Claim the Sky! A Way to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground and Save our Future

Along with thousands of others, I’m joining the global wave of citizen actions to Break Free from Fossil Fuels taking place the first two weeks of May. The goal: to raise public awareness that we’re in a climate emergency. Business as usual is not going to steer us away from the precipice. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Thousands are demonstrating across the world to keep fossil fuels in the ground ©

At COP21, the world’s nations agreed to target a global temperature rise of 1.5º-2.0º this century. How much carbon can we still burn if we’re to have a decent chance of meeting that target? The answer is staggering. The world’s carbon budget is just 16% of the fossil fuel reserves already known to be in the ground, if we are to have just a one-third chance of staying below 1.5º.

At the current rate of emissions, we’ll burn through this carbon budget of 473 Gigatons within the next two decades. When you consider that previous energy transitions (such as the rise of coal or electricity) have taken 50-100 years to occur, the odds of staying within the COP21 targets seem almost insurmountable. But we still have a fighting chance to avert disaster. How?

Firstly, the benchmarks of history don’t have to determine our future. A new study has documented many recent energy transitions that have occurred far more quickly. It took just eleven years for France to transition to nuclear-powered electricity generation and for Ontario to get rid of coal as a major source of its electricity.

What’s more, the technology is already here. Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has mapped out detailed plans showing how every state in the U.S., along with 139 countries worldwide, can shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050, while creating more jobs, improving health, and costing less.

And yet, in spite of it all, fossil fuel companies still spend millions of dollars a day exploring for ever more oil and gas reserves that can never be burned if we’re to maintain our civilization. That’s because their overriding concern is to keep their stock prices high, which are based on the valuation of their proven reserves. To please their shareholders, these companies are using our sky like a sewer – poisoning the commons that we’ve inherited and that we temporarily hold in trust for untold future generations. How can this be stopped?

Beautiful sky
The sky belongs to all of us, but the fossil fuel companies want to continue using it as a public sewer

Putting a price on carbon is an important way to shift the momentum in the opposite direction. Citizens’ Climate Lobby  advocates a sensible plan to tax carbon as it’s collected at the earliest point of entry (oil well, mine or port) and rebate the revenues to households equally. They estimate that if the price is set correctly it would lead within 20 years to a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels.

The problem is, we’re past the point where this plan could save us. The oil companies (many of which already support carbon pricing) would lobby to keep the price low, and the world would still be emitting far too much carbon. It’s a great strategy for one of those historical decades-long transitions, but not enough when we’re facing a climate emergency, a dire threat to the very future of our civilization.

There is a way, though, that could help us avoid this calamity, as an important part of the global climate mobilization that needs to take place. It’s called the Atmospheric Trust. It’s an idea that’s been bounced around by leading thinkers in the environmental movement for over 15 years. It hasn’t gone anywhere yet. But I believe its time has come.

The Atmospheric Trust is based on the fundamental and irrefutable notion that the earth’s atmosphere is part of the commons. It belongs to all of us. There is a strong legal basis for this: a well-established public trust doctrine which holds that certain natural resources should be held in trust to serve the public good. This has been confirmed in recent court cases in both Europe and the United States.

Corporations have no right to impair our common property unless we, the people of the world and beneficiaries of the commons, choose to transfer that right to them. Given that 473 Gigatons of carbon is the maximum that can be added to the atmosphere before compromising our civilization’s future, that right must be capped at that level.

Reach for sky
Claim the Sky! © PhotoBucket/1Mudgirl (Stefanie Saar)

Once that cap is established, the right to mine the 473 Gigatons still available in the ground should gradually be auctioned off to the highest bidders. Those rights could be traded in an after-market. Given the dynamics of supply and demand, as the available rights shrink, their price would dramatically increase over time.

There is something profoundly distasteful about selling off rights to pollute nature to the highest bidder. The natural world is our sacred heritage, beyond price. Any attempt to put a price tag on nature risks subverting the sacred to the global monetary system. I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of this path.

In this case, however, the fossil fuel corporations are already using the natural commons as their dumping ground – for free. Not only that, governments are subsidizing them to do so to the tune of $450 billion a year. The creation of an Atmospheric Trust would put an end to that. It would fix a final cap on the amount of carbon pollution compatible with our continued civilization. And rather than allowing corporations to profit from freely polluting our air, it would charge them a hefty fee for the privilege.

Unlike the problems with current cap-and-trade systems, there would be no downside to trading these rights to pollute. With the amount to be mined already fixed, there would be no possibility to create false credits, as happens in current systems that merely cap emissions of a particular company or industry.

The Atmospheric Trust would be a gigantic step towards asserting global climate justice, if the several trillion dollars in revenues received annually were distributed fairly. One proposal suggests granting half the revenues equally to every global citizen (which would significantly impact the lives of those who need income the most). The other half could go directly to the communities already being battered by the devastating effects of climate chaos, as well as those living in the sacrifice zones that continue to suffer the devastation of the fossil fuel companies’ extractive rampage.

Climate chaos - Srinagar.png
Srinagar, India, 2014. Atmosphere Trust revenues could be distributed to help those already suffering from climate chaos. © 2014 AP Photo/Dar Yasin

At this point, perhaps you’re shrugging your shoulders and thinking: “Great idea, but simply not feasible in the real world.” There are certainly daunting obstacles. Much of the fossil fuel is below the ground of nations such as Saudi Arabia or Russia, which are not likely to cooperate with an Atmospheric Trust. And of course, the Western fossil fuel companies can be relied on to continue their decades-long campaign of dirty tricks to keep such an idea off the table.

But even these obstacles can be overcome. Prominent economist William Nordhaus has floated the idea of a “Climate Club” consisting of the world’s major economies. If the G7 countries along with China came up with a detailed, enforceable program, the rest of the world would have no choice but to go along with it. And concerted citizen actions, such as the fight to overturn the Keystone XL Pipeline, have shown that the fossil fuel companies’ stranglehold over the public interest is beginning to unravel.

Still sounds far-fetched? So did the idea of an African-American President being elected… until he was. And precious few people thought they would ever live to see the day when same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. – until it happened. In the words of the thought-leaders proposing the Atmospheric Trust in Science magazine in 2008, it “may seem visionary or idealistic today, but that could become realistic once we reach a tipping point that opens a window of opportunity for embracing major changes.”

We’re reaching that tipping point now. As our climate emergency produces an inexorable onslaught of cataclysmic floods, fires and droughts, as refugee crises from regions stricken by climate chaos threaten to overwhelm the current world order, the establishment of an Atmospheric Trust will begin to take its place in mainstream discourse, just as carbon pricing is already doing.

Imagine the transformed world that would arise from an Atmospheric Trust. No more extreme extraction such as fracking, tar sands, and offshore drilling (no longer economically feasible.) The power of the fossil fuel companies permanently extinguished as their stocks (currently based on unburnable reserves) crashed. Climate justice finally served as trillions of dollars are transferred from the extractive industries’ profits to the communities that have suffered (and continue to suffer) the most. Massive investment in renewable energy. And with a fixed cap on the amount of carbon to be burned, humanity could breathe a collective sigh of relief for the future of our civilization.

