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Could Plenty Ever be Enough?

Naomi McCavitt’s disturbing picture “Land o’ Plenty” evokes so much, with its combination of fantastic portrait, landscape and still life.

September newsletterThe foreground is in fact more in keeping with the French term “nature morte” than the English equivalent “still life”. The human character straddles a mound of harvested fruits and dead wild animals, while in the background we see a landscape that is bare and parched. The image offers a mirror to our destructive exploitation of nature with the man, eyes fixed on some far or imagined horizon, seemingly indifferent to the carnage beneath him. But are there hints too of a more balanced and sustainable life, perhaps long forgotten?

He could be taken for some sort of tinker, suggesting not just a carefree opportunist but the ultimate recycler. And, for American readers, the bizarre headgear is reminiscent of the tin pot hat worn by folk hero Johnny Appleseed from two centuries back who, according to legend, not only helped to nourish thousands of people through the wide distribution of apple seedlings but also managed to live harmoniously alongside native Americans. “Land o’ Plenty” is borrowed as a backdrop for this newsletter which is about contradictions, ambiguities and crossroads…..not just in our circumstances but in the human psyche. Can there ever be a stable point of plenty, fair shares and ecological wisdom?

Mixed Messages

Never, it seems, has there been in two months such a plethora of both good and bad news for climate change and the environment, nor so many stories that can be interpreted in opposing ways. Climate Change News quotes a study published by Nature about scientists having concluded that the 1.5 degrees window has already closed. This excludes “controversial negative emissions technology” so it does little more than reiterate comments by Kevin Anderson about the aspirations in the Paris accord being hostage to theoretical technologies, as reported here in February.

So technology is somewhere near the centre of the current ambiguity. The launch last year of the Global Apollo Programme by an illustrious UK team was given a boost by Bill Gates. He grasped the challenge in the report which highlighted not just the shameful continuation of fossil fuel subsidies but a big shortfall in R&D funding for renewable energy – covering generation, storage, conversion and transmission. One key development [if this non-technical writer has got it right] is accelerated progress on power-to-gas, a system enabling energy storage, thus smoothing periods of surplus and deficit from solar and wind. Chris Goodall, in his new book The Switch argues that we are on now on the brink of a revolution that will make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels, so the markets will then do the rest. If this proves to be correct then a hopeful narrative of plenty, based on the fact that solar energy reaching the Earth far exceeds all humanity’s power needs, could become a practical reality.

This leads to a stream of questions: is the switch really achievable in the near future, affordably and at a global scale, benefitting poorer nations as much as rich ones? How would the global economy handle the collapse of fossil fuel capital [assuming the industry fails to prevent that] and enable the switch? And can it happen in time to avert the worst of the Anthropocene? More fundamentally, and more relevant to climate psychology, how likely is it that the necessary technological switch to renewables will be accompanied by the equally necessary cultural switch towards ecologically informed living across the board? The danger could be that, if the scenario predicted by Goodall proves accurate, then the myth of all-powerful science and technology will be reinforced and our inhumanity, our ecocidal ways will persist. The notion that there is plenty of everything, all of it at our disposal and with no intrinsic value beyond our own appetites, would then continue to debase both ourselves and our world.

In post-referendum UK, there has been an anxious reading of the tea leaves about the strength of the new government’s commitment to action on climate change, following the equivocal record of the Cameron era. Theresa May’s past speeches offer some slight encouragement, her voting history less so. The abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change caused alarm, but what changes of substance will follow the disappearance of the name? Two positives emerged: the new Chancellor of the Exchequer has a much more convincing position on the issue than his predecessor and Greg Clark, heading the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is regarded as someone who understands climate change. The structure of the new department is outlined here. Much of the onus for developing renewables is left with the private sector, operating on a playing field that is not fit for the purpose of rapid decarbonisation. The FIT for solar pv was tapered off too rapidly; onshore wind – the cheapest source of renewable energy, has been virtually killed off and the government appears to be intent on offering bribes to householders to gain support for fracking, discussed here by the Independent . An opencast coalmine in Northumberland has been given the go-ahead adding further to the impression that the UK government still hasn’t accepted the message that the fossil fuel industry needs to shrink rapidly. Much indeed seems to ride on Global Apollo. Leaving aside the lobbyists behind the scenes, the psychology of the government seems to be a caution based on 20th century economics, rather than a real appreciation of the escalating costs and losses which climate change will bring. No wonder that Mary Robinson on behalf of the UN has singled out the UK for its poor performance.

Better News

Optimism of the will depends on not being daunted by the apparent odds and there are multiple signs, at many levels, of work to repair and transform. The Canadian government proceeds towards implementing a national carbon price by the end of this year. Here the paradox is writ large, when we look at that [modest] pricing landmark alongside the satanic scenes by the Athabaska river. And UK readers who watched Stephen Sackur’s “Hard Talk” BBC News interview with Canadian environment minister Shannon Phillips may have been struck by the extraordinary degree of disavowal in her responses to Sackur’s questions about tar sands .

