Playing With Fire, Securitisation, and the Green New Deal

Some extracts from “Playing With Fire, Securing the Borders of the Green New Deal” (published over at New Socialist). The full version is a review of Naomi Klein’s most recent book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal. These are the main points that inform that review, another perspective on what is happening with climate change politics.

Delegations from Brazil, the United States and Australia emerged as significant opponents of an intergovernmental agreement at COP25, the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2019. They did so in the wake of fires in the Amazon forest, the California wildfires that led to widespread power shutdowns, and while raging fires continue to burn across the Australian continent—some 15 million acres at the time of writing.

Those governments were not the only impediments to an agreement that—to be clear—would have ensured the ongoing extraction of fossil fuels rather than the decommissioning of fossil-fuel infrastructure. But their implacable opposition to any limit on fossil-fuel expansion is based on a distinctive combination of anti-immigrant politics, ethnonationalism and religious conservatism—in which the influence of Pentecostalism is particularly pronounced. They have a theory about the causes of and solutions to climate change that is influential within those governments, rarely taken seriously, and dangerous.

The world’s largest Pentecostal organisation, Assemblies of God, played a prominent role in the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, and the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison—whose Hillsong Church was, until 2018, the Australian branch of Assemblies of God. Morrison launched his political career from Cronulla, in which the largest racist riots in recent memory had taken place. In his speech prior to the 2019 election, Morrison signalled to evangelical voters “I will burn for you,” and went on to declare his election victory “a miracle” made possible by “the quiet Australians”—paraphrasing Richard Nixon’s 1969 appeal to white evangelicals and religious conservatives as the “silent majority.”

[…]

As it happens, fire is the central theme of Pentecostalism (see, eg. Anderson 2007; Cox 1995). It describes the workings of the Holy Spirit and the end of days, where “tongues of fire” distinguish those who will be saved from those sinners who will perish, and the “day of Pentecost” is marked by “signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke” (per the Book of Acts of the Apostles). For evangelicals, this is a literal rather than symbolic account of the end-times. As unprecedented heatwaves and drought turned into unprecedented fires, it is a view that has accorded precedence to overturning anti-discrimination legislation and reproductive rights through the passage of ‘religious freedom’ laws—because their theory of climate change is, when it comes down to it, a theory of sin and salvation. In its less-lurid iterations, it aligns closely with arguments from other religious conservatives over the presumably restorative ecology of family, faith and nation.

[…]

treating climate change as a problem of national security does not facilitate decarbonisation. Moreover, despite no one being able to explain how, for instance, borders might filter greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the securitisation of climate change has become the prevailing approach of corporations, governments and non-governmental organisations. On notable occasions, Klein describes ecological breakdown as if it were the collapse of national security. Securitisation is a growing market, in its military, organisational and financial senses (as in the pooling of risk profiles that makes it possible to monetise threats).

[…]

Securitisation converts expectations of a failure to decarbonise into an asset, and in so doing, brings about the future it imagines. It transforms both the imagination of catastrophe and the anticipated lag-time of energy transition and dissipating gases into a new frontier of emerging markets—such as carbon trading which effectively functions as a hedge against decarbonisation, green energy plugged in to carbon-heavy circuits, a prospective gold-rush in the non-renewable strategic materials of renewable energy transmission, end-time theologies, or a growing number of products promising a selective salvation, of which borders are the largest example.

Securitisation imagines a new century of exploitation that may or may not involve decarbonisation (and is unlikely to by that course), but will certainly involve more borders.

National security approaches to climate change can readily be traced to the securitisation of energy supply after the so-called oil shocks of 1973 and 1979—as in the arguments put forward by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In the wake of the 1973 oil embargo on the United States over its decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the war, it became a working assumption that the continuous supply of oil could be interrupted without warning, leading to shortages, rapid fluctuations in the price of oil, and political fallout for Nixon over pump prices. The handing of energy supply as an array of threats to national security eventually culminated in the ‘war on terror’ and the so-called doctrine of pre-emptive war—with notable implications for the securitisation of borders (cf. (Chaturvedi and Doyle 2015; Mitropoulos 2015).

