While the great and the not so good were preparing to jet to Doha to disagree over what, if anything, they were going to do about climate change (and indigenous people everywhere wring their hands), and the British government was preparing to allow a possible 60% of the UK to be affected by shale gas exploration, Crisis Forum was presenting the last in a series of workshops on Climate Change and Violence. We tried to remain positive, but… To help prepare us the organiser, Dr Mark Levene, asked us to consider these deliberately provocative questions:
All things being equal; regardless of our political persuasion or none; whether there is, or is not, international action towards climate change ‘mitigation’; whether governments (HMG included) have or have not addressed the fundamental issues involved in climate change; and whether indeed, a whole range of failures on this and related fronts, continue or not to madden us…
would we still not agree that our ongoing safety, security and survival in a world of increasing climate chaos, food insecurity, petrol price hikes, water shortages etc. lies in the assurance of the perpetuation of strong, technologically advanced states with the capacity and resources to deal with emergency situations; with a monopoly of violence to protect us in the event of societal breakdown; and that whatever we might do in terms of local resilience, democratic endeavour, grass-roots activity etc, the bottom line is that only the strong state is able to meet the needs and assure the well-being of an entire populace in the face of what is likely to become an accelerating matrix of environmental-cum-socio-economic crises ?
Where to start? The outlook for humanity and much else of life is bleak but I won’t, I can’t give up on life. I won’t give in to total despair. But I find nothing in our international and national political systems to give me optimism. I have to find that elsewhere. As in any situation I tend first to identify what’s wrong so I can put it to one side while I look for what’s right. So what’s wrong?
Do I think that there is any serious international action, any ‘leading from the front’ by our politicians, to mitigate climate change? No. Do I think they are even addressing the fundamental issues on climate change; or for that matter, on poverty, social injustice, war, violence and conflict? No, no, no and no.
There are times when one could almost believe that they are in a state of denial about these issues, but I don’t think so. I know from experience that more local authorities (British County and District Councils, for example) can be woefully ill-informed, but this does not apply to those who ‘lead’ us. They have access to the latest science, the most recent facts and figures. But those facts are not what they want to hear.
It’s well known that elected politicians focus on the next election, and to speak the truth about the problems the earth is facing would be electoral death – a fate all but a noble few will do their best to avoid, even if it condemns their children to a miserable future. Except that our sainted leaders, many of whom belong to the 1% (or at least the 5%), really seem to think that they will, through their position, power and money which are really all the same thing, be protected from the looming disaster.
They also know that they cannot demand that the rest of us change our way of living while, through their money, they maintain theirs. It is one thing to say we must all cut back because the whole country is in debt (not that anyone believes David Cameron and George Osborne when they claim that ‘we’re all in it together’). It is quite another to demand that everyone except them stops flying, driving, keeping warm, having less food which is ever-more expensive, faces redundancy because the factory cannot get the raw materials or is not allowed to produce high levels of carbon emissions – and all the other things that would be necessary to cut our emissions or will affect us because of climate change. To see the elite carry on as before while demanding all that of us would fuel revolution, and there is nothing that frightens governments more.
Governments do not like taking pre-emptive actions – except when it comes to military action, of course. They prefer to commission studies, reports and consultations. It looks good but is the opposite of the Taoist principle of ‘wu wei’.1 They did not act when it would have been far easier to do so, and to act now will call for drastic measures. I do not think that many governments, if any, have the courage or the leadership skills for that. The result is that governments appear to be planning to try controlling the effects of climate change rather than tackle climate change itself.
Real concerted action to mitigate climate change will need enforceable international treaties and those quite urgently. But treaties tend to be put together by politicians, and politicians tend to be controlled by vested interests. Any time politicians get too involved in conventions, treaties and other such initiatives, they water them down, or neuter the process. Months, if not years, will be spent arguing over the exact wording with government lawyers creating get-out clauses and loopholes for their various governments. Look at the secret provision the UK made in the Cluster Munitions Treaty which has allowed the US (who didn’t ratify the Treaty) to store their cluster munitions here, while the UK is obliged to stop using, manufacturing, storing or selling them.
So it will be with any agreement on climate action – witness the announcement last week that the British government was making more funds available for renewables while emphasising, so the government spokesman assured us not once but several times, that this, of course, includes nuclear power. Had he not read the report that came out a few months ago saying most of our existing nuclear power stations are at risk from rising sea levels? Had he not visited Somerset’s Hinkley Point (where Britain’s next nuclear power station will be built – if they can find enough money) and seen the eroding coastline and the ever-larger sea defences being built? How many Fukushimas does this country need before they get serious about renewable energy?
It is possible that in some countries with a good social structure and not too large a population (nor one where so many essential services have sunk under the wave of capitalism and been privatised) the government would be able to meet the needs of its citizens, but I fear most will not. Many will try and fail, and some will simply choose not to. And that will be a cold-blooded choice between who is saved and who ignored. Who eats while others starve? Who drowns while others crowd onto the shrinking land? The poor will be cut adrift or, in cities, ghetto-ised (as was the frightening subtext I heard from some of the speakers in the 3rd Crisis Forum workshop on the role of the state), with much of the effort and control being utilised in protecting those in power. After all, they will persuade themselves, if they have to struggle for food, shelter and security, how could they possibly devote the time to looking after the people (who do not have gated communities, armed guards let alone armies, bunkers and first dibs at the available food)?
