What if We are all We’ve Got? Zhiwa Woodbury
What if We are all We’ve Got?
We urgently need to move from a blame- and victimhood model towards one of shared responsibility for the climate catastrophe. What might happen if all of us became ‘climate influencers’ by acting every day as if our lives depended on minimizing our carbon footprints?
“Any viable worldview must contain many worldviews, and it must
arise from within us and between us… What is called for is the capacity to find
and support the growing movement of people who think and feel across
frames and contexts at scale – a process that entails an encounter with the
nature, meaning, and purpose of life.”
Glasgow (COP26) felt like the political equivalent of a climate tipping point. For many of us who’ve been at this for decades, it landed as a real gut punch.
IPCC 2021: RED ALERT: It’s Now or Never.
Fossil Fuel dominated COP26: We choose never, but we’ll call it ‘now.’
(e.g. “net zero” 2050 + “Nature Based Solutions” = License to continue burning fossil fuels indefinitely)
Non-Indigenous, grown-up leaders in the climate movement would be wise to check the ethical underpinnings of the narrative we’ve shaped over the last decade in response to this existential crisis. In today’s disintegrating socio-political milieu, it should be readily apparent that something about the climate movement is fundamentally impotent. Climate activists seem to have all it would take to bring about the radical changes called for by our predicament. The science has never been more compelling, and is now bolstered by: the compelling moral authority of child-activists; the equally compelling wisdom of Indigenous peoples; and, the mass synergy and growing solidarity arising from intersectionality with the broader social justice movement.
So why is this not translating into radical political change? Indeed, why are the politics seemingly headed in the opposite direction, when 70% or more of the world’s population agrees that radical changes are needed now?
After COP26 in Glasgow, everyone can now see that the Emperor of the Paris Accords has no clothes. Those accords had failure hardwired into them. Sure, they adopted some blah-blah-blah about holding global warming at 1.5C. But the truth behind that bold lie is that the voluntary commitments from the signatory countries were negotiated on the assumption that a 3-4C rise in global temperatures was acceptable, and we’re presently on course for about 2.7C (and rising fast). Climate science tells us that our ability to grow crops at scale will break down at about 3.5C, resulting in regular crop failures, mass famines, a breakdown in the (oceanic) food chain and, quite likely, steep human population declines associated with the collapse of civilization.
The severe disconnect between the Paris Accords voluntary ‘commitments’ and the expressed intention to limit global warming to 1.5C was rationalized by a promise that everyone would come together again in five years with plans to ratchet up those inadequate targets. That was supposed to be the whole point of Glasgow, and the critical import of that follow-through was underscored by the recent “Red Alert” report from the IPCC. From the standpoint of physics and what we know about the climate system, the broad consensus is that we really have arrived at that “put up or shut up” threshold for taking drastic actions to quickly reduce CO2 emissions at the source.
Instead, we witnessed over 500 fossil fuel lobbyists given access to the COP26 negotiations, while nearly all of the Indigenous peoples whose knowledge the IPCC tells us is critical to our survival were denied credentials, relegated to the sidelines and street theatre. Similarly, the children whose future is being held hostage were either humored or manipulated in a cynical attempt to “child-wash” the ongoing murder of Indigenous earth guardians around the world by this same unholy alliance of fossil fuel interests and servile politicians – like Senator Joe “Clean Coal” Manchin of the U.S. Inc., the genocidal maniac Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, and President Iván Duque of Colombia, to name just a few.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that COP has failed for a quarter century now. It’s rather like asking the drug cartels to work with the crooked cops to solve the world’s substance abuse problems.
Nobody was fooled this time. Not even by the old trick of co-opting the language of the climate movement for nefarious purposes. The whole point of achieving “net zero” by 2050 with “nature based solutions” now seems, incongruously, to permit fossil fuel companies to continue exploiting the Global South, perpetuating the same racist form of corporate colonialism that got us into this existential mess.
It’s time for a reckoning.
Boris Johnson declared it was one minute till midnight on the eve of COP26. If that is the case, then the clock has struck 12:00, and it is now well past midnight.
The climate movement must acknowledge that its tactics have produced very little in the way of tangible results. Marching in the streets, together with an aggressive disinvestment campaign, may have brought down Apartheid back in the day. But those same tactics have done nothing to slow the corporate assault on Mother Nature in these dark times. Each year is hotter than the last, every storm and forest fire serve as traumatic reminders of Earth’s ecological unravelling, and the only nicks in the hockey stick curve of CO2 emissions to date have been attributable to a global great recession and a global pandemic.
If we are not all to become “collapsatarians,” rooting for a Greater (Global) Depression, then we must now envision what an alternative climate movement could look like. There is no more time for treading water. As if to seal the fate of children marching on COPs in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, the COP alliance decided to hold the next two plenary sessions in the authoritarian, fossil-friendly states of Egypt and Saudi Arabia!
