I have always understood that there are a large number of people who believe that climate change as a result of human behaviour does not exist. Whether they truly believe this or whether they have convinced themselves to because to accept the truth is too uncomfortable, I don’t know. But what I didn’t really realise is that there are also people who believe and accept the reality of what we humans are doing to the environment, and aren’t motivated to do anything about it. Sometimes people are aware that climate change will likely cause global catastrophes on an unprecedented scale in ways that we can’t even really foresee yet, but don’t see what they personally can do about it. Or they know that Trump’s election will in all probability be disastrous climate-wise, but the difference between us is that this knowledge drives me to do everything in my power to change, whereas they don’t see the need. What’s happening is sad, yes, and definitely disappointing; it would certainly be preferable if it weren’t happening, but the knowledge that the functions of civilisation are wreaking this kind of havoc doesn’t strike home.
I think part of the reason for this attitude is that people don’t feel a connection to nature or the Earth. The way they see it, technological advances are moving in such a way that by the time things here on Earth start (literally) to heat up too much, we will all be able to just jump ship to Mars. I find this argument difficult to counter; what can you possibly say to convince someone that something matters when they see no inherent value in it? But there are arguments – good arguments – to be made. First, that it isn’t really a safe bet to pin your hopes on the abstract possibility of the dramatic extent of technological advancement that would be required to feasibly relocate Earth’s population, Noah’s-ark style, to another (so far unknown to exist) inhabitable planet. When we live on a perfectly good, beautiful, liveable planet, and there is no certainty – not even remotely – of an alternative, why would we not first try to save the home we already have?
Second, the Earth is not like a chocolate bar. You can’t consume all the goodness inside and then throw away the empty wrapper when you’re done, ‘making up for it’ by going for a run later and washing your hands of responsibility for what happens to the plastic once you put it in the bin. This is symptomatic of our throw-away culture, where everything is disposable, replaceable, and nothing is valuable other than for the money it can be sold for. To me, at least, it just doesn’t work like that. I think this view of the world is a microcosm of the West’s cultural divorce from nature and the ecosystems of which we are, in reality, a part of, not outside of.
Thirdly, and most importantly, this argument is essentially selfish. It’s not simply saying: ‘I don’t see inherent value in the Earth, so when the opportunity someday (maybe) arises to head to Mars, I’ll be on the first ship leaving’. I don’t feel the same way, but I don’t really have a problem with that view. No, what it’s really saying is this: ‘I don’t see inherent value in the Earth, and I also don’t care that you do. I am going to continue to live my life so that those who believe that our planet is worth saving, and who are fighting with their lives to do so, will almost inevitably fail.’ It says to people for whom the land which they live on is a part of the essential make-up of their social, cultural, spiritual and physical self, people like those currently fighting to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from being completed in the United States, and the millions of other indigenous and non-indigenous people for whom nature is not just a resource to be exploited but an intrinsic part of who they are: ‘You don’t matter.’
It is also selfish because the impacts of climate change will be incredibly severe well before the technology is developed enabling anyone to flee to another planet. 2016 has been the hottest year since climate records began, and it is apparent that those who will be worst affected by the effects of climate change will be those least responsible for it and least able to do anything about it. The small island nations which will sink below the ocean like Atlantis (like Kiribati which has bought land in Fiji to enable its citizens to escape the rising seas), the cities and towns that will be swallowed by the encroaching deserts: the lives and livelihoods of the people who live in these places will be irrevocably changed for the worse if we continue as we are.
The argument might then be made that the alternative – fighting to protect the planet and to transform our economy into one that preserves rather than exploits the environment – is contrary to progress, and sacrifices the desires of those whose livelihood depends on, for instance, the oil industry. There is validity to this argument, absolutely, which is why it is so important for governments to support the transition to a sustainable future, so that those employed in polluting industries are able to find other (probably better) employment in sustainable industries.
On the other hand, I think that argument relies on a false dichotomy. The difference between not being able to accumulate even more wealth and not being able to continue to live on your land because it has been turned into a desert or drowned under the rising tides is vast. It is unrealistic to compare being attacked and persecuted for trying to save your only source of drinking water from fossil fuel infrastructure with the inconvenience associated with remembering to take your own takeaway cup to a cafe or reusable bags to the supermarket. The level of sacrifice involved, the rights being breached on either side of the coin are different in orders of magnitude which are barely comprehensible, especially by those of us privileged not yet to have really felt the effects of climate change.
Furthermore, I don’t think it is necessarily the case that a sustainable future involves a ‘stagnation of progress’ or a diminution in quality of life. I don’t particularly want to start a debate about the value of progress for progress’ sake, or of different economic theories, but I do think that it’s a fact often overlooked that investment in and development of sustainable alternatives to current technologies is progress, and that it is likely to lead to a better quality of life for all those involved and affected. One thing I will say is that there is not much value to progress when the result is an increasing proportion of the global population struggling to make ends meet and to continue their ways of life in the face of an increasingly inhospitable climate.
I think the kind of progress we ought to be aiming for cannot be measured in GDP or average income, but rather in things that actually make a difference to the reality of peoples’ lives. Education and the equitable dissemination of knowledge; health – not just health-care but a basic starting point of good health; happiness; work that is fulfilling and stimulating; community support and resilience; food sovereignty – access to healthy and ecologically sound food which is culturally appropriate and which is defined by those who consume it… The list of things that matter more than the paper money is printed on is long, and the items on it more likely to be achieved through an understanding of progress which takes their inherent, non-commodified value into account.
I often worry that there is nothing I can do to make a difference, but if my words can help even one person to see things differently then I will have been successful. Like it or not, we are all in this together. Science-fiction dreams aside, there is currently no way for any of us to get out of here alive. We will survive and thrive together, or we will fall together. My goal in writing this blog is to change the way people see the world and inspire them to act. I want people to understand that the challenges we face are collective, not individual, and I want people to feel included in the fight rather than alienated by it.
The time has come when all of us must make the decision between what is right and what is easy, a decision which is more stark now than ever before. It is easier – more comfortable – to sit back and feel hopeless and small, to believe that nothing you (as an individual) can do means anything. You can ignore the realities of what is happening around the world as I write – as you read – and turn on Netflix and drown it out and hope that somehow, someone somewhere else will do what needs to be done. You can hope that it just won’t affect you too badly. Or you can choose to stand up and fight, to believe that it isn’t too late, and that every action you take is not just a drop in the ocean, but a raindrop that, along with all the other raindrops, is the monsoon that floods the landscape and brings life.