View over the tree tops of the rain forest in eastern Ecuador - in close vicinity to big oil drilling sites. Ecuador is one of the countries that included the idea of Buen Vivir in their constitution but apparently this doesn't mean it has also entered the depth of people's minds.
There used to be a time when climate change was a topic like any other, one that you could have discussions about. This time is long gone and so are the discussions. They all now come down to the one question: who’s side are you on? Within only a few years climate change has become a political question. Do you believe in it, then you are a leftist, do you deny it, then you are right-wing. Each side is extremely quick to view you as their enemy if you do not choose their side. Well, I am on my side, to be honest, and I don’t like the idea that you have to subscribe to a whole political agenda in order to have an opinion on climate change. I am a scientist not a politician, and after all, the climate and what we do with it will affect all of us sooner or later and history shows that mostly, when there are two extreme sides in any question then usually neither of them is right. Too much effort goes into proving the other wrong and oneself right and there is too little interest in actual truth – if there is such a thing.
Scientific Uncertainties – the truth about climate change
But what is the truth about climate change? It is easy: we don’t know. There is no reliable way how science (or anybody else) could be able to tell us how or why climate will change in the future. We have to rely on models which, by definition, are always imperfect. True, we have some indications which we should take seriously. Scientists do their best to model the climate of the future but they always have to deal with high uncertainties – which they also admit, however, those uncertainties tend to get lost in the mainstream media. The only unbiased truth, therefore, is that we do not know how climate will change in the future and everybody who tells something different has either traveled forwards in time and come back to tell us, or is lying.
The other thing we can be quite sure of is that climate has changed a lot in the past (that is, if we agree to believe that the world was not created by god and is in fact several billion years old). In ecology we have learned the hard way that things are always changing and if you try to stop that, because you identified an ideal development in a system, the system generally gets severely disturbed and the ideal is suddenly far from that (see for example the management of wildfires).
Climate has always changed no matter which side you are on, there is very little doubt about that. How has that suddenly become a crime?
Parallels to times of great environmental sins come to mind: rivers have always flooded land, animals have always roamed the Earth freely, waves have always eroded shores. Why was all of this suddenly not allowed any more? The answer is probably very complex but in the end it all comes down to one culprit: the economy.
We wanted to produce more food – or rather, not lose so much of our harvest to the water – so we built dams to stop rivers from flooding agricultural lands, we didn’t want to lose the houses we spent so much money to build so we built dams to stop rivers or the sea from flooding them. The same goes for roads or anything else that humans built. Because, obviously, if there is a place somewhere, say in the Amazon, where no valuable human possessions are placed then there is no reason whatsoever why a river should not flood.
So many of the horrible things we did to our home planet are based on the very same perceptions: if something (or somebody) is a threat to our possessions then it has to be stopped. Strangely enough human lives seem to matter much less in the debate than material possessions. But either way the common world view is: we (humans) can shape the world as we wish and if nature stands in the way we will teach it a lesson.
I was an environmentalist all my life because I love nature. I feel connected with nature and nature is where I find peace. I studied ecology in order to learn more about it and in order to gain the knowledge to help protect what is so dear to me. Clearly, I failed and the reason is not an ecological one. The perception of climate change taught me an important lesson: nature is not our enemy but if we portray it to be so then the economy will flourish.
From mother Earth to the biggest threat
In some of my research I studied the resilience of Neolithic villagers to changing climate. Yes, that is right, even 6000 years ago they had to deal with the very same problems. And from the data I analyzed it is very probable that they dealt with it just fine (at least, there were more people living in said village after it had been flooded for several years than before). In fact, Homo sapiens as a species is highly resilient to all kinds of adverse conditions. Not only did the species survive the changes from glacial to interglacial periods and back, it also spread out to almost all little corners of the planet and in each established a sustainable way of life adapted to specific climates and ecosystems. Humans are very resilient beings but most of this resilience has been lost to economic efficiency. Climate change is not a threat to humans, it is the economy that heavily relies on stable conditions.
Remember the Kyoto Protocol? It was a big thing in my days. I was at the forefront of fighting for its ratification. It didn’t change anything, as we all know. A few years ago environmentalists around the world celebrated the Paris agreement as the next big thing. The day it was signed, in my opinion, marks the day where environmentalism got eaten by capitalist mainstream thinking. And this is what worries me the most. Both treaties are available online; take some time to look at them and see the different language they use.
