It was the warmest Easter in the history of measurements in Scotland. Flocks of geese flew over our heads until darkness, mourning the death of Polly Higgins, a great advocate of the rights of the Earth. A heavy smell reached us from the south as dim fires blazed in the distance.
In Findhorn Community, at the Climate Change & Consciousness conference, we heard both terrifying stories of climate doom and stories of phenomenal activism. The perfectly justified hopelessness felt heavy, but then we saw unyielding determination in the eyes of the youth present at the conference. Young people have no other choice but to act.
Of course, there was no way to get around the cyclones Idai and Kenneth in Africa, fires in California, glaciers melting, extreme temperatures… But there was also no way around noticing Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Extinction Rebellion, Juliana vs. the U.S., Earth Guardians, and other courageous actions.
So much news that doesn’t find its way into our newspapers…
Mugove W. Nyika of Zambia reported that the cyclone Idai was terrible indeed, but much worse for South-East Africa was the long drought in the months before the cyclone; many farmers lost their entire harvests, including seeds for the next season. But the media didn’t report about that. Understandably, since the news was not dramatic enough.
Other speakers agreed. One of them was Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat who coordinated the renewal of the global climate agreement between 2010 and 2015, which led to the historic success of the COP 21 negotiations. When people claim: “Everyone is saying this…”, stop them and demand: “Tell me the names of ‘everyone’!” Christiana said. When the media say that political leadership is slipping away, we must be careful how we understand it. Mainstream media tend to dramatize, rather than presenting the actual reality.
In fact, decarbonization is happening; 195 countries are committed to it, and even the U.S. is formally leaving the Paris Agreement only in November 2020, while Brazil is still figuring out what to do. At least 14 countries are doing well, as are thousands of corporations that understand why decarbonization is good for them and for the environment.
Christiana listed six key sectors identified by the climate analytical community (the first three sectors are doing well, the last three are not):
- Electricity (23% is already from renewables, with the current exponential track of increase)
- Electric mobility (starting to move to exponential change; by 2020, we will be at cost equality between electric and petrol vehicles)
- Finance (investors are withdrawing from increasingly risky carbon investments)
- Agriculture and forestry (following very slowly, since the deforestation and industrial agriculture have very strong momentum)
- Heavy industry (we are still searching for alternatives to cement and steel industry)
- Construction and infrastructure (it is still not clear how to achieve a significant shift at all)
So there is positive progress! The Indian Minister of Power, per example, is determined to abandon coal power because solar energy is already cheaper than the old, dirty technology. India also plans to electrify all two-wheeled motor vehicles by 2020, which is 80% of all their motor vehicles. Unfortunately, this kind of news from India does not get as much publicity as every Tweet from the “Dark House,” Christiana concluded sharply.
A positive outlook is important, of course, but we should keep blind spots in sight too. Vandana Shiva pointed out that industrial agriculture is not often mentioned in the debate about climate change, even though it contributes 50% of all greenhouse gases, taking into account all indirect emissions of production, including soil degradation, transport, the impact of machinery, artificial fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, etc.
Agriculture is based on the premise that the soil is dead, that it has no intrinsic value, and that work with earth requires violence and dominance. The industrialization of agriculture means getting rid of people and replacing them with ever bigger tractors, robots, and drones with an ever-expanding arsenal of chemicals that treat the soil as a dead substrate. Industrial farming uses 10 times more water than traditional methods. Destruction of the land is the single biggest reason for forced migration. Refugees are thus a direct consequence of activities from the fossil fuel industry.
The same is true in the case of the dramatic decline of insect populations. This should not surprise us. Initially, we created chemicals to kill people in wars, and then we made a whole family of chemicals called “insecticides”. We sprayed our homes, fields, and gardens with these chemicals, and now we wonder why are butterflies not flying around so cheerfully. These consequences are the result of a militarized approach against insects.
And how do we treat rivers? More than 500 dams are planned on Himalayan rivers alone. The construction of dams is not so much about electricity and controlling the rivers, as it is about the cement lobby business. The more concrete they can pour, the better it is for the economy.
Then there is genetic engineering, where big corporations take seeds from public seed banks, say 200 varieties of drought-resistant maize, and put them through genomic reading. Then, with the screening programs they “cut” and again “assemble” the genome to create new varieties of maize and in the end, they declare it as their intellectual property. However, no one pays copyrights to nature and to past generations who raised the seeds with the initial genome.
