When the essence of leadership tends in the direction of doing injury and inflicting harm, it is a collapse of leadership, for which we do not have a name. – Stephen C Rose, in the introduction to his book: The Coming Collapse of Leadership.
Why is it that slow food, slow money and slow travel are so appealing, but that there’s nothing quite as dull as a slow catastrophe?
Perhaps it’s because when you slow down food, money and travel, it allows you to more fully savour the genuine rich pleasures to be had in the senses and in the moment.
Whereas if you slow down a catastrophe, that doesn’t work at all, because catastrophes are meant to be enjoyed at pace. Catastrophes are about adrenalin rushes, shock, calamity, split second decisions, hair’s breadth escapes and above all, heroic leadership.
Catastrophes are not about watching forests dry, nor about watching water levels creep up. They are not about watching ice melt or sea creatures dissolve, either. No wonder we’re so turned off by the ponderous ecological and climatic catastrophe unfolding at a planetary scale around us all. It’s so very … tedious. Worse even than watching grass grow.
The prospect of clearing it up is hardly more enticing. It brings to mind housework: the more you leave the dust to build, the less motivated you are to wipe it. There’s a sense of pointlessness about starting, but also of being quietly, domestically devil-may-care. So what? It’ll still be there tomorrow. Every day you let it get a bit worse, toying with the possibility of going past the point of no return; of becoming eccentric, a slob, a lost cause. There’s a small thrill to that, especially perhaps when housework is all you have; even more so when it’s the least of your worries.
But there eventually comes a point when it’s got to be done, because we can’t even move round here without getting something unpleasant stuck to the bottom of our feet, and it’s putting us off doing what we came in here for.
I’ve been intrigued for years about the decision-making processes that go on at the so-called top of the so-called power structures in our society.
It’s easy to see that we’ve created a system where global capital rules the roost, power is addictive and corrupting and we have come to rely on such a vast, complex and precarious pyramid of irreversible economic interdependencies that we haven’t got a spider’s chance in a vacuum cleaner of unpicking it all and coming out intact.
It’s also apparent that we can have a small herd of large elephants in the room blocking the view of everything, trampling the furniture and trumpeting in our ears and yet peer pressure and the desire to conform is still strong enough to shut them right out.
But when the mess we are projecting comes washing back to our shores, as drowned people escaping from the horrors our imperialist culture has wrought upon their communities, as ocean creatures no longer supported by their habitat, as cancers in our bodies from the chemicals on our foods, in the water? Now, surely, the signals compel us to act.
Take for example, just off the top of my head, the visible and accelerating de-stabilisation of the entire planet’s atmospheric and oceanic chemical and thermodynamic systems. Yep, the climate.
Our voracious appetite for surplus energy being a prominent factor in this unsettling development, I decided to try to get my head around a typical energy minister’s policy-making day.
This was handily facilitated by the UK government’s idea to allow us ordinary people to sample the exalted work of the law-makers by bringing a have-a-go gaming aspect to the climate discussion in the form of an online energy calculator showing the projected effects from altering various policy options.
The exercise reveals how tricky it can be to legislate for the optimum energy mix; one that, according to the official line, will deliver a reduction of the UK’s current carbon emissions to 20% of 1990 levels by 2050 while meeting the energy demands of our industrialised society.
It doesn’t enumerate what those energy demands are, nor does it allow them to be re-engineered, bar a few pre-specified tweaks. Still, it’s touching that we can all now empathise with those plucky politicians as they lie awake at night, mentally navigating the pitfalls, overhangs and precarious ridges that will face them in the cold light of day when they negotiate the barren and hostile terrain of conflicting energy policies.
Because, after all, it involves tough decisions. You can imagine the anguish over breakfast each morning, as they weigh up the options. “God Marjorie, I just can’t call it. What you you think?” (Pauses, while thoughtfully pouring organic milk over Waitrose muesli in a gentle, spiral fashion so as not to disturb the carefully placed additional flame raisins, raided sneakily from the baking cupboard).
