“Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations” by Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.*

Internet shopping; social media; consumerism; celebrity TV shows; fast food; cheap air travel…they have all been a part of our lives for so long that it’s increasingly difficult to remember a time when this wasn’t our landscape. Perhaps that’s partly why it seems to be so impossible to ingest the realities of climate change, and what it means for our society – our hyper-materialism has thrived for decades, and scaling back now seems incomprehensible. Things will change – they are changing already – and experts are telling us in unison that we cannot keep consuming natural resources at the same rate. Still, though, action remains elusive.   

Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations is a brilliantly accessible analysis of the realities of the Anthropocene, and the barriers corporations erect to prevent us from making critically urgent societal changes. In a world which is visibly and dramatically altering as a result of man-made climate change, capitalism remains supported by its trio of carefully constructed, mythical pillars: the idea that we can continue to grow our economies whilst still addressing the climate change crisis; that omnipotent corporations will in fact save us from climate change through technology; and that corporations are essentially citizens of our societies, with a human moral code. As far as corporations are concerned, then, and supported by this mythic infrastructure, climate change need not interrupt “business as usual”.

Successful decoupling (which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) is shown here to be illusory. Capitalism, the authors say, depends on compound economic growth and, as such, the entire model is based on identifying a hierarchy of resources – humans and carbon are essential, whereas other species are expendable. In order to continue in this vein, and whilst society gradually begins to respond to the threat of climate change, corporations have hijacked the highly emotive dialogue around the crisis with stunning results: rather than being a reason to reduce consumption, climate change is being sold to us as  an “opportunity for growth.” It is, in the minds of corporate managers, a quantifiable risk, which is something to be commoditised, controlled, and converted into profit.

As they continue to try to shape public discourse on climate change, major car manufacturers and fossil fuel companies have spent the past few years refining their brands to buy themselves social legitimacy, whilst in the background, creating “an echo chamber of climate change denial” by engaging with the right-wing media, and funding incredibly damaging campaigns. In one section, for example, the authors note that, In 2012, the Heartland Institute, which is funded by the fossil fuel industry, even ran a billboard campaign associating those who believe in climate change with mass murderers, juxtaposing a mugshot of Unabomber Ted Kaczinsky with the tag line: “I still believe in global warming. Do you?” It’s an outrageous, and so far highly successful, hypocrisy.

There are so many fascinating arguments here. In the context of an issue which can seem overwhelming, I particularly liked how the authors focused on the impact this conversation has on individuals – especially those who hold sustainability roles within corporations. In order to function both as an employee and an agent of change, managers cling on to their rational business arguments: specifically, the fact that a greener economy creates exciting space for growth. “Green” arguments are stripped of legitimacy in the board room, but if a sustainability manager can show that recycling is good for business, then she has a chance of effecting change. At home, the same individuals may be passionate advocates for environmentalism, but at work, their arguments need to be tempered by this apparent rationality and corporate loyalty. Wearing these different hats is exhausting, and it also leaves individuals with a lack of identity coherence. We are “meaning-seeking” creatures and like to be able to view ourselves as having integrity. Until acting to curb climate change is recognised in and of itself as being for the public good, without corporate carve-outs, there may be a limit on the number of people who manage successfully to work a response to the crisis into their own personal narratives – which is precisely what is needed.

It is also intriguing and hugely frustrating, that, as Nyberg and Wright say, we happily grant corporations a civic status – they are legal “people” with rights and obligations, and by implication, a supposed moral duty to abide by our societal ethics – but that nature has been denied the same respect. When Christopher Stone argued in Should Trees Have Standing that entities such as forests, oceans and rivers, along with the natural environment as a whole, should be safeguarded through inclusion in the civic sphere, the claim failed because rights for natural objects proved too strange. In short, conferring rights on the ocean seems eccentric, whereas turning companies into “people” is uncontroversial. I was relieved, then, that the authors go on to reference a tribunal in New Zealand which recently recognised a river as a legal entity, echoing analogous initiatives in Bolivia and Ecuador, where constitutional amendments have included specific rights for the environment.” It is entirely ludicrous to confer such a civic personality upon finance-driven corporate structures whilst withholding the same rights from the natural resources we depend upon; particularly when free trade agreements like TTIP  go so far as to give companies the right to sue national governments for adopting environmental policies which threaten their bottom line. Ecocide should surely be made an international crime without any more delay.

