By Jesse D. Palmer
The Global Climate Strikes by millions of people have been amazing — yet they are really just a start. Business as usual cannot continue — we’re on a suicide course. To achieve change equal to the scale of the unprecedented ecological emergency we are facing requires sustained organizing, unrelenting social pressure, collective creativity and openness to dramatic systemic and culture change.
No matter who you are, its time to get over your despair, paralysis, blame-shifting, self-doubt and instead focus on the overwhelming task at hand. Big protests are fine but we need to rapidly translate them into real changes to cut fossil fuel emissions to zero — which is overwhelming because everything about our lives involves burning fossil fuels.
The strikes were youth-led and it is key that the youth were asking for everyone to strike — they know it is past the time for just raising consciousness and symbolic actions. Yet most adults didn’t strike, which was a missed opportunity to really disrupt the system and change direction. At some point, we have to decide that at least attempting to save ourselves is worth a shot and that we need to stop worrying about short-term consequences.
Striking is a radical tactic — risky, difficult and for those up against the wall. The reason strikes were called is that strikes work. Without workers, those in power are fucked. When a strike is called, it means “don’t go to work” — and it may ruin your day, be scary, cause you to lose pay, and disappoint or piss off your bosses, students, clients, customers, co-workers and family.
But is it more reasonable to just keep doing your work? If human society goes extinct, your bank account won’t matter. We won’t get a second chance.
Ecological collapse — of the oceans, the birds, the bugs, the crops, the forests — is in progress and it eclipses everything. All our social justice goals are are on the verge of becoming impossible as we slide towards crop-failure, famine, mass-migration, scarcity wars, and other social consequences of climate collapse.
We desperately need new terminology. “Climate change” is far too passive and lacks urgency. Climate change implies that the climate just happens to be changing. But the real issue is that by digging up and burning billions of tons of fossil fuels — emitting 100 million tons of CO2 every day1 — human beings are actively, intentionally and on a corporate/industrial level committing mass social suicide, not to mention ecocide against millions of other species.
During the Global Climate Strike march in San Francisco, I kept noticing irreconcilable realities — concern about climate change has gone mainstream, yet actually reducing fossil fuel combustion is still considered radical. People either want someone else to make reductions, or they are looking for another magic solution that doesn’t require reorganizing the world very much. Can’t we just plant one trillion trees or something? We need to stay focused on how we can stop burning fossil fuels — the science and the numbers are crystal clear that combustion is the main activity that has to stop. Humans are harming the earth many ways which allneed to be addressed from plastics, to pesticides, to land use, etc. — but it is a mistake to get too distracted from combustion.
The CO2 released when you start a car or turn on a gas stove takes 20-200 years to be reabsorbed into the environment.2 That means casual acts are making very long-term commitments. In many contexts, we don’t have a choice — our system only gives us a fossil fuel option for living our lives.
But what about when we can choose? If you are able-bodied, you get to decide whether to drive 2 miles or walk or bike. Only you decide whether to hang your clothes in the sun or put them in the drier. Of course none of us can solve climate collapse just with our personal actions — we need system chance first and foremost which can only be achieved by collective action. But it is factually incorrect to say that fossil fuels burned by individuals during our day-to-day lives are irrelevant.
We need to focus on the difference between culture shifts and individual change. A single individual changing isn’t up to the scale of the changes needed. Culture shifts are different and more powerful – they involve millions of people changing the things we want, the pace of our lives, and what we consider normal, desirable and reasonable.
For cultural change to take root, we need to realize that cutting emissions isn’t giving something up, but rather it’s about getting back aspects of our lives we have lost, and that we miss.
Fossil fuel use makes the world faster, more homogenous, more centralized and less participatory as machines and companies do things people used to do for ourselves. A cultural move away from fossil fuel emissions will help recapture the grace, magic and attentiveness people had before industrial capitalism used fossil fuels to speed up our lives. Biking around is slower than driving and flying but you enjoy what’s along the way and you revive connections with the landscapes, people and creatures around you — smelling trees, hearing birds and spotting mushrooms.
In the US, 28.9% of greenhouse gas emissions are from transportation, and 59% of that is “cars and light duty vehicles.” 28% is from electrical generation, 22% industry, 9% agricultural, 6% commercial and 5% residential. (2017 figures;3 greenhouse gas emissions are measured in C02 equivalents — 82% of emission equivalents are actually CO2, i.e. burning fossil fuels.)
Some emissions can only be addressed on a systemic level. For instance, the 28% of emissions from electrical generation result from decisions made by a very few companies and governments. Emissions-free wind and solar electrical generation are now cheaper than fossil fuels in some areas4 — so for those emissions pressure on elites is spot on. It is possible to imagine zero emissions from electrical generation in 5 years if WWII-type efforts were applied. Looking at the numbers, agriculture contributes emissions, but not as much as other activities nor as much as many people think.
As more protests and rebellions roll out from Sunrise Movement, Youth vs. Apocalypse, and Extinction Rebellion, etc. please do something. You’ll feel better — you’ll meet new people — the loveliness of our lives on this lush world are worth long-shot, last ditch attempts at survival.
Leading up to the Climate Strike in September, I went to a swarming training in a park. Swarming is a tactic used recently by Extinction Rebellion in England where a tiny group of people create brief (under 7 minute) traffic blockades. It is “lower risk” and in fact if police arrive the idea at least at the training I went to was to quickly melt away.
As I biked away from the training, I felt better than I had in months — a light went on and I realized “this is exactly what I have been looking for.” Because I have been feeling depressed, hopeless, tired, discouraged, sad and fearful. It is a cliché but being a dad for my seven year old daughter makes me feel especially bad, because I can’t protect her — I can only offer her only a future filled with problems that my generation hasn’t been able to fix. All the animals in all the kids books are going extinct.
