The challenge is greater than preparing individuals and groups to fight back. The real point is to connect those groups to one another – to break issue silos, share experience and resources, find common goals and targets, and lay the foundation for a network of front-line groups fighting together for social, political, economic, and ecological justice in the United States and the world.
Yes. It’s big. The crises are deep, the systems that birthed them are powerful, and the challenge is great. But we are confident.
WE CALL IT WILDFIRE BECAUSE THAT MOVEMENT IS ALREADY OUT THERE, BUSY BEING BORN: ALL IT NEEDS IS A SPARK.
So, I here present installation three of this News of the Earth project. With the motto, “a neither random nor comprehensive compilation of climate justice happenings and musings from the past month,” I think this thing is now a “thing” and I will endeavor to keep up with it.
Divided into various parts – the latest climate science news, fossil fuel economics, climate-justice views of U.S. presidential politics, climate justice movement updates, a newly discovered organization and a video to watch, and a lively debate on whether or how “politics” matters anymore – you might want to skip from place to place as your interests draw you. Remember too, that I am presenting and paraphrasing here the reports and ideas of other people, so bear with the long quotes – they are the point!
Do let me know what you think of this mixed genre approach to our efforts to come to terms with our common predicament.
On the Climate Front
Will Denayer (great name for a climate journalist, isn’t it?) sums up the latest news:
NASA recently released data showing that the planet has just seen seven straight months of not just record-breaking, but record-shattering heat (see here). We are well on track to see what will likely be the largest increase in global temperature a single year has ever seen (see here and here). The NASA data show that May was the hottest May ever recorded, as well as the fact that it crushed the previous May record by the largest margin of increase ever recorded. The same is now true for June (see here). That makes it five months in a row that the monthly record has been broken and by the largest margin ever. When record-smashing months started in February, scientists began talking about a “climate emergency.” Since then the situation has only escalated.
With the hottest day “ever reliably measured” on Earth anywhere, on July 23, hitting 129.02 degrees Fahrenheit in Basra [yes, Basra], Iraq, and 129.20 degrees in Kuwait, you have to wonder what lies beyond an “escalating emergency”…
Denayer also observes (and this may be the case with you too):
Writing up articles on climate change is difficult these days. Last week alone, 46 new papers and reports were published. I am certain that there are many more. The figure only refers to the sources I usually consult. I try to read all abstracts and all articles I find interesting, but sometimes I shy away from it: it is just too depressing. According to Naomi Oreskes, a great number of climate change scientists (she interviewed most of the top 200 climate change scientists in the US) suffer from some sort of mood imbalance or mild or serious depression. It is easy to understand why: we see the climate change taking the planet apart right in front of our eyes.
EcoWatch’s Climate Nexus reports “June Was Earth’s 14th Straight Record Warm Month, Greenland Loses Shocking 1 Trillion Tons of Ice…. with globally averaged temperatures being a full 1.62 F (0.9 C) warmer than the average across the 20th century.” In fact, according to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “The average temperature in the first six months of 2016 was 1.3°C (2.4°F) warmer than the pre-industrial era in the late 19th century [sic: perhaps they meant to say pre-Anthropocene”) …. NOAA said the global land and ocean average temperature for January–June was 1.05°C (1.89°F) above the 20th century average, beating the previous record set in 2015 by 0.20°C (0.36°F).”
More news (you guessed it – not good): “The Earth is warming at a faster rate than expected and this year is on track to be the hottest year on record, according to a report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).” And that’s saying a lot, since fifteen of the hottest years ever have occurred since 2000 (and the sixteenth was in 1998).
Source: EcoWatch Climate Nexus.
The Price of Fossil Fuels
It’s hard to know what to make of the power of the fossil fuel industry as the Earth warms. On the one hand, the Wall Street Journal provided some good news about the industry’s bottom line (though I’m not sure the Journal would agree with me on this):
Oil Price Retreat Slams Producers
By Bradley Olson and Selina Williams
July 30, 2016
The world’s biggest oil companies posted losses or steep declines in profit for the second quarter, and now face a daunting remainder of the year as crude prices retreat to about $41 a barrel.
