The Parisian streets have emptied of journalists and activists, the negotiators are back in their capitals, the circus has left town. There was euphoria that the politicians of the world actually managed to come up with a climate change agreement at the COP21 meeting this month, but how does the deal now look in the cold light of day? And, more particularly, how does it look in the light of Dark Mountain – has it averted the great civilisational unravelling predicted by many, or is it merely another straw in the gathering wind?
Paris, the basics
Let’s first of all quickly review what happened. The COP21 meeting in Paris was the 21st ‘conference of parties’ to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It resulted in a potentially legally-binding consensus agreement by the majority of the world’s governments or their representatives, which included the commitment to hold the global average temperature to ‘well below’ 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels and to ‘pursue efforts’ to limit it to 1.5 degrees C. At least in that sense it represented an improvement on previous COP meetings such as the notorious COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 which failed to produce any legally-binding consensus agreement.
But as ever the devil is in the detail, and in fact there’s little detail in the agreement as to how this daunting ‘well below 2 degrees C’ is to be achieved. The first stumbling block is that ratification is required by at least 55 of the larger signatory countries, which isn’t necessarily guaranteed. Probably more important is the fact that the main driver for mitigation identified in the agreement are the voluntary ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) to which countries have committed themselves, which won’t be reviewed until 2020 and which the agreement acknowledges are insufficient to hit the 1.5–2 degrees C target, itself a worryingly high level of warming to concede. In the case of important countries such as China and India, these INDCs are proportionately tied to the size of the economy, so may not even involve absolute reductions. And there are many omissions from the agreement such as aviation, shipping, and ‘polluter pays’ compensation from the high emission countries of the global north which are probably least likely to feel the major effects of climate change to the low emission, high impact countries of the south. Perhaps the most striking omission is that the agreement doesn’t once mention the key driver of climate change, fossil fuels. Its pages witness the eclipse of the ambition to ‘keep them in the ground’ with the better resourced ambition to keep on drilling.
I won’t further analyse the detail of the agreement, which others have already done better than I can. But I’d like to consider reactions from environmentalists and long-term climate change activists – generally one of dismay at the weakness of the deal, albeit tempered with sweet surprise that there was any deal at all. As George Monbiot put it, ‘By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.’ The New Internationalist called it an ‘epic fail on a planetary scale’ – a failure to catalyse immediate and drastic emissions reductions, a failure to provide support for transformation, a failure to deliver justice for impacted people, and a failure to focus on effective action rather than false solutions.
But other respected activists were more upbeat. 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben wrote that ‘the world has set itself a serious goal’, but only if we ‘decisively pick up the pace’. Continuing in this racy vein, he added ‘In fact, pace is now the key word for climate. Not where we’re going, but how fast we’re going there. Pace – velocity, speed, rate, momentum, tempo. That’s what matters from here on in […] no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane […] But the question, the only important question, is: how fast.’
This is a very different kind of language to the one McKibben used in his 2010 book Eaarth, where he wrote:
We’re so used to growth that we can’t imagine alternatives. At best we embrace the squishy sustainable, with its implied claim we can keep on as before. So here are my candidates for words that may help us think usefully about the future:
These are squat, solid, stout words. They conjure a world where we no longer grow by leaps and bounds, but where we hunker down, where we dig in. They are words that we associate with maturity, not youth; with steadiness, not flash. They aren’t exciting, but they are comforting – think husband, not boyfriend.(1)
I won’t second-guess McKibben’s motives for his post-Paris return to youthful ardour, but I’d like to note the insidious way in which the addictive personality of the growth society is sublimated in it. In Eaarth McKibben tried to dispense with the idol of growth and the problems it causes such as climate change, only to reach out for it again after Paris in the need to rapidly grow the means for combating climate change. Of course, growing the capacity to dispense with fossil fuels isn’t the same as growing the economy. But there are affinities in its reductive, bottom-line thinking. Because for McKibben, rapid growth is all that matters. It is ‘the only important question’.
