Monday, July 27, 2020

On a Radical Vision of Future Earth

I grabbed this book, by meteorologist Eric Holthaus, as soon as it went on sale, excited to check out the new vision of how we can all better live together. There's lots of information for the uninitiated, and then it becomes sort of a fictional narrative. There are no characters or plot to speak of, instead it's a description of what needs to happen but written entirely in the past tense, as if it already happened. He seems to think this is how we'll better imagine what it all looks like when we solve this crisis. And it all really doesn't work (as a book and as a concept to save us), which I find a bit heartbreaking to tell you the truth. But good job trying something original, I guess.

It's being billed by the publisher as "the first hopeful book about climate change," which ignores so many many hopeful books out there: most recently Michael Mann's Madhouse Effect and George Monbiot's Out of the Wreckageand, going way back, Chris Turner's The Geography of Hope, which was a fantastic read about people actually getting shit done. I checked the publisher's page because the book has a self-published feel to it from the get go: cliché phrases and incorrect comma use, and a weird organization - part 1 is about a third of the book without any chapters, and part 2 has just three chapters, all followed by a very lengthy epilogue. But, nope. It's Harper-Collins. Curious.

Holthaus was made famous for having a breakdown over a climate report in 2013 and refusing to fly ever again. He's clearly very passionate about the issues, but if that's all it took to change the world then we'd have solved all our problems long ago. It takes solid writing that actually inspires this necessary radical change. He explains that,
"My goal with this book is to help you imagine your own part in building a better world that works for everyone, regardless of status or class or gender. And to remind you that you were born at exactly the right time to help change everything. . . . It can't go on like this. Somehow, some way, we have to learn how to care about one another again."
Is it just me, or is that part about status, class and gender pretty clunky. He's trying to be inclusive, but he's really missing the mark. And in other places, he gets too touchy-feely. It's little things like that, all the way through, that made me wonder if it had been edited by anyone. It reads like a blog post, which is fine for blogs, but I still expect much more out of books. I paid money to read this!

He's clearly concerned with the link between poverty and climate and with the role the media plays in focusing our attention on the wrong things all the time, and he gets to the emergency nature of the situation. He's got the stats down and his heart is in the right place and all, but he's missing important pieces around behavioural psychology, philosophy, and neoliberal political systems. And I'm left wondering: how the hell do people get these book deals?

Here we go:

