What Climate Emergency?

In the aftermath of the experience of last week’s ‘extreme weather’, something has ‘broken though’ in the parlance of media chatter. Several friends have asked “What should I do? “I want to do something”. “I want to join something.”

Do nothing I tell them. Just stop it.

Many of us have been saying this for about thirty years, but this week George Monbiot wrote:

“All this time, environmentalists have been telling people we face an unprecedented, existential crisis, while simultaneously asking them to recycle their bottle tops and change their drinking straws. Green groups have treated their members like idiots and, I suspect, somewhere deep down, the members know it. Their timidity, their reluctance to say what they really want, their mistaken belief that people aren’t ready to hear anything more challenging than this micro-consumerist bollocks carries a significant share of the blame for global failure. There was never time for incrementalism. Far from being a shortcut to the change we want to see, it is a morass in which ambition sinks. System change, as the right has proved, is, and has always been, the only fast and effective means of transformation.”

This pattern of minimising risk and always urging the least hard, the lowest-hanging fruit has been repeated for decades. It’s tactics are proven to fail. As Chris Hedges notes:

“Environmental campaigners, from The Sierra Club to 350.org, woefully misread the global ruling class, believing they could be pressured or convinced to carry out the seismic reconfigurations to halt the descent into a climate hell. These environmental organizations believed in empowering people through hope, even if the hope was based on a lie. They were unable or unwilling to speak the truth. These climate “Pollyannas,” as Hamilton (Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change) calls them, “adopt the same tactic as doom-mongers, but in reverse. Instead of taking a very small risk of disaster and exaggerating it, they take a very high risk of disaster and minimize it.”

Now, Rishi Fucking Sunak keeps telling us his kids have told him about climate change? What is he a Man-Child? Where has been for the past forty years?

I mean Exxon and Shell knew since the 1970s and 80s.

So what are we to do if we are stop concentrating on our oat milk and endlessly sorting our glass and our cardboard? Isn’t just demanding ‘system change’ just as disempowering in a different way? Well yes, endlessly describing a ‘meta crisis’ without any roots or solutions isn’t particularly helpful and can be alienating. Pointing out ‘we are all doomed’ while people are fending off debt-collectors isn’t really a way forward.

But here’s some thoughts on how to move beyond this binary of ‘micro consumerist bollocks’ and ‘end capitalism now’.


There is a need for far greater unity among those being criminalised in Britain today. As RMT union boss Mick Lynch says of Liz Truss’s recent statements about ‘banning strikes’: “This is a direct attack on one of the main pillars of our democracy” … “Truss is seeking to make effective industrial action illegal” adding “it’s oppression of working people”.

This is a mirror on the attacks on the right to peaceful protest aimed at criminalising environmental protestors and suppressing dissent. The highly draconian Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill being rushed through parliament is a chilling erosion of our freedom of expression, by which ministers will have the power to suppress any protest they don’t agree with.

These forces — unions demanding decent pay and conditions and safety of the travelling public on public transport — and protestors calling out the death-cult of the fossil fuel industry have common-cause. The first step to real change is to make solidarity beyond the silos of our single campaigns.

Power Analysis

Understanding the predicament as a question of justice and solidarity, not a question of ‘carbon’ may be a better way to frame this. We need to get a better perspective that the system failure we’re seeing is part of the same phenomenon ie. the inability of the state and the economic system to meet people’s basic needs: housing; food; health, is the same inability as the one which causes climate breakdown.

This is what’s behind the desperate need for the UK government to alienate ‘ordinary hard working people’ by demonising trade unionists and protestors and making them out to be some radical fringe, some alien force, as Thatcher had it: ‘the Enemy Within’.

The apparent (and misleading) dichotomy between ecology and social issues needs broken down. A power analysis of environmental justice shows that just as globally it is the north that exploits the south, within the global north it is the poorest communities that suffer the most from environmental degradation.

Secondly the narrative that “we can’t afford this green stuff” and “debt is too high for real change” is a spurious one. We now know that ‘close to 40% of multinational profits are shifted to tax havens each year.’

Not all the ‘solutions’ are utopian. Not all of the critiques are unachievable

The idea that nothing can be done, that there are no solutions is called ‘reflective-impotence’. It’s endemic but not total.

Exploring what ‘true prosperity’ might look like, centering class struggle, transitioning to a ‘clean economy’, exploring the explosion of anti-capitalist economic alternatives can all be woven into a blueprint for change. The combination of actions can be described in different ways, some have it as a combination of: ‘private sufficiency, public luxury, doughnut economics, participatory democracy and an ecological civilisation are some.’

Others have it centering around the emergent ideas around a radical degrowth rethinking of the economy.

As Timothée Parrique has put it summarising the three “dimensions of the degrowth vision” in a recent review feature:

“The first one is ecological justice, “the vision of an ecologically sustainable and socially more equal world”. This is degrowth in the literal sense of the term (“a planned contraction of economic activity”; “a reduction of production and consumption among the affluent,”) for the sake of global justice: the lowering of footprints among the wealthiest towards a “solidary mode of living” that can reverse exploitative North-South relations.

The second principle is about social justice, self-determination, and a good life. By social justice, they mean “undoing broader structures of domination such as class society, racism, colonialism, (hetero-)sexism, ableism and other forms of exclusion”. Self-determination, following Cornelius Castoriadis, has to do with collective democracy and individual autonomy. And finally, a good life is the search for a holistic understanding of prosperity, a form of “alternative hedonism” [Kate Soper] including notions of “resonance” [Hartmut Rosa] (“meaningful and good self-world relationships,” p.205), conviviality (“thriving coexistence and collective self-determination,” p.205), and time prosperity (“more self-determined time,” p.206).

The third principle is growth independence. “A degrowth society is a society that, through a democratic process, transforms its institutions and infrastructures so that they are not dependent on growth and continuous expansion for their functioning”. It involves dismantling certain growth-inducing material infrastructures and technical systems like the car-based system, transforming growth-dependant social institutions like the financing of the welfare state, cleansing mental infrastructures from the belief that more is always better, and more generally ensuring that the economic system as a whole can “prosper without growth” [Tim Jackson].

Yes we need to protest, disrupt and cause chaos. Yes we need to strike and show solidarity. Yes we need to stand up for ourselves but we also need to withdraw consent and create different futures. Some of them are emerging right now.

The first task is to foreground the class and power elements of climate breakdown, and the climate and ecology elements of social breakdown. We need to reject the desperate efforts of the governing classes to separate ‘ordinary people’ from strikers and protestors. This will need to create a ‘dissenting mass’ rather than pockets of isolated activists, but it will also require a critique of daily life and its habits and cultures that is so venerated in tabloid-land.

Image Credit: Clare Farrell / BodyPolitic



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store