Each one of us could have a part to play in creating that future of hope. If you like the idea of an Atmospheric Trust, you can sign an open letter to the 20 countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, asking them to get the ball rolling.

Which brings us back to the actions taking placing right now across the world to Break Free from Fossil Fuels. There’s a direct link between mass citizen actions and the shaping of global policies that could save our civilization from the pillaging of the fossil fuel industry. When Christiana Figueres, head of the COP21 climate talks, gave her closing speech to the summit, she told how citizen power forced politicians to accept a new reality. “When in 2014,” she said, “hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, it was then that we knew that we had the power of the people on our side.”

The People’s Climate March in New York in 2014 pushed politicians towards reaching an accord at COP21 the following year © TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s going to take a massive, worldwide wave of citizen action, such as the world has never seen before, to stay ahead of the climate catastrophe beckoning. Creating a worldwide Atmospheric Trust is a project of a different magnitude than the unenforceable agreements of COP21. None of us can predict whether the changes we need will come in time. But every one of us has the option to choose to be part of the movement trying to protect humanity from the global suicide pact to which our governments are currently committed.

Mind Control: It’s Happening to You Right Now

Your mind is being controlled by distant strangers who don’t have your best interests at heart. If that sounds like a paranoid fantasy, brace yourself and read on. These are the findings of a series of scientific studies that show how a few dominant institutions have the power to affect how you feel, how you act, and even how you vote – without you ever knowing about it.

Deliberate mind manipulation of the masses is, by itself, nothing new. Nearly a hundred years ago, our global mania for consumption was unleashed by the malevolent brilliance of  Edward Bernays, known as the “father of public relations.” Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew and used his uncle’s insights into the subconscious to develop his new methods of mind control, designed to create the modern American consumer.

Edward Bernays: the father of modern consumer culture – © Waking Times

“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture,” declared Bernays’ business partner, Paul Mazur. “People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” In 1928, Bernays proudly described how his techniques for mental manipulation had permitted a small elite to control the minds of the American population:

[T]he conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government that is the true ruling power of this country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… In almost every act of our daily lives… we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons … who pull the wires which control the public mind.[1]

Bernays set in motion what we have all come to know as an essential part of our capitalist ecosystem: the use of mass media to promote roles, desires and status symbols that rake in profits for corporations. The chilling words of Wayne Chilicki, chief executive of General Mills, show how faithfully Bernays’ vision has been followed: “When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we at General Mills follow the Procter & Gamble model of ‘cradle to grave.’ We believe in getting them early and having them for life.” [2]

What’s changed is that a new generation of mind controllers are using the burgeoning technologies of data mining and social media to inject their power even deeper into our minds than their forebears could have dreamed possible. A modern-day Bernays named B.J. Fogg has founded a field called “captology,” derived from the acronym CAPT or “Computers As Persuasive Technology.” At the ominously named Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, he teaches freshly minted graduate students how to use technology to “change people’s attitudes or behaviors.”

His teachings have spawned the interfaces of our new daily routines: the chimes from our smartphones diverting our attention, the thumbs-up icon on our news feeds, and the Like statistics telling us how popular we are today. These are known as “hot triggers” which kick off behavioral loops in our subconscious. Successful apps, they teach, are those that trigger a momentary need, and then provide us with an instant solution. The solution sparks a micro dose of endorphins in our brains. That feels good. So, like rats on a wheel, we find ourselves getting addicted, going back for more.[3]

Rat on a wheel
Like a rat on a wheel, we are trained to need more… and more. – © Getty Images

Facebook has built its global empire of 1.6 billion active users on this addictive routine. According to one of Fogg’s students, Nir Eyal, Facebook’s key trigger is FOMO: fear of missing out. Humans evolved in hunter-gatherer bands, where survival meant being part of the community. The social anxiety of missing what our friends are doing arises from deep within our hormonal system. Meanwhile, as psychologist Sherry Turkle has pointed out in her book Alone Together, we sacrifice our daily physical intimacy with those around us by focusing our attention on the screen in our hands. [4] This has been brilliantly captured by artist Eric Pickerskill in his photography series, “Removed,” which documents the feeling of everyday social situations – after removing people’s smartphones from the picture.

Social media makes us alone together – “Removed” © Eric Pickerskill

Facebook has been researching the extent of its power over our behavior, manipulating its own users as guinea pigs. On election day in 2010, it sent “Go out and vote” reminders to more than 60 million users, causing an estimated 340,000 to vote who otherwise wouldn’t have. If it chose to send these reminders to supporters of a particular party or candidate, it could easily flip an election without anyone knowing about it. Under current law, it wouldn’t have to tell anyone what it was doing. In another experiment, which caused a public outcry, Facebook successfully manipulated the emotional state of 689,000 users  by sending them either an excess of positive or negative terms in their news feeds.

The mind control doesn’t stop at social media. Do you believe in your autonomy when you’re carefully conducting research on a topic and use Google to search for something? Think again. Psychologist Robert Epstein has unearthed the massive subliminal power of what he’s called the Search Engine Manipulation Effect, or SEME.

This effect is based on the fact that when we search, we click half the time on one of the first two results, and more than 90% of our clicks are on the top ten links listed on the first page. There might be thousands of other web pages containing our key words, but Google decides which ones we’re going to read.

Mind control
Is your mind being controlled? – © RD Revilo

Epstein and his associate Ronald Robertson wanted to test whether SEME could impact how people decided to vote in an election. They asked a sample of Americans to research candidates for an Australian election (to minimize preconceived notions about the candidates) using their own mock search engine, “Kadoodle.” They randomly divided the sample “voters” into three groups, and served up the same results to each group. The only difference was the ordering of the results: one group’s results favored one candidate; another group’s results favored the opposing candidate, and the third group saw results that favored neither candidate.

The results were staggering. The proportion of people favoring Kadoodle’s “favored” candidate increased by 48%. Disturbingly, three quarters of the people in the manipulated groups were completely unaware of any bias in their search results. In the “neutral” control group, there was no significant shift of opinion.

Since then, they’ve replicated these findings in larger tests conducted across the U.S. They’ve discovered that using simple techniques, they can mask the manipulation so that virtually no-one is aware they’re seeing biased rankings. In 2014, they took their testing to India during the election for prime minister, where people were already very familiar with the candidates. Even so, they were able to shift the proportion of people favoring a chosen candidate by 20%, with 99.5% of people showing no awareness they were being manipulated. [5]

In many countries of the world, including the U.S., Google has a near monopoly over internet searches. The search-ranking business is entirely unregulated, and courts have ruled that Google’s right to rank search results however it pleases is protected as a form of free speech. If Google chose to swing the U.S. election, they could probably do so without anyone knowing about it. [6]

Would they do something like that? It turns out that Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, has funded a semi-secret company, The Groundwork, to provide Hillary Clinton the engineering talent she needs to  win the election, prompting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to call Google “Hillary’s secret weapon.” Meanwhile, Hillary has hired a longtime Google executive as her chief technology officer. If Google were prioritizing pro-Hillary search results over those favoring Bernie Sanders, we’d never know.

