(Delivered as part of a panel discussion at the Starry Plough pub in Berkeley, CA, Dec. 5)
“Our moral obligation to fight climate change is to build a collective solution, not to purify ourselves as individual consumers.”
–Margaret Klein, “What Climate Change Asks of Us”
“Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience.”
–Alex Steffen, “The Bright Green City”
First off, I never liked the terms, “global warming,” or “climate change.” For many years running we are still hearing climate denialists saying things like, “Well, it’s too cold here anyway.” I’ve been using “catastrophic climate change,” but also “anthropomorphic climate change” works just as well because it puts us at the forefront where we belong, at least as far as taking responsibility is concerned.
There is no doubt, with mounting evidence every day, that things with planet Earth are deteriorating quickly, possibly getting worse than we can imagine because all the scary models scientists were using to forecast the changes are proving way too conservative. When I first heard it, I was skeptical, but now the idea of the Sixth Extinction doesn’t seem as far fetched as it used to.
So how do we navigate these times? My 15-year-old son uses this expression YOLO, meaning “you only live once.” So I ask him what it means exactly, because it seems kind of ambiguous. Does it mean we should live recklessly because it’s only one time around, so why not take chances, or should we be really careful because life is fragile and precious, to be savored and not spent frivolously? Those who use this expression, primarily the young, may be saying “enjoy it while you can” because life is short—but I think something deeper is being expressed.
I haven’t done this but I would like to see an accounting of recent Hollywood movies. Have there been more dystopian- or utopian-themed movies made lately? It seems like the former would come out on top. Maybe films where things fall apart are more entertaining, but I believe this is also a similar expression that YOLO captures, which is: the future doesn’t look so great, and Hollywood and our youth especially are picking up on that. Our culture’s collective imagination is stuck in seeing the dark side of what’s to come. YOLO means: throw caution to the wind, take license without regard to the consequences because, we are all screwed anyway.
So, with that said, I want to briefly talk about the dire situation we are in but not because I want to convince you that things are hopeless. Hope and vision are crucial motivational elements and as bad as things are going to possibly get, we can always make them worse. Sasha Lilly in her book “Catastrophism,” cautions the left about becoming a flock of Chicken Littles running around with “The end is near” signs, partly because we have lost credibility for past predictions like capitalism being pre-ordained to self-destruct—any day now—but also because the danger of promoting the idea that all is lost would beg the question: why bother to change? So even if you are convinced that the part of the world that sustains humans on the planet is coming to an untimely end, it’s maybe better not to spread that around too far and wide, without the proper context at least.
So how bad are things? There is this one piece of environmental science that I don’t see talked about all that much, and it’s important because it illustrates something crucial. This is the idea of balance, one of the immutable laws that life on Earth is based. Our culture pretends we can ignore or even improve upon the natural world but sooner or later we butt our heads against the hard reality of this unchanging law. Here’s an illustration.
Take something out of your freezer and place it on the kitchen counter. There is a measurable time until this formerly frozen item warms up to room temperature. Something frozen will not be at rest until balance with its environment is reached, and if it’s large enough in a closed space, maybe even change the temperature of the room. This is what is happening with the carbon we are taking out of storage and pouring into the atmosphere. Earth’s living systems are continuously working to find the balance point, and, just like the frozen item in my example, you can measure how long that will take from any given moment. They have done this for carbon. The balance point is 50 years out. Which means, more or less, that the effects we are feeling from catastrophic climate change today are from the carbon burned 50 years ago, and the balance point for what we are doing now, along with the negative feedback loops we have triggered, will be in 50 years. Even if, today, we could stop driving our gas-fueled cars and burning coal and rainforests, etc.—even if we could transition to renewables overnight, we can expect consequences for what we’ve already accomplished with our energy, food, transportation, etc., all of our systems being dependent on “releasing our ancestors into the air,” a.k.a. burning fossil fuels.
For quite some time our culture, now the dominant one on the planet, has been in denial about this balance law, and we are rapidly waking up to that harsh realization. So now that we know, why would we continue to break it even when assured of these dire, exponential consequences? We in this room know the problem of capitalism and the very powerful machine that has hold of our economy, our politics, what is produced, invested in, and even taught in our schools. It’s true that because of this we are having a hard time quitting the oil habit, for all the obvious reasons and for some not so obvious ones.
Now I want to ask, what does it mean to be a radical? To me it means going to the root of a problem and advocating fundamental change that really addresses the issue. Many in our circles are proud to be called radical. Many, if not all of us, question this socio-economic system called capitalism. But is questioning capitalism going to the root? Yes the corporate bankster and oil-igarchy entities are powerful, but the challenge we face goes beyond just freeing us from their economic-fossil fuel hold on our society We have to get free of the ideology, the worldview, that props up the profit-imperative system of production that demands unlimited growth, a.k.a. capitalism—in any of the many forms it can take (financialized, casino, fascist, catabolic, etc.).
Marx knew that in a capitalist society the ruling class ideology would be the dominant one. We are all wearing the blinders of a culture that does not take lightly looking through or beyond, not just capitalism, but its complimentary, world-view partner. This limited-seeing, world view is why many believe that the “climate hoax” is merely an anti-business, leftist conspiracy to challenge sacred business interests, instead of the grave threat to all of life on the planet that it is increasingly becoming.