McKibben will find plenty of opinion-makers ready to agree with him. Academics Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein, for example, have written ‘climate change must transcend ideology. A particularly pernicious form of denialism is the conceit within the political left that we must cure longstanding social ills such as inequality, corporate greed, racism, and political corruption along the way to dealing with climate change […] Whatever you think of such goals, and we agree with many of them, they must not distract us from the priority of preventing catastrophic climate change.’
Pinker and Goldstein go on to outline the need for ‘Apollo-program levels of commitment’ to publicly-funded research into technological solutions such as nuclear power, batteries and carbon capture. The Apollo programme has certainly been one favoured metaphor in the techno quick-fix firmament. Another, I think more telling one, is war.
Various writers have advocated or explored the metaphor of a ‘war’ on climate change (2). The aspect of war they generally highlight is concerted, high-cost and high-tech, government-directed effort aimed at a single goal. An aspect of war typically ignored in these treatments, but implicit in McKibben and Pinker/Goldstein’s articles, is simplification of goals, perhaps even silencing of dissent or diversity. Greenhouse gas concentrations are the only things that matter – all else is at best a distraction, at worst connivance with the enemy. Another aspect of war typically ignored – except, to her credit, by Caroline Lucas, Britain’s only Green MP, operating way behind enemy lines in a Daily Telegraph article – is the egalitarian levelling and self-sacrifice of the civilian population. Think food and petrol rationing for all regardless of income, dig for victory, neighbourhood pig clubs, subsidised flour, civil defence, air raid wardens etc.
Transposing the World War Two metaphor to the matter in hand, perhaps you could argue that traditional greens emphasise this levelling, down-to-earth, community-based, Dad’s Army approach, whereas the Pinker/Goldstein or ‘ecomodernist’ position resides at the Bletchley Park, Manhattan Project or Bomber Command end of the spectrum. Predictably, in the aftermath of Paris, battle lines are already being drawn around the two perspectives. Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes writes of a ‘new form of climate denialism’ involving the claim that only nuclear power, and not renewables, can address the energy transition (it’s funny how ‘disagreement’ is so often rendered as ‘denialism’ on all sides of the climate change debate). The nuclearphiles she identifies include celebrated climate scientist James Hansen, who argues that nuclear power – especially next generation nuclear power – is uniquely scalable, ‘can power whole civilisations’, and can decarbonise existing fossil fuel electricity generation at a minimum build rate of 61 new reactors a year to 2050.
Let’s leave aside the question of how feasible it is to achieve rapid climate change mitigation right now with next generation nuclear technology, and questions such as global nuclear affordability in the aftermath of COP21’s refusal of the rich to compensate the poor, and ask some other questions – starting with whether nuclear power can, or should, power whole civilisations. At present, it doesn’t come anywhere close. France, the poster-child for a nuclear future, generates 92% of its electricity from nuclear or renewables, amounting to nearly 1.7 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs), but still consumes 5.8 quadrillion BTUs of fossil fuel energy. It needs shouting from the rooftops that a decarbonised electricity supply is not the same as a decarbonised energy supply.
‘The climate issue,’ Hansen and his colleagues conclude, ‘is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking’ – one of the few conclusions with which doubtless almost everyone can agree. Unfortunately, we can’t all agree on where that wishful thinking lies. Here’s my candidate, presented in the form of a graph of actual global energy production from 1980 to the present and projected forward to 2050 on the basis of the kind of nuclear and ‘leave it in the ground’ future energy scenarios identified as necessary for climate change mitigation (3).
The thin orange line up to the present represents existing nuclear capacity, sitting atop the thick blue wedge of our present fossil fuel dependency. If the actual situation in 2050 resembles the projection in the graph, with its magically expanding orange wedge of nuclear, then in the next 35 years humanity will have achieved an energy transition (4) orders of magnitude beyond anything previously imagined let alone achieved in world history – and it will have done so on the basis of the weak injunction from COP21 to slowly tighten INDCs after 2020. That, to my mind, is the wishful thinking. Hansen’s 61 new reactors a year is way off the pace.