From India came the news that 50 million trees were planted in a day, by 800,000 volunteers. It beat the previous record held by Pakistan – could this be the most hopeful example ever of international competition? Back here in the UK, we learn that 8.5 million trees have been planted over a rather longer period to replenish a part of the Midlands devastated by mining. This should be an inspiration to all who want to rectify our poor level of forestation compared with the rest of Europe. And George Monbiot in his book Feral celebrates the work of Alan Watson and the Trees for Life project to restore the Caledonian forest in Scotland.

CDP’s (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) work on cities drives action by city governments to measure, monitor and manage their impact on the environment. Today, four in ten cities are reporting their greenhouse gas emissions, compared with one in ten in 2011. Further details of CDP’s cities program are given here. CPA is pleased to announce that Maia Kutner from CDP will be speaking at our climate leadership event on 19th November. Maia is the head of CDP’s cities program, encompassing the work of 533 cities globally representing over 600 million citizens. [Please note that this is an alteration to the previously published programme for the conference].

City legislatures and states usually have the wherewithal to move more decisively than whole countries on climate change mitigation. But even in California, where climate impacts are increasingly severe, this is not happening without a battle. Gerry Brown’s state government is locked in conflict with opponents of an extension of its climate programme beyond 2020. Support amongst the population is strong and Brown says he is willing to take this to a state ballot.

Santiago in Chile has announced an agreement to purchase 300GWh of electricity annually, which will enable its metro system to run mostly on solar generated electricity.

Part of the nexus of climate change denial arises from the fear amongst media outlets – those that don’t have a denialist bias in the first place – that they will lose advertising revenue if they report on the scale of the climate threat or highlight its actual consequences. So it is newsworthy when a TV weatherman makes a point of talking climate. John Morales, chief meteorologist of the NBC affiliate in Miami sees this as his responsibility, in another state which is on the front line of climate disruption. The report mentions that Climate Central has been working with meteorologists to help raise awareness.

The polarisation of views along political and ideological lines, notably in English-speaking countries where the Murdoch press has a strong presence, is striking. Even when distinguished conservatives like Hank Paulson speak out – as previously reported here – it seems to have little impact. Bipartisan co-operation is far too rare. Hillary Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine has just such an achievement to his credit. The Hampton Roads area of Virginia is very vulnerable to sea level rise. Kaine’s strategy there is a shrewd if cautious one, to go light on the causes and strong on the problem, garnering support for adaptive measures. This doesn’t contribute much to addressing climate change per se, but it begins to build a collaborative atmosphere.

So while [to borrow from Ghosh below] climate insanity is still rampant, we can see growing signs of effective leadership at national, regional and local levels, like green shoots that do not yet amount to a sward. The old Transition dictum that, if we leave it to government it will be too little, too late may be as true as ever as a rallying cry to community activists and all of us as individuals. But the thing here is that good work at every level feeds and encourages efforts elsewhere, boosting hope at the growing points and keeping climate action in sight, even where it is still peripheral.

“We are Living our Lives as though We are Mad”

This memorable quote comes from Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable is attracting attention. He for one would no doubt be wary of what we can expect from the Global Apollo Programme or any other technological solutions to our deeply disordered relationship with other life on this planet and its underlying systems. He sees little hope in humanity’s consumption habits merely being serviced by new energy sources. In the Hindu Times interview with Ghosh includes a discussion of the relative strengths of fiction and non-fiction in dealing with climate change. This is worth considering alongside Maggie Turp’s exploration of Cli-Fi, mentioned below.

Deeply ironic and perhaps an instance of the madness that Ghosh talks about can be seen this article about aviation, an industry that is on course to consume a quarter of the notional global carbon budget. That projection is disturbing enough, but the underlying insanity here surely lies in the concern about climate change’s future disruption of aviation, rather than vice versa! The dramatic irony peaks with an ICAO quote in the article “…aviation is an extremely risk-averse business”. If only the industry’s concerns about the challenge which turbulence and sea level rise might pose to safe take-offs and landings were the worst of our worries.

George Monbiot continues his campaign on the hopelessly inadequate media coverage of climate change, instancing the never-ending list of extreme weather events across the globe. The number of articles linked in this letter is already large, so here is simply a list of some recent events: July – the hottest month globally on record saw temperatures in Kuwait hitting 54 degrees C (129 degrees F), dozens dead in Nepal floods, downpours in Karachi causing numerous electrocutions, vast Siberian wildfires that are visible from outer space and an outbreak of anthrax caused by an animal carcass in the thawing tundra, deadly freak floods in Macedonia, the latest Californian wildfires from Santa Clarita to San Bernadino and more recently the deluges affecting Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana – parts of the latter receiving 17” of rain in one day, finally flooding in Moscow following the heaviest deluges for 130 years. These of course are just some of the latest acute events. Chronic and insidious is the threat of sea level rise from Bangladesh to Florida, the fresh water crises from Lesotho to the Great Plains of the USA (America’s bread basket) and the vicious circle of escalating electricity demand for air conditioning.

