Occupy the Climate Emergency: Reflections on Climate, Empathy, and Intergenerational Justice

We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and the survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate.

—James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia

You live inside us, beings of the future.
In the spiral ribbons of our cells, you are here…
You who come after, help us remember: we are your ancestors.
Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.

—Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as Self

Keeping up with the world’s soaring carbon emissions is not for the fainthearted. In 2010, they reached a new high of 33.5 billion tons. Despite a worldwide decline in economic growth, the extra half-billion tons of carbon gas entering the atmosphere every year constituted the highest ever such increase since the Industrial Revolution.

China’s yearly contribution increased by 9.3 percent, and made up almost a quarter of total global emissions. America, the former world heavyweight champion of carbon pollution, still generated 16 percent of the total. India’s emissions jumped most—by 9.4 percent—placing it third in this game of existential “chicken.”

"Flood in Bangladesh." Credit: Piotr Fajfer / Oxfam International.

At the recent climate treaty negotiations in Durban, none of these leading emitters would agree to an international treaty obligating them to reduce their emissions now. Under pressure from an alliance of the European Union, least-“developed” countries, and small island states, they merely accepted that their emissions could be included in some form of treaty to start in 2020. This is far too late to avoid dangerous climate change. It’s uncannily reminiscent of James Lovelock’s prediction, cited above, from The Revenge of Gaia (2006). So is the worst indeed going to happen?

Denial, Disempowerment, and Depression

Some of the answers can be found at the intersection of psychology, culture, and politics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antidepressant use in the United States has increased 400 percent over the last twenty years. Antidepressants are now the most common type of medication taken by Americans from their late teens to their mid-forties.

Clinical psychologist Bruce Levine points out that people have been taught (through advertising) to understand demoralization or despair as a medical condition that requires a pharmacological cure. They “consume” medical treatment rather than ask pointed questions about the goals and values of their society. But what if feeling demoralized is an appropriate response to deteriorating—indeed, destructive—economic and social institutions?

Levine suggests that depressive symptoms like helplessness, hopelessness, and immobilization might often be better addressed through political engagement and activism that challenges unjust and exploitative social arrangements. For example, about 1 trillion dollars of student-loan debt now rests on the shoulders of young Americans. When we understand what’s actually happening, we also see that it’s more an issue of inter-generational justice than a reason for young people to take antidepressants.

Showing Up for Your Life

People participating in the Occupy movement against corporate power speak of the invigorating effects of taking action together and of how much they enjoy being involved in nonhierarchical, truly democratic discussions. Genuine human communication is more satisfying than consumerism and its corollary, climate change denial.

Occupy Wall Street participants use stationary bicycles to generate power for the encampment. Credit: David Shankbone.

Occupy continues to spread because it is more liberating—and more fun—than the media circus and electronic cabaret that usually divert us from looking deeper into our situation. Occupy makes it possible to ask taboo political questions and expose the nature of the corporatocracy. It creates memes and messages that ring with relevance. As one sign put it: “Lost a job and found an occupation.” To occupy something is the opposite of denial. “We are the 99 percent,” and we are showing up for our life now!

The Awesome Responsibility of This Political Moment

Back in 1921, H.G. Wells said history is a race between education and catastrophe. Today, environmental scientist Lester Brown points out that humanity is in a race between tipping points. There is a social tipping point for taking urgent action to change the reckless course of “business-as-usual.” There is also the climate tipping point, beyond which global warming becomes self-sustaining (or “runaway”) and human intervention becomes irrelevant.

This will not be a long race. The head of the conservative International Energy Authority (IEA) confirms that any fossil fuel infrastructure we build from now on will produce carbon emissions for decades, locking in irreversible climate breakdown. If we don’t stop investing in a doomsday machine, we will impose upon ourselves and future generations a climate that is fundamentally hostile to human flourishing.

Have we finally reached a social tipping point? The Occupy movement did not arise in a vacuum. Like the Arab Spring and other revolutionary movements around the world, it is led by young people who have lost what sociologist Anthony Giddens called “ontological security”—the mental stability that depends upon a sense of continuity of the world and the possibilities of the future. Today religions and academia must demonstrate their relevance to this issue or consign themselves to history.

Author and activist Naomi Klein speaks eloquently of the “awesome responsibility of this political moment”: the solutions to the economic and ecological crises are one and the same because they have a single cause, the mentality of corporate capitalism. We have to determine together what we want to build in the rubble of our present collapsing system.

What’s Stopping Us?

There are a few things we need to remember. Fossil fuels are responsible for 80 percent of global warming. What’s stopping us dealing with this? The world’s 200 largest oil and coal corporations have a market value of over $7.4 trillion—yet we still pay them over $400 billion a year in subsidies (according to the International Energy Agency) to extract the remaining oil, coal, and gas. Their dominant position in the industrial growth economy has allowed them to undermine climate science and corrupt government energy policies worldwide. They have delayed or blocked the rollout of crucial alternative energy systems.

Does it have to be like this? A recent joint statement by eleven national engineering institutes confirms that we already possess all the technology we need to cut emissions 85 percent by 2050. Things can get better only if governments free themselves from the grip of Big Carbon companies. We have to insist on this, and on a deep structural transformation of our society—from burning fossil carbon to a world of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy storage. This transformation will also solve another urgent problem: we can create millions of new jobs by building the new green and sustainable society without further delay.

The Moral Imperative

A society based on fossil carbon has given us the internal combustion engine, modern agriculture, chemical and pharmaceutical industries, air travel, the industrial growth economy, massive toxic pollution, and the human population explosion. The twenty-first century has revealed the “entropy bill” for all these developments.

We might try to use a credit card to consign this bill to the future, but our options have been foreclosed by the law of unintended consequences. Carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere have been pumped up to over 390 parts per million. We are now well beyond the upper limit of the 12,000-year-old Holocene climate that gave birth to human agriculture and civilization. Even if our corporate media refuse to make the connections for the public, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events confirm it with each passing month. We are, in fact, standing at the brink of a massive geophysical and evolutionary precipice. Confronted by existential and spiritual issues of the highest order, to what universal principle can we turn for guidance?

We suggest that the most important human moral principle is our instinctive empathy. Since our time on this wondrous planet is brief, we must consider our responsibility to all those who will come after us—those whose well-being will depend on the decisions we make today. Corporate behaviour in general has been shown by psychiatrist Robert Hare to fit the diagnostic profile of antisocial personality disorder: psychopathy. Vast wealth and power constitute a fatal attraction for such “zero-empathy” institutions. It is clear that unregulated fossil fuel companies could rapidly destroy our whole planetary ecosystem.

We cannot sacrifice civil society or future generations to satisfy the greed of those intent on altering the chemical composition of our atmosphere. We are now breathing the same concentration of carbon dioxide that existed three million years ago, at the time of our early hominid ancestor, Australopithecus. In that Pliocene era, global sea levels were some twenty meters higher than today. The urgency of our situation requires us to act. Shall we “occupy” this climate emergency instead of denying it—until the urgent truth of our situation is acted upon?

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