Exxon Mobil Corp. on Friday reported its quarterly profit fell 60% to the lowest level since 1999, while Chevron Corp. disclosed its biggest quarterly loss since 2001. The results capped a bad week for big Western oil companies: BP PLC and Royal Dutch Shell PLC earlier posted earnings that disappointed investors….
Oil is flirting with bear-market territory once again, as U.S. prices have fallen nearly 20% since hitting a 52-week high of $51.23 on June 8. U.S. oil ended up 1.1% on Friday at $41.60 a barrel….
Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP and French oil major Total SA in all have cut spending by about $50 billion since 2013 and slashed tens of thousands of jobs; but the cutting hasn’t been nearly enough to protect profits after oil prices began plunging.
In the latest quarter, Exxon’s profit fell to $1.7 billion and Chevron reported a loss of $1.5 billion. Shell’s profit fell 93% from a year earlier to $239 million, and BP reported a $2.25 billion loss, its third straight.
Debt has soared at all five companies as they continue to burn though cash at an extraordinary rate. Since last year, they have failed to generate enough cash to pay dividends and invest in new production. That shortfall is on a pace to exceed $90 billion by the end of the year.
The results – and the roller-coaster market for crude – have confronted executives, investors and analysts with the sobering reality that a recovery will be tenuous and arduously slow….
Some energy experts played down the carnage, saying big oil firms remain strong bets to bounce back over the long run.
And indeed, we also have some not so good long-term forecasts from the ever so overly optimistic Federal Energy Information Administration that reveal the business model of the industry remains for the most part unchanged. They are counting on us not being able to make the necessary transition to renewables (and those low prices for fossil fuels are of course a mixed blessing for renewables).
At Federal Energy Conference, Forecasts Predict Bright Future for Fossil Fuels
By Justin Mikulka • Wednesday, July 27, 2016
This year’s annual Energy Information Administration conference started off on a somewhat positive note with a presentation by Dr. John Holdren, the Obama administration director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren was clear in his presentation that the risks of climate change are real and deserve urgent action.
He noted estimates of 15 feet of sea level rise being baked in with warming of only 2 degrees Celsius – a target that clearly will be difficult to meet. He commented on the following slide of predicted fossil fuel consumption growth as “very striking” and noted that “There really is no time to lose in shrinking emissions.”
However, in the question and answer session after his presentation he changed his tune to a degree by saying, “I subscribe to the view that natural gas is a very helpful bridge fuel to a much lower emissions future”
In addition to embracing the idea of natural gas as a bridge fuel, Holdren didn’t support the idea of keeping fossil fuels in the ground saying that it doesn’t “seem to be in the cards.” As DeSmog has reported previously, this is a consistent message from the Obama administration.
If there was any question about who was dealing the cards, that was cleared up during the rest of the conference.
Tesoro CEO Declares “Enough is Enough”
Directly following Holdren’s talk was one by Tesoro CEO Gregory Goff. And while one would expect an oil and gas company executive to have enjoyed Holdren’s presentation – especially the statement about forecasts showing that “It is still true in 2040 that fossil fuels are the dominant source of energy for the world” – Goff took a different approach.
Goff started off letting everyone know that compared to Holdren he would “maybe offer a little bit of a different view on certain things.”
He then addressed the audience saying, “Let’s take a deep breath, let’s take a time out. And consider the facts.” And then Goff went on the offensive and his promise to consider the facts went by the wayside.
While the reality is the United States is producing record levels of oil and gas, Goff said, “The all out war on fossil fuels by this White House over the last 8 years has reached tsunami proportions.” [JF: nice choice of metaphor]
To put things in perspective, when President Obama was elected, the US produced roughly 5 million barrels of oil per day. Daily production in 2015 reached approximately 9.5 million barrels per day. If Obama is fighting a “war on oil” he is losing that war in epic fashion.
Goff then took it to another level by describing efforts to hold ExxonMobil accountable for potentially misleading investors on the facts of climate change as an “assault on free speech.”
And he removed any doubt that the industry was going to change course when he said, “It is long past time that the oil and gas industry stands up and declares that – enough is enough.”… [JF: but I thought enough was never enough]
It was quite a performance. And with Goff receiving such a prominent speaking slot at the annual government conference, it is easy to see why Holdren doesn’t think any effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground “is in the cards.”
The same article continued with a look at the dirtiest fossil fuel, again stoking the dark clouds of pessimism [JF: my metaphor].