“Shall we go for a partially messed up climate with failing agriculture, fierce storms, intermittent droughts and medium to severe forest fires while maintaining half of our fossil fuelled global economy, gambling on the nuclear problem and totally screwing up both the children’s education fund AND our investments in Antigua? Or should it be full-on climate chaos, ecological collapse, oceanic devastation, dramatic human depopulation verging on wipe-out for the measly un-rich, combined with hell, damnation and a very healthy investment portfolio that should see Edric and Delilah through the worst of it?
I try to feel for such people as they face their fearful journey of deliberation. I suspect though that they have forgotten their map. They seem to have no idea of their destination, nor that they’ve already climbed the deceptive north face of the climate mountain and face a treacherous descent in challenging conditions. Clearly they did not take this expedition nearly as seriously as they should have.
It appears too that they have failed to spot the implications of their cavalier approach for Edric and Delilah’s opportunities in later life.
Whatever’s going on with them — and who hasn’t spent time pondering whether it’s group-think, corruption, psychopathy, coercion by dark forces, narcissism or just plain idiocy — there’s one thing nowhere whatsoever in evidence, and that’s decent leadership.
This is astonishing as well as scandalous. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what needs to be done, nor a life coach to point out the rewards for those who take the initiative.
Good leadership blesses us with a sense of direction and a reason to move forward.
As things stand though, the future, according to one prominent climate scientist, is simply impossible. This comment was from Dr Maria Sharmer of the UK’s Tyndall Climate Centre, whom I heard speak last year at the annual conference of Scientists for Global Responsibility.
Research by Sharmer and her colleague Professor Kevin Anderson tells us that to keep our chances of staying within a 2ºC rise above pre-industrial temperatures at the not-entirely reassuring 66% level, we need to be reducing emissions by 10% per year, starting in 2014, to reach total cuts of 80% for developed countries by 2030. Not 2050. The research explains that the burden of responsibility must, for moral and technological reasons, fall upon the richer nations.
More recently, an international team of scientists has called for reductions along similar lines to give us zero net global emissions by 2050.
That means a lot of change, with not a minute to dilly dally — and contrasts sharply with the relatively languorous shifts to be debated at the Paris climate summit this December. To get the ball rolling some scientists even drew up a plan: “Tackling the Challenge of Climate Change” (pdf here) and submitted it to the UN.
There are several people who say that even that plan, ambitious though it is, doesn’t go nearly far enough. The succinct list of reasons from analyst David Spratt suggests they are right. But let’s stick with the Tyndall targets for now.
Because to meet even those, as Anderson points out, we have no option but to implement a strategy of economic de-growth. This means confronting all the elephants in the room, acknowledging the near irrefutable correlation between economic growth and carbon emissions, and putting together a plan to shrink the wealthy economies of the world.
Among other things, this smashes the assumption that the energy demands of an industrial society must be met; and rightly so, because this assumption is the very thing that makes the future impossible.
From here on in, neither growth nor industrialisation is compatible with a functioning habitat, not for humans nor for millions of other species. Renewable energy technologies can go some way to meeting our needs, but even aside from the issues with those (they are far from panaceas), there’s the question of what would happen even if we could fire all the machinery, factories, vehicles, computers, phones and lights in the world using real-time solar and wind power.
The outcomes of maintaining the frantic resource throughput that our global, consumer, throw-away economy demands, along with its toxic chemical mining and extraction processes, deadly tailings ponds, deforested wastelands, dead soils and poisoned rivers are self-evident. We don’t need any more research into targets. We’ve blown past the ones we’ve got. We need to be in emergency rescue mode now, or nothing.
Shrink and deindustrialise
That calls for a system reset, a rewriting of the rules to support a society compatible with ecology. The hard reality is that these will leave the bulk of the global capitalist industrial project — not just the carbon emitting part of it — immediately disqualified from the game.
Most recently, a wide ranging paper by Johan Rockström, Professor of Environmental Science at Stockholm University and Executive Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, “Bounding the Planetary Future: Why We Need a Great Transition” outlines the challenge we face and the steps we must take to meet it. He calls for deep and broad transformations of our institutions. According to one review, by John Bellamy Foster, his analysis is breathtakingly good — yet still may not go far enough.