His main premise is that we need to change our social imaginaries to be able to change our lives:
"Drawing from the science of psychotherapy, I believe it is possible to spontaneously and emergently solve problems in our lives--and in society--simply by talking about them. . . . Imagining the world as a burning hellscape is, for some reason, much easier than imagining a world where we come together and build a new version of human society that works for every person and every species." 
I'll ignore psychotherapy science as a possible oxymoron because I get what he's trying to do, but it was only really clear when I googled an article by one of his sources: philosophy professor Dr. Samantha Earle. In the discussion with her in the book, she explains,
"The major problem with society is that we don't even recognize that we have a particular imaginary, that this is not how things have to be. During normal times, we lack critical awareness, and we lack the capacity to radically imagine. . . . Through our daily thoughts and actions, we constantly reproduce our society. Most of that happens unconsciously or by routine or habit, or because exposing ourselves to new thoughts and actions involves risks we're currently unwilling to take."
In Earle's article, it's more clear that she's taking a page from Charles Taylor. Like Robert Reich, Taylor looks at 1945-75 as the years to emulate economically before neoliberal politics took over, so we have to get back to that kind of thought process that got us into that sweet spot. I summarized Taylor's explanation of social imaginaries earlier:
"At any given time, the capacity people have to put together common actions is limited or augmented by their culture. Whether or not a revolution succeeds or fails has to do with the state of the democratic repertoire, or what Taylor calls the "social imaginaries" of the people. During the American Revolution, people ruling already had a purchase in the habit of electing assemblies, so the notion of what it was to set that up was already familiar. That wasn't the case for the French Revolution, so a lengthy battle ensued. . . . We need a critical mass of people who are able to work together in this way before we can do it as a society. . . . We have a naïve belief that the world is becoming democratic. Underlying that belief is the idea that democracy is the most stable, most legitimate form of government, but this belief undermines other forms of government. It might be a true belief, but it's a limited truth. . . . We're in a zone of arrested power that makes our situation highly unsatisfactory. . . . 
One great strength of our current set of repertoires, though, is an understanding of ourselves as a people who can take collective action through procedures. We can understand and relate to that. We have a common cohesion around principles. There's a powerful sense of belonging together. . . . We must accept and trust each other enough to help each other with a redistribution of taxation. We have to imagine ourselves as citizens working with other citizens. If some are gated and other ghettoized, it's harder to imagine being equals. We used to have things like baseball games to bring us together, but even that has seen a 'skyboxification' of American democracy. . . . There's a moving to bring in people who are different, which is a great achievement to create a viable repertoire for common action that includes everyone. But then there's a push back through a fear of what that common agency will look like. It's a battle about what the identity of the agency is. . . . there's a perpetual danger of exclusionary narrowness built into the sense of solidarity. It can turn into rejection, so people can be reluctant to join. . . . We try to get the truth out there, and we must go on doing that. There's a trough developing between how people understand each idea. They're often not necessarily differing in ideas, but in basic facts. . . . There's also the inability of people to get at international issues that can't be handled by one government, like planetary disaster. We need a collaborative citizenship that crosses boundaries and expresses non-violent forms of resistance."
Monbiot also discusses social imaginaries in his latest book, and Chomsky explains the current mindset further:
"We need solidarity. Go back to David Hume and Adam Smith, and other pre-capitalists. They took it for granted that solidarity, sympathy, mutualism are core driving forces of human nature. Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ has been interpreted diametrically opposite to how he used it. He was thinking in terms of an agricultural economy: if a landowner accumulates all the land and everyone has to be his servant, it won’t matter because the landowner, by virtue of his sympathy to others, will ensure his property is divided equally like by an invisible hand. This shows the driving concept that underlies classical liberalism. This all ended with capitalism: Get what you can for yourself and kick everyone else in the face. And now it’s claimed that that's human nature. It’s highly deceitful. That’s what’s causing us to race over the precipice environmentally. This is a distorting ideology imposed on us that undermines normal human emotions and interactions. It's highly deceitful."
In Sources of the SelfCharles Taylor takes many pages to explain the process that shifted the mindset of the masses towards glorification of the individual over the society. It was a process that took hundreds of years and a few very popular writers and political figures to explain things in just the right way to get people on board, a process that, according to Taylor, took us way too far down the path towards our current self-obsession. Shifting mindsets down a better path involves, not just understanding the concept, but having enough knowledge of the past to realize that we didn't always think like this. And then it involves being aware and watchful enough to really notice, for instance, when people set us against one another and when they try to bring us together. At the Taylor link I gave an example of how a simple quest for neighbourhood identities in my area paved the way for elitist exclusionary practices. I saw it starting, but nobody else understood my concern. We went from trying to create a simple area to congregate to taking about tennis courts and swimming pools like the richer neighbourhoods have, and then I just walked away from the organizational committee. It's a far too slippery journey from self-celebration to competitive aggrandizing. Our current social imaginaries is what's keeping us in that destructive loop.

To slow climate change, we do need to live differently, but many people picture living like pioneer days or old-order Mennonites or living entirely off-grid in a forest somewhere, which are all too radical for most people, so they're rejected outright in favour of the government or technology somehow saving the day without it affecting our lives. So we need to have a clearer vision of the more typical ways people could be living, with far fewer things and using far less energy in much better insulated homes near public transport and bike routes. But, more importantly, we also need an understanding of the world's power dynamics and our place in overthrowing that lobbyist-fueled greedy oligarchy.

In this book, Holthaus uses a very watered down or misunderstood version of the concept of social imaginaries as he explains his fantasy vision of the future in hopes of that being enough to shift the collective mindset around climate change action. It's not enough to just imagine the solutions into reality.

I mean, we can affect our own behaviour by running through a story of ourselves accomplishing something, but we can't change other people as characters in our stories. So I can envision building a shelf over and over, and that will actually help when I go to build it, making the process faster and more precise. But explaining my vision to people won't make anyone else want to build a shelf. Most people don't care about building shelves. Most people don't want to change their lifestyle. And most don't see how they can do anything to affect the shift to building skyscrapers out of wood instead of concrete, as Holthaus suggests.

