Sunday 29 March 2015

Thank Smog

Naomi Klein's book 'This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate' was not an easy read; I could only manage a few pages at a time and then had to stop and do something else for a while to prevent my brain exploding, not because it is hard to understand, but because the examples of stupidity and injustice come so thick and fast you just have to take a break. I like to think that I am pretty aware of what goes on in the world, now I feel very well informed; the 100 pages of references detail the years of research that has gone into the writing of this book. The first half of the book deals with the many and various ways that modern human society has managed to trash the planet, and then she goes on to outline the possible things that might be done to mitigate the damage, and how far we are from doing them. (There are a lot of quotes here so beware, though in fact it will probably save you reading the book at all.)

Her first target is the climate change deniers, who have been getting more active and vociferous in recent years, and their shrill calls of 'socialism' aimed at any attempt to call out the capitalist system for the damage it is doing:

"More fundamental than any of this, though, is their deep fear that if the market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught. With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so very good after all. And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time - whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market." (p.40)

Then if it's not the deniers it's the people who are supposed to be doing something to fix the problem. The international meetings have been going on for decades, with very little result. Where the governments seem more than capable of enacting legally binding trade agreements, when it comes to responding to the imminent threat of climate change they barely manage to come to 'voluntary agreements'. This was one result that is reported from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992:

"Rather than push for the recalibration of the international trade rules to conform with the requirements of climate protection ... the Parties to the climate regime have ensured liberalised trade and an expanding global economy have been protected against trade-restrictive climate policies."

And everywhere, everyone seems to be unable to accept any responsibility for their own part in the crisis:

"And yet when the subject of climate change comes up in discussion in the wealthy, industrialised countries, the instant response, very often, is that it's all China's fault (and India's fault and Brazil's fault and so on). Why bother cutting our own emissions when everyone knows that the fast developing economies are the real problem, opening more coal plants every month than we could ever close. This argument is made as if we in the west are mere spectators to this reckless and dirty model of economic growth As if it was not our governments and our multinationals that pushed a model of export-led development that made all of this possible." (p.82)

And unable to accept that it is a systemic problem:

"This state of affairs is, of course, yet another legacy of the free market counterrevolution. In virtually every country, the political class accepts the premise that it is not the place of government to tell large corporations what they can and cannot do, even when public health and welfare - indeed the habitability of our shared home - are clearly at stake." (p.142)

What is so hard to read, of course, is that she doesn't let the reader off the hook. It's not so much an 'Us and Them' scenario as 'We'; we are all culpable of being part of the same mentality:

"And we tell ourselves all kinds of similarly implausible no-consequences stories all the time, about how we can ravage the world and suffer no adverse effects. Indeed we are always surprised when it works out otherwise. We extract and do not replenish and wonder why the fish have disappeared and the soil requires ever more 'inputs (like phosphate) to stay fertile. We occupy countries and arm their militias and then wonder why they hate us. We drive down wages, ship jobs overseas, destroy worker protections, hollow out local economies, then wonder why people can't afford to shop as much as they used to. We offer those failed shoppers subprime mortgages instead of steady jobs and then wonder who no one foresaw that a system built on bad debt would collapse." (p.166)

She outlines what she terms 'Extractivism', an attitude to the planet and our ability to use its resources:

"Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continues. Extractives is the mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own - turning living complex ecosystems into 'natural resources', mountains into 'overburden' (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks, and streams that get in the way of its bulldozers)." (p.169)

Questions about the logic of this approach and the impact it is having have been going on for a long time:

"It was in this context that the underlying logic of extractivism - that there would always be more earth for us to consume - began to be forcefully challenges within the mainstream. The pinnacle of this debate came in 1972 when the Club of Rome published The Limits of Growth, a runaway best-seller that used early computer models to predict that if natural systems continued to be depleted at their current rate, humanity would overshoot the planet's carrying capacity by the middle of the twenty-first century. Saving a few beautiful mountain ranges wouldn't be enough to get us out of this fix; the logic of growth itself need to be confronted." (p.185-6)

But we really, really don't want to face up to it:

"The reasons for this political timidity had plenty to do with the themes already discussed: the power and allure of the free market logic that usurped so much intellectual life in the late 1980s and 1990s, including large parts of the conservation movement. But this persistent unwillingness to follow science to its conclusions also speaks to the power of the cultural narrative that tells us that humans are ultimately in control of the earth, and not the other way around. This is the same narrative that assures us that, however bad things get, we are going to be saved at the last minute - whether by the market, by philanthropic billionaires, or by technological wizards - or best of all, by all three at the same time. And while we wait, we keep digging in deeper." (p.186-7)

So, are there any solutions to the problems. Yes, lots. Are any of them working, well, not really. Because the culture of capitalism is so pervasive they have managed to make the solutions be more about ways that they can continue to operate as they wish than about achieving any real reductions is carbon emissions. Groups who's role is supposedly about protecting the environment and tackling the issues around climate change find themselves working with the enemy:

