by Raymond Lotta
March 14, 2022
[T]he essence of the conflict between the U.S. and countries like Russia and China is not one between “democracy” and “authoritarianism,” but is a matter of rivalry among imperialist powers, all of which are monstrous oppressors of masses of people, and none of which represent or act in the interests of humanity. What is called for, and urgently now, is to oppose all imperialist marauders and mass murderers, and all systems and relations of oppression and exploitation, while giving particular emphasis to opposing “our own” imperialist oppressors who commit their monstrous crimes “in our name” and seek to rally us to support them on the basis of a grotesque American chauvinism, which we must firmly reject and fiercely struggle against.
—Bob Avakian, “Shameless American Chauvinism: ‘Anti-Authoritarianism’ as a ‘Cover’ for Supporting U.S. Imperialism,” February 25, 2022
Author’s Note: Bill McKibben has, over the years, played an important role in raising awareness of global warming and the environmental emergency. But it has always struck me how he never goes to the roots of the problem, in the workings of the competitive, profit-based system of capitalism-imperialism—nor does he seriously engage with the solution, in an actual revolution to transform this system. And now, whether he intends so or not, he has opted for ugly and chauvinist solutions. I challenge Bill McKibben to read this critique, to respond to this critique, and to publicly debate these issues with me. At a moment when the stakes are nothing less than the potential extinction of much of humanity, this debate is urgently needed.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine in late February, environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben has, in op-ed pieces, blog posts, and media appearances, been pumping out rationales in support of U.S. imperialism in its confrontation with Russian imperialism. As Russia escalated its brutal invasion of Ukraine—and as the U.S. and its West European allies ramped up military assistance to the government of Ukraine and stepped up economic warfare against Russia—McKibben has repeated the mantra of the U.S. ruling class that this is a battle between “democracy” (represented by the U.S. and the government of Ukraine) and “autocracy” (Putin and Russia). But Bill McKibben goes further. He gives his embrace of U.S. sanctions against Russia and bullets for Ukraine a particular environmental twist.
Bill McKibben is attempting to square the circle of support for U.S. imperialism in its intensifying conflict with Russia with delusional scenarios in which confrontation with Russia can bring forth what he calls an “all-out effort to decarbonize the continent [take Western Europe off fossil fuels], and then our own.” It is a chauvinist fantasy of America as a force for good, including as potential leader in green energy. It is ideological poison that anyone who truly cares about the future of humanity and the planet must reject.
In what follows, I will walk through and refute McKibben’s core arguments and point to his chauvinist blindspots. I will mainly draw from his February 25 opinion piece in the Guardian of London.
I. Condemning the Russian “Petrostate” to Let U.S. Imperialism’s Fossil-Fuel Dominance and Military Machine Off the Hook
McKibben titles his Guardian essay “This is how we defeat Putin and other petrostate autocrats.” Already, he is sickeningly signaling with “we” that “we” are all in this together: the U.S. ruling class, the U.S. military, the Western alliance of imperialist powers, the U.S. population, and, yes, the environmental movement.
By petrostate, McKibben means an economy and government in which the production of petroleum and other fossil fuels plays an outsize, commanding role in the economic structure of that society, especially in generating revenues for the ruling state. Russia is not the same as a country like Saudi Arabia. Russia is a developed capitalist-imperialist economy with a manufacturing base, domestic supply chains, and technological capability. It is the world’s largest exporter of wheat. But Russia’s economy is skewed towards the export of natural gas, oil, and other raw materials, and towards military production. McKibben decries the fact that Russia’s sales of oil and natural gas provide the money “that powers the country’s military machine.”
And what of U.S. imperialism? The U.S. economy is not centrally focused, as Russia’s is, on earnings from international oil and natural gas sales. But the levels of fossil fuel production and consumption in the U.S. have far-greater global impacts:
—The U.S. is the biggest producer of oil and natural gas in the world.
—The U.S. is the highest per person consumer of oil in the world.
—The U.S. is responsible for the greatest cumulative amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere that lead to global warming.
