How to Survive
Two quotes about the world around us this week seemed to clash as we daze at the unfolding mayhem. Speaking to Channel 4 News Greta Thunberg warned that this summer’s heatwaves are the beginning of a “rapidly escalating existential crisis”.- while in a statement about the wildfires engulfing people in Rhodes a spokesman for Easyjet said “All of our flights are functioning as normal.”
To be fair seeing flying people into a disaster-area “functioning as normal” is a pretty good summary of the banal apocalypse we are witnessing; Business as Usual as a death-trap and voluntary euthanasia has been standard corporate strategy for a long time, it just looks particularly sick now. As Andrew Simms co-director of the New Weather Institute, and coordinator of the Badvertising campaign has pointed out: “Aviation, dubbed “the fastest way to fry the planet’ by environmental campaigners, due to its high carbon emissions, is back as our default means of getting away. But our chosen means of transport, flying, incrementally wrecks the climates, prospects and lives of the places being flown to. This is no tragic, unforeseen irony, but a deliberate, heavily promoted act of self-destruction.”
Developing a ‘fear of flying’ or a very healthy flygskam should be an immediate outcome from the summer of 2023.
In addiction theory the first step is admitting that one has a problem, and that this problem is beyond our current means to solve. As we gaze at the ominous dystopian scenes perhaps at last everyone is awake to the fact that we have a problem and it is beyond our current means to solve. As Julia Steinberger has written (A Postmortem for Survival: on science, failure and action on climate change): “The first step to future success is surely acceptance of present and past failure: and we have spectacularly failed to curb or even slow down increases in greenhouse gas emissions.”
I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t have the means to solve our crisis, we certainly do, but that the tactics and strategies we’ve employed so far have completely failed, and that continuing employing them is beyond ridiculous, in fact it means certain death.
What are these tactics and strategies?
They are (in no particular order): appeasement of big business and fossil fuel giants; allowing the minimum possible environmental regulation; assuming that nothing really needs to change; lying to each other about the scale of the crisis; pretending that the climate breakdown is some kind of far-off far-away event horizon; petitioning and lobbying centres of power with pleas for change, when all of the overwhelming evidence for thirty years is that this is pointless; allowing climate denial propaganda to freely contaminate public discourse and understanding; kidding-on that western lifestyle can and should just carry on as normal with little or no impact on everyone’s lives; inviting Big Oil into the room at (endless) COP meetings as if they were (or could be) part of the solution; seeing energy as a source of private wealth; talking endlessly of the need to ‘grow the economy’ as a solution to everything – when all the evidence suggest that perpetual growth on a finite planet is impossible.
So we have nurtured all of these insane myths and watched as they repeatedly fail us. We have endlessly asked and pleaded those in power to enact the changes we need and they have repeatedly failed. What’s now very clear is that government and business and international bodies aren’t going to save us, so we need a radically different approach.
It’s true that UN Secretary General António Guterres has at least been outspoken this week saying that: “The era of global warming has ended. The era of global boiling has arrived” as he warned of ‘unbreathable’ air and ‘unbearable’ temperatures to come. But where is the emergency global summit? Where are our leaders? Where is the mass action, the dramatic change of direction? I mean, where is the fucking panic? There’s precious little. British politicians see the environment as a sort of political football, an inconvenience to their opportunist ploys to retain or gain power. In America the Republicans are working on a terrifying plan to shred every single environmental policy enacted by the Biden administration. It’s called Project 2025 and it would block the expansion of the electric grid for wind and solar energy and represents the most comprehensive attack on environmental legislation in US history.
So we know what we need to stop doing: appeasing big business; pursuing endless growth and drilling for oil. But to avoid slipping into what’s called ‘reflexive impotence’ what should we be doing instead?
- Just Stop Oil. They may be annoying but they’re right. As Assaad Razzouk, author of Saving the Planet without the Bullshit has said: “Exxon did this. Shell did this. TotalEnergies did this. PetroChina did this. Chevron did this. BP did this. Gazprom did this. Coal India did this. Saudi Aramco did this: Just 100 companies caused 71% of man-made global warming emissions.” This goes to the heart of the myth that we as citizens are all equally culpable, and any solutions must be channeled through individual behaviour change. In a Scottish context this means stopping Rosebank. As the Stop Cambo campaign explained: “Norwegian oil giant Equinor made more than £15 billion profit in the first six months of this year. Yet the UK government still wants to give them a £3.75 billion tax break to develop the Rosebank oil field. We’re subsidising the wrecking of our future for Equinor’s profit.”
