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The cover of a Bahá’í compilation: for the full text see link.

Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory…. 

(Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Wilmette, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, p. 44) 

This is where we are in history – to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night – a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.

(From ‘Where We Are (after Bede)’ by Stephen Dobyns in Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times edited by Neil Astley – page 52)

Picking up from where we left off last time, what if anything can be done? 

Let’s start with Katherine Hayhoe’s perspective:

The technology and knowledge are there. The economics already make sense. In Texas, where I live, the biggest military base, Fort Hood, switched last year to renewables because they were cheaper than natural gas. And finally, it means weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which is challenged by the fact that the majority of the world’s richest companies have made their money from the fossil fuel economy – so the majority of the wealth and power remains in their hands.

There is the possibility of our using economic leverage:

In the world we live in, money speaks loudly. Thanks to the growing divestment movement, we have seen cities, universities and entire countries, in the case of Ireland, withdrawing investments from fossil fuel assets. This isn’t only happening for ethical reasons but for practical ones as well. As clean energy continues to expand, those assets could become stranded. When money talks the world listens

Naomi Klein makes essentially the same point in This Changes Everything, emphasising at the same time the need for reinvestment in renewable energy (page 403):

The benefit of an accompanying reinvestment strategy, or a visionary investment strategy from the start, is that it has the potential to turn the screws on the industry much tighter, strengthening the renewable energy sector so that it is better able to compete directly with fossil fuels, while bolstering the frontline land defenders who need to be able to offer real economic alternatives to their communities.

Investment agencies active in the UK are beginning to respond. AXA is one such example. 

This is not an option though for those with no money to invest.

Veganism seems to be a possibility, according to one Guardian report: 

In May, scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet declared that avoiding meat and dairy products was the single biggest thing an individual could do for the environment.

Joseph Poore, of Oxford University, who led the research, said: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth – not just greenhouse gases but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

According to the supermarket chain Waitrose, a third of UK consumers say they have deliberately reduced the amount of meat they eat or removed it from their diet entirely. One in eight Britons are now vegetarian or vegan, and a further 21% say they are flexitarian – where a largely vegetable-based diet is supplemented occasionally with meat.

For health reasons three years ago I switched to soya yoghurt and oat milk. Recently, in the light of all these investigations I am working my way towards going vegan. I don’t have a problem giving up eggs. They’re boring. But cheese, that’s another story. Cheese is second only to coffee as one of my must-have intakes. 

However, as I experimented with various vegan versions, I discovered a surprisingly convincing blue-cheese-flavoured vegan option in Holland and Barretts, even though it’s as white as a sheet. What’s even more surprising is that the cheese slices and grated cheese I bought from Waitrose, though they contain high percentages of coconut oil, don’t taste of coconut at all. This is good news for me, because if they did, it would be a deal breaker. I hate coconut, a mysterious impediment to a good life that my wife finds hard to understand.  

I can’t quite convince myself that this move will checkmate the fossil fuel fanatics, but it seems a step in the right direction, however small, similar to refusing to buy South African produce during apartheid. A possible sign that I might be right in that respect were the packets of vegan cheese nestling alongside other produce on the butcher’s stall in Hereford’s indoor market the other day. ‘Were the stall holders hedging their bets?’ I wondered with a broad grin on my face.

Moving towards a vegan diet is slightly challenging even for a long-term vegetarian like me, and I still have not managed to eliminate milk entirely from my coffee and tea (and I know I still shouldn’t be drinking coffee – its carbon footprint is too big). For most people it is likely to seem too big a step. Thankfully recent research suggests there is a less demanding but still effective step:

The first science-based diet that tackles both the poor food eaten by billions of people and averts global environmental catastrophe has been devised. It requires huge cuts in red meat-eating in western countries and radical changes across the world.

The “planetary health diet” was created by an international commission seeking to draw up guidelines that provide nutritious food to the world’s fast-growing population. At the same time, the diet addresses the major role of farming – especially livestock – in driving climate change, the destruction of wildlife and the pollution of rivers and oceans.

Globally, the diet requires red meat and sugar consumption to be cut by half, while vegetables, fruit, pulses and nuts must double. But in specific places the changes are stark. North Americans need to eat 84% less red meat but six times more beans and lentils. For Europeans, eating 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds meets the guidelines.

The article recognises that mobilising sufficient people to adopt this diet won’t be easy:

The report acknowledges the radical change it advocates and the difficulty of achieving it: “Humanity has never aimed to change the global food system on the scale envisioned. Achieving this goal will require rapid adoption of numerous changes and unprecedented global collaboration and commitment: nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.”

They do not feel that it is insanely utopian and completely beyond reach, though:

But it notes that major global changes have occurred before, such as the Green Revolution that hugely increased food supplies in the 1960s. Moves to tax red meat, prevent the expansion of farmland and protect swathes of ocean must all be considered, the commission said.

