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Climate change: if we can’t have evolution, how about revolution?

October 1, 2012

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.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2012 12:12 pm

    I’ve been thinking of how else change can come about, and I’m stumped.
    The closest analogy I come up with is Russia 1905-1917, when everyone knew the game was up with the Tsarist autocracy, but no one actually did anything about it.
    We’ve got universal education, the science is all out there, and still the forces of apathy, inertia and reaction (the deniers) prevent the required change. Witness the recent CiF articles on charging for plastic carrier bags in England, a tiny change and yet people still seem able to whinge about that !

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 4, 2012 6:33 am

    Hello again, and welcome to the show that never starts. (Christ – things must be really bad if I’m now paraphrasing Emerson Lake and Palmer!)

    I think about an analogy with supertankers. Once on course, they can take 15 miles to bring to a halt, so much intertia do they have. While denial is a problem – specifically in the UK and US, and not much elsewhere – I suspect the real problem is the same thing that stumps us both. How do you change the course of a global civilisation hell-bent on chucking itself over a cliff?

    I’m at the point now of trying to separate what I think worth keeping from what we need to dispose of. I’ve asked myself the obvious question: what, exactly, is worth saving? Sure, there’s the obvious stuff – culture, creativity in all its guises, the knowledge we’ve gained – but the economic, political and social systems all seem either self-destructive or broadly atavistic (ancient cultures clashing with a hyper-active modernity, itself of dubious merit), and political systems that promise democracy while constantly undermining it through self-interest.

    I feel like I’ve come full circle, right back to where I started with the book Small Epiphanies. This paradigm, this civilisation, is coming to a timely end, brought about because it isn’t actually possible to make it work on such a scale as we are now attempting. It is time to grow up, dispense with that social machinery that clearly no longer works at all, and develop something radically different, in which the individual is the most important component rather than, as present, the least.

    And I don’t think we can bring this about voluntarily, because our consumerist economic model just ploughs along regardless of where the journey will take us all. When I wrote the book back in 2002, I said that to bring about the kind of change I was advocating would require a remarkably powerful catalyst, and I suggested that the combination of climate change, the end of cheap energy, and population growth, would provide the spur needed to chuck the children out of their nest and into reality. All the while, I secretly hoped I was wrong…

  3. October 7, 2012 12:14 pm

    Hi Graham,

    Sorry you didn’t like my post response here the other day. Never mind, I defend to the last your right to reject it. It’s your blog not mine. Try this:

    You say 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.

    Yes, I agree!

    I think that your position and mine on climate change have now somehow met in the middle.

    I agree that dangerous climate change would indeed be a strong enough signal that would correct the undoubted problems you describe.

    I agree that expanded population pressures, rampant over indulgence, and the consequent political instability of out-of-control governments, who today seem entirely unable to control their own finances (what an advertisement for the rest of us!) would all be swept away by an eventual and possibly bloody call to arms – just as always happens in any war-threatening situation.

    Yes, I agree that if you are correct over climate change there will eventually be an unavoidable and very unpleasant correction as the predicted extreme warming causes great disruption and world conflict. And I think you are absolutely right to conclude now that reason and moderation will not prevail any time soon, due to the shortcomings of human nature.

    Similarly, should it turn out that I am right and that there will be no significant warming, beyond the same old long-term average rise in temperature of under half a degree C per century that has been going on for hundreds of years, then I believe the excesses that trouble us both will still not have gone away. Consequently they alone will cause the same eventual extreme disruption and conflict.

    So, given your conclusion and mine, wouldn’t it be best to relax and allow the process to work out, one way or the other, over the next decade or so?

    Shall we take a rain check on that temperature graph in 2022?

    Best regards
    David

  4. markhb permalink
    October 11, 2012 6:09 am

    Great blog as usual Graham. Revolution is indeed inevitable in so many situations where the system cant evolve fast enough, as we have seen in recent years with the collapse of the USSR and the breakdown of the Eastern Bloc and now the so called Arab Spring presently provoking such convulsions in Syria. Climate change, peaking resources and the end of growth will leave more governments unable to meet the expectations of their peoples.
    There’s many problems with revolution though which mean that it’s a bit of a last resort.
    The collateral damage can be immense, and can include famines.
    Desperate times indeed. Keeping the best of modern civilisation whilst losing the worst remains an admirable ideal, but all too often the good tends to get chucked out with the bad, so maybe some new concept of social change are required?

  5. August 7, 2013 6:25 pm

    I don’t think there are enough people with the courage to go up against the established order – it would take a moderate proportion of the total population, most of whom still do not perceive the severity of the problem accurately.

    That leaves rebuilding something from the ashes and hoping lessons can be learned and the traps our species fell into this time avoided in another attempt. That is a very long term outlook – probably over thousands of years or more.

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