Climate Disruption, Moral Obligations and Existential Choices

By Ben Kjelshus (June, 2015)

The debate over climate change is over. The evidence is overwhelming that climate disruption is the result of human activities. A core finding of the recent report by the UN International Panel on Climate Change states that climate change is here and now; it’s not something in the future.

How shall we respond to the reality of climate disruption? Do we not have a moral obligation to respond to that reality? In context of the reality of climate disruption and the reality of depleting natural resources, do we not have a responsibility to take concerted action for the future, for our children’s future and for the future of the living planet?

Recent science tells us unless we reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million – we’re at 387 parts per million now and expanding – we will cause massive and irreversible damage to the planet. There are some environmentalists who claim we have already passed the tipping point – we’re facing the collapse of western civilization.

We know time is not on our side. Even so, by taking committed, comprehensive, short-term action steps in reversing the massive damage done and being done to the planet, there is hope. There is hope in building a mass movement – a movement of movements that would be engaged in hard-hitting resistance to counter the controlling, greedy, destructive actions of the fossil fuel industry and their cohorts.

Is there a religious element involved here? In addition to being involved with groups in dealing with policy issues and building a movement, are there not personal, existential choices to be made in facing the climate disruption issue? We’ll pursue these questions later.

The author Naomi Klein recently came out with a seminal book This Changes Everything Capitalism vs. the Climate. I see the scope of this book providing a context in dealing with our theme. Klein states that climate change represents a historical opening for positive progressive transformation. The climate crisis can be a catalyst for positive social change. She writes,

“As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels so many climate scientists recommend, we have the chance to advance polices that dramatically improve our lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create large numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.”

But this won’t happen unless we take on the fossil-fuel industry, their cohorts and global capitalism big time. As Naomi Klein points out,

“Meeting science-based targets will mean forcing some of the most profitable companies on the planet to forfeit trillions of dollars of future earnings in leaving the vast majority of proven fossil-fuel resources in the ground.”

Then she asks this crucial question, “Has an economic shift of this kind ever happened before in history?” She asks, has it ever been demanded by regular people? – not by presidents and prime ministers. In our present situation, with the elite power structure controlling our government, governmental forces would not allow such an economic shift.

Naomi Klein and the political commentator Chris Hedges point out that the abolition of slavery movement was a transformation comparable to the needed economic transformation facing us today. Chris Hayes in his essay “The New Abolitionism” states

“…It is impossible to point to any precedent other than abolition…in recognizing the demand of the climate-justice movement that…an existing set of political and economic interests be forced to say good-bye to trillions of dollars of wealth.”

Klein comments,

“If climate justice carries the day, the economic costs to our elites will be real – not only because of the carbon left in the ground, but also because of the regulations, taxes and social programs needed to make the required transformation.”

What becomes apparent is that the climate issue is closely linked to economic issues. Therefore, the climate disruption issue can be a powerful force to make the transition for a positive redistribution of wealth. This will take the building of a mass movement. To be successful this requires the coming together of several movements and organizations dealing with positive social justice and climate change. It will take a mass movement to demand strategic planning and huge amounts of public funding — such as a Marshall Plan for the Earth, patterned after the Marshall Plan the United States launched on the international level after WWII, and such as the Green New Deal on the national level. The US Green Party has proposed the Green New deal to make the transition from a fossil-fuel based energy system to a renewal energy based energy system. It would take on some of the features of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program during the great depression.

Indeed, we face formidable challenges. Nevertheless, there is hope offered by various forms of resistance to the disastrous actions of the fossil-fuel industry and global capitalism. Protests and blockages are now being performed in many parts of the world. Resistance involves people coming together and building movements. Resistance involves actions that, as Brad Werner says it, “…does not fit with the capitalist culture.” This involves environmental direct action, protests and blockages. Well expand on this later.

We realize there is a good deal more involved here – more than dealing with policy changes in reversing the course of climate disruption. There’s the reality of conflicting world views on how we relate to the earth. There’s the prevailing world view of dominance, of control over nature. This is the prevailing world view of western civilization. The planet is viewed as inert, as a commodity, as a resource, as resources for global capitalism. The prevailing world view has a long history. It is solidly embedded in the bible: Genesis 1.28, “And God blessed them, and God said onto them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The other world view – the view generally held by indigenous peoples – is living in harmony with nature. We are part of nature, not above it. The prevailing world view is characterized by high energy use, high consumerism and unfettered use of the world’s resources. The ecological world view is characterized by low energy use, low consumerism, and by the understanding that indeed the earth’s resources are fragile and precariously limited.

