Sunshine Recorder

Link: Hope in the Age of Collapse

An exchange with Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project.

Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
“State of the Planet Declaration,” London, March 29, 2012

That’s the warning issued last week by a high-level group of scientists, business leaders and government officials at the Planet Under Pressure conference  in London.  As The New York Times Green blog reported, “The conference brought together nearly 3,000 people to discuss the prospects for better management of the earth and to build momentum for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20, to be held June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro.” (The Times’ Andy Revkin offers a good wrapup at his Dot Earth blog.)

Earlier last week, at the start of the conference, visitors to the website were greeted with this short video, “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” charting “the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes” (the idea that the planet has passed from the Holocene into an “Age of Man” has, of course, gained wide acceptance):

It’s certainly an arresting video. And many might see in those images a call to action, however belated.

Not Paul Kingsnorth.  An English writer and erstwhile green activist, he spent two decades (he’ll turn 40 this year) in the environmental movement, and he’s done with all that. He’s moved beyond it. If anything, his message today is too radical for modern environmentalism. He’s had it with “sustainability.” He’s not out to “save the planet.” He’s looked into the abyss of planetary collapse, and — unlike, say, imprisoned climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who might be seen as Kingsnorth’s radical American opposite — he seems to welcome what he sees there.

Not everyone is quite ready to hear, or accept, what Paul Kingsnorth has to say. In 2009 he co-founded, together with collaborator Dougald Hine, something called the Dark Mountain Project, a literary and cultural response to our global environmental, economic, and political crises. “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” appeared that summer, and got some attention in the UK.  He and Hine have summed up the Dark Mountain message this way:

These are precarious and unprecedented times. Our economies crumble, while beyond the chaos of markets, the ecological foundations of our way of living near collapse. Little that we have taken for granted is likely to come through this century intact.

We don’t believe that anyone – not politicians, not economists, not environmentalists, not writers – is really facing up to the scale of this. As a society, we are all still hooked on a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. Somehow, technology or political agreements or ethical shopping or mass protest are meant to save our civilisation from self-destruction.

Well, we don’t buy it. This project starts with our sense that civilisation as we have known it is coming to an end; brought down by a rapidly changing climate, a cancerous economic system and the ongoing mass destruction of the non-human world. But it is driven by our belief that this age of collapse – which is already beginning – could also offer a new start, if we are careful in our choices.

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.

Some would call Kingsnorth — indeed have called him, in The New Statesman and The Guardian — a catastrophist, or fatalist, with something like a deathwish for civilization. Others would call him a realist, a truthteller. If nothing else, I’d call him a pretty good provocateur.

Not well known here in the U.S., Kingsnorth tossed a bomb in the January/February issue of Orion magazine, in the form of an essay entitled “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.” (The magazine’s current issue features “America the the Possible: A Manifesto,” by James Gustave Speth — the first of two parts! But the editors must know that Kingsnorth’s piece is the real manifesto. I have a thing about manifestos.)

In that essay, Kingsnorth gets to the heart of the matter:

We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.

Provocative stuff, indeed. Down with sustainability! But then Kingsnorth goes on to say this:

If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. The business of “sustainability” is the business of preventing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. They threaten to unacceptably erode our resource base and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things.

Safe to say that stopped me cold. Carbon and climate may not be the only things in the world worth talking about — I can think of one or two others — but this much is certain : if we don’t keep talking about them, and start acting in a serious way to address them, the consequences will be a whole lot more “unthinkable” than darning socks and growing carrots, and for a whole lot more people (especially those who have done nothing to cause the problem) than Kingsnorth acknowledges here.

But it was Kingsnorth’s conclusion that really threw me. His answer to the whole situation comes down to one word: withdrawal.

It’s all fine. I withdraw, you see. I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching, I withdraw from the arguing and the talked-up necessity and all of the false assumptions. I withdraw from the words. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.

Withdraw? Are you kidding? That Kingsnorth’s piece appeared in the same issue as Terry Tempest Williams’ long, morally bracing interview with Tim DeChristopher, “What Love Looks Like,” only made it harder to take. This, I felt, is what giving up looks like.

But this story doesn’t end in bitterness. After I read the essay, Kingsnorth and I engaged in a spirited exchange (on Twitter, where else?), and it has led to some sort of mutual understanding. It also led me to the Dark Mountain Project and its publications. So when I launched this blog,  I invited Kingsnorth to engage in an email exchange, an invitation he graciously (even enthusiastically) accepted.  Below is my opening missive to him. I’ll include his response in a post to follow.

It may be that what Paul and I have in common is more important than our differences. I see us each striving to define what hope looks like.

Wen Stephenson

+++

From: Wen Stephenson
To: Paul Kingsnorth

Dear Paul,

Thanks so much for engaging in this exchange.

I confess that I’ve only recently come to know your work. You caught my attention with the essay in Orion. It’s a beautiful piece — I honestly think so, despite my reaction to it. The thing that initially hooked me is the way your trajectory is almost precisely the inverse of my own. Whereas you’ve grown deeply disillusioned with modern environmentalism, and what’s universally known as “sustainability” — including urgent and necessary efforts to cut carbon emissions — I’ve never been an “environmentalist” in the first place (if anything, I’m a recovering journalist!). And yet here I’ve gone and become an advocate for climate action. Strange times we live in.

But while there are many things about the essay that I genuinely admire — especially the way it nails the state of anxiety in which environmentalism seems to find itself today, the internal tensions and contradictions — I found your dismissiveness toward the climate movement, and especially your conclusion, profoundly frustrating and discouraging. That conclusion appears, essentially, to be a resigned withdrawal: “I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching…. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”

Look, I’m all for walking — especially if it means clearing one’s head and reconnecting with the reality outside our windows. But not as withdrawal, not as running away. The idea that in the face of climate change — humanity’s greatest crisis (and I mean all of humanity, especially those who have done little or nothing to cause it, including future generations) — someone with your experience, and your conscience, could simply choose to “withdraw” … well, it was incomprehensible to me.  And it was especially ironic given that the same issue contained the interview with Tim DeChristopher.

That interview’s title is drawn from DeChristopher’s now-famous words to the judge: “This is what love looks like.”

And so, of course, I turned to Twitter and responded to you and your essay: “This is what giving up looks like.”

Whereupon you accused me of naivete for joining in a worldwide rally for climate action (and organizing a walk to Walden Pond) last September.  Touché!

So, yes, you might say our correspondence got off to a rocky start.

But we’ve patched things up! And your essay and our Twitter exchange has led me, I’m glad to report, to the Dark Mountain Project. I think I now have a much better understanding of where you’re coming from, and where you’re trying to go, and I have to say, once again, that we’re largely in agreement — up to a point. I think it’s quite likely that you’re right about the situation in which civilization now finds itself, given what science is telling us and the state of our political and economic systems. As you encapsulate it in Dark Mountain Issue 1:

“[The manifesto’s] message — that it’s time to stop pretending our current way of living can be made ‘sustainable’; that ‘saving the planet’ has become a bad joke; that we are entering an age of massive disruption, and our task is to live through it as best we can…”

Indeed. But it’s the “live through it as best we can” part, and how we’re going to do that, where our viewpoints begin to diverge — because you seem to reject the possibility that any combination of mass political engagement and human technological (and yes, industrial-economic) ingenuity might help us do just that: live through it as best we can. For a literary project, that seems like an odd failure of imagination.

So I’d like to pose a series of questions for you, in reaction to specific passages in the manifesto.

You write in part one that the “the myth of progress” is “the engine driving our civilisation.” Then, in part two, you suggest that our response to climate change and environmental crisis has yet to give up this myth:

We hear daily about the impacts of our activities on ‘the environment’ (like ‘nature’, this is an expression which distances us from the reality of our situation). Daily we hear, too, of the many ’solutions’ to these problems: solutions which usually involve the necessity of urgent political agreement and a judicious application of human technological genius. Things may be changing, runs the narrative, but there is nothing we cannot deal with here, folks…. There will still be growth, there will still be progress… There is nothing to see here. Everything will be fine.

We do not believe that everything will be fine.

Nor do I. But to dismiss the search for “solutions” — which I assume must include efforts to stabilize the climate in the coming century — seems a bit too cynical, or fatalistic. As if to say that nothing can be done. The task, we agree, is no longer to “prevent” or “avoid” the “perfect storm,” but to live through it, and still maintain our humanity. At the very least, we can still work urgently to minimize the human (and non-human) suffering that is coming.  Unless you believe that compassion is also a myth.

You write that “time has not been kind to the greens.” And then,

Today’s environmentalists are more likely to be found at corporate conferences hymning the virtues of ’sustainability’ and ‘ethical consumption’ than doing anything as naive as questioning the intrinsic values of civilisation. Capitalism has absorbed the greens, as it absorbs so many challenges to its ascendancy. A radical challenge to the human machine has been transformed into yet another opportunity for shopping.

This is followed shortly after by one of the manifesto’s central (and most memorable) passages:

And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down….

Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?

We believe it is time to look down.

This is a striking passage. But wait — “Would it be as bad as we imagine?… Could it even be good for us?” Do you mean that the future could in fact be better than the present? That it might be (gasp) sustainable? Does that imply your own myth of progress?   Before you answer that, here’s another question.

Your project is fundamentally a literary and cultural one. It’s based on the idea that our stories — the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves — are what make us who we are. And so you want to change the story, the myth, of civilization. You write:

Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? … What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?

These are excellent questions. But art and storytelling won’t stabilize the climate. The only way to do that is to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transfomation of our energy systems. Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?

You say that Uncivilised writing “is not environmental writing… It is not nature writing… And it is not political writing, with which the world is already flooded, for politics is a human confection, complicit in ecocide and decaying from within.”  You then conclude that the project of Uncivilisation “will be a thing of beauty for the eye and for the heart and for the mind, for we are unfashionable enough to believe that beauty — like truth — not only exists, but still matters.”

There’s something almost hopeful about that last page of the manifesto, and the last lines: “Climbing Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exercise…. Come. Join us. We leave at dawn.”

But it occurs to me that “beauty” and “truth” (like politics) are human “confections” — anthropocentric categories. And this seems to imply a belief that something like civilization, which gave birth to art and philosophy, will not only survive, but is worth fighting to preserve. And yet, how does one propose to preserve beauty and truth, these human constructs, unless the climate is stabilized? And how does one propose to do that without engaging in politics? Are you suggesting that a new art and philosophy will give rise to a new politics? Maybe it will. But do we really have time to wait for that?

All the new storytelling in the world will change nothing without politics. In fact, it seems to me that the ultimate cynicism is to give up on politics — because it means giving up on the possibility of change. Not necessarily “progress” (i.e., material progress). I mean the preservation of what makes us human.

You write: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.”

But unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.

All best,

Wen

+++

From: Paul Kingsnorth
To: Wen Stephenson

Dear Wen,

Isn’t the Internet a strange thing? Sometimes I think it is a symbol of what our culture is becoming. It gives us abilities that we never had even ten years ago. Here we are, two men from separate continents who have never met, never spoken to each other, but we are responding to each other’s work almost instantaneously. We have a capacity for research, for discussion and for intellectual exploration that is unprecedented, thanks to this advanced technology.

But it is also a technology which isolates us from the rest of nature, and which, oddly enough, isolates us from aspects of ourselves even as we use it. I have lost count of the number of times I have had arguments or spiky exchanges with human beings over the net which I would never have had in real life. We are able to communicate in words, but because we are not relating to each other as human animals – because we cannot read each other’s body language or facial signals or the innumerable tiny, intuitive responses that humans have to each other’s bodies in physical spaces, we get off on the wrong foot time and time again. We are, in other words, able to communicate far more widely than ever before, but the way in which we communicate is far less fully human.

This combination: a technologically-accelerated ability to achieve certain goals and a simultaneous disconnection from much of the rest of nature is the world we now live in. And it is the context in which I would like to respond to your email.

I’d like to start this response with your very last line. Here it is:

‘Unless we find ways to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, it will be the end of the world (or of humanity), full stop.’

This is an interesting statement for this reason: that it elides modern human civilisation and the living planet. They are not the same thing. They are very far from being the same thing; in fact, one of them is allergic to the other. If we don’t start to realise this — really get it, at a deep level — there will be no change worth having for anyone.

I have spent twenty years and more as an environmental campaigner. My feeling, my philosophy, if you like, across that whole period has been rather different to yours, and rather different also to that of Tim DeChristopher, who you mention in your e-mail, remarkable though his current stand is. My worldview has always been, for want of a less clunky word, ecocentric. What I care passionately about is nature in the round: all living things, life as a phenomenon. That’s not an anti-human position – it would be impossible for it to be so, because humans are as natural as anything else. But my view is that humans are no more or less important than anything else that lives. We certainly have no right to denude the Earth of life for our own ends. That is a moral position, for me, not a pragmatic one. Whether or not our current (temporary and hugely destructive) way of life is ‘sustainable’ is not of great concern to me, except insofar as it impacts on life as a whole.

You might find that an odd position, or even a dangerous one, but I see it as quite cogent and rational. The fact is that ‘pumping carbon into the atmosphere’ will not cause ‘the end of the world’. The world has endured worse. It has endured five mass extinctions and half a dozen major climate change events. I do think that climate change campaigners like yourself should be more upfront about what you’re trying to ‘save.’ It’s not the world. It’s not humanity either, which I’d bet will survive whatever comes in some form or another, though perhaps with drastically reduced numbers and no broadband connection. No, what you’re trying to save, it seems to me, is the world you have grown used to. Perhaps it’s the Holocene: the period of the planet’s history in which homo sapiens sapiens (cough) was able to build a civilisation so extensive and powerful that it energetically wiped out much non-human life in order to feed its ever-advancing appetites.

