We all need to talk about this! Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and finally XR – blistering headlines, punchy interviews and major disruptions but........ are there actually any solutions? It surely will not be easy for us to change a civilisation which produces 36,000 million tons of CO2 each year!
Put up fuel prices, build more windmills, increase house insulation, reduce de-forestation, build more nuclear power plants, waste less food, use bicycles and public transport, bio-digest or compost organic waste........ No doubt all these will be on the “new” political agenda along with a good dose of political rhetoric and “green wash” good intentions.
All the fuss is certainly catching people's attention and many will now be waiting to see what new initiatives our politicians will come up with. It is, of course, quite possible that XR will have the wit and resources to create their own properly constructed “Citizen's Assembly” which will make recommendations to these politicians. The key question is whether or not the fuss will change the public's appetite for consumerism and cheap energy? Can we ever expect our present political and economic system to deliver the new zero-carbon world we would all aspire to?
My answer is an emphatic “NO”.
I don't believe the necessary cultural changes can be “forced” on people by governments using the present framework of banking, corporations, and free markets however they may be modified by new taxes and regulation.
Why do I think this?
Populist Democracy – The need to achieve a popular majority to win elections makes it virtually impossible for modern professional politicians to impose policies which create short-term discomforts in return for long-term gains. This is especially true when policies may inflict the greatest hardship on the poorest sections of society. The responses of “professional” politicians are also seriously compromised by their personal desires to further their own careers rather than any over-riding need to “represent” their electorate. (Brexit has shown how powerful and damaging this factor can be!)
Banking – The world's present money system is created and operated by commercial banks; it is driven by their need to make profits. Virtually all of the money in circulation is created as bank debt (mostly to corporations and governments). This debt attracts interest which can only be generated by constantly increasing the amount of money in circulation (if this does not happen serious deflation and unemployment will result). So the system can only work if there is either economic growth or inflation. All governments are well aware of this and therefore they MUST do whatever they can to keep the money “snake” from eating its tail! With the present banking/money system it is impossible for the economic system to exist without growth. Economic growth requires greater use of energy. In a finite world this growth cannot continue indefinitely – so major changes are needed in our money system. Note also that many of the world's problems of inequality in wealth are also a direct result of the need for banks to transfer (invest) savings in areas of the highest profit. This means that areas which are remote, have poor infra-structure and low investment will always be made poorer by the ease with which banks transfer “wealth” to areas of greater return. Note also that banks create loans for profit without any consideration of the real needs of local communities (or countries). In the UK this results in the house prices bubble whilst industry and commerce are starved of new investment. Note also that the money we use can be directed both the spending and saving. This leads to constant cycles of boom and bust. These cycles are exagerated by the practices of the banks to lend when they think times will be good and cut back loans when they believe times will be bad. The growing “Positive Money” movement is addressing all these issues.
Corporations – must make profits for their shareholders. Combined with the need to pay interest on bank loans, this creates a constant incentive for “growth”. Corporations can “live for ever”. They can become enormously big and use their resources to significantly influence political decisions. Their owners are protected from claims for wrongdoing/damage – this increases the tendency to take risks. They are the primary sources of employment and their huge advertising budgets drive the process of consumerism. The need to make profit over-rides any concerns they may have about global warming or wise use of scarce resources. Radical new regulations are needed here.
Economics, the price mechanism and “free” markets – the use of the price mechanism within so-called “free” markets is no longer a safe or appropriate way to regulate the rate of use of scarce Earth resources. The attraction of short-term profits will always destroy any chance of rational long-term resource use. This is why almost all governments have used rationing in times of war. Attempting to use the price mechanism to regulate burning of fossil fuels is unlikely to be either practical or effective.
Industrial Agriculture – Large scale industrialised farming depends entirely on huge inputs of fossil fuel and, at the same time, robs the soil of both its natural structure and its organic nutrients. Whilst political control is dominated by city living, there is always an imperative for populist politicians to keep the price of food cheap. Small scale labour-intensive organic farming not only provides higher levels of production (per hectare) but also saves the soil and provides employment and chemical free food.
Waste - Not only do we not recycle our vital organic waste, we bury half in landfill (producing large quantities of methane) and pour the rest into our rivers, seas and lakes via our flush toilets. Essential nutrients are constantly being removed from our soils. Each time you flush the loo it requires the same production of carbon dioxide as driving your car 10 miles – first for production and distribution of clean drinking water and second for the pumping and processing of the sewage.
Note regarding Methane – Methane is a greenhouse gas which is about 20 times more potent that CO2. In terms of global significance the annual release of methane is about 575 million tons (11,500 CO2 equivalent) compared to about 36,000 million tons of CO2. But these figures cannot be compared in any simple way: first because methane decays rapidly to CO2 (over about 8 years) and second because most of the methane is produced by decomposition of plants which have captured the carbon from the air (not from buried deposits underground). Only about one quarter of methane arises from buried deposits of carbon and this is released by human activity extracting fossil fuels. The remaining three quarters of the methane is simply recycled by natural processes and therefore only has any impact when numbers of (say) termites or ruminant livestock increase – even then the impact is limited.
OK – So what can actually be done?
