The fifth story
Now back in Findhorn, I am letting all the sights and insights and new connections and friendships settle within me. I am left – not for the first time – to wonder at the capacity of our species to tell stories. Over the last week in Copenhagen, I have listened into countless versions of what this moment in history means and how we might navigate our way through it.
The stories seem to fall within four meta stories that, while there is overlap between them, represent distinct narratives. The first, associated most closely with the talks at the Bella Centre (the main UN conference venue), is that our political leaders can achieve ambitious targets for emissions reductions through the intelligent application of markets and technology. They just need to find the political will.
The second, predominant at the ClimaForum (the centre for NGO and civil society activities), is that the principal obstacle to the resolution of the climate change crisis is bad, intransigent, and/or reactionary negotiators representing imperialist and capitalist interests. Right the wrongs, ensure that the rich repay their ecological debts and put in place mechanisms that ensure equality of emission entitlements and all will be well.
Stories three and four are most commonly heard at the Bottom Meeting (the ecovillage-based event centre) in Christiania. Number three is that our political system is too corrupt and lethargic to deliver a deal, so we must create our own solutions through community mobilization. The fourth is that we are fundamentally in a moment of spiritual crisis that is so severe it will force us through the fires of purification into a place of higher consciousness and a new paradigm of seeing and experiencing the world that will be dramatically less energy-intensive.
From my perspective, there is something in all these stories. However, none convinces me sufficiently to make me a true believer in any. Do I believe that our political, economic and energy systems have the resilience or flexibility to move at the speed demanded by our climate scientists? I do not. Despite Kyoto and increased awareness of the issues, CO2 emissions globally have increased by 40 per cent since 1990. This morning’s paper carries an article that reports European utility company chiefs trying to dissuade EU leaders from committing to the higher proposed level of 30 per cent reductions in emissions by 2020 because they are ‘physically impossible to achieve’.
Do I believe that the government representatives negotiating the deal in the Bella Centre will not act because they are servants of their capitalist masters? They are a mixed bunch with more than a few corporatist stooges among them, but the majority look to me more like lost and confused souls recognizing the impossibility of i) squaring up the required speed and scale of contraction with the need to seek re-election in democratic elections; and ii) contracting output and consumption without crashing the economy and provoking mass unemployment.
Do I believe that all the community organizing in the world can address the need for global solutions to our global crises? Hardly.
Do I believe that spiritual awakening will be of much help if our ecosystems have collapsed in the CO2-rich hothouse conditions now predicted for the end of the current century? Whatever else humans may be, we are a biologically-based life-form; cut away the roots at the base of the planet’s ecosystems and food-chains and the dominant species will surely fall.
My inability to buy into any of the four main narratives in Copenhagen has left me feeling sidelined and a little alienated, despite the wonderful times I have had in the company of some of the most beautiful and powerful people on the planet.
There is a fifth story that has got little airtime in Copenhagen but that feels more persuasive to me than any of the others. It is that we have entered a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions whose devastating logic is inexorable.
This story recounts that the symptoms of climate change we are already seeing – the shrinking icecaps, retreating glaciers, acidifying oceans, more extreme weather events – are the product of gases emitted 30 years ago when almost no-one had any awareness of the link between CO2 and climate. Moreover, as a result of emissions already in the pipeline, we are already committed to a further 0.6 degree temperature increase. Further, in the process of industrialization, we have depleted our resource base on so many fronts – metals, soils, clean air, water, fish, the list is near endless – that there may well not be enough juice in the system to power a super-charged change of direction even if we could find the political will to embark on it.
This fifth story does not entirely negate any of the others, but adds an element of realism to each. For sure, we need to put all the pressure we can on our representatives to embrace ‘prosperity without growth’, to repay the ecological debt of the rich and to restructure our energy grids. But let us also acknowledge that the inertia within our systems and the advanced levels of resource depletion (as well as the resistance of citizens to change) limit their scope for action.
For sure, increasing the resilience of our communities and reducing their dependence on fossil fuels will make them better places to live as we head down the far side of the energy descent curve. But let us not imagine that this will have a major impact in helping us avoid tipping points governing the Earth’s climate systems.
For sure, let us use whatever spiritual tools we have developed to imagine new ways of being on this beautiful planet that require far less consumption and waste. But let us not deny that we are part of the web of life and that as it unravels, we will not escape the dire consequences.
The fifth story introduces an element of restraint – and of sadness. It declares that climate change is not a problem that we can solve but a predicament to be dealt with in the way that has the least devastating consequences possible. It insists that we have already entered into a long descent for our global civilization in which there will be death and starvation and millions of environmental refugees – in fact, that all these things are already happening and will accelerate. It recognizes the sadness that those who have had least impact on the climate are those who are paying the highest cost and that for the moment at least, there probably is not very much we can do about it.
In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross describes the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. My experience of Copenhagen is that most continue to be stuck at stages two and three.
Acceptance does not need to be the path of resignation and defeatism. There can also be beauty and dignity in decline. But it does require us to grow up, to stop looking for easy scapegoats and facile solutions and to acknowledge that, at least in the industrialized world, we are all compromised by and contributors to the unholy mess we find ourselves in. This step may help us move beyond anger to sober reflection and to prepare ourselves and our societies for a future in which our capacity for generosity and compassion will be tested to the limit.
10 December, 2009