The escalating war on climate change
My father died. Then I visit my old mother. When I have hardly been inside for three minutes, she says viciously, "Just so you know, I immediately put the picture of his father (note: an unpleasant kind of man, according to her) in the garbage bag." I shrug and say, "You act as if I care; I didn't even know the man!". She: "You were named after him!". After a few hours, a light begins to dawn on me. Is that (her projection of him onto me) why she has actually always distrusted me somewhere?
I mean by this, most wars are never declared, and when they are, they're ill-defined. The war on drugs is aimed at dealers and producers, not against the social and economic misery that makes people turn to drugs. The war on cancer focuses on the tumor, not the pesticides and diet. A mother beats her daughter because she's the darling of her husband who doesn't want to hug her (i.e. his wife) anymore because she has become too fat. And, finally, in my opinion, the war on climate is mostly equally poorly defined.
It's not the climate that's going to kill us, but the game we've been playing with each other so far. The rules that are governing the shape of our economic interactions are the only reason why we no longer fit within the earthly boundaries. The way we make and distribute the porridge: because that's where the hunger for energy comes from. An insatiable hunger that keeps our economies guzzling more and more energy. We have to tinker with that rather than the climate.
No, we don't tinker with those essential social rules about how we treat each other, and about how we give each other access to means of livelihood. No way! We are so touchy and scared of each other (which is why we have based our game on suspicion and hedging ourselves) that we continue to dodge the rules-issue and instruct the youth that we must attack the climate, while it is precisely this being at each other throats that has materialized in a culture of abandonment, of getting ahead of the rest. We created for that reason more and more energy applications that daily blows towering GHG-clouds into our atmosphere. Our hectic pace is driven by the possibility (freedom) of bringing in more porridge than another, and by the fear of coming home without porridge. But while we are so constantly trying to get our share, being where we are is minimized. We are obsessed with getting somewhere. Looking for more in our mutual war for more.
Unfortunately (or fortunately!), the hour of truth is now rapidly approaching that we can no longer side step the explosive rules issue. Why? Because when climate disruption becomes a matter of life or death for the entire human race, and we really have to start applying radical brakes to emissions, the current rules will make any quick rescue attempt impossible. And so we have to work on them. We need to radically reform them because they seriously constrain our leeway to rescue ourselves from the grip of the fossil energy addiction. They prevent us from surviving without emissions; i.e. from making and distributing the porridge without emissions.
If the tech fix (i.e. the war for more) continues to fall through, and for many it already has, what path to rapidly declining can we take, and who is ready to lead the attack? So let's first scrutinize the battle-field. What are the main opponents we find there?
- The business-as-usual proponents (in short: the Usuals). This group consists largely of the owners of capital machinery and businesses. They have only one daily concern namely how do I keep my machines working tomorrow. The motives behind this? Could be anything, but they revolve around debt repayment, consolidation of positions, employment ideals, etc. Their money and effort and family history, their entire wealth is in those machines and companies. So they want them to be able to work full time, their industrial manufacturing & processing machinery, stackers, trucks, planes, ships, tractors, milking robots, crane shovels, mine excavators, etc. etc. That is their rock-solid orientation, and they have backing from banks, insurers, governments and unions, because they are all in the same game of exchange that ensures everyone's existence. At the moment they are somewhat alarmed by climate change, so their main reaction consists of greenwashing proposals (such as green hydrogen and green kerosene), and of investing their personal capital in greenwash start-ups and in insane futurological projects (rocket projects, satellite projects, artificial intelligence, non-aging, revitalization, and building survival bunkers on artificial islands), all so as not to have to think about future shit.
- The green growth proponents (in short: Green Growers). This contingent mainly consists of future-oriented executives of progressive companies on the one hand (e.g. M&M), and on the other hand of workers in sectors that in one way or another are profiting from business-as-usual (governments, support services including the fast-growing circuit of sustainability specialists, NGOs including many environmental protection organizations). These people prefer to see the current dynamics perpetuated, and want for whatever reasons or fears allow the current economic rules of the game to find a way out. In the meantime they tolerate incremental greenwash. See this quarrel between Usuals and Green Growers about the acceleration of the energy transition of ships. At no time in that discussion, there is a moment where the scale of shipping and container fever are discussed. No lids (i.e. volume restrictions) are needed on anything. The international transportation show must go on. Green Growers have a sheep-like trust in the solution capacity of science and technology, and thus wallow from one fable (i.e. bio-gas, ethanol, and bio-mass would produce emissions gains) in the other (green hydrogen, methanol, and green kerosene are clean), whereas if you look at the litany of operations and mountain of industrial installations you need to produce, distribute, and use them, and fill in every energy parameter in those production functions with the energy mix (with less than 20% renewables) that is available (and thus will be used) in the 2022-2030 trajectory, then all of those fables fall deep through the clean emissions basket.