This is a brilliant book, clearly and engagingly written, offering fascinating perspectives on a terrifying crisis. For anyone who has already read This Changes Everything, this is a perfect follow-up – and like Naomi Klein, the authors end here with a road-map for change; albeit one which acknowledges how much damage we have already done: Extreme weather events, record heat, the melting Arctic, and acidifying oceans lay bare the folly of advocating “solutions” in the strictest sense. There will be no silver bullet. There will be no heroic, cure-all act of salvation. Our only hope is damage limitation.

People’s March: 28 and 29 November 2015

The climate change conversation has taken on almost cartoonish proportions this week. In the red corner, we have Volkswagen – the car manufacturing behemoth which has admitted to cheating on US emissions tests, thereby producing engines which, according to the BBC, emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US. They have totally screwed up admitted their US boss, but that doesn’t come close to addressing the outrage which has greeted the “diesel dupe”. It now looks as though this may be an endemic issue internationally, that diesel fuel isn’t the good-news story it has been disingenuously offered up as, and that – perhaps unsurprisingly – big business has been fiddling the system in order to avoid awkward environmental regulations. As George Monbiot put it so excellently:

Volkswagen’s rigging of its pollution tests is an assault on our lungs, our hearts, our brains. It is a classic example of externalisation: the dumping of costs that businesses should carry onto other people. The air that should have been filtered by its engines is filtered by our lungs instead. We have become the scrubbing devices it failed to install.

In the blue corner we have the Pope, who has just delivered an unusually political, wholly unambiguous message of support for environmentalists. In a speech given on the White House South Lawn, he talked about an environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature; he quoted Rev Martin Luther King; he told his audience this could no longer be left as a problem for future generations. It was inspiring, timely and brilliant. An allegedly corrupt multinational v. a Pope who has placed the environment very high on his agenda; it’s like a surreal spaghetti western out there – and it really isn’t difficult to pick a team.

This flurry of activity is happening just a few short weeks before the COP21 Paris climate change talks in early December. As Pope Francis intimated in his speech yesterday, we really cannot underestimate the importance of that Conference – it will set the green political agenda for the coming years, and determine how we respond en mass to an urgent global threat.

It will, of course, be the politicians sitting around the table in December, arguing over targets, actions, and global commitments. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t all have our say. Whatever you think of the Conservative Party’s approach to environmentalism – which, for my money, languishes in the “woeful” category – we need to make sure that those delegates have the voices of their countrymen and women ringing in their ears when they make these decisions. They need to know how much we care, and that that they cannot fudge an outcome with something non-binding like the Copenhagen Accord. As Naomi Klein puts it in her extraordinary book, This Changes Everything:

Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.

Climate change is already a crisis – now we need to demand that our politicians do something about it.

In Edinburgh and Cardiff on 28 November, and London and Belfast on 29 November, thousands of people will be turning out for the People’s March, to draw attention to the importance of achieving a strong international climate deal in anticipation of December’s Conference. The Woodland Trust will be there to march for woods and trees, along with the Climate Coalition. They are asking people to join them for what’s sure to be a brilliant day; let’s demonstrate how important this is, and prove that we will be holding our politicians accountable.

11378779_1038273019517394_375182861_n

Articles and blogs referred to:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34324772

Smoke and Mirrors

http://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blogs/woodland-trust/2015/09/march-with-us/

Polly Higgins and Samantha Power

My copy of Polly Higgins’ “Eradicating Ecocide” has now arrived, and it is next on my pile of things to read. In anticipation, I have been exploring the “Eradicating Ecocide” website, and reading about the proposed law – which in brief (i) proposes that ecocide should be considered to be a crime against peace, and (ii) creates an international duty of care to prevent the risk or realization of damage to ecosystems. The idea of legislating for this has apparently been around for decades now, and Polly Higgins’ draft law has been with the UN since 2010. So far, no decision appears to have been made.

