Countercurrents | March 28, 2022
Since Russia carried out its brutal, unjust invasion of Ukraine, environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben has been pumping out rationales in op-ed pieces and media appearances for supporting the U.S. and its West European allies as they ramp up military assistance to Ukraine and their economic warfare and military preparations against Russia, in the name of going green – “Heat Pumps for Peace and Freedom,” he writes on his blog.
McKibben embraces U.S. sanctions against Russia and bullets for Ukraine by evoking delusional scenarios in which confrontation with Russia can bring forth an “all-out effort to decarbonize the continent [take Western Europe off fossil fuels], and then our own.” Why would the West do this? Because going green, McKibben argues, would lessen Europe’s dependence on Russia oil and gas and enable it and the U.S. to impose harsh sanctions until Russia’s economy ‘buckled.’”
This amounts to greenwashing imperialist rivalry and war preparations. It’s a chauvinist fantasy of America as a force for good – even a potential leader in green energy! It is ideological poison that anyone who truly cares about the future of humanity and the planet must reject.
Ukraine: Conflict Zone of Imperialist Great-Power Rivalry – Not a Battleground for Democracy
McKibben titled his February 25 opinion piece in the Guardian of London “This is how we defeat Putin and other petrostate autocrats.” Already, he signals 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. And he repeats the U.S. rulers’ mantra that this is a battle between “democracy” and “autocracy.”
But Ukraine is not a battleground for democracy – it’s a conflict zone of imperialist great-power rivalry. McKibben blots out this history and current reality.
He begins his account of the current crisis with an aggressive Russia invading Ukraine. Then he points out that the West European countries depend on Russia for 40 percent of their natural gas needs and 30 percent of their oil and their economies would shut down without those imports. Thus, according to McKibbben, these “democratic” countries are militarily threatened and being held economically hostage–and so they will not stand up.
But this is starting the story in the middle — as though there were no prior 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.
Condemning “Petrostate” Russia – Ignoring America’s Fossil-Fuel Dominance and Military Machine
Russia is not 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 added (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.
And what finances the U.S. military machine? Essentially 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 it 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.
The Illusion of a Renewable Energy Economy-Wide Mobilization
McKibben laments how Western Europe has become dependent on natural gas and oil from Russia. This is the core of McKibben’s argument in his Guardian piece:
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.
McKibben then issues a call for the U.S. rulers to mobilize the economy on a scale like World War 2 to produce heating pumps and other machinery to help rapidly convert the West European economies to renewable energy.
But what is the reality? 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).
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 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?”
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.”
Leaving aside the history of World War 2, McKibben may hope he can wish this state of affairs into being, but he can’t. 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 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.
The Looming Specter of Wider – Even Nuclear – War
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.”
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.
I’m challenging Bill McKibben to respond to my critique and to publicly debate the nature of Ukraine conflict, and why only revolution – not capitalism – gives humanity a chance to address the climate emergency. The stakes for humanity and the planet could not be higher.”
People of conscience and conviction should oppose all systems of exploitation and oppression, all imperialist marauders. And here in the U.S. we have a special responsibility to expose and oppose our “own” imperialists who commit crimes “in our name.”
Raymond Lotta writes for the website revcom.us and is an advocate for the new communism developed by the revolutionary leader Bob Avakian. He has written extensively on global political economy and the environmental emergency, and helped craft “Some Key Principles of Socialist Sustainable Development.”