Going to the training brought me back to my activist roots as a teenager. Taking action outside my regular day-to-day life brought clarity and focus. Thinking and talking about solving problems isn’t nearly as meaningful as actually doing something directly to try to make a difference.
The day we swarmed in San Francisco, I was a drone. I went to each car caught in the blockade, waved to the driver and tried to engage them in a conversation. I tried to give them a flier. One flipped me off and a few ignored me and wouldn’t roll down their windows, but a surprising number spoke with me, took my flier and understood why I was there. A few even thanked me. I told trapped drivers that what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working and we need to increase the pressure by putting some sand into the gears.
Only a handful of people turned out for swarming — it was a sobering contrast to the thousands who turned out 3 days before for the Climate Strike and told me that most people aren’t ready for disruptive tactics yet.
People are stuck around the enormity of climate change because we feel like anything we try won’t be enough.
Maybe we should stop worrying about results so much. Perhaps we can re-focus on our feelings. It feels better to try rather than to curl up and repress our fear. We may have to trust that if we do what feels good, it might not be enough — it might not save us — but at least we can die feeling good and knowing that in the Sixth Extinction, we did something. We did everything we could do.
Or really, whatever works for you to get out and do something while you still can. If the 5 stages of grief make sense and you need to go through denial, anger, depression, bargaining, that’s fine but please hurry up. Al Gore’s movie came out in fucking 2006 so for at least that long it has been crystal clear that unless humans change most of our technology and systems, our society is doomed. How could it be that we are roughly at the same place we were 15 years ago?!?
This is a crisis of business as usual — doing things the way we’ve always done them so far will be deadly. Self-defense lies in disrupting and shutting down the system however and wherever possible.
Action in the streets, in the political realm — working on system change not climate change — is exhilarating. The best moments of my life have been in the middle of chaos and resistance — seizing Seattle through thick clouds of tear gas during the WTO 20 years ago or climbing on top of a semi-truck during Occupy Oakland’s port take-over.
Intense actions can be terrifying — I recall the first time I was arrested when I was 16 years old I was almost shaking — but even more confronting power and injustice is transformational. Once the cuffs go on, you’ll never be a spectator again.
Being in a direct action movement engages you with those around you. You never feel as close to other people as when you’re together occupying a building, seizing a street or evading a police line. Direct action involves a constant learning and training which we’re missing as we work repetitive jobs and live repetitive, predictable lives. So while there’s a lot to be lost to the climate emergency, might we regain lives that matter in the struggle to survive?
There is a purity in not compromising – not succumbing to what is realistic – but rather holding out for how things should be.
A general theory of disruption is to go after the most fragile and vulnerable points in the system where a small delay or obstruction by a small number of people can have large impacts. The system has numerous inviting choke points: pipelines, power lines, ports, railroads, airports — places where things have to operate just-so and minor problems can ripple outward.
So many people focus on why we can’t survive rather than how we can rise up against fossil fuel corporations and our own human sloppiness. Doom-fetishism amongst pampered people in the USA — “why do anything because we’re all fucked” — is the height of 1%-ish privilege because as climate change gets worse, the hardships will fall first and worst on the poorest people who are least responsible. Meanwhile the doomers living in the US will be protected by machine gun toting police while they eat the last food.
Climate crisis is not a movie with black and white outcomes — either we are doomed or we survive. Rather — while it is already too late to avoid mass species extinction and vast human suffering and displacement — getting to zero emissions faster will reduce future famines, floods and suffering. There’s no way to know if we’re already facing total social breakdown or if climate change will just make the current systems of injustice and oppression worse. Reducing emissions is harm reduction. If we know what is causing harm, we need to reduce the harm as much as we can, as fast as we can.
The reason I included the percentage breakdown of emissions sources in this article is because it makes sense to focus on the largest emissions sources first to avoid spending too much time on symbolic changes. 60% of US emissions are from transportation and electrical generation so those areas are top priorities. Air travel is just 3% of total US emissions. The number is growing fast — air travel has increased ten-fold in the last 50 years5 — but anti-flying campaigns alone won’t reduce emissions nearly as much as getting people to drive less or switch to electric cars.
Last year about 3 percent of the world’s population flew on a plane. Because most Americans routinely fly and think nothing of it, flying seems “normal”, but from a global and historical perspectively, flying is very unusual. Corporations offer air travel and many other fossil fuel intensive options, but we don’t have to buy what they are selling.
Nevertheless, we need to stop thinking we can just focus on fixing one thing or blaming corporations or big consumers or someone else. Shifting blame is taking up energy we need to use on actually changing stuff.
A big problem with the idea that we have to change everything is that the pace of capitalist / technology change is already overwhelming — we are tired of all this constant change — yet the only way out of this mess is even more and widespread change.
This is what makes me really pessimistic and filled with despair. People do what feels right and it is comfortable to cling to the things we’re used to. But doing so will surely kill us.
During the Climate Strike march in San Francisco marching with so many thousands, at certain moments I felt a surge of hope: “maybe we can all get together and do something.” But as soon as I left the crowd, I was back in a sea of car and business as usual.
What keeps me going is how lovely the world still is — and people with their complex consciousness and diverse cultures are a part of the loveliness even if we’re also like a cancer. We need to hold these contradictions in our hearts, avoid distraction and division, and focus on what we can do rather than what seems impossible.
Emissions from Transportation:
Cars and light duty vehicles – 59%
Medium and heavy duty trucks – 23%
Ships and boats 3%
3. epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-green house-gas-emissions
4. irena.org/newsroom/pressreleases/2019/ May/ Falling-Renewable-Power-Costs-Open-Door-to-Greater-Climate-Ambition