Global Coal Growth Continues
The day after the conference, news outlets including the New York Times ran stories on how China had plans to “curb” new coal powered plants for electricity generation. Articles like that combined with stories about the demise of the US coal industry might lead one to think coal is on the way out due to Obama’s “war on coal”.
Additionally a new study just published in Nature argues that China’s coal consumption likely peaked in 2014. The Guardian reported on this study with an article brimming with optimism including a headline saying that this is a “turning point in the climate change battle.”
That was not the message heard at the EIA conference where presentations on projected coal growth in China, India and Southeast Asia made it look like a robust growth industry. The reason why was explained by Xizhou Zhou of IHS. Coal is the cheapest fuel source available. And until some entity comes up with money for developing countries to pay for the gap between coal and more expensive and cleaner power sources, coal wins….
And the new study from Nature does note that the slowdown in coal consumption in China is directly tied to a big dip in China’s economy, especially coal intensive users like the concrete and construction industries. Has China’s economy slowed down for good? Or is this much like when US emissions dipped during the Great Recession which proved to be a temporary bit of good news as emissions bounced right back up when the economy improved. That remains to be seen.
Regardless, no one is expecting peak coal for other developing countries any time soon. The presentation on India ended with the following conclusion: Cheap coal remains critical to Indian economic growth. The same message was given in the presentation on Southeast Asia predicting “a doubling of electricity demand by 2030, dominated by coal.”…
Based on the information presented at the EIA conference, the potential for zero coal consumption by 2035 doesn’t seem to be a reality-based goal.
Perhaps we should just give up on mitigation? The article concludes:
Adaptation Appears To Be In The Cards
After two days of hearing about the strong future predicted for the fossil fuel industry – combined with either outright attacks on climate science or simply not even addressing the issue – it became clear that the goals outlined in Paris at COP21 are highly unlikely to avoid dangerous climate impacts.
U.S. politics and the fate of the world
Both major parties (sometimes referred to as the Republicrats and the Democans by critics of the two-party system) held their nominating conventions in July. For the Republicans, we have climate change denialist Donald Trump, whose utter lack of qualifications for the office is laid out by the Washington Post in a highly unusual editorial titled “Donald Trump is a unique threat to American democracy.” This piece doesn’t even get to his climate positions, which include scrapping the Paris Agreement and returning to the Democrats’ former energy policy of “all of the above,” referring to fracking, tar sands, Keystone Pipeline, and other unmitigated (so to speak) possible disasters.
DONALD J. TRUMP, until now a Republican problem, this week became a challenge the nation must confront and overcome. The real estate tycoon is uniquely unqualified to serve as president, in experience and temperament. He is mounting a campaign of snarl and sneer, not substance. To the extent he has views, they are wrong in their diagnosis of America’s problems and dangerous in their proposed solutions. Mr. Trump’s politics of denigration and division could strain the bonds that have held a diverse nation together. His contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.
Any one of these characteristics would be disqualifying; together, they make Mr. Trump a peril. We recognize that this is not the usual moment to make such a statement. In an ordinary election year, we would acknowledge the Republican nominee, move on to the Democratic convention and spend the following months, like other voters, evaluating the candidates’ performance in debates, on the stump and in position papers. This year we will follow the campaign as always, offering honest views on all the candidates. But we cannot salute the Republican nominee or pretend that we might endorse him this fall. A Trump presidency would be dangerous for the nation and the world.
Here’s George Monbiot on Trump:
Donald Trump, on the other hand – well, what did you expect? Climate change is a “con-job” and a “hoax” that was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. His manifesto reads like a love letter to the coal industry. Coal, it says, “is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource”. He will defend the industry by rejecting the Paris agreement, stopping funds for the UN’s climate change work, ditching President Obama’s clean power plan and forbidding the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide.
As for the Democrats, the end of July saw their own national convention, where Bernie Sanders finally (and poignantly) had to throw in the towel from his remarkable insurgent campaign for a “political revolution” and endorse Hillary Clinton for president.
