Our Unstated Assumptions are No Longer True

The Climate Crisis is Here.

Prices are rising; wildfires are burning; disease outbreaks are becoming regular.

These are all symptoms of the same illness: the extreme stress we have placed on our biosphere, the network of living beings that makes civilisation possible.

It is important that we look reality squarely in the face. Our instinct is to panic (“We’re all doomed”), deny (“It’s just summer”), or avoid (“well, I can’t do anything about it”) .

All of these reactions are entirely understandable. Climate change is far too big for any one person, group, or country to solve. Panic is no fun and doesn’t help, denial gives us someone to be angry with (“the woke”), and avoidance allows us to pretend that it is possible for our lives to carry on as they are.

But our lives cannot carry on as they are. Between the pandemic and an unprecedented heat wave, our lives have begun to change for good. The climate crisis, which has for so long loomed in the future, is here.

We must begin by addressing our emotions. In place of panic, denial, or avoidance, we need calm, acceptance, and a deep seriousness. This will allow us to turn our attention to what is happening. We must breathe, and allow our fear to pass: only then can we move ourselves to action.

Climate-driven changes to daily life have already begun. As temperatures continue to rise, extreme weather is disrupting production and distribution. This appears to us as increases in the price of food, energy, and other goods. What James Meadway calls “the [unstated] assumption of ecological stability” that has underwritten two centuries of capitalism has ceased to hold true.

Our task is to imagine and build a version of the good life that can survive in these conditions. The old left wing model in both the socialist east and the social democratic west was to use growth to fund wage rises. Wage rises grew consumption, which funded investment in more growth. That model already looks broken, and is likely to become obviously untenable within the next decade.

Instead, our good lives must involve more of the goods we discarded in pursuit of growth. We must plant vegetables in our gardens, or as my neighbour has done, on land left derelict by the housing association. As we mix compost and woodchip into the ground, we turn dirt into soil, we bury carbon, and we take the edge off of rising food prices.

We can insulate our homes, install district heating or heat pumps, place solar panels on our roofs – generating power that is both cheaper and lower-carbon. We can replace many cars with e-bikes and public transport, saving us a fortune, protecting us from fuel prices, and making streets safe for children to play again. We can plant trees across our cities, giving us shade, drinking up the rain, holding carbon in their trunks.

It will not be easy. The ideas above adapt our lives to climate change and slow its pace, but they require investment and may well appear as a reduction in GDP. Capitalism’s greatest strength, its rapacious need for financial growth, is now a millstone. Food grown, electricity generated, or miles travelled without money changing hands is a loss to the system and the oligarchs who rule it. We will need to reclaim our time from them, to slow our society so that an evening on the allotment or a ten-minute-longer travel time are acceptable.

But we are blessed with millions of people from every corner of the earth who are already fighting for a better society, a society that might yet survive the catastrophe we are living through.

We can understand the danger, breathe instead of panicking, and get down to work.

Comments (22)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    How to strike a realistic note between the sheer panic which events prompts and a calm understanding of what needs to be done. This article does strike a measured tone which avoids complacency. Even watering trees in our public spaces can be a contribution for those who cant afford things like solar panels and heat pumps. Well targeted government grants would help.

  2. John Wood says:

    Excellent, I agree 100%.
    The underlying problem is the ideology of so-called ‘Darwinism’ – that all life is a struggle for dominance or at least survival, a Trumpian world of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, where the nastiest and most selfish are supposedly the ‘fittest’ to survive. It is a 19th c imperial concept, with roots in the long-established western tradition that the planet is simply a resource to be exploited. It finds expression in racism, sexism, and other ways.

    Kropotkin actually demolished the ‘survival of the fittest’ in the late 19th c., and modern evolutionary science emphasises co-operation over competition as a key driving force.

    With the arrival of Gaia theory, quantum physics, and Buddhism, individualism is being replaced by an understanding of life as an interconnected web in which humans -however clever – are just one species among many. And we evolved, no doubt, for the same reasons as all others: to build biodiversity and strengthen the system overall. So the pursuit of ‘wealth’ and ‘power’ – which are after all merely concepts – is a destructive sickness.

    Fortunately because the planet is a living system, it has the power to heal itself. Unfortunately for humans, that process might mean ridding itself of us because it looks increasingly as though this species is not the ‘fittest’ at all.

    Because of their addiction to their out of date philosophy, the super-rich sadly care nothing for the planet, or indeed anything or anyone beyond themselves. They are mad enough to think they can trash everything then set off into space to start again somewhere else. It is hubris. They are destroying themselves too.

    But as Kropotkin pointed out human nature is still nature. We actually depend on mutual aid. So we have a potential role to play in healing our life support system.

    We just have to change our perception.