Let’s face it! We have been – to a too great an extent – influenced by the prevailing world view. To a considerable extent our individual activities are influenced by the capitalist advertising industry. We consume too much. We use too much energy. Without any real resistance taking place, global capitalism continues its depletion of natural resources and moves our civilization towards catastrophe.

I’m appalled by the thought that due to the control, greed, near-sightedness and additive practices of the fossil-fuel industry and the ruling elite, we face not only the possible catastrophe of civilization but also the diminution of the living planet. Surely it’s imperative we take on an obligation and a responsibility for our children and future generations, and for the living planet – an obligation to stop the deadly activities of the fossil-fuel industry and global capitalism.

Again, there are areas of hope. One area of hope Pope Francis’ recently released encyclical. The encyclical calls for a “bold cultural revolution” – to turn around the harm done to the planet from climate warming caused mainly by human activities. The Pope presents a powerful critique of global capitalism which comes from his particular economic concern: eradicating poverty. The Pope will be visiting the United States in September, 2015. The encyclical and the Pope’s visit offer encouraging opportunities to bring the climate disruption issue to the mass media and the general public.

There are other areas of hope. The public release of the encyclical is well timed. It will be quite influential throughout the world not only among Catholics. It could well have considerable influence with world-wide, grass-roots groups in actions on the climate justice issue prior to and during the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris from Nov. 30 thru Dec. 11, 2015. The objective: to achieve in over 20 years of UN negotiations a binding and universal agreement on climate from all nations of the world. The overreaching goal of the conference is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The Conference could be an explosive event initiating steps leading to a turn-around on climate change.

What’s encouraging is the increase of protests world-wide where there have been mining and drilling projects – open-pit mining, gas fracking and building tar sand pipelines. These protests have been called Blockadia. We do hear of protests over tar sand pipe line and gas fracking, but the mass media does not report the extensive protests taking place world-wide, such as: 1) opposition to coal mining operations in Australia, 2) a protest camp built in Romania for a showdown against Chevron and its plans to start the country’s first shale gas exploration well, 3) In Mongolia, Chinese herder’s rebellion against plans to extract fossil-fuels from their region, and 4) mass demonstrations in Greece in opposition to a Canadian firm’s attempts to begin gold and copper mining.

The Blockadia protests are expressions of the many kinds of resistances that are needed to reverse climate disruption. What’s needed is a resistance revolution. What’s needed is a mass movement, a movement of movements involved in resistance – which includes environmental direct action, protests and blockages. It will mean building economic alternatives such as setting up cooperatives and regional food systems. It will mean making the transition from a fossil-fuels energy system to a renewable energy system.

There is a personal element involved here. I would say a religious factor. We began by posing a few questions: How shall we respond to the reality of climate disruption? Do we not have an obligation to deal seriously with that reality? In the context of that reality and the reality of depleting natural resources, do we not have an obligation, a responsibility for the future, for the future of our children, for all the world’s children and for the living planet?

To what extent should we be involved in the crucial life-threatening issues of climate disruption, economic inequalities, destructive practices of global capitalism and political turmoil? We have choices, hard choices. We have existential choices. The word existential is used recognizing the philosophic thinking of existentialism. One definition of it is that It’s the shared belief that the human is the acting, feeling, living human individual, not merely the thinking being. The approach places concerns on choices, free will and personal responsibility.

From the existential approach how do we respond to climate disruption, recognizing that climate disruption is the most pressing moral issue of our time? The personal choices we make will depend on the extent we recognize obligations and responsibilities to the future, to our children and to the living planet. Making existential choices involves finding meaning for our lives during these turbulent times. We have real choices to make.

There’s the choice of skirting responsibility, of going along with the status quo, of continuing to be immersed in the world of high energy and high consumption. Such a collective pattern leads us toward consequences that will be catastrophic.

There’s the choice of limited resistance in which we need to be involved. We need to be involved in recycling, reducing and reusing. We need to be involved in food sovereignty, in setting up an alternative food system. This program asserts that those who produce, distribute and eat food should control the ways and policies of food production and distribution. We need to take over control of what corporations now have of the food system. Properly structured it would save considerable amounts of energy as well as stop the flow of food dollar profits to global food corporations. Nutritionists could set up a balanced diet from largely regionally produced food. A good amount of energy would be saved by not flying in food from Central and South America during the winter months.

