Climate crisis has arrived, stop feeling guilty and start imagining your future

Obstacles

Evidence of the devastating impacts of anthropogenic climate change are stacking up, and it is becoming horrifyingly real. There can be no doubt that the climate crisis has arrived. Yet another “shocking new study” led The Guardian and various other news media this week. One-third of Himalayan ice cap, they report, is doomed.

Meanwhile in Australia, record summer temperatures have wrought unprecedented devastation of biblical proportions – mass deaths of horses, bats and fish are reported across the country, while the island state of Tasmania burns. In some places this version of summer is a terrifying new normal.

The climate disaster future is increasingly becoming the present – and, as the evidence piles up, it is tempting to ask questions about its likely public reception. Numerous psychological perspectives suggest that if we have already invested energy in denying the reality of a situation we experience as profoundly troubling, the closer it gets, the more effort we put into denying it.

While originally considered as a psychological response, denial and other defence mechanisms we engage in to keep this reality at bay and maintain some sense of “normality” can also be thought of as interpersonal, social and cultural. Because our relationships, groups and wider cultures are where we find support in not thinking, talking and feeling about that crisis. There are countless strategies for maintaining this state of knowing and not-knowing – we are very inventive.

The key point is that it prevents us from responding meaningfully. We “succeed” in holding the problem of what to do about the climate crisis at a “safe” distance. As the crisis becomes harder to ignore – just consider the current batch of shocking reports – individually and culturally we will dig deeper to find ways to strategically direct our inattention.

How do you feel?

The standard narrative for a piece like the one I’m writing here, as a social scientist, is to now say something about how the crisis could be better communicated. The billion-dollar question, of course, is whether this most recent disaster can be used to motivate real change. No doubt it is important to keep this kind of commentary up. It is key that we consider how to give the climate crisis traction in a culture so accomplished at distancing us from uncomfortable realities.

But let’s be honest. No one really knows what works. We have never been here before. And I’m starting to think that more of this kind of analysis is, perversely, another example of distancing us from that crisis. Intellectualising terrifying climate crisis stories as an issue for “communicators” and “the public” is another way of detaching ourselves from their reality, from the relevance to me and you.

So let’s cut through all that and stop invoking an imaginary audience. Many terrible things are happening as a result of climate change – their happening is being reported. How are you receiving it? How does it feel? Are you shocked, horrified, scared, bored, tired? What do you do with the terror? Do you compartmentalise it somewhere “safe”? Perhaps like me, you know you care. You attach importance to climate change, you want to act correctly, avoid risking other lives, damaging homes and habitats. Perhaps you know you are scared too – scared of contemplating what we have already lost or of what will happen as the crisis gets closer still. Scared of what you are being asked to give up.

Add in some residual guilt and you might then engage in a defence of some kind, consciously or otherwise – telling yourself that others are more responsible, there is nothing we can do, everybody else seems to be carrying on as normal. As the crisis deepens, the walls close in, you might double down on those defences.

Imagining a future

So where do we go from here? How might this knowledge help us – you and me? We must make a commitment, but not of the kind you might imagine. The shocking reality of the climate crisis is making its way into the webs of everyday life, emotions, thought processes, relationships, hopes, dreams and fears. Perhaps we should commit to letting it, as an alternative to doubling down on our denial.

We can do this individually, but more important is collectively acknowledging our fears about actual and anticipated losses. Fears about the loss of species and habitats, but also our established ways of life. This leads to more constructive questions, about what we want to hang on to, what are our obligations? I don’t have ready answers to these questions, but I am still confident we can find ways to keep doing the things we really care about – for ourselves, each other, the places we live in. But we need to talk about these choices.

Such a process is still miles apart from many “sustainability” agendas. Halting the climate crisis is still predominately framed as a matter for individual choice and change – use less plastic, cycle to work, fly less. But the behavioural response required is way more complicated than that.

