Individual Climate Ethics and Global Change

Can we do it ourselves? If we recycle everything and take shorter showers, install some solar panels, buy low-emissions products, etc., etc., can we avoid climate catastrophe? Sorry. Absolutely not.

The problem runs much deeper than that – it involves the entire Earth System. The climate crisis is endemic to industrial civilization itself. That means, in some sense, everything must change. But how can change adequate to this global crisis be accomplished? That is the big unacknowledged question. I have heard many emissions reduction targets (you know, 20% reduction by 2030, etc. – they mean nothing).

Words and Inaction

Such proclamations are abstract; they say nothing about how such minimal gestures toward necessity would be accomplished. Yet we are awash in data on every kind of emission from every kind of economic activity and every form of ecological and climate disturbance. Emissions reductions proclamations and agreements are nothing more than fantasy.

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Species extinctions are accelerating with increasing more intense Droughts and other forms of  Climate Chaos

Hundreds of species go extinct every day now. The sixth great mass extinction is well underway. New car sales are booming, yet in the past five years, the share of electric vehicles has never exceeded 1%. So many ecological fronts on which destabilization is accelerating make it nearly impossible to keep up, no less mount the planetary-scale changes required of us to make an actual difference.

Euphemisms avoid confronting difficult decisions. The good news is that new capacity in renewable energy production is growing faster than new fossil-fuel capacity, despite Trumpist coal hawking. But to have a chance at slowing weather weirding and global climate chaos, we need to stop all new fossil-fueled energy production — a mind-boggling prospect. Yet, we actually need to use less energy by taking serious, even drastic conservation measures.

Individual Action

One of the most important factors for those of us who already take climate-disruption danger seriously is that we not fall into the complacency of doing something personal and feeling that we have done our part and that is that. Individual action by those who are aware and care will never be enough. Your withdrawal from profligate consumerism, or even going off the grid, while admirable and necessary, remains a typically American form of ethical individualism It may oppose the collective anti-moralism of collective consumerism. However, it will not solve our collective problem of the headlong rush of the industrial leviathan, the technosphere that continues its spread of carbon into the atmosphere. Only mass mobilization for major energy-use reduction has a chance of being enough.

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Consumer Identity

The current momentum of the economic growth machine alone – even if we assume some moderate level of individual withdrawal from the consumerist culture – will be enough to take the climate well past the tipping point of no return to climate stability. The change we need is deeply systemic, and that will not happen until a social movement much broader than the Bernie Sanders’ “Our Revolution” can mobilize people on a vast scale.

Collective Action

Only mass mobilization can overcome the force the economic as well as political momentum, and allow us to transform the extractive industrial economy into an ecological society. This is where transforming the consumer culture becomes paramount. The more we can demonstrate low-carbon consumer minimalism and vastly reduce energy consumption while restoring local ecosystems, the faster social change can help re-stabilize climate and avert total disaster.

We need to replace all carbon-based consumer products and services with consumer minimalism, now. That will involve some constraints we are not used to, but there is no time to waste. I discussed this in more detail at TheHopefulRealist.com, especially in my Feb 24, 2016 post. We must all do what we can do and join any effort we can in our local communities to make the changes that will help turn the larger system away from its path to extinction.

Doing Nothing to Get a Grip on Reality

“Johnny, why can’t you just sit still?” Well, Johnny is not the only hyperactive one. You might even conclude, just from watching any group anywhere in the world today that humanity as a whole is hyperactive. Where did all the patience go?

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Kern Oilfield near Bakersfield, CA. Source: YouTube.

These thoughts were triggered by my reading an article by Brian Tycangco, “Black gold isn’t going away…this is why,” in Asia Wealth Investment Daily, an investment newsletter offering various subscription services as well as general perspectives on the Asian investment markets. Mr. Tycangco waxed enthusiastically on the fact that oil consumption is increasing in Asia because that is where economic growth is strong and demand for energy is high. Consumption of oil in the U.S. is mostly flat, but also growing in Europe, according to Tycangco. The explosive growth in the number of cars in China and India is a big factor. Asia is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world. mobility is a key factor in that growth.

Hyperactive Global Investment in Energy Consumption

Clearly, the world of investment and economic growth is oblivious to the accelerating destabilization of ecosystems, climate, and the whole Earth system under two hundred years of carbon-duress. Earth-systems destabilization is imposed by the global endless-growth corporate economy and the political and cultural systems that support it.  Dmitri Orlov calls it the Technosphere and argues forcefully that we must shrink it.

The political elites of nation states debate proportional responsibility for achieving a 2-degree C cap on global warming – without taking concrete policy steps to achieve their inadequate goals. Meanwhile, the engine of economic growth responds to the accelerator of capital investment and speeds us all toward the abyss. It is the biggest disconnect I can imagine.

Globalist economic culture exists in a cultural and scientific bubble, divorced from any sound knowledge of the planetary effects of human activity powered by fossil fuels. We might very well liken accelerating capital investment in fossil-fueled economic growth to a hyperactive child, oblivious to the admonitions of its parent (planet Earth) to calm down and stop banging around breaking everything in sight.

False Positives of Ecomodernism

The so-called “ecomodernists” want to solve the problems of climate destabilization and ecological destruction by advancing the techno-industrial systems that caused all the damage in the first place. You know, geo-engineering and all that. Over two-hundred plus years, the technosphere came to dominate Earth systems, causing their destabilization. Trying to accomplish something by repeating the method that has repeatedly not achieved the goal defines insanity. It’s nuts.

