Can we Stop Accelerating Climate Change by Creating a Transition Society?
Justin Kenrick 29.12.2007 - 3,666 words - email@example.com
What would a society which has halted climate change - a society which ensures the well-being of all people, species and ecosystems - look like? What would the transition to such a society look like? Would it, for a start, require a radical rethinking of what it is to be human, and therefore of what is socially and politically possible?
The strategy outlined here is provoked by the scientific finding that climate change feedback loops are accelerating at previously unthinkable speeds; it is provoked by the much repeated argument that we mustn’t scare people with this science; and it is provoked by the belief that in extraordinary times, extraordinary things can happen.
The suggestion being made here is that we have to ‘tell it as it is’, tell people about:
(i) The ecologically accelerating impacts of climate change, and also about
(ii) A clear political strategy to stop this accelerating drive to extinction.
The political strategy being suggested here involves:
(i) Supporting communities to undertake the Transitional Initiatives evident in, for example, community land buy-outs and in projects to reassert local and sustainable livelihoods in place of our current dependence on oil;
(ii) Building alliances between these and similar Life Projects throughout the world, through which people are seeking sustainability and autonomy;
(iii) Creating a Transitional electoral alliance to create a Transition Society: an alliance of those who are willing to face up to accelerating climate change, and willing to build alliances to protect and enable localities to refuse short-term exploitation in favour of long-term well-being.
In a nutshell, current ‘affluence’ is built on transient and fast diminishing supplies of oil. In effect we each depend on the equivalent of 40 ‘oil slaves’ (we depend on oil doing the work of 40 humans) to get, make, produce, sell, transport and dispose of the necessary and unnecessary stuff we use. A Transition Society would discard unnecessary production, and would make necessary production co-operative and sustainable. It would support initiatives which reject economic growth as an end in itself, and would reject its manufacturing of unsustainable affluence for some, unbearable impoverishment for most, and accelerating climate change for all.
Ecological Collapse, or why it is Rational to be Scared:
(i) that accelerating feedback loops are kicking in climate change decades earlier than previous scientific models had suggested (e.g. an ice free Arctic summer was predicted by 2070, then 2050, and now by 2013);
(ii) that it may take the prospect of extinction to motivate people to get rid of a system which is killing people, species and ecosystems now; and
(iii) that this prospect may be paralysing people into supporting corporate-led climate change ‘solutions’ which deepen the social and ecological crisis.
Accelerating climate change feedback loops are evident: in the Arctic, which was predicted to be ice free in summer by 2070, then by 2050 and now by 2012; in the Amazon and Southern Europe, where drying out forests are vulnerable to devastating fires; and in the weakening of the planet’s carbon sinks – especially the Southern Ocean – to absorb our carbon pollution. Meanwhile we are persuaded that only economic growth can meet our needs. Growth of 3% a year translates into a doubling every 23 years of the use of the fossil fuels which overpowers the ability of the soil, the forests, the oceans and the air to absorb CO2. At the same time the corporate competition driving this economic growth can only increase its profits by further exploiting social and environmental systems and disregarding the consequences. The responses to climate change by corporate compliant governments are the latest examples of this disregard. Here the focus has shifted from denying climate change to promoting carbon trading, something which does not reduce the CO2 going into the atmosphere, but turns it into a tradable commodity. The focus is also on maintaining the so-called ‘carbon sink’ forests of the Global South so that economic growth can continue unchecked, while justifying Global players appropriation of local peoples’ forests and livelihoods.
Transitional Movements, or why it is Rational to be Hopeful:
(i) that in managing these resources sustainably, many of these same local peoples demonstrate the viability of Commons systems of meeting human needs that are not based on scarcity, competition and amassing profit, but on ensuring that all have sufficient socio-ecological security to enable them to flourish as creative social beings.
(ii) that the rise of a powerful Global movement of movements is opposing corporations and governments suicidal “business as usual” mentality;
(iii) that this movement draws inspiration from Commons systems of meeting local needs which refuse domination by extractive outside forces.
