Robert J. Burrowes
As expectations build for a global consensus to emerge from the United Nations climate conference in Paris, starting on 30 November 2015, that could agree to taking action to limit any rise in global temperature to 2 degrees celsius, I would like to explain why these expectations are misplaced. And what we can do about it.
The essence of the problem is that most people and organisations are asking elites to take action on their behalf rather than taking action themselves. Not only is this a fearful and powerless approach, it reinforces the widespread delusions that elites have the power in this regard and that they are responsive to our pleas. Neither of these is true. We have the power and elites only respond when we create the circumstances that compel them to do so. And not otherwise. Hence, it is the action that we take, as individuals, communities and organisations, that generate the outcomes we want.
As a nonviolent activist, I have never asked elites (or their governments and corporations) to change their behaviour. Instead, I have invited them to respond powerfully to circumstances that I create that compel change. If I invite others to participate in the action I am taking and enough do so, elites have no choice but to act as I prefer. Let me give some examples to explain this.
If I want corporations to stop producing genetically modified (GM) food, the most powerful action I can take is to never buy it. If I only buy certified organic/biodynamic food and enough other people do so, then the market in GM food (and poisoned foods generally) will simply vanish. So if you don’t want GM food, don’t lobby elites for food labeling, just buy the certified organic/biodynamic food already available or, better still to enhance your self-reliance, grow organic food in your own backyard or in a community food plot. Then invite and/or campaign for others to join you.
The same principle applies to the climate. The science is overwhelmingly clear that it is our over-consumption of fossil fuels and meat that are the primary drivers of the climate catastrophe. So the most effective action we can take to tackle the climate crisis is to change our lifestyle to consume less (and preferably no) fossil fuels and less (and preferably no) meat. And to then invite others to consider doing so too. If there is less demand for fossil fuels and meat, you can rest assured that corporations will not be anxious to supply them because it is not profitable to supply a product for which there is no buyer.
This principle applies to all areas of our consumption where we need to make an impact if wider environmental problems are to be addressed. We need to reduce our water consumption, use less paper, wood and plastic, consume fewer metals and use less electricity.
So we can spend our time lobbying elites to legislate to force others to change their behaviour or we can systematically reduce our own consumption in these areas and invite/inspire those around us to do the same. If you would like to participate in one comprehensive program for doing this, you are welcome to join those participating in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth’ which offers an easy series of steps for reducing your consumption in seven key resource areas by 10% per year for 15 successive years while simultaneously building your self-reliance.
In essence, if you lobby elites to control our consumption for us by making changes in what (or how) they produce, you are asking them to violate the economic law of supply and demand. If you change/reduce what you want, any sensible company will alter their production to match it (or eventually go out of business).
If you want your electricity from a renewable energy source, organize to produce it yourself at home or in your neighborhood, or buy it from a responsible supplier. If you want less burning of fossil fuels, reduce your own consumption, for example, by using your own car progressively less and, as you adapt (by staying nearer home or finding other ways to travel), eventually not at all.
Corporations produce what sells and is profitable. If you shift your consumption to healthy food, renewable energy and sustainably produced goods, while steadily reducing your consumption and increasing your self-reliance, you will create the world you want both through your own actions and your inspiration of (some) others.
If this sounds unrealistic, the strategy I have described above is Gandhi’s. Gandhi never asked anyone to do anything he wasn’t already doing himself. And by a century ago, his personal consumption was pitifully modest, even by Indian standards of his day, and he was highly self-reliant, exemplified by his daily spinning of khadi to make his own clothing. If he could dramatically reduce his personal consumption and develop his self-reliance 100 years ago, how much can you do today?
But let’s get back to Paris. Why will the climate talks fail? There are two primary reasons. On the whole, the corporations that have the most adverse impact on the climate (and environment generally) are not yet feeling anywhere near enough ‘consumer pressure’ to change their behavior adequately so, irrespective of the rhetoric some of these corporations will utter in various international fora (and despite any claims of corporate progress that are being made), they will resist any change that does not reflect reality in the markets in which they operate.
Moreover, the proposed corporate ‘trade agreements’ (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement) are designed to fundamentally subvert governments — see ‘Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement: A Corporate Power Grab’ — and, if adopted, they will render governments largely powerless on environmental issues (among other awful outcomes). See ‘Text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership’. But this is precisely why we have a lot of power too. It takes time and effort — and we are always battling against their corporate media trying to manipulate us into buying what they want to supply — but, in fact, we can influence most markets enormously (by altering and reducing what we buy).
The other reason that the climate talks in Paris will fail is because the goal being considered is delusional. Anyone who is seriously interested in tackling the ongoing climate catastrophe knows that tolerating a 2 degree increase (which, tragically, may well be ‘locked in’ already) is far too high. The maximum increase in temperature that is consistent with the environmental conditions of the Holocene period, on which human civilization is based, is less than .5 of one degree.