McKibben is quick to denounce Russia’s “military machine.” But in his Guardian piece he is unconscionably silent about the U.S. machinery of death and destruction. Another basic fact check:
—The U.S. spends more than ten times what Russia spends on its military—yes, 10 times more than Russia. In fact, in 2022 the U.S. will spend as much as the combined spending of the next nine largest military powers (countries like China, France, India, Russia, United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia).
—The U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of weapons. Weapons like those being dropped from Saudi warplanes on women, children, and other innocents in Yemen, weapons that have struck health facilities. Saudi Arabia is a “petrostate” client regime of U.S. imperialism.
—The U.S. has invaded and intervened in more countries over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st century than any other state. It currently has 700 overseas military bases in over 70 countries—no other country comes close. The U.S. military has, in recent decades, been the largest single institutional consumer of oil in the world.
McKibben does not consider what finances the U.S. military machine. The short and essential answer is: the “earnings of empire.” America’s privileged and dominant position in the world economy and the myriad ways—through investment, bank loans, the special role of the dollar in world trade, resting on the exploitation of hundreds and hundreds of millions—by which America extracts and siphons wealth from vast parts of the world enables it to underwrite its military. This military machine, the largest in the history of humankind, enforces that very dominance.
II. If Russia Has a “Pathetic Economy,” How Do You Describe America’s?
Here is rank chauvinism and cheerleading for empire in full view: McKibben in his proud-of-America register proclaims that “Russia has a pathetic economy—you can verify that for yourself by looking around your house and seeing how many of the things you use were made within its [Russia’s] borders.”
Sound advice, Bill. Do take a closer look in your closet: what about the clothes, do you hear the screams of the women in the ruthless sweatshops of Bangladesh, Honduras, Indonesia, and elsewhere in the global South who produce most of the clothing bought and worn in the U.S.? Look on your desk, at your cell phone and computer. Do you see the faces of the workers in the factories run as jail-like compounds in China who assemble your cell phone; do you feel the agony of the 40,000 children who work in mines of Congo bringing up the cobalt, lithium, and other minerals necessary to power laptops, phones, and electric vehicles? Yes, look around your house.
The U.S. has, on the basis of its global dominance and plunder, developed a vast, globally integrated network of exploitation and superexploitation. But when you view the world, as McKibben does, through the jaded, chauvinist lens that America is the supreme force for good in the world, no matter what it does—Bob Avakian has called this the “Great Tautological Fallacy”—you can maneuver around truths of America’s genocidal wars and supply chains of exploitation (McKibben knows these facts). And you can train your fire on the “evil” of Putin at the very moment that U.S. and Western imperialism are preparing for more frontal confrontation with Russia.
III. McKibben Erases History… and the Actual Dynamics of Imperialist Rivalry
Here is the heart of the argument that McKibben is putting out:
Alongside [Russia’s] military machine, control of oil and gas supplies is Russia’s main weapon. They have, time and again, threatened to turn off the flow of hydrocarbons to western Europe…. Imagine a Europe that ran on solar and wind power: whose cars ran on locally provided electricity, and whose homes were heated by electric air-source heat pumps. That Europe would not be funding Putin’s Russia [by buying its oil and natural gas from them], and it would be far less scared of Russia.
And then McKibben issues a call for the U.S. rulers to mobilize the economy on a scale like World War 2 (more on this later) to produce heating pumps and other machinery to help rapidly convert the West European economies to renewable energy.
A) McKibben starts in mid-air as though there were no prior history. McKibben begins his account of the current crisis with an aggressive Russia invading Ukraine and war threatening to spread. The West European countries depend on Russia for 40 percent of their natural gas needs and 30 percent of their oil. Their economies would shut down without those imports. Thus, according to McKibben, these “democratic” countries are militarily threatened and being held economically hostage—and so they will not stand up.
But let’s bring in some salient history. The U.S. heads up a military alliance of West European countries. That alliance is NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). NATO has been expanding since the early 1990s when the former Soviet Union collapsed. The U.S. brought 10 countries that are close to or bordering Russia into NATO between 1999 and 2004. NATO has stationed troops and advanced weapons systems in many of these countries. In 2014, the U.S. backed an upheaval in Ukraine (the so-called “orange revolution”) that brought a pro-U.S. government to power in Ukraine, a country with an almost 1,500 mile land border with Russia. Ukraine trumpets its determination to become part of NATO.
