By Eric Lindberg: 21 Stories of Transition and the Great Imagining: Why Transition Matters

I’m slowing working my way through the catalog of Eric Lindberg who I recently discovered and who is a wonderful thinker and writer.

The excerpt is one of the best descriptions I’ve read on why we’ve made zero progress towards mitigating climate change…

It is easy—perhaps too easy—to fault our official leaders with cowardice and inaction.  But when we send national representatives to an international global warming summit, they are sent with an impossible mandate:  protect our national privilege (or increase it), preserve our way of life and our every expectations for increased material acquisition, maintain the economic growth required to keep national banking systems intact—oh yeah, and cut domestic carbon emissions (but not more than others nations are willing to cut theirs).

We blame our leaders for their shortsighted calculations.  But part of the reason these climate agreements fail to make meaningful change is simpler than is generally acknowledged, and lives, hidden and unseen, in both the hearts and homes of nearly every citizen of advanced economies and industrialized democracies.  It is about what we want, expect, and demand.  It is not possible to maintain our way of life, maintain economic growth, and cut carbon emissions.  Nor is it possible to engage in competitive statecraft and reduce the burning of fossil fuels.

There is, then, a crucial nugget of truth, largely ignored in the mainstream press, in what we have gotten from Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, and probably Paris: a sustainable future requires a contracting economy, a slowing down of production, and a broad curtailment of individual consumption.  If our leaders presented us with this, they’d be hung by their heels in the village square.  We want our leaders to cut global carbon emissions; but we also want a way of life that only fossil fuels can deliver.  Until we understand the contradiction and begin to untangle the complexities of a transition to a low energy way of life, we should not expect too much from our elected governments.

Consider, as a sort of mental exercise, what would happen if we were to switch off the fossil fuels and run on available renewables as of today: as it turns out, we’d have to reduce our consumption by about 90%.  That means getting rid of 90% of what you have and 90% of what you do and where you go.   Develop these renewables at a plausible rate, on the one hand, and reduce our atmospheric carbon emissions at a meaningful rate (the one at which we and other large mammals may survive at a robust level), on the other, and we’re looking at a 75% reduction in economic activity over the long and permanent run.   We might quibble about the exact figures; but there is no question of running our current, competitive, growth-dependent, and leisure-based way of life without the use of fossil fuels—those same fossil fuels that will kill us off if we cannot kick these habits of competition, growth, and, leisure in the form, mainly, of consumption.[ii]

Sure, we hear the promises of “sustainable development” and “green growth.”  The abiding faith—or is it the lack of any plausible alternatives?—is that we can take our current systems of production and distribution and plug them into a new (sustainable and consequence-free) fuel source with only minimum disruptions.  But, at the same time, international carbon-cutting agreements are rejected for one, and only one, reason: that they will hurt our economies, slow down the rate at which we make, buy, and sell goods.  These agreements will force compliant nations to lose their competitive advantage to nations that don’t comply.

We may like the idea of an international climate agreement, but we probably wouldn’t like consequences of a meaningful one.  And so our leaders give us a watered-down and face-saving compromise.  Our way of life and our national power and prestige, it turns out, is fossil fuel based.   We can’t have it both ways.  “Your money or your life,” Barbara Kingsolver once quipped, “is not supposed to be a rhetorical question.”  But that, in effect, is the decision we have to make, but have been unwilling to accept.

And this excerpt is an excellent description of why both conservatives and liberals are contributing to the lack of action…

Social psychologists have wondered at the resistance of many conservatives in the Anglo Saxon world to the science of global climate change.  What force of denial could lead to the dismissal of undisputed science?  The conclusions of this psychological research tell us something very important about belief and social and political change in general.  The greatest source of conservative denial is not, as some would have it, based on their inability to accept the scientific evidence.  Rather, it has to do with a more general picture about how the world works and should work that conservatives hold dear.   As Naomi Klein has suggested, if conservatives “admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.”[iv]

Liberals, in contrast, have (as conservatives like to point out) been arguing for decades that we need to manage our economy more vigorously.  The idea of an international agreement whereby governments cap carbon emissions and invest public money in renewable energy is not only acceptable to many liberals, it actually represents a form of progress that liberals have been hoping for all along, with liberal economists like Paul Krugman naively arguing that a renewable energy revolution is just what we need to spark our economy and ignite another century of economic growth.  To put this another way, using another term from social psychology, while liberals tend to like the solutions (as they conceive them) to climate change, conservatives have a distinct case of solution aversion, which is strong enough to taint any associated scientific evidence  So repugnant is a solution that threatens the sanctity of the market that they can’t bring themselves to accept that there is a problem in the first place.

This same dynamic can, surprisingly, be seen in the same liberals who are celebrating the idea of international climate agreements.  Although they are jubilant at the prospect of investing public money in clean energy or fashioning a “New Deal” based on energy transformation, their disposition turns sour—and even downright nasty—when these same anti-denialists are confronted with the possibility that wind turbines and solar panels will not be able to replace the power (and the economic growth) we have enjoyed from fossil fuels.  Regardless of the data and mathematical evidence, these same critics of conservative climate deniers often reject any  notion of the limits of renewable energy on the very  face of it, supposing (I can attest first hand) that anyone who even suggests such a possibility must be an enemy of humanity itself.

Part of this incredulity has to do with the liberal faith in continued progress, the power of human inventiveness, and the overriding hope that all people might one day be freed from kinds of difficulties and indignities that the middle class European and American lifestyle seems to afford.  Part of it has to do with most middle-class people’s dislike of a solution in which middle class comforts and privileges and white-collar skillsets play a decreasingly central role.  That we might become more agrarian and less automated or more interdependent and less autonomous, that traditional inhibitions on the freedom of consumption might have some sense to them after all, that Silicon Valley might be turned someday into pasture—all this  strikes many a progressive as the height of defeat or regression into a dark past.   Progress has always (or for a few hundred years, at least) meant the transition from agriculture to industry, and from industry to some largely imaginary global technological post-industrialism.  Few are prepared to embrace an international climate agreement that threatens this trajectory—which, it turns out, a meaningful limit on carbon emissions would, in fact, do.

I am tempted to say that liberals, like conservatives, are suffering from solution aversion; but I think we are dealing with something even more fundamental than that.  It is not so much that they (like just about everyone else in industrial society, liberal and conservatives alike) would not accept a solution that involves the powering down of industrial society; rather, for most, this is simply unimaginable.  If we can’t live with current levels of comfort, convenience, choice, mobility, and leisure, we may just as well give up.  Only a plan that promises increased industrial development and lower carbon emissions is, according to this view, conceivably acceptable.  No such plan exists, nor can it.  Industrial development and sustainability are incompatible, the liberal faith in green growth notwithstanding.

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