A Voice for Earth

Environmental and social justice and my personal experiences in the area.


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If We Burn, You Burn with Us

Last weekend, people rejoiced over the signing of the Paris climate agreement, the first time since Kyoto that something has been accomplished in the fight against climate change. There was much pomp and celebration by the negotiators and political leaders, and the mainstream media generally put a positive spin on the agreement, and there was definitely some cause for all this.

Paris marks the first time that nations around the world recognized the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, if possible, is far more desirable than capping it at 2 degrees, which had been the mantra of climate negotiations prior. This was a matter of simple justice for small island nations and vulnerable coastal regions, as warming of 2 degrees is seen by them as a death sentence.

Other positives about the agreement include funding to help developing nations potentially leapfrog fossil fuels straight to a clean energy economy or, at least, expedite their transition between the two. The involvement of major nations like the US and China, major developing countries like India and Brazil, and major oil producers like Saudi Arabia, was also quite a refreshing state of affairs from the usual discord and haggling that has marred previous COPs.

Indeed, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. The treaty does have some promise, but promise is the key word here, for our leaders really haven’t made us anything other than promises, and not commitments. There are no enforcement mechanisms written into the treaty, everything contained within it is voluntary, except perhaps agreed further conferences and tracking each nations’ progress towards its climate mitigation goals. Goals, mind you, that are self-imposed and also, voluntary.

I’ve heard it said that COP 2015 is an excellent treaty, had it been agreed in 1995. Our political leaders have always lagged behind the times when combating the climate crisis, so perhaps any success, no matter how meagre, seems like something ground-breaking and worthy of applause and commendation.

I know it seems like I’m completely trashing what was achieved in Paris, and I kind of am to be honest. I’m not trying to be overly pessimistic, but we still need to be realistic here. Climate change demands a monumental collaborative effort across all nations, across all levels of society. Paris, in this regard, is like needing to jump clear over a raging river when you’re being chased by a lion and instead, jumping to a stepping stone about a foot from the river bank.

In essence, it’s a good starting point, had it been enacted twenty years ago and at that time had been mandatory. Well, it’s not the 90s any more when climate change might have been easier to take in hand, and nothing legally compels our leaders to adhere to the agreement, so what does that leave us with? Probably not exactly at square one still but definitely not at square two.

So, let’s assess where the treaty takes us relative to where we actually need to be. First off, the climate pledges that the majority of nations made in the run-up to COP21. As I mentioned already, they are voluntary pledges to lower emissions through various means with no national or international legal obligations to undertake them. However, that isn’t the worst part. Taken together, the collective climate pledges will not hold warming anywhere near 1.5 degrees, they won’t even keep us under 2 degrees. Current estimates given our emission cut commitments as they stand place us on track for around 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.

As Tim Gore, head of food and climate policy at Oxfam put it, “While this round of pledges is a step in the right direction, they only take us from a 4 C catastrophe to a 3 C disaster .”

Next up, funding to aid developing nations to transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change already locked in. The money will come from developed nations and larger developing nations with the capacity to contribute such as China which has pledged $3 billion dollars. In total, the established floor for the so-called Green Climate Fund is $100 billion annually. I don’t pretend to know much about the value of such a contribution in economic terms, but it seems to me a pittance to help every developing nation in the world to kick fossil fuels in favour of clean energy whilst simultaneously dealing with climate-related stresses and natural disasters.

So far, the text of the agreement is unclear as to the role or the trajectory of the fund from 2020 onwards when the Paris agreement comes into effect. So, even though, the sum promised is a floor, not a ceiling, there is nothing to say how much nations will, in future, contribute or if the fund will be kept alive long-term.

Next, it is interesting to consider what the agreement doesn’t mention rather than what it does. For one, the words coal and oil do not appear anywhere in the document. There is no commitment or even a suggestion that the majority of known fossil fuel reserves should be kept in the ground, as the science demands, let alone putting an end to further exploration for new reserves.

There is no mention of agriculture, responsible for at least a third of all emissions, nor is there any mention of the emissions caused by international flights and shipping.

There is no hint of reparations to developing nations for the damage that has been caused and will be caused by climate change. In fact, the US played a key role in weakening the agreement in this regard, having categorically refused to include any mention of compensation in the final draft of the agreement. Their negotiators even wanted wording in the document to insure Western nations against any liability for future climate damages to developing nations, but that got kicked out of the final draft. They, of course, promised in return that they would sign up to the 1.5 degree goal, so long as it wasn’t binding and they didn’t have to pull their weight with lowering emissions, which they could ask for because they had the power to bring the talks to a screeching halt.

And the final stop on this train-wreck, what the treaty includes that hasn’t been part of an international agreement before. Forest offsets are the sustainable management of forest ecosystems in order to capture our carbon emissions. However, it’s not really known how effective this is because it’s hard to tally how much carbon any given forest absorbs exactly. More to the point, these offsets give countries an out for not actually reducing their emissions, so the pollution still occurs, and the offsets may not necessarily be countering all of it.

Moreover, anyone who has read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything knows that these projects are often plagued by mismanagement and the displacement of indigenous peoples who more often than not know more about the sustainable management of their lands than the foreign companies who take them over and exclude them from places they have lived in for perhaps millennia.

The fact is that carbon offsets, carbon trading, and other market mechanisms for tackling climate change often fall flat and do little to solve the problem compared to actual intervention in the economy and tangible climate action. It was these so-called solutions to climate that led to the failure of Kyoto, as it took a decade to get them up and going and then they were marred by mismanagement and fraud.

So, if you look on the very bright side, yes, the agreement gave us a 1.5 degree target, yes, all the nations of the Earth are involved, yes, we’re getting money to developing nations to combat climate, but where are the tools to achieve all this? They’re not in the Paris document. In order to achieve even the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius would require a WWII-scale mobilization, starting right now. We would need to entirely de-carbonize our economies worldwide by 2030 and invest massively in carbon capture technology to draw down carbon dioxide that we have already emitted out of the atmosphere.

