Bookchin on Climate Change–in 1965

In the United States in 1965, the environmental crisis was still inchoate. Rachel Carson’s eloquent Silent Spring had raised the alarm about pesticides and herbicides. Smog and soot were choking the cities, and toxic chemicals were polluting the waterways. Congress had passed a few weak pieces of clean air and water legislation, but they were not making much difference. The first Earth Day was five years away.

But in 1965 the prescient author Murray Bookchin was already writing about not only these issues but climate change (or rather, what would later be called climate change, or the greenhouse effect, or global warming—none of those terms were yet in use). “Air pollution is a threat not only to public health but also tho the stability of our weather,” he wrote that year:

Man’s increased burning of coal and oil is annually adding 600 million tons of carbon dioxide to the air, or about .03 percent of the total atmospheric mass. During the past one hundred years, he has contribute 260 billion tons, or 13 percent more of the gas to the earth’s atmosphere.

Bookchin wasn’t a climate scientist—he was an aspiring science journalist. His source was a brief article in a scientific journal: J. M. Stagg, “Atmospheric Contamination and Climatic Stability,” New Scientist 23 [1964], pp. 627-28. But he inferred the consequences:

This blanket of carbon dioxide tends to raise the atmosphere’s temperature by intercepting heat waves going from the earth into outer space.

Rising temperatures would lead to climate disruption:

Meteorologists believe that he immediate effect of increased heat leads to violent air circulation and increasingly destructive storms.

Then Bookchin took a daring speculative leap:

Theoretically, after several centuries of fossil-fuel combustion, the increased heat of the atmosphere could even melt the polar ice caps of the earth and lead to the inundation of the continents with sea water.

The book was called Crisis in Our Cities, published by Prentice-Hall. In chapter 11, he named the problem and warned that ignoring it would be  dangerous:

Remote as such a deluge may seem today, it is symbolic of the long-range catastrophic effects of our irrational civilization on the balance of nature, indeed of the profound problems we are leaving for future generations to solve.

Bookchin specific predictions were remarkably accurate, as it’s almost superfluous to point out. Rising atmospheric temperatures: check. Violent air circulation: check. Increasingly destructive storms: check. Melting of the polar ice caps: check, except for the time frame. Inundation of the continents with sea water: coming.

Actually, I’ve done Bookchin a disservice, reducing his prescience by a year:  he’d actually written almost the same words about global warming in 1964, in an essay called “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought.” The essay circulated around the counterculture for ten or fifteen years and was anthologized in a lot of books (including Bookchin’s own Post-Scarcity Anarchism, published in 1971), but its message was ignored by most.

Nor did Crisis in Our Cities didn’t attract much attention—the world was still barely getting a basic grasp of air and water pollution, after all. Bill McKibben published his epochal The End of Nature in 1989 would climate change become a matter of general awareness.

Bookchin correctly diagnosed the cause of the looming problem: the burning of fossil fuels—indeed, “we could not hope to sustain our fossil-fuel technology indefinitely even if there were ample reserves of coal and oil for millennia to come.” So our agenda, he said (still in that 1965 book), must be to wean ourselves from fossil fuel use in favor of alternative sources of energy. What would those sources be?

He ruled out nuclear power: because of the problems of radiation and hazardous waste, it would be replacing one source of dirty energy with another.

Instead, he proposed shifting clean, renewable energy sources. Solar energy, for one.

Every day, the sun provides heat energy to each acre of the earth’s middle latitudes in amounts that would be released by the combustion of nearly three tons of coal. If we could fully utilize the solar energy the annually reaches the continental United States, we would acquire the power locked in 1,900 billion tons of bituminous coal!

And unlike fuels from coal and petroleum, energy derived from the sun would be “clean and inexhaustible.”

Wind power would be another source. “For thousands of years, farmers use the wind as a source of energy for milling grains, pumping water from the depths of the earth, and draining marshes.” Today, he wrote, we are learning how “to harness the winds for producing electric power at costs that are competitive with fossil fuels.”

And finally he proposed using energy from thermal tidal dams, in which “sea water will be trapped behind the dam as the tide rises and will then be rereleased as needed into generating turbines. The tides, in effect, will create huge reservoirs of water behind the retaining wall and electricity will be generated in much the same fashion as in a conventional hydroelectric power plant.”

From these disparate sources, with solar, wind, and tidal energy, Bookchin suggested piecing together a system “in which the energy load is distributed as broadly as possible.” The type of energy produced and consumed in a locale would be based on its specific attributes: in sunny areas, solar energy; “in regions with a great deal of atmospheric turbulence, we are likely to take greater advantage of wind turbines than in calmer areas.” And along the seacoasts, communities would “rely heavily on the energy potential of the sea—not only the power provided by tides but also by waves and differences in ocean temperatures.”

Perhaps renewable energy couldn’t power an entire industrial civilization, he acknowledged, but we must nonetheless reserve the use of fossil fuels to cases where they were absolutely unavoidable—“always taking care to limit their use as much as possible.”

If we had listened to Bookchin back in 1965, we would likely not be facing a possible four-degree-Celsius temperature rise by the end of the twenty-first century. Still, it’s not too late to undertake the shift that he recommended all those years ago.


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