Energy Change for Climate Control
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  • Apocalyptic Apoptosis

    Posted on March 26th, 2012 Jo No comments

    Image Credit : Carl-A. Fechner, fechnerMedia

    The Evangelist : “Climate change is so serious, we need to tell everybody about it. Everybody needs to wake up about it.” The Audience “We have heard this all before. Do pipe down.”

    The Social Engineer : “Everybody should be playing their part in acting on climate change.” The Audience : “This story is too heavy – you’re trying to make us feel guilty. You’re damaging your message by accusing people of being responsible for causing climate change.”

    The Social Psychologist : “By making such a big deal out of climate change, by using Apocalyptic language, audiences feel there is no hope.” The Audience : “Climate change is clearly not a big deal, otherwise the newspapers and TV would be full of it all the time.”

    The Post-Economist : “Climate change is caused by consumption. We need to reduce our consumption.” The Audience : “We don’t want to be told to live in cold caves, eating raw vegetables by candlelight, thanks.”

    The Defeatist : “It’s already too late. There’s nothing we can do about it. All I can do is sit back and watch it happen.” The Audience : “Isn’t that being a little too negative ? If you think there’s nothing that can be done, what hope have we got ?”

    The late, great Hermann Scheer said that “Today’s primary energy business will vanish – but it won’t give up without a fight…the greatest and the worst environmental pollution of all is when countless so-called energy experts keep on trying to talk society out of even contemplating this scenario [of 100% renewable energy] as a possibility for the near future – because that is what makes society apathetic and unmotivated…”

    So who or what is making us passive and unmoved ?

    Is climate change really our fault ? Or is it something we’ve inherited because of the irresponsible energy companies ?

    Are we responsible for responding to climate change or is it somebody else’s responsibility ?

    Is climate change too big to think about ? Does it seem to complicated to be really happening ?

    If we should be doing something, what is it ? Would it be of any use to blockade a petrol station, or write a letter to our democratic representative, or sign a petition ? Would it make any difference at all if we stop flying, change our light bulbs and sold the car ?

    As energy consumers, our responsibilities centre around our consumption of energy. We can rationalise our use of energy, but we have no responsibility for the carbon content of the energy we use.

    Energy producers have the main responsibility for de-carbonising global energy. If they won’t do it, they will have to move out of the way for those who can.

    But this still doesn’t answer the motivational questions. What precisely is getting us down ? Insitutional and governmental intransigence ? Or something more perverse ?

    I would suggest one of the biggest problems is that environmentalists and green thinkers keep proposing cognitively dissonant things.

    For example, in a recent article in The Big Issue, Adam Forrest argued :-

    “…Long before Sigmund Freud came along, the great philosophers and poets understood we are not strictly rational creatures. And yet we are clever enough to listen to the calm, logical arguments of smart people. Despite some residual scepticism, we non-scientists place a huge amount of faith in panels of professors with the right degrees. Last month Ipsos MORI pollsters asked people whom they trusted most on climate change. Scientists came out top, chosen by 66 per cent of those polled […] In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that human actions are “very likely” the cause of the continual warming of the Earth’s climate system – “very likely” meaning a probability of 90 per cent or more. Most of us are sensible enough to assess those odds and see the wisdom in weaning ourselves off carbon with some urgency. Yet all the peer-reviewed studies and the strategies of persuasion known to green PR [public relations] have failed to fundamentally alter the way we live…” (“Climate Change : A Matter of Faith”, The Big Issue, March 19 – 25 2012, pages 24 – 27)

    This jars. My question is this : who is this “we” we are talking about here ? Which “we” has to fundamentally alter ? I would suggest it is not the man or woman in the street (or back home standing looking at the heating controls, wondering what is appropriate). But most environmentalists, campaigners and even policy activists insist that the population bears the highest responsibility for change.

    Forrest continues, quoting Stefan Skrimshire “…”It’s all very difficult. Some people in the environmental movement think we need more violent, apocalyptic imagery to shake people up; others say, ‘No, that’s not going to work because it’ll make people feel completely dispirited and destabilised.’ The green prophets in the persuasion business do not have an easy task. How do you get people to believe in the end of civilsation enough to make them hopeful and proactive enough to forestall disaster ? And if we are moving into an era in which we talk more openly about adaptation and post-collapse societies, what kind of stories do we tell to gee everyone up about “rationally managed decline” ?” …”

    Again, I recoil. Why do people need shaking up ? Why do we continue to need climate change evangelists ? Why should we need messengers of disaster instead ? I know we still have a lot of disinformation in the “public sphere”, and this should be countered strongly, but I would suggest that the sector of the population that is capable of responding to the climate change story has already responded.

