Sunday, January 3, 2010

It's up to us

Politicians wont do what has to be done to stop catastrophic climate change, or the catastrophic loss of other species, unless we make them.

“Climate-friendly” politicians don’t need our support. They need our vehement opposition. Opposition that is at least as strong as what they get from industry and their lobbyists, from mindless consumers, motorists and their advocacy groups, and other climate laggards. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said to activists within his own party: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” It’s up to us.

One might think that it would be easier for politicians to agree on a course of action, because there are fewer of them. Generally, if you get three humans in a room it is hard to get them to agree on anything at all. But politicians feel bound by the people who helped elect them; not just the big donors and the special interests, but the voters who voted for them, and by the fear of not getting re-elected. They underestimate the rewards that can come from daring to show leadership, daring to do something revolutionary and exciting, and instead end up harvesting defeat for not doing enough.

Emergent policy is inevitably a tattered quilt, so our goals must be so far out in green direction that the world can live with the compromise. But the time for compromise is long since passed.

Throw rocks (or something) at politicians and bureaucrats that wont go as far as required towards a sustainable biosphere. Puncture SUVs as often as you can. Show that we are not a bunch of pacified couch-potatoes that are too preoccupied with shopping, shuttling kids between kindergarten, soccer practice, and the mall, planning our next vacation abroad, to take a stance.

To avoid catastrophic self-reinforcing climate change, the concentration of atmospheric CO2 must be reduced to less than 350 ppm as quickly as possible, from the current anthropogenic level of 390 ppm (see and 350—not 450 which has been the basis of international climate negotiations to date. When I was born, we were at about 310 ppm. At the start of the industrial revolution 275-280. When I was born there were 3.3 billion people on Earth, as opposed to 7 any minute now. There are people alive today that were born when there were only 1.5 billion humans. It took all human history up to 1850 before we rounded the first billion humans on Earth. In the next few decades we will reach something between 9 and 14 billion people, unless our life-support systems collapse before then or we take effective measures to avoid such an over-crowded future. Such is the power of exponential growth.

Have we become so accustomed to letting the State take care of everything, that we can’t even bother to organize to put some pressure on the State to do the things that really matter? Is bread and circus all people care about?

It makes me cry to think of all the precious political energy that was misdirected in the 70s and 80s opposing nuclear weapons and nuclear power. The consequences of nuclear war were of course bad, but there was only a tiny likelihood that it would happen. The consequences of the biodiversity meltdown were at least as bad, and that was a crisis we were already in the middle of. We annihilated 70 species a day, and still do. The biodiversity crisis was a reality not just a remote possibility. It was 30 and 40 years ago that we should have taken on the struggle for live on earth and against global heating. Svante Arrhenius described the greenhouse effect as early as 1896 (granted, he tended to focus on how the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere could help stave off a new ice age). “The little ice age” was exactly what we got in the mid-14th century when the black plague and other epidemics worldwide halved population densities, forests grew back over large areas, and CO2 concentrations dropped by 10 ppm.

Politicians can always resort to the excuse that they cannot act until the voters want them to act. Voters want their cheap airfares, their over-sized cars in which to drive to their over-sized vacation homes, flatscreens, and food that is cheap because it has been flown back and forth to China for processing.

But it not quite so simple. We need systems whereby not only a few idealists do the right thing. Personally, I would be happy to see cars outlawed, but as long as others drive their Chrysler le Behemoths to country houses with heated driveways every weekend, I drive my 3-cylinder Opel Corsa 1.0 liter when driving is practical. That is why we need political measures that ensure that one is not alone in giving up the car, recycling, abstaining from reproduction, going vegetarian, etc.

It’s not just about the climate. The biodiversity crisis was here long before global warming was on the agenda. Loss of natural habitats, over-fishing, agriculture and roads everywhere, farmed salmon that escapes and ruins wild salmon runs, forest clearing etc. etc. We need to ban trawlers, fish farms that are not in tanks on land, over-fishing and shark-finning, curtail meat consumption and air travel, ban coal burning, and reduce the human population size. Don’t take my word for it: people need to read up on this stuff themselves—take responsibility for their own enlightenment—even if it’s a pity that some have to spend time reading when what we need is action.

The old 68ers, even if they were barking up the wrong tree, knew a few things about organizing. They learned by doing, as one often does, but perhaps we can get them to teach us a few tricks while they still remember who they once were. People’s actions are an important if under-appreciated part of a healthy democracy. In times of crises minor adjustments every four years are inadequate. If politicians wont lead, the people must take the lead. Politics is too important to be left to a professional political caste. When it gets right down to it, they aren’t that professional in any case.

Throw rocks (or something) at Parliament (or Congress) until politicians make some decent laws. If rock throwing isn’t your thing, perhaps a hunger strike. Or use your creativity to come up with a suitable action.

Politicians need an effective counterweight against the climate deniers, laggards and naysayers. True democrats must demonstrate that the People are worthy of the confidence democracy places on them. Are we gonna let corporations and their over-paid lobbyists dominate the political process? We need riots and demonstrations bigger than anything the world has seen. We need action directed at those who don’t wont us to take action. It is up to us.

It is up to us to force governments to force us to change the way we live. To make this a life that is compatible with life, a life worth living, is up to us. To get there, we must find out how to get ourselves to get organized...

If that doesn’t work we have to change the system so that important matters are no longer up to the general public.

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