The Bahá’í Perspective

Not surprisingly I have also turned to the Bahá’í Revelation for some possible answers.

In his book Revelation and Social Reality Paul Lample helps explain the hard realities. The Universal House of Justice describes it as the work of centuries. Lample writes (page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

He amplifies the second point later (page 109):

. . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others.

In fact (page 210) ‘Spiritual progress and moral behaviour are won by degrees, in incrementally better actions day by day, in an incrementally better world generation after generation.’

Nor will it be achieved by merely materialistic motivation nor by self-interest no matter how enlightened (pages 147-48):

The profound and far-reaching changes, the unity and unprecedented cooperation required to reorient the world towards an environmentally sustainable and just future, will only be possible by touching the human spirit, by appealing to those universal values which alone can empower individuals and people to act in accordance with the long-term interests of the planet and humanity as a whole.

Progress in turn results from the mutually reinforcing interaction of individual and society (page 58): ‘Living a Bahá’í life involves the twofold purpose of individual and social transformation.’ He quotes the Guardian’s insight (Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to an individual Baha’i, 17 February 1933) that:

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

This is a cogent account of the process of creative consciousness-raising. So, what’s my problem exactly? 

There are no prizes for spotting it. If it will take us centuries to arrive at the wide-spread lifting of our collective consciousness to a level that would make effective action against global-warming not just possible but absolutely certain, and we only have a few decades at best, what’s going to happen, especially when we have dynamics at work such as Katherine Hayhoe describes?

The more doom-filled reports the scientists release, the stronger the pushback from politicians whose power, ideology and funding depends on maintaining the status quo, and who are supported by those who fear the solutions to climate change more than they fear its impacts.

Can we do anything effective to forestall climate armageddon?

The Bahá’í International Community, an NGO, issued a statement in 2015. This was in response to the UN’s Agenda 30, in which a key paragraph reads:

We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We resolve also to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.

The BIC statement includes the following:

Baha’i efforts at social action seek to reach beyond establishing a mere set of activities, and address deeper issues such as modes of expression and patterns of thought and behaviour.

Such endeavours have direct relevance to the goals articulated in Agenda 2030. For example, . . ., in-depth exploration of the implications of the oneness of humankind has fostered a growing sense of world citizenship and strengthened commitment to more sustainable lifestyles (SDG 12). [Goal 12 reads: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.]

Goal 13 reads: ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’ and includes, amongst a list of mostly governmental initiatives, ‘13.3 Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning.’ This falls directly into the focus of the Bahá’í programme for engaging youth in community service, and the BIC includes a reference to it in their 2015 statement:

Young adolescents, for example, build their capacity to undertake acts of service, but also to discern what service is needed in their community. Is there a lack of jobs providing a sufficient living wage (SDG 8)? Distrust and hostility between ethnic or racial groups (SDG 16)? Exploitation and pollution of the natural environment (SDG 13)? Developing the ability to make such assessments empowers individuals to formulate action according to their own perceptions and values — prompted by a dynamic and advancing process of action and reflection.

In addition to that, Arthur Dahl, whose blog post is linked to the International Environment Forum, a Bahá’í inspired organization for environment and sustainability, summarises what we need to do as follows:

Change ourselves. Addressing our demand for energy is the biggest challenge. When we use an electrical appliance, spend time inside a building, use hot water, travel anywhere in a vehicle, or buy or eat anything, we are contributing to the problem. We need to start today to make sacrifices: drive less, fly less, consume less meat, have fewer children. A plant-based diet reduces a food carbon footprint by 90%. Avoid beef with a carbon footprint three times pork and six times chicken. Tropical fruits imported by air, and cheese are other offenders. Reduce short car journeys; car-pool, bike or walk instead. But one vacation flight would wipe out the benefits of going vegetarian for a year or driving 2500 km less. In your home, replace appliances with energy-efficient models, lower the temperature of hot water, use a low-flow showerhead, do not leave appliances on standby, and dry washing outside. Smart thermostats can reduce household emissions by up to 26%. Moving to a smaller home can cut emissions by 27%. At the office, turning off lights and your workstation when leaving, and unplugging your phone charger, can cut emissions by up to 28%. Working from home in the US can mean driving 77% less.

Above all, there is a lack of political will for the biggest transformation ever. People have to demand these changes with mass movements. This may seem impossible, but we have to try. We need to convince everyone that green alternatives improve our quality of life as well as the environment.

There is a compilation of more relevant Bahá’í quotations at this link.

In November 2017 the Universal House of Justice, at the Bahá’í World Centre, wrote a letter in response to issues raised with it. The entire letter requires careful reading. I will only share a small number of key insights here. They acknowledge that ‘there does exist at present a striking degree of agreement among experts in relevant fields about the cause and impact of climate change.’ However they warn that ‘A phenomenon as complex as climate change cannot be reduced to simple propositions or simplistic policy prescriptions.’ There are traps we need to avoid:

Bahá’ís have to avoid being drawn into the all too common tendencies evident in contemporary discourse to delineate sharp dichotomies, become ensnared in contests for power, and engage in intractable debate that obstructs the search for viable solutions to the world’s problems.

