Hotter than ever: capitalism, the Leap Manifesto and This Changes Everything

Hotter than ever: capitalism, the Leap Manifesto and <em>This Changes Everything</em>

So now we know that global temperature in February and March shattered a century-long record – and by the greatest margin ever seen. Annual heat records are fallling like ninepins, with 2015 demolishing the record set in 2014 for the hottest year seen, in data stretching back to 1850, while the UK Met Office expects 2016 to set a new record.

Prof Michael Mann, climate scientist at Penn State University in the US, was shocked by the data, saying it is ‘a reminder of how perilously close we now are to permanently crossing into dangerous territory. It underscores the urgency of reducing global carbon emissions.’

It’s a year now since the Guardian published two lengthy extracts from Naomi Klein’s enormously important book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, to kick off their Keep it in the Ground campaign. Since then I’ve read Klein’s book in its entirety.  It is probably the most important book published so far this century; as the New York Times observed:

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable, the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring.

The book, plus the powerful and inspiring film based on it which I watched last night, continues to send shock waves around the world. This week Canada has been convulsed with debates over the bold and radical Leap Manifesto which takes its name from the title of the last chapter in Klein’s book and dares to call for ‘a Canada based on caring for the Earth and one another.’ Continue reading “Hotter than ever: capitalism, the Leap Manifesto and This Changes Everything

Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations

Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations

Recently, I watched a pair of films on BBC Four presented by Adam Nicolson. In The Last Seabird Summer? he took us to the Shiant islands in the Outer Hebrides, given to him on his 21st birthday by his father, which he said ‘have been the most important thing in my life’. Every spring sees the phenomenal spectacle of a sky thick with tens of thousands of puffins, guillemots and razorbills as they arrive on the Shiants from far out in the North Atlantic to breed.

But there’s a crisis that threatens to end this remarkable show: although the numbers on the Shiants are holding up, in the last fifteen years in Scotland alone, 40 per cent of the seabird population has been lost. In The Last Seabird Summer? Nicolson explored the reasons why this is happening, and how in places like the Shiants there has been long history of dependence on seabirds: thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers.

Watching the programmes, I was reminded that for some time there had been a copy of Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room in the house, in which he told the story of how he inherited the Shiants from his father, his love for these lonely, uninhabited islands, and his exploration of their geology and history, and of the lives of the people who once lived and made their living on these remote islands. I decided to read Sea Room. Continue reading “Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations”

Climate change: living with cognitive dissonance

Climate change: living with cognitive dissonance

Spring flowers are blooming as the mercury rises into the high teens: midwinter in the era of global warming. Meanwhile, the delegates to last week’s climate change conference in Paris shuffle off home, congratulating themselves on a job well done.

It’s curious, this air of satisfaction with the conference outcomes.  After the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 failed to agree a legally-binding treaty to slow global warming, it was generally agreed that that is what it was: a dismal failure. This time, however, politicians and the mainstream media have been pushing the narrative of a job well done: an agreement hailed as ‘historic, durable and ambitious’. Continue reading “Climate change: living with cognitive dissonance”

Autumn 2015: mist, colour and unnatural warmth

Autumn 2015: mist, colour and unnatural warmth

Reading Paul Evans’ Country Diary in the Guardian this morning in which he describes autumn leaves ‘fiery as metal blades in a blacksmith’s forge’, I was reminded that in recent posts I haven’t mentioned the extraordinary autumn we’ve been having this year. After an indifferent few months, summer burst upon us late, and from the last week of September through the entire month of October the weather was governed by a large area of high pressure that remained motionless over much of western Europe. Continue reading “Autumn 2015: mist, colour and unnatural warmth”

This bitter earth: the campaign to stop Shell’s Arctic catastrophe

This bitter earth: the campaign to stop Shell’s Arctic catastrophe

A superb long read in the Guardian today by Rebecca Solnit describing a week-long expedition she took at the end of June through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a timely piece, as Charlotte Church and other Greenpeace protesters have been gathered for days outside Shell’s headquarters in London along with musicians performing a Requiem for Arctic Ice (inspired by the string quartet who continued to play as the Titanic went down) in an effort to persuade the company to abandon plans to drill for oil in the Arctic. Continue reading “This bitter earth: the campaign to stop Shell’s Arctic catastrophe”

Spring: sunshine and glory. But: What is wrong with us?

