Recently, I participated in a panel discussion in Newcastle, Australia, via the magic of the internet (which isn’t a truck, but rather a series of tubes!). The discussion, on climate change and social change, was part of the Earthling festival which, in turn, was part of This Is Not Art.
Other than me, the panel was all in a hall in Newcastle with an audience of around 70 people. The rest of the panel consisted of people from the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace Australia, Rising Tide Newcastle, and Friends Of The Earth Australia.
The format was 3-5 minutes at the start to put forward our opinion, followed by questions from the audience for discussion. The question put to the panel was:
While the preliminary effects of climate change are already being felt, the potential effects are enormous. The future of human civilisation, and indeed life on earth, is under threat. If the effects of climate change are unprecedented and profound, so are the implications of solving it, because civilisation as we know it is founded on fossil fuels – the root cause of the problem.
We are now being told that global greenhouse pollution needs to be phased-out almost completely, and fast. Yet even the tiny targets of the Kyoto Protocol are not being met. While governments quarrel over climate change and what to do with about, it seems everybody agrees on one thing – economic growth must be maintained at all costs. The growing global economy demands cheap energy, and lots of it.
How does this expectation fit with the challenge of climate change? Can consumer-capitalism and the growth economy exist in a zero-emissions world? And if dealing with climate change really does require radical social change, do we really have time to achieve that?
What follows are some (not all) of the things that I talked about during the discussion (which went for 2 hours). These are typed up and expanded from notes that I’d written for myself, so excuse the scattered nature.
The first question is very important to decide the path from here. Capitalism/the growth economy are incompatible with environmental sustainability. In fact, wholesale environmental destruction is frequently GOOD for the economy. One of the other panelists mentioned Richard Branson’s announcement that he’ll be donating money to help combat climate change – at the same time, he announces tourist flights to space lasting just 2 and a half hours! Sheer hypocrisy.
Kyoto has shown that Governments are unwilling and unable to seriously fight climate change – despite being totally inadequate, its targets are still not being met! Focusing on a national level is never going to accomplish anything – climate change is a global problem that requires global solutions. Looking at it on a national scale simply enables emmission denial – the idea that one shouldn’t be held responsible for emissions created from the burning of fossil fuels that were extracted simply because they were burnt in another country.
Equal to the futility of viewing climate change through a nationalistic framework is the futility of viewing the solutions at an individual level – this is frequently the mode of thinking for those who have power in current society and are unwilling to relinquish it, such as Al Gore. Buy a hybrid car, buy energy saving lightbulbs, buy a solar panel for hot water heating, buy this, buy that. This only results in increasing the pressure on those who are least able to handle it – placing demands such as these on people who are already financially struggling (due to capitalism) is tantamount to demanding they starve. On top of that, most emissions come not from individual lifestyles, but from industry and agriculture, which cannot be seriously adjusted by anything but systemic change.
Looking at solutions to climate change on an individual level also mistakingly makes the assumption that all are equally responsible for causing climate change, and that all are going to feel its effects equally. This could not be further from the truth. Those who are affected the most are generally those who contribute among the least, and are among the least able to cope. A previous speaker mentioned the Carteret Islands, who’s inhabitants are about to be evacuated to Papua New Guinea as their homes are fast being covered by rising sea levels. To quote one resident of the Carterets:
‘“We are frustrated, and we are angry at the same time. We are victims of something that we are not responsible for. We believe that these islands are ours, and that our future generations should not go away from these islands.”
“I think it’s about time these industrialized countries realized that these island countries in the Pacific are taking the toll. We are bearing the brunt of all these gas emissions. Millions and millions of dollars are spent on wars all over the world. Can they save people like ourselves?”’
Industralisation and centralisation (of production, power and money) have destroyed the environment and alienated society from it. A radically decentralised and democratised society would reconnect people with ecology and the effects of their lifestyles on their immediate environment – thus producing a higher level of environmental consciousness and simultaneously giving people the power to live environmentally sustainable lifestyles.
The second question is harder to answer – depending on which studies you read, we’ve either reached the point of no return, we are close, or we are still decades away. Regardless of which you believe (if any), however, to me the question seems irrelevant to deciding where to go from here – If it is too late, we should work for radical social change in order to make the most of our remaining time on earth. If it is not too late, we should work for radical social change in order to save the earth. Either way, we still must work for radical social change. It is better to act now and find out later that it was too late, than not to act and find out later that we still had time.
I closed with the thought that the biggest barrier to radical social change is not those who do not think it is desirable, but rather those who desire it but deny its possibility.
The event closed with each panelist suggesting 5 things that those present could do. My suggestions were:
- Educate yourself about climate change – the causes, the effects, the facts and figures and the personal stories
- Once you know what to look for, keep an eye on the news, and, perhaps more importantly, try to notice what misses the news and why. The internet is your friend.
- Get active! Work with groups fighting for environmental and social justice, for radical social change.
- Talk – to friends, family, strangers on the street. Let your passion ignite the passion of others.
- Don’t forget – don’t let climate change become another fad that is forgotten about by most – forgetting will not make it go away! Don’t put it in the too hard basket.