It seems like a body blow to the very possibility of saving humanity’s future. A “brutal act,” as described by Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel. The Paris Agreement is itself limited in scope, and insufficient in its goals, but at least it amounts to the single best step the world has taken to try to limit the effects of climate change. A glimmer of sanity in our disturbed civilization.
So how could President Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from the agreement be anything but disastrous? I would argue that perhaps it’s the first step in a major pivoting of world relations and power dynamics that could put us on a more hopeful course.
Think of a battered spouse who is continually physically abused, but keeps trying to pretend to herself and others around her that somehow it’s manageable. As a friend, you might counsel her to do something drastic, but get frustrated when nothing happens. Then, one day, the battering goes too far. Your friend ends up in hospital—and finally recognizes she has to leave the brute before it’s too late.
The civilized world has recently been receiving a battering from the brute that has taken power in the United States. If the US had remained in the Paris Agreement, it would have enabled the other countries to act like that battered spouse, keeping the cover on America’s violations of its prior commitments, even while the world careened towards disaster. It was already clear that the US was going to fall far short of its emission targets under the Paris Agreement, and had reneged on its pledge of financial assistance to poorer countries fighting the effects of climate disruption. The US backsliding would have given cover to other countries to avoid meeting their own targets.
Meanwhile, the Paris Agreement would have continued, like the proverbial fig leaf, to cover over the naked facts that we need far more drastic change to avoid a climate catastrophe this century. As many of us who were at COP21 noted at the time, there was a chasm built in to the agreement between the global emission targets and what would be necessary to avoid a 3+ºC rise in temperature by 2100. As Ken Ward, former deputy director of Greenpeace, has recently written:
Pulling out of Paris takes false hopes off the table, and opens the way for building an effective climate movement. So as committed climate activist who knows we’re running out of time, I say, let’s get on with it.
Many observers fret that the US pullout will now cause the rest of the agreement to unravel. But is it possible that the opposite is true? Could it catalyze more responsible government leaders—such as those in France, Germany, China, and India—to realize there is no-one else to rely on but themselves to stave off disaster?
In hunter-gatherer bands, when a troublemaker gets too big for his breeches and threatens the group’s survival, the rest of the band strengthens their bonds against him in the interest of group security. Our troubled globe, with nation states jostling with each other, is in a similar situation. What could they do together to save our future?
An interesting option would be to establish a global tax on carbon and apply it to all goods traded internationally. It’s a topic being seriously discussed in power centers far from the Beltway. This could, in the Trump era, lead to tariff wars, but it might also be a game-changer that the world’s responsible nations have the power to enable.
One unequivocal achievement that Trump has blundered upon is ending US leadership in the world. The US has already lost any semblance of moral leadership, but now its technological, economic, and political status may be irreparably damaged. China, India, and the EU have the opportunity to build a 21st century economy based on renewables that will leave the US in the dirt. They will be the centers that the rest of the world will look to for any chance of a hopeful future.
America’s global hegemony is over. We can only hope that the world’s new power blocs will do a better job with what they inherit.
Every day, the news seems only to get worse. Trump’s Cabinet appointments are brazenly turning the U.S. into a kleptocracy – a land where those who have gained unprecedented wealth and power by cynically manipulating the rules now get to rewrite the rules for their own exclusive benefit. With all branches of government – executive, Congress, and the Supreme Court – in the hands of a morally bankrupt Republican leadership, the most powerful military and surveillance state in history is becoming a vehicle for corporations to ransack what’s left of the natural world for their short-term gain. With free speech under attack, along with threats of a Muslim registry and mass deportations of undocumented workers, we appear to be plunging rapidly into a bottomless abyss.
It’s natural for anyone who cares about dignity, justice, and the welfare of future generations to feel some despair. But in the very darkness of the times ahead, there is reason for hope that this bleak period will be the harbinger of a transformed society: a new economic and social order based on principles of equity, compassion, and natural flourishing. How can that be?
How change happens in complex systems
The source of this hope emerges from research in complex systems – and more specifically, how phase transitions occur in these systems. Complex systems exist everywhere in the natural world: in weather patterns, lakes, and forest ecologies. They exist within humans – think immune, cardiovascular, and neurological systems – and they exist in the systems we humans create: in markets, and in social and political systems.
These systems are nonlinear, which means the relationship between an input and output can vary wildly, and this characteristic makes them very difficult to predict. However, leading complexity scientists have studied how change happens in these systems, and have discovered principles that seem to occur universally. They are as true for a lake ecology as they are for a stock market. And they are equally applicable to our political system.
