Sunshine Recorder

Link: Another Movement

On the eve of the publication of her new book, ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate,’ Klein sat down with Liam Barrington-Bush at the Peoples Social Forum in Ottawa, to talk about where she finds hope in a world that can sometimes feel very bleak. She reminds us that in a culture that treats people as consumers and relationships as transactions, ‘we’re not who we were told we were.’

Barrington-Bush: In your recent piece in the Nation, you wrote: “Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate change is real—let alone the confidence to believe that a different way of living is possible.” What has helped you to believe that a different way of living is possible?

Klein: I think part of it is just having been lucky enough to have seen other ways of living and to have lived differently myself. To know that not only is living differently not the end of the world, but in many cases, it has enabled some of the happiest times of my life.

I think the truth is that we spend a lot of time being afraid of what we would lose if we ever took this crisis seriously. I had this experience when I had been living in Argentina for a couple of years; I came back to the US because I had agreed to do this speech at an American university. It was in Colorado and I went directly from Buenos Aires, which was just on fire at that moment; the culture was so rich, the sense of community was so strong. It was the most transformative experience of my life to be able to be part of that.

So I end up staying at a Holiday Inn, looking out at a parking lot, and it’s just so incredibly grim. I go to this class and I do my spiel. I was talking about Argentina and the economic crisis. At this point the US economy’s booming and nobody thinks anything like this could ever happen to them. And this young woman says, “I hear what you’re saying, but why should I care?”

And it was so funny because people don’t usually say that out loud. Like, they may think it, but she was like: ‘…I don’t understand why I should care, because, I mean, I have a really great life. I drive to school and I drive to Walmart and I drive home.’ And I just thought, that doesn’t sound like that great a life, you know?

Arundhati Roy tells Americans that she feels sorry for them; that she feels like, ‘you’re staying in your house to protect your washing machine.’ The truth is, if you have been exposed to other ways of living that have more community in them, where doors are more open to one another, first of all, you want to shop less, because you’re not shopping to fulfil all these other needs you’re not getting fulfilled. You’re not shopping for identity and you’re not shopping for a sense of community.

There’s a virtuous cycle that sets in when we build community; whether we build community in movements or in other ways, because I do feel like we are shopping to fill this void a lot of the time. I always find the only thing that makes you not want to constantly fill that void is if something else is filling it, you’re just too busy, you forget.

So that lack of imagination just has to do with what we’ve been exposed to. That’s why Occupy Wall Street, for all its flaws, was such a transformative experience for so many people. Because it was that moment where it’s like, ‘Oh! We’re not who we were told we were!’ It was that feeling of surprise that there are so many other people in this city who just want to talk to strangers and connect in this way, unmediated.

In the same article you wrote, in reference to your own ‘rootless’ life, that the poet Wendell Berry encouraged you to “Stop somewhere. And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.” How do you see the relationship between a sense of place and the solutions to something as massively daunting as either climate change or capitalism?

Since the ‘70s, the icon of environmentalism has been the globe, the earth from space. And it was a really deracinated relationship with the earth, it was literally the astronaut’s view of the planet – this god-like posture – we’re looking down at earth.

A lot of the mistakes of the Big Green groups, I think, can be traced to this idea that environmentalism is about this whole planet. So if it’s about the whole planet, you can offset your carbon pollution in Richmond, to a carbon-offset in Honduras. The world becomes this chessboard.

I don’t think you can love a whole planet. I think what’s driving the most powerful resistance movements is love of particular places. And those places happen to have the largest pools of carbon underneath them and those places, because of technology, are linking up with other places.

That’s why Wendell Berry says, ‘each of our job is to love our place more than any other place.’ And if everybody did that we’d be fine. Nobody needs to love the whole world!

I was in Perth, Ontario recently. In some ways, Perth is just another North American small town, but it is also a place where a strong localism is bringing together a real mix of people; elements of the traditional farming community, hippie back-to-the-landers, off-grid survivalists, Transition Towners, traditional food bank volunteers, alongside those working on more participatory and sustainable ways of addressing the community’s food needs. Do you think this kind of place-based solution has the potential to bridge some of the political divides that have made so many larger scales of change impossible for so long?

I don’t know if it holds solutions, but it certainly has potentials that are harder to realise in cities. Especially I think in farming communities you can definitely overcome left-right divides, because often you’re drawing on a tradition and a history of stewardship. So there’s a real disconnect between that philosophy, which has very deep roots, and modern capitalism, which is so ‘use-it-up-and-throw-it-out.’

Also around climate organising, people often find that if you’re able to speak to and revive that conservative tradition of stewardship, it’s an opportunity to cross political lines. And even if those conservative farmers don’t even believe climate change is real, they still believe in the principles of protecting the land and protecting the water, and the responsibility to leave the land better than you found it. So if you believe in that, it doesn’t even really matter if you believe in climate change, because you’re not going to frack your land.

Are there any particular stories you have heard or experienced in your travels that give you hope for us getting out of the current mess?

I think the movement that I have found most inspiring in recent years is… the movement against the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline in British Columbia. That’s not because it’s more inspirational than other movements, I just found it to be – and still find it to be – one of the most positive and beautiful movements I’ve ever been a part of because it is this amazing combination of resisting something that people don’t want, but also just a total celebration of place.

I really felt so lucky to witness this process where people in that very special part of the world, really fell more deeply in love with their place and created these incredible coalitions to defend it, like the Save the Fraser Declaration, which more than a hundred First Nations signed.

Fighting these extreme extraction projects becomes a real space for historical healing. We use these words and we have these symbolic marches around reconciliation between settler and Indigenous peoples and it’s very empty. But what actually played out in BC is the very concrete realisation among non-Indigenous British Columbians that they are tremendously lucky that so much of their province is on unceded Indigenous land.

Against this backdrop and history of conflict – which still exists – you would hear a non-native farmer say, ‘I’m so grateful to my First Nations neighbours for never giving up these rights and defending these rights, because this is going to be what protects my water.’

So that’s extraordinary! I can’t believe how much I’ve seen my country change in such a short time. It’s that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are fighting for what is most essential – they’re fighting for their children’s health, they’re fighting for their water, they’re fighting for their land and they understand – we understand – that our fates are truly interconnected.

So these words that we use, like solidarity and all of this, suddenly become really concrete. It is literally that if we do not deal with this past, of who created this crisis and who is largely responsible and how’s that going to translate into policy and resources, then ultimately we’re all cooked.

Another movement I’ve found inspiring this past few years is just how quickly the fossil fuel divestment movement has spread in campuses and cities. I think it speaks to the fact that people understand that there are power dynamics at play in the climate fight that a lot of the Big Green NGOs have tried to paper over. Where the discourse was just like, ‘we’re all in this together, everybody’s going to do this, the billionaires are going to join together with the Hollywood celebrities, are going to join together with ExxonMobil and the Nature Conservancy and we’ll fix this together!’

So what was really inspiring about being part of the launch of that movement was realising that people were so up for this! It was like they were just waiting for someone to ask!

I don’t think that this tactic is going to bankrupt ExxonMobil or change everything, by any means, but what I found inspiring was seeing the readiness of large numbers of people to use tactics that are significantly more confrontational than the ones that the traditional green movement had been offering. So I think that that’s a really hopeful sign for the future.

Are there any particular themes or patterns you’ve picked up between these and other sources of inspiration, that you think could offer hints to people wanting to take action themselves?

I think another inspiring movement is the rise of renewable energy in Germany. That is a really important case study because this is a post-industrial, Western, large, very powerful economy, that in the past decade has made a dramatic shift towards renewable energy, primarily wind and solar.

But what’s really interesting about it, is that it is the small-scale, decentralised, cooperatively-owned aspect of the transition that is fastest-spreading, that has people most excited. That’s an important pattern. Energy democracy is a phrase more and more people are using to describe this sort of phenomenon, where it isn’t just about switching from fossil fuel to so-called green energy, it’s also a power shift in who owns and controls the source of the power, where the resources go.

So what is driving the movement in Germany is not just that people don’t want nuclear power, they don’t want coal; it’s that they want to have control over their energy, they want their resources and the profits to stay in their communities. And this is happening in the age of austerity where it’s a big deal if you can actually get resources to communities. So these are very much pro-democracy movements. They’re not just about where your energy is coming from and what colour it is, it’s really about self-determination and community control.

And there are ways of designing government policy that decentralise power. So you look at Germany; none of this would be happening if Germany didn’t have a bold national feed-in tariff plan. You couldn’t just do it ad hoc, at the local level. That would not get to you to what Germany has done, which is twenty-five percent of their electricity coming from renewable energy and that’s going to keep expanding.

You need those bold policies and you also need to say no to fossil fuels – you need regulation. So you need to have a relationship with government in order to win those policies. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be in government, by the way, because German Prime Minister Angela Merkel is no lefty, but the anti-nuclear movement and the climate movement in Germany is strong enough that they have won this, which is extraordinary.

Similarly, I look at what’s happening in Spain with this transition from the street movement of the Indignados, to Podemos, a political party that is intersecting with traditional politics, but in a new way. So I think that’s another pattern that we’re starting to see, of finding ways to intersect with policy, with the state, but at the same time to decentralise power and deepen local democracy.

Link: Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything"

Suzanne Goldenberg: The climate-change movement is making little headway against corporate vested interests, says the author of Shock Doctrine. But how does she think her new book, This Changes Everything, will help galvanise people?

Naomi Klein is the star of the new American left. At 44, the writer and activist has twice written blockbusters combining ground-level reporting and economic analysis that challenged people to take a hard look at what they took for granted: their shopping choices, America’s place in the world, and the devastating effects of arcane trade policy and rampant free market ideology. Along the way she gained a following that spans academics, celebrities and street and factory protesters.

Her first book, No Logo, about the power of brands over sweatshop workers in Asia who made the products (and the consumers in America and Europe who consumed them), politicised a generation of twentysomethings. It became the handbook of the anti- globalisation protests, and inspired two Radiohead albums.

Seven years later, her second book, Shock Doctrine, analysed how wars, coups and natural disasters were used as a pretext to impose so-called “free market” measures. Now Klein is back, writing about capitalism, only this time the fate of the entire planet is at stake. With her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Klein hopes to set off the kind of powerful mass movement that could – finally – produce the radical changes needed to avoid a global warming catastrophe and fix capitalism at the same time. She argues that we have all been thinking about the climate crisis the wrong way around: it’s about capitalism – not carbon – the extreme anti-regulatory version that has seized global economies since the 1980s and has set us on a course of destruction and deepening inequality.

“I think we are on a collision course,” she says. Twenty-five years ago, when the first climate scientist was called to testify to Congress and make global warming a policy challenge, there might have still been time for big industries to shrink their carbon footprints. But governments at the time were seized with the idea that there should be no restraints on industry. “During that time,” Klein writes, “we also expanded the road from a two lane, carbon-spewing highway to a six-lane superhighway.”

When we meet in her Toronto home, Klein is juggling a schedule that combines the standard author book readings and television interviews and planning for an event in New York City billed as the biggest climate march ever seen. Her husband, film-maker Avi Lewis, is out shooting a companion film due for release in January. The two text back and forth during our chat.

Klein does not easily fit into most people’s view of a committed environmentalist. She drives a car (it is a hybrid). She flies, already a lot more than most people, and is set to rack up air miles that would make her, by her own admission, “a climate criminal”. There is a brightly coloured plastic playhouse in the garden that was probably made in China. Yet she confesses to getting weepy when she thinks about the future under climate change.

In a long conversation over the dining table, Klein says she is not about to purge her life of plastics or fossil fuels. She says she is not going to be trapped into “gotcha games” about personal habits. And she is definitely not going to subscribe to the idea that climate change ranks above all other causes.

“I think there has been this really bad habit of environmentalists being insufferably smug, where they are sort of saying: ‘This is the issue that beats all other issues’ or, ‘Your issue doesn’t matter because nothing matters if the earth is fried.’” Klein says committed environmentalists aren’t her target anyway. “What I hope is less about what the greens will do, but what people who don’t consider themselves part of the green movement will do,” she says. “This book is not written for the environmental movement. It is written much more for people who would never read a book about climate change but are engaged with economic justice of other kinds.”

That is where Klein believes she can do the most good. “I want to act, if I can, as a bridge for people who read Shock Doctrine or No Logo. People who are sitting out for whatever reasons.”

