By Jesse D. Palmer
Perhaps during scary times like these, our best hope is to focus on love and caring to give us the superpowers we need to avert apocalypse. Corporations, computers and oppressive power structures cannot experience or comprehend love — and therefore it is one of the last things we still have that is beyond their control. Love is the basis for solidarity and community — kryptonite against capitalism’s mindless expansion that threatens to kill us unless we can rise up and stop it in time.
A better world starts with giving a shit — which is really an expression of love for yourself, those around you, and the earth itself. Love isn’t weak or passive or boring — it is fierce, it’s active and requires constant effort, and it’s full of risk and yet exhilaration when it works out.
All our efforts to defend the earth from climate suicide and to struggle for justice and a better world ultimately start not with a focus on what we’re against — problems and complaints — but rather what we’re for. Life and the world are filled with pleasure, beauty and wonder when they aren’t spoiled by greed, power and inhumane systems.
I’m writing this not because I’m super optimistic and fired up. No — the last few months I’ve been deeply discouraged and beaten down by so much bad news that it’s hard to see any alternative to doom. I could barely write this article, really. I feel like I’ve been writing the same things for 30 years, and the world keeps getting worse. It seems like we’re all stunned and stuck — incapable of creating a massive uprising at precisely the moment we need it the most. How can we flip the mood so that dread and desperation make us fearless, wild and unburdened — with nothing to lose but our chains?
Mainstream electoral political action, individual lifestyle changes and protest-as-usual feel ridiculous compared to the task of averting climate/ecological collapse and the descent into white supremacist fascism. Climate chaos, economic inequality, racism, disinformation, fascism — each make the other worse and all require dramatic social shifts, not just tinkering.
A lot of people are ready to do something — but what will work? The problem isn’t mostly political — its social-psychological. We need magic and miracles for a broad-based popular uprising that shifts the structures holding back change.
While popular movements have been stalled, capitalism is dynamic — every year chewing up more land, emitting more CO2, displacing more people, concentrating more wealth, and placing greater power into fewer hands. The system’s status quo doesn’t mean there’s no change in our lives. Rather, allowing the status quo to remain guarantees rapid harmful change that are out of our hands.
I find it terrifying and infuriating. The billionaires and their corporations are toying with the future of millions of species — life in the ocean — great cities that will go underwater — a future where we cannot grow enough food. They are playing like a few billions of dollars in shareholder pockets are worth more than redwood trees and whales and bears.
But beyond all these emotions tearing me this way and that way, I sometimes come to a quiet place of determination and certainty. It is up to us. Relying on the system or trying to ignore what is going on is suicide for ourselves and negligent homicide for the species with whom we share this planet. Birds and plants have no way to stop human emissions, but each of us human beings does — in small ways and larger ways.
We’re in an emergency, which means we have to stop worrying so much about whether our contributions will make a difference and focus on doing anything and everything we can, in every realm, all that the same time. Specifically, this means reversing economic systems and technologies that pollute the earth locally, globally, personally — corporations, plastics, CO2 — all of it. It’s time to stop hoping someone else will do something or blaming this on someone else as an excuse to do nothing. Saving ourselves will require seizing and sharing concentrated wealth and power and addressing historical injustice — lest dictators harness racism and nationalism to turn powerless people against each other.
We need to aim for solutions that scale and play to win. Putting our energy into projects that are just nibbling at the corners of the system’s power is an admission that we’ve already lost. Those in power don’t play that way – they exaggerate their skills and capacity and then turn in disappointing results. Our side — maybe we think we’re being realistic — too frequently assumes we cannot do anything that matters very much.
The economic and political system has proved that it cannot stop climate change. More than half of the emissions since 1791 have been over the last 30 years, despite all the climate studies and international meetings during the last 3 decades.
We need to stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We know that capitalism and hierarchy are the problem, but that isn’t an excuse to sit off to the side keeping our consciences and hands clean praying it will all collapse and refusing to participate until it does. Systems don’t topple on their own — they need our help — and it takes persistent work that may not bear fruit right away or be very sexy.
While capitalism still exists, we have to be pragmatic and do whatever we can within it — while still articulating and promoting a totally different post-capitalist world. We don’t have to choose — we can do both. We no longer have the time or luxury to live in a fantasy theoretical world that only exists in books. Life’s very messy — mostly shades of grey, not black and white — and so if we can cut emissions and fight wealth consolidation by acting now within today’s fundamentally corrupt systems, we have to hold our nose and do what we can. In some situations it may be possible to promote non-reformist reforms.
About a quarter of US and global emissions are from electrical generation — more than any other single sector globally and second only to transportation in the US. Solar and wind power are finally cheaper than fossil fueled electricity, so a transition is technically and economically feasible, but it’s happening too slowly to avert climate catastrophe. Public pressure and mobilization to support solar and wind and oppose natural gas and coal power plants can make a meaningful difference and are a good place to focus energy. This is especially because power infrastructure is located close to every city and town — these are local struggles.
