Everyone has a role to play in the green transition
Our task is to figure out what it is.
Anthropocene: the ubiquitous term used to refer to our epoch, when our species has become the main driving agent in the Earth’s circulatory processes. The carbon released into the atmosphere through driving our cars, flying our planes and powering our industry, is disrupting our planet’s normally self-regulating systems.
To understand why this is happening, it helps to know a bit about compost.
Like a forest floor, the biological matter in a compost bin should be a roughly equal split between “brown” carbon rich materials, like leaves and cardboard, and “green”, like banana peel and coffee grinds. Plants use carbon to build their stems and leaves. Animals (like us) eat plants. When organic matter decomposes, and the all of that cellular matter is broken down and turned back into soil. This cycle means that the amount of carbon in the world remains stable.
To be able to use fossil fuels, we drill into the earth’s deepest layers to uncover millions of years of stored fossilised material. This biological matter, mostly plants, was not composted, but squished under water or mud where oxygen can’t reach it for billions of years.
The plants that were buried deep at sea became gas and oil, and the plants that were buried in swamps became coal. Using big drills we extract this historical matter, drawing it up into our present, refine and burn it. Heating oil, gas and coal sparks a chemical reaction which causes the release of all the un-composted carbon that was captured by photosynthesis all those years ago.
The amount of carbon in the atmosphere determines the atmospheric temperature. Our planet is the only known planet in the universe with the exact right atmospheric balance to support life. It was not designed to be flooded with a billion years worth of photosynthesised carbon in the relatively short space of two hundred years.
There are still many possible outcomes, most of them scary, but none of them written in stone.
It’s been a while since I filled a car with gas, but I remember viscerally how it feels to hold the pump in my hand and pull the trigger. I don’t know the exact colour and consistency of this substance. The only time we actually see oil is when something has gone wrong, like four million gallons spilled in the Gulf of Mexico.
But the smell is something that we’re all familiar with, it smells like power.
To understand fossil fuels, it helps to understand the ways in which patriarchy, imperialism and capitalism coalesce.
The logic that believed that humans could drill and extract from deep inside the Earth and suffer no consequences is the same logic that believed that Europeans could exploit and plunder lands and people. Extraction is the driving logic of capitalism.
For communities today who breath polluted air and live in areas that are on the frontlines of extreme weather events, this is already a matter of life and death. Last month in India, birds were dropping out of the sky. Unable to fly because of the heat. One article I read described cats, dogs, cows, animals of all kinds lying dead by the side of the road.
This is happening with 1.1 degree of warming. We’re headed for 3 degrees. Spain is preparing for yet another summer of extreme heat, 40 degrees celsius (104°F) or more. If we continue exactly as we are right now, this means temperatures of 60°C+ in Europe, in our lifetimes.
Grassroots organising offers the imaginative and intellectual freedom that many of us have lost in our role as paid workers in a market economy.
This is what people mean when they say that much of the industrialised growth society is “living on borrowed time”. 60 degrees of warming doesn’t mean more days at the beach or needing to install an A/C. It means that life will stop. Birds will fall out of the sky. Forget inflation, huge parts of the world will not be able to grow food. In regions of the world where temperatures are still able to support a semblance of life, we’ll be facing the biggest refugee crisis in history at the same time as our own civilisation collapses because all of the systems we inherited are based on a logic that cannot sustain life by design.
As absurdly hopeless as this may all seem, there is still actually a chance to avert a huge amount of suffering by acting now. There are still many possible outcomes, most of them scary, but none of them written in stone.
Last year, a literature review of research on climate change found that one of the main explanations for why humans have failed to bend the global emissions curve is not due to a lack of workable technologies or scaleable solutions, but a failure to collectively challenge some of the core tenets of modern, industrialised societies.
Grassroots organizing offers the opportunity to do just that. It offers an imaginative and intellectual freedom that many of us have lost in our role as paid workers in a market economy. It helps us to feel less lonely, and more hopeful.
Over the past four months I’ve been meeting every Wednesday with the Climate Action Community. CAC is the brainchild of the wonderful Lauren Uba, who nursed it all the way through the pandemic. Throughout 2020 and 2021, completely on her own initiative, she held space for people to meet online, and eventually in real life, to discuss their experiences of climate anxiety, and what could be done about it. In a blog post, she describes CAC as a “sandbox for post-capitalist experimentation — a culture based on symbiotic exchange and collective and individual wellbeing.” One of our group, Joshua, recently took a course with Terra.do Climate School, an organisation helping people to transition their careers to addressing the climate crisis.
In the book “Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal”, the authors talk about the need to reshuffle how we work, care, move, rest and play to prioritise people and planet. The Green New Deal framework looks to tackle the climate crisis through a transformative political and economic programme. This, they say, will involve training and retraining a new generation of construction workers, plumbers, electricians, engineers, metal workers, architects and others to be part of a low-carbon transition. Things like workers co-operatives and re-embracing the notion of welfare and community will help to make this transition equitable and fair.
This kind of collective imagination practise is different from activism in that it is inherently constructive.
When you consider that the reaction to the war in Ukraine in most of the Global North has been to ramp up new fossil fuel projects, essentially shoring up the status quo for the long-term in the name of short-term energy security, it’s clear that we need these kinds of visionary ideas. In the UK, organisations like Green New Deal UK, Green New Deal Rising and the Transition Towns movement are all examples of groups mobilising around this vision.
This kind of collective imagination practise is different from activism in that it is inherently constructive. We desperately need activism which challenges the current systems, but that alone will not be enough to transform our social systems and infrastructures.
The Climate Action Community is open to everyone. Every Wednesday, after work, we have peer-to-peer knowledge sharing sessions that gesture towards some of the hard-skills needed for green transition; water regeneration, composting, decolonial thinking, vegetable growing, community energy. CAC also run open, peer-facilitated sessions on eco-anxiety and Active Hope, and a book club. By meeting like this, we learn new skills and build a collective capacity for discomfort, grief, and uncertainty. We learn, laugh, and be silly together, and somehow, through doing this, find ways to catalyse our anxiety into hope, and our hope into action.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the future is not a one-way road to a burning city. There are so many reasons to care, and care passionately, about how things will unfold over the next decades, not (only) out of anger at all the dysfunctional systems we have inherited, but out of love for all there is left to save. Systems change will be nothing if not deeply relational. The first step is to show up.