If we do not take decisive action now, collectively, then a day is coming that does not include us. This is, as they say, heart attack serious.
As a lifelong advocate for climate sanity, I left the activist movement over a decade ago to study climate psychology. Permit me, then, to suggest what now may sound like heresy: the core strategic failure of the climate movement has been its implicit consent to paternalistic notions of responsibility for the climate we ourselves inhabit and we ourselves have heated up. It’s not too late to correct this ethical shortcoming. But nothing short of a reckoning by the movement will suffice.
Climate Blame Game
The question of personal and collective moral responsibility may well be the most misunderstood and overlooked aspect of the climate crisis. Respond-ability, something that has clearly been in short supply on the climate front, is intimately related to ethical notions of personal responsibility. Two-thirds of people around the world said climate change is a global emergency that requires major actions. Perhaps if we all had a clearer ethical sense of our own responsibility in relation to the climate crisis, we might be more responsive collectively.
Unfortunately, the environmental movement has done a great disservice to the moral majority in this regard, due to it’s over-reliance on the ideas of legal responsibility and victimhood. I was an environmental attorney most of my adult life. While the legal model may have served us well in relation to specific harms perpetrated by corporations, such as discharges to waterways and desecrations of particular landscapes, it has proven to be an ineffective model of apportioning responsibility for a global crisis like climate change.
And yet this seems to be the only way environmental organizations know how to operate. When I advocated early on that climate organizations devote half their resources to educating the public about the contributions of our dietary choices to climate change, as a way of empowering people to actually do something about the crisis other than write letters and march, my suggestions were not taken seriously. What I viewed and experienced as empowering – becoming a vegetarian has more impact than giving up our cars – others saw as blaming and potentially off-putting.
If you’re one who pays attention to the climate issue, then it’s almost certain that you’ve seen some version of these headlines: 90 companies responsible for two-thirds of historical greenhouse gas emissions. And: The dirty dozen: meet America’s top climate villains.
The implications of this blame game, engaged in by both media and activists, is clear: it’s not our lifestyle that is the problem here, it is those nasty corporations who make our lifestyle possible that are to blame. THEY’RE responsible for this mess, not us! This is fundamentally a paternalistic model of responsibility.
To which I respond: Let he or she who has ceased patronizing these 90 companies cast the first stone. How is this kind of finger-pointing supposed to lead to the radical changes we now know are urgently required to avoid a global nightmare? This is just lazy morality.
The scientific-materialist worldview is what ultimately spawned the climate crisis, and it is only from this flawed worldview that corporations are perceived as separate “others.” We should not be able to blame livestock production for the biodiversity crisis while eating a Big Mac, or blame tobacco manufacturers for our lung cancer while taking another drag on our cigarette. In the same way, it is ethically disingenuous to shift blame for the climate crisis to those 90 carbon intensive corporations while we continue to patronize them as we always have to support our (historically) extravagant lifestyles.
They are us, after all. At least, until we disengage from their product streams.
And we are Gaia, too. The materialistic worldview is self-limiting, and has inhibited a whole-hearted response to an existential threat. In this new era of inter-being, interdependence and interconnectivity – which is the alternative worldview emerging from quantum physics, deep ecology, and exponential population growth – the idea that we can in some way exonerate ourselves of any moral responsibility for this shared human crisis by pointing to others, the idea that we could know what we know and still not change anything in the way we relate to the world, is the most pervasive form of climate denial. It’s a psychological defense mechanism intended to rationalize and insulate our toxic attachment to fossil-fueled, colonial-minded affluence.
Indeed, when our children do this – as with “he started it!” or “everyone else is doing it!” – we have no problem telling them this does not excuse their own conduct. Why should it be any different for us in relation to our family’s carbon footprint? This is what Greta is getting at when she calls upon us to act like adults in responding to this existential crisis, and not like immature, spoiled children.
We (consumers) broke it. We must own it – personally. Only then can we hope to fix it. For me, that’s the whole point of the Anthropocene; i.e., to acknowledge that my actions, along with and in relation to the actions of humans everywhere, are now shaping the planet and helping to determine our shared future. That is an empowering perspective that just happens to pose a threat to the consumerist, materialist paradigm that is slowly choking out a living planet.
So what is the alternative to participating in the paternalistic blame game?
What we’re really dealing with here is a fundamental question of personal ethics. Fortunately, there is reliable guidance to be found in the authoritative 2012 book Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future, edited by Allen Thompson, a Professor in Philosophy at Oregon State, and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, an Ethics Professor at Case Western Reserve who also wrote The Ecological Life: Discovering Citizenship and a Sense of Humanity.