Eric Schmidt & Hillary Clinton
Eric Schmidt and Hillary Clinton: Is Google secretly manipulating public opinion in her favor? – ©

The British economist Kenneth Boulding once warned: “A world of unseen dictatorship is conceivable, still using the forms of democratic government.” So you decide, is your mind being manipulated?

Until these unseen influencers are better regulated, there are still some things we can do to protect ourselves from their mind control. One idea, suggested by technology thought leader Jaron Lanier, is to investigate your relationship with social media and take back your power to choose by conducting your own experiments. Consciously go through periods of complete disengagement from social media – a day, a week, or a month – and notice how it feels. How strong and how frequent were those urges to reconnect? Did you miss anything? Did anything positive arise in their place?

Another idea is to become aware of the sources of our news. Notice the extent to which you live in an information silo. Make a regular habit of checking the websites of news sources outside your ideological comfort zone. When conducting a search on Google, see what’s listed two or three pages down, and occasionally try an alternative search engine for a reality check. DuckDuckGo is one that doesn’t track your activity, meaning you will get a more neutral result.

Finally, we can use the realization that our minds are being manipulated to delve deeper into the patterns of thought instilled in us from early infancy by our culture. What ideas do we take for granted that are really constructions of the global corporate profit machine? What implicit beliefs do we hold about the world that are merely the result of deep cultural indoctrination? My book, The Patterning Instinct: A History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, attempts to unearth some of these. Asking these questions, while consciously searching for patterns of meaning that could lead to a more equitable and sustainable world, offers a pathway of liberation from the mind control those distant strangers are attempting to impose on us.

[1] Cited in Gore, A. (2013). The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change. New York: Random House, Ch. 4.

[2] Cited in De Vogli, R. (2013). Progress Or Collapse: The Crises of Market Greed. Routledge: New York, p. 47

[3] Weisberg, J. (2016). “We Are Hopelessly Hooked.” The New York Review of Books, February 25, 2016.

[4] Ibid; Turkle, S. (2012). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other New York: Basic Books.

[5] Epstein, R. (2016). “The New Mind Control”. Aeon (published online).

[6] Spannos, C. (2016). “If Google and Facebook can flip elections does code now rule the real world?” New Internationalist Blog, March 11 2016.


False Solutions? 3 Ways To Evaluate Grand Climate Proposals

The climate news gets scarier by the day. February obliterated all records as the warmest seasonally-adjusted month since measurements began. At this rate, we’re on a path to blow through the 1.5º C temperature rise the nations of the world set as a goal at COP21, not in decades but in a few short years.

February temperature was a terrifying 1.35 degrees above the 1950-1980 global average for the month. (Blue line: monthly; Red line: 12 month moving average.)

We’re going to be hearing a lot about grand solutions to our climate emergency in the coming years. Even if we were to bring net global carbon emissions to zero by mid-century, experts say, we’d need to suck a massive amount of carbon from the atmosphere to keep temperatures within a range of 1.5º-2.0º C this century.

There’s no shortage of proposals for how to do this. People are talking about changing how we do agriculture; capturing carbon from power plants; painting roofs white; fertilizing the ocean; and even spraying gold dust into the atmosphere.

How should we evaluate the proposals we’ll be hearing about to determine which ones to support and which ones will only lead to worse disasters? We need a way to distinguish authentic pathways to a sustainable civilization from false solutions. I suggest three ways to consider any proposal you might come across.

1. Does it push political power up or down the pyramid?

Political power is like a pyramid. At the top are the political leaders and  the billionaires. In the middle are the minority fortunate enough to enjoy privilege. Most of the world’s population exists towards the bottom.

New technologies have a way of pushing political power either up or down that pyramid. Nuclear power, for example, requiring massive centralized investment along with  extreme security, is notorious for pushing power to the top.

Political pyramid
New technologies can push political power either up or down the pyramid. © Jeremy Lent, 2016.

Geoengineering proposals are perhaps the most extreme form of pushing power up the pyramid. Developed by small, elite groups of technical experts, usually funded by corporate interests, they frequently envisage forcing a global experiment on the entire world, regardless of whether there is a consensus supporting such an approach. Often, these approaches are designed to improve the climate in one region (usually the wealthy north) at the expense of even worse drought in other regions (usually the global south).

Solar panels, on the other hand, are a great example of pushing power down the pyramid. As prices have fallen by more than 80% in the past few years, solar kits with maintenance-free batteries are now affordable even for families living on less than $2/day. The benefits are enormous, literally empowering millions who have previously lived without electricity.

Solar power can transform the lives of those at the bottom of the political pyramid. Image by © Michael Runkel/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

 2. How does it treat the earth?

One reason we’re facing a worldwide crisis of sustainability is that our culture encourages destructive ways of viewing the earth and humanity’s relationship to it. Our science-based civilization is founded on root cultural metaphors of nature as a machine, an enemy to be conquered, or a commodity to be traded. Traditional cultures, by contrast, have usually viewed the natural world as an extended family, with the heavens as Father, the earth as Mother, and plants and animals as brothers and sisters.

If a proposed climate solution treats nature in the same way that has brought our civilization to the precipice we’re now facing, there’s a good chance it will lead to further environmental devastation. In contrast, proposals that encourage a participatory, engaged relationship between humans and the natural world promise a more sustainable future for all.

Cap-and-trade systems, which cap the amount of carbon a company can freely use, allowing them to buy credits in a market if they want to use more, have been touted widely as a climate solution,  with major systems set up in Europe and California. A related UN program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) is frequently discussed as a positive step for the environment. These systems, however, are all built on the idea of nature as a commodity to be bought and sold, with deforestation reduction plans frequently forced on indigenous populations through fraudulent schemes with devastating results. It is questionable whether they’ve had any significant effect in truly reducing carbon from the atmosphere, even while they replace forest ecosystems with plantations and allow polluters to keep polluting.

Geoengineering proposals are based on the notion of the earth as a massive piece of machinery to be engineered for human benefit. Not only are these approaches morally repugnant for anyone who sees Nature as having intrinsic worth, they are also fraught with massive risk, since the earth’s systems are in fact not machine-like, but the result of complex, nonlinear relationships that are inherently unpredictable.

Earth as geoengineering object
Geoengineering treats the earth as a piece of machinery to be engineered. Image: ETC Group

At the other extreme, Agroecology,  an approach to agriculture based on principles of ecology, views the earth as a deeply interconnected system, recognizing that the health of humans and nature are interdependent. Agroecology designs and manages food systems to be sustainable, enhancing soil fertility, recycling nutrients, and increasing energy and water efficiency. Already widely practiced in Latin America, it is rapidly gaining acceptance in the US and Europe, and has the capacity to replace the agricultural-industrial complex, which is responsible for as much as half of global greenhouse gas emissions. Agroecology could even help sequester much of the excess carbon in the atmosphere. The Rodale Institute has calculated that regenerative organic practices of agroecology – such as composting, no-tillage, and use of cover crops – could sequester more than 100% of current annual COemissions if practiced worldwide.

