By Jesse D. Palmer
During the Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise, California last year, even 160 miles away in Berkeley the smoke was so thick that you could only see 2 blocks and we all had sore throats and watery eyes. A week into the smoke, my 6 year-old’s school was cancelled due to poor air quality and my family decided to flee South to Monterey on the coast, searching for clean air.
Even though our escape was a soft and privileged one — we knew we could come back, we went to a motel with our housemates — our forced migration due to ecological degradation was surprising and disturbing. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to flee — and it felt like a personal wake up call that we no longer have the luxury of time to get serious about climate change. Climate change isn’t about the future — it is now. Yet despite so much evidence, there’s a striking lack of urgency. There’s plenty of fashionable memes, handwringing, denial, despair and grief — but what we really need is mass action.
Running out of time means it is already too late to avoid some of the effects of climate change. The question is whether we will continue mostly doing nothing as things get worse — like the frog in the pot of heating water.
Human life on an individual and collective level is mostly a matter of muddling through — we all do the best we can. But with climate change, that approach isn’t going to cut it. The status quo or anything close to it — really anything other than rapid and dramatic action to decarbonize and reduce other greenhouse gases on a global level — may result in human extinction, to say nothing of the on-going mass extinction of our fellow species — the Sixth mass extinction known as the Anthropocene.
Perhaps it doesn’t feel like there’s anything we can do individually. Personal changes feel meaninglessly inadequate to the global scale of the problem, and as individuals we have little power over the 1% whose investments and political decisions determine how electricity is generated, cars fueled, food grown and goods manufactured.
So the rational personal decision appears to be to do nothing and put un-solvable problems out of our minds, lest they ruin our days. Or if denial or distraction don’t work, another coping mechanism is to blame someone else — people who don’t care, corporations, politicians. Obviously those in charge are to blame for their inaction — yet pointing the finger followed by our own inaction conveniently gets us off the hook, yet changes nothing.
My goal in this article is to describe things we can still do — individually and collectively — to avoid the worst forms of climate catastrophe.
There is a chance to avoid our own extinction. My determination to seize whatever chances we have is driven by joy — not fear or anger at those who’ve gotten us into this mess. Bothering to care about saving the world is based on the love I feel while experiencing the sky, plants, animals, dirt and people. Sure people have done a lot of terrible things, but I still fiercly want to preserve our species and the amazing things we’re capable of conceiving and creating — music, books, bicycles, art, architecture, yummy food.
Both impossible and within reach
Decarbonizing the whole world quickly enough to avoid the worst climate change seems impossible on one level, and frustratingly within reach on another. People lived for thousands of years without burning any fossil fuels at all; our current total dependence is only a century old. Scientists have spent the last 30 years understanding climate change, and they have determined that if we add too many greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, we’ll trigger natural feedback loops that will further warm the climate — and the warming will become self-sustaining past a certain tipping point even if humans stop adding more emissions. Ocean acidification as CO2 is absorbed by water is another threat. So it is urgent to stop adding more CO2 and other gases like methane before tipping points are crossed. Scientists believe that there may still be time to avoid a climate catastrophe if emissions are eliminated right away.
Doing so is possible now with current technology — what is missing is the social will. Decarbonization means we need to put the interests of 99% of the population of the world — who don’t own or work for fossil fuel companies — ahead of the 1% who do. Smarter people than me have created detailed plans that describe how each particular fossil fuel dependent social function can be decarbonized — from electricity production to transport to manufacturing to agriculture. It’s worth it to read the details — see the end of this article for some links — but it’s also important that we develop catchy phrases to summarized extremely complex ideas. My current favorite catchy phrase is the Green New Deal, which I’ll discuss later.
In talking about climate change, we urgently need to reverse the mainstream perspective. Those defending the status quo or just doing nothing and living like there’s no problem aren’t realistic, mature or reasonable people — they are delusional lunatics about to wander off a cliff. These people are going to get us all killed and when they say we’re dreamers or radicals, we need to turn the tables and call them out. Changing the climate on a whole planet is reckless — a mad-scientist experiment.
The typical mainstream political divisions between climate-denying Republicans in Red States and supposedly climate change-aware Democrats living in Blue States are hogwash. Climate denial isn’t only denying science. A much more insidious form of climate denial is saying you believe in science and yet not taking dramatic and immediate action that is equal to the scale of the problem.
If you “believe science” then you’re aware that our species may be on the brink of extinction or at least social collapse — so cautious, gradual political policies aimed to avoid disrupting the status quo (while continuing to accept campaign contributions from oil companies) is not going to cut it. When Obama, Al Gore and the rest of them had power, their actions were laughably inadequate to the scale of the problem.
