On September 20th, about four million people—young and old—converged on the world’s capital cities and campuses to protest our collective inaction on climate change. I attended in Hartford, Connecticut, where organizers estimated a couple thousand participated. In Hartford, the energy and passion were certainly inspiring. However, amazingly, the message communicated with the crowd was still that we can solve climate change with energy efficiency and renewable energy. Strangely, a carbon tax didn’t even come up (maybe because this doesn’t feel winnable in the US context?). The truth is that without much bolder action than even a carbon tax—meaning: economic degrowth, a rapid stabilization and then contraction of the global population, draconian restrictions on the use and development of fossil fuels—we are in for an apocalyptic future.
And even if we make those “radical” changes*—and populations, egged on by threatened corporate interests, don’t rebel (which is hard to imagine)—success is far from guaranteed, as we’ve started the transition far too late. With the lag in the carbon cycle and sheer inertia that these changes have, the odds of stopping runaway climate change are in the single digits. This is not a new statement—I’ve been exploring this for years, such as in State of the World 2013, Is Sustainability Still Possible?, as have initiatives like The Transition Network, The Dark Mountain Project, and most recently Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation work.
But these communities seem to be developing in parallel or worse, the climate movement is even hostile to the harder truths they’re spreading, including that it might now be impossible to ‘win.’ (Just look at how the mainstream climate community reacted—like this and this—to Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “What if we stopped pretending?”.) So we’re left with activists calling for spending $10 trillion dollars (and massive amounts of fossil fuels needed to build renewable infrastructure) for a Green New Deal, while others say, no, that’s magical thinking, we have to use less far less energy, live more locally, and radically de-consumerize. The problem with this conflict is that the mainstream climate movement, while far from being mainstream, is far more mainstream than the degrowth and adaptation-type movements. If the climate activists do win politically (against all odds), and we try to ‘green grow’ our way to sustainability, that will lead to the same ecological disaster as current growth—just at a slightly slower time frame (or maybe even faster since the carbon investment for renewables would be front-loaded!).
So what’s the solution? Perhaps this is already being done—though from what I heard in Hartford I don’t think so—but it’s time for Gaians, Degrowthers, Transitioners, and Deep Adapters to start better engaging the climate movement, to both help shift the goals of the movement to be far bolder, as well as to start spreading adaptation and resilience messages to those in the movement. Climate activists, who know how grave the situation is, should be quite open to recognizing that along with fighting the good fight, they should probably craft a Plan B—a plan in case we fail to get society to make the changes necessary in the very tight time frame needed.
This is doubly strategic. First, if we ratchet up the movement’s demands, this will hopefully make current demands seem relatively easy to grant—in the sense that if you ask for a million to get a thousand. Second, when climate change starts to spiral out of control, and the young protestors begin to realize that this battle is unwinnable, the response may well be depression and abandonment of the whole battle. But by setting a secondary goal now, these individuals will better understand the odds, and even in the worst case scenarios, stay engaged and committed rather than becoming dejected and giving up.
To be clear: the battle I’m referring to is the one to stop climate change by growing our way out of it. Building renewable energy infrastructure to fuel our consumer lifestyles is the latest revision of our dominant consumer culture myth. But that’s the story being collectively promoted—and the youth have bought it and are fighting for it. Many are enraged that their future is being threatened by climate change, but few can recognize that what they have to sacrifice for stability is everything they know: a car and plane-based transportation system where you can explore anywhere in the world your heart desires; large homes filled with stuff; diets filled with meat, dairy, and sugar; the latest gadgets and hours of time playing in virtual worlds. All these will be rare treats in the world they’re advocating for (even if they don’t realize that yet).
At the rally, I did hear one young speaker talk honestly about where the future was heading. And I approached her afterwards with my son. I told her I appreciated her frank remarks. And that I’m trying to prepare my son for the radically different future that’s coming—even training him in ancestral skills. She then told us she was Cherokee—which helped clarify to me why she, alone in the group, seemed able to face the frightening truth head on. As Melissa Nelson wrote in EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet, Indigenous peoples have already gone through the societal collapse we dread: the famines, the epidemics, the violence, the dislocations. Astoundingly, they’ve survived, and could serve as our mentors in this coming difficult transition (if they’re willing, which considering it is the descendants of the slaughterers of their peoples who are asking, feels like a big if). We have a lot to learn—in how to properly relate to Gaia, in rediscovering ancient knowledge and wisdom, in coping with horrific changes, in recognizing there will be a point that we can no longer win, and in figuring out how to start again, sometimes many times over.
This perspective, this wisdom, is needed in the climate movement and it is wise for those who may have those perspectives not to dismiss the unrealistic demands of the movement (or the movement altogether) but instead, to get more actively involved and to help better shape those demands (and the movement’s secondary plans). The climate movement is now being framed as a youth movement—that the children are our hope (even if Greta Thurnberg says “How dare you.”). But the reality is the crowd in Hartford was filled with elders and not just youth (and some middle aged people like me as well). All generations will be needed if the climate movement is to grow and strengthen. And to truly succeed, we’ll need not only optimism (youthful or otherwise), but those who understand the gravity of our situation, who understand that the fight may now even be unwinnable, but will struggle on anyway, and help us figure out how to endure even in the worst scenarios. These individuals will make the movement stronger—for in the long-run, true victory will require the rediscovery of our humility, our understanding of our complete and utter dependence on Gaia for everything we hold dear, and how to live accordingly, for without this, we will never end our war with Gaia—that is, with ourselves.
*I put radical in quotes as these aren’t radical at all. What’s radical is continuing to burn fossil fuels and live consumer lives and allow human population to spiral upward when we know that will trigger runaway climate change and the death of millions of people and species.