Our Climate Apartheid Plan


What do we owe the world’s poor as our way of life harms theirs? This question will concretely test what our talk of human rights and equal dignity really means. That surely makes it one of the central political and moral issues of humanity’s immediate future. Today 84% of humans are poor (by the criteria we use for ourselves in rich nations). That’s 6.7 billion people who bear little blame for the biosphere crises that we know our resource usage is worsening. Since this fresh injustice is added atop already piled-high historic harms, what does decency demand?

One right-wing view is that we owe the world’s poor nothing. This has been called the “eco-fascist” or “armed lifeboat” position. Sadly, a variety of this thinking lurks on the “left.” In The Exhausted of the Earth: Politics in a Burning World, political theorist Ajay Singh Chaudhary writes that a “mirage left [works] hand in hand with ‘climate apartheid.’” That appalling but clarifying phrase expresses a scenario where elites believe they might escape many climate impacts “while the rest of the world is left to suffer.” This division of harms broadly follows “the global color line,” whereby the mainly “white” nations enriched by centuries of imperial plunder abandon the poorer nations of color. Chaudhary names professor of geography Matt Huber and political journalist Leigh Phillips as high-profile “handmaidens to right-wing climate realism,” who identify as “leftist” ecomodernists (I’ll unpack that term shortly) and routinely ply their wares in leading left outlets like Jacobin. Chaudhary eviscerates their cartoon politics at acerbic length, but here we have space to sketch only a few key issues (for a summary of his book’s main thesis on exhaustion see here).

First, a word on how unparalleled our times are and about why a little bit of ideological duct-taping on business-as-usual politics can’t keep the status quo system in one piece. As influential climate analyst David Wallace-Wells said in his 2023 Tanner Lecture, it is as if we’ve “landed on a new planet.” We’ve exited the conditions in which humanity and all of modernity arose. Facing the unprecedented, we must weigh which of our old-planet conceptual, moral, and political tools can be rapidly adapted for radically novel times. That means reexamining even our most-cherished certainties; however useful they were in pre-biosphere-crisis times. Climate scientist Kevin Anderson has long warned that “there are no non-radical futures”: we either make rapid radical changes ourselves, or the biosphere will impose radical impacts on us. Our mission isn’t only a clean energy transition, it requires a larger cognitive transition, a deep moral transition, and matching political and economic transitions.

Back to Huber and Phillips, our left-camouflaged climate-apartheid abettors. Chaudhary chides Huber’s work for trafficking in “magical thinking, lazy research, and historical and scientific illiteracy.” He describes Phillips as a pseudoscientific “contrarian bomb thrower, ready to make the eco-socialist case for private jets … and infinity pools,” who believes that any talk of constraints on consumption is necessarily “anti-worker.” Chaudhary credibly accuses them of “techno-mysticism” and “Climate Lysenkoism” (as we’ll see, both are essential ingredients in ecomodernism’s elite comforting reality-denying recipe).  

For anyone new to that reference, Trofim Lysenko was a Stalin-era (pseudo)scientist who rose to be influential in Soviet agriculture by infamously rejecting genetics as bourgeois science. The by then well-grounded biology of genes was deemed unpalatable to Stalin’s strictly enforced ideology (dissenting scientists were gulaged or executed). Lysenko’s move to reject genetics contributed to millions of famine deaths (he’s been dubbed the deadliest individual scientist in history). Today ecomodernists echo Lysenko-scale denialism in rejecting or downplaying what they feel is the politically unsavory science of ecological limits. Like other “green growth” fans, ecomodernists believe that by transitioning to a clean energy system we can continue with the rest of the old-planet’s economy, or material metabolism, running largely as is. Hence political ecologist Kai Heron describes the ecomodernism that Huber and Phillips preach as “ecologically illiterate.” Our techno-mystic twins even resort to “space mining and space derived energy sources as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card for … resource limits.” Chaudhary writes that Phillips’s “ignorance truly knows no bounds” and his dogmatic dismissal of biosphere constraints has him singing from the same hymn sheet as overclass optimists like Steven Pinker, peddling “laughable [tales of progress] … which stand up to neither mathematical nor historical scrutiny.”