Klein admits that even with her reputation for producing brainy economic analysis, and a crack research team to which she gives generous credit in the book and in conversation, it took three years of “marinating” in the material. “I have amazing research help. Basically what I spend my money on is research,” she says. “The way in which people talk about climate is just so wonky and so abstract and such a boys’ club that it makes a lot of women just roll their eyes or feel that they are somehow not qualified,” she says. “I certainly had to fight that feeling in myself in order to write about it.”

The idea of writing about climate change took hold of Klein around the time of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit – legendary now as a failure of international diplomacy. The summit of world leaders, convening soon after the US had its first “green president” in Barack Obama, was supposed to put the major economies on a glide path to cutting emissions.

Klein came to the meeting planning to write about the great fight between rich and poor countries over the historic responsibility the US and Europe bore for causing climate change. She had dared to hope at one point that a climate deal would be the great equaliser – compensating Africa and Asia for colonialism. But the summit collapsed under the weight of those expectations. Leaders from Africa and small south Pacific Island states, which are slowly drowning under rising sea levels, wanted a more aggressive action that would limit the temperature rise to 1.5C; leaders from rich countries deemed the proposal bad for businesses and rejected it for fear it could cost them votes.

“I wasn’t prepared for the naming of that inaction by the industrialised world as racism,” Klein says. “I was struck by the fact that African delegates were using words such as genocide, describing a two-degree temperature target as allowing Africa to burn.” She pauses. “I found the Copenhagen experience pretty devastating.”

It was a difficult time for Klein personally as well. After the publication of Shock Doctrine, she was on the road for almost two years. She barely saw her husband. While she was travelling the world giving speeches and being hailed as an inspirational figure, Klein found herself in a rut. “I think I was profoundly depressed about 2008-2009,” she says. “I have always told myself that I would not spread hopelessness.” There are figures on the American left who just get up on stage and do these doom and apocalyptic presentations and it can be quite compelling. But I have seen it enough that I have told myself that if I ever get to that point, I will stay home.” She became convinced it was time to retreat, at least for a while. “I just didn’t feel that I had anything to offer, where I wasn’t just indulging my own despair.”

There were other difficulties. Klein writes in the book of the surprising realisation that she did want children after all, and of her struggles through what she calls the “fertility factory” and miscarriages before she finally became pregnant. Her son, Toma, turned two this summer. The book is dedicated to him. But as she was preparing for publication, Klein was diagnosed, and operated on, for thyroid cancer; she says flatly she will not discuss the illness beyond that.

For readers of Klein’s earlier works – or of Thomas Piketty’s analysis of inequality – the central message of the book will sound familiar. Capitalism, since it was unshackled by the deregulation of the 1980s, has widened the gap between rich and poor. The top 3% held 55% of all wealth last year, up from 45% in 1989. The bottom 90% controlled 24.7% of wealth, according to statistics released this month by the Federal Reserve.

“It is not like everything is fine except for the problem that the temperature is going up a little bit,” Klein says. “If the only problem with capitalism was this slight temperature increase, we would really be cooked. But the fact is that there are lots of problems with this system, and on top of all of those problems, it is destabilising our planet’s life support system.”

Klein believes the gap between the 1% and everyone else and the powerlessness of local governments to take control are casualties of global capital. To follow the course of action she prescribes would require a hostile takeover of large parts of the environmental movement. But that would be entirely warranted, it seems. Environmental groups have wasted time trying to recruit big business and billionaires to adopt pro-climate measures, she says. In the meantime, economies have continued to spew out carbon pollution, making a climate fix far more difficult.

“We need an ideological battle. It is still considered politically unthinkable just to introduce straight-up, polluter-pays punitive measures – particularly in the US.” To Klein, environmentalists should have just gone to war on business, and on the whole concept of capitalism.

In a devastating chapter, she details how the US’s biggest environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, earned money from oil and gas drilling on a parcel of Texas land it had set aside for conservation. She writes about the nightmarish scenarios surrounding geoengineering, or hacking the planet, by spraying seawater into the sky to create cloud cover, or simulating a volcanic eruption to fill the lower atmosphere with ash.

Elsewhere, Klein takes on Richard Branson for failing to live up to his promise to set aside $3bn to fight climate change. “So much hope was put in this parade of billionaires to try and reconcile capitalism with climate,” she says. “When Branson entered the climate game, he posited it specifically as an alternative to regulation. He said ‘the governments aren’t going to do this, we’re going to do this. Go to the UN climate summit in a couple of weeks and it’s all going to be the new green economy and the head of Bank of America sitting down with the president of Mexico – and we are all going to do it together.’” She remains irritated. “That is a dangerous idea at this stage of history. We now have two decades to measure that model. We are not talking about a theory here, we are talking about a track record. I think it’s fair to say: ‘OK, we tried it your way and we don’t have another decade to waste.”

In truth, Klein is vague in her book and our conversation about exactly how this would come about. In the book she talks about “an effervescent moment” – when popular protests converge to bring about real change – which comes after a section in the book titled “Magical Thinking”. There is a curious failure to really get to grips with questions about a real-world solution – Klein must have anticipated being asked. Especially given that she has often been acutely focused on what popular movements need to do to bring about concrete change; her message to Occupy, for instance, was that the movement needed to impose clear structures and institutions. If capitalism is going to destroy the world, why wouldn’t capitalism fix itself – if only for its own survival?

“I don’t know if capitalism wants anything. The system itself doesn’t think as an entity – it thinks as a collection of self-interested profit-seeking units.” Asked why Obama is such a peripheral figure in her book, Klein is ambiguous. “I do think Obama is interesting but more in the sense of an absence,” she says. “Obama should have used the economic bailout of 2009 to impose new rules on car companies,” she says. (In fact, Obama used the bailout to spend up to $100bn on home retrofits, subways, and other climate-friendly measures. Klein overlooks these entirely.) “The fact that Obama blew that moment, to me, is one of the great tragedies of our times.”

The fix she proposes broadly relies on scattered groups of climate organisers, grassroots and indigenous people’s groups that have been ready to take on corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. Klein admits that most environmental groups are too white, male, and middle class to connect with women, African-Americans, Latinos and the poor who will bear the brunt of climate change. She recalls that in their first manifestos, the Occupy protesters never even mentioned global warming.

Klein is on the board of one of those emerging grassroots groups: 350.orghas played a lead role in reframing a mundane pipeline project, the Keystone XL, until it was seen as one of the most critical environmental decisions of Obama’s presidency. The Keystone XL project, meant to transport tar sands crude from the vast Alberta tar sands, would probably be well on its way to completion, if the protests by and Nebraska landowners had not made the project a national issue. Obama has repeatedly put off making a decision about the pipeline. But the deciding factor in that delay was almost certainly the wealthy Democratic donors pushing behind the scenes, and threatening to cut off election funding.

Even so, Klein continues to sees the Keystone fight, widespread local protests against fracking and campus divestment campaigns as the way forward on climate change. She argues there is little scope for individuals on their own to accomplish much, giving the examples of Toronto’s impressive carbon-cutting efforts. “It’s been kind of disastrous,” she says. “While we are all doing these green things, our country’s emissions are soaring because of the tar sands. People start feeling kind of like jerks. We are just sort of like suckers.”

She goes so far as to lump centrist environmental leaders together with groups such as the Heartland Institute, which denies the existence of climate change. “Between the Heartlanders who recognise that climate change is a profound threat to our economic and social systems and therefore deny its scientific reality, and those who claim climate change requires only minor tweaks to business-as-usual and therefore allow themselves to believe in its reality, it’s not clear who is more deluded,” Klein writes in the book.

Those are fighting words. Over the past few years, the oil and coal lobbies and, increasingly, super-rich ultra-conservatives in America have spent close to $1bn a year building a network of rightwing organisations that have blocked efforts to cut the emissions that cause climate change – often by claiming that climate change is not even happening. More than half of the Republicans elected to Congress now deny the existence of climate change.

There are already signs of a pushback on Twitter from some environmental bloggers, even before the book’s release. But Klein – who over the years has endured pro-corporate backlash of her two earlier books and a ferocious assault for criticising Israel’s conduct against the Palestinians, says she is ready for it. “I think I have been through attacks that are far more personal and far more intense than what I am going to experience with this book.”

She says she sees a new breed of climate activist, ready to go after corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. “They are going after the fossil fuel companies directly as opposed to just trying to go into business with them and gently cajole them into doing the right thing,” she says.

At the same time she argues there has been a shift in attitudes about how people treat one another.

“I am not in despair. I am excited by what I am seeing. I think that the task is enormous. I think we are nowhere close to where we need to be, but I think we are on a track. There is a track,” she says.

• This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein is published by Allen Lane on 16 September.

Link: Cycling as an Eschatological Activity

I’ve been cycling a lot lately, the spandex, sunglasses and shaved-legs kind, yes, but also the get around town kind. To the coffee shop, to the store, to school—if I’m going someplace by myself I do my best to get there by bike.

One particular stretch I ride regularly has newly striped bike lanes—lanes that didn’t come without protest from a handful of residents on the busy street. Essentially, the question came down to whether streets are for cars and for bikes or just for cars.  The residents of the street thought that the street and its wide shoulder should be for the driving and parking of cars.  The many bike commuters who follow that street to get to the metro and Old Town Alexandria thought that the street should be shared by both.  The city sided with the cyclists and my rides are a little less harrowing as a result.  The conflict, however, raised a theological point.

The question of whether roads are for cars or for bikes or for both reminds me of St. Augustine’s City of God.  It’s a massive book, but at its core is the idea that there are two overlapping cities—the City of God and the City of Man.  The City of God is a city founded on peace and whose end is peace.  It is oriented toward the final coming of God’s kingdom.  The City of Man is a city that was founded on violence and is animated by pride, power, and greed—what peace it has is based on violence.  The residents of both cities interact in commerce, in space, etc., but at the end of the day they are working toward different ends.  Only one of those cities really has a future.

What is at play on the streets, with bikes and cars and buses, are essentially two cities, two different realities with differing values.  Sometimes the two overlap, but at the end of the day, the cyclists and the drivers are using the roads toward different ends.  Of course many people, like myself, use the roads in both modes.  I drive and I bike, but it wouldn’t take me long to choose if I could only have one.  In fact the only reason I keep driving my car in many instances is because of cars—if I could safely ride with my two year old on the main streets of the city I would do it.

When I drive a car I am participating in a fallen reality—the oil economy, the speed economy, the death economy.  It is the car that has made the suburb possible; it is the car that is responsible for over 30,000 deaths in the U.S. each year—the cost of velocity more than anything else.  Transportation—cars, buses, trucks—contributes 30% of the total carbon emissions for the U.S. each year.  I cannot imagine a place for cars in the coming Kingdom of God.

Bikes, however, are deeply sustainable.  We could go on riding them forever.  They can go fast, yes, but fast on a bike goes barely above a school zone speed limit.  They are healthy for both our bodies and the earth.  I hope to be riding bikes now and forever, even in the coming Kingdom of God.  When I ride my bike, even on the hard days of heat or cold, even on the days when I have to pull out my rain gear—I am doing so as an eschatological act.  I am living into the City of God—its values, its ends.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has often reminded us that the reason he is a pacifist isn’t because he thinks it will work better than war to bring the world peace or relieve the suffering of innocents.  He is a pacifist because he believes the call of Christ does not allow him to be otherwise.  To be a pacifist now is to perform an eschatological act—it is a commitment to live into the kingdom that is coming rather than the kingdom that is fading away.

When I bike I am living into something more hopeful and joyful, slower and more human than the world of cars and oil and traffic.  It is a small act of embrace of the world as it should be and will be.  With each pedal stroke I am getting my legs ready for the streets of the Kingdom that is breaking into the world.

(Source: gospelofthekingdom, via itsthom)

Link: Extinction Stories: The Ecological True-Crime Genre

We are living in the midst of the worst die-off since the dinosaurs fell victim to an asteroid 65 million years ago. Whatever the proximal causes, human beings are the asteroids this time.

In a comment on a recent New York Times editorial, a reader in North Carolina reported noticing that there were no butterflies on her bushes for the first time this year. The spring peepers were growing fainter in the pond, there were few bees, and for the first time, every birds’ nest in her yard had failed, she said. It’s familiar news. Here on the other side of the country, where I am sitting now, there have been fewer hummingbirds at the feeders this year.  Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, a biologist conducting a survey of elephants found 36 at a reserve where he’d expected to see 300.  It seems that such absences, repeated again and again, are coming to define our time. They are signs of a greater calamity, it’s true, and we often read them as such—failing to register them as events in their own right.  But the truth is that our planet is growing lonelier now.  Do we remember, for instance, the intimacy we shared with other animals, the ones not kept in zoos?  The way bats would start flickering above us as the summer evening grew dim or the childhood bee stings we’d get running barefooted over the lawn? The loss of such small, local experiences are more than just environmental facts but are emotional truths.

