"So, Just How Fucked Are We?" Part Three: Building a Climate Moralism

Activating the public means making climate injustice personal.

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“If ice caps, heavy rain, and parts per million don’t inflame our moral sensibilities, then perhaps it’s time to think about something that will.”

This is how I ended Part Two of this series: lamenting the lack of a coherent, animating narrative amongst the climate movement. While I spent a lot of column inches talking about the knots the climate-conscious tie themselves into with their emphasis on scientific language and signaling intellectual credibility, I—like so many others—resigned myself to offering only a few details about what a narrative providing moral clarity and force might look like.

Focus on the human dimension and connections to other injustices, draw explicit connections between active choices to emit and ensuing suffering by others—these ideas are boilerplate wisdom among climate activists at this point. But successful moral appeals require so much more than these things. Over the past year, I’ve slowly come to realize that many of the problems climate activists face in mobilizing the public are ones also faced by the contemporary American left overall. A moral strategy is necessary, yes, but not just any will do. Building a successful moralism across the board will require peering into the anatomy of our language, dissecting and reconstructing the meanings to which our words give form.

Most importantly, it requires recognizing that there should be no disconnect between our private judgements of “ordinary” people complicit in injustice and the appeals we make to them. In this article, I’ll develop that argument and its twin: that if we castigate relatively powerless individuals, we should not blame them for causing structural injustices, but instead for declining to do something about them. My hope is that these two points will offer a path forward for both climate activists and the left more broadly to better move their cousins and gas station clerks alike, substituting a politics of shame for one of invitation.

First things first. What do I mean by moralism?

Most fundamentally, moralism is morality in action. In politics, it is often understood and employed as a kind of rhetorical strategy, consisting of a narrative that something going on in one’s community is not just unfortunate or accidental, but wrong, deeply wrong, even disturbing. Crucially, it also calls upon the audience to act in some way to redress this wrong, either explicitly or implicitly. Moralism, in short, is a strategy that attempts to convince members of the public that their own cherished values compel them to act against an injustice that they themselves may or may not play a part in bringing about.

In practice, moralism takes on many, many different forms. It is present in strikes, congressional debates, political advertisements, and protests, yes, but also interpersonal interventions: call-out tweets and water-cooler rebuttals, YouTube rants and Thanksgiving spats, back-and-forth on road trips and quiet implorations over coffee. The particular form a moralism takes—who it addresses, and the context of that address—hinges not just upon an underlying ethics assigning blame and responsibility, but also a theory of social change.

Leftist moralism as we know it today has its origins in the labor and working-class movements that emerged in North America and Europe during the middle of the nineteenth century. These movements, often referred to as the “Old Left,” were steeped in moralism both religious and secular, despite the reluctance of Marx and his followers to see it as moralism at all. As a whole, Old Left moralism focused on the unjust treatment of the workers and the poor, placing blame for their predicament solely and squarely on powerful bosses and corrupt politicians. It called upon owners of capital to comply with their moral responsibility to bargain with the working class and accede to their demands. In reality, these appeals were addressed implicitly to the workers themselves: to hold their exploiters accountable, while at the same time fiercely contesting the Social Darwinist notion that they themselves were responsible for their own destitution.

Of course, an indictment of ordinary people wasn’t entirely absent from these moral appeals.


Even in these cases, however, scorn was reserved for those who allied themselves with the real perpetrators of oppression and exploitation. Emphasis on individual behavior was largely avoided. This basic model, exemplified by the American Social Gospel tradition and its descendants, predominated leftist moralism until the 1960, retaining a significant but diminishing presence for decades thereafter. Its influence can be seen in Saul Alinsky’s rule to “pick [a] target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it” in his 1971 organizing treatise Rules for Radicals, and in the stump speeches of Sanders, Corbyn, and others who have attempted to revive Old Leftist practices.

Beginning in the 1960s, however, this equation shifted somewhat. As labor and other class-based organizations declined in power and relevance, in their place emerged a constellation of gender, racial, and environmental movements known as the New Left. While some of these movements preserved elements of Old Left moralism, others—including consumerism, the anti-war movement, and consciousness-raising feminists—chose a new approach. Moral appeals moved away from identifying a powerful wrong-doer separate from the target audience, and instead towards the audience themselves as the primary perpetrators of social injustice. The primary villain of this new story was not a crooked politician or corporate boss, but the masses of people who perpetuated problematic behaviors and attitudes towards marginalized people and nature, from buying fur coats to spouting misogynist language.


