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What if we stopped pretending?

Jonathan Franzen, the great American novelist, wrote an article for the New Yorker Magazine published on 9 September with the title above. His answer is convincingly honest and critical of the widespread claims that there is a solution to the now inevitable and irreparable climate catastrophe that will lead to gradual breakdown of order. However, he encourages the strengthening of communities and social justice and continuing efforts to slow down the rush to disaster. Here are a few extracts:

Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it….

Overwhelming numbers of human beings, including millions of government-hating Americans, need to accept high taxes and severe curtailment of their familiar life styles without revolting. They must accept the reality of climate change and have faith in the extreme measures taken to combat it. They can’t dismiss news they dislike as fake. They have to set aside nationalism and class and racial resentments. They have to make sacrifices for distant threatened nations and distant future generations. They have to be permanently terrified by hotter summers and more frequent natural disasters, rather than just getting used to them. Every day, instead of thinking about breakfast, they have to think about death.

Although the actions of one individual have zero effect on the climate, this doesn’t mean that they’re meaningless. Each of us has an ethical choice to make. I can respect the planet, and care about the people with whom I share it, without believing that it will save me. … any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combating extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it

Franzen’s article has stimulated considerable criticism as this short Guardian piece exemplifies.

Naomi Klein’s passionate new book”On fire” is reviewed here.

Review: “This civilisation is finished”

Jeremy Williams here on his blog reviews the new book by Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander.

This short book is a dialogue between the two. It takes in climate chaos, civilisational collapse, civil disobedience and the delusions of technology, among many other things.

It’s a wide-ranging and erudite conversation, written in opening questions and responses. What really marks it out is the “uncompromised honesty” that characterises their debate. They commit to saying what they honestly think, not what is popular or necessary or politically expedient. There is no pretence, no self-censoring to keep things optimistic. Hence the opening chapter, which is titled ‘gazing into the abyss’.

In a similar but more heated polemical way, Chris Hedges in this piece writes:

There is nothing new to our story. The flagrant lies and imbecilities of the inept and corrupt leader. The inability to halt the costly, endless wars and curb the gargantuan expenditures on the military. The looting of a beleaguered populace by the rich. The destruction of the ecosystem. The decay and abandonment of a once-efficient infrastructure. The implosion of the institutions, from education to diplomacy, that sustain a functioning state. The world has seen it before. It is the familiar disease of the end of a civilization. At first it is grimly entertaining, even amid the mounting suffering. But no one will be laughing at the end.

Human nature does not change. It follows its familiar and cyclical patterns. Yes, this time, when we go down the whole planet will go with us. But until then we will be mesmerized by fools and con artists. What are demagogues like Donald Trump and Boris Johnsonpositive psychologists and Candide-like prognosticators such as Steven Pinker other than charlatans who insist the tragedy facing us is not real? What are the technocrats and scientists arguing that education and Western civilization can turn us into rational beings other than shamans? What are the corporate titans who make their fortunes off the arms, chemical, fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries that are destroying the natural world other than high priests demanding human sacrifice?

There is one human story. Dressed in new clothing and using new tools, we endlessly relive it. If we still read philosophy, literature, history, poetry and theology we would not be surprised that greed, hedonism and hubris have easily defeated empathy and reason. But because we do not, because we spend hours each day getting little bursts of dopamine from electronic screens, we think we are unique in human existence. We are unable to see that the climate conditions that allowed civilizations to flourish during the last 10,000 years will soon be replaced by a savage struggle to survive.

... the messiahs of hope assure us that all will be right in the end. Only it won’t. We will not be able to adapt. Those who sell you the false hope that we can adapt are as self-deluded as those who brand global warming a hoax. And, at least subconsciously, many people know it.

