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An Environmental 1789

Didn’t you hear it? The planet’s ominous cry? A summer raided by record fires, heat waves and floods. Didn’t you sense a certain anxiety? A summer in which the pleasures of beach volley and late-night parties were partly darkened with a guilty feeling that our future planet may not be a pleasant place of which to be a part. While Mendocino was California’s most important fire in its history, the number of deaths caused by floods and landslides in Western Japan reached 225. All the while, Sweden experienced its warmest July in 260 years. Even in London, parts of the region received only 6% of their normal rainfall. I’ll stop my list here. This summer’s weather has been particularly turbulent and unusual and is unfortunately only a trailer of what is coming in a planet that is progressively turning into a stove.

Climate March in Paris (Place de la République), 08/09/2018 © Victor Chaix

Our current system’s hard drive has expired, it is time to replace it. In my view, what appears to be our biggest challenge as a species could also become our biggest opportunity, a chance to bring about a more human world after decades of irresponsibility. For our environmental crisis does not call for half-measures and ‘market-mechanisms’ solutions: we have had time to contemplate the efficiency of these; what is urgently required is a systemic transition and renewal in all planes of society. A holistic reconfiguration, which would by collective and individual effort permit the advent of a world of which we would not be ashamed of.

The international press has been filled of subjects on the matter these last months. The Economist admitted calamities to be ‘now common place’ in its issue deploring our failure in face of climate change.The magazine’s diagnostic is tough: ‘greenhouse emissions are up again. So are investments in oil and gas […] Subsidies for renewables are dwindling’. After thirty years of warning, we indeed barely start to reduce our CO2 emissions. The challenge is one of political inertia, enforced by the powerful influence of lobbies who spend billions to influence legislation in their favor (for your information, according to a study published in The Independent, $2 billions were spent these last 20 years by pression groups in the most CO2 polluting sectors of the economy, that is to say ten times more than environmental organizations and renewables sectors combined). Journalists, intellectuals, artists and scientists are grasping more than ever the scope of the problem and how the environmental subject has an urgency that outstrips all others.

In an article published in The Guardian, UCL professor Simon Lewis predicts that the melting of the permafrost (millenary iced soil containing tremendous amounts of carbon and methane) could provoke an explosion of global temperatures and create a chain reaction susceptible of transforming earth into an oven. As he describes it, ‘our civilization, as we know it, would not survive’. From such an environmental catastrophe, he imagines a very dystopian future. Europe, for instance, which is already destabilized by the arrival of a few migrants, would be faced with a growing immigration from southern countries, populations being climatically contrived to exile. Populist right-wing politicians would eventually come to power, as they would appear to voters as the only ones with the authority to resolve these major issues. Ironically, an isolationist fatalism like this would only produce counterproductive consequences, as climate change can only be dealt with through international cooperation. This vision is just one possible outcome of our present and past idleness, but currently not the least possible of all.

Another contribution to the debate came in early august, when the cover of The New York Times Magazine deplored that ‘thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet’. A story by Nathaniel Rich, ‘Losing Earth’ accused ‘human nature’ to have been responsible for environmental inaction in the supposedly opportune time of the 1980s. But it is Naomi Klein’s response to his article, in The Intercept that seems to me more accurate a diagnostic: she argues that in the contrary, in the 1980s, despite the scientific urge on the climate question, there could not have been a worst moment to implement truthful environmental policy. As she explains, the environmental project was in great part deterred by ‘the neoliberal crusade’ and its corresponding orthodoxy of ever-expandable growth and non-regulation. The last 30 years’ political immobilism in face of climate change, in this perspective, would less be due to our nature than to our elites and their ideological framework. Another identifiable cause of our failure, more culturally entrenched, has been pointed out by Thomas Sancton in the Time Magazine of 1988: he interestingly accused at that time the misuse of the Judeo-Christian concept of “dominion” over nature and the fact that it supplanted the pre-Christian idea that “the earth was seen as a mother, a fertile giver of life”. In the west at least, it is possible that a whole outlook on nature is responsible to a certain extent of our inaction.