Despite authoritative, well-researched and intelligent calls for deep change such as these, there is still no public acknowledgement of the immediate and systemic shift in economics, resource-flows and cultural attitudes that is required, nor any sign of appropriate leadership at national or international level to bring this about.
Given who’s in the chair, it’s perhaps no surprise. We can imagine our comfortable government minister, pondering such proposals over breakfast. His muesli would be snorted to the other side of the Smallbone kitchen bar before you could say Fairtrade amaranth. What a preposterous proposition, he would sputter. For a start, it’s much too difficult. But anyway, it’s backwards, it’s ridiculous, it’s impossible.
It would remind him of being little; those feelings he had as a two-year old, resisting the pressure to use the potty, screwing up his face in indignation. “I can’t! I can’t and I won’t!” He is jumping up and down now, fists clenched, stomping his little feet on the floor, red-faced with the determination not to tackle the horrible problem because he is afraid — afraid of change, of humiliation, of the reality of his excretions. And he would so very much prefer to show everyone what a fabulous tower he can build with his wooden blocks.
But, back then, he knew he had to do it, deep down. He knew, because there was a parent watching over him, who frankly would have put up with every tantrum under the sun so as not to change any more of those nappies. The parent’s will was stronger than his and could not be ignored.
There are growing numbers of people now who understand that a systemic shift in policies, governance and economics simply has to happen. Their voices are rising and they are connecting together. The will to make it happen can only follow.
There’s another side to the story, the individual side. I’m not talking about the simplistic exhortations to recycle or take shorter showers, which sidestep and obscure the root problems, but rather the grassroots initiatives taking low-waste, low-carbon, one-planet lifestyles very seriously indeed. However marginal these intentional communities, permaculture sites, eco-homes and transition town projects might seem now, they signal a future to which we would be wise to aspire. Their associated lifestyles need be no less comfortable nor complete than a typical modern one, and are invariably healthier and more fulfilling.
Of course, one-planet living makes little difference unless everyone does it. Perhaps it’s the sub-conscious awareness of this that lies behind the absurd barriers put up by the authorities to its implementation, ranging from planning restrictions to challenging financial hurdles. Radical eco-living, taken to its full conclusion, presents almost as much of a sticky wicket for our imaginatively-challenged incumbent leaders as a policy-led system reset.
After all, if we all did it, our consumption levels would plummet and a huge slice of the economy would grind to a standstill. Taxes would disappear, debts remain unpaid and those fancy lifestyles at the top would be no longer supportable.
That in itself might enough incentive to get on it … but then again, don’t they have a point? I mean, wouldn’t the end result be that we’d all be out of a job? How would we pay the mortgage on our retro-fitted passivhauses, or find the cash to buy clothes, to send the kids to university? Even without any elephants in the room this work-life tension is often where conversations tail off.
But the point where the enthusiasm falters, where it’s easier to hum and hah and assume there are experts to deal with all this and isn’t it time for coffee and by the way what did Stephanie think about the idea of a community grow-in — exactly that point is where the answer lies.
As permaculture teaches, the problem is the solution.
Remember: the barrier to agreeing climate-correcting policies is that global industrial activity demands an energy supply that blows the required carbon reductions out of the window.
At the same time, the barrier to agreeing one-planet living policies is that they would trigger a drastic reduction in global industrial activity.
Hello? Surely those clever old lawmakers can’t have missed this? That if you scale back the global industrial system, the equation — and the future — starts to look almost possible after all?
For leaders not to acknowledge this patent fact (however tricky its implications), given the spectacularly humongous planetary crisis we are in, is a travesty and an abomination. In fact it’s lots of things.
But it’s not leadership.
