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Climate Change and Collective Salvation

In the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation, as white male privilege reclaims its desperate grip on our future, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report comes out, informing us that we haven’t got much future left in which to avoid . . . I mean implement . . . serious change

Meanwhile, the midterm elections percolate.

Our quasi-democracy —rife as it is with voter suppression and mainstream media determination to trivialize the issues at stake —remains, nonetheless, the country’s primary means of manifesting public values. Inconvenient as it is to the powerful, this thing called voting is how collective humanity expresses its will —and I believe this will, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, bends toward sanity.

I hope so.

This is about more than numbers and individual “interests.” As the U.N. report is trying to tell us, this is about evolution. We have to become a civilization that is not at perpetual war with planet that sustains it. As Avi Lewis writes, “The only thing that can save us now is the total transformation of our political and economic system.”

The U.N. report warns, in essence, that “humanity has only a dozen years to mitigate global warming and limit the scope of global catastrophe,” as Amy Goodman says on Democracy Now! “Otherwise, millions will be imperiled by increasing droughts, floods, fires and poverty. The sweeping report . . . urges immediate and unprecedented changes to global policy in order to keep global warming at a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

And the primary urgency here is to stop emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which means, to wean ourselves from burning fossil fuels.

How is change at this level possible? I truly do not know, but I refuse to succumb to cynicism. I refuse, as I have put it in the past, to remain trapped in the comfort zone of helplessness. Our political system may seem to be caught up in the trivial interests of the powerful and the manipulation of the fears and prejudices of everyone else, but deep values are managing to emerge nonetheless. The Kavanaugh confirmation fiasco is an example of this, as women by the hundreds of thousands publicly opened their wounds, many for the first time, and challenged politics as usual at its core.

This is democracy beyond the ritual of voting, and it must continue. The infrastructure of privilege and exploitation is being washed away. This is not a simple process. Confronting paradox never is.

The transition we have to make is described with clarity and succinctness by Kevin Anderson, a professor in climate change leadership in the Department of Earth Sciences at Sweden’s Uppsala University, in his Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman.

Noting that about 70 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide come from about 20 percent of the world’s population —that is to say, from those who live in relative wealth and comfort —he hones in his focus on what must change:

“. . . we have to move the productive capacity of our society from building second homes for professors or private jets or private yachts or large four-wheel drive cars — moving from that to building public transport, electrification, improved homes for everyone. So it’s a shift of that productive capacity, the resources and the labor from the . . . luxury for the 20 percent to the essential low-carbon infrastructure for all of us.”

What he’s describing here is a profound social shift, only partially because it seems to curb the rights of the relatively wealthy to live the way they want —from zooming cross-country in their gas-guzzling SUVs to taking a private jet to Saint Barthélemy. The essence of the change he is describing isn’t simply a parental or autocratic no-no to those with money. It’s a consciousness shift: from individual to collective decision-making in how we use the planet’s resources.

And the change Anderson describes ultimately holds not merely the consumers accountable for the destructive use of the planet’s resources, but the corporate, multinational producers as well. The two are, of course, interlocked.

What Anderson doesn’t mention in the interview, but what must be added here, is that militarism and war are also seriously part of the environmentally destructive wastefulness that must be curbed. Whatever its mission, whatever its strategy, whatever its tactics, war is ecocide.

The paradox here is that those who must give up their “rights” —their rights to create climate change —are those with the money and power to declare: no way. No ruling authority is going to suddenly emerge from the great beyond and outlaw private jets or Mar-a-Lago or, my God, defund the Department of Defense.

Facing up to climate change requires human cooperation at an unprecedented level. Avi Lewis puts it this way: “Transforming our economy and society on the scale this crisis requires is the most powerful opportunity we’ve ever had to build a more caring, livable planet.”

Could such an opportunity ever be seized? Perhaps . . . if failure to do so means the end of humanity. The rich have to see beyond their own comfort and profit. The politically powerful have to see beyond war. And we have about 12 years to make the shift.

This seems beyond the realm of the possible, except for the fact that something at this level is necessary. This brings me back to the uproar and the humanity that flowed from our wounds as the Kavanaugh hearings staggered to their conclusion. People see the need for change at the deepest level —change that nurtures the injured and the vulnerable. I can only hope that such change is reflected in the upcoming elections.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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