A typically forthright ‘below-the-line’ comment on Oreskes’ article opines, ‘The notion that the emissions problem can be solved with dinky little community schemes is just ideology that dovetails nicely into an only slightly modified business as usual. It’s energy la-la land’. I find it difficult to disagree. But I also think the notion that the emissions problem can be solved with massive international high-tech schemes is, as dramatised in the graph, energy la-la land in much the same way. People seem caught in a high-energy ideology that prefers to dwell upon implausible decarbonising transitions of pathological ‘optimism’ rather than sober appraisal of the alternatives. I’d argue that we should stop deluding ourselves about how we might decarbonise the supply of energy, and start thinking more about how we might de-energise the supply of human wellbeing.
I’d guess that that last sentiment might resonate with Dark Mountain enthusiasts, whom I suspect would more likely associate increased human wellbeing not with an increase in clean energy but with a decrease in total energy availability, if perhaps a more evenly distributed one. I’d guess too that for most of us, unlike for Bill McKibben, the pace of decarbonisation is not the only important question. At issue here is partly a range of other problems which are wholly or partially independent of climate change – habitat and biodiversity loss, other forms of air and water pollution, loss of cultivated diversity, deforestation, overdriven water use, the mining of soils and minerals, not to mention social justice and the burden of human diseases. More importantly, these are surely all symptoms of a deeper malaise connected to the ways that we relate economically, socially and spiritually to other people, other beings and other things, and they will not be fundamentally remedied by building another 2,000 or another 20,000 nuclear reactors. At best, such decarbonisation programmes may buy time for people to conjure less homicidal and biocidal ways of life before catastrophic climate change puts such niceties out of reach. But I doubt it, because it would rest on the same technocratic, top down, alienated models that underlie the current predicament. A world producing 700 quadrillion BTUs of ‘clean’ energy may solve some problems, but it will elicit other modernist monsters.
If I were to paint myself in a single hue, I suppose I’d be at the light green end of the dark green spectrum. So I might be persuaded by the likes of Bill McKibben or James Hansen that the climate crisis is so urgent that we need to deploy all available techniques to address it, possibly including nuclear power. But I agree with Dark Mountain’s principles of uncivilisation, and in particular with its rejection of the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’. Although written in the different contexts of the struggles against racism and homophobia, I find Audre Lorde’s words apposite here,
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change […] Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here.
In the present context, we are our own masters, and we may need to dismantle the house of carbon with the tools that built it in order to temporarily beat ourselves at our own game. But, if we do so, at the same time we need to be reaching down to a different place of knowledge in order to overcome the terror lurking within the unreflective modernist project of civilisation, its fear of death, its dreams of domination, in order to build something less pompous and less ultimately timid. I’ve seen nothing in the official pronouncements around COP21 or in the ‘go nuclear, job done’ language of the ecomodernists that makes me think they’re remotely interested in this. So I’m drawn to Dark Mountain’s principles of uncivilisation – which I see not in terms of anti-civilisation, or non-civilisation, but uncivilisation as a verb, a project of rigorous cultural self-critique – as vital to any lasting effort to address climate change. And thus I’m drawn to the solid lexicon of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth more than to his speedy post-Paris avatar.
So I’d like to conclude by coming back to the Paris agreement and considering whether it’s created any new openings for uncivilised subversions of the mainstream agenda it represents. It’s not much to work with, but perhaps the agreed aim of limiting the temperature to 1.5 degrees C above industrial levels is something. As Martin Lukacs puts it,
The first task is to never let the richest governments forget their rhetoric. Did you say 1.5 degrees? Repeat it back to them as they return to licensing the mines, mega-dams, and monocultures that will render even their paltry emission targets impossible.