3. What are its cascading effects?

Like all living organisms, the earth system is a highly complex, nonlinear system, replete with feedback loops and emergent behavior. This means that any attempts to change the system on a large scale are likely to have unanticipated consequences.

Dead zones
Dead zones arise from uncontrolled algae blooms that de-oxygenate the water. ©

A grim example of cascading effects are the uncontrolled algae blooms from nitrogen fertilizer runoff that have caused four hundred “dead zones” in coastal waters around the world, some extending in size to over twenty thousand square miles.

A crucial question, then, to ask about any grand proposal is: What are the cascading effects that might emerge? Are they positive or negative?

Some proposals are limited to a particular domain and can therefore be safely applied. Putting a high price on carbon, for example, as it is dug out of the ground, and distributing the proceeds to the population, would change people’s behavior while staying within the domain of economics. Its cascading effect would be to encourage people everywhere to choose non-carbon alternatives, and encourage businesses to invest in a non-carbon future. It would be safe and effective.

A more ambiguous proposal is the massive use of seaweed farms, which could efficiently absorb COon a very large scale. Proponents argue that the cascading benefits are positive: the seaweed could be harvested to produce methane which could replace natural gas for electricity production; it can also be used as food for sustainable fish farming, while reducing ocean acidification. One analysis shows that if seaweed farms covered 9% of the ocean, they could replace all of today’s fossil fuel needs, while sequestering 100% of current CO2 emissions. Sounds good? Yes, but what about unintended consequences of such a drastic change in ocean usage? In contrast to agroecology, this approach envisages a huge shift in the ocean’s ecological balance. Would it lead to new imbalances that we would only begin to understand too late?

We can expect to hear about many other proposals like this in the coming years: ideas that sound virtually miraculous, but require significant alterations of the earth system. Because we’re in a climate emergency, we must consider each idea carefully, but we need to be extremely cautious in how we approach them.

One group actively analyzing climate solutions is Project Drawdown, a broad coalition of researchers, policymakers and community leaders dedicated to finding the best ways to reduce atmospheric carbon to a safe level. Rather than argue for a few magic bullets, their team is rigorously modeling the complex, interconnected effects of over 100 solutions that are already working. They are building a publicly available, ongoing resource of knowledge and ideas that can be leveraged for ever-increasing benefits.

The founders of Project Drawdown, Amanda Ravenhill and Paul Hawken, emphasize the importance of what Ravenhill calls “cascading benefits” arising from “no-regret solutions.” The most effective responses to global warming,  they point out, are ones that benefit society regardless of the climate crisis, because they protect natural resources and enhance the wellbeing of all people.

Image: © Joel Pett/USA Today

When we’re faced with the magnitude of our climate emergency, it’s natural to be open to the promise of grand solutions. There is reason for hope if we choose solutions with cascading benefits, ones that empower people while treating the earth sustainably and safely.

But there is also much to fear from the wrong solutions. We should be wary of those who want to push power even further up the pyramid, treat nature as a commodity to be traded, and view the earth as a gigantic piece of machinery to tinker with through engineering wizardry. The future of humanity and much of our natural world is at stake.

Surreal Spring: The Cognitive Dissonance of Our Climate Emergency

It’s a glorious spring day showing off Northern California at its finest: daffodils unfurl, while fragrant pink and white blossoms adorn the trees announcing that summer is on its way. Only one problem: it’s actually mid-February. We’re supposed to be in the depths of winter. We’re supposed to be getting regular storms and fighting the occasional frost. It’s a surreal spring.

Gorgeous blossoms emerge in Berkeley, California – in mid-February

Yesterday, the mercury hit 84° F in Berkeley, California. The previous record, set nearly forty years ago, was 73° F. Could be just a chance event, of course. But we know it’s not. It’s the new reality of a climate out of control. We got news the same day that the month of January 2016 was the planet’s hottest month in recorded history.

In the new language of the Anthropocene, this is known as blissonance: the cognitive dissonance of a terrifying world where the bliss of the daffodils is an omen of impending doom. Surreal as it is, this passing moment of beauty tinged with dread is small fry compared with the cognitive dissonance facing our global civilization.

It was just two months ago that world leaders triumphantly announced an agreement that would mark a turning point in humanity’s response to global warming. We need to keep the temperature rise below 2° C, they declared, and target as close to 1.5° C as possible. Meanwhile, the countries of the world submitted plans that put us on track for a temperature rise of 3.5° C by the end of the century. To keep the rise to 1.5° C, which is already 50% higher than what we’re experiencing now, the world’s carbon emissions need to peak by 2020 and reach net zero by mid-century.

Since then, President Obama’s administration put a halt on all new leases to mine coal from public lands. But bad news for the climate has piled on a lot faster. With the collapsing oil price, more consumers are buying SUVs. Utilities are blocking households moving to solar energy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership was signed, giving corporations extra powers to sue countries if they don’t like their policies. And last week, the Supreme Court blocked the EPA’s crucial regulations of emissions from coal-fired power plants.

TPP demonstration
Citizens in Auckland protest the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership

The climate emergency hit the headlines for a few days, and then it was back to the usual: violence in the Middle East, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the back-and-forths of the US Presidential primaries. Climate change? At best, another topic for the Democratic debates.

But we can’t afford business as usual. Even incremental improvement is no longer enough. Human civilization is facing a dire emergency, and we keep careening in the wrong direction towards a precipice. Something has to change. It has be profound. And it has to be fast.

There was another time when the civilized world faced a crisis of existential proportions. In the winter of 1941, the Nazis occupied most of Europe, but the United States was staying out of the war. Then, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and everything changed in a moment. President Roosevelt launched a mass mobilization like nothing ever before in history. In 1942, he declared,  the U.S. would produce, from a virtual standstill, 60,000 planes and 45,000 tanks. Facing disbelief, he proclaimed: “Let no man say it cannot be done.” And by the end of 1942, American factories had overshot FDR’s ambitious targets.

FDR after Pearl Harbor
Overcoming skeptics, FDR launched a mass mobilization after Pearl Harbor

What we need now, if our civilization is going to survive into the next century, is a similar type of mobilization on a global scale. To that end, the Climate Mobilization movement has put out a call for citizens to “Take the Pledge” and support their demand for a full-scale mobilization that drives the U.S. economy to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and the global economy to net zero emissions by 2030.

We need to up the ante before the global climate hits the tipping points that will take us over a precipice from where there is no going back. Leading activist organizations, such as, Avaaz and Greenpeace, know that time is running out, and that’s why they’re joining forces to plan massive civil disobedience in May with the goal of shutting down some of the most dangerous fossil fuel projects around the world. Since our national leaders aren’t taking action to save our civilization, that leadership now has to come from us.

