Thursday, 4 February 2010

Cry, the Beloved Planet -- by Hugh Robertson

The following article is the last in a twelve-part series on climate change by Hugh Robertson, an Ottawa Friend, and the culmination of the arguments presented in his earlier articles. The series was published in a local weekly, the New Edinburgh News.
Copenhagen: Brokenhagen or Hopenhagen? For the hopes and dreams of millions, it was clearly Brokenhagen. In the end there was not even a treaty, just a vague “Accord” without any commitments to curb global temperature increases. There were no binding targets on emission reductions, just empty pledges by the developed countries. Soft targets, like the early morning mist, will simply evaporate in the heat of an election campaign. Copenhagen failed the future.

We cannot look to the government for decisive leadership on environmental issues. Unlike Europe, there is no political will in Canada to combat the climate crisis. We do not even have a coherent policy to meet our weak emission targets. Canada's “policy” is simply to wait and see what Americans do.

The indecision of our government is perfectly understandable. They are sniffing the wind continuously and the polling numbers indicate that although support for the environment appears to be miles wide, the ice is only an inch thick. No political party is going to risk crashing through thin ice. Voter reaction to Stephane Dion’s Green Shift and a carbon tax in the last election is still too fresh, and unnerving, in the minds of politicians.
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However, Copenhagen was a success in finally countering the arguments and the speculations of the climate deniers. The Accord acknowledged that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are heating the planet and that global temperature increases must be capped at 2 degrees Celsius to prevent runaway climate change.

The corporate-funded denial machine has helped delay serious action on climate issues for two decades. But denial also runs deep in society at large. The diversion of climategate was an example of how easily we try to dodge our ecological responsibilities. Denial is an easier option than having to undertake lifestyle changes.

Too often, blame and the projection of guilt have been part of our self-deception and denial. For example, we criticize China for high levels of pollution, while forgetting that our per capita emissions are 10 times higher than their levels. Furthermore, we conveniently overlook the carbon footprint of the Chinese products that we import to satisfy our consumer appetites.

The science is settled. It is time for us to take responsibility for our excessive consumption. We can no longer hide behind denial, nor can we plead ignorance.

Increasing global warming and longer term climate change have dominated the headlines. But there are a myriad other environmental problems, all closely linked. As James Lovelock pointed out in explaining his Gaia theory three decades ago, nature is far too complex to be divided, lego-like, into separate boxes.

Global warming, bee and bat colony collapse, decimation of fish stocks, dead ocean zones, air pollution, wildfires, and floods are all symptoms of the exploitation and abuse of nature. We are the planet plunderers. We have stretched the biocapacity of Mother Earth to breaking point by our insatiable lifestyle demands. No other species can match our ability to scorch the earth.
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Despite the doom and gloom of Copenhagen, Hopenhagen lives on because hope is really our only hope. But hope devoid of action is simply hallucination. Unfortunately, “hope” has been a negative factor in the fight for ecological sustainability. Hope, faith and optimism have all lulled us into a sense of complacency and security which pollsters, politicians and corporations have exploited.

Al Gore accurately nailed the cause of our paralysis when he suggested that we have moved in one giant step from denial to despair. A hope and an optimism underpinned by action is the best antidote for despair and depression.

James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, puts it more bluntly: Quit wishing and start doing. The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your backside and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable and competent individual, resolutely able to face new circumstances.

Transformative change in societies always starts with individuals and the journey begins in our hearts. Like the abolition of slavery, it is an inner journey that becomes an outer movement. It is a bottom up process initiated by individuals that moves into the community and then outward and upward in an irresistible groundswell of momentum.

Many psychologists argue that we have to change our values before we will modify our behaviour and our lifestyles. But we do not have the luxury of time before we exceed critical climate tipping points. Once reached, they will provoke natural crises which will then drive changes that are outside our control. Before such doomsday scenarios are reached, we must act decisively and courageously to reshape our lifestyles. If we await a fundamental shift in societal values, time may well have run out.

The environmental crisis is, at root, a crisis of consumption and lifestyle. The first step in mobilizing a widespread movement is to take control of our own individual consumption; initially that means measuring our consumption footprints. The size of our personal footprints is the only true measure of our ethical commitment to planetary sustainability.