    I believe education of the population about climate change must continue, but without the projection aspect – the projection of a definitely calamitous future.

    I believe that a more optimistic “end game” should be stitched onto the climate change story thread – with caveats, of course. The people that have to “fundamentally alter” are in every sector – not just the end consumers of energy.

    We get the “good future” when the fossil fuel companies are obliged to change to producing clean energy. If they don’t change, they will suffer market collapse as Peak Oil, Peak Natural Gas and Peak Coal bite, whilst renewable energy companies prosper. It’s quite simple, really.

    We get the “good future” when money is diverted towards green energy investment and low carbon energy services investment. This requires all financial sector players being involved – and they are – and the percentage is getting higher. Personal savings, High Net Worth Individuals, ethical banks, private equity, pension funds – all forms of monetary investment are moving towards green energy. State subsidies and policies are emerging that support clean energy development – not huge amounts – but significant.

    We get the “good future” when more and more research and development units, both academic and corporate, turn their attention to green fuels, green power and green networks.

    It is time to drop the angst.

    It’s time to prophesy instead of evangelise. We are not selling a message, we are describing an emerging reality.

    That’s why most approaches on encouraging public engagement with climate change annoy me – the assumption that we all have to be involved in the marketing side of public relations – selling ideas, selling technologies.

    Communications should not have to be about salesmanship.

    If you meet anybody today who doesn’t believe in climate change or the potential for 100% renewable, sustainable energy, tell them you don’t believe them. Remember, it’s not your responsibility to convince them of anything – very few people have influence, and the person you are speaking with is probably one of the majority – whose views don’t count in the grand scheme of things…which probably means that you are also one of the majority whose views don’t count in the grand scheme of things, but at least you’re on the right side, the side of hope, optimism, reality and a good future…

    [ …and yes, you dear Reader, are probably in the very same majority whose views don’t count – and by the same token, neither do mine ! O blissful insignificance ! ]

    The “messaging problem” about climate change is that it is most important that those who make public decisions hear, understand and act on the message. It is more important that governments learn and act, than those who do not have much influence on the direction of the economy. Yet, there is still a deference to public opinion – and it is mediated by the media, so it is important that the climate change story develops audiences in those who edit and publish newspapers, television, radio and magazines.

    Politicians take shortcuts – they don’t always go to the people to understand public opinion. They often just read the newspapers, or watch a scrap of TV news, and get their conclusions from there. If climate change and renewable energy have a higher profile in the media, decisionmakers and lawmakers will be more ready to accept the transition to a zero carbon future.

    It is also very important that those who can provide clean, green energy become more active. Their activity holds a mirror up to the actions of the dirty energy businesses, in which we can see their many flaws, including their stranglehold on government energy policy.

    We get the “good future” when renewable energy stories increase in the media – when people with any level of influence can begin to believe that change is not only possible – it is already happening.

    When the Zeitgeist arrives, the old order will be corrected.

    Now that’s what I call optimism !


    CLIMATE CHANGE : A MATTER OF FAITH : Forget the hosepipe ban : a much bigger day of environmental reckoning looms. Can science and religion work together to save us from ourselves?” by Adam Forrest, with an illustration by Laurence Whiteley, The Big Issue, 19 – 25 March 2012, pages 24 – 27.

    “Climate change is, inevitably, a spiritual debate…and it’s bigger than anything we’ve ever faced before”, Alastair McIntosh

    Climate scientists today are seriously depressed. As politicians squabble over targets and our daily routines remain resolutely carbon-centric, many experts think preventing global temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels is now impossble. If you talk privately with environmentalists, there is gloomy resignation about the enormous changes looming over the horizon of our warming planet.

    One climate activist working with young people admitted to me recently how much he struggles to be optimistic when talking to them about their future. He is not the only one now muttering darkly of a ‘post-collapse’ society. A reckoning, so they say, is heading our way.

