Climate Change: The Bigger Picture
I’ve noticed some parallels among three defining institutions of our civilisation: money, war, and mainstream religion. All three demand, in one way or another, the sacrifice of the immediate, the human, or the personal in service to an overarching ulterior goal that trumps all. Disciplined by economic exigency, millions of people sacrifice time, energy, family, and what they really care about in pursuit of money. Disciplined by an existential threat, a nation at war turns away from culture, leisure, civil liberties, and everything of no utility to the war effort. Disciplined by the promise of heavenly rewards or hellish punishments, the believer distances themself from unimportant worldly things.
Anyone who is wary of these institutions might also be wary of the standard climate change narrative, which lends itself to the same mentality of sacrifice to an all-important end. If we agree that the survival of humanity is at stake, then any means is justified, and any other cause – say reforming the prisons, housing the homeless, caring for the autistic, rescuing abused animals, or visiting your grandmother – becomes an unjustifiable distraction from the only important thing. Taken to its extreme, it requires that we harden our hearts to the needs in front of our faces. There is no time to waste! Everything is at stake! It’s do or die! How similar to the logic of money and the logic of war.
That climate-change alarm sits so comfortably within our culture’s familiar way of thinking, should give us pause. It doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t dangerous or that humans aren’t causing it, but it does suggest that our approach to the problem could be strengthening the psychic and ideological substructure of the system that is devouring the planet. This is especially relevant given the near-universal agreement among activists that efforts to limit carbon emissions have failed miserably.
This failure comes not because the movement is too radical and needs to ‘work more closely with business’ or embrace the oxymoron of ‘sustainable growth’. It is rather that it is not radical enough – not yet willing to challenge key invisible narratives that drive our civilisation. On the contrary, the movement itself embodies them.
One thing that war, money, and religion all offer is the simplification of complex problems. In the case of war, there is an identifiable enemy – the source of all evil – and the solution is simple: to overcome that enemy by any means necessary. In the case of money, it invites the subsumption of a multitude of values into a single standard of value; money becomes the universal means to all good things, and therefore the pursuit of it becomes a universal end in itself – if only we had enough money, all our problems would be solved. In religion too, one thing becomes the key to everything.
Following this template, greenhouse gases are the enemy, and the solution, the way to “fight climate change” or “combat global warming” (common phrases both), is to reduce emissions (or increase sequestration). Or to use the money metaphor, CO2 emissions become the standard of value, a number to minimise, a metric upon which to base policy. This approach also sits comfortably in our culture: it is the epitome of rationality to make decisions by the numbers. To decide something scientifically, you gather data, make projections, and evaluate the likely results according to some metric value. Doing that creates three problems: (1) the unmeasurable and the qualitative is necessarily devalued; (2) the metric applied encodes and perpetuates existing biases and power relationships, which themselves implicate ecocide, and (3) it fosters an illusion of predictability and control that obscures the likelihood of perverse unintended consequences.
To see the problem, consider the Tehri Dam project on India’s Bhilangana River, which submerged pristine ecosystems, ancient farms and displaced a hundred thousand villagers. It was touted for its contribution to greenhouse-gas reduction and has been one of many dams to generate carbon trading credits. On a superficial level at least, it attained its measurable objective. But what about the displaced villagers? In the particulars that are measured, their lives improved: each was rehabilitated in housing superior to their ancestral homes in terms of square metres, plumbing, and electrification. However, in terms of the lost traditions, severed social ties, lost memories, lost knowledge, and the uniqueness of each submerged place – in short, in terms of all that could not be measured (problem 1) and all that was considered not worth measuring (problem 2) – human beings and Nature suffered a grievous loss.
As for problem 3, in the long run it is doubtful whether the dam even reduced CO2 levels: consider that traditional agricultural practices can sequester carbon in the ground, and that the newly urbanised villagers probably soon adopted more carbon-intensive consumer lifestyles. Further, the hydroelectric dam contributes to a trend of industrialisation. Each power plant adds to an infrastructure that is always hungry for more. It doesn’t come in place of coal-fired plants; it comes in addition to them.