‘Sustainability’ is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat. I have two problems with this. Firstly, I am not convinced it is a good idea! To put it mildly. The modern human economy is an engine of mass destruction. Its ravaging of all non-human life is not incidental; it seems to be a requirement of the program. Economic growth of the kind worshipped by our leaders could be described as a process of turning life into death for money. With nine billion humans demanding access to the spoils, there is not going to be much life left to go around. Of course, I am conflicted about this. I live at the heart of this machine; like you, I am a beneficiary of it. If it falls apart, I will probably suffer, and I don’t want to.

But I do feel the need to be honest with myself, which is where the ‘walking away’ comes in. I am trying to walk away from dishonesty, my own included. Much environmental campaigning, and thinking, is dishonest. It has to be, to keep going. The journey I am on is intellectual and, perhaps, spiritual too. I’m not sure I will find any answers. Certainly I won’t come up with any better ways to ‘save the world.’ But what world are you saving, Wen, and why? Do you imagine that Thoreau would have looked out of that window at this Machine and determined to put all his efforts into marching about trying to keep it afloat? I think he would have kept on growing beans. His retreat from activism, after all, produced the words which now inspire yours.

I sense in your response a lot of the confusion, and the passion, that drove me for many years (I am still both passionate and confused, of course, though perhaps for different reasons.) There is a plaintive quality to your questions. ‘Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transformation of our energy systems?’ you ask. ‘Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?’ The answer to the first question is, of course, no, and the Dark Mountain Project has no such end in mind. Art and storytelling are worthy in their own right, and we need a cultural response to the collapse of our world, if for no other reason than my personal desire to have an honest story to tell my children about how we destroyed beauty for money and called it ‘development’.

But as for the ‘transformation of our energy systems’: the minute you ask this question in this way, you are trapped in a paradigm, with no hope of escape. What are ‘our energy systems’ for? Who is us? Us, I’d guess, is the bourgeois consumer class of the ‘developed’ world, and ‘our energy systems’ are needed to provide us with our cars, planes, central heating, Twitter feeds, ambulances, schools, asphalt roads and shopping malls. How are we going to transform these systems, in short order, globally, busting through economic vested interests and political stalemate and cultural patterns, in less than 100 months, to prevent more than a 2 degree climate change? How, in other words, are we going to change the operating system of the entire global economy in a decade or so?

Answer: we’re not, though we’ll do a lot of damage trying, not least to much of the natural world we want to protect. I notice that a US-government backed plan to cover much of the Mojave desert in solar panels is currently running up against resistance from both conservationists and Native Americans; and let’s not even get started on the battles over carpeting vast areas of mountain, rangeland and countryside with giant wind power stations. This new world of yours is beginning to look a lot like the old one: business-as-usual without the carbon. The beast must be fed; the only question is what it will eat.

As for the climate movement which you believe is necessary to prevent this: well … I know I am beginning to sound cynical, but it’s not exactly cynicism, it’s a raw realism born of 20 years of wanting to believe in such movements and not seeing them. There is no ‘climate movement’. Sure, there are a few thousand people who may take to the streets in the wealthy West, or on the odd threatened atoll, and there are many more people who, when asked in opinion polls, will say they want to stop climate change. But how many of these people will be taking to the streets to demand personal carbon budgets? How many of them will be taking to the streets to demand much higher gas prices, limits on their holiday aeroplane flights and their daily electricity use, and radical reductions in their ability and right to consume at will? And how many of the two thirds of the planet not living in the rich world will be taking to their streets to demand that they do not have access to the consumer cornucopia that we have, and which we are using so effectively to destroy non-human life without even really noticing?

I don’t think any ‘climate movement’ is going to reverse the tide of history, for one reason: we are all climate change. It is not the evil ’1%’ destroying the planet. We are all of us part of that destruction. This is the great, conflicted, complex situation we find ourselves in. Here I am writing to you on a laptop computer made of aluminium and plastic and rare earth metals, about to send you this e-mail via undersea cables using as electricity created by the burning of long-dead deposits of fossilised carbon. I am climate change. You are climate change. Our culture is climate change. And climate change itself is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, if you’ll pardon the terrible but appropriate pun. If we were to wake up tomorrow to the news that climate change were a hoax or a huge mistake, we would still be living in a world in which extinction rates were between 100 and 1000 times natural levels and in which we have managed to destroy 25% of the world’s wildlife in the last four decades alone.

I’m afraid my current beliefs are going to seem to you rather bleak. I believe that our civilisation is hitting a wall, as all civilisations eventually do. I believe that the climate will continue to change as long as we are able to pump fossil fuels into the atmosphere, because I believe that most human beings want the fruits of that burning more than they want to save the natural world which is destroyed by it. I think we have created an industrial techno-bubble which has cut us off from the rest of nature so effectively that we cannot see, and do not much care about, its ongoing death. I think that until that death starts to impact us personally we will take very little interest. I think we are committed to much more of it over the next century. I fear for what my children will experience and sometimes I wish I was not here to experience it either. I am not yet 40 but I have seen things that my children will never see, because they are already gone. This is my fault, and yours, and there is nothing that we have been able to work out that will stop it.

How do we live with this reality? Politics is not going to do anything about it, Wen, because politics is the process of keeping this Machine moving. What do we do? I don’t know. The reality is that we have used the short-term boost of fossil fuels to give us a 200 year party, which is now coming to an end in a haze of broken bottles, hangovers and recrimination. We have built a hugely complex society which now can’t be fuelled and is, in any case, responsible for a global ecocide. Living with this reality — living in it, facing it, being honest about it and not having to pretend we can ‘solve’ it as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle — seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for living through it. I realise that to some people it looks like giving up. But to me it looks like just getting started with a view of the world based on reality rather than wishful thinking.

Sometimes people say to me: ‘But you have children! How can you say all this? Don’t you want a better world for them?’ Other people say other things to me, things like: ‘We know this might not work, we know it’s a long shot — but it’s better than doing nothing! It’s better than giving up!’ I find this kind of thing very telling, because what is actually being said is: ‘doing something is better than doing nothing, even if the something being done is ineffective and powered by wishful thinking!’ I don’t agree. Sometimes, I think stepping back to evaluate is a lot more useful than keeping on for the sake of keeping on.

I don’t want to sound like a nihilist. There are a lot of useful things that we can do at this stage in history. Protecting biodiversity seems the crucial one. Protecting non-human nature from more destruction by the Machine, for example. Some of the best projects I know of creating islands and corridors of wild nature and trying to keep them free from our exploitation. Standing up in whatever small way we can to protect beauty and wildness from our appetites is a worthy cause if ever there was one: probably the most vital cause right now, I’d say. I’m all for fighting winnable battles. But we need to do so in the context of a wider, bigger picture: the end of the Holocene, the end of the world we were taught to believe was eternal; and, perhaps, the slow end of our belief that humans are in control of nature, can be or should be. You asked me about hope for the future: the thought that the disaster we have created may help us see ourselves for what we are — animals — and not what we believe we are — gods — gives me a kind of hope.

There is much that is noble about being human, but we have a big debt to pay back, and debts, in the end, always have to be paid.

All the best,

Paul

ContinuedRead the conclusion of this exchange.

Link: Cigarettes and Climate Change

I am a smoker, and I am in denial. It isn’t that I don’t believe that cigarettes will kill me. I do. It isn’t that I don’t believe that I’m addicted. I know I am. Like most addicts, my denial takes the form of dissonance: I rationalize, I procrastinate, I make token gestures and shop for comparisons. Distraction is easy: I read while I smoke. Anything to avoid looking that monster in the eyes.

These are not novel forms of coping. Among more private kinds of existential crises—the junkie, the smoker, the troubling lump beneath the skin, and the marriage on the brink—denial is rarely outright. You know you have a problem; the trick is in refusing to acknowledge it.

It’s strange, then, that in the case of climate change—a cognitively torturous existential threat exceeding the sum of all our private ones by some incomprehensible order of magnitude—we tell an uncomplicated story about two stark sides. On one hand are the scientists; on the other, the skeptics. The skeptics don’t believe the monster’s there. The scientists (and activists, and journalists) endeavor to persuade them. When this latter side succeeds, the story goes, we will finally take action. In the meantime, we sit and hope that day won’t be too late.

That story isn’t true.

In American political life desire is rarely synonymous with will. If mere consensus made it so, then today we might count single-payer healthcare, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a guaranteed federal minimum wage among our national accomplishments. Each, at one time in our history, had the tacit approval of the majority. The reasons for their failure are complex and varied, but the consistent lesson is that tepid support, no matter how broad, does not change policy. Only the concerted efforts of a well-organized advocacy do. When measures pass, it is because an active constituency has engineered their victory, regardless of how many or how few citizens were basically okay with the idea. So it has been, on the left and on the right, from the American Revolution to the death of campaign finance laws.

An exhaustive conversion of the skeptics is not what stands between The United States and climate change reform. This is a good thing. If it were, then we’d be wiser to surrender now and enjoy the planet while it lasts us. But despite their stubborn numbers and friends in well-financed places, the Ted Cruzes of the world lack the power to long block meaningful reform. Our inaction these last decades is not a consequence of their resistance, but rather of the absence of sufficient pressure from those of us in the reality-based community, engaged in our more insidious forms of denial.

We are the problem. Those of us who, when confronted with the existential dread posed by global warming, do not deny the presence of the monster, but do everything within our power not to look it in the eyes.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Climate change—like addiction, like illness, like trauma and turmoil—is a threat to our sanity; a train of thought so stressful that the psychology of coping can’t help kicking in. It’s just too horrible to focus on for long, and so we do what we have always done in the face of crippling terror. We deny—not by rejecting the threat, but by avoiding it. Sometimes this takes the form of minimizing the threat, hoping that climate change plays out like only the mildest of our models’ projections. Sometimes we try wishful thinking, maintaining undue faith in some miraculous hi-tech solution. Most often, we just settle on escapism: thinking, reading, caring, and arguing about anything else. Anything that feels easier to tackle, anything that won’t kill us if we don’t. We’ll quit smoking next year, next year, next year.

I don’t have a grand solution for this dissonance, much less one for the multitude of international challenges that would face even the most devoted effort to keep our climate at bay. But I do have one small suggestion. Like all addicts in denial, we have our friendly enablers. Chief among these is the political press.

I don’t mean doctrinaire reactionary rags. I mean the mainstream and leftist publications, erstwhile environmentalists who would never dream of engaging in overtly skeptical denial. The Atlantic, The New Republic, and the New York Times all have robust environmental sections. But this, in a way, is the problem; they consign any mention of climate change to a clearly labeled box—which is a great help to those of us who are looking to avoid actively contemplating a terrifying truth. Meanwhile, their other sections, without malice or intention, become complicit in our denial. They publish stories about the future, about technology and medicine and politics, without any mention of a warming globe. “Researchers believe that in a hundred years . . .”; “By mid-century, the electoral map might . . . .” We all know how these stories go. I’ve even written some of them.

This futurism enables our denial. Like a Norman Rockwell painting that invites its audience into a shared fantasy about the past, these stories solicit a shared fantasy of the future–one where interesting possibilities of population, medicine, technology, and politics exist without the horrifying context of civilizational collapse. These stories fail to mention that quantum computing will be more difficult to research without energy. Many populations will be irrevocably impacted by famine. We can expect the long-term voting trends of Florida to change when half of Miami is underwater. And yet we’re only made to think about these things when we choose to read the “Green” sections of our newspapers and magazines.

I’m not suggesting that we cease to write stories about the future. But I am suggesting this: as a matter of political responsibility, magazines and newspapers should adopt a provision of their style guide requiring that any claim which is dependent on the continuity of present civilization be followed by an asterisk. At the bottom of the page, I propose something simple: “Assuming green house gases are controlled,” or “Contingent on a solution to climate change.”

Intervention requires that we close off the escape routes from our dread. We must be made to look the monster in the eyes, and do so every day. It will be unbearable at first; in self-defense, we might even find it obnoxious. But perhaps it would serve to nudge us just enough, to make us think about the problem until we do some thing about it. Then we could go back to such stories, confident that their contingencies won’t be spoiled by the rising tide.

Link: Who's Afraid of Ruins?

Capitalism is locking-in climate change for centuries, but in the process, making radical social change more realistic than tinkering around the edges.

I : Ruins

There is an oft-quoted passage from the Spanish anarchist militant Buenaventura Durruti. Many readers will know it by heart. It reads:

It is we who built these palaces and cities, here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones! We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. […] That world is growing in this minute.

Durruti’s quote brims with the optimism of a social revolution in full-flow. The insurgent proletariat and peasantry had met an attempted military coup in the streets, and in response launched a profound social revolution. Land and workplaces were seized and reorganised along collectivised lines, moving as fast as possible towards libertarian communism.

Three months later, Durruti was dead. The revolution was not far behind. Starved of arms and isolated, the movement stalled. Uneasy collaboration with the republican forces put the revolution on hold. Stalinism and the remnants of the republican state put it into reverse. And with the revolution dead and nothing left to fight for, Franco’s forces swept the remnants into prisons and mass graves. Durruti’s optimism gave way to fascism, and the unparalleled destruction of the Second World War.