“Techno-mysticism” is sci-fi-addled wishful thinking that is chapter and verse to typical enthusiasts of the ecomodernist gospel. This religious language fits their faith-based worldview (which can amount to an intriguing kind of intelligent superstition). In naming their tech-will-save-us cult “ecomodernism,” they pull off quite a coup. For actual ecologists like Heron, there’s precious little that’s rightly “eco” in their doctrines. And their appropriation of “modern” is a genius move, as it casts opponents as primitive or against progress. Neither is generally true. Many who oppose ecomodernism’s excesses, like me, seek as much progress as is possible by the most advanced means achievable but prudently keeping within ecologically safe rates of resource usage — in addition I argue that constrained resources should be used in a manner that accounts for the needs of the global poor. But to ecomodernists, limits are anathema, they’re the work of the human-hating devil himself. I suspect one factor in their rabid rejection of limits arises since facing empirical material realities would require a reckoning with the diabolical disparities that disfigure current global resource use (which mock talk of equal human dignity). One rough metric of ghastly resource disparities  is that US median income is around 300 times that of the global poor (that’s about the same ratio as stands between a typical US worker and a $20 million a year CEO).

Commitment to the sacred duty to cast out the demon of resource limits is signaled by a bizarre use of the term “Malthusian.” To quickly recap: In 1798 the Reverend Thomas Malthus predicted that recurring famines were inevitable since human population tends to grow exponentially while food supply goes up only linearly. In his horribly harsh brand of Christianity, it was futile to try to counter famines, which he felt to be a God-given providential check on the profligate poor.  A century later, when tech progress enabled mass use of artificial fertilizer, escape from the Malthusian trap became more thinkable. Two further jumps away from the inevitability of famine came about half a century later, with the Green Revolution and “the pill.” But before such innovations, food calories produced typically exceeded the energy used in creating them. Now it takes15 calories of mostly fossil-fuel energy input per food calorie produced, and farming causes  one-third of all global emissions. Phillips valorizes high-tech farming, and he’s correct that it feeds billions more people than would otherwise be possible, but he downplays a cornucopia of related problems that impose burdens and costs especially on the planet’s poor. Space precludes details, but here are links to some key woes: unsustainable soil erosion; nutrient loss; hidden hunger; greater food insecurity despite initial yield gains, which are now falling; and farmer suicides (Chaudhary specifically rebukes Phillips for trying to evade evidence of mass farmer suicides e.g. 270,000 in India).

Shallowly schooled (but highly TEDucated) church-of-tech worshippers tend to misread the Malthus case. The lesson isn’t that we can safely rely on the miracles of tech to beat limits; the truer takeaway is that game-changing innovation is rare, unpredictable, and typically brings unforeseen fallout. Artificial fertilizer tech has remained basically unchanged in over a century, and the legacy of the Green Revolution is still contested. In addition to “serious environmental impacts beyond the areas cultivated,” for instance, food scholar Mark Bittman writes that the Green Revolution was really about “selling American agricultural machinery, chemicals, and seeds.”  And a 2022 analysis of Green Revolution projects in Africa by Timothey Wise of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy  found a failure to “achieve yield growth in half the countries studied,” and even “when yields rose, they failed to translate into rising incomes for farmers,” resulting in a 31% to 50% increase in the number of severely hungry people. The realities of tech progress often aren’t as rosy as painted in those secular sermons known as TED talks.

Ecomodernists are correct that tech progress will indeed expand what humanity can do, but that doesn’t immediately obviate every biophysical constraint. Whatever dazzling advances lie ahead, we’d be fools to discount prevailing constraints by presuming that capabilities not yet invented (or scaled) will arrive in time. We’re facing accelerating harms in a deadly race against climate impacts. They are already devastating to many of the global poor: as I write this, tens of millions are suffering from a deadly climate-crisis-worsened drought in Africa. Yet, policy elites seduced by the seemingly easy path, have made exactly this badly reasoned ecomodernist bet, that tentative tech will bail us out. For instance, colossal amounts of carbon capture, by as yet unspecified and thus techno-mysterious means, are put into policy-shaping global climate models (see “carbon rapture”).

The structure of this bet is rarely laid out, but if the ardently-prayed-for tech miracles don’t materialize (or scale) in time, a great deal of damage will have been done, or will be locked in, some of it potentially irreparable. This is a gamble with other people’s livelihoods and lives. The burdens will end up being borne by the global poor, but also everyone’s children and descendants will be forced to face compounding costs for a mindboggling length of time. As energy systems analyst Zeke Hausfather writes climate scientists have a saying that “carbon is forever.” By which they mean it takes about “400,000 years for the carbon cycle to fully remove current emissions.” Even after “we get emissions down to zero, warming will stop but the world will not cool down for centuries to millennia to come.” We’re gambling with a ten-thousand generation thermo-toxin.

