Reflections on the climate strikes

Today was another big day of climate protests around the world. The biggest climate protest ever took place in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, 35,000 people attended the demonstration. That’s 0.2% of our nation’s overall population. This is quite a lot, although New Zealand easily beats us, as 3.5% of the nation’s population demonstrated.

I’m pleased to say that I attended the protest too with a friend, we marched with the Extinction Rebellion activists. I have a number of reasons to join the protest. To start with, as I explained earlier, I feel that it’s important to demonstrate solidarity with the teenage girls who began the protests, who have received so much abuse and negative attention.

Second, as a pantheist I find it important to express gratitude towards the living world. The protests around the world are an expression of our willingness as people, to make the changes necessary to respect the boundaries of Mother Nature. It’s an old cliche perhaps, but the world has enough to offer for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed. If a button was flipped and people tomorrow collectively decided they were willing to live within the limits imposed by nature, the problem would be solved.

Most of the protestors seemed relatively well informed. It was frequently brought up that our dietary pattern imposes a huge burden on nature, that it’s inevitable that seven billion large mammals trying to feed themselves as if they were apex predators are going to impose tremendous costs on our biosphere. In addition, many of the protestors called out the airline industry and the need to reign it in. In fashionable circles, flying around the world is rapidly becoming uncool. Today’s climate activists are increasingly willing to walk the walk, besides just talking the talk.

One thing I find important to consider is the inclusiveness of the protests. Most of the protestors in the Hague are white indigenous Dutch people, like me. There were some protestors from minority groups, but they tended to belong to a political party in the Netherlands, that sees climate change as an expression of racism. The point they make is valid: The people who suffer most harm from the crisis will be the people who had no role in creating the crisis.

One of the most important things we have to accomplish is to make sure that people from all walks of life feel comfortable and welcome at the protests. Usually when you say such a thing, people will think of various minority groups. I’ll be the first to say they should feel comfortable and welcome.

However, we have to make sure that other groups are not overlooked either. In the process of welcoming minorities, there’s always the risk of implicitly suggesting the majority is not welcome. Middle-class white cismen in suits with boring office jobs might not be your favorite demographic, but they hold most power in society and we need them on our side too to be genuinely succesful. The reason Earth First! failed is because in the process of welcoming minorities, it ended up as an unwelcome place for rednecks who might not have fashionable progressive ideas, but simply love nature and demonstrate a willingness to defend nature.

Similarly, we want church-going ladies, rednecks and everyone else to come on board. Climate change after all is not a problem that can be solved by half the population, we need broad agreement among wide sections of society on the need to solve the problem. Radical minorities can then serve as the vanguard that pushes society towards further action.

The old socialists figured out long ago that the capitalists benefit from using ethnic divisions to prevent the working classes from uniting against the people who exploit them. The Rockefellers for example tried to prevent strikes by hiring workers who speak a variety of different languages. The right response in such situations is always to remember: What unites us is stronger than what divides us.

It’s not coincidence that the modern left has shifted towards identity politics, with different groups continually arguing over who happens to be more oppressed. The biggest ambition of the modern left now seems to be ensuring that the Shell board room is an even representation of society, rather than abolishing capitalism.

The modern working class man doesn’t see himself as an oppressed worker anymore, who has to sell his labor to enrich a cabal of wealthy plutocrats whose business model renders our planet uninhabitable by reducing the Earth to little more than raw materials for a capitalist enterprise. Instead, he sees himself as a temporarily embarassed college professor, who is engaged in a struggle for upwards social mobility. Through identity politics, the bourgeoisie has succesfully eradicated class consciousness from the working classes. You don’t perceive yourself as oppressed by Jeff Bezos, you’re now oppressed by your coworker who makes a politically incorrect joke.

I think climate activists have to keep this in mind too, we have to make sure that identity politics does not end up dividing us. This works both ways. I know quite a few well-meaning men who genuinely love nature, but they are right-wing nationalist types and so the whole protests make them feel deeply uncomfortable because it draws a progressive demographic. My suggestion would be that they need to step over these self-imposed psychological boundaries and join us.

On the other hand, there are people from minority groups who are upset that a white teenage girl with celebrity parents became the figurehead of global warming activism. My suggestion would be: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Greta has repeatedly pointed out that Western nations must make dramatic cuts in our emissions, to deliver non-Western nations a carbon budget that allows them to economically develop their nations. Don’t blame her for ending up in the spotlights.

Finally there’s another demographic that needs to be mentioned, the people who have been aware of this crisis for a long time. Greta brought attention to a problem that some people have been studying for years, decades even. What I notice in response is a lot of cynicism, in the sense that these people assume she must be a puppet of one NGO or another. As I mentioned elsewhere, there’s an instinctive gut response by underdogs to lash out against one of their own when the crowd they draw becomes too big for their liking.