A crucial principle is that, while a complex system can remain resilient within a set of parameters for a long time, occasionally it becomes so unstable that it experiences a tipping point: a dramatic shift that transforms the system into something very different. A forest, for example, can get thinned out until it can no longer sustain itself, and it turns into scrubland. A real estate market gets overheated until it suddenly collapses. A person’s neurological firing can destabilize and suddenly puts them into an epileptic seizure.
These shifts – known as phase transitions – can also herald beneficial changes. A chrysalis transforms into a butterfly. A fetus develops until it undergoes the phase transition known as birth. Same sex marriage can remain unthinkable for generations, until it becomes the widely accepted law of the land within a few years.
Scientists have studied intensively how to predict when these phase transitions might occur, and have identified a few flags that indicate when we might expect one. An important indicator is an increase in the variance of fluctuations within the system. A stock market, for example, might start gyrating giddily before it finally crashes. Rainfall patterns may fluctuate wildly before a long-term drought sets in.
Tipping points in history
When we apply these findings to history, it’s easy to see these turbulent fluctuations preceding phase transitions – in retrospect. The Great Depression in the 1930s led to the rise of fascism. The global devastation of the Second World War cleared the way for new norms such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted three years later in 1948.
As we look at the current political situation, many signs suggest that we’re arriving at a new, historic tipping point. The globally dominant neoliberal political-economic system has caused unprecedented wealth and income inequalities, which have destabilized the foundations on which the past seventy years of relative peace and prosperity have been built. The Brexit shock, the rise of neo-fascism in Europe, and the impending cataclysm of Trump’s lawless brutality seem to signal an approaching tipping point. Our global society is most likely about to enter a phase transition, after which it will emerge into a new, stable state.
What will that new state look like? There is a real threat that we’ll see the end of democracy in this country. An even grimmer possibility is the total collapse of civilization. Trump’s narcissistic capriciousness could drive the world to global war which might easily go nuclear. Even without war, we can expect an acceleration of climate change following an orgy of fossil fuel extraction from the new Exxon Mobil/Trump/Putin axis, which could drive the climate to its own tipping points that may be incompatible with continued civilization.
Towards a Great Transformation of values?
But there’s another possibility for the long-term outcome of this dark period. The American people will only take so much trampling over accepted norms. Trump, with his cabinet of billionaires and corporate titans, is likely to pursue a strategy of continued reckless violations of traditional American values such as decency and civil rights. There’s a real possibility that their frenzy of greed, bigotry, and hatred will catalyze a powerful counter-reaction. A significant majority of voters already chose the Democratic candidate over Trump at the election. After years of having their rights trampled upon by a Trump presidency, and most likely witnessing brutality once unthinkable in their own country, Americans may be ready for a radically different type of society: one based on values such as dignity, compassion, and fairness.
This leads to another important lesson from complexity science: During a phase transition, a system goes through a chaotic period of shifting power dynamics. In this period, seemingly insignificant actions can have an outsize effect, sometimes dramatically impacting the character of the long-term outcome. When we apply this lesson to the current situation, this becomes a clarion call for citizen action. What each of us does over the next few years could have extraordinary effects on the future society we bequeath to posterity.
At the same time, we need to shine a light on a flourishing future that could still be available after this period of darkness. There is an enormous power arising from millions of interconnected people striving together towards a shared vision. We already know, within ourselves, what that vision looks like. In contrast to Trump’s intolerance based on a rhetoric of separation, the foundation of a flourishing future is our intrinsic connectedness: within ourselves, with others, and with the natural world.
Even before Trump’s regime begins, people are picking up on the urgent need for a transformation of values in American society. Political commentator Van Jones has initiated a “Love Army” to conquer Trump’s message of hate. Author Neal Gabler has called for a “kindness offensive.”
A society based on love and kindness is not just an abstraction. Kindness in action means resisting Trump’s brutalism. Love in action means working towards a transformation of society. Pioneers of a flourishing future have already been busily constructing a coherent platform of alternative ideas that can form the framework for a system founded on compassionate values. I’ve attempted to summarize some of them in a recent online conference where I took the role of a historian in 2050 looking back at how the world just survived climate catastrophe to enter a period known as The Great Transformation.
The traditional Chinese understood profoundly the dynamics of change that modern complexity scientists are discovering. Their famous yin-yang symbol captures a deep truth about how polarities can engender their opposites. In the middle of the black, there is a spot of white. When a wave reaches its peak, that’s when it begins to crash. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.