Little progress is likely to be made unless there are radical shifts in our major cultural institutions. Creative debate will be needed to look for new options and new institutions. The institutions which created the industrial (and banking) revolution over 300 years ago are now profoundly life-threatening. They have produced a world which at the most fundamental level is run by and for the “merchants of greed” who control the huge corporations which now dominate life on Earth. The great mass of Earth's people are trapped into what amounts to “wage slavery” and “addiction to consumerism”. Our governments are mostly beholden to these corporations to provide jobs and more and more consumer goods. Populist democracy simply fans the flames of consumerism; it will certainly need to be replaced – probably by “Sortition” and “Citizen's Assemblies”. The banking and money systems will have to be replaced. The principles of free market pricing will have to be abandoned. Industrial farming (and cheap food) will have to be replaced by small scale labour-intensive organic production. What we now call “waste” will have to be reclassified as essential resources (using biodigestion and aerobic composting to recycle organic waste). The flush toilet will need to be replaced by dry toilets or composting loos. Centralised inefficient power generation will have to be replaced by community power units. Rationing will have to be used to protect use of scarce resources. Huge cities will have to be dispersed into smaller towns in the country. We'll have to stop driving our cars and lorries – sourcing goods and food locally. At a more fundamental level the view we have of ourselves and our relationship to our Earth will need to progress from its present predatory and mechanistic nature to a wiser stewardship which recognises the inter-connected wonder of the whole fabric of life. We should learn to understand our responsibility and dependence on Earth's highly complex “life support” system. We should try and understand the new mysterious wonder of the cosmos which scientists have revealed through such discoveries as relativity and quantum theory. We should also put wartime organisation and resources into the successful development of energy from nuclear fusion (as in the ITER project). The entire future of mankind will depend on the success of this project.
The BIG Question – is whether these necessary changes can happen “from the top down” or will they have to be energised “from the bottom up”?
Mass demonstrations and civil unrest can certainly “force” governments to take action but such action will invariably be manifest using existing institutional formats. Those who run the major institutions of society will have very strong vested interests in maintaining the existence of these institutions. We now have a global situation which is akin to a “phoney” war – everybody knows that things cannot go on like they are but nobody can see a way of “jumpiing off this train”!
The levels of dissatisfacton with politicians has never been higher. These are situations which have often, in the past, created a fertile ground for charismatic (often fascist) leaders to take the stage. The cult of celebrity worship and the needs of mass media certainly make this a real possibility.
I believe there is a real chance to avoid such a disaster by somehow cultivating a new movement of “right living” which rejects consumerism and shows, through its followers, that there are healthier and more enjoyable ways to live.
I believe that XR should now capitalise on its high visibility by inviting all its supporters to try and change their own lives by (for example) taking up the “6 things” challenge. Here supporters are offered a list of 12 possible actions they can take in their own lives to “make a difference” - with the suggestion that they try to choose just 6. The 12 might, for example, be on the following lines:
put your money in a credit union not a bank
get rid of your car and use a bike, public transport or share a car with friends
leave all plastic packaging at the super-market – even better stopusing super-markets
make your own bread and/or beer
grow some of your own food
compost your own organic waste
take up some unpaid voluntary work in your community
stop watching TV
boycott Facebook and all similar advertising platforms
stop using electricity for any kind of heating, install a woodburner if you can
make some new friends who can share these challenges with you
learn to play a musical instrument
The growing pressure for “Citizen's Assemblies” and the possibility of using “Sortition” to replace elections do offer hope. But banking and corporations also need radical reform.
Let's be clear – when you burn 1Kg of carbon you produce about 3Kg of carbon dioxide. When you burn 1 gallon of petrol you produce 20lb of carbon dioxide How much carbon dioxide does the UK produce each year? - 435 million tons How much carbon dioxide is produced by the average car each year – about 5 tons
How many cars are there in the UK – 32 million = 160 million tons CO2 per year
Making a single car means producing about 15 tons of CO2 (30 tons for an electric car)
UK makes about 2.5 million cars each year =50 million tons of CO2
If the 12 m diesel cars were replaced by petrol this would increase CO2 by 20 m tons/yr
How much energy is in 1Kg of oil – 42 MJ = 11 KWh A thermal power station is, at best, about 30 percent efficient – burning 3 Kg oil = 10 KWh The average UK household uses about 4000KWh electricity each year
This requires burning 1200 Kg of fuel = 3600Kg of CO2
How many households are there in the UK – about 20 million = about 72 million tons CO\2
About 10 million tons of household organic waste are dumped in landfill every year – about 0.5 tons for each family.
This will release 10 million tons of methane – 25 times worse than carbon dioxide= 250 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Aerobic composting could eliminate this.
So......... The use of cars is a major problem: 160m – plus 50m for construction. Use of electrical power in the home: 72m
Note – a single tree absorbs carbon dioxide at about 50lb per year – 50 year old tree=1ton of CO2 40 trees absorb 1 ton - 16 billion trees needed to absorb 400m tons ( UK now has about 4 billion). The oceans absorb more than one third of all the CO2 we produce.
The average household car travels 15000 miles each year
15000 miles=500 gallons fuel@ 20lb CO2 per gallon = 5 tons carbon dioxide
An electric car travels 15000 miles per year, say 30 mph average=500 hours@ 30KW say
It requires 15,000 KWh of electicity = 16500Kg of carbon dioxide (16.5 tons) from fossil fuel (even if half of the power comes from renewables this is still 70 percent worse than petrol)
To produce the batteries and chassis for a typical Tesla requires creating about 30 tons of CO2 – the same amount produced by driving a conventional car for 6 years.
It is currently too expensive to recycle the lithium batteries after use – they go to the landfill
Massive reduction in car use – more public transport and use of bicycles/horses
Massive reduction in permitted power of cars ? 20KW limit
Insist that cars are made from carbon fibre with a minimum life of 25 years
Use biodigesters and composting to eliminate methane from waste and improve the soil Make using centrally generated electricity for heating (water or central heating) illegal Make installation of solar water heating compulsory
Use much more wood for central heating – use more renewables – tidal power not wind!! Phase out centrally generated electricity in favour of more efficient local generation
Build houses with better insulation and benefit from solar gain and solar water heating Make use of electricity for air conditioning illegal
Plant lots more trees