More broadly, casting our unprecedented encroaching crises as amenable to any sort of tweaked status quo politics is an immense mistake. It is outdated old-planet thinking to frame our predicament as a contest between a sexy “politics of more” and an unattractive “politics of less.” Though that’s a common reflex in policy circles, this is enormously inept and infantilizing. It presumes voters can’t be trusted to face unpleasant facts and applies political palatability tests that may once have made sense but now can’t. However passionately you’d like to you can’t wish or vote away physics. This political palatability school of thought is closer to a kindergarten feelgood fairy tale than a coherent reality-facing adult politics. Its practitioners act as if voter and “market choice [are] more important than the maintenance of a viable biosphere,” as climate strategist Christopher Shaw writes in Liberalism and the Challenge of Climate Change. Again, planetary processes are not a political menu catering to voter whims, or consumer choices; they are hard scientific facts that we must rapidly learn to fit our politics and economics into.

Huber writes that “a politics of ‘less’ and ‘limits’ has no resonance for the vast majority of people already living precarious and insecure working-class lives.” But in the currency that counts for global temperature impacts,  greenhouse gas emissions, America’s bottom half by income emits 9.7 tonnes each per year, which is about 8 times more than what would be needed to stabilize at 1.5ºC (1.1 tonnes) and 3 times for 2ºC (3.1 tonnes). The same figures for America’s middle class are 20 times and 7 times. In Lysenkoing away scientifically determined constraints to seemingly offer greater total resource use, Huber and Co. practice a deeply dishonest politics. They lie about its durability and about its future costs. Even at today’s resource use levels, we’ve burst through 6 of 9 known “planetary boundaries.” Here’s the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s graphic.

For those not familiar with that phrase, scientists have quantified safe ranges for 9 key biosphere parameters, and we’re already outside 6 of them: for greenhouse gases, biodiversity, freshwater availability, land use, nutrient flows, and industrial pollution. Ignoring these other scientifically characterized factors is “carbon tunnel vision.” It is another vital ingredient in the wishful wonking of preachers of the ecomodernist or “green growth” gospel.

The towering truth of the times is that we face various forms of finitude that can’t be sci-fied away. There’s the carbon budget, for example, which expresses that for any particular ultimate temperature rise or level of biosphere damage we can dump only a limited amount of this ten-thousand generation thermo-toxin into the atmosphere. We must decide how that budget (and other zero-sum ecological pies) are to be shared. A jolly “politics of more” now means either less later or global boiling and biosphere degradation will worsen. This easier-to-sell “politics of more” is old-planet thinking that betrays our duties to the young. It is a thin and desperate sugarcoating on a bitter pill for that our kids will be forced to swallow tomorrow. What a legacy! An “ecological Ponzi scheme” that only the most gung-ho tech bros and their faux-socialist sidekicks could back. Another prominent left-wing example of this is Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, which sells the same techno-opti-mystic fantasy. There are handsome rewards for courtiers and clowns of all kinds who sell the opium of the elites.

Amazingly, it gets worse. The ideology-driven denials of Huber and Phillips, our tech-woo twins, go beyond science to history and economics. Huber calls the idea of the “imperial mode of living” that we enjoy in rich nations misguided and he  “sneers at talk of imperial drain” of resources from the poor nations (despite abundant near-to-hand evidence of that extraction, for instance, this study puts the value of the drain at $2 trillion per year). Huber complains that the idea “that we could both save the planet and make life significantly better for the majority simply does not cross their mind.” “They” are the middle-class or professional-managerial class (PMC) left, with their “lifestyle environmentalism,” focus on ecological limits, and “carbon guilt-tripping” psychology. I’m no fan of the PMC left’s frequent foolery or deformities, but Huber is shameless shadowboxing to hide his pernicious priorities. Most limits-focused folks seek to benefit the global majority, and especially the global poor without Lysenko-level delusions (these priorities are also easy to discover, if you’re making a good faith effort to engage with public reasoning, which it seems many ecomodernists are not). Neither arithmetic nor biosphere limits bend to anyone’s psychology (PMC or otherwise) or to voter choice. Meanwhile Huber’s “majority” disgracefully excludes or deprioritizes the global poor.

