Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Tao of Environmentalism

At Politics Respun, Stephen Elliott-Buckley suggests we make decarbonizing our New Year's resolution.  In a fit of frustration, I commented thusly:

What does it look like to join you? I mean I'm totally in, but what do I do to "seriously begin to decarbonize"? 
How to stop this?
I already don't own a car, freezer, clothes drier, or A/C, and I've got solar panels for electricity, but I still heat my house with natural gas. Do I have to get a fireplace and go completely off-grid - using zero fossil fuels - because my neighbours already think I'm a bit weird for the panels? 
I already write to Harper enough he sent my an 8x10 signed glossy as if he's a rock star getting fan mail, but my letters aren't having much of an effect. I can't convince many of my students that climate change is a tragedy caused by our unfettered use of energy, so I can't convince them to write angry letters or protest either. They tolerate having the lights off when I teach on sunny days, but I can't get other teachers to turn them off as well.
I'll keep trying on all these fronts, but I fear there are more of them than us. Most people just won't fight to end their own conveniences. Not yet, and, therefore, not nearly soon enough. 
Like the plethora of sites that tell us HOW to lose ten pounds with one neat trick, we need to know the next steps. HOW do we convince the elites - or even just our neighbours and friends - to radically change our world? How do we change the minds of the many who are happy with Harper? How radical are we willing to be to save our species?
His very sympathetic response, in part, after a good-for-you bit, went like this:
Teachers, I find, are not a terribly progressive bunch. I knew maybe 5% of people on staff, when I was a teacher, who understood what walking the talk looks like. But keep trying and cling to those colleagues who do get it. 
We convince the elites by threatening their power. Elected or wannabe-elected politicians need our support. If we can mobilize to hold that support in the balance, based on obeying our climate agenda, we will win. It’s mobilizing that effort. But when the federal green party [generally a pro-capitalist/consumer party] SUPPORTS* the tarsands, we have a long way to go. 
And it may just make more ice storms, Calgary/Toronto floods and effects of climate change to wake up the apathetic and complacent people. But by then it may be too late. We’ll have to see.
So...okay.   We just have to mobilize people who are largely apathetic or ignorant, but we might not be able to in time.

My point exactly.

The Tyee also has a call out to become "conscious, anti-consumerist warriors."  Like Politics Respun, they call 2014, "...the year of living - and giving - consciously.  Up until now, we haven't been serious."

Well, speak for yourself - although I was convinced to donate more.  But, once again, how to convince the masses?

We tend to see it all as a problem of justice, of stopping the evilness of the few.  But, it's not that the 1% are making evil decisions that need to be rectified, but that the masses are benefitting too greatly from many of these decisions to ever really try to stop them.  We think we're the good, but I'm not so convinced.  Scott Neigh has a post up that says it better:
"Some of us are the passive beneficiaries (and often celebrators) of the brutal violence that our state dishes out. Some of us are the exploited but still relatively privileged guardians and enforcers of how things are. That doesn't mean that life is all sunshine and roses. That doesn't mean that resistance isn't necessary, or even that resistance to oppression and exploitation isn't integral to daily life in important ways for many white North Americans -- it clearly is, and that is something to acknowledge, respect, support, and nurture....In real life, most of humanity is not clearly divided into the righteous, the shepherds, and the tyranny of evil men -- the lives of most ordinary people express a mix of the three."
It's not us against them. It's us against us.

And then I watched this George Carlin anti-environmentist rant, and it provoked a few thoughts.  (Sorry, lots of swears, of course: it's freakin' George Carlin!)

Carlin says the planet will be fine.  I agree a big mass will likely continue on, pretty definitely, but its ability to support life might not – or not for a long time. So the fight is not just about people but about all other living things. Extinctions happen, but not at this rate. We really have sped thing up.  And, closer to his point, it's never happened to us before!  

Our "indicator species" are messed up
I've said before that our problem is that we're viruses, and that we're too compassionate to live within nature since we want to make sure as many of us live as possible (but not too compassionate, however, to allow many to live horribly for the conveniences of the few).  A student recently gave me another analogy to use:  we're like an invasive species.  We're doing all we can to survive and spread to our outer limits, just like every other creature in the world, except we have no predators here.  There are no outer limits - yet.  Or, another way to see it is we're like the fox/mouse cycle in nature except with a really long scale.  We will hit that food shortage that will finally keep our population in check, just maybe not before we hit fatal hydrogen sulfide levels in our air.  That'll work too.

Long-term survival of the species requires selfish acts to keep the world going in the future - yes it is about us - but they work against the selfish acts to keep us entertained and convenienced in the present.  And it all comes back to Plato's admonishment that we need to be taught the art of measurement (the ability to measure future rewards/consequences against those closer and more current).  I'm not convinced we can be taught.

So maybe Carlin's right about this:  We are arrogant to think we are better able to deal with this than any other animal.  You'd think we have large enough brains to see the long game - and a few do, but not the same few who hold all the power.  The powerful bunch are the survivors defending their territory (in dollars) and spreading out as far as they can, in denial of the potential for a major total-planet catastrophe.  And, a key problem is, if the ones who see the long game get power, they sometimes start amassing wealth instead.   If we're offered enough cash today to ignore the problems of tomorrow, not many can resist that deal.  And those that can resist, often don't go for the power anyway, so they remain impotent to change anything.  It's a conundrum.  

