By Thomas Neuburger
The title question — Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our climate future? — is a loaded one. If you answer that you're optimistic, you look like a fool. But pessimism, especially when applied to people's attitude or personality, is a shame word, a word that subtly says that they're something "wrong" or "unsunny" about you.
The implication is that this flaw is the source of your outlook, that your pessimism hijacked your brain. It's never said this nakedly, at least not usually, but the overtone of words like "cynical" and "pessimistic" is clearly pejorative and meant to attack your views as unfounded in fact.
"Cynicism" and Democratic Politics
The distinction between what some would call "cynicism" and others "realism" is especially vibrant in the twin worlds of left-Democratic politics and climate activism.
In the world of left-Democratic politics, those working to create change from within the political system — people whose constant pressure is truly valuable, even necessary — often look at "they'll always betray you" or "Lucy and the football" pessimists as detractions to their operation, gloomy Guses who discourage others from participating in the "Move Joe Manchin to the left" efforts they're engaged in. They seem to assume that if you think the effort is impossible, you also think it shouldn't be attempted — a conclusion that doesn't follow from the premise.
But it's a conclusion they often draw. So if you're one of those who think the Joe Manchins of the world — and the Dianne Feinsteins, Nancy Pelosis and all the rest — might have evil motives instead of "inexplicable" ones ... that thought is sometimes labeled "cynical" as though it's not also grounded in fact.
But the fact is there for everyone to see. Is it "cynical" to think ill of Joe Manchin for this, or simply realistic?
Leaked Audio of Sen. Joe Manchin Call With Billionaire Donors Provides Rare Glimpse of Dealmaking on Filibuster and Jan. 6 Commission
Manchin urged big-money donors with No Labels to talk to Sen. Roy Blunt about flipping his vote on the commission in order to save the filibuster.
Joe Manchin, in a private call on Monday with a group of major donors, provided a revealing look at his political approach to some of the thorniest issues confronting lawmakers.
The remarks were given on a Zoom teleconference session that was obtained by The Intercept.
The meeting was hosted by the group No Labels, a big money operation co-founded by former Sen. Joe Lieberman that funnels high-net-worth donor money to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans....
The call included several billionaire investors and corporate executives, among them Louis Bacon, chief executive of Moore Capital Management; Kenneth D. Tuchman, founder of global outsourcing company TeleTech; and Howard Marks, the head of Oaktree Capital, one of the largest private equity firms in the country. The Zoom participant log included a dial-in from Tudor Investment Corporation, the hedge fund founded by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. Also present was a roster of heavy-hitting political influencers, including Republican consultant Ron Christie and Lieberman, who serves as a representative of No Labels and now advises corporate interests.
Manchin told the assembled donors that he needed help flipping a handful of Republicans from no to yes on the January 6 commission in order to strip the “far left” of their best argument against the filibuster. The filibuster is a critical priority for the donors on the call, as it bottles up progressive legislation that would hit their bottom lines. [emphasis added]
The article later says — I have no idea why, given the headline — that Manchin showed surprising openness to filibuster "reform." But his opposition to it is also pretty naked. He hates the "far left" (his words) and wants to use big money donors to influence a Republican's vote in order to negate the mockery his (cynical?) opponents deploy against his pro-corporate, anti-populist foot-dragging.
Should we call it "cynical" to look at Joe Manchin as an evil man serving naked wealth and his own well-nourished ego, or should we, more optimistically, call him unexplainably confused? To ask, as this writer did, "What the f*ck is wrong with Joe Manchin?" is to claim to not know the answer when the answer is written in the news every day he's in it.
I'm all for insider pressure on Manchin to convince him to "come around." He needs to feel constant heat from every direction. But I'm also for those who say, "While that's going on, let's do something more forceful as well." Like take away, to the greatest extent we can, his wealth and reputation, and let him live a public pariah for all the evil he's done.
Maybe that's the kind of convincing, the kind that understands his motives, he'll listen to.
"Pessimism" and the Climate War
In the climate world the pressure to be "optimistic" is similarly present. The argument here, like in the political world, is that "pessimism" discourages climate action. "If you convince people they're doomed," the argument goes, "they'll just give up ... and then they will be doomed."
But what if they're already "doomed" to some degree? Should we then be asking them to act in ways that make little change, or none?
According to this excellent recent report, for example, "A 5% annual reduction in emissions of a single greenhouse gas [for example, CO2 alone] — from 2020 and based on a middle-road emissions path — has no statistically significant effect on warming for more than two decades, as compared to a no-mitigation pathway." [emphasis added]
On the other hand, "fast emission cuts are vital to flatten the warming curve." (Full report PDF here.)
We are not on a "middle road emissions path." We're on the full-speed-ahead, no-mitigation pathway. And thanks to the evil Joe Manchins of the world, we're going to stay on that path till the rich abandon us.
Or, as one bold candidate for public office recently put it:
In a situation that's degraded as far as our current one has, what's the most realistic advice for activists? To push Joe Biden to promise an inadequate solution, then cheer him as he settles for 5% of his original proposal because, as Biden apologist and White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told Chris Hayes recently in effect, "Praise him for starting"?