- The back-to-basics proponents (in short: the Basics). Ignoring for a moment backgrounds and past (such as Georgescu-Roegen), this camp is currently developing at lightning speed via
- reflection within the climate movement (post carbon, deep adaptation, regenerative economy);
- critical economics (Daly, Goudzwaard, Sinai, Raworth, Paech, Parrique) and journalism (Monbiot, Kempf, Hens, Gameau, Roxana VB);
- transformative practitioners around forms of living and ecological agriculture;
- and transformative social theorists (such as Treu, Hickel, Latouche, Heinberg, Shiva, Faburel, Anderson, Newell, Thunberg, Norberg, Kallis, Chatterton, Steinberger)
It is clear that only the Basics adherents want to pave a survival path for humanity by tinkering with essential rules of society (i.e. war on rules and laws). So: what plan of attack on the rules of society do the Basics have in mind to prevent − via a rapid and sharp reduction in the demand for energy − the climate from becoming unlivable.
What plan of attack?
Because the Basics field is very broad and, like their opponents, is currently coloring from day to day, they have a wide variety of proposals that revolve around a deliberate reduction of overconsumption and overproduction. A French example: "C'est un processus de sobriété organisé pour aller vers des sociétés écologiquement viables et socialement souhaitables et vers une relocalisation des activités productives au sein de bio-régions autonomes". However most Basics descriptions are far too rosy in my opinion by mainly pointing out benefits, and not the life-changing U-turn character if you really want to go back-to-basics. Virtual hubris and inexperience with reality drip from them. Not bad at all, of course. At least it communicates, and is constructive, and that's the important thing.
Now let's try to illuminate − reasoning from the core problem (= human survival) that all these proposals seek to deal with − crucial contours and details of that path by listing the core aspects that many Basics-authors mention and partially agree on. Sorry, I won't mention names in order to keep the path clear and short, and to give it some coherence.
- Maximize decoupling of subsystems (such as continents, countries, regions, cities, and villages). This strategy has traditionally (also in control engineering) been the key method of preventing a self destabilising complex system from crashing. Minimizing the inter-flows between sub-systems at the causal operational level (see Mesarovic et al) − and thus strongly increasing the autonomous functioning of sub-systems (i.e. as much self-sufficiency as possible) − is necessary in the first place to minimize transport emissions, and to curtail the current trend of lengthening production chains for abject reasons (low wages, absent environmental policies). But secondly, decoupling minimizes the coordination problems above the subsystems, and thus the decision-making stratum (i.e. management, governments and local authorities, and all administrative services) becomes considerably lighter and emptier. With three consequences: (a) overhead emissions (travel, offices, information processing) become minimal; (b) per subsystem one gets a better grip on one's own immediate reality, is less plaything of external dynamics, and is then able to plan better and develop social cohesion more easily; (c) there are far fewer overhead costs weighing on the causal processes and so the operational level can then be set up less productively (lower emission e.g. through more manual work).
- The demand for energy must be curtailed because emissions must be reduced to a safe level at lightning speed. As a result, essential aspects of the capitalist market economy − in particular freedom of enterprise (taking the initiative, setting up new productions with the help of reserves and expanding them at one's own desirabilities) − cannot be maintained, or can be maintained only to a limited extent, because they are by definition (freedom!) unable to integrate the public interest in emissions safely into their decision-making. The applicability of private money and power (banks, stock exchanges), and thus the steering from massive private reserves, becomes as a consequence more restricted, and this steering must necessarily be taken over by collective decision-making bodies.
- The chief benchmark for that collective steering of productions (e.g. via carbon tax on inputs/outputs, or via carbon budgets on consumption inputs, or via spending limits) aimed at a drastic reduction of energy demand, will be an assessment of the superfluous consumption space in the lifestyles. It is clear from the outset: lifestyles have to be cut substantially. (Heinberg: "Rich countries have to give up a lot of prosperity"). The current ones are unfeasible. We have to retreat to a lifestyle in which we can certainly stay alive, but also certainly stabilise the climate. It leaves very little room to set the bar high. Only pure dumbfucks (sorry) continue to aim high when the floor threatens to plunge. But stripped down to what? Undoubtedly to basic needs. Nobody goes on holiday if they have to choose between food and holiday. Food, shelter, energy, safety and love are priorities. And there − at that elementary level of what is most needed − only one distribution key is socially acceptable and thus implementable, namely an equal potential for the fulfilment of basic needs for all. Sharing poverty can only be achieved without constant revolt and crime if you level the playing field (the room to manoeuvre in order to stay alive) for everyone. If not, it becomes murder and mayhem.