Spring: sunshine and glory.  But: What is wrong with us?

A cloudless sky, the sun warm on my shoulders – one of the first days when it’s felt as if the long tramp through winter’s cold is over. Gardening this morning, then walking my dog in Sefton Park in the afternoon, seeing all this glory in the natural world, brought to mind the question – What is wrong with us? Continue reading “Spring: sunshine and glory. But: What is wrong with us?”

The Sixth Extinction: humanity busy sawing off the limb on which it perches

The Sixth Extinction: humanity busy sawing off the limb on which it perches

Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it’s not clear that he ever really did.

Elizabeth Kolbert is a journalist who writes on science matters for the New Yorker. She has written two books, the first being Field Notes from a Catastrophe: A Frontline Report on Climate Change. I’ve just read her most recent book, The Sixth Extinction, which is only partly concerned with climate change: travelling across the world to report on the latest of the mass extinctions that have occurred on Earth in the last half billion years, she reveals how this sixth and most devastating extinction is all down to human impact – but climate change is only a part of it. Continue reading “The Sixth Extinction: humanity busy sawing off the limb on which it perches”

The last day of September

The last day of September

September 2014 2

September 2014 in Sefton Park

Today, the last day of September, I picked two pounds of strawberries on our allotment. Plus many more of the courgettes and tomatoes that have advanced in battalions in recent weeks.  A couple more figs are ripening, and there’s a second flush of blackberries on the bramble patch at the rough end.  This has been the warmest, driest September I can remember. Here in Liverpool we’ve had scarcely a drop of rain since the end of August.  It’s still t-shirt weather.

Harvest

September harvest

After a bit of digging I took the dog for a walk from Dingle Vale, through Festival Gardens where the lake in front of the Chinese pagoda is almost as dry as a bone, and down to the great river. Looking out over the water as the tide ran fast and deep, under a sky of blue, and with a balmy breeze on my face, I wondered: what could possibly be wrong with the world on a day like this?  What shadow might fall across those distant hills, bright in the evening sun?

Otterspool

Looking out across the great river

A perfect day, a feeling of being at peace with the world. The river I looked out over has run the same way to the sea, day in day out, for millennia. But might we, just possibly, have fucked up?

Take this disturbing report in today’s Guardian:

The number of wild animals on Earth has halved in the past 40 years, according to a new analysis. Creatures across land, rivers and the seas are being decimated as humans kill them for food in unsustainable numbers, while polluting or destroying their habitats, the research by scientists at WWF and the Zoological Society of London found.

Read on a bit and you come to these two deadly paragraphs:

Currently, the global population is cutting down trees faster than they regrow, catching fish faster than the oceans can restock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them and emitting more climate-warming carbon dioxide than oceans and forests can absorb.

The report concludes that today’s average global rate of consumption would need 1.5 planet Earths to sustain it. But four planets would be required to sustain US levels of consumption, or 2.5 Earths to match UK consumption levels.

September 2014

Sefton Park, September 2014

Last week the media were full of interviews with Canadian Naomi Klein and reviews of her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate – her personal response to the feeling that we are losing the battle against climate change:

She argues that we have all been thinking about the climate crisis the wrong way around: it’s about capitalism – not carbon – the extreme anti-regulatory version that has seized global economies since the 1980s and has set us on a course of destruction and deepening inequality.

“I think we are on a collision course,” she says. Twenty-five years ago, when the first climate scientist was called to testify to Congress and make global warming a policy challenge, there might have still been time for big industries to shrink their carbon footprints. But governments at the time were seized with the idea that there should be no restraints on industry. “During that time,” Klein writes, “we also expanded the road from a two lane, carbon-spewing highway to a six-lane superhighway.”

(from ‘Naomi Klein: ‘We tried it your way and we don’t have another decade to waste’‘ in last week’s Guardian)

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

In another Guardian piece (you can tell what paper I read), Klein set out her case: essentially, that we aren’t going to save the planet simply by being better consumers – but by tackling the power of multinational corporations.  We’re going to have to face up to global capitalism, or destroy the earth:

Our problem is that the climate crisis hatched in our laps at a moment in history when political and social conditions were uniquely hostile to a problem of this nature and magnitude – that moment being the tail end of the go-go 80s, the blast-off point for the crusade to spread deregulated capitalism around the world. Climate change is a collective problem demanding collective action the likes of which humanity has never actually accomplished. Yet it entered mainstream consciousness in the midst of an ideological war being waged on the very idea of the collective sphere.