We are living in the midst of the worst die-off since the dinosaurs fell victim to an asteroid 65 million years ago, and though certain local effects are noticeable, the scope of the carnage is hard to picture as a whole. In The Sixth Extinction, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert attempts a rough accounting: If global warming continues apace, it’s estimated “that one-third of all reef building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” Amphibians, the most vulnerable group, are disappearing at as much as 45,000 times their normal rate, hence the lack of peepers in the pond. “Look around,” one scientist tells Kolbert. “Kill half of what you see…That’s what we could be talking about.” Coral reefs are not expected to make it to mid-century. 

The etiology of this crisis is indisputable: Whatever the proximal causes, human beings are the asteroids this time. This is not news; we’ve been aware of our destructive potential for some time, though there are those still who deny it. It’s not quite as clear what we should do with this knowledge, though, and so—whether from guilt, nostalgia, or as a way to put off a reckoning—we tell each other stories about extinction. In fact, Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction falls into a tradition stretching back at least as far as 1848’s The Dodo and its Kindred—a genre of ecological “true-crime” that chronicles disappearance and implicates human beings in the mass death of others in our world. 

1. Joel Greenberg’s recent A Feathered River Across the Sky is an exemplary entrant in the genre. Meticulously researched and almost loving in its level of detail, it tells the story of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird in America but now one of our emblems of loss. In 1860, at Fort Mississauga in Ontario, Major W. Ross King watched a group of passenger pigeons blot out the sun for hours. This flock was later estimated to include 3,717,120,000 individual birds passing over in a single long sheet. In 1895, two flocks were observed in the province: the first made up of 13 birds, the second just 11. By 1910, there were no flocks at all, and all that remained of the passenger pigeon was a bird named Martha, living in a cage at the Cincinnati Zoo; she died four years later. This year marks the hundredth anniversary since the passenger pigeon’s extinction.

Greenburg traces the natural history of the vanished bird like someone trying to describe a phantom, taking care to present its case as faithfully as he can: its diet, breeding habits (as far as they can be guessed at), and tendency to roost in concentrations so great that they could destroy entire forests overnight. Much of the book is dedicated to a condemnatory account of humans’ wholesale slaughter of this abundance of meat in the sky. The pigeons were apparently good eating and easy entertainment; hunters used everything from rifles, nets, and poles to bare hands and even cannons to gather the bounty. As a result, more birds were killed than could be consumed; the rest were used as fertilizer, fed to dogs and pigs, or simply thrown away.

Greenburg’s displeasure at the enthusiasm of 19th century hunters is typical of many extinction narratives. We are meant, as the title of another recent passenger pigeon story has it, to take a “message from Martha.” Self-flagellation is all very well, but knowing—and condemning—the human tendency not to care much for the wellbeing of other species is neither surprising nor especially helpful in terms of effecting change. We have not become better. Greenberg—not just an elegist but an activist as well—points out that similar forms of profligate slaughter continue today, having merely changed venue. On open ocean, seine nets and other modern gadgetry allow commercial fleets to net more than four million tons of tuna—from just four species—every year. 

Despite emblematic cases like the passenger pigeon’s, it seems as though we have little real grasp of what extinction really means—for us, for the future of this world of ours, or (though their feelings are rarely considered) for those going extinct. Passionate reports like Greenberg’s have the feeling of histories neatly boxed up and removed from our immediate physical and emotional realities despite their relevance to us now. In such accounts, anxiety over the present alternates with a sort of excited interest in the past— fascination bordering on nostalgia for what amounts to a biological curio. 

>2. Interest is a primary driver of The Sixth  Extinction, in which Kolbert provides an entertaining, if occasionally troubling, geological and biological history of our moment in the context of die-offs past. The story, laid out in chapters using a single species as a way into a theme, is full of human character, humor, and unexpected facts. Kolbert herself can be seen speaking to scientists and observing animals and fossils in the wild. 

Part of her accomplishment is in underlining the scope of the current cataclysm. As research into the previous five major extinction events teaches her, the environment is changing so quickly that survival will be largely a product of chance. Mass extinction happens when the rules of survival are suddenly changed and traits that have been adaptive in the past become no use at all. Still, everything exists today because something happened to survive before, and the future will be populated by creatures evolved from whatever happens to survive us now. Most likely that will be those hardy invaders whose territory we’ve inadvertently expanded ourselves—probably rats. The biomass of the future will be a human artifact, in other words, like the climate, the course of rivers, the amount of fixed nitrogen, and the variety of habitat, among many other things. And so this moment offers a strange, geological lengthening of time, inscribing our errors onto millions of years of history. Yet as extensive as the changes of the Anthropocene have been, Homo sapiens were always troublesome beasts. Early humans were responsible for extinctions, too, she finds, from moas to saber tooth tigers and giant ground sloths, as well as some of our own relations, including the Neanderthal, the Denisovians, and the Florensian “hobbit.” (It does seem as though we were bent on being alone; all the great apes that survive today, ourselves excepted, are currently in danger of extinction.) Given this propensity, Kolbert largely chooses not to offer hope. Her conclusion is a troubling one: “With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it…[which] is also the capacity to destroy it…If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species, you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap.” 

Where Kolbert locates the root of our environmental destructiveness in the capacity for symbolic thought, a more common explanation—though no less problematic in its way—is that an attitude of anthropocentrism is to blame. This means not just the firm separation of “human” and “nature,” but the belief that the planet is intended for our use and has meaning to humans alone. Knowing that the human-spread chytrid virus is almost certain to destroy most of the world’s amphibians, I think at once of the eeriness of a quiet spring pond and only later think what that pond was to the frogs. Given new research into animal consciousness and capacity for thought, such oversights become harder and harder to justify.   

3. Still, our perspective is human, and excepting a kind of radical empathy, we have no other. It’s the human perspective the poet Melanie Challenger takes in her book On Extinction. She examines the question of mankind’s alienation from nature through the lens of cultural loss, grappling with the emotional aspects of extinction by reading it through a progressive human shift away from dependence on the natural world. The loss of distinct, local forms of knowledge based on a relationship to place is “akin to the disappearance of diversity in nature.” Her well-made point is that as we became less dependent on local landscapes, we stopped caring as much for the things that were in them. The environmental devastation that followed then only turned us further away. The problem with Challenger’s argument is that the equivalence of cultural and biological diversity confuses the question. That some Inuit shop at supermarkets rather than hunting on the land is of a different order than the fact that there is no longer a golden toad.  Casting human cultural loss in the light of extinction also covers over the need to consider the fact that “human nature” is not solely human at all: not only was it formed through our interaction with other species—from ancient predators, to various microbes, to the creatures we kill and eat—but our very bodies represent a mass of co-existing life forms in themselves. Only 10 percent of the cells in what we consider the “human body” are actually human at all. 

Despite this, Challenger does get at a question Kolbert’s work provokes but doesn’t confront: “In the great swathes of time given to the Earth, did it really matter if some forms of life died out?” Is the world worse because there’s no longer such thing as a great auk? Of what value is a dolphin in the end? Pointing the finger human-ward, the answer to this question is not as self-evident as people who care about biodiversity, as a good in itself, might believe. In fact, to return to Kolbert’s broad geologic survey of mass extinctions past, our own is just another blip in the long history of life on earth. Yes, it has taken millions of years for biodiversity to recover after previous extinction events, but it has recovered in the end. “Across these spans of almost imperceptible evolution, other entities always emerged in the place of those that perished,” Challenger writes. The message here is life is pretty sturdy and “nature” or the “wilderness” fairly arbitrary concepts. There is no fixed point in our changing world that we can identify as “natural,” and so the thought of re-wilding becomes quickly absurd: Do we really want billions of passenger pigeons despoiling the crops or giant ground sloths stomping around? 

It’s perhaps out of the anxiety such uncertainty generates that extinction books like these are adventure stories of a kind. The author travels the world (Challenger, to her credit, considering her carbon footprint as she does) as a biological tourist of a kind—and the books find themselves solidly embroiled in the same anthropocentric attitudes they pin the crisis on. Despite purportedly addressing a period of mass death, little attention is actually paid to the dead and dying themselves.

And yet, however much human exceptionalism is to blame, part of the lesson of the anthropocene mass extinction is how closely human lives are affected by it, a lesson we are vastly more likely to take to heart than the suffering of any bat or toad; perhaps there is no separation between their suffering and our own. This, in part, is the answer to Challenger’s “so what?” as offered by a new crop of philosophical thinkers, whose work provides a much needed bridge between the humanities and ecological science. If their efforts seem effete in comparison to Kolbert’s vastly more enjoyable narrative, they at least encourage us to step past self-loathing, pity, and the strange excitement those feelings produce. Philosophy, unlike straightforward nonfiction narrative, can hold the kind of uncertainty of which this moment is full.

4. Bill McKibben proclaimed the “end of nature” in the late 1980s, writing that there was no longer anything unaffected by human activity that could be identified as such. In Hyperobjects, philosopher Timothy Morton inverts this. In this age of global warming, species loss, and environmental degradation, there is nothing “human” still unaffected by “nature” and so to separate the two becomes absurd. Morton specializes in something called object-oriented ontology, and his book is as difficult as that concept sounds. Still, those able to wade through his occasionally hyperactive prose (the “gigantic coral reef of sparkling things beneath the Heideggerian U-Boat” or “the cupcake aisle of the ontological supermarket”) will find a fairly radical reconsideration of our place in the world. “This is not only a historical age but also a geological one,” Morton writes, echoing Kolbert. “In this period nonhumans make decisive contact with humans, even the ones busy shoring up the differences between humans and the rest.” Notably, by nonhumans Morton means not just animals but things like plutonium, plastics, and atmospheric carbon—what he calls “hyperobjects.” The extension is a little odd, but his demolition of categories leads to a series of forceful points. The end of the world means the end of an idea of a “world” as something other than us. We cannot “get back to nature” because there’s nothing to get back to. Instead, what the environmental crisis makes obvious is that what we called nature and the environment “are in our face—they are our face.” 

In the context of human exceptionalism—as in narratives like Kolbert and Challenger’s—extinction happens “out there” in “nature.” One must travel and seek it out. But if, following Morton, we were to give up the idea of nature altogether—the idea that there is an “elsewhere” that our waste goes to when we toss it down the garbage shoot, an “elsewhere” where the animals die—we can recognize our intimacy not only with the toxic byproducts of our civilization but with the animals that are dying at our hands. Morton calls for an ecology that neither undermines, like Greenberg’s book might be said to do (refusing to see the big picture by focusing on the individual), nor “overmines,” like Kolbert’s at times (burying the individual in its larger system by focusing on the idea survival of “life”). Instead, he writes, what should be considered is our proximity to all of this death and how we can live with it.

5. The ethics of this proximity is the subject Australian environmental philosopher Thom Van Dooren’s Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. The book is unique among extinction stories for looking less at the phenomenon itself and more at why it might matter in an emotional, moral sense. “What is lost when a species, an evolutionary lineage, a way of life, passes from the world?” he asks. Van Dooren, an academic in the new field of “Extinction Studies,” identifies the “multispecies entanglements” that not only play a role in an animal’s physical evolution but in that of human culture as well. Human culture in India, for instance, has developed in concert with vultures, which are relied on to dispose of cow carcasses and those of humans in certain burial rites. Now that the vultures are dying en masse, the Parsi can no longer “bury” their dead.

Apart from its relevance to human culture, Van Dooren considers non-human animals not just as “life forms” but also as “forms of life,” each with a way of life—what he calls a “flight way”—that generates meaning for that creature itself. (It’s a sign of just how settled we are in ideas of human exceptionalism that this simple claim—not in the least bit radical, really—comes across as somewhat PETA-ish and tree-huggery.)  He offers a beautiful and oddly touching reconsideration of what a species is: “Species are incredible achievements…[they are] shared, produced, and nurtured in the world through the work of successive generations of living beings.” More than just a lineage stretching out in time, a species is composed of the “work” each generation does—an albatross sitting on its egg for weeks without food, a human mother working three jobs. It is both more than the sum of the individuals living and dependent on their participation. Each individual invests a huge amount of resources in the species—it is their work and their striving (even if they are unaware of it) that achieves evolutionary continuity, and so the existence of everything that has evolved along the way, both from it and in being “carried by” it, is co-shaped as a member of its community. 