The problem is not just about the limited understanding of right-wing-nuts, but our entire culture has this civilization thing exactly backwards. When Europeans arrived here they were convinced of their civilized superiority. Well, it was kind of easy to believe when you could mow the indigenous down like harvesting a crop or put them into slavery and still have time for tea and crumpets. The concept of sustainability is this balance idea, and many of the original inhabitants on this continent had that idea down. For some “savage” cultures, the practice of considering the impact of something seven generations forward was ingrained into their decision-making processes. This would be about three or four generations removed from those whom you might possibly meet if you lived to be a hundred years old.
So, why is a dark future for our children’s, children’s, children, etc. easier to imagine for our culture? Because it is part of the story that brought us to this point in the first place. This is a story that gives us the ideas that the earth is ours to use and couldn’t possibly “run out” and tells us nature was broken and only we can “fix” it, and, like I said, the previous animistic-based cultures were “uncivilized.” This was a story in place and operational long before both industrialization and even capitalism. This story enabled our culture to embrace the destructive technology and systems that easily harnessed the awe-inspiring power of capitalism to organize the extraction of resources, combine it with “inexpensive” energy and labor, and—through a neat trick called the “externalizing” of costs—squeeze out so-called profit (for the few) with the attendant “sacrifice-zone” byproducts of used up people and places. This is a compelling, powerful story that tells us it’s somehow civilized to give up agency before the ethereal entities of god and “the economy” so that, much like the corporate structure, we don’t have to take responsibility for our acts of destruction. This story also tells us that living today is less important than something called the “after life” existence, so burning up the planet doesn’t matter because it is in “His hands,” and this can’t be proven in any empirical sense but has to be taken as a matter of “faith” (non-believers beware). This magical thinking also promotes the fiction of independence while hiding from us the reality of interdependence, in all manifestations of our lives.
Joel Kovel in his book, “The Enemy of Nature,” does an excellent job outlining capitalism’s destructive forces, especially on the powerless of the world, and Naomi Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything,” emphasizes that the movement to address “climate change” is bubbling up and empowering those on the bottom, who tend to be left out of our culture’s great advances. Although I would emphasize that not all technologies are equal, I would agree when Klein says it’s important to be fighting for the right solutions, but would add, like the Luddites of old, we need to make sure that whatever we try challenges the inherent inequalities of a sick system and not allow the cult of technology to give us more-of-the-same non-cures like nuclear power, or putting micro-junk in space to magically make the planet colder—or any other risky scheme that avoids actually confronting what our so-called advanced civilization is all about, essentially a system that wages continual war on the poor and the natural world alike. The idea of applying some technological fix without addressing the illogic of unlimited growth in the closed, finite system we call Earth, just won’t cut it.
But change our culture’s dark world view, where all living things are in competition (the neo-Darwinian “all against all” ethos) instead of cooperation (a web-of-life ethos) and we will be changed. The challenge is two-fold: can we imagine a different, life-affirming story and can we start living it fast enough? We have gone so far down this dark path, it is impossible to change in time to avoid some pretty bad effects. But, instead of making things worse by giving up, we should be doing all we can to accelerate the positive change needed. As Klein says, yes, this is a serious crisis, but it’s also a major opportunity to create the better world we all, once we understand what’s at stake, will want to see. Effectively dealing with climate change is the road to the social justice many of us have dedicated our lives to achieving. We, those of the dominant culture, need to start taking responsibility by primarily putting ourselves back in balance with a story that follows the rules of life, and puts the entire planet Earth at the center, instead of ourselves.
So, what do we say to the flat-earth-club, climate-truth resisters and capitalist’s half-blind apologists? I’m reminded of this cartoon, posted on a lot of activist’s refrigerators: picture an auditorium where you can see both audience and the stage. On the stage is a presenter and on his screen are all these positive outcomes of addressing climate change, like clean water and air, livable cities, etc. There is an audience person standing up and he says, “If climate change is a hoax then we would be creating a better world for nothing.” So, tell them it doesn’t matter whether they believe climate change is man-made or not, we all will benefit from the effort to create a better world. And we need to help others see through the constant vilification of viable alternatives to capitalism. Just because there have been no truly successful socialist societies does not mean there can’t be, especially if based on a commitment to justice and sustainability, for not just humans, but the entire web of life on Earth. Ultimately, it is in no one’s interest to continue committing humanicide because of children’s stories like capitalism = freedom. (Incidentally, I was extremely disappointed that Sanders allowed Clinton to get away with saying this in their first debate.)
I believe that we, the people of the dominant human culture today, are finally awakening from many centuries of deep, dark insanity. There is a major paradigm shift happening comparable to the drift away from animistic cultures and the old form of agriculture to the new, cult-of-the-individual era with its methods of waging war on the so-called competition, a shift that reflected the oppressive, anti-life patriarchal world-view of the modern era.
So, once you understand the science of catastrophic climate change—and the lengths some may go to in order to preserve their perceived advantages—it can be depressing to think about what’s in store for us. But, like Antonio Gramsci, I still have hope in the form of an “optimism of the will.” On the positive side, where we can go is exciting to think about. But then I despair that the challenges will be too great, that we will run out of time or the will to preserve what is good about humanity. Like George Carlin advocated, maybe we humans rightly deserve planetary negation, and like Gore Vidal said, the apes have had their run, maybe it’s time to let another species have a turn—but I’m not ready to concede defeat. Our task then is to build a collective solution, one that addresses the totality of human existence on the planet so that we live out a story that puts all of humanity in life-affirming balance, and, please, let’s put to rest once and for all the insanity of believing the world is destined to burn. So, let’s get to work because, well, YOLO.