I recently interviewed a wise professor named Henry Shue, who has been teaching philosophy for over 50 years and has written a new book called The Pivotal Generation: Why We Have a Moral Responsibility to Slow Climate Change Right Now. Prof. Shue is a moral philosopher, but he differs from some in his field in that he is not just interested in abstract rules of conduct. He is deeply concerned with what philosophy can tell us about the kinds of real-world political action we are morally obligated to take. His book makes a very simple argument, one so elementary that it shouldn’t require a professional philosopher to make it: every generation, he says, has its moral responsibilities determined by its circumstances. Those who had the misfortune to walk the earth at the same time as Adolf Hitler had a responsibility to try to stop the global dominance of Nazism. Millions upon millions of them died in the fulfillment of this duty, and passed down to us a better world than we would have had if they had avoided their responsibility.
At any given moment in human history, a certain number of people are alive, a certain number are dead, and a certain number are not yet born. Prof. Shue points out that it is the responsibility of those few who are living to do what they can to improve the world for those not yet born. We must look around us, assess the circumstances we find ourselves in, figure out what our particular generation’s obligations are, and then act accordingly.
In the case of those living now, Prof. Shue writes, climate change is self-evidently an issue of overriding importance, because it has the potential to cause immense amounts of suffering for those who come after us. Since we know the scale of the problem and are in a position to do something about it, we must act. He writes:
We are not only the first to be able to understand what to do, but—most importantly—we may also be the last to be in a position to act before we exacerbate some major threats. This gives us an awesome responsibility. Humans have accidentally set our own house on fire, and if we do not douse the flames while they are no more extensive than they are now, it may not be possible ever to extinguish them.
The conclusion of Prof. Shue’s book emphasizes the agency and responsibility of those living now:
It is very important that it never becomes likely that the earth’s climate will run wildly out of control… The time to establish a limit on climate change is now—while we still can. The stakes are far too high relative to the insignificance of the lifestyle we need to give up in order to return human civilization to a much safer place… [O]ur passivity and inattention have allowed fossil-fuel interests to dominate energy policy and energy politics for a century. [But] we have agency—our response to our time is our choice. The direction the future takes is up to us, if our pivotal generation takes back the initiative from the entrenched interests who will undermine the climate rather than willingly surrender any of their wealth and power… [T]he responsibility falls on us. We can recapture control of our destiny and our legacy by restoring democratic control of our politics and accelerating the revolutionary energy transition that will brighten the human future. This is the crucial political fight of the twenty-first century. It is too important to lose from lack of thought, effort, and endurance. We can do this, but we have to start doing it now.
One reason I encourage people to read Prof. Shue’s book is that it is refreshingly earnest and determined. I think many of us on the left find ourselves, especially after nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, weary and overwhelmed. The scale of human problems seems daunting, and we feel beaten down. What I like about The Pivotal Generation is that it does not (unlike some books I have read on climate change) put its emphasis on the depressing scale of the suffering that unchecked warming will cause, but on the capacity that we—people alive now—have to affect the conditions of the future in ways that will make life better for others.
If we succumb to the feeling that we are doomed and that our actions can accomplish nothing, we guarantee that we are indeed doomed and will accomplish nothing. One of the most serious dangers for the American left at the moment is that—with Bernie Sanders having lost, Joe Manchin single-handedly able to thwart meaningful climate action, billionaires somehow becoming even more unfathomably wealthy, unions struggling to organize, the Supreme Court controlled by the right, voting rights under attack, and the pandemic never ending—we will become despondent and give up. It can often seem as if our efforts are in vain: last summer, the country erupted in inspiring protests after the murder of George Floyd, but modest police reform legislation in Congress has gone nowhere. I remember attending an impressively large local protest in 2018 over Donald Trump’s cruel family separation immigration policy, but now we have a Democratic president who is maintaining many of his predecessor’s worst policies. (Kids are still in cages.) The Sunrise Movement successfully pressured Joe Biden to improve his position on climate change, but the White House does not appear to be fighting very hard for serious climate policy and Biden is more open to the opinions of fossil fuel executives than climate scientists.