The Democratic Party Platform was hailed by many as ambitious on climate change (apparently one of the quid pro quos exacted by the Sanders platform drafters, who included Bill McKibben, Cornell West, and Russell Greene). The latter explained this position:
Last weekend in Orlando the platform committee of the Democratic Party added language into their platform acknowledging the official position of the Democratic Party to be that we are in a global climate emergency. Further, the platform acknowledges the scale of the threat to be so large that it will require a leadership response from our country on the scale of our national mobilization to confront the threat of fascism during WWII. The platform language I offered through an amendment entitled, Global Climate Leadership, explicitly acknowledges that anything short of that will bring catastrophic consequences to civilization:
Democrats believe it would be a grave mistake for the United States to wait for another nation to lead the world in combating the global climate emergency. In fact, we must move first in launching a green industrial revolution, because that is the key to getting others to follow; and because it is in our own national interest to do so. Just as America’s greatest generation led the effort to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II, so must our generation now lead a World War II-type national mobilization to save civilization from catastrophic consequences.
The Democratic platform now contains language that brings shape to the enormity of the climate crisis. But it’s still not enough. Image: Pixabay/CC0.
Adopting this language in our platform is courageous. It is bold. It could be said that with the declaration, the Democratic Party has actually stepped out in front of the climate movement in its articulation of the threat, which it seems worthy to note, is appropriately placed as the closing paragraph of the entire platform.
This paean to the platform reminds me of George Monbiot’s complex interpretation of the Paris Agreement: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster…. The talks in Paris are the best there have ever been. And that is a terrible indictment.”
In this case, it’s pretty hard (read ludicrously impossible) to see how the Hillary Clinton-led Democrats will square the circle between the platform and their actual plans, politics, and general orientation toward Wall Street and the enlightened wing of the 1%.
Here’s Monbiot himself on the Democratic platform on climate change:
Hillary Clinton’s campaign now promises a national and global mobilisation “on a scale not seen since World War II”. She will seek to renegotiate trade deals to protect the living world, to stop oil drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic, and to ensure the US is “running entirely on clean energy by mid-century”.
There are some crashing contradictions in the platform. To judge by one bizarre paragraph, the Democrats believe they can solve climate change by expanding roads and airports. It boasts about record sales in the car industry and promises to cut “red tape”, which is the term used by corporate lobbyists for the public protections they hate. But where it is good it is very good, reflecting the influence of Bernie Sanders and the nominees he proposed to the drafting committee.
Monbiot also makes these apt larger points:
It’s not that the media failed to mention what the two platforms said about humanity’s existential crisis. But the coverage was, for the most part, relegated to footnotes, while the evanescent trivia of the conventions led the bulletins and filled the front pages. There are many levels of bias in the media, but the most important is the bias against relevance….
To pretend that newspapers and television channels are neutral arbiters of such matters is to ignore their place at the corrupt heart of the establishment. At the US conventions, to give one small example, the Washington Post, the Atlantic and Politico were paid by the American Petroleum Institute to host a series of discussions, at which climate science deniers were represented. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but the purse is mightier than the pen.
Why should we trust multinational corporations to tell us the truth about multinational corporations? And if they cannot properly inform us about the power in which they are embedded, how can they properly inform us about anything?
If humanity fails to prevent climate breakdown, the industry that bears the greatest responsibility is not transport, farming, gas, oil or even coal. All of them can behave as they do, shunting us towards systemic collapse, only with a social licence to operate. The problem begins with the industry that, wittingly or otherwise, grants them this licence: the one for which I work.
We are all, it sometimes seems, both executioner and victim.
If you want to read something sensible, insightful, and written and spoken with a dose of humor (always helpful when discussing the climate crisis), try “Our reporters peek behind the curtain at the national political conventions” by the staff of Grist. Here’s a sample:
Scott Dodd (Grist’s executive director): Let’s talk about that front-page story in the New York Times this morning saying that climate change is now at the forefront of the presidential campaign in a way that it’s never been before. Half my Twitter feed is ecstatic and the other half is calling bullshit. Who’s right?
Ben Adler: I’m gonna call it bullshit.
Rebecca Leder: +1
Scott: OK, it’s BS, then. Why?
Rebecca: I think if you look at this campaign compared to the 2012 cycle, it’s true this is completely front and center. But that’s not the right starting point. Obama barely addressed climate change in 2012. But if you look at it side-by-side with all the other themes Democrats are pushing this cycle, and where climate change policy needs to be, it’s clear it’s still considered a second-tier issue.
