What Would A Real Transition To A Sustainable Society Look Like?

30 Jun

By Max Wilbert / Deep Green Resistance

Climate scientists are clear that modern human societies are changing the atmosphere of the planet, mainly by clearing forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural ecosystems for the purposes of development and logging and by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. These activities are releasing greenhouse gases and destroying natural greenhouse gas reservoirs. The result of all this activity is that the Earth is growing steadily warmer, year after year, and this is causing problems all over the world.

That additional heat is powering up weather systems and altering global flows of energy. Storms are more powerful and frequent than in the past. Drought, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, and other weather patterns are becoming increasingly unpredictable and dangerous. “Freak” events like the disastrous heat wave in Russia in 2011 are becoming more common. Annual deaths ascribed to climate change were estimated in a 2002 study to be 150,000 per year at that time, using what the authors called an “extremely conservative” methodology.

Every year representatives from governments around the world gather to discuss the problem of global warming as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a 1994 treaty which has been signed by 194 nations. In 2012, the 17th annual meeting was held in Durban, South Africa. The stated goal of these meetings has been to limit global warming to 2° Celsius – about 3.5° Fahrenheit over average pre-industrial temperature. This is the maximum level of warming that has been labeled as safe by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the United Nations scientific advising body on the matter.

Warming beyond this level is not safe because it threatens to accelerate due to “tipping points” in the global climate. These tipping points refer to a specific time at which a natural system, after being stressed by global warming, “flips” into a different state and begins to release greenhouse gases in a self-sustaining reaction instead of being a carbon dioxide ‘sink’. James Hansen and other climate scientists have issued dire warnings about this possibility. In fact, Hansen and other scientists have recently revised their assertions that limiting warming to 2°C will prevent climate tipping points. They, and many other climate scientists, believe now that warming must be limited to 1°C to avoid these catastrophic feedbacks, which are already beginning to take effect.

“With the current global warming of ~0.8°C evidence of slow feedbacks is beginning to appear,” Hansen wrote in 2011.

These “slow feedbacks” include processes like ice sheet melt and the release of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost and warming shallow oceans, and threaten to rapidly increase the effects of global warming if climate tipping points are exceeded. Their effects are rarely included in climate models and policy, and are a major reason why some scientists are concerned that estimates and forecasts have been underestimating the speed and severity of climate change.

“There’s evidence that climate sensitivity [to greenhouse gases] may be quite a bit higher than what the models are suggesting,” said Ken Caldeira, senior scientist at the Carnegie Institute for Science at Stanford University.

That is why many scientists and policy analysts are calling for greater emissions cuts than what has been proposed in international negotiations. So what is necessary to avoid runaway global warming?

According to the climate-modeling group of the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, we need 100% cuts by 2050 to avert 2°C warming. Their calculations show that even this rate of reduction would leave a 1 in 3 chance of rise over 2°C.  James Hansen, in the same 2011 paper referenced above, notes that if emissions cuts don’t begin until 2020, the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, currently around 395ppm, will not decline to 350ppm (considered the highest safe level for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) for almost 300 years.

George Monbiot, the noted climate journalist and researcher, has called for a 90% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute calls for at least 80% cuts by 2020. Hansen notes that 6% cuts per year beginning in 2012 would prevent substantial warming beyond 1°C – this is equivalent to a 100% emissions cut by 2030. To be successful, Hansen also notes that these cuts would have to be combined with a massive campaign to restore forests and other natural carbon sinks.

As we can see, the consensus among the most informed individuals is that emissions need to be near zero by 2030 and more likely by 2020. To achieve this by systemic means, emissions need to peak between 2012 and 2015 and begin to decline rapidly, but the trend has been moving in the opposite direction. Between 2000 and 2010, emissions rose about 3% per year, and projections from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development assert that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere will be 50% higher than current levels by 2050.

Business As Usual Is A Dead End…

Obviously, the rate of emissions cuts being promoted by governments around the world are not sufficient to avoid 1°C of warming (or even 2°C warming), regardless of new technologies brought into play. And what is the foundation of the cuts that are proposed? What are the technologies being relied on to reduce emissions?

Most of the proposed solutions to global warming focus on a revolution in transportation that leaves fossil fuels behind and transitions to electric transportation, and a conversion from fossil fuel electricity generation to “renewable” energy generation. Among policymakers, governments, and environmentalists, “green energy” is often considered the Holy Grail of the new green economy. Excitement and investment has focused on solar energy, wind power, and biofuels as the technologies that will herald the new ecotopian future.