Considering species in this way changes how we think about what extinction might mean and the enormity of the rupture it creates. Martha’s death was a kind of formal mark, but extinction means more than whether or not there is at least one individual of a given species living, according to Van Dooren. As Greenberg’s account of its life makes clear, what it meant to be a passenger pigeon—a “flight way” of vast flocks and noisy, communal roosts—disappeared long before Martha took her last breath.  A part of what it meant to be a human in the American Midwest must have changed before then, too.

Recognizing such “entanglements,” Van Dooren calls for an a mode of mourning that “does not announce the uniqueness of the human, but works to…grieve for the loss of a world that includes us.” Yet what we are bound up with specifically matters; we must “cast our lot for some ways of life and not others.” This is a surprising plea—unique as far as I can tell—in that instead of aiming for vague ideals such as “nature” or “ecosystem balance,” Van Dooren suggests embracing a form of “Cenocentrism,” fighting for a “continuity of the Cenozoic achievement,” which is to say, for the world that took form after the Cretaceous extinction—the community of life that includes our own species. This rather neatly solves the baseline problem Challenger and Kolbert posed, exchanging what Morton would call an “overmined” valorization of life generally for care of what is proximal to us and for our own, intimate world.

Of course, whichever world we stand for, many individual animals and entire species will suffer, die, and disappear for good. The practical question this poses and the true dilemma of now is not what is going on but what one does with that information once one has it, besides lapsing into cynical resignation. Van Dooren suggests mourning as both the ethical and beneficial response. The fact that there has been so little public mourning for extinction is due to the human “inability to really get—to comprehend at any meaningful level—the multiple connections and dependencies between ourselves and these disappearing others.” We have learned not to be affected by the extinctions of those we consider fundamentally different (the same, of course, goes for those mass human deaths we find it convenient to ignore). But mourning forces us to “relearn the world and our place in it” and can teach us to get the connection, even if it is too late. To other crows, he writes, the body of a dead crow signifies danger, and the birds will often avoid a place where one of their species has died for years. “What must the death of a whole species of crow, alongside a host of others at this time, communicate to any sentient and attentive observer?” Van Dooren wonders. “How could these extinctions not announce our need to find new flight ways, new modes of living in a fragile and changing world?” Van Dooren suggests that we read extinction stories like these as acts of mourning in themselves, the way we read records of human holocausts, with respect and care for the victims.  As with any death, it’s in telling stories about the dead that life and death are put into relation; through mourning, survivors relearn the world and their place in it and, in that way, find new ways to live. This is, in its way, a kind of hope.  “In choosing to grieve actively,” as the author and philosopher of grief Tomis Attig wrote, “we choose life.” 

Like any death, extinction represents the end of a certain portion of the world—of an idea of our world as we thought we knew it. They say shock at the loss of the passenger pigeon was so great that that no one believed it; some speculated it had simply gone to live in Australia or even the moon. For a while, Midwesterners continued to feel the shadows of great flocks passing above, the way an amputee can feel a missing limb. In stories like this, extinction touches us, making an animal’s absence as pointed and as intimate with our human lives as we perhaps never realized its presence to be.Stories like this force us to rethink what survival really means, for us as well as them, whether merely living is enough or at what point we become too alone. The stories we need now go beyond informing us of our errors. They have to be emotionally relevant, inhabiting all of the complexity—ethical, political, and personal—of this moment in time. Doing more than teaching us, such stories could be in themselves ways of mourning—eulogies for a world we thought we knew and that we must relearn.

Link: WNYC's Radiolab: Galapagos

Today, the strange story of a small group of islands that raise a big question: is it inevitable that even our most sacred natural landscapes will eventually get swallowed up by humans? And just how far are we willing to go to stop that from happening? We are dedicating a whole hour to the Galapagos archipelago, the place that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection. 179 years later, the Galapagos are undergoing rapid changes that continue to pose — and possibly answer — critical questions about the fragility and resilience of life on Earth.

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,



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,


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: Human Mortality, Individual and Collective

It has been a major triumph of human civilization: Never before in evolutionary history has a species lifted itself from Darwin’s Struggle for Existence, and created a safe, secure environment in which a majority of individuals may expect to live out a full life expectancy and die of old age. You and I take for granted that aging is the greatest hurdle that we face in our quest to live a long, long time. Let’s hope this is true.

Let’s do more than hope. Let’s remember that aging evolved in order to keep ecosystems in balance, to keep populations from outgrowing their resources. If we are at the forefront of the movement to extend individual life span, we must also be at the forefront of a movement to lower birth rates and shrink the human footprint.

Me, my and mine: The Human Species and the Terrible Twos

Before we learned empathy, before we learned to share and to wait our turn, before we learned to provide for others and to trust that our needs would be provided in turn—we were Terrible Two-year-olds. Everything was me, my and mine.

Before humanity, Gaia was a diverse and wondrous beast, a many-headed Hydra, with different local faces in mountain and forest and desert and ocean environments, every acre a unique ecosystem.

Henry David Thoreau spoke of teaching the earth to say “beans” instead of “grass” — “this was my daily work.” The history of humanity on this planet has been to divert the Earth’s primary productivity from the diverse cycles and epicycles in the tangled bank that is nature, to align the primary productivity in the service of man, to feed and clothe and house us, to provide our comfort and transportation and amusement.

As humans spread out of Africa some 60,000 or was it 200,000) years ago, every place that we appeared, the charismatic megafauna would disappear, and humans would replace them at the top of the food chain. Giant bears in Europe, Giant Sloths in South America, Mastodons and Sabre Tooth Tigers in North America, Great Awks in Iceland, 7-foot Kangaroos and 3-ton Wombats in Australia, 8-foot Moas in New Zealand (the original Big Bird). All the largest animals that thought they were safe from predation succumbed to the chiseled flint spearheads and the clever tricks and traps of small bands of humans. Ecosystems were made over in our service.

For thousands of years, we humans thought only of me, my and mine. We understood that as we domesticated the planet there would be victims. There are winners and losers in the game of life. It is our mission, our destiny to make sure we are among the former.

Recent centuries have seen an acceleration of this process, impressive increases in the conversion of grass to beans. Hunting and gathering yielded to agriculture, then factory farms. Monoculture has replaced the tangled bank.  Greater triumphs for humanity, greater losses for the lower plants and animals that we displace.


We all live in artificial environments, “Little we see in nature that is ours,” wrote Wordsworth over 200 years ago, and I daresay he never saw Walmarts or even Manhattan. We take a moment to remember the plight of the dying birds and the frogs, the poor frogs – the world’s amphibian populations have been disappearing at the rate of more than 3% per year. We miss nature, we truly do, but we imagine all the same that their loss is our gain. Man is no longer dependent on the ecosystem that birthed us. We can live in an engineered world. We will cover the Earth with farms and factories and housing, and human life will go on, even if what we know as Nature is dead as a Dodo.

What if it isn’t true? What if human life is more dependent on a functioning ecosystem than is apparent? We are already coping with a precipitous decline in pollinating insects by renting out mobile beehives to our farmlands. We don’t really know to what extent our farms are dependent on the ambient ecology. Bacterial communities recycle carcasses into nutrients. Wetland ecologies purify water. Oceans buffer our atmosphere.

Could you kindly rephrase that in equivocal, inaccurate, vague, self-serving and roundabout terms we can all understand?

California grows half of the produce consumed in the United States, and continues to do so by mining a fossil water table which is down 40 feet in the last 40 years. The American Midwest is the breadbasket not just for the US of A, but for much of the world; and there a rich layer of topsoil, laid down over tens of thousands of years, is being washed into the Mississippi in a few decades.

Putting a dollar value on “ecosystem services” may be an absurdity, but here is a study that sought to catalog some of the value of Nature, and stopped when they got to a number that was twice the economic output of the entire world.

We don’t know how much we can grow or how many people we can support on this planet sustainably, because we’ve never tried. But there has been one small-scale experiment that may be instructive. In the late 1980s, visionary scientists constructed Biosophere II [link] in the Arizona desert. It was conceived as a self-contained microcosm of Planet Earth (re-named “Biosophere I”), complete with farmlands, forest, wetlands, a desert, a miniature ocean with coral reef and a tropical jungle modeled on the Amazon – all in an enclosed dome that covered p acres. The biological community was engineered to be a closed, self-sufficient artificial ecosystem, recycling oxygen with its plants and purifying water in its wetlands. There was solar energy aplenty.

The experiment was a disaster. Atmospheric oxygen was permitted to decline to 2/3 of its ambient value before the project doctor (well-known and well-loved by many of us in the life extension community) rebelled and insisted on fulfilling his Hippocratic oath. Neither was the community ever self-sustaining in food or clean water. The residents/scientists/pioneers had no idea what they had committed to, and relations became contentious when the basics of life were in short supply. Stories survive of smuggled food, fistfights, and residents who took survival into their own hands, breaking windows to permit air exchange.

Resource Wars

If it becomes clear that the planet cannot support all of us as resources begin to be in short supply, we may imagine some of the diverse responses of people and governments. For many people, hardship brings out our noblest altruistic nature. For others, there will be food fights and resource wars. Me, my and mine. Governments have already offered us hints about the lengths to which they are willing to go to “preserve order” in a crisis.

Healthy, caring and progressive human minds do better not to think about such things, as their contemplation can make us feel helpless and drag us into depression. Joanna Macy has devoted her career to helping us keep our sanity as we advocate for peace and environmental sanity.


Chemists call it “latency”. Physicists say “hysteresis”. Ecologists speak of “delayed functional response”. The meaning is that systems have an inertia that keeps them looking the same for awhile, even after everything, everything has changed. You can slowly raise the temperature of a glass of water until it’s 10o above boiling, and it looks like a calm liquid, not a bubble in sight. But then touch it or disturb it or drop in a grain of sand and the water explodes. (People have been scalded taking a superheated cup of coffee out of the microwave.)

And so may it be with species extinctions. The producer species have not been keeping pace with consumption for quite some time, but the consumer species goes on, apparently thriving, continuing to increase in number, though they may notice it is a little more difficult than usual to forage the evening meal. By the time the predators realize that something is awry, the game is played out and long past over. There’s no road home.

The reason can be explained in terms of exponential mathematics: a depleted prey population grows very slowly, even as the predator population is at maximum demand. Or intuition tells us the same thing: when food becomes scarce, the predators step up their hunt effort and do their best to maintain their quality of life (and their fertility) until food becomes so scarce that it is too late.  The prey species, if not extinct, is at such a low level that it will take a long time to recover, long enough for most of the predators to starve. The earth’s ocean ecologies have already been transformed beyond recognition by industrial-scale fishing methods.

In 1944, the US Coast Guard introduced 29 reindeer on the island of St Matthew off Alaska.  There had been no large mammals on the island before, and no natural predators.  It was an experiment to see if a hunting preserve could be established.  The reindeer population grew steadily at about 30% per year, first surpassing the number the island could support sustainably in about 1958.  That was about 2,000 animals.  But by 1963, inertia carried the population over 6,000.  The next winter was rather harsh, not extraordinary, but enough to devastate the over-extended population.  When wildlife wardens landed on the island the following spring, 42 reindeer remained alive [ref].

The Sixth Extinction

Between the advent of multicellular life and the current era, there have been five major extinction events, in which between 30% and 80% of all extant species vanished on a timescale shorter than can be resolved in archaeological records. These were spread over 500 million years.  We are now in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, sometimes called the Anthropocene Extinction, and it is estimated that there is already sufficient inertia in the process to insure that a substantial fraction all extant species will perish in ensuing decades, no matter what conservation efforts are undertaken, and no matter what future direction is taken by human civilization.

In 2002, world leaders represented at the Convention on Biological Diversity committed to a program targeting a significant decline in the rate of species extinction by 2010. It was assumed at the time that conservation measures at the fringe of the mainstream economy would be adequate to achieve this end. But by 2010, it was clear that this program had failed dramatically, and that the loss of biodiversity is essentially linked to the core character of human economy.