What is to be done?
Because the biggest problem is building social will, we need to start on a psychological and personal level.
Climate change is so global and overwhelming that its easy to fall into all-or-nothing thinking. “If I can’t figure out how to fix the problem, then I guess we’re doomed so it isn’t worth doing anything.” When that feeling moves from a personal level to mass psychology, it is self-fulfilling and means avoiding climate catastrophe will be impossible.
With climate change, it is better to do something than nothing since less emissions are better than more emissions — perhaps we can buy time by putting off climate feedback loop tipping points.
If you are on the freeway and a car in front of you stops in such a way that you know you’re going to hit it, you still put on the brakes and try to swerve because maybe you won’t hit the other car so hard. You certainly don’t hit the gas pedal. Doing something might possibly help and doing nothing because an accident is inevitable is ridiculous.
We’re all in the car together. Climate crisis calls for all-hands on deck and everyone doing whatever they can, knowing that no single action will be enough. On a psychological level, we all have to overcome our sense of powerlessness. It has basis in fact, but it is also encouraged by those who want to hold onto their power.
While many things are out of our control, what we can do is disrupt business as usual. Being disruptive and disorderly is possible even with a single person or a very small group. Elites have proved that they will not meaningfully reduce emissions — certainly not within the time we still have left. The price of inaction can and must be disorder and chaos on a mass scale. The Yellow Vests in France are just the latest example of effective disruption. Through history, uprisings have made continuation of business-as-usual impossible and required change.
When disrupting business as usual, it is great to focus on the social actors who are doing the most harm such as politicians and polluting industries. However, mass disruption on the scale that will be necessary to force rapid change has to go beyond symbolism and it is going to be inconvenient to regular people who are probably on our side. There’s no point in intentionally alienating allies, but this is a crisis, not a popularity contest. While there may be backlash, delay is a greater risk.
Specific disruptive actions and tactics have to be developed by each individual or group based on their own capabilities and local context. We’ve already seen occupations to stop pipeline construction, sit-ins at corporate offices, traffic blockades and tree-sits to stop coal mining. Coal mostly moves by train, so blocking coal trains pops to mind. Even small blockades can stop complex industrial operations or play chaos with urban life. Disruption means gumming up the normal functioning of the machine — making fossil fuel dependence an expensive hassle.
Although there’s been too much emphasis on personal lifestyle-based solutions to climate change because the scale of the climate crisis will require more than individual action, saying that our individual choices are entirely irrelevant is also obviously wrong and harmful. Pointing this out doesn’t mean we should get bogged down in guilt-based judgments about other people’s consumption decisions. It just means that in an all-hands on deck effort to decarbonize our lives, many fossil fuel use decisions are within our hands. A popular meme states that just 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of global emissions, but a lot of those emissions are really consumer emissions that people buy from corporations. Shifting blame to someone else may make you feel better but it won’t cut emissions.
Per capita emissions in the US are about 4 times the world average and this is related to both corporate decisions and individual decisions. People in the US drive more, fly more and use more stuff — and personal consumption is increasing even in the face of the climate crisis. In the EU, with a similar quality of life, greenhouse gas emissions are less than half per capita US emissions. During WWII, personal efforts like driving less and Victory Gardens had meaningful effects because they were mass actions taken on an individual basis. Half of the fresh vegetables grown in the US in 1944 were grown in Victory Gardens.
We need to debunk magical thinking that either our personal actions alone can solve this crisis or that we can keep living just as we do now and rely on government and corporations to reduce our emissions for us. We shouldn’t be driving a mile when we could just as well walk or bike. Now is a terrible time to replace your car with a gas guzzling SUV, which is nevertheless a huge trend now. It is important to select alternatives rather than taking actions that burn fossil fuels.
An all-hands on deck approach means that we need to hold our collective noses and talk about mainstream politics and government. Talking about these things doesn’t mean we support them or are abandoning a DIY counter-culture orientation. Rather, we need to discuss mainstream politics because they are part of reality. I am tired of walling off particular parts of reality and pretending they don’t exist just because I’m writing for Slingshot.
Capitalism and the industrial revolution are highly aligned with fossil fuel consumption — all three developed in tandem. Nonetheless, insisting that the only way to avert climate catastrophe is to overthrow capitalism or return to a state of nature boxes us in too tightly. One possibility is that the urgency of climate change may require rapid shifts in social organization that will sweep capitalism away.