Why is such an undertaking necessary? Because the threat is that huge, far worse than that of Nazi Germany or any other human enemy from history. We need to stop thinking of climate change as simply an environmental problem. The fact is that we are at war, a war with time and with ourselves. We can’t let the jubilation that surrounded the “successful” Paris climate talks to trick us into complacency. The root of the threat we face is Big Energy, Big Agriculture, and Big Transport. They all need a massive overhaul if we are to have any hope of stemming the rise in temperatures and averting future disasters.

However, corporations with vested interests were heavily involved with the talks, and their lobbyists no doubt sunk their teeth into many a negotiator. My belief now is that the solutions to the climate crisis are no longer to be found in the political process. Governments can no longer act in an effective or timely manner because they are tied down by too much red tape and are strung up on too many corporate strings.

It is now the turn of the people to make the transition, to make the leap to a fossil-free future. We can do this by making personal to changes to our energy usage, what we eat, how we get around, and by acting together as communities to build better from the ground up, from local, to regional, to national. I’m not saying that state governments are totally obsolete. They still have the power to effect change and, unfortunately, to get in peoples’ way or worse, add to the problem. After all, not long after the COP, the UK decided to expand fracking, and New Zealand handed out new oil leases.

Only a loud, convincing voice, a massive people’s movement can topple them off their high seats of apathy and lethargy. The Paris agreement is one more example of our leaders treating an existential threat as a remote and manageable problem. Climate change is happening now. It is on our TVs, it’s in our communities and for some unfortunate people in my own country and the UK this Christmas, it is in their homes. We can no longer abide by governments throwing a bone at the problem when it demands we give it everything we’ve got.

Ultimately, people power will overwhelm this complacency, I believe, I hope, but our chances of achieving the lofty goals of COP21 would be much greater if politicians engaged with the problem with the seriousness it deserves. I’ll end with a message to world leaders, a quote by one of my favourite fictional characters, Katniss Everdeen, fire is catching and if we burn, you burn with us.

Links:

Good Reasons to Cheer the Paris Climate Deal

World’s climate pledges not yet enough to avoid dangerous warming – UN

Green Climate Fund seeks clear role in post-2020 climate aid

Trading Carbon: How Paris Set Us Up for Failure

Seven Wrinkles in the Paris Climate Deal

The Paris Climate Talks and the 1.5C Target: Wartime-Scale Mobilization is Our Only Option Left

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.

 


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Purveyors of Bullshit

After watching the documentary, Merchants of Doubt, you really have to question humanity, our modern-day values, and what we’ve become as a society. I don’t say that lightly, and it’s not to say that other documentaries I’ve seen haven’t had as great or an even greater impact on me, but it is the particular subject matter of this one in particular that really gnaws at your insides. It is the thought that businesses and individuals have knowingly placed people’s lives at risk for the sake of profit.

To be clear, the general premise of the documentary, that Big Business sells us lies so that we keep buying their product, is a well-known fact. Everyone’s heard of the lengths that the tobacco industry went to in order to defend their deadly product. Everyone with even passing knowledge of the environment knows what a climate denier is, and that it is generally the fossil fuel industry that promotes such views through complicit individuals and front groups. Yet it is realising the depths of their deception that really galls you.

We are being conned everyday by companies who care for nothing but their bottom-line, and that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that we often can’t do anything to address their deceit, at least not easily or quickly. These corporations make sure that they have their tendrils in all the right corners of government and the larger bureaucracy in order to subvert the regulatory process and streamline their route to profits. It also helps when independent research comes out against them to have government back-up.

The fact that those we elected are often a party to the dissemination and cover-up of corporate lies is an affront in itself and a can of worms I won’t get into here. I think it is telling enough that recently, Charles Koch was on the record as saying that he expects “something in return” on his political investments. That he and his brother, David, expect to spend nearly a billion dollars on the 2016 US presidential race makes you wonder what demands they could possibly make for that sum, and it is more than a little disturbing given their hard right-wing agenda.

Back to the documentary itself, based on the book of the same title by Naomi Oreskes, this game that businesses are playing has been ongoing for decades and probably became common practice after the tobacco industry started engaging in these tactics in the mid-20th century. Through their own research, it was discovered that smoking causes cancer (the late ‘50s), it contributes to heart disease (the 60s), and not long after that they confirmed that nicotine is addictive. So, having discovered that they were selling a lethal product which was highly addictive, what did they do?

They hired a PR firm to make their problem go away.

If that wasn’t bad enough, later in the 70s a link was drawn between cigarettes and rampant building fires. Instead of admitting the problem and investing money and research into designing a less incendiary product, the industry redirected the fault for the problem towards the furniture makers. It wasn’t that cigarettes cause fires, it’s just that furniture was too damn flammable. By infiltrating fire-fighting unions and getting them behind the idea, the furniture industry responded by stuffing their products with chemical fire retardants, thereby bringing more toxicity into people’s lives.

So to sum up, through acts of misdirection and confusing the public by muddying the science, the tobacco industry was successful for a long time in keeping the heat of its product and its profits. The same is happening now with climate change.

At this very moment, Exxon Mobil is under investigation for covering up evidence of climate change that its own scientists discovered would be a consequence of fossil fuel burning. Moreover, they stand accused of attempting to do exactly what the tobacco industry did; trying to create doubt the problem even exists.

They’ve done this by funding front groups to spread denialist propaganda, talking points that spread through the media like wildfire, or attempting to intervene in legislation for these problems through organisations like ALEC.