On top of those wooden skyscrapers, he wants to ban first-class seating on airlines and make taking boats across the ocean more desirable, get people on better quality plant-based meats, use some temporary geoengineering practices, make fossil fuels illegal, give animals the status of people, and fix the economy with doughnut economics, for which he provides little explanation or analysis (Eduardo Gudynas did a good overview and critique of it.) In Holthaus's utopia,
"Using seized assets of long-bankrupt fossil fuel industries, government began to coordinate a large-scale effort at carbon capture and storage in huge oil field, fracking wells, and abandoned coal mines. By concentration and capturing streams of atmospheric carbon dioxide and converting them into geologically stable liquids and solids --basically fake oil and coal--we began to run time backwards."
Many of his suggestions are comforting, and I imagine it will be taken up positively by many, because people won't actually have to live differently at all. Everything will be taken care of by organizations, and I don't have to get involved. It's not about travelling less, but differently. It's not about eating fewer steaks, but artificial steak meat. Other people will fix things. Elsewhere he says, "Don't call it socialism - names for things get us stuck in ideologies . . . let's just rethink thriving and then ask ourselves what kind of economy would result." He's trying to appease the masses, to get them to change without upsetting anybody. But, then who's the target audience for this necessary development of social imaginaries??

There's a fantastic documentary out on Netflix, Disclosure, about the Trans experience in our current and recent culture that does a great job of getting at the concept of social imaginaries even if it didn't mean to! We have to see our new reality and be able to conceptualize it in our minds before we can live it. So, films and TV shows that portrayed Trans characters, not as token characters or the reason for the conflict in the story, but just living their lives, made it much more comfortable for people coming out as Trans. And it's not just a matter of comfort, but of knowing how to be a certain way that's different from people in your own family and neighbourhood and almost everybody in books and on screen.

He seems to get this as he points to reality TV to change our minds about how we live, but there's just a niche population tuning in to those shows. It has to be everywhere, particularly attracting people who wouldn't otherwise give a second thought to reducing their energy load. Imagine if the cast of Friends had all decided not to have kids or petitioned the government for change instead of arguing over who had the better apartment. It might have made an impact if they make do with only a few mix and match outfits since the fashion industry creates more GHG emissions than airlines, but it takes decades for that to take effect on the mindset of the masses. AND, a bigger problem, people often change the channel when sitcoms get political. We want to be entertained, not preached at. To get that to work involves, not just a carefully written script, but an openness to that from the audience. Ellen's coming-out episode in 1997 wouldn't have had nearly the same effect on heterosexual viewers a decade earlier.

Greta Thunberg has the right idea. She walks the walk, and it has garnered her great respect from many varied types of people. By her persistence and willingness to stand alone on the right side of the issue, for a long time, she has gotten a huge following. She demands action from political leaders and shames their willful ignorance and apathy. But she's not new. We've seen this before; we just forgot about it. A 12-year-old Severn Suzuki spoke to the U.N. in a similar scolding tone almost thirty years ago. And it's not all just youth that are changing the world; that claim insultingly ignores the decades of work done by so many people in this field who have being fighting undeterred despite not getting that kind of an audience. "The youth will save us" is just another way to avoid actually doing anything.

We have to keep going, and Greta's becoming old news already. So we need the next group to step up and do the same thing, faster! We know what it looks like to tell off politicians and provoke thousands to march. We just need more faces that can help continue the motivation in this direction.

The first part of Holthaus's book has a lot of scary stats, like many climate change books, but facts just don't inspire most people. He says,
"What will emerge from this time of radical change is unpredictable, but I do know how it will come about: collaboratively, as those who have been systematically excluded from determining their own futures begging to claim power and have their voices heard. . . .
Asking how the world will have to change to accommodate a billion climate refugees by the end of the century is the wrong question. Instead, we should be thinking about how the world will have to change so no one will ever need to abandon their home in the first place."
That sounds nice, but how is he so confident that minorities will magically get their voice heard and that everything will be fixed enough to make mass migration (which has already started) completely unnecessary to prepare for? He seems naïve to the effects of some suggestions (is zero really the best target for fossil fuel use instead of net zero?) as well as the all-encompassing power of the elites as well as the strength of our collective drive to maintain the system that's most familiar to us, that's working just enough for us that we're not ready to upend it all for a more uncertain future. It's still the case that people who refuse to drive or own many clothes are ostracized. We lose social points for being weirdos.

There's a question going around Twitter right now: What is trashy if you're poor, but classy if you're rich? Answers include tiny homes, chickens in the yard, eating beans for dinner, not owning a car, and protesting the government - all the things we need to do to change the world, but only the right kind of people can do it without being seen as trash. Whether it's classy or trashy hinges on whether or not it's a choice. That's where the power of social imaginaries could come in to try to erradicate the classist notions that perpetuate this fatal system.