Russia for its part is seeking to expand its sphere of economic and military influence in Eurasia (the vast land mass of Europe and Asia). The U.S. aims to block this and to maintain and extend its dominant position in the world.
Ukraine has become a conflict zone of imperialist great-power rivalry. McKibben blots out that history.
B). The Actual Reality of Imperialism vs. McKibben’s Imperio-Fantasies
McKibben laments how Western Europe has become dependent on natural gas and oil from Russia. This has been based on profitability. Importing this energy provides a “cost-efficient” input into profit-based production. In addition, the West Europeans have become major trade partners with Russia; that too has been profitable.
But now a monumental crisis and the specter of widening war threaten to undermine these relations and linkages with Russia. The West European imperialists must respond, and are responding, in ways that serve their imperialist interests and answer to the pressures of U.S. imperialism, which is trying to tighten its grip on the NATO alliance.
Are the West European imperialists moving to massively cut back on fossil-fuel consumption and radically re-restructure their economies towards renewable energy? No. That can’t happen with so much production and transport requiring fossil fuels. And the NATO “military machine”—jets, tanks, warships, aircraft carriers, and transport vehicles—requires oil, especially in a period of heightened combat readiness. NATO doesn’t run on wind and solar power (not that anyone with a conscience should want that).
So in the face of mounting tensions with Russia, the West European imperialists are advocating and planning to move along three tracks: a) obtaining more fossil fuel (especially natural gas) from non-Russian sources—and this includes liquefied natural gas, which requires special terminals; b) storing more natural gas; and c) aiming for greater energy efficiency, meaning burn fossil fuels and pollute the planet more “efficiently.” There are calls and moves to increase solar and wind power capability—and renewable energy is growing—but this is not the main direction of replacing Russian natural gas and oil if that becomes necessary. (These are high-level recommendations in just-released studies by the International Energy Agency and European Union.)
McKibben further argues, as I quoted him above, that if Russia loses Western European customers for natural gas and oil, Putin will not be able to finance the “military machine.” But what McKibben fails to understand is that Russia too is seeking to diversify its trade relations. Russia is looking in particular to sell more of its energy to, and enter into major new industrial partnerships with, China, the most rapidly growing capitalist-imperialist country in the world.
There is great-power jockeying as existing economic arrangements fray and the drums of war beat louder.
C) Crises and Illusions of the Environmental Movement
Sections of the environmental movement have repeatedly argued over the years that major crises would force the hand of the U.S. and other major economies to do right by renewable energy. They said it during the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the resulting economic slowdown. Banks that suffered big losses would find new outlets in renewables. What followed, under Obama, was rather different: the massive increase in “fracking”—the highly polluting method of extracting shale oil; the expansion of offshore and Arctic drilling; and the U.S. taking its place, under “climate-friendly Obama,” as the world’s number one producer of oil and natural gas.
And as scientific report after report documented accelerating global warming—and as the current-day reality of its devastating consequences were ever-more evident in melting glaciers, rising sea levels, more violent weather events, spreading wildfires—calls were issued for a “Green New Deal.” For a critique, see “5 Reasons ‘The Green New Deal’ Is Misleading, Dangerous, and Part of the Problem—Delusion and Deception in the Service of American Empire.” The argument was made by environmentalists and some Democrats in Congress that a Green New Deal was a “win-win” situation: we could act to save the planet and create new markets and jobs for the U.S. as a potential leader in green technology. But this collapsed in the political reality of an America with a powerful fascist section of the U.S. ruling class that would have none of it (and which even denies the reality of global warming).
The same kind of illusions were peddled as the pandemic hit. The slowdowns and disruptions in production, it was argued by many mainstream environmentalists, will force a re-think of energy. But global energy-related carbon emissions were the highest ever in 2021, as the world economy began recovering. In the U.S., coal production increased last year. And Biden, as McKibben acknowledges, has granted more oil-drilling leases in his first year in office than Trump did during his entire four years!