Ben: I know “the plural of anecdote is not data,” but how many times have you been hanging out with friends or family this cycle and had them start chatting about politics by saying something like: “Did you hear what Trump or Clinton said about fossil fuel extraction on public lands?” It just gets so much less attention than campaign ephemera like Melania Trump’s plagiarism. The speeches at the DNC really didn’t emphasize climate mostly, and the GOP just ignored it completely.
Let me put it this way: The issues that really dominate a campaign tend to be those where the parties are actively competing to show they are the better one to handle it, e.g. national security and the economy. Republicans don’t share the premise that climate change is real and must be addressed. So it’s only really a powerful issue insofar as Dems rally their base with it and use it to persuade moderate swing voters that Republicans are backward. They’re trying to do those things, but Trump is so divisive in terms of race, gender, religion, etc., that they are putting way more emphasis on his intolerance as the way to unite their base and appeal to swing voters.
Meanwhile, the always sensible Bill McKibben urges a longer view on this year’s election (I mean this in the best possible way, because more and more of us – including Bill — know it’s not always enough to be “sensible”):
The Democratic and Republican conventions are history and the epochal 2016 election is now before us. My general theory is less talk and more action, so I hope you’ll join me in taking this climate pledge, one that will power our efforts into the fall.
But since I’ve got the microphone, maybe I’ll say a few more words.
One is, Trump is truly bad news. His insistence that global warming is a Chinese manufactured hoax and his declaration that he will abrogate the Paris treaty mean that he’s as much a nihilist on climate change as he is on anything else. In fact, no major party candidate since the start of the global warming era has been as bad on this issue, not even close. He’s also terrifying for many other obvious reasons.
Second is, it was a little hard for me to watch Bernie‘s bittersweet speech to the Democratic convention. He’s my Vermont neighbor (where 350.org was born) and he was my candidate and he talked about climate change as no presidential candidate ever has before, declaring forthrightly that it was the greatest problem the planet faced. I wish he’d won.
But his powerful showing meant, among other things, that he had a significant hand in writing the Democratic Party platform for 2016. (In fact, he named me as one of 15 platform writers. Did I say we were neighbors?) And though it’s far from perfect it is by far the strongest party platform on climate issues Americans have ever seen [JF: um, let’s read Monbiot’s words again, shall we?].
This is my third thought. In four years we’ve gone from an “all of the above” energy strategy to one that explicitly favors sun and wind over natural gas. The platform promises a Keystone-style test for all federal policy: If it makes global warming worse, it won’t be built. And it calls for an emergency climate summit in the first hundred days of the new administration. All those changes are the direct result of your work, showing up to demand action over many months and years.
Thursday night Hillary Clinton pledged to enact that platform and she said “we have to hold every country accountable to their commitments, including ourselves.”
“Accountability” is the right word. Will this platform mean anything more than words? That actually depends on you. If we vote as climate voters this fall – and if we then show up to demand that those promises are kept – this could turn out to be a ground-breaking political season. That’s why we need you signed on to this pledge and lined up to get out the vote and do the other chores of an election.
But remember: election day is just one day in the political calendar. The other 364 count just as much.
Our job is not to elect a savior. Our job is to elect someone we can effectively pressure. And as tough as the work of this election will be – the real work starts on Wednesday, Nov. 9.
That’s how it seems to me, anyway. There’s plenty to be scared of this election season and plenty to hope for. And most of all there’s plenty of work to be done.
Maybe it’s not time to be sensible, though. After all, as truly bad as Trump is, neither the Clinton campaign nor any more than a handful of Senate or Congressional races feature a real climate champion [in fact, I’m not aware of any], one who believes that we are in a climate emergency that calls upon us to throw everything we have into the breach to deal with it with humanity and realism (I mean the realism of the climate science, not the fake yet fatal realism that politicians spin about what is possible – as they say, physics trumps politics [pun not originally intended] in the long run – or else).
Let’s approach the election and our future from a different angle. Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, whose Newsletter at the Popular Resistance website, sets the stage we’re all acting on:
After five years of social movements pressuring the government to confront multiple urgent crises, such as the wealth divide, living wages, global trade, racial justice, climate change, student debt and healthcare, among others, the fact that the two parties ended up with candidates who are very unpopular and offer no solutions to these issues shows the weakness of “democracy” in the United States. Whomever is elected will not confront these critical issues, with the inevitable result being a growing popular movement.
