Saturday, October 30, 2021

Monbiot on our Current Challenge

George Monbiot wrote an article that he's calling his best bit of writing. It's largely more of the same argument that people can't seem to hear or respond to. We're ignoring the changes in the world at our peril. 

In the back of our minds, there’s a voice whispering, “If it were really so serious, someone would stop us.” If we attend to these issues at all, we do so in ways that are petty, tokenistic, comically ill-matched to the scale of our predicament. . . . In normal conditions, the system regulates itself, maintaining a state of equilibrium. It can absorb stress up to a certain point. But then it suddenly flips. It passes a tipping point, then falls into a new state of equilibrium, which is often impossible to reverse. . . . If one system crashes, it is likely to drag others down, triggering a cascade of chaos known as systemic environmental collapse. . . . vast tracts of the Cerrado have been cleared to plant crops – mostly soya to feed the world’s chickens and pigs. As the trees are felled, the air becomes drier. This means smaller plants die, ensuring that even less water is circulated. In combination with global heating, some scientists warn, this vicious cycle could – soon and suddenly – flip the entire system into desert.

The mainstream media treats it as an afterthought. Chomsky has been on about this for decades: we keep getting distracted by sports and entertainment when the world needs our attention. Even in political news, we focus on the wrong things. 

Most political news is nothing but court gossip: who’s in, who’s out, who said what to whom. It studiously avoids what lies beneath: the dark money, the corruption, the shift of power away from the democratic sphere, the gathering environmental collapse that makes a nonsense of its obsessions. . . . tension between what we know about the crisis we face, and the frivolity with which we distance ourselves from it. . . . We focus on what I call micro-consumerist bollocks (MCB): tiny issues such as plastic straws and coffee cups, rather than the huge structural forces driving us towards catastrophe. We are obsessed with plastic bags. We believe we’re doing the world a favour by buying tote bags instead, though, on one estimate, the environmental impact of producing an organic cotton tote bag is equivalent to that of 20,000 plastic ones. . . . Rich people can persuade themselves they’ve gone green because they recycle, while forgetting that they have a second home (arguably the most extravagant of all their assaults on the living world. . . . I’m not saying the small things don’t matter. I’m saying they should not matter to the exclusion of things that matter more.

And, of course, corporations started recycling programs to keep us buying their disposable products, and convinced us that litter is as big a problem as air pollution. And BP created the carbon footprint to get people to focus on their own behaviour and ignore corporations. Plastics is a problem (especially as it affects fertility), but, "the biggest source of water pollution is farming, followed by sewage." Michael Mann's most recent book is all about the necessary shift to mix personal responsibility with corporate scrutiny. However, he thinks farming and air travel aren't as big a problem as home heating with natural gas. These are all common to current climate discussions.

But then Monbiot takes on capitalism, and the political shift that started in the 1980s. 

It has turned us from citizens into consumers. It’s not hard to see why we have been herded down this path. As citizens, joining together to demand political change, we are powerful. As consumers, we are almost powerless. . . . The first thing we encounter, looming out of the depths, should scare us almost out of our wits. It’s called growth. Economic growth is universally hailed as a good thing. Governments measure their success on their ability to deliver it. But think for a moment about what it means. Say we achieve the modest aim, promoted by bodies like the IMF and the World Bank, of 3% global growth a year. This means that all the economic activity you see today – and most of the environmental impacts it causes – doubles in 24 years; in other words, by 2045. Then it doubles again by 2069. Then again by 2093. It’s like the Gemino curse in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which multiplies the treasure in the Lestrange vault until it threatens to crush Harry and his friends to death. . . . 

Most people struggle to define the system that dominates our lives. But if you press them, they’re likely to mumble something about hard work and enterprise, buying and selling. This is how the beneficiaries of the system want it to be understood. In reality, the great fortunes amassed under capitalism are not obtained this way, but through looting, monopoly and rent grabbing, followed by inheritance. . . . Such theft from the future is the motor of economic growth. Capitalism, which sounds so reasonable when explained by a mainstream economist, is in ecological terms nothing but a pyramid scheme. . . . This is why the environmental impacts of the very rich, however right-on they may be, are massively greater than those of everyone else. Preventing more than 1.5C of global heating means that our average emissions should be no greater than two tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year. But the richest 1% of the world’s people produce an average of more than 70 tonnes. Bill Gates, according to one estimate, emits almost 7,500 tonnes of CO2, mostly from flying in his private jets. . . . But more important than the direct impacts of the ultra-wealthy is the political and cultural power with which they block effective change. Their cultural power relies on a hypnotising fairytale. Capitalism persuades us that we are all temporarily embarrassed millionaires. . . . The difficult truth is that, to prevent climate and ecological catastrophe, we need to level down. We need to pursue what the Belgian philosopher Ingrid Robeyns calls limitarianism.

The part of the discussion that feels less tackled in all the climate change books I've been reading, is the call for taxation that we had back in the 50s and 60s. And he explains what can be done with the money - a shift to public centres instead of individual playgrounds.

Wealth taxes strike at the heart of the issue. They should be high enough to break the spiral of accumulation and redistribute the riches accumulated by a few. They could be used to put us on an entirely different track, one that I call “private sufficiency, public luxury”. While there is not enough ecological or even physical space on Earth for everyone to enjoy private luxury, there is enough to provide everyone with public luxury: magnificent parks, hospitals, swimming pools, art galleries, tennis courts and transport systems, playgrounds and community centres. We should each have our own small domains – private sufficiency – but when we want to spread our wings, we could do so without seizing resources from other people. . . . Our survival depends on disobedience.

I see this as not only as a necessary change to our buying habits, but also a potential remediation for loneliness. As a kids, we played at the local school or community center or park, where they had swings and slides. Then, by the time I had kids, everyone started to buy backyard swingsets. We each had a playground on our property, and the kids didn't run off to play outside in the same way that we used to. Losing community centres to individual purchases of all the toys keeps us isolated. It costs us our communities. And it makes it more difficult to organize. Maybe that's not by design, but it's definitely something to reclaim with vehemence. 

Here's a bit of Greta Thunberg:


The Disaffected Lib said...

Good catch, Marie. Thanks. I agree that he isn't raising new points but putting them in a somewhat different, freshly compelling way.

I wish I didn't share his pessimism but collectively and individually we're not of a mind to accept his prescription. I wrote a piece today about over-population and the climate emergency. I expect our leaders will fail us - yet they won't betray us. They won't make the hard calls because a) they don't want to and b) they know we would howl like scalded cats if they even suggested such things.

Think of it as a game of full-contact musical chairs.

Marie Snyder said...

I agree that we're not in a place to change - especially when we see the pushback from something as simple as vaccinations that will save people's lives! If we can't agree on that, then how do we agree to restrictions that have a much more pervasive impact on our day-to-day lives (like shopping, eating, and transportation habits). I think the only way we could be convinced to live minimally is if they stage a war in a 'Wag the Dog' kind of way, and then we have to do it for the war effort. We're good at fighting others; we're not nearly as good at fighting our own desires and impulses.