Eight years, seven months, and twenty-six days after Durruti’s death, the ruins got a lot scarier. The Trinity test, the world’s first atomic bomb, exploded with a yield of 20 kilotons in the desert of New Mexico. Soon after, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima, then Nagasaki, were reduced to ruins in an instant. The mass destruction of World War II could now be visited on cities in a single warhead. The spectre of mutually assured destruction would dominate the remainder of the twentieth century, as warhead yields grew and delivery mechanisms proliferated, with long-range jet bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched nuclear weapons.

II : Climate change

Today, we are facing an arguably graver threat. During the Cold War, the inertial logic of realpolitik, with a few near misses, worked towards survival. Mutual destruction was assured in the case of any state launching a nuclear strike. Survival required, in effect, that states did nothing.

But with climate change, this logic is reversed. Now, it is inaction which assures mutual destruction. The inertia inherent to the states-system has thus far scuppered all attempts at a binding international emissions reduction framework. The already weak Kyoto Protocol expired without replacement, and the professed goal to agree a new protocol by 2015 looks a lot like kicking the can down the road. This time wasted is time we don’t have.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes use of ’Representative Concentration Pathways’. These represent four outcomes for atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, and their associated ‘radiative forcings’ in 2100.1 In the most aggressive of the pathways, RCP-2.6 (also known as RCP-3 PD, for peak and decline), atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2020 and decline thereafter (atmospheric concentrations lag behind emissions, so the peaks come later).

It is worth noting that RCP-3 PD only gives a 66% chance of avoiding 2 degrees C average global temperature rises (relative to 1750, a.k.a. ‘pre-industrial levels’). 2 degrees C is internationally acknowledged as the ‘danger level’ above which ‘tipping points’ are likely to be reached, activating amplifying feedbacks such as ice-albedo, release of methane from warming ocean clathrate deposits, and release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost.

Once such tipping points are reached, climate change becomes irreversible and self-catalysing. This is commonly called ‘runaway climate change’. However some prominent climate scientists, such as James Hansen, believe even this 2 degree target is too high, and reflects more a convenient political sound bite than sound science. The true danger level may be just 1.5 degrees C.

RCP-3 PD is not going to happen, barring immediate, drastic cuts to fossil fuel use. At least 1,199 new coal-fired power plants are currently planned worldwide, which in itself makes a 2020 peak of greenhouse gas emissions impossible. The window for gradual, reformist climate change mitigation may already have closed. The window for revolutionary climate change mitigation is rapidly closing.

III : Disaster communism

To speak of disaster communism is not to express a preference for a post-apocalyptic style. It is a sober realisation of the irreversible climate change which is being locked-in by present day development. Neither is it to claim that disasters are particularly fertile grounds for communist rupture. It is true that property relations do tend to break down in disasters (self-organised mutual aid is usually labelled ‘looting’), and contrary to sensational reports of war of all against all, mutual aid does tend to predominate. But it’s hard to claim devastation as a sufficient, or even desirable, basis for a communising insurrection. That’s the case even if it does draw class lines, and brings looters into conflict with the state (as with Hurricane Katrina), or provides space for self-organised disaster relief (as with Hurricane Sandy).2

Rather, to speak of disaster communism is to recognise the Earth we inherit is one where the ice caps are melting, the glaciers are retreating, the sea levels are rising, the oceans are acidifying, food webs are collapsing, the rate of extinctions is growing, storms are getting stronger, flooding is becoming commonplace, and where agriculture will struggle to adapt to changing climate. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster. Capitalism’s pursuit of endless growth is driving climate change. But even if it is overthrown, even if that happens soon, we’ll be living with the consequences for centuries, or even millennia. That is, if we’re living at all. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report notes dryly that “unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.”

To take one example, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 4-6 metres. Under all but the RCP-3 PD pathway, the eventual loss of the WAIS is likely to be a question of when, not if. Current estimates put the timescale on centuries to millennia. However, the WAIS is theoretically vulnerable to rapid collapse, not just gradual thawing, owing to something called the Marine Ice Sheet Instability (MISI) thesis.3 A recent paper in Nature Climate Change seems to confirm this MISI mechanism, reporting that the important Pine Island Glacier – the most productive in the WAIS in terms of iceberg calving - is “probably engaged in an irreversible retreat.” With a five meter sea level rise, much of the Netherlands, Bangladesh, large parts of the cities of Hull and Portsmouth in the UK, Guangzhou and Shanghai in China, the US Bay Area as far inland as Sacramento, and large parts of New York City are under water.4

To speak of disaster communism is to recognise that if communism is to emerge, it will do so in the anthropocene. As capitalism accelerates climate change, ‘possible’ reforms become utopian and ‘impossible’ revolution becomes realistic. We live in strange times. The bourgeoisie is blasting and ruining not just its world, but the Earth systems which sustain human civilisation. We are going to inherit ruins and abandoned cities, there is only the slightest doubt about that. But we still also know how to build, and to build better.

Link: Green Capitalism: The God That Failed

The results are in: No amount of “green capitalism” will be able to ensure the profound changes we must urgently make to prevent the collapse of civilization from the catastrophic impacts of global warming.

The following is an updated version of an article that originally was published in the Real-World Economics Review. We consider Richard Smith’s article foundational to understanding the world we live in. Given its length, several sittings or a printout may be required to complete reading.

As soaring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions drove global CO2 concentrations past 400 parts per million in May 2013, shell-shocked climate scientists warned that unless we urgently adopt “radical” measures to suppress GHG emissions (50 percent cuts in emissions by 2020, 90 percent by 2050) we’re headed for an average temperature rise of 3 degrees or 4 degrees Celsius before the end of the century. Four degrees might not seem like much, but make no mistake: Such an increase will be catastrophic for our species and most others. Humans have never experienced a rise of 4 degrees in average temperatures. But our ancestors experienced a four-degree cooler world. That was during the last ice age, the Wisconsin Stage (26,000 to 13,300 years ago). At that time, there were two miles of ice on top of where I’m sitting right now in New York City. In a four-degree warmer world “Heat waves of undreamt-of-ferocity will scorch the Earth’s surface as the climate becomes hotter than anything humans have ever experienced. … There will be “no ice at either pole.” “Global warming of this magnitude would leave the whole planet without ice for the first time in nearly 40 million years.” Sea levels will rise 25 meters - submerging Florida, Bangladesh, New York, Washington DC, London, Shanghai, the coastlines and cities where nearly half the world’s people presently live. Freshwater aquifiers will dry up; snow caps and glaciers will evaporate - and with them, the rivers that feed the billions of Asia, South America and California. The “wholesale destruction of ecosystems” will bring on the collapse of agriculture around much of the world. “Russia’s harsh cold will be a distant memory” as “temperatures in Europe will resemble the Middle East. … The Sahara will have crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and be working its way north into the heart of Spain and Portugal. … With food supplies crashing, humanity’s grip on its future will become ever more tentative.” Yet long before the temperature increase hits four degrees, the melting will have begun thawing the permafrost of the Arctic, releasing vast quantities of methane buried under the Arctic seas and the Siberian and North American tundra, accelerating GHG concentrations beyond any human power to stop runaway warming and sealing our fate as a species.(1)

Yet paradoxically, most climate scientists and even most climate activists have yet to grapple with the implications of their science: namely that GHG suppression on the order of 90 percent in less than 40 years would require a radical across-the-board economic contraction in the developed industrialized countries, and economic contraction is incompatible with a stable capitalism. On this point, the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers would appear to be right and pro-growth, pro-market environmentalists wrong: Under capitalism, growth and jobs are more often than not at odds with environmental protection. There may be some win-wins here and there. But for the most part, given capitalism, imposing big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions means imposing big job cuts across industrialized economies around the world. That’s why, regardless of protests, no capitalist government on the planet will accept mandatory cuts in GHG emissions. Since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, when environmentalists began to turn to the market, “green growth” theorists and proponents have argued au contraire that “jobs and environment are not opposed,” that economic growth is compatible with emissions reduction, that carbon taxes and/or cap-and-trade schemes could suppress GHG emissions while “green jobs” in new tech, especially renewable energy, would offset lost jobs in fossil fuel industries. Their strategy has failed completely, yet this remains the dominant view of leading climate scientists, including James Hansen, and of most environmental organizations.

All such market-based efforts are doomed to fail, and a sustainable economy is inconceivable without sweeping systemic economic change. The project of sustainable capitalism based on carbon taxes, green marketing, “dematerialization” and so forth was misconceived and doomed from the start because maximizing profit and saving the planet are inherently in conflict and cannot be systematically aligned even if, here and there, they might coincide for a moment. That’s because under capitalism, CEOs and corporate boards are not responsible to society; they’re responsible to private shareholders. CEOs can embrace environmentalism so long as this increases profits. But saving the world requires that the pursuit of profits be systematically subordinated to ecological concerns: For example, the science tells us that to save the humans, we have to drastically suppress fossil fuel consumption, even close down industries like coal. But no corporate board can sacrifice earnings, let alone put themselves out of business, just to save humanity, and no government can suppress fossil fuel industries because to do so would precipitate economic collapse. I claim that profit-maximization is an iron rule of capitalism, a rule that trumps all else, and this sets the limits to ecological reform - not the other way around, as green capitalism theorists had supposed.

And contrary to green capitalism proponents, across the spectrum from resource extraction to manufacturing, the practical possibilities for “greening” and “dematerializing” production are severely limited. This means the only way to prevent overshoot and collapse is to enforce a massive economic contraction in the industrialized economies, retrenching production across a broad range of unnecessary, resource-hogging, wasteful and polluting industries, even virtually shutting down the worst. Yet this option is foreclosed under capitalism because this is not socialism: No one is promising new jobs to unemployed coal miners, oil drillers, automakers, airline pilots, chemists, plastic junk makers and others whose jobs would be lost because their industries would have to be retrenched - and unemployed workers don’t pay taxes. So CEOs, workers and governments find that they all “need” to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, to destroy their children’s tomorrows to hang onto their jobs today. If they don’t, the system falls into crisis, or worse. So we’re all on board the TGV of ravenous and ever-growing plunder and pollution. As our locomotive races toward the cliff of ecological collapse, the only thoughts on the minds of our CEOs, capitalist economists, politicians and most labor leaders is how to stoke the locomotive to get us there faster. Corporations aren’t necessarily evil. They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners. But this means that, so long as the global economy is based on capitalism and private property and corporate property and competitive production for market, we’re doomed to a collective social suicide - and no amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global ecological collapse. We can’t shop our way to sustainability, because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require local, reigional, national and international economic planning to reorganize the economy and redeploy labor and resources to these ends. I conclude, therefore, that if humanity is to save itself, we have no choice but to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a democratically planned eco-socialist economy.

I. SAVING THE EARTH FOR FUN AND PROFIT

In rejecting the antigrowth “limits” approach of the first wave of environmentalism in the 1970s, the pro-market theoretical founders of pro-growth “green capitalism” in the 1980s and ’90s, Paul Hawken, Lester Brown and Francis Cairncross, argued that green technology, green taxes, green labeling, eco-conscious shopping and the like could “align” profit-seeking with environmental goals, even “invert many fundamentals” of business practice such that “restoring the environment and making money become one and the same process.”(2) This turn to the market was an expression of broader trends from the 1980s in which activists retreated from collective action to change society in favor of individualist approaches to trying to save the world by embracing market forces - “shopping our way to sustainability.”(3)In the market mania of the Reagan-Clinton era, Herman Daly’s plea for imposing “limits to growth” came to seem dated - like Birkenstocks and Bucky Fuller’s geodesic dome houses. Many American environmentalists bought into the “doing well by doing good” message of green capitalism because there had never been much of a left or socialist presence in the American environmental movement beyond a small anarchist fringe, unlike Europe, where many if not most greens were also reds. So it was easy for American environmentalists to go with the market - and there were jobs. Protesting didn’t pay the rent. Some became eco-entrepreneurs or signed on with one or another of the hundreds of new green businesses from organic foods to eco-travel to certifying lumber or fair trade coffee that sprang up in the ’80s and ’90s. Others connected with mainstream environmental NGOs like the Sierra Club to focus on petitioning and lobbying efforts. In these and other ways, through the ’80s and ’90s, protesting gradually gave way to lobbying and promoting green capitalism.

