Friday, August 24, 2012

 

REQUIEM FOR A SPECIES: AN UNFOLDING TRAGEDY

Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton's Requiem for a Species is both deeply sobering and salutary, in the sense that it awakens us not only to the climate war we have shrunk from engaging, but its likely result if we do not. As the climate data gets more and more alarming while the international political response remains gridlocked, he states what many of us deeply sensed at the time, that Copenhagen December 2009 was the “last hope for humanity to pull back from the abyss.”

“Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change.” Hamilton answers the book's subtitle in a series of no-nonsense chapters: growth fetishism, addiction to consumer life, denial in a myriad of forms, and the “new foundation” (Descartes) upon which the others are built, disconnection from Nature. Each of these chapters is compelling, but I found the one on denial particularly enlightening. I have blogged about one of the cornerstones of recent Republican policy, climate denialism, trying to understand the curious phenomenon ("Why Educated Republicans Are in Denial about Climate Change” - see April 25).  Hamilton's searching analysis takes us into its historical roots with the fall of the Berlin Wall, closely followed by the breakup of the Soviet Union (1989-91), to reveal how quickly the conservative right seized upon a new enemy, environmentalism: “America did not fight and win the wars of the twentieth century to make the world safe for green vegetables” (Richard Darman, the elder Bush's OMB director).

My post argues in terms of Nietzsche's will to power (conservatives embrace it and liberals don't), but Hamilton's analysis is more telling. The twin ideas of progress and mastery of nature “define modernity itself” for conservatives, and progress is identified for them with unfettered growth. He goes into detail tracing the conservative think-tanks, initially founded by nuclear war hawk-scientists, and how they have systematically and effectively worked to undercut the liberal critique of human overreach. And if there is collateral damage, it can easily be managed by geo-engineering, whose origins lie with those same military-scientific heroes of the right.

Hamilton outlines where we are headed in a chapter entitled “The Four-Degree World.” It is the briefest in the book, for he relies on Mark Lynas's brilliantly documented Six Degrees. I am reading that as well, and am in the midst of the terrifying long chapter “Three Degrees.” In Requiem, all that Hamilton needs to do is point to what is now the consensus view of climate scientists of where we are headed – 4 degrees Celsius warming - which he gets from attending a pre-Copenhagen global conference in Oxford of climate scientists with which he frames the chapter. As opposed to public statements, these sober and shaken researchers shared among themselves their deepest fears based on the dawning truth that global civilization was not coping with a situation that the scientists were finding was much, much worse than the two-degree world they had initially assessed.

“Relinquishing our rosy view of how the future will unfold is a task more difficult that it may appear because the vision of a stable and sympathetic future undergirds our sense of self and our place in the world.” (210) “Awakening to the prospect of climate disruption compels us to abandon” our comfortable beliefs. Thus begins a powerful final chapter in which Hamilton argues that we must “despair, accept, act.” Earlier, he acknowledged the adaptive quality of unrealistic illusions about the future; they keep hope alive, producing action (Shelley Taylor, Positive Illusions). But he seizes upon Taylor's key distinction, “Illusions respond and adapt as reality forces itself upon us, while delusions are held despite the evidence of the outside world...evidence that large -scale climate change is unavoidable has now become so strong that healthy illusion is becoming unhealthy delusion” (131-32).

Many of us have had exposure to Joanna Macy's despair and empowerment work. Hamilton enlists her approach in conclusion, founded upon the necessity of admitting despair when honest hope has been exceeded by planetary events. As those of us who have trained with Joanna know, allowing despair, we can work through it to a more realistic ground for action. Denying negative emotion slowly shrivels the amplitude of positive emotion as well. We may continue to act, but with less and less belief in our own actions. Our energy dries up, for it is fueled by the internal lie of false hope. 

Reading Hamilton, Lynas, and Joanna Macy's latest book, Active Hope (co-authored by psychologist Chris Johnstone), I have been forced to admit that, though I had worked through Joanna's circle of gratitude, despair, and re-imagining more than once, I was stuck once again in denial and powerlessness. The bad news has helped me bottom out once again, and my acceptance has deepened and ripened into renewed action. That action is directed at helping others get on with the process while remaining alert to opportunities for effective public demonstrations, including civil disobedience as I am led.

Despair, accept...Act! After accepting the immensely challenged state of affairs -read Lynas on the projected death of the Amazon in a three-degree world for a snapshot (Six Degrees, 137-42) - we have one final chance. Like Bill McKibben in his masterful piece in the Rolling Stone, Hamilton calls us to mobilize a mass movement “to build a countervailing power to the elite and corporations that have captured government,” thus holding the catastrophe to something within the reach of our imaginations. Though it is tempting to think of a benevolent dictator who might achieve results more rapidly, we really “must democratise survivability” through a new radicalism that “aims to shift the ground of politics itself.” To the ramparts, planetary citizens!

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Monday, August 20, 2012

 

FOUR MORE YEARS...

 
I blogged a few months back, admitting to the pressures of realpolitik, “Hedging the Revolution in an Election Year” (See February 29, below). Sure, as a partisan liberal/progressive Democrat, I want to see Obama elected. But the truth is, he has not done near enough to stand up to those who are wrecking the planet and rapidly driving us (with our implicit blessings) to the brink of extinction. It is hard to argue with the radical left when they say he is the minion of the world's central bankers, whose policies insure profits for their fossil brethren, rather than addressing the tragedy of the commons, now extending to the skies and seas. Whoever wins in November, the real work is to rapidly build a movement that puts the brakes on climate change before another election cycle. 

