Published online 22 April 2009.
Saving the Earth is not an ego trip. Saving the Earth is not something you do so that you can say you planted more trees or created more hybrids or wrote more academic papers or bombed more SUVs or fed more hungry people or arranged more peace deals or wrote more grants or have a purer method or better ethics than the next guy. Saving the Earth is not something you do so that you can stand in judgment of the human race and ask it, “so what have YOU done?”
No, saving the Earth is actually saving the Earth, and understanding it requires a degree of humility that seems at some point to be beyond the current reach of mainstream environmentalism, which wishes to simplify the act of saving the Earth to that which is politically and economically expedient. Saving the Earth, however, must be something that actually saves the Earth, not something which makes us feel like we’re doing it when we’re not.
(crossposted at Docudharma)
Saving the Earth requires humility, but humility is not sufficient to save the Earth. What does humility offer? Humility offers you the ability to distinguish what we do for ourselves from what we do for the Earth.
Humility is also essential to the collectivist attitude which will be necessary to saving the Earth. Saving the Earth will not be any sort of competition: either the Earth will be saved, or it won’t, and I will never be able to save the Earth before you do, nor you before me. If I claim more resources than you, moreover, allowing you fewer resources will not make it easier for me to save the Earth. Working together, and sharing fairly, will provide us all with the energy we need to save the Earth.
Let me suggest a division of activities, which will make my point about saving the Earth clear. We drive hybrids for ourselves. We conserve, we recycle, we bicycle, we plant French Intensive gardens for ourselves. Those are all good things which we do for ourselves. We must do them — even if they just make us happy, we have a need to be happy, like everyone else, and so satisfying that need is a prerequisite to anything else we may wish to do. But doing “green” things for ourselves does not make us any better than anyone who is not doing “green” things for themselves.
Anyone who is human should be able to understand, empathetically, that people have to take care of themselves. The confusion arises, however, when those things we do to take care of ourselves are promoted as “saving the Earth.” Recycling is not “saving the Earth” — recycling may be better for the Earth than an indiscriminate accumulation of trash, to be sure, but recycling can also serve as an apology for general corporate creation of trash, both industrial and consumer. Recycling, to be sure, uses energy, and in our phase most energy comes from burning fossil fuels. And then, invariably, there arises the mountain of newspaper etc. which cannot be recycled (even though we may put it all in a recycling center) simply because it costs too much (under capitalist economic conditions) to do so. Newspaper, last I checked, costs $2 per ton. Nobody is going to get rich recycling newspaper. I put my parents’ paper in the bin, to be sure, but I don’t make a business of recycling newspaper.
Saving the Earth is a social thing as much as it is a matter of defending nature directly (through tree-sitting and so on). Saving the Earth will require deep and committed collectivism. Saving the Earth is about an outcome if it is about anything, and this outcome must be that of a human society living harmoniously (in an ecosystem state of equilibrium) with planet Earth. We must take great care as co-creators of that human society. Saving the Earth is about that great care.
That having been said, there stands much confusion in today’s world society, my society, about what it really takes to save the Earth from abrupt climate change, aka “global warming.” Part of this has to do with a political flaw in the literature — predigested discussions on abrupt climate change tend to play down the actual risk to humankind and to ecosystems of planet Earth, because the scientists do not want to scare everyone silly. The fact of the matter is that all that is really shielding us from some rather persistently hot temperatures is that the feedback from yesterday’s carbon emissions has not yet come true today. But, never to worry; feedback will arrive, and we will cook.
So how to save the Earth from abrupt climate change? Merely adapting to the circumstances created by the human burning of fossil fuels is at present an underrated option. The human race has given planet Earth a shroud of 387 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide — the odds are high that we will have to live with all of that CO2.
(from Wikimedia Commons)
Here is a graph illustrating carbon dioxide levels and average temperatures, from research on the Vostok ice cores in Antarctica. Note a rather strong correlation between the green line and the blue line — they follow each other. As CO2 goes up, temperature goes up. The current position of the green line, indicating CO2 levels, is, however, not on this chart. We are currently at 387 parts per million, according to NOAA, and increasing by 2 parts per million per year. So the green line is currently up an inch or more from where it is on this chart. It is only a matter of time before the blue line does the same.
The first question that might come to mind is one of whether we can or can’t stop the increase, and what can we do?
One obvious answer which comes to mind is that of not burning fossil fuels any more. “Cap-and-trade” schemes, such as those promoted by the Obama administration, are really motivated by the need to save capitalism for the rich while falsely appearing to do something. The failure of Kyoto shows this as well as anything else. Higher fossil fuel taxes, given the existing system, will only stop a little bit of optional consumption, and then motivate people to find ways of avoiding the tax, like, say, moving their businesses to low-tax countries.
Seriously, if you want to avoid burning fossil fuels, you have to keep them in the ground, and make sure everyone else does so too. Once they’re extracted and refined, they’re going to be burned. A moratorium on new coal plants, such as that promoted by 1sky.org , would therefore not save the Earth, and if we are promoting such a thing as saving the Earth, well, that is an indicator of how little we are actually willing to do to compromise the capitalist system in order to save the Earth. (This was a website recommended to me by one of my fellow conference organizers.)
Only doing things that will preserve capitalism will not save the Earth. Capital accumulation, the driving force of capitalism, is the main force bringing the Earth to ruination. See Paul Prew’s analysis in “The 21st Century World Ecosystem” for an understanding of why this is so. Capitalism divides the world into resource extraction zones and centers of accumulations, and forces the former to serve the latter. When the extraction zones are fully depleted, the game is up.
