Recent polls have shown that the number of US citizens who believe in climate change is rising (see here, here, and here). These numbers have been hailed as positive—even as “a new era of public concern about climate change”—and they are positive, as far as such things go (with US Americans ranking 3rd in the world for climate change denial). They reflect media coverage of extreme climate events all over the world and the well-publicized predictions of respected organizations that are projecting disaster within thirty, twelve, or even five years. However, it’s also true that these percentages go up and down over time and that once current storylines run their course—and summer is over in the northern hemisphere—the rise in numbers will prove to be soft.
But “soft” is also how we could describe belief in climate change in the US in general. Regardless of claims made to pollsters, virtually all of us—both socially (which is increasingly online) and to ourselves (more importantly)—are actually climate change deniers when the rubber hits the road.
An apt expression, we might say, since we all need to stop driving.
That wasn’t intentional, but yes, let’s start there.
If We Were Serious About Climate Change…
Our society and our everyday lives would look much much different if we were truly attempting to address the enormous phenomena that is climate change.
About cars: all unnecessary travel dependent on fossil fuels must cease immediately. For the time being, the warehouse-on-wheels that delivers our food supply needs to keep running; remaking our agricultural system so that communities are providing for themselves locally is a process that will not happen overnight, or in one season. But the culture of individual car-driving as necessity (and plane travel as privilege) must end.
That in itself is a major conversion. Our sprawling urban environments are not set up for walking and biking and not a single city in the US can boast of an adequate public transportation system. How will people go to the store? How will they visit a doctor? How will they get to work?
Aah, work. That’s gotta go too. Not labor, mind you. There’s a tremendous amount of that, what with the need to radically transform the food system and the built environment (which are just starting points). But most jobs are not merely useless, they’re part of the problem: making things we don’t need, providing services that are superfluous, and contributing to the collective carbon footprit.
But what about rent? The mortgage? The car loan, student debt, and credit card balance? Guess what? They’re abolished too. We don’t have the time or resources to pour even one more drop into those money pits. The folks who were making their living off these and other “financial services” (i.e., banking, investing, insurance, real estate) will be infinitely more useful to society when they’re hoeing gardens, repairing bicycles, and–best of all–planting trees.
That’s a big one: reforestation. We really can’t plant too many trees. Yes, they are the perfect carbon-sequestration mechanisms; yes, they deliver other “ecosystem services” in terms of moisture, erosion and biodiversity; yes, they could provide human sustenance as intentionally designed polycultures. On top of all that, and at heart, by planting trees we will resume a relationship—an aware connection with nature that we severed by choice—and in so doing, we will reconfigure our senses and our outlooks, both as individuals and collectively.
Now we’re talking. Or rather, if we get this far, now we’re finally moving beyond words and ideas and now we’re genuinely living; being and doing in conscious interrelationship with our environment; dropping our dominating ways and re-entering the real world.
The honest to goodness “real world”: where everyone else has been this whole time, btw.
The birds never lived in denial. Or the insects and the other animals. Or the trees, the flowers, or the fungus. Not the rivers, wind and rocks. Only us humans checked out for a minute there—maybe starting with fire, but certainly with the plow, and in the worst way yet with Capital—but we’ve got to drop all that shit and get back to peaceful coexistence. Like, yesterday.
The exact methods and timing of these massive transitions will depend on logistical considerations and on circumstances in flux, so we will be making much of it up as we go along. As such, our path cannot be more than generally outlined ahead of time. But we know that it will be all about keeping in focus our endpoint: a completely refashioned society, totally unrecognizable from our own, operating on an altogether different set of principles. At the foundation of this will be honesty, the opposite of denial.
Here we are, back at denial.
Regardless of what polls say, we can measure our current level of climate change denial by how much our current activities contrast with the vital labors described above.
Put another way: any of us who are not actively working on this stuff are climate change deniers, and that’s nearly 100% of the US population. We haven’t even started yet. As an example, and sticking with the subject of driving, as long as our society is car-dependent, and we are taking no steps toward changing that (which we aren’t), then we are operating as if climate change is not real. That’s climate change denial.
It boils down to this: Saying we “believe in” something doesn’t cut it if we’re not pursuing substantive action. Whether it’s “too late” remains to be seen. In the meantime, it is imperative that we do our best to act responsibly.
Ironically, some climate change deniers are taking the subject more seriously than many advocates when they speak out against mitigation efforts that they fear will “commandeer industry,” lead to “the complete subversion of private property in America,” or “destroy capitalism.” These folks are mocked by self-professed “woke” people, but they’re correct that all these things and more need to happen. What’s more, a class of blue voters definitely exists that is far more interested in virtue-signaling and techno-fantasizing than in the authentic innovation that is required of our age, and they, too, oppose the drastic changes to the status quo that are necessary. It’s Prius-flavored denialism.
What must we do? Bring the entire system to a halt, as soon as possible. Besides remaking our agriculture and our cities, and abolishing work and finance, we must also halt all wars and military actions and dismantle the industries that support them. If soldiers can be put to use planting trees (as they were in China), great. Otherwise, the days of warplanes, battleships and bombs must be over.
Impossible? No. Writes George Monbiot in “Only rebellion will prevent an ecological apocalypse”:
This is less daunting than we might imagine. As Erica Chenoweth’s historical research reveals, for a peaceful mass movement to succeed, a maximum of 3.5% of the population needs to mobilise. Humans are ultra-social mammals, constantly if subliminally aware of shifting social currents. Once we perceive that the status quo has changed, we flip suddenly from support for one state of being to support for another. When a committed and vocal 3.5% unites behind the demand for a new system, the social avalanche that follows becomes irresistible. Giving up before we have reached this threshold is worse than despair: it is defeatism.
The Value of Individual Efforts
It doesn’t matter who we voted for, how much we recycle, or what we buy—and it’s irrelevant whether we get there by foot, bus or personal gas guzzler—if The System is fundamentally unaltered, nothing has changed.
Individuals making choices like giving up driving for a cycling make no difference in the big picture. None. Why? Because any resources you don’t consume are consumed by someone else. It’s not like we’re each assigned “our share” of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves, and that whatever we personally don’t use stays in the ground. Hardly. We can give up as much as we want and nothing will be saved.
Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Just that we should have no illusions about the institutional ramifications of our personal lifestyle choices, which are nil. By ditching the car, giving up meat, or avoiding media, what we learn about our own bodies, minds and desires can be profound. We can develop our agility in responding to whatever life serves us, and be more effective as participants in the massive collective efforts that must happen.
On a practical level, is it possible that individual skills we develop might help in the hard times coming? To know how to grow food, to fix things, to fight? Yes, certainly. Though fate could just as easily deal us a hand in which our preparedness is irrelevant. We have no way of knowing. But even if we did, and were guaranteed that a particular skill would end up saving our lives on x day in the year two-thousand-twenty-whenever, that is quite apart from the deeper value of such efforts, whose inner benefit is significant regardless of external outcomes.
“Know thyself,” it’s been said, and these are wise words. This is a job that only you can do. No one else is qualified for this work (which some call the work). The rewards gained are relevant whether the amount of time we have left to live is fifty years, fifty weeks or fifty minutes.
(As a side note: when I was living in Portland, Oregon, I ran a bicycle-based urban farming business, and those experiences helped inform my critique of individual efforts. For more, see: “Is Urban Farming Viable in the US?” which is an excerpt from my book about the project.)