This deeply unfortunate mistiming has created all sorts of barriers to our ability to respond effectively to this crisis. It has meant that corporate power was ascendant at the very moment when we needed to exert unprecedented controls over corporate behaviour in order to protect life on Earth. It has meant that regulation was a dirty word just when we needed those powers most. It has meant that we are ruled by a class of politicians who know only how to dismantle and starve public institutions just when they most need to be fortified and re-imagined. And it has meant that we are saddled with an apparatus of “free trade” deals that tie the hands of policy-makers just when they need maximum flexibility to achieve a massive energy transition.

Rubbish dumped on the tundra, Greenland

Rubbish dump on Greenland with melting icebergs

The problem, Klein says, is that – conditioned by the free market – being consumers is all we know:

Climate change demands that we consume less, but being consumers is all we know. Climate change is not a problem that can be solved simply by changing what we buy – a hybrid instead of an SUV, some carbon offsets when we get on a plane. At its core, it is a crisis born of overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy, which means the world’s most manic consumers are going to have to consume less.

The problem is not “human nature,” as we are so often told. We weren’t born having to shop this much, and we have, in our recent past, been just as happy (in many cases happier) consuming far less. The problem is the inflated role that consumption has come to play in our particular era.

[…]

Climate change is slow, and we are fast. When you are racing through a rural landscape on a bullet train, it looks as if everything you are passing is standing still: people, tractors, cars on country roads. They aren’t, of course. They are moving, but at a speed so slow compared with the train that they appear static.

So it is with climate change. Our culture, powered by fossil fuels, is that bullet train, hurtling forward toward the next quarterly report, the next election cycle, the next bit of diversion or piece of personal validation via our smartphones and tablets. Our changing climate is like the landscape out the window: from our racy vantage point it can appear static, but it is moving, its slow progress measured in receding ice sheets, swelling waters and incremental temperature rises. If left unchecked, climate change will most certainly speed up enough to capture our fractured attention – island nations wiped off the map, and city-drowning superstorms, tend to do that. But by then, it may be too late for our actions to make a difference, because the era of tipping points will likely have begun.

[…]

Another part of what makes climate change so very difficult for us to grasp is that ours is a culture of the perpetual present, one that deliberately severs itself from the past that created us as well as the future we are shaping with our actions. Climate change is about how what we did generations in the past will inescapably affect not just the present, but generations in the future. These timeframes are a language that has become foreign to most of us.

This is not about passing individual judgment, nor about berating ourselves for our shallowness or rootlessness. Rather, it is about recognising that we are products of an industrial project, one intimately and historically linked to fossil fuels.

And just as we have changed before, we can change again. After listening to the great farmer-poet Wendell Berry deliver a lecture on how we each have a duty to love our “homeplace” more than any other, I asked him if he had any advice for rootless people like me and my friends, who live in our computers and always seem to be shopping from home. “Stop somewhere,” he replied. “And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.”

Watching the river as it flowed through the place I love, I thought about Wendell Berry. Sometimes I fear what kind of world my daughter will be living in when she’s the age I am now – or, if she has children, what the world will be like for them. Then I heard an echo of a new song by another Canadian, Leonard Cohen. Off his new album called Popular Problems; in an interview on BBC Radio 6 Music last week, Cohen wisecracked that the next one would be called ‘Unpopular Solutions’. He may not be far wrong.

You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had

You got me singing
Ever since the river died
You got me thinking
Of the places we could hide

You got me singing
Even though the world is gone
You got me thinking
I’d like to carry on

You got me singing
Even tho’ it all looks grim
You got me singing
The Hallelujah hymn

The state we’re in: journal entry 1,054

Towards the end of The Four-Gated City, the final volume in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence sequence, Martha Quest starts to collect newspaper cuttings that reveal what, to her, are signs of an impending apocalypse:

local catastrophic occurrences – the poisoning of a country, or of an area; the death of part of the world; the contamination of an area for a certain period of time. These events will be the development of what is already happening…. All kinds of denials, evasions are made.  It can be taken as an axiom that all governments everywhere lie.