Here’s the thing. The investor class drives the global corporate economy and has no interest whatsoever in constraining the extraction and consumption of oil. Members of the global financial elite fully intend to squeeze all the profits out of fossil-fueled economic growth they can, while they still can. The catastrophic consequences for living Earth systems are simply not part of their culture, even when they are aware of them. At the same time, the global corporate elites have the upper hand in determining the policies of nations and they are doing everything in their power to continue down the path of hyperactive devastation of the planet.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the risks of human extinction appear to play out beyond the lifetimes of those making decisions today, or at least beyond the edge of their not so invisible shield of privilege. The hyperactive CEO simply does not care about a future beyond his own life. He assumes he can retreat into his mansion behind security gates as society collapses around him, or he simply continues to deny the rapidly growing evidence of immediate impacts of climate destabilization. After all, the first devastation occurs in places like Bangladesh or central African or island nations. Manhattan seems immune for now, but Miami, well, not so much.

Doing Nothing Now

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Mindfulness requires Doing Nothing. Image: Pinterest.

As Asian economies boom and hyperactive economic growth consumes more oil and devastates the planet, it strikes me as ironic that the great cultures of contemplation – Zen, yoga, Taoism, and related practices – all have Asian origins. Some Americans try to get a grip on reality in the hectic world of working and living in the industrial era by taking up some variants of these practices, all of which involve doing nothing. However, that does not stop them from rushing to Whole Foods after Yoga class for the latest international treats to sustain their total consumer “lifestyle.” The disconnect between everyday life and making peace with planet Earth remains strong.

A New Great Transformation of both the whole Earth system itself and the role of humans on the planet is well underway, as the geologic era of the Holocene succumbs to that of the Anthropocene. Humanity has already severely influenced the trajectory of Earth history. Most of what we do with the profligate energy consumption and waste is unnecessary. How much fossil fuel is required to build a violin? How much fossil fuel do we need to expend in reading a book, raising our garden, building a house, restoring a local ecosystem, or playing a game of volleyball?

Our future role in Earth’s evolution is, it seems, entirely up for grabs. Most of those fossil-fueled “labor saving” automated devices that destroy jobs are no longer viable from the perspective of human self-interest in survival. If humans are to carve out a meaningful and viable place in the planet’s future, we had better start doing nothing now.

On the Urgency of Abandoning Lifestyle

I never liked the term, “lifestyle.” It reflects an extreme version of the American obsession with personal individualistic consumerism, which ultimately is at odds with the hard facts of life on planet Earth. The unattainable “lifestyles of the rich and famous” promoted and enthusiastically accepted in the industrial era are built on illusion and propel humanity toward the abyss of climate collapse and social chaos.

The denizens of industrial-consumer societies sustain their illusions of achieving high-status “lifestyles” at the cost of terminating social and ecological stability, contrary to the public good. But words often have a life of their own and will even transform their own meaning with continued use. The choices we make in life are not so much a matter of “style,” even when driven by stylistic considerations. Instead, above all they reflect a species’ survival strategy or its failure even to have no less execute a survival strategy.

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Shopping mall ~ Mallorca

So, on the one hand, “lifestyle” implies no strategy at all, just some form of “personal expression” of consumer values oblivious to the requirements of survival on planet Earth. In its denial of nature, the consumer lifestyle sustains a cultural bubble that excludes consciousness of the place of humanity in nature. That cannot end well.

On the other hand, “lifestyle” is completely inadequate to express the essence of a life of conscious choice to align personal living decisions, political action, and economic behavior, with an effort to save humanity from extinction. The trajectory of industrial-consumer society, with its illusions of perpetual technological control over nature and endless economic growth on a finite planet, drives us all in exactly that direction.

I do hesitate to bring up the idea of extinction – it seems so extreme that its possibility appears implausible. As the politicians always say in a crisis, “We don’t want to alarm the public.” Yet, today public alarm is exactly what is needed. If we look at the history of biological systems on this planet, extinction has been an integral part of their evolution. At the same time, the history of industrialized humanity has generated a certain false sense of security and permanence. Chris Hedges pops that bubble in his recent Truthdig article.

The myth of perpetual economic growth and material abundance on a finite planet persists in the face of imminent climate catastrophe as well as resource depletion. A “big picture” perspective, such as that of astrophysicist Adam Frank easily exposes the naïve hubris of the human illusion of perpetual progress.

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Arundhati Roy contemplates the worst flooding ever in Kerala, India. Photo: Onmanorama

Well, that was a mouthful…but the science is clear. Climate destabilization is accelerating. Every IPCC report since the ill-fated Kyoto accords has underestimated the rates of change. The climate models still have not fully taken into account emerging feedback loops that are accelerating the greenhouse effects. Urgency is the right word; complacency is the political norm. The Defiant Earth will not be broken by self-indulgent ecomodernists.

Living a life of planetary consciousness is not the complete answer; it cannot stop climate chaos alone. But it can help directly by contributing to a broad “climate of opinion” that must exist in order to force the political and economic elites to act in the human interest rather than in the unsustainable and deadly interest in “business as usual.” A rough road lies ahead.