The State of the World. Status: Freaking the F*@k Out

Warning: if you don’t like swearing, too fucking bad because I’m too angry and terrified and frustrated to censor myself today and if you’re not as angry and terrified and frustrated as I am you should probably read what I have to say.

If you’re not panicking about the state of the environment, you fucking should be. If you don’t think it’s that bad, it really fucking is. If you don’t believe me, I recommend you read thisthisthisthisthisthis, and if you’re feeling really brave, this. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave us 12 years to plug all the holes in this giant sinking ship. So that’s eleven left now. And the IPCC is consistently overly optimistic in its predictions about the scale and speed of change. Why? Lots of reasons. Here are three possible explanations. First, could it be because of the persistent existence of climate denial as a somehow valid position, which means that climate science is held to extra high standards – it has to be completely bulletproof to be able to be published? Meaning that likely scenarios without screeds and screeds of evidence are simply left out? Second, because major research bodies like the IPCC rely on technological advances that do not yet exist, and are unlikely to be invented and scaled in time, to ease the so far hypothetical transition to a post-carbon world. Third, because the climate and our ecosystems are complex systems. There are so many interconnecting factors, some of which we know nothing about, and change within these systems is non-linear and extremely hard to model or predict. Which basically means, one plus one very rarely equals two. It could equal four. Or eight. Or four hundred and fifty. But most science in this area for a very long time has relied on one plus one equalling two.

So, it’s pretty likely that we have much fewer than 11 years to get our shit together. In fact, it’s an inescapable truth that we’ve already locked in a lot of death and destruction and misery already, and what we’re fighting for now is to minimise the suffering of as many people as possible. Under some scenarios, what we’re fighting for is to prevent the actual extinction of the human species.

This week, an Australian think-tank released a report with what they consider a likely scenario for 2050 based on current progress on climate change and existing available data on climate trends. The authors (one of whom used to be an oil executive – for once a credential lending more, rather than less, credibility to the research…) cite data that shows even if we meet current commitments under the Paris Agreement, when taking into account positive feedback loops (i.e. when a change to the environmental system triggers even more change – like melting ice caps creating more dark surface area which absorbs more of the sun’s heat which melts more ice…etc.), the world is on track for 5°C warming by 2100. The result they predict is essentially widespread death and destruction in the most vulnerable parts of the world – containing the most marginalised of the world’s population today, and total civilizational collapse across the globe as our societies are unable to cope with the magnitude and speed of the changes because we didn’t wake up in time. Problems with the article aside (e.g. apparent endorsement of/by the military without reference to the need to eliminate the military-industrial complexconsidering the quantities of fossil fuels consumed by that particular institution), their emphasis on the real risk of near-term civilisational collapse is valid and important. And they aren’t the only ones making that point. The guy who established that we were destroying the ozone layer with chlorofluorocarbons says we have five years to do something. An MIT climate scientist has predicted, based on the IPCC’s projections, that the amount of carbon humans will have added to the oceans by 2100 will cause a mass extinction(if we’re not already in one). Because, as established above, the IPCC is almost certainly too optimistic, it seems not unreasonable to expect this could happen earlier.

Things are bad. Really, really bad. And news flash, folks: being a model recycler or perfect at zero waste isn’t gonna save the planet. Refusing to fly won’t do it. Neither will eating less meat, or cycling to work or taking shorter showers or turning off the lights when you leave the room. I’m not saying that those things are bad, or that you shouldn’t do them if you’re able. Please do. But they’re not even close to enough. And pretending they are the primary solution, that it’s the fault of ordinary, often marginalised, people for not doing enough as individuals that we’re in the position we’re in, is wrongMary Annaise Heglar describes it as “victim blaming”.

The fact is that our entire system – the economy, our society, the way our cities are designed, our culture based on consumption and consumerism – all of it– is based on, built on, and dependent on, extracting and burning fossil fuels. It is almost impossible to be alive in the world, in western society at least, and not participate in that system unless you bow out completely and retreat to the countryside to live off the grid, entirely self-sufficiently, as an environmental recluse. If that’s you… good for you, but that isn’t going to fix the system for the other 7.7 billion of us.