Democracy can seem like a joke, and it is easy to get very, very cynical. An ExxonMobil lobbyist, for instance, was caught on tape admitting that the company not only spreads disinformation about climate science, but has in its pocket a group of U.S. senators who act to prevent the passage of any climate policy that would hurt the fossil fuel industry’s profits. The company cited Manchin in particular as its key government ally. Manchin is the founder of a coal company, from which he receives nearly half a million dollars a year in dividends, and has seemingly gotten the White House to give up its effort to get power utilities to transition to clean energy. With a coal baron setting climate policy, in defiance of overwhelming public opinion, participation in electoral politics can feel futile.
The worst thing we can do, however, is lose our energy and focus. In fact, I have some good news, which is that while the American left can feel a little adrift post-Bernie, all around the country there are hardworking organizers racking up some impressive victories. Over the last few years I’ve been interviewing DSA members in all parts of the United States (email me if you’d be interested in being interviewed), and I’ve found that a lot of great, meaningful work simply goes unreported in the national press. For instance: the Illinois state senate seat once held by capitulating neoliberal Barack Obama is now held by a kick-ass democratic socialist, Robert Peters. This isn’t just a symbolic victory: Peters has passed dozens of his own bills into law, successfully persuading legislators less radical than he to support his legislation. I’ve spoken with other DSA state legislators like Vaughn Stewart (Maryland), Sara Innamorato (Pennsylvania), Emily Gallagher (New York), and Sam Bell (Rhode Island), all of whom were upbeat about the prospects for progressive electoral politics in their state. All of them describe the state house as a place dominated by lobbyists and “establishment” politicians, but they do not see state government as unconquerable territory.
That’s a relief, because the American right is doing a superb (and frightening) job of amassing power at the state level, and the problem is only going to get worse as they redraw electoral maps to keep themselves in power. The right-wing agenda is more extreme than ever. To imagine a world in which Republicans succeed in their plans, have a look at the Texas GOP’s official 2020 policy platform. Let me list a few of the more significant among its 337 different proposals:
- opposing any effort to classify carbon emissions as a pollutant
- abolishing the EPA
- repealing the Endangered Species Act
- prohibiting teaching “sex education, sexual health or sexual choice or identity in any public school”
- recognizing pornography as a “public health crisis”
- abolishing Child Protective Services
- abolishing the Department of Education
- teaching American history courses “heavily weighted toward the study of original founding documents”
- opposing the use of any national or international education standards
- requiring mandatory daily pledges of allegiance to both the United States and Texas
- banning critical race theory from schools
- banning any lockdowns, contact tracing, or mask mandates as public health measures
- newly limiting the time disabled people can receive SSDI benefits
- eliminating the minimum wage
- banning cities from passing paid sick leave ordinances, rent control, or plastic bag bans
- abolishing school-based mental health care providers
- “oppos[ing] all efforts to validate transgender identity”
- repealing all limits on campaign contributions to politicians
- repealing all estate taxes
- eliminating same-sex marriage
- eliminating no-fault divorce and supporting covenant marriage
- entirely eliminating abortion
- introducing a right to use cryptocurrency to the Texas Bill of Rights
- requiring employers to verify citizenship status through E-Verify
- abolishing all federal welfare programs
- drug testing state welfare recipients
- adding “the right to refuse vaccination” to the Texas Bill of Rights
- stopping fluoridation of the water supply
- disallowing prescription drugs manufactured outside the U.S.
