So given that the GP is more or less distracted by, and conflicted about, the priorities of a hundred different important topics and unable to set a clear direction any more, perhaps we need to go back to first principles and start again with a new movement that is once again focused on the existential crisis which threatens to extinguish the makers of the anthropocene even as they declare the new epoch open.
The current political system has too much inertia built in to be able to make any effective political response to the state of the eco-system, within which politics exists.
What then, would be the priorities and actions of a tightly focused Movement for Ecology? What also would be its goal?
The goal seems relatively simple to identify – to create a human society that is part of the world eco-system rather than attempting to be separate from it.
Can we get any idea of what such a society might look like? Can we see any pathway that leads from here to there? What might the first steps on the path be?
There have been plenty of attempts to envision a sustainable future, but I have yet to find any that are convincing. Most of the current visions of future sustainable societies seem to either assume a way of life much like today in Western society but with electric cars and local shops, or to fall into some kind of reversion to an agrarian past perhaps with survivalist bolt-ons.
We seem to suffer from a lack of imagination when it comes to filling in the detail of what things need to be like. Part of the difficulty is that we only have our own experience to base things on, and for those of us within our globalized civilised culture that means we have no experience, for many generations, of what it means to live in harmony with the world around us.
One aspect of a movement for ecology is clearly to address this deficiency – not to propose a single “right” way that things should be done, but to develop narratives that explore the issues around a harmonious society. To tease out what the constraints and limits might be, what are the moral guidance and religious prohibitions by which a harmonious life is lived.
One half way decent narrative is John Greer’s recent series about “Retrotopia” (the link is to the first episode, it continued every couple of weeks and has just concluded – I believe it is in preparation as a book and it is a fine read). Also interesting for the UK is John Seymour’s 1996 novel “Retrieved from the Future”.
But if that is all we are doing then it is little more than imagining fine music playing whilst the storm destroys us.
A Movement for Ecology will simultaneously need to actively confront the most damaging and discordant aspects of our current civilization. We no longer have time to negotiate where the path should lie, we are going to be having to walk it even as we discover it.
From where we stand today almost everything that is based on the burning of fossil fuels has to be ruled out, at least until we get through a few centuries of overshoot. There seems to be a consensus that an 80% reduction globally by 2030 and close to 100% by 2050 is the minimum to avoid significant overshoot (discounting positive feedback loops which might make it much worse).
Unfortunately it is not as simple as imagining that because we can envisage a high-tech society running on renewable energy (eg Zero-Carbon Britain – ZCB) the transition to such an eco-tech future is either pain free or quick. Indeed this is the conclusion of the very useful Dec 2015 ZCB Making It Happen interim findings.
The introduction quotes Kevin Anderson of the Tyndale Centre “Despite this [the 2015 IPCC Synthesis Report which was the basis for Paris COP21], there remains an almost global-scale cognitive dissonance with regards to acknowledging the quantitative implications of the analysis, including by many of those contributing to its development. We simply are not prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly.”
The conclusion of Making It Happen is quite stark “In terms of barriers to action at the speed required, it is clear across many disciplines that the inertia of the status quo – be that in physical, economic, political or social systems or in our mindsets and thinking – is a powerful barrier to change. Current systems are inherently self-reinforcing and are maintained by myriad forces, some deliberate and manipulative, others simply emergent from ‘the way things are’. … much of the power of the status quo is the unquestioned framing of issues in line with established norms, which expresses itself, without any deliberate intent, in our thinking, social practices, economics, politics and media.”
The authors do suggest that it is possible to spur systemic change; key points being the power of collective action and positive examples, and the necessity of taking it beyond being ‘just’ an environmental issue.
There are also now technical issues around the feasibility of bootstrapping a transition to zero carbon whilst preserving a standard of living pathway from today to a zero carbon eco-tech lifestyle without overspending the available 2 degree carbon budget.
The real tough problems though are not in the technical/engineering/science domain – they are, as Making It Happen underlines, in the psychological, social, political and economic domains – and they don’t even consider the religious layer.
A Movement for Ecology will see all of these problems in the context of the interactions with the wider eco-system within which they exist. If human psychology, society, polity and religion are not compatible with an eco-system that can sustain them, then they must inevitably change. Given that the current way of being in the Western world is not sustainable then a new and different civilization is required.
These are not issues that are amenable to quick changes, and certainly not to rapid non-disruptive changes. A rapid significant systemic change in any one of these layers is nothing less than a revolution. Simultaneous system change in all five layers involves a Pol Pot Khmer Rouge level of disruption.
Technological problems follow from adjustments that these cultural layers will have to make in order to achieve sustainability within the world system. Some technologies simply become literally unthinkable in a sustainable culture. Two obvious examples are Nuclear and Fossil energy – neither of which could exist for an ecologically sustainable culture. The question of using them would never arise.
The dominant approach at present to emerging problems is to propose a bottom up, or rather inside-outwards, technological solution. Looking for a fix for the problem within the paradigm that has created the problem. Our rationalist culture operates on the basis that any problem can be reduced to a technological solution. The new techno-fixes that are proposed are always inevitably based on the current technology that got us into the difficulty in the first place. Thus our solutions always contain the seeds of their eventual failure.
What is actually needed is an eco-system-inwards approach in order to understand and respect limits to existence when solving our problems.
Start from understanding what the limits and feedbacks that keep the eco-system balanced are, and then find solutions that do not upset those balances. This is not as easy as inventing new techno-fixes within the current way of doing things. It is hard and requires much work and thought – and yet our brightest and best minds are directed towards inventing ever more self-defeating technofixes.
We are in a hole. We need to stop digging and figure things out.
Ecology teaches us that life is an emergent property of systems organisation – the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. Industrial civilization takes the contrary view that everything can be explained by reduction – that there is no ghost in the machine.
Is a Movement for Ecology then essentially the same as an Anti-(Industrial)-Civilization Movement? Is it necessary to completely dismantle the current structures and allow something fresh to grow in their place? What are the things that we have today that will have value in the future in building ecologically sound communities?
We are now well past the point where a more or less seamless transition to a zero carbon industrial civilisation was possible. That train probably left the station around 1976.
But if we just let nature take its course and rely on the fact that a +6deg world will probably be incompatible with continuing industrial scale extraction and use of fossil fuel then we run a real risk of loosing the baby of the new civilization down the plughole as the bathwater of the old drains away.
Those questions raise an interesting point. It may well be that from here it is simply neither possible, nor desirable, to look over the horizon and sketch out the shape of an integrated future. If the next civilization (and yes, that does presume that this one is approaching its end-of-life) is to thrive in an ecological sense then like all things it must grow organically within its environment, even if that is a +4 degree world.
Is the first task of a new movement to simply clear the ground?