Maxing out our global credit-card with authoritarian debt

Maxing out our global credit-card with authoritarian debt

April 23, 2023

Originally published at

Reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license

Cory Doctorow

People who fret about the debt we’re taking on to deal with climate change are (half) right. Because there’s two ways of dealing with the climate emergency: either we can avert it, or we can seek high ground and erect high walls. Guess which one we’re doing.


The world’s richest countries are on track to spending more on their “border defense” than they are on their climate commitments. Molly Taft breaks it down for Gizmodo: Contributions to the Green Climate Fund are dragging behind their (inadequate) commitments, and countries are spending more than double their GCF funding for militarized border controls.

This isn’t an arbitrary comparison. If you are planning to let the world’s poor people literally roast inside their own skins, or drown along with their island homes, then yeah, you will need to build high walls a-bristle with guns to keep them from coming to you.

Though the climate emergency is new, this dynamic is an old one: as societies become more unequal, the ability of elite minorities to suborn the political process to benefit themselves at everyone’s expense grows. The more they do this, the more unstable society becomes.

Elites understand this. That’s why billionaires are buying bunkers in New Zealand. It’s why Silicon Valley VCs compare anti-billionaire sentiment to Kristallnacht, painting themselves as beleaguered victims, the last minority that it’s okay to hate. (Paging Mike Godwin, Mike Godwin to the white courtesy phone).

The wealthy are obsessed with risk-hedging. Elite philanthropy is a hedge: a way to make obscene inequality seem palatable. If you’re careful, you can make your name synonymous with art galleries, museums and hospitals and not, say, depraved indifference to human life in the relentless pursuit of billions beyond measure or use.

Or, at least, you can do that for a while. Eventually, reality catches up with you. The Louvre takes the Sackler family name off its paintings. The Whitney follows. Your family name becomes synonymous with murder, not generosity.

Reputation-laundering is Plan A.

Disappearing into a luxury bunker to LARP the Masque of the Red Death is the last resort.

In between the two is “guard labor.”

At a certain point, the most cost-effective way to keep guillotines off your lawn isn’t endowing hospitals, it’s building machine-gun turrets.

Here’s where the “debt” part comes in. The more guard-labor you hire, the more societal debt you incur: destabilizing and discrediting institutions and creating vast, traumatized cohorts with nothing to lose.

Redistribution stabilizes society over the long term, creating a sense of mutual obligation and shared destiny.

Wealth-hoarding and guard-labor destabilizes society over the long term, with ever-larger populations convinced that society has nothing to offer them, even as their homes, lives and families are destroyed by policies that benefit the rich at the rest of our expense. (Paging Joe Machin, Joe Manchin to a white courtesy phone)

People who worry about “maxing out the national credit card” fighting the climate emergency are running up far more insidious forms of debt: social cohesion debt and climate debt. Every day we fail to address the climate emergency is a day that we doom more people to being traumatized climate refugees with no reason to accept a social contract or heed society’s laws.

Societal debt and climate debt accrue compounding interest, and they multiply each other. When emergency strikes – when a zoonotic pandemic sweeps the globe – institutions that have discredited themselves by carrying water for pharma giants struggle to convince people to heed their advice. The pandemic gets worse, throwing our politics into chaos and tanking the economy, incinerating much of the political will for meaningful climate action.

So the amount that rich states are willing to spend on “border security” is inseparable from the amount they’re willing to spend on averting the climate emergency.

And the joke’s on them. As Poe taught us with The Masque of the Red Death, our species has a shared destiny. It takes an act of will (or perhaps an Ayn Rand novel whose pages are all stuck together) not to see this.

For a fantastic case-study in the fallacy of guard-labor as a substitute for good policy, check out Naomi Klein’s interview with Olamide Olaniyan in The Tyee.

Klein lives in Canada, where she’s a professor at UBC’s new Center for Climate Justice.

Canada is the epicenter of the guard-labor/good policy tradeoff. Its leader, Justin Trudeau is, to quote Klein: “somebody who likes campaigning more than governing and is better at giving the speech than enacting the policies.”

Trudeau gives off a lot of cuddly vibes, but his unwillingess to enact good policy combined with his deep authoritarian roots are a catastrophe in the offing. Canada needs good climate policy: not only is the country a world-leader in carbon emissions, it also exports the world’s filthiest oil, extracted from the tar sands, and it is the global headquarters of the world’s most savage and unrepentant mining operations.

Back in 2019, Trudeau marched with Greta Thunberg, demanding a change to Canada’s climate policies. It was the ultimate Trudeau moment: the literal Prime Minister of Canada marching against the policies he, himself, had enacted.

Oh, Justin.

Now, to be fair, Trudeau doesn’t get to govern the way he’d like, because he has a minority government. But Trudeau’s minority partners aren’t Tories who are pulling him away from climate justice – they’re NDP, pulling him towards planet-saving, humanity-saving policies.

When Trudeau called unnecessary, snap elections earlier this year, it was a bid to win a Parliamentary majority, one that would free him from having to listen to anyone else when he governs.

Such a majority would allow him to continue to claim to be an environmentalist, while continuing to assure the tar sands gentry that “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.”

It would let him continue to claim to be an environmentalist, while rescuing the world’s deadliest oil pipeline with a $4.5b public bailout.

Trudeau understands that the price of climate inaction is guard labor. By any measure, he is an authoritarian. This is a leader who fired his Attorney General to spare Canada’s most corrupt corporation from prosecution for its continued collusion with the world’s worst dictators:

He’s the party leader who whipped his caucus to vote for Bill C-51, a warrantless mass surveillance bill, while they were in opposition. Trudeau claimed the move was needed to avoid looking soft on terrorism just prior to an election, and promised a repeal. That “repeal” arrived years late – and it left behind the most grotesque and over-reaching elements of the bill.

Remember when Trudeau tweeted that Canada would welcome the refugees Trump was terrorizing, then refused to end the “Safe Third Country” agreement that would actually enable those refugees to come to Canada?

Trudeau’s spin machine makes a big deal out of his political legacy: he is the son of the legendary Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the PM who gave Canada its own Constitution. But if we’re going to discuss the Trudeau legacy, let’s not forget that Trudeau the Elder also imposed martial law on Canada, sending the secret police to raid a wide swathe of dissident groups.

If Canada is going to run up a climate debt, it’s going to have to spring for a spiralling guard-labor bill. Because Poe was a prophet and the Masque of the Red Death is a warning: there is no wall high enough to keep disaster out.

As Klein says, last summer’s wildfires didn’t just wipe out forests and towns – they also created waves of domestic climate refugees: homeless, traumatized, bearing Canadian passports.

Border security won’t insulate the nation from defaulting on climate debt. It just delays the reckoning and makes the default infinitely more painful.

Because weak institutions that no one trusts are not going to be able to respond to that default. As Klein points out, Hurricane Maria only killed 30 people, but then 3,000 more died “because of a failed health-care system and a failed electricity system and a failure of care in the months that followed.”

The debt pearl-clutchers are right: We are saddling our children and grandchildren with a bill they won’t be able to pay. But that bill doesn’t come from minting the money we need to save our species and civilization from the emergency on its doorstep – it comes from the false economy of skimping on climate and buying guard labor instead.

(Image: Cameron Strandberg, CC BY, modified)