Second, in their appraisal of their audiences as the main bad guys, these parts of the New Left shifted their characterization of mass complicity in injustice from allowing to doing. Ordinary people weren’t just contributing to injustice when they scabbed or didn’t stand up for marginalized people affronted by powerful institutions. Instead, they themselves were causing racism and ecological destruction through their actions in a way they should individually be confronted and held accountable for. One descendent of this shift, the type of public moral condemnation and shaming of specific individuals online colloquially referred to as “call-out culture,” is often reviled as an example of the left’s general impotence (by the left) or their totalitarian impulses (by the right). In its emphasis on individual personal interactions and self-improvement over collective action or solidarity-building, the strategy weaponizes guilt, equates privilege (the receipt of individual benefit) with power (the ability to unilaterally change the system that provides it), and substitutes effect for intention as the basis of culpability.

I say none of this here as a screed against the excesses of call-out culture; that genre of critique is already well-developed. Furthermore, I think there’s something right about call-out culture that needs to preserved, and something myopic about the brand of moralism that critics offer in its place. Yes, antagonizing the rich and powerful is paramount. But it does little to address our own complicity in unjust processes, nor does it provide ordinary people with an understanding of their role in dismantling them. Okay, Exxon sucks, I get it, skeptics of the Old Left tell us. But don’t we bear most of the blame for this stuff? Oil companies didn’t force greedy Americans to buy their product–we’re the ones with heated homes and fancy cars. We’re the ones buying lobster with food stamps and having children out of wedlock (if they’re conservative) // posting “Blue Lives Matter” memes on Facebook and electing fucks like Joe Arpaio (if they’re liberal). The rot starts with us.

So far the only responses I’ve seen to points like these rely on distinguishing between our honest ethical judgements of people and how we address them in conversation and through media. “Even if you do blame the electorate [for bigotry], where do you go from there?” Chapo Trap House co-host and leftist notable Felix Biederman posed to The New Yorker in the wake of Trump’s election. “Do we shame these people into liking us?” A very different voice than Chapo, the ever-wonky left-liberal outlet Vox, largely assented to this same point, summarizing research under the headline “There are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them.Sure, those people definitely are racist, and we can privately judge them responsible for racism, the logic goes. But when we try to disabuse them of racist behavior, we can’t actually point out to them that they’re committing wrong. People resist the idea that they’re bad, and so when we engage with them, we should avoid any direct indictment of their character.

To me, these replies fall short. If we are to fully divest ourselves of a politics of shame, what will take its place? They do not say—yet, we need an answer. We cannot just restrict our moralism to an indictment of corporate sharks, media demagogues, and servile politicians. Doing so absolves us from the imperative to do any of the kinds of work a better world demands from the relatively powerful and powerless alike: participating in collective action to change laws and systems, yes, but also the painful, introspective uprooting of our own implicit biases and harmful attitudes. This is especially imperative for today’s left, which is comprised of an increasingly diverse coalition affected by existing power structures in often divergent and complicated ways. In order to build solidarity, we need to recognize and publicize the personal responsibilities all of us possess to address injustice and care for others. The rot does not start with us, but it must end with us. Yet doing so appears to expose a contradiction. How can we hold people responsible for rectifying injustice if we cannot reasonably blame them for causing it?

I believe the resolution to this contradiction can be found in Iris Marion Young’s account of structural injustice, in particular her distinction between guilt and responsibility. Injustices, Young argued, are often the product of impersonal forces that set in place processes of human interaction leading to outcomes no individual can be held culpable for “causing” in a traditional sense. In making this point, Young invokes a characterization of society employed by orthodox Marxists and critical theorists alike: people are born into certain material and social circumstances within broader systems that determine, to a great extent, both their attitudes and their options. A moral indictment of structural racism, for example, cannot “blame” individuals for racism, as racist individuals have, at least initially, little control over how the attitudes and knowledge of their relatives, friends, and society at large affect their own. Instead, Young argues that individuals should be held accountable not for causing social injustice, but for what they do in response to it. Blameworthiness comes not in participating in social-structural processes, but declining to act against them. The fundamental question is not whether we should make the political personal, but how.