I have explained in previous blog posts my belief that ecosystems are highly co-evolved for stability. Large-scale. complex ecosystems have the property of being highly interdependent, and redundant, which creates a resistance to small disruptions. The same structure also creates a vulnerability to large disruptions. There is a “domino effect”: Once a threshold of loss is exceeded, the entire system becomes vulnerable to collapse. It is theorized that most of the species lost in the previous five extinctions succumbed to this sort of “collateral damage”.


David Wilson has proposed that democracy is an evolutionary development of seminal import, and is what distinguishes human organization from other successful social species. Humans communicate and negotiate, and are able to arrange their cooperation in the interest of a diverse community. Contrast this to eusocial insects, for example, which enlist an army of workers in the interest of a single genome. The human analog of these systems is oligarchy and aristocracy, which Wilson sees as pulling us back toward a lower and less powerful stage of evolutionary development.

We live in a time when most of the developed world pays lip service to democracy, but in reality, deep distortions to democracy pull public policy into the service of short-term corporate profits, and a very small, very wealthy minority.

Democracy alone may not be sufficient to take us from imperial wars and an extractive relationsihp to nature all the way to world peace and environmental stewardship…but it’s a big step in the right direction. Corporatocracy is carrying us in the wrong direction,180 degrees at a rousing gallop. The people have consistently expressed more sensitivity to nature than the politicians, and there has never been a war but that the politicians have had to drag the people into it with ominous appeals to fear more than patriotism.

There’s nothing I can do, so why are you reminding me of this shit?

I return to Wordsworth. I love this poem (and am grateful to my late father-in-law for introducing me). It was written in 1806.

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Most of us live busy, over-scheduled lives, committed to family, friends, and more projects than we are able to complete. We feel that much depends on our efforts, and, in the last analysis, we are all alone.

We live, after all, in a hyper-individualistic culture, with a sense of who we are that is probably anomalous both across history and across nations. Many Asian cultures are subtly more collective and cooperative than ours. Hunter-gatherer cultures of our hominid ancestors (and extant hunter-gatherers today) are strikingly more communal in their organization. Much of the angst and yearning that we feel from day to day (feelings we have learned to ignore, or to blame on our own failings) may be an echo of our longing for re-connection to nature and to each other. We were never meant to go it alone.

Our individual mortality looms large, perhaps especially so for members of the life extension community.  Of course, fear of death has a biological basis and evolutionary roots. Mourning and long sadness over the loss of a loved one is ancient – gorillas and even elephants mourn their dead. But this sense that my individual consciousness is all that there is, that it depends on this body, that all is over when the light goes out, an absolute finality – this is an abysmal terror that most people historically have not lived with, and even most cultures today do not feel.

Entertain the possibility that our sense of self may be deeply distorted by culture, that there is another way to feel about our very existence. Explore opportunities for collective political action, not only as a way to save our planet, but also to reconnect to each other, to nature, and to our own souls.

Link: ‘A Government Of Thugs’: How Canada Treats Environmental Journalists

I attempted to enter Canada on a Tuesday, flying into the small airport at Fort McMurray, Alberta, waiting for my turn to pass through customs.

“What brings you to Fort Mac?” a Canada Border Services Agency official asked. “I’m a journalist,” I said. “I’m here to see the tar sands.” He pointed me to border security. Another official, a tall, clean-shaven man, asked the same question. “I’m here to see the tar sands.” he frowned. “You mean oil sands. We don’t have tar here.”

Up until the 1960s, the common name for Canada’s massive reserves of heavy bitumen mixed with sand was “tar sands.” Now, the phrase is officially considered a colloquialism, with “oil sands” being the accurate name, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. But “tar sands” is not really an informal phrase in Canada as much as it is a symbol of your views. If you say tar sands, you’re an environmentalist. If you say tar sands, you’re the enemy.

“We might have to send you back to the States,” the official said, after asking if I had working papers. I didn’t, so I phoned a colleague staying at a nearby hotel. “This guy at border security says I need working papers or something and that he’s gonna send me back to the States,” I said.

“Why did you say I was going to send you back to the States? I didn’t say that,” the official said after I hung up. “See, you’re already misrepresenting what’s going on here.”

My interrogation included details about where I was going, who I was meeting with, why I wanted to see the sands. The official had me open my bag so he could see if I was carrying cameras. Then he let me into Canada. “Because I’m being nice,” he said, and gave me a certificate stating that I must leave the country by Friday.

Can’t Criticize If You Don’t Know

In all, I was delayed for about 45 minutes — a relatively painless experience — but I did get the feeling I wasn’t the only one being hassled in Canada for an association with environmentalism. Indeed, as interviews with multiple reporters and activists show, the federal government places numerous obstacles in the way of those who try to disseminate information about the Canadian tar sands. Many believe this has amounted to a full-on war.

There are logical reasons why impeding environmental journalists could be in Canada’s interest. The tar sands are the third largest oil reserve in the world, and production is currently accelerating so quickly that the governmentpredicts capital investments will reach $218 billion over the next 25 years. Part of that investment could come from the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial proposal that, if approved, would bring up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil per day down to refineries in the U.S.

So it makes sense that Canadian officials may want to prevent environmental perspectives on Fort McMurray’s vast tar sands reserves, which have replaced thousands of acres of boreal forest with massive refineries and sprawling mining sites — shiny, black excavated deserts that sit next to glowing white ponds of chemical waste. A small portion of boreal forest remains, but it doesn’t do much to cover the scars.

From the air, you can see enormous white smokestacks 50 miles away. And from the ground, you can talk to those who have been physically harmed by accidental releases from the white ponds of tar sands chemical waste, called tailings ponds, which leech into the Athabasca river and flow downstream to First Nations communities like Fort Chip, where cancer rates have skyrocketed in the last 30 years.

Stories that describe the detrimental effects of Canada’s fossil fuel boom — not to mention the high carbon-intensityof tar sands oil extraction or unlikelihood that mining sites will ever be adequately reclaimed — threaten public support for projects like Keystone XL, and by extension, speedy and lucrative development.

‘A Culture Of Secrecy’

According to Tom Henheffer, executive director of the non-profit Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), the Canadian federal government has been actively working for the last decade to prevent journalists’ access to information, particularly in science-related fields. The trend only got worse, he said, when current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a fierce supporter of tar sands development, took office in 2006.

“It’s specifically very bad in science-related fields, but it extends into every other field,” Henheffer said. “This government has a culture of secrecy that is extremely harmful to Canadian society.”

This government has a culture of secrecy that is extremely harmful to Canadian society.

Henheffer, whose group in April released its annual Review of Free Expression in Canada Report Card, noted two main issues at play. One, he said, is an increase in the amount of bureaucracy journalists must go through to get information. The other is a gradual de-funding of research, so the information journalists want isn’t even created in the first place.

The CJFE’s report card gave a failing grade to Canada’s access-to-information (ATI) system, which saw delays beyond the legal time limit affecting almost 45 percent of information requests, and more than 80 percent of responses partially or mostly censored. That report card also slammed the government for cutting scientific research, dismissing more than 2,000 scientists and cutting 165 research programs affecting “almost every federal scientific and monitoring institution.”

The report also noted a nationwide “muzzling” of federal scientists, citing government efforts to ensure its scientists limit discussions with the media on their work — much of which includes the environmental and climate impacts of tar sands development. This was confirmed in 2007, when a leaked PowerPoint presentation from Environment Canada revealed that government scientists were told to refer all media queries to communications officers who would help them respond with “approved lines.”

The current climate, Henheffer said, is frustrating journalistic efforts throughout the country.

“They’ve essentially dismantled our access to information system,” he said. “It makes investigative journalism impossible.”

The ‘Extremist Threat’ Of Environmentalists

Along with access to information for journalists, Stephen Harper’s government has also been working to dismantle environmental groups, a fact that has been revealed, ironically, by document requests from journalists. Those documents show unprecedented attempts from agencies across the federal government to spy on, de-fund, and otherwise disrupt the efforts of environmental groups.

[Environmental] groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.

The most recent example of this has been a rigorous effort by the Canada Revenue Agency to target environmental groups for possible abuse of their nonprofit charity statuses, alleging they may be violating the limits on how much political advocacy work they can do. The CRA’s $8 million effort was launched in 2012, shortly after the pro-tar sands group Ethical Oil kicked off a public campaign to “expose the radical foreign funded environmental groups” criticizing the oil industry.

“There are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade,” Joe Oliver, then-Natural Resources Minister, wrote at the time. “These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects.”

One of the original groups targeted was ForestEthics, a British Columbia-based nonprofit with branches in Vancouver and San Francisco. One of the fiercest and more outspoken opponents of the tar sands and the proposedNorthern Gateway pipeline, the group responded by giving up its charitable status (thereby giving up tax breaks to its donors) so it could focus more on combating what it refers to as “attacks on the environment.”

“Ever since we formed the advocacy group we’ve been under further … ‘intense scrutiny’ I guess is the nicest way to put it, because the advocacy group is set up explicitly for the sake of taking on the Harper government,” ForestEthics tar sands campaigner Ben West said.

West said that since his group founded its advocacy arm, it has been a target of a recently-revealed spying effort by the Canadian federal government. That effort, revealed in November by a public records request from the Vancouver Observer, showed that officials had been sending spies to meetings of anti-tar sands groups, relaying their plans for rallies and strategies for public meetings.

What’s more, documents obtained in February by the Guardian revealed that both Canada’s national police force and intelligence agency view environmental activist protest activities as “forms of attack,” and depict those involved as national security threats. Greenpeace, for example, is officially regarded as an “extremist” threat.

West said the revelations have had a “chilling” effect on the groups’ volunteer and donor base.

“The word is out that ForestEthics is one of the groups that the federal government is paying close attention to, and that has an impact on people’s comfort levels and their desire to get involved,” West said. “If you look at the pieces of the documents we were able to get our hands on, they explain what was happening at meetings where you would have had to have been in the room to have known the content of that meeting.”

‘A Government Of Thugs’

In addition to the more-calculated attempts to prevent environmental criticism, multiple reporters and activists say they experience an egregious amount of defensiveness, spitefulness, and intimidation from the federal government that prevents them from doing their jobs effectively.

“We have a government of thugs in Ottawa these days who are absolutely ruthless,” said Andrew Nikiforuk, anaward-winning journalist who has been reporting critically on Canada’s oil and gas industry for more than 20 years. “It’s a hostility and thuggery, is the way I would describe it. That’s exactly what it is.”

We have a government of thugs in Ottawa these days who are absolutely ruthless.

Nikiforuk says he’s been shut out of government events, “slandered and libeled” by a member of the government’s conservative party, and repeatedly contacted by government flacks who criticize his reporting.

The most blatant example of government intimidation Nikiforuk can recall was when members of Canada’s Energy Resources Conservation Board actively tried to prevent the publication of his 2010 book, Tar Sands, claiming he made numerous factual errors and posting a long letter about it on its website. Nikifourk rebutted the claims, eventually winning the Society of Environmental Journalist’s Rachel Carson Book Award for his reporting.

Documentary and satire filmmakers Andy Cobb and Mike Damanskis also said they experienced government intimidation when, like me, they were detained at the Fort McMurray airport in October 2013. Unlike me, however, they were deported.

“He basically told us that the tar sands weren’t news, that he wasn’t recognizing us as journalists, and that if we wanted to come to Canada, we weren’t going to be able to do it today,” Damanskis said.

Though it seemed like at first they would be able to enter the country without working papers, Damanskis and Cobb said the border official had an “immediate change of heart” after watching a clip of their previous work — a videosatirizing the infamous Mayflower, Arkansas tar sands pipeline spill.

Border spokesperson Lisa White said she was not authorized to speak on specific cases, and declined to specify whether officers were allowed to make entry decisions based on the content of journalists’ work. She did say, however, that documentary filmmakers required working papers to enter Canada, and that all entry decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

“All decisions are made in accordance with Canadian law,” she said.

Swift And Snarky Push-Back

Of course, it’s important to note that journalists like Nikiforuk, Damaskis, and Cobb are more likely to get negative feedback from Canadian government officials because they are not, and don’t claim to be, completely objective. All three are openly and fiercely opposed to the speed of tar sands development.

But even reporters who are seemingly more objective toward development have been subject to government push-back. For example, Economist correspondent Madelaine Drohan said via e-mail that Alberta’s provincial government once posted a “defensive” response on its website to an article she wrote that mentioned leaks from tailings ponds, which are large lakes of tar sands waste. That response has since been removed, but Drohan said she remembers it happening.

