[Originally published as a letter/comment in Anthropology Today, March 2020.]
The editorial by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (AT Feb 2020, Vol 36, no 1) is a passionate plea for more anthropological engagement in public debates about global warming. His focus is on knowledge – ‘what we can say’ and storytelling – ‘how can we say it?’ His hope is that anthropologists can find ways to intervene more effectively in political debate. I agree and would add that to do so, we need to be willing to take sides, and draw on our anthropological and historical understanding of resistance, social movements and the mechanics of social change (Armbruster & Laerke 2008; Lindisfarne 2010). And in the case of global warming, there is one utterly compelling way to take Eriksen’s plea for action further.
Responding to the great threat of global warming means first and foremost reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a scale far beyond the unenforceable promises of the international agreements and as swiftly as possible. To do this requires the Keynesian determination of Roosevelt when he took the US into the Second World War. Within three short months, the assembly lines in Detroit were turning out airplanes and produced no more cars until the end of the conflict. Roosevelt did this to win a war. And what he did was also done in Britain, in Germany, the Soviet Union and Japan. From this, we know complex economies can be rapidly radically reshaped, that money can be found, jobs reconfigured and comprehensive regulation put in place to orchestrate the process.
This is what the One Million Climate Jobs Campaigns in the UK and South Africa (Neale 2014; AIDC 2016), The Bridge to the Future in Norway (Ytterstad 2020), Climáximo in Portugal (Brien 2019, Empregos para o Clima, 2019), the Green New Deal of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez in the US (Klein 2015, 2019; Sanders 2020), the Green New Deals of the Green Party and the Labour Party in the UK (Minio-Paluello 2015; Pettifor 2019; Labour for a Green New Deal 2020) and similar initiatives propose. And, thank goodness, it would seem that their time has come. Importantly, because they are predicated on centralized government action, they have the potential to act swiftly, at scale and with a clear understanding of the particular shape of emissions, and therefore emissions reduction, in the UK as opposed to, say, Norway, or the Basque country (Bizi. 2015), New York State (Mijin Cha, J. & L. Skinner 2017), the Middle East (Lindisfarne & Neale 2019) or Australia (Maritime Union of Australia 2019).
Six things are crucial in any climate jobs or green jobs campaigns. These six points also imply their opposites and can serve as a guide to what will impede or derail these campaigns and lead to do-nothing despair or promote active climate denial.
First, we have the technology now to make the changes we need, and postponing action to await future wisdom will be disastrous.
Second, the campaigns depend not on sacrifice, degrowth or austerity, but on the exact opposite. They are about growing a different, carbon-free economy.
Third, these campaigns do not depend on the market, as the market, simply, but categorically, cannot do what is required (Sweeney & Treat 2017).
Fourth, because they are government-led projects they can guarantee that workers in the carbon industries will be retrained and found new living-wage, pensionable jobs in the sustainable energy, in public transport sector or in housing rehab (to name the three areas of central importance in the UK).
Fifth, establishing a climate/green jobs programme in any one country would serve as a model as the welfare-state model did after the Second World War. Think of the success of the NHS as a model for a National Climate Service.
Sixth, the carbon-corporations are a formidable enemy, and authoritarian politics and divide and rule policies are how they keep governments and ordinary people in thrall. But the atmosphere and climate are also global phenomena. Sustaining a habitable planet will require the collective determination and commitment of ordinary people on every continent, so here, for sure, thinking globally while acting locally is completely appropriate. Saying this makes climate and green jobs familiar, and plausible, and offers a politics of hope. It is a politics I would hope many anthropologists can embrace.
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Armbruster, H. & A. Laerke, eds., 2008. Taking sides: Ethics, politics and fieldwork in anthropology. Berghahn, Oxford.
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