In separating blame from responsibility, Young attacks a sentiment shared by the callers and called-out alike. In an interview with NPR last month, the sociologists Robb Willer and Rachel Wetts captured that sentiment perfectly: “Americans generally tend to think of "racism" as a stable characteristic of individuals, not something that can be prompted or change in response to changing circumstances or social trends.” By adopting the “stable characteristic” view and declining to articulate a path forward for offenders, leftists unwittingly affirm the suspicion of the accused that the SJWs are merely calling them out to feel superior or, worse, to fulfill some sadistic impulse. A moralism which challenges this cynicism requires more than the rejection of essentialism; it means also absolving perpetrators of fault for the consequences of being born into an unjust society.

The left can and should use Young’s work as a blueprint. Against call-out culture, we should begin interpersonal interventions not with shame, but with an invitation to act against the forces that systematically shape our behavior in wrongful ways. Hey—you’re being racist. I don’t mean that you’re a particularly bad person—I and everyone else often exhibit and perpetuate racism too. It is a structural thing, after all. I know you value other people, and I know, like me, you oppose oppression. Let’s work together to fight it. Shame, at least when directed towards the relatively powerless, should be reserved for the negligent: those who decline to act against injustice or, worse, work actively to advance it.

A successful movement ethic, if we are practicing it properly, preserves no contradiction between our private and public judgements of the complicit. As with any form of moralism, it strikes the right balance between forwards-looking judgements (“you and I have an opportunity and duty to act!”) and backwards-looking ones (“you and/or I failed to act, and now must make amends”). Most importantly, it assigns the powerful and the powerless degrees of responsibility that are commensurate with their own abilities.

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Ok. Now that I’ve outlined a general principle for leftist moralism, let’s hone in on climate change.

In its content, most of the climate moralism tried up to this point has been rather tame. The original movement—say, that born out of the environmentalism of the 1970s and continuing through An Inconvenient Truth up to the failure of Copenhagen—chose to portray victims of climate wrongdoing too distant or vague to resonate with most citizens of developed countries: animals, icebergs, hypothetical great-grandchildren, or “the earth” and “humanity” as monolithic wholes. And on behalf of these victims, early climate activists told the public, Americans, Canadians, and Europeans ought to commit themselves to radical forms of austerity, self-imposed through their consumption choices. When most of their audience responded to this New Left-style moralism with indifference, activists often grew cynical, attributing their failure to some sort of spiritual disease pervading consumer society (cue the modern archetype of the activist as a sanctimonious finger-wagger). Or, like much of the American environmental movement, they retreated into policy organizations and philanthropy foundations, electing for a strategy so disengaged from the public and bereft of political muscle that by the time Copenhagen came around even avowedly technocratic commentators were pleading with big greens to “put the plodding moralism back in”.

And so the plodding began. Amid the fallout of Copenhagen (which, I should emphasize, failed for a number of different reasons, many or most of them not related to judgmental environmentalists, but certainly partially derivative of lacking moral urgency), climate activists began to shift course. Those on the left began to focus their rhetoric on an indictment of capitalism as responsible for climate change and other ecological crises, casting fossil fuel corporations as Old Left-style villains. Activist groups like 350.org sought to stigmatize the industry through a fossil fuel divestment campaign, marching through college campuses and churches all the way to sovereign wealth funds. A sprawling constellation of indigenous tribes and grassroots organizations began to wage a legal and extra-legal war against fossil fuel infrastructure monikered “Blockadia” by the journalist and activist Naomi Klein. The moralism employed by these groups is varied, but much more pointed in tone. Rather than badgering consumers, it focuses on unambiguously identifying and demonizing the most powerful and complicit in fossil fuel extraction: industry executives, professional deniers, and their political allies. It trades future generations for the marginalized and exploited people here and now—workers, women, people of color—adopting much of the broader left’s playbook in the process.

These efforts have achieved mixed success in moving public opinion, and faced the expected (and probably necessary) pushback from the political and policy establishment. Yet, today’s climate moralism represents a marked improvement over its predecessor. It focuses on particular groups of marginalized people, drawing our eyes away from icebergs toward tangible sites of human injustice—Katrina and Sandy, Richmond and Standing Rock. It draws upon the longstanding American traditions of civil disobedience and boycott, erecting parallels between our stormy present and ignominious past. It has at least mollified much of the corporate opposition that stifled efforts in the Kyoto area, employing concepts of climate risk and carbon speculation to create exploitable rifts within the international business community. It is beginning to build bridges with other left constituencies towards a common, integrated analysis of oppression: see, for example, the inclusion of climate justice in the platform of the Movement for Black Lives. It has brought climate change from the periphery to the center of the Democratic Party, shifting talking points from “preserving our environment for future generations” to “taking action against an immediate threat.” It has galvanized thousands of young Americans who felt angry and helpless, myself included, to organize our friends, families, churches, and campuses, openly and forcefully contesting the status quo.