For our purposes, we will hone in on Ch. 10 by Professor Thompson: “The Virtue of Responsibility for the Global Climate.” It is critical for us to understand and embody this virtue in our activism and in our lives if we truly want to advance the climate movement to the grown-up stage. This is how we walk our talk, and hopefully spark an effective social movement.
Thompson begins by pointing out that the sense of feeling personally responsible for the global climate signifies the advent of “a new environmental virtue, because it is well suited to express human moral goodness in the emerging Anthropocene Epoch (Crutzen 2002).” The flip side of this is that “[g]lobal warming threatens our contemporary form of life, the basic ecological conditions to which all life on Earth is adapted, and the moral status of our self-conception as humanity.”
What does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene, in other words, echoing Pope Francis’ encyclical on this seminal point. This is not a question to be answered by academics. Rather, it is the question of our times, one to be taken up and answered by everyone who shares the existential concern over our dilemma. Our answer to this question, as reflected in how we change in responsive ways, will determine our collective fate as a species, as well as the fate of this living planet.
That is the gravity and ultimate significance of the Anthropocene. It’s not anthropocentric, as some mistakenly assume. Rather, it means that our actions are shaping the future today. It’s a responsibility we cannot shirk.
Thompson characterizes our default mode of assigning blame for our problems – like blaming those 90 dirty companies – as a “distributed sense of collective responsibility” or “group fault.” Pursuant to this legalistic notion, we may consider ourselves responsible for certain consumer behaviors, but we have a much more difficult time relating that sense of personal responsibility to the vast scale of harms we see with climactic events. Under this kind of ethical consideration, we fail to appreciate any compelling personal obligation to reduce our own impacts, and we also fail to hold the group responsible as a whole, since “the serious harms are genuinely the product of many hands.”
It’s easy to see here why we might absolve soccer moms of responsibility for the climate crisis, or even consumers generally, while pointing the finger of blame at the 90 evil producers – who appear to us as other than human. We can see where this kind of reflexive thinking leads, can’t we? 2021 is on pace to be both the hottest year on record with the sharpest increase in emissions ever.
Thompson thus concludes that the notion of shared responsibility, sometimes referred to as political responsibility, applies with much greater moral force to the climate crisis. Shared responsibility differs from distributed responsibility in critical ways, not the least of which is that it’s forward-looking, as opposed to blaming others for the present results of past actions.
Which is precisely the orientation we need to adopt in response to an accelerating existential threat. Suing and even imprisoning or publicly executing corporate CEOs and their enablers will provide small consolation while our civilization descends into chaos and we ourselves fall prey to the sixth great extinction event. Activists need to call out, and emphatically reject, the faulty reasoning and demonstrated impotency of distributed responsibility as applied to the climate crisis.
Shared responsibility, as with a group of people facing a tsunami wave, “seeks not to reckon debts, but aims rather to bring about results,” according to Thompson – something that has been monstrously lacking in the climate movement.
“Unlike a blame model of responsibility, [shared] responsibility does not seek to mark out and isolate those to be held responsible, thereby distinguishing them from others, who by implication are not responsible… Most accounts of collective responsibility aim to distinguish those who have done harm from those who have not… Political responsibility, on the other hand, is a responsibility for what we have not done.”
Isn’t that radical? Let’s return to the simplistic example of a group of people facing a tsunami, which is an apt metaphor for climate trauma:
– Under a distributed responsibility model, they would just stand there arguing about how they got there, and whose fault it is that they about to be subsumed by the ocean;
– With a shared sense of responsibility, they’d shout things like “PUT ON YOUR LIFE VEST & HELMET!” or “HEAD TO HIGHER GROUND!”
– Only one of these groups has any chance of surviving the tsunami.
This is the most critical point we can be making right now in response to climate chaos, and in relation to one another – especially in a time of great political polarization and paralysis. Shared responsibility for this existential crisis we are facing is the equivalent of positing that each and every one of us is responsible only for what we have not done or are not doing. And then, by considering, debating, and then taking individual actions en masse, we acquire the force of moral suasion in pointing out what our political leaders are not doing. As with Gandhi’s Salt March, and weaving his own clothes to protest the imposition of colonialist means of production. Or Greta’s reliance on solar-powered sail boats and trains to attend climate talks or lecture the United Nations.
As Thompson characterizes this ethic of shared responsibility, each one of us assumes personal responsibility for the climate in a partial way:
“[T]he specific part that each [of us] plays in producing the outcome cannot be isolated and identified, and thus the responsibility is essentially shared.”
Leading not to the paralysis by analysis that seeks to minimize personal responsibility by laying blame on others, as with distributed responsibility, but rather to the kind of universal solidarity engendered by holding the question: “what does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene?”