Here's that exchange, slightly edited for clarity, between Biden apologist Bedingfield and Hayes on Hayes' May 29 show (emphasis mine):
Hayes: "So, there's money for investing in electric vehicle infrastructure in the bipartisan [infrastructure] bill. I think it's $7.4 billion if I'm not mistaken. ... Yes, that's better than zero. ... But it was $174 billion in the American Jobs Plan that the President himself proposed. "It doesn't even count as a rounding error for what we have to do. It's just totally insufficient in scale to the project before us. And that's true when you go down the line of a lot of stuff that was in that original American Jobs Plan and compare it to the top line in the bipartisan compromise."
Biden dangled a lot of big numbers in front of the voters during the campaign, but now he's gotten what he wanted (power), he's offering far less. (Would it be cynical or reasonable to assume he knew at the time he was going to do that?)
To this, the Biden apologist responded: "But it's a really important first step, Chris. And how do we ever make progress if we don't take the first step?" She wants, in other words, Biden to be praised for an inadequate, ineffective response because it's better than no response at all.
The question isn't, Is Biden evil for doing this? (That answer is obvious.) The question instead is, What should we do about it?
Should we keep up the pressure from organized insider and mainstream outside groups? Of course we should. But should we also be doing something else, something much stronger and more forceful, something that sounds more like telling than asking, something that has some teeth?
It frightens good people to say yes to that last question. But "pessimism" about Biden and his actions — or realism if you prefer — will determine how far you're willing to go to oppose all of these people, what tactics you're willing to use in addition to those available through important and well-intentioned groups like Greenpeace, the source of this recent revelation:
Exxon oil lobbyist in sting video identifies 11 senators 'crucial' to its lobbying A senior official with U.S. oil and gas giant ExxonMobil was captured on video revealing the identities of 11 senators “crucial” to its lobbying on Capitol Hill, including a host of Democrats.
The footage was obtained by Unearthed, an investigative unit of environmental group Greenpeace UK, which posed as headhunters to obtain the information from Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy.
Among the senators listed as allies, McCoy calls Joe Manchin the “kingmaker” on energy issues because of his status as a Democrat representing West Virginia, a key natural gas-producing state. McCoy says he speaks with Manchin’s staff every week. Manchin is also chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee....
Other lobbying targets of Exxon include centrist Democrats Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana.
McCoy also singles out Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, as an important contact because of his close relationship with President Joe Biden.
Other Exxon contacts are up for reelection in 2022, McCoy notes: Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Mark Kelly of Arizona.
These people are literally bargaining away your future for gifts and prizes. And notice this about a carbon tax from the original Greenpeace revelation:
During the undercover meeting, which took place via Zoom in May, [Exxon lobbyist Keith] McCoy suggested that Exxon’s public support for a carbon tax as its principal climate policy is an “advocacy tool” and “great talking point” that will never actually happen.
“Nobody is going to propose a tax on all Americans and the cynical side of me says, yeah, we kind of know that but it gives us a talking point that we can say, well what is ExxonMobil for? Well, we’re for a carbon tax,” McCoy said.
Note that by "cynical" McCoy means "realistic." It's entirely possible that Biden may propose a carbon tax — after all, he has Exxon's blessing to do it — at least until he later rejects it, or reduces his proposal to an meaningless smaller ask and calls it "an important first step."
They Aren't Called the Lesser Evil Because They're Good
The point of all this is simple. It's not a moral or psychological failing to see Manchin, Biden and the rest as irredeemably opposed to all that actual, non-billionaire people in the U.S. need. It's simply realistic. If your neighbor tried to get rich by causing your death, you certainly call her evil. The same with these people. Just because the deaths they will cause are global, and the riches they will see are scaled in the billions and trillions, that doesn't make them different from your hypothetical murderous neighbor.
So if insiders' "optimism" leads to one set of tactics, a more realistic appreciation of the enemy — yes, mainstream Democrats are the enemy in this — suggests an additional and different set of tactics that should also be applied. Tactics that start, for example, with "We're naming what you are until your deeds prove us wrong."
They aren't called the "lesser evil" because they're good. And any victory — if one is to be had — must start with knowing what you're up against. Petitions are all well and good. But a general strike — scary direct opposition — now that has some teeth to it.
It's good to know your enemy. And it's a "really important first step" to publicly call him one.
A Teaser: General Strike Anyone?
I'll have more on a general strike in the months ahead. It's not as far fetched as you may think.
For example, has it occurred to you that we're in a nascent one now, with workers, all on their own, refusing to work at their former crappy jobs for their same old crappy wages, while employers refuse to raise them?
That's a strike looks like, and that's what all these "workers won't return to work" stories are all about. It's the start of an unorganized, spontaneous, multi-industry strike against predatory employers, and it's so broad that it's even making the news. If progressives were smart, they would build on this.
If they do, there may be hope for us after all.