In 2007 Friedman proposed “an energy New Deal” so as to convert the United States’ energy supply from oil to “solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power” (2007a). In another article in the same year, Friedman explicitly called for a “Green New Deal,” describing it as the imperative of recapturing US geopolitical and economic supremacy. It was, he went on to argue, necessary in view of an impending “climate war” over scarce resources (2007b).

More recently, Friedman has turned to wondering about environmental and population “stresses,” going as far to argue that there is a “real immigration crisis [at the US-Mexican border] and that the solution is a high wall with a big gate—but a smart gate,” one that would preference migrants with “high-energy and high-I.Q.” He also endorsed David Frum’s argument that liberals had to enforce immigration restrictions so as to avert a turn to fascism (Friedman 2019; Frum 2019).

While Friedman’s columns have ranged across topics, few do not involve speculations about burgeoning markets—perhaps in “solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power” industries; or in eugenic gadgets and protocols that can be deployed at the southern border of the United States. The post-Fordist accelerationism of Tesla’s Cybertruck and the rustic lifeboat of Ark Experience might be at aesthetic odds, but as with Friedman’s musings about a ‘smart’ wall, the investor is sold on the idea of purchasing some end-time insurance.

As for the effects of the decades-long national security approach to energy: it led to the establishment of the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve to buffer supply and domestic price volatilities, and natural gas was added to coal and oil as principal sources of energy—that is, as an additional fossil-fuel source, which grew along with the continued growth of oil and coal. By the late twentieth century, the diversification of fossil-fuel sources resulted in greater possibilities for hedging within energy markets and the growth of risk management tools to handle supply chain vulnerabilities. It also resulted in a sharp rise in greenhouse emissions, the first peaks in recorded land-sea temperature averages above 0.2 ℃, and the rapid climb thereafter to above 0.8 ℃.

[…]

While the debates about the New Deal are many, the point is this: these ‘flaws’ were integral to its design. At its core, the New Deal was a national security policy.

In terms of its historical trajectory, Roosevelt’s New Deal was ushered in by the suspension of the gold standard—which lay the groundwork for the symbiotic, global rise of the petrochemical industries and the US dollar as the de facto global currency—and it culminated in the mass deportations of agricultural workers and the internment of people of Japanese ancestry. In terms of energy, Roosevelt’s New Deal was premised on the massive expansion of fossil-fuel use and infrastructure around the world—oil, in particular. “America’s crown,” Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior declared, “symbolizing supremacy as the oil empire of the world” would be propped up by US claims over Middle East oilfields (Shah 2005, 13). The concentration and industrialisation of agriculture was accomplished through the use of migrant workers excluded from political rights and, more broadly, the meshing of land reclamation policies, white settlements and internment camps (Wilson 2011; Cruz 2014; Mitchell 2012). The New Deal, moreover, facilitated racial segregation in its housing policies and, further to this, creating a racial-gendered welfare state—as with the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from federal social security legislation (Mettler 1998).

[…]

Yet as a national security approach, the New Deal was one among other prominent answers to solving a moral-economic problem, namely: the Malthusian constraint of agricultural productivity and the purported absence of moral-economic price signals that, according to Malthus, were the causes of ‘overpopulation’ and poverty. Fascism was another, similarly nationalist and expansionist solution to the same, false characterisation of the problem. Where National Socialists adopted the policy of Lebensraum to justify colonisation and annexation as a means of resolving the counterfeit problem of ‘surplus populations,’ the New Deal promised to relaunch the project of white settler colonialism and the improvement of the fertility of the soil through land reclamation projects and biochemical-technological invention—both of which were viewed as the unique traits or capacities of white superiority operating in the frontier.

[…]

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