They also point out that:

The incessant focus on generating and magnifying points of difference rather than building upon points of agreement leads to exaggeration that fuels anger and confusion,

This does not prevent Bahá’í involvement:

While as a fundamental principle Bahá’ís do not engage in partisan political affairs, this should not be interpreted in a manner that prevents the friends from full and active participation in the search for solutions to the pressing problems facing humanity.

Care needs to be taken though in how this is done:

Whenever Bahá’ís do participate in activities associated with this topic in the wider society, they can help to contribute to a constructive process by elevating the discourse above partisan concerns and self-interest to strive to achieve unity of thought and action.

Hopefully I have not transgressed that injunction in my desire to explain my position.

The Current State of Play

Naomi Klein detects signs of hope, however fragile, both in terms of more effective action, thanks in part to the concerted opposition from diverse interest groups triggered by the high-handed over-reaching of the fracking and tar oil industries, and to a changing perspective about power relations with our home planet.

She quotes the words of Melinda Laboucan-Massino, a charismatic spokesperson for the Lubicon First Nation (page 322):

‘People are listening now,’ she told me, with tears in her eyes in the summer of 2013. ‘But it took a long time for people to get to that place.’ And this, she said, means that ‘there is hope. But it can be pretty dire sometimes in Alberta.’

Recent developments in Canada, logged by the Guardian newspaper, suggest there is still a long way to go, and ground that seemed to have been secured remains under possible threat. For example, ‘In 1997 the supreme court put an end to one of the longest-running legal battles in Canadian history, ruling that the Wet’suwet’en had effectively demonstrated clear title to their land. The plaintiffs exhausted more than an estimated $25m on legal fees – only to have a retrial called, leaving uncertainty around their claim.’

Klein’s insight concerning our relations with the earth, rooted too deeply in our earlier exploitative arrogance and misplaced sense of power, is also hopefully spreading (page 285):

In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely. That knowledge should inform all we do.

I was reminded of these words of Bahá’u’lláh as I read that (Persian Hidden Words: No 20):

. . . ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you. Were ye but to open your eyes, ye would, in truth, prefer a myriad griefs unto this joy, and would count death itself better than this life.

Every great and successful civilisation in the past has inexorably expanded until it reached an impassible barrier that meant it had to either change direction or die. Those that were flexible enough to change direction, and China seems to have been one such so far at least, managed to find a way of dodging the bullet and flourishing even across millennia. The rest of them are now extinct as civilisations, though, because they were not global, they didn’t take too many other peoples down with them. If, as major global polluters, we don’t want to join them, and take most of the rest of the world with us, we’ll have to take action along the right lines right now, it seems to me.

It should be a no-brainer, then, to choose total transformation rather than annihilation within decades. 

Paradoxically, the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat and the totality of its potentially destructive power may be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning, The Uninhabitable Earth (page 25):

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.

So, which do we collectively prefer – transformation of annihilation? The answer to that will lie in the overall pattern of our actions from now on.

Meanwhile I seek to slake my imperishable thirst for an immediate, impossible solution to this intractable problem with the less traumatic puzzle of a sealed-room-murder episode of Death in Paradise, all too aware the title might be prophetic, and not just for the inhabitants of islands in the tropics, but also for those of us who live in the high tech cocoon of an intensely industrialised world. 

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Reflect upon the inner realities of the universe, the secret wisdoms involved, the enigmas, the interrelationships, the rules that govern all. For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever . . .

Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá page 157. 

[In the novel, Mary Treat, a 19th Century naturalist and Darwinist, tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants]

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’ 

(Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver – page 83):

Denialism

At the end of the last post we left this question hanging in there air: why are we still not doing enough?

To go some way towards answering that, we need to factor in the force that Keith Kahn-Harris points towards in his book Denial: The Unspeakable Truth (page 15 – my emphasis): ‘[The] desire, for something not to be true, is the driver of denialism.’

Both Naomi Klein (page 168) and Kahn-Harris (page 17) agree this involves both ‘knowing and not knowing.’ This makes it at some level motivated, not simply the result of primitive wiring or lazy default modes. Keith Kahn-Harris (page 25) pins it down as follows: ‘denialism can usually be traced back to a kind of founding trauma, a shocking explosion of knowledge that directly threatens something fundamental to oneself or to a group of which one is a part,’ and later adds (page 73: ‘Humans still do the same short-sighted things [as the Easter Islanders did]: they just can’t avoid the burden of knowledge of the consequences.’

I can’t resist sharing his quotation (page 72) from Jared Diamond’s classic book on the extinction of civilisations, Collapse (page 114):

I have often asked myself, ‘What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?’ Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!”? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palm trees somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering’?  

