nature brings forth renewal, using the same materials over and over. she doesn’t know waste. what one life form excretes, is food for others - a multinomial network, a circular economy. even though species die out, there’s by tendency a growth in range. nature doesn’t manage itself statically in circles, but in increasingly complex spirals. in all of these processes, basic materials such as water remain unaltered.
human economy is mostly structured lineally. rapidly increasing amounts of raw materials are unearthed, used short-term and then “disposed of”, often producing a poisonous mix of substances that is of no use to humans nor to other beings, but in fact often sickens and even kills. whole ecosystems are excavated, levelled, poisoned or they simply disappear silently, because natural cycles and networks are perforated too much. water, the single most important raw material of all life, has been permanently and thoroughly contaminated by humans.
fires, floods, droughts, heatwaves, quakes and increasing extinctions are telling us that we need a new way of living on and sharing this planet. telling us that we need to move away from the market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy of planetary health. telling us that we need to evolve. nature speaks - but do we listen?
we are all inclined to denial when the truth is too costly, whether emotionally, intellectually or financially. “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. climate change denial is not just about spreading doubt but also about spreading fear. deniers are doing more than protecting their worldview - they are protecting powerful political and economic interests, that and their basic faith: the right of “mankind” to subdue the earth and all its fruits and to establish a “mastery over nature”. in praxis, climate change denial is mainly about blocking policy. for as soon as deniers admit that climate change is real, they will have to admit that we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, and not leave that task to the market. but so far, we’ve failed to rise to the climate moment, because it challenges our reigning economic model (deregulated capitalism combined with public austerity), western culture’s founding myths (that we stand apart from nature, can outsmart its limits, can dominate it), as well as many activities that form and define us (shopping, living virtually, shopping some more).
it also challenges the richest and most powerful industry in the world, the oil and gas industry, which cannot survive in its current form if humans want to avoid their extinction and with it, the demise of planet earth. this industry used to hire think-tanks to issue studies that prove climate change is false. it still sends its aggressive lobbyists to political summits and elections. climate change shatters the ideological construct of a belief system that subdues nature, vilifies collective action, refuses corporate regulations - and lies to your face.
in many pagan societies, the earth was seen as a mother, a giver of life. nature - the soil, forest, sea - was divine, and mortals were subordinate to it. the judeo-christian tradition introduced a very different concept: the earth was created by a god who, after shaping it, ordered its “chosen” ones, in the words of genesis, to: “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”. this tradition was implemented by wiping out disbelievers and contrasting cultures, and with that, precious knowledges and understandings of planet earth. subsequently, the idea of dominion has become an excuse to use nature as a convenience.
to walk away from god or gods (or whatever we call these imaginary friends) however should not mean to put our faith into materials, the market, science or technology instead. it shouldn’t mean to lose touch with the ground and it doesn’t suggest desensitisation. ignoring the wild intelligence of our bodies, we’ve been taking our primary truths from technologies that hold the living world at a distance (i.e. via screens). is contemporary humanity the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water, too accustomed to the gradual increases in heat to jump to safety?
one core problem is the high-consumption lifestyle that dominates in the west and the large-scale industrialisation that goes with it. another core problem is: all of us are living in the world that neoliberalism built, even if we are critics of neoliberalism. there is no “us” or “they”, there is just “we”.
the extent of our collective climate failure is unintentionally destabilising the political and social order. of course, some suggest that changing the earth’s climate is going to be easier than changing the growth-based, profit-seeking logic of capitalism. but the changes needed must change the core expansionist logic at the heart of the economic system. if we don’t think about how the economy is structured, we’ll never get to the real root of the problem.
however, to stand up against so-called free trade doesn’t mean to want an end to economic exchange across borders, not at all. but it does mean a much more thoughtful and conscious approach to why we trade and whom it serves. encouraging the excessive consumption of cheap and disposable products can no longer be part of it. goods must be made to last, energy-intensive production and transport must be reduced, workers need to be treated fairly and equally, et cetera. most of all, energy-supply and environmental issues should not be left in the hands of private for- profit interests. capitalism requires growth, but in a finite world there can be no infinite growth.