So the first plank of my uncivilised response to Paris is to suggest that people pursuing their varied projects of ‘uncivilisation’ can now justify them more boldly within the master narrative of the agreement along the lines suggested by Lukacs. Did you say 1.5 degrees? Then why are you obstructing my efforts to protect this woodland, establish this local smallholding, advocate for this indigenous group? In the short term, I doubt such struggles will encounter any less bureaucratic resistance after Paris than before. But Paris may have helped to firm the soil of the wider political culture just a little around attempts to plant alternatives to the business-as-usual political economy. And as the gap between the words of the agreement and the deeds of the governments that signed it grows year by year, perhaps projects of uncivilisation that hitherto seemed impossibly fringe to mainstream thinking may find more receptive audiences.
But only if the ideological simplicity of the war narrative is overturned. There will be many, like Pinker and Goldstein, demanding that in times of crisis like these no-one can be permitted to rock the boat. Climate change mitigation will be presented as too urgent to admit to democratic oversight, too important for other challenges to the political culture to gain traction, and too complex for anyone but specialists and technocrats to be allowed to have opinions about. So, secondly, I think this war narrative will have to be resisted fiercely by people who are prepared to be ‘uncivil’ in the directly vernacular sense. Their uncivility might take many forms and organise around many issues, but in essence it will be saying: No, your technocracy got us into this crisis, and even if we need some technocracy to help us out of it we’ll be watching you vigilantly, and you will not placate us with your leave-it-to-the-experts rhetoric. You will not position us as ‘climate change denialists’ because we disagree with your technocratic agenda. You will not sideline us by maintaining that the speed of decarbonisation is the only important question. We may find room for agreement with you, but not if you try to steamroller your own contestable agenda as the only tenable one.
Finally, and perhaps a little at odds with the preceding one, an uncivilised response may involve learning the subtle arts of subversive civility from ‘uncivilised’ peoples. The iron cage of modern bureaucratic civilisation is a curious mixture of confrontational political style neutered in practice by endless procedural ceremony. The politics of less ‘civilised’ peoples often involves, by contrast, a style of infinite decorum overlying a crafty impetus to get things done. So I think there may be scope for people to nudge their way towards their projects of uncivilisation in their capacities as local councillors, school governors, employees, students, third sector activists, local volunteers and all the rest of it. In fact, while I’m focusing on the politics of war, it’s worth remarking how Britain’s wartime coalition government was filled with left-wingers who quietly took advantage of the war’s let’s-all-pull-together narrative to pave the way for a redistributive postwar welfare state, while allowing Churchill to steal the limelight as their bellicose old imperialist figurehead. Might it be possible, now that COP21 has recognised that climate change is a “common concern of humankind” which must be addressed mindfully towards such rights as health, local communities, and intergenerational equity to likewise build alternative worlds within the citadel of technocratic civilisation?
(1) McKibben, B. (2010). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Times Books, pp.131-2.
(2) See, for example, Rao, V. ‘Why solving climate change will be like mobilizing for war’, The Atlantic, 15/10/15 http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/10/why-only-a-technocratic-revolution-can-win-the-climate-change-war/410377/
(3) Data from http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm. Main assumptions in the projection: (i) growth in energy production by a factor of 1.25 2012–2050; (ii) fossil fuel energy sources phased out by 2050; (iii) hydro and other renewable electricity generation doubled 2012–2050; (iv) biofuels constant production 2012–2050; (v) remainder of energy produced by nuclear electricity generation
(4) Two energy transitions, actually – from fossil fuel to electric, and from mostly fossil fuel electric to non-fossil fuel electric.
Chris Smaje works a small mixed farm in Somerset and blogs at smallfarmfuture.org.uk. He’s written on environmental and agricultural issues for publications like The Land, Permaculture Magazine and in Dark Mountain: Issue 6, and also in academic journals (Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems; the Journal of Consumer Culture; the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture). Trained in anthropology and social science, he previously worked at the Universities of Surrey and London.
Image: ‘Tour Eiffel IMG 2159’ by Deror avi