Although I sometimes rather despairingly think it will take a major extreme weather event to motivate them, I have long been convinced that it is not politicians, but ordinary people in partnership with the earth who will create the answers and actions we need. Politicians, corporations and the 1% believe they have everything to gain by maintaining the status quo, this while the gap between the complacent rich and the angry poor grows and grows. But people, and their children, have everything to gain by turning their backs on the old world and finding new ways of surviving.
Governments refusing to invest in schemes that would mitigate the effects of climate change (with all the alternative employment that could create) while eagerly grasping at any innovation, discovery or process (like shale gas) that will allow ‘business as usual’ only demonstrates how tied they are to multinational corporate thinking. Humanity is inventive, and I know that there are many great ideas being tested that would help dig us out of a very deep hole, but… I fear. I fear that we will find too much comfort in the belief that we can engineer our way out of trouble. And no fix will be a substitute for what we really have to do: consume less, waste less and learn to live within the web of life. Geo-engineering can gain us some time but it will not guarantee our future. Sooner or later we have to face the real issue: we must drastically change the way we live.
I am also convinced that, whatever level of climate change we face, the best way for humanity to survive will be through strong communities that are self-sufficient and resilient, and whose values are not based on money or power. And, wherever we are, we should be building those communities now, in villages, towns, city streets and tower blocks, teaching the children the benefits and pleasures of neighbourliness, of sharing, of building together. And we need to re-learn those things ourselves; rediscover how resourceful we can be; understand that we can depend on ourselves instead of governments that, more often than not, have failed us. More than anything else I believe we need to go back to getting our hands in the soil, reconnecting to that which can provide our basic needs. Just growing seeds in a window box changes a child’s perception of the world he or she lives in, and we need that change of mind.
‘Democracy’, as promoted by many political systems, is an odd beast. For a long time now, people in the West and elsewhere have been persuaded that democracy means nothing more than having a vote; that everything can safely be left in the hands of the politicians. All they need from us is a vote, then we can go away and concentrate on being consumers while they ‘look after’ us. Creating this feeling of dependency is quite deliberate. It undermines our personal power. People might complain but rarely do enough to change the system. We have given away our natural initiative and independence. Having a vote most certainly doesn’t guarantee a democracy, nor can you claim a democratic result when a government gets to lead the country on the votes of just over 20% of the electorate, as happened in Tony Blair’s last election. The latest UK election was even worse, with many of the new police commissioners getting a nice well-paid job on the strength of around 7%.
Politicians complain that the British public are apathetic and that’s why we don’t bother to vote. For some that is true. But many are simply tired of the old system. They know it will never produce what they want, that it will always favour those in power, those with money. Whether people want peace, social justice, equality, action on climate change, or any other issue that is part of the whole sorry mess, they know they won’t get real results by depending on what we have now. So they are walking away. Leaders everywhere, subconsciously aware they are losing the argument, are reacting more violently, with more repressive laws, when people take to the streets. I think the violence is a sign of how desperately they are trying to hang on to power that is draining away. Power over people only really works through fear, and if the people are too busy fixing their own part of the world to notice the powerful, power becomes powerless.
I do have two good reasons for optimism, and this is one of them: I scent revolution in the air. I’m not talking about the kind of violence that the so-called Arab Spring has produced in countries like Libya and Syria (with a lot of underhand help from the West). No. But all over the world, quietly, small groups of people have been turning their backs on the status quo and simply doing what they know is right and necessary for survival. For some years I have been watching events in parts of South America – campesiños reclaiming land from ranchers and forming cooperatives to grow their own food; workers taking over factories abandoned by absentee landlords and bringing them back into production; Amazon Indians going to court to regain ownership of their lands. These are small actions by small groups, but it’s the grain of sand that produces a pearl. And, as the Occupy movement sang, ‘We are the many!’ I await the hundredth monkey.2
And here is my other reason for being optimistic about the future. I know that, however badly human actions affect the rest of life on this planet, however many life forms are threatened with extinction, life itself will survive. It is here and whatever survives, however small, will evolve and develop, creating yet more wonder and beauty, however strange it would be to our eyes. And it has far more time at its disposal than humanity has had from the time we first became bipedal till today. Like everyone else, I can do my small bit to help preserve what is here but, whatever happens to the world I know and love, life will go on.
But I shall mourn each change and each small loss that I see from year to year just in my own garden: the lack of honey bees though the solitary and bumble bees are still holding their own; the lack of birds coming to my feeders, both species and numbers down just from last year; wild flowers blooming twice in one year and not at all the next. I used to hear the earliest cuckoos calling in the valley where I live, and they’d go on calling for 3 months or more. This year I heard a cuckoo call just once and then – nothing more. This is an area of winter streams, with village names prefixed with ‘Winterbourne’. Now the streams tend to run dry in January and flood in the summer. And this November, before the country flooded under relentless rain, I saw snow literally pouring from the sky with the speed and weight of a monsoon rain. Whatever next? The sure procession of seasons that I knew as a child has gone. For years I have been watching us create the situation we face today and, selfishly, I thought that at least I wouldn’t see the worst of it. Now I think I probably will.
1. “One of Taoism’s most important concepts is wu wei, which is sometimes translated as “non-doing” or “non-action.” A better way to think of it, however, is as a paradoxical “Action of non-action.” Wu wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which – without even trying – we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.”
2. See ‘The 100th Monkey Effect’: Lifetide, by Lyall Watson (Book Club Associates, London, 1979. Pages 155-158).