So, as much as I found this documentary informative, it made my blood boil. Again, I’m left wondering what have we become? Has greed and the money game come to dominate our collective psyche so much that we’re willing to put our own existence at risk? After all, money and the economy are just human constructs. They have no real physical value or meaning, only those that we give them.

Yes in order to perpetuate a free-for-all capitalistic society, built on rampant consumerism and the unsustainable extraction and consumption of the planet’s resources, we will make an existential threat into a minor trouble to be dealt with by future generations, or we’ll just make it into a none-thing, not something that is happening at all.

At least that’s what the fossil fuel industry have done with support from elements of government and other industries that profit from a delay in action on climate change.

People and companies responsible need to be held accountable. It needs to be made clear that misinformation that they have helped disseminate is an insidious attempt to protect their bottom line over the lives and livelihoods of people.

We cannot afford any further delays in action on the climate crisis if we have any hope of preserving our civilization and a recognisable, liveable world.

The message that I take from this documentary is that there are nasty, self-centred people out there out who are on a mission to delay any response to climate change for their own selfish ends, and to hell with what happens to the rest of us or the wider environment. However, there are also people out there who will speak the truth, and repeat it, and shout above the interference and the bald-faced lies.

We live in a time much like when people fought against slavery, for women’s rights, for labour rights, against apartheid. This is, as John Kerry put it, “the fight of our time”. Well, all we have built, all the hard-won rights and liberties are infringed upon by climate change to the extent that if we allow it to progress far enough, none of it will matter. Anything beyond survival will be a luxury.

Just like in all those social battles, there are people on the other side who want to maintain the status quo and will do so by nefarious means if they must. Climate change is either going to be the greatest challenge we collectively rise to and will put us on a path to an even better world, or it will be the challenge that overcomes us and decimates all we have achieved in the past few centuries, maybe even threatening our survival as a species.

Right now, the choice is in our hands. Do we stand up to those who would oppress the truth and us through their conniving deceptions, or will we stand by, say nothing, and watch the house burn down around us, long after the fossil fuel industry started it having pillaged the contents?

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.


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This Must Change Everything

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, and the documentary based upon it, have been on my watch-list for quite some time. Probably not surprising considering that I think of myself as an environmental and a justice advocate in the realms of social media, but I’ve been keeping an eye on this one in particular just for the simple boldness of the title, a statement of fact that is challenging the dinosaur that is our present socio-economic system that continues to sputter onward in the face of humanity’s most pressing problem, climate change.

Having read the book and watched the documentary, I have to say there are ways in which I have been changed personally. I think first and foremost it has helped me come to a greater understanding and appreciation of how interwoven or environmental, social, and economic fates are, and how climate change is simultaneously the defining and most dire challenge of our time, and our best opportunity to build a better world.

One of the things I particularly found interesting in the book was the insight into what got us to where we are today, primarily the very idea that we could subdue all of nature, the entire planet, and bend it to our will. Nothing is impossible in this world view, and nothing is sacred. By inviting it in, we delude ourselves into believing that human beings are somehow apart from nature, reigning above it like some all-powerful deity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We have wrested from nature whatever we want at an ever increasing and unsustainable rate, so much so that we are consuming one and a half times the resources that the Earth can replenish in a given year. With developing countries aspiring to the levels of “development” and consumerism we have here in the West currently, that could very easily double. The concept that the Earth is an animal of burden to be broken and used until its last gasp has to be abolished because the Earth will not just simply die. In all likelihood, given our present course, the will become inhospitable to civilisation as we know it, and perhaps the human species itself will be lost. With our downfall, or indeed our passing, the Earth’s life systems would eventually recover, but that could take millennia, and certainly many tens or hundreds of millennia more to replace the diversity of life that would be lost in the inevitable wave of extinction.

So why should it come to this? Why should this be our legacy?

It is true that idea that we are masters of all, or at least can be if we apply enough thought and brute technological power to it, has been around for centuries, but only in the past few decades has it taken on its most sinister and insidious form. Neoliberalism, trickle-down economics, free-for-all deregulated capitalism, the Trojan horses of economic policies that should never have been let in the gate, but they’re here and at a most inopportune time.

Climate change is the kind of problem that can only be effectively tackled by government intervention in the economy, strictly regulating the polluters and sources of CO2, shifting investment to renewable energy and other clean tech, curbing fossil fuel exploration and development leaving most of the known reserves in the ground thereby stranding these assets, and the eventual phase out of the entire fossil fuel industry and the related infrastructure and technology. All this is anathema to the current free market capitalist system which calls for minimal government intervention, total deregulation of corporations, and full exploitation of all resources.

The politicians and corporations who advocate for this way of conducting business argue that it will better us all, at least financially because surely the richer the corporations get, the more well off we will all become as that wealth finds its way down the line from Wall Street to Main Street. The reality is that it has never worked that way. Instead, wealth has increasingly been concentrated in the hands of the top 1% whilst the rest of us become poorer, struggling against economic and environmental hardships, all at least partly to blame on this model of doing business. Essentially, their best argument for wrecking the planet and civilisation is that it will generate huge wealth for a very small number of people for a short time.

If we carry on like this, much like the housing bubble, it won’t be long before the carbon bubble bursts under the ever increasing costs of prioritizing profit over the stability of our climate and the wider environment. If we wait until that point to take meaningful action, it will be just the opposite. It will be like throwing a bucket of water on a house that is already burning to the ground. We have maybe one, maximum two decades to drastically alter our course to avoid the worst of climate change and even then, some damage is already done and will linger for generations. Still, it is the difference between disruption and absolute chaos.

Considering what’s at stake, you’d think our governments would be heading the response, be one of the loudest voices in the chorus of calls for action. Yet what we get instead is a bunch of bickering politicians who gather every year to do a whole lot of nothing except probably exacerbating climate change more with all the private flights to the event. It’s clear at this stage that nothing is going to come from above, until something rises up from beneath.