“Finding some to blame, it does not thereby exculpate others; people are guilty primarily for what they have not done… the moral status of background conditions (e.g. consumerism) is brought into question… Responsibility for the outcome does not belong strictly to some individuals or to some collectives: humans have a shared moral responsibility for global climate change.”
And then, what we choose to do is not so much measured by the intended result, as with say voting for Democrats or the Labor Party, but rather by the actual results measured over time.
Can we even begin to appreciate the prospective differences between these two ethical stances? It’s natural of course, from the standpoint of shared responsibility to look first to our political process for solutions. But we’ve been doing that, and not much else, for decades now with no slowing of emissions. And so we should not feel like we’ve discharged our social and moral responsibilities to the global climate by the mere fact that we show up for marches, display catchy bumper stickers, and vote green.
That is just how one assuages one’s guilt in the paternalistic blame game.
Rather, even if we’ve already changed our diets and/or switched to a hybrid vehicle, the question from a shared sense of responsibility remains the same: “What then shall we do?” Our sense of personal responsibility becomes just as relentless as the crisis itself, and we have no time to blame others, now viewing that as a rather fruitless endeavor.
Since we’ve already accepted personal responsibility with our embrace of shared responsibility, we know that in addition to continuing to advocate for the necessary political, institutional, and structural changes, and continuing to be good allies to our Indigenous brothers and sisters, we are also compelled by the inactions of our craven political leaders, and the resulting absence of easy solutions, to do all that we are able to do in our personal lives to conform our own behaviors in ways that are rationally responsive to the existential urgency of this crisis.
Because if we are not doing all we can do to counter this threat, then we don’t really believe that it is existential, right? And if we are doing all that we can do, then that’s all we are really able to do – that in itself alleviates chronic anxiety. We may no longer even feel psychologically overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, especially if we begin to find the kind of solidarity in our local communities that can produce visible changes – like getting our socially conscientious grocers to stop using so much plastic, just to cite one example.
These kinds of changes only appear to us to be small if we assume that our actions do not have nonlocal impacts. But that is not the case. See, e.g.: You Matter More Than You Think: Quantum Social Change For A Thriving World (2021), by Karen O’Brien (Oslow: cChange Press). This is quite contrary to the other popular story going around climate circles: that the idea of a “carbon footprint” was some distracting propaganda conspiracy of the fossil fuel industry. But as sustainability expert Sam Nattress counters:
“Your carbon footprint is a way to analyze what you’re doing, identify the way you can have the biggest impact, and then actually take action. First and foremost, your carbon footprint is an awareness raising tool. From that awareness comes individual action, and the sum of millions of individual actions is a systemic shift away from unsustainable consumerism.”
As Ness goes on to point out, who cares if this consumer tool came from producers? That doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful tool we can wield against them, in the same way we use social media to organize in spite of the moral culpability of social media magnates. I would go so far as to suggest that our carbon footprint is a good way to determine if we are part of the problem or part of the solution.
With a sense of shared responsibility, everyone continues to feel personally responsible in their daily lives, taking numerous small ethical actions and sharing those ideas in their social fields. As opposed to our current predicament, where everyone is waiting until everyone else decides to take action to reduce the existential threat aimed directly at our children.
What might happen if people all over the world, connected as we are now by social media, became ‘climate influencers’ by acting as if our lives depended on minimizing our carbon footprints? If we just say “Screw it – we can’t wait any longer for our failed leaders to lead, or for corporations to grow a conscience.”
Jane Goodall speaks sensibly to the beating heart of this shared responsibility with her own vision of a viral ecological consciousness:
“When there’s several million, and hopefully billions, of people making ethical choices in the impact they make every day, then we start moving towards a world that we can feel a little bit happier to leave to our children.”
This vision stands in stark contrast to the individual’s perceived powerlessness under the paternalistic model of distributed responsibility, where everyone is at the mercy of top-down solutions, waiting to be told what to do by protectors of the status quo. As consumers, we are free to organize and exercise demand-sided politics without the permission of producers, and once we begin flexing our consumer power collectively, politicians will either have to listen to us or get out of the way. We are not nearly as powerless as we’ve been led to believe.
Glasgow was an exercise in global gaslighting by those who are profiting most from our growing misery – the purveyors of disaster capitalism. Red Alert: they’re not interested in the radical changes we know are needed. The time has thus arrived for us to take charge of our own fate, to become the adults our children are searching for. And to listen to the time-tested wisdom of Indigenous leaders like Domingo Peas, an Achuar indigenous leader from the Ecuadorian Amazon:
“We must first change our relationship to nature, change the way we think about the world, and really put at the center of our thinking our connection to life and our commitment to future generations.”
What does it mean to YOU to be human in the Anthropocene? And what are you not doing now to make a viable future possible?
What’s stopping us?