Fighting for the least bad outcome…

monbiot.jpgI watched Stephen Sackur interview James Lovelock on the BBC’s Hard Talk programme on Tuesday evening. It was a depressing experience.  Lovelock largely reiterated the things he said in The Vanishing Face of Gaia, reported in my review here.   I listened to it all again. His familiar and seemingly detached expectation that most of the human race will be extinguished  this century. His strong distaste for green solutions, especially wind power. His  conviction that all our efforts should now be directed to preparing for life in a diminished world, and that the more time we waste on silly ideas like renewable energy the worse things will be in the end. At present countries like the UK can and should provide a haven for refugees from hotter climates, but there will come a time when the lifeboat is full. I’m not sure how he envisages events unfolding at that point.

I confess that I sometimes despair of our being willing or able to take the steps recognised as necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.  Watching a scientist like Lovelock saying that it’s pointless even to try does nothing for my morale.  It was therefore a welcome coincidence that straight after viewing the programme I checked on the Guardian and discovered an exchange of letters between George Monbiot (pictured) and Paul Kingsnorth, a writer, journalist and environmental campaigner who seems to have thrown in the towel.  

Kingsnorth does not take up exactly the same position as Lovelock, but he expresses a deep pessimism. A rapacious human economy is bringing the world swiftly to the brink of chaos. The cold reality is that there is a serious crash on the way.  We are not facing up to this. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives if we can only embrace “sustainable development” rapidly enoough.  Get real, he says. Climate change is teetering on the point of no return while our leaders bang the drum for more growth.  The economic system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon that growth to function. And who wants it tamed anyway? Most people in the rich world won’t be giving up their cars or holidays without a fight.

Some people believe that these things should not be said, even if true, because saying them will deprive people of “hope”, and without hope there will be no chance of “saving the planet”. But false hope is worse than no hope at all. The challenge is not how to shore up a crumbling empire with wave machines and global summits, but to start thinking about how we are going to live through its fall, and what we can learn from its collapse.

Nothing here to cheer me up after Lovelock, but it was Monbiot’s response which engaged me.  He concedes having become ever gloomier about our chances of avoiding the crash Kingsnorth predicts, and acknowledges having been almost professionally optimistic in recent years, exhorting people to keep fighting, knowing that to say there is no hope is to make it so. But he focuses particularly on the very thing that Lovelock and Kingsnorth pass over quickly. The immediate consequences of collapse would be hideous: the breakdown of the systems that keep most of us alive; mass starvation; war. These alone, he writes, surely give us sufficient reason to fight on, however faint our chances appear. 

And on the other side of collapse will be something worse than the society we currently inhabit. Survivors will be subject to the will of people seeking to monopolise remaining resources. This will is likely to be imposed through violence. Political accountability will be a distant memory. The chances of conserving any resource in these circumstances are slim indeed. The human and ecological consequences of the first global collapse will persist for many generations.

This is why, explains Monbiot, he fights on.  Not to sustain economic growth but to prevent collapse and repeated catastrophe to follow.  An ordered and structured downsizing of the global economy may be a faint hope, but it’s a possibility that must be kept alive.  For the first time in our history we are well-informed about the extent and causes of our ecological crises, know what should be done to avert them, and have the global means – if only the political will were present – of preventing them. Better to keep trying than to sit back and watch billions die.  The chances of success may be small, but they are non-existent if we give up before we have started.

I’m with Monbiot, of course. I don’t know how one can take on board the message science delivers on climate change without feeling deep fear for the human future. When I listen to some of our political and business leaders talk about the need to balance climate change measures with the demands of economic growth I can only presume they haven’t fully exposed themselves to what the science is saying. We need to keep hammering home the terrible seriousness of what lies ahead.  None of us can be sure that it’s too late to remedy things. Lovelock may think it, but he doesn’t know it.  Nor can we be sure that the politicians and economists will never budge. Changes can happen very quickly – think of the end of apartheid, or the dismantling of the European communist regimes.  It would be dereliction to give up because the going is hard.

14 thoughts on “Fighting for the least bad outcome…”

  1. But the longer you keep things going as usual, which is what the hopers are potentially doing, the harder the crash. I’m with Kingsnorth.

    Changes will happen quickly, but only when the pain is sufficient. You bring up the end of communism and aparthied, but in both those cases the population was suffering and saw a much more attractive option. That’s the opposite of what’s happening here and now.

    1. Quoting GeorgeD”Changes will happen quickly, but only when the pain is sufficient. You bring up the end of communism and aparthied, but in both those cases the population was suffering and saw a much more attractive option. That’s the opposite of what’s happening here and now.”
      I’m praying that the ordure will hit the aircon, enough to scare the beejeez out of the Denialists and the Don’t Know, Don’t Cares, in time for us to pull up back from some tipping point.
      But with the Arctic ocean bubbling methane already and West Antarctica making liars of the IPCC, I don’t like our chances.
      Funny/sad how everyone thinking of the catastrophic collapse of civilization fondly imagines they will be among the lucky(?) survivors.

  2. I remain optimistic that there can be some sort of turn around. A person said in Age of Stupid [and I happen to agree] that there’s plenty of grey matter around, it needs to be engaged and supported. I’ve seen that there’s no shortage of people coming up with novel or improvements to existing energy solutions. What they often lack is support to fully verify some of these ideas and then [if valid and safe etc] produce them at scale.
    Some things, though, do make me put my face in my palm such as those whinging about wind farms. I have no empathy with them, they’re utterly selfish.

  3. Call to Action: ‘Climate Justice Action’ network to storm COPenhagen climate summit

    “Reclaiming power from below

    On the 16th of December, at the start of the high-level ‘ministerial’ phase of the two-week summit, we, the movements for global justice, will take over the conference for one day and transform it into a People’s Summit for Climate Justice. Using only the force of our bodies to achieve our goal, our Reclaim Power! march will push into the conference area and enter the building, disrupt the sessions and use the space to talk about our agenda, an agenda from below, an agenda of climate justice, of real solutions against their false ones. Our action is one of civil disobedience: we will overcome any physical barriers that stand in our way – but we will not respond with violence if the police try to escalate the situation.”

  4. I think withoutyourwalls has forgotten to take his/her medicine…

    I’m also with Monbiot on this one, anyone who advocates allowing a collapse (if it can be prevented), given the billions that would probably die and the huge ecological damage that would be done by civilisation in its death throes, is to my mind on a par with Stalin and Hitler.
    Advancing technology is the only way for civilisation to get though the next century intact, and too many greenies advocate policies that impede the development and use of such technologies.

    1. For the record, I’m with Monbiot too, but we’ll be bloody lucky if we can manage to reduce consumption while increasing the quality of life, switch to low-carbon energy and feed nine billion, whilst dodging the bullets of climate change and peak oil.

  5. i’ll bite:

    “too many greenies advocate policies that impede the development and use of such technologies” typed Andew R.

    oh really, so, could you provide an example of who you refer to and what they did to impede the development or use of technologies that could help mitigate climate change? who were those greens and what did they do?

    or are you just going to make baseless insinuations designed to tar us all with a straw man?

  6. Quoting Andrew W: “Advancing technology is the only way for civilisation to get though the next century intact”
    We might be lucky, but have you any ideas on how to build and run a nuclear power station with no use of fossil fuels at all? The biosphere has spent the last few billion years carefully collecting and storing sunlight that we lucky few have squandered in barely 200 years. Our children & grandchildren will be left to fight for the last few scraps while we still lust after 5 litre cars and plan on electric cars that are just as profligate. Anyone would think energy grew on trees.

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