This post is by Russell Kilday-Hicks, Fossil Free California activist and member of the CSU Employees Union. It is a talk he delivered at the December “Suds, Snacks & Socialism” community forum, held monthly at the Starry Plough in Berkeley. He began with two strong quotations.
Our moral obligation to fight climate change is to build a collective solution, not to purify ourselves as individual consumers.
—Margaret Klein, “What Climate Change Asks of Us,” Common Dreams, 12/19/14
Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience.
—Alex Steffen, “The Bright Green City”
First off, I never liked the terms “global warming” or “climate change.” Even just a few years ago we were still hearing denialists saying something like, “Well, it’s too cold here anyway.” I’ve been saying “catastrophic climate change,” but also “anthro-po-morphic climate change” works just as well because it puts us at the forefront where we belong, at least as far as taking responsibility is concerned.
There is no doubt, with mounting evidence every day, that things with planet Earth are really bad, possibly worse than we can imagine because all the scary models scientists were using to forecast the future are proving way too conservative. The idea of the Sixth Extinction doesn’t seem so far fetched as it used to. So how do we navigate these times? My 15-year-old son uses this expression YOLO, meaning “you only live once.” So I ask him what it means, because it seems kind of ambiguous. Does it mean we should live recklessly because it’s only one time around, so why not take chances, or should we be really careful because life is fragile and precious, to be savored and not spent frivolously? Those who use this expression, and it is said mostly by young people, may be saying “enjoy it while you can” because life is short—but I think something deeper is being expressed.
I haven’t done this but I would like to see an accounting of recent Hollywood movies. Have there been more dystopian- or utopian-themed movies produced? It seems like maybe the former would come out on top. This is also a similar expression, which is: the future doesn’t look so great, and Hollywood and our youth especially are picking up on that. Our culture’s collective imagination is stuck in seeing the dark side of our future. YOLO means: throw caution to the wind, take license, do what you want without regard to the consequences because, we are all screwed anyway.
So, I want to briefly talk about how bad things are, but not because I want to motivate you into inaction. Hope and vision are crucial motivational elements and as bad as things are going to possibly get, we can always make them worse. Sasha Lilly, in her book Catastrophism, cautions the left about becoming a flock of Chicken Littles running around with “The end is near” signs, partly because we have lost credibility for past predictions like capitalism being pre-ordained to self-destruct any day now, and, of course, the danger of promoting the idea that all is lost would beg the question: why bother to change? So even if you are convinced that the part of the world that sustains humans on the planet is coming to an untimely end, it’s maybe better not to spread that around too far and wide without the proper context given.
Recovering our balance
So how bad is it? There is this one piece of environmental science that I don’t see talked about all that much, and it’s important because it illustrates a number of crucial points. This is the idea of balance, one of the immutable laws that life on Earth is based upon. Our culture pretends that we can ignore or even improve upon nature but sooner or later we butt our heads against the hard reality of this unchanging law. Here’s an illustration.
Take something out of your freezer and place it on the kitchen counter. There is a measurable time until this formerly frozen item warms up to the temperature of the room it’s in. Frozen things will not be at rest until balance with the environment is reached, and if it’s large enough in a closed room maybe even change that “room temperature.” This is what is happening with the carbon we are taking out of storage and pouring into the atmosphere. The Earth is continuously working to find the balance point, and, just like the frozen item, you can measure how long that will take from any given moment. They have done this for carbon, and the balance point is 50 years out. Which means, more or less, that the effects we are feeling from catastrophic climate change today are from the carbon burned 50 years ago, and the balance point for what we are doing today, along with the negative feedback loops we have now triggered, is about 50 years from now. Even if we could stop driving our gas-fueled cars and burning coal and rainforests, etc.—even if we could transition to renewables overnight, we can expect consequences for what we’ve already accomplished with our energy, food, transportation, etc., all our life-systems being dependent on “releasing our ancestors into the air,” a.k.a. burning fossil fuels.
Going to the root
So, that is kind of depressing to think about. But, like Antonio Gramsci, I still have hope in the form of an “optimism of the will.”
It’s true we are having a hard time quitting the oil habit, for all the obvious reasons and for some not so obvious ones. Now I want to ask, what does it mean to be a radical? To me it means going to the root of a problem and advocating fundamental change to really address an issue. Many of you in this room would be proud to be called radical. Many, if not all of us, question the socio-economic system called capitalism. But is questioning capitalism going to the root? Yes the corporate financial and oil-igarchy entities are powerful, but the challenge we face goes deeper than just freeing us from the bankster-oil hold on our society or other profit-imperative systems of production demanding unlimited growth. We have to get free of the ideology, the worldview that props them up as well.