In making these early explorations, I was reminded of Samantha Power’s gripping book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide”, which in part charts the tireless campaign of an individual called Raphael Lemkin to make genocide a crime. Though Lemkin (who himself had lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust) first created the word “genocide” in 1943, and though the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide became law in 1951, the US did not ratify the Convention until 1988. As Power explains so vividly, the US prevaricated over the issue for more than forty years, and displayed a continued reluctance to take action when it was needed (including, very famously, over the heinous crimes committed in Cambodia).

I appreciate, of course, that new international laws must be scrutinised with the greatest of care before they are implemented – but as I think back on Power’s words, the sluggishness of Western countries over the issue of climate change seems to have many parallels with the way in which acts of genocide were handled during the last century. In both cases, unjustified delays had the potential to lead to catastrophe.

Power ultimately closes her book with the following – which I think I ought to keep in mind as I begin to read Higgins’ work.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” After a century of doing so little to prevent, suppress, and punish genocide, Americans must join and thereby legitimate the ranks of the unreasonable.

“This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein

“…History knocked on your door, did you answer?”

That’s a good question, for all of us.

Naomi Klein introduces “This Changes Everything” by saying that for many years she simply ignored climate change. It was too daunting, too complex, someone else’s problem – the environmentalists would deal with it. It was during a meeting with Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in 2009. however, that something clicked for her – huge swathes of the world’s population were suffering as a result of a problem they had not contributed to. She realized that it was irresponsible to look away, and that the only way this vast global issue would be escalated in to a crisis was if ordinary people started treating it like one: “Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.”

I’ve been absolutely guilty of treating climate change with this kind of denial and, whether deliberately or not, I have been looking away. Of course I’d see the pieces in the newspaper about how much coal has been burned in my lifetime, or the UN’s latest paper on the impact of our dependence on fossil fuel – occasionally I’d even read the article, and panic, and donate some money to Greenpeace. But I’d very soon comfort myself with the idea that the campaigners were dealing with it, and the vague notion that our governments couldn’t really let us reach a point where the damage was irreversible or permanent – if we can put a man on the moon, then we must be able to find a way to deal with all the carbon in the atmosphere before it’s too late. Two pages into this book, though, and I knew I couldn’t carry on like that. Notwithstanding Klein’s highly accessible style, I suspect the force of my reaction was in large part due to the fact that this is the first book I have ever read on the subject. Newspaper headlines, with their justifiably terrifying statistics and screaming warnings, are sometimes too overwhelming to focus on for sustained periods of time. “This Changes Everything,” though is calm and steady – it drip-feeds facts with Klein’s intensely personal and intelligent voice, so that the effect is cumulative rather than simply being paralysing. And something about that snapped me out of my apathy – I think it would literally be impossible to read this book and fail to be hit between the eyes by its message.

So, the facts. I cannot even begin to do justice to the force and detail of Klein’s argument here, but in essence what I took away was this. At the UN Climate Summit in 2009, a controversial decision was made to set a global warming safe-limit of 2-degrees Celsius. We will without doubt reach that limit in the coming years, and the consequences will be dramatic. However, as Klein says, even the 2-degrees limit currently looks like a utopian dream. Governments all across the world are failing to legislate for this, or to take the kind of dramatic action which might make the 2-degrees level attainable. Instead, because of our insatiably consumerist way of life and the West’s comprehensive failure to tackle this issue head-on, it looks as though we are heading towards a four or even six-degree rise by the end of the century. Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has said that a four-degrees rise “is incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilised global community.” In other words, the world our grandchildren will inherit will look dramatically different to the one we are living in now.

