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'Sleepwalking to Extinction': Capitalism and the Destruction of Life and Earth

Richard Smith, Adbusters
Super Typhoon Haiyan has sent a chill through the global nervous system. Thousands dead. Weather scientists in shock. Lives destroyed. The greatest typhoon to touch land in recorded history brings with it more than total destruction. It ups the level of urgency for a new economic paradigm … one that puts the planet first. Radical economist Richard Smith shows us a way out of the “climate madness” about to descend everywhere.

When, on May 10th, scientists at Mauna Loa Observatory on the big island of Hawaii announced that global CO2 emissions had crossed a threshold at 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in millions of years, a sense of dread spread around the world and not only among climate scientists. CO2 emissions have been relentlessly climbing since Charles David Keeling first set up his tracking station near the summit of Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958 to monitor average daily global CO2 levels. At that time, CO2 concentrations registered 315 ppm. CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have been rising ever since and have recently passed a dangerous tipping point: 440ppm.

For all the climate summits, promises of “voluntary restraint,” carbon trading and carbon taxes, the growth of CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have not just been unceasing, they have been accelerating in what scientists have dubbed the “Keeling Curve.” In the early 1960s, CO2 ppm concentrations in the atmosphere grew by 0.7ppm per year. In recent decades, especially as China has industrialized, the growth rate has tripled to 2.1 ppm per year. In just the first 17 weeks of 2013, CO2 levels jumped by 2.74 ppm compared to last year.

Carbon concentrations have not been this high since the Pliocene period, between 3m and 5m years ago, when global average temperatures were 3˚C or 4˚C hotter than today, the Arctic was ice-free, sea levels were about 40m higher and jungles covered northern Canada; Florida, meanwhile, was under water along with other coastal locations we now call New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many others. Crossing this threshold has fuelled fears that we are fast approaching converging “tipping points” — melting of the subarctic tundra or the thawing and releasing of the vast quantities of methane in the Arctic sea bottom — that will accelerate global warming beyond any human capacity to stop it.

...Why are we marching toward disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirement of capitalist production. Large corporations can’t help themselves; they can’t change or change very much. So long as we live under this corporate capitalist system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that the only alternative — impossible as this may seem right now — is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an eco-socialist civilization...

...Although we are fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world we are witnessing a near simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening” — as the Brazilians call it — from Tahir Square to Zucotti Park, from Athens to Istanbul to Beijing and beyond such as the world has never seen. To be sure, like Occupy Wall Street, these movements are still inchoate, are still mainly protesting what’s wrong rather than fighting for an alternative social order. Like Occupy, they have yet to clearly and robustly answer that crucial question: “Don’t like capitalism, what’s your alternative?” Yet they are working on it, and they are for the most part instinctively and radically democratic; in this lies our hope..... (15 November 2013)


The story of how greens became energy enemy number one

George Marshll, Greenpeace
The argument between the British political parties over energy prices appears, on the face of it, to be another tedious media fuelled battle of words shaped by focus groups. Yet it is more interesting than that: it is proof of the power of cognitive frames and shows how easily the real and overwhelming threat of climate change can be sidelined because of its failure to fit a classic narrative.

Let me explain. Our evolution as a social animal has left us highly attuned to threats posed by visible human enemies with a clear intention to do us harm. Intention is important: in experiments children as young as three respond differently to identical harmful acts depending on whether they regard them as intentional or not intentional. Our brains are wired to interpret the world through stories. As the author Phil Pullman puts it "after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world."

Put the two together and you have the powerful basic storyline that dominates mythology, fairytales, the Bible, TV and film – consider that the average American teenager has already seen 16,000 murders on the screen- and, of course, politics. It looks like this. 1. enemy + intention → harms victims 2. hero + intention → defeats enemy and restores status quo

Psychological research has found that this narrative structure is more powerful than any of its constituent parts. If any part is weakened people are people are willing to introduce substitute components even, if necessary, inventing them or using information that they know to be wrong, in order to maintain its integrity.

...Campaigners try their best to build an enemy narrative, bringing in oil companies, organised denial, the Koch brothers, governments, Jeremy Clarkson as their set piece villains. Maybe, as Bill McKibben argues, you cannot have a movement without an enemy. But I would suggest that this is a dangerous game to play. Climate change will never win with enemy narratives. Once unleashed, they take on a life of their own and come back to bite us and we will find ourselves written in to replace our chosen enemies. As climate impacts intensify there will be a lot of confusion, blame and anger looking for a target and enemy narratives provide the frame for scapegoats.

