There is a mission brewing and building, a mission that needs all hands that are ready: To bring the ‘un-named movement’ – the ‘for-life’ story of our time – to a tipping point.
This needs to happen faster than the rate at which our planet is approaching fatal climatic tipping points (fatal, that is, to us – always remember that it isn’t strictly speaking ‘the planet’ that needs saving, only the animals, including ourselves, who live on it). The climate nemesis we face is now quite predictable: it is a ‘white’ swan event: But it could still be forestalled, with determination. If that forestalling is to be successfully accomplished, if together we are to choose to save ourselves and our descendants, then we need to see a radical shift in humanity’s collective response to the rapidly growing threat of breakdown of our environmental life-support systems.
This will only happen if the forces of negativity, idiocy and oppression are outweighed by the force for rebellion, for sanity and for good in the epic struggle which will define our century.
A Planet Under Siege
The first macro-force is our dominant ‘shadow’-culture of control and domination. Historically this force could be defined simply within the model of oligarchs and serfs. Today, if anything, it’s become even more polarised, yet paradoxically more shrouded; a very tiny elite group on one side and the rest of human society and the natural world – in danger of becoming their chattels – on the other.
The levers of power in at least most First World countries, both in the financial system and at the level of state, have been largely taken over by a handful of corporate and private interests. Tragically, their individual and collective impact exacts an immense negative toll, unraveling the hard-won democracy of citizens, whilst ‘mining’ the natural world to the point where breakdown of our basic life support systems has now become likely.
The forces of neo-liberal economics, ‘market’-fetishism and elite state control work so strongly against human and broader biotic wellbeing that they may put the biosphere itself at risk. Apparent improvements, especially in recent times nearly always turn out to be ‘smoke-and-mirrors’. Biomass is a classic example; promoted as a ‘renewable’ energy source, it relies on the destruction of natural ecosystems for plantation monocultures, increasing carbon emissions and decimating biodiversity (See www.biofuelwatch.org.uk). Meanwhile, the global reach of the ‘monoculture’ of reckless profit-seeking and rent-seeking has been achieved by enlisting the unconscious support of the populace through advertising – ‘the consumer society’ and mass media (including celebrity-‘culture’, and most ‘social media’). Our lifestyles ensure that we aid and abet destruction, without ever consciously choosing it for ourselves.
If our natural survival response was functioning well, we’d be fighting the planetary danger or fleeing the enslavement traps set for us. Instead we are frozen, unable to respond to the conflicting truths – the erosion of that which is dear to us and the part each of us plays in contributing to this, simply by going about our lives.
Thus we end up, even the most aware and active of us, in a kind of tacit denial. This is strikingly manifested in the abundantly widespread climate-denial in which to some degree virtually all of us participate; (see Climate Change is a white swan).
By consuming consumerism and all its trappings – albeit frequently laced with greenwash – civil society gets caught in the crossfire between our inner knowing and the silver-tongued palliatives of our so-called leaders.
But perhaps, just perhaps, our shared inner knowing is stronger…
Awakening: The ‘un-named movement’
For: the second macro-force is a fast-building sub-culture termed by Paul Hawken the ‘unnamed movement’. In Hawken’s book The Blessed Unrest he describes the tens if not hundreds of thousands of environmental and social justice groups, involving hundreds of millions of people, emerging worldwide at a grassroots level. Collectively they represent a planet-wide web of interconnection and awakening. Interestingly this ‘web’ found metaphorical expression in the culminatory portion of the film Avatar, which, encouragingly and not coincidentally, was, judging by box-office receipts, the most popular film ever made: Avatar Transformed Cinema.
This movement is expressed in all sorts of life-affirming interventions such as widespread activism, grassroots solidarity, myriad labours of care and love, and much more, which ultimately deliver social wellbeing, local resilience (Local Cultures) and environmental safeguards. The unnamed movement is deeply ‘for-life’. (For more on the meaning of this being ‘for-life’, see the close of Read’s book Philosophy for Life as reviewed here.
This movement is a deeper expression of who we really are when concern for or debasement of that which we hold dear finally causes us to think and act for ourselves. It is empathetic, altruistic, holistic and pulses with the spiritual force that binds us: interconnection – or what Charles Eisenstein (following the Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh) calls interbeing. It remains to be (fully) seen but it could represent the greatest awakening yet in human consciousness. The true opening of our eyes, hearts and souls, that we now deeply desire, know is possible, and know is necessary.
The ultimate struggle
So these are two primary macro-forces shaping the ‘Anthropocene’ and what may follow. It’s a race between the growing movement for positive change and that of ecological unraveling. Both of these forces are active, but only one will ultimately dominate. Our discussion, our proposal is about ensuring that the ‘for-life’ path has the chance to succeed.
Several macro-levers are at play: democracy, economics, energy, ecology, food & water availability and more. Each is approaching such an extreme level of fragility that the modern ‘civilised’ world we know could be brought to an end quite abruptly. But like any fragility or indeed potential breakdown, there lies opportunity, both in itself and in its wake.