It is still not nearly enough. However far we have come from our finger-wagging past, we remain lacking the large, active, and vocal base of public support necessary for victory. In order for our moralism to catch fire, it must grow even further beyond its origins. It must take hold in hundreds of millions of hearts that do not now consider themselves to be ‘environmentalists,’ or even left-leaning.

Our climate moralism, if it is to do these things, must center itself around the basis of all ethics: the preservation and strengthening of our relationships with one another. Appeals for climate action will move those who feel they owe something: not to activists, but to their kin—however wide that circle might be—and themselves. So far we have focused on pushing the boundaries of kinship outward, hoping that the broader public will act on behalf of indigenous people, refugees, and hurricane survivors. This work is vital. But it needs to be accompanied by narratives placing carbon trouble closer to the circle as it stands, breaching not just our coasts and pipelines but our houses and hangouts, our friends and neighbors, the material and spiritual fabric of our lives.

The only moralism that can do this is one I can only describe with a label that deniers so often pejoratively throw at activists—evangelist. They mean to say that we wander away from science to politics, exploiting the crisis for unsavory and dominating ends. They mean to stigmatize our appeals to morality, to paint our calls to action as a failure to keep a cool head grounded by the facts. They mean to gesture towards our scientistic inclinations, weaponizing our own language to draw an equivalence between climate advocacy and rapid creationism.

I think they do so shrewdly. The reflexive move is always to dodge an opponent’s labels, and I am sure that doing so here would be to their benefit. Deniers, after all, are not motivated by a dispassionate analysis of the scientific literature; they are driven by the belief that climate action would mean the end of things they hold dear. If American history has taught us anything, it’s that it’s not the scientists but the clerics—both religious and secular—that move us. So, despite the irony, I say we lean into it.

What might this evangelism be? It is not the evangelism of Protestants. The first thing I can say about it is that it is totalizing: it expands its horizons beyond pipeline obstructionism and solar cheerleading in favor of a grand narrative, implicating the entire human story. It depicts its adherents (quite accurately) as participants in an embodied struggle—both within and outside of themselves—between righteous and wicked forces that is integrated deeply into their sense of self-purpose and relational interests. It embraces carbon trench warfare, staging this battleground not only in shareholder meetings, statehouses, and sites of extraction, but in every city and town, every neighborhood and block. It portrays carbon energy not as a plug to pull or a furnace to be fixed, but the very stuff injustice is made of, a crucial means of oppression, an iron cage from which we must emancipate ourselves.

Balancing this story of abolition is one of renewal. I don’t just mean renewables here—although social research and public polling indicates their positive associations with progress, cleanliness, and modernization make them wildly popular across the political spectrum and winning symbols for any movement. I primarily mean emphasizing the transformative potential of energy, itself understood as the social theorist Dominic Boyer put it: “the undercurrent and integrating force for all other modes and institutions of modern power.” How we get our energy doesn’t just determine costs of production and render collateral damage; it restrains and enables the state, bolsters or diminishes union power, organizes our cities, structures our personal relationships, shapes our cultures, and forms our life experiences. (Who would we be without gasoline?) Asking how we should acquire and use energy, by extension, is to refashion all of those things.

If carbon energy is a means of structural injustice—economic, racial, gender, and otherwise—then decarbonization is more than the means of its rectification; it is an opportunity to rebuild our world in the way we see fit. A climate evangelism worth its salt offers not mere redemption for the self-loathing privileged, but a break away from the stagnation, loneliness, and sense of decline currently dominating our national mood. In place of those things, it speaks to our base desires: kinship, freedom, meaning. Decarbonization properly conceived of is not austerity, but the basis for something better: the realization of our commitments to ourselves and one another. A constellation of tangible carbon-cutting goals—a full-employment climate bill, public health-centric single-payer, low-carbon recreation, the reassertion of public urban space—can help us envision this basis.