This is another thing I appreciated about the book and the documentary, the human element, the personal side of the story on the fight against extractive industries around the globe. From Native American communities fighting tar sands development in Alberta, to people rallying in Washington DC against Keystone XL, to a Greek community fighting a gold mine. It is seeing how people on the frontlines are affected, seeing their struggles and their determination that should be an inspiration for the rest of us to take up the fight, even if we are not in a so-called “sacrifice zone”, a place corporations and governments have written off in favour of extraction, for, make no mistake, soon enough we will find ourselves in one. If our lands, our communities, our homes are in the way of major fossil fuel or other mining developments, we will find ourselves fighting for the land we tread, the water we drink, the air we breathe.

When you think about it, though, with climate change, we’ve all already been subsumed by a wider, more pervasive sacrifice zone than a coal mine or a fracking well; the destabilisation of our atmosphere through carbon pollution. The climate touches everything, and nothing in your life, or the world at large is likely to remain unaffected by the catastrophe we tempt by burning ever more fossil fuels. Yet this is what Big Energy demands, and our governments are more than happy to tag along, as long as they can get a piece of windfall from these dirty projects. Until there is a popular uprising against the status quo, as there was with the civil rights movement in the US, or the fight against apartheid in South Africa, nothing will change, at least not fast enough to avert the most extreme scenarios that climate scientists predict.

That is why it’s important for people to get out on the streets, to flood officials with calls, emails, and petitions, and, if we can, physically put ourselves in the path of these developments. We need to be proactive, we need to be visible, we need to be heard, if anything is going to change and change quickly. Standing on the side-lines is no longer an option; it is the same as throwing your avid support behind the fossil fuel machine. What we all need to be are wrenches in its engine, for even a small wrench can stop a big engine. This is what “Blockadia” is about, people quite literally putting their necks on the line to stop this industry in its tracks. From villagers in Balcombe and Barton Moss in the UK attempting to stop fracking and confronting an unsympathetic, even repressive police force, to a thousand people marching on a lignite coal mine in Germany, putting themselves between the land and the heavy machinery, to rural communities in Romania actually committing acts of sabotage to stop fracking wells being drilled into their land.

This is what those in power notice, and it is beginning to turn the tide. For example, even now, the Alberta tar sands are struggling because of popular resistance to all their major projects to export their dirty product to refineries on practically every coast of North America. Still, even the long-awaited death of the primary focus in that battle, the Keystone XL Pipeline, is insufficient, as tar sands oil is still making it out of Alberta by train and by other established pipeline projects. In order to end this, as well, along with all coal mines and oil and gas wells will require more popular support, more direct action, enough to really hit Big Energy’s bottom line, and to make our voices louder than the dirty energy dollars being fed to politicians.

We, as people, need to believe in what we can achieve, individually and as communities. We have to believe in what is possible, that we can make all of society better by taking this one problem and using it as a catalyst for widespread change. The regulations against the fossil fuel industry alone could greatly improve the quality of our land, water, and air. We could use the money from taxing CO2 emitters to build a decentralised, clean energy economy that will return wealth to communities and further empower them by giving them control over energy generation. We can begin to restore communities and ecosystems devastated by extractive industries already and prevent more such calamities from occurring. All this translates into a society built to take care of people and their needs, not those moneyed interests that can buy influence with officials.

The present course is not set in stone. We don’t have to have a cutthroat economy where the wealthy grow in power and evermore wealth whilst the middle class gets crushed and the poorer get poorer. We don’t have to have a world three, four, five degrees hotter, where disaster becomes the norm and anything beyond survival is a luxury. We don’t have to leave our children an economic, social, and environmental mess that it’s too late for them to tackle, so that they have to leave their children a hopeless, dystopian future.

We can have clean energy and a clean environment. We can have better social supports and a more just and fair economic model. We can even have a stable climate eventually. If we stop carbon pollution now, balance will eventually return and possibly within our lifetimes if technology of CO2 removal and sequestration is further developed. In the meantime, a society where communities have a say and a better support system, where money isn’t wasted ravaging the planet for finite resources that do more harm than good and instead is invested to develop and protect our cities and our homes, can build in resilience to adapt to whatever shocks current and future climate change might still bring.

We have seen how much unprepared, impoverished, and unsupported communities can suffer in the midst and wake of disaster. Think Katrina, Sandy, Haiyan, and all the other disasters in the past decade or so that are becoming increasingly record-breaking, increasingly unprecedented. This is not the future I want to sign up for where people won’t even bat an eyelid at such tragedies. We all want better than this. We deserve better. We just need to make it clear to our governments that enough is enough, and not just around the annual climate meetings. This needs to be in their faces day in, day out. We need to show them that we won’t just stand by while they allow corporations to plunder our planet, crush communities, and push the Earth past tipping points and civilisation over a cliff.

Naomi Klein said in her book that there would be no real benefit to violent revolution, and I tend to agree. When injustice becomes so grave that such acts are deemed both necessary and acceptable, the problems have indeed become dire but on climate change, we need action before it gets to that, and we need an intact and cooperative society ready to face up to our mistakes, the challenges they have wrought, and to learn from them so, in future, we can do better by everyone and everything on our vibrant Earth.

Climate change doesn’t just change everything, about our reality and what we should choose to do from here on out, it must change everything because even though we can’t predict exactly what our future will be on our present heading, we know the waters ahead will be rough to say the least. So, let’s together choose to change the course, or have the choice taken out of our hands by the consequences of our own inaction.

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.


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Do We Want to Sink?