In a similar way, Jeremy Rifkin brings the Roman Empire into the frame in his The Empathic Civilisation (pages 249-50):

The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.

Cognitive Dissonance

How plain has this pikestaff got to be before we take action?

This is where some psychobabble has to creep in. I think we’re dealing with our old enemy, dissonance reduction, here. We’ve met that already on this blog in terms of the slave trade and colonisation. John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, by degrading the status of both populations to the somehow subhuman. 

Keith Kahn-Harris states (page 80: ‘As ecological destruction became unspeakable, global warming denialism emerged.’ A conscious recognition that we were destroying the planet would require us to revise our prevailing exploitative model of so-called civilisation and take action, or else label ourselves as revolting vandals on a global scale. Reducing this cognitive dissonance makes the temptation to deny the reality of manmade climate change irresistible, especially in the minds of those profiting most from the destruction who, incidentally, wield the most power in our society. 

There are vested and powerful interests capable of both insidiously manipulating our perspective and abusing power to block the implementation of effective remedies. Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything (page 151) describes the situation in America but it clearly applies more widely, though in slightly different ways in different places: 

All these attempts to fix glaring and fundamental flaws in the system have failed because large corporations wield far too much political power – a power exerted through corporate campaign contributions, many of them secret; through almost unfettered access to regulators via their lobbyists; through the notorious revolving door between business and government…’

She later explains (page 178): ‘Post-Enlightenment Western culture does not offer a roadmap for how to live that is not based on an extractivist, nonreciprocal relationship with nature.’

Too many of us have bought into this materialist myth, making it easy for those who benefit most from untrammelled growth to carry on unhindered.

Doughnut Economics (For Source of Image see link)

Signs of Hope?

There are signs that younger economists are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75): 

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Another book, The Econocracy, speaking on behalf of young economists, seeks to redress the balance by dethroning the neo-liberal orthodoxy and democratising it (page 5): 

We are also trying to democratise economics because we believe that at its core economics should be a public discussion about how we organise society. There is an important role for experts here, but this role is as a humble advisor not a detached authority figure.

It will obviously be some time yet before such proposals have a major impact on how our society approaches these issues. 

In the meantime, things don’t look good.

Most of the attempts in the recent past to mobilise resistance to global-warming have been seriously flawed, as Klein explains (page 212-13):  

In addition to not doing much to actually lower emissions, these various approaches also served to reinforce the very ‘extrinsic’ values that we now know are greatest psychological barriers to climate action – from the worship of wealth and fame for their own sakes to the idea that change is something that is handed down from above by our betters, rather than something we demand for ourselves… Because the ‘solutions’ to climate change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of the problem. After all, if climate change really was as dire as Al Gore argued… Wouldn’t they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel companies?

How far from a tipping point?

Jeremy Rikin introduces evidence to illustrate his thesis that we are close to self-destruction (The Empathic Civilisation – page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

We are establishing ever wider links with others (page 26) ‘yet the early light of global empathic consciousness is dimmed by the growing recognition it may come too late to address the spectre of climate change and the possible extinction of the human species.’

He then spells out what that means (ibid):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):

The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.

There is obviously a major problem here. 

The window of opportunity to turn things round is now very narrow and the deadline very tight, but the blockages to progress are massive and are likely to take more time than we have got to remove them. 

Katherine Hayhoe points to one key issue:

We haven’t yet reached the tipping point to motivate sufficient action. But there has been a change. Ten years ago, few people felt personally affected by climate change. It seemed very distant. Today, most people can point to a specific way climate affects their daily lives. This is important because the three key steps to action are accepting that climate change is real, recognising it affects us, and being motivated to do something to fix it. Opinion polls in the US show 70% of people agree the climate is changing, but a majority still say it won’t affect them. 

While she sees some hope of progress she’s not optimistic that it will be enough:

I’d put my money on a gradual bend away from a higher scenario, which is where we are now, until accumulating and worsening climate disasters eventually lead to a collective “oh shit!” moment, when people finally realise climate impacts do pose a far greater threat than the solutions. At that point, I would hope the world would suddenly ramp up its carbon reduction to the scale of a Manhattan Project or a moon race and we would finally be able to make serious progress. The multitrillion-dollar question is simply when that tipping point in opinion will come, and whether it will be too late for civilisation as we know it. 

Even so, recent comparisons with how we tackled the hole in the ozone layer highlight the scale of the problem:

The reality is that environmental action was easier then because the world had more ecological breathing room, capitalism was less dominant and the corporate push-back – and control over politics – was weaker. The ozone layer was a relatively simple fix compared with the climate, which is the biggest, most complex, multidimensional challenge humanity has ever faced. It is one thing confronting a handful of chemical firms, quite another to take on the world’s fossil fuel companies, car manufacturers, cement-makers and agribusiness conglomerates, representing hundreds of millions of jobs, trillions of dollars and 200-odd years of industrial development.