Capitalism is only “something we do for ourselves” for a few of us. And by “a few of us,” here, I mean the RICHEST few, especially those 794 billionaires (and a few of their slightly less fortunate multimillionaire hangers-on, maybe incl. that top 1% of America which owns half of its non-home capital assets) who exist amidst a bottom half of the human race who earn less than $2.50/day.
Thus if we were to pass a moratorium on coal-fired plants, it would be something we do for ourselves, not something which would save the Earth. Passing a moratorium on coal-fired plants would make them feel good, while the Chinese (whose growth, according to Minqi Li, is fueled by coal to the tune of about 70%) would continue to bring Earth to ruination, possibly using coal mined in the US. Remember, doing things for ourselves is not a bad thing. I am not “calling out” 1sky.org .
If the human race (as a WHOLE) were actually to give up a whole grade of fossil fuel, such as, say, coal, that would be doing something meaningful and important to save the Earth. The coal mines would then be abandoned and the coal would stay in the ground, providing real protection for the atmosphere (as opposed to the Kyoto Protocol, which provides no protection at all.)
Most importantly, doing this would require public control over the production of energy, which would be a major step forward toward actually saving the Earth because it would place saving the Earth as a priority more important than capitalism. Public control over the production of energy would also save a lot of people’s lives. Here’s how it works:
About half of America’s electricity comes from coal. The government institutes energy rationing, so that that half of America which needs to survive cold winters through internal heating is allowed to do so. Other sources of energy are made to substitute for coal, while America rushes to make up for the deficit caused by no coal-burning through a crash program in energy conservation and permaculture-based energy engineering.
When saving the Earth, we need to recognize that people will do what’s necessary for themselves. Everyone needs to survive. More capital accumulation, however, is not strictly necessary for survival.
Saving the Earth, of course, would make us better than those who act to bring the ecosystems upon the Earth, and the human societies which enjoy them, to ruination. But “making us better” will require that we actually DO save the Earth. If we don’t save the Earth, forget it. This is not likely, however. We should be under no illusions that we can save the Earth all by ourselves. We will need help, no matter how big our egos are.
Saving the Earth would be an achievement to hold to a MUCH higher standard than ANY of the standards we hold for doing “green” things for ourselves. Saving the Earth will require major social change. It will require changes at the deepest level of our mode of production — production will have to be redirected from its present-day aim, “production for production’s sake” (or “production for the money economy,” take your pick), toward a different activity — production as stabilizing ecosystems.
Toward this goal, it is important to note that people, in their current modes of production, are willfully NOT saving the Earth. (This is, importantly, not something they do for themselves.) Species are dying off at catastrophic rates. Coral reefs are disappearing, taking whole ecosystems with them. Our fisheries have wiped out 90% of the major fish species. And then there’s abrupt climate change. Saving the Earth means stopping the momentum of this destruction. It doesn’t mean any of the “50 simple things you can do to save the Earth” — conserving energy, for instance, will just allow someone else to burn more energy at cheaper rates, and under an economic system which demands compulsive energy use from “competitive businesses,” conservation is, well, it’s something we do for ourselves. Saving the Earth, then, means NOT destroying the Earth, and if it is to work then there must be a “critical mass” of people on board. I am not sure how big that “critical mass” must be — but one thing IS for sure — it is a LOT bigger than the “critical mass” which exists today.
I went to a conference all day last Saturday; it was one I helped to arrange myself. This was a conference of environmentalists, more or less; at the opening, keynote speaker Minqi Li laid out the hard facts — continued attempts to resuscitate the capitalist system will lead to ecological catastrophe, eventually bringing about the death of most of the human race.
One rather compelling aspect of Professor Li’s speech was when he discussed the Chinese and the Indians, and their continued refusal to abide by any “greenhouse gas emission targets.” The Third World’s argument along these lines is airtight — “you in the rich countries had economic development through fossil-fuel burning, so who are you to deny us what you have already accomplished?” This third-world audience is only to be swayed if critical sectors of the economy (beginning with energy) are to be placed out of reach of the capitalist system, out of the whole rat race of hoarding and competition. The rat race of hoarding and competition, of course, is what guides the behavior of the Chinese and Indian elites. It is our fault as the First World for having started this unsavory game, so it is our responsibility to be the first to stop.
I also went to an anarchist conference, on Tuesday. There we met Keith McHenry, the founder of Food Not Bombs, and the creative writer Derrick Jensen, who was available through videoconference. McHenry was about direct action to feed hungry people, regardless of who they are, and about nonviolence as a positive tool in struggles for social justice. Both direct action and nonviolence are important in the necessary struggle to meet basic human needs. People need what they need — and so once you meet basic needs, then and only then can people start to think about other things which they might need — like a planet which will support human life.
Jensen, for his part, laid out the same message which is evident in his books — you have to “do what it takes” to save the Earth. For Jensen, this means an antipathy to “civilization,” by which he means industrial capitalism.
Unfortunately, the anarchist conference, like the conference I arranged, went into “big ego moments,” moments of publicly aired argument about who was doing more than whom to save the Earth. These arguments are, in substance, not important. However, as long as we depend upon these moments, and their corresponding bickering sessions, for our energy, nobody will really save the Earth. We must, then, stop believing in saving the Earth as a form of competition, and develop the necessary humility and collectivist attitude.