Does the climate emergency strike dread in your heart? Join the movement to Break Free From Fossil Fuels. Take the Pledge to Mobilize. Talk to your friends about it. Get involved in whatever way makes sense to you. Over 50 years ago, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, launched the modern environmental movement. Perhaps this year’s Surreal Spring will help kickstart the people’s movement that is self-organizing to save humanity’s future.


Gwilt and Shadowtime: A New Language for the Anthropocene

Our world is changing drastically before our eyes. Balmy days in the Arctic in the middle of winter. Once in a century floods occurring with regularity. New tropical diseases that cause birth defects. We barely have the words to describe our new reality. We need a new language to come to terms with it.

Even our common words have turned upside down. As Bill McKibben points out, words like “radical” and “conservative” need to be redefined. The real radicals are the fossil fuel companies changing the very composition of our planet’s atmosphere, careening our world towards a climate that hasn’t been experienced for over a million years. By the same token, the real conservatives are those struggling to keep the earth’s climate within the parameters of the last ten thousand – the stable, temperate period known as the Holocene that permitted humans to develop agriculture and civilization. Imagine a news headline: “Conservatives struggle to prevent radicals from global disruption” – in this context, it takes on a whole new meaning.

Language matters. The words we hear connect spontaneously to preset neural patterns in our brains that can either strengthen or weaken prior associations, frequently causing subtle emotional responses that ultimately affect our actions. If you live in a cooler climate zone, the term “global warming” can sound quite comforting by itself. Even “climate change” has a certain deadening quality to it: something just happening on its own. Better to call it the way it is: climate disruption, perhaps, but even that doesn’t get at what’s really going on. After all, we’re heating up the planet at the rate of 4 Hiroshima bomb detonations every second. Yes, every second. There go another four. At this rate, we’re on our way to heating the earth by more than 3º Celsius this century. How about climate emergency? One that threatens, if we don’t respond accordingly, to become climate catastrophe.

Nuclear explosion
We’re heating up the world at a rate of 4 atomic explosion every second

The turmoil our civilization is causing goes, of course, way beyond climate alone. In every part of the earth, natural systems that have sustained themselves from time immemorial are groaning under the human strain. The basic elements of life on Earth that we take for granted – forests, fish in the oceans, water to drink – are rapidly being consumed by humanity’s voracious demands.

We regulate the flow of about two-thirds of the earth’s rivers, and many of the greatest rivers – the Colorado, Yellow, Yangtze, Ganges, Nile – no longer reach the sea during parts of the year.  Half of the world’s tropical and temperate forests have disappeared. In the same second we heat the planet by 4 atomic bombs, we’re also losing the Amazon rainforest by another acre. The nitrogen we use for fertilizer drains into the oceans, causing uncontrolled algae blooms that consume the water’s oxygen, leaving dead zones bereft of any other life. As a result of industrialized fishing, the oceans have lost over 90% of large fish such as tuna and swordfish.

We’re losing the Amazon rainforest at the rate of roughly an acre a second

There have been five times in the history of life on Earth when a global catastrophe caused a mass extinction of species. Scientists now recognize that the onslaught of humanity is causing the sixth mass extinction, driving species into oblivion at a rate a thousand times faster than would be natural. Up to fifty percent of all vertebrate species are threatened with extinction this century. Prominent scientists have concluded that humanity has now emerged as its own force of nature. The scope of human impact is so enormous, and will affect the distant future of the earth to such a degree, that they are describing our modern period as a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene.

Yes, we need a new language for this Anthropocene we’ve created. A couple of creatives, realizing this need, have formed the whimsically named Bureau of Linguistical Reality to solicit words for our experience of this new reality. Some of the words they’ve already come up with are disquieting: gwilt [the regret caused by letting plants wilt because of a drought], shadowtime [the parallel timescale of climate change shadowing our daily activities] and epoquetude [the reassuring awareness that while humanity may destroy itself, the Earth will certainly survive]. They invite you to add to the lexicon yourself if you want to play your part in setting the cultural frames of our future. (Here’s an interview I did with them on YouTube.)

Meanwhile, some words already exist in other languages that profoundly express our current experience. Japanese offers a treasure trove of these. Monoaware, for example, means “the pathos of things. The awareness of the impermanence of all things and the gentle sadness and wistfulness at their passing.” Yuugen is “an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses that are too mysterious and deep for words.”

Yuugen: an awareness of the universe too mysterious and deep for words

But if language helps shape our reality, then why can’t we introduce words to express the reality we desire? Along with a new language for the Anthropocene, we need a new language for the Great Transformation in ideas, practices and worldview that could create a flourishing future for humanity. My own contribution is Liology (pronounced lee-ology): a word made up from the Chinese word “li,” which means “the organizing principles” and “ology” which is the Greek-derived word for “study.”  So liology means “the study of the organizing principles.”  You might ask: the organizing principles of what?  The answer: everything. Waves, human relationships, bodies, stock markets and consciousness. The complete set of dynamic patterns that make up our entire universe – what the traditional Chinese called the Tao.

The study of these patterns through liology is not just an intellectual exercise, but one that we engage in with our entire embodied existence. Approaching our investigation in this way, with a true reverence for the miracle of this universe and our existence within it, naturally leads us to realize and cherish the connections within us and with all the other complex systems within which we’re embedded.

The recognition that we humans are intimately connected with each other, and with every part of the world around us, is ultimately what can lead us to a sustainable civilization, one that nourishes the earth rather than viewing it as a resource for exploitation. With the climate emergency we’re currently experiencing, thinking about language may seem an oddly arcane sort of response, but at the deepest level, new neural patterning is what we need to steer our culture towards a hopeful future, one where future generations can experience the yuugen that our universe still offers.

COP21 – Is the jubilation warranted?

There was a resounding tone of history being made over the weekend in Paris. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was close to tears as he declared: “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity.” President Françoise Holland told the representatives of 186 nations: “You’ve done it, reached an ambitious agreement, a binding agreement, a universal agreement… You can be proud to stand before your children and grandchildren.”

COP21 leaders celebrating their historic agreement in Paris

And it wasn’t just our political leaders who declared victory. The Guardian boldly proclaimed “the end of the fossil fuel era.” Prominent environmental organizations such as Climate Reality Project joyously announced: “This is the turning point… We won!” Even progressive grassroots organizations are delighted. “Today is a historic day,” writes “We did it!” cheers Avaaz, “A turning point in human history.” How justified is this sense of triumph?

Much of the jubilation stems from the contrast to the mess of the Copenhagen summit six years ago. At that time, all attempts at an agreement collapsed in disarray, leaving the environmental movement in a state of deep depression. Since then, much of the planning around COP21 has been to avoid a rerun of that fiasco. Instead of calling for commitments from countries, the UN merely asked for intentions. Instead of targeting a realistic trajectory to save our civilization, the parties merely noted that much more needs to be done. If you set the bar low enough, even the smallest step feels like success.