- Agricultural activity becomes basic. Because (a) food is the primary necessity of life, (b) agriculture (= dealing with nature) plays the main role in keeping earth's respiration intact and optimising it, (c) people can survive on land, it is their most nearby means of production, and so minimises trade, storage, packaging, and transport emissions. (See also Paech: Kleinräumige Versorgungsstrukturen). By continuing the decoupling (i.e. disconnection) of subsystems down to the level of the individual (or family), the physical capacities of human beings are brought closest to the agricultural means of subsistence. There, food, housing, clothing, and renewable energy can be produced locally to a sufficient degree without many high-emission inputs (such as energy from elsewhere). This arrangement − making people directly responsible for (and dependent on) the functioning of their own part of the earth (their space) − keeps people busy, keeps them healthy, and directs their values in the same direction (through equal worries), prevents addiction and crime, is emancipatory and socially just, eliminates the dichotomy between caring and being cared and between intellectual and manual labour, and to a large extent circumvents income generation and distribution (because the basic income consists of the fruits of one's own interaction with the space). Levelling the playing field, especially in the agricultural sector, also complies with the necessary lifestyle steering (see above), i.e. assigning everyone an equal potential for the fulfilment of basic needs.
- Low-tech setup. Drastic decoupling also imposes tailoring of technology to local production possibilities and user needs. It is plausible (desirable!) that the production of food, clothing and houses can be somewhat mechanized - for example, tractors for mowing, mills for grinding, and cranes for digging - and also that each community should have a bus and bicycles at its disposal, some (solar) energy, and iron for making tools, pans and stoves, and lime for fertilizing and construction. These centralized productions (e.g., in parts of the country where there is a lot of wind energy) may be highly standardized and limited, but the inputs (raw materials, labor) must be able to be paid for by the overproductions of the local communities. The low tech technology must align with manual power, be able to operate on locally producible energy, and above all not constantly undergo uncontrolled innovation. In the low tech option, of course, people will continue to be inventive and thus improve working methods and means and communicate improvements, but the collective assessment of innovation of main tools will be less likely to ignore emission consequences and technical and social disadvantages of rapid depreciation of a technique, than is now the compulsive case in the high tech race between global corporations.
- Less future for pure intellectual labour. In post growth proposals, in my opinion, far too few words are wasted on what you must do in the immediate future with the whipped cream gun of the rich (namely embellishing the future with all sorts of redeeming high-tech innovations) and with the army of knowledge workers and research institutes that they themselves or governments have financed to that end. With this power, which they finance with the proceeds of the causal processes they manage, they continually present their idea of the future to the population. But to them, future is secondary. For them, innovating is their number one competitive weapon. By being the first in a particular field and addicting most people to novelty by responding to their need to want to belong to the crowd, companies primarily want to consolidate and expand their own power (and prestige). This formalized high tech innovation is the grasping arm to more and further that we must amputate if we are going to choose the post growth path. Sorry, but that undirected problem-solving has now had time and resources enough to move us out of mutual lack of overview and mutual value divergences instead of reinforcing those two main sources of climate blindness and climate passivity by endlessly stretching and promising the possible, and canonizing the human being. Anderson correctly analyzes (at t= 8 min) the following: "While enabling the inability to think of new narratives, we, senior academics, have fed into that process of maintaining the status quo. So, we are part of this failure of imagination". But he probably does not recognize that in the post growth narrative (a) due to less pure decision making problems, and due to integration of intellectual and manual labour, and due to slow innovation of standardized productions, there will be almost no need for specialized experts anymore, and (b) that the revenues of a low tech based society cannot possibly carry the heavy burden of the expert community with their nice salaries, super equipped institutes, large research budgets, and high pensions.
- Guarantee education and health care at basic levels and decelerate procreation. Only the footprint movement signals the latter, but it is of course an essential aspect that can only be implemented humanely under conditions of great mutual value convergence on emission limitation and on accessibility to resources, otherwise having children will remain a weapon in the mutual struggle for porridge.
