Things are getting hot here on Mother Earth. Damn hot and there’s a very good chance that it’s going to get hotter before it cools off. And that’s very scary. It can seem to us mere mortals (as opposed to scientists) that it’s all very arcane, these debates over parts per million of CO2 or what effect an increase of 2 degrees will have on the planet. But a little reading makes it clear that these numbers matter and we better get to understand them very quickly.
One person who has done more than most to sound the alarm over global warming has been George Monbiot, a British writer. I would say, in fact, that he is the UK’s answer to David Suzuki.
Monbiot’s recent book Heat has gotten a lot of attention because it puts in plain terms the dangers that we face as a species and as a planet if we don’t get a handle on Climate Change. And fast. And he proposes a number of solutions. For these alone his book is worth reading.
In a recent response to a critique of his book, in particular his argument that we need to prevent temperatures rising greater than two degrees, he wrote the following (worth quoting at length):
“Two degrees of warming is the point at which up to 4 billion people could suffer water shortages, crop yields could fall in many regions of the poor world, mountain glaciers disappear worldwide and the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which could eventually raise global sea levels by 7 metres, is expected to begin. It is also the point at which several important positive feedbacks could be triggered. The permafrost of the West Siberian peat bog, for example, contains 70 billion tonnes of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. If all of it were released, its warming effect would equate to 73 years of current manmade carbon dioxide emissions. The methane that escapes due to melting would accelerate global warming, melting more permafrost, which releases more methane. A two-degree rise in temperatures could cause the runaway warming of permafrost throughout the Arctic Circle.”
I read this kind of stuff and it scares the bejeezuz out of me. Basically, unless we do some drastic shit, we're fucked. And Monbiot has done an amazing job of letting us know what kind of changes need to happen, at least in terms of reduction numbers.
For me though, there is also a side to the argument that must be based upon hope. And hope is always more attractive than fear. It is this: the destruction of the environment is part of a system that also destroys our lives or at least makes them miserable – who wants to be stuck in traffic for an hour each way to and from work? Who wants to live isolated in the suburbs with a heart condition because you can’t walk anywhere and the only practical food (after 2 extra hours of travel time each day) is processed food filled with body-killing garbage? We can imagine and put forward a better world, a more humane world with a greater, more pleasurable integration with nature. Our motivation doesn’t only need to be avoiding death but also enjoying life. That sort of program will resonate with people.
The thing with Monbiot's argument though, besides being rooted so much in fear, is that it approaches the problem with a "blame everyone equally" perspective - at least in terms of solutions. As he says:
"But my scheme... is not an attempt at social engineering. Let us hammer the rich by other means, but let us not confuse this programme (ie. hammering the rich) with an attempt to cut carbon emissions. Fighting global warming is hard enough already."
The problem is - we're not all to blame equally for the state of the environment. And the class question is not separable from the environmental question: corporations are the biggest polluters in every sphere. To condemn - even middle class greens - with failing to reduce their own consumption, as he does, is a little ascetic for my tastes. And it misses the point about the entire structure of communities, available transport, housing, heating, food production, etc. etc., which are social questions - not individual ones. It is about enforcing a redistribution of resources towards environmentally friendly development. Changing my light bulbs to fluorescent is, to my mind, a dangerous illusion, a diversion from the real action necessary to stop the destruction of the planet.
So, to me, Monbiot's argument for a carbon rationing system - where we all get an equal amount of carbon points to spend - as a radical solution is, in fact, just a repackaging of that old (conservative) populist saw: the flat tax. Hey, everybody pays the same, right - how can that be anything but fair. Except that it doesn't address the fact that resources aren't distributed equally. Well, this will redistribute wealth downwards, he says, as the rich purchase carbon points off the poor so that they can fly around in their private jets. In other words it fundamentally leaves in place the market dynamics and class divisions that have gotten us into this mess in the first place.
And, frankly, it's neoliberal because it is about individualizing redistribution when it should be social. The $50 I get for selling my excess carbon could buy me a carton of smokes - or pooled and centralized via government, it could fund better healthcare, more research into alternative fuels, building materials, etc.
It is simply confusing and it won’t work. It is a strategy based in panic and not in a vision of a different world. For that reason, I think it is a non-starter.
That isn’t to say, however, that Monbiot shouldn’t be read and supported in all sorts of ways. He, like Suzuki, is raising some difficult questions. We will have to answer them – or the world will answer them for us.