But this time, according to McKibben, things can be different. We can peacefully rev up the economy like it’s World War 2 and mass-produce renewable energy technology, sell it to Western Europe, and adopt it here.
IV. The Myth of World War 2 and the Mirage of a Renewable Energy Economy-Wide Mobilization
McKibben is glowing about America’s World War 2 economic mobilization, buying into the notion of America as the “arsenal of democracy.” And he sees in this a model for going green: “In the years after Hitler invaded the Sudetenland [part of Czechoslovakia], America turned its industrial prowess to building tanks, bombers, and destroyers…. A bomber is a complicated machine with more than a million parts; a wind turbine is by contrast, relatively simple…. Do we think that it’s beyond us to quickly produce the solar panels and batteries required to end our dependence on fossil fuel?”
First, what is McKibben actually celebrating? World War 2 was not some noble enterprise of America “fighting for democracy” for the people of the world. America was waging a murderous war for greater empire, vying with other imperialist powers for control of the world. It was a war in which America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. As a result of the outcome of World War 2, the U.S. became the dominant imperialist power; the biggest exploiter in the world; and the global policeman of the imperialist-dominated world. America’s genocidal wars in Korea and Vietnam were not far off (“Watch What You Wish For… FDR’s New Deal and the American Empire”).
Second, McKibben wants us to believe that America can mobilize and scale up this way again, but produce what McKibben on his blog calls “heat pumps for peace and freedom.” In this way, “we can peacefully punch Putin in the kidneys without raising the odds of nuclear war.” Would it were that McKibben could wish this state of affairs into being.
The problem is that fossil fuels still account for some 80 percent of the U.S.’s energy production. America’s military is inoperative without fossil fuel. President Biden cannot even enact puny environmental legislation. In the face of disruptions to energy supplies and intensifying economic warfare, Biden is calling on countries to ramp up oil production. And Biden in his recent State of the Union called for “energy independence”—not a renewable-energy revolution.
The reason for this, as shown in revcom articles and analyses, is that fossil-fuels are foundational to the profitable functioning of capitalism-imperialism, as it has developed. Oil is a strategic-military necessity, and an instrument of imperialist competition, rivalry, and domination. The essential truth is that only by making a revolution to overthrow this system and creating a sustainable socialist economy and society do we have a chance to address the climate crisis on the scale and with the urgency required (“50 Years Since Earth Day 1: Reflections on the Catastrophe That Is Capitalism-Imperialism”).
Here is the paradox of McKibben. He wants a war-scale mobilization for green technology which will diminish fossil-fuel revenues… and somehow sap the “war machine” of one imperialist power (Russia). That is not going to happen. But it is true that in the history of modern imperialism, world war has been an engine of rapid technological innovation. World War 2, in which some 75 million people perished, was a catalyst for the development of penicillin, computers and micro-electronics, synthetics, rocket technology… and the atomic bomb.
Things are in fact moving towards world war and real war mobilization, which could well include breakthroughs in energy technologies. But the prosecution of such a war, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, could well lead to the destruction of much of humanity and ecosystems of the planet. This is unconscionable and unacceptable.
As I write, the U.S. is shipping massive new quantities of armaments to Ukraine. Russia is escalating its bombardments on Ukraine’s cities. War clouds are spreading over Europe. Biden is now casting himself as a “wartime president.”
In the name of obtaining practical results for moving society off fossil fuels, Bill McKibben is advocating and latching on to an agenda—regardless of and even though it does not correspond to underlying reality, with the actual dynamics of what is driving things and what is really required to fundamentally change things… that is, for the actual betterment and in the highest interests of humanity.
Bill McKibben’s outlook and program are not going to lead to where he might, in his heart, want it to lead: to green energy. But Bill McKibben is playing a leading role in putting an environmental canopy on the anti-Putin bandwagon… and objectively acting to bring environmental activists and broader progressives into an embrace of the strategic aims and war preparations of U.S. imperialism against its imperial rivals. It is chauvinist to the core and morally despicable.
Source notes soon to be added.
- Imperialist Parasitism and “Democracy”:
Why So Many Liberals and Progressives
Are Shameless Supporters of “Their” Imperialism
by Bob Avakian