    It is tempting to cast the greents and climatologists as Old Testament prophets: a bearded, anguished elect castigating the people from some dusty hillside. Like Noah, who “warned of things not yet seen” (Hebrews 11:7), Pete Postlethwaite’s last-man-standing character in the climate change film “The Age of Stupid” looks out from his ocean tower and wonders why foreknowledge was not enough. “How could we willingly know that we were going into extinction…and let it happen ?”

    Long before Sigmund Freud came along, the great philosophers and poets understood we are not strictly rational creatures. And yet we are clever enough to listen to the calm, logical arguments of smart people. Despite some residual scepticism, we non-scientists place a huge amount of faith in panels of professors with the right degrees. Last month Ipsos MORI pollsters asked people whom they trusted most on climate change.

    Scientists came out top, chosen by 66 per cent of those polled. Only three per cent plumped for religious leaders.

    In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that human actions are “very likely” the cause of the continual warming of the Earth’s climate system – “very likely” meaning a probability of 90 per cent or more. Most of us are sensible enough to assess those odds and see the wisdom in weaning ourselves off carbon with some urgency. Yet all the peer-reviewed studies and the strategies of persuasion known to green PR [public relations] have failed to fundamentally alter the way we live.

    It seems our brains are not well built for concerted long-term planning. This month we’ve been able to watch NASA footage of a spreading crack in an Antarctic ice shelf, read why the African cheetah is losing its ability to reproduce in warmer temperatures, and examine why Britain’s nuclear power stations are at high risk of flooding in the decades ahead. Yet the hosepipe ban enforced by seven English water companies is the climate story that gets everyone talking. Faced with melting ice caps, species collapse and diminishing coastlines, we choose to fret over the watering of our geraniums.

    This sense of denial, this failure to distinguish big threats from small, is also about where worst-case scenarios live in our imagination. Few cultures do not possess prominent myths of apocalypse, the days of violent doom in which we mortals are punished for our wickedness or hubris. Storytellers revel in these tales because they also contain big moments of revelation and spiritual transformation, the destruction of old ways of life and the beginning of a new cycle.

    Hollywood has come to love the eco-disaster movie, from Mad Max to The Day After Tomorrow. Yet these apocalyptic narratives often depend on all-or-nothing scenarios that leave the hard work of transition out of the picture. Stefan Skrimshire, who teaches ethics at Leeds University and specialises in theology and climate change, believe apocalyptic visions can be a way of deferring the reality of changes coming our way. “Those sort of films portray climate change as a one-off event – a catastrophe that is total and global. It’s easier to imagine a crisis dealt with over five days than gradual decay and decline, which is harder for the imagination to deal with.”

    When Al Gore invokes the spirit of the Second World War to promote the idea of climate change as a great battle to be won, or NASA’s Jim Hansen says we have until 2016 to “save” the planet, they are appealling to ideas of heroism and happy endings.

    “The time limit that politicians and campaigners have used feeds into that idea,” Skrimshire continues. “You can see the logic, but I think it can be disingenuous, because of course there’s a lot of work to do after any deadline. I think it was always a mistake to try to focus everyone on a singular tipping point. People say you can’t talk about adaptation [to climate change] because people then think you’ve failed.”

    “It’s all very difficult. Some people in the environmental movement think we need more violent, apocalyptic imagery to shake people up; others say, ‘No, that’s not going to work because it’ll make people feel completely dispirited and destabilised.’ The green prophets in the persuasion business do not have an easy task.”

    “How do you get people to believe in the end of civilsation enough to make them hopeful and proactive enough to forestall disaster ? And if we are moving into an era in which we talk more openly about adaptation and post-collapse societies, what kind of stories do we tell to gee everyone up about “rationally managed decline” ?”

    It may not be possible, or desirable, to separate science from the big mythic tales which still occupy our unconscious. In his book, Hell and High Water, writer Alastair McIntosh raises the intriguing possibility that some of the big founding myths of the ancient world were based on real climate events occurring in the post-Ice Age era of rising sea levels.

    The Old Testament story of Noah’s Ark resembles the Epic of Gilgamesh, a flood narrative scratched out on tablets 5,000 years ago in Uruk (in modern-day Iraq). Plato wrote a dialogue, Critias, about Atlantis and other flooded cities after “they ceased to be able to carry out their prosperity without moderation”.