“It made me think that the government was even more sensitive than the industry,” she said.

As for hostility from the Alberta provincial government, one journalist pointed specifically to David Sands, a director at Alberta’s Public Affairs Bureau, whose Twitter account is made up largely of rebuttals to journalism critical of Alberta government. In recent tweets, Sands compared two newspapers’ coverage of Parliament to “jihad,” among other critical responses.

“Yeah, I’m the mean guy,” Sands told ThinkProgress. “It’s definitely my personal style, but nobody told me to be mean.”

Sands said part of his job is tracking down stories that include inaccuracies about Alberta government policies. He said he’s the only one in his department with the specific mandate to do so.

Still, many have criticized Alberta for the number of people they’ve employed to hunt down stories. According to documentsobtained by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation in April, Alberta employs 214 communications professionals at a cost of $21 million per year, a number that the National Post noted “far outstrips” the number of reporters who cover government.

Sands rebutted that story too, saying communications staff span a range of departments — healthcare, education, law enforcement — that are not all dedicated to attacking journalists.

“It’s sort of an enjoyment of the media to say we have 214 communications people who are all dealing with the media,” he said. “When reporting is challenged, people take it very personally.”

The Strategy Is Working — Or Is It?

Thus far, government push-back against environmental journalism seems to be working. As a recent survey of Canadian journalists showed, many environmental and climate stories about the tar sands often go unreported. That survey, titled “The Alberta Oil Sands, Journalists, and Their Sources,” questioned 20 reporters with extensive daily experience reporting on the tar sands.

Of the 20, 14 said stories about the tar sands were not being told, and seven of those 14 said environmental issues were the main ones untouched. Environmental damage done by leaking tailings ponds and bitumen waste; toxic contaminants leeching into the water; the impact of excess sulfur produced in the mining process — all of those were included in the issues journalists perceive as under-reported.

“I hate this story,” one reporter who participated in the study said. “It’s important, but there’s no direction or progression.”

As for activist groups, Ben West of ForestEthics said the hostility has actually been helping his group’s efforts. And it’s not just the group itself. As the government’s attacks have become more and more public, West says his and other environmental advocacy groups have been obtaining record-breaking donations from individuals — what he calls a “clear sign” that Canadians want to protect their environment from the tar sands.

“I actually kind of welcome these attacks from the federal government in a sense, because they are a great opportunity to highlight how crazy our government’s acting, and use it as a reason to ask people for more support,” he said. “Many Canadians feel strongly about this. Let the government create their own disincentives.”

Link: How Much Meat is too Much?

"Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat" by Philip Lymbery, with Isabel Oakeshott Bloomsbury, 426 pp, £12.99, January, ISBN 978-1-4088 4644-5

"Planet Carnivore" by Alex Renton. Guardian, 78 pp, £1.99, August 2013

Vegetarians, we say, are self-righteous and humourless; or fussy and weird; or like Hitler; we say that their diet makes them anaemic; that having to cater for them ruins every dinner party; that they are crazy not to eat bacon/lamb shanks/pepperoni because we evolved as hunter-gatherers; that their food smells horrible, and by implication, so do they; that it’s cruel to bring up a child vegetarian; that they are hypocrites, because how can they pretend to care about animal suffering when they still buy clothes from normal shops – and are those leather shoes by any chance?

Vegetarians themselves often argue that they make us feel uncomfortable because their existence is a reminder of the cruelty and carnage that the rest of us refuse to see; there’s probably some truth in this. But I suspect that the root of our hostility is more basic. It isn’t so much that they remind us of the slaughterhouse – meat itself does a pretty effective job there – as that they make a mockery of our unthinking preferences. What we’re protecting when we ridicule vegetarians isn’t our own ignorance about the way meat is produced – however it’s done, killing animals for food isn’t nice – but our taste for it: the smell of sausages sizzling in a pan, the charred umami crust of a good steak, the pink tender pieces of a rack of lamb. Meat tastes good, ergo vegetarians must be idiots.

It sounds a little selfish, though, to say that we’re prepared to squander the world’s resources and see animals die to satisfy our taste for savoury dinners, so we think up other excuses. We say we eat only small quantities or only free-range and ‘happy meat’ (unless we are buying take-out curry or a sandwich, when different moral rules seem to apply). We talk of ‘cuisine’ or ‘tradition’ or how it’s ‘in our nature’ as human omnivores to eat meat. When all else fails, we invoke what nutritionists call ‘the wisdom of the body’: we’d be happy to go vegetarian, if only our bodies weren’t telling us they needed meaty replenishment.

The prospect of meat as it is produced in the modern farming system, however, is not so appealing. In Farmageddon, Philip Lymbery – chief executive of the charity Compassion in World Farming – suggests that mass market meat is leading to ‘the death of our countryside … and billions starving’. For two years Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott, political editor of the Sunday Times, travelled the world to investigate ‘factory farming’. The horrors they witness will come as little surprise to anyone who has read Peter Singer, Michael Pollan, Felicity Lawrence, Eric Schlosser or any of the previous exposés of factory-farmed meat, but they make grim and startling reading even so. If you can get beyond the title, the great virtues of Farmageddon are its global reach and eyewitness accounts of the many grotesque landscapes – seabeds without oxygen, fields without wildlife, chickens without beaks – generated by our love of meat.

In Taiwan, Lymbery and Oakeshott see half-dead chickens being scooped into rubbish bags; in Argentina, they meet tribespeople forced off their land to make way for soya farms growing animal feed; in India, they track the wave of suicides among peasants no longer able to make a living; in California, they hear of children who have asthma because they live near a ‘mega-dairy’ housing around 10,000 cows; in China, they see a village where there is no clean water because of the excess of pig effluent from a nearby farm, run by a company producing a million pigs a year. Near the farm, they notice some strange poplar trees, whose trunks are bare and leaves and branches wilting. ‘We scrambled along the edge of a maize field, and then up a steep bank, and there we saw the source of the problem: a huge lagoon of putrid watery muck.’ This farm, ‘ironically’, had received accreditation from the UN ‘on the basis of its environmental record’.

One of the best, most truly alarming chapters investigates the fishmeal industry in Peru. The lunacy of this business is that it involves taking a valuable protein that very few people eat enough of – oily fish – and turning it into a protein that is less healthy and that we already eat to excess: broiler chicken.

Fishmeal is one of the filthiest secrets of the factory-farming industry, an environmental catastrophe that involves sucking millions of tonnes of small fish out of the sea and crushing them into fish oil and dry feed for farmed fish, pigs and chickens. The process deprives millions of larger wild fish, birds and marine mammals of their natural prey, drastically depleting stocks of important species. It also pumps vile fatty waste into ocean bays, creating ‘dead zones’; pollutes the atmosphere around processing plants, causing widespread human health problems; and diverts what could be a highly valuable source of nutrition for people to industrially farmed animals.

In Chimbote – one of the places where Peruvian fishmeal is fashioned from dried cakes of rotting fish – 20 to 30 per cent of the population suffers high levels of malnutrition. Many of the children have lesions on their skin caused by the fumes the fishmeal factories emit. They are surrounded by oily fish – the stench of it in the air, a slick of grease floating on the water – but few of the locals eat it. ‘As little as 1 per cent of the highly nutritious anchoveta caught off Chimbote is likely to end up on dinner plates’; the remaining 99 per cent goes to feed chickens in faraway countries. Lymbery and Oakshott meet Javier Zabaleta, the secretary of the local fishing union, who wishes Peruvians would eat more of the local fish. ‘Peruvians,’ he says, ‘are not used to eating darker flesh-coloured fish – we prefer white fish, chicken and other meat.’ These Peruvians have every reason to approach meat warily, yet even they – like the rest of us – cannot get enough.

Not all meat is produced in equally vile conditions, but for supermarket meat it is the norm by a colossal margin. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer noted that there wasn’t enough ‘non-factory chicken produced in America to feed the population of Staten Island’. Farmageddon states that ‘99 per cent of broiler chickens in America’ are reared in the worst kind of processing plants, where many chickens are diseased and ‘in such poor shape they can barely walk’, while the minimum-wage workers are likely to have hands swollen to double the normal size from being pecked when they catch the birds for slaughter. Even if you can stomach the thought of the way the animals and workers live, there’s still the problem of resources. Nearly ‘a third of the planet’s land surface’ is devoted to ‘rearing farm animals or growing their feed’. If the cereals fed to animals reared for meat went instead directly to humans, an extra three billion people could be fed – roughly the number currently at risk of malnourishment. Yet, for all this, Lymbery is careful not to side with the vegetarians. You ‘don’t have to choose between eating cereals or meat’, we are assured. This book, he insists, is not ‘anti-meat’, though by the time you get to the chapter ‘Bugs’n’Drugs’, tracing the ‘vast tide of disease’ coming from meat – MRSA from antibiotics in pigs, salmonella from broiler chickens – you wonder why it isn’t. If anything, the extent to which meat makes people ill is underplayed. Though only briefly discussed in Farmageddon, a particularly nasty form of food poisoning called campylobacter spreads like wildfire in overcrowded chicken sheds; it infects 65 per cent of all British chickens, yet hardly anyone seems to have heard of it. In 2009, it caused 17,500 hospitalisations in the UK (200,000 across the EU) and it’s the reason you should never order chicken liver paté at a wedding (because the livers are cooked pink).

Farmageddon’s premise is that there are better ways of producing meat. For Lymbery, the evil is not the slaughterhouse itself, but cheap meat like the £2 supermarket chicken whose full cost is not apparent at the point of sale. Chandran Nair, the environmentalist who runs the Global Institute for Tomorrow, ‘argues that the true economic cost of a US$4 burger, if you factor in the externalities (such as the cost of converting grain to meat, water and energy use) is “something like US$100”’. Advocates of mass-produced meat take the view that it offers huge benefits to the poor: once a chicken was a special treat, now it is an everyday staple. ‘They talk as if industrial farming is some kind of driver of equality,’ Lymbery notes. But cheap meat has the unintended consequence of pushing up the price of everything else, disproportionately affecting the poor, who still depend on grain for their calories. Global meat production creates a bloated demand for grain, which exacerbates the effects of inflation when harvests are hit, as they were in 2010-11 thanks to hot dry conditions across Europe, Africa, America and Australia. It is the poor who live with the direct consequences of industrial meat production: they are the ones whose homes are on the banks of pig lagoons, whose babies suffer respiratory disease from pesticide spraying. In Argentina, Lymbery and Oakeshott see what happens when a field with a picturesque duck pond and a fig tree is replaced with a cattle feedlot consisting of thousands of cattle in a sea of mud. ‘Around us was GM soy, interspersed by a lot of weeds and more mosquitoes than any of us had ever seen in one place.’

If this is a picture of the end of the world – Farmageddon – Lymbery finds an alternative future – Farmutopia? – at Highgrove, the organic estate in Gloucestershire owned by the Prince of Wales:

The farm is home to 180 dairy cows, 150 suckler cows, 130 breeding ewes that produce around 200-220 lambs a year, and a few rare-breed pigs. It works on a crop-rotation system, a seven-year cycle designed to maximise the richness of the soil. Organic mutton from Home Farm is sent to Calcot Manor, a luxury hotel near Tetbury, and to the Ritz in London.

Quite apart from his admiration for ‘His Royal Highness’, Highgrove satisfies Lymbery’s criteria for sustainable meat in numerous respects. First, and foremost, it offers a mixed system of agriculture, the ‘happy partnership’ between animal and crop rearing that was the normal way of farming before ‘industrialisation divorced them’ in the postwar era. Second, it is run organically: Lymbery cites calculations by the Soil Association that organic meat production is more ‘energy-efficient’, with organic beef using 35 per cent less fuel than non-organic and organic lamb 20 per cent less. Third, in contrast to the profligacy of the industrial meat system, Highgrove is run with minimal waste: ‘there’s a bespoke reedbed sewage system to process royal excrement.’ Fourth, the produce of Highgrove is nice and expensive, priced too high for the masses to gorge on it: what is not sold to luxury hotels goes under the Duchy Originals label in Waitrose.