As important as opposing pipelines, mines, coal terminals, and fracking is supporting wind and solar installations — and even better to organize with the workers who build them. There is a lot of opposition to anything new — it’s human nature to dislike change and giant industrial developments are often harmful. But we can no longer afford the intellectual laziness of being knee-jerk against every new thing. We have to be open to change when the harms caused by the new technology are clearly less than the harms of existing systems. One needs to carefully study technology to separate greenwashing and false solutions — nuclear power, blue hydrogen, clean coal, carbon capture, natural gas as a bridge fuel — from better technologies like solar and wind.
A tangible example of a technology with promise is offshore wind. The US currently only has 42 megawatts of installed offshore wind. Meanwhile, the UK has 10,206 megawatts. To decarbonize US electricity, offshore wind has big advantages over land-based windmills since the wind is stronger and blows more consistently at sea. Offshore wind is closer to major population centers on the coasts. It is now possible to install windmills on floating platforms so they can be farther out to sea and located in deeper water, such as off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.
It is easy to imagine a lot of people saying “Aw let’s keep the coasts wild, let’s put those windmills somewhere else” but the problem is that if everyone says not in my backyard everywhere, how are we going to ditch fossil fuels? Should windmills only be built near more politically powerless people? Fossil fuel installations mess up the oceans, too — an oil spill is worse than any windmill’s impacts. It’s only fair to compare the real local ecological impacts windmills will have against the global, long-term damage CO2 emissions have on the oceans and all other ecosystems on earth.
While working on this article I looked at plans under consideration to install floating windmills off the California coast near San Luis Obispo. They would feed power ashore to the current site of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which is scheduled to close in 2025. Many power lines converge at Diablo Canyon, so putting windmills offshore nearby would avoid the need to build new transmission lines. The floating windmills can be located 17-40 miles offshore, so although they would be visible from shore, they’ll be hard to see. During construction the project would require new port facilities in Morro Bay, and once operational, the windmills will kill some birds and can impact marine life. There’s a good 2021 article from EcoWatch about how offshore wind construction and operation can be done moreecologically that points out that climate change threatens 2/3 of bird species — far away from windmill sites — if windmills are not built.
This may sound boring, reformist or actually worse than doing nothing — not Slingshot-ty or revolutionary — but I’m tired of limiting myself to symbolism, generalities and always saying “no” to everything. We need to be specific about what we want and realistic that nothing in the real world is going to be perfect. Humans have ecological impacts — no one who has electricity is willing to give it up and those who don’t have it yet want it. There are better and worse choices, and doing nothing is certain doom.
Grief has five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — and we’re going through that now about the need to change how we’re living. When you suggest specific ways of decarbonizing, you hear a lot of denial and bargaining. “The US uses twice as much electricity as other countries — people should conserve first.” “The windmills will be built by corporations — they should be owned publicly.” Fine points —but not valid excuses for delaying construction of windmills and solar to replace fossil fueled electricity.
It is time to focus on struggles close to home. If you go to a climate protest in San Francisco, you’ll see a lot of signs about Line 3 far away in the midwest — but there’s pipelines and fracking and struggles right here in California. We need to stop protesting just for symbolic value and yet avoid getting too bogged down in the specifics of any particular project — losing sight of the big picture. Stopping a single pipeline isn’t enough. The fossil fools have figured out they can throw us a few crumbs by stopping a particular pipeline to dissipate public pressure so they can keep their overall system going.
When I was a teenage radical we protested apartheid in South Africa but couldn’t grapple so well with the racism right in our midst. A particularly strong part of the Occupy movement 10 years ago was that every town had its own occupation — we didn’t all have to go to Wall Street. That local focus allowed our movement to be much more broad-based, diverse, and at least potentially related to local conditions. Where Occupy stumbled was that we weren’t able to turn popular momentum into tangible economic or political improvements.
It’s time to ditch protest rituals that depend on shaming and pressuring leaders. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that those in charge have no shame.
We’re in an emergency — so it’s appropriate to bring up climate, fascism and inequality in all our conversations and social contexts. My friends and I carried climate change protest signs while trick-or-treating with our kids. William Shatner — by far the least socially aware Star Trek actor — made a powerful appeal after going into space on the Amazon space penis: “[We’re] ruining this planet … we’re at the tipping point. We haven’t got time to wait 30 years and argue about a few billion dollars.” We all know this — it’s time to say it out loud and build an uprising stronger than oil companies and inertia. I want every B-grade celebrity to say this stuff. When will climate change be on the front page every day rather than on page A14 just during global summit meetings?
The seemingly impossible can and must happen now — we’ve gotta get together and overthrow the 1%, share the wealth in fair and lovely ways, and build a new sustainable world. The illogic of endless growth is a cancer that will kill us — but our collective shared passion for life can save us if we can summon the courage.