So what exactly can and should we do right now?

More of that next time.

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A coal-fired power station near the town of Ptolemaida in northern Greece. Photograph: Alexandros Avramidis/Reuters

Late last month the Guardian flagged up one of the latest warnings about the inadequacy of our response so far to global warming. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Thinktank says not enough is being done to cut coal burning and end fossil fuel subsidies

Removing coal from the global energy mix is taking too long, too many forests are still being destroyed, and fossil fuel subsidies are ongoing despite their distorting effect on the market, a study has found.

There has also been insufficient progress in agriculture to stop harmful practices that increase carbon dioxide production, and heavy industry is not doing enough to use energy more efficiently, according to analysis carried out by the World Resources Institute thinktank.

Without progress on all these fronts, the world is unlikely to see global greenhouse gas emissions peak in 2020, which is likely to be necessary to stay within the 1.5C or 2C warming thresholds that scientists have identifiedas key to the future safety of the planet.

But the analysis also found important steps forward, on renewable energy, curtailing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping, and public sector investment in reducing emissions. These suggest progress in other aspects of tackling climate change is also possible, with greater effort from the public and private sectors.

The WIR looked at six key goals that have been pegged as necessary to cause emissions to peak in 2020 and achieve the targets of the 2015 Paris agreement. They include goals on energy, transport, land use, industry, infrastructure and finance.

The report found that renewable energy accounted for about a quarter of global electricity generation in 2017, and more than two-thirds of new power generation capacity. By 2020, electricity from renewables is likely to be consistently cheaper than fossil fuel energy, making it possible that 30% of electricity could come from renewable sources by 2030, one of the Mission2020 milestones.

But coal-fired generation is still increasing, with coal-fired power plants continuing to be built in some areas, while existing plants are not being removed from service fast enough. Electric vehicles, meanwhile, comprise 1.4% of overall sales, making a 2020 milestone of 15% of new car sales hard to reach.

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Mayer Hillman

Because I’ve been soft-pedalling my blog recently, I’ve not been regularly sharing snippets from what I read in the way I used to. However, the other day I came across an article on the Guardian website and felt that I just have to spread the word. It’s about an interview Patrick Barkham had with Mayer Hillman. The force of it is compelling. I am not a climate change sceptic but I am wondering whether I might just have been minimising the problem, wrapped in a cocoon of comfortable self-deception. Perhaps I needed a wake up call. Anyway, judge for yourselves. Below is a short extract. For the full post see link.

The 86-year-old social scientist says accepting the impending end of most life on Earth might be the very thing needed to help us prolong it.

We’re doomed,” says Mayer Hillman with such a beaming smile that it takes a moment for the words to sink in. “The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.”

Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, does say so. His bleak forecast of the consequence of runaway climate change, he says without fanfare, is his “last will and testament”. His last intervention in public life. “I’m not going to write anymore because there’s nothing more that can be said,” he says when I first hear him speak to a stunned audience at the University of East Anglia late last year.

From Malthus to the Millennium Bug, apocalyptic thinking has a poor track record. But when it issues from Hillman, it may be worth paying attention. Over nearly 60 years, his research has used factual data to challenge policymakers’ conventional wisdom. In 1972, he criticised out-of-town shopping centres more than 20 years before the government changed planning rules to stop their spread. In 1980, he recommended halting the closure of branch line railways – only now are some closed lines reopening. In 1984, he proposed energy ratings for houses – finally adopted as government policy in 2007. And, more than 40 years ago, he presciently challenged society’s pursuit of economic growth.

. . .

While the focus of Hillman’s thinking for the last quarter-century has been on climate change, he is best known for his work on road safety. He spotted the damaging impact of the car on the freedoms and safety of those without one – most significantly, children – decades ago. Some of his policy prescriptions have become commonplace – such as 20mph speed limits – but we’ve failed to curb the car’s crushing of children’s liberty. In 1971, 80% of British seven- and eight-year-old children went to school on their own; today it’s virtually unthinkable that a seven-year-old would walk to school without an adult. As Hillman has pointed out, we’ve removed children from danger rather than removing danger from children – and filled roads with polluting cars on school runs. He calculated that escorting children took 900m adult hours in 1990, costing the economy £20bn each year. It will be even more expensive today.

Our society’s failure to comprehend the true cost of cars has informed Hillman’s view on the difficulty of combatting climate change. But he insists that I must not present his thinking on climate change as “an opinion”. The data is clear; the climate is warming exponentially. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the world on its current course will warm by 3C by 2100. Recent revised climate modelling suggested a best estimate of 2.8C but scientists struggle to predict the full impact of the feedbacks from future events such as methane being released by the melting of the permafrost.