- Declare a Climate Emergency. As Peter Kalmus, author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution has argued: “Biden’s refusal to declare a climate emergency and his eagerness to push new pipelines and new drilling – at an even faster pace than Trump – goes against science, goes against common sense, goes against life on Earth. In the world of politics-as-usual, with its short-term goals and calculus of “safer to follow than to lead”, I suppose there are reasons and rationalizations for this planet-destroying choice. But speaking as a scientist, it seems ignorant and short-sighted. It’s certainly a form of climate denial. And I have no doubt that fossil fuel executives and lobbyists – and those who chose to stand with them – will, in the future, be considered criminals.”
Of course President Biden is not going to declare a Climate Emergency, nor are any western leaders elected on the expectation of maintaining business-as-usual and the riptide of production and consumption. But we can declare a Climate Emergency ourselves and withdraw our support from the system at every conceivable level of our existence.
Tell the Truth is a mantra of climate activists, meant as a plea for a media saturated in climate banality, lifestyle-ism or false equivalence – if not actively platforming climate deniers. In a media landscape fit for our era, not only would we have a much more honest and stark public discussion through the media, we would also be naming and shaming those propagandists and spinners who are climate deniers. This would and should become as unacceptable in discourse as other ideologies that would result in carnage at such scale.
- Change the Language. One of the greatest tricks of the powerful is to have us believe we are all equally responsible for the current crisis. We are not. Both within the global North and outwith it, the power relations of those who benefit from our current systems need to be exposed. As Jason Hickel, author of Less is More, how Degrowth will save the World writes: “As climate-related damages hit, remember that this crisis is not due to generic “human activity”. Excess emissions are due overwhelmingly to the core states of the global North, and the ruling classes that control the systems of production, energy and national legislation.” That is also true within those countries of the global North, where low-income communities are also low-carbon communities and where the rich with SUVs and frequent flyer points are likely to be far more carbon intense than others. Given that reality its darkly ironic that elite forces can try and manipulate people from low-income backgrounds in anti-ecological populism.
- Find New Forms of Solidarity. People are very scared, and rightly so. No-one has ever lived through what we are experiencing and the possibility of crop failure from extreme weather events has moved from possible to probable. The disruptions that we are experiencing now, other people in other parts of the world have already suffered. New civil society forms of mutual aid and support will have to be developed, not least for the impact on mental health of living through climate breakdown. This is a massive challenge in a society in which hyper-individualism and narcissism is cultivated, but taking the time to reflect and come together is an essential part of ‘grounding’ ourselves from the madness.
- Stop Being Selfish. You don’t have a god-given right to fly to Australia, or to eat strawberries in December, or to buy clothes made in a far-off sweat-shop. The globalised world is over.
- Do Everything. There isn’t a clash between ‘big state’ top-down actions and grassroots mycelium oriented ones. Both are needed but as we fight for the former we can build the latter.
- Reinhabitation. If colonisation, empire and manifest destiny was a driver of social and ecological destruction across the world then the opposite of that is not just decolonisation and repair but re-inhabitation. In a post-globalised world the emphasis must be on ‘knowing your place’ and adjusting life according to geography and locality.
- It’s Not Just about Carbon. It might seem counter-intuitive but the environmental breakdown is not just about carbon emissions alone. But massive reforestation and habitat restoration – regenerative agriculture and creating green cities are all essential in not just mitigating the impact of extreme weather but slowing emissions.
- Fightback. It’s very easy to fall into responses of despair or hedonism in such times. But once we acknowledge that the old models of chasing failed leadership for solutions then the options open up for new pathways to change emerge. Mass-scale direct action can be more empowering than another petition, another round of talks with fossil fuel companies or another plea for change to politicians psychologically and systemically incapable of delivering. Equally, having witnessed the true-scale of the position we can begin the task of re-building society on the principles required for survival. As we move towards finding environmental justice there will also have to be a legal process of prosecuting those responsible for ecocide and crimes against humanity.
Only when we begin to move away from the failed models of protest and response to real-world solutions will we begin to find effective means to fightback against the forces destroying our world.