In fact, not everyone has joined the ovation. Prominent climate scientist James Hansen – the first to bring awareness of the climate crisis to Washington – called it “a fraud really, a fake.” Other groups, particularly those focused on the needs of the global south, agree with his take. In this alternative account of the Paris Agreement, 186 countries arrived at an emissions plan that puts the world on a trajectory for more than a 3° C rise in temperature by 2100. They’ve all agreed this plan is woefully inadequate, but decided to do nothing about it for another five years, when they will re-examine their targets. Their agreement made no mention that the vast majority of fossil fuels are unburnable if we are to prevent climate catastrophe, contained no discussion of the huge contribution to global warming made by industrial agriculture, and ignored crucial issues such as deforestation and indigenous rights. In spite of the consensus among prominent economists around the world on the need for a worldwide price on carbon, the deal avoided any mention of that idea.

Indigenous leaders held a press conference to demand recognition of their human rights during the COP21 proceedings

There was no mention, either, of reducing the $5.3 trillion spent every year on worldwide subsidies to fossil fuels. Even though the wealthy nations have emitted 60% of the carbon in the atmosphere, they agreed only to “mobilize” $100 billion per year of the $1 trillion per year it will take to develop a fossil-free economy, mostly to be spent by developing nations – an amount they won’t review for another ten years. Meanwhile, the developing countries most vulnerable to climate disruption, desperate to get the wealthier nations to agree on a global temperature rise goal of less than 2°, were forced to give up their right to seek compensation for the present and future devastation caused by the developed countries’ pollution.

But, in spite of its gaping shortcomings, I do believe something important and historic emerged from COP21. It’s not so much the size of the step the world has taken, as the change in direction. Until now, the world has failed to agree even on the target we need to achieve. At Copenhagen, the parties merely noted the scientific consensus that a 2° C rise in global temperature above pre-industrial levels would likely lead to runaway feedback effects, and since then that number became the de facto objective. Yet, out of the blue, in the early days of COP21, a so-called High Ambition coalition of countries began talking about a 1.5° target, which, given that we’re already at 0.9° increase, is a truly aggressive goal. And although the 1.5° number didn’t quite make it to the final agreement, the countries did agree to aim for a temperature rise far below the 2° level, along with a goal of net zero carbon emissions by the second half of this century.

These new targets create a stark contrast between where the world agrees we need to go and where we’re currently headed. In fact, I would call it a chasm. Currently, fossil fuels account for 86% of the world’s energy, and that has barely changed over the last ten years. At the current rate of emissions, even according to Shell’s own climate advisor, we’ll be passing the threshold for a 1.5°C temperature rise by as early as 2028. Drastic changes will need to be made to every aspect of our economy – and fast – if we are to have any hope of reaching the Paris Agreement’s goal.

Renewables still represent a tiny sliver of the world’s energy consumption – that has to change drastically and rapidly

It is that very chasm, though, between target and current reality that gives cause for hope. As a result of it, we can expect far more talk about unburnable carbon. Divestment from fossil fuel corporations’ stock will become widespread as their market valuations are seen to be based on fantasy. The growing grassroots movement to “Leave It In The Ground” will become ever more unstoppable. A worldwide price on carbon, placed on it as it comes out of the ground, will soon become part of the public discourse. The renewable energy transformation, already under way, will burst into mainstream awareness.

The point is, as observes, that “Paris isn’t the end of the story, but a conclusion of a particular chapter.” It’s a chapter that has demonstrated clearly the power of the citizens’ movement. When Christiana Figueres, head of the climate talks, gave her closing speech to the summit, she emphasized the importance of the popular movement in forcing politicians to accept a new reality. “When in 2014,” she said, “hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, it was then that we knew that we had the power of the people on our side.”

Citizen power was in evidence throughout COP21, in spite of the ban on public demonstrations. From the thousands of shoes placed in Place de la Republique before the conference began, to the golden sun painted ingeniously by Greenpeace around the Arc de Triomphe, the politicians in the Blue Zone knew their discussions were being closely watched by millions of citizens around the globe. Avaaz tells how, after the Indian Finance Minister came out against 100% clean energy, activists projected films of Chennai under water on a screen inside the talks along with messages from across India. The next day, India’s official position had changed.

With Chennai inundated by floods, India’s Finance Minister was balking at the goal of 100% clean energy

Environmental organizations combined forces to focus the calls of millions of people worldwide for real action at COP21. On the last day of the conference, we the people had the last word, with over 15,000 of us ignoring the earlier ban on public gatherings to congregate on the road leading to the Arc de Triomphe, holding long red strips of cloth to symbolize redlines that we won’t allow the global corporate power structures to cross.

One of the key principles of the Paris Agreement is that the nations will continue to meet every five years to strengthen their emission cuts until they reach adequate levels. It is as though the politicians, recognizing their own inability to solve the problem themselves, are inviting the people of the world to put further pressure on them in the coming years, to make sure those emission cuts finally get to what we need. And the climate movement is ready to take them up on it. In the words of co-founder Bill McKibben:

For the next few years our job is to yell and scream at governments everywhere to get up off the couch, to put down the chips, to run faster faster faster. We’ll fan out around the world in May to the sites of all the world’s carbon bombs; we’ll go to jail if we have to. We’ll push… Think of us as a pack of wolves. Exxon, we’re on your heels. America, China, India – that’s us, getting closer all the time. You need speed. It’s our only chance.

There has never been a more important time to be part of the movement. A leading environmental analyst, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, surmised that this moment “is a turning point in the human enterprise, where the great transformation towards sustainability begins.” Whether his hopeful words become a true prophecy depends more than ever on each of us, and our own commitment to drag our politicians to a world they seemingly cannot get to by themselves.

Creating New Norms: The Rights of Nature Tribunal

This week, here in Paris, we saw what may turn out to be a major milestone in the history of humankind. I’m not talking about COP21, but about a 2-day tribunal which, although having no legal standing or powers of enforcement, may turn out to have an even greater impact on the future direction of our world. It was a Rights of Nature tribunal, and it represents the most recent step in an important and hopeful journey for humanity – the recognition and expansion of intrinsic legal rights.

Some historical context helps. Back in 1792, Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, was tried and convicted in absentia by the British for seditious libel. Paine’s troubles arose from the fact that he was blazing a new trail that has since become the bedrock of modern political thought: the inherent rights of human beings.

Paine’s writing deeply influenced the composers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, one of the most influential documents of modern history. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it declared, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These truths, while self-evident to the founding fathers, were radical ideas for that time, so much so that even those who signed the Declaration applied them sketchily, not even considering that they might apply equally to the Africans forced to work as slaves in their plantations.

Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” was a revolutionary document in his time.

By the middle of the twentieth century, in response to the totalitarian horrors of genocide, the world came together to create a new stirring vision that would apply equally to all human beings: the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the first time in history, fundamental human rights were universally recognized and given legal protection.

Of course, these rights continue to be abused in all kinds of ways. But new norms had been established, and nowadays, following the formation of the International Criminal Court, when a tyrant wreaks havoc on his population, he knows that he might have to face legal consequences from the rest of the world.