In these days, too, stories in the news seem to carry the same portentous inference: catastrophe and contamination, denials and evasions.

  • Item: ‘As the US suffers the worst drought in more than 50 years, analysts are warning that rising food prices could hit the world’s poorest countries, leading to shortages and social upheaval’. (Guardian)
  • Item: ‘The worst drought in a generation is hitting farmers across America’s corn belt far harder than government projections and forcing them to a heart-breaking decision: harvest what’s left of their shrivelled acres or abandon their entire crop’. (Guardian)
Illinois farmer gazes at a pond that used to water his cattle.
  • Item:  ‘If average temperatures increase, so will temperature extremes. As temperatures increase, so will evaporation. As evaporation increases, so will precipitation. As tropical seas get warmer, so will the increased hazard of cyclone, hurricane or typhoon. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred in this century. Last year was the second rainiest year on record worldwide; the winner of this dubious derby was 2010, which, with 2005, was also the warmest on record. …  Some of the most catastrophic floods and lethal heatwaves ever observed have claimed many thousands of lives in the last decade, and the increasing probability of such extremes has been predicted again and again: by the World Meteorological Organisation; by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; by the UN’s inter-agency secretariat for disaster reduction; and by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany who have listed the 19 hottest, wettest or stormiest ever events, all in the last decade. There are other, less direct indicators. The northern hemisphere growing season has expanded by 12 days since 1988. Sea levels are rising. Higher sea levels make storm surges – and consequent catastrophic floods in estuaries, flood plains and coastal cities – more likely, more costly and more deadly. The signals are clear enough. Climate is changing, and local weather patterns are responding. Conditions that seem bad now may be regarded as relatively benign in decades to come…. Weakened by successive disasters and a mix of ugly reasons that include corruption, civil war and endemic poverty, governments are less able to respond. The long-term forecast is not promising’. (Guardian editorial)

  • Item: ‘[The Arctic] is home to a quarter of the planet’s oil and natural gas reserves, yet humans have hardly touched these resources in the far north. But in a few days that could change dramatically if Shell receives approval to drill for oil in the Arctic. … Exploiting the Arctic’s vast oil reserves is just one cause of environmental unease, however. The far north is melting and far faster than predicted. Global temperatures have risen 0.7C since 1951. In Greenland, the average temperature has gone up by 1.5C. Its ice cap is losing an estimated 200bn tonnes a year as a result. And further rises are now deemed inevitable, causing the region’s ice to disappear long before the century’s end’. (Observer)
Arctic melting is a clear sign of global warming: temperatures have risen faster than elsewhere on the globe.
  • Item:  ‘The former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, posited that four pillars of the international banking system are: drug-money laundering, sanctions busting, tax evasion and arms trafficking.  The response of politicians is to cower from any serious legal assault on this reality, for the simple reasons that the money is too big (plus consultancies to be had after leaving office). Herein … lies the problem. We don’t think of those banking barons as the financial services wing of the Sinaloa [Mexican drug] cartel. The stark truth is that the cartels’ best friends are those people in pin-stripes who, after a rap on the knuckles, return to their golf in Connecticut and drinks parties in Holland Park. The notion of any dichotomy between the global criminal economy and the “legal” one is fantasy. Worse, it is a lie. They are seamless, mutually interdependent – one and the same’. (Ed Vulliamy, The Observer)
  • Item: ‘This week evidence emerged that HSBC abetted massive money laundering by Iran, terrorist organisations, drug cartels and organised criminals. By this point, should this surprise us? Selling defective mortgage securities during the housing bubble; creating and selling securities to bet on their failure; bringing the world to the brink of collapse; colluding to manipulate interest rates; hyping your failing company while secretly selling your own stock; cooking the books; assisting Bernard Madoff. For many people in banking, it would seem, securities fraud, accounting fraud, perjury and conspiracy are just another day at the office’. (Charles Ferguson, director of the best documentary in this decade, Inside Job, in The Guardian)