for centuries we’ve believed that we can dig oil out of the earth, burn it in huge quantities, and that the particles and gases released into the atmosphere (because we can’t see them) will have no effect whatsoever. the very thing we must do to avert catastrophe - stop digging and drilling - is the very thing that fossil fuel companies cannot think of without initiating their own demise; getting serious about climate change, which starts with cutting emissions radically, is simply not compatible with the continued existence of one of the most profitable industries in the world.
our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are unleashing. fossil fuel companies are rich because they have dumped their mess around the world, usually at no extra cost - for them. this is one of the situations - and it’s not just about these companies, it’s the whole construct - that needs to change fundamentally: polluters must pay.
at a certain point, virtually all roads led to china, a country where wages were incredibly low, trade unions were suppressed, environmental and animal rights were near to non-existent, and the state was willing to spend lots of money on gigantic infrastructure projects (ports, roads, power- plants) to ensure that factories produced day and night, that goods made it to their destinations quickly… in other words, a free trader’s dream - and a climate nightmare. a nightmare because there is a close link between low wages and high emissions. pollution and labour exploitation go hand in hand, since the earliest days of the industrial revolution. no need to point fingers though: a lot of china’s production went into making throwaway stuff for the west.
ours is a culture of disavowal, of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. the illusion of nearness coupled with the reality of distance is a trick perfected by the global market. we both know and don’t know who makes our goods or where our waste disappears to - whether it’s sewage or electronics or carbon emissions.
there is no middle of nowhere, no nowhere that doesn’t count - nothing ever truly disappears (ever heard of the great pacific trash vortex?). on some level, we know this, that we are part of a web of connections. yet we are trapped in linear narratives that tell us the opposite: that we can expand infinitely, that there will always be more space for our waste, more resources to fuel our wants, more people to use.
it is this mentality that allowed many of us, and our ancestors, to relate to the earth with such violence - to dig and drill for substances we desire while thinking little of the trash left behind. this carelessness is at the core of an economic model some call extractivism, a term nowadays used to describe economies based on removing ever more raw materials from the earth. and it’s this way of thought that explains a lot why an economic model based on endless growth ever seemed viable in the first place. governments all across the ideological spectrum now embrace this resource-depleting model as a road to development.
extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. it is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking (as much as is needed for living) but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue, that there’s a balance. extractivism is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own - e.g. turning ecosystems into “natural resources”. it is also the reduction of human beings either into labour to be exploited, or into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons; the interconnections among these various objectified components are ignored.
extractivism is also connected to the idea of sacrifice zones - areas that somehow count less or not at all, and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress. this virulent idea is closely tied to imperialism, with disposable peripheries used to feed glittering centres. it is also bound up with notions of racial superiority, because for sacrifice zones, you need people, cultures and environments that count less, so that they can be sacrificed.
patriarchy’s dual war against women’s bodies and against the body of the earth are connected to a fundamental, harmful separation between mind and body - and between body and earth - from which both the scientific revolution and the industrial revolution sprang.
the hopes that many greens place in a technological solution to the climate problem, are an expression of a high-modernist faith in the unlimited power of science and technology - which is as profound and as rational as faith in christ. it sure is reassuring to know that there’s technological inventions waiting to save us all. with religious zest we repeat the mantra of money and wealth. a whole industry with a wide array of feel-good products helps to further distract us.
one overused cultural narrative, indoctrinated by organised religion and implemented in most hollywood action movies, tells us that humans are ultimately in control of the earth, and that, no matter how bad things get, we are going to be saved - whether by some god, by the market, by philanthropic billionaires, or by technology.
there’s a political strategy that basically says, it’s hard and expensive to convince politicians to regulate and discipline the most powerful corporations in the world, that it’s wiser and more effective to begin with something easier, like asking consumers to buy a less toxic (and more expensive) laundry detergent, making cars more fuel-efficient or switching to a supposedly cleaner fossil fuel. with emissions up by 57% since the UN climate convention was signed in 1992, the failure of this polite strategy is beyond debate. and yet, our soaring emissions are never blamed on anything as concrete as the fossil fuel corporations that work furiously to block all serious attempts to regulate emissions, and certainly not on the economic model that demands that these companies put profit before the health of the natural systems upon which all life depends. rather, the villains are always vague and unthreatening - a lack of “political will”, a deficit of “ambition” - while fossil fuel executives are welcomed at UN climate summits as key “partners” in the quest for “climate solutions”.