Such attempts to create, maintain or extend local resilience, take inspiration from many indigenous peoples’ Life Projects based on Commons systems in which people share decision-making over land use and political structures. These range from the Zapatistas autonomous zones in Mexico, to Cree regaining self-governance in Northern Quebec, from crofting communities regaining land rights in Scotland, to villagers holding out against the ‘developers’ bulldozers in Bengal:
“Life Projects are about living a purposeful and meaningful life. In this sense, their political horizons cannot be located in the future, just as living in the present cannot be put on hold in pursuit of a future goal. . . Life Projects have no political horizon; they are the political horizon. They are not points of arrival, utopian places, narratives of salvation or returns to paradise. They are the very act of maintaining open-endedness as a politics of resilience.” (Blaser 2004: 48)
In such Commons systems, local people control and determine resource use. The starting point is not a system of competition over resources made scarce by that very competition. Instead, it is a system based on commons sufficiency, in which resources are assumed to be abundant, and are made abundant by ensuring that all people and other species (all ecosystems) have sufficient to meet their needs and to ensure their flourishing. This ‘commons thinking’ is based on working to ensure sufficiency and abundance, on the notion that my well-being depends on your well-being, and on the assumption that solving problems involves working to restore relationships of trust rather than seeking to impose solutions on others.
Moving towards a society based on Commons sufficiency, requires recovering a commons way of thinking and relinquishing the dualistic problem solving approach that underpins capitalism and non-egalitarian systems in general. Several questions follow from this:
- How do we make the transition from a system in which problems are made worse by the way solutions are imposed – imposed by a supposedly superior realm on a supposedly inferior realm - to a system that no longer divides the world into superior and inferior realms?
- How do we move towards a recognition that development workers, police, doctors, social workers and teachers are entirely dependent on others poverty, criminal acts, ill-health, social problems and supposed lack of education? How do we recognise that the ‘other’ is not a problem to be solved, but is part of a relationship that needs mending, one that includes the intervening professional as much as the ‘other’. For example, how do we recognise that ending poverty in Africa does not require the supposedly ‘superior’ wealthy and educated ‘West’ to intervene with charity, but requires the ‘West’ to stop building its wealth on forces of extraction and domination that impoverish Africa?
- How do we move from a system which depends on creating scarcity and insecurity, to one in which sufficiency and security are grounded in the ability to respond to fear and lack by rebuilding relationships of trust? How do we create a society in which the other’s problem is seen as arising from a mutual world, and in which solutions are sought through dialogue and engagement?
A Commons approach recognises the rich resources available to us by starting from ensuring the well-being of locality, and the well-being of others in their localities, rather than by starting from deepening insecurity, scarcity and devastation through pursuing abstract economic growth, which is always at the expense of human and non-human others. “Communal use adapts land, water and work to local needs rather than transforming them for trade and accumulation” (Lohmann 2005: 20). In the sustenance economy “satisfying basic needs and ensuring long-term sustainability are the organizing principles for natural resource use” (Shiva 2005: 18). Life Projects are coming into focus not only through standing out as a force to be reckoned with in the Global South and North, but also through their ability to build alliances through which to wrest political space from corporation controlled governments. This is evident in the way indigenous people have moved to take control of national governments in places like
The State: The Missing Level in Addressing Climate Change?
In order to stop the processes that are driving climate change, and driving human and ecological impoverishment in the present, there is clearly a need to both continue building global alliances and to continue building initiatives that reclaim localities from the ground up. However, both of these approaches miss the middle level of action that we need to urgently engage in if we are to make the space for communities to take back control of their lives, and for such global alliances to mature into an interlinking network of initiatives, which can ensure sufficiency and abundance for all. This middle level is that of nation state governments. A state is a body which is seen as having a ‘legitimate’ monopoly on violence (in other words, other similarly coercive bodies recognise it as having a similar right to themselves), and the supposed legitimacy of such bodies is crucial to enforcing the unequal system of property ownership on which their power depends, and which provide the framework for the continuing appropriation and devastation of our social and ecological fabric. Such a property system is challenged by communities taking back control of their lives. For example, it is challenged by the possibility of urban land reform, of extending to urban communities the right to own and manage resources that are brought back into local common ownership.
So, how could we manage to make the transition from state supported systems of capitalist appropriation to locality supporting systems of commons sufficiency? How can we make the transition to life projects which can enable us to leave the remaining oil and gas in the ground? How can we refuse to be taken in any longer by the processes so central to capitalism (advertising, commodities, etc) that manufacture wants? How can we begin to look at the money in our hand not as a blank slate on which to write our desires, but as the outcome of social and ecological processes which need our attention? How can we refuse to be taken in any longer by processes so central to state control (education, media, etc) that manufacture fears? Can we reclaim socio-ecological security through reclaiming the state framework so that it no longer stands in the way of expanding local networks built on dialogue and creativity, which can enable us to meet our needs and ensure our collective well-being?