In France, the incompatibility of our current economic orthodoxy with our environmental crisis came in full view when Nicolas Hulot, minister for the Environment and the most popular political personality in the country, announced his surprise departure on live radio. A cry from the heart, he spoke honestly about his situation in the government: ‘I don’t want to lie to myself anymore. I don’t want to give the illusion that my sole presence in the government implies that we are at the height of the challenge before us’. He then went on to denounce a ‘small-steps’ politics that, for 30 years, have proved almost completely inefficient. In indirect opposition to Emmanuel Macron’s politics, he deplored that ‘we obstinate ourselves in reanimating an economic model that is the cause of all ecological disasters’. After one year of struggle against lobbies and a political agenda riven on the economic horizon, he explained to have ‘surprised [himself] in resignation everyday’. The new minister of the environment, François de Rugy, is much less charismatic and idealistic, he is the “pragmatic” minister Macron chose to keep the safe politics of small-steps and compromise going. Soon after Hulot’s demission, as an electroshock effect, a letter signed by 200 artist, writers and Scientifics called politicians to truthfully face ‘the biggest challenge in humanity’s history’, arguing that ‘it is time to be serious’.

The problem, I believe, is our current societal model, of which most of our actual governments are nothing but the promoters. There is an obvious incompatibility between our consumerist model, a system the premise of which is based on infinite growth, and our indispensable transition in face of our environmental crisis, which would involve measure, real economy and respect for both workers and the planet. Let’s stop pretending that we can have both. Our current capitalist grid of analysis cannot respond to the problems it has itself created. A truthful cultural and political battle is to take place: a renewal of our mindsets, democracies, economies, and lifestyles. Our rather divided ecological movement also has to become coherent and united in this hinge moment in history. In a way, I believe that we must reintegrate from our past the indigenous earth-centered cosmology and philosophy - Civilization driving to a cliff without such a primal common-sense. The rise of unemployment, inequalities, debt and governmental powerlessness, though seemingly distinct, are but one crisis of our current capitalism. A semantic battle must take place to re-invent it.

Politicians have a major role in this transition, but even more important is the role of citizens, in their truthful engagement, each and everyone’s actions having the potential of a butterfly effect on the collectivity. We need courageous politicians, and a vast popular movement. We need visionary entrepreneurs and artists. We need a serious international cooperation and commitment, by first of all understanding that money for climate change is not a cost, but an investment. We need a revolution, with all the inconveniences and concessions it entails. Fate belongs to us if we take our political responsibilities. As Antonio Gramsci said, ‘I have the pessimism of intelligence and the optimism of will’, an attitude which I find best describes our situation and opportunity.

To give you a little food for thought, here are some interesting concrete solutions that I also found on the press lately:

  • Firstly, re-orientate fiscal pressure on activities and products that have a significative contribution on the degradation of the planet’s natural capital. That could change our production methods and consumption habits.

  • Secondly, transform our agricultural system, one founded on biology rather than chemistry. A study shows that it is possible to nourish more than 9,7 billion people in 2050 with a 100% organic agriculture, with the only condition of reducing food waste/misuse and our consumption of products from animal origin.

  • Last but definitely not least, keep fossils underground. If we exploit all of the available fossil fuels, temperatures will climb by 9ºC instead of 2, warns University of Chicago professor Michael Greenstone. The beginning our unprecedented comfort, cheap energy sources, is also its ending.

Will all of these ideas converge on time with a coherent political transition? What seems to appear, in a way, is a new 1789. Let’s say that if we don’t want its subsequent terror, we better start the revolution now. We have an appointment with history not to miss. In Simon Lewis’s view, this summer has been the one in which, for the great majority of us, climate change has become a reality. If you have not heard this summer’s planetary call, it may be time to put it an ear.

Climate March in Paris (Place de la République), 08/09/2018 © Victor Chaix

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