What do we do when it fails?

Climate Action Now

“There’s an issue here, I think, where lots of people are assuming a right over these things, I think people have got a bit confused about ‘rights’ issues, ‘we all have a right to cheap flights, or cheap alcohol, or cheap meat’ but these things are not rights, and actually where they’re detrimental to society as a whole I think we need to look at them.” Marcus Brigstocke, Question Time 26/11/09

Yesterday we saw the president of the COP15 summit resign, in the past few days we’ve seen rich countries try to rescind on the legally-binding Kyoto protocol, promises on critical deforestation (20% of global emissions) destroyed, and little to no progress on what is widely considered the last chance for our world to act as one to limit the potentially disastrous effects of man-made climate change.

So this looks like the question that we may have to ask now:

What do we do when it fails?

What do we do when our governments let us down? When the representatives of our world stand and suggests that they can conceive of the damages of the 1-2% GDP necessary to prevent run away climate change, but not in the 5-20% that no deal is likely to cost us. When they have lost sight of the fact that these petty discussions about money amongst developed countries for whom ‘growth’ has become synonymous with ‘good’, should be nothing to all the deaths, refugees, famine, drought, flooding and severe weather events that are taking second place to the pounds the dollars the yen, the made up values, traded through the air.

It may be up to us.

This may not be a bad thing. What has been less publicised (and much more persecuted) is the open sustainability forums and communities in Copenhagen, the 60-100,000 protestors walking through London, placards held high, the several thousand councils and organisations, schools and businesses, and tens of thousands of individuals who have signed up to 10:10, and the recent survey that revealed 75% of British voters believe “world leaders are on an important mission at the climate change conference in Copenhagen” (source).

I have spoken before about how I believe it is time for us to reclaim grassroots politics, to change top down political posturing into bottom up action. And I don’t mean the important but inactive protest actions of closing down power stations or stalling shipping routes (I do think these kind of media events [there’s no denying that’s what they are] are very valuable in raising issue awareness). What I mean is us, all of us, generating positive personal and community lead actions to reduce our own emissions, and to encourage others too. 75% of us currently support a deal in Copenhagen. People are always moaning about the ‘Nanny State’. Well now it’s time to grow up. Now it’s time for us to take responsibility for our own methods of living. Let’s return to a true meaning of ‘rights’.

You do not have a right to cheap flights, to travel, to meat in every meal, to fizzy drinks, or to change your wardrobe every season. These are luxuries. Unsustainable ones. We need to break the bonds that capitalism has sold us. Your rights are to equality, to lack of persecution, to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, to life and liberty. You do not have the right to impinge on the rights of others. Our growth driven profligacy is doing just that. Food riots, climate refugees, flooding, this is happening now. Governments can legislate – and it is important that they do so – to curb the emissions of big business, of public services, and of energy policies, but if they don’t, we still have the power to affect change.

Here’s a human right for you:

“Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” Article 29, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (though shame on them for the gendered language)

The greatest battle we face on climate change is lifestyle. We could cover 1/3 of the UK in wind and solar farms, combine that with tidal, hot rock, offshore wind power, and nuclear power plants along the whole of our coastline, we would still fall seriously short of our current energy consumption levels (Source). Because we’re not just talking about electricity here, we’re talking about heating, transport, manufacturing, agriculture, how and what we eat, gadgets, where consumables and clothes come from, how we throw them away, how we shop, what we expect from our food, our holidays, how we do our jobs. It all uses energy, it all contributes to the emissions that we, as a nation, and a world, have to cut.

And that really is down to us.

Up until the last 30 years we did not eat meat more than a couple of times a week – we have become reliant on oil based pesticides and fertilizers, on systems of farming that are eroding key nutrients and biodiversity. We ship our food over here, process it, transport it, transport ourselves to purchase it and then transport and ship away the 1/3 (one fucking third!) of it we waste (inedible food waste can be recycled too). 54% of UK transport emissions come from cars, 35% of global emissions are from agriculture and changes in land use (deforestation). These are things we can change.