“…so you dwell on this terrible future, you resign yourselves to it and for one reason, because that future doesn’t ask anything of you today…”

Governor Nix, Tomorrowland

It’s been a long hiatus for me in terms of blogging, but now that my wedding and honeymoon have passed, I have wanted to get back into it, and there are a number of things I want to review, movies and documentaries that I’ve seen in the last few months. I saw Tomorrowland when it was out in cinemas during the summer but on my flight home after my honeymoon, it was available to watch, and I thought I should refresh my memory before offering my thoughts on it.

Tomorrowland is essentially a concept of a place without limits on science and creativity all directed to build a better world. It is a story about what might be possible if the greatest minds could innovate and build without the limitations of bureaucracy, of financial greed, and superstition. It’s ultimately about the potential of humanity and hope for the future, that we can make it all we can imagine and beyond. It’s quite an alluring ideal. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the philosophy behind the Venus Project in that society works for the benefit of all humankind rather than for a select few.

Whilst the movie was largely about wonder and peril and adventure with a not too small element of fun, there was one moment in it that, for me at least, was truly impactful and very relevant to the current state of world affairs and that was, once again, a speech by the principal antagonist of the movie, Governor David Nix. I have embedded a link to it at the top of this post, and I think it’s something everyone should watch. It’s surprising, given the overall tone of the movie, how meaningful it is and how much it touches on the state of mind of the majority of people when confronted with the many crises that beset us and the potential of our eventual demise.

I want to start with the end of his speech, his accusation that as a society, we want to sink, to fail, that we are happy to run headlong into disaster. I disagree. The overall premise of the movie is that the majority of people have given up, but quitting in the face of adversity isn’t the same as relishing it. I think, if asked, anyone would say they want a better world, a better life, to live on a planet not ravaged by crime, war, climate change, and pollution. They would want a peaceful world with a clean, stable environment where they are free to live the life of their choosing without fear of repression or impending disaster, a world where society takes cares of everyone equally and is not set up to favour a select elite. The problem is that most people probably and understandably think that these basic desires are beyond our collective reach, a utopian fantasy that could never actually happen.

The part of his speech that I most agree with is the line that I have quoted above. For, to have that idealistic, though in my view, completely reasonable future, we would have to work for it, fight for it even. That is asking a lot of people in this day and age. Our lives have become so regimented, so consumed with getting from A to B, with work, with chores, and then managing to squeeze in time for our loved ones and ourselves before we have to go to sleep and repeat the whole cycle again the next day. So where in that schedule do we find time to contribute to the betterment of society, to take part in community building and improving amenities, to clean up our local environment, to write to officials, to join a protest? The answer is that most of us don’t.

There’s also risk involved in challenging the status quo. In my opinion, rather than moving towards that utopic future we so desire, we are teetering on the brink of utter dystopia. Between regressive laws and ordinances, the curtailing of democratic freedoms and rights, and the rising brutality of police forces meant to protect and serve us but instead serve government and corporate interests, it’s fair to say you are sometimes seriously sticking your neck out by challenging the system. In the face of the limits on our time and the undue consequences that we tempt by acting, it’s not hard to see why people might be resigned, why they might give up. I. myself, feel this way often enough. It’s the powerlessness of seeing the wrong in the world but simultaneously feeling too small to do anything about it.

Yet is it good enough, given all that we may face in the future, to quit on the basis that to do anything else would be very personally burdensome? Maybe that’s a harsh way of putting it, but that’s essentially what it boils down to, the going will be hard, so we just stop going. As David Nix says, we have resigned ourselves to this terrible future because it asks nothing of us today. It will happen simply, inevitably, if we just continue on in blissful half-ignorance and gradually, as it draws nearer, as it begins to transpire all around us ,we can convince ourselves of the comforting notion that there was nothing we could have done anyway.

But that is a lie, a heinous one, meant to assuage our guilt, as we transfer responsibility for managing calamity and tragedy to our children and grandchildren.

Self-deceit and apathy, along with the fact that we really may be desensitized to disaster as we see it everywhere, in movies, in books, in games, and increasingly, in reality but usually at a distance, it is all these things that at least partly explain our inaction on some of the most pressing crises of our times. Climate change tops the list as it will effect everyone and everything in some shape or form. Besides the changing weather patterns punctuated by extremes and disasters, it will precipitate other crises like mass migrations, wars, famines, increased crime, disease outbreaks, and the breakdown of ecosystems and the Earth’s natural processes. Yet given this Pandora’s Box of nightmarish consequences, most of us are not motivated to challenge Big Energy and elements of government who support them, most of us aren’t picketing our officials and the responsible industries demanding that they enact policies to avert this impending catastrophe. A lot of us don’t even care or really believe it will happen. That is a problem because massive public demand would be required to usher in that change.

Changing everything will require everyone.

So, how do we get from a small group of committed individuals to everyone mobilised and demanding change, demanding justice and progress? I don’t have the whole answer to that. The journey from “that’s not my problem” to caring deeply about an issue is not standard for everyone, nor is it just an acute shift. However, I think what we can all agree on that is common to most people is hopelessness. We don’t believe that better does or can exist. We need to drop that anchor that is holding us in place, preventing us from moving forward. David Nix puts it best when he says, “In every moment, there’s the possibility of a better future…”, and that is the truth. Everyday, every hour, every second, there’s the opportunity for each of us to take small actions that taken together have the power to create real change. This lack of belief is not just in what’s possible in general but also in ourselves. We underestimate our ability to innovate, to reason, to create.

Perhaps a world reaching the dizzying heights of progress depicted in Tomorrowland is not something we could just conjure up tomorrow, but who’s to say what we could achieve if we are not limited by those in power and by ourselves. For the moment, why is better infrastructure, public transport, healthcare, a clean energy economy, a safe and healthy environment, an end to hunger, poverty, and the injustices that lead to crime and conflict too much to ask for? All these things are possible. They just require us to believe, to not give up, or, as the main protagonist in Tomorrowland, Casey Newton, puts it, to feed the right wolf.

