Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Losing Earth Gets it Wrong
distributed 8/31/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

A month ago, an entire issue of the New York Times Magazine was devoted to one lengthy report, "Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change", by Nathaniel Rich.

Toward the end of the article's prologue, Rich wrote, "There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament without understanding why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance." In 30,000 words, accompanied by dramatic photos and videos, Rich tries to tease out the reason for that failure.

The reporting is fascinating and detailed -- and I am convinced that Rich pronounces the wrong answer to his question. Because he misinterprets the history, he does not give us a legitimate pathway to understanding our current and future predicament.

His fatalistic conclusion -- which seems to contradict the evidence he so carefully presents -- is that human beings "are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations." A more honest reading of the history, combined with the details of assertive climate action in today's world, provides a far more optimistic perspective on human nature and on the prospects for addressing the climate crisis.

+     +     +     +     +

Nathaniel Rich explores action on the climate crisis in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989. It was a period when the climate science was well known and generally accepted, major obstacles to action had not yet emerged, and international agreements came close to being implemented. It was a decade when -- he believes -- "the conditions for success could not have been more favorable."

Rich's historical exploration is told through a focus on two individuals who did much to mobilize the US for climate action: Rafe Pomerance of Friends of the Earth, and climate scientist Jim Hanson. That personalized focus makes for good storytelling, but it also conceals institutional aspects of the story that are of great importance.

Within days of the publication of Losing Earth, Naomi Klein wrote an insightful rebuttal, challenging Rich's central assertion that the decade "could not have been more favorable" to bold climate action. In contrast, she sees those years as a strikingly inopportune moment to address the global issue.

Why? Because the late '80s was the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating 'free markets' in every aspect of life. Yet Rich makes no mention of this parallel upheaval in economic and political thought.

Fairly early on in Rich's decade, Ronald Reagan is elected President, and Rich catalogues the setbacks that came quickly after the election. The new administration took action to increase coal production, oppose renewable energy, place anti-environmentalists in the Interior Department and the EPA, and to silence science advisors. (It is a list that felt painfully familiar as we live with parallel actions from the Trump administration.) Strangely, though, Rich does not explore the motivations behind the Reagan initiatives.

Rich's long narrative provides abundant detail about the back-and-forth of concerted efforts to mobilize climate action, and the variety of roadblocks that are encountered. Scientists can't agree on language to express the urgency of the threat. Politicians resist taking a stand on a problem that doesn't have a tidy solution. Clearly, not all of the blame can be directed at the White House, but the pro-market, anti-regulation tone of the Reagan team shows up again and again as a strong factor against climate action.

Toward the end of the 1979-89 decade, Reagan is followed by George H.W. Bush, who campaigned as "the environmental candidate" and who promised some form of climate action. Bush selected John Sununu as his chief of staff, though, and Sununu takes a powerful role in blocking any movement on climate action, both in the US and internationally.

In November, 1989, the first major diplomatic meeting on global warming was held in the Netherlands. Rich writes, "The delegations would review the progress made by the I.P.C.C. and decide whether to endorse a framework for a global treaty. There was a general sense among the delegates that they would, at minimum, agree to ... a freezing of greenhouse-gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2000."

The negotiations fell apart, though. Rich tells us that the lead US delegate, "at the urging of John Sununu and with the acquiescence of Britain, Japan and the Soviet Union, had forced the conference to abandon the commitment to freeze emissions." That failed meeting ends the decade examined by Rich.

Early on in the article, Rich absolves the fossil fuel industry and the Republican Party of blame for the decade's failure to act. It is very interesting to read his account and see that the fossil fuel industry during that period did take climate science seriously, and explored options for a transition to renewable energy. Their obstructionism and misinformation campaigns didn't take off until the end of 1989.

It is harder to see how Rich can use the positive stance of some Republicans to remove blame from the party. As Alex Steffan tweeted,

That there were still, then, Republicans with an environmental conscience in public life, and that there were still bipartisan efforts to act does not mean that the 1980s GOP as a whole was not opposed to action. That's a rewriting of history, to dubious purpose.

Rich makes the astounding claim that during this "favorable" decade, "Almost nothing stood in our way -- nothing except ourselves." He documents the work of his two climate heroes, the movement toward legislation and international agreements, the growing concern among the public, all of which were repeatedly foiled by intentional actions from two Republican administrations. And then he comes to the conclusion that "we" human beings are unable to take a long view or to sacrifice for the future. It is a completely unjustified analysis that ignores much of what he described in such detail.

It is not only Naomi Klein who critiqued Rich in these terms. Eillie Anzilotti summarizes a number of environmental writers who insist "that forces, mainly economic ones, outside of our collective will have landed us where we are today." Jason Mark, writing in The Nation, and republished by the Sierra Club, says that "Climate change isn't so much a failure of human nature as it is the predictable result of a small number of corporations putting their profits ahead of humanity's future and the planet's well-being."

Robinson Meyer, in the Atlantic, vigorously challenges the idea that "we" are responsible, and points to "the Reagan administration going out of its way to thwart climate science and policy," and to Republicans in the decades since then who have blocked climate action.

+     +     +     +     +

The disputes about Losing Earth are theological. What is the doctrine of humanity that we use to understand history and ethics?

If we can't take action on a crisis like climate change because human nature doesn't allow us to embody concern for the future -- if we are created in such a way that we're not capable of understanding and acting -- then we are not accountable, and devastation is inevitable.

If, though, humans are responsible moral agents, then we must be accountable, and we can take action. That's what we can affirm in the history that Rich spells out of dedicated individuals and governments organizing for action. That's what we see in the 2015 Paris Agreement (however inadequate), in this week's news that the California legislature committed to 100% renewable electricity by 2045, by the active and growing movement to divest from fossil fuels, and by countless other forms of action.

Christian theology insists that we, individually and collectively, can make moral choices, and that we can be motivated by compassion and justice for future generations. Our theology also acknowledges that we can be distracted and misled. We can make bad choices, preferring convenience and profit and power instead of justice. But those choices are not inevitable.

Nathaniel Rich's Losing Earth is fascinating, but his conclusions are both unsupported and dangerous. After describing the heroic work of his two primary characters spread over a decade, he then dismisses it all as doomed to failure -- with the implication that we are equally doomed. If you read Losing Earth, also be sure to consider at least one of the articles that dispute his fatalistic conclusions.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form