"There is No Polite Way to Say That Business is Destroying the World”  

Of all the eco-futurist writers of the 1980s and ;90s, entrepreneur and “Natural Capitalism” guru Paul Hawken has probably been the most influential voice for eco-capitalism. Hailed by Inc. magazine as “the poet laureate of American capitalism,” Hawken says he was inspired to pen his best seller, Ecology of Commerce (1993), when his company Smith & Hawken won the prestigious Environmental Stewardship Award from the Council on Economic Priorities in 1991. When George Plimpton presented the award to Smith & Hawken at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Hawken says he “looked out over the sea of pearls and black ties, suddenly realizing two things: first, that my company did not deserve the award and, second, that no one else did either. What we had done was scratch the surface of the problem. … But in the end, the impact on the environment was only marginally different than if we had done nothing at all. The recycled toner cartridges, the sustainably harvested woods, the replanted trees, the soy-based inks and the monetary gifts to nonprofits were all well and good, but basically we were in the junk mail business, selling products by catalog. All the recycling in the world would not change the fact that [this] is an energy-intensive endeavor that gulps down resources.” For the reality, Hawken said, was that:

Despite all this good work, we still must face a sobering fact. If every company on the planet were to adopt the best environmental practices of the “leading” companies - say, the Body Shop, Patagonia or 3M - the world would still be moving toward sure degradation and collapse. … Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife preserve, wilderness or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world. (4)

So business is destroying the world. But, for Hawken, the problem wasn’t capitalism as such, but just bad “business practices” of corporations which, he thought, could be fundamentally “inverted” to save the world: “[T]his behavior is not the inherent nature of business, nor the inevitable outcome of a free-market system.” The problem was that “the expense of destroying the earth is largely absent from the prices set in the marketplace. A vital and key piece of information is therefore missing in all levels of the economy.”(5) The key was to get the market to “tell the ecological truth.” In her Harvard Business School manifesto for green capitalism, “Costing the Earth,” the Economist magazine’s environmental editor, Francis Cairncross, said “Governments need to step in to align private costs with social costs … [as] embodied by the ‘polluter pays’ principle.’ “ (6) And in his book Eco-Economy, Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown explained that “Ecologists and economists - working together - can calculate the ecological costs of various economic activities. These costs could then be incorporated into the market price of a product or service in the form of a tax.” So carbon taxes and the like would “discourage such activities as coal burning, … the generation of toxic waste, the use of virgin raw materials … the use of pesticides, and the use of throwaway products.” (7) Paul Hawken even went so far as to claim that “[T]here is no question that we could introduce a steady, incremental phase-in of a carbon tax on coal, one that would eventually tax coal out of business in two decades’ time.” “The whole key to redesigning the economy is to shift incrementally most, if not all, of the taxes presently derived from ‘goods’ to ‘bads,’ from income and payroll taxes to taxes on pollution, environmental degradation and nonrenewable energy consumption. … The resulting changes in the marketplace would be dramatic. Every purchase would become more constructive and less destructive.” Hawken described his vision of “Natural Capitalism” thusly:

The restorative economy described in this book … unites ecology and commerce into one sustainable act of production and distribution that mimics and enhances natural processes.

In such an economy … restoring the environment and making money would be the same process. Business … needs a plan, a vision, a basis - a broad social mandate that will turn it away from the linear, addictive, short-term economic activities in which it is enmeshed and trapped. … Rather than argue about where to put our wastes, who will pay for it, and how long it will be before toxins leak out into the groundwater, we should be trying to design systems that are elegantly imitative of climax ecosystems found in nature. Companies must re-envision and re-imagine themselves as cyclical corporations, whose products either literally disappear into harmless components, or … [produce] no waste [at all.]” (8)

NRDC founder and Yale Dean Gus Speth summed up this utopian vision of the market in green capitalism as well as anyone:

The market can be transformed into an instrument for environmental restoration; humanity’s ecological footprint can be reduced to what can be sustained environmentally; the incentives that govern corporate behavior can be rewritten; growth can be focused on things that truly need to grow and consumption on having enough, not always on more; the rights of future generations and other species can be respected. (9)

The “sustainable” “green” “natural” capitalism movement took off in the 1980s and ’90s: Organic farming came into the mainstream, and Whole Foods became the fastest-growing sector of the grocery industry. Green businesses sprouted up in every sector from renewable energy to organic cottons to eco-travel. Stores added green products in every aisle. Hip, eco-conscious businesses like Patagonia gave “1% to nature.” (Ben & Jerry’s gave 7½ percent!) “Sustainable investing” mutual funds looked to fund renewable energy. “Green certification” outfits sprung up to save the tropical forests and the sea turtles. Eventually, even big corporations like 3M and Walmart embraced green “business practices,” cutting waste, recycling, and producing and adopting less toxic products. Europe introduced the first large-scale cap-and-trade system in January 2005. Finland introduced the first carbon tax in 1990, and many other countries followed suit, including Sweden, Germany, Britain, South Korea, South Africa, Korea, some provinces of Canada and even some American states, including Maryland, Colorado and California.

The Green Capitalist God That Failed

There can be no doubt that we are better off for many of these initiatives. But two decades on, for all the organic groceries, the energy-efficient lightbulbs, appliances and buildings, the carbon trading and carbon taxes, the global ecology is collapsing faster than ever. Climate change, as Bill McKibben tells us in his new book, Eaarth, is no longer a distant threat; it’s already upon us. CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are growing at four times the rate they grew in the 1990s. 2010 was the hottest year on record, and the 2000s the hottest decade on record. From peat fires around Moscow to huge floods in Pakistan, super hurricanes, super storms, super winter snowfalls and floods or, alternately, extended drought (even both in Australia) are becoming the norm. Seas are rising and ice is melting faster than scientists imagined possible even as recently as 2007. Tropical forests continue to fall. Glacier melt is accelerating around the world with dire implications for agriculture from India to China, California to Peru. Rivers are drying up. Soil depletion continues unabated. Water tables are falling relentlessly around the world. Drought has become a permanent feature of the American Southwest, of Australia, of regions of Africa and the Middle East, and northern China. Ocean fisheries are collapsing right and left. Coral reefs, scientists now think, could die off in many places by mid-century and over the entire planet by 2100. Penguin colonies are at risk. The collective impact of nearly 7 billion people pumping their emissions into the atmosphere and dumping their excreta and toxics into drains and rivers that eventually issue into the seas is changing the chemical composition of the world’s vast oceans, threatening the future of living creatures in the oceans and those who live off the oceans. We’re destroying life and wiping out species so fast that, in Bill McKibben’s words, “We’re running Genesis backward, decreating.”(10) In short, for all the green initiatives, corporate business practices have changed little - or the little they’ve changed has had no great effect. From Kyoto to Cancun, governments have all made it abundantly clear that they will not accept binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions; they will not sacrifice growth today to save the planet tomorrow. Europe’s cap-and-trade scheme, the first large-scale effort, enriched traders and polluters but failed to put the brakes on the relentless rise of greenhouse gas emissions. What few carbon taxes governments actually imposed likewise have failed to stem emissions. At the end of the day, the project of green capitalism is in disarray.

II. DELUSIONS OF “NATURAL CAPITALISM”

III. CAPITALISM WITHOUT CONSUMERISM?

IV. CLIMATE CHANGE OR SYSTEM CHANGE?

Link: The New Revolutionaries: Climate Scientists Demand Radical Change

To prevent catastrophic climate change, Britain’s top experts call for emissions cuts that require “revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.”

“Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.”[1] That was in a blog posting last year by Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at Manchester University. One of Britain’s most eminent climate scientists, Anderson is also Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Or, we might take this blunt message, from an interview in November: “We need bottom-up and top-down action. We need change at all levels.”[2] Uttering those words was Tyndall Centre senior research fellow and Manchester University reader Alice Bows-Larkin. Anderson and Bows-Larkin are world-leading specialists on the challenges of climate change mitigation.

During December, the two were key players in a Radical Emission Reduction Conference, sponsored by the Tyndall Centre and held in the London premises of Britain’s most prestigious scientific institution, the Royal Society. The “radicalism” of the conference title referred to a call by the organisers for annual emissions cuts in Britain of at least 8 per cent – twice the rate commonly cited as possible within today’s economic and political structures.

The conference drew keen attention and wide coverage. In Sydney, the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph described the participants as “unhinged” and “eco-idiots,” going on to quote a “senior climate change adviser” for Shell Oil as stating:

“This was a room of catastrophists (as in ‘catastrophic global warming’), with the prevailing view…that the issue could only be addressed by the complete transformation of the global energy and political systems…a political ideology conference.”[3]

Indeed. The traditional “reticence” of scientists, which in the past has seen them mostly stick to their specialities and avoid comment on the social and political implications of their work, is no longer what it was.

Angered

Climate scientists have been particularly angered by the refusal of governments to act on repeated warnings about the dangers of climate change. Adding to the researchers’ bitterness, in more than a few cases, have been demands placed on them to soft-pedal their conclusions so as to avoid showing up ministers and policy-makers. Pressures to avoid raising “fundamental and uncomfortable questions” can be strong, Anderson explained to an interviewer last June.

“Scientists are being cajoled into developing increasingly bizarre sets of scenarios…that are able to deliver politically palatable messages. Such scenarios underplay the current emissions growth rate, assume ludicrously early peaks in emissions and translate commitments ‘to stay below [warming of] 2°C’ into a 60 to 70 per cent chance of exceeding 2°C.”[4]

Anderson and Bows-Larkin have been able to defy such pressures to the extent of co-authoring two remarkable, related papers, published by the Royal Society in 2008 and 2011.

In the second of these, the authors draw a distinction between rich and poor countries (technically, the UN’s “Annex 1” and “non-Annex 1” categories), while calculating the rates of emissions reduction in each that would be needed to keep average global temperatures within 2 degrees of pre-industrial levels.

The embarrassing news for governments is that the rich countries of Annex 1 would need to start immediately to cut their emissions at rates of about 11 per cent per year. That would allow the non-Annex 1 countries to delay their “peak emissions” to 2020, while developing their economies and raising living standards.

But the poor countries too would then have to start cutting their emissions at unprecedented rates – and the chance of exceeding 2 degrees of warming would still be around 36 per cent.[5] Even for a 50 per cent chance of exceeding 2 degrees, the rich countries would need to cut their emissions each year by 8-10 per cent.[6]

As Anderson points out, it is virtually impossible to find a mainstream economist who would see annual emissions reductions of more than 3-4 per cent as compatible with anything except severe recession, given an economy constituted along present lines.[7]

Four degrees?

What if the world kept its market-based economies, and after a peak in 2020, started reducing its emissions by this “allowable” 3-4 per cent? In their 2008 paper, Anderson and Bows-Larkin present figures that suggest a resulting eventual level of atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalent of 600-650 parts per million.[8] Climate scientist Malte Meinshausen estimates that 650 ppm would yield a 40 per cent chance of exceeding not just two degrees, but four.[9]

Anderson in the past has spoken out on what we might expect a “four-degree” world to be like. In a public lecture in October 2011 he described it as “incompatible with organised global community”, “likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’” and “devastating to the majority of ecosystems”. Moreover, a four-degree world would have “a high probability of not being stable”. That is, four degrees would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level.[10]

Reported in the Scotsman newspaper in 2009, he focused on the human element:

“I think it’s extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death at 4C. If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4C, 5C or 6C, you might have half a billion people surviving.”[11]

No wonder intelligent people are in revolt.

Market methods?

Anderson has also emerged as a powerful critic of the orthodoxy that emissions reduction must be based on market methods if it is to have a chance of working. His views on this point were brought into focus last October in a sharp rejoinder to United Nations climate-change chief – and market enthusiast – Rajendra Pachauri:

“I disagree strongly with Dr Pachauri’s optimism about markets and prices delivering on the international community’s 2°C commitments,” the British Independent quoted Anderson as saying. “I hold that such a market-based approach is doomed to failure and is a dangerous distraction from a comprehensive regulatory and standard-based framework.”[12]

Anderson’s critique of market-led abatement schemes centres on his conclusion that the two-degree threshold “is no longer deliverable through gradual mitigation, but only through deep cuts in emissions, i.e., non-marginal reductions at almost step-change levels.

“By contrast, a fundamental premise of contemporary neo-classical economics is that markets (including carbon markets) are only efficient at allocating scarce resources when the changes being considered are very small – i.e.marginal.

“For a good chance of staying below two degrees Celsius,” Anderson notes, “future emissions from the EU’s energy system … need to reduce at rates of around 10 per cent per annum – mitigation far below what marginal markets can reasonably be expected to deliver.”[13]

If an attempt were made to secure these reductions through cap-and-trade methods, he argues, “the price would almost certainly be beyond anything described as marginal (probably many hundreds of euros per tonne) – hence the great ‘efficiency’ and ‘least-cost’ benefits claimed for markets would no longer apply.”[14]

At the same time, the equity and social justice implications would be devastating. “A carbon price can always be paid by the wealthy,” Anderson points out.

“We may buy a slightly more efficient 4WD/SUV, cut back a little on our frequent flying, consider having a smaller second home…but overall we’d carry on with our business as usual. Meanwhile, the poorer sections of our society…would have to cut back still further in heating their inadequately insulated and badly designed rented properties.”[15]

Energy agenda

In the short-term, Anderson argues, a two-degree energy agenda requires “rapid and deep reductions in energy demand, beginning immediately and continuing for at least two decades.” This could buy time while a low-carbon energy supply system is constructed. A “radical plan” for emissions reduction, he indicates, is among the projects under way within the Tyndall Centre.[16]

The cost of emissions cuts, he insists, needs to fall on “those people primarily responsible for emitting.”[17] As quoted by writer Naomi Klein, Anderson estimates that 1-5 per cent of the population is responsible for 40-60 per cent of carbon pollution.[18]

While not rejecting price mechanisms in a supporting role, Anderson argues that the required volume of emissions cuts can only be achieved through stringent and increasingly demanding regulations. His “provisional and partial list” includes the following:

  •  Strict energy/emission standards for appliances with a clear long-term market signal of the amount by which the standards would annually tighten; e.g. 100gC02/km for all new cars commencing 2015 and reducing at 10 per cent each year through to 2030.
  • Strict energy supply standards; e.g. for electricity 350gCO2/kWh as the mean emissions level of a supplier’s portfolio of power stations; tightened at ~10 per cent per annum.
  • A programme of rolling out stringent energy/emission standards for industry equipment.
  • Stringent minimum efficiency standards for all properties for sale or rent.
  • World leading low-energy standards for all new-build houses, offices etc.