Let us look only at article 2 in each so you get the idea: the Kyoto protocol in article 2 (the main goal of the treaty), lists a whole range of things that ought to be achieved, including energy efficiency, sustainable energy, reducing greenhouse gases, and sustainable agriculture.
The Paris Agreement is short and direct: the “threat of climate change” needs to be combated and the defined goal is to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels“.
Clearly, in the last twenty years the enemy has changed considerably: In 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was born, the enemies were inefficient energy use, unsustainable agricutlure, economies that favour unsustainable production, among others. In 2015 the enemy was the changing climate. The narrative has changed from humans as responsible for the damage to living systems and responsible also to reduce said damage to the view of ourselves as the victims of changing climatic conditions or related changes in living conditions on Earth. Our pronounced goal has changed from ending (or reducing) our harmful influence on our planet to making this planet succumb to our rule (i.e. average temperature may not increase by more than 2°C).
Complex problem – easy solution?
Our goal as a species, a society, a community, and as an individual needs to be to find a way to live in peace with each other and with the planet. I know this sounds very big and very abstract but, in fact, I have come to the conclusion that nothing else will work. Today it is the changing climate, yesterday it was acid rain and tomorrow it will be species extinctions (or something else); we solve one problem and the next is right there. This is not a coincidence; all of these are interrelated just as social problems are interrelated with them as well. You cannot solve any of these problems by using the same methods that have created them. It is not the oil drilling that is destroying the rain forests, it is not air travel that adds to the greenhouse gases, it is not droughts that cause hunger. The reason for all of them are the way we have become alienated from each other and from nature. The answer is as old as humans, it probably has as many names as there are indigenous people on this planet but it has recently gained some popularity under the name Sumac Kawsay, roughly translated from Quechua to Spanish as Buen Vivir, or good life. Among others, basically what it says is that any given person cannot be happy (or live a good life) on their own; we are all part of a community and can only be happy if the community around us is happy. Now, for indigenous peoples it is obvious that nature is part of that community, for the rest of us you always have to add it for clarification. If you hurt somebody else then you will not be happy. And neither will you be happy if you cut down the rain forest in order to drill for oil. It would be so easy but the dominant civilization on this planet has simply forgotten it.
The simple fact that anybody who claims to be an environmentalist can go out there and state that we have to stop climate change shows what the human race has evolved to. On the day when environmentalists want to dominate the Earth in this way we are doomed. Because who, if not environmentalists, will fight for the right of the Earth to live undisturbed?
Reducing or even ending greenhouse gas emissions will not save this planet. To the contrary: if we we forget to look at the big picture and reduce everything to a few numbers then the problems will grow instead of diminish. We certainly must reduce our huge impact on the Earth and we must do so quickly. But we must reduce our impact as a whole and not simply move it from emitting greenhouse gases to some other destructive activity. Cutting down huge numbers of trees doesn’t become any less bad if you plant different trees somewhere else just to even out a few numbers. Buying millions of electric cars may make transport less polluting but the sheer amount of damage done by building all of those cars isn’t simply offset by the fact that in a few years the reduced CO2 emissions make it worth it. If you reduce human impact on this planet to only count greenhouse gas emissions then you might as well set off a nuclear bomb or two and get it over with.
True environmentalism can only mean to live in peace with the nature that surrounds as, and that means to enter into a mutual and respectful relationship of giving and taking. It cannot be measured in CO2 budgets, nor in hectares rain forest cut down, or in people killed. We need to find a way back to a global, holistic view of environmentalism. Too long have we simplified the problems for mainstream media’s sake until we started to believe our own over-simplified narratives. We need to establish a communication style which dares to state that the problem is complex and goes deep and that a simple solution, embedded in the very system that started the whole situation, will not help us. The only thing that will help is a radical change of mind, a change in the perception of nature and the people around us as the very things that make our lives worthwhile and the responsibility we have towards them. The idea of the good life may yet end up being the only life option we have left when the time has come.
I highly recommend reading the new book by Charles Eisenstein (Climate – a new story; 2018, see also here)
Also, keep talking about the problem and openly join the discussion. Different opinions are what science and democracy rely on, if everybody just accepts as fact what they read in mainstream media then Facebook and Co will soon replace our governments. Climate change is but one of the topics that is portrayed in a much too simplified way in the media.