The industrial era has shaped this approach, and the consumer era has strengthened it. Now, in order to simplify the tackling of our global problems, which stem from this approach, we reduced it to the measurement of greenhouse gases. That’s why we don’t understand the links between elements of the ecosystem, said Charles Eisenstein. We are not allowing ourselves to see how the destruction of a species or a human culture or a language is related to climate change. “What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of Earth corresponds with the kind of people we want to become?” he asked.
For a dry scientist, it is easiest to respond to such questions with cynicism. But among us, there were many indigenous people from all over the world supporting Charles’s call for deep humanity and a new story in which Earth is alive, and not merely a substrate for our bad habits. Listening to the sound of the languages of indigenous people from Namibia, Amazon, New Zealand, Greenland… grounded Charles’s claim that preserving disappearing languages is crucial to maintaining a healthy climate – geological, political, social and psychological. We can’t register this on the “carbon matrix”. Language is an emanation of the land and becomes part of the land, it is the aliveness of the place; it can be reborn from people who are of the place, intimate with the place. Destroying language means destroying this connection.
Charles presented a reordering of priorities based on the living Earth view:
- Protect any ecosystem that is still intact, including the people, coevolving alongside these ecosystems (Amazon, Congo valley, etc.).
- Regenerate and heal damaged ecosystems by nurturing the relationship with place and using regenerative agriculture.
- Stop dousing the world in toxic chemicals.
- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions (as a side effect of the first three priorities).
Angaangaq Angakkorsuq from Greenland touched us with his speech. The Inuit elder told us the story of how in January 1963, “Big Ice” cried for the first time. At -30 C, water began to drip from a “finger” of the Big Ice, 1.5 km thick. Scientists did not believe this was possible, because at -30 C water can’t flow. Angaangaq said to them, “I didn’t tell you the story to believe me; I told it because it happened.” He marks this event as the beginning of global warming.
Nowadays scientists know that melting on the top layer of the Big Ice creates puddles and lakes. Water finds cracks, makes them wider and in liquid form threads its ways down, all the way to the bedrock, sometimes weeks or months later, creating creeks and rivers. All too often, scientists ignored the early warnings of indigenous peoples’ representatives, so decades passed by without us taking action. The problem gained wider attention only when its symptoms reached drastic proportions.
How could our problems not reach such drastic proportions, when the additional energy accumulating due to greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to six nuclear bombs exploding every second, Professor Jem Bendell noted. He showed us the video of his speech “Our Mother Earth says #MeToo,” at Oxford Square, where he joined Extinction Rebellion. Professor Bendell raised a lot of dust when he published his paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy in IFLAS journal last year in August. The paper was downloaded half a million times, which doesn’t happen that often for such scientific articles.
How to maintain radical hope in the face of horrific collapse? asked Jem. Today, it is taboo to say that it is too late to act, that systemic collapse is inevitable. But what if this actually true? How to adapt to it? Deep adaptation assumes that consumer civilization will collapse. Adaptation doesn’t even make sense within the dominant cultural paradigm. The concept of “sustainability” has long been dead as an idea. We need to think about how we will adapt or cope with what’s coming. We will have to learn quickly: how to share knowledge and experience, how to help each other, how to deal with the food crisis, the expansion of proto-fascism, etc.
In such circumstances, hope is a necessity. But hope is not prediction or faith, it is an active wish of what we want to work towards, how we will relate to each other ahead while enduring calamity. We should desire to find a path that involves reducing emissions by simultaneously setting up a robust system and respecting nature.
We were shown the way forward by passionate, courageous youth. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an eighteen-year-old activist and the youth director of Earth Guardians called for urgent climate action in the United Nations already when he was fifteen. His speech at the conference began in the Nahuatl language with a poem that ends with the words: “At least we left flowers behind, at least we left songs.” He reminded us that art is essential to regeneration and that it is our duty to leave beauty behind, not destruction.
Earth Guardians is doing many great things, but at the moment the Juliana v. the U.S. court case stands out. Xiuhtezcatl is one of 21 young plaintiffs suing the U.S. government for violating their rights to life and freedom. They demand that the U.S. keep its commitments to reduce greenhouse gases. The next hearing at the Supreme Court will be on 4 June.
It is fascinating to see such young people, some teenagers, others in their early twenties, understanding the political and legal context, comprehending the jargon and having a smart response. “I am 16 and was born into a world already burning,” said Finn from Ireland. The youth was saying: “Our parents will be out of here, but we will have to figure out something about the mess.”