    Although our ancestors interpreted (mostly) natural occurring events as divine judgment on sin, we struggle to assume responsibility for the impact of drastically overshooting the Earth’s carrying capacity. “The metaphysical matters, for without it we miss the whole picture…I would like to see our use of [science] tempered with some of the wisdom the pre-modern world possessed,” writes McIntosh.

    Ken Wilson, pastor at Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, has been part of a major push among American evangelicals to take contemporary science more seriously. He helped to put together a ‘creation care’ booklet sent out to 20,000 religious leaders across the country. Ken tells me his own awakening came at a “hush-hush retreat” with a dozen other curious evangelical leaders and a dozen climate scientists back in 2007.

    “In the US, these tribes had never really talked before,” he recalls. “One of the scientists gave a little presentation and said, “The top three problems we’re dealing with are apathy, greed and selfishness, and to combat that you need a spiritual transformation…as scientists, we don’t know how to do that. We need your help”. When he said that, I felt the tears come to my eyes and hairs stand up on my arms. I realised how much my tribe had to do. I felt ashamed that these guys – the scientists – had more of a heart for God’s creation than we did.”

    Even environmentalists now admit they may have entreated only the baser instincts of self-interest, and may have to recover some of the big moral arguments. Tom Crompton, change strategist at WWF [World Wildlife Fund], says soliciting celebrities and telling people how much money they can save through green gadgets has been very far from enough. “Some of the piecemeal stuff may actually have been counterproductive”, he says.

    “Some strategies may actually serve to strengthen values that are unhelpful – materialistic values that undermine wider, more durable concern with the environment. NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and businesses have use techniques which play into those values – what’s going to leave them better off, or cooler to their peers.”

    What kind of values does he think we should be appealing to instead ? “A sense of community and connection to others, ties to family and friends, to their own sense of place, the environment around them, a sense of responsibility…things more compelling than saying you’ll save £250 by insulating your loft, or that wearing a woolly jumper is sexy.”

    If huge changes are to be forced upon humankind by diminished resources and less hospitable environments, the question reamins: what kind of stories will we tell ourselves once the old tales of economic growth and endless progress are gone ?

    I ask Alastair McIntosh about how we begin to mentally prepare ourselves for a very different way of life.

    “It is, inevitably, a spiritual debate and we’ll be pushed to think more and more about these things. It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever faced before and we’re going to have to strengthen our personal resilience.”

    “We have to walk through the world with our eyes open, however hard it is. Come what may, we can tell ourselves stories of collective resilience, about rekindling community, of looking out for one another. These sorts of story will be very important.”

    In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, we have, perhaps, a contemporary story carrying the profundity of ancient myth. The journey of a father and son through a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape in search of other “good guys” challenges us to wonder what “good” might mean. The boy, who has never known a pre-collapse society, is capable of trust and compassion, while his less trusting father believes “is it my job to protect you…I will clean another man’s blood off you”.

    The father continually reassures the boy they are “carrying the fire”, a line of such elemental beauty and ambiguity it is fast-becoming a central motif of the environmental movement.

    What kind of fire do we want to pass on to future generations ? In figuring out ways to sustain the things we hold most dear, we will probably need all the ideas science and religion can muster.


    Apocalypse Soon : A dummy’s guide to a post-collapse society. A growing number of thinkers believe we are entering an age of eco-collapse. Here are five cheery websites explaining what happens after the four horsemen have been and gone.

    1. The Dark Mountain Project : Writing and photos aiming to “question the stories underpinning our failing civilization [sic] [and] craft new ones for the age ahead”. http://www.dark-mountain.net

    2. Transition Culture : Lots of stuff on transition towns and low-carbon living to help you adjust to our “energy descent”. http://www.transitionculture.org

    3. Collapsonomics : A blog by Dougald Hine on creative ways to tackle scarcity and getting poorer. http://www.collapsonomics.posterous.com

    4. Dark Optimism : Research blog that is “unashamedly positive” about the world we could create. http://www.darkoptimism.org

    5. Resurgence : Sustainable living site with ideas on permaculture, eco-building, local economies etc http://www.resurgence.org

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