Similar perverse results have plagued biofuels and other CO2 reduction strategies. It is tempting to conclude that we are simply using the wrong approach to fight carbon emissions: perhaps instead of financial incentives we should rely on regulation. But their failure might exemplify something more general. The problem is not that we have chosen the wrong method to minimise a number; it is in trying to minimise a number to begin with.
Please, my argument here is NOT “Various greenhouse-gas curtailment schemes have failed, so we shouldn’t even try.” I am, rather, proposing that these failures have something in common – they emphasise the global over the local, the distant over the immediate, the measurable over the qualitative – and that this very oversight is part of the same mentality that is at the root of the crisis to begin with. It is the mentality that sacrifices what is precious, sacred, and immediate for a distant end; it is the mentality of instrumentalism that values other beings and the Earth itself in terms of their utility for us; it is the hubris of believing we can predict and control the consequences of our actions; it is the trust in mathematical modelling that allows us to make decisions according to the numbers; it is the belief that we can identify a ‘cause’ – a cause that is something and not everything – and that we can understand reality by dissecting it and isolating variables. Usually, of course, making decisions ‘by the numbers’ means making them according to financial considerations. Is it really a very deep change to take the same methods and mentality and apply it instead to some other number?
We are in familiar territory in addressing problems by attacking their isolable, direct causes. That again is the mentality of war – end crime by deterring the perpetrators, end evil by dominating the evil-doers. End drug abuse by banning drugs. Stop terrorism by killing the terrorists. But the world is more complicated than that. As the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on weeds, the war on terrorism, and the war on germs show us, causation is usually not linear. Crime, drugs, weeds, terrorism, and germs might be symptoms of a deeper, systemic disharmony. Poor soil invites weeds. A run-down body offers a salubrious environment for germs. Poverty breeds crime. Imperialism breeds violent resistance. Alienation, hopelessness, loss of meaning, and disintegration of community foster drug addiction.
Climate change is like these.
Earth is a complex living system whose homeostatic maintenance depends on the robust interaction of every living and non-living subsystem. I suspect that the biggest threat is not greenhouse gases, but the loss of forests, wetlands, and marine ecosystems. Life maintains life. When these homeostatic relationships break down, the results are unpredictable: global warming, perhaps, or global cooling, or the increasingly unstable gyrations of a system spinning out of control. This is the threat we face, and because it is multifactorial and nonlinear, it cannot be addressed by linear strategies for reducing CO2 emissions. Yes, we should reduce direct CO2 emissions – the loss of homeostatic equilibrium is worsened by increasing the energy throughput in a dissipative system – but primary emphasis must go to the health of human and natural systems on every level, down to the local and the personal.
As with terrorism, drugs, or germs, if we crack down on the proximate cause without addressing the underlying condition, the symptoms will return in a new and more virulent form. Similarly, when we make decisions by the numbers, then that which is not measured, the excluded other, will come back to haunt us.
What would happen if we revalued the local, the immediate, the qualitative, the living, and the beautiful? We would still oppose most of what climate change activists oppose, but for different reasons: tar sands oil extraction because it kills the forests and mars the landscape; mountaintop removal because it obliterates sacred mountains; fracking because it insults and degrades the water; offshore oil drilling because oil spills poison wildlife; road building because it carves up the land, creates roadkill, contributes to suburbanisation and habitat destruction, and accelerates the loss of community. On the other hand, many of the technologies I find beautiful might also be justified on climate change grounds: agricultural practices that regenerate the soil; restoration of forests and wetlands; smaller homes in higher density communities; economies of reuse, upcycling, and gift; bicycle culture; home gardening. As such, I am wont to tolerate climate change arguments as a useful ally, a legitimiser of things that I wish people would embrace on their own merits. However, as the Tehri Dam example illustrates, it is a double-edged sword. There are many reasons to be wary of it:
(1) By resorting to climate change arguments to oppose fracking, mountaintop removal, and tar sands excavation, we put ourselves in a vulnerable position should global warming come into doubt. This could happen due to a change in scientific opinion, or the hijacking of science by vested interests. More likely, we might face not monotonic warming but increasingly unstable gyrations that are impossible to attribute it convincingly to a single cause.