governments of the global north are allowing, passively, temperatures to increase to levels that are a danger to millions of people, mostly in the poorest parts of the world, rather than introducing policies that interfere with short-term profits. african delegates at UN climate summits have begun using words like “genocide” to describe the collective failure to lower emissions. for the fossil fuel companies and their paid engineers, anything is preferable to regulating gazprom, bp, shell, schlumberger, peabody or glencore, including attempts to regulate the sun (yep, “geoengineering” or “climate engineering” are eyeing such options).
“we are, after all, the super-species, the chosen ones, the god-species. we will triumph in the end because triumphing is what we do”.
so what can we do? consume less! but encouraging people to consume less is more difficult than encouraging people to consume green. consuming green usually means substituting one power source for another, or one model of consumer goods for a slightly more efficient one. the reason we have faith in green tech is because these changes are safely within market logic - in fact, they encourage us to buy more and new products, green cars, energy- efficient televisions and vegan steaks.
the power of capitalism to assimilate any subcultural current, turning a good idea into just another sales argument and product, should not be underestimated.
consuming less means knowing about and changing how much energy we actually use: how often we drive or fly, how far our food and goods travel to reach us, how much energy is used to fabricate our goods, where (and under what conditions) our garments are made, what foods and goods require more energy than others, how the land is treated that grows our food, how the people are treated who work the land, whether goods we buy are built to last, choosing our power sources, et cetera. water is energy too.
it also means: how much food we waste, how much energy we waste, through comfort or habit, how often we replace still functional appliances for updated models, et cetera. in switzerland, a third of the food bought and produced is thrown away - wasted. 40% of the energy produced in switzerland is wasted too. norway and switzerland have the highest per capita amount of electronic waste in the world. aren’t those “progressive” countries?
responding to the climate crisis can offer benefits to a lot of people, but real solutions will also require short- and medium-term sacrifices. success depends on a perception of fairness. we should not take our high-energy-lifestyles for granted. this is not just about the environment - it’s about global social equality as well.
there is no shortage of concepts as to what an ecological circular economy could look like. some keywords are: renewable energies, recycling, long-lasting goods, alternatives to plastic, (free) public transport, less meat consumption, organic agriculture and regional, seasonal products. one would have to reduce consumption, but this self-restriction could in fact be liberating. these are all legitimate responses, individual lifestyle choices are a good start and there’s a lot one can do.
but it’ll take more. a societal debate is necessary. and there is another moral challenge, which is supplying affordable energy to billions of people which do not have an acceptable lifestyle. part of this debate suggests that there is a simple solution - using less, consuming less, divestment - but the reality is that, in poorer countries, there is an inexorable and justified drive for people to raise their living standards, which will happen by using hydrocarbons, because that is the affordable energy available. so something else must happen too: meaningful policy not only needs to be addressed and worked out - it needs to be put into action.
we should be clear about the nature of the challenge: it is not that we lack options. it is that the corporate class doesn’t want to pay its fair share. in many western countries, when it comes to constructing the security/surveillance state at home and waging war abroad, budgets never seem to be an issue. our problem has less to do with the mechanics of solar power than the politics of human power - specifically whether there can be a shift in who has it. a shift away from corporations and toward communities.
changing the building blocks of our societies - the energy that powers our economies, how we consume etc. - requires long-term planning at every level of government, and a willingness to stand up to polluters whose actions endanger us all. but it starts with an individual willingness to participate. we are easily overwhelmed by the sheer extensiveness and interconnectedness of these issues. the mass of information can lead to desensitisation, or one simply avoids the topic because, after all it isn’t “happy news”. but that should not make us powerless or unable. the issue is not, can i make all the difference that is needed, it is, what difference can i make? because there is always a difference i can make.
we know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, atmospheric space) while insisting that there are fixed limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society we need.
