When “Losing Earth” is not an option

When I read Naomi Klein’s challenging and insightful book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate I was — despite the dire warnings about the very real possibility of climate collapse —encouraged to think that climate change presents such an immense challenge that dealing with it might force us to rethink the utility of trashing our Earth by wasting everything we can’t use up.  Instead of blindly pursing the suicidal idea of infinite growth on a finite planet, perhaps the obvious and dire consequences of climate change will force us to reconsider the possibility of making peace with our planet and among its peoples.

Not so says Nathaniel Rich in his recent full issue occupying New York Times article Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. According to Rich there was a time—1980’s– when, as the Earth’s industrial societies, we were almost ready to make the changes necessary to turn back from catastrophic climate changes. “The basic science of climate change was understood and accepted, the partisan divide over the issue had yet to cleave, fossil fuel companies hadn’t started their misinformation campaign in earnest.” Then human nature kicked in and messed everything up. “Human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations.” Rich then goes on to argue that the 1980’s “could not have been more favorable” to bold climate action but the chance to act evaded us because it is our inherent natures to “obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.” Wow! Quite the indictment of humanity—Yahoos by nature!

Not so fast, says Klein arguing in Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not “Human Nature” that “one could scarcely imagine a more inopportune moment in human evolution for our species to come face to face with the hard truth that the conveniences of modern consumer capitalism were steadily eroding the habitability of the planet.” Why? “Because the late ’80s were the absolute zenith of the neoliberal crusade, a moment of peak ideological ascendency for the economic and social project that deliberately set out to vilify collective action in the name of liberating ‘free markets’ in every aspect of life”—a fact that Rich makes no mention of in his argument for the inherent inability of humanity to deal with long term challenges—even challenges that may threaten our existence as a species on planet Earth.

While Klein very effectively refutes Rich’s argument that it is just/only the personal me now/ short term human attention span that killed our opportunity to deal with climate change, Klein’s argument falls far short in its inability to account for the behavior of human beings who have been exposed to enough climate change information to know that their corporate decisions will make the Earth inhabitable to human beings—their children and grand children. To me the tragic flaw in Klein’s thinking is that the evolved corporate dominance of our economic, political and social lives is so pervasive and so entwined in all we do, that if we wait to act on climate change until we have replaced corporations with cooperatives and disentangled the corporate webs from our political systems we’ll all be extinct before we figure out how to work together for a healthy, sustainable, temperate Earth. While it is foolish-at best- of Rich to ignore the corporate/political/economic forces that have actively sought to subvert action on climate in order to maximize short term returns to investors it is even more foolish to think that we have time to change the social/economic structure of global societies before we begin to throttle back on the engines that are driving us towards an atmosphere that is rapidly becoming inhospitable to human life.

One idea that seems to have escaped both Klein and Rich is the dialectic nature of human thought/human society—nothing in human society is one thing or the other; all human society is about the interplay of forces/perceptions/actions/experience and learning.

A story

Some time ago I was involved in the effort to stop uranium mining in BC. To that end I was going door to door daily to collecting signatures on a stop uranium mining petition. The thing that astounded/shocked/disturbed me was how so many people at their door step were much more interested in who else signed the petition than in what the petition actually said.

Now I see it everywhere I go: people learn/make judgments from what they see other people doing much more often than they learn or adapt a behavior based on new information or logical argument. It is the reason that so few ads have any product information—just people whimsically buying the product because –well not because; because would invite logical analysis which is the last thing the advertiser wants the viewer to engage in.

Every time we get in the family car to go pick up a few groceries we are advertising to all around that climate change just isn’t that important. It’s not a corporate decision, it is our decision. I do it all the time. It is just easier to drive to the store in five minutes rather than bike it in twice that. Heaven forbid waiting fifteen minutes for the next bus. My little drive to the store doesn’t emit much CO2 but it is powerful advertising. The meta message is that why bike/bus when it is so easy to just drive the few blocks—everyone is doing it. If instead of driving I did bike or bus and if ¾ of the residents I share the  cul-de-sac with were biking/ busing, the rest of our little dead end road community would soon be considering getting the bike down from the storage rack and biking short trips on sunny days.  And the idea might spread to the residents on the street that connects our cul-de-sac to the rest of the community. Just look at Amsterdam where in a city of over a million people 60% of the around town trips are by bicycle. People cycle because they see people cycling all around them. Imagine if every bike had a small sign saying ”Saving Our Climate-one bike trip at a time.”

What if worldwide 60% of around town trips were by bicycle—or like Curitiba, Brazil where 70% of commuter trips into the city are by user friendly rapid transit busses? No cycling and bus riding will not of-itself solve our climate change crisis. Unfortunately the problem is much bigger than that but it would be a very powerful statement to business, governments and citizens about the commitment/determination of the Earth’s peoples to alter the current course to a rapidly overheating atmosphere with all the consequences we are already seeing in hurricanes, floods and fires.

Think of the “Stop Harper” signs that were so much a part of the successful effort to dump the Harper government attempts to dismantle a century of Canadian social and environmental progress while turning the reins of government over to corporate—largely oil—interests. Yes there were logical arguments and there were protests and grass roots organizing—all important, but the thing that brought it together was the ubiquitous “Stop Harper” signs that brought people together—very much like a Canadian insurrection!

The sad thing about the Stop Harper campaign is that it let go of the reins once the election was over and left Trudeau to proceed, a little more subtly, with the Harper agenda. Actually it seems extremely unlikely that Harper would have considered bailing out the oil companies with tax dollars!

Klein does a great job of proclaiming the need for “system change” while describing the forces that keep us from effective action on climate change, what is missing is any kind of insight into the mechanisms which would empower the actions of  those who want to end corporate control over our collective climate change actions, our-supposed to be-democratic societies and-even the fate human life on planet Earth. Trudeau clearly proves the point that just voting is far from enough. We need immediate, ongoing conversations and collective actions to keep the discussion and consequent actions going.

What impresses me as a potentially powerful mechanism is the idea of a “Sustainability Centre” on the main street of every Canadian community (well worldwide would be even better!). These bicycle rack surrounded centres could have regularly updated sustainability information displays and workshops. Sustainability products and services would be available through the site as well as information on sustainability actions, products and services in the larger community. The centre would be staffed by staff (paid and volunteers)—who are trained to be good at engaging people in conversations about why we should care about the health of our planet.

The sustainability centre would sponsor a “Sustainability Council” that would regularly issue releases to the press, the public and governments on actions on all levels of involvement that will lead to more sustainable communities on a healthy planet. Graphic images of people doing sustainable things would have a big effect on community perceptions. The centre would be anchored by a powerful logo—perhaps a picture of a young child holding a flower in healthy looking environment with the caption below it reading: “You don’t need another reason to support a sustainable (community name).” To do less is to concede our community discussions to those who see consuming our Earth while smoking our atmosphere as the defining parameters of human existence. Klein is absolutely right: we have to change everything—especially corporate control of our lives and the fate of or Earth in order to turn back out of control climate change. But even such a profound change must start somewhere—with a mechanism for change—a place to start conversations and initiate actions that we should have begun long ago.

I am hoping that others will expand on this idea of a sustainability centre as the hub of a community conversation about dealing with climate change and building healthy(sustainable) communities. Readers with ideas to share on this or other sustainability issues can write to me at nreynolds(at)shaw.ca OR—much better—use the comments section with this TideChange post—that way all can view the comments and begin to develop a broader community conversation about where we need to go to mobilize action on climate change—and a mutually sustaining/sustainable relation with our beautiful/much abused Earth.

Norm Reynolds