"The Nature Conservancy's job has been to identify habitat preservation and conservation projects to 'offset the impacts of oil and gas drilling pads and infrastructure.' From a climate change perspective, this is an absurd proposition, since the projects have no hope of offsetting the most damaging impact of all: the release of heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere. Which is why the most important preservation work that any environmental group can do is preserving the carbon in the ground, wherever it is. (Then again, this is The Nature Conservancy, which has its very own gas well in the middle of a nature preserve in Texas.)" (p.215)

The whole arena of carbon offsetting seems to have been contrived by the major industries to enable them to put a positive spin on what they do, but has not forced them to change anything about their behaviour: look at us, we've planted all these trees, we love the environment, buy our petrol. The whole thing just became another means to make money, and carbon in the atmosphere ... it just keeps going up:

"Rather than straightforwardly requiring all industrialised countries to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by a fixed amount, the scheme would issue pollution permits, which they could use, sell if they didn't need them, or purchase so that they could pollute more. National programmes would be set up so that companies could similarly trade these permits, with the country staying within an overall emissions cap. Meanwhile, projects that were employing practices that claimed to be keeping carbon out of the atmosphere - whether plating trees that sequester carbon, or by producing low carbon energy, or by upgrading a dirty factory to lower its emissions - could qualify for carbon credits. These  credits could be purchased by polluters and used to offset their emissions." (p.218)

Organisations trying to protect the forests, for example, ended up trying to put a monetary value on the resources they want to protect, as if speaking to the capitalists in their own language might get through to them, but time and again it has been shown that trying to play the game their way only allows them to win more easily:

"The mantra of the early ecologists was 'everything is connected' - every tree a part of an intricate web of life. The mantra of the corporate-partnered conservationist, in sharp contrast, may well be 'everything is disconnected', since they have successfully constructed a new economy in which the tree is not a tree but rather a carbon sink used by people thousands of miles away to appease our consciences and maintain our levels of economic growth." (p.224)

And so the search for solutions goes from bad to worse. Solar Radiation Management (SRM) is science at its most insidious. It is all part of the same mentality that says, because we are such a clever species we can control the planet, and make it work the way we want, for our benefit. The premise is, assuming the temperature starts to go up, and do all the bad things that the climate change scientists say it will, we need instead (instead of dealing with our carbon emissions that is) to find a way to cool the planet down again. SRM involved putting various particles high up into the atmosphere to reflect the sunlight back and to reduce the temperature, a process that cannot be tested on  a large scale without potentially affecting a huge number of people, nor could it be reversed, we would potentially just have to keep on doing it:

"Given this, does it make sense to behave as if, with big enough brains and powerful enough computers, humans can master and control the climate crisis just as humans have been imagining they could master the natural world since the dawn of industrialisation - digging, damming, drilling, dyking. Is it really as simply as adding a new tool to our nature-taming arsenal: dimming?
This is the strange paradox of geoengineering. Yes, it is exponentially more ambitious and more dangerous than any engineering project humans have ever attempted before. But it is also very familiar, nearly a cliché, as if the past five humoured years of human history have been leading us, ineluctably, to precisely this place. Unlike cutting our emissions in line with the scientific consensus, succumbing to the logic of geoengineering does not require any change from us; it just requires that we keep doing what we have done for centuries, only much more so." (p.266-7)

What is most scary about the idea is that as the crisis deepens over the next decade or so such solutions could be explored much more seriously:

"This is how the shock doctrine works: in the desperation of a true crisis all kinds of sensible position melts away and all manner of high-risk behaviours seem temporarily acceptable. It is only outside of a crisis atmosphere that we can rationally evaluate the future ethics and risks of deploying geoengineering technologies should we find ourselves in a period of rapid change. And what those risks tell us is that dimming the sun is nothing like installing a sprinkler system - unless we are willing to accept that some of those sprinklers could very well spray gasoline instead of water. Oh -and that, once turned on, we might not be able to turn off the system without triggering in inferno that could burn down the entire building." (p.277)

And so she moves on to the beneficent billionaires who are going to save us all, or not as the case may be.
Richard Branson and Al Gore

"This frozen moment strikes me as the perfect snapshot of the first incarnation of the climate movement: a wealthy and powerful man with the whole world literally in his hands, promising to save the fragile blue planet on our behalf. This heroic feat will be accomplished, he has just announced, by harnessing the power of human genius and the desire to get really, really rich.
Pretty much everything is wrong with that picture. The reinvention of a major climate polluter into a climate saviour based on little more than good PR. The assumption that dangling enough money can solve any mess we create. And the certainty that the solution to climate change must come from above rather than below." (p.285)

