On Tuesday, August 16, 2022, US President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law. The IRA is the largest explicit investment for mitigating climate change in federal history, and a concerted effort to mitigate the pronounced economic pressures faced by Americans amid pandemic-fueled supply chain disruptions and record corporate profits.
The idea is simple: that “creating good-paying union jobs” for Americans and “securing US leadership on clean energy technologies” must go hand-in hand. Thus, the bill’s funding and regulatory provisions for decarbonizing transportation and industrial energy uses are joined by residential tax credits, rebates, and other investments for homeowners, and by provisions to train a workforce for clean energy jobs.
We must put these dynamics into perspective and view the IRA as yet another indictment of global capitalism and the international order itself
Almost immediately after its inception and passage, however, it became clear that the Inflation Reduction Act gave fossil fuel CEOs reason to celebrate, much to the chagrin of climate justice advocates. Why? Because, for starters, the IRA includes a provision that requires the federal government to auction public lands for oil and gas extraction before leasing them for wind and solar development. Further, it revives offshore oil and gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic that activists had previously beaten in court.
We must not dismiss the Inflation Reduction Act’s facilitation of even greater wealth accumulation, labor exploitation, and environmental degradation by fossil fuel companies as merely a temporary concession or an unfortunate contradiction in US energy and economic policy.
We must put these dynamics into perspective and view the IRA as yet another indictment of global capitalism and the international order itself, and thus a reminder of the antagonistic orientation to both that climate justice demands.
Consider the broader constellation of national energy and economic policies and practices of which the Inflation Reduction Act is a part: Congress just authorized a record $817.15 billion budget for the Department of Defense and a $29.71 billion budget for national security programs within the Department of Energy; With pressure from fossil fuel companies, oil and gas projects have become designated as “critical infrastructure,” and over 40 bills seeking to criminalize (as felonies) protest around “critical infrastructure” were introduced in 24 state legislatures between 2017 and 2021.
In short, what such national energy and economic policies and practices reveal is the reality of global political economy that climate justice advocates must contend with: (1) how capitalist wealth extraction and accumulation condition the form, function, and priorities of nations and international relations; (2) how nations are tasked with helping displace the uneven distribution of life chances (a mainstay of capitalism) onto some and not others; (3) and how nations contain resistance to and survival against such dynamics, sometimes through brute force and sometimes through policing “reform.”
This is an understanding long held by peoples of the global majority, for whom the experience of exploitation, marginalization, and elimination has defined their relationship to such dynamics, processes, and structures—and, by extension, the climate crisis itself. This is not to say that the US national economy is not an important arena for far-reaching calls to action—consider, for example, the late Coretta Scott King’s integral role in pushing the Federal Reserve to expand its mandate of maximum employment to one full employment. This is only to say that the limits to national belonging are clear.1
Thus, while the Inflation Reduction Act is lauded for taking cue from Green New Deal advocates, Indigenous activists have demanded that just climate action must not only entail a moratorium on all new fossil fuel extraction and full divestment from financial institutions that fund projects, old and new. It must also challenge national citizenship as a “legal” privilege to life chances, and it must entail the abolition of prisons, police, and the military as institutions that enforce and maintain the uneven distribution of life chances under capitalism.
The question then becomes: How do we push for and celebrate gains for workers and the environment while maintaining an antagonistic relationship to the institutions and ideas that we know will never free us, collectively?
Put simply, as Harsha Walia states: “‘Our’ existential crisis is one of extractive colonialism and racial capitalism. Want to decarbonize? Demilitarize; decarcerate; decolonize: this is the terrain of struggle, for both climate justice and for a livable future.”
Yet, the Inflation Reduction Act also makes clear that this state-finance nexus is enacted and maintained not only through policing, incarceration, and criminalization, but also through idealized professions of US economic democracy—a nation of “good-paying Union jobs” available to all, as Biden puts it.
The question then becomes: How do we push for and celebrate gains for workers and the environment while maintaining an antagonistic relationship to the institutions and ideas that we know will never free us, collectively? How do we do so while recognizing that we come to this task from the heart of empire?
In my research essay just published in the interdisciplinary journal, EPD: Society and Space (and available here for those without journal access), I offer one answer to this question: place-based research and organizing that is also deeply informed by anticolonial and anticapitalist critiques of modern liberalism—the institutions and ideas of democracy and individual freedom that are shaped by capitalist rationality, and that constrain and contain our social, political, and economic horizon within it.
In fact, my essay helps us do this work by taking us back to the 1920s and 1930s, when the modern liberal vision that a wholly inclusive national economy could be created through comprehensive natural resource management, and when land use planning was first developed. How did policymakers, philanthropists, business interests, social scientists, and others develop such a vision, and at what cost?
Through archival research on the twinned proliferation of US land reform and race reform efforts at the time, I illustrate how they did so to protect against movements to effect belonging for all peoples, globally, that were taking root in places like the Jim Crow South. Among other movements, this included an ascendant Black-led communist internationalism, which tried to put the world on a path different from the one we have been on, starting from the ground up.
...such market-based and statist solutions at best limit our political imagination, and at worst further integrate us into fundamentally inequitable relations.
By locating the dream of an inclusive and equitable national and international capitalist economy as an exercise in “containing” global justice, and thus an exercise in preserving institutions premised upon group-differentiated vulnerability to exploitation and reduced life chances, my essay shows us how far we must go in our fight for climate justice.
We must maintain that global capitalism will never get us out of the climate crisis and the crises it exacerbates. From national investments in federal programs like the Inflation Reduction Act, to international financial tools like catastrophe insurance, debt swaps, and traditional public debt, such market-based and statist solutions at best limit our political imagination, and at worst further integrate us into fundamentally inequitable relations.2
Amid the ongoing organized abandonment and exploitation of the many, especially in the face of climate catastrophe, this is the work that will get us closer to a livable world in which we all belong.
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.
1 Against King’s vision and organizing, “full employment” has become defined by economists and policymakers as the certain percentage of unemployment deemed necessary to keep inflation at bay—thus keeping unemployment a mainstay of life in the United States.
2 This is the work of centering what Ruth Wilson Gilmore has termed “abolition geographies,” which encompass “how and to what end people make freedom provisionally, imperatively, as they imagine home against the disintegrating grind of partition and repartition through which racial capitalism perpetuates the means of its own valorization.”