RACHEL STEWART’S COLUMN in this morning’s NZ Herald bears eloquent testimony to the global progressive community’s sense of helplessness. In it she berates herself for getting into a pointless altercation with a dirty-dairy farmer. Of what value are such small-scale exchanges, she demands, when the much larger and more important struggle against anthropogenic global warming is being lost all along the line?
“We need to wise up to the fact that continuing to compartmentalise our endless individual battles – pay equity, dirty dairying, transport, roading, autism funding, education, intersectional feminism, partisan politics – is a waste of precious energy.
“Don’t get me wrong. All are beyond important but, ultimately, unless we tackle climate change and right now, there’ll be no human rights or environment to actually fight for.”
There was one line in Rachel’s column that particularly resonated:
“[I]t’s time to stop getting caught up in the individual fights and realise that climate change is a mission that must be tackled on a World War II scale.”
Another way of expressing this is to treat global warming as the “moral equivalent of war”. This would require a level of personal and societal engagement proportionate to the existential threat which global warming poses to human civilisation.
The reason Rachel’s words resonated so strongly was that just over seven years ago I expressed remarkably similar thoughts in my own newspaper column ‘From the Left’.
On 9 December 2009 I wrote:
“If the battle against Climate Change does not become the moral equivalent of war for all the peoples of the Earth, then not only the battle, but the Earth itself, as a planet hospitable to human civilisation, will be lost.
“Our government – every government – must be willing to mobilise the population as it was mobilised during World War II. Our generation must plant its own ‘Victory Gardens’ and run its own ‘Salvage Programmes’. We must learn, as our parents and grandparents did, to ration scarce resources, pay special taxes, and buy as many ‘War Bonds’ as we can afford.”
I was moved to write these words seven years ago because the leaders of the world were gathering in Copenhagen for an international conference on combatting global warming. Even before that ill-fated conference collapsed in acrimony and confusion, I was doubtful as to whether any good would come of their going.
Seven years, and another fruitless international conference on global warming (this time in Paris) later, there is no doubt at all that no good has been done. The rate of global warming is already nudging the thresholds laid down in Paris.
As Rachel makes clear in her column, these failures are producing not only extreme consequences in the material world, but they are also generating extreme responses in the human psyche. Seven years ago people were asking “What can we do?” Seven years later, more and more of us are asking “What’s the point of doing anything?”
The sheer scale of the organised malice that has undermined every attempt to limit the damage of global warming is at once profoundly shocking and profoundly disempowering.
That global capitalism is fully conscious of the planetary harm it is causing, but resolved to go on inflicting that harm regardless, is a realisation so profoundly depressing that hitherto active citizens are robbed of all purpose and resolve.
It speaks of a civilisation in terminal decline. A world owned and ruled by people who have given up on the future. Humanity finds itself in the hands of a pathologically disassociated global elite. Stupefied by greed and consumed with pride, the ultimate demonstration of the power they refuse to give up will be the irreversible collapse of the fossil-fuelled economic system they have committed so many crimes to preserve.
The election of Trump, and the obvious incapacity of the American political system to defend itself against the madmen and women who have taken up residence in all three branches of the United States government, is merely the outward manifestation of global capitalism’s inner corruption.
Neoliberalism has immobilised humanity in the manner of those parasitic wasps whose offspring excrete a chemical which fatally overpowers their host’s self-protective reflexes. Aware that we are being destroyed, we are nevertheless incapable of resisting our destroyers effectively.
Rachel gets it: “Just about every bit of bad news is directly linked to climate change. Everything. Oh, and the greed of the few who are trying to extract even more before the inevitable breakdown.”
She has also, perhaps unintentionally, chosen the epitaph for the entire Anthropocene epoch.
Quoting the father of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin, Rachel ends her column with his observation: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
We have changed far too little, and left it far too late.