When it comes to the climate crisis, the personal is political. I am talking about a politics that grows from opposition and critique of our current systems. This is evident in young people organising school strikes and protesters willing to get arrested for their direct action. But we also need to pay more attention to what is lost, to who and what we care for, to other possible ways of being.

Some conservation scientists, at least, see recent cultural change as a hopeful sign of a growing sense of care and responsibility. So stop feeling guilty, it’s not your fault. Be attentive to what’s going on, so that you might notice what you care about and why. What are you capable of, and what might we be capable of together, when we aren’t caught between knowing and not knowing, denial and distress?

See what obligations emerge. There are no guarantees. But what else do we do?

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Olu Jenzen, Principal Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Brighton. Read the original article here.

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  • Civilization VI shows video games can make us contemplate climate change

    Solutions

    A new expansion has added environmental challenges to Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, the latest in a popular series of strategy video games that has been running since the 1990s. The expansion – called Gathering Storm – adds new features to the game, most notably anthropogenic climate change and natural disasters.

    The game involves developing a civilisation from its humble beginnings in the Stone Age to nowadays and beyond, while choosing from a vast array of technologies and cultural policies. As the game and the ages progress, your energy choices become increasingly important. Indeed, Gathering Storm is based on a simple model of global warming wherein CO₂ emissions from energy sources induce sea level rise, as well as more frequent and intense extreme weather events such as droughts and storms. In turn, these can have potentially devastating effects on your cities and units, pushing the player to think about different adaptation strategies such as flood barriers for coastal cities.

    The game even progresses into a “future era”, where players are offered options like carbon capture and storage technologies or “seasteads” to house segments of the population. From early on, this new expansion compels players to think about some of the potential long-term consequences of actions that may offer short-term benefits. One example would be chopping down forests to accelerate production or convert land for other uses which, in the long run, renders a city more vulnerable to flooding and reduces the carbon sink capacity of your civilisation.

    When asked about whether Gathering Storm was somewhat of a political statement, the lead developer, Dennis Shirk, remained largely agnostic: “No, I don’t think that’s about making a political statement. We just like to have our gameplay reflect current science.” It is certainly true that the game does not coerce players into taking any particular pathway, yet it does include a “World Congress” in which climate or deforestation treaties and humanitarian aid can be ratified. We would also argue that the very inclusion of anthropogenic climate change and an associated system of incentives and punishments is inherently a political act. Moreover, in the social studies of science, what one considers to be “current science” has political ramifications.

    In the case of Gathering Storm, for example, in most scenarios a player could probably continue to be a “free rider” and rely solely on technological solutions. That is only possible because those technologies are known in advance and players are given virtually perfect information on the different stages of climate change and its effects. One of the consequences is that the game essentially eliminates the very uncertainty which is inherent to the “current science” on climate change and conveys a sense of technological optimism whereby innovations alone can sustain human prosperity.

    We are not suggesting that the developers are necessarily liable or even responsible for promoting these views. Rather we wish to illustrate how different depictions of the future can restrict or encourage certain courses of action. The developers could have chosen to make the effects of climate change and access to mitigating technologies more random (although we do not know how difficult that would be to implement in practice nor its effects on gameplay).

    Frostpunk, and surviving the ‘volcanic winter’

    In contrast to this incidentally optimistic outlook, there is an interesting Polish video game by the name of Frostpunk. Frostpunk is set in a dystopian alternate reality in which a volcanic event has triggered a colossal global ice age. The game’s primary scenario consists of surviving the winter – which gets incrementally colder as time progresses – in “New London”: a settlement of survivors clustered around a large coal-powered generator. The player must choose between a number of difficult policies and options to ensure the survival of the population. These include 24 hour shifts, child labour, corpse disposal strategies and, more drastically, whether to welcome refugees or refuse them entry.

    While Frostpunk does not directly address the issue of anthropogenic climate change, it evokes extreme scientific scenarios (from the 1970s and 1980s) of global cooling and nuclear winters. The game also takes place in what we understand is Victorian Britain, epitomising the industrial revolution and the onset of the new geological era we now live in: the Anthropocene.