many of the people waging anti-extraction battles are relatively poor. but they are determined to defend a richness that our economy has not yet figured out how to count. Ecuador for example, the first country in the world to grant rights to nature, and a relatively poor country, offered the world a bold and profound conservation proposal: the “yasuni-itt initiative”. this initiative would have allowed for global collective action, not only by leaving oil in the ground - in the amazon, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, in return for just half of the oil’s expected revenues - but by adopting a new economic model. the global north has so far failed to respond adequately.
at a recent climate summit, world governments have agreed, in principle, to action against global warming. but there is no plan and the time line presented is too slow, while warming continues… just promises, no actions. as long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to burn. this climate deal might be progress on a political level, but it is not in regards to a just and livable planet. is it no more than paying lip service?
of course the richest and most powerful businesses in the world will exploit the law to try to stamp out real and perceived threats and to continue to dig, drill and exploit wherever they wish. and many of our governments are handing out even more lethal, legal weapons in the form of new and expanded trade deals, which companies, in turn, use against governments’ own domestic laws. that governments aren’t fighting back against corporate challenges has less to do with individual trade agreements than with the profoundly corrupted state of our political systems.
in the US alone, about a billion dollars a year is donated by fossil fuel companies, to persuade policy makers to act in their interests. add to that, that the majority of the world’s fossil fuel is held by states. in Switzerland, pharma giant novartis recently made its annual donations to political parties tax-deductible… it is this underlying political crisis that has allowed multinationals and the fossil fuel business to be the authors of the laws under which they operate. the corroded state of our political systems is as fossilised as the fuel at the centre of our lifestyles.
the new trade deals centre around the same, stale logic, namely that constant growth will produce stability and so will opening the markets more and allowing broader investment methods (which means less and less regulation). on the way, tax incentives are dished out, bank responsibilities are bypassed with securitizations of debt, the importance of sme’s is exaggerated and a rhetoric is constructed around the same old keywords: job security, stability, more jobs, investment and growth. the ongoing deregulations and the planned capital markets union are ticking financial time bombs - the next economic crisis is guaranteed.
fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains and terminals and more oil rigs are being proposed in many parts of the world where a large part of the population has made its opposition unmistakable… our democratic system is broken. the lack of action stemming from the climate negotiations highlights the extent to which we live in a post-democratic society. the interests of financial capital and the oil industry are more important than the democratic will of people. profit is more important than life.
the widening gap between the rich and the poor is another indicator of some of the more pressing problems at hand. but the populists have an easy game, kindly aided by popular media, who present things out of context and simplify - select cases of handfuls of refugees acting out of order are hounding the working class of europe’s wealthier nations onto others in need, creating an atmosphere of fear and a move to the political right. (doesn’t every national, religious or ethnical group has its share of criminals and assholes?). this diverts attention from the root of these problems - the results of market dynamics and “political” interventionism, the damage this has done and is doing, its unwillingness to change and the very few that are getting richer by all of this (making a majority of others a lot poorer). instead, we discuss the upper limits of how many refugees we can take in - obviously not interested in changing the sources of this problem.
for those who speak out with louder voices, corporate and governmental responses are often shockingly militarised: armies of riot police with shields and batons. protecting who, or what, exactly? our economic model is at war with life on earth. to make things worse, one feels that the modern state wouldn’t mind having companies play an even greater role, allowing it to concentrate on the one task it likes most: fighting terror.
the most damaging form of terror however is born from the world’s most powerful governments. some of them act as the world police, defining “right” and “wrong” with unequaled righteousness. the heads of these governments are but extended arms of the vested interests of corporate powers, of the private sector and of oligarchical structures. profit- and control-driven interventionism creates the reasons for terror and the need to flee. the I.S. would probably not exist if the US hadn’t invaded Iraq. and why exactly did the US invade Iraq? it’s this type of imperialist behaviour that is responsible for the many repercussions that the “west” is experiencing more and more. what the I.S. is doing is what christian imperialists have been doing for centuries and neoliberalists for decades. sadly, the I.S. strategy is working out - the fronts are hardening - isn’t it obvious where this is going? and isn’t that also where the right wing is heading? to what avail? we’re letting fundamentalists run us over. but no, we’re not gonna share our wealth, we won’t try to make up for the cultural genocide or ecological havoc we’ve wreaked, and we’re not gonna let the people in that we’ve exploited and broken for centuries. the unleashed dynamics of capitalism and imperialism have destroyed habitats and cultural areas, and the refugee situation is just one of the prices to be paid for this. and those who had the least (or nothing) in creating this are paying the highest prices, as usual.
