Clever Toys and Sparkling Ornaments

The UN reported this week that the world is continuing to drift further off-course in dealing with climate change, despite growing alarm about the impacts of rising temperatures. With greenhouse gas emissions continuing to increase, even more drastic reductions are needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. The less we do the harder it will get. Procrastination Capitalism will destroy us.

In further news researchers, writing in a commentary article in the journal Nature, warned that the world may already have crossed a series of ecological climate tipping  meaning “we are in a state of planetary emergency”.

Tipping points are reached when particular impacts of global heating become unstoppable, such as the runaway loss of ice sheets or forests. The scientists further warn that one tipping point, such as the release of methane from thawing permafrost, may fuel others, leading to a cascade.

Prof Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, the lead author of the article, said: “We might already have crossed the threshold for a cascade of interrelated tipping points. The simple version is the schoolkids [striking for climate action] are right: we are seeing potentially irreversible changes in the climate system under way, or very close.”

“As a scientist, I just want to tell it how it is,” he said. “It is not trying to be alarmist, but trying to treat the whole climate change problem as a risk management problem. It is what I consider the common sense way.”

Our response?

Black Friday followed swiftly by Cyber Monday, an orgy of hyper-consumerism, shopping as a new form of denialism, binging on stuff to fill the hole that omnicide leaves in your head.

As a sign of how desperate we are we can watch from afar as the pantomime of the general election spools out before us.

In the Channel 4 ‘leaders’ debate on climate, Jo Swinson pointed to her re-usable cup as a sign of her green credentials. It was in the same week she’d breezily signed up for annihilating whole civilian populations with the use of weapons of mass destruction. All to get elected. If you wanted a symbol of the profound moral failure, the acute crisis of leadership and the ethical redundancy of our political class, there you had it.

The sort of paucity of the debate, the pathetic powerless ameliorative crumbs offered from the table of the rich and powerful are so dispiriting as to be undermining.

We are in the grip of what Tim Jackson calls an ‘iron cage’ of consumerism:

“On the one hand, the profit motive stimulates a continual search for newer, better or cheaper products and services. On the other, our own relentless search for social status lock us into an escalating spiral of consumerism. Novelty plays an absolutely central role in this dynamic.

Novelty has always carried vital information about status. Having a faster car or a bigger house alerts others to our place in the world. Having the latest mobile phone or Ipad or HDTV conveys the vital message that we are ahead of the crowd, or at the very least that we move with the herd. The language of cool is conveyed through a vocabulary of the new. Novelty even allows us to explore the wider aspirations we hold for ourselves and our families. Our dreams of the good life are cashed out through a kaleidoscope of clever toys and sparkling ornaments.

Amongst those to whom we signal our importance, we must count ourselves. Confidence in our place in the social world hangs or falls on our ability to participate in consumerism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the peer pressures to which teenagers are today increasingly exposed. The ‘shopping generation’ is instinctively aware that social position hangs on the evocative power of stuff. Just listen to the ubiquitous iPhone conversations played out by 11-15 year olds on train journeys home from school.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s a phenomenon that has caused, and is driving our demise. And it’s a phenomenon that’s now operating in the End Days, a period where we now know (with some precision) how long we have to get our shit together.

The danger is that we are now in a fixed-loop, that the more we become aware of our crisis the less likely we are to respond. The more we are psychologically damaged by our experience of: late-capitalist hyper-consumerism; runaway climate breakdown; and social media always-online mental-frenzy, the less likely we are to make smart, radical, considered choices.

We must relinquish our expectation of endless economic growth.

Rex Wyler writing for Greenpeace this week wrote:

“Modern ecologists have known and described ecosystem limits for decades, highlighted in the 1972 Limits to Growth  study. Capitalist economists, however, mocked the idea that there exist any limits to human economic growth. In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan claimed, “There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder.”

Wyler continues:

“This long-standing taboo against talking about the limits of human growth is beginning to crumble, however, even within mainstream media. Last month, the Financial Times , published an article by Harry Haysom, “The Myth of Green Growth,” in which he states that, “green growth probably doesn’t exist.” As we build out our renewable energy infrastructure, he suggests, we need to simultaneously contract our economies and consume less material and energy.”