Taking all this into account, a plan of attack with the above described contents would turn the functioning of present-day societies economically, socially and ecologically completely upside down. It is conflict material of the magnitude that even convinced Basics-people do not want to lift the lid of too often in order to look (nervously) under. Change is difficult anyway (see this discussion) but the above boils down to giving up a whole slew of wealth and convenience, plus letting go of anchors to which we have been tied for centuries.
It may help to mentally imagine such a leap or U-turn not as a static transformation (i.e. a huge mountain on the road), but as a dynamic process of small steps within a broader context. Let us therefore try to imagine how the war on certain blocking basic societal rules (laws) can further escalate given this plan and with these opponents. How can the attack on rules going to work out?
The coming battle
On the battle-field described above, I see three battles being fought in the next few years that will ultimately merge into one another.
The first one is the battle between Green Growers and Usuals to make all economic processes emission-free in time to keep climate change below 2 degrees. Within a few years (this is already clear in fact, see Anderson at t=10 min) it will turn out that we are heading straight for 3 to 5 degrees, and are getting quite close to trigger fatal positive feedback loops (i.e. amplifying cycles).
This will immediately start the second battle, between central governments and Usuals. Governments have so far been very supportive of owner decisions. They put some taxes in the way here and there, but that's just tickling. However, the moment (= the moment it is foreseen that the first battle will be lost) that the climate bear turns out to be absolutely unstoppable (not even by future carbon removal), governments will start to tighten the thumbscrews on emissions. The international flows (long chain production, trade, transport) will dry up, and governments will take over the ownership decision around the local production of services and products to fulfill the basic needs of the population (for whose well-being they are totally responsible) with minimal emissions.
Meanwhile, the third battle will then be able to push the outcome of the second battle in a certain direction. The third battle is that between Basics and governments. It consists of the ongoing struggle of young people − already for years, but now in an increasingly fierce and massive way − to organize their own living and working environment as emission-free and as basic as possible. It is a battlefield because most of them run into the wall of establishment requirements (education, equipment, fixed social security charges, compulsory insurance) and financing (im)possibilities, time after time. The speed of delivering this third battle will depend to a large extent on the size of the escape from the cities and from climate-hazardous areas (coasts, fire danger, inundation danger, heat danger). In particular, a strong increase of urban Green Growers jumping over to the Basics side − because they see that the first battle is a lost one, and thus they themselves proceed to amputate their innovation function within the Usuals sector − may put high pressure on local authorities (through elections, protests and uprisings) to provide Basics-proponents (and the population in general) with accessibility to local resources with which basic needs can be met (land, buildings and markets in particular).
And there we see how the second and third battle can then jointly (supporting each other) intertwine into a force that culminates in a central (constitutional) intervention on freedoms − in particular the freedom to build up unlimited reserves and to spend them as one pleases − and the transfer of possessions (assets), in such a way that the current rules are finally abolished and the total society, up to every corner, can transform into a low-emission, low-tech, short-chain economy by means of new rules on acquisition and use of property (especially real estate).
Man has traditionally been strongly forward-looking. Grown-ups sometimes doze off slowly, but are wide awake when the horizon − the price of bread and energy, for example − starts to cloud. Younger people, on the other hand, have their future screeners working much more vigorously because they are full of existential uncertainties − in despair, in fact − constantly faced with essential choices (body, partner, income, living place) regarding their life path.
At recent demonstrations, I saw the cry "Give us our future back" pass by several times. To me, a sign of the underground tension currently building up between people in terms of climate-solution direction. That text from those throats is cranking up something very sinister. Namely, that with every minute we wait to remove the real barriers to scaling up sustainable climate behavior, with waiting to unblock the constitutional and regulatory room for maneuver of young adults to shift acutely to zero-emission lifestyles, we are forfeiting fastly more of humanity's future. And this is currently going at a glacial pace. The breach of the life-threatening 1.5 degree rise limit was a short time ago (in 2018) not expected until 2040, and is now (August 2021) expected as early as 2030.
Moreover, we can be 100% sure that this is not the last shortening of the time available for the conversion to net zero. In short: we need to attack the societal rules that block our room for maneuver vis-a-vis climate change, and thus first converge on them in the Basics proposals, and then fight against countervailing forces. Local producing and consuming − we can no longer ignore it − must take off quickly. The maintenance of nature, humanity, youth, and love will drive us over the highest barriers.
Jac Nijssen, 2021
This article has been written Oct. 2021.
Also in pdf available.