Our job – yours too, reader – is to elucidate and then help to convey with viral speed a deep understanding of the routes which allow a strengthening of a ‘for-life’ agenda in each case. Achieving this is also to make the malfunctioning of most of the system – inherent in our dominant economics and politics – so visible that it cannot continue.
Crucial to the possibility of success in this endeavour, this achievement is the recognition that the greatest potential force for good on the planet is the seven billion human population, or at least most of ‘the 99%’, turned in near-unison toward a radical challenge against the ‘anti-life’ force operating in our hijacked governance systems. Seven billion people focused on protective and restorative activity can rapidly bring about major and lasting change on the planet.
Restoration: What A ‘For-Life’ Movement Looks Like
What kind of activity do we mean? This is not the place to detail that. But we will mention five key elements of it, elements so pressing, so huge – and yet so little discussed in the ‘mainstream’ – that they can strike one as new, even though they represent the well-trodden paths of both humanity’s long history of resistance struggles and the ancient wisdom of indigenous cultures (Ancient Futures & Post Growth Localisation):
>> First, and above all, a necessary condition for all the rest, we need to make our voices heard, and make them count. The Occupy Movement, which involved hundreds of thousands in over 500 cities globally, was a valiant start. It directly challenged the neo-liberal economic agenda and its anti-life machinations. But it didn’t last; and in any case we need to go much further. Awakening is not just about seeing what’s going on, it’s about getting our voices heard, and getting a difference made by those voices (Noam Chomsky Interview).
>> Speaking up needs to include the voice of our natural world. Protecting our environmental life support systems requires two things; Protection and restoration. Only a massive movement demanding change will stop the destruction and initiate extensive restoration. Rewilding and non-monocultural re-greening can take us swiftly in the opposite direction from the commodifying and denuding of our natural systems, sparking the regrowth of great biodiverse areas.
>> We need to call out the damage wrought by industrial agriculture and forestry, demanding nothing less than a shift toward permaculture, agroforestry, organic and (above all) agroecological methods. These will be more labour-intensive but that can be a good thing, in a time when the constant refrain is worry about where the jobs of the future are to come from.
>> And modern building methods extract their own toll on the natural world. We need to see a massive change in building methods, significantly less building (see Make Do & Mend) – and the employment of low impact materials, including recycled waste, wood and materials such as straw and hemp which both lock in carbon and offer insulation benefits. Growing such materials in biodiverse habitats makes this ecologically viable.
>> And then there’s that perennial call voiced now for 60 years or so; to stop burning fossil fuels. The only way we can achieve a ‘carbon descent’ is by implementing an ‘energy descent’ in the short term. This is because a complete shift to renewables is – even by optimistic projections – at least a decade-long process, and we are already on the cusp of irreversible climate feedbacks (tipping points). i.e. any wriggle room that we had at the launch of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 has now been squandered. So what would such an energy descent look like? It means foregoing virtually all non-essential fossil fuel burning. By introducing some form of per capita carbon allocation (e.g. carbon rationing (Supporting Carbon Rationing) or tradable quotas). An individual ‘ration’ would allow for the low mileage running a small, shared car, or one long haul flight perhaps every decade. A serious energy descent pathway would also require our governments to return investment to true renewables such as solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal energy.
Add these five interventions together as a starting point and we’re talking about an end to neo-liberal economics i.e. the global growth economy as we know it. We’d be exchanging debt and asset bubbles (and the ensuing mayhem they portend) for a strategically planned economic descent, which sees the most destructive human activities phased out or replaced by benign technology.
We can make these changes – and fast
These five points should be at the heart of a plan that, for reasons we will now explain, we suggest might be called ‘Apollo Earth’. Taken together, they offer the outline of a very different way forward for humanity than business-as-usual or any of the usual techno-fixing variants of it. One such techno-fix – geo-engineering, aka ‘climate-engineering’ (Climate Geoengineering) – is so dangerously misguided that it threatens to further disrupt rather than remedy our finely tuned climate system. The Precautionary Principle demands that, as sketched above, we find a climate-safe alternative to geo-engineering (Safe Alternative to Geoengineering): Apollo Earth is therefore also a call to bring so called ‘experts’ to account, and to resist what will be their increasing siren calls in the coming years to risk everything on a climate-engineering gamble.
The exciting thing about our outline agenda here is that each point (and much more) is already strongly represented by environmental and civil society groups across the world. But we’re not yet at the critical threshold for change. Short of revolution (!), scaling-up requires traction at the political level, and this requires an unparalleled collective demand. With this, meaningful change would be underway in just one year (because most of the interventions we mention above are tied to the growing cycle, to annual climatic rhythms), and human society could potentially be making a net restorative contribution within a decade.
Across the world NGOs, grassroots activists, families and communities serve as torch-bearers. By challenging the status quo, (and) by planting woods, changing how we farm, building differently, installing solar paneling and much else they beckon us towards collective responsibility.
Time is of course of the essence: not just because of the pressing nature of the dire climate threat (cf. e.g. Avoiding Climate Change), but also because of recent political developments. Brexit and Trump, though likely to lead on balance to disastrous, calamitous moves in the wrong direction, make clear at least that people are awake enough to no longer support the establishment.
