Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean.
And here we are, at the end of 8th Week, the end of Trinity Term and another year done and dusted. Over the last few months this column has looked at Oxford’s continued ties with fossil fuels, unpicked Boris Johnson’s hatred of bunny huggers, detailed the never-ceasing battle between kites and crows, and discussed the question of land ownership in England, amongst other things.
The final instalment of this Climate Column shall be dedicated to the issue of where to go next, and crucially, how to get there.
I hardly need to remind you that our planet’s getting hotter, that those creatures with whom we share this place are increasingly threatened due to our actions, and that we have not yet seen any actions (note actions, not simply the announcement of targets or goals) which will fundamentally tackle the climate and ecological crises we face.
Where next is, relatively speaking, the easy part:
Rapidly decarbonise every aspect of our societies, through unprecedented government investment, public programmes, business initiatives, community-run projects. Our (the West’s) goal should not be net zero by 2050 – it should be net zero “ASAP as possible” to quote a certain Michael Scott.
We need not only to rapidly decarbonise our economies but also those of the countries who we now euphemistically call “less developed”, which conveniently minimises our role in stunting their development for our own aims, whether that be during or post-empire.
At the same time an equally rapid and fundamental restoration of the natural world must take place. All deforestation must stop. Industrial fishing subsidies must end. Dangerous agricultural chemicals must be banned.
The restoration of the natural world must be led by those who know it best; by indigenous communities who live in the Amazon rainforest, by islanders whose livelihoods depend on a healthy coral reef, and by those communities here in the UK who are determined to buy back what used to be common land for the benefit of all.
Perhaps that’s the most oversimplified answer to the question ‘what is to be done?’ that could be given, yet, ultimately, decarbonisation and restoration are central to the prosperity of people and planet.
The much trickier question to which we shall now turn is that of how to get there. And I don’t mean ‘by closing down coal plants’ or ‘leaving oil in the ground’ or ‘planting more trees’. Certainly, I don’t mean ‘by switching to electric cars’ or ‘meat-free-Mondays’.
The above examples are by no means trivial, but they don’t get to the heart of the problem.
The problem is that coal plants are still being built, that new oilfields are still being explored, that trees are still being cut down.
Taking another step back from this point, the problem is that the people and companies burning coal, drilling for oil and deforesting huge areas of land are allowed to do this, or at the very least, are not being stopped.
Taking another step back, the problem is that those in power, those in governments around the world, are allowing these destructive practices to continue, or at least not putting an end to them quickly enough.
The question of ‘how do we get there’ – how do we achieve a world which is rapidly and fundamentally decarbonising the human world and restoring the natural world – is, ultimately, one of politics and power. As much as this might pain geographers, climate scientists, ecologists or whoever else in the climate and environmental movement, this is the truth which must be faced up to.
“A conundrum faces us here,” says the ecological economist and author of ‘Post Growth’, Tim Jackson: “Those who want change tend not to be in power. Those who hold power tend not to want change.”
Thus becomes clear the role of historians and social scientists in the environmental movement: to understand and explain how to empower those who want change, and how to remove from power those who stand in the way of the rapid and fundamental change that our future prosperity depends on.
This requires action at all levels and in all corners of society, or as the Antonio Gramsci calls it, “a war of position.” Whilst not a fan of military metaphors, this one is useful, for what it entails is an all-encompassing movement in which, as Gramsci puts it, “every teacher is always a pupil and every pupil a teacher.” Thus whether it is in schools, universities, workplaces, sport and social clubs, unions, places of worship, village halls to city halls, parish councils to Westminster, Whitehall, the Whitehouse and beyond, there must be an ongoing and never-ending campaign for rapid and fundamental decarbonisation and restoration.
This movement must be as interdisciplinary, intersectional and diverse as possible; it must (to adopt the BBC’s moto) strive to inform, educate and entertain. As Noam Chomsky has argued, a progressive movement more widely must reabsorb its capacity for self-education; trade unions in the early 20th century were places of education, of creativity and of leisure, where working people could come together to improve themselves as individuals and as a collective – this popular subculture needs to be reinvigorated, and social media and the internet, as well as our evermore-deserted high streets, provide the perfect infrastructure through which this can be achieved.
A broad-based, bottom-up, popular environmental movement therefore must campaign for a whole range of reforms which are central to the ultimate goal of decarbonisation and restoration. These include: reform of voting systems such as First Past the Post which leads to unrepresentative governments here in the UK; an ongoing campaign for greater democracy in politics and economics – more citizens assemblies, more workers on boards, fan control of football clubs even; equal opportunity when it comes to education, i.e., a National Education Service which is free at the point of use for all in society at whatever age, irrespective of family finances.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but within all of these campaigns, we must keep that end goal, that final, highest peak, in view: a future society in which human flourishing, in which prosperity and fulfilment is available and attainable for all, and a society which is not above or apart from, but deeply connected and interwoven with, the natural world.
ACTION: The final action point this Climate Column is the same as the first, for it is essential if we are to succeed in tackling the greatest challenges of our time – the climate and ecological crises. Talk to someone, talk to some people, about the decarbonisation, about restoration, about the need to move beyond growth as a measure of economic wellbeing, or about joining environmental groups and campaigning for political reforms.