Tuesday, 25 November 2008

November 2008 - What's so great about saving the planet?

"Those who struggle to change the world see themselves as noble, even tragic figures. Yet most of those who work for world betterment are not rebels against the scheme of things. They seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear. At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality"
(John Gray - Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals)

In Straw Dogs, John Gray issues a scathing attack on humanism - the widely held belief that we can, through the considered application of their own abilities, manipulate the world such that the our species progresses beyond the evolutionary chain that produced us: through conscious will, humans can become something more than simply an efficiently destructive animal. Gray argues that the secular humanist perspective is little more than an extension of Cristian dogma, with humans at the centre of a shared illusion of 'progress'. This time, however, instead of redemption in the afterlife, salvation through self-improvement and species-immortality is the preferred focus of the mutual hallucination.

Gray's attack is aimed at an unsettlingly broad range of popular belief systems, from Fascist regimes that seek purification via ethnic cleansing, to the modern faith in markets and technology as liberators of human development. Both, he argues, are little more than tweaks of the same dial - a knob marked 'intentional human progress' - when in fact, that dial does little to alter the eventual outcomes of human lives. Try as we might, claims Gray, we are no more able to escape the biological determinants of our fates (primitive drives for food, power and reproduction) than the non-human animals we are so quick to distant ourselves from.

In light of the rug being pulled out from under human endeavour, how does the Green movement fare? If humans are just animals, impotent in the face of evolutionary restrictions, deluded by a shared vision of progress that is destined to elude us, and obsessed with creating an environment where we can 'live forever', what's so great about saving the earth?

Its a good question, and one that should have any serious environmentalist quivering over their quinoa. Its important to note that this isn't just a re-hash of the 'how can you be so arrogant to assume that humans are causing climate change' argument, that seeks to duck-out of responsibility to future generations by proclaiming innocence in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. The claim isn't that humans are not causing climate change - it is that causing climate change is just a symptom of the inevitable destruction that resides deep in our genetic code. Humans, as a species, are very good at rapidly expanding our numbers, rapidly exploiting our resources, and rapidly dying out. This story has been repeated since homosapien first evolved. Ultimately, therefore, the dream of 'saving the planet' is precisely that - a dream, and grandiose one at that.

Worse still is the realisation that 'saving the planet' is so often a proxy for 'saving humans' in most people's eyes. The emerging political acceptance that climate change is real and should be prevented is not borne out of some Gaian concern for the earth system. It is borne out of the very species-centric realisation that a malfunctioning environment will soon spell the end for human life. If the everlasting propagation of human life is what we're fighting for, is it really worth our while?

Environmentalists are not a coherent group. Many people want to prevent dangerous climate change, for many different reasons. Some undoubtedly feel a strong urge to preserve the earth for centuries to come, supporting human life in abundance. Others perhaps, wish for a world with less people (although justly engineering this would be next to impossible). Most feel a commitment to immediate future generations. But for some, preventing dangerous climate change is primarily a social justice issue - one that concerns the current world population, not some imagined future group that might retrospectively regret our decisions made 1000 years previously. 100 months takes us to 2016. Advocating immediate and radical action on climate change is not a grandiose scheme for human immortality, it is a practical response to the indisputable fact that unmitigated climate change will greatly exacerbate the current inequitable distribution of global resources.

Tackling climate change requires a solution that simultaneously tackles global inequality, whether this be financial, medical, educational or environmental. The principle of fairness does not crumble in the face of John Gray's dismissal of human progress. On this view, the human race could start dying out in its millions tomorrow, but so long as this extinction was random, and unsystematic, then the principle of fairness would be preserved (of course, in reality, even 'random' events like natural disasters claim over 90% of their victims in poor countries). Whether humans 'survive' or not is irrelevant - so long as they stand and fall together.

So what's so great about saving the planet? Nothing, really. But so long as the world is carved up as it is - with the richest 2% owning 50% of the wealth - preserving it in the best possible state is simply an intervention for addressing (current) poverty and inequality. And that's something that John Gray's (straw) attack dogs cant devour.


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

November 2008 - Big Ask: Big Deal?

Amidst the financial crisis that has enveloped the media, if not yet the average British citizen, Energy & Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband quietly conceded that the target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 would be increased from 60 to 80%. Two weeks later, Barack Obama swept to victory in the US elections running on a campaign promise of reducing American emissions by the same amount. The target of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions has been a central target of the successful and well-publicised Big Ask campaign, led by the environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth.

High profile supporters (including Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke) and a substantial amount of postcard-pressure from the electorate clearly had an impact on Government thinking. So, has the political mainstream finally woken up to the scientific reality of climate change? Well, maybe. But the relative ease with which both British and American politicians were persuaded that 80% reduction targets were necessary raises the possibility that perhaps the Big Ask wasn’t such a Big Deal after all.

While there is much to celebrate about the adoption of a stronger climate law (the Climate Change Bill will now also include shipping and aviation in emissions targets), there are some voices who can’t quite find the enthusiasm to join the party. The Big Question on their minds is whether an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas by 2050 in two of the richest and most industrialised countries is really enough.

Strangely enough, Friends of the Earth Australia provide an answer in a report published earlier this year, ominously entitled Code Red. In the document, climate science since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) report is reviewed, with a particular focus on the work of James Hansen, Chief Climate Scientist at NASA. Hansen made the news earlier in the year for testifying in the case of the ‘Kingsnorth Six’, where a group of Greenpeace protestors used climate change as a defence to beat charges of criminal damage for spraying the word ‘Gordon’ in rather large letters on the side of a certain coal-fired power station’s chimney stack. Hansen has also, however, spent a great many number of years studying the effects of climatic change on Arctic ice, and has repeatedly reported that the melting of the Arctic ice is about 100 years ahead of schedule – that is, about 100 years ahead of the IPCC predictions.

Code Red reviews an enormous amount of post-IPCC peer reviewed climate science, and reaches a staggering conclusion: We do not need to reduce our emissions, we need to stop, then reverse them. If we do not, then avoiding the infamous tipping points and positive feedback mechanisms (typically the central goal of climate change legislation) will simply not be possible. All the horrific consequences of runaway climate change will become distinct possibilities, rather than vague future scenarios. Avoiding the tipping points means developing methods of sequestering carbon that is already in the atmosphere, at the same time as completely overhauling the global energy economy. Now that’s a Big Ask.

Unsurprisingly, analyses like these are nowhere to be seen in the political mainstream. This could be, of course, because Code Red is a puritanical manifesto for destroying civilisation and all the values it holds dear. Or, it could be that the scientific reality of climate change – as distinct from the politically feasible and ‘reasonable’ options that now define the boundaries of acceptable political debate on climate change – are just too much to bear.

What if preventing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in developing countries meant sacrificing our standards of living? Would we do it? What if preserving ecosystems and biodiversity meant giving up fossil fuels altogether? Could we manage? An 80% reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions of two highly developed and polluting countries is genuine progress. But lurking in the background, some even Bigger Questions remain…