    1. John Wood says:

      I realise my comment might seem rather abstract, so I’d just like to recommend a book: Active Hope, by Macy and Johnston, new edition just out. Full of practical stuff we can do.

    2. 220723 says:

      That’s a bit of a travesty of ‘Darwinism’, or the theory of evolution by natural selection (to give it its Sunday name).

      The purpose of the theory is to explain the twin observation that a) life isn’t simple but displays a mind-boggling diversity and complexity of form and b) that these forms aren’t fixed but change or ‘evolve’ over time.

      The theory proposes that the chemistry of sexual reproduction is unstable and constantly produces wide variation among the characteristics that individual organisms inherit from generation to generation. Some of these mutations disadvantage their bearers in the environments in which they must maintain and reproduce their lives, in which case they will they find themselves and will as a consequence tend to die out of the population. Others will advantage their bearers and will therefore tend to thrive in the population. Thus, over time, the characteristics that distinguish a species in a given environment will tend to change rather than remain static.

      At the same time, environments too change and inherited characteristics that were once advantageous for an organism to have could quickly became disadvantageous under the changed environmental circumstances, in which case those characteristics might – again, over time – cease to thrive in the population and/or die out of that population.

      One of the beauties of the theory of evolution by natural selection (properly understood) is that it’s morally neutral. Particular moral qualities are in themselves neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ from an evolutionary point of view. An inherited behavioural disposition towards altruism and mutual cooperation might advantage its bearers in some environments, in which cases it will tend to thrive in the population, but disadvantage them in others, in which cases it would tend to die out of the population. Environmental change can also turn dispositions that were formerly advantageous to have into disadvantages.

      The historical significance of Darwin’s theory is that it contributed to the ‘Death of God’, to the abolition of the idea that there are absolutely ‘good’ and ‘bad’ moral values that transcend the contingencies of the material (in this case, the biological) world. There are only behavioural dispositions that are either advantageous of disadvantageous to life depending on the material circumstances in which that life is environed. Prince Kropotkin, as a representative of the ancien régime who fancied himself as one of the righteous,, sh*t himself at the prospect of the ‘Death of God’.

      1. Adrian Roper says:

        The royal fern hasn’t changed since the Jurassic, some 180m years ago.
        Some shark forms have a similar record of aeon-length stasis whilst their environment went through multiple revolutions.
        Did they have a Get Out of Evolution card?
        Or just happy designs that made them endlessly fit for survival?

        Anyway, two great cousins of ours.
        Long may they prosper.

        1. 220723 says:

          The fact that aeons of often quite radical environmental change haven’t changed those particular life-forms is accountable within the theory of evolution by natural selection without reference to any ‘design’, ‘purpose’, or some such final cause, but purely in terms of ‘chance’, contingency, and the accidental convergence of whole strings of efficient causes. Modern science eschews teleological (‘final cause’) explanations; that’s one of the things that make it ‘science’ and make theories like that of evolution by design ‘unscientific’.

          1. Adrian Roper says:

            Thanks 220723.
            I didn’t mean to suggest any teleology behind the “happy design” of a fern or shark. Just positing the option that they reached a design that proved fit for whatever the next 180m years threw at them.
            The Get Out of Evolution card option also wouldn’t need to be dispensed by God. I’ve never heard of the suggestion, so I’ll ask you if you don’t mind. Is it possible that a life form could simply stop (or even never start) throwing up mutations of itself? Obviously it would lose the risk insurance of adaptability, but maybe life could throw up a few of these oddballs. In the absence of a teleology, why not?

          2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

            Adrian, the particular fern and the particular shark are in environments which have not changed significantly in very long times. The normal random mutations in the DNA of some individuals, will reduce the chances of survival of these individuals in their environment so most will die before they procreate. The ones which do survive are these ‘fittest’ for the environment in which they live and so they survive and procreate. This does not mean that the random mutations in some individuals do not occur. Should the environment change then it is possible that some of species with mutated DNA will survive and procreate. However, because the majority are so well fitted to the previous environment, their numbers will begin to decline.

          3. 220724 says:

            ‘Is it possible that a life form could simply stop (or even never start) throwing up mutations of itself?’

            The chemistry involved in the exchange of genetic material between different organisms (‘sex’) is so unstable that mutation (the production of offspring with combinations of traits that differ from those found in either parent) is the rule rather than the exception. This ‘rule’ is the mechanism by which life as such produces the genetic diversity that maximises its chances of survival. Basically, life continuously ‘spreads its bets’ by randomly proliferating and reshuffling the ever-mutating forms it takes.

            As Alasdair says, however, almost all the mutation that occurs won’t thrive. Only that which enhances the life-chances of its bearer will tend to survive and spread throughout successive generations of a population.