We haven’t yet hit the darkest hour of the Trump era. We’re just entering the abyss, and no-one can predict how bad it’s going to get. But as we move together into the darkness, along with our anguish and outrage, let us never lose sight of the light that lurks beyond. There will be casualties from his brutality. Few of us are likely to make it through unscathed. But by recognizing the power of our interconnected action, while keeping our gaze focused on the light beyond the horizon, we may well succeed in ultimately directing this tipping point away from collapse, and towards a society of flourishing, compassion, and justice.
I watched with horror last night, like millions of others, as the election began pointing to a Trump victory. It felt like the world slipping into a bottomless abyss. And now we’re in it, spiraling downwards. Which leaves the gut wrenching question, awful to contemplate: how bad will it get?
There are already a large number of disastrous outcomes that seem all but inevitable. A license for brutal treatment of undocumented immigrants, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and anyone who fits the criteria of Trump’s racist xenophobia. The end of Obamacare and any safety net for those with pre-existing conditions. With a climate denier in the White House, an open road for fossil fuel companies to ravage the earth, and speed up the onset of full scale climate catastrophe. The EPA gutted. A Supreme Court stacked with reactionaries to rubber stamp the Republican agenda and undo decades of moral progress in American society.
How Bad Could It Get?
Could it get even worse than that? There have been plenty of critiques comparing Trump to earlier fascist leaders, such as Hitler or Mussolini, who collectively caused over 60 million deaths and brought the world close to total ruin. With rising populist xenophobia around the world – the Brexit vote, racist political parties in Europe, the recent election of brutal Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte – this awful scenario needs to be contemplated.
I grew up in a Jewish family in London. The only reason my parents were alive was that their parents happened to migrate to England rather than somewhere else in Europe. During my teens, I became aware of the full horror of the Holocaust, leaving a dread deep down that never really disappeared. I felt blessed to live in happier times, and often wondered: how would I have reacted to the extremities of the 1930s if I’d lived through that period? Now, we may all be called to answer that question in our current reality.
Could Trump’s victory lead to the end of democracy in the US? Will the world devolve into global warfare? These questions may take years to answer, but a perusal of Hitler’s trajectory to power does highlight some warning signs that we’ll need to take seriously, such as:
Serious intimidation and threats targeting politicians and activists who disagree with Trump
Intimidation and legal action against newspapers and online media who oppose Trump’s agenda
Incitement of violence at demonstrations, leading to escalating rhetoric and further violence
Calls for emergency measures when cycles of violence begin to get out of hand
Lawsuits and arrests of activists based on fictitious charges
Of course, Trump’s election campaign has already flaunted all of these, and worse. With Trump as President, they may spell the end of any semblance of freedom and democracy we’ve been used to.
What Can We Do About It?
In a time of extreme polarity, faced with hatred, fear, and violence, how can we respond? I believe there are right responses at different levels of engagement: political, community, and individual.
Politically, it’s essential to become even more engaged than before. We can’t afford despair and finger-pointing. Each of us needs to identify the causes that matter most to us, and commit a significant amount of our time and energy to fighting for them, joining the national and global struggle for justice. (Two great examples: 350.org and MoveOn.org).
We need to keep our eyes firmly focused on a vision of future flourishing. Imagine how bleak the world looked in 1942, at the peak of Nazi dominance in Europe. Yet, even at the darkest hour, a better world was not far off. We may be descending into an abyss right now, but with enough of us actively engaged, we will eventually move through it into the light.
We need to build resilience and bonds within our community like never before. Trump’s brutalism is based on hatred and separation. Each one us has the power to combat it through compassion and connection. Take the extra moment to acknowledge strangers to let them know you see them. Turn acquaintances into friends. Turn friendships into mutually reinforcing nourishment. Look for new ways to actively support and aid each other – especially those who are in Trump’s crosshairs. (Two great examples: SURJ and Movement Generation).
And within ourselves, we need to find a moral courage that may be tested in ways we haven’t ever considered. When our core values are under attack like never before, we must connect with them even more strongly, and consciously live every day according to them. In an era of brutalism, each of us may face challenges that will define who we are: How can I use my own privilege to benefit others? Shall I speak up against that racist or misogynistic invective even if it makes me unpopular? Go on that demonstration even if I risk getting beaten up? Engage in civil disobedience even if I risk getting arrested?
We enter into a period of increasing darkness. None of us knows yet how dark it will get, how bottomless the pit. We do know, however, that we can choose to act as beacons of light. Joined together, that light can lead the way to a better place for us all, and a future of flourishing that seems achingly distant right now.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 betraded. 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.
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 CO2 emissions 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.
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 CO2 on 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 350.org, 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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 350.org. “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.
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.
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 350.org 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.
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 350.org 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.