when you’re trying to have baby.) We’ve tried wholesome optimism. Why not experiment with a more visceral variant?

And no, none of this is meant to replace real, conflictual politics. Those are the premise. (In my day job as a PhD student, I’m writing a dissertation called Street Fight: Urban Climate Politics in an Age of Finance and Revolt.) Low-carbon leisure is the punchline.  

This blog post is so absurd already, I’m just going to go ahead and end by quoting myself from Seize the Hamptons:

We should chase what we want, using what we know and already have. It’s good that solar panels are improving. And we need to point out that the wealthy are the chief ecological culprits, even if they live in Manhattan townhouses and applaud Bloomberg’s climate advocacy.

But cursing the rich and cheering cheap renewables won’t be enough to spare the atmosphere — or to get us out of bed in the morning. The shameless, confrontational pursuit of low-carbon leisure, building on the victories of poor and working-class movements around the world, and mixing in the most useful expertise around, could produce democratic, decarbonized cities — not cramped, dull warehouses, but diverse, stimulating metropoles with plentiful access to the wild beyond.

Yes, there will still be tedium and struggle. But we’ll also prowl boulevards in bright sweaters woven by robots powered by windmills.

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