Stan Cox’s latest book explores climate breakdown and its ties to other crises

Review of Stan Cox, The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic, San Francisco: City Lights Books (Open Media Series), 2021.

            By Joseph Nevins

Anyone concerned with decreasing greenhouse gas emissions associated with flying, or with climate change as a whole, soon realizes that the necessary reductions will not come about simply as a result of what individuals choose to do or not. Like any activity, flying is embedded in a web of social and ecological relations. Central to these are matters of power and associated inequities. As the growing literature on flying makes clear, capitalism and class, empire, gender, and race, for example, all inform who flies and why, and who does not.

For such reasons, efforts to radically reduce flying or to drastically cut emissions across society more broadly cannot succeed if we only “follow the science.” Nor will it suffice to focus simply on technological innovation, or, worse yet, see the remedying of the climate crisis as just another opportunity for economic growth. Indeed, as suggested by the subtitle of Stan Cox’s compelling book, The Path to a Livable Future, the climate crisis is inextricably tied to racism, not least in terms of the degraded environmental circumstances many members of negatively racialized communities live and labor, and to the growing threat of pandemic disease. These three crises are all born of “exploitation of ecosystems and mineral resources,” asserts Cox, a research scholar in Ecosphere Studies at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas in the United States. As such, we can only resolve them together, “or they will never be resolved.”

Despite the ties between, and the deadly manifestations of, the various emergencies, delusions persist. Cox points to the year 2020 as an example, a time when wildfires were “scouring much of the [U.S.] West Coast and Rockies” and “supercharged hurricanes . . . were slamming into the Gulf Coast. Nonetheless, during this time, “most liberal politicians and activists were talking more and more about climate policy as if it should be no more than a vehicle for delivering good jobs and cleaner technology.”

A plant geneticist in terms of his academic background, Cox insists that a deeper and broader transformation is required. It necessitates serious discussion regarding “the hard collective decisions that must be made regarding which goods and services must be produced and which should not be produced at all.” In other words, society must lessen consumption, starting with energy: “Our entangled ecological crises compel us to use less energy and reduce exploitation of resources and ecosystems by producing and importing less and limiting unnecessary services.” (Cox further develops analysis in his 2020 book from City Lights Books, The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can.)

“Our entangled ecological crises compel us to use less energy and reduce exploitation of resources and ecosystems by producing and importing less and limiting unnecessary services.”

In making such a recommendation, Cox harkens back to his previous work on the history and necessity of rationing. (See his Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, New York: The New Press, 2013.) The radical transformation of society that he champions requires not only ending the pursuit of growth without limits (and, with it, the compulsion to ravage ecosystems), but also remedying the gross inequality that scars the world, and thus allocating goods on the basis of equity. “We can have ecological sustainability, or capital accumulation, but not both,” he writes. Similarly, we “can have economic sufficiency for all or wealth for the few.”

Cox also challenges many of the myths surrounding “green energy.” As he asserts, if we decarbonize our energy sources, but reproduce the high-energy world of today, we’ll create large “green sacrifice zones”—places and populations that are disproportionately burdened by the resulting detriments—that technologies such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric power necessitate.

Stan Cox: ” “Freeing ourselves from fuels and technologies that abuse the earth . . .  will require wholesale changes in infrastructure and living arrangements—changes on a massive scale.”

In insisting that “the path to a livable future must be one with public health, ecological balance, racial justice, and democracy at the center of policy,” Cox draws on research in the social and physical sciences. He does so while exploring three key sectors of the economy: energy, land use, and food. In the process, he challenges mainstream shibboleths that suggest that changes at the margins will be adequate to the task. “Freeing ourselves from fuels and technologies that abuse the earth . . .  will require wholesale changes in infrastructure and living arrangements—changes on a massive scale,” he boldly asserts. Meanwhile, he calls “net zero”—a goal embraced by the IPCC, many institutions of higher learning, and even various fossil fuel corporations (e.g. Shell) and airlines—”a mirage,” suggesting that it is a dangerous diversion from what we really need to achieve: zero emissions in an absolute sense.

In terms of how to realize such ambition, Cox offers concrete ideas as to what to do locally, nationally (especially in terms of the United States), and globally. His proposals include limits on wealth and income, the nationalization of fossil fuel companies and their reserves, and the formation of citizen assemblies charged with making policy proposals and decisions. He also calls for the dismantling of the cruise industry, the denial of funds to the Pentagon for buying fossil fuel, and passage of a global fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.

