September 11, 2014 § 1 Comment
Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: capitalism vs the climate is a tour de force of uncompromising argument, backed by penetrating analysis, a gift for story-telling and a deep, human empathy for those who are suffering now – and will suffer in the future – from the depredations of a turbo-charged capitalism that is ideologically unwilling and practically unable to deal with climate change.
The systematic sabotage of neo-liberalism
Her central thesis is straightforward – neo-liberal capitalism, with its dependence on fossil fuels and its need for continuous growth, is unable to tackle climate change. Free-market fundamentalism has spent the last thirty years removing regulation, rubbishing the public sector, promoting unsustainable growth, destroying collective solidarity and concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the few. Its practices have attacked and undermined the very tools – state action, planning and investment – that are urgently needed to bring climate change under control. Its ideology has made us doubt our capacities for collective action and undermined our values of solidarity and human kindness. It has, she says, “…systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change.”
Klein is clear that only concerted national and international programmes of regulation, state investment and planning, comparable to the powers taken by UK and US governments during the Second World War, have any hope of making the annual 8-10% reductions in emissions that are now needed to bring climate change under control. She sees further than this however. She argues that tackling climate change and tackling inequality and social justice are part of the same struggle and she brings a sense of enthusiasm and possibility to this challenge. The good solutions to our climate problems could also bring lives that are more just, more equal and more worth living to far more people than currently enjoy them.
Klein is not blind to the benefits that capitalism has brought to society and she is not proposing the destruction of everything that characterises our current economic system. She does however wish to see the back of the free-market fundamentalist version that has ruled the globe for the last thirty years. And she is clear that it will not leave the stage quietly. Her interviews with participants at the Heartland Institute’s meetings are chilling indeed. She is in no doubt about the struggle that we face. And she is in no doubt about the urgent need to build a political movement that cuts across the boundaries of our existing concerns.
From ecological amnesia to radical change
As Klein herself acknowledges many of her arguments are not new. This is territory that others have trodden before but she makes the arguments with renewed vigour and honesty and draws many threads together with meticulous research, compelling stories, vivid prose and a sense of hope and possibility that has been lacking from much writing on the climate in the years since Copenhagen 2009. One of the most interesting parts to me was her admission of her own past blindness to climate change and her curiosity about the mechanisms for this ‘ecological amnesia’ as she calls it. Klein understands that our psychological defences and our capacity for disavowal play a part in our collective failure to address the problem. But this is only one of many insights that Klein weaves into this complex and riveting book. Her understanding of the way that corporations work, her grasp of complex trade agreements, her capacity to outline the science and her historical understanding of our assault on nature – all these make her book stand out. But for me it is her empathy with the lives of ordinary people and the way she tells their stories as she makes the arguments for radical, long-term change that spoke to my heart.
In a week where the UK government has published its proposals for the Paris round of negotiations with the depressing statement that growth and decarbonisation are ‘both sides of the same coin’, this is a must-read book for anyone serious about making Paris deliver on what the world, its biosystems and its people actually need.
December 2, 2013 § 4 Comments
Climate change is often seen as an environmental issue. Why such a limited view? Many of its harms are a question of justice. Most of the solutions will come through political agreement. Our out-of-control consumption is a question of economics and desire. Our complicity in catastrophe is a mix of ideology, ignorance and anxiety.
Yet the words – ‘green levy’ ‘green taxes’ ‘green business’ and ‘green crap’ – resonate across the media along with the suggestion that this is all about some dispensable polar bears, some obscure insects and a bunch of people in woolly hats.
The green ghetto
Over the last few months I’ve heard a number of people suggest that environmentalists are somehow to blame for the fact that climate change is seen as an environmental issue. Climate change needs to come out of the ‘green ghetto’, they argue. Environmentalists have captured the green agenda, they complain. Environmentalists ‘put people off’ with their strident demands.
This one has the fingerprints of our old friend projection all over it. Blame is being offloaded by the bucket-load.
If you enquire a bit more deeply about who exactly is at fault, answers are not forthcoming. Is it the RSPB? No, they say. The Wildlife Trust then? No – not that kind of environmentalist. Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace then? No – they think FOE and Greenpeace do good work. Who do they mean? Bill McKibben? Jonathan Porritt? Caroline Lucas? No – they quite like all of them. Who then? They struggle. Maybe it’s the climate camp people. But they haven’t been around for over three years, I say, and there were only ever a handful of them. The argument rapidly collapses. My interlocutor is confused.
It isn’t the environmentalists who have labelled climate change an environmental issue at all. It’s the powerful who cynically frame it as belonging to a ‘green fringe’. These are the people who talk about ‘green crap’. Some of them do so in order to dismiss climate change out of hand, some of them do so from their half-hearted commitment to an issue that challenges their assumptions about how the world works. In a week where the Guardian reported that a mere 90 companies (primarily fossil-fuel companies) have produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gases generated in the industrial age, we should not be surprised at such obfuscation.