Enforcing these radical standards, he argues, “could be achieved, at least initially, with existing technologies and at little to no additional cost.”[19]

Economic growth

For a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees, Anderson maintains, wealthier countries would need to forgo economic growth for at least ten to twenty years. Here, he bases himself on the conventional wisdom of “integrated assessment modellers”[20] – and arguably gets things quite wrong. Leading American climate blogger Joseph Romm last year came to sharply different conclusions:

“The IPCC’s last review of the mainstream economic literature found that even for stabilization at CO2 levels as low as 350 ppm, ‘global average macro-economic costs’ in 2050 correspond to ‘slowing average annual global GDP growth by less than 0.12 percentage points’.  It should be obvious the net cost is low. Energy use is responsible for the overwhelming majority of emissions, and energy costs are typically about 10 percent of GDP.”[21]

At a time when jobless workers abound, and large amounts of industrial capacity lie unused, mobilising resources and labour to replace polluting equipment could sharply increase Gross Domestic Product. Moreover, account needs to be taken of the absurdities of GDP itself – as a measurement tool that counts as useful activity building prisons and developing weapons systems. Anderson senses some of these contradictions when he states:

“Mitigation rates well above the economists’ 3 to 4 per cent per annum range may yet prove compatible with some form of economic prosperity.”[22]

Indeed, reconstructing our inefficient, polluting industrial system could allow the great majority of us to lead richer, more rewarding lives.

Reprisals

Where Anderson is not wrong is in anticipating, at various points in his blogging and interviews, that any serious move to cut emissions at the required rates will encounter fierce resistance. Huge industrial assets, primarily fossil-fuelled generating plant, would be “stranded”. Already-proven reserves of coal, oil and gas would need to be left in the ground.

Like the scientists accused in 2009 in the spurious “Climategate” affair, the people who spoke out at the Radical Emission Reduction Conference can now expect to feel the blow-torch of conservative reprisals.

Along with Anderson and Bows-Larkin, a particular target is likely to be Tyndall Centre Director Professor Corinne Le Quéré, who presented the scientific case for rapid emissions reduction. Four Australian academics who contributed via weblink, including noted climate scientist Mark Diesendorf, have already come under venomous personal attack in the Daily Telegraph.[23]

The “offence” committed by the Tyndall researchers is much greater than the loosely phrased e-mails that were seized on as the pretext for “Climategate.” With others in the climate-science community, these courageous people have shredded the pretence that polluter corporations and their supporting-act governments care a damn about preserving nature, civilisation, and human life.

Link: Climate Change, Resistance, and the Need for a Revolution

The numbers on climate change are so daunting, the only thing that might save us now is worldwide revolution.

So it’s come to this.

Last year, a researcher presented a paper on climate change at the American Geophysical Union’s meeting entitled ”Is Earth F**ked?” which advocated “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.”

Last month, the Philippines climate commissioner and self-styled revolutionary Naderev “Yeb” Saño held a 13-day fast in the midst of an international climate summit, just hours after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged his home country. In a tearful speech quoting Gandhi, he said: “We cannot sit and stay helpless staring at this international climate stalemate. It is now time to take action. We need an emergency climate pathway.”

And only last week, a conference of climate scientists in London explored the themeof “radical emissions reduction” after noting that “nothing that we’ve said or done to date about climate change has made any detectable dip whatsoever”. Via a weblink, author Naomi Klein compared the fight against climate change with the struggle against South African apartheid, and said, “an agenda capable of delivering radical emissions reductions will only advance if accompanied by a radical movement.”

Fed up with slow (or in some cases, backwards) progress on climate change, environmental advocates are mulling desperate measures. Emerging at the head of this pack is arguably the world’s most prominent climate scientist: James Hansen, a former NASA researcher turned activist.

In a provocative study published earlier this month, Hansen and a group of colleagues make the case for why radical action is needed. The now commonly embraced international target of keeping global warming at a maximum of 2°Cabove pre-industrial levels—a hard-won, but politically negotiated goal—is actually much too high, Hansen says, and we should instead aim for 1°C. That would be barely a blip higher than current levels of global warming (around 0.8°C), but still the highest level ever experienced over the 10,000-year course of human civilization. ”Our objective is to define what the science indicates is needed, not to assess political feasibility,” the paper says.

Hansen’s main point is simple: If the Earth hasn’t experienced temperatures warmer than 1°C as a result of natural climate variability for at least the last 100,000 years, that’s probably about where we should draw our human-caused global warming line-in-the-sand. Beyond that point, things start to unravel pretty quickly. Environmentalists have dubbed this acceleration of warming “the wheelchair curve“:

As warming crosses 1°C, Hansen and his colleagues’ research shows that additional heat is stored mostly in the deep ocean, where it can remain locked away for hundreds or thousands of years. (Water circulates very slowly down there). That essentially locks in further climate change, even if emissions are drastically reduced later on, because that circulating water will continually replenish the surface with relative warmth from below. Additional warming will also begin to trigger feedbacks (melting permafrost, thawing methane) that will unleash additional greenhouse gases and drive further warming.

As warming approaches 2°C, it locks in an additional 10-20 meters of sea level rise over the next few hundred years—enough to flood every coastal city in the world. Ecosystem collapse would be virtually assured, as plants and animals that have evolved into precise niches over hundreds of thousands of years are forced to adapt to new conditions in just a decade or two. Even assuming we eventually stop emitting CO2 completely, reaching 2°C could, the study shows, mean we remain above 1°C for hundreds of years or more.

And if warming goes over 2°C, Hansen and his colleagues present a familiar litany of climate impacts: mass extinctions, stronger storms, and increasingly severe effects for human health, along with “major dislocations for civilization.”

The study’s key takeaway is that unless CO2 emissions peak right about now—which they are clearly not doing—in just a few more years we will lock in a 2°C rather than a 1°C temperature riseThat will set climate impacts in motion for the next thousand years or so, barring advances in technology that are currently largely discredited as either too expensive or too impractical on the scale necessary to reverse the warming that’s already baked into the system.

Why emissions need to start falling now

As we reported recently, the UN has endorsed a carbon “budget”—a maximum of one trillion tonnes of carbon emitted into the atmosphere to keep warming below 2°C. To stay below 1°C, Hansen et al argue that the world can burn only half this amount.

To achieve this, they say, global CO2 emissions would need to peak immediately and decline three times faster than the rate currently being discussed for inclusion into the next global climate treaty—a 90% reduction by 2030. The current UN plan (dotted line in the chart on the left below) won’t even be implemented until 2020 at the earliest. Even if by some miracle Hansen’s plan (the solid line in the chart on the left) took effect this week, he says we’d still have only a 50/50 shot at staying under 1°C.

But the cost of waiting is enormous. If global CO2 peaks in 2013—that is, sometime in the next week or so—followed by drastic reductions, we’re still locked in to climate change of 1°C or so until about 2100. If we delay this peak until 2030 (the green line in the chart on the right above), Hansen projects extensive climate-change impacts will continue for a further two centuries. If we delay until 2050 (the red line), dangerous climate change will be locked in until past the year 3000.

Basically, if we wait even a few years to implement anything less than a fossil-fuel starvation diet, momentum already built into the system nearly guarantees the climate is toast. To quote the study:

The inertia of energy system infrastructure, (i.e., the time required to replace fossil fuel energy systems) will make it exceedingly difficult to avoid a level of CO2 that would have highly undesirable consequences.

Why revolution is the only way

Hansen and his associates admonish the environmental community for doing the same things over and over again—advocating for renewable energy, recycling, and hybrid cars—and expecting different results. The change that is produced in this way is much, much too slow, they say. Their study concludes with what can only be characterized as a call to arms: a global challenge akin to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements, begging the world’s young people to disrupt their governments and demand immediate action on climate change.

In short, we’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution—or in the words of the paper, “a human ‘tipping point’.”

Are there no other options? Hansen and his co-authors argue there is a sliver of hope the world could stay near a 1°C goal if there were a bilateral agreement between the US and China—the world’s two biggest carbon emitters. Such a deal would need to immediately implement a gradually escalating carbon tax, rebate the revenue to its citizens equally per person, and place trade duties on any other country not willing to join in. That could quickly shift the world to a low-carbon economy, perhaps with enough cushion to prevent the most dangerous aspects of climate change. However, the authors dismiss this possibility as extremely unlikely.

Another possible silver bullet, trusting technology to zap climate change via geoengineering (like sucking carbon dioxide directly from the air) is also a non-starter. Hansen et al calculate that the cost of immediately implementing free-air carbon capture, an unproven technology at large scale, would be around $50 trillion, though they admit that cost could come down a bit with future advances.

In Hansen’s view, young people have the best reason to fight the system. He has said he quit his job at NASA so he could more fully embrace climate activism, including a plan to sue the government on behalf of younger generations for failing to act on climate change in time. (At least in the United States, trying to sue corporations would probably fail). He explained his strategy of helping youth fight climate change through the court system in a recent op-ed for CNN.

And indeed, the US military already seems to be preparing for climate-induced mass protests, the Guardian reported in June, based on documents leaked by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

But as with all revolutions, the fight for the climate will need a catalyst. It’s unclear what that might be, especially when the very consumption culture that forms the bedrock of the present-day economic system is so ubiquitous—and also at the root of the climate problem itself. Young people growing up now contemplating their futures may have the biggest reason for alarm, but with a problem like climate change that feels complex, distant and abstract, it may be hard to make the urgency that Hansen expresses resonate broadly.

And even if a “human tipping point” comes—an Arab Spring for the climate—will it sustain its momentum or, like most of the recent uprisings, burn out or collapse into factional bickering?

Link: Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene

… The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human. Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers. Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today. We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction. If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.

Geological time scales, civilizational collapse and species extinction give rise to profound problems that humanities scholars and academic philosophers, with their taste for fine-grained analysis, esoteric debates and archival marginalia, might seem remarkably ill suited to address. After all, how will thinking about Kant help us trap carbon dioxide? Can arguments between object-oriented ontology and historical materialism protect honeybees from colony collapse disorder? Are ancient Greek philosophers, medieval theologians, and contemporary metaphysicians going to keep Bangladesh from being inundated by rising oceans?

Of course not. But the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to live?” In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?

These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They are philosophical problems par excellence. Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.

Learning how to die isn’t easy. In Iraq, at the beginning, I was terrified by the idea. Baghdad seemed incredibly dangerous, even though statistically I was pretty safe. We got shot at and mortared, and I.E.D.’s laced every highway, but I had good armor, we had a great medic, and we were part of the most powerful military the world had ever seen. The odds were good I would come home. Maybe wounded, but probably alive. Every day I went out on mission, though, I looked down the barrel of the future and saw a dark, empty hole.

“For the soldier death is the future, the future his profession assigns him,” wrote  Simone Weil in her remarkable meditation on war, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.” “Yet the idea of man’s having death for a future is abhorrent to nature. Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” That was the face I saw in the mirror, and its gaze nearly paralyzed me.

I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.”

I got through my tour in Iraq one day at a time, meditating each morning on my inevitable end. When I left Iraq and came back stateside, I thought I’d left that future behind. Then I saw it come home in the chaos that was unleashed after Katrina hit New Orleans. And then I saw it again when Sandy battered New York and New Jersey: Government agencies failed to move quickly enough, andvolunteer groups like Team Rubicon had to step in to manage disaster relief.

Now, when I look into our future — into the Anthropocene — I see water rising up to wash out lower Manhattan. I see food riots, hurricanes, and climate refugees. I see 82nd Airborne soldiers shooting looters. I see grid failure, wrecked harbors, Fukushima waste, and plagues. I see Baghdad. I see the Rockaways. I see a strange, precarious world.

Our new home.

The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.

The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization isalready dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.

If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.

Link: Sleepwalking to Extinction

Super Typhoon Haiyan has sent a chill through the global nervous system. Thousands dead. Weather scientists in shock. Lives destroyed. The greatest typhoon to touch land in recorded history brings with it more than total destruction. It ups the level of urgency for a new economic paradigm … one that puts the planet first. Radical economist Richard Smith shows us a way out of the “climate madness” about to descend everywhere.

When, on May 10th, scientists at Mauna Loa Observatory on the big island of Hawaii announced that global CO2 emissions had crossed a threshold at 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in millions of years, a sense of dread spread around the world and not only among climate scientists. CO2 emissions have been relentlessly climbing since Charles David Keeling first set up his tracking station near the summit of Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958 to monitor average daily global CO2 levels. At that time, CO2 concentrations registered 315 ppm. CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have been rising ever since and have recently passed a dangerous tipping point: 400ppm.

For all the climate summits, promises of “voluntary restraint,” carbon trading and carbon taxes, the growth of CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have not just been unceasing, they have been accelerating in what scientists have dubbed the “Keeling Curve.” In the early 1960s, CO2 ppm concentrations in the atmosphere grew by 0.7ppm per year. In recent decades, especially as China has industrialized, the growth rate has tripled to 2.1 ppm per year. In just the first 17 weeks of 2013, CO2 levels jumped by 2.74 ppm compared to last year.