Moving swiftly on (because this is an already monster review and I've probably lost most of you). She spends a lot of time looking at the work of indigenous peoples, mostly in the Americas and Canada, and their struggle to regain control over lands that were taken from them, and who have been a major force in the fight against extractive industries. It seems ironic that the people who's impact on the planet has been so minimal, who's way of life has been, and is being, destroyed by invasion, should be the ones struggling so hard to try and save it for the rest of us. she talks a little about the images of the earth taken in space, and how they changed something about the way that humans saw themselves and their planet. There is this quote from Kurt Vonnegut that sums up how maybe this slightly naive, idealised view of the beautiful blue planet floating in space did not tie up with the reality of life on earth: "It looks so clean. You can't see all the hungry, angry earthlings down there - and the smoke and the sewage and the trash and sophisticated weaponry."

"And all the while, just as Vonnegut warned, any acknowledgement of the people way down below the wispy clouds disappears - people with attachments to particular pieces of land with very different ideas about what constitutes a 'solution'. this chronic forgetfulness is the thread that unites so many fateful policy errors of recent years, from the decision to embrace fracked natural gas as a bridge fuel (failing to notice that there were people on those lands who were willing to fight against the shattering of their territory and the poisoning of their water) to cap-and-trade and carbon offsets (forgetting the people once again, the ones forced to breathe the toxic air next to the refineries that were being kept open thanks to these backroom deals, as well as the ones locked out of their traditional forests that were being converted into offsets.)" (p.287)

And so it turns out that we really do have to thank smog for what could be one aspect of a solution. The political and industrial elites in China that have been fuelling and benefitting from their race to industrialise over the last few decades had been determinedly ignoring the consequences of their actions. This was because they could shield themselves from the consequences, but the arrival of the 'smog', vast blankets of air pollution that cover entire cities, has forced them to rethink at least some of their policies:

"The reason, he explains, is that the elites had been able to insulate themselves from previous environmental threats, like baby milk and water contamination, because 'the rich, the powerful, have special channels of delivery, safer products [delivered] to their doorsteps.' But no matter how rich you are, there is no way to hide from the 'blanket' of toxic air. 'nobody can do anything for special [air] delivery,' he says. 'And thats the beauty of it.' " (p.351)

Are we left however to hope that the situation will become so bad that the 1% will finally find that their own existence is threatened, and then, finally they will become interested in finding a solution.

Whatever we do it's going to be expensive. Money is key, as well as the political will to act. But also we have to stop seeing the solution as something that will pit one part of the world against another:

"Saunter Narain, director general of one of the most influential environmental organisations in India, the New Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment, stresses that the solution is not for the wealthy world to contract its economies while allowing the developing world to pollute its way to prosperity (even if this were possible). It is for the developing countries to 'develop differently. We do not want to first pollute and then clean up. So we need money, we need technology, to be able to do things differently.' And that means the wealthy world must pay its climate debts.
And yet financing a just transition in fast-developing economies has not been a priority of activists in the North. Indeed a great many Big Green groups in the United States consider the idea of climate debt to be politically toxic, since, unlike the standard 'energy security' and green jobs arguments that present climate action as a race that rich countries can win, it requires emphasising the importance of international cooperation and solidarity." (p.414)

It helped the book a lot that she ended on what felt like a positive note. I think a lot of people would prefer to stick their heads in the sand because they are afraid of loosing what they see as all the benefits of modern life. The climate change movement, she points out, is not about us all going back to the middle ages, living in mud huts and growing our own turnips. It is not about stopping and going backwards. We need to be applying our technology, our intelligence and our creativity to finding real solutions to the problem, ones not motivated by profit but by a shared concern for the survival of our species. It has to be about going forward to a world where resources are respected and shared. It is about reaching homeostasis, where what we consume is balanced by what we put back, where the carbon we produce is balanced with what the earth is capable of absorbing. It reminded me that I should put E.F. Schumacher's 'Small is Beautiful' on my 101 books list. One of the striking things that I learned about in psychology is that the thing that really marks out human beings from other primates is our ability to cooperate in large groups. It is what lead to the development of more complex societies, and ultimately to the world we live in today. What we need more than anything  is to remember what a strength this is, and make our cooperative efforts the focus of our societies.

"Living nonextractively does not mean that extraction does not happen: all living things must take from nature in order to survive. But it does mean the end of the extractives mindset - of taking without caretaking, of treating land and people as resources to deplete rather than as complex entities with rights to a dignified existence based on renewal and regeneration. Even such traditionally destructive practices as logging can be done responsibly, as can small-scale mining, particularly when the activities are controlled by the people who live where the extraction is taking place and who have a stake in the ongoing health and productivity of the land. but most of all, living nonextractively means relying overwhelmingly on resources that can be continuously regenerated: deriving our food from farming methods that protect soil fertility; our energy from methods that harness the ever-renewing straight from the sun, wind and waves; our metals from recycled and reused sources."

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