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.


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Maybe Ultron Had One Valid Point…

“You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change.

How is humanity saved if it is not allowed to evolve?”

You’re all puppets tangled in…strings…”

Marvel’s Ultron

So perhaps how I choose to interpret these lines is a far cry from the intended meaning of the character Ultron. However, they do speak to me about the current state of the world and our efforts to change the course. Let me start off by clarifying a point. I am not some supporter of voluntary human extinction, whether it be by some insidious agent such as an engineered disease, or passively such as not reproducing and allowing ourselves to die out. I wouldn’t normally be so direct in addressing my opinion of a particular philosophy but to me, electing to surrender entirely is the ultimate form of laziness, the abandonment of any hope. I’m not saying that hopelessness isn’t justified sometimes. These are hard times for the global biosphere, for societies right around the world, both struggling against injustice, greed, and conflict, but I am of the opinion that there is always light somewhere. No matter how dark it gets, it’s there somewhere. It just requires courage and determination to keep looking for it.

Therefore, Ultron’s approach to achieving world peace by ending it all is anathema to me. However, anyone who has seen the movie knows that that was not his original purpose, nor did he go off mission in the beginning. So perhaps mine is a loose interpretation of his opening speech, but here’s what I take from it. In a nutshell, we want it all. We want to save the Earth that is, the one we have grown up in, the one we are used to but at the same time, we want massive reform. We want to stop war, crime, climate change, poverty, hunger, pollution, tyranny, extinctions, and every manner of social and environmental injustice. We wave our banners and our flags, we bemoan the state of the world and expect better from our leaders, and many of us maintain a happy-go-lucky attitude that things will change for the better simply because they should.

Just because they should doesn’t mean they will. Just because we complain about something doesn’t mean our leaders will listen.

Our civilization, as is, cannot be maintained if we really want an end to all the things I listed above. Why? Because all of those things are symptoms of the sickness that is our consumptive, capitalist system that reduces everything down to its monetary value, that dehumanises individuals, that allows room for human and environmental tragedy in the name of profit. We all live in this system, we all play into it, whether we like it or not. The demands we place upon the Earth, far beyond its capacity to sustain, is what is driving all our current ecological crises. They in turn feed back into injustices that already existed because of the very nature of our current system, exacerbating them further.

Why, honestly, would we want to save this?

Why would we want to hand down to future generations a system that offers equality, privilege, and abundance to the few at the expense of all others? Why would we want to hand down a system of governance so vulnerable to corruption that it can be moulded like putty in the hands of the already powerful? Why would we want to hand down a wrecked Earth, mired by pollution, racked by an unstable climate, bereft of life and vitality?

The answer is simply, put that way, we wouldn’t, and these questions are moot anyway. We can’t save the current system because it is unstable and at odds with any kind of peace and prosperity in the long-term, and possibly at odds with our continued survival as a species. It operates under the assumption of infinite space and resources on a planet that has neither. Already, the Earth is overburdened by our sheer numbers and the demands that each of us as individuals place upon it on a daily basis. Food, fresh water, living space, raw materials, all of it drawn from the Earth in a largely unsustainable fashion. Eventually, the planet will hit the brakes and cease to give, and where will that leave us?

I think we’ve all been duped into believing that something akin to the American dream is possible for us all, that we all can have huge houses, our own expensive cars, boundless food and material goods, that there can be no end to our satisfaction derived from purchasing disposable objects and gadgets that we can then easily replace. It’s a very dated, very immature mindset, and one that could doom us. One of my favourite quotes is from Gandhi that “the Earth has enough for everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed”. Generally speaking, that is fairly accurate. While the resources exist to provide every person with food, water, housing, transport, and energy, it isn’t possible for every single person to own a Bentley and their own mansion. Yet even to provide that much luxury to a small number of people whilst the other echelons of society in the West receive a diluted form is plunging billions into poverty in the Third World and upending the Earth’s natural systems unlike anything since the asteroid the wrought the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The fact of the matter is that this globalized, capitalist system is a thrill-seeking madman that we are passively riding along with, even as it drives over the edge of the ecological cliff. That is the only way business-as-usual can take us. Yes, we do need reform. Yes, we do need change. However, I don’t think many people appreciate how these changes might affect them personally as individuals. One example is our unsustainable food system. Providing meat and dairy to the West is already a massive drain on resources and is fuelling multiple environmental crises, as I discussed in my previous blogpost about the documentary Cowspiracy. If it meant saving the planet, if it meant feeding everyone on Earth, could everyone honestly say they’d sacrafice at least a portion of their meat and dairy intake and replace it with plant-based foods? Could you make-do with a few ounces a week? Could you take on the ultimate environmentally and socially responsible diet and go vegan? I’m not sure how many would voluntarily subscribe to such a policy if it were ever instituted, but when our Earth can no longer sustain the cattle ranches and the factory farms, it might become mandatory.

Here’s another one that mightn’t be so hard to comprehend but still a challenge. Could you give up on the concept of having your own personal vehicle, could you depend entirely on public transport? Let’s for a moment imagine that these services are timely, readily-available, and cheap if not completely free? That might indeed be easier to swallow. After all, buying and maintaining your own car is expensive and if you had a free alternative at hand, why wouldn’t you choose that instead? I think the reason is that our culture emphasizes private ownership, that having your own car is a symbol of achievement and independence. However, for the sake of cultural norms, we are polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and throwing more vehicles into the mix of a transport network that you might not come out alive from.

