By Robert J. Burrowes, New Age Islam
19 November 2015
As expectations build for a global
consensus to emerge from the United Nations climate conference in Paris,
starting on 30 November 2015, that could agree to taking action to limit any
rise in global temperature to 2 degrees celsius, I would like to explain why
these expectations are misplaced. And what we can do about it.
The essence of the problem is that most
people and organisations are asking elites to take action on their behalf
rather than taking action themselves. Not only is this a fearful and powerless
approach, it reinforces the widespread delusions that elites have the power in
this regard and that they are responsive to our pleas. Neither of these is
true. We have the power and elites only respond when we create the
circumstances that compel them to do so. And not otherwise. Hence, it is the
action that we take, as individuals, communities and organisations that
generate the outcomes we want.
As a nonviolent activist, I have never
asked elites (or their governments and corporations) to change their behaviour.
Instead, I have invited them to respond powerfully to circumstances that I
create that compel change. If I invite others to participate in the action I am
taking and enough do so, elites have no choice but to act as I prefer. Let me
give some examples to explain this.
If I want corporations to stop producing
genetically modified (GM) food, the most powerful action I can take is to never
buy it. If I only buy certified organic/biodynamic food and enough other people
do so, then the market in GM food (and poisoned foods generally) will simply
vanish. So if you don't want GM food, don't lobby elites for food labelling,
just buy the certified organic/biodynamic food already available or, better
still to enhance your self-reliance, grow organic food in your own backyard or
in a community food plot. Then invite and/or campaign for others to join you.
The same principle applies to the climate.
The science is overwhelmingly clear that it is our over-consumption of fossil
fuels and meat that are the primary drivers of the climate catastrophe. So the
most effective action we can take to tackle the climate crisis is to change our
lifestyle to consume less (and preferably no) fossil fuels and less (and
preferably no) meat. And to then invite others to consider doing so too. If
there is less demand for fossil fuels and meat, you can rest assured that
corporations will not be anxious to supply them because it is not profitable to
supply a product for which there is no buyer.
This principle applies to all areas of our
consumption where we need to make an impact if wider environmental problems are
to be addressed. We need to reduce our water consumption, use less paper, wood
and plastic, consume fewer metals and use less electricity.
So we can spend our time lobbying elites to
legislate to force others to change their behaviour or we can systematically
reduce our own consumption in these areas and invite/inspire those around us to
do the same. If you would like to participate in one comprehensive program for
doing this, you are welcome to join those participating in 'The Flame Tree
Project to Save Life on Earth' http://tinyurl.com/flametree which offers an
easy series of steps for reducing your consumption in seven key resource areas
by 10% per year for 15 successive years while simultaneously building your
In essence, if you lobby elites to control
our consumption for us by making changes in what (or how) they produce, you are
asking them to violate the economic law of supply and demand. If you
change/reduce what you want, any sensible company will alter their production
to match it (or eventually go out of business).
If you want your electricity from a
renewable energy source, organize to produce it yourself at home or in your neighbourhood,
or buy it from a responsible supplier. If you want less burning of fossil
fuels, reduce your own consumption, for example, by using your own car
progressively less and, as you adapt (by staying nearer home or finding other
ways to travel), eventually not at all.
Corporations produce what sells and is
profitable. If you shift your consumption to healthy food, renewable energy and
sustainably produced goods, while steadily reducing your consumption and
increasing your self-reliance, you will create the world you want both through
your own actions and your inspiration of (some) others.
If this sounds unrealistic, the strategy I
have described above is Gandhi's. Gandhi never asked anyone to do anything he
wasn't already doing himself. And by a century ago, his personal consumption
was pitifully modest, even by Indian standards of his day, and he was highly
self-reliant, exemplified by his daily spinning of Khadi to make his own
clothing. If he could dramatically reduce his personal consumption and develop
his self-reliance 100 years ago, how much can you do today?
But let's get back to Paris. Why will the
climate talks fail? There are two primary reasons. On the whole, the
corporations that have the most adverse impact on the climate (and environment
generally) are not yet feeling anywhere near enough 'consumer pressure' to
change their behaviour adequately so, irrespective of the rhetoric some of
these corporations will utter in various international fora (and despite any
claims of corporate progress that are being made), they will resist any change
that does not reflect reality in the markets in which they operate.
Moreover, the proposed corporate 'trade
agreements' (such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Free
Trade Agreement) are designed to fundamentally subvert governments – see
'Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement: A Corporate Power Grab'
– and, if adopted, they will render governments largely powerless on
environmental issues (among other awful outcomes). See 'Text of the
But this is precisely why we have a lot of power too. It takes time and effort
– and we are always battling against their corporate media trying to manipulate
us into buying what they want to supply – but, in fact, we can influence most
markets enormously (by altering and reducing what we buy).
The other reason that the climate talks in
Paris will fail is because the goal being considered is delusional. Anyone who
is seriously interested in tackling the ongoing climate catastrophe knows that
tolerating a 2 degree increase (which, tragically, may well be 'locked in' already) is far too high. The
maximum increase in temperature that is consistent with the environmental
conditions of the Holocene period, on which human civilization is based, is
less than .5 of one degree.
