The Final Pages of “Global Environmental Politics”

“Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.”
– Paul Hawken[1]

While the overarching theme of Paul Wapner and Simon Nicholson’s anthology has been the question of how to address the global ecological crisis, the last two sections that I read consecutively—Section 6: “Civil Society” and Section 9: “Political Imagination”—related particularly to the question of how to move forward from here. Now that we have the facts and the stories, what science and local knowledge can each tell us to the best of their abilities, how do we take what we know and truly begin to act upon it?

Global Environmental PoliticsThe relatively short section on Civil Society addresses the roles of non-government organizations (NGOs) and environmental groups, some of which are taking meaningful action and making positive impacts. But too many, as Johann Hari writes in his chapter, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” and as Naomi Klein unpacks in This Changes Everything, have succumbed to the temptation of corporate money and compromise their actions to please their polluting donors. If this is the direction many of the environmental organizations have taken, what hope is there really for making the changes that are required before ecological tipping points are crossed and the damage is essentially irreparable? It is this theme of hope that Paul Hawken addresses in his contribution, originally the commencement address given at University of Portland in 2009. “The most unrealistic person in the world,” Hawken says, “is the cynic, not the dreamer.”[2] The entire book also concludes with a commencement address given at Duke University by the great novelist Barbara Kingsolver. No matter how dire the world situation, a commencement address is always oriented toward hope for the future. For what else can one say to a group of young, newly empowered individuals, ready to contribute their gifts to the world? I sometimes wonder what the impact would be if all ecological literature were written in such a way, addressing it to those who not only have hope for a new future but ultimately whose lives depend on imagining a new course for history.

The power of imagination is the theme that concludes this anthology, with visions of a localized, bioregional economy that respects the unique gifts of each individual landscape as presented by Wendell Berry, to a civilization a millennium in the future constituted by small technological human “islands” surrounded with untouched wilderness described by Roderick Frazier Nash, to a hyper-controlled dystopia told in the fictional, narrative voice of Joanne Harris. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus put forward some well-argued critiques of the “ecotheological elite” and I could certainly recognize myself in some of their criticisms. But their ultimate conclusion that continuing modernized development with more nuclear power, desalinization plants, and genetically modified organisms will provide our “technological salvation” I felt utterly lacked the imaginal leap required. Yes, technology has a role to play in our future—how can it not at this point?—but falling back on those technologies that continue to poison the Earth and exhibit ever more control over other species and ecosystems will not be the ones that will bring about a future in which humans are in a reciprocal, mutually enhancing relationship to the planet. And yes, I recognize my own hypocrisy in writing these words on a computer powered by electricity and made from rare-earth metals, but I also recognize that we are in a time caught between worlds and turning futures, and that every day is a new opportunity to figure out what of the old world we are leaving behind and what of the new world we are creating from what we have been given so far.

Some of the visions presented in this concluding section I felt were hopeful and worth striving for, while some were utterly terrifying, and others a combination of both. What I appreciated was that the authors allowed themselves to dream a radically different world, no matter what it looks liked. As I have said elsewhere, imagination is a great gift to ecology, one whose eternal wellspring we can all draw upon. No single vision will shape the future. Thus we each have the responsibility to drink deeply from the imaginal stream, and live forward those dreams of a thriving future that are bestowed upon us.

Work Cited

Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.

[1] Paul Hawken, “The Power of Environmental Activism” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 191.

[2] Hawken, “The Power of Environmental Activism,” 191.

It’s True: “This Changes Everything”

This book made me cry, multiple times. I cried, I was shocked, I was angered and horrified. And I also felt the first real sense of ambitious hope ignited in me since I started reading climate change literature when I was a senior in high school. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything really does change everything: she has shifted the winds on the climate change debate, addressing head on that the ideology of unregulated free market capitalism is standing directly in the way of any meaningful action that could be taken to keep human beings—and particularly the fossil fuel industry—from making Earth uninhabitable for the human species and most complex forms of life.

This Changes EverythingThe nearly five hundred page book lays out the parallel histories of the climate movement and the globalization of free market capitalism, showing how in the last two decades—in which we knew that the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was anthropogenic—we not only failed to address the issue but accelerated the rates of our emissions in the name of profit for multinational corporations. Indeed, I find it particularly significant that the Rio Earth Summit was held in 1992, the same year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed into law. Again and again, efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change have been directly challenged, and defeated by, the unregulated capitalist model whose agenda is being pushed by the minority corporate-political elites who are concentrating the world’s wealth into their own pockets.