It was painful to listen to youth expressing guilt for wanting to play music, create art, and dance, while at the same hearing the Earth calling them to action. A boy said it was frustrating to be interested in airplanes since they are not environmentally friendly, a girl added she would love to be an actress, but the actors travel with airplanes and live wastefully, and she does not want that.
Young people are fed up with adults patting them on the back, saying, “You’re the hope, we trust in you,” passing the burden on to them. In the spirit of Extinction Rebellion, the youth challenged everyone over 60 years of age to stand up if they are willing to risk being arrested for the Earth. About fifty participants in the hall stood up. It’s wrong for young people to go to jail when they have a full life ahead of them; those who have lived a full life and were part of the problem for so many years should expose themselves to being arrested for the cause.
Very few adults are willing to fill the gaps and take on risky tasks, saying with courage what has to be said to all those who think that they can do as they please simply because they have money.
One such person was Polly Higgins, a lawyer who decided to represent the rights of the Earth and advocate for ecocide to be recognized in criminal law. Ecocide is any crime against nature. Polly died of cancer on Easter, on the second day of the Climate Change and Consciousness conference, at the age of 50. She addressed us attendees via an interview filmed before the conference had started, explaining why human rights don’t have legality on their own. Every law is like a coin, it has two sides. Rights are essential but insufficient; criminality imposes the legal duty of care so that you can take action and bring justice into being. Polly’s work gave legal underpinning for the whole Earth-rights movement.
Polly’s website https://www.stopecocide.earth/ calls individuals and groups to declare themselves as Earth Protectors, and to exercise our “human right to act according to our conscience and deeply held beliefs, as long as we are not harming or endangering others by doing so. In the 21st century, Conscientious Protectors are not only refusing to take part in the harm being inflicted upon the natural world, but feel compelled to take non-violent direct action to prevent it. When what informs our conscience is sound scientific research, and the desire to protect humanity and the Earth from harm, then exercising that right is not only justified but an act of moral necessity.”
How can we respect nature when we have already brought so many species to (the brink of) extinction? Jonathon Porritt, a politician, activist, professor, author in the green movement since the seventies, pointed out that ten thousand years ago, the ratio of wildlife to humans was 99: 1. Today, there is only 1% of wild animals left, 32% of humans, and the rest is livestock for human consumption.
1990 was a critical year before the World Summit in 1992. If at that time we had begun to progressively decarbonize the economy, we would need only 2% reduction annually in order to remain safe until 2100. By 2010, we reached over 3%; due to inaction, the decarbonization challenge will now be 10% per year by 2020. If nothing is done for another 10 years, the challenge will be 30% a year.
The future threat comes in the following “cascade of collapse”:
- extreme disruption
- partial collapse
- system collapse
Many scientists have understood this since the 1980s. Those such as James Hansen, the “angry scientist,” is still railing against the neglect of all scientific warnings. What to do when you see the iceberg and scream on the Titanic, heading full speed towards doom, but everyone ignores you? We would like to stop as soon as possible on the cascade towards extinction, although we are already in the extreme disruption phase.
It is now clear that in the 1970s and 1980s, CEOs of fossil fuel corporations knew what effect the emissions would have on the climate. By misleading, concealing, and purposefully causing confusion, they made sure that “business as usual” would continue. James Hansen says: If we’re not angry at this, something is wrong with us.
Jonathon Porritt mentioned the book Uninhabitable Earth by David Walace-Wells, a raw and unforgiving text that takes the reader to the edge of despair; to the edge and beyond.
As Christiana Figueres pointed out, the unfolding of events will be completely irreversible. It doesn’t matter what the “Dark House” is deciding since it is impossible to prevent further destabilization of the water cycle. This is obvious, we can see it in all parts of the world. A higher temperature of the atmosphere means higher humidity, resulting in stronger storms and more imbalance in precipitation and temperature. More humidity does not mean that there will be more rain everywhere, it means that the rain will be more erratic and violent and there will be more droughts.
So what to do now?
The global system is not showing any signs that it will slow down its destructive path. On the other side, courageous people are not showing any signs that they will kneel and quit soon. Some are dying, but others are coming behind them. Scientists are bonding with the determination and optimism of both young and old.
Optimism is not the result of success, it is the initial input into the challenge. If you come with pessimism, you’re probably not going to change anything. We have no other choice but to address the problem of climate change, and optimism should be our initial input, not the result of success.
Elders spoke the final words at the conference. Mugove from Zambia encouraged us by saying: “We will live in the world that we want. If we really want it, we will live in the joyful world. If we believe that we can attain it, we will attain it.”