Unlike what we understand of most mammals' grasp of the world, humans have the ability to understand time - to look to the past in order to predict the future.  But a fat lot of good it does us!!  

And the Tao Te Ching (ch. 29, which I've also discussed before) backs up Carlin's rant:
"Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is sacred. It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe, a time for being in danger.  
The Master sees things as they are, without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way, and resides at the center of the circle."
It's certainly more calming to accept that this is the way of the world, and it's not something we can change.  We can barely manage to keep our own house in order much less worldwide eco-systems.

But is refusing to keep badgering the politicians and our friends and relations just giving up and admitting defeat or is it accepting the way of the world?  Or does it just feel like a cop-out?  It certainly feels more selfish to decide to turn up the heat than it does to try to convince governments to shut down the tar sands.  It feels better to be part of the solution even if it's really out of our hands, but maybe just because we like spinning our wheels.

As Carlin suggests glibly, "So pack your shit, folks; we're goin' away!"

*I can't find a link to any news that says the Greens support the tar sands, but I did find one that says the NDP supports a Canadian west-to-east pipeline.  Drag.  When Mulcair said "no" to a wealth tax, it gave credence to a suspected shift:  the Liberals are the new Conservatives, and the NDP are the new Liberals.  And I fear we don't really have a significant left-leaning party anymore when we really need one.


The Mound of Sound said...

I understand Carlin's cynicism. It's terribly difficult not to succumb to cynicism and the more you learn, the harder it becomes. Here again we're struggling with the apparent futility of seeking effective action to curb carbon emissions when, in reality, that is just one of a basket full of interconnected challenges we have to tackle to prevent collapse on a civilizational scale.

At times I wonder what circumstances would have to fall into place to get mankind to change. It's at this point where you have to catalogue the existing and looming threats - droughts; floods; severe storm events; resource shortages, particularly the freshwater crisis; sea level rise and coastal inundation as well as salination of coastal water reserves; air, soil and water contamination of all varieties; pest and disease migration; species migration and collapse, especially global fisheries; overpopulation and population migration; and a host of manmade security challenges including food insecurity, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the regional arms races now underway.

The thing is, Marie, we have to solve them all if we're to have much hope of solving any of them and that's a process that entails identifying the common threads that run through them. The problem is that, as you identify those common threads, you realize the truly Herculean dimension of the solutions and that, in turn, reveals how, as a civilization, we're not socially, politically or economically organized to rise to the challenges.

Can you imagine a world where people will sacrifice a bigger tomorrow for a better tomorrow? Imagine a world in which the 'haves' choose to become 'have lesses' and the 'have nots' remain content with their status quo.

As Lovelock said several years ago, the only way ahead is to abandon the fantasy of sustainable growth and embrace sustainable retreat. Without a broad commitment to retreat in all its aspects we simply can't survive for long. We're already using our renewable, natural resources at half again the planet's replenishment rate.

When I was born the world population was at a record 2.6-billion. China and India had populations smaller than today's America. Mankind was well within the limits of sustainability. Today we're well past 7-billion en route, we're told, to 9 billion plus. As I said, we're not socially, politically or economically organized to support that size of population.

There are some who think we have already triggered the sixth great extinction. That may be true and the odds increase with each passing year. I can't see mankind getting through this century without halving our population one way or the other. Grim as that sounds, be grateful you're Canadian.

Marie Snyder said...

"be grateful you're Canadian"

Absolutely. Especially because I don't imagine people sacrificing today for tomorrow. It's curious because that used to be the dominate mindset - of my parents' generation for sure (born in the 20s and raised during the depression). But it's been replaced. However, since it's been there before, since we have the capacity to do that, and since we have the capacity for sweeping change (e.g. look at how much we've change towards same-sex marriage), then MAYBE it's possible. But when I look at the intelligent people around me who roll their eyes at it all, and when I consider that I still eat supermarket meat despite all I know about factory farms, I question that faint hope. Today trumps tomorrow.

And I think we have neither a critical mass nor a political entity that can take us to the finish line safely.

But I question if Carlin is cynical or just realistic. I used to think the former, but now I think it IS completely arrogant to assume we're significantly better at long-term survival than any other species. We're just adapting with a different set of tools but still on a day-to-day basis. We're just animals eating, keeping warm, and practicing our reproduction skills as often as we can manage.

Graham said...

continue daring to be different ... a buddy of mine pushed the extreme ... (and that was after his first experiment -

Marie Snyder said...

I LOVE tiny houses! I have no intention of changing the sustainable actions I take, but I do think I need to stop worrying about the fate of the planet. That's too big. Maybe the rise in status of these tiny homes can help - so long as they're instead of, not in addition to, a big house.

The Mound of Sound said...

Marie, there's a critical difference between being cognizant of the fate of the planet and obsessing about it. Worrying falls into that grey area between them.

You have kids, you teach kids. It's entirely proper that you should worry about the world we're consigning them to live in. That's not an abstract issue like fretting about the fate of the planet.

Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Teddy Roosevelt and others did not hesitate to acknowledge the duty their generation had to leave the world a better place than they had found it. It seems we can no longer indulge ourselves in their aspirations. That said, we have the power and the means to ensure our grandkids get the least shitty end of the stick. What is the alternative save betrayal?

You're fighting the good fight. Never dismiss it as pointless. So long as it's the right thing to do, do the right thing.

Marie said...

Thanks Mound! (Somehow I missed this one.)