As we enter into the heart of the twenty-first century, a new set of crises face humanity: the ravages of climate change, deforestation, industrial agriculture, the destruction of natural habitats, and the impending Sixth Extinction of species. Like Paine and his associates, a new group of visionaries are expounding a revolutionary concept that responds to our troubled era: the Rights of Nature.

This week in Paris, this group held a 2-day Rights of Nature Tribunal, part of which I had the honor to attend and film. The Tribunal was based on the idea that nature also has rights, just like humans. Its foundational document is a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, calling for the “universal adoption and implementation of legal systems that recognize, respect and enforce the rights of nature.”

The Tribunal was a formal proceeding, with a panel of thirteen judges consisting of internationally renowned lawyers, academics and prominent activists. There were Prosecutors for the Earth, along with witnesses – comprising human victims of crimes against nature along with expert witnesses. They heard a wide variety of cases, ranging from the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, the devastation of boreal forests by tar sands extraction in Alberta, Canada, and oil exploitation plundering sacred native lands in Yasuní, Ecuador. In each case, after hearing from prosecutors and witnesses, the Tribunal considered the evidence and passed judgement.

The swearing in of the panel of judges at the beginning of the Rights of Nature Tribunal

The same year that the UN promulgated its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it also defined the crime of genocide for the first time, adopting a convention to outlaw it across the world. Similarly, the Rights of Nature Tribunal focused much attention on the crime of ecocide, defined in legal terms as “any act or failure to act which causes significant and durable damage to any part or system of the global commons, or threaten the safety of humankind.” Through the lens of the ecocide concept, the Tribunal assessed the “financialization” of Nature through market mechanisms as a crime rather than a solution, crimes committed by the Agro-Food Industry, and crimes being committed against those defending Mother Earth.

Meanwhile, crimes committed against nature have been happening not only in remote places – what journalist Chris Hedges has termed our civilization’s “sacrifice zones” – but only a few miles from the Tribunal in the Le Bourget district just outside Paris, where world leaders are negotiating plans to respond to climate change. Summing up the proceedings on the last day, environmental lawyer Linda Sheehan took the stand to indict the working draft of the COP21 agreement for failing to comply with the United Nations’ own laws, and for ignoring the rights of nature and the world’s indigenous peoples.

Environmental lawyer, Linda Sheehan, indicting the COP21 proceedings at the conclusion of the Rights of Nature Tribunal in Paris. [Click on the link in the text above to view on YouTube.]
Formal as the proceedings were, they lack legal standing, and the world’s governments and multinational corporations continue on with their crimes against nature. However, even that is beginning to change. In 2008, Ecuador was the first nation in the world to adopt a new constitution formally recognizing the rights of nature. Since then, other nations and municipalities around the world are beginning to follow suit. Last year, for example, California’s Mendocino County passed a community bill of rights to make fracking illegal, based on the community’s right to a clean ecosystem without manipulation from corporations.

The significance of the Tribunal, as described by the founder of the Rights of Nature movement, Cormac Cullinan, in his summing up, is that it establishes a prototype for what is possible, a new legal discourse that could become mainstream before too long. The Tribunal, as he put it, is “setting the standard for new norms in the relationship between human civilization and the natural world.”

It took over a hundred and fifty years before the grand vision of Thomas Paine would be endorsed by the entire world through the UN’s declaration. We don’t have that long nowadays. But with the speed in which ideas travel in today’s world, we can be hopeful that these new norms will become a commonplace in our own lifetime. Each of us has a part to play in this, by opening our minds to these new possibilities, and turning them into realities on the ground, just like the citizens of Ecuador and Mendocino County.

By the end of this century, if our civilization continues to exist, it may be in no small part due to the ideas propounded today about the Rights of Nature. Perhaps, at that time, someone will look back and see this week’s Tribunal as a milestone in the global embrace of the “truths” that may, by then, seem “self-evident” to people everywhere.

Peaceful in Paris…

The newspapers today are talking about violent protests in Paris, with about a hundred people arrested. That’s the stuff that gets lots of clicks on news sites, but for those of us on the streets of Paris yesterday, there was a very different experience.

Thousands of Parisians and visiting activists found ways to send their message to the world, and urge leaders at the COP21 talks to arrive at a meaningful solutions, without falling foul of the state of emergency imposed by the French government.

Avaaz, a worldwide campaigning community, organized a donation of thousands of shoes, weighing in at 8 tons, and placed at Place de la Republique, to represent the 400,000 pairs of feet that were originally expected to march through Paris.

Shoes Avaaz Paris

Stretching from Republique, common citizens joined hands from block to block, to peacefully express their desires for a saner future for our world. Here are some clips I took of the peaceful and engaged voices of Paris as COP21 is about to begin.

Yes, that tear gas was real. After most climate activists had left République, it seems that some anarchists fought with police. But these were not, as described in newspaper reports “climate activists.” Whoever happened to be there at the time – including one of our Citizens’ Voice team – found themselves caught up in an area that had been cordoned off. Police then started moving into the crowd and randomly arresting people.

The real story? The mass movement of protests around the world, breaking records in many countries for the largest ever climate demonstrations, calling for action by our leaders. And donated shoes and peaceful citizens holding hands in Paris, calling out for climate justice.

Why I’m going to COP21

The world is reeling from the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. Other massacres, in Beirut and Mali, deepen the suffering still further. Republican Presidential candidates vie for the most fervid expressions of hate and prejudice they can muster. Turkey shoots down a Russian fighter plane, portending even greater geopolitical instability.

The currents of global forces swirl around, threatening to derail the twenty-first annual meeting of world leaders to address climate change, known as COP21. Yet, as many have pointed out, COP21 offers the world the best chance for world peace. It’s widely accepted that our over-reliance on fossil fuels is a major factor underlying the horrors of recent days. It’s not just that the West’s addiction to Middle East oil has driven foreign policy strategy for decades. There’s also the direct effect climate change has already had, such as the worst drought in Syria’s history that contributed to 1.5 million desperate refugees and fragmentation of that country’s infrastructure.

Syrian drought
The worst drought in Syria’s history was a significant underlying cause of the regions’ current political crisis

The effects of climate change will only get worse. Much worse. By the end of this century, some parts of the Middle East are forecast to be too hot for human habitation. Climate refugees, fleeing flooded coastal cities and drought-stricken interiors, will likely overwhelm the resilience of many national infrastructures, creating multiple versions of Syria’s current tragedy.

That’s why COP21 – along with the engagement of millions of citizens across the globe – is now even more important than ever. The wealthier nations of the world have a moral obligation to change the course of humanity’s future. But we already know that whatever “agreement” arises from the official negotiations of COP21 won’t be enough. Unchecked, our carbon emissions are putting us on the path to a temperature rise of 4.5º Celsius by the end of the century. The nations of the world have agreed to a “soft” target of 2º C rise, which in itself locks in massive disruptions, global instability and suffering for untold millions. But even if you add up all the intended reductions agreed to in advance of COP21, this would barely move us to a 3.5º C rise. Nowhere near enough.