- If you have not yet established your emissions and lifestyle footprints, consider launching your initiative with the Zerofootprint calculator.

- You can also arrange for an energy audit of your home. This can be done independently or as part of the ecoENERGY Retrofit program. - There are numerous books and websites available with information on conserving energy and reducing waste. - You will find Guy Dauncey’s The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming one of the most accessible and comprehensive guides on the market.

- Seventh has a useful checklist of How to reduce your carbon footprint.

- Set up a system for monitoring your utility meters. See these 10 tips to cut energy consumption by George Monbiot.

- Design your own consumption log to measure the progress of your reductions of energy, water, fuel, etc.

Hope anchored in action is energizing and empowering and personal example is both inspirational and contagious. Armed with the confidence of a minimalist footprint, take the spirit of change to your neighbourhood. In addition, be an active advocate for change in your other communities, such as schools and places of work and worship. Revolutions are won by tenaciously taking one street at a time. Let us take our communities one street at a time, winning our neighbours over with both a message of hope and a plan of action.

It is collective action and passion, not narrow individual self-interest that initiates and propels long-lasting change. Shifting a social mindset is not easy but as Vandana Shiva, the renowned Indian scientist and activist, not only points out but has actually demonstrated in her work, change starts at the grassroots.

Begin in small steps that can multiply to become huge solutions. Begin a seed at a time, a drink at a time, a school at a time and a meal at a time. Make a difference in your community with an idea that what you are doing connects to a larger world that can then multiply. That is the only way real change happens.

A crusade for climate stability, initiated at the community level, has another important dimension. Ecological collapse will inevitably be followed by economic meltdown which in turn will trigger widespread civic and political chaos. At that point, the same collective community action needed to stem ecological breakdown, will become critical in averting social collapse.

In a climate of social disintegration, it is societies with a tradition of egalitarianism and harmony that will best weather the effects of civic implosion. Societies built around competitive self-interest and adversarial institutions and characterized by vast discrepancies in wealth will likely have to contend with escalating internal tensions.

It is only the resilience of community life that will ensure social survival on a ravaged planet. Our collective spirit, reinforced by our gentler qualities of compassion and caring, will shape that resilience and help strengthen community cohesion. “Social capital” with its focus on connectedness will soon supersede financial capital as a pillar of community, economic and ecological sustainability.

As part of the strategy of bracing societies for climate change, the social and environmental ramifications of wealth distribution have to be considered. Two recent studies by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have highlighted the correlation between personal income and over-sized footprints (the "affordability gap") and also the huge discrepancy between the earnings of corporate executives and wage workers.

The paradox of wealth and happiness is a prominent issue today. There is no perceptible increase in personal happiness after one’s annual income exceeds $15,000. Money does not buy happiness and neither does hedonism enhance happiness. If wealth is environmentally destructive and socially divisive, what is the purpose of affluence? We may be more content if we follow the advice of Pierre-Yves Cousteau, son of the renowned Jacques Cousteau: "Find happiness by protecting the world around us. "

We must build social solidarity in advance of climate disruptions. We will need to change our notions of happiness, success, human dignity, quality of life, economic growth and the distribution of wealth in order to strengthen our communities. Future survival will be shaped far more by a spirit of cooperation than by the forces of competition.

Take courage, be a beacon of hope –- what Paul Hawken's Blessed Unrest calls a dot of light –- in the drive for environmental change. Our collective task will be to connect the millions of dots of light across the continent and around the globe and build a movement that will transform our relationship with the planet. That is our mission. We owe it to future generations.

The title of this article is based on Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, a wrenching novel about race relations in South Africa. There are many powerful parallel themes, such as wealth disparity, socio-economic divisions, ecological exploitation, environmental racism and spiritual impoverishment between the microcosm of apartheid South Africa and the planetary scale of our biosphere problems.
See also Mathis Wackernagel's Global Footprint Network with national/regional/business/personal calculators, Anup Shah's blog on Consumption and Consumerism, and our previous blog post Reflections on Copenhagen which compares reactions from different countries and environmental groups.

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