But replacing capitalism is a complex project. It is hard to see how it can happen in just the few years that may be left to decarbonize before tipping points are crossed. Maintaining a critique of capitalism shouldn’t mean that we wait for the revolution before starting the struggle to decarbonize.
I increasingly think that the path of least resistance may be to use political and social paths within the current system to decarbonize as quickly as we can. Survival has to be the first priority.
It is possible to decarbonize under the current system because the current economy can function just fine with solar power and electric cars. While fossil fuel companies and their politicians are powerful, they are outnumbered, and with enough social pressure, their interests can be overcome. It is painful to admit that while capitalism is harmful and unjust in many ways, it has a proven track record of supporting innovation and rapidly deploying technological advances on a mass scale. This has been particularly true during wars. During WWII the US rapidly converted civilian production to military production and was able to make numerous technological breakthroughs. The activist group Climate Mobilization has proposed a 6 point “Victory Plan” inspired by the US mobilization for WWII.
The idea of the Green New Deal is also to harness capitalism’s productivity to rapidly decarbonize in a worker-friendly fashion. The idea has been kicking around for several years, but it is achieving greater visibility now because of the dynamic efforts of the direct action-oriented Sunrise Movement and NY Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Obviously capitalism won’t embrace either the Victory Plan or the Green New Deal on its own — far from it. Left on its own, capitalism has no internal values other than growth, efficiency, and concentration of wealth. Generally capitalists control the state to support capitalist priorities and despite the state adopting a democratic form, the state doesn’t operate to serve the people, but rather the state serves and legitimizes capitalism.
Nevertheless, given sufficient pressure, there are historical and geographical examples where government intervened in the market to bend capitalism for particular outcomes.
The obvious problem is achieving sufficient pressure and motivation. Wars are perhaps the only historical situation in which societies have pulled together in the dramatic and rapid fashion that is now necessary to decarbonize the world. There probably isn’t going to be a single global climate change-version of the Pearl Harbor Bombing or the 911 attack, even though Hurricane Maria took more lives than either one.
This gets back to my earlier point about disruption and disorder being the one form of leverage available. Extreme levels of political pressure are necessary to give those in charge a choice between decarbonization, or ungovernability. It is easy to imagine such a strategy failing. Governments are likely to respond to chaos with violence and repression, not decarbonization.
Promoting and helping to organize disruption and pressure is our job — radicals, the counter-culture, civil society, etc. Those within the system — the NGOs, the corporations, the political parties — can’t and won’t disrupt their own system. They are blind as to how their reformist methods are limited and failing. Only people organized collectively can destabilize the status quo sufficiently to bend history. In the UK, Extinction Rebellion has begun organizing widespread disruptive actions to require a rapid government response to climate change.
If we’re serious about creating disruption in the hope of forcing government action, we need to be self-critical about our own past failures and realistic about how power works. During the Occupy Movement, we were extremely successful in building a thriving, grassroots, widespread, decentralized disruptive direct action movement. But we weren’t able to transform pressure and momentum into political power or measurable improvements within the system.
For my part — and I think many people felt this way — we didn’t care. Winning crumbs within a corrupt and doomed capitalist/political system was unattractive, uncool, and uninteresting. We didn’t want to get our hands dirty and with good reason.
But let’s compare our moral purity to the right-wing Tea Party Movement. They created a ruckus, but none of them felt like winning demands within the system was uncool. They encouraged politicians to harness their energy to achieve results within the system. Many ran for office. Arguably US society moved right.
While we’ve been refusing to participate in the system, others have filled the space. It is hard to beat something with nothing.
We can find the courage to rebel when our backs are against the wall but the risk of action is nonetheless our best change of survival. For me, it was the smoke from the fire in Paradise that felt like the last straw and really made me feel a shift within my heart. I always wondered what I would do if I had a terminal disease — and suddenly I realized that the planet has a terminal disease. It means I have nothing to lose, but I also feel free and clear in my mind. Not everyone is going to feel this at the same time — there won’t be a single climate change wake up call — but I think there may be many localized ones that have happened or are about to happen to a lot of people in cities and towns everywhere.
When disasters happen, we need to be prepared to connect them to climate change and use them to build pressure to decarbonize. Perhaps the best radical reaction to the smoke in the Bay Area wasn’t just to organize mask distribution to homeless people — even though that was a very excellent thing to do. At a critical moment when millions of people were searching for solutions and feeling personal distress, that was the moment to very clearly demand action to decarbonize. I’m not sure if we could have had an effective protest in the midst of the smoke, but next time something similar happens I sure hope we try. We need to have the banners and the networks ready.
