Climate change is in the news. The fact that this is notable in itself is a travesty, but it’s promising that we seem to be there at last. People are on the streets, demanding not some abstract ‘peace and goodwill’ but rather their own future survival. Anyone from across the political spectrum can surely get behind that. Without exaggeration it is a matter of life and death, and now that is being shouted from the rooftops. We have reached a crunch point, a decade or two too late perhaps, but we’re here now. There’s momentum and it must be maintained.
The danger now is that the powers-that-be say they’ve got the message, people accept this and relax, and then nothing really changes. Saying that change is needed is the starting point, but it’s not enough. The Extinction Rebellion placards in London and all around the world display slogans like, “Rebel for Life”, “End the Fossil Fuel Crisis Now”, and “System Change not Climate Change.” Yes! So true! But then we go home, we sit down, and the inevitable question pops up: how?
The UK movement does have tangible demands: for the government to claim a climate emergency, for the nation to become carbon neutral by 2025, and for the formation of a Citizens’ Assembly. But even in the unlikely event that the government agrees to these demands, for the individuals on the ground, there suddenly seems nothing left to do. But for environmental action to become prominent, it has to become habitual. Complacency is dangerous.
One option is to keep on doing what the moderately eco-minded have traditionally focused on, but that hasn’t worked great so far. The time for separating recycling and switching off your phone charger and claiming you’ve ‘done your bit’ is over. The stats are in, and it’s clear that such token efforts will take us nowhere near the level of change that is needed. Yet for the average Westerner it remains startlingly easy to keep on doing what we’ve always done, with little to tell us that this might not be a great idea.
The truth is, people won’t change if the status quo remains cheaper, more convenient or socially acceptable, not unless climate change is literally knocking at their door, and by then it’ll be too late. We can humbly change ourselves and go vegan, forsake flying and all the rest of it, but we will remain a minority. This approach probably will change society to some degree, but only slowly. Sure, consumer power exists, but it’s not the mighty force that some seem to think. To make most people change their consumption habits, we have to present them with an attractive alternative, and that involves deep systemic change.
But that’s not going to be easy. The capitalist system that we live in doesn’t really have the flexibility to allow it at all. This system has become entrenched over decades, centuries even, and we have become wholly reliant upon it. It is also the system that has allowed us to develop, to innovate, to increase our life expectancies. It’s not all bad. But then, there is a fair amount of evidence that it keeps poor people poor, that it makes people unhappy, and that it positively encourages the accumulation of wealth and status at the expense of others, and — most of all — it doesn’t plan ahead.
So it’s capitalism’s fault, right? That’s what’s caused this mess? It’s probably not wholly useful arguing whose ‘fault’ it is unless we can offer a better alternative. We can’t just dismantle capitalism on our lunch break and improvise from there. Perhaps the biggest flaw in modern-day protests — and, by extension, the ideology behind them — is that they tend to focus on what we don’t want. We don’t want climate change, we don’t want to leave the EU, we don’t want to go to war with Iraq. It’s the same old story.
When we think about the protests that historically have made a difference, it’s those that imagine a positive future — not just the extirpation of a negative one — that made a true societal difference. Suffragettes, civil rights activists, the ones that envisaged a better society and also provided a game plan for how to achieve it, they were the ones that succeeded. “I have a dream,” said Martin Luther King. No mention of a nightmare. We can’t just fight against what we don’t like; we have to fight for something, too.
So, what are the alternatives? What is this ‘better world order’ we dream of? This is the realm of political philosophers, many of whom have spent their life’s work envisaging a fair and sustainable society. Most systems that have been tried out have principally failed for the same reasons that capitalism has so far succeeded: human greed and prioritisation of short-term gains. The blueprint for a system that accounts for this apparently unavoidable selfishness, whilst somehow avoiding destruction and inequality, is hugely complex and I could not begin to cover it in this article. Sorry.
But what we can think about is where to start. A solid set of foundations can be used to build any number of structures, after all. We need to change things fast, or we’ll run out of time. But we also need to change things slow, or we’ll create chaos which will naturally create resistance. There’s a fine balance. Sowing the seeds of anarchy will only alienate the masses — it’s not the way forward. Nor is just gently encouraging people to think about cycling to work or maybe stop eating quite so much beef. So where to begin?
Politicians are the sticking point currently. The science is unequivocal, as are most of the policy thinktanks. Yet for a variety of reasons — vested interests, following the path of least resistance and just plain old ignorance — this doesn’t often filter through into actual political decisions. Instead they just more-or-less carry on as they always have done. Generally, the response to this is a few gripey articles in some newspaper, a half-hearted petition and maybe — if you’re lucky — a quick debate in Parliament before deciding to carry on as normal anyway.
This can change. The school climate marches and the Extinction Rebellion protests are a symptom of the times, a sign that people are frustrated and hungry for something brighter. More and more people are realising that politicians are consistently breaking climate targets (which in themselves are way too conservative) with no repercussions. Now, the repercussions are here: us.
We can’t just tell governments to stop doing things. People know a lot more about the negative effects of climate change than they do about the positive ways we could address them. This includes politicians. We need examples of positive action.
What about campaigns for generously subsidising renewables? For environmental taxes on fossil fuels and the polluting corporations (or at least stop subsiding them)? For being more ambitious with our legally binding national carbon budget? These all remain under the wing the capitalist system, but they’re getting closer to the edges and don’t make politicians freak out so much. It’s a bit trickier to think of catchy slogans for these issues, but with a bit of thought I’m sure we can manage. Tax rhymes with fracks, after all.
Pessimism comes easily. It’s simpler, even (whisper it) more stimulating, to imagine a dark future; think about the number of fictional dystopias compared to utopias. Optimism, substantiated by feasible solutions, is a lot more challenging to envisage, especially in the short term. How could next year be better than this one? What about next month? Focusing on the bigger picture is all well and good but we need to have a clear path of how to get there.
Now it’s time for the next step, to begin this process of change. We must provide positive incentives to make people change the way they live. In the Western world we are extremely fortunate to live in democracies which, despite their flaws, aren’t altogether separate from the will of the people. By telling politicians clearly what is needed to ensure our future, we can get this message across. We have a voice; we must not squander it.