“British consumers must cut down on meat and dairy produce, reduce their intake of processed foods [and bottled water] and curb waste. […] These are the three priorities identified in a report by the government’s independent advisory body on sustainability, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), which calls for radical changes in patterns of consumption.” (Source)

Reduce, Reuse, Recyle. Consumerism can be a democracy, we vote with our wallets; buy clothes that last, make smaller portions, mend things, travel less, walk to shop or buy online, take public transport, campaign to make it better, run programs at community centres, petition and force change upon local government. Support local renewable energy projects, invest in them, insulate your home, install solar panels for heating water, photovoltaic for generating your own energy, raise money for funds to support households that can’t afford simple measures like reflectors behind radiators, turn your gadgets off at the socket, buy tech that lasts longer, that you can upgrade, and that is sustainably produced and low in energy to use, encourage businesses to use tech to work more sustainably, put on jumpers and carpet your houses, eat less meat and dairy, avoid bottled water, petition your council to provide water fountains, eat more and local fruit and veg, buy fish from sustainable stocks, buy better, more expensive meat, less often.

Destroy the supermarkets, like they are destroying world food stocks. Processed food increases the energy used by – and decreases the energy value of – food and drink, it’s also making us unwell. Consider how many children you have, consider what you feed them, how you clothe them, and how you teach them to cook and live. Make your change, and do it realistically, sustainably, find new pleasures, and ways in which it does not make your life less liveable. We work hard, time is finite, so we also need to divide the workloads of our households more fairly. We need to reject the lure of fashion, of consumerism, of junk food, to provide cooking lessons at school, life education, and to provide people on low incomes with the means with which to feed their families well, shopping at a market is cheaper than at Tescos or Lidl, sometimes all it would take is an hour of childcare, or a veg box scheme with recipes.

Reduce your emissions as much and as soon as you can.

That’s what we do when they fail. We fight the battle for them.

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8 Responses to “What do we do when it fails?”

  1. Chris Coltrane December 17, 2009 at 12:29 pm #

    “You do not have a right to cheap flights, to travel, to meat in every meal, to fizzy drinks, or to change your wardrobe every season. These are luxuries. Unsustainable ones. We need to break the bonds that capitalism has sold us. Your rights are to equality, to lack of persecution, to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, to life and liberty.”

    YES. I agree completely.

  2. Claire Spencer December 17, 2009 at 12:30 pm #

    It’s lame to comment just to agree, but I really, really do. All I would add is that making those distinctions between ‘rights’ and ‘things we quite like’, and changing behaviour accordingly, doesn’t have to reduce quality of life. I would go so far to say that it won’t – but there is a huge perception that it will. That is a really big problem, and it is there that we have a duty to influence our friends, colleagues and communities – people are influenced by one another. They want to see that people like them are doing it, and that’s where it won’t help for politicians or protestors to yell at people from a pedestal, that’s where community action is important.

    I would add re: supermarkets, we as consumers can start here (http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/ukfoodwaste/) by demanding oversight of how they push food waste up and down the food chain. They can’t go anywhere, they have to be where we are. So let’s make sure that they’re not committing our carbon emissions to food that is destined for the dustbins. And apologies for hijacking your comment box, but it seemed fitting! x

  3. Terence Eden December 17, 2009 at 1:19 pm #

    Chalk me up for another “I agree”.

    Around 3 years ago, I gave up my car. I moved to an area well served by public transport. I either carry my food home from my local market or have the (evil) supermarket deliver it via one of their energy efficient vehicles.

    I gave up eating meat and fish years ago – for health as much as the environment and as a consequence, my food bills are lower.

    Energy efficient light bulbs? Electricity monitor? Turning things off at the switch? A* rated appliances? All a significant investment but all paying dividends now.

    What I think really needs to be hammered home is just how much you can save as an individual. Talking about flooding in foreign lands, or deforestation of forest most people will never see just doesn’t get through. Make it personal. Make it appeal to their selfishness. Switching to paperless billing saves money and trees – the perfect combination.


  4. Hannah Nicklin December 17, 2009 at 1:48 pm #

    Thanks for commenting, people. It’s not at all lame to comment in agreeance – it’s very welcome, otherwise you only engage with people who disagree ever, which is fine, but wearying :)

    Claire, thanks very much for that link, not hijacking, very relevant.

