What resources are available to us?
There is a great deal of momentum behind our current direction of travel. But momentum for change has been building as well. And there are a number of positive signs, in terms of the resources available to us.
For a start, all the material technologies we need to change our current direction are already available, and more and better technologies are being continually developed. Renewable sources of energy, sustainable agricultural practices, cheap and plentiful communication and information systems, new forms of funding for investment, cooperative and not-for-profit corporations, whole-of-life production and disposal systems, affordable and effective housing…the list goes on…but they are all here now.
What is stopping our accelerated use of them is the ongoing use of dinosaur technologies such as fossil fuels, industrial agriculture, and neoclassical economic thinking, mediated through a world financial system which is broken, all of which serves the wishes of the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the world, but keeps enough of us in the affluent world comfortable enough to help them keep the wheels of their extraction machine turning.
Now that was a long sentence.
To summarise it, there is nothing stopping us from changing but our fear of own temporary discomfort.
The second piece of good news is that we have an abundance of non-destructive energy and of human ingenuity available to help us build a more sustainable and, indeed, a regenerative society.
Direct solar power is to all intents and purposes infinite, wind power is more or less infinitely renewable, and water power, when properly extracted, is both renewable and can be very low cost. There are costs of transition, but all countries need to follow Germany’s lead, and make major commitments to renewable energy. Germany is aiming at 40% reductions in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by 2020 and 80+% reductions by 2050, including 100% renewable electricity supply. Many countries’ Paris COP21 commitments are only a fumbling and partial first step – and in New Zealand’s case, they are a grudging and minimal response.
But the costs of renewable energy are coming down fast. Costs of wind and solar power have more or less halved over the last 6-7 years[i], and, led particularly by China and Germany, investment in renewables research and scaled up production is massively increasing. The International Energy Agency now predicts that renewables will produce more than half the world’s power by 2030, even on the COP21 trajectory (which still leads to 2.7 degrees warming by 2100)[ii].
I’ve talked about human ingenuity at material technologies in chapter 24. If we turned some of this ingenuity to non-material technologies, such as social systems, and avoided the traps of linear thinking and arrogance which have beset us, who knows what sorts of new systems and societies we might create. As long as we have the humility to learn from the people who have been creating and maintaining them already, including many indigenous societies, and movements such as the Zapatistas and La Via Campesina.
Third, and possibly the best news of all, is that we probably have a significant majority, if not a vast majority, of support for making the necessary changes.
I firmly believe that most people in this world would settle for a peaceful life somewhat above subsistence level, with mutual support to ensure that each had a fair opportunity to fulfil whatever potential they had. Some will always be over-aggressive, some will always be over-greedy, some will always seek power over others, and some will never see the good in others, or the common causes that they share. But most are capable of reining in their worst impulses themselves, or will respond to social pressure to do so.
The system we now have will never get us to that peaceful world. It is accentuating and increasing difference, concentrating wealth and power, and degrading our environment. Some people have understood this for a long time, some have learned it recently, and some have yet to learn it. But once they do understand it, there is no going back to acceptance of the status quo, unless they feel helpless to do anything about it.
And my message in this Part is that individually we are NOT helpless. That, while the big battalions seem to hold all the power, it has been proven time and time again throughout history that the will of the people can prevail, and that mass and other citizen actions can bring down even the most powerful. Whether by taking away some of the supports of power, or by democratic process, or by revolution, it can be done. In Chapter 40, “So how might I start?”, I suggest six small, initial steps which might be taken by those who are uncertain of how they might start doing more to bring about a better world, for themselves and for each other.
The final piece of good news is that a lot of people are already doing a lot about the issues. There are many progressive groups doing what they can to push back against the many wrong-doings of the current system. You may not agree with all that all the groups are doing, but you will almost certainly agree with at least some of what some groups are doing.
And they are doing it because they believe in a better world than the one we currently inhabit, not just for themselves, but for all of us. From the gentle persuasion of “Forest and Bird” societies, through progressive think tanks and networks, to more strident activism at group and mass levels by groups such as 350.org and Greenpeace, their common purpose is a better world for all.
Activism within the governance sphere
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the peak international body for addressing climate change issues, and it held its 21st session of the “Conference of the Parties” (COP21) in December in 2015. The conference was a natural target for activists, to try to accelerate responses from within the system.
For all its faults and limitations, the UN is an essential part of the global governance system, where virtually all nations have a voice, even if the few superpowers predominate. But its strength – the presence of the nation-states – is balanced by the fact that it is reliant on their willingness to respond to its voice back in their own countries.