it’s the same kind of mindset with which we have been treating our planet and non-human life. rethinking of how we deal with the climate is very closely linked to all of this and is as urgent as ever.
as a direct result of centuries of serial thefts - of land, labour, of resources and atmospheric space - developing countries today are suffering most under the impacts of global warming, made worse by poverty. those who bear the heaviest burden, in relation to climate change, are those least well equipped for it. their lives and livelihood are undermined, largely because of decisions taken elsewhere and lifestyles adopted elsewhere. they cannot break this deadlock without help, and that help can only come from those that grew wealthy, in large part, as a result of those misappropriations. climate debt is not extortion but climate change, and when fully confronted, raises delicate questions about what we in the wealthy world owe to the countries on the front lines of a crisis they had little hand in creating.
instead, we have a global energy model that values fossil fuels over water. water, the single, most precious good on our planet, where all life begins and without which no life exists, is being poisoned and polluted, by humans. homo sapiens, quo vadis?
what is democracy if it doesn’t encompass the capacity to decide, collectively, to protect something that no one can live without? a failure. maybe democracy never existed. it might be a decent idea, like communism, but the world has yet to experience these ideas put into action properly.
our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea. a broken bank is a crisis we can fix; a broken arctic we cannot. the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves. step one for getting out of a hole: stop digging. we know enough to know how much we will never know. the earth is not merely “resource” but “source”. surviving is not the same as thriving, not the same as living well.
some of us don’t want to share the apocalyptic visions that the short-term thinking of some and the fatalism of others seem to conjure - it is as futile as it is incompetent. we don’t need another world war, just so that we can rebuild our world, just because otherwise our lives would be meaningless. besides, war is business as usual.
we take our peace for granted, because we fail to understand what sustains it.
there is an interesting dynamic - let’s call it “resistance” - people, groups, movements, who wish to move on and leave the capitalist culture behind. past social movements have had an influence on how the dominant culture evolved. the abolition of new world slavery, for example, depended largely on a transformation in moral perception - with writers, speakers and reformers who were willing to condemn an institution that had been sanctioned for thousands of years, and who also strove to make human society something more than an endless contest of greed and power. speaking out, living one’s beliefs, expanding public spaces and nurturing local involvement is not just some liberal project - it’s a survival strategy.
we know where the current system, if left unchecked, is headed. we also know how that system will deal with climate-related disasters: with profiteering and escalating barbarism to separate the losers from the winners. to arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep going down the road we are on… and we can’t dissociate the ecological crisis from the social crisis, because they are completely intermingled.
people tend to dismiss any plan that will not work with 100% certainty or without contradictions. but there is no certain plan and none without contradictions. as little as any fossil fuel company can guarantee 100% safe extraction.
rising to the climate challenge will be fruitless if it isn’t understood as part of a broader struggle of world-views, a process of rebuilding the idea of the collective, of the communal, for all societies and beings to live in dignity, and of reinventing the human as part of a living planet, and not its dominator. what is overwhelming about the climate challenge is that it requires changing so many rules at once. the scale of the problem can be intimidating. but that shouldn’t paralyse us. each of us has the ability, opportunity and power to decide and act in ways that can minimise our negative impacts on the planet’s climate. there is always something practical, as small scale as it may be, that each of us can do, which will make a measurable difference. it may mean disciplining one’s desires, educating one’s responses and instincts, in a way which allows us to be “intelligent” in the world, not constantly stuffing everything around us into the voids in us that we want filled, but using prudence, discernment, imagination, intuition and intelligence, to calibrate how we belong in the world.
we must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “being-oriented” society. to shape a new consciousness, one in which cooperation triumphs over domination, and humility before nature’s complexity challenges technological hubris. to move on and leave the religious, materialist and supremacist phases behind us.
most dimensions are yet to be explored. the real human potential has yet to be revealed. the process of liberation has only just begun.