Newsweek recently published an essay called “This Controversial Way to Combat Climate Change Might Be the Most Effective” by Michael Shank, who teaches sustainable development at NYU and Vaclav Smil, Professor Emeritus of Environment at the University of Manitoba, Canada, is considered among the world’s experts in energy transitions. His recent book , Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, describes an, “irreconcilable conflict between the quest for continuous economic growth and the biosphere’s limited capacity.”

Still, who needs academic laying down the doom when there’s bargains to be had?

Tim Jackson’s “iron cage” is comforting and there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. Why should we give up anything at all?

Next week tens of thousands of negotiators will descend on Madrid for the annual UN climate summit COP25, hoping to enforce and implement the Paris Agreement. Almost a year later COP26 – the UN Climate Summit – will come to Glasgow (9-20 November 2020).

James Murray, not one for hyperbole, has called it “the Summit that could save the world” and  “the meeting to save human civilisation”. He calls the 2020s “the do or die decade”.

Murray explains:

“COP26 comes at a time when the economic, technological, and political circumstances have never been more conducive for a step change in decarbonisation efforts. Equally, if the international community fails to seize this opportunity and global greenhouse emissions continue to climb throughout the 2020s then the world is, if not doomed exactly, then almost certainly consigned to more than 2C of warming and all the civilisation-shaping impacts and runaway warming risks that come with a climate that is unfamiliar to humankind.”

We have a precise moment to make some profound changes, to show the leadership our politicians have failed to do, to create the forums our media has failed to provide and to change the economy in the way that no business has an interest in doing. Or we face destruction surrounded by our ‘clever toys and sparkling ornaments’.  



Comments (7)

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  1. Rob Davidson says:

    Hi Mike, if you’ve not read it already check out Society of The Spectacle by Guy Debord.

    1. Thanks Rob yeah, read and re-read , seems to be more and more relevant…

  2. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Unfortunately it is really unlikely that the worst polluters will do anything about dealing with their greenhouse gas emissions. It is all too easy to decide that others will take action but it’s all too difficult for places like USA to change their ways.

    The results that are becoming more and more obvious will not affect me overmuch as I’m no longer young and that is true for most of those that make the decisions. I fear for the futures of my grandchildren who are primary school age; what sort of future will they be confronted with.

    As I write this I am reminded of a book that I got as a Christmas present in 1952, I pressed some leaves in it in 1953 and still have it somewhere but cannot lay hands on it. It was based on space and exploration with fictional stories among factual speculation. It predicted satellite communications before there were any satellites and, as a fictional story, it also included a world where it was too hot to go outside without protective clothing.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Indeed. Tim Lenton, who helped make a television series The Tipping Points in 2014, and a course on Tipping Points: Climate Change and Society over on Futurelearn, does not come over as a professional alarmist (his catchphrase seemed to be “it’s not all doom and gloom!”). He made the point that there were positive social tipping points that could mitigate against environmental destruction, often from small activist beginnings, like the Liz Christy community gardens in his urban-decay-blighted birthplace of Manhattan. He notes that Bangladesh was the first country in the world to ban plastic bags after pressure groups raised popular awareness, and the plastic bags were implicated in increasing the severity of flooding by blocking drains. Mauritius has banned plastic bags and outlawed their import. In the UK we are more ‘primitive’, still worshipping the consumer goods destroying out planet like the deranged wing of a cargo cult. Still, Lenton gives credit to the devolved nations acting to legislate enforced plastic bag charges, putting pressure on England to follow, and leading to a sudden decline in usage.

    I remember opinion divided about whether China’s one-child policy was a draconian measure or an enlightened and responsible collective action to curb ultimately suicidal levels of population growth.

    And I am old enough to remember when the UK was the ‘dirty man of Europe’, and how it is only thanks to the EU forcing us to clean up our act that we stopped dumping raw sewage on our beaches (thankfully restoring some of our silver sands), polluting our rivers and air and so forth:

    Perhaps a Climate Crismas strike is in order.

  4. Daniel Raphael says:

    As with so many articles from BC, I tagged it as much as space would allow. I wish I could share it with the whole world.
    Please continue–we have to hope our words make some real difference.

  5. Interpolar says:

    All this is not my problem. After all, some-one else takes my rubbish away.

    Perhaps the best kind of climate strike would be a six-week strike by our refuse-collection workers, and if they do come, for them to tip out our wheely bins into our gardens. That would illustrate rather nicely how we are living on this planet, gradually choking on our own trash.

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