The UN has produced a wonderful set of frameworks, treaties, and agreements aimed at a better world, but has had only very limited success in their implementation. The 17 new “Sustainable Development Goals” released in September 2015 are an excellent example. Goal 1 is “End poverty in all its forms everywhere”, and Goal 2 is “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. Laudable, but requiring a new world order. Goal 1 might have been more effectively expressed as “End unnecessary wealth in all its forms everywhere”.
And COP21 ended with strong declarations about the climate, including a target of no more than 2 degrees for global warming, and an aspirational target of less than 1.5 degrees. But it created no systems for monitoring, let alone enforcing, the voluntary commitments of member states, which of themselves will not achieve the targets.
Organisations such as Via Campesina were scathing about COP21, calling it a “masquerade”, and comparing the non-binding agreements made there to trade agreements, which are binding[iii].
Overall, COP21 does seem to have created increased awareness, and perhaps some positive momentum – in the words of political leaders, at least. Bill McKibben summarised his own view thus:
“I think that while it didn’t save the planet, it may have saved the chance to save it – that it didn’t actually foreclose the possibility. Actually getting anywhere will now require massive organising to hold leaders to their promises.”[iv]
At regional or club level, we can expect little from the G20, or the G8, or the EU, or any other groupings of the larger, or more powerful, or more affluent countries. They tend to be strong on rhetoric and weak on action, protecting their own groupings at the expense of the whole. However, the EU may well be forced into more effective action as the migrations from the south continue, and it becomes more generally accepted that their root causes basically amount to hyperconsumption by the affluent countries.
More hopeful groupings are the G77 (a grouping of 77 “developing” countries, now plus China, at the UN), and ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas. Initially set up between Venezuela and Cuba in 2014, ALBA has grown to include 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries, and continues to grow. It has just introduced its own regional currency (the “sucre”), and is a leading voice from the non-affluent world on matters of poverty, food security, and climate change.
Here are some pertinent extracts from Evo Morales’ (President of Bolivia, member of ALBA and G77+China) address to the COP20 summit in Lima, Peru:
“…our indigenous grandparents have taught us that a just society has to be based on three principles: “Ama Sua”, “Ama Llulla”, “Ama Quella” – do not steal, do not lie, and do not be lazy.
“…there are some greedy countries that want to consume by themselves what remains of the atmospheric space. These countries have been stealing from us since colonial times and they want to continue stealing. They are stealing our future, the future of our children and grandchildren, and they are robbing us of the possibility that we can develop in a sustainable way.
“…we cannot continue a new climate agreement in which countries lie to each other…
“…the developed countries do not want to increase their emissions reduction goals, and still less do they want to implement their commitments under the Framework Convention in terms of adaptation, provision of financing and technology, and development of capacities.
“…We do not steal atmospheric space and the right to development that corresponds [sic – perhaps “belongs”?] to other countries, particularly the poor countries. We do not lie, and we do not cheat; we fulfil the agreements to which we have subscribed. We are not lazy and we make agreements with ambitious promises that require us to ensure the integrity of our Mother Earth, and that incorporate all the elements of mitigation, adaptation, financing, technology and capital development.”
We need to look to the groupings of middle income and poor countries for leadership on our current challenges.
At the national level, there are some positive developments, albeit patchy, somewhat reactive, and in grave danger of being “too little, too late”. For example, I have already mentioned Germany’s commitments, and China’s efforts to get beyond coal[v]. Even the United States’ is reducing electricity use as a result of federal and state energy efficiency policies[vi].
And the world’s subnational and city governments are becoming more activist. Urban areas apparently account for 75% of human emissions. So city governments are much closer to the front-line than national governments and have to deal directly with issues such as industrial and transport pollution, waste management, weather turbulence and flooding, sea-level rise, and food availability and distribution.
A conference of 60 Mayors from major cities sponsored by the Pope in July 2015 signed a strong declaration on climate change, and outlined their local plans and actions. And the “C40” group, representing 80 cities with more than 600 million people in them, is sharing best practice and experience in a bid to reduce their emissions[vii]. Again in the US, some cities are making commitments to – and in some cases rapidly achieving – 100% renewable energy[viii]
Activism within the social (non-government and voluntary) sphere
There are tens of thousands of non-government organisations working in the sphere of progressive activism.
Following publication of his book “Blessed Unrest” in 2007, Paul Hawken launched “WiserEarth.org”, an on-line directory and community space for social and environmental groups. It listed over 100,000 groups, under various categories, of the 1 million plus Hawken estimated there actually were.