Although such a political strategy needs to be based on bringing together the best in the Global Life Project movements (as described above) and in the Socialist and Green movements (as described below), a political strategy like the one outlined below can be embraced not only by those for whom the nightmare alternative makes it a realistic vision, but also by those who see it as completely unrealistic! The logic of “Be realistic, demand the impossible” is that to achieve even a moderate change in a seemingly implacable system – for example, to achieve a mixed economy in which corporations have to abide by the triple bottom line of ensuring environmental, social as well as shareholder benefit - we need to make powerful political demands that force an implacable system to compromise out of fear that the radical alternatives being forcefully proposed, might seize peoples imaginations and seem more realistic than the nightmare currently created by the implacable system. In our current context: state and corporate fear of the radical social change which their inactivity in the face of climate change might bring about, could make them act to curb CO2 emissions in practice rather than just in rhetoric; just as, during the Cold War, Western states and corporations had to accept the creation of social democratic, and even welfare states, out of fear that people would insist on an even more radical alternative.
So, how might a political strategy combine the best in the Socialist and the Green traditions with the Life Projects described above?
Socialists see the human suffering caused by capitalism (the pursuit of profit as an end in itself). They are very clear about the ultimate cause of the ecological crisis. However, their understandable focus on the impoverishment of the many can mean they mistakenly see the solution in terms of the state taking control of the same process of economic growth to enable increased production and a redistribution of material wealth, rather than recognising that it is not the scarcity of commodities that is the problem, it is the structures of inequality central to the process of producing and consuming commodities which drives human and ecological impoverishment.
Greens see the environmental devastation caused by industrial growth, itself the corporate expression of the profit motive through the destruction of nature. They see the environmental devastation caused by material accumulation, itself the individual expression of this pursuit of profit, where ever-elusive security is sought through the acquisition of more wages, more possessions, and more status. However, their understandable focus on the ecological crisis can lead them to mistake the problem as being peoples lifestyles, industrialisation and alienation from nature, rather than see all of these as outcomes of systems of domination, and in particular of capitalism’s inherent process of breaking up and remixing inter-relationships (ecological processes and human activity) into commodities to be bought and sold for profit, which is not an end but the beginning of another cycle of profit maximisation.
The need is to bring together a Green focus on the exploitation and destruction of human and other ecologies (the destruction of otherwise infinitely self-renewing interconnected ecological localities) with a Socialist focus on the capitalist process of exploitation and accumulation that is driving that destruction (driving it through the redirection of human creativity into further exploiting and destroying the relations that constitute our socio-ecological reality).
This requires the development of an understanding that challenges dominant ideas of who we are, builds resilient interlinking localities, and calls the bluff on state power:
(i) Rethink who we are as humans: including freeing our aspirations, imaginations and strategies from the confines of capitalism and the domination thinking that gave rise to capitalism and is perpetuated by it.
(ii) Reconfigure what is socially possible: including through modelling Transition communities based on the practices of commons sufficiency.
(iii) Reclaim the political space: including through building alliances that reject the insatiable economic growth of capitalism and that hold the political space open for the transition to sufficiency.
1. Ideological – Rethinking who we are as humans:
(i) Rethinking political and social systems based on the creativity of humans. Distinguishing who we really are as human sentient beings from the impoverished form we are forced to take under non-egalitarian systems, and especially under capitalism. Rejecting the mode of human interaction that assumes that my well-being depends on the exploitation of others, and instead, reasserting that my well-being depends on your well-being.
(ii) Establishing a relational understanding: In place of the win/lose ideology of competition in the market/ education/ etc, we need a recognition that causing others to lose, destroys the basis of mutuality and ultimately of survival. What needs to be asserted is a value more persuasive than the profit motive. This value is not simply human and ecological survival rather than extinction; but is also the fact that real value is found in the practical realisation of relations of justice and equality based on ensuring sufficiency, not in seemingly insatiable accumulation.
2. Social - Reconfiguring what is socially possible:
(i) We need to build resilient interlinking localities. We need to rapidly grow networks of communities pushing for autonomy and sustainability whether based in the land reform movement, zero carbon initiatives, or in Transition towns, villages and cities focusing on localisation, community sufficiency and the move from environmental degradation, through zero impact, to positive integration with ecological systems.
(ii) We need to develop localised sufficiency systems: The current Transition initiatives are one example of a way of motivating people in towns, cities and villages to combine their energies to meet the reality of Climate Change and Peak Oil by collectively developing local economies and livelihoods. These involve people collaborating to develop energy systems, recycling systems, food production systems, local currencies, education, care for the elderly, etc., that ensure localisation and ensure interaction between localities based on exchanging to meet needs rather than to increase profit.