          4. Adrian Roper says:

            Thanks both

        2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          While I think Darwin and the evolutionary theory his writings generated is one of the best scientific theories we have because of its explanatory and predictive power, I think we need to be cautious about applying Darwinian/evolutionary theory to conscious human behaviour. Essentially, evolutionary theory is about random variations in the DNA of organisms, which, in the great majority of cases leads to the death of the organisms. However, a random coincidence of conditions and mutations sometimes enables an organism to thrive and, in some cases become a dominant organism.

          The evolution of human consciousness was the one of these fortuitous changes. Not only are we conscious but we are also aware of ourselves. We can, have done and continue to do, make changes to our environment. For much of human history, given several plagues, famines and other catastrophic events, we have managed to survive in reasonable harmony with the other flora and fauna in the environment. But, with the advent of industry and the associated science and medicine, we be an to exert a disproportionately malign effect on other species and the environment. This has been known since long before Darwin, but, various philosophies and religions, led to the creation of paradigms such as ‘dominion over the earth’. And these were latched on to by powerful groups to present them as ‘human nature’ – a distorted view of human nature. This made some ideas – creations of human thinking – become hegemonic. That is, they are presented as being facts of nature, but, they are just a human construction designed to give power over the majority of us. Capitalism in all its variants is a dominant and potentially ecology destroying hegemony.

          It is NOT nature or science – it is a creation of the human mind, which some of us accept but which has proved, increasingly, to be an instrument of mass control.

          As Alistair Indicates in his article we can CHOOSE to change it.

          1. 220724 says:

            I share your enthusiasm for the theory of evolution by natural selection. Not only does it have great explanatory and predictive power, it’s conceptually elegant and economical and has great heuristic value. In many respects, it’s philosophically *the* exemplary scientific theory.

            I also share your caution over applying that theory analogously to behaviour. The behaviour we designate as ‘human consciousness’ can be explained as a biological phenomenon without having to go outside that theory as a fortuitous product of changes in the DNA of our distant ancestors, but that doesn’t mean that behaviour in general – and human consciousness in particular – is reducible to its biochemistry. As you point out, human consciousness is not just an objective biological phenomenon; it’s also (uniquely) a subjective lived experience. Human consciousness has (uniquely) a private ‘inward’ quality that it doesn’t have as a purely public biological phenomenon.

            So, while human consciousness as a biological phenomenon might well be explicable as a fortuitous product of changes in the DNA of our distant ancestors, our lived experience or ‘inward sense’ of it might well not be (although so-called ‘eliminative materialists’ would insist that it is). Subjectively, it still makes sense for us to ask how we should behave cognitively, evaluatively, and practically, as if we had some choice on the matter, and not just how we’re objectively disposed to behave by our biology. Whether we’re objectively disposed by our biology to behave altruistically and cooperatively (Kropotkin) or selfishly and competitively (Spencer), we’re still able to question whether or not we’re going to act as we’re biologically disposed to act.

      2. John Wood says:

        I agree up to a point about Darwin himself, although reading him I do find his ideas very Victorian – he was a man of his time. However I put ‘Darwinism’ in inverted commas because I think his theory was picked up and interpreted in a more brutal way than he seems to express himself. In the Descent of Man, for example he finds a role for mutual aid which is not so obvious in Origin of Species.

        Although Kropotin was born a Prince, he became an anarchistic communist – hardly a representative of the ancien regime. I don’t find him invoking God anywhere in his writings. Mutual Aid was written as an answer to those who saw life and evolution as an endless struggle, and called themselves ‘Darwinists’. His analysis is based on observation (and a reading of history I don’t entirely agree with), but his ideas certainly do deserve to be taken seriously, and I think they do chime well with modern evolutionary science.

        It does look as though coming together of simple organisms to form more complex structures is fundamental; and a principle of mutual aid – as Kropotkin points out – is a feature running through both human societies and the natural world .

        Kropotkin’s book on Ethics looks to evolution, not God, as a foundation.

        1. 220724 says:

          Kropotkin – Tzar Alexander II’s favourite teenage page; Oscar Wilde’s ‘White Christ’; one of the world’s first international celebrities – was representative of the ancien régime insofar as he still upheld a premodern moral absolutism in an age of growing relativism.

          Kropotkin’s big mistake was that, like some f*ck*ng latter-day biblical prophet, he saw life as being driven by natural selection towards a moral end. This is implicitly denied in Darwin’s own writing and explicitly so in Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics: the evolution of life is not ‘progressive’ (as Kropotkin had it); the sine qua non of all social life – animal and human – is neither mutual aid nor mutual competition; life has no sine qua non or ‘essential condition’; it evolves to no end.

          This ‘moral agnosticism’ of life, as Huxley called it, is one of the mortal blows by which we ‘killed God’ in 19th century Europe. Kropotkin’s theory of ‘progressive evolution’ and ‘mutual aid’ is one of the last stands in an epoch of agnosticism of a kind of premodern dirigisme, an insistence on ‘truth’ and ‘righteousness’ in a world that has lost its religious enchantment, a world in which ‘God’ is dead.