If all meat production were more like this the future for meat-eaters would be rosy. Or so Lymbery believes. Farmageddon is a curiously consoling book for a British meat-eater because, once you’ve waded through all the horror, you can think, at least I haven’t forced any tribespeople off their land lately and thank God I’m not buying my chickens in Taiwan. Despite being gluttons for meat, the British have always prided themselves on superior animal husbandry, abhorring the Continental cruelty of eating tiny songbirds or unnaturally white veal, and Farmageddon shares some of this mood of self-congratulation. Thanks in part to the lobbying power of bodies such as Compassion in World Farming, four British supermarkets now stock exclusively free-range eggs and nearly a quarter of the chicken sold is produced to higher welfare standards: ‘free-range, organic or RSPCA Freedom Food Standard’. Compassion in World Farming gives an award for the most compassionate British supermarket every year: it passes ‘back and forth between Waitrose and Marks & Spencer’.

In his final chapter, on ‘consumer power’, Lymbery states that ‘avoiding Farmageddon is easy.’ Which makes you wonder why he chose to call his book that in the first place – if Armageddon is easy to avoid then it can’t be Armageddon. But Lymbery hopes we can shop our way out of it, without doing anything extreme like becoming vegetarian: ‘As long as we buy products from animals reared on the land (free-range, organic), favour local producers or retailers that we trust, eat what we buy and thereby reduce food waste, and avoid overeating meat, we can fill our plates in ways that benefit the countryside, our health and animal welfare.’


That’s a relief! But the crucial questions are not answered. What would it mean to ‘avoid overeating meat’? How could populations ever be persuaded to do so? I suspect that all meat-eaters claim to ‘avoid overeating meat’, in the same way that all wine drinkers are ‘moderate’. Farmageddon suggests that ‘going meat-free on Mondays’ is ‘a simple step towards avoiding factory-farmed produce’. Yes, it would be simple but it wouldn’t be anything like enough. The true ratio required for a future of sustainable meat-eating would be something more like meat on Mondays only. For a book that paints such horrific pictures of the disease, misery and squalor of factory farming,Farmageddon seems curiously determined to spare our feelings when it comes to the sacrifices that would be required in terms of our meat-eating habits.

If the meat industry looks ugly now, it is nothing to what it might be like if and when India and China catch up with the levels of meat consumption in the West. One of the major consequences of an expanding middle class in Asia has been a huge rise in meat-eating. By 2022, China will be importing more soya for chickenfeed than the whole of Brazil currently produces: 102 million tonnes. One of the surest signs of affluence is and always has been eating more meat. It’s the way you celebrate having risen above the carbohydrate-eating peasant classes. In A Vindication of Natural Diet in 1813, the vegetarian Shelley noted that ‘it is only the wealthy that can, to any great degree, even now, indulge the unnatural craving for dead flesh, and they pay for the greater license of the privilege, by subjection of supernumerary diseases.’ The difference today is that cheap meat means you don’t have to be quite so wealthy to tip over into the carnivorous demographic. Currently, the whole of Asia gets through around 18 billion chickens a year. If consumption continues to rise at current levels, by 2050 this figure will have increased more than tenfold to 200 billion chickens. But China and India will never be able to live like this – ‘simply because there isn’t enough to go around’. Lymbery appears to hope that higher meat prices will force consumption down, but since meat-eating is a consequence of wealth, prices would need to rise astronomically to have an impact. It would be as easy to persuade Americans to take their turn at eating dal and rice for a few centuries – it’s only fair – as it would to tell the new Asian middle classes not to buy meat for their families.

In Planet Carnivore, an excellent short ebook, Alex Renton looks into how much meat we’d have to give up in order to be sustainable. Renton points out that even though eating meat has become more popular in India, ‘the average Indian consumes a thirtieth of the meat that an Australian or an American does – around 4.4 kg in 2009’ whereas in the US it is ‘120 kg per head per annum, as much or more meat than anyone’. To reduce our consumption enough to mean that intensive farming could be abandoned would entail getting much closer to Indian levels, which for many would feel like virtual vegetarianism.

Renton cites Vaclav Smil, an energy expert from Canada, who has calculated that the world could comfortably accommodate a global output of 190 million tonnes of meat per year, two-thirds of current supply, if crop residues could be turned into animal feed and pasture could be used more efficiently. Universal vegetarianism is not necessary or desirable, in Smil’s view: animals are just better at digesting some things than humans, notably grass and food waste. Anyone in the world could eat meat, if they wanted to, on Smil’s model, so long as individual consumption was kept at around 15-30 kg a year: roughly what the average Japanese eats. This sounds good until you realise that average meat consumption in the UK is 89.1 kg a year; to get to Smil’s sustainable levels would involve cutting down to somewhere between a sixth and a third of the meat we now enjoy (15 kg a year works out at just 41 grams a day). A rib-eye steak at Hawksmoor in Covent Garden (400 g) would take you over your weekly limit in a single sitting. To reach Japanese levels of meat consumption, we would have to backtrack on the promise of the postwar years of plenty that meat could be a staple food. This would represent what Smil calls a shift from ‘massive carnivory’ to ‘rational meat-eating’.

Such a turn of events is not very likely, as Renton admits, because in order for the necessary reforms of the farming system to take place, there would need to be some ‘democratic, accountable and supranational body’, similar to the one that John Boyd Orr hoped would be set up by the UN after the war: a World Food Board. This would integrate ‘transport, human and animal health, the environment, agriculture and aquaculture and financial systems’ and guide ‘food production, trade and distribution’, working with the ‘food ministries of every nation’. Only then could the change in meat production happen, with ruminants restored to ‘their original, pre-19th-century … niche where they eat the things humans cannot in places where crops cannot be grown’ and safe food waste fed to ‘pigs, goats and chickens’. Renton does recognise, however, that there is no prospect of such an agency. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, in existence since 1945, certainly shows no sign of playing this role. As Renton says, ‘it has no teeth: it is an advisory and research body.’ Moreover, since its main remit is to alleviate malnutrition, its ‘programme in meat and meat products’ currently focuses on increasing meat production in developing countries, especially poultry – the goal is 7.3 kg of animal protein per person per year – rather than decreasing demand or supply in developed countries.

There are few signs that we genuinely want to eat less meat, or enough less to make a difference. Perhaps we could start with a hard-hitting ad campaign, like the ones they run against drink-driving at Christmas, showing what happens when a bad batch of chicken livers collides with a wedding marquee: the vomiting, the misery, the hospitalisations. But who’s going to pay for it?

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: Kurt Vonnegut: Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088

Back in 1988, as part of an ad campaign to be printed in Time magazine, Volkswagen approached a number of notable thinkers and asked them to write a letter to the future—some words of advice to those living in 2088, to be precise. Many agreed, including novelist Kurt Vonnegut; his letter can be read below.

Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088:

It has been suggested that you might welcome words of wisdom from the past, and that several of us in the twentieth century should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’? Or what about these instructions from St. John the Divine: ‘Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment has come’? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about anybody anytime, I guess, is a prayer first used by alcoholics who hoped to never take a drink again: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

Our century hasn’t been as free with words of wisdom as some others, I think, because we were the first to get reliable information about the human situation: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gather, how fast we were reproducing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much damage we were doing to the air and water and topsoil on which most life forms depended, how violent and heartless nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pouring in?

For me, the most paralyzing news was that Nature was no conservationist. It needed no help from us in taking the planet apart and putting it back together some different way, not necessarily improving it from the viewpoint of living things. It set fire to forests with lightning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more support life than big-city parking lots. It had in the past sent glaciers down from the North Pole to grind up major portions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Nor was there any reason to think that it wouldn’t do that again someday. At this very moment it is turning African farms to deserts, and can be expected to heave up tidal waves or shower down white-hot boulders from outer space at any time. It has not only exterminated exquisitely evolved species in a twinkling, but drained oceans and drowned continents as well. If people think Nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an enemy.

Yes, and as you people a hundred years from now must know full well, and as your grandchildren will know even better: Nature is ruthless when it comes to matching the quantity of life in any given place at any given time to the quantity of nourishment available. So what have you and Nature done about overpopulation? Back here in 1988, we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love—and then double in size again.

On second thought, I am not sure I could bear to hear what you and Nature may have done about too many people for too small a food supply.

And here is a crazy idea I would like to try on you: Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?

Now that we can discuss the mess we are in with some precision, I hope you have stopped choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. In my time they have been catastrophic as heads of sophisticated institutions with real work to do.

The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now, but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms:
  1. Reduce and stabilize your population.
  2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
  3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.
  4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
  5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
  6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.
  7. And so on. Or else.
Am I too pessimistic about life a hundred years from now? Maybe I have spent too much time with scientists and not enough time with speechwriters for politicians. For all I know, even bag ladies and bag gentlemen will have their own personal helicopters or rocket belts in A.D. 2088. Nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watching television. Everybody will sit around all day punching the keys of computer terminals connected to everything there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astronauts.


Kurt Vonnegut

Link: The Fire Burns Yet

Native American peoples are still here and still caring for their land. Can their conquerors say the same?

A few years ago, I was invited to attend a traditional Haida memorial ceremony. It was for a prominent community member in Old Masset on Haida Gwaii, off British Columbia. Before the potlatch, a friend casually mentioned a highly unusual event. When the man had died a few months earlier, a school of killer whales came into the harbour, right up close to the shoreline near his house. Killer whales were one of the deceased’s hereditary crests, passed down through the family matriline.

On the Pacific Northwest coast, Haida families inherit rights of association with certain ‘totemic’ species by virtue of legendary events in which their respective ancestors were involved. Stories of one clan descending from a supernatural salmon or another emerging ancestrally from a cedar tree are typical. But such tales do not merely recount legendary events of the past: they shape how people interpret the present. So Raven, the central character of Haida mythology, brought light and fire (by theft) to the world, and enabled the original Haida to emerge from a clamshell. And today, many Haidas continue to interpret the actions of particular living ravens as communicating to them, signalling messages of value from which their human relatives might learn.

I had already heard, and read, many similar accounts of Native relationships with the natural world and witnessed too many unusual events to be wholly sceptical about killer whales coming to pay their respects to a human relative. So I nodded politely, placed the information in a mental compartment not for literal or scientific scrutiny, and gave the matter no further thought at the time.

At a key moment in the ceremony, a cedarwood box containing small amounts of traditional food (salmon, kelp, etc) is placed on a log fire to consume its material form, while the essence, transformed into smoke, carries upwards. In the ceremony I attended after hearing about the visit of the killer whales, the charred box fell perfectly into four neat sections, cleanly releasing the man’s spirit heavenwards. At that moment, I glanced up, and noticed two bald eagles alighting in a nearby pine tree. They remained there, apparently attending to the events below. Haidas noticed this too, though they gave no overt indication until one of the ministers added a prayer to her litany, thanking the Creator for sending them. Bald eagles, it turned out, were another of the deceased’s hereditary crests.

As an anthropologist, I am a scientist, and profess the standard commitment to search for objective truth via observation and reason; I cheerfully accept established scientific laws. Yet this commitment has often been challenged by my experiences among Native communities involving the natural world, which I am unable to explain by scientific reason. I have come to believe that such experiences point towards a different, genuinely sustainable relationship with nature. But taking account of them means listening much more carefully to other people’s world views than we have done to date.

As the world starts to feel the effects of burgeoning human populations, declining biodiversity, climate warming, sea-level rise, and severe weather events, humanity seems helpless. Our global economy is geared to endless growth, and the in-tandem consumption of resources and production of unmanageable waste. Well-meaning initiatives multiply with each passing day, but typically founder against the unthinkable prospect that we might actually change fundamental aspects of our behaviour.

Of course, our cumulative ‘Western’ knowledge, our science, indeed our technology, has produced many wonderful things, not least modern medicine. But the current organisation of our global economy, and its obsession with endless — often trivial — innovation keeps us stuck on a path that might easily lead to the demise of both our species and its habitat. Can we do no better? After 200,000 years ofHomo sapiens, and less than two centuries of living in industrial states geared to exponential technological innovation, must we just shrug in the face of the inevitable? Have another martini and watch our own sunset? Or are there other models from which we might learn?

I am a social anthropologist, British by birth, American by naturalisation. Since the late 1970s, I have spent a fair amount of time residing in and visiting Native communities throughout the US and Canada. Most of my resident fieldwork has been with the Hopi of Arizona, but I have also worked with some of the New Mexico Pueblos, the Hoopa of northern California, the Puget Salish of Washington State, the Cayuga and Mohawk of upstate New York, the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw and other peoples of British Columbia, and the Choctaw and Chickasaw of Mississippi and Oklahoma.