We are currently at a mere .85 above pre-industrial levels and we are already experiencing climate chaos as our record temperatures, storms, floods, wildfires and droughts, monster hurricanes, vanishing Arctic, Antarctic and glaciers, and disappearing Pacific islands remind us. What do you think we can expect if we go to 2 degrees? And, inevitably, precipitate ‘runaway climate change’; that is, activate a variety of positive feedback loops that reinforce and accelerate ongoing environmental breakdown. Which leads to a related point.
Another trap with the focus on 2 degrees is that it draws our attention away from the synergistic impact of our combined assaults on the environment including those unrelated to the climate. These include the devastating assaults on the environment through military violence (often leaving vast areas uninhabitable), rainforest destruction, industrial farming, mining, commercial fishing and the spreading radioactive contamination from Fukushima. We are also systematically destroying the limited supply of fresh water on the planet which means that water scarcity is becoming a frequent reality for many people and the collapse of hydrological systems is now expected by 2020. Human activity drives 200 species of life (birds, animals, fish, insects) to extinction each day and 80% of the world’s forests and over 90% of the large fish in the ocean are already gone.
Despite this readily available information, governments continue to prioritise spending $US2,000,000,000 each day on military violence, the sole purpose of which is to terrorise and kill fellow human beings, while struggling to find the modest resources necessary for any number of valuable initiatives, including those related to environmental sustainability.
In any case, we have just become obsessed with talking about ‘2 degrees’ because it was the target nominated in early studies published in the 1970s, became anchored in policy debates over the decades, and ‘was officially sanctioned as the long-term global goal for greenhouse gas emission reductions at the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009’. See ‘Two degree Celsius climate change target “utterly inadequate”, expert argues’. In fact, 2 degrees is far too high and if you are reading the scientific literature, many scientists are telling us that. For example, in 2009 Johan RockstrÃ¶m, James Hansen and colleagues explained that three of nine interlinked planetary boundaries — in relation to climate, biodiversity loss and biogeochemical cycles — have already been overstepped. See ‘A safe operating space for humanity’.
However, reminding people that 2 degrees is far too high doesn’t make good ‘business as usual’ reading so it isn’t part of the primary discourse leading up to Paris. And on this count, regrettably, we are being badly served by many who regard themselves as ‘activists’ too.
This includes those people organizing and participating in those many events for activists being held in Paris in parallel with the UN talks. I am well aware that it is exciting to travel to an exotic location to share stories and participate in events with others who share your view and to discuss plans for tackling the climate catastrophe. However, unless you are travelling to Paris by walking or cycling (as some will be doing), you are simply contributing to the climate catastrophe, particularly if you travel by aircraft or car. There are other ways to organize which set a far more appropriate example to those we are trying to influence.
So, in essence, those who are scared and powerless will either do nothing or they will waste their time lobbying elites, and their governments and corporations, to change (without applying the market pressure that compels corporations to respond ‘automatically’). And climate marches (and other events) that focus on lobbying elites, rather than mobilizing ‘ordinary’ people to change their own behavior, are badly misconceived because they do not understand nonviolent action and how to use it to leverage power effectively.
On the other hand, if you are fearless and powerful enough to respond to reality, do some research of your own and then take personal action and invite your family, friends, neighbors and community to join you. If you want a simple framework for powerful action to tackle all environmental problems, ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth’ will give you one.
In addition, if you want to take nonviolent action, don’t waste your time on those wrongly-focused climate marches (unless you are using them to raise awareness of effective campaigns). Instead, plan and participate in locally-organized, strategically-focused nonviolent campaigns that mobilize ‘ordinary’ people to act differently on a permanent basis and which alter the behavior of corporations, including those (such as the weapons manufacturers) which function outside markets we can influence by using our purchasing power. For some idea of what this requires, see ‘The Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions’. If we alter and systematically reduce our consumption and focus our nonviolent action campaigns accurately, elites will be compelled to move in the right direction. They will not do so otherwise.
One final point. Another ‘denial tactic’ that has been used effectively to distract many people from the urgency of the environmental crisis in which we now find ourselves is to talk about ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ and to dismiss talk about human extinction as premature because we have until mid-century or even the end of the century. However, once again, if you read the scientific literature carefully, some highly reputable climate scientists are warning us of the rapidly narrowing timeframe, with ‘near term human extinction’ now possible by 2030. See ‘Why is Near Term Human Extinction Inevitable?’
So be aware of the ways in which your own fear lets you be deceived about unpalatable realities.
And remember the lesson from Gandhi: If you are not willing to reduce your own consumption of environmental resources, why should anyone else?
In essence: forget Paris and get on with saving the planet yourself. You have vast power if you choose to apply it locally and strategically.
Biodata: Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is here.