Carbon concentrations have not been this high since the Pliocene period, between 3m and 5m years ago, when global average temperatures were 3˚C or 4˚C hotter than today, the Arctic was ice-free, sea levels were about 40m higher and jungles covered northern Canada; Florida, meanwhile, was under water along with other coastal locations we now call New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many others. Crossing this threshold has fuelled fears that we are fast approaching converging “tipping points” — melting of the subarctic tundra or the thawing and releasing of the vast quantities of methane in the Arctic sea bottom — that will accelerate global warming beyond any human capacity to stop it.

“I wish it weren’t true, but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400 ppm level without losing a beat,” said Scripps Institute geochemist Ralph Keeling, son of Charles Keeling.

“At this pace, we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.” 

“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.

Why are we marching toward disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirement of capitalist production. Large corporations can’t help themselves; they can’t change or change very much. So long as we live under this corporate capitalist system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that the only alternative — impossible as this may seem right now — is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an eco-socialist civilization.

Although we are fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world we are witnessing a near simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening” — as the Brazilians call it — from Tahir Square to Zucotti Park, from Athens to Istanbul to Beijing and beyond such as the world has never seen. To be sure, like Occupy Wall Street, these movements are still inchoate, are still mainly protesting what’s wrong rather than fighting for an alternative social order. Like Occupy, they have yet to clearly and robustly answer that crucial question: “Don’t like capitalism, what’s your alternative?” Yet they are working on it, and they are for the most part instinctively and radically democratic; in this lies our hope.

Capitalism is, overwhelmingly, the main driver of planetary ecological collapse

From climate change to natural resource overconsumption to pollution, the engine that has powered three centuries of accelerating economic development, revolutionizing technology, science, culture and human life itself is, today, a roaring out-of-control locomotive mowing down continents of forests, sweeping oceans of life, clawing out mountains of minerals, pumping out lakes of fuels, devouring the planet’s last accessible natural resources to turn them into “product,” while destroying fragile global ecologies built up over eons of time. Between 1950 and 2000 the global human population more than doubled from 2.5 to 6 billion. But in these same decades, consumption of major natural resources soared more than sixfold on average, some much more. Natural gas consumption grew nearly twelvefold, bauxite (aluminum ore) fifteenfold. And so on. At current rates, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says that “half the world’s great forests have already been leveled and half the world’s plant and animal species may be gone by the end of this century.”

Corporations aren’t necessarily evil, though plenty are diabolically evil, but they can’t help themselves. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their shareholders. Shell Oil can’t help but loot Nigeria and the Arctic and cook the climate. That’s what shareholders demand. BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and other mining giants can’t resist mining Australia’s abundant coal and exporting it to China and India. Mining accounts for 19% of Australia’s GDP and substantial employment even as coal combustion is the single worst driver of global warming. IKEA can’t help but level the forests of Siberia and Malaysia to feed the Chinese mills building their flimsy disposable furniture (IKEA is the third largest consumer of lumber in the world). Apple can’t help it if the cost of extracting the “rare earths” it needs to make millions of new iThings each year is the destruction of the eastern Congo — violence, rape, slavery, forced induction of child soldiers, along with poisoning local waterways. Monsanto and DuPont and Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science have no choice but to wipe out bees, butterflies, birds, small farmers and extinguish crop diversity to secure their grip on the world’s food supply while drenching the planet in their Roundups and Atrazines and neonicotinoids.

This is how giant corporations are wiping out life on earth in the course of a routine business day. And the bigger the corporations grow, the worse the problems become.

In Adam Smith’s day, when the first factories and mills produced hat pins and iron tools and rolls of cloth by the thousands, capitalist freedom to make whatever they wanted didn’t much matter because they didn’t have much impact on the global environment. But today, when everything is produced in the millions and billions, then trashed today and reproduced all over again tomorrow, when the planet is looted and polluted to support all this frantic and senseless growth, it matters — a lot.

The world’s climate scientists tell us we’re facing a planetary emergency. They’ve been telling us since the 1990s that if we don’t cut global fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions by 80-90% below 1990 levels by 2050 we will cross critical tipping points and global warming will accelerate beyond any human power to contain it. Yet despite all the ringing alarm bells, no corporation and no government can oppose growth and, instead, every capitalist government in the world is putting pedal to the metal to accelerate growth, to drive us full throttle off the cliff to collapse.

Marxists have never had a better argument against capitalism than this inescapable and apocalyptic “contradiction.” Solutions to the ecological crisis are blindingly obvious but we can’t take the necessary steps to prevent ecological collapse because, so long as we live under capitalism, economic growth has to take priority over ecological concerns.

We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop over-consuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the earth, waters, and atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Stop producing waste that can’t be recycled by nature. Stop the destruction of biological diversity and ensure the rights of other species to flourish. We don’t need any new technological breakthroughs to solve these problems. Mostly, we just stop doing what we’re doing. But we can’t stop because we’re all locked into an economic system in which companies have to grow to compete and reward their shareholders and because we all need the jobs.

Excerpt from Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis

Introduction of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, by Christ Williams. Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL. 2010. 222 pp. $14.00.

[…] Solving the problem of global warming requires understanding the relationship between capitalism and the environment, examining the solutions on offer within the framework of the system, and determining whether those solutions are up to the task of preventing a runaway greenhouse effect. The world system of capitalism has been, and will continue to be, largely impotent in the face of climate change, not because there are evil, uneducated, backward individuals in power—though this is arguably true in many cases—but because capitalism’s own social relations prevent effective solutions from being realized. The blind, unplanned drive to accumulate that is the hallmark of capitalist production—the profit motive—has created the problem of climate change, not individuals’ profligate natures or overpopulation. The economic system needs to be transformed or we will surely be eking out a living on a much less hospitable planet.

This is not a common approach to the question. On one side, corporations and governments that have a direct interest in maintaining the current social setup and the prevailing power relations argue for nonsystem threatening solutions. Hence the push by governing elites for market-based mechanisms such as cap and trade. On the other side, many environmental organizations and ecologically concerned individuals focus on efforts to combat global warming via individual re- sponsibility, changing personal lifestyles, consuming less, or population reduction. There is more than just overlap here; both approaches allow the system to clamber off the hook of responsibility.

It is rarely acknowledged that capitalism itself might be the problem. Rather, two kinds of growth are blamed—either economic or population. From this flows the following conclusion: we can continue with a market-based system as long as there are “limits to growth” placed on national economies and populations, perhaps with some regulatory restrictions along- side technological breakthroughs.

To retain the system more or less untouched, capitalists and their paid advocates are forced to argue that “sustainable development” is possible; many corporations and governments have substantial sustainable development departments, statements, and growth targets to promote just that. There is much seemingly heartfelt talk of the concept of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR). On the other side, many environ- mental groups argue for restrictions on population, air travel or general consumption, and a change in personal lifestyles. Some of these proposals do involve curbing industrial growth and regulating the activities of corporations—and deserve ex- amination. For example, many consumer goods, as well as packaging, are superfluous, as is much of business travel; short-haul flights could be better switched to trains without any loss of comfort (in fact quite the opposite). Many propos- als, however, involve encouraging ordinary people—who are already facing cuts in their living standards—to further tighten their belts or to spend time and money most of us don’t have to make a series of changes in our lifestyles while the life-destroying chaos of the market system rages around us unabated.

An oft-repeated mantra is that the developing world cannot have the same standard of living as the developed if we are to make any progress in slowing down environmental degradation. This statement rests on the patently false assumption that everyone in the Global South has one standard of living (very low) and everyone in the North another (very high). The truth is that while absolute poverty is much more serious and widespread in the South, and consumer goods are much less widely available, every country is divided into a tiny minority of rich and the vast majority of the less well-off and poor who actually do all the work.

It is true that less developed countries of the South cannot emulate the consumer lifestyles and type of development of the North to which everyone, without a hint of irony, North and South, is nevertheless constantly taught to aspire. Further capitalist development of the North is quite enough to wreck the planet on its own; were the people of the southern hemi- sphere to join in and catch up, we would need the equivalent of five planets. The problem, this book will argue, is not eco- nomic growth per se or population growth, but profit-driven, unplanned growth that in many cases is either socially useless or actively detrimental to humans and the biosphere—the kind of growth that has brought us to the brink of social and ecological disaster. Development and growth must be funda- mentally redefined to prioritize real human and ecological needs rather than the priorities of profit and the market.

Currently, development means more roads, more industry, more waste, more commodification of everything; in short: more profits. Development and progress are equated with cap- italist modernity; “underdevelopment” or “less developed” with a lack of it. Modernization in turn is about increased tech- nology and urbanization in the service of providing goods for a market to be bought and sold, alongside “market democracy” to be accomplished via social and economic mobility and facilitated by education. Any aspects of “pre-modern” society such as traditional forms of knowledge, farming methods, collectivities or alternative kinship or organizational models are deni- grated and actively uprooted. The only collective that is recognized and validated is that of the nation-state.

Development needs to be about the enhancement of human life and culture in the context of co-evolution with na- ture that will require nothing less than a social, economic, po- litical and cultural revolution. Important aspects of this will be technological, but the key dynamic is mass democratic deci- sion-making based on the needs of the producers in conjunc- tion with a long-term commitment to sustainable ecological living. As Vandana Shiva, the Indian physicist and world- renowned environmental activist and author, has argued—in strong echoes of Marx—while it’s true that we need a change in our energy systems, this must be accompanied by a far more significant paradigm shift from:

  • A reductionist to a holistic worldview based on inter- connections
  • A mechanistic, industrial paradigm to an ecological one
  • A consumerist definition of being human to one that recognizes us as conservers of the earth’s finite re- sources and co-creators of wealth with nature

Much of the environmental movement in the North is con- sumed by arguing for ordinary people to make sacrifices in order to save the planet. They then wonder why more people aren’t on the demonstrations against global warming and why the movement isn’t more diverse. For those millions out of work in the North, the millions on part-time work and mired in debt, the millions losing their homes to foreclosure and the hundreds of thousands of already homeless or the forty-five million North Americans made sick each year from contami- nated food and water,15 this argument rings particularly hol- low. In reality the argument about sacrifice speaks to and for a very narrow segment of middle-class opinion formers. If we are to make environmental arguments meaningful to the vast majority of people in the developed world, let alone the Global South, the argument must focus on justice, jobs, equality, and improving the quality of life, not the need for more sacrifice. In other words, environmental activism must be about socio-ecological justice the world over.

Not only are some of the solutions proposed by the main- stream environmental movement misguided, but there is often an enormous chasm between the problems environmen- talists describe and the solutions many of them propose. While there are many examples, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, is a prime case in point. After predicting planet-gone-wild climate gyrations from the continued unsustainable production of greenhouse gases, Gore tells us to consume a bit less stuff, change our light- bulbs, make sure our car tires are properly inflated, and bike to work. The gap between ends and means is so absurd as to be laughable. More insidiously, in a move of political jujitsu, the film shifts the weight of change from corporate polluters to individuals.

Read More

Link: "It's Time to Stop this Madness"

Link: Climate Ethics: Individual vs. Collective Responsibility

Abstract: Anthropogenic climate change (ACC) has been described as a tragedy of the commons (T of C) by Baylor Johnson. Johnson argues that solutions to T of C scenarios reside in collective action rather than individual action, and that our moral obligation is to advocate for collective solutions to ACC. Marion Hourdequin argues that individual action can serve to promote collective action and in doing so it can also serve as an ethical obligation. I contend that individual action holds intrinsic value in lieu of its ability to counteract our susceptibility to the kind of moral corruption espoused by Stephen Gardiner.

The endeavor to provide substantive solutions to the crisis of anthropogenic climate change (ACC) is riddled with many and varying difficulties. At the very least there exist practical, logistical, theoretical, and philosophical obstacles that we as a people (both nationally and globally) must traverse before a real resolution to our collective predicament can be found. I choose now to focus on the philosophical hurdles, specifically the moral and ethical issues preventing us from achieving a solution to our climate troubles. Those who agree that a climate crisis exists and that action must be taken are faced with the problem of deciding exactly where their ethical obligations reside. I now understand, to some extent, the impact that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have on the environment. Should I not now restrict my own emissions so as to limit my personal contribution to ACC? Baylor Johnson argues that such views are fundamentally mistaken in his essay “Ethical Obligations in a Tragedy of the Commons.” The problem of ACC, according to Johnson, is symptomatic of a tragedy of the commons, or a collective action problem. A tragedy of the commons (T of C) scenario is resolved not by “acting unilaterally,” but by “acting as one of many in a cooperative scheme to address [the] problem.”1 I will argue that Johnson’s view is potentially problematic because it makes a hierarchical distinction between unilateral actions and collective actions, and characterizes the former as inconsequential when done in isolation. With help derived from the work of Marion Hourdequin, I will argue that unilateral actions, even in isolation, are essential to solving the climate problem and should not be discounted.

I will begin by explaining Johnson’s argument. As stated above, Johnson claims that the climate problem is essentially a T of C. The basic structure of a T of C is grounded in three central premises. Hourdequin provides an excellentreiteration of Johnson’s original explication of the premises, which accurately serves our purposes:

1. The only incentive players have is to maximise [their individual] benefits from use of the commons.

2. The only way players can communicate is by increasing or reducing use of the commons.

3. Use of the commons is shared, [however not all costs and benefits associated with use are shared.] Therefore:

a. Costs (to the commons) of increased use are shared, but benefits from increased use accrue to the individual …

b. Benefits (to the commons) of reduced use are shared, bu costs of reduced use are borne by the individual …

c. Resources saved by one individual are available for use by any other user.