- limiting Medicaid
- banning Drag Queen Story Hour from libraries
- allowing people to bring guns into schools
- a prohibition on using gas or vehicle taxes for public transit or bike lanes
- opposing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and using mass deportation instead
- abolishing the refugee resettlement program
- eliminating birthright citizenship
- new criminal penalties for desecrating the American or Texas flag
- revoking the tax-exempt status of any organization that “knowingly aid[s] and abet[s] illegal immigrants”
- ending the H1B foreign worker visa program
- ending daylight saving time
- “support[ing] an aggressive war on terrorism”
- requiring cities that cut police budgets to cut property taxes by the same percentage
- eliminating all public funding for public broadcasting
- repealing the “motor voter” law that allows voter registration at state DMVs
- withdrawing from the United Nations
- “unequivocally oppos[ing]” the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
Texas Republicans may be extreme, but other state GOPs can be expected to copy what happens in Texas. You can see that these changes would completely remake the social and legal landscape. And do not doubt that Republicans in power would enact as much of this as they could; the merciless new Texas abortion law should show us that they are dead serious about their extreme policy agenda.
All of this can be overwhelming. So many terrible ideas are all being pushed at once. And conservative media is thriving. FOX News’ right-wing late-night show is now beating The Tonight Show and The Late Show in the ratings, and Prager University videos continue to be viewed by millions of people. Every day, many of the Top 10 most viewed Facebook posts in the country are by Ben Shapiro, a man who knows nothing. The left has almost nothing to compete with this: it is sobering every time I think about the fact that this magazine, Current Affairs, is one of the leading left outlets in the country—and we have a fraction of the circulation of magazines like Submarine Telecoms Forum and Cranes Today.
While leftists have our work cut out for us, the good news is that understand the problems, and we have clear solutions. Clean energy exists; what needs to happen is a political movement that successfully takes on the fossil fuel industry. National healthcare plans exist and work; what we have to do is defeat the private insurance companies. The difficulties we face involve getting a disillusioned, atomized, depressed, overworked population to raise its expectations and get politically active. Indifference, hopelessness, and a lack of clear political strategy are the biggest obstacles to getting what we want.
Let us, then, think about what the American left needs to aim for. When Bernie Sanders was running for president, this question had an easy short-term answer: we were trying to elect Bernie Sanders. Now, it is more complicated. But not too much more. As Bernie said, “Not Me. Us.” We, then, have to pick up where Bernie’s campaign of political mobilizing left off.
We are, first and foremost, trying to prevent catastrophic suffering in the present and the future. This means that we are trying to eliminate carbon pollution as quickly as possible. It must also mean (though this is often treated as secondary) that we must eliminate the possibility of future wars. The only thing that could be more devastating than climate change is war, and there is still a global arms race among powerful nations that needs to be halted if we are to be assured of a future. China has supposedly just tested a hypersonic nuclear-capable missile, and the U.S. is building swarms of deadly drones and new nuclear weapons. It should not need saying that either these weapons will never be used (in which case they are a colossal waste of human effort and resources) or they will inflict horrors unlike any previously seen in the history of our species. The establishment of permanent global peace, and the winding down of countries’ military capabilities, must therefore be one of our highest political priorities.
We want to eliminate war, prevent climate catastrophe, end poverty, eliminate racism and gender inequality, and make sure people have good health, rewarding work, and plenty of leisure time. None of this is impossible—in fact, there is no technical barrier to it whatsoever—but it is very easy to become paralyzed by pessimism, or to not know where to begin. The first necessary shift, however, is an attitudinal one: every time someone suggests that things cannot be changed, they must be booed and shamed, or at least allowed their moment of hopelessness and helped back up into action. Giving in to a sense of hopelessness was not the attitude of labor and civil rights organizers of generations past, and it must not be our attitude today. We have to move forward with the confidence that we are going to win–or at least with the confidence of the conviction that, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the time is always ripe to do right.” We have to move forward willing to do what it takes to avert climate chaos, rid the world of nukes, seize and redistribute the billionaires’ wealth, give everyone free medical care, stall the Republican agenda, eliminate the prison-industrial complex, replace policing with authentic public safety, guarantee good schools and houses for everyone, and dismantle our cruel immigration system. The question is not if we can do these things but how we are going to do them.