...The best chance for climate change to beat enemy narratives is to refuse to play this partisan game at all. We are all responsible. We are all involved and we all have a stake in the outcome. We are all struggling to resolve our concern and our responsibility for our contributions. Narratives need to be about co-operation common ground-and solutions need to be presented that can speak to the common concerns and aspirations of all people. (6 November 2013)


Collapsing Consciously

Dmitry Orlov, cluborlov
Carolyn Baker's Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times is perhaps the most approachable book on collapse you are likely to find. Compared to Jarred Diamond's Collapse, which weighs in at just over 600 pages, Baker's is well under 200. And yet in these few pages Baker manages to tackle a topic which Diamond studiously avoids: Whatever shall we do about the fact that collapse is happening all around us right now?

The reason Diamond avoids it is obvious: collapse is an unacceptable topic of discussion if it relates to us. It is perfectly fine to talk about past collapses, and perhaps even muse about future collapses, provided they happen to someone else. That's because we are exceptional and will go on forever. Here's a memorable example: I once gave a talk for the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, and during the Q&A afterwards someone asked me about Russia's demographic crisis. Stewart Brand, who was reading off the questions from cards, chimed in to say that it looks like the Russians will be extinct in just a couple of generations (they aren't). So, Stewart, in how many generations are Americans going to be extinct? I need a number; what's the Long Now Foundation's estimate on that? Crickets...

And the reason collapse is an unacceptable topic of discussion if it relates to us, in the present or the foreseeable future, is that the moment you mention it, the topic stops being it, or us; the topic becomes you. What is wrong with you, why are you collapsing, and is it contagious? (Actually, just go away anyway, because you are probably bad luck.) This society operates on a combination of conformism and one-upmanship. Collapse as reality is nonconformist—in a society that worships success it is seen as defeatist and unpatriotic. It is also noncompetitive—because who on earth would want to buy it? “After all, who wants to hear that their very identity—the industrially civilized ego they have built throughout their entire lives, the ego that defines who they are—is, well, dying?” (p. 89) (By the way, this explains why my last book hasn't sold all that well.) In any case, if you keep at it, you come to be seen as a loser. Then you start feeling like an unlucky outcast, and before too long you end up with a psychological problem, and start asking yourself questions such as : “What's wrong with me?” “Have I gone mad?” and “Should I kill myself?”

Which is where Baker comes in: she is a trained psychotherapist, and her book is a self-help book. She takes your subjective reactions of hurt, loss, and bewilderment and gives them the status of objective reality. Yes, insanity is just around the corner from where you are standing, but that's a perfectly normal, justifiable reaction: “Anyone preparing for colapse inevitably, on some occasions, feels mad. How at odds with circumstance we are, and how profoundly crazy-making it feels!” (p. 8) Helpfully, she enumerates the panoply of emotions that normally accompany the dicovery of collapse: “crazy, angry, joyful, depressed, terrified, giddy, relieved, paranoid, stupid, guilty, liberated, grateful, despairing, heartbroken, courageous, compassionate, lonely, loved, hated.” (p. 8) For some, the discovery of collapse may not even be necessary: “...I have never met any resident of industrial civilization who doesn't carry some form of trauma in their bodies." (p. 20) And, I would add, their minds and souls as well. Symptoms may include “...sleepless nights, a weakened immune system, moodiness, anger, depression, despair, and, often suicidal thinking.” (p. 26)

Baker's prescription is to heal thyself: “...to become familiar with internal resources; to practice skills of self-soothing, deep listening and truth telling with friends and family, and regular journaling; and to have an ongoing, daily stillness practice that provides grounding and centering in the midst of chaos.” (p. 15) “Healing our own trauma prepares us for navigating the trauma of a world in collapse and also equips us to assist others who are traumatized by the changes and losses of an unraveling society.” (p. 22) And although much of the job that awaits us is a sort of post-collapse hospice care for the severely disturbed, that is by no means the full extent of it: “...hold in your mind the reality of what is and what is yet to come and, at the same time, hold in your heart the vision of what is possible for a transformed humanity, no matter how few in numbers, that is willing to step over the evolutionary threshold and become a new kind of human being.” (p. 83, my emphasis)

...There are quite a few books on collapse that provide “food for thought.” Baker's does some of that too; but more importantly, she guides the reader in feeling about collapse, progressing from hopelessness and helplessness to hope, self-realization and a sense of belonging. And this, I think, is a singular achievement. (14 November 2013)

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