Greta acts like the real deal, talks like the real deal and looks like the real deal. So my suggestion would be to treat her as such. Instead of being cynical and retracting into your own shell, or worse, lashing out against one of our own, please accept the fact that the crowd has caught on and help guide them on the road ahead of us. We’re not supposed to be a minority of bitter basement dwellers for all of eternity.

It’s not about the polar bears

I remember a famous talking point among conservative climate change deniers was the idea that polar bears are not suffering from climate change. Skepticalscience.com even mentions the argument. This drives home an important point in the climate change discussions that keeps us from being succesful: Most people don’t understand what the real problem is and climate change deniers are effective at preventing people from seeing the real issues, by derailing the discussion and bringing up red herrings.

It doesn’t matter whether Al Gore has a big house or not. It doesn’t matter whether politician X flies around the world despite supporting action on the climate crisis. It doesn’t matter in the greater scheme of things how the polar bears are doing, or whether Hurricane Katrina was caused by climate change. It doesn’t matter whether the electrical cars emit as much CO2 as regular diesel cars. It doesn’t matter whether some NGO raises a lot of money. It doesn’t matter whether addressing global warming costs a lot of money.

What matters is as following: Humans are emitting CO2 at a rate that is unprecedented in geological timescales of tens of millions of years. This CO2 acidifies the ocean, warms our planet and disturbs our ecosystems. The effects this will have in the coming decades will be so dramatic that millions of people will die of hunger and millions more will be forced to migrate. In addition, if we do not solve the problem soon, natural feedback loops will become strong enough to start reinforcing the warming caused by humans.

If we do not address the climate crisis, global temperatures are expected to rise by four degree Celsius above pre-industrial by 2100. This is an average figure, but because the oceans warm less than land, the warming on land is about two times the average figure, so you’re looking at an eight degree Celsius increase over land.

What happens then? According to many prominent climatologists, that leaves you with a planet where just a few hundred million people will survive. That’s what you’re looking at: A world that faces billions of deaths, endless bloodshed and war over the world’s remaining natural resources, enormous deserts cover our continents, most species go extinct and life on Earth takes millions of years to recover its biodiversity. One study found that by the end of this century, the best climate change scenario leads to an estimated 30-46% decline in agricultural yields, while the worst scenario leads to an estimated 63-82% decline in yields.

So, that’s what this is about. When I see people walking with rainbow flags, or people who bring signs saying “fuck my pussy instead of the Earth”, I remind myself that many people are well-meaning but don’t yet understand the severity of the crisis, they don’t understand the kind of problem we face. People who see our protests need to understand that this is not just one of many culture war issues: This is an issue that determines whether or not our civilization will collapse and billions of people will die. We have to make sure that we express clearly to the outside world that we take the climate crisis seriously.

There’s a discrepancy between the bleak message propagated by Greta Thunberg, the attitude of most protestors in the streets who are less well informed than Greta, and the manner in which climatologists convey the problem we face. Most climatologists are aware of this, they try to fulfill their role as scientists in a politically neutral manner, but the scope of the catastrophe makes them feel uncomfortable with the emotionally detached manner in which they are expected to treat the subject they study. It’s an issue that causes a rift between younger climatologists and older ones. An example of someone who faces this problem is described here.

The reason Greta Thunberg receives so much hatred when she tells it the way it is, is because people are not used to hearing someone discuss the crisis in such a honest and blatant manner. Most protestors in the streets don’t leave an uninformed person with the impression that we face a crisis that will kill numerous people, but the reality remains that this is an existential crisis that will determine the outcome of life on Earth.

It’s not about your Tesla either

I spend quite a bit of time explaining to Bitcoiners the problem their business model faces. Many seem to imagine that Bitcoin can somehow become sustainable by switching over to green electricity from solar panels and hydropower dams. In reality, the main problem is that Bitcoin encourages the waste of scarce resources on a zero-sum game of competitive hashing. Germany is furthest along in the energy transition and they find themselves facing genuine electricity shortages now. This problem affects many different sections of society: We have to learn to live with less.

We have to understand the root of our crisis, which is found in the fact that we have an economic system that is dependent on perpetual economic growth. There are multiple ecological limits on our planet, of which global warming is simply one of the most acute and severe in its impact. Other severe ecological limits we are overshooting are the loss of numerous species and the excessive influx of nitrogen into our soils and our water.

So, climate change can’t be seen separately from the broader issue of ecological overshoot, the fact that we impose greater demands on the planet that the planet can deliver. There are 120 times more of us per square km of agricultural land, than you would expect for a herbivorous mammal of our size. Compared to carnivorous mammals, there are 2400 times more of us than you would expect.

This illustrates the problem we face with the desire of people to eat as if we were apex predators: Without addressing the fact that we use huge herds of animals to feed ourselves, we can’t solve the climate crisis. In Europe, meat consumption has to go down by 90%. If we can’t pull that off, your Tesla won’t make the difference: All those animals have to eat something and all of those animals still emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses.