When it comes down to it, people aren’t going to make these changes unless they have a good incentive to do so, whether that’s achieved through policies that actually better all people’s lives, and not just corporations and the super-rich, or through the imminent collapse of civilisation as we know it is down to us. Collectively, we need to grow up and face the music. Between climate change, ocean acidification, sea level rise, habitat destruction, and all our other negative environmental influences, we have the potential to make the world a really nasty place where the type of dystopian rule that we imagine in fictional series like The Hunger Games becomes a real possibility, one we are already beginning to slip into, as governments exercise the wrong responses to the growing crises they face.

Our system, based entirely on monetary gain, placing a dollar value on everything, is both impractical and immoral given the realities of our world. It is a system that worked well in more primitive times when there were fewer of us placing a far smaller demand on the planet’s resources but now, it needs a massive overhaul, in fact a straight-up replacement, in order to bring human civilisation in line with the times. Our economy needs to be based on available resources and values, not financial gain and greed. We need to get it out of our heads that perpetual economic growth is a good thing because it only represents success in a narrow spectrum of society. Did you know that investments in health and education count against growth? Yet, the success of a company that manufactures guns or drones contributes to it. What does that say about our current system that educating our children and treating our sick and injured takes away from the value of our society whilst manufacturing weapons to kill does the opposite?

This is what we perpetuate. We are putting all our eggs in the wrong basket and hoping that it can still carry us to that wondrous place where we can have everything and everyone is happy. That isn’t impossible, but we have to accept changes, changes in what we value, in what makes us happy. Instead of our happiness and satisfaction in life being dependent on rampant materialism, perhaps we should emphasize experiencing the world we have and education, so that people can appreciate more what we’ve already been given by default. Maybe we should stop placing so much importance on owning one of everything and instead, rediscover sharing and interdependence, so that we consume less, waste less, and put a lesser strain on the Earth’s resources and its systems. Perhaps, we need just to accept that we are part of this world, not apart from it. The notion that we can somehow hold dominion over it is one that will destroy our environment and our society along with it, if not our entire species.

Our relationship with the planet is at a crossroads. Do we continue down the track we’re on into an unpredictable but most-likely dire future, or do we stop and choose a better path? Do we start to make informed decisions about our future, based on science, and take appropriate action, or do we leave our fate to the whims and opinions of self-motivated politicians and business leaders? As Ultron so aptly asked, how is humanity saved if it not allowed to evolve? How are we to progress under conditions where the ancient dogma and religious beliefs of political leaders can still hold sway and even overrule, or at least undermine, real science? We can’t move forward whilst holding on to the past, dated values, and prejudices. This is why we need a system overhaul. We need to educate ourselves away from these negative compulsions that rule our lives, so we can make better decisions for ourselves and the world at large.

At the end of Avengers, when the last of the Ultron bots faces its end, it states with indignant certainty to Vision, “They are doomed”. Vision agrees solemnly but responds that “something isn’t beautiful because it lasts forever. It is a privilege to be among them”. So, are we doomed? On the scale of geological time, most definitely. The sun, after all, is going to swell into a red giant and swallow the Earth, and the planet will become inhospitable long before that eventuality comes to pass. Unless now, we imagine some wondrous future where humanity is no longer confined to the Earth, even then, the universe itself will one-day, in perhaps trillions of years from now, be unable to support life as we know it. Back to the here and now, because that’s what really matters, our immediate future and that of the coming generations. What kind of world will we leave them to build upon, to work towards all manner of human endeavour, to reach for that amazing future where the fate of our race is not tied to the fate of the Earth?

Well, it won’t happen in a world where the biosphere is burning down around them. They won’t shoot for the stars when their most immediate concern is where the next morsel of food is coming from, as was depicted in the movie Interstellar. Even the achievement of saving ourselves from a dying Earth might be too much to hope for. We may instead devolve into the primitive hunter-gathers or proto-farmers we once were, or just go extinct. To quote Brian Cox, “We are the universe made conscious, we are the means by which the universe understands itself”. What a shame then if we used that remarkable gift to snuff ourselves out.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I think the time to act was thirty years ago. The next best thing we can do is to make the right choices now, for ourselves and together for all humanity, and cut the strings on us that prevent us from doing so. I’d like our privilege as a species of being here, now, to last a little longer than my lifetime.

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.


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BurrenBeo Volunteer Work: Plastic Clean-up Part II

I’ve been meaning to write about my second excursion to clean up the beach at Fanore in Ireland for weeks now, but a lot of life stuff got in the way, my new job foremost, but not complaining about the added income! We basically started were we left off last time, moving further along the coast.

This time around the garbage was fewer and far between, but the pieces we did find were often large. For instance, we came across a big metal gas drum that required two of us to carry and a number of plastic barrels and some tyres. All in all we collected 240kg more garbage from the area.

I don’t have much to say about the experience. Compared to the last one, it was far less intensive with a hell of a lot more trekking along the coast to find things. Still, the weather held, and it’s always amazing to appreciate the beauty of the Burren in fine weather. I took some of the below snaps of plants flowering as spring turns to summer in this unique ecosystem.

burren5 burren6 burren7 burren11 burren10 burren9 burren8

Such a beautiful abundance of flowering plants along just that short stretch of beach. It’s the kind of diversity we should all aim to protect and treasure so that future generations can also appreciate it. I look forward to my next event on June 13th where I’ll be doing a workshop on invasive plant species in Burren and what can be done to manage them.

P.S. if anyone wants to give a shot at identifying these plants for me, please comment below. I’d be very interested to know!


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Cowspiracy: The Greatest Environmental Threat Hiding in Plain Sight?

I have been waiting a good deal of time to watch this documentary, having heard rumblings about it for months and months. When I saw the trailer, it seemed as though, like so many I’d already seen, that it would be informative and provocative, but what I imagined had nothing on the reality of it.