Being engaged in limited resistance, we need to be involved in building ecologically sustainable communities. One such endeavor has been the model block project where a few of us are working with Ester Holzendorf with the goal of rehabilitating the 3800 Chestnut block in Kansas City, MO. We’re restoring an abandoned house which is to serve as the center for the project. Another endeavor in building ecologically sustainable communities is an organization called Transition Initiatives dedicated to creating resilient communities to withstand an unsettling future. MiKe Hoey and I have been active with Transition KC.

There are other projects areas of limited resistance: placing solar panels on our homes and garages, making our homes highly energy efficient, cutting back on numerous uses of energy, developing highly energy-efficient transportation systems. The program “Food not Lawns,” advocates gardens planted on front lawns. Governmental units, especially cities needs to be pressured to develop local energy-efficient and productive living areas.

As we must be active in areas of limited resistance, these actions while appealing could well be insufficient to reverse the direction of climate disruption. Time is not on our side.

There is the existential choice of diligent resistance, hard-hitting resistance. There’s a book about fighting back: Deep Green Resistance by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen. This book is about creating a culture of resistance, about creating an actual resistance. The authors state,

“The strategy of Deep Green Resistance starts by acknowledging the dire circumstances that industrial civilization has created for life on the planet. The goal of DGR is to deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and [curtail] the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet. It also means defending and rebuilding just and sustainable human communities nested inside repaired and restored land bases. This is a vast undertaking, but it can be done. Industrial civilization can be stopped.”

In this scenario of all-out attacks on the infrastructure of capitalism, the goal is 90% reduction of fossil-fuel consumption. This, indeed, would be a formidable undertaking. To be engaged in such an activity would face an intense counter attack from the establishment, from government forces defending the fossil-fuel industry. They would be defending the trillions of dollar’s worth of wealth remaining to be drilled and dug.

Nevertheless, areas of resistance are forming. Key opportunities are opening up. The authors of Deep Green Resistance state,

“For perhaps the first time in history, those in power are globally off balance and occupied by worsening crisis after crisis. This provides a key opportunity for resistance groups, and autonomous cultures and communities to seize and retain the initiative.”

And there is Naomi Klein’s message: “…climate change represents a historic opening for progressive transformation.”

We need to heed Naomi Klein’s claim: “Only mass movements will save us now.” I assert we take action on that claim and engage in movement building. We work with progressive groups in forming a mass movement in our region and network on national and world-wide levels in building of a mass movement. It will take a mass movement to be engaged in hard-hitting resistance in various forms to counter the controlling, greedy, addictive behavior of the fossil-fuel industry and global capitalism. With mass movements coal-powered electric plants can be closed. With a mass movement we can make the transition to a renewable energy based energy system. There are beginnings in these endeavors. Now needed are actions to reduce use of fossil fuels by 90%. We’ll need not only a mass movement but a mass movement engaged in a culture of resistance.

And there are real political opportunities with the 2016 elections. Progressives have the opportunity to support and work for candidates who advocate climate justice, such as presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jill Stein of the National Green Party. With strong advocates and a mass movement active in Washington for climate justice, rapid change is possible for legislative measures to reverse climate disruption.

In addition, we’ll need to deal with the conflicting world views of how humans relate to the planet. It’s imperative we make the transition to the world view of ecological consciousness, of humans living in harmony with the planet, and abandon the stance of domination over nature. We need to stop the exploitation of the earth’s finite resources. Understanding the earth’s carrying capacity, we need to be intensely mindful of our ecological footprint upon the earth. In following the thinking of Father Thomas Berry, who called himself a geologian, “an earth scholar,” “…are our thoughts, words, and deeds sustainable for the earth?”

For this transition to take place, a concerted educational enterprise is needed. And here is where the powerful message of Pope Francis’ encyclical comes in. There’s encouragement that religious institutions are taking a larger educational role in this transition. Many denominations have statements on climate change. Many congregations are beginning to serve as examples in their communities, showing the way to implement a response to global warming. Even so, much more needs to be done. Is there a challenge here for Community of Reason?

The reality of climate disruption presents challenges that are formidable and daunting. How do we respond to climate disruption? I assert we respond by taking on an existential choice recognizing our responsibility, our obligations to the future, to the future of our children, to the future of the planet and its species. I assert we respond by taking on an existential choice of deliberate, concerted actions – actions in three general areas: building a mass movement, embracing a culture of resistance and creating the transition to the world view of ecological consciousness.

Let’s acknowledge Einstein’s statement: “Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act. “Yes, there are areas of hope. Let’s take on the existential choice of Hope!

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