In the end, Cox follows Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter, who argues that the world we must fight for “is one that meets the needs of all who have been marginalized.” Embracing this goal, Cox says that “the path to a livable future depends on our ability to wage multiple struggles at once.”

Stan Cox is certainly aware of the daunting nature of the powerful forces that stand in the way of the realization of his ambitious proposals. Nonetheless, he champions them as a necessary response to the times in which we find ourselves. In this regard, his book is a powerful and inspiring call to radical collective action. “A just and livable future can be ours,” he says, “but only if we organize, resist, imagine and forge the path there together.”

“A just and livable future can be ours, but only if we organize, resist, imagine and forge the path there together.”

As I write this, the (U.S.) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced that carbon dioxide levels at its Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory peaked for 2022 at 421 parts per million last month. This, NOAA reports, has pushed “the atmosphere further into territory not seen for millions of years.” For Charles David Keeling, a scientist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the measurement shows that humanity is “racing at top speed towards a global catastrophe.”

Neither that “catastrophe” nor associated ones are destiny. As Stan Cox contends, we have the power to pursue and achieve a fundamentally different world, one that is just and sustainable. A Path to a Livable Future is an invaluable tool in the struggle to bring it about.

Introducing the Oxford Flying Less podcast

The Oxford University Flying Less Group has put together a fantastic, six-part podcast on aviation and higher education. Rather than focusing on what is lost by markedly reducing academic jet-setting, the podcast asks, “What do you and your university stand to gain by Flying Less?”

The rich set of episodes engage experts from a wide array of universities and academic disciplines while addressing a diverse set of topics, ranging from matters of career advancement, accessibility, and gender to the social and climatic implications of net zero versus absolute zero emissions. The podcast does so with the goal of illuminating challenges associated with reducing flying, while addressing questions of why there is a need to fly less and how to do so—all while maintaining robust international engagement, not least in terms of research and teaching.

Rather than focusing on what is lost by markedly reducing academic jet-setting, the podcast asks, “What do you and your university stand to gain by Flying Less?”

Dr. Noah Birksted-Breen, a postdoctoral research associate at Oxford, is the host and producer of the podcast; Ryan Beckerleg, a research student at Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, edited the series. Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment in collaboration with the university’s Environmental Sustainability team commissioned the endeavor.

Below are links to all the episodes.

Episode 1 – Why do we fly and could we fly less?

Episode 2 – Decarbonising conferences

Episode 3 – Flying Less research–thinking ambitiously

Episode 4 – Aviation and the case for Absolute Zero

Episode 5 – How to thrive when Flying Less? Staff Profile: Dr. Michele Veldsman, Experimental Psychology (Oxford)

Episode 6 – How to thrive when Flying Less? Staff Profile: Professor Hannah Knox, Anthropology (UCL)

Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022 Update, Part 2: Recent academic publications

Farnsborough Airport protest, October 2, 2021. Source: Twitter, Extinction Rebellion UK.

To see Part 1 of the “Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022 Update,” go here.

Throughout the world, and particularly in the West, “many academics today think of flying—even of the intercontinental variety—as an essential aspect of their work life,” Indeed, over the last several decades, “the idea that flying is necessary if one is to have an academic career has become ever more entrenched and appears now an almost inseparable part of what it means to be an academic.”

These are the words of Kristian Bjørkdahl  and Adrian Santiago Franco Duharte, two University of Oslo scholars and the editors of a new, open access book, Academic Flying and the Means of Communication. (Available online, you can access a PDF of the book by clicking on the image of the book cover below.) The edited volume is composed of thirteen chapters written by an interdisciplinary group of scholars from Australia, various countries in Europe, New Zealand, and the United States.

A basic question animates the book: “Can the academic-as-globetrotter image be made to seem a thing of the past?” It starts “from the notion that the urgency of the climate crisis presents academics with a call to confront their flying habits, and that this confrontation must include an attempt to identify pathways towards a more sustainable academic enterprise.”

The book has three main goals, which it addresses through a set of empirically and theoretically rich essays: 1) to document how much academics fly and to consider the myriad consequences of that flying; 2) to explore the various reasons why academics fly as much as they do; and 3) to think about how and with what we can replace flying, how we can communicate and collaborate in ways that don’t involve aviation.