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Pollution in Shanghai

I meant to share this Guardian July article by David Runciman some time ago but it somehow slipped through the net. However, I think it makes so many important points, I still need to post a link no matter how late in the day. It resonates for me not just because the issue itself is so critical, and not just because discussion of it has become ensnared in the fake-news zeitgeist, but also because it highlights the importance of asserting uncertainty, one of my hobby horses:

We live in an age when mistrust of politics has spilled over into mistrust of expertise, and vice versa. To respond with ever-greater certainty in the name of science is a big mistake. Expertise doesn’t just need humility. It also needs to reclaim the idea of scepticism from the people who have abused it. Experts need to find a way of expressing uncertainty without feeling it undermines their expertise. Voicing doubt has been allowed to become a synonym for admitting you were wrong. The way out is to stop insisting that you were right in the first place.

Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Doubts about the science are being replaced by doubts about the motives of scientists and their political supporters. Once this kind of cynicism takes hold, is there any hope for the truth?

Last month Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. For his supporters, it provided evidence, at last, that the president is a man of his word. He may not have kept many campaign promises, but he kept this one. For his numerous critics it is just another sign of how little Trump cares about evidence of any kind. His decision to junk the Paris accord confirms Trump as the poster politician for the “post-truth” age.

But this is not just about Trump. The motley array of candidates who ran for the Republican presidential nomination was divided on many things, but not on climate change. None of them was willing to take the issue seriously. In a bitterly contentious election, it was a rare instance of unanimity. The consensus that climate is a non-subject was shared by all the candidates who appeared in the first major Republican debate in August 2015 – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee and Trump. Republican voters were offered 10 shades of denialism.

As Huckabee quipped in January 2015, any talk of global warming was a distraction from the real dangers the country faced: “A beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.” Trump’s remarks on climate may have more been erratic (“I want to use hairspray!” he said at one point, confusing global warming with the hole in the ozone layer) but their consistent theme was that manmade climate change is a “hoax”, perpetrated by the enemies of the US, who may or may not include China.

Climate science has become a red rag to the political right. The scientific consensus is clear: more than 95% of climate researchers agree that human activity is causing global warming, and that without action to combat it we are on a path to dangerous temperature rises from pre-industrial levels. But the mere existence of this consensus gets taken by its political opponents as a priorievidence of a stitch-up. Why else would scientists and left-leaning politicians be agreeing with each other all the time if they weren’t scratching each others’ backs? Knowledge is easily turned into “elite” knowledge, which is tantamount to privileged snobs telling ordinary people what to think. Trump’s stance reflects the mutual intolerance that now exists between those promoting the scientific consensus and those for whom the consensus is just another political racket. Trump didn’t create this division. He is simply exploiting it.

It is tempting for anyone on the scientific side of the divide to want to apportion all the blame to the “alt-facts” crowd, who see elite conspiracies everywhere. But there is more going on here than dumb politics versus smart science. The facts are not just the innocent victims of politics. The facts have long been put in the service of politics, which is what fuels the suspicions of those who wish to deny them. The politicisation can cut both ways.

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 Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Guardian

Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Guardian

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I will be posting links to related topics as and when I find them as this sequence of posts unfolds. Below is an extract from a thought provoking Guardian article by  on the urgent need for action concerning climate change. It adds useful background thinking to the outline I described from Rifkin’s book The Empathic Civilisation which focused on the cost in entropy of our global culture: for the full post see link.

“For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes – population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels – concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself.” That was Margaret Thatcher, in a speech to Britain’s scientific elite in 1988. Thatcher was no climate change denier. She told the Royal Society that her government supported the idea of sustainable economic development, and concluded: “Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world, provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late 20th century.”

It was, though, just one speech at a time of great global upheaval: China was liberalising its economy; apartheid was in its death throes in South Africa; above all, the cold war was coming to an end with defeat for the Soviet Union. “We know what works,” US president George HW Bush said at the time. “Free markets work.”

The market model spread quickly to parts of the world that previously it could not touch: to China, where the reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping were accelerated; to India, where the idea that the world’s biggest democracy could go it alone was abandoned; to the Soviet Union and its former satellites, which received a strong dose of economic shock treatment. Within five years, the reach of the market economy had been extended to an additional 3 billion people. . . .

To have a realistic prospect of preventing global temperatures from rising by more than the previously recognised danger threshold of 2C, scientists say it is not possible to burn all the proven fossil fuel reserves owned by companies and governments. Between two-thirds and four-fifths will need to be left in the ground.

The question, therefore, is whether it is possible to marry two seemingly contradictory objectives. Can we imagine a future that is cleaner, greener and sustainable – one that avoids climate armageddon – without abandoning the idea of growth and, thus, forcing living standards into decline? The answer is that it will be hellishly difficult, but it is just about feasible if we make the right choices – and start making them now.

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I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme.