We must begin to think more strategically. For instance: I think the Democratic Socialists of America are the most important political organization in the country and do immensely valuable work. But, after an impressive period of growth, their membership has hovered around 95,000 for many months, despite an ongoing public campaign to get to 100,000. If each DSA member recruited 1 person, they’d be over the threshold in an instant. So what’s going on?
One problem is that DSA membership growth has been driven in large part by external events rather than internal recruitment strategy. When Trump won in 2016, DSA experienced huge membership growth. Same with AOC’s victory. But DSA is not an “evangelical” organization. When I lived in Boston, every time I got on the subway, I would see Jehovah’s Witnesses in the station offering The Watchtower. I was impressed that day after day, year after year, they were always out trying to get new members. I did not see socialists there.
We need subway station socialists, those who make left politics visible and are constantly engaged in trying to organize the apolitical and the disengaged. I think there is a common perception on the left that it is impossible, or very difficult, to change people’s minds. Perhaps this comes from a quasi-Marxist sense that people’s ideas are the product of their conditions and status, but it’s empirically false. Changing minds is difficult, but it can be done, and there are particular techniques that work. From my interviews with DSA members, I know that many people became socialists because they were given a book, or heard a lecture, or spoke to someone who opened their mind. Labor organizers know well that, during an organizing campaign, workers who started off staunchly opposing the union can come around, because patient fellow workers have spent a long time thinking carefully about how to get someone to switch from a No to a Yes.
In fact, it’s strange to me that we don’t have a more evangelical left. If you wanted to give someone a book or pamphlet to try to persuade them to take left ideas seriously, what would you give them? Marx’s (agonizingly difficult) Capital? (I took my own stab at creating a thing you could give to skeptics with the book Why You Should Be A Socialist.) We need to train ourselves to defend our ideas and then go out into the world with the aim of turning as many non-leftists as possible into leftists, and then involving them in political action. We should spend as much time reading books like The Art of War and Getting To Yes, works of strategy and negotiation, as works of left economic and political theory.
We have to improve our media. I recently spoke to Thom Hartmann, the leading progressive talk show host in the country, about how the right came to dominate talk radio. It isn’t, he said, because there’s no audience for leftist radio. There was a strategic project to dominate the airwaves on the right, and it is ongoing. (At the moment, he warned, right-wingers are buying up Spanish-language stations in order to turn more Spanish-speaking listeners right-wing, which Hartmann thinks is partly responsible for the shift of Latino voters to Trump.) Hartmann explained that it’s possible to build a left alternative, but we just need to do it. We young leftists often write off radio, assuming that because the technology is outmoded, nobody listens to it. But over 80% of Americans still listen to terrestrial radio at some point in any given week, far more than the number who listen to podcasts. Clearly we need to beef up our broadcasting. Get leftists podcasts onto community radio stations. Every additional listener is someone who may end up being activated. (Radio listeners do tend to be older, but we need to work much harder to reach older people. DSA members, for instance, are overwhelmingly young. Yes, organize the retirement homes!)
I am in awe of Jacobin magazine’s success; it is the most impressive left media project of our time. But we need more than Jacobin. We need local lefty magazines, statewide lefty newspapers, etc. We need books, pamphlets, zines, and more that are entertaining and explain things in ways that engage apolitical readers. We need lecturers going around and giving engaging talks. (I have long wondered why nobody has arranged for a tour of climate scientists to every city and town in America, to engage with skeptics and explain clearly the action that needs to be taken and what ordinary people need to do.)