For quite some time our culture has been in denial about this balance law (along with some others), and we are rapidly waking up to that harsh realization. So now that we know, why would we continue to break the law even when assured of the dire, exponential consequences? We in this room know the problem of capitalism and the very powerful machine that has hold of our economy, our politics, what is produced, invested in, and even taught in our schools. There are people behind all this and their way of viewing the world that doesn’t allow them to “see” what we see. This non-seeing is why they can believe that the “climate hoax” is just an anti-business, leftist conspiracy to challenge the powers that be.
The reality is, not just the right, but our entire culture may have this civilization thing exactly backwards. When Europeans arrived here they were convinced of their superiority. Well, it was kind of easy to believe when you could mow the indigenous down like harvesting a crop or put them into slavery and still have time for tea and crumpets. The concept of sustainability is this balance idea, and many of the original inhabitants on this continent had that idea down. The practice of considering the impact of something seven generations forward was ingrained into their decision-making processes. When you think about it, this would be about three or four generations removed from those whom you might possibly meet if you lived to be a centenarian.
So, why is a dark future for our children’s, children’s, children, etc. easier to imagine for our culture? Because it is, unfortunately, part of the story that brought us to this point in the first place. This is a story that gave us the ideas that the earth is ours to use and couldn’t possibly run out and also told us nature was broken, and the previous animistic-based cultures were “uncivilized”—a story in place and operational long before both industrialization and even capitalism. This story enabled our culture to embrace the destructive technology and systems that so easily harnessed the awesome power of capitalism to organize the extraction of resources, combine it with cheap energy and labor, then “externalize” costs to squeeze out so-called profit (for the few) with the attendant “sacrifice-zone” byproducts of used up people and places. It is a compelling, powerful story that tells us it’s somehow civilized to give up agency before the ethereal entities of god and “the economy” so we don’t have to take responsibility for our acts of destruction. This story says that living today is less important than something called the “after life” existence, and this can’t be proven in any scientific sense but has to be taken as a matter of “faith.” This magical thinking also promotes the fiction of independence while hiding us from the reality of interdependence.
Joel Kovel, in his book The Enemy of Nature, does an excellent job outlining capitalism’s destructive forces, especially on the powerless of the world, and Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs. the Planet, emphasizes that the movement to address “climate change” is bubbling up and empowering those on the bottom, who tend to be left out of our culture’s great advances. Klein also says it’s important to be fighting for the right solutions, ones that challenge the inherent inequalities of a sick system and to not allow the cult of technology to “solve” the problem with more-of-the-same, non-cures like nuclear power, or by putting micro-junk in space to magically make the planet colder, or any other risky scheme that avoids actually confronting what our so-called civilization is all about. The idea of applying some technological fix without addressing the illogic of unlimited economic growth in the closed, finite system we call Earth just won’t cut it.
But change this story and we will be changed. The challenge is two-fold: can we imagine a different, life-affirming story and can we start living it fast enough? We have gone so far down this dark path, it is impossible to change in time to avoid some pretty bad effects. But, instead of making things worse and giving up, we should be doing all we can to accelerate this positive change. As Klein says, yes, this is a serious crisis, but it’s also a major opportunity to create the better world we all, once we understand what’s at stake, will want to see. Dealing with climate change is the road to the social justice many of us have dedicated our lives to. We need to act like we are taking responsibility, but this should be primarily to put ourselves back in balance with a life-affirming story that starts following the rules and puts the entire planet Earth at the center of life and not ourselves.
Creating a better world
So, what do we say to the deniers? I’m reminded of this cartoon: picture an auditorium where you can see both audience and the stage. On the stage is a presenter and on the screen are all these suggested changes like clean water and air, livable cities, etc. There is an audience person standing up and he says, “If climate change is a hoax then we would be creating a better world for nothing.” So, tell them it doesn’t matter whether climate change is true or not, we all desperately need this better world.
I believe that we, the people of the dominant human culture today, are awakening from many centuries of deep, dark insanity. There is a major paradigm shift happening comparable to the shift away from animistic cultures to the patriarchy, when “agriculture” began.
Where we are headed is exciting to think about sometimes. But other times I despair that we will run out of time to preserve what is good about humanity. Like George Carlin advocated, maybe we do deserve planetary negation, and like Gore Vidal said, the apes have had their run, maybe it’s time to let another species have a turn—but I’m not ready to concede defeat. Our task then is to build a collective solution, one that addresses the totality of human existence on the planet that puts us back in life-affirming balance. Let’s get to work because, well, YOLO—You Only Live Once!