I am observing my own reactions after reading George Monbiot’s powerful essay, ‘The Earth is in a death spiral. It will take radical action to save us.’ I thought I would share them.
Monbiot writes about Extinction Rebellion, a radical activist group in the UK. The group calls for UK carbon emissions to reach net zero by 2025 - an almost impossible aim. And yet, Monbiot agrees that the threat is so great, only goals like this actually make any sense. “Softer aims might be politically realistic, but they are physically unrealistic. Only shifts commensurate with the scale of our existential crises have any prospect of averting them. Hopeless realism, tinkering at the edges of the problem, got us into this mess. It will not get us out.”
I have studied the ecological evidence in enough depth to totally agree with his conclusions, which are pretty much what the IPCC Report tells us, as well. If we as a species do not take radical action now to reduce our impact on the planet, we will most likely bring about our own extinction - and this could happen faster than we imagine.
Monbiot points out that, just 11,600 years ago, temperatures rose 10 degrees Celsius within a decade. This can happen again. Scientists have warned us of this. “Public figures talk and act as if environmental change will be linear and gradual,” he notes. “But the Earth’s systems are highly complex, and complex systems do not respond to pressure in linear ways.”
The problem is that this radical action requires a total commitment - something we haven’t seen in this country since World War Two. At that point, we mobilized against a clear, foreign enemy who had bombed us at Pearl Harbor. Monbiot agrees this is relevant:
“When the US joined the second world war in 1941, it replaced a civilian economy with a military economy within months. As Jack Doyle records in his book Taken for a Ride, “In one year, General Motors developed, tooled and completely built from scratch 1,000 Avenger and 1,000 Wildcat aircraft … Barely a year after Pontiac received a navy contract to build anti-shipping missiles, the company began delivering the completed product to carrier squadrons around the world.””
So I recognize all of this to be true: We require at this point a total civilizational commitment to address climate catastrophe and the biospheric rupture we have induced. If we don’t address this, our children will probably not survive until middle age. Our lives may also be violently curtailed.
Then I look at my life - how I enjoy my comforts, my distractions, and my friends. The thought of devoting the next decades of my life monomaniacally to the needs of the Earth seems a daunting and depressing one. Perhaps it is best to just enjoy these last few years of relative normalcy before things disintegrate and collapse.
I just watched a Facebook video by Jamie Wheal of The Flow Genome Project. He looks at a few different possible responses to the “end of the world,” which may become violent and turbulent. One of them is to prepare, which he recommends, by buying a water filter, a gun, and so on. Another is to accept that one will not try to be one of the survivors if things get Apocalyptic. Personally, I am not much of a survivalist so I lean more toward this response.
At the same time, I think the survivalist idea is in itself short-sighted. On the other hand, I have many friends now building off-the-grid communities in the US and around the world. If the goal is learning to build truly sustainable communities, this is important work.
Why is survivalism short-sighted? Take one example: The Amazon rainforest produces an estimated 20% of the Oxygen we breathe. It is being deforested at the rate of seven football fields per minute. If temperatures go 2 degrees hotter - which could happen by 2035 - we lose half of it in any event. With all the forest fires we see around the world and the impact that warming is having on plankton in the oceans (which produce 60% of our Oxygen), I think it far more likely that humans go extinct than that people in survivalist enclaves will make it through.
Then I recall that I actually did try to change the situation, as best I could. I helped start a nonprofit social movement, The Evolver Network, which organized a network of local community groups around subjects like permaculture, shamanism, and local currencies. The frantic effort to put ideas into action with little financial support over a number of years took a tool on me physically and psychologically. I had to deal with many projections on me, and my own shadow material also rose up. Even though we had more than 50 groups, the momentum stalled. From this experience, I learned how hard it is to build something enduring which in any way goes against the economic logic of the current system, which only values certain kinds of activity.
Years after that effort, I also helped organize a summit at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto on climate change, with environmental NGOs and Facebook executives. My idea was that Facebook put a box on every homepage saying:
“Dear Human Family, We love you. We now realize we have created an ecological emergency that we need to address together. Here is what you need to know about what is happening and here is what you can do locally.”
When I went into the bathroom at Facebook and read a newsletter they had hung in every stall which talked about how Facebook ads had helped a car dealership in Chicago increase its sales that month, I realized this was hopeless. But at least we tried.
I find that I am sick of trying. It is freezing cold in New York right now and I am glad there is steam heat in the building that probably uses way too much fossil fuels. Zero emissions by 2025? Would we have to stop heating our apartments? Would we all freeze here together? I hate being cold. Soon I hope to hop on an airplane to go to a warm place.
Each airplane ride uses around 1 ton of CO2 per person. Flying in planes is one of the worst things we can do to the planet. And most of the people I know and love do it all of the time.
I think about all of my friends who are in the middle of careers as musicians, designers, architects, artists, tech entrepreneurs. Would all of them have to stop what they are doing now to focus all of their energies on climate change and species extinction? This seems highly unlikely, yet needed. How would they then pay their bills? And what would that mean in any case?
Would we all learn how to install solar panels and green roofs and then go as a team from building to building doing that? Or who is going to take care of that for us? And who is going to pay for it?
Then I think of New York City which is constantly gridlocked with cars and trucks, spewing CO2 exhaust. I wonder how many of those rides are necessary. What would it mean if we were to stop all unneeded activity - driving around, buying, selling? Could we then meet the emission reduction targets of 5 - 10% annually which climate science demands? But what would replace our current economic system? Most people today seem to think Capitalism is amazing and can’t be stopped, in any event.
Personally, I find I would be willing to live like an ascetic monk in the city - give up air travel, all personal excesses, anything that adds to the Earth’s burden - if I was part of a unified movement that was doing the same. The basis of this movement would have to be love, unity, and commitment to a sane, shared future. I believe I would relish participating in such a change, if the greater human community stood with me.
What about you? What do you think about when you read Monbiot’s piece?