  • Item: ‘A global super-rich elite has exploited gaps in cross-border tax rules to hide an extraordinary £13 trillion ($21tn) of wealth offshore – as much as the American and Japanese GDPs put together – according to research commissioned by the campaign group Tax Justice Network’. (Observer)
  • Item: ‘Interest rates on Spain’s 10-year borrowing rose to the highest since the euro was created … following fresh bad news about the financial health of the country’s regions. … What began as a Spanish banking bailout looks to be moving rather quickly towards a possible sovereign bailout. Overlay that with increasingly negative news on Greece and you get a fairly negative mix. …The cost of bailing out Spain would dwarf the packages already agreed for the three smaller eurozone countries – Greece, Ireland and Portugal – and would heap pressure on monetary union’s third biggest economy Italy’. (Guardian)
Protest march in Madrid against the Spanish government’s austerity measures

John Gray the philosopher (who once wrote, in Straw Dogs, ‘humans … cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them.’) gave an provocative response to the question ‘what would Maynard Keynes do in the current situation?’ in his BBC Radio 4 Point of View essay last week:

We do not find ourselves today struggling with the aftermath of a catastrophic world war. Yet the situation in Europe poses risks that may be as great as they were in 1919. A deepening slump there would increase the risk of a hard landing in China – on whose growth the world has come to depend. In Europe itself, a downward spiral would energise toxic political movements – such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which won seats in parliament in the last election in Greece. Facing these dangers, Keynes’s disciples insist that the only way forward is through governments stimulating the economy and returning it to growth.

It’s hard to imagine Keynes sharing such a simple-minded view. As he would surely recognise, the problem isn’t just a deepening recession, however serious. We face a conjunction of three large events – the implosion of the debt-based finance-capitalism that developed over the past twenty years or so, a fracturing of the euro resulting from fatal faults in its design, and the ongoing shift of economic power from the west to the fast-developing countries of the east and south.

Interacting with each other, these crises have created a global crisis that old-fashioned Keynesian policies cannot deal with. Yet it’s still Keynes from whom we have most to learn. Not Keynes the economic engineer, who is invoked by his disciples today. But Keynes the sceptic, who understood that markets are as prone to fits of madness as any other human institution and who tried to envisage a more intelligent variety of capitalism.

Keynes condemned Britain’s return in 1925 to the gold standard, which famously he described as a barbarous relic. Would he not also condemn the determination of European governments to save the euro? Might he not think they would be better advised to begin a planned dismantlement of this primitive relic of 20th Century utopian thinking?

I suspect Keynes would be just as sceptical about the prospect of returning to growth. With our ageing populations and overhang of debt, there’s little prospect of developed societies keeping up with the rapid expansion that is going on in emerging countries. Wouldn’t we be better off thinking about how we can enjoy a good life in conditions of low growth?

Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda

And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

In the closing words of The Four-Gated City, Martha Quest struggles to come to terms with our predicament on this planet:

 Now the voices and the sound of movement were gone, and the stream could be heard running quietly under its banks.  The air was full of the scent of water and of flowers.  She walked, quiet… She walked beside the river… She thought, with the dove’s voices of her solitude: Where? But where. How? Who?  No, but where, where …Then silence and the birth of a repetition.  Where? Here.  Here?

Here, where else, you fool, you poor fool, where else has it been, ever?

See also

‘Fourteen days to seal history’s judgment on this generation’

Today’s Guardian has a historic front page, consisting solely of an editorial written and published jointly by 56 major newspapers in 45 countries and in 20 languages. Significantly, though, only the Miami Herald signed up from U.S. newspapers.

The editorial begins:

Today 56 newspapers in 45 countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial. We do so because humanity faces a profound emergency.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year’s inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

It concludes:

Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”.

It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done then surely our leaders can too.

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

Links

We’re doomed!

Congested M25 Motorway at Junction 14, Greater London, England, United Kingdom. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

Maybe it’s the mood induced by the horrendous nine and a half hour drive to Canterbury on motorways congested to near-paralysis, but two book reviews today really resonate:

Doom watch: Guardian 29 May (Review of The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilisation

by Brian Fagan)

Force feeding (Reviews of Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate

by Felicity Lawrence, and Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets

by Joanna Blythman)

Makes you think:

Britain in 2002: 4,000 hours of cookery programmes on TV and 900 books on food and cooking, just 20 minutes, on average, preparing each main meal. British consumers now spend £7,000 a minute on ready meals, three times more than any other European country.

Supermarket delivery lorries, travel one billion kilometres every year, accounting for 40% of the lorry traffic on UK roads.

The supermarkets now sell more than 80% of the food we eat at home.