As a Briton, I grew up with the idea (shared by many in Americans too) that American Indians had been assimilated, died off or, in all events, lost their traditional culture long ago. My undergraduate education in anthropology at the University of Cambridge in the early 1970s did nothing to correct this mistaken idea. North American Indian studies were almost entirely absent from my course of study, and none of my teachers had any experience of Native North American societies. Indeed, they tended to be disdainful of the very idea: Native Americans were somehow second-class indigenes, mentioned only in connection with ethnographic reconstructions of times long gone. As far as research went, Native American societies were either no longer extant or wholly acculturated and not suitable for anthropological study.

I began to realise how inapt this conception was when I entered graduate school at the University of New Mexico. I went on some initial trips to the Rio Grande Pueblos led by Alfonso Ortiz, a Pueblo anthropologist. I learnt not only that Pueblo peoples were still fluent in their languages (six in all — Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Keresan, Zuni and Hopi; except for the first three, all completely unrelated to each other), but also that they remained deeply attached to age-old ritual practices and to their subsistence economy. More than anything else, they were jealously protective of their autonomy from the dominant society.

As my experiences expanded, I have been continually astonished at the degree of cultural persistence across Native America. Wandering, with a Hoopa guide, on traditional lands of the Karuk and Yurok in northern California, I ran across preparations for the First Salmon ceremony, and a community life strongly grounded in their aboriginal heritage and the annual World Renewal cycle. On the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation on the US-Canadian border, even after 350 years of intensive colonisation (including, in 1710, a visit to London of ‘the four Mohawk kings’ to meet Queen Anne, and, in the mid-1700s, fighting for Sir William Johnson in the Seven Years’ War), despite continuous missionisation since the 1640s, despite relocation and land appropriation, the St Regis Mohawks still conduct business in the Mohawk language. Some Coast Salish people of the Puget Sound still use traditional beliefs in guardian spirits, who are encountered at power spots in their environment, to guide their actions.

Where Native Americans have lost their languages, as for most of the Haida, Hoopa, Chickasaw, or Puget Salish, there remains a palpable sense of continuity with the deep past, especially in the persistent value placed upon the land, its life-forms, and its sustaining force. A striking example of this can be found in Native service in the US military. Native Americans have the highest per‑capita participation in the military of any ethnic group in the US. While the Navajo code‑talkers of the Second World War are well-known, they were preceded in this by Choctaw code-talkers in the First World War, and accompanied in the Second World War by code-talkers from other tribes, including Hopi, Comanche, Cherokee, Lakota, and Meskwaki. Long before this, in the 18th century, the Six Nations of the Iroquois, having formed an alliance with the British, split in their allegiances to Loyalists and Patriots in the Revolutionary War, with many fighting on both sides. Native Americans fought in large numbers in the War of 1812, in the Civil War, and every major foreign engagement over the past two centuries.

In view of the generally awful treatment they have received at the hands of successive US governments, it seems surprising that so many should continue to enlist. I asked a decorated Hopi Second World War veteran — a man proud of his military service and at the same time strongly committed to Hopi autonomy — about this apparent paradox. He said that Native American patriotism has some different dimensions from that of non-Native compatriots. He pointed out that Natives, as the only class of Americans who are genuinely non-immigrants, fight to defend the land itself, a land for which their ancestors fought and died over countless generations.

This sense of the land has outlasted all the treaties (and their breaches), all its disposition by private cession and government pre-emption, and all its formal alienation to non‑Native hands. Hopis, for example, continue to look to their aboriginal land Hopitutskwa (roughly, the northeastern quarter of Arizona) as both the meaningful landscape of their ritual practices and as their defining territory, even though they have formal control of only a small portion of that (the Hopi Reservation), with the great majority controlled by the federal government and private owners. Native enlistment in military service has a deeper-rooted and more encompassing reality than conventional loyalty to the modern nation-state — it is a commitment to the land and all its life-forms. Of course, many Native Americans are patriotic in the standard sense as well.

Learning from this way of being in the world will require serious attention to Native perspectives: not just as a prop for some Western-conceived environmentalism that marshals the same old metaphysics in new bottles, but with a goal of refiguring the culture-nature, mind-body split that dominates much of Western thought. Such splits tend to reduce nature, including the human body, to physical forms and processes. According to this world-view, only human beings have minds. Nature is thus deprived of intrinsic sentience or conscious intentions: without those, or with only a token acknowledgement of their existence — such as a concern for animal suffering in animal rights ­— there can be no genuine ethics in human relations with other species. And upon our dualist metaphysics is built a whole scheme of global practices — political, economic, medical, even religious — that, notwithstanding its benefits, is the underlying cause of the present global environmental crisis. This is why I believe that refiguring our world-view is a prerequisite to solving, or at least ameliorating that crisis.

The Haida have undergone extensive change since smallpox severely diminished their population and colonial authorities imposed harsh measures of assimilation in the late 19th century. Notoriously the ‘Residential’ schools were designed to detach children from their own culture and language, and from the 1890s to the 1950s the Canadian government outlawed the potlatch ceremony, jailing people for participating in practices that decidedly transgressed against the protestant ethic and the accumulation of surplus. In the 20th century only a few elders continued to speak the language, and with the Canadian government’s suppression of the potlatch, traditional practices ebbed away.

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a cultural renaissance in Haida arts, the potlatch has resumed, and totem-pole carving has flourished. Many people continue to collect subsistence foods — berries, greens, tender pine cones, salmon, clams, etc — expressing age-old habits of relationship, and acknowledging their fundamental dependence on the natural environment of Haida Gwaii (‘islands of the Haida people’). The acknowledgement is not just theoretical: it is saturated with the sense of mutual sentience and engagement: matter-of-fact reports of respectful killer whales and solicitous bald eagles are very much part of everyday life.

Some 2,000 miles south of the Haida rainforests and fishing cultures of British Columbia, the Hopi of Arizona’s high desert would have no trouble recognising these beliefs. Hopis are dry-farmers in a land without rivers or streams, and they depend on meagre annual precipitation to raise their principal crops of maize, beans, and squash. Many Hopis still farm subsistence crops, speak their language (although it is under threat), and continue to practise a religion — and a science — that is fundamentally attuned to environmental processes. The ritual enactment of Katsina spirits epitomises this.

Katsinas represent myriad forces of the natural world, ancestral deities, moral principles, and historical events. During the Katsina season (roughly January to July), the spirits still come each year from their homes in the mountains to dwell around the villages. With human individuals as their spiritual vehicles, they manifest themselves in dance performances in the kivas (ritual chambers) and plazas of the dozen Hopi villages. Katsinas also make themselves manifest as clouds rising from the mountaintops, bringing life-giving rain to nourish all life-forms in Hopi country. Hopitutskwa, Hopi land, is a living, breathing landscape. Tuuwaqatsi, the natural world, or specifically its life forms, populates this landscape. Hopis continue to sing to, celebrate, and propitiate both the landscape and its life forms — the stage and its play.

Just like the Haida, Hopis, who depend on the natural world for their spiritual and physical subsistence, look directly to it for guidance. For example, when a woman gathers plants for food or crafts, she typically returns to the places her mothers have been going for generations. More than once, I have heard a woman say that she feels directed by the plants themselves; sometimes, the plants want her to leave them for another time, and go to gather their more vigorous relatives in another patch. Plants, too, are sentient in this world-view, and have supernatural capacities beyond their intrinsic chemical properties. Some are regarded as particularly effective at drawing down clouds. Hopis have always sung to their plants.

The Hopi year is arranged calendrically; seasonal phenomena are anticipated and ensured by ritual practices. For example, in the cold of Powamuy (the purification month of February), Hopis conduct Powamu, the ‘Bean Dance’, planting beans in containers in the kivas, where a hot fire (nowadays in a pot-belly stove) germinates them quickly. On the day of the dance, Katsinas (here meaning the personated spirits) emerge from the kivas to distribute the bean sprouts among village households where they are added to harukwivi (bean-sprout stew) for a feast. The whole sets out in miniature the desired progress of the agricultural season: planting in April, carefully nurturing the crops until the first fruits at Niman (the Home Dance in July), and thereafter gathering and celebrating the harvest.

The Powamuy ceremony is both a prayer for the agricultural cycle and a ritual prefiguring of it. In the ceremony, Hopis express their wish that the season will be successful, recognise their critical dependence on natural forces larger than themselves, and acknowledge that unless they proceed with care and commitment, acting ethically in relation to nature as well as to each other, things could well go wrong. When things do go wrong — a drought, or excessive rainfall that washes away the fields, or a plague of grasshoppers — Hopis typically blame their own failings: they question whether their ‘hearts’ were truly right, whether they have acted thoughtfully, whether their intentions were pure.

Their whole relationship with the natural world is shot through with the same ethical structure in which they frame their relationship with fellow human beings. This does not mean that individual (or collective) actions always follow those ideals: people get jealous, betray each other, become angry, plot against each other, and so on. In this regard, Hopis are no different from the rest of humanity. But their ideals, norms, morals, and virtues — most graphically on display in ritual performances — point to mutual responsibility, and to collective effort for peace and harmony, in both the natural and the social world. There can be no harmonious society if the balance of nature has not been maintained — by the deliberate exercise of human attentions.

I first attended the Hopi Snake Dance in 1978. It was a powerful example of this deliberate strategy to shape natural events through forms of ritual attention. The ceremony (no longer open to outsiders) features the Snake Society dancing with live rattlesnakes and bullsnakes held in their mouths: they dance in a solemn swaying motion, before releasing the snakes into the desert to carry their prayers to the natural forces, especially the sources of rain. In Hopi thought, snakes are especially associated with water, and are the guardians of springs. Lightning and rain are explicitly associated with snakes and their movements. That first year, I staked out my spot in the dusty plaza at dawn, waiting all day through the August heat until the late afternoon ceremony. I was transfixed, not least by the palpable seriousness of the protagonists: this was not some tourist spectacle but a profoundly thought-out ritual engagement, an age-old practice that seemed to go back to the dawn of time. Sure enough, within half an hour of the dance’s ending, rain began to fall, though there had not been a cloud in the sky all day.

Since then, I have seen the Snake Dance on three other occasions: each time rain began falling within a short period after the dance concluded. Under such circumstances, it felt that my scientific world-view, which identifies weather events solely as meteorological phenomena, needed as much defending as Hopi ‘magical’ beliefs in the ritual power of their snake ceremony.

Like the Haida, the Hopi people have experienced much change over the past century. Many younger Hopis no longer understand the language, nor practise subsistence farming, and the communities experience problems typical of the rural West in general and Indian reservations in particular: widespread unemployment, health concerns including a high incidence of diabetes, alcoholism and substance abuse, and poverty. But, again like the Haida, some of the strength of Hopi traditions derives from the fact that they continue to live where they always have, unlike large numbers of American Indians who were forcibly removed from their aboriginal lands by government actions.

Hopis are very conscious of the (non-monetary) value of their land, and have persistently refused to accept compensation for losses of parts of it. A 1970s Indian Claims Commission award of $5 million (that has grown with interest to near $50 million today), for the illegal taking of Hopi lands in the 19th century, has never been accepted, and it continues to sit in a bank even while many Hopis live below the poverty line. ‘Never sell your land’ is a key lesson Hopis point to as handed down from their elders. Even though these particular lands have long been formally outside Hopi control, some Hopis believe that if they accept the money, they will have sold their birthright, and the sentient land of their ancestors will never again look favourably upon them. Money, Hopis say, can never be relied on in the long run, while the land will always be there to support us.

Hopis know that their traditional lifestyle is tough: Màasaw, the earth deity who greeted them upon emergence from the world below, agreed to accept them only if they were prepared to live his hard, simple way of life. While many Hopis are poor and live in what the federal government defines as substandard housing, the older houses are ones they built themselves with sandstone, clay, and logs, and their owners are not indebted to banks or mortgage companies. For a long time, some villages refused to accept water or electricity lines, disliking the spiderweb-like intrusion into the earth (where Muy’ingwu, the germination deity, has his dwelling), and foreseeing also that this would indebt them to non-local companies, and compromise their independence.

In recent years, to gain access to electricity, some Hopis have installed solar panels, which neither interfere with the earth nor are controlled by utility companies. Amid all the changes over the past century, a core feature of Hopi belief is the animacy of the natural world, and the sentience of all its inhabitants. These beliefs underlie a sense of interdependence that is occasionally reflected in actions and events that Western thought treats as impossible. Hopis continue to celebrate and value this world-view, and identify the environmental breakdowns of the world at large as the result of their fellow humans’ failure to follow a similar path.

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.


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.