The added complexity is that this has all become apparent at a time when our capitalist economy is at its zenith. Through the free-trade impetus of the 1980s, Western politicians have created a web of trade treaties which prioritise international commerce above everything else. In one stunning example of the impact this is having on the green movement, Klein explains that in 2010, Ontario tried to kick start its own green program (described by Al Gore as the “single best energy program on the North American continent”) by legislating in such a way as to give local co-ops and indigenous communities a chance to benefit from the manufacture of items like solar panels. Essentially, Ontario tried to combine its green revolution with a bid to rejuvenate its faltering manufacturing sector, and the program was going brilliantly until the EU and Japan challenged Ontario’s new legislation, saying that they considered the local content requirement of the initiative to be in violation of World Trade Organization Rules. Ultimately this meant that a promising new green energy initiative was scuppered, because Europe and Japan thought it was more important to make some money from the program than to allow the province to galvanise the initiative by empowering local manufacturers. It is the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.

Free trade aside, the fossil fuel industry is also now so obscenely wealthy that it has immense political clout – in 2013 in the US alone, “the oil and gas industry spent just under $400,000 a day lobbying government and congress officials, and the industry doled out a record $73 million in federal campaign and political donations during the 2012 election cycle…” How are local (and very often poor) communities at the raw end of the new mania for fracking supposed to tackle that? (Indeed, one of the things Klein does so well is to demonstrate how this is absolutely transcends politics, and not just because of the scale of the problem. Of course, many of the environmentalists’ solutions (like those set out by the UK’s Green Party) are traditionally “left wing.” However to my mind this is also the essence of the traditional conservative ideal of self-determination – why on earth should an oil company be able to frack in the village you love if the entire community is opposed to it?)

So – now that I am finally looking, it is obvious how far-reaching and omnipresent this issue is. Since I started reading this book a couple of weeks ago: I have discovered that students, alumni and academics at both Oxford and Cambridge are currently campaigning for the universities’ endowment funds to divest from fossil fuel; UK Oil and Gas has found what it thinks amounts to 158 million barrels of oil per square mile in Surrey; Shell has won a temporary restraining order which bars Greenpeace and its activists from boarding, barricading or interfering with the movement of the drillship Noble Discoverer, the drilling rig Polar Pioneer or the heavy-lift vessel Blue Marlin; and I have found out that a hugely inspirational lawyer called Polly Higgins has proposed an Ecocide Law into the United Nations. There is even an article on the BBC website this evening saying that in 50 years time, “The classic fish and chips enjoyed by previous generations could be replaced by the likes of sardines and squid, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.” The effects of climate change are everywhere, yet as the major political parties slug it out in anticipation of the election in a few weeks’ time, the lack of engagement with the problem is palpable.

Naomi Klein’s message is that it is down to communities to tackle this now. Governments have failed us, eccentric billionaire philanthropists have not delivered their promised solutions, and the fossil fuel industry shows no signs of slowing down. Cultural shifts throughout the ages have been driven by the determination of grass-roots movements – as Klein says, abolitionists, feminists, and civil rights activists kick-started the revolutions which have changed the shape of our societies. That is what is needed now, and I intend to participate in any way I can. Not just because the statistics are frightening, but because, as Klein says so beautifully, the possible upside of the climate change nightmare is that it may just prompt society to adjust some of the enormous inequalities which have fuelled the problem for the past three hundred years.

I started reading “Walking the Woods and the Water” earlier today – Nick Hunt’s modern day recreation of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s extraordinary journey across Europe. On p.13, Hunt writes, “The glimpse I had of Rotterdam was almost as brief as Paddy’s own – he walked on at once, pausing only for eggs and schnapps – but the continuity between our two cities was absolutely severed. The Rotterdam of the Middle Ages has been blasted into the realms of fairytales, and the new reality of McDonald’s and Lush, Starbucks and Vodafone had rushed to fill the vacuum. The destruction seemed less an act of war than apocalyptic town planning, a Europe-wide sweep of medieval clutter to clear the way for the consumer age.” Whether or not you feel an instinctive political interest in climate change and the culture which is apparently feeding it, that kind of language must cut to the quick of anyone who has luxuriated in the descriptions of PLF; Laurie Lee; Stella Gibbons; Gerald Durrell….So much of our literary history is bound up in the charms of the natural world. How can we fail to protect that inheritance now?

This Changes Everything