Beyond Fatalism – Reframing Climate

The climate is changing before our eyes. In Berkeley, we’ve only had 5 inches of rain in a year and the weather is nothing like it was just 25 years ago when I moved here. And everywhere else, we’re seeing extreme weather events — burning heat, bitter cold, and violent storms. Although everyone notices and almost everyone realizes these changes are related to human CO2 emissions, we continue with business as usual. Climate chaos risks a mass extinction, crop failure, starvation, and social collapse, yet there is no sense of a popular uprising or outpouring of resistance like we briefly experienced during Occupy.

Rather, we’ve fallen into a psychological rut in which many people seem to have given up on the idea that our species will survive or can solve such an overwhelming problem. We’re left with hip cynicism that fetishizes the Apocalypse, or, more commonly, resignation and denial. The problem isn’t a lack of proposals, but rather that cutting emissions on a global scale is such a big project that any individual action appears meaningless. To eliminate CO2 emissions, everyone and everything has to change, but it’s hard to say what one can do right now to bring this about.

Sensitive people who can’t stop caring are gradually going mad from the contradictions — driven to hopeless isolated acts of vandalism or retreating into the ineffectual self-centered survivalism of backyard gardening or going back to the land. But none of these acts does anything to effectively attack the actual problem: that a tiny number of powerful people are running everything to concentrate wealth; that in the process, they have destabilized the ecosystems on which we all depend for our very survival; and that checks on their power by civil society are lacking.

The invisible hand of the market, left to its own devices and in control of the world’s governments, will not reduce reliance on fossil fuels since the market on its own doesn’t build in the costs of fossil fuel dependence. While some climate change is already inevitable, an inspired widespread movement can still make a difference and avert the most disastrous climate disruption and human social collapse.

It’s time to shake off this bad dream and say fuck this shit — let’s DO something. When I look at my daughter’s face and think about her future, I realize that life is too enjoyable and the world we inherited too beautiful to let it go down the drain so some oil companies can make a short-term buck.

We need to culturally and psychologically re-frame the way people think about climate change so we can get beyond being overwhelmed and instead focus on what we can do. It’s impossible to be sure that anything we can do at this point will make a difference, but it is certain that if no one does something dramatic soon, we’re screwed.

Just knowing the disturbing facts laid out in the Al Gore movie hasn’t been enough — and in fact seems to have backfired. Rather than building momentum for people to make personal and systemic changes in the way we relate to the earth, widespread awareness of climate change has enhanced fatalism and resignation.

Our experience with Occupy offers a peek at how to proceed. As with global warming, Occupy tackled economic issues so overwhelming and complex that people had tuned out. Until we figured out how to (briefly) tune back in. What we need now is a revival and expansion of the energy behind Occupy directed at the economy and the ecology.

Building a popular uprising depends on breaking down psychological isolation and building community. Resistance has to flow from our hearts and be inspired by our humanity, excitement, engagement and direct participation. As we build a movement, we will build momentum, fearlessness, and the psychological resources necessary to overcome the way things are, and instead see the way things can be.

A successful movement addressing climate change must attack inequality and capitalism because a system organized by valueless competition and economic efficiency can’t preserve the environment which is owned by no one and operates on its own separate internal logic. Capitalism necessarily seeks to maximize the human transformation and domination of nature — processing trees, rivers and the air we breathe to enlarge the bank balances of the oligarchs on top.

Up until recently, the struggle against capitalism has mostly been about justice and fairness for the humans it enslaves, but now it must be about our survival as a species and defense of the Earth on which we depend. If the global environment collapses, the poor and those in the Global South will suffer first and worst since whatever food and water remains will be seized by those with the most money and power in even more extreme ways than what already happens.

Bill McKibben quotes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as calculating that humans can emit a total of 565 gigatons more CO2 without going above a 2 degree C increase in global temperatures — an increase that might be manageable. For a sense of scale, humans emitted about 32 gigatons in 2012. Unfortunately, the London-based Carbon Tracker Initiative calculated that the fossil fuel companies already have coal, oil and gas reserves that would emit 2,795 gigatons of CO2 if burned. That means 80 percent of the fossil fuels that corporations have already discovered must not be burned. And yet the fastest growing part of the economy is environmentally destructive exploration and development of even more fossil fuels — Increasingly focused on difficult-to-extract “un-conventional” sources like tar sands.

All of the hype about fracking leading to American “energy independence” is very literally crazy talk — drilling and mining our own graves. We have to avoid confusion about fracking, XL pipelines, tar sands, trains carrying oil and coal, and other big fossil fuel projects. They aren’t bad primarily because they may pollute local water sources or risk spills, but because if the gas and oil they bring to market are burned exactly as intended — to run our clothes dryers and propel our cars and airplanes — our asses will be cooked. A lot of anti-fracking and pipeline campaigns are taking on a not-in-my-backyard flavor — passing laws to keep impacts away from populated areas — but this misses the point and further confuses and diverts energy we need to build a successful movement to avoid climate chaos.

The first step towards achieving zero greenhouse gas emissions needs to be an end to new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, and a shift of the hundreds of billions of dollars annually spent to alternatives like solar, wind and conservation. At the beginning of WWII, the US rapidly converted its economy to war production, and quickly developed numerous new technologies for the war effort, most notably the atomic bomb. An uprising to stop climate change by achieving zero emissions needs to harness similar grassroots energy and creativity for positive goals, including in particular learning how to use less of everything.

Struggle outside and against the institutional structures is essential. There is no way to know precisely what will capture the hearts and imaginations of the billions of people who must together create this massive transformation. Given this, the key is for many people and groups to consistently test out different efforts, angles and ideas. Only through experimentation and diversity may we stumble on a way to break through the psychic paralysis that is gripping us.

During the summer of 2011, there was no reason to expect that Ad Busters’ call to “Occupy Wall Street” would catch fire the way it ultimately did, when so many previous calls to action were ignored. History is full of such moments when particular people, events or actions succeeded at triggering change when previous efforts had been in vain. As Nelson Mandela observed, “it always seems impossible until it’s done.”

As we focus on sparking and participating in a global uprising able to overturn the fossil fuel Goliath, are our personal actions irrelevant? Personal acts are not enough because they don’t attack the economic systems that drive climate change, but they aren’t irrelevant or pointless either. The world is the way it is because of webs of choices that everyone makes — powerful people as well as less powerful people. The market and economic structures restrict our individual choices and put many decisions in few hands. But at some level, the system supplies a fossil fuel-dependent world because people demand one. Fossil fuels enable a particular type of instant, throw-away existence and in turn socialize individuals who desire such a life.

Economic and political transformation has to come with a parallel cultural transformation in which the individual lives we desire shift from being about things to being about engagement; from consumption to community; and from living large to living lightly. Our daily choices to feel more happiness while using fewer resources are another form of experimentation and practice for such a cultural re-orientation.

These choices aren’t about guilt — either directed at ourselves or others — but rather they express our humanity. We can feel more alive to the extent we’re self-reliant, present, and active. The fossil fuel age has accompanied an insidious psychological slide towards distraction and meaninglessness as we’ve tried to replace every human skill and interaction with technology — begging the question of whether the world we’ve created even needs us, other than as passive consumers. Living more lightly on the Earth — transforming nature less and participating as a part of nature more — is about more than just averting climate catastrophe. In the end, the transformation we seek is about reclaiming what is really important about our lives from corporations and their mediated, fossil fuel-dependent cages.