We are currently at a mere .85 above
pre-industrial levels and we are already experiencing climate chaos as our
record temperatures, storms, floods, wildfires and droughts, monster
hurricanes, vanishing Arctic, Antarctic and glaciers, and disappearing Pacific
islands remind us. What do you think we can expect if we go to 2 degrees? And,
inevitably, precipitate 'runaway climate change'; that is, activate a variety
of positive feedback loops that reinforce and accelerate ongoing environmental
breakdown. Which leads to a related point.
Another trap with the focus on 2 degrees is
that it draws our attention away from the synergistic impact of our combined
assaults on the environment including those unrelated to the climate. These
include the devastating assaults on the environment through military violence
(often leaving vast areas uninhabitable), rainforest destruction, industrial
farming, mining, commercial fishing and the spreading radioactive contamination
from Fukushima. We are also systematically destroying the limited supply of
fresh water on the planet which means that water scarcity is becoming a
frequent reality for many people and the collapse of hydrological systems is
now expected by 2020. Human activity drives 200 species of life (birds,
animals, fish, and insects) to extinction each day and 80% of the world’s
forests and over 90% of the large fish in the ocean are already gone.
Despite this readily available information,
governments continue to prioritise spending $US2, 000,000,000 each day on
military violence, the sole purpose of which is to terrorise and kill fellow
human beings, while struggling to find the modest resources necessary for any
number of valuable initiatives, including those related to environmental
In any case, we have just become obsessed
with talking about '2 degrees' because it was the target nominated in early
studies published in the 1970s, became anchored in policy debates over the
decades, and 'was officially sanctioned as the long-term global goal for
greenhouse gas emission reductions at the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009'. See
'Two degree Celsius climate change target "utterly inadequate",
In fact, 2 degrees is far too high and if you are reading the scientific
literature, many scientists are telling us that. For example, in 2009 Johan
Rockström, James Hansen and colleagues explained that three of nine interlinked
planetary boundaries – in relation to climate, biodiversity loss and
biogeochemical cycles – have already been overstepped. See ‘A safe operating
space for humanity’ http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v461/n7263/full/461472a.html
However, reminding people that 2 degrees is
far too high doesn't make good 'business as usual' reading so it isn't part of
the primary discourse leading up to Paris. And on this count, regrettably, we
are being badly served by many who regard themselves as 'activists' too.
This includes those people organizing and
participating in those many events for activists being held in Paris in
parallel with the UN talks. I am well aware that it is exciting to travel to an
exotic location to share stories and participate in events with others who
share your view and to discuss plans for tackling the climate catastrophe.
However, unless you are travelling to Paris by walking or cycling (as some will
be doing), you are simply contributing to the climate catastrophe, particularly
if you travel by aircraft or car. There are other ways to organize which set a
far more appropriate example to those we are trying to influence.
So, in essence, those who are scared and
powerless will either do nothing or they will waste their time lobbying elites,
and their governments and corporations, to change (without applying the market
pressure that compels corporations to respond 'automatically'). And climate
marches (and other events) that focus on lobbying elites, rather than
mobilizing 'ordinary' people to change their own behavior, are badly
misconceived because they do not understand nonviolent action and how to use it
to leverage power effectively.
On the other hand, if you are fearless and
powerful enough to respond to reality, do some research of your own and then
take personal action and invite your family, friends, neighbors and community
to join you. If you want a simple framework for powerful action to tackle all
environmental problems, 'The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth' will
give you one.
In addition, if you want to take nonviolent
action, don't waste your time on those wrongly-focused climate marches (unless
you are using them to raise awareness of effective campaigns). Instead, plan
and participate in locally-organized, strategically-focused nonviolent
campaigns that mobilize 'ordinary' people to act differently on a permanent
basis and which alter the behavior of corporations, including those (such as
the weapons manufacturers) which function outside markets we can influence by
using our purchasing power. For some idea of what this requires, see 'The
Political Objective and Strategic Goal of Nonviolent Actions'
If we alter and systematically reduce our consumption and focus our nonviolent
action campaigns accurately, elites will be compelled to move in the right
direction. They will not do so otherwise.
One final point. Another 'denial tactic'
that has been used effectively to distract many people from the urgency of the
environmental crisis in which we now find ourselves is to talk about
'mitigation' and 'adaptation' and to dismiss talk about human extinction as
premature because we have until mid-century or even the end of the century.
However, once again, if you read the scientific literature carefully, some
highly reputable climate scientists are warning us of the rapidly narrowing
timeframe, with 'near term human extinction' now possible by 2030. See 'Why is
Near Term Human Extinction Inevitable?'
So be aware of the ways in which your own
fear let you be deceived about unpalatable realities.
And remember the lesson from Gandhi: If you
are not willing to reduce your own consumption of environmental resources, why
should anyone else?
In essence: forget Paris and get on with
saving the planet yourself. You have vast power if you choose to apply it
locally and strategically.
Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending
human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to
understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist
since 1981. He is the author of 'Why Violence?' http://tinyurl.com/whyviolence
His email address is email@example.com and his website is at
“And by a century ago, his
personal consumption was pitifully modest…”
I could find the reference to Sarojni Naidu’s quote: India paid a huge price to
keep Gandhiji in poverty.