Climate change: if we can’t have evolution, how about revolution?
When it became clear to me that knowing the right answers was a tricky and rather subjective proposition, I concluded that it might be more practical to ensure that, at minimum, I was actually asking the right questions.
I’ve been writing about climate change for quite a while now, and despite my growing disquiet, the thrust of my arguments has always been to advocate some kind of evolution, where what we have now is, for the most part, retained. In other words, I have hoped that it was possible we could transition from the destructive, confrontational and often violent norms that have led us here, towards something more sane, balanced, and egalitarian. Why should our aspirations not reach for a better world, a fairer world? Is our undoubted inventiveness to be defeated by such a proposition. Are we really incapable of sharing wealth, of finding sufficient respect for each other and for the environment on which we depend utterly that we don’t severely fuck it up even as we extract everything of value from it, and fight with anyone who stands in our way?
Ah…idealism. Glad I’ve got some, even at my age, but it is time for me to reflect on the pragmatic implications. Major changes that so many of us have advocated are not taking place. Others proceed at a snail’s pace, driven not by altruism or care for each other, but through a desire for ever more personal wealth, ever more power over each other, ever more violent means to impose one’s national will on other countries, other peoples, over the natural wealth and resources that we want, but don’t want to pay for.
I am led therefore to ask a more fundamental question: is it actually possible to halt climate change? My answer for some time has been ‘no’. The reason: I believe that the degradation of the environment is a component of consumerism – or perhaps more accurately, materialism – that cannot be decoupled from the benefits we have accrued. As developing nations seek that which we already have here in the ‘west’, they are doing to the environment and their societies exactly what we did, only much, much faster. The pattern is clear; a most basic study of the industrial revolution reveals the same problems, the same bad solutions, the same inevitable outcomes – which is why we are witnessing, for example, the emergence of an Asian plutocracy as China, India and others tread a now well-worn path.
The difference is scale; the sheer number of poor people who now expect to lift themselves out of poverty, and will threaten social stability if they are denied the chance. Our expectations – all of us – cannot be made to be consistent with environmental sustainability, because we have learned, or are learning, to measure ourselves and our worth in purely material terms. God is indeed dead (or dying), replaced by iPads and the like.
My conclusion is this: until we learn to measure ourselves, our worth, the quality of our lives, in ways other than by what we own and what we consume, then our rapacious greed will never be satiated. It appears to be an impossible, or perhaps paradoxical, proposition – halt climate change, but maintain the output of goods and the depletion of finite resources nearly all of us demand, now or in the near future. What on Earth could make us change our ways, adopt new values…and most importantly, dispense with a creaking old system that cannot be made to work because its design was never intended to accommodate so many people fairly, just the few who always had their hands on the levers of power through hereditary rights or acquired wealth.
What alternative then is there, if we cannot evolve as a society, as a civilisation? What force, what great power, could sweep away the decaying institutions and values that have trapped us in this self-destructive spiral, now spinning so fast that no-one can understand, let alone control it? What could force us to change our ways when we are overcome by our complacency and our inability to put away childish things? To bring about revolution if we cannot bring ourselves to design and enact some kind of evolution?
The answer, disturbingly, is climate change.