I heard Margaret speak during the DNC at the Socialist Convergence that ran parallel to it. I also heard and listened to many sharp radical minds – including Chris Hedges, Jill Stein, Kshama Sawant, and Sean Sweeny – try to figure out some movement-building way forward through the dismal electoral season ahead, in a debate that will loom ever larger in the months after it ends. Greens, Bernie supporters, socialists, and activists from many movements all had different and plausible views about our political predicament. This important conversation will unfold over the next ninety days and we should all attend to it.
The week before the DNC in Philadelphia, I was part of a caravan of Indigenous activists across the country from Santa Barbara to Philadelphia, with stops in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Illinois where testimonies were given of the deadly impact of fossil fuel extraction on the health and lives of their communities, which you can read about here and here. I also participated in and documented the 10,000-vibrant people strong March for a Clean Energy Revolution that took place on Sunday, July 24, the day before the DNC opened.
Organization of the Month: The Wild Fire Project
When I went to this amazing link (can’t remember why) it drew my attention immediately…
Here they are in their own words:
We Need a Wildfire
In a wave of global movements that seems to be just getting started, people all across the United States are fighting back amidst deep economic, political, social, and ecological crises. Among other important movements and struggles around the world and the US, Occupy was a major breakthrough: it pointed a finger at the bad guys, brought people out to the streets, opened space to re-imagine what is possible, and pulled thousands of new people into what may very well be the beginning of a new social movement. What is possible now was unthinkable a few years ago.
BUT THE CRISES WE FACE AND THE SYSTEMS THAT GAVE BIRTH TO THEM HAVEN’T GONE ANYWHERE, AND THE FIGHT IS STILL ON.
It’s going to take a hell of a lot to win back what’s being taken from us and even more to win the world we actually deserve. We need a movement, and movements need institutions to keep them going.
This new political generation needs what every successful movement throughout history has had: institutions that strengthen the new formations emerging from struggle, organizing that builds new bases and brings in new constituencies, training that deepens politics, sharpens skills, and builds groups. Even more, it needs structures to help groups and individuals connect to one another across issue lines, prepare for the crises ahead, and cultivate the ability to go on the offensive to turn those coming crises into opportunities for collective liberation. It needs infrastructure that speaks its own language – the language of a new movement growing into itself.
IT NEEDS A WILDFIRE.
If you do nothing else, watch the video on the homepage to get a sense of what a “radical, holistic, and visionary” movement looks like: http://www.wildfireproject.org/
Video of the month: Seeing Wetiko
Turning to another video that educates in a beautiful way, we have author and spoken word artist Alixa Garcia, who explains the word “Wetiko” in the excellent Kosmos Journal:
Wetiko is an Algonquin word for a cannibalistic spirit that is driven by greed, excess and selfish consumption (in Ojibwa it is windingo, wintiko in Powhatan). It deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and other forms of Gaian life) is a logical and morally upright way to live.
“Creativity is the antidote for violence and destruction. Art is our most human expression, our voice to communicate our stories, to challenge injustice and the misrepresentations of mainstream media, to expose harsh realities and engender even more powerful hope, a force to bring diverse peoples together, a tool to rebuild our communities, and a weapon to win this struggle for universal liberation.” – Alixa Garcia and Naima Penniman
To see the video, click here:
Debate: Wen Stephenson and Paul Kingsnorth on “Hope in the Age of Collapse”
The most interesting debate I came across in July actually took place in 2012, between the inspiring climate justice journalist Wen Stephenson, author of What We Are Fighting For Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice, and Paul Kingsnorth, whose One No, Many Yesescaptured some of the spirit and texture of the global justice movement of the 2000s. Their lively discussion gives us the “one hundred months” in the title of this month’s Earth News.
It may seem a little late to respond: four years have passed. But I find it a valuable and fascinating conversation, representing two points of view I hold at the same time, and perhaps suggesting a third, still different one.
Wen was just finding his way into the climate justice movement in 2012 when he came across Paul’s Dark Mountain Project and “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” written in 2009. Both are anti-capitalist radicals (although either might disagree). They are also consummate storytellers who nevertheless seem unconvinced that stories, and art, or culture in general, are going to transform either capitalism or the politics that come with it, a point to which we shall return.