INDCs projection
Nations’ proposals for the COP21 talks would bring the world to a 3.5º C temperature rise by 2100

Which is where citizen action comes into play. National governments are subject to a variety of forces that cause them to make decisions that are not in the best interests of the people. It is only when decision-makers see that the common people represent the biggest force of all that our leaders will be pressured to set humanity on a path to hope.

The French government has decided to ban two demonstrations planned for before and after the formal COP21 proceedings, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens would have taken to the streets. That, however, is not going to stop the citizen activists converging in Paris from raising public awareness of what is at stake. Many important civil society events – showcasing the challenges and hopes of our generation – are continuing on as planned.

People's Climate March, 092114
Mass demonstrations – like the People’s Climate March in New York last September – have been banned by the French government

Along with those thousands, I’m planning to be there too, and will be documenting the voices of global citizens engaged in their individual and collective struggles for a just and livable earth. I’ll be part of a team, Citizens’ Voice, that will be streaming live video from all around the city during this time.

And I’ll be posting regular updates to this blog, sharing with you the energy and ideas flowing through the city. We all know that COP21 is not the conclusion of anything. It’s an important milestone on the way to our future – and along with many thousands of other engaged citizens, I’ll be doing my bit to try to make it a milestone on the road to a better future for humanity.

The Deep Ecology of Pope Francis

pope francis in congress
Pope Francis addressing Congress

Pope Francis has brought a moral dimension to the crisis of climate change, raising global public awareness of the gaping inequalities of our times and the environmental catastrophe our civilization is causing. This week, in addressing the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, he used the public stage to emphasize his hallmark issues of global poverty, environmental destruction and the urgent need to address climate change.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the Pope’s stance is that he is speaking as head of one of the most conservative institutions in world history. In his encyclical, Laudato Si, published in June 2015, he wove together a masterful synthesis of traditional Catholic theology and a sophisticated, systems-oriented understanding of the effects of human activity on the natural world. As one crucial aspect of this synthesis, he has reformulated the traditional Christian account – shared with the other Abrahamic religions – of the relationship between humanity and the natural world.

Dominion Over Nature

The formation of the modern world has been undergirded by a series of root metaphors, embedded deep in the foundations of our culture, that have defined how humans relate to the rest of the world. Many of these metaphors came from the Bible, which served for a millennium and a half as the cornerstone of Western values. In the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a Divine Lawgiver, nature’s commander-in-chief, boasting: “I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded.”

As Divine Lawgiver, one of God’s first laws was to bestow on mankind Dominion Over Nature. After creating Adam and Eve, God commands them:

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. [Genesis 1:26-8]
Adam and Eve enjoying dominion over nature
Adam and Eve enjoying dominion over nature

As many historians have noted, this root metaphor provided a theological and moral justification for humanity to exploit the natural world ceaselessly without concern for any intrinsic value it might otherwise have. It also provided Christian Europe with a deep-seated assurance that God had created the world for no other reason than humanity’s benefit.

The Pope’s ecological insight

Pope Francis attacks this idea of mankind’s absolute Dominion over Nature with all theological guns blazing. “This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church,” he avers. “Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” [Laudato Si, 67]

The Pope doesn’t reject the notion that God has given humanity Dominion over Nature; instead, he emphasizes that this dominion comes with responsibilities. “Each community,” he proclaims, “can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”

Showing a profound ecological understanding of the world as a network of interconnected systems, the Pope talks about “how different creatures relate to one another in making up the larger units which today we term “ecosystems”. These ecosystems, he declares, “have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself; the same is true of the harmonious ensemble of organisms existing in a defined space and functioning as a system.” [Laudato Si, 140]

Reverent guests of nature

What is fascinating to me about the Pope’s take on the Old Testament is that, as much as he parts company with traditional Christian interpretations, his understanding of humanity’s relationship with nature feels right at home in other non-Christian worldviews.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting shows humanity embedded delicately within nature
Traditional Chinese landscape painting shows humanity embedded delicately within nature

Traditional Chinese cosmology saw humanity as interconnected with heaven and earth in a resonant web. Rather than claim dominion over nature, the Tao Te Ching proffers an alternative approach for those who wish to harmonize with the Tao: being “reverent, like guests.” [Tao Te Ching 15]

Traditional Chinese philosophers understood the natural world as a series of interlocking systems, recognizing that the same principles organized the human organism as well as the natural universe. In the memorable words of Zhang Zai:

Heaven is my father and earth is my mother, and I, a small child, find myself placed intimately between them.

What fills the universe I regard as my body; what directs the universe I regard as my nature.

All people are my brothers and sisters; all things are my companions.

The Chinese weren’t alone in this view. In fact, the vast majority of indigenous views of nature saw humanity as part of nature, and respecting the natural world as intrinsic to their very existence. Rolling Thunder, the native American leader, summarized this as follows:

It begins with respect for the Great Spirit, and the Great Spirit is the life that is in all thingsall creatures and plants and even the rocks and the minerals. All thingsand I mean all thingshave their own will and their own way and their own purpose; this is what is to be respected. Such respect is not a feeling or an attitude only. It’s a way of life. Such respect means that we never stop realizing, and never neglect to carry out our obligations to ourselves and our environment.

In more recent times, this approach to nature is expressed powerfully by ecological philosopher Arne Naess, who developed a platform known as Deep Ecology, which states:

  • The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on earth have value in themselves… These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
  • Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  • Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs…

Structural issues of monotheism

My interpretation of the Pope’s approach in Laudato Si is that he is heroically trying to transform the Catholic view of nature to one that is more consistent with these other worldviews, one that would permit humanity to thrive sustainably on a flourishing earth. He was the first Pope to take the name of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. This symbolism is clearly of far-reaching importance for him.

However, in his attempt, the Pope necessarily avoids dealing with some structural problems in the Christian interpretation of the cosmos. To begin with, God is still the Divine Lawmaker. In contrast, a true systems understanding of life points to the fact that nature self-organizes. There is no blueprint for nature handed down by an external God; rather life arises as an emergent property from the top-down, bottom-up reciprocal processes taking place within each cell.

Similarly, the dominion humans possess over nature was not assigned by a benevolent lawgiver. Rather, it arose from the unique cognitive capabilities that evolved in our human ancestors – our patterning instinct – which has also driven our global civilization to the imbalances we’re feeling so deeply with today’s environmental crisis.

Of course, the Pope can’t point to these structural issues within monotheistic religion. Given the cosmology inherent to his faith, he is performing a herculean task in attempting to redirect Catholic thought towards a sustainable worldview. Ultimately, however, I fear that contradictions may inevitably arise. If we desire humanity to hold a sustainable relationship with nature, not just through this century, but for millennia to come, we need a to forge a new approach, one that begins by understanding that humanity’s place in the universe is not a God-given birthright of dominion, but one that emerged from our evolved cognitive capabilities.

These evolved powers have given us civilization replete with its technological marvels – and have also brought us to the precarious precipice of climate change and environmental collapse we are all facing. We would do best to recognize our intrinsic responsibility to harmonize with nature, to rebalance what we have damaged. To do so, we must seek our source of meaning from that interconnected web of life in which we are all embedded.