A story about the future might be useful if it also explores the more realistic ramifications of necessary actions and how we slalom through solutions to problems created along the way. What will it look like if we make it completely illegal to exploit land, people, and resources, like Marx encouraged years ago? We'll see a sudden surge in prices for all the cheap things we've taken for granted, and then we'll have mass protests for a different reason. So we need to couple that fantasy legislation with guaranteed basic income, price caps on food, and an end to land ownership. That would be radical!!

He includes a discussion with Kyle Whyte, an engaging speaker I saw last year. Holthaus jumps on the need for a new spirituality to foster connectedness:
"Every single nonviolent movement to create political change that received active participation from at least 3.5 % of the population succeeded. Every single one. . . . Since the dawn of time, humans have understood the importance of recognizing that we are one with the planet. . . . Whyte's idea of a civilization based on kinship has a transformative effect, if you consider how it would radically change our idea of self. . . . If we didn't have all of theses ready-made barriers to separate ourselves, how much more innovative could we be? . . . This moment is scary, and traumatic, But we are in it together. . . . We need a new way of relating to one another . . . it's as easy as listening."
Again, I get what he's saying but only because I know of Whyte's work. And if we follow Whyte's ideas to their natural conclusion, we really have to get off this stolen land, which is something Holthaus doesn't suggest.

And then he runs into problems with some of his analysis:
"In a world where the wealthiest 10% produce 49% of all emissions, it's not individual choices that are driving climate change."
An Oxfam report from 2015 agrees with the first part of that statement. But, worldwide, to be in the top 10% means making about $120,000/year. I'm almost there, and I'm pretty sure the individual choices of people at my level of earning are definitely part of the problem. It's all the driving and flying and clothes buying and general accumulation of stuff and meat-eating and air conditioning and heating our oversized homes that are making up that 49% of GHGs. It's not enough for us to focus just on our own choices without petitioning sweeping changes to corporate regulations and political lobbying, definitely, but our choices are not without effect. Individually, immediate conveniences outweigh long term consequences, so people have to be made to change lifestyles. Look at mask-wearing behaviour. It didn't happen here until it was mandated even though it's such a simple way to dramatically reduce the risk of dying. And they (the 10% of us doing most of the damage) will have to change lifestyles. We can't keep buying crap and driving everywhere!

Leading climate scientist, Kevin Anderson, recently said,
"Globally the wealthiest 10% are responsible for half of all emissions, the wealthiest 20% for 70% of emissions. If regulations forced the top 10% to cut their emissions to the level of the average EU citizen, and the other 90% made no change in their lifestyles, that would still cut total emissions by a third. “If we were serious about this crisis we could do this in a year – if we were really serious we could do it in a month, but we are not and our emissions just keep rising. . . . Many of us are frequent flyers, we drive long distances in big cars, buy a lot equipment, have fridge-freezers the size of a small terrace house – every facet of our lives, although normalised by us, is central to our nation’s high emissions. But the models are unwilling to accept this – preferring to pass the buck on to our children in the form of future technical silver bullets.”
Politically, our democracy has been coopted by big business long ago. Voting will have little effect without revolutionary action against the governmental system and against corporate lobbying. So we have to stay in the streets and not get tired, but... back to the problem with individuals! We need reminders and collaborators and support from one another, and time to recharge in ways that don't destroy any gains we made (like hitting indoor bars as soon as we decrease Covid numbers a little!).
We need ways to bring problems closer to home, people who will personalize the issues with specific names and scenarios of conditions affecting people in places similar to home so we're reminded that this is imminent!

The book ends with self-help checklists and platitudes, grief exercises and journaling ideas. I get the sense he wants us to go outside to look at bugs, write a poem about it, then run for office. But I'm afraid that will do nothing to actually affect anything. Hopeful stories about what might be if the governments suddenly turn altruistic overnight won't alter the course. We need to make it all happen.

And I'm reminded of climate scientist Kate Marvel's words: "This moment demands courage, not hope. . . . Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending."

And Chris Hedges: "I don't share the mania for hope. We just have to do what's right."

And James Baldwin: "You talk to those people who can hear you, and you say what you can say. You're not going to live forever. What you have to do is make it possible for others to live. That's the only reason to be here."

And Tommy Douglas: "Courage, my friends. 'Tis not too late to build a better world."

And George Carlin (h/t Lorne):

1 comment:

Trailblazer said...

Monbiot's, Out of the wreckage and the earlier 'Heat' should be required reading.
Many years before these publications,Gwyn Dyers Climate wars has a similar insight to things to come!
There are some true visionaries who's words will not be totally appreciated until their deaths.