Paul has found moving ways to tell stories in the age of the Anthropocene, but is under no illusion that we can “save” ourselves at this point, or even that our so-called “civilization” is worth saving: “[I]t’s time to stop pretending our current way of living can be made ‘sustainable’; … ‘saving the planet’ has become a bad joke; … we are entering an age of massive disruption, and our task is to live through it as best we can.” You have to read the Manifesto to see how beautifully he makes these points.
Wen, too, is aware that the hour is too late already, but takes Paul to task for “giving up” on the struggle for climate justice:
I found your dismissiveness toward the climate movement, and especially your conclusion, profoundly frustrating and discouraging. That conclusion appears, essentially, to be a resigned withdrawal: “I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching…. I am leaving. I am going to go out walking.”…. For a literary project, that seems like an odd failure of imagination.
But the most important way in which we differ, I think, is on the question of what is to be done, right now, in the present moment, given the pressing reality that we face. We’re not going to stop global warming at this point. But we may still be able to preserve a livable planet. There’s every reason to think that a last-ditch effort to cut carbon emissions – together with serious adaptation efforts at all levels, and local grassroots movements to create resilient local communities – will help prevent or alleviate the suffering of countless numbers of people in the latter half of this century. People who will have done nothing to cause the situation they inherit. It’s not about sustaining our current lifestyles, or getting ourselves off the hook. For Christ’s sake, no. It’s about giving future generations a fighting chance. It’s about giving my own children – and everyone else’s – a fighting chance. It’s not their debt, but they’re the ones who will have to pay it. Don’t we owe them something?
Wen then gets to the heart of their disagreement about storytelling and social change:
Your project is fundamentally a literary and cultural one. It’s based on the idea that our stories – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – are what make us who we are. And so you want to change the story, the myth, of civilization. You write:
Ecocide demands a response. That response is too important to be left to politicians, economists, conceptual thinkers, number crunchers; too all-pervasive to be left to activists or campaigners. Artists are needed. So far, though, the artistic response has been muted. In between traditional nature poetry and agitprop, what is there? … What new form of writing has emerged to challenge civilisation itself? What gallery mounts an exhibition equal to this challenge? Which musician has discovered the secret chord?
These are excellent questions. But art and storytelling won’t stabilize the climate. The only way to do that is to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transformation of our energy systems? Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?
You say that Uncivilised writing “is not environmental writing…. It is not nature writing…. And it is not political writing, with which the world is already flooded, for politics is a human confection, complicit in ecocide and decaying from within.” You then conclude that the project of Uncivilisation “will be a thing of beauty for the eye and for the heart and for the mind, for we are unfashionable enough to believe that beauty – like truth – not only exists, but still matters.”
There’s something almost hopeful about that last page of the manifesto, and the last lines: “Climbing Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exercise…. Come. Join us. We leave at dawn.”
But it occurs to me that “beauty” and “truth” (like politics) are human “confections” – anthropocentric categories. And this seems to imply a belief that something like civilization, which gave birth to art and philosophy, will not only survive, but is worth fighting to preserve. And yet, how does one propose to preserve beauty and truth, these human constructs, unless the climate is stabilized? And how does one propose to do that without engaging in politics? Are you suggesting that a new art and philosophy will give rise to a new politics? Maybe it will. But do we really have time to wait for that?
To which Paul replies:
At last, then, let me get to your question (thanks for bearing with me.) You ask me: “what would you have us do?” My answer, which sounds a little like the kind of thing Thoreau would have written, is simple: do what you want. Do what you need to, and what you have to, and what you feel is right….
I’m not a politician. I’m a writer. I could make any number of soapboxey pronouncements or “demands” here, but would it matter anyway? There is no shortage of hot air in the world. No shortage of demands, plans, insistent calls for more “action” from people with no power to do anything at all to make it happen. Where has it got us? It’s twenty years since the Earth Summit. In that time, everything has got worse for the Earth. I wonder where “Rio +40” will be held? Somewhere hot, I’m sure, with nice hotels and easy airport access….