Excellent work is being done, do not get me wrong. A strike wave is showing that the labor movement is coming alive again. The Democracy Policy Network and People’s Policy Project are coming up with practical proposals that leftist state legislators can try to implement, providing our own equivalent of the disturbingly effective American Legislative Exchange Council. The Gravel Institute is doing a fantastic job producing videos that counter the insidious propaganda of PragerU. I speak to people all the time who are starting magazines and blogs and podcasts. They’re more important than they know, but the one piece of advice I’d give is: think strategically. If your podcast reaches 100 people, develop a strategy for getting to 1000. Religions and corporations both think about how they’re going to find new customers. We need to be similarly oriented around growth. If that means reading a marketing book or two, so be it.
We also need to internalize the fact that public office is attainable. There are over 500,000 elected offices in this country at the local, state, and federal level, and they all have to be filled by someone. Often, they are filled by the person who shows up and puts in the work. Leftists have won in unexpected places. In Houston, which used to be the “capital of capital punishment,” a socialist prison abolitionist, Franklin Bynum, is now a criminal court judge. We need to take every opportunity—the socialist left didn’t field a candidate in this year’s New York City mayors’ race, for instance, which I think was a lost chance. Running in electoral races isn’t just about trying to win, but is an opportunity to educate the public on the issues, turn people leftist, and build a network that can win the next race.
“Politician” is a dirty word in this country, but the good news is that we now have a left that takes electoral politics seriously, and sees little wrong with trying to get into an office that has some power. We just need to keep pushing. All around the country, great people have won improbable victories, from the six DSA-affiliated aldermen in Chicago to Janeese Lewis George in Washington, D.C. Socialist Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant has explained how, thanks to effective organizing partners on the outside, she has been able to get reluctant centrist council members to pass important policies. (Seattle was the first city to get the $15 minimum wage, and thanks to diligent and courageous action, the Fight For 15 has now spread all across the country and achieved impressive success, changing millions of lives.) These people are changing the agenda in their cities—the business press in Chicago has to now seriously discuss the question of whether the city should take over the local electric utility, because the socialists forced the issue into the public arena. We are not winning yet, but given the impressive foundation we are building—dozens of elected socialists around the country, with more on the way—to let COVID-era despondency sap our energy would be a terrible shame.
In my interviews with DSA members around the country, I have been struck by two things: first, the troubling sense of directionlessness in the post-Bernie era and second, the immense amount of talent and commitment possessed by thousands of (mostly young) people across the organization’s hundreds of chapters. The left in this country has potential, more than it knows, but our local victories aren’t reported in the national press, and because 9 times out of 10 we are defeated, it’s easy to feel like we will never stop losing. To accept this as a fact would be suicidal.
In The Pivotal Generation, Prof. Shue points out that those of us living now are in a unique position as far as climate change goes. We are unique in that we are the generation that is aware of the problem and has the potential to decide whether it will be solved or not. Prior generations may have been ignorant of the problem, future generations will suffer from it, but ours is the pivotal one, the one that is awake to its responsibility and has a choice to make. He concludes: “We are responsible for protecting our defenseless descendants against our careless contemporaries. If not us, who? If not now, when?” Each of us, those who have the capacity to act, need to do what we can to avoid resignation. And whether we join the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots or the Sunrise Movement, start a radio broadcast or help organize a labor union, by virtue of being a living human being who has happened by chance to exist at the present moment, we need to figure out what our personal part in all of this is to be.
There is so much that we can accomplish together. It is not just that I think we can avoid the implementation of the horrible GOP agenda, and turn the U.S. into a social democracy, and win the political fight to reshape global energy production, and disband the world’s militaries. We can build beautiful garden cities, start an aesthetic revolution, rewild our desolate “developed” spaces, create a whole new education system that teaches curiosity rather than drilling children into obedience, and create a culture that values solidarity, leisure, thought, and joy rather than work and consumption. Every part of this requires the labor of living human beings like myself and yourself if it is going to get done (and all of it assumes we can avoid the perils of infighting and maintain the comradeship necessary to a successful movement). But there is no better way to make something meaningful out of your short time on Earth than to participate in the ongoing project of creating the best world we possibly can, if not for ourselves then for those who will inherit it from us.