    3. Lindsey says:

      Just like to say that I’ve been told that a better description of Darwin is the survival of the most flexible.

      1. 220723 says:

        Versatility (the ability to fit a whole variety of different environments) does seem to be key to the success of a species.

      2. John Wood says:

        I don’t find ‘the survival of the most flexible’ anywhere in Darwin’s work. I see definite elements of 19th c imperialism – the idea that white, wealthy, Europeans were somehow more ‘evolved’.

        And he is still somehow caught in the idea of a hierarchy of species with man at the top. Of course his main objective was to counter the creationists and he was very successful in that – but those who followed him seem to have gone further and seen all life as a struggle of all against all.

        I think a distinction needs to be made between Darwin’s own writings and those of his disciples who appear to reject ethics altogether.
        Freud seems to regard ethics as merely a necessary curb on the animal instincts of the id.

        Kropotkin’s contribution was ro recognise the principle of mutual aid running through nature, including human nature. And in fact it seems clear that cooperation is more important in nature than competition.

        Jung drew attention to the collective subconscious, though Freud as an individualist couldn’t accept that.

        Anyway, I think it’s important to distinguish between Darwin’s actual ideas and the later ‘social Darwinism’ that underpins modern capitalism.

        Just as there’s a massive difference between Jesus’s actual teachings and those of later ‘Christianity’.

        1. Wullie says:

          In my time we lost the Elms to disease and are now in the process of losing the Ash also. Oak and Larch are also threatened by disease so must make planting replacement trees the priority.
          Our old familiar landscape is tragically vanishing before our our eyes.

  3. Sandra Edmondson says:

    Just a wee bit too young to “Self Identify” as a “Hippie”…&…so it feels…a “Grandparent”…though an extremely “happie” one, me (oops! Ha! Couldn’t resist!)…I’ve read everyone’s beautifully & intelligently “penned” comments with relish, hoping (since y’all are evidently far more studied than me on virtually everything mentioned! Thank-you for stimulating my braincells so brilliantly!) somebody might save me suggesting, in simple response to “Bella’s” article…that I suspect all our world’s missiles, bombs, tanks, fighter planes, nuclear submarines, etc., by their existance, let alone actual “employment”, are more responsible for so-o many of the so-called “natural disasters” we’re experiencing these days than virtually any other…“issue”… facing life on…& of…this planet…hmmm? (Admittedly, without humankind having “progressed” so far in the tender art of total annihilation, we’d still be firing “environmentally friendly” bows & arrows at one another…but I fear that’s a debate around about 90% of us mayn’t have sufficient time to hold…whilst the 10% of socio [& psycho] paths born amongst us are busily profiteering…literally, at our expense!)

  4. Politically Homeless says:

    Well, OP is all a fairly standard degrowthist argument.

    During the SARS-CoV-2 lockdowns, global GHG emissions fell by less than 20%.

    I made the point at the time that if a panic on the scale of “covid” was only going to produce behavioural adjustment and economic contraction capable of causing such a fractional reduction of human emissions, then explicitly-directed traditional climate change policy – which calls for the same methods – consume less, do less, work less – would likely never solve more than, perhaps, 10% of the emissions problem. To frame this as mere the “end of growth” is also, frankly pretty disingenuous. We’re talking about reverting material living standards to the 1950s or prior. We’re expecting a democratic system to voluntarily implement this because of a collective scientific problem. When have democracies ever behaved like this? When on a collective global scale? It is mad to expect this.

    As many serious people such as James Hansen had been saying for about 10 years, the rest will need to come from deep decarbonization using tools appropriate to the scale of the challenge, specifically new nuclear. “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air” is still a good reference to explain why this is the case.

    (At present with regard to the ballyhoo’d Energy Transition we are in what I call “just go ahead and try it, let’s see what will happen” mode. Let’s just see what will happen when we try replacing ICE vehicles at scale with electric vehicles, with a low carbon grid based primarily on renewables. Let’s see what will happen when the naysayers are ignored with the attitude of, “well who cares if the numbers don’t add up, people just ought switch to bicycles.” Yes they ought to. But will they? What about road haulage? What about running trains? Hey who knows! Let’s try the policy and see!)

    The Green Left has always been selectively uninterested in statistics and reasoned argument, equally as much as is the climate denying Right. They are both mirror images of one another, primarily invested in their own respective social visions of what the Good Life ought to be, and martialing scientific “arguments” (post-hoc rationalization) to that end. Until we move beyond this (in my opinion, pretty infantile) state of affairs, there isn’t going to be any meaningful consensus about the climate problem, nor any meaningful action to solve it.

    1. So your solution is nuclear power? That’s it?

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