… no more than 3% to 5% of the population need be engaged to challenge despotic power. This means, first, naming and accepting reality. It will not be easy. It means grieving for what is to come, for there is certain to be mass death. It means acting, even if defeat is certain, to thwart those who would extinguish us. Extinction Rebellion plans to occupy and shut down major city centers around the globe in October. This is a good place to start. By defying the forces of death, we affirm life.

This article from The Atlantic offers a geological perspective that criticises the anthropocentric nature of calling the short-lived human appearance on the planet the Anthropocene Epoch. The writer argues, with a good case, that our species will leave barely a trace as geological time unfolds.

green growth – a dubious concept

This article points to the basic error in assuming that economic growth can be ‘green’ when it is, in fact, the driver of ecological destruction, now at a level of overshoot that probably cannot be retrieved without major social breakdown. The academic author concludes her analysis as follows:

Proposals for green growth that rely solely on technology to solve the climate crisis are based on a flawed idea. This is, that the limits to the world’s physical systems are flexible, but the structure of its economies are not. This seems entirely backwards and more a reflection of the importance of politics and power in determining what solutions are deemed viable, than any reflection of reality.

Bernie Sanders places a Green New Deal 10-year plan at the centre of his bid for nomination as a US presidential candidate. Report from Common Dreams, the independent news source 23 August 2019. Democratic party aspirants to the nomination are avoiding a debate about climate change in their next televised encounter.

So society should ask, are these global institutions promoting green growth because they believe it’s the most promising way of avoiding climate breakdown? Or is it because they believe it’s simply not politically feasible to talk about the alternatives?

UN report on land (ab)use

This BBC article anticipates a forthcoming scientific report warning of the imbalance between CO2 emission and CO2 sequestration resulting from the way humans use the land around the planet. Land use contributes and estimated 25% of CO2 emissions linked to anthropogenic global heating and ocean acidification.

The scientists will warn of a battle for land between multiple competing demands: biofuels, plant material for plastics and fibres, timber, wildlife, paper and pulp – and food for a growing population.

The Economist article on the IPCC interim report on how land use contributes to carbon emissions.

This article in the Atlantic gives a much more thorough account and commentary on the IPCC report

And this article from The Conversation on the same report adds the usual largely ignored message “there is no time to lose!”

Monbiot in this article strongly criticises the UN IPCC report for failing to look at the opportunity costs that current agriculture by excessive production of animal feed for meat and dairy production. Over half UK arable land is used to grow fodder crops requiring land that could otherwise be used to make the UK self-sufficient if a plant-based diet became universal.

the language of energy transition

This article illustrates just how embedded fossil fuels are in our language. We talk of electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid cars but never about fossil-fuelled (petrol, gasoline or diesel) cars. Similarly, climate change has been preferred to climate emergency or crisis, although this usage is now itself in transition. The visceral reaction of those who profit from fossil energy use is to “circle the wagons” and become deniers. Others who see the enormous challenge of energy transition become climate defeatists. This Canadian professor advocates a language of opportunity in relation to a 20-year transition to low carbon future.

We have cars and electricity and home heating and transportation systems and agricultural and industrial production. None of them normally have adjectives that denote their reliance on fossil fuels. That reliance is natural and therefore invisible and unspoken. Normal.

As a society, we have not made the status quo strange and the negative aspects of fossil fuel dominance visible in our language and labels: dirty, gas-powered cars; polluting, coal-fired electricity; unsustainable, oil-dependent agriculture. And we need to.

In their book Ending the Fossil Fuel Era, Thomas Princen, Jack Manno and Pamela Martin explore U.S. philosopher Richard Rorty’s provocative idea that major social change is in part dependent on “speaking differently” to the problem of climate change. Making the fossil fuel world strange and negative in our thoughts, speech and labels is part of pursuing the transformation that we need to stave off the worst implications of climate change.

Social media spread false information and pseudo-science – about climate science, vaccines and viruses (The Conversation, August 2019). This is an added reason to promote critical thinking and scepticism about what is on Youtube and other such sources of such infomration that use algorithms to feed peoples’ biases.