(2) If advocates of fracking or nuclear power can argue plausibly that their technology will reduce greenhouse emissions, then by our own logic we must support those too. This is already happening: witness the “Think about it” campaign touting the climate change benefits of natural gas. I don’t believe that the arguments of the gas industry can withstand careful scrutiny; nonetheless, they seem plausible enough to bestow a pro-environmental gloss onto natural gas. “It’s cheaper. It’s more patriotic. It is even better for the climate than existing energy sources.” Notice the natural alignment of these instrumental arguments, one based on money, one on competition among nations, and one on carbon emissions.
(3) By focusing on CO2, we encourage potentially disastrous geoengineering schemes like dumping iron oxide into the oceans or sulphuric acid into the atmosphere. We imply that a technological tweak to CO2 levels will solve the problem without a fundamental change in our relationship to the planet, and promote the idea that we can endlessly engineer our way out of the consequences of our actions. It is in the same vein as using force to stop ‘terrorists’, and then protecting ourselves against the resulting hostility with even more force. Here again then, is a parallel with the mentality of war.
(4) The common argument that climate change is bad because it threatens our future strengthens the mentality of instrumental utilitarianism: Nature is valuable for its usefulness to us. Doesn’t the planet and all its beings have a value in their own right? Or is the world, in the end, just a pile of instrumental stuff? Sure, it is in our self-interest to limit CO2, but it is also usually in one country’s, company’s or individual’s self-interest to limit it less than its competitors. By appealing to self-interest and fear we strengthen the habits of self-interest and fear, which, let’s face it, usually conspire to destroy the planet not save it. We will never increase the amount of care in the world by appealing to self-interest. We have to appeal to care, to respect, and to love.
(5) Invoking climate apocalypse devalues work that has little foreseeable relevance to climate change. Causes like reforming the criminal punishment system (I cannot bring myself to use the word ‘justice’), housing the homeless, ending human trafficking, ending coercive schooling, and legitimising holistic medicine have at best a tenuous, indirect relationship to atmospheric health. Indeed, a cynic, channelling Ebeneezer Scrooge, might argue that rehabilitating homeless people worsens climate change by transforming them into consuming members of society. Perhaps we should put all these causes on hold – after all, what will they matter if the planet becomes unlivable – until we’ve solved the climate change problem? Here again we see the mentality of money and war. Don’t live life now but wait until you’ve achieved financial security. Sacrifice everything to the war effort.
This mentality is mistaken. The issues listed above have everything to do with climate, because the cause of climate instability is everything: every dimension of our separation from Earth, Nature, heart, truth, love, community, and compassion. We are moving into a deepening understanding of our interdependency with Nature, and beyond that, our ‘inter-beingness’. If indeed self and world, humanity and Nature, mirror each other and are part of each other, then it should stand to reason that climate instability will accompany any instability in the social and political climate and that imbalances in the natural realm will mirror imbalances in the human. Greenhouse gases are but a medium – probably one of many that we aren’t even aware of – by which this principle operates.
If we ignore this principle then the symptomatic fever of climate change will only worsen, whatever macroscopic measures we take to address its proximate causes. These measures will be impotent, or even backfire as they have already, unless we operate from a narrative that values each species, each person, each forest, each river in its own right and not for its instrumental utility. Let us abandon the war on climate change, and revalue the things that the mentality of war excludes. Paradoxically, then and only then will the fever abate and CO2 levels fall.
This article was originally published in Resurgence Magazine in April 2014
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