A world worth fighting for
Humans, says CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves, are not the point or purpose of the planet. We need to believe in a new way of living - and our goal should be a more equitable world
There is one thing that you cannot fail to miss: climate change terminology is an ever-expanding lexicon of long words where short ones would do. So we have anthropogenic climate change – which essentially means that it is all our fault. Unless people know their carbon sequestration from
their post-glacial rebound, they will be all at sea.
But, never mind, we will be better at communicating these issues with the public.
The 1959 satirical film, I’m All Right Jack, which tackled the subject of management versus trade union relations in post-war Britain, included a performance from Peter Sellers as a naive shop steward, Fred Kite. His view of politics is summed up in his comment on the Soviet Union as “all them cornfields and ballet in the evenings”.
Fifty years on and there is no shortage of political naivety, especially on climate change.
Trying to steer a course through the debate is nigh impossible because of the noise and the hyperbole. Climate change has spawned an industry controlled by the worthy and the self regarding.
It is bedevilled by sophistry, earnestness and smugness. Consider how certain politicians talk about “a new green technological revolution that will set a course for a carbon-neutral world”. As naive comments go it ranks alongside those of Fred Kite. Not least because it assumes technological fixes for an upgraded version of the present and presents history as an escalator, and the only way is up.
We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. Nobody knows what is coming and nobody wants to look. Underlying all this is a darkness at the root of everything we’ve built that goes back to the dawn of industrialisation. Politicians group themselves in to competing teams, but neither side seems to know what to do. All around us are signs that our way of living is already passing in to history.
But, if we face this reality honestly, we can learn how to live with it and manage the transition from a civilisation out of puff to a new geological era that will bring unimagined opportunities and new ways of living. Whatever we do now, our way of life will not survive in anything like its present form, but we can at least manage a retreat to a saner world more at ease with itself.
To get a sense of the problem, look at the raft of recent scientific reports; especially those that track the period 1750 to date, you will see something worrying. On population growth, CO2 concentrations, water use, number of motor vehicles on the roads, deforestation, loss of species, exploitation of fisheries and the totality of gross domestic product the line on the graphs are similar. Although dealing with different things, they have an almost identical pattern. Then, around 1950, the line veers steeply upwards.
Post-war democracies set a course for growth that would have devastating consequences. The root cause of all these trends is the same: a rapacious human economy that is bringing the world to a state of chaos. Yet few of us accept the message this reality is screaming at us – including the mainstream environmental movement. Too many folk are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present and believe in “progress”, as lazily defined by western liberalism. We still believe the myth that we will be able to continue living the same comfortable lives if we can only embrace “sustainable development” and “green technology”, and that we can extend it to the three billion people soon to join us. Not only is this naive but it is denial. Because of climate change we are teetering on the point of no return while our leaders bang on about growth.
The system we rely upon cannot be tamed without collapsing, for it relies upon that growth to function. And who wants it tamed anyway?
Some people believe that these things should not be said because saying them will deprive people of “hope”, and without hope there will be no chance of “saving the planet”. But false hope is worse than no hope at all. As for the planet – what we are really trying to save, as we scrabble around planting turbines and shouting at ministers, is our attachment to a material culture and beggar-thy-neighbour consumption.
The challenge is not the rush to technology to shore up a decaying civilisation with wind farms and nuclear power, but to start thinking about how we are going to manage the transition from a world in decline to a new geological era; how we are going to live through the collapse of our civilisation, and what we can learn from it all.
Conventional democratic politics and economic structures have failed at times of crisis.
Attempts, so far, to tackle climate change have been too little, too late, and negotiations too protracted. Action to deal with population growth and consumption, which is the underlying cause of all our environmental problems, has been non-existent because we have barely begun the discussion.
The answer is not technofix solutions, but to consider the move to a new era that requires a huge cultural shift and a more innovative way of thinking.
The lesson of history is that civilisations come and go. They live and die by their founding myths. Our myths tell us that humans are the point and purpose of the planet and that humanity is separate from something called “nature”, which is a resource for our use. They tell us there are no limits to human abilities, and that technology, science and our ineffable wisdom can fix everything. Above all, they tell us about human centrality and that we are in control. But, they are wrong. They are just myths. We face a long descent, a series of ongoing crises that will bring an end to the all-consuming culture we have imposed upon the Earth. Our task, now, is to negotiate the coming descent as best we can,
while creating new myths that put humanity in its proper place and in its proper context.
In The Order of Things, the philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that the “end of man is at hand”.
This outlook was prompted by Foucault’s concern about the damaging effects of human centrality that manifests itself as a corrosive force that has caused decline. But while he gave up all hope, we must not despair. We have to believe in a new way of living, and that we can engender it. The goal of a more equitable world is worth fighting for, whatever the cost. And we must accept that humans are not the point or purpose of the planet – and get used to it.
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