Since the release of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, everyone to some extent knows about climate change and even if they aren’t clear on the exact science, know that the planet is getting warmer and that we human beings are responsible. Generally when one is asked to point to a cause of climate change, they will say fossil fuel burning. The petrol burned in our cars, the oil and gas we burn to heat our homes, the coal we burn in our power plants, all of it is creating carbon dioxide emissions that increase the greenhouse effect, which in turn warms the Earth’s atmosphere, and a warmer atmosphere is a more violent one.

Whilst we can all point to fossil fuels, few know that cutting down forests increases emissions or general changes in land use. What might you ask drives such destruction? One would assume it’s to do with lumber but especially in places like the Amazon, the main driver of logging and rainforest destruction is not for timber but to open up land for cattle ranching and growing feed.

It’s not just what we do to facilitate animal agriculture, though, it’s the animals themselves. Methane is also a greenhouse gas and is produced in large quantities by the digestive processes of cattle. It is 22 to 100 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. This means that raising livestock contributes more to climate change than the whole transport sector at 18% versus only 13% for all cars, trains, planes, and shipping. A World Bank report puts the figure even higher, at 51%, when including the clear-cutting of forests for grazing, animal respiration, and the amount of waste they produce.

It would be bad enough if animal agriculture only significantly contributed to climate change, but that is definitely not the case. It is the main driver of deforestation, as I’ve previously mentioned, but it all drives habitat loss, species extinction, water depletion, and the formation of ocean dead zones. The original UN report that found it to be a greater emission source than transport also stated that it is major cause of resource consumption.

This is staggering. This is a profound realisation, that our demand for meat and dairy is fuelling climate change and every other major environmental crisis of our age. It also contributes to poverty and starvation, as the world has more than enough food grown to feed the world’s human population, but so much of that is diverted to animals that we then eat anyway, losing the majority of the nutritional value of the original crop.

Given all of this, why did it take this documentary to really bring it home for me? Why with all the environmental organisations that I follow am I only hearing about this issue now, let alone its significance? The movie answered that question for me, it’s too sensitive an issue to tackle.

Really? These environmental groups have no problem going after the fossil fuel industry, GMOs, loggers, poachers, whalers, industrial fishing operations, and yet the meat and dairy industry are not even mentioned. How is it that despite these reports that Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Oceana, Amazon Watch, Friends of the Earth, how come all of them aren’t up in arms about this issue and telling their members not to consume meat and dairy. Perhaps because they don’t want to lose their members.

After all, people who genuinely care about the environment, who are willing to sign petitions, picket the streets, commit civil disobedience, are totally going to be turned off the whole green thing if you tell them that their dietary choices are damaging the very thing they want to protect.

Personally, I think these groups grossly underestimate their members but in the end, I can only speak for myself. I tried almost complete veganism for a few months. It wasn’t a hardship and indeed, I found ways to really enjoy the food I was eating. We seem to forget that despite the Western diet being very heavy on meat and dairy that far more variety is found among plant-based foods. I’ve backtracked a bit since then, eating a diet that is 70-80% plant-based but still not consuming any dairy. However, this film has really convinced me that long-term, I should be thinking of moving back the other way again.

One person can’t change much and like Kip Andersen, the co-director of Cowspiracy, we can all get efficient light bulbs, turn off lights and appliances when they’re not in use, turn off our taps when brushing, drive less, and maybe that’ll make some difference. What I’ve come to realise is that I could do all these things, and they would amount to less than if I just chose a plant-based diet. That’s not to say that all the things you typically hear to do to be more green are for naught, they’re just less effective.

Imagine that we all did the most effective thing. Imagine we all collectively divested from meat and dairy, mostly if not completely and utterly. It’s hard to fathom the forests and wildernesses that would be spared destruction, the water that would be saved, the additional food we would have, the emissions cuts. We could create a better world with an agricultural system not based upon the consumptive industrial processes that we have in place today. However, we have to demand that.

This is where I think these organisations that should be championing diet as a means to protect the environment fall down. They are either afraid of backlash from their members, or, as was alluded to in the movie, may be taking hush money from the meat and dairy industry to keep their interests off their radar. I can’t speculate much on that. It would be quite dispiriting if it were true, akin to finding out that Oil Change International were taking money from TransCanada not to advocate against tar sands development.

Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that our food choices play a significant role in environmental destruction and social injustice. Can one really chow down on a Big Mac Burger, knowing that the cost of that meal in water, in emissions, in trees cut down, wildlife lost, and others going hungry is so high? I personally couldn’t, and I think many like me, having all the facts available to them, would feel the same.

So my message to Greenpeace, to Sierra Club, to Climate Reality, to 350.org, to all the environmental organisations is simply this, give your supporters a chance. I’m not asking you to shout from the rooftops “meat and dairy bad, you eat it, you bad”. All I’m saying is that it’s likely that your members are all intelligent, thoughtful people who when presented with the facts, will be able to make their own determination and respond accordingly. I don’t believe that even if they choose not to change their dietary choices that they will then withdraw their support for your organisation, simply because you told them something they didn’t particularly want to hear. These are people who believe in protecting animals and wild places, who believe that clean air and water should be a given, that our oceans should not be a dumping ground, that we should not consume our Earth, overwhelm its natural systems in a frenzy, leaving nothing for future generations.

Yet that is what our food choices demand that we do. We must clear more forest, we must use up every last drop of water, graze every acre, all the while creating huge quantities of waste and emissions that pollute our rivers and oceans and destabilise our climate. Presented with this, anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist, such as myself, has to act. Perhaps the leading environmental organisations who I and many others look to should hold themselves to at least that standard.

P.S. Watch Cowspiracy, I think it is one of the defining documentaries of our time, and the information presented should be everywhere, high and low. Let’s make it so!

Links:

http://www.cowspiracy.com/

Disclaimer:

All opinions put forth in this post are my own. I respect other people’s rights to their own opinions, and no offence is intended to anyone.