    Terence, brilliant changes, I guess the next step is community change after that? I also think it’s really important not to forget people on low incomes and who aren’t in a position to own their houses/furnishings. There’s definitely room for green lets (the house I rent gets its hot water from solar panels, and is v well insulated/lit with LEDs etc), and also in raising awareness for what you can do, if you can’t make headway on certain areas. Positive, positive, positive.

  5. Alasdair December 17, 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    For me where your post falls down is where you conflate facts with what mckay calls policy assertions – that the way to do this is to “reclaim grassroots politics” and “break the bonds that capitalism has sold us.” and allege that this is the “real” way to stop climate change – It may well be that to ration meat eating, have a one child policy, make flying so expensive that it is only available as a luxury for the wealthy and to “smash the supermarkets” would solve the problem of climate change – but that is a policy assertion and one which I doubt that would gain the same level of support as a generalised widespread desire to control climate change
    now of course what you are proposing is only a voluntary scheme, that we as individuals should do this – which would be fine – but then you go from this to suggest that anyone who does not follow your approved model for reduction of greenhouse gases is “violating” your rights and is “stupid” this is rhetoric that has a very different and much more unpleasant tone. The idea that people who choose to take a ryanair flight are no longer citizens they are “climate criminals” and legitimate targets of abuse seems to me a deeply unhelpfull attitude.

    Now that is not to say that we will not change our consumption habits or fly less by traditional airline in the future – but i doubt we are going to do it because we call anyone who chooses still to fly a “violator of our rights” or a “climate criminal”

  6. Hannah Nicklin December 17, 2009 at 5:47 pm #

    Hi Alisdair, thanks for commenting. I think my meaning has been confused a little here- I am not suggesting that there is such a thing as a ‘climate criminal’, nor that such people should be in any way abused – but rather that unsustainable standards of living have been mistaken for our ‘rights’ AND that these so-called rights are NOT so. When we assume them we impinge on the world, and in doing so, the rights of others. This is a difficult point, but one now wholly admitted by the bulk of developed nations. And surely as developed countries have admitted the bulk of the current damage from GHGs, and that the developing world is currently bearing the brunt of it, we as members of the societies which have prospered from that unsustainability have to admit that we have been complicit in that damage, and that we need to consider, in a very material way, how day-to-day decisions we make are highly damaging. Because this is a hard thing (to admit personal liability to the society you subscribe to) I then offered a whole list of actions, I’m not suggesting punishment, but positive and inclusive personal (and political – yes – but grassroots – forcing political change, rather than having it forced on us) action.

    I understand that I have used both facts and personal-as-political assertions but not sure I ever say that grass roots is the ‘only’ way to fight CC. I state quite clearly that I believe we need top down change as well, but this post responds mainly to the question: ‘what do we do if we don’t get decisive and binding top down political action?’. In that scenario, we are all that we have left.

    My love of hyperbole does tend towards rallying calls such as ‘smash the supermarkets’ and ‘break the bonds that capitalism has sold us’ — but I’m not sure what your argument is against the essence of those statements? Supermarkets have systematically destroyed our food system and play a very large part in encouraging waste, profligacy, driving prices down, causing deforestation, and making unsustainable farming practices necessary. We smash their stranglehold by changing our buying habits. Likewise it’s hard to deny that the moremoremore ethic sold to us – the product = prosperity model of modern marketing is highly damaging. Yes they do sound like political statements, but they are also a call to action, which needs to be bolstered by our understanding why from the facts of the matter. So 75% think that climate action is important – if government fails to take that action we need to enable individuals to do so.

    Finally, I would never, ever suggest that anyone is stupid for doing or not doing something. It is a word I abhor and would never use, I don’t even believe in ‘stupidity’, only differing degrees of benign and malign ignorance. I do not suggest an ‘approved model’ or a ‘scheme’ of action here, but many, many individual choices which we need to consider if we are to make our lives more sustainable, driven from personal action, in lieu of the governmental. Things need to change, we can’t carry on as we are, we’re running out of time and the politicians refuse to take the bold action required, what are our alternatives?

  7. Greenleftie December 20, 2009 at 10:41 am #

    I’m wondering if we should do anything at all? Species a sell out date, before they become extinct (it’s called specierial noonsphere)perhaps we just reached the end of ours. Life on earth will go on, it always does, even after mass extinctions.

    Perhaps it would be better for life on earth if we just wipe ourselves out as the dominate species.


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