Johnson states that “a T of C occurs when many independent agents derive benefits from a subtractable resource that is threatened by their aggregate use.”We can think of the atmosphere as a commons resource, the utilization of which consists of emitting GHGs for some benefit. There is a limit to the amount of aggregate GHG emissions the atmosphere can withstand before ACC begins to occur. Past this threshold point, we can say that the commons resource is being overused and the resulting ACC threatens the commons itself. It is important to note that individual GHG emissions result in no change in global temperature or in the occurrence of ACC. Rather, it is everyone’s emissions combined that causes the harm resulting from ACC. When we combine the excessive use of the atmospheric commons, the absence of harm associated with individual actions, and the three premises outlined above, we can see that a T of C scenario obtains.

From here Johnson goes on to conclude that unilateral actions, which are individual actions not coordinated with some collective effort, are “ineffective in averting a T of C.”In our specific case, the unilateral actions are reductions in GHG emissions, and henceforth I will refer to these actions as unilateral reductions. Johnson’s conclusion is grounded upon the idea that unilateral reductions without collective agreement will result in no alteration toward whether ACC will or will not occur. In order to prevent ACC, we must either prevent the T of C from obtaining or break out of it once it has obtained. Unilateral reductions lack the ability to do either, according to Johnson. In a T of C scenario, if an individual reduced his/her GHG emissions absent a collective agreement, then according to premise 2 and premise 3c above, that reduction would communicate to other individuals that additional resources are available for use. Consequently, according to premise 1, other individuals would be motivated to make use of the available resources for their personal benefit. Each individual who chooses to make use of the commons in such a way would be making the individually rational choice, given the parameters of the T of C scenario. There are no assurances that any unilateral reductions will be mirrored by other unilateral reductions. Thus, any unilateral reduction will result in no change to the amount of GHG emissions made in aggregate, and so ACC remains inevitable.

Since unilateral reductions do not suffice as a means of averting ACC, the solution must reside in some other action. For Johnson, the solution is “to work for a collective agreement that could avert a potential T of C.”Once a collective agreement is established, it will bind everyone’s actions and ensure that each individual will reduce their GHG emissions to sustainable levels or suffer possible repercussions and sanctions. Once this happens, the T of C is no longer in effect, and the commons will no longer suffer from overuse. Consequently, Johnson argues that advocacy for collective agreement is the primary ethical obligation for individuals if they seek to avert ACC. It is worth noting that Johnson seems to endorse a consequentialist moral theory that determines moral duties by reference to the success of their outcomes. In this sense, success is determined by avoidance of negative consequences, or promotion of overall utility.

Marion Hourdequin has advanced two arguments that challenge Johnson’s claims of the limited ability of unilateral reductions. The first argument Hourdequin gives is the integrity argument, which aims mostly at invalidating Johnson’s first premise.According to Hourdequin, the principle of integrity can provide an alternate motivation for individual agents. Hourdequin initially calls the obligation for moral integrity “an obligation to avoid hypocrisy.”Instead of explaining the obligation with the negative connotation that hypocrisy implies, Hourdequin espouses a positive virtue of integrity that one should strive toward as an obligation. According to Hourdequin, integrity involves the idea of integrality, which is the internalizing of particular commitments which then become essential to the individual’s identity. If a commitment is integral to an individual, then that commitment should be compatible or “well integrated with other commitments the individual holds.”So in the case of integrity with respect to addressing the climate problem, one must not only advocate for some collective agreement, but must “act also on a personal level to reduce her own emissions.”8

Hourdequin’s second argument is centered on an espousal of a Confucian interpretation of identity, which challenges Johnson’s second premise. According to Hourdequin, “Confucian philosophy does not understand the individual as an isolated, rational actor,” but rather as an entirely social being.Thus, an individual’s identity is a conglomeration of all the social interactions and relationships that individual holds. If an individual can be interpreted in this manner, then any or all unilateral actions made by an individual can influence others within a shared social contact. Further, such an individual learns about moral and ethical actions and behaviors through observation and interaction with surrounding people. In this sense, the Confucian interpretation of the self can effectively nullify the restrictions in communication inherent in the T of C framework.

In response to these arguments, Johnson, in a later work, altered some of his views on the importance of unilateral actions. Most importantly, Johnson now agrees that “unilateral reductions can be valuable” insofar as they complement and support the call for collective action and agreement.10 This is an important reevaluation, because it concedes the fact that unilateral actions have a communicative property such that they can help to influence the behavior or views of others. Though Johnson does make this concession, he states that we must clearly distinguish “unilateral reductions in isolation from unilateral reductions in combination with a richer strategy for communication.”11 In essence, Johnson says that the value in unilateral reductions resides in their ability to combine with and promote the social advocacy for collective agreement. But, when unilateral reductions are done in isolation and communicate no morally salient ideas to others, then they continue to be morally neutral or inconsequential. Finally, Johnson also makes a hierarchical distinction between the two forms of action. Advocacy of collective action, insofar as it is the primary means of effecting change, continues to hold precedence over any communicative unilateral reductions.

Hourdequin issues a reply to Johnson that primarily argues against the hierarchical distinction Johnson makes between unilateral reductions and the advocacy of collective action. She argues for the increased importance that must be placed on unilateral reductions. Hourdequin emphasizes that “individual emissions reductions can themselves contribute to the generation and stabilization of effective collective schemes” and as such, the distinction between the two is not at all decisive.12 In response to the distinction between unilateral reductions done in isolation and those made with the intent to complement social advocacy, she says that “barring an unusual degree of isolation from others, very few ‘unilateral reductions’ will be truly private.”13 In essence, her argument against this distinction is simply to say that most acts of unilateral reduction are not entirely isolated. However, it is important to note that Hourdequin does not provide a clear and salient argument for the importance of unilateral reductions even in complete isolation. Even though she may not espouse any clear argument in her response to Johnson, perhaps we may look back to her argument on integrity in order to facilitate the creation of such an argument. For instance, she could perhaps pin the importance of unilateral reductions in isolation upon the moral importance of maintaining integrity and avoiding hypocrisy.

If we are to show the importance of unilateral reduction in isolation, our argument cannot depend on challenging Johnson’s second premise, that of communication. Rather, integrity must be something that is morally significant in its own right regardless of its influence on others. This is exactly what Hourdequin does when she describes the positive connotations of the obligation of moral integrity. If I am truly committed to addressing the climate problem, I must make my commitment integral to who I am as a person, and my commitment must be integrated into all of my activities so as not to create conflict among my actions. So, if I value integrity, then I must value the personal commitment of unilaterally reducing my emissions even in isolation. This seems rather straightforward. But there is a problem: what Hourdequin merely provides is a contrary principle to challenge Johnson’s principle of self-interest. Her argument is to pose an alternative principle and espouse its qualities and hope that in doing so it will prove to be more of an incentive than self-interest and personal utility. This form of argumentation does not establish in a compelling fashion why we should adopt integrity over self- interest. But I believe there is a different road to be taken.

Link: Naomi Klein: How Science is Telling Us All to Revolt

Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions.

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco. This year’s conference had some big-name participants, from Ed Stone of Nasa’s Voyager project, explaining a new milestone on the path to interstellar space, to the film-maker James Cameron, discussing his adventures in deep-sea submersibles.

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on … how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012,Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Some scientists need no convincing. The godfather of modern climate science, James Hansen, is a formidable activist, having been arrested some half-dozen times for resisting mountain-top removal coal mining and tar sands pipelines (he even left his job at Nasa this year in part to have more time for campaigning). Two years ago, when I was arrested outside the White House at a mass action against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, one of the 166 people in cuffs that day was a glaciologist named Jason Box, a world-renowned expert on Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

 “I couldn’t maintain my self-respect if I didn’t go,” Box said at the time, adding that “just voting doesn’t seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also.”

This is laudable, but what Werner is doing with his modelling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions. And for any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.

Leading the pack of these new scientific revolutionaries is one of Britain’s top climate experts, Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which has quickly established itself as one of the UK’s premier climate research institutions. Addressing everyone from the Department for International Development to Manchester City Council, Anderson has spent more than a decade patiently translating the implications of the latest climate science to politicians, economists and campaigners. In clear and understandable language, he lays out a rigorous road map for emissions reduction, one that provides a decent shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2° Celsius, a target that most governments have determined would stave off catastrophe.

But in recent years Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous … Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast.

With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else.

Anderson and Bows inform us that the often-cited long-term mitigation target – an 80 per cent emissions cut below 1990 levels by 2050 – has been selected purely for reasons of political expediency and has “no scientific basis”. That’s because climate impacts come not just from what we emit today and tomorrow, but from the cumulative emissions that build up in the atmosphere over time. And they warn that by focusing on targets three and a half decades into the future – rather than on what we can do to cut carbon sharply and immediately – there is a serious risk that we will allow our emissions to continue to soar for years to come, thereby blowing through far too much of our 2° “carbon budget” and putting ourselves in an impossible position later in the century.

Which is why Anderson and Bows argue that, if the governments of developed countries are serious about hitting the agreed upon international target of keeping warming below 2° Celsius, and if reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle (basically that the countries that have been spewing carbon for the better part of two centuries need to cut before the countries where more than a billion people still don’t have electricity), then the reductions need to be a lot deeper, and they need to come a lot sooner.

To have even a 50/50 chance of hitting the 2° target (which, they and many others warn, already involves facing an array of hugely damaging climate impacts), the industrialised countries need to start cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by something like 10 per cent a year – and they need to start right now. But Anderson and Bows go further, pointing out that this target cannot be met with the array of modest carbon pricing or green-tech solutions usually advocated by big green groups. These measures will certainly help, to be sure, but they are simply not enough: a 10 per cent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 per cent per year “have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”, as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government.

Link: The Ocean is Broken

A Newcastle sailor’s trip across the Pacific Ocean after the Japan tsunami was frighteningly similar to a nightmare.

IT was the silence that made this voyage different from all of those before it.

Not the absence of sound, exactly.

The wind still whipped the sails and whistled in the rigging. The waves still sloshed against the fibreglass hull.

And there were plenty of other noises: muffled thuds and bumps and scrapes as the boat knocked against pieces of debris.

What was missing was the cries of the seabirds which, on all previous similar voyages, had surrounded the boat.

The birds were missing because the fish were missing.

Exactly 10 years before, when Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen had sailed exactly the same course from Melbourne to Osaka, all he’d had to do to catch a fish from the ocean between Brisbane and Japan was throw out a baited line.

"There was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn’t catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice," Macfadyen recalled.

But this time, on that whole long leg of sea journey, the total catch was two.

No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all.

"In years gone by I’d gotten used to all the birds and their noises," he said.

"They’d be following the boat, sometimes resting on the mast before taking off again. You’d see flocks of them wheeling over the surface of the sea in the distance, feeding on pilchards."

But in March and April this year, only silence and desolation surrounded his boat, Funnel Web, as it sped across the surface of a haunted ocean.

North of the equator, up above New Guinea, the ocean-racers saw a big fishing boat working a reef in the distance.

"All day it was there, trawling back and forth. It was a big ship, like a mother-ship," he said.

And all night it worked too, under bright floodlights. And in the morning Macfadyen was awoken by his crewman calling out, urgently, that the ship had launched a speedboat.

"Obviously I was worried. We were unarmed and pirates are a real worry in those waters. I thought, if these guys had weapons then we were in deep trouble."

But they weren’t pirates, not in the conventional sense, at least. The speedboat came alongside and the Melanesian men aboard offered gifts of fruit and jars of jam and preserves.

"And they gave us five big sugar-bags full of fish," he said.

"They were good, big fish, of all kinds. Some were fresh, but others had obviously been in the sun for a while.

"We told them there was no way we could possibly use all those fish. There were just two of us, with no real place to store or keep them. They just shrugged and told us to tip them overboard. That’s what they would have done with them anyway, they said.

"They told us that his was just a small fraction of one day’s by-catch. That they were only interested in tuna and to them, everything else was rubbish. It was all killed, all dumped. They just trawled that reef day and night and stripped it of every living thing."

Macfadyen felt sick to his heart. That was one fishing boat among countless more working unseen beyond the horizon, many of them doing exactly the same thing.

No wonder the sea was dead. No wonder his baited lines caught nothing. There was nothing to catch.

If that sounds depressing, it only got worse.

The next leg of the long voyage was from Osaka to San Francisco and for most of that trip the desolation was tinged with nauseous horror and a degree of fear.

"After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead," Macfadyen said.

"We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening.

"I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen."

In place of the missing life was garbage in astounding volumes.

"Part of it was the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Japan a couple of years ago. The wave came in over the land, picked up an unbelievable load of stuff and carried it out to sea. And it’s still out there, everywhere you look."

Ivan’s brother, Glenn, who boarded at Hawaii for the run into the United States, marvelled at the “thousands on thousands” of yellow plastic buoys. The huge tangles of synthetic rope, fishing lines and nets. Pieces of polystyrene foam by the million. And slicks of oil and petrol, everywhere.

Countless hundreds of wooden power poles are out there, snapped off by the killer wave and still trailing their wires in the middle of the sea.

"In years gone by, when you were becalmed by lack of wind, you’d just start your engine and motor on," Ivan said.

Not this time.

"In a lot of places we couldn’t start our motor for fear of entangling the propeller in the mass of pieces of rope and cable. That’s an unheard of situation, out in the ocean.

"If we did decide to motor we couldn’t do it at night, only in the daytime with a lookout on the bow, watching for rubbish.