Huber asserts that workers will “reject a platform that has nothing to offer them.” This exposes the core ecomodernist failure to face reality. A habitable non-boiling biosphere is very not nothing. In fact, it is obviously the foundation on which every other viable material interest must rest. The hidden cost of our delusion-dealing duo’s stance is a degraded future and worse impacts on the abandoned global poor. The option to plough ahead with old-planet patterns isn’t really on the menu. Yet, using Marxist-lingo-draped, what’s-in-it-for-me politics, Huber seeks gains first for the rich-nation labor aristocracy. Consider electrical workers who are one of the labor groups he deems pivotal because of their role in the energy transition. Their typical earnings are reported as between $72,000 and $126,000, which means they rank at the 92nd to 97th global income percentiles. An academic review of Huber’s book by sociologist Michael Levien says the quiet part out loud in its title: “White Energy Workers of the North Unite?”

Huber deems it “highly debatable“ that rich-nation wage gains post World War II derive from “exploitative, imperial processes.” This denial of well-documented and widely known historic (and ongoing) exploitation of poor nations adds another level to our duplicity-prone pair’s fantasy-frosted layer cake of lunacy: Marx’s main method is often referred to as “historical materialism,” which here is being grossly twisted by so-called Marxists denying history and material factors. That’s on top of ditching duties to international solidarity and global climate justice. As Heron writes, the standard of living we enjoy in rich nations still rests on “super-exploitation” of poor-nation resources and labor.  He concludes that the facts of biosphere limits added to any truly anti-imperialist politics means that citizens of rich nations— “including many workers [likely need to] reduce their overall consumption.” He’s correct. At least until the space mining and off-planet energy beams kick in. And if our delusion-dealing duo is so certain that savior-tech is imminent, they should have no problem respecting fairly shared resource limits in the interim.

In addressing the biosphere crises, we must center the fact that Global Southers typically have vastly fewer resources than we do. For instance, Africa’s median income is 1/12th of the Global North’s. Using current global resource allocation methods, it would take 200 years to end global poverty at a $5 per day level. That’s 8 generations to get the global poor to only 1/8th of the US poverty level of $40 per day (and 60 generations to match our poverty). As they avoid engaging with these intolerable injustices, “left” ecomodernists (and their editors at outlets like Jacobin) in effect defend and extend historic disparities. Intentionally or not, they aid climate apartheid and shamefully reinforce racial resource hierarchy. Instead of general “green austerity,” I have argued for “elite austerity,” consumption cuts from the top first. But the plain fact is that many workers are in the global elite (global top 10% incomes begin at $61,000, the top 5% at $96,000).

The core political and moral issue here is how justice and material interest should relate. As scholar of comparative politics Adam Przeworski writes in Capitalism and Social Democracy, “radical redistributive policies are [often] not in the  interest of wage earners” (especially true of the labor aristocracy). And as Chaudhary notes, unions often operate as conservative forces protecting their memberships monetary interests above all else (at times even at the expense of other workers, e.g. putting union pensions funds into parasitic private equity).

Many uses of the term “interest” mask malicious malarkey. I argue that it is not in anyone’s real “interest” to gain by harming their own life-support system. That’s a tradeoff only sociopaths would make, but it lurks under many formulations of the political use of the term “interest.” Pursuing a politics of personal short-term economic interests alone (like a good neoliberal or a myopic Marxist) doesn’t add up to collective decency (or even to the capacity to survive). We all have longer-term and social and moral interests that must shape our politics. Any decent path forward needs a politics which prioritizes solidarity and resource justice. Otherwise, fancy talk of equal human rights and dignity is just empty rhetoric. We who are among the planet’s most resource blessed must use our power to protect and assist the neediest. Surely that’s what global climate justice means. In a prior Sublation piece I called this a “politics of grace” to fight the prevailing politics of greed. As Terry Eagleton wrote recently “Marxism is about political love… in its real sense – agape, caritas.” It should focus on the fate of those that have the least (not gains for the 92nd to 97th income percentile). None of us are to blame for the historic horrors of imperial plunder, slavery, and genocide and so on. But we will be rightly blamed if we perpetuate the present resulting disparities into the future. Likewise, if we don’t make vigorous efforts to prevent the geochemical karma of our way of life burdening the next ten thousand generations

Put yourself in the shoes of the overwhelming global majority, the 84% who are poor. They might well ask, with leftist friends like Huber and Phillips (and their left-media allies), who needs capitalist enemies?