Crisis and Opportunity

“I am firmly convinced that the passionate will for justice and truth has done more to improve (the human condition) than calculating political shrewdness which in the long run only breeds general distrust.” Albert Einstein, “Moral Decay,” 1937

George Monbiot, British author, professor and Guardian columnist, has written a book, “Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning,” that should be required reading for all climate activists and for everyone else who cares about the future of life on earth.

It’s not an inspirational book. What Monbiot has written is an extensively researched, hard-headed, pull-no-punches assessment of what needs to be done in a range of different areas of industrialized human society if we are to have a decent chance of avoiding catastrophic, cascading climate change this century.

Here’s his starting point: “If in the year 2030, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere remain as high as they are today, the likely result is two degrees centrigrade [3.6 degrees fahrenheit] of warming (above pre-industrial levels). [It’s risen 0.6 degrees centigrade so far.] Two degrees is the point beyond which certain major ecosystems begin collapsing. Having, until then, absorbed carbon dioxide, they begin to release it. Beyond this point climate change is out of our hands: it will accelerate without our help. The only means by which we can ensure that there is a high chance that the temperature does not rise to this point is for the rich nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent by 2030.”

90 percent by 2030. Right now, the best legislation in Congress, and the legislation many climate activists are rallying around, calls for an 80% cut by 2050, 20 years later.

Monbiot is not hopeless about 90% by 2030. Based upon his research and analysis, he believes it can be done, technically. He believes that much which is positive about what goes by the name of “civilization” can be maintained, that a revolutionary transformation in the sources, production and uses of energy does not have to mean a significant decrease in the quality of life that many working-class and middle-class people have become used to, although there will have to be sacrifices. Monbiot, for example, is convinced that some form of a rationing system—or a “carbon currency”—will be necessary for both companies and people.

“Heat” analyzes what can and needs to be done in a number of areas:

-the heating of homes;
-the production and use of electricity;
-the development of renewable energy;
-decentralization of energy production and use;
-ground transportation;
-air travel; and,
-industrial processes, using as examples retailing and cement manufacture, whose production and use alone is responsible for at least 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Monbiot’s final chapter is entitled, “Apocalypse Postponed.” In that chapter’s last few pages he tries to grasp why, “given that this is the greatest danger the world now faces, we [climate campaigners] are astonishingly few. . . There is an obvious reason for this: in fighting climate change, we must fight not only the oil companies, the airlines and the governments of the rich world; we must also fight ourselves. . . Governments that have expressed a commitment to stopping climate change. . . know that inside their electors there is a small but insistent voice asking them both to try and to fail. They know that if they had the misfortune to succeed, our lives would have to change.”

Change—fear of change—acceptance of an unjust status quo—being caught up, even knowingly, in consumerism—TV and computer screen-watching—unwillingness to step out of personal ruts—being weighed down with work and family responsibilities–aren’t these the problems that face those of us who are trying to motivate a critical mass of people to join with us to work for a world based upon justice and peace, peace with one another and with the earth?

Could it be that this deep, deep crisis of global heating, a crisis that is increasingly appreciated by much of the world, including within the USA—could this crisis, indeed, be the central issue which leads to “the great turning,” in David Korten’s phrase, away from the ways of domination, exploitation, power-over-others and war that has defined human society for so many centuries?

Could the climate crisis be what gets us—“us” collectively, around the world—to join together in the numbers necessary in the common cause of preserving a future worth living in for our children and grandchildren?

I believe that it can.

There is no way to describe what will be necessary other than as a revolution. Energy use is intertwined with virtually every institution of industrial society, as Monbiot’s book makes clear and specific. There is an immediate and urgent need to dramatically reduce energy use and rapidly change over to clean, renewable sources of energy. A big majority of U.S. citizens support or are open to this idea, in general. The fields are ripe for the rapid emergence of a massive popular movement for clean energy.

This will be a movement with all kinds of social forces. On one extreme will be corporate executives whose particular industry is being negatively impacted by global heating, who appreciate the bottom line of economic savings via energy efficiency and renewables, and/or whose conscience or concern for their own children has motivated them to take action. Many will be people for whom this is their first foray into the world of activism. On the other extreme will be social change organizers who have been laboring in the vineyards for decades trying to fundamentally change society for the better.

As the movement grows stronger, and if the majority of its leadership keeps its heart, soul and mind fixed on the objective of the kinds of fundamental transformations needed to stave off climate catastrophe, as described in Monbiot’s book, it is to be expected that this movement will be seriously opposed by rich and powerful corporate interests, oil companies and coal companies in particular, and those in government doing their bidding. As has happened with every serious popular movement in the country’s history, repression can be expected.

But there is probably a greater danger. That is the danger that, confronted with the scope of the social and economic changes needed, some of the influential leaders of this movement will decide that it’s safer to go the “slower but steady” route, under the guise of “political realism.”

When and as this approach raises its ugly head, we should rememr the words of Albert Einstein, quoted above. Future generations are counting on us to do the right thing.