To illustrate the nature of the problem, please visualize the following: There’s a pile of all humans, a pile of all the animals we use to feed and clothe ourselves and a pile of all the wild vertebrate animals. How does the size of these different piles compare? Well, here’s your answer, courtesy of Paul Chefurka:

 

So, look at it this way: If human beings have reduced the weight of all wild animals by over 90% and us humans and the animals we domesticated are now 96% of the weight of all mammals on Earth, is it any shock that our world is suffering dramatic ecological problems? I’m surprised we managed to get even this far, even though we killed so many wild animals. When people tell me: There’s still green meadows everywhere, I tell them: We and our herds of animals are 96% of the weight of all mammals on Earth. We’re not just an overpopulated species, but more importantly: We’re overpopulated and greedy.

Now you understand that this is not just a technological problem. It’s a problem in regards to how we relate ourselves to the world around us. You will not solve this crisis with a techno-fix, that merely buys you some time until you end up running into yet another barrier. Instead, we have to work on reducing the demands we place upon nature.

An important factor that can not be overlooked is our diet. Eighty percent of our agricultural land is used not to feed humans, but to feed the animals that we use to feed ourselves. We don’t need this much meat, in fact, we’re dying premature deaths and suffering chronic health issues because we eat more meat than we need. The evidence we have suggests that we are capable of living perfectly healthy lives without any need for meat, eggs or dairy. This would allow us to dramatically reduce the amount of land we use and free up large parts of the planet for wild nature.

Similarly, there are aspects to our standard of living that we take for granted, that we will simply be unable to sustain if we aim to live within the limits of nature. You can’t make air travel sustainable. Vaclav Smil explained that we would need batteries three orders of magnitude better than the currently available ones, to enable electric intercontinental flight. That’s just not something that the laws of physics allow.

The airline industry knows its business model is fundamentally unsustainable, but they insist on peddling vaporware solutions, of biofuels that will somehow be cultivated at some point on a rapidly warming planet that will be struggling to feed nine billion people. My suggestion is: Ditch the airplane, learn to enjoy your own environment.

The electric car needs to be understood as a red herring too, a techno-fix that ignores the simple fact that our economy is subject to ecological and material limits. To meet Britain’s climate targets alone would require a doubling in the world’s cobalt production by 2050. This is simply not something that’s going to happen, electric vehicles will be expensive toys for our rich, made affordable through subsidies. The future instead consists of public transport and bicycles.

All of this will also require a cultural transition, in the sense that people will have to become willing to live their lives pursuing other goals than endlessly climbing the status ladder and expressing how succesful they are through material consumption. All the IPCC scenarios are traditionally divided into category A and category B. Category A consists of societies with an economic focus, whereas category B consists of societies with an environmental emphasis, where people cherish non-material values.

How do we bring about such a cultural transition? The answer, if you were to ask me, is found in the very plants and fungi with whom we share this beautiful planet. One of the founders of Extinction Rebellion pointed out that psychedelics helped her see the world in a different perspective, she calls for mass psychedelic resistance. Scientists have found that psychedelics shift people’s value orientation, towards increased nature-relatedness and decreased authoritarian political views.

Ultimately, this is the kind of society I want to live in, one where the widespread consumption of psychedelics is deeply integrated into the culture. I don’t just want Europe to undergo this cultural transformation. I want this cultural transformation to take place around the whole world, the people in Saudi Arabia and China are as much in need of this shift in perspective as we here in the Western world are. There are people around the world, who are losing their lives or suffering severe distress, because they do not have access to psychedelics. I see it as a honour, to help spread access to and information about these miracles of nature.

The way forward

I should be blatantly honest here and explain to you that I don’t expect this problem is going to be solved. I expect we will rapidly find ourselves overshooting the two degree target, which is what most scientific studies suggest too. At that point, the cost of extracting fossil fuels and the damage caused by climate change to our society will become so severe that political instability will follow.

The peaceful protest movements we see now will be insufficient to bring about the political transformation we need. This does not matter however, because the protest movements are still valuable, in demonstrating to our governments that we have many people who are willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary.

More importantly, the peaceful protest movements are laying the foundation for networks of radical activists who will be willing to take the necessary measures that help rapidly reduce our impact on nature. I expect that the tactics of groups like Extinction Rebellion will rapidly begin to evolve. We are now seeing the first uses of drones to block flights on busy airports, which causes millions of dollars of economic damage by forcing the airports to ground all flights for days. Rest assured that other tactics will soon follow.

And finally, let us imagine everything is indeed hopeless. In that case, we are still expressing our gratitude towards the living Earth and demonstrating to our children that we do not wish to betray them, that we are willing to take the effort needed to ensure that they can live happy and dignified lives. This too is important.

Greta’s parents consented to her protests when they noticed it genuinely made her feel better. Personally, I have found that after protesting today with Extinction Rebellion, I have found a renewed sense of energy, whereas I generally find myself feeling mentally exhausted on most days. My intention is to become more active in the time ahead of us.

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