So what does work? Fundamental system change. Shutting down the fucking fossil fuel industry. Demanding better, more, faster and fairer from our leaders and then holding them to it. Not asking politely. Demanding. Where words fail, actions speak. Total system change is the only way to avoid complete climate apocalypse and the end of not only human civilisation but the countless other plants and animals who are being wiped out by the current system. And we need it now. Not tomorrow. Not in 2050. Not even in ten years. If the governments and powerful elites of this world wanted to take their time with a nice, slow, easy transition, they should have started thirty fucking years ago. It’s too late for that now.

When I say system change not climate change, it’s not just a fun hashtag. What do I mean by it?

  • I mean, let go of the pursuit of GDP growth. It’s failing everyone and everything but the handful of wealthy people at the very top. Replace it with the pursuit of environmental and human wellbeing. Learn the value of the appropriate scale of things, of dynamic stasis.
  • I mean, understand that the linear model of the economy (extract, use once, throw ‘away’) is doomed and instead implement the infrastructure for a circular economy. Reuse, reuse, reuse.
  • I mean, let go of the idea that humans are fundamentally and solely selfish and out for maximising their own benefit no matter the cost to others and the planet, and foster societies that thrive on cooperation and empathy.
  • I mean, make a rapid transition away from a fossil-fuel-based economy and transform it into one that runs on renewable energy. Make the transition a just one, one that understands that livelihoods that will need to be made elsewhere. Make sure that when you eliminate jobs in the fossil fuel sector, you are creating better jobs in other parts of society – in renewable energy, in care, in education, in environmental protection, in agriculture.
  • I mean, replace exploitation of people and nature with mutual respect.
  • I mean, rise up against a culture that defines us based upon how much we consume, how much we take, and transform it into a culture that defines us based on how much we can give, how well we participate.
  • I mean, stop blaming overpopulation for the problems caused by the overconsumption of a small fraction of the people who live on this planet.
  • I mean, learn, as a society, to take our time and to accept that we can no longer support a world where strawberries are available in the middle of winter and everything can be delivered next day to our doors at the click of the button. We need to understand that more stuff is less valuable than a habitable planet and a fair society.
  • I mean, let go of the drive for ever greater efficiency and the valuation of people based on their productivity, their output. Understand that our obsession with work is contributing to the climate crisis.
  • I mean, stop trying to control the lives and bodies of others and instead ensure the means for everyone to control their own lives and bodies.
  • I mean, remove systematic barriers to participation for all but the wealthiest few. Enable, empower.
  • I mean, understand that agriculture and the environment should work in harmony. Let go of the misguided assumption that increased production is necessary to feed the world. Practice regenerative agriculture. Heal the soil. Treat the land and the animals and people who work it with respect.
  • I mean, understand that while our goals may be global, our implementation must be local. I mean there is no one size fits all answer to what the next systems will look like.

The world is a frightening, frustrating, fucked up place right now: to live in interesting times truly is a curse. But wish as we might to have lived in another time, in another world, this is the time that we have been given. We must make the most of it – we must do what we can to fight.

Here’s a few ways you can fight:

  • Join your local chapter of Extinction Rebellion or a similar protest movement that is demanding wholesale change to the system.
  • Remember that individual behaviour changes are not enough. Protest the fossil fuel industry. Oppose all fossil fuel extraction. Advocate for alternatives.
  • Join your local chapter of Extinction Rebellion or a similar protest movement that is demanding wholesale change to the system. So important, it bears repeating.
  • Get involved in an organisation that articulates or works on building the next system. It’s not enough to be against. We need a vision of what we are for.
  • Don’t accept anything less than commitment to zero carbon as early as possible. 2050 isn’t soon enough. Demand better.
  • Lobby your representatives. Hell, become a representative and make the changes yourself.
  • Learn what you can. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Keep looking. Keep your eyes open.
  • Talk about it. With your friends, with your family, with your colleagues, with your neighbours. I know this stuff is scary. I’m afraid every single day. But it’s only by facing the truth, and grieving for the futures we won’t have, that we’ll find the impetus and the courage to act.

Kia kaha. We got this.

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