In psychological terms the process of projection occurs when one person attributes a feeling, a characteristic, an action or a responsibility to someone it doesn’t really belong to. ‘I’m not angry, you are.’ ‘He’s the most careless person I know.’ In the process called projective identification, the person who is the object of the projection comes to feel that they are indeed as described. “Perhaps I am angry…” “Maybe I am careless…” Similarly we find people from environmental organisations wondering if they are to blame for the marginalisation of climate change in the so-called ‘green ghetto’ and assuming responsibility for emerging from it.
Time to break out
Minorities live in ghettos not from their own choice but because people more powerful confine them there. If climate change is locked in a green ghetto it is not because environmentalists have put it there but because the powerful prefer to place climate change where they believe its implications will not touch them. It’s time for an uprising not an apology.
September 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who were hopeful in the run-up to publication of the new IPCC report that politicians would finally show leadership. At some level I shared that hope, but I also recognised the queasy unrealistic feeling I’d experienced during the collapse of the Copenhagen COP15 talks when I fantasised that Obama was going to fly in and settle everything for the good of humanity and the world. I knew it was a fantasy. And it grew in proportion to the hopelessness of the situation.
Leaving fossil fuels in the ground
For climate change to be dealt with, fossil fuels have to be left in the ground. The more you understand about the paradoxes of energy efficiency, the rebound effect and the dilemmas of economic growth, the less likely it seems that the current economic system and current economic models can cope with the problem. This may go some way to explaining the current preoccupation with the fact that climate change seems to have become an issue that belongs to the left.
For many years conservation and environmental concerns seemed non-party political. If anything, it was the left who – fearing that progress might be denied to working people and less developed nations – saw these concerns as a cover for reaction and inimical to the left-wing agenda. As the scale of the problem has become apparent, with its challenge to just about every norm and assumption of contemporary western life, it’s the right who are panicked by the (realistic) possibility that capitalism and the survival of humanity are incompatible. They’re choosing capitalism – head-in-the-sand, bone-headed, neo-liberal capitalism – and their method of attack is to deny the science.
Reframing the political debate
Two recent publications shed an interesting light. In a recent interview with Salon , Naomi Klein repeated her argument, (first made in an article in the Nation in 2011) that in cosying up to capital and espousing so-called market based solutions to climate change, the big green groups have failed to engage with the deeper problem – the fact that capitalism-as-we-know-it is incompatible with any real solution to climate change. The right meanwhile are only too aware of this incompatibility – hence their enthusiastic denial of the scientific facts.
On this side of the Atlantic, the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) have published an interesting report ‘A new conversation with the centre-right’ which explores how discussion of climate change can be framed to appeal to an audience that is rapidly in danger of disappearing either into indifference or into the arms of their more extreme, denialist friends.
Both publications attempt to re-frame the political debate. COIN’s report recognises the importance of keeping the right talking and thinking outside the frame of denial. Klein’s challenge pushes the green establishment to wake up and put a critical economic hat on for once.
The ugly face of capitalism
Meanwhile, up in the Arctic, the ugliest face of capitalism, supported by corrupt government, tries to crush those who protest. As the Greenpeace activists face imprisonment on trumped up charges of piracy for their protest at the Gazprom rig, we can count ourselves warned. This is how capitalism behaves under threat.
I notice myself feeling weary. Hope and fantasy bear a troublesome relationship. The fantasy that publication of the IPCC report would see a resurgence of genuine leadership and a serious challenge to the status quo was comforting. It seemed to offer hope. In the same way, denialists hope that climate change isn’t happening, big green groups hope that market-based solutions will crack it, an apathetic public just hopes that it will all go away. Fantasists, all of us.
On the back foot, struggling and afraid, it is not surprising that fantasy is attractive. But in desperate times real hope can only come from a more sober place – from the recognition of a darker reality and our own humanity, from a belief that relationship, justice, equality, other species and habitats all still matter. We have what we have. What is, is.
It’s a fight, and it’s looking increasingly dirty.
Donations to Greenpeace can be made at http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/
September 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
A few weeks ago George Monbiot suggested in the Guardian that we should think about the psychological motivations of fracking enthusiasts. Spot on. As I wrote 18 months ago, the language of the debate is determinedly, and demeaningly masculine. But I think there is more to it than the macho fixation that George suggests. This masculine strutting is, after all, familiar from every other large engineering project you care to think of: nuclear power, space exploration, the channel tunnel. It chimes easily with the desire of large corporations to invest large amounts of money. It makes small men feel big. It’s familiar, doable and profitable.
