Everyday Climate Catastrophe: Only Mass Action Will Save Us

Smoke over Tongue Point, Astoria, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The smokes have cleared this morning. The air outside is in the green zone, AQI 31. I’ve opened the windows to let in some fresh air. Nearing 10 PM last night it was “hazardous” red at 164.  Seattle hit #3 on the list of the world’s most polluted cities.

I went to the upper deck of our common house yesterday evening to look at the red ball sun slowly sinking into the smoky horizon. Across Lake Union, Queen Anne Hill was veiled in haze. The lake was dotted with a multitude of sailboats and motorboats. Of course, people were escaping the heat. But it seemed incongruous, a picture of enjoyment through a dull gray filter. Another vista of our schizoid world.

How many tragic pictures do we have to see? How many announcements? Climate Code Red, say the world’s authoritative climate science group. July the hottest month in history. Shutdown of the Atlantic currents that drive the world’s climate a real prospect. Fires ravaging Southern Europe, Siberia, Western North America.

The world doesn’t fit together. It doesn’t make sense anymore. In the classic double bind that doesn’t let us settle in any one state, we flip from Climate Code Red to going out and getting the groceries. Living schizoid lives. The days seem to go on as usual, but nothing is normal anymore.  It is hard to know what to say that hasn’t been said a million times before. We have to get up and do something unprecedented, to vastly change economies and the values that drive our lives. Yet no one seems to have a leverage point to do it.

If we were really serious, if we treated the climate emergency like it really was an emergency, we would not be talking about 2050 goals, or 2030. We would be talking about what we are going to do today and tomorrow. Literally. We would not be continuing business as usual. We would be doing stuff like we did going into World War II. Shutting down and converting production lines. Where pickup trucks were rolling off, it would be e-bikes and buses.

We would be nationalizing oil companies, cutting oil production and rationing fuel use. Closing off car lanes to make bus lanes and bike paths. Shutting down power plants while retrofitting buildings to reduce energy use and get gas and oil out. Creating a massive program to shift farming to regenerative, soil-building agriculture. Stopping deforestation.

We would be taking it seriously.

Instead, we get an administration with a president that proclaims climate an existential crisis one day, then the next urges OPEC to increase oil production so the economy will not be hurt, while issuing more oil and gas leases than anyone since George W. Bush. Even from the scientists proclaiming the urgent need to change our ways, this is the best we get:

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Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios

The best of scenarios for climate stabilization, “The world shifts gradually, pervasively, toward a more sustainable path,” still leaves us with only a marginal chance to hold at the 1.5 deg. C mark agreed as the point to avert the worst catastrophes. Even as the floods and fires around the world testify we are already well into the danger zone. It is as if the allied nations had said we will “gradually, pervasively” beat Hitler by 1955 or ‘60 when he was overrunning Europe in 1940.

It’s a schizoid world, and I can barely stand it anymore. Sometimes I just want to rip it a new one.

I can take heart in what political scientist Erica Chenoweth found studying 323 campaigns for change from 1900 to 2006, that when 3.5% of people become fully engaged, go to the streets and demand change, it happens. When we fight, we win. She also found that nonviolence is twice as effective as violence, because it engages more people.

“Numbers really matter for building power in ways that can really pose a serious challenge or threat to entrenched authorities or occupations,” Chenoweth says. “There weren’t any campaigns that had failed after they had achieved 3.5% participation during a peak event.”

But we don’t have those numbers yet, or anywhere close. Handfuls of us protest at banks, a few thousand at pipelines. On very rare occasions we get a few hundred thousand together at a single demonstration. But we haven’t seen anything like the sustained, massive people power pressure needed to move the institutions that rule our world, with their sociopathic pursuit of power and profit at the expense of all future generations and the natural world of which we still are a part whether we want to admit it or not.

So we bury our rage and fear and live our schizoid lives, driven by daily necessities, and often by the psychological need to avoid painful realities with which we can barely cope. We flip back and forth, not knowing what to do.

I know two things.

First, we cannot trust the people who run this world. They rose to their high positions in institutions buying into the power and profit assumptions which drive those institutions. If they are not sociopaths going in, the institutions make them into sociopaths in order to rise in the ranks. Some of them may even say the right words to soothe us. Sociopaths are good at that. As always, look at what they do, not what they say.

Second, it’s up to us as ordinary people to take it into our hands. Rise in mass action, in ways that stop business as usual, throw sand in the gears of everyday operations. Until we do, our own personal realities will be as schizoid as the world we live in.

Get into the streets.

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