This post was first published in 2009. I am aware that the climate debate has moved on. However, from a Bahá’í point of view the debate that still rages around this issue needs to be conducted in the right spirit, as this piece explains, and also needs to be addressing the most fundamental issues as the Universal House of Justice is keen we should understand. The most important principle here is expressed in its letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran in March 2013:

The deepening environmental crisis, driven by a system that condones the pillage of natural resources to satisfy an insatiable thirst for more, suggests how entirely inadequate is the present conception of humanity’s relationship with nature.

Unless that is addressed we are likely to be applying a sticking plaster to a bullet hole. 

Sometimes experience transmits an insight that should never be forgotten. I have benefited from at least one such insight, so perhaps I can count myself as lucky. Until that ‘aha!’ moment,  I had tended to trust much of what I read about areas of which I knew little, prepared to accept that the experts knew best.

When I began to study the mind systematically, in the early days I retained this rosy view of things. As I delved deeper, and also at the same time as I became more experienced in applying what I studied to individuals in great need and great distress, the picture darkened. The more I knew and the more I tried to use what I knew to help those with whom I came in contact, the less I understood. Brains, genes, environments, families, cultures swirled around in my head with competing explanations of what was going on. And when I finally decided to specialise in psychosis, it all got a whole lot worse. I discovered that, even though people saw me as an expert, my hard-won understanding was honeycombed with doubt.

I remember also hearing at that time that, were an ‘expert’ to read the newly published literature in her field at the rate of a page a minute 24 hours a day for a whole year, she would be further behind at the end of the year than she was at the beginning.

Now compared to the planet earth we live on, the human head is pretty small. We shouldn’t let that deceive us though.  Wikipedia estimates that there are 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, as many as there are stars in our galaxy. Each of these nerve cells can potentially contact as many as 10,000 other nerve cells. This means that there are something like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible connections in the brain (this is 10 to the power of 20, I think: I’ve always had a shaky grasp of the idea of ‘power’ in any context and most of all in this one. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia the total atoms in the universe number 10 to the power of 80.) Another scientist sheds doubt on a widespread factoid that there are more connections in the brain that there are atoms in the universe and prefers to state the issue more cautiously by saying there are are more connections in the brain than there are stars in the Milky Way.

For source of image see link

Neuronal Connections – For source of image see link

Even though none of us will manage to establish connections between all our neurons, it’s clear the brain is extremely complex. Once we get to that level of complexity in one element of a complex system which involves DNA (the human genome occupies a total of just over 3 billion DNA base pairs), societal variables (I’ve no idea how many: try class, race, nationality, gender, age just for starters) and cultural memes (virtually infinite even if they can be organised into classes), we can see that the hope of achieving absolute clarity about what’s going on overall with absolute certainty is pretty slim indeed. Finding a fleck of gold in the sands of the Sahara would be a doddle by comparison.

As for keeping up with the literature across so many disciplines, we would need several lifetimes, rather in the way that we in the West will need more than one planet to satisfy our idea of our needs. Of course, if everyone else had several lifetimes to write the stuff I had to read, there’d be no hope at all of catching up.

That’s why in Mental Health we ended up with a multitude of different disciplines each looking at the situation from a different angle and generating complementary but not always entirely compatible explanations — models of reality, if you like. There was no way that any one model could justifiably claim it had successfully captured the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The Nature of Truth

That was my epiphany. I discovered the full value of Oscar Wilde‘s insight, one that I had in my youth dismissed as a clever joke: ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’ And I realised that anyone who thought they understood the truth in any of the fields I was familiar with was seriously deluded. At that point as an individual I gave up the quest for certainty about anything reasonably complex even when achieving certainty seemed really important. In fact I came to the conclusion that certainty of that kind is usually dangerous across the board in every specialty.

Only by having sceptical people with divergent views openly exchanging perspectives from a position of humility within a group which is trying to decide what to do in a specific situation was there any hope of doing something helpful rather than destructive. Mutual respect and the ability to listen carefully to those whom you felt might well be wrong even before they opened their mouths to speak, were imperative.

Those factors were all that prevented us from inflicting further pain on those in our care who were already suffering more than they could bear.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to recognise that a disturbed planet is a touch more difficult to diagnose and help than a disturbed person. And not only are there many more variables to consider, but the time scales that we need to encompass are huge. If I try to use my adult experience of the climate (say, 45 years) to make a judgement on the matter, it would be as though I was trying to assess a complex personal problem and define an effective solution in just over eight minutes. I’d have barely scratched the surface.

Selling out the Truth

There is a spreading sense of unease about how the real complexity of the issues is being sold out by other interests in the climate change debate. Frank Furedi‘s description captures one aspect of this exactly:

The problem is not the status of the expert, but its politicisation. All too often experts do not confine their involvement in public discussion to the provision of advice. Many insist that their expertise entitles them to have the last word on policy deliberation. Recent studies indicate that in public debates those whose views run counter to the sentiments of scientific experts find it difficult to voice their beliefs.