"On the bow, in the waters above Hawaii, you could see right down into the depths. I could see that the debris isn’t just on the surface, it’s all the way down. And it’s all sizes, from a soft-drink bottle to pieces the size of a big car or truck.

"We saw a factory chimney sticking out of the water, with some kind of boiler thing still attached below the surface. We saw a big container-type thing, just rolling over and over on the waves.

"We were weaving around these pieces of debris. It was like sailing through a garbage tip.

"Below decks you were constantly hearing things hitting against the hull, and you were constantly afraid of hitting something really big. As it was, the hull was scratched and dented all over the place from bits and pieces we never saw."

Plastic was ubiquitous. Bottles, bags and every kind of throwaway domestic item you can imagine, from broken chairs to dustpans, toys and utensils.

And something else. The boat’s vivid yellow paint job, never faded by sun or sea in years gone past, reacted with something in the water off Japan, losing its sheen in a strange and unprecedented way.

BACK in Newcastle, Ivan Macfadyen is still coming to terms with the shock and horror of the voyage.

"The ocean is broken," he said, shaking his head in stunned disbelief.

Recognising the problem is vast, and that no organisations or governments appear to have a particular interest in doing anything about it, Macfadyen is looking for ideas.

He plans to lobby government ministers, hoping they might help.

More immediately, he will approach the organisers of Australia’s major ocean races, trying to enlist yachties into an international scheme that uses volunteer yachtsmen to monitor debris and marine life.

Macfadyen signed up to this scheme while he was in the US, responding to an approach by US academics who asked yachties to fill in daily survey forms and collect samples for radiation testing - a significant concern in the wake of the tsunami and consequent nuclear power station failure in Japan.

"I asked them why don’t we push for a fleet to go and clean up the mess," he said.

"But they said they’d calculated that the environmental damage from burning the fuel to do that job would be worse than just leaving the debris there."

Link: The Ethical Dimension of Tackling Climate Change

The global challenge of climate change poses a perfect moral storm — by failing to take action to rein in carbon emissions, the current generation is spreading the costs of its behavior far into the future. Why should people in the future pay to clean up our mess?

Sometimes the best way to make progress on a problem is to get clearer on what that problem is. Arguably, the biggest issue facing humanity at the moment is the looming global environmental crisis. Here, the problem is not that we are unaware that trouble is coming. After all, the basic science is both well known and continually being reiterated in major national and international reports. Rather, the core problem is that thus far effective action seems beyond us. We seem at best paralyzed, and at worst indifferent. Put starkly, there seems little place within our grand institutions and busy lives for what may turn out to be the defining issue of our generation.

Why? In my view, at the heart of the matter is the fact that humanity is in the grip of a profound ethical challenge that our current institutions and theories are ill-equipped to meet.

Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm tells the story of a fishing boat caught at sea during the rare convergence of three independently powerful storms. Similarly, the global crisis of climate change brings together three major challenges to ethical action — and in a mutually reinforcing way. It is genuinely global, profoundly intergenerational, and occurs in a setting where we lack robust theory and institutions to guide us. Neglect of this perfect moral storm leads us to underestimate the climate problem and fail to appreciate the wider implications in predictable ways.

Conventional wisdom identifies climate change as primarily a global problem. Wherever they originate, emissions of the main greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) quickly become mixed in the atmosphere, affecting climate

everywhere. According to the standard analysis, this makes climate change a traditional “tragedy of the commons,” played out between nation states that represent the interests of their citizens in perpetuity. In Garrett Hardin’s tragedy, each herdsman prefers the collective outcome where none over-consume — so that the commons is not overburdened. Nevertheless, when acting individually each prefers to over-consume himself, no matter what the others do — with ruinous results for all.

In climate change, we are often told, states reason in the same way. Each prefers the collective outcome where none over-consume with carbon emissions — so that dangerous climate change is avoided. Yet, when acting individually, each prefers to over-consume, no matter what the others do — so overconsumption is rife. In both cases, then, we are led to an outcome that no one wants, and which is severe enough to seem tragic.

Unfortunately, this traditional model is at best dangerously incomplete. To begin with, it ignores one central spatial aspect of the climate problem. Those least responsible for past emissions are likely to suffer the most serious impacts (at least in the short- to medium-term). This is partly because the poorer nations are disproportionately located in more climate-sensitive regions, but it is also because, being poor, they lack the resources available to the rich to address negative impacts. Since it ignores this basic problem of fairness, the traditional model underestimates the nature of the relevant “tragedy.”

Even more importantly, the traditional model obscures the temporal aspect of the perfect moral storm. Once emitted, a substantial proportion of climate emissions typically remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and some persist for tens — even hundreds — of thousands. This means that the current generation takes benefits now, but spreads the costs of its behavior far into the future.

Worse, many of these benefits are comparatively modest (e.g., those of bigger and more powerful vehicles), and many of the projected costs are severe, even catastrophic (e.g., severe flooding and famine). Worse still, the problem is iterated: The same temptation to take modest benefits now even in the face of severe costs to the future is repeated for subsequent generations as they come to hold the reins of power. Hence, there are cumulative impacts further in the future. Worst of all, such impacts may eventually provoke the equivalent of an intergenerational arms race. Perhaps some future generations will face such appalling environmental conditions that they are entitled to emit more in self-defense, even foreseeing that this behavior makes matters even worse for their successors. And so it goes on.

The third storm exacerbates the situation. Climate change brings together many areas in which our best theories are far from robust, such as intergenerational ethics, global justice, scientific uncertainty, and humanity’s relationship to nature. The problem here is not that we do not have any guidance at all. For example, the idea that imposing catastrophe on the future for the sake of our own modest benefits is not a defensible way to behave is a relatively secure basic ethical intuition. Rather, the problem is that it is difficult to move beyond those basic intuitions to deal with the details, and we are too easily distracted by counterarguments, especially from theories that have merits in other contexts, but fail to take the future seriously enough.

For example, some influential economists claim the current generation is justified in moving slowly on climate change because future people will be richer due to economic growth, and so should pay more. But are we entitled to assume that the future will be richer even in a climate catastrophe? And even if they are, why should they pay to clean up our mess?

This worry about distraction leads to a further important result. The intersection of the global, intergenerational and theoretical storms threatens to undermine public discourse. We in the current generation— and especially the more affluent — are in a position to continue taking modest benefits for ourselves, while passing nasty costs onto the poor, future generations, and nature. However, pointing this out is morally uncomfortable. Better, then, to cover it up with clever but shallow arguments that distort public discussion, and solutions that do little to get at the core problems. After all, most of the victims are poorly placed to hold us to account — being very poor, not yet born, or nonhuman.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence for such shenanigans in the climate arena. If existing institutions are good at representing only the interests of their current members — or, worse, of the current generation of political and economic leaders — then we would expect agreements that reflect this. In particular, we might expect a succession of “shadow solutions” to the climate problem: processes, proposals, and agreements that pay lip service to wider ideals but ultimately deliver very little in the way of substance.

Link: Rebecca Solnit: Bigger Than That

What happens when the weather morphs into man-made violence, becomes a terrorist?

Late last week, in the lobby of a particularly unglamorous downtown San Francisco building, a group of passionate but polite activists met with a bureaucrat who stepped forward to hear what they had to say about the fate of the Earth. The activists wanted to save the world. The particular part of it that might be under their control involved getting the San Francisco Retirement board to divest its half a billion dollars in fossil fuel holdings, one piece of the international divestment movement that arose a year ago.

Sometimes the fate of the Earth boils down to getting one person with modest powers to budge.

The bureaucrat had a hundred reasons why changing course was, well, too much of a change. This public official wanted to operate under ordinary-times rules and the idea that climate change has thrust us into extraordinary times (and that divesting didn’t necessarily entail financial loss or even financial risk) was apparently too much to accept.

The mass media aren’t exactly helping. Last Saturday, for instance, the New York Times gave its story on the International Panel on Climate Change’s six-years-in-the-making report on the catastrophic future that’s already here below-the-fold front-page placement, more or less equal to that given a story on the last episode of Breaking Bad. The end of the second paragraph did include this quote: “In short, it threatens our planet, our only home.” But the headline (“U.N. Climate Panel Endorses Ceiling on Global Emissions”) and the opening paragraph assured you this was dull stuff. Imagine a front page that reported your house was on fire right now, but that some television show was more exciting.

Sometimes I wish media stories were organized in proportion to their impact. Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, there is not paper enough on this planet to properly scale up a story to the right size. If you gave it the complete front page to suggest its import, you would then have to print the rest of the news at some sort of nanoscale and include an electron microscope for reading ease.

Hold up your hand. It’s so big it can block out the sun, though you know that the sun is so much bigger. Now look at the news: in column inches and airtime, a minor controversy or celebrity may loom bigger than the planet. The problem is that, though websites and print media may give us the news, they seldom give us the scale of the news or a real sense of the proportional importance of one thing compared to another. And proportion, scale, is the main news we need right now—maybe always.

As it happens, we’re not very good at looking at the biggest things. They may be bigger than we can see, or move more slowly than we have the patience to watch for or remember or piece together, or they may cause impacts that are themselves complex and dispersed and stretch into the future. Scandals are easier. They are on a distinctly human scale, the scale of lust, greed, and violence. We like those, we understand them, we get mired in them, and mostly they mean little or nothing in the long run (or often even in the short run).

A resident in a town on the northwest coast of Japan told me that the black 70-foot-high wave of water coming at him on March 11, 2011, was so huge that, at first, he didn’t believe his eyes. It was the great Tohoku tsunami, which killed about 20,000 people. A version of such cognitive dissonance occurred in 1982, when NASA initially rejected measurements of the atmosphere above Antarctica because they indicated such a radical loss of ozone that the computer program just threw out the data.

Some things are so big you don’t see them, or you don’t want to think about them, or you almost can’t think about them. Climate change is one of those things. It’s impossible to see the whole, because it’s everything. It’s not just a seven-story-tall black wave about to engulf your town, it’s a complete system thrashing out of control, so that it threatens to become too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too wild, too destructive, too erratic for many plants and animals that depend on reliable annual cycles. It affects the entire surface of the Earth and every living thing, from the highest peaks to the depths of the oceans, from one pole to the other, from the tropics to the tundra, likely for millennia—and it’s not just coming like that wave, it’s already here.

It’s not only bigger than everything else, it’s bigger than everything else put together. But it’s not a sudden event like a massacre or a flood or a fire, even though it includes floods, fires, heat waves, and wild weather. It’s an incremental shift over decades, over centuries. It’s the definition of the big picture itself, the far-too-big picture. Which is why we have so much news about everything else, or so it seems.

To understand climate change, you need to translate figures into impacts, to think about places you’ll never see and times after you’re gone. You need to imagine sea level rise and understand its impact, to see the cause-and-effect relations between coal-fired power plants, fossil-fuel emissions, and the fate of the Earth. You need to model data in fairly sophisticated ways. You need to think like a scientist.

Given the demands of the task and the muddle of the mainstream media, it’s remarkable that so many people get it, and that they do so despite massive, heavily funded petroleum industry propaganda campaigns is maybe a victory, if not enough of one.

Four months ago, two bombers in Boston murdered three people and injured hundreds in a way spectacularly calculated to attract media attention, and the media obeyed with alacrity. Climate change probably fueled the colossal floods around Boulder, Colorado, that killed seven people in mid-September, but amid the copious coverage, it was barely mentioned in the media. Similarly, in Mexico, 115 people died in unprecedented floods in the Acapulco area (no significant mention of climate change), while floods reportedly are halving Pakistan’s economic growth (no significant mention), and 166 bodies were found in the wake of the latest Indian floods (no significant mention).

Climate change is taking hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa every year in complex ways whose causes and effects are difficult to follow. Forest fires, very likely enhanced by climate change, took the lives of nineteen firefighters facing Arizona blazes amid record heat waves in July. Again, climate change generally wasn’t the headline on that story.

(For the record, climate change is clearly helping to produce many of the bigger, more destructive, more expensive, more frequent disasters of our time, but it is impossible to point to any one of them and say definitely, this one is climate change. It’s like trying to say which cancers in a contaminated area were caused by the contamination; you can’t, but what you can say is that the overall rise in cancer is connected.)

The weather has now become man-made violence, though no one thinks of it as terrorism, in part because there’s no smoking gun or bomb—unless you have the eyes to see and the data to look at.

Not quite a year ago, a climate-change-related hurricane drowned people when superstorm Sandy hit a place that doesn’t usually experience major hurricane impact, let alone storm surges that submerge amusement parks, the New York City subway system, and the Jersey shore. In that disaster, 148 people died directly, nearly that many indirectly, losses far greater than from any terrorist incident in this country other than that great anomaly, 9/11. The weather has now become man-made violence, though no one thinks of it as terrorism, in part because there’s no smoking gun or bomb—unless you have the eyes to see and the data to look at, in which case the smokestacks of coal plants start to look gun-like and the hands of energy company CEOs and well-paid-off legislators begin to morph into those of bombers.

Even the civil war in Syria may be a climate-change war of sorts: over the past several years, the country has been hit by its worst drought in modern times. Climate and Security analyst Francesco Femia says, “Around 75 percent of [Syrian] farmers suffered total crop failure, so they moved into the cities. Farmers in the northeast lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. They all moved into urban areas—urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. But this massive displacement mostly wasn’t reported. So it wasn’t factoring into various security analyses. People assumed Syria was relatively stable compared to Egypt.”