We had a very practical obligation, as a species, to maintain the ecosystems we found ourselves part of in some semblance of health and balance. We have spectacularly failed to do that. Now climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction and, possibly, economic collapse are going to be the result. I don’t welcome any of this as a way to “restore balance.” I’m not that naive. Collapses bring many things, but balance is rarely one of them, at least initially. Still, I think that’s where we are. Covenant broken; consequences upon us. It’s too late to start worrying about the approaching army when it’s already encircled the city.
And now we come to the power – if any – of our own stories and all our common cultural creativity. The author of “The Dark Mountain Manifesto” continues:
“Are you suggesting that art and storytelling can help spur the transformation of our energy systems?” you ask. “Or do you dismiss the idea that such a transformation is possible?” The answer to the first question is, of course, no, and the Dark Mountain Project has no such end in mind. Art and storytelling are worthy in their own right, and we need a cultural response to the collapse of our world, if for no other reason than my personal desire to have an honest story to tell my children about how we destroyed beauty for money and called it “development”.
But as for the “transformation of our energy systems” the minute you ask this question in this way, you are trapped in a paradigm, with no hope of escape. What are “our energy systems” for? Who is us? Us, I’d guess, is the bourgeois consumer class of the “developed” world, and “our energy systems” are needed to provide us with our cars, planes, central heating, Twitter feeds, ambulances, schools, asphalt roads and shopping malls. How are we going to transform these systems, in short order, globally, busting through economic vested interests and political stalemate and cultural patterns, in less than 100 months, to prevent more than a 2 degree climate change? How, in other words, are we going to change the operating system of the entire global economy in a decade or so?
Answer: we’re not, though we’ll do a lot of damage trying, not least to much of the natural world we want to protect.
It is at this point that I part ways with both Wen and Paul, because it seems to me that the two – storytelling and politics – are intimately connected, and a good thing, too. My bet is that we cannot change our politics, and therefore transform the world in the directions we’d like to see, unless we find the stories that will sustain us and draw others into the struggle for climate justice. I have a whole theory of how radical social change occurs, that emphasizes that we make change by shaping political cultures of both opposition and creation that make the connections between our lives, our planetary crises, and our futures clear and important to ourselves, on a visceral and emotional level as much as a political and strategic one.
And I think the timeline that Paul throws at us is about right. We have one hundred months or so to make this happen. Put another way, the next one hundred months are crucial. Ask yourself: what am I doing this month to make something happen? And the next? And the one after that?
I believe in a magical story that can change us and others still to come. I don’t know where to find it — I haven’t found it yet, would be more accurate, but there are parts of it all around us if we care to look. And so, I have hope – and I dream – that, like the secret chord, it’s out there. Somewhere…
Come. Join us. We leave at dawn.
There will be music.
Whenever I hear the word “hope” these days, I reach for my whisky bottle. It seems to me to be such a futile thing. What does it mean? What are we hoping for? And why are we reduced to something so desperate? Surely we only hope when we are powerless?
This may sound a strange thing to say, but one of the great achievements for me of the Dark Mountain Project has been to give people permission give up hope. What I mean by that is that we help people get beyond the desperate desire to do something as impossible as “save the Earth”, or themselves, and start talking about where we actually are, what is actually possible and where we are actually coming from….
I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled…. Giving up hope, to me, means giving up the illusion of control and accepting that the future is going to be improvised, messy, difficult….
I feel I have to respond to all of this by giving up hope, so that I can instead find some measure of reality. So I’ve let hope fall away from me, and wishful thinking too, and I feel much lighter. I feel now as if I am able to look more honestly at the way the world is, and what I can do with what I have to give, in the time I have left. I don’t think you can plan for the future until you have really let go of the past.
– Paul Kingsnorth
Cover of Dark Mountain issue 6
Here’s a chart you might want to print and keep handy as a reminder…
100 99 98 97 96
95 94 93 92 91
90 89 88 87 86
85 84 83 82 81
80 79 78 77 76
75 74 73 72 71
70 69 68 67 66
65 64 63 62 61
60 59 58 57 56
55 54 53 52 51
50 49 48 47 46
45 44 43 42 41
40 39 38 37 36
35 34 33 32 31
30 29 28 27 26
25 24 23 22 21
20 19 18 17 16
15 14 13 12 11
10 9 8 7 6
5 4 3 2 1…