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We know that air travel must be reduced. A question thus arises: Who will be affected by reduction policies? With a focus on the United Kingdom, this is the matter that concerns Milena Büchs and Giulio Mattioli in their new article (“Trends in air travel inequality in the UK: From the few to the many?” Travel Behaviour and Society 25, 2021: 92-101).  While it is well established that participation in flying is highly unequal, the question is, how has it changed over time—as air travel has grown? Through two representative surveys, the authors examine UK flying tends from 2001 to 2018. They find that “less privileged groups (low income, low education, non-white) have contributed more to the increase in air travel” in relative terms than “well-situated” groups. “In absolute terms, however, well-situated groups have contributed a much larger volume to the expansion of air travel.” Overall, the authors find that air travel “remains extremely unequally distributed” in the United Kingdom, with 20 percent of passengers responsible for 75-76 percent of all flights. As such, “policies that target air travel emissions are defendable from a fairness point of view as they will mainly burden well-situated groups in society.”

As manifested by the summaries we do in these FlyingLess updates, the literature on academic flying is increasing rapidly. This is unfolding at a time when calls for, and a related literature on, decolonization of the academy are also growing. Nonetheless, according to authors Joseph Nevins, Stephen Allen, and Matt Watson (“A path to decolonization? Reducing air travel and resource consumption in higher education.” Travel Behaviour and Society 26, 2022: 231-239), the two groups of scholars have failed to engage one another, despite having overlapping concerns. The authors thus put them in conversation to advance “a common project to challenge disparities between peoples and places, as well as interspecies ones, as they relate to aeromobility, consumption, and political ecology.” The three authors argue that aviation-related consumption relates to and helps to reproduce enduring inequities born of imperialism. As such, they contend that flying less efforts contribute to “both the decolonization of higher education and of the larger world.” Similarly, they insist that the project of academic decolonization would benefit by centering matters of nature and environmental consumption.

A team of four global health scholars want to see their professional community reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. To help figure out how to do so, they look at “how ten European global health research institutions in the ‘TropEd’ network for education in international health are transitioning to environmentally sustainable operations and reducing their carbon footprint. By way of analysis of annual reports and information of the institutions and interviews with key players within them, the authors determine that only 4/10 institutions have a sustainability strategy and implementation plan, and only 3/10 have specific decarbonization goals. The authors urge institutions to enhance their sustainability: e.g., to be inclusive (by involving staff, researchers and students, for example) in implementing plans; to set clear goals consistent with the latest climate science, to take account of the full range of greenhouse gas emissions related to their activities (including investments); and to center matters of climate justice. They also advocate individual and collective behavioral changes. These include “using active transport or public transport to get to work, choosing to connect to meetings online rather than flying and choosing plant-based food and beverages. (See Kate Whitfield, Alexandru Cretu, Teun Bousema, and Justin Cohen. “Environmentally sustainable practices in global health research and higher education institutions: lessons from consultation with the TropEd Global Health institutions.” Tropical Medicine & International Health, 2021).

The global events industry—of which academic conferences are typically part—has expanded rapidly. It is also enormous: in 2017, report four authors (Yanqiu Yao, Debbie Steckel, Jiří Jaromír Klemeš, and Fengqi You, “Trend towards virtual and hybrid conferences may be an effective climate change mitigation strategy.” Nature Communications 12, no. 1, 2021: 1-14.), business events involved more than 1.5 billion participants across over 180 countries. Not surprisingly, the CO2 emissions associated with the industry are enormous: responsible for more than 10% of the world’s total (and roughly equivalent to U.S. emissions). As such, it is imperative that event organizers shift to less-carbo-intensive meeting formats. To help facilitate this, the authors “quantify the life cycle environmental impacts of in-person, virtual, and hybrid conferences …  to understand the trade-offs between in-person interactions and the carbon footprint of conferences.” They find that that switching from in-person conferences to fully virtual ones would reduce the carbon footprint by 94% and CED by 90%. As for using multiple hubs —so that a large of participants still have the benefits of in-person gatherings—assuming optimal siting and about 50% of participants virtual, they have the potential to cut total emission by two-thirds. Switching to plant-based foods (especially of an ovo-vegetarian variety) and improvements in energy efficiencies of information and communication technologies will cut emissions even further.

Given the tensions between universities’ need to foster international networks and expand research and teaching on their moral obligations to decarbonize, a pair of geographers consider how academic departments can navigate this conundrum. To do so, Joe Williams and Whitney Love (“Low-Carbon Research and Teaching in Geography: Pathways and Perspectives.” The Professional Geographer, Vol. 74, No. 1, 2022: 41-51) examine Durham University’s Department of Geography (United Kingdom). A department with more than 850 students, air travel associated with research and teaching is by far its single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Through a survey of students, the authors, suggesting various strategies, find a high level of support for decarbonization related to travel and thus considerable potential for significant emissions reductions with little impact on quality of research and teaching. The authors emphasize that responsibility for decarbonization of higher education does not lie with individuals. Instead, it requires “systemic material and cultural change toward a decarbonization agenda—a shift that geography departments can and should lead.”