With fracking however, government has tried to appeal to the public through the rhetoric of energy security, claiming that if we fail to exploit this resource, hard-working families will be priced out of energy, pensioners will die from hypothermia and the nation will be in hock to unreliable foreigners. Baloney, of course, since all energy is now traded on international markets and home-production guarantees nothing about price. It’s the framing that’s interesting – the appeal to security.
There’s an attempt to weld together the gung-ho metaphor of exploration with the paternalistic metaphor of security for those who are deserve it: those who belong to ‘us’ and not to ‘them’. They thus hoped to appeal simultaneously to their neo-liberal financial backers and to their traditionalist, rural constituents. This has of course back-fired, as those rural constituents feel anything but secure as they see their pleasant homes and stable communities threatened by industrialisation they would prefer located elsewhere.
A TROUBLESOME FRAME
As Alex Randall pointed out in a piece for Open Democracy 3 years ago, energy security is a troublesome frame. In this instance it has upset the apple cart for the right, but it can equally well do so for the left.
The psychological associations of appeals to security are to childhood memories of safety and care, the idea that someone will take care of us, provide for us, make sure that nothing goes badly wrong. Many of the Tory party’s traditional supporters have an ambivalent attitude to these associations. Sibling issues emerge in the fear that others may take what is rightfully yours and the security agenda slips easily into a jingoistic defence of ‘our’ energy and from there to the idea that it is justifiable to achieve energy security through armed conflict if necessary.
COMPETING MEANINGS FOR SECURITY
Alex points out in his article that while for people on the left a security agenda implies peace-building, conflict resolution and a fair distribution of resources, for those on the right it means achieving stability by any route necessary – political bullying, economic blackmail or military intervention.
In the fracking debacle, it’s the right who have come unstuck in their assumption that the security agenda will play out in the way they expected, but the left should be equally aware that this frame will not necessarily take you where you expect. You mess with people’s most basic fears at your peril.
July 28, 2013 § 1 Comment
It’s a commonplace in economics that growth in GDP is a good thing. And it’s a commonplace in psychology that awkward topics of conversation will be avoided. If something upsets the status quo – expect a defence.
There are few topics as awkward as the relationship between economic growth and climate change. As economies grow, they use more energy. And sadly, neither improvements in efficiency, techno-wizardry, or a move towards renewables is likely to solve the problem. Carbon savings made in one place free up resources to be used elsewhere. This year’s efficiency improvement is swallowed up in next year’s growth. This is what is known as the rebound effect. « Read the rest of this entry »
June 27, 2013 § Leave a comment
I meet a lot of people who tell me they are ‘hopeless with numbers’ or ‘useless at maths’. There seems to be little shame in the admission. I’m not brilliant at maths either. I struggled in the remedial ‘O’ level class and was relieved to be allowed to drop the subject in the sixth form. I associated it with dull blokes who tucked their trousers into their socks when cycling and earnest girls who preferred the chemistry lab to sexual chemistry.
The environment world sometimes seems full of the same dullness. People who think that telling me that the UK produces enough rubbish every hour to fill the Albert Hall, will change my mind about where to drop that aluminium can. Or that the way to my ecological heart is to stun me with the news that a tonne of CO2 would fill my house.
It’s easy to mock, but staying ignorant of numbers can also be a way of defending against the gravity of one’s impact on the climate. Here are some of the things I’ve been told in groups and interviews where we calculated people’s actual carbon footprints:
- “I think one’s spiritual connection to the environment is more important than the actual numbers.”
- “Is 15 tonnes really worse than 10 tonnes?”
- “I think numbers can distract you from the politics.”
- “Numbers are so abstract – they make my head ache and they don’t motivate me.”
- “I’d rather live an ethical life than get obsessed by numbers.”
Each of these people was struggling with the news that their carbon footprint was above average. Some of the statements contain interesting truths. Some are nonsense. Behind them lies the anxiety of being a poor environmental citizen, being asked to make changes that are hard or being accused of selfishness. Believing that numbers don’t matter is culturally acceptable and allows people to segue easily away from their discomfort.
As a teenager passing my maths GCE exam involved facing anxieties about self-image and about failure. Only then could I drop my defence that numbers were stupid and unsexy and enjoy my limited ability to use them creatively. Some people face a similar task when confronted with their environmental impact. They can’t grapple with the realities that the numbers reveal unless they can also find a way to cope with the anxiety and discomfort. So instead of realising that they have the power to make a real difference they hide behind the belief that the numbers are too difficult, boring or stupid to concern themselves with.
If you can bear it, here are just three numbers to think about.
- 15 tonnes – the average personal UK footprint – the one you are likely to have if you have an average UK income.
- 4 tonnes – the average world footprint.
- 1.5 tonnes – the level of a sustainable footprint.
If you visit the WWF website, you can make a rough calculation of your own footprint. Or you can join a Carbon Conversations group and discover, in the company of others, that it is possible to make changes to your life and that the numbers are not as frightening as you thought.