Denial may help us to stay less anxious as individuals, but collectively and in the longer-term Ghosh is right. We are living our lives as though we are mad, both in the trouble we are causing and in our extreme reluctance to look at cause and effect.

Closer to Home

We were very pleased when the inspiration of the Radical Hope conference became more widely known through the publication of a collection of articles on Climate Change in UKCP's publication, The Psychotherapist guest edited by Chris Robertson and Judith Anderson. The issue can be read online.

There has been so much to process since the Referendum vote and there are 4 articles on our website about this with more to come.
Brexit, Trump and Change Sarah Deco
Europe, Climate Change: Imagining Oneself to be an Exception by Paul Hoggett
An Unravelling World in need of Radical Repair by Chris Robertson
Britain & Europe: What Moves People? by Paul Hoggett

There are further items from or about readers of this newsletter. David Hicks, formerly at the School of Education, Bath Spa University has written A Climate Change Companion – for family, school and university. There is a great hunger amongst young people as well as an objective need for clear and reliable knowledge about climate change and energy choices, showing which directions we can look to for hope. This is the aim of the book; it should be a valuable and very welcome resource.

CPA member and founder member of Be the Change, Hetty Einzig has recently finished a book “Coaching Comes of Age”. Hetty has taken a close interest in climate psychology for several years and is keen to see a stronger connection between it and the world of coaching. She brings much knowledge to the fields of leadership process and women in leadership, indicating fruitful ground for collaboration with CPA. Her book is due out in February 2017 – further details to follow.

Another member, Guy Gladstone has devised a series of three workshops – called experiential enquiries – titled “What on Earth Can I Do?” These run in London from 25th September 2016 to 1st July 2017. His work is grounded in several traditions which help to inform climate psychology.

Completing our roundup of member activities: Maggie Turp is a commentator on and eagerly awaited contributor to the Cli-Fi genre. This is a critically important territory for expanding our imaginations and maybe giving us a stronger sense of agency in the future that is being created now. It has been a long wait for a fresh and wider perspective on Cli-Fi since the review of Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behaviour”. Maggie’s thoughtful article makes the wait worthwhile.

Guest Contribution

Richard Pauli, a reader from the USA mentioned in previous letters, has responded to an invitation to comment on the ongoing story of climate misinformation from the fossil fuel industry and moves by the Attorneys General of several states to bring Exxon Mobil to book. The issue, Richard suggests, is the stratagem of construing self-interested lying as a freedom of speech matter, thereby invoking a constitutional get-out. There is something really important about this. We can take it as a given that the law turns with agonising slowness in support of environmental protection - just allowing the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions took decades. The ethical and psychological heart of the problem emerges in Richard’s comment: “…for combustion of carbon fuels, everyone is culpable. But for promoting dangerous misinformation, some think this is such a unique situation that it requires a whole new definition of a crime against the future.” Polly Higgins’ campaign to have ecocide defined as a punishable crime comes to mind. There is also a reminder here of the challenge to us all in both recognising criminality and the benefits we have derived from the persistence of ecocide. That psychological challenge surely has a deep bearing on how the issue plays out in legal process.

Richard backs up this line of thought with reference to the work of ethics professor Donald A. Brown at Widener University School of Law, who reminds us that the world has lost 40 years due to a mixture of obfuscation and blocking of regulatory action, leading to the daunting steepness of emissions reduction that is now needed. Brown’s short video, which also lists the tactics of disinformation, can be viewed here.

Richard’s reflections contain a further chilling item: “The last word I heard from a Texas source is that Exxon is pushing a whisper campaign basically saying ‘It’s already too late’ and ‘so keep on with business’. For the present, this pushes a type of happy-talk-promoting-adaptation and allows continued carbon commerce through the present generation. This kind of thinking is a perverse and unethical form of apocalyptic cornucopianism promoted without respect for our youth and without consideration for future generations.”

This Exxon stratagem, if true, goes even beyond the last position in the denial range described by Prof. Chris Rapley in his foreword to Sally Weintrobe’s Engaging with Climate Change, namely ‘it’s too expensive or too difficult to do anything about it.’ The notion of apocalyptic cornucopianism is disturbing in the extreme. Words are hard to find in these extreme places. When it comes to the dark side of plenty, perhaps the “Land o’ Plenty” picture is worth a thousand of them.

Adrian Tait

On behalf of the Executive Comittee