17 December 2010

Why aren’t we acting to save ourselves on climate – and how can we start to actually do so

By Rupert Read

In the wake of the very tenuous ‘success’ of the just-concluded Cancun climate conference (see liberalconspiracy.org/2010/12/15/why-climate-talks-in-cancun-failed-miserably/), it is more important than ever to think about why the human race seems to be failing so miserably to address this existential challenge to civilisation on Earth. I have a suggestion as to why, and a suggestion as to what we can do about it.

Let me begin with this very thoughtful post that carefully makes the argument that those opposing serious action on dangerous climate-change eerily echo the arguments of those who opposed serious action to stop slavery. It points out for example the striking parallels that exist between the arguments of the capitalists who called for only voluntary action to reduce the negative impact of slavery, and the arguments of the capitalists who call now for only voluntary action to reduce the negative impact of manmade climate change.

But I believe that the parallels can be taken one stage further:

Global over-heating is happening because of our burning of ever more fossil fuels. This burning gives us access to a vast energy glut, compared to which almost all the preceding existence of human beings has been extraordinarily low energy. But Peak Oil and the soon-to-follow Peak Gas mean that this glut will be temporary. In future, people will not have access to cheap energy in vast amounts; and they will have to deal with the potentially-utterly-dire consequences of our burning up fossil fuels into greenhouse gases like there is literally no tomorrow... In effect, we have grown accustomed to depending on what I call 'fire-slaves', to run our cars, to heat our homes, to do just about everything that our economy-on-speed depends upon. We use (up) non-renewable fire-slaves in huge numbers - thus depriving tomorrow of access to them, and heaping on tomorrow a dire burden of climate instability.

In other words: like the slavers before us, we today, in our profligate and selfish use of 'fire-slaves', are imposing terrible costs -- unfreedoms, manmade 'natural' disasters, sicknesses unto death -- on other human beings. Unlike the slavers, we can't see most of them, for most of them have yet to be born. But that doesn't lessen our responsibility. It just makes it all the more acute. For at least a few slaves managed to escape, to survive, to win their freedom. At least the slaves triumphed in the end, and the proud American South was even defeated, humbled over the issue (and a damn good thing too). Whereas: if we are not careful we will utterly trap our descendants into a life (or death) where they are energy-poor while having to cope with disasters which Hurricane Katrina and the like are only trailers for. For them, there will be no escape.

We ought to think long and deep about the parallels between being soft on slavery and being soft on climate-inaction. When this parallel really strikes us as it ought, and when we wake up at last to care for future people like our own children (have a listen to me here for more on this) then we may begin to turn the corner, as we succeeded in doing on slavery two centuries ago -- despite all the dire warnings about how it would mean economic ruin, etc. . . .

If we handle the climate crisis wrong, there won’t be an economy, because there won’t be a society. If we handle it right, then it can actually help our economy (see http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/joss-garman-obamarsquos-new-fear-is-a-cleanedup-china-2158047.html ). But my key point in this piece is: it is simply the most basic justice (not to mention love or care or fellow-feeling), to not enslave our children … and so we need to stop depending on fire-slaves. It is obscene to rely (either way) on arguments about economics alone, when what is actually at stake is a slow mega-holocaust…


  1. Great article, I was born an optimist, but afraid to say that just recently i've been struggling to keep positive. "Why are we so inept and dealing with climate change" this keeps me awake at night, I have to keep believing that people are good and remedial action will be taken.

  2. I agree - we probably all agree. So what is to be done? If you are right and there is a parallel between slaving as a system and reliance on certain resources for a way of life -the second is even more insidious and more people are directly reliant on it. People generally make plans for two to five years and only have a vague idea of the next 40-50. After that it's a sort of blank. You're right, I think, in getting people to think about their children and their children's children - the future people you have written about previously. Because a cold winter like now merely means that people dismiss the science and the short term risks.

    We need to combine living 'better' with responsibility for our children and grandchildren - mine will probably live to be in their 90s and may be will see the next century begin. They WILL be living with the consequences of our action and inaction.

    But the question remains - what to do - so far efforts have been patchy and slow in coming at the highest levels of our pyramidical society. Grass roots action combined with intensive mass lobbying - through international movements (eg Avaaz) is the best way forward I think - along with convincing key players at the top.