    Both these games go a long way in engaging and educating their players on climate change, forcing them to deal with the kinds of political and ethical trade-offs that exist in real world decision-making. We highly encourage these innovations, not just in video games but more broadly in bridging the gap between science and the digital arts.

    In the academic journal Environmental Communication, we argue that science and the humanities (including the arts) need to work together in the case of complex issues such as climate change, so as to better communicate scientific thinking and its political ramifications. Video games – as interactive and playful products – offer truly exceptional opportunities to do just that. We welcome these initiatives with open arms, so long as they remain responsible and stimulate critical thinking.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Noam Obermeister, PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Cambridge and Elliot Honeybun-Arnolda, PhD Candidate in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. Read the original article here.

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  • Grassroots not grass-fed: the US might be getting its first vegan president

    Solutions

    The newest addition to a generous list of 520 (!) candidates for the upcoming 2020 US presidential election, was senator Cory Booker. On February 1st, Booker announced he is running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

    Booker, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate started his career in politics in 1998 as a Member of the Municipal Council of Newark with an upset victory. Between 2006 and 2012 he served as the 36th Mayor of Newark and assumed office as a US Senator in 2013, making him the first Black senator from New Jersey.

    As Senator Booker joins the most diverse Democratic presidential candidate pool in history with five women, one LGBTQ+, one Latino and two Black candidates (as of February 4th 2019) he’s also making history as the party’s first vegan candidate.

    A vegetarian since 1998 and vegan since 2014, Senator Booker often speaks about how switching to a plant-based diet has improved his life both mentally and physically. Alongside advocating for a plant-based diet for personal health reasons he is also very outspoken about the negative effects of the animal farming industry on the planet and on the lives of fellow humans.

    In an interview with plant-based magazine VegNews Booker said:

    “You see the planet earth moving towards what is the Standard American Diet. We’ve seen this massive increase in consumption of meat produced by the industrial animal agriculture industry. The tragic reality is this planet simply can’t sustain billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture because of environmental impact… We will destroy our planet unless we start figuring out a better way forward when it comes to our climate change and our environment. ”

    Booker’s dietary preferences stand as a stark contrast with the current president ’s notorious diet of steak with ketchup and twelve diet cokes a day, as does his central message of unity and grassroots action.

    Cory Booker is not the only vegan US politician who’s running for future elections. Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, a vegan advocate who has several initiatives such as promoting vegan lunches in local school districts, will be running for mayor of New York City during the 2021 elections. A fellow New Yorker and vegan, Council Member Helen Rosenthal will also be running in the 2021 elections but for New York City comptroller.

    Many people have declared 2019 the year of the vegan and the plant-based diet the future of nutrition. A new way of eating with the premise of a flourishing planet and better lives for its inhabitants is making its way through our society from music to technology, and now outspoken vegan politicians with a real shot at the office in the country that is the world’s largest meat consumer.

    All signs point to a plant-based future.

    Speaking of a plant-based future, our first Kinder Conversation on the Future of Meat is fast approaching. We'll talk about the 'new meat' and how as a society we can (and should) reduce our dependency on animal farming. Get your tickets before we sell out: http://bit.ly/KinderMeat

    Header image is by Sean Davis via Flickr.

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  • Capitalism is killing the world’s wildlife populations, not humanity

    Obstacles

    The latest Living Planet report from the WWF makes for grim reading: a 60% decline in wild animal populations since 1970, collapsing ecosystems, and a distinct possibility that the human species will not be far behind. The report repeatedly stresses that humanity’s consumption is to blame for this mass extinction, and journalists have been quick to amplify the message. The Guardian headline reads “Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations”, while the BBC runs with “Mass wildlife loss caused by human consumption”. No wonder: in the 148-page report, the word “humanity” appears 14 times, and “consumption” an impressive 54 times.