3. Political – Reclaiming the political space (or: Calling the Bluff on Power):
We need an alliance that rejects the insatiable economic growth driving climate change, and that holds the political space open for this transition to sufficiency.
This could involve:
(i) Calling on the major political parties to reject economic growth as an end in itself, in favour of ensuring sufficiency, and (assuming they refuse)
(ii) Calling for the formation of a Transitional Alliance (made up of Socialists, Greens and like-minded independents from any or no political party) to contest the next Scottish election on the platform of uprooting the cause of climate change and impoverishment, through rejecting systems based on profit for the few and the exploitation of the many, and enabling society to be re-oriented to ensuring sufficiency and a future for all.
(iii) Implementing Transitional Society Policies that involve:
· Nationalise to localise: nationalise only in order to localise production in community owned processes. This would also involve: creating socially useful and meaningful work; ending jobs that involve the appropriation of ones labour by others; ensuring a basic wage for all and the establishment of co-operative based work places.
· Ending insatiable economic growth: replacing the profit motive with the sufficiency motive. This would involve bringing down the pack of cards that is the financial system, and ending the anti-human and anti-ecological developments it finances. The fear here is twofold: firstly of the financial flight of the so-called ‘wealth creators’, and secondly of disorder giving the pre-existing state powers an excuse to use force to re-establish itself.
(i) Financial flight and the removal of the money motive. This is the first aspect of the immediate critical moment. It would require weathering a crisis of confidence (since everyone’s faith has been placed in capitalism, everyone’s well-being is mediated by money). All the financial institutions and investment projects which are driven simply by profit would fall away. This is where people would have to hold their nerve and continue to work if they judge that their work contributes to social well-being (e.g. producing food, driving trains, caring for the elderly, etc.). It’s a critical moment, requiring clear preparation to enable processes to be in place that ensure accountability to each other. In addition, there would need to be clear tasks that those who are relinquishing unemployment or what would have become ‘useless work’ (e.g. financial services, advertising, etc) can rapidly redeploy to (e.g. in
(ii) The Barrage of threats from financial, media and state powers. This is likely to be the second aspect of the immediate critical moment. There need to be clear collective forms to resist the inevitable attempts by capital and the centralising state to overthrow a democratically mandated transition. Here, the potential of new media, of mass mobilisation, of already existing forms of organisation based around resisting exploitation, around social change, and around enabling localities transition to sufficiency, would be the key to resisting the forces that will still be insisting that there can be no other route than capitalism or equivalent forms of appropriation through coercive control.
· Making zero carbon sufficiency an immediate objective:
(i) Firstly, by recognising that current responses to climate change are being co-opted by capitalism to further their profits through providing the excuse to further appropriate local peoples resources such as the forests of the Global South, and to develop carbon trading schemes which move the deckchairs on the Titanic, while enabling full steam ahead with business/ extinction as usual.
(ii) Secondly, by stopping all major activities which cause climate change (air flights, oil and gas extraction, unnecessary car use, etc) and further supporting localities to develop the transition to the local solutions and Commons systems which a zero carbon sufficiency requires and enables.
Has the irresistible force of economic growth come up against the immovable object of ecological limits? Or does this metaphor also come up against its own limits, since capitalism is just one human social system amongst an abundance of options, and ecology need not be a limiting object but our abundant and infinitely complex home?
The persistence and re-emergence of Commons systems and Life Projects, in which priority is given to ensuring the well-being of all, demonstrates that another world than coercive capitalism is not only possible, but has always persisted, wherever people find the resources to resist coercion . The ecological crisis is not only the consequence of coercive and beguiling capitalism, but also creates the conditions that make its demise a certainty: whether through driving us to extinction or through motivating us to re-discover what is humanly, socially and politically possible.
 Where in a ‘vanguardist’ approach to social change a political party claims superior knowledge to ordinary people, this alliance building ‘rearguardist’ approach seeks to enable and defend people’s right to collectively create and pursue their own solutions.
 Tom Griffiths (2007) Seeing “RED”? “Avoided deforestation” and the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Moreton in Marsh:
 Mario Blaser, Harvey Feit and Glenn McRae (eds) (2004) In the Way of Development: Indigenous Peoples, Life Projects and Globalisation.
 Lohmann, Larry (2005) What next? Activism, expertise, commons Dag Hammarskjold Foundation http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/item.shtml?x=369050
 Shiva, Vandana (2005) Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability and Peace.
 For example, the emerging
 Peak Oil is the point at which the maximum global production rate is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. Oil is peaking because the rate of discovery of new fields, and the production capacity of existing fields, are both going down, while the demand remains undiminished.