Globalisation is at last up for question; neo-liberalism and technocracy are at last on the ropes. But the prognoses for what happens next being ‘progressive’ and green are not great. Unless we think-and-act together, the next stage of the curtailing civil rights is probably not far down the road: we have to seize this moment to come together to struggle for a better future. In fact: For a future at all.
We tentatively suggest calling this call to arms – a call to save the humans – ‘Apollo Earth’. Why? For these three related reasons:
1) Apollo is the Ancient Greek God of rationality. If we proceed onward down the path to self-imposed climate-nemesis, we will have disproved Aristotle’s famous definition of humankind as the rational animal. By coming together behind and successfully executing an Apollo-Earth project, we will have kept hope, wonderfully, alive, that perhaps we are a rational species of animal after all.
2) We need a unifying project to pull us together, at this time more than ever. As the U.S. was broadly unified behind the (first) Apollo project, so the world now needs to be broadly unified behind the project of saving ourselves and our beautiful living home. The unificatory project will require great effort, unprecedented ambition: as the mission to put ‘man’ on the Moon did. Compare this promising precedent, seeking to use the Apollo precedent to name the ambition for humanity of working together to meet the climate crisis by a transformative common effort: The need for an Apollo Programme to tackle climate change. And contrast this mirror-image, the disastrous possibility that the epochally-inappropriate President Trump might replace funding to rein in dangerous climate change with funding for a new Mars mission! Trump’s Mars Mission
3) The Apollo missions led to the hugely-important and symbolic ‘overview effect’: ‘Overview Effect’. Astronauts went to space to discover the Moon – and discovered Earth. This incredible jewel, changed by life, with its so-thin and vulnerable carapace of atmosphere. The ‘overview effect’, available initially to astronauts, became available to us all vicariously by way of the important photos they brought back and also for instance via the means of the magnificent ecological work of art that was Hollywood’s ‘Gravity’ (see Gravity Blog), offers real hope. By going to space, we found our planetary home and the deep necessity of saving it. And, perhaps, the passion to save it, too. This point – what ‘the overview effect’ taught – was brought home further by the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission (a factive precedent of course for the fiction of Cuaron’s masterpiece, ‘Gravity’). The triumph of Apollo 13 was of course not the reaching of another world; it was the safe return, against incredible odds, to this world. The only place where we can live. And returning with enhanced recognition of its uniqueness and preciousness.
‘Apollo Earth’ is the clear recognition that we are already in a state of extreme emergency – akin to Apollo 13’s onboard systems failure, half a million miles from earth. Our mission – to steer a path away from mass extinction (to radically change course) – is heroic on a scale humanity has never faced before… In short the ‘unnamed movement’ needs to evoke – to birth – something radically different if we are to have any chance of pulling back from the brink. We are inescapably together on ‘Spaceship Earth’ (Buckminster Fuller’s term); there is no-one to ride to our rescue. Only us, and the void.
This is the biggest ask humanity has ever faced. No exaggeration. In our favour, history is replete with examples of humankind rising to meet extreme demands. Extraordinary levels of creativity, leadership, innovation and social cohesion are unlocked at such times.
The analogy we’d like to leave you with is that of the perfectly synchronous flight behavior known as murmuration associated with some bird flocks, most notably starlings and migrating geese. When in flight these birds respond to signals from the flock in a tiny fraction of a second and with near-perfect accuracy. In times of crisis and elation, human communities do something similar. Human emotional signals are infectious and aligning.
Let’s hear the alarm that our climate system is sounding, loud and clear. Let’s prove that we are rational beings (as Aristotle, possibly the greatest philosopher of Ancient Greece, famously claimed). Rationality today doesn’t mean exploring options for colonizing another planet, it means an unprecedented journey into our own survival on planet Earth: Apollo-Earth.
And now over to you. Humanity needs to do something with precedents, but unprecedented, and at scale. How, together, can we midwife this into being? How can we act in time?
How can ‘Apollo-Earth’ be realized?
Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, Chair of www.greenhousethinktank.org and a former Green Party Councillor and MP-candidate.
Deepak Rughani is a change-management consultant, has worked on climate issues since 2005 and is a co-director of Biofuelwatch, a UK and US-based NGO working to stop ecosystem destruction for bioenergy.
You can contact them here: [email protected]
“We dedicate this article to the late Heidi Hillman, without whom the great body of work produced by her beloved husband Mayer Hillman – one of few writers prescient enough to sound the climate alarm in the 1980s – would not have been possible.”
“We also note that the project we propose takes inspiration from David Wasdell’s critically important ‘Apollo Gaia’ project: Wasdell has shown perhaps more honestly and starkly than anyone (possible rivals for the crown include Kevin Anderson and James Hansen) the stakes and the folly of the path we are currently on. Apollo-Earth needs to be a far more ‘secular’ and popular continuation of Wasdell’s groundbreaking effort.”
This article is a sequel to Climate Change is a white swan