But enough exaltations. Let me give a few more concrete suggestions.

A winning climate moralism finds enemies both near and far. Calling out right-wing fossil-fuel billionaires for their obstructionism is only the first step. Old Left moralists didn’t just target Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. They picked targets all the way down the chain of command: company board members to foremen, gilded Senators to city councilmen. This strategy brings the fight closer to home, establishing a terrain more personal and tractable than Congress or the UNFCCC. Consider this passage from journalist William T. Vollman’s recently-published Carbon Ideologies, which I have in turn cribbed from Wen Stephenson:

Those West Virginia officials, Colorado lobbyists and Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce types who publicly advanced the agendas of their chosen fossil fuels but refused to even acknowledge questions about global warming stood convicted, in my mind at least, of authoritarian partisanship. I would have heard their side; they were not even willing to tell me theirs, much less ask about mine. And they had power. . . . These are the ones, my friend. These are the ones who laid you low.

Here, Vollman lays out the missing elements necessary for public condemnation. He chooses not to focus on those at the very top of the pyramid—Scott Pruitt, Rex Tillerson—but their army of collaborators spread throughout the American empire. Naming them can help personalize the struggle and raise its immediate stakes by bringing the rot into our backyards, compelling people to more decisively and publicly take a side.  

Just as telling as who Vollman names is those he does not. Crucially, he condemns only those who had real power, and actively used it to keep the system in place. Less blameworthy are fossil fuel workers and consumers, placed into social-structural positions offering unfair tradeoffs:

Those who found themselves compelled by economics to be complicit in the production, distribution and consumption of harmful energies . . . were not especially at fault. For them, fossil fuels constituted sheer subsistence.

A winning climate moralism strongly alludes to forward-looking political responsibility. Of course, a la Young, we should avoid failing to assign workers and consumers any responsibility whatsoever. But these responsibilities—and attendant blame, if warranted—should be grounded in their capacity to participate in the political struggle to decarbonize, not their choices in a carbon Catch-22. Climate evangelism is a message of invitation, an invitation to collectively make the world better and fairer for all members of the underclass, including oil refinery workers and truck drivers.

A winning climate moralism picks individual stories as emblems. History and social research alike indicate that our attention and sympathy gravitate towards intimate portraits of a few victims. The most iconic example of the left leveraging this psychology is undoubtedly Rosa Parks who, contrary to popular perception, was a seasoned civil rights activist whose arrest was part of a deliberate effort to stoke outrage over emblematic mistreatment of a sympathetic citizen. Sandra Bland, Ann Frank, Tank Man—these stories allow us to make sense of systematic oppression and even holocaust amid their staggering, stupefying scale. In our stories of climate injustice, we have focused on nine-figure death tolls and thirteen-figure economic damage estimates, often to the exclusion of smaller, more powerful tales.

A winning climate moralism turns private fear into public action. Public polling and the experiences of climate organizers have taught us that millions of people are sitting quietly in their own lives, thinking far more about climate change than they speak about it with others. Too much ink has been spilled about the tendency for humans to push climate fear to the back of their minds for me to summarize it here. Climate evangelism done properly can help bring this fear out into spaces where it can be shared, discussed, and commiserated over. Only then can it metamorphose into a politicized analysis of the crisis, and build the kind of empathy and solidarity needed for mobilization.

A winning climate moralism is unafraid of attribution. The reluctance of climate activism to claim particular natural disasters were “caused” by climate change hearkens back to its early days, when it was continually hamstrung by scientific pedantry. Those who remain in denial of climate science are not going to be taken by gestures towards fastidiousness. The nature of atmospheric warming will make it perpetually difficult to make out our fingerprint on natural disasters by the standards of climatological-statistical certainty. If we can’t give ourselves permission to stoke outrage from the drowning of Gulfport, the end of groundwater in Delhi, or mass heatstroke in Baghdad, we are unquestionably doomed.

I’m under no illusion that these building blocks constitute a comprehensive plan. My hope is that they provoke some engagement and debate about where we are to go from here. Moralism is not a substitute for organizations, to be sure; rather, it is the chief virtue of the movements that emerge from them. The climate moralism we build must not only bring in the public. It must also keep those of us who are already here bounded together under a common vision. Our ability to persist depends on it.

Johnathan Guy is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying wealth inequality, social relations, and decarbonization. He is active in Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. He tweets @johnathanjguy.

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