    There is one word, however, that fails to make a single appearance: capitalism. It might seem, when 83% of the world’s freshwater ecosystems are collapsing (another horrifying statistic from the report), that this is no time to quibble over semantics. And yet, as the ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer has written, “finding the words is another step in learning to see”.

    Although the WWF report comes close to finding the words by identifying culture, economics, and unsustainable production models as the key problems, it fails to name capitalism as the crucial (and often causal) link between these things. It therefore prevents us from seeing the true nature of the problem. If we don’t name it, we can’t tackle it: it’s like aiming at an invisible target.

    Why capitalism?

    The WWF report is right to highlight “exploding human consumption”, not population growth, as the main cause of mass extinction, and it goes to great lengths to illustrate the link between levels of consumption and biodiversity loss. But it stops short of pointing out that capitalism is what compels such reckless consumption. Capitalism – particularly in its neoliberal form – is an ideology founded on a principle of endless economic growth driven by consumption, a proposition that is simply impossible.

    Industrial agriculture, an activity that the report identifies as the biggest single contributor to species loss, is profoundly shaped by capitalism, not least because only a handful of “commodity” species are deemed to have any value, and because, in the sole pursuit of profit and growth, “externalities” such as pollution and biodiversity loss are ignored. And yet instead of calling the irrationality of capitalism out for the ways in which it renders most of life worthless, the WWF report actually extends a capitalist logic by using terms such as “natural assets” and “ecosystem services” to refer to the living world.

    By obscuring capitalism with a term that is merely one of its symptoms – “consumption” – there is also a risk that blame and responsibility for species loss is disproportionately shifted onto individual lifestyle choices, while the larger and more powerful systems and institutions that are compelling individuals to consume are, worryingly, let off the hook.

    Who is ‘humanity’, anyway?

    The WWF report chooses “humanity” as its unit of analysis, and this totalising language is eagerly picked up by the press. The Guardian, for example, reports that “the global population is destroying the web of life”. This is grossly misleading. The WWF report itself illustrates that it is far from all of humanity doing the consuming, but it does not go as far as revealing that only a small minority of the human population are causing the vast majority of the damage.

    From carbon emissions to ecological footprints, the richest 10% of people are having the greatest impact. Furthermore, there is no recognition that the effects of climate and biodiversity collapse are overwhelming felt by the poorest people first – the very people who are contributing least to the problem. Identifying these inequalities matters because it is this – not “humanity” per se – that is the problem, and because inequality is endemic to, you guessed it, capitalist systems (and particularly their racist and colonial legacies).

    The catch-all word “humanity” papers over all of these cracks, preventing us from seeing the situation as it is. It also perpetuates a sense that humans are inherently “bad”, and that it is somehow “in our nature” to consume until there is nothing left. One tweet, posted in response to the WWF publication, retorted that “we are a virus with shoes”, an attitude that hints at growing public apathy.

    But what would it mean to redirect such self-loathing towards capitalism? Not only would this be a more accurate target, but it might also empower us to see our humanity as a force for good.

    Breaking the story

    Words do so much more than simply assign blame to different causes. Words are makers and breakers of the deep stories that we construct about the world, and these stories are especially important for helping us to navigate environmental crises. Using generalised references to “humanity” and “consumption” as drivers of ecological loss is not only inaccurate, it also perpetuates a distorted view of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.

    By naming capitalism as a root cause, on the other hand, we identify a particular set of practices and ideas that are by no means permanent nor inherent to the condition of being human. In doing so, we learn to see that things could be otherwise. There is a power to naming something in order to expose it. As the writer and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit puts it:

    "Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step."

    The WWF report urges that a “collective voice is crucial if we are to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss”, but a collective voice is useless if it cannot find the right words. As long as we – and influential organisations such as the WWF, in particular – fail to name capitalism as a key cause of mass extinction, we will remain powerless to break its tragic story.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Anna Pigott, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Environmental Humanities at Swansea University. Read the original article here.

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