The same issue of The Professional Geographer has a “focus section” centered around Kevin Anderson’s plenary lecture at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in 2020. The focus section is divided into two parts.

Part 1 begins with an introduction and an abridged text of Kevin Anderson’s lecture. Eleven brief essays commenting on the lecture by a diverse set of geographers follow.

Kafui Attoh pushes Anderson to consider matters of capitalism and the power of labor in the fight against climate change. Next, Daniel Bedford explores how climate leadership can emerge in unexpected places such as non-elite universities. Magdalena García then offers a view from Chile, arguing for a democratization of knowledge production as a way to challenge climate injustices. In what follows, Matthew Huber criticizes an overemphasis on individual emissions and argues for a focus on building social power to take on industrial capital. In the fifth essay, Sarah Hunt / Tłaliłila’ogwa calls for a confrontation with colonial norms within academia and a centering of Indigenous knowledges and peoples in climate discussions.

Glen MacDonald, in the sixth essay, considers the importance of travel to academic geography, how colonialism and imperialism have shaped the profession, and the resulting climate debt. Beverly Mullings follows by contending that the climate fight requires an ontological shift, one that entails making links between capitalism, coloniality and the devaluation of nature and racialized others. In the eighth piece, Elizabeth Olson calls for an intersectional approach as we work to bring about a less consumptive academy, an undertaking that must begin with those who benefit most from the status quo. Next, Richard Wright argues that the social changes required by climate change are possible—as shown by the pandemic and protests around police brutality and anti-Black racism—and advocates framing climate change as a matter of inequality. The tenth response, by Emily Yeh, makes a case for collective action in the effort to transform the AAG and to identify and bring about inexpensive and low-emitting ways to network and share research. The final essay, by Wendy Jepson, Patricia Martin, and Joseph Nevins, argues that individual and collective change are necessarily linked and asserts that what academics do on the climate change front is important for broader societal change.

Part 2 has three components, the first of which concerns academic knowledge production.

The opening article, by Jayme Walenta and Aylin Castro, measures the travel-related CO2 emissions for the AAG meeting in 2019, an imagined meeting in Chicago, and a would-be meeting composed of hubs in the United States and beyond. The authors also consider the limitations of an analysis focused on carbon emissions and push readers “to imagine solutions that more deeply challenge academia’s structural divides.”

The second article argues for a centering of racial justice in the project of imagining knowledge production and sharing beyond the fossil-fuel-heavy conference model. Tianna Bruno and Cristina Faiver-Serna call on geographers to detoxify spaces and places of geography, while contending that such actions will improve academic inquiry into the climate crisis.

Anthropologist Hannah Knox follows by reflecting on her own decision to stop flying. In so doing, she asserts the need to not only attend to cutting the footprint of academic conferencing, but also grapple with what it means for academic identities, experiences, and commitments.

Finally, Patricia Martin maintains that addressing the high emissions of AAG Annual Meeting is not simply a technical matter, but one that reflects the neoliberal internationalization of the academy. It thus requires challenging fossil-fueled hypermobility market imperatives and advancing geography as a public, non-commodified good.

The second component of Part 2 considers the question of whether the AAG should use carbon offsets to aid in the transition to a low-emitting future.

In the first response, Kathleen McAfee asserts that while, at best, offsets potentially result in no change in total emissions, theory and practice demonstrate that they do not work and actually make matters worse. As such, McAfee rejects offsets and advocates for focusing efforts on far-reaching cuts in emissions and matters of environmental justice.

The term carbon offsets, Lauren Gifford explains in the second response, covers a wide range of practices, some of which do not fit the definition of offset. These not-strictly-offsets (e.g, carbon removal and drawdown activities), she suggests, offer potential paths for the AAG to pursue, and for scholars to research, in an effort to achieve carbon neutrality.

The third and final component of Part 2 is a co-authored essay by Ashley Fent, Christine Gibb, Sachiko Ishihara, Joseph Holler, and William Moseley. The team considers ethical dilemmas for geographers who conduct international field research. They advocate engagement with. slow geographies and slow scholarship literature and relational understandings of the field. They also call for efforts to transform academic institutions so that they allow for collective decision making around carbon budgets, travel, and shared responsibility Together, these endeavors could help to reduce travel emissions while still allowing for robust international engagement.