A climate change revolt — an Extinction Rebellion to go with the British term — is a snowball process where suddenly, you notice people you’ve never met are saying and doing the same things you are. That’s already happening. These moments are inspirational and make it easier to up your own game, and when you do, you’re helping other people act, too.
Part of our problem is a collective feeling of powerlessness. Being in an uprising is the opposite of powerlessness. During an uprising, all our everyday moments are opportunities during which we use whatever means we have — our jobs, our roles, our holiday letters, our conversations with friends, Slingshot articles. It is a political and psychological shift where people re-set priorities. The focus we need now is for climate change to be the top priority. While there are many other ecological crisis like plastics in the oceans, a narrow focus on climate change is necessary because if tipping points are crossed, all current complex life forms are at risk.
During the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1980, US news programs started each broadcast by telling you how many days the crisis had continued. What if news programs began to lead with the atmospheric CO2 concentration? What if every conversation and decision referenced climate?
I had a dream that part of the decarbonization uprising would involve everyone greeting each other with a new climate change word — instead of saying “hello” or “goodbye” you would say it to signal that you’re part of the rebellion like people said “Peace” during the Vietnam War. I couldn’t remember the word when I woke up, but we need to find that word and start saying it.
I don’t know whether decarbonization is possible within capitalism — but we need to pose the question. Obviously relying on — actually seeking out — government action carries extreme risk and can lead to a lot of problems.
When I fled to Monterey to get away from the smoke, after my daughter went to sleep I biked out into the dark and stopped on some rocks above the ocean to start this article. The act of fleeing had rattled me. It felt like a turning point. I’ve been an activist for 35 years, and every year things seem to get worse. It feels like activist malpractice to keep on thinking and doing the same things and expect a better outcome. So I think it is essential that we all — in our own ways — take some time to question our assumptions and look into the abyss.
This article calls for drastic and rapid change that will touch everyone and everything. And that’s a lot of work and stress and bother. Most of us would be much happier to continue with what is familiar and comfortable. That’s not limited to suburbanites or Trump voters — in some ways the most change-averse and conservative people I know are Berkeley radicals who are outraged if a single cafe changes its name.
Decarbonizing the entire economy — especially in just a few years — means the sort of drastic change we haven’t witnessed since World War II. It could end up making WWII look modest by comparison because to decarbonize the world, the front line will be everywhere simultaneously.
We’re all going to have to adapt to new technologies (or less technology?) and new forms of social organization. In urban areas, NIMBYs are going to have to accept more transit and more density and probably other things we can’t even imagine right now. Everyone’s going to have to get rid of their familiar comfortable car and drive an electric one instead, or maybe even ride a bike or take transit. Some comforts like food out of season or air travel may not be worth the ecological costs. We’re used to oil drilling rigs and gas stations, so we don’t notice them — and eventually we won’t notice a few million acres of solar panels and windmills, either, but at first it is going to be shocking and stressful.
I just hope we can all look deeply at the uncomfortable options and agree that accepting a lot of rapid change is our only option and is worth it if it gives life on earth a better chance of continuing in something like its current complex form. It is always easier to continue with the status quo or try to slow down change, but in this case we’re not going to avoid rapid and dramatic change either way. If we don’t decarbonize, the change will be outside our control and will almost certainly be less pleasant. Which brings me back to my experience of fleeing to Monterey.
I want to approach the need to decarbonize with joy and excitement, but the smoke and then fleeing was all about discomfort and fear. After just a week of staying inside to hide from the smoke, I began to lose creativity and feel tired and irritable. Everyone stopped going out and the streets were deserted. It was like living in a dystopian movie — the sun was very dim and I saw smoke blowing out of the BART tubes when a train arrived. People learn to cope, and if the smoke had gone on, it would have become the new normal.
Fleeing was about self-preservation and all about privilege. If we think inequality is bad now, just reduce crop yields by half for a few years due to bad weather. Ecological collapse is the greatest threat to social justice because it will lead directly to mass displacement, migration, war, genocide, fascism and ultimately canibalism. We no longer have the luxury of time and we need to come together and put all our energy into preventing such a grim future.
Further Reading on-line
• Climate Mobilization has a great 6-point Victory plan that I highly recommend: climatemobilization.org
• The Sunrise Movement has exciting direct actions yet seems pragmatic about achieving results: sunrisemovement.org.
• Extinction Rebellion in the UK has the best direct actions and overall has my favorite vision for how this could work: rebellion.earth
• Statistics in this article are mostly from the Center for Climate and Energy Studies c2es.org/content/international-emissions/
• The on-line version of this article includes additional material at the end.