Is Earth Screwed? Scientist Says Yes, and He's Not Even Talking About the Outcome of COP18

Talk about great timing: COP18 is over, after two weeks of the usual brinksmanship bargaining adding up to virtually nothing worthwhile (if the goal is still to actually come up with a political deal to combat climate change).

And now, as io9 reports, we have scientific data proving something that many TreeHugger readers, climate change politics watchers, biodiversity wonks, anti-deforestation activists, consumer culture critics already probably know, or at least fear, deep down in their hearts: Earth is fucked.

Don't blame me for lack of decorum in using such language—and frankly, if you convinced that a bit of cussing is the worst problem we've got, the biggest sign of impeding civilizational collapse, you've come to the wrong shop—it's straight from the title of a recent talk at the annual American Geophysical Union conference.

Brad Werner, a complex system researcher from UC San Diego, really did attempt to scientifically answer the question if we've really fucked up the Earth. His conclusion is that yes, "more or less," we have.

Werner places the blame on a combination of modern capitalist consumer culture prioritizing short-term profits too highly over any sort of long-term stability. Werner says:

What happens is not too surprising: The economy very fast chews up the environmental resource, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in significant economic damage.

That's hardly a novel idea in environmental circles. But it's in how to solve the situation that disagreement is likely to arise.

Werner comes down on the side of revolutionary resistance: "Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists, and other activist groups."

As in, there's no more time to rearrange the deck chairs on this sinking ship.

Which brings this all back to COP18 and two weeks of talks on redecorating. What actually came out of COP18?

The Kyoto Protocol got extended—even though the world's biggest emitters want no part of it. We still have gotten no scientifically meaningful commitments to reduce carbon emissions from any nation that actually is part of the problem—even though if you listen to nations like the US and Canada, in astoundingly typical bits of Orwellian doublespeak, so much has already been done. We did get text on Loss and Damages into the whole thing—in everyday speak, the notion that high emitting nations have an obligation, both ethical and financial, to pay for damages caused by climate change in other nations. It's actually a hugely big deal, especially that it got approved even though it looked like the US would hold it all up. The devil will no doubt be in the details on that one though. As if there aren't a whole pantheon on devilish details at the COPs.

The thing is, as George Monbiot so eloquently wrote in a piece for The Guardian in the middle of the talks, to rectify our current environmental problems we need to do far more than simply try to deal with the details of capitalism, specifically with neoliberal capitalism—which, it needs be said, too much of the modern green movement seems content on doing— and the associated political power structures.

Monbiot concludes:

Neoliberalism is not the root of the problem: it is the ideology used, often retrospectively, to justify a global grab of power, public assets and natural resources by an unrestrained elite. But the problem cannot be addressed until the doctrine is challenged by effective political alternatives.

In other words, the struggle against climate change – and all the crises that now beset both human beings and the natural world – cannot be won without a wider political fight: a democratic mobilization against plutocracy. This should start with an effort to reform campaign finance – the means by which corporations and the very rich buy policies and politicians. Some of us will be launching a petition in the UK in the next few weeks, and I hope you will sign it.

But this is scarcely a beginning. We must start to articulate a new politics, one that sees intervention as legitimate, that contains a higher purpose than corporate emancipation disguised as market freedom, that puts the survival of people and the living world above the survival of a few favored industries. In other words, a politics that belongs to us, not just the super-rich.

This is a large part of how, as the t-shirt says, we unfuck the world.

The other part is coming to grips with the fact that, to quote Barry Boyce, writing in Mindful, we need new ways of thinking to deal with systemic problems like climate change through creating a post-capitalist economy that doesn't depend on unending growth through consumption of finite and depleting resources and a race to the bottom in wages and work standards for its existence.

I won't go through all the examples that Boyce gives of ways in which we can start thinking in new ways, please read the original, but the starting point for getting to the new is abandoning the idea that simply tweaking capitalism, greening it slightly, even internalizing all the externalities (like carbon pollution) into prices, is enough.

We can't do the same old thing, but better, Boyce says. "We have to go beyond the approaches that got us there in the first place."

Many readers may note that is a paraphrase of Einstein, talking about how to solve problems. It's also the opposite of the pop psychology definition of crazy. Phrased in the reverse, we have to stop doing the same things, tinkering with the capitalist economy, turning the buttons and pulling the levers, and expecting different results. It's the system itself that's the problem, not how well it's calibrated.

Before anyone screams Communist! and runs out of the room, note that communism is essentially a radical calibration of the same unsustainable, outmoded growth-above-all-else economic thinking that spawned capitalism. It's just a change in ownership, planning and distribution, not a truly different way of thinking about resources, the natural world, and humanity's place in that.

I have to admit I don't yet have a detailed answer to how we create this new way of thinking, this new economy, this new natural relationship.

But I do think Boyce is on the right track when he concludes, about all the different viewpoints he presents:

What I find striking is how close their view is to the core Buddhist principle of interdependence, the teaching that there are no self-sustaining, permanent, inherently existing entities; that everything emerges as part of a great web of interlocking relationships. [...] To get us our mess requires more than an intellectual understanding of what's wrong and what's right with civilization. Mindfulness-awareness meditation allows us to quell the anxious roiling of our mind and to see the world and ourselves in all of their slow-creep splendor. [...] Working with the mind through such practices reveals connectedness and unlocks caring and compassion, the very driving force of positive change.

This has to be the underpinning of the resistance Werner talks about; and the the new political order than Monbiot mentions. This has to be the core of the new economy. Three Cs then: Connectedness, caring, compassion.

Is Earth Screwed? Scientist Says Yes, and He's Not Even Talking About the Outcome of COP18
We now have scientific data proving something that many TreeHugger readers, climate change politics watchers, biodiversity wonks, anti-deforestation activists, consumer culture critics already probably know, or at least fear, deep down in their hearts.

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