The clarity, precision, and nuance of Klein’s book is staggering, and I feel gives it tremendous credibility. She seems to have left no stone unturned, and addresses the light and shadow of every situation, presenting the moral issues at stake without moralizing. I devoured this book, taking it in over the course of about four days, so the energy and tone completely shaped my waking and breathing mind and body as I read it. Klein brings together a huge range of interconnected issues—from the conservative denialist reaction, to the extractivist mentality that treats Earth as resource without the need to reciprocate, the unholy alliance of Big Green environmental groups and corporate powers, the terrifying hubristic possibility of geoengineering, and the micro-movements she refers to as Blockadia that are fighting extractivism, exploitation, and toxicity in local communities worldwide. I came to understand that the work Indigenous communities are doing to save their lands and ways of life, because they have the rights but not the power to enforce them, are perhaps our last best chance to overthrow the corporate stranglehold on our planet. As Klein writes,

Their heroic battles are not just their people’s best chance of a healthy future . . . they could very well be the best chance for the rest of us to continue enjoying a climate that is hospitable to human life. That is a huge burden to bear and that these communities are bearing it with shockingly little support from the rest of us is an unspeakable social injustice.[1]

Again and again, I felt affirmed that there was something I could do, something we each could do, that would make a tangible difference in whether humanity—and many of our fellow species—will have a future on this beautiful planet. It is simply, or not so simply, a matter of daring to challenge the status quo that has left us a world of inequality, exploitation, and injustice. As Klein writes, “It is slowly dawning on a great many of us that no one is going to step in and fix this crisis; that if change is to take place it will only be because leadership bubbled up from below.”[2]

The next time a major disaster hits, such as Hurricane Katrina, or Superstorm Sandy—as is becoming all the more frequent with climate change—will be the moment to seize when we can indeed change everything:

Because these moments when the impossible seems suddenly possible are excruciatingly rare and precious. That means more must be made of them. The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst to actually build the world that will keep us all safe.[3]

One criticism I have heard of Klein’s book is that it is too idealistic. In a way, this could be true. But I have come to realize that we do not have the time not to be idealistic. In Klein’s words, “The stakes are simply too high, and time too short, to settle for anything less.”[4]

 

Work Cited

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

 

[1] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 379.

[2] Klein, This Changes Everything, 465.

[3] Ibid, 466.

[4] Ibid.

Further Musings on “Global Environmental Politics”

The discussion in the fifth section of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s book is entirely on the economic system and its impact and influence on the global environment. The section is titled simply “Economy,” but really it should be titled “Capitalism” for that is the only economic system that is actually addressed. The three chapters of the section present gradations from greening the industrial growth economy to addressing the hard truth that capitalism and human greed are the heart of the problem. While reading Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister’s chapter on “The Promise of Corporate Environmentalism” I found myself feeling the hollowness of those promises. Big brand corporations making non-binding commitments of vague outcomes such as “delivering sustainable growth” and “performance without compromising sustainability”[1] in order to preserve their image, while still increasing the total destructive impact upon the planet, actually seems like a greater hindrance to the cause because it obscures where the real problems lie: in a model of trade that depends on exponential growth, exploitation, and limitless greed.

Global Environmental PoliticsPaul Krugman’s chapter, “Environmental Economics 101: Overcoming Market Failures” addresses more realistically the ways in which the free market cannot address global ecological issues such as climate change. Yet ultimately his solutions also return to the altar of capitalism, simply relying on regulations and taxes to mitigate the crisis. An economic solution inherently calculates all loss in terms of monetary value alone, something that cannot account for the great suffering climate change will unleash—indeed, it has already begun—upon humans, animal and plant species, and entire ecosystems.

Finally, Naomi Klein’s piece, “Capitalism vs. Climate” dared to question the ideology of capitalism itself. In reading her portrayal of the climate change deniers of the conservative right in the US—who go to great lengths to prove global warming is a hoax, at times even sending death threats to climate scientists—I could not help but be curious at the psychology behind such actions. Clearly fear is a powerful motivator, but fear of what? Is it really fear of dismantling the capitalist system? Fear of freedoms being taken away? Or is there also a deep-seated existential fear of climate change itself? Allowing oneself to feel the true losses climate change will wreak across the globe—to a greater or lesser extent no matter what action is taken—is not central to the ideologies of right or left. What does fear of these losses blind us to? And what, on the opposite end of the spectrum, do they awaken in us?

Work Cited

Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.

[1] Peter Dauverge & Jane Lister, “The Promise of Corporate Environmentalism,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 157.