It was closed down in 2014 due to lack of funding – a fairly common occurrence in the progressive world. But part or all of its datasets were passed on to other similar organisations such as guidestar.org and itstimenetwork.org (both focussed on the US), and earthdeeds.org (international). WiserEarth also recommended a number of networking groups to help build collaboration and support local action, such as idealist.org, pachamama.org, and netsquared.org (all international).
The large international religions are likely to be an increasingly strong voice, not just on climate change, but on food security and poverty. The Pope’s recent encyclical was a call to arms both within and beyond the Catholic Church. Islamic leaders from 20 countries have also issued a strong statement aimed at both Muslims and world leaders[ix].
The “big green” groups have a patchy record as some of them, like some progressive political parties, have been and continue to be trapped in the false logic of “engagement” and “market solutions”. Naomi Klein is particularly scathing about this[x], citing big green’s support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Environmental Defence Fund’s funding from big corporations, and its support for fracking.
However, large international green groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and (in a much less compromised way) Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have a long and proud track record of standing up for conservation values.
But a lot of the activist energy now comes from what I’ll call “new green” groups. 350.org (founded by Bill McKibben, of “the frightening new math of climate change” fame), thischangeseverything.org and its partner “beautiful solutions” (founded after publication of Naomi Klein’s book), transitionnetwork.org (the Transition Towns umbrella group, founded in 2006) and avaaz.org (an online campaigning platform – “avaaz” means “voice”) may be newcomers, but they are attracting a lot of support.
They are also usually sophisticated in using new media to push the message. I particularly like the criticism thrown at avaaz in Wikipedia, that it seeks to replace “activism” with “clicktivism”. “Clicktivism” is a great word, and illustrates a real risk in an affluent world which includes ever-greater numbers of couch-potatoes. But, for now, I’ll go along with the ability to raise massive numbers of voices in electronic support for a campaign as a plus, and as a complement to on-the-ground activism rather than a replacement for it.
Direct mass action has an underlying problem of coordination and publicity as previously discussed, which the more activist new groups mentioned above are working on improving. The “Occupy” movement is also still functioning, having had some success with bringing key issues to wider public attention for some time. And a recent movement in France, “Nuit debout” (literally, “rise up at night”), started mass action at the beginning of April 2016 across a range of related fronts, using timing and processes that look very effective (maybe only in France, with its long and proud record of mass action – but maybe not)[xi].
One action by newer groups which seems to be having success is removing investments from fossil fuels. My information goes no earlier than 2012, when a Harvard group started a divestment campaign. This campaign is gaining a lot of momentum, with the value of organisations committing to divest apparently increasing fifty-fold in the last year, and an unknown amount, but certainly more than $50 billion, of committed divestments already[xii]. According to 350.org, groups representing $3.4 trillion in assets have now committed to divestment – but how much of that $3.4 trillion is actually invested in fossil fuels is unclear[xiii].
In yet another approach, people are starting to use the law to influence their governments. A Dutch environmental group, “Urgenda”, recently successfully sued their government to take more urgent action on climate change, on the basis that it was infringing their human rights[xiv]. And there are ongoing legal challenges being mounted in the United States, albeit with only moderate success so far[xv].
Then there are the progressive think tanks, who complement the activist groups by working on new possibilities. I am only aware of a few, but thenextsystem.org and thinkprogress.org in the United States, and ripess.org and steadystate.org internationally, are good examples.
Finally, let’s go in-country. In New Zealand, the Forest and Bird Society has been operating for over 90 years, and most of the international green groups are represented here. On environmental matters, the umbrella group eco.org.nz has about 60 member organisations, mostly local activist groups. Generationzero.org, founded in 2012 as a youth organisation to combat climate change, has been innovative in its campaigns so far. And neweconomics.net.nz is essentially a thinktank dedicated to exploring and promoting a new economics, primarily based on rethinking money.
This is a just a sampling of the many active groups, based on my own knowledge. There are thousands more out there, which can be found with a little exploration.
Activism within the economic sphere
Three of the think tanks in the section above (ripess.org, steadystate.org, and neweconomics.net.nz) are primarily about redesign of the economic system. They focus on the design of economies based respectively on social solidarity, a steady state of production (ie non-growth), and new monetary systems.
The rest of this section is about what is happening inside the system itself. And, not surprisingly, the list is quite short.
