Why we won’t respond to climate change

I let a passenger down yesterday.

I’m going through a particularly rocky transition at the moment, with woefully inadequate financial resources, so I’m back doing the Uber and Lyft thing, which pays abysmally, but in a weird way manages to keep me barely afloat. I was in the East Bay yesterday, initially to get my car inspected so I could resume doing this so-called ‘ridesharing’ driving, but then to make what money I could—fast.

One of my passengers in Berkeley was a physicist. Like a lot of people in the Bay Area, she’s unhappy with what all that has been happening in the world, particularly with Donald Trump in power. Somehow we got onto the topic of climate change.

I have downloaded and archived the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report[1] but not yet reviewed it—it looks like a pretty dense read. She hadn’t read it either but was meaning to. So we’re both relying mostly on headlines in mass media about the report which, it appears from those headlines, is pretty much in line with what I’ve been saying, privately at least, for years.[2] This is pretty much that we have a very short time to accomplish massive social change to avert catastrophe.

I said I had all but given up paying attention because it was so clear we would not respond.

She asked if this was because 1) we would not believe climate change science, 2) policies would not be based on the science, or 3) people would cheat on any regulations that were imposed. I admired her list. Honestly, I couldn’t have come up with it myself. I said, all of the above.

None of her listed reasons for our failure are good reasons. They are venal reasons and I think they are true reasons. Taken together, they amount to one—only one—damning indictment of who we are as a species.

I recalled what Joel Federman had said to me in the first year of my Ph.D. program (probably in 2012) when I asked him about whether humans were fundamentally good or evil. He replied that humans fundamentally have a range of potential to be either or both or, most likely, anywhere in between.

I would layer onto Federman’s suggestion that this range is substantially constrained and influenced by our (insane[3]) society. Which is to say that an adequate response to climate change will involve social change, not just in the usual senses of power relationships, including those we have with non-human animals and the environment, but of our culture itself. This reaches where vegetarian ecofeminism leads: Our entire attitude about how we treat everyone and everything around us must change from one of domination and exploitation to one of harmony, cooperation, and compassion.

Which brings us back to the problem I began confronting in my first Ph.D. program (the one I had to withdraw from before getting into the one that I ultimately completed). This is about how we change our species, really, to be what we desperately need to be.

I’ve never found an answer to that question. There are multiple problems, beginning with that of persuading a diverse multicultural population of over 7 billion people and including how we avoid replacing one set of thugs (the ones currently in power) with another.[4] And what I have concluded is that societies don’t change, certainly not within the time frame we face with climate change, except organically, that is, by their own growth and development,[5] or through extreme violence.

My passenger had been hoping for reason for optimism. I couldn’t offer it to her.

  1. [1]Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5 °C (draft), June 4, 2018, http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/
  2. [2]This is based in part on a combination of my understanding of General Systems Theory with Fred Pearce, With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate change (Boston: Beacon, 2007). Also see David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2013/03/06/we-have-found-enemy-and-he-us-and-our-system-social-organization
  3. [3]Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (1956; repr., Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).
  4. [4]From an anarchist perspective, the problem of replacing one set of thugs with another is most vividly how Marxist-Leninism failed: See Emma Goldman, “There Is No Communism in Russia,” in Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, ed. Alix Kates Shulman, 3rd ed. (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 1998), 405-420. As with the Soviet Union, violent revolution has consistently failed, even when it ever attempted, to eliminate authoritarianism. Rather, it may produce structural changes and it may change who is in power, but not the authoritarian relationship itself.
  5. [5]I read somewhere that culture is not something kept under glass in a museum case, but rather something alive, developing and growing. It changes as the people of each new generation reinterpret its traditions. I have been kicking myself ever since for having failed to highlight that passage. My searches for it have failed.