This diary was composed in response to a comment in my last diary to the effect that what the world needs is some sort of “green dictatorship” — that if people are not going to do of their own free will what is necessary to mitigate the coming global warming catastrophe, then people need to be forced to quit accelerating the Earth’s transformation into some sort of cooler version of Venus through runaway global warming. I can only assume that arguments of this sort are made out of a sort of realistic desperation, given the enormous scope of the problem and the general unwillingness of present-day human governments to do a whole lot about it.

Requiem For a Species cover

Is it too late for humanity?

The scientific discussion of global warming, at this very late point in the game, often evinces a desperation about possible solutions. The quintessential expression of this desperation is Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species. From the blurb for this book:

This book does not set out once more to raise the alarm to encourage us to take radical measures to head off climate chaos. There have been any number of books and reports in recent years explaining just how dire the future looks and how little time we have left to act. This book is about why we have ignored those warnings, and why it is now too late.

Now, if it’s “too late,” then there’s no point, and I’ve heard that story too. But if it’s not too late, then perhaps desperate measures might save the day. The idea of a “green dictatorship” is one of those suggested measures. I guess the idea centers around this fantasy of “if I were global dictator here’s what I’d do.” What would an environmentalist do if she were placed in charge of the world?

Informed readers should have a few notions, submitted humbly below, about the scientific basis of this general feeling of desperation that afflicts many students of global warming. Any good news item can be a place to start — the most recent bad news about global warming, for instance, is that oceanic deposits of methane off the east coast of the US are “rapidly destabilizing.” Much of what we know of the relationship between increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and increasing average global temperatures is based on the climate forcing effects of the carbon dioxide itself — so, for instance, there’s Petit et al., a study of Antarctic ice cores that shows how tight the correlation is between past carbon dioxide levels and past average global temperatures.

Discussion about global warming has centered on the climate-forcing abilities of carbon dioxide — but there is also the story of methane. First there is the methane produced by aboveground sources, which accounts for 10% of climate forcing (even though the amounts of methane emitted into the atmosphere are much smaller than carbon dioxide emissions — methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas). And then there are underground and underwater methane hydrates, which will be released if the Earth gets too much hotter.

Anyway, if you look at the analysis in Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees, it’s the release of the methane hydrates that really kicks off the global warming sweepstakes. Lynas’s book is incredible, and the worst-case scenarios he presents are quite horrific. Of course, the big factor in climate change (and the thing our world-society most needs to control) is global increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide. And, as David Roberts told us last year, global society is now on track to play out Lynas’ Six Degrees disaster. See 10:40 of this video:

Roberts discusses methane hydrates at around 12:00.

So, at any rate, from Roberts’s video you can see the reasoning behind scientific desperation. Is anyone in Washington DC advocating what Roberts suggests is necessary (and for this you can see the graphic at 16:10 of the video)? No. And apparently there won’t be any big agreement this week in Warsaw. In fact, the discussion of agreements appears to have been put off until 2015. At its most optimistic, Politico says:

One option, according to an expert closely tracking the talks who asked for anonymity, would be to craft an agreement for countries to either ratify or put in place a domestic program that is substantially similar to its goals. That option could allow the U.S. to meet the goals of the global agreement with President Barack Obama’s domestic climate change regulations.

And, oh sure, Obama is looking to draft climate change regulations, but the regulations stand in danger of being negotiated away, they won’t take effect until he leaves office, and even as they stand they’re likely to fall far short of what Roberts is asking for. What did that graphic in the video say? “To stabilize temperature, global emissions must peak in 5-10 years and decline rapidly thereafter.” We are in all likelihood headed for too little, too late, at least if you believe Roberts.

Below, then, I will examine eco-authoritarianism as a way of combining the hyperconcern of the few, the “avoiding politics” of the many, and the wish that the global warming problem somehow be solved.


As I understand them, dictatorships (and authoritarian governments in general) are mostly about process. Fundamentally, they are about two processes which can be queried as follows: 1) what does it take to become a dictator? and 2) what does it take to maintain a dictatorship? Generally dictatorships thrive on mechanisms of power: total surveillance, militarization of everyday life, persecution of dissidents, placation of the masses, ideological propaganda, and so on. We have plenty of that throughout the world even though it coexists with “democracy” quite well.

Consumer products are good things for a dictatorship, because the masses can be bribed with them. Accept our tyranny, the regime says, because most of you will get a cheap toaster oven. Capitalism is also good for authoritarian governance, because that way you can have “leaders” who take responsibility for official actions, and moneyed power behind the scenes directing everything with massive infusions of cash.

Voting is good for dictatorship maintenance. Voting is especially good when you have an oligarchic system, with two major parties. The dictators can switch positions now and then, and the electoral system can endlessly promote “voter choice” even when the outcomes are similar in many respects regardless of who wins. (The idea that “the Republicans are worse,” although true, does not contradict this reality.) Dictatorship is not contradicted by voting; the Soviets voted. Real democracy is when the public will makes policy decisions — it’s not “American Fascism” or “inverted totalitarianism” or “no functioning democracy.” Thus the word “democracy” — “demos” = the people, “cratein” = to rule.

The masses are going to need some amount of hope, and global warming is not going to give them hope. So I don’t see how the coming eco-dictatorship is going to supply people with hope. I suppose they could feed everyone a bunch of false hope while pursuing a green agenda, but who is going to buy into that? And where is the truth when everyone is lying? Apparently the Chinese want to pursue green energy to a much greater extent than they do, but they still keep burning enormous quantities of coal nonetheless, having thrown their lot in with the ideological hopes of capitalist growth. And even so, ecology appears to be on the side of rebellion in China, which has experienced no shortage of despairing anti-pollution protests in the past few decades (at least if you believe the economist Minqi Li).

Dictatorships typically arise on the crest of an ideological wave. The Nazis had Nazism, which was created before their takeover in 1933; Mussolini’s autobiography boasts that he had parlayed the culture of the people into a position of power, and the Soviets combined Czarist brutality with a cultural communism which had already part of Russian culture by the time 1917 rolled around. So why would green-thinking people want to trust a dictatorship to remold the world today?

Groupthink thrives in dictatorships. Even if our favored dictatorship’s groupthink were the “right” groupthink — for instance, you’d want everyone to agree that something needs to be done about global warming — you’d still run into implementation problems. We’ll need creative solutions to the food problem, for instance, as the global food transportation system is partially dismantled in favor of local food production/ consumption. Climate change is the sort of problem that requires creativity, and creativity is hindered when everyone is following orders or going along with official directives.

Wanting to remold society according to one’s wishes is nice, pleasant wishful thinking. In reality, the means of remolding would take over if we could somehow amass the power to realize eco-fantasies of global transformation through dictatorship, and bring us the same crazy world we thought we were trying to transcend. If we are to change the world to survive global warming, we must have the patience, humility, and expertise of star teachers, and cultivate learning experiences in which the people find out how to direct their own, collective fates. It can happen democratically.

crossposted at Orange



Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984