But do these new technologies actually represent real solutions? Serious concerns have been raised about the true sustainability of these and other “green” technologies. Author and activist Lierre Keith writes:

“Windmills, PV panels, the grid itself are all manufactured using that cheap energy [from fossil fuels]. When fossil fuel costs begin to rise such highly manufactured items will simply cease to be feasible: sic transit gloria renewables… The basic ingredients for renewables are the same materials that are ubiquitous in industrial products, like cement and aluminum. No one is going to make cement in any quantity without using the energy of fossil fuels… And aluminum? The mining itself is a destructive and toxic nightmare from which riparian communities will not awaken in anything but geologic time.”

Biofuels are similarly plagued by criticism. Many biofuels simply take more energy to produce than can be extracted from them. Those that do produce energy produce an exceedingly small amount. These fuels are often created by clearing natural ecosystems such as tropical rain forests or prairies for agricultural production, a process which releases even more greenhouse gases, reduces biodiversity, and reduces local food availability. Biofuel production is considered a major factor in rising food prices around the world in recent years. These rising food prices have led to widespread starvation, unrest, and violence.

Digging Out of a Very Deep Hole

Some governments, corporations, and advocacy groups are calling for emergency efforts to stop global warming using techniques collectively referred to as geo-engineering. Proposals include injecting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect incoming solar radiation, dumping huge loads of iron into the ocean to stimulate phytoplankton growth, or even putting massive reflectors in space to redirect solar rays before they hit the earth. But many worry that these solutions could cause more problems than they solve.

“Einstein warned us and told us that you can’t solve problems with the same mindset that created them,” says physicist and sustainable agriculture activist Vandana Shiva. “The sun is not the problem. The problem is the mass of pollution we are creating.”

Injecting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere would certainly reduce global warming, but only as long as these injections are continued. This would mean that if, in the future, society was unable to maintain atmospheric levels of sulfur dioxide, these levels would rapidly fall and warming would commence once again. It is a false solution based on offloading the effects of global warming onto future generations.

Ocean fertilization would also be effective at reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels by stimulating the growth of phytoplankton who absorb greenhouse gases. However, the side effects of modifying oceanic food chains and energy flows on the scale that would be required for this to be effective are unknown, and could be catastrophic for oceans already reeling from decades of overfishing and industrial pollution.

Reflectors in space are a logistical nightmare. The massive amount of energy that would be required to manufacture and deploy such technology would greatly exacerbate warming. These reflectors would also have unknown effects on plant growth, vitamin D synthesis in humans, weather patterns written by solar energy, and other global systems. It is possible that this “solution” could devastate the planet.

Beyond these issues, none of the geo-engineering proposals address some of the fundamental issues of climate change that go beyond global warming. For example, rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are dissolving into the oceans where they become carboxylic acid. This acid is lowering the pH of the entire ocean and interfering with fish and shellfish reproduction, coral reef growth, and numerous other living systems that, aside from their intrinsic value, provide a good deal of human nutrition around the world.

Geo-engineering also fails to deal with the issue of rising seas – we are already committed to several feet of sea level rise, which is likely to displace tens of millions of people around the world and inundate ecosystems. While reducing warming through these techniques would slow the melt of mountain glaciers and ice sheets, it would do nothing to address the natural systems already in dire straits because of warming up to this point.

What about simple living?

Faced with these problems, many people are addressing some of the fundamental issues at hand, such as the culture of consumerism that is fueling the industrial machine. Millions of people are embracing the need for voluntary simplicity and taking steps to reduce their waste, use less energy, support local economies over corporate globalization, and become self-sufficient wherever possible.

This is an excellent first step. However, it is important to recognize that the vast majority of energy consumption and waste production comes from the commercial and industrial sectors – that is to say, business. So even if all of the 350 million people in the United States reduce their energy consumption and personal waste production drastically, it would have marginal effects on the global situation. It bears repeating often and loudly that the US military is the largest consumer of fossil fuel on the planet. So while simple living is certainly a moral necessity, it does not fundamentally challenge the globalized industrial economy that is based on colonization and extraction of resources.

So what could work?

But plants can be grown for food in ways that are in accord with the needs and desires of a particular landscape, as has been demonstrated by thousands of cultures throughout history. These cultures practiced gardening, tending wild plants, and horticulture – practices which revolve around closed loop systems of perennial polycultures, communities of plants that supplement and support each other. The modern idea of permaculture evolved from these roots. Permaculture uses thousands of techniques, precisely adapted to the region, climate, soils, and microclimate to create edible ecosystems which provide food as well as quality wildlife habitat.