Ever since I heard it from the distinguished U Thant in the delusional comfort of the seventies, we have had a window of “ten years” to mend our ways - or else face apocalypse. Since we have prospered every decade since (except the last one, though the hyper-wealthy managed to prosper at the expense of everyone else), such pronouncements have sounded like cries of wolf. The last such warning, to which I have pointed repeatedly, was Jim Hansen's statement in fall 2007 that we had “ten years” to significantly alter the global output of CO2 or face climate disaster. Hansen has been out front as the Paul Revere of the climate war ever since he testified in Congress in 1988. But here's a surprise. The conservative, but climate literate and policy-led International Energy Agency has trumped him, saying several months ago that we had four years in which to act decisively. 2016, not 2017.

Nobody is crying wolf any longer. Bill McKibben, who first alerted us that something was deeply wrong with his landmark book, The End of Nature (1989), has published his strongest alarm call yet in this month's issue of Rolling Stone: “Global Warming's Terrifying New Math.” If nothing yet has awakened you to the dire state of our tribe and of the earth's Cenozoic era with its world of species we have learned to love, then this should. His key point is summarized in 3 numbers. The first has been bandied about in international climate circles for many years now: 2 degrees Celsius. Though recent climate science tells us it is too high to avoid serious climate disruption (the figure should be more like 1.5 degrees), it is now enshrined as the upper limit for average global warming, though it now looks like the odds of catastrophe-inducing feedback loops being induced at that figure are better than 50-50. 
 
The second two numbers reflect a new element to thinking about upper limits of CO2 emissions, the idea of a “carbon budget.” We can emit 565 gigatons of CO2 by 2050, at which time we need to be CO2 neutral. At current rates of emissions (which have increased since the sharp global downturn ended), adding 3% a year, we will have used this budget in 16 years, 2028. My oldest grandson will have just graduated college, looking for his place in a world of accelerating chaos and shrinking opportunity. But the third number is even more frightening. The proven reserves of coal, oil, and gas would produce 2,795 gigatons of CO2, or five times our carbon budget. This potential carbon bomb can destroy us 5 times over, the new version of MAD. And this figure does not count shale gas, nor exploratory deep water drilling off South America, Africa, and in the Arctic Circle. Nor does it take into account the vast reserves of methane in Siberia, though the bulk of this is frozen so deeply that it would not be released until late in the century, if warming continues to accelerate at the current rate. 
 
So does this help you understand that however much we love our cars and central heating, we have a public enemy number one, the oil gas and coal industry? They are so mixed up in our politics and governance that they continue to receive vast subsidies from many developed nations, even as alternative energies struggle for government development grants. The key goal of the NGO's who flocked to the recent Rio +20 Conference was to end these subsidies. They failed, and yet another international environmental conference ended with nothing tangible, only vague promises, including the de riguer promise to limit warming to 2 degrees C. Our task now is to dislodge the industry's fateful grip on our future, summed up by McKibben's third number. It may or may not be to actually negate their centrality as suppliers of energy, for they have tremendous resources with which to rapidly develop more sustainable forms of energy (allied with the nuclear industry, which is not sustainable, but provides an important bridge fuel to a potentially sustainable future). Yes, I love the idea of distributed energy, but the concentrated power vested in the big players, icluding the nuclear corporations, is that they can move quickly and decisively if they choose to do so.

Public enemy number one is aided and abetted by politicians the world over, including those who proclaim themselves green (Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez). Also the Japanese who want to permanently shut down nukes, along with their counterparts in Germany, the US, and elsewhere. Aided and abetted as well by us, the rich world consumers. Forget the 99% rhetoric, for the 99% first world folk are a huge part of the problem, even if they are classed as poor or unemployed (the one million richest on the planet consume 100% of annual biotic production). Unless the 99% pressure the 1% to radically shift from our addiction to fossil fuels, then we support the fossil fuel industry in assuring the doom of our species. It's no longer an issue of gradualism, but dire emergency. Remember, we have four years to turn this thing around. 

McKibben ends his Rolling Stone article with a call for action. Though a presidential election year, it is not a plea to pull the appropriate lever at the polling station. Four years ago, the most gifted rhetorician in a generation gave us the most hopeful green talk we have heard since Al Gore's foiled election bid. But he has not walked that talk, and our hopes have been dashed, as well as confidence in any politician who is the product of what is now clearly not a system in need of repair, but a failure of representative government - a republic rather than a democracy, as my father always reminded me. So McKibben urges a mass movement of the sort the civil rights revolution was built upon. But it must be built far more rapidly to have any chance at success. 
 
So yes, I will vote for Barack, but my organizing efforts, and a renewed willingness to sacrifice my personal freedom and comforts, will be towards building a climate spring. If there is any space for traditional politics in this process, it is in making sure that our last chance to address climate catastrophe becomes front and center in a desultory, mean campaign focused primarily on personal issues – though the choice of Paul Ryan as Romney's VP reinforces the only real issue in play, whether government should be large or small. Whatever its size, the government needs to mandate a price for CO2 to make its producers accountable, as with any other waste product. It has long been clear that the best way to achieve this is a carbon tax, with CO2 priced high enough (more than $100/ton) to make it effective. Getting climate change and a carbon tax into the policy debate is the most important thing any of us can work to achieve within our deeply-divided polity and our fractured political system.

But in terms of the bottom line, I must change my tune. We cannot hedge our bets just because it is an election year. That means to the ramparts: in the streets, and in multiple acts of non-violent resistance. If we can overcome our own worst internal enemy, we can all focus on Public Enemy Number One: the fossil fuel industry which has both Lilliputian candidates in its deep pockets. We North Carolinians have our first opportunity at the Charlotte DNC convention in September. It's time for the next American Revolution.


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