We have to treat the declarations and actions from within this sphere with caution. The long and growing history of corporate lies and deceptions has been evident in the climate change area just as it has been previously in the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, for example.
Many corporations have jumped onto the “sustainable development” bandwagon. And with good reason. To transition to a more sustainable society will need a huge retooling of our existing technologies, in energy, in transport, and in agriculture. There must be profits to be made out of this.
But, just as their “corporate responsibility accounting” is by and large flannel, on the margin of their core activities, and done purely to respond to external calls for greater accountability, so sustainability will be of interest to them only so long as it serves their image, their core activities, and their profitability.
A prime example of this is the development of electric cars. These are being promoted as the “green” solution to personal transport, yet they simply operate as a less carbon-based substitute for petrol and diesel cars. They are still part of an unsustainable individualistic, high consumption economy.
So, what are the corporations and the capitalists doing which amounts to a real contribution to a solution? Well, there is “Conscious Capitalism”. I hope this movement is not characterised by the lead off quote on its website from one of its trustees, Ed Freeman, “Capitalism is the most successful form of social cooperation ever created”. Fascinating. And blind. But some of the material I have seen on what they are doing, such as trying to internalise what were previously externalised costs, seems to show promise.
Then there is the “B Corp” movement referred to in chapter 36, which is aiming to put objectives other than profit at the core of corporate activity through legislative change.
And, getting better now, the various cooperative enterprises and movements, aiming to operate in a more democratic and egalitarian way within an anarchic and elitist system.
There are the attempts to make corporate reporting better across all spheres of impact, not just profitability. Jane Gleeson-White’s “Six Capitals” concludes that all this effort won’t amount to much as long as they are operating within a “for-profit” system.
And finally, there are the actions of some individual corporations, which attempt to act with integrity in a system which is basically inimical to ethics and responsibility. The struggles and partial successes of the late Anita Roddick (founder of the Body Shop) to promote environmentalism and fair trade are well documented. I also referred in chapter 28 to Wilmar Corporation’s recent attempt to reduce the destruction of Asian rainforests in pursuit of palm oil production. And I recently came across Ecosia, a German company which produces a search engine with 2 million users, and puts 80% of its profits into tree planting in Africa and Brazil – an interesting example of the application of B Corp-type thinking[xvi].
But the triers are few, and the successes are fewer. For every corporation attempting to operate in a more ethical manner, ten or a hundred are blindly pursuing profit and market dominance. As the system encourages them to do.
And they are supported in this by most governments of affluent countries, who still believe that GDP growth is the core measure of societal success, and that capitalism, the current financial system and the corporation are the best way to achieve this.
[i] See for example “5 Climate And Clean Energy Charts From 2015 You Need To See”, ClimateProgress, 17 Dec 2015
[ii] See “By 2030, Renewables Will Be the World’s Primary Power Source”, ClimateProgress, 27 Jan 2016
[iii] See “COP21: The curtain falls on a masquerade” Via Campesina, 13 Dec 2015
[iv] See “5 Questions for Bill McKibben on the Paris Climate Agreement”, Yale Environment 360, 18 Dec 2015
[v] See for example “China Redoubles Its War On Coal”, Climate Progress, 29 Feb 2016
[vi] See “U.S. Electricity Sales Dropped in 2015 For Fifth Time in 8 Years”, ClimateProgress, 15 Mar 2016
[vii] See for example, “The Carbon Reduction Efforts of the World’s Major Cities”, ClimateProgress 23/11/2015
[viii] See “What Will It Take For America To Go 100 Percent Renewable?”, ClimateProgress 21 Jan 2016
[ix] See “Islamic Leaders Call For Phasing Out Global Fossil Fuels”, ClimateProgress, 18/08/2015, http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/08/18/3692568/muslim-leaders-climate-change-statement/
[x] “This Changes Everything”, p83ff, loc1540ff
[xi] See for example “Staying up all night to call for change” NZ Sunday Star Times 10 Apr 2016, p B10
[xii] See http://gofossilfree.org/commitments/, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/22/leonardo-dicaprio-joins-26tn-fossil-fuel-divestment-movement, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fossil_fuel_divestment
[xiv] See for example, “Netherlands ordered to cut emissions by courts after 900 civilians sue government”, The Telegraph (UK), 24/06/2015
[xv] See for example “Can This Group Of Kids Force The Government To Act On Climate Change?” Climate Progress, 25 Nov 2015
[xvi] See “The Search Engine That’s Using Its Profits To Plant Millions Of Trees”, ClimateProgress, 18 Feb 2016