Real leadership would enable one-planet living by implementing a one-planet economy. Real leadership would celebrate the fact that a global shift to one-planet lifestyles would leave production lines idle, packaging companies unravelled, ice-cube manufacturers in liquidation, weapons companies disarmed and sugary confection conglomerates in dissolution — because most of that work is a tragic, filthy, stinking waste of energy, resources, time, effort, land, water and lives.
Real leaders would devise a system that instead incentivises the training and employment of upcoming generations in ecological food production and materials recycling based on real-time solar energy use; that drives the work of re-localising economies, restoring and regenerating ecosystems and communities, building soil and planting forests, remediating waterways and rehabilitating populations.
It won’t be an easy transition, but it is a compulsory one.
The work we would now be paid to undertake, of rebuilding our food sovereignty, our water and soil sovereignty, our soul sovereignty, will be house-work in the best possible sense. More than just tidying up, this would be work of profound creativity, production and connection. It will change from work that is the least of our worries into all that we have and everything we want.
Striving together to make our home more alive and more beautiful, rather than more dead and more ugly, will bring purpose and solidarity in place of disaffection and depression.
Imagine the joy in teaching the children now, in telling the stories, in watching the news. And consider the work of the politician, law-maker or global leader, energised and pulled upwards by this vision of life on Earth being restored by humanity.
They can do their jobs now with a singing heart. There need be no cognitive dissonance, no clash between what is expedient and what is necessary. No bitching at the polls and tit-for-tat about trivia. Dented egos, short-term self-interest, murder, lies, theft, projected force and reputation-management will be replaced by conscientious commitment, honesty, purpose and meaning.
This shift is possible. We have the knowledge, skills, resources and techniques to facilitate such a step change. There are brilliant minds right now researching and testing appropriate models of ownership, monetary exchange, food production, health and education.
It only isn’t happening because the leaders we have are soaked in system bias, fear and laziness. They have been brought up on a diet of conflict and domination. Most of them are badly afflicted by the diseases of leadership identified by Pope Francis.
They’re also rubbish at making decisions.
They have no idea how to be brave through vulnerability; they have forgotten humility; they can neither surrender to trust in others nor engender it in us. They lost their moral authority long ago.
These leaders are not fit for purpose.
They need to be removed and restrained, for their health and ours. Yet those that would expose them — the corporate media — are so ensnared by power and money that their lips remain sealed as the world crashes to its knees. It’s an astonishing failure, a huge and criminal dereliction of duty, on both counts. There could not be more at stake.
We need to think carefully about how we will find and support the new generation of leaders. They exist all right. They are waiting in the sidelines, energetic and vital, with wide perspectives and long-term outlooks. They will not be afraid to liberate the land, the people and the education systems from the demands of the sucking psychopaths. They will prefer power-with to power-over; they will use networks and gift exchange not hierarchies and blackmail. Some of them are perhaps emerging already, in Spain, Greece, Latin America, in women’s organisations, youth groups and indigenous communities around the world.
They know that telling painful but evident truths while inspiring determined, purposeful action is a deeply powerful act.
They realise that ennui is a disguise for the pain and powerlessness of watching the planetary catastrophe unfold, and that when we can finally address it we will not be bored but exhilarated.
The time has never been more ripe for these voices of courage and strength. Public support for responsible action is rising despite the forces against it. In the US, a poll has revealed an overwhelming belief in climate change and desire for action on the part of its population. Likewise, most Canadians appreciate the need for carbon pricing and would like to see a national climate policy implemented at federal level.
It is high noon for humanity. So when we hear these voices of truth, we have a duty to honour and amplify them.
We must also think carefully about which media to support. Responsible media promote not dismiss initiatives for peace and restoration. They give air-time to visionaries with big attention spans and small egos, rather than feeding the lies of the depraved, craven, self-interested elite. They are constructive about the societal transition that must happen, rather than derisive, intransigent and obstructive. But more on this in a subsequent post.
If we let them and support them, the new leaders of integrity and insight can lead us to a desperately needed understanding: that we are beings of the Earth; that there is power in cooperation; and that we have before us a landscape of almost — but not quite — insurmountable opportunities if only we can open our eyes wide enough to see them.