From time to time experts also use their authority to silence opponents and close down discussion. For example, those who argue that the debate on climate change is finished claim the authority of scientific expertise. That was how former British environment minister David Miliband justified his 2007 statement that ‘the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’. The impulse to close down debate is also evident in the attacks on Australian geologist Ian Plimer for raising questions about the prevailing consensus on climate change in his book Heaven and Earth. Plimer, it was pointed out with some finality, was not a climate change expert.

I am not competent to determine whether the case for man-made global warming has been conclusively proved as against the real possibility that natural processes are contributing the lion’s share to significant fluctuations in the world-wide climate. It’s about as much as we can do as lay people to get hold of one idea, such as man-made CO2 leads to global warming, and be convinced something needs to be done. Reading Nicholas Stern‘s book makes it clear that understanding all the implications even of that one idea is an extremely demanding task. Following the oscillating swings from doubt to conviction and back again in such books as The Sceptical Environmentalist, The Hot Topic and Chill exposes the unprepared mind to a bewildering welter of complex interacting variables whose exact significance lies beyond my capacity to disentangle. You can get a strong taste of the complexity of the issues by looking at Peter Taylor‘s book ‘Chill.’

He also writes about something I can potentially understand –  the unhealthy way dissent has been treated in the debate (page 9):

It is an issue central to the evolution of science and sound policy – in that dissent needs to be acknowledged, respected and given its voice not just at the level of scientific working groups, but at the policy level in the treatment of uncertainty. If dissent is marginalised, science travels down the slippery slope directed by the needs of policy makers for simple single cause answers and targets, and in this, ultimately, the truth suffers.

He concludes (page 10), rather as Furedi does, that ‘[p]olitics had intruded into science on a grand scale.’

Honouring Complexity

This really worries me. In spite of the many uncertainties that attend this degree of complexity,  all too often the debate is not being conducted in the necessary spirit of humble inquiry into the truth and respect for all those similarly engaged. A recent example was when a prominent political figure described as flat-earthers the sceptics who question whether global warming is entirely attributable to human CO2. The use of arguments like that generates more heat than light – surely an undesirable consequence at this juncture if those who use this kind of ploy are in fact correct.

I may not be an expert in the theories whose elaborate structures overshadow our mental landscape at the moment but I can surely smell a rat in the drainage system of the processes that underpin the conclusions that have been reached. For simplicity’s sake I am going to assume that Peter Taylor has been reasonably fair in his description of the flaws in the conduct of the debate on this issue. He tone seems measured and he doesn’t descend into invective. He coolly describes what he sees. The book is not called Chill for nothing.

The individual human mind is not able to grasp extreme complexity and ambiguity. Many minds have to be brought to bear upon the problem, and the search for the kind of simple certainty so often felt to be necessary if action is to be undertaken should not be allowed to dangerously distort our perception of reality.

Our culture is unfortunately founded upon the assumption that competition is healthy and the basis for progressing our understanding and enhancing our prosperity. Michael Karlberg, in Beyond the Culture of Contest, digs deeply into the problems of this world view and questions whether it is the only paradigm available. He argues (pages 36-38):

Normative adversarialism, as I use the term, refers to the assumption that contests are normal and necessary models of social organisation. This assumption is deeply embedded in the codes of western-liberal cultures. . . . . [M]y intent is not to imply that cooperative and mutualistic practices are entirely absent  . . . . . Rather, my intent is to show that adversarialism has become a normative ideal . .

He sees this ideal operating across the economic, legal and political spheres of activity. Crucially in the context we are considering here he concludes (page 64):

By privileging single perspectives over multiple perspectives, the adversary paradigm favours reductionistic and absolutist thought.

In a complex presentation at the end of his book he offers an alternative model drawn from his experience of the Bahá’í experiment in community functioning which this blog also explores in detail from time to time. He explains (pages 142-143):

. . . Bahá’ís believe that only within an atmosphere of mutual respect, support and encouragement, rather than aggression and intimidation, can clarity of thought prevail and the perspectives of all people be heard . . . These prescriptions . . . do not imply the need to gloss over conflicts by demanding that participants bury their differences and speak to each other in artificially polite civil tones. On the contrary, they imply finding and facilitating modes of expression that allow conflicting perceptions and interests to be critically examined but in an atmosphere of tolerance and a spirit of mutual commitment within which problems become soluble challenges.

With a topic as complex and, to many, as terrifying as global warming, this kind of approach is clearly imperative.

Dan Gardner makes a shrewd point near the end of his book on risk (page 316):

One would think that catastrophists would learn to be humble about their ability to predict the future but there is a noticeable absence of humility in the genre.

When risk rises humility becomes increasingly scarce. That though is the most important moment for humility to trump arrogance in the way we explore and compare our views of reality. We should be doing all we can to ensure that our experts and our politicians remain open to all possible sources of enlightenment as we seek to understand and respond to the immensely powerful and complex forces at work in the biosphere.

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