Annual grain monocrop agriculture is certainly no solution: it is based on drawdown of finite soil reserves and enables the population growth that is currently stretching the carrying capacity of the planet to its limits. In fact, the history of agricultural civilizations is precisely the history of environmental devastation, from the deforestation of Babylon-era Mesopotamia, to the felling of great forests of North Africa to construct the Roman fleets, to the great dust bowl of the 1930s and onwards.

Permaculture, as well as other traditional subsistence methods such as hunting, animal husbandry, fishing, and gathering, must be the foundations of any future sustainable culture; otherwise any claims to being “green” will be falsehoods. Perennial polycultures, both cultivated and wild, can also supply the other basics necessities of life: clean water, clean air, material for clothing and shelter, and inspiration spiritual nourishment.

Addressing the population bubble…

The skyrocketing world population will need to be addressed if climate change is to be averted. This is technically possible, but socially and politically very difficult. About half of all children born are unplanned, which means that by simply reducing or limiting unwanted pregnancies, we would solve the population problem. The most effective means of reducing unwanted pregnancies is by empowering women, making birth control easily available and culturally appropriate, and by combating the effects of patriarchal, male-focused culture.

It is also critical that we note that population is a secondary issue; consumption has a more direct effect on climate change and population. What I mean by this is that a single person in the United States is likely to have a massive climate impact compared to a dozen or more people living in poor nations. So while population must be addressed, we must also address the issue of overconsumption and industrialization.

A human-rights issue

Global warming is a human rights issue, so perhaps it will be useful for us to look at past struggles for human rights. It is important for us to recognize that global warming is also a value-laden issue. It is inherently political and partisan. There is a clear dividing line between those who are making fortunes off industries and lifestyles of flagrant consumption, and those who are bearing the brunt of the effects of global warming.

What is this mean for our strategy? For one, it may mean that legislative change will be too slow to stop catastrophic global warming: powerful interests are so entrenched within our political system that booting them out is a long-term process. For another, it means that in addition to allies, we must concern ourselves with enemies. There are specific corporations, governments, and individuals who will consistently side with profit and with business rather than with human health, dignity, and good relationship with this land underneath our feet and this air flowing in and out of our lungs.

We should learn from past struggles, like the civil rights movement, where people used a variety of strategies and techniques to make social change. We should learn from independence movements like the Indian resistance to British colonization, and from the successes and failures of the environmental movement in the past.

Above all, we should be prepared to escalate. Powerful entrenched forces seldom concede their position willingly, and the history of social movements is a short history in escalation of tactics. We must never forget that there are lives on the line, both human and non-human, lives numbered in the billions. There is a continuum of tactics that we must consider, beginning with raising awareness, lobbying for legislative change, and mainstream political engagement, moving through legal challenges and court battles to mass protest and civil disobedience, and, at the last, ending with direct action against polluting industries.

Regardless of the strategies and tactics that are used (which are likely to be a broad combination of these and many more), averting catastrophic global warming is a daunting task. It will require courage, commitment, creativity, and groups of people working together in concert to achieve their goals. This work is already being done, and the only question is this: will you join us?

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2 Responses to “What Would A Real Transition To A Sustainable Society Look Like?”

  1. nonviolentconflict June 30, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

    Reblogged this on NonviolentConflict.

  2. AF July 1, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    You say,

    “[voluntary simplicity--waste/energy reduction and self-sufficient local economies] is an excellent first step,” but energy consumption and waste production comes from business, which is essentially protected by a polluting force, the US Military–the largest fossil fuel consumer. The military-industrial needs no introduction here, but if 350 million people reduced their energy and material consumption by, say 90% (what it would take to have a genuinely sustainable economy), then the rapid descent in demand levels would likely have a crippling effect on business and the industrial economy–if there is no demand for resources, there is no profit motive for colonizing and extracting resources.

    The US military would not feel obligated to secure fuel resources if the American people did not choose to pay for oil or any oil-based products in the first place. If energy and material consumption dropped, waste production would drop, the globalized industrial economy would similarly drop, and so would colonization and extraction.

    With a sustainable cultural foundation to supply basic needs, self-reliant communities would be able to determine their own paths forward. Power exists today where infrastructure, technology, and militant force coerces populations. If that population is able to reassert their autonomy, then the power of parasitical “elites” dries up. If no one buys what “business” is selling, business stops. This is why strikes, boycotts, sanctions, shutdowns, can paralyze a society. Buyers are complicit in industry and money is the life-blood of the economy. No demand = no industry = no business = no extraction = no need for military to colonize and secure foreign resources.

    The foreseeable problems would be two-fold:

    1) That those who are either unable or unwilling to practice sustainable life-styles will seek to exploit productive subsistence cultures

    2) That anti-technological subsistence cultures will simply not have the tools necessary to adapt to a changing climate.

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