Facing reality

Watching Greece continue to burn up as the fires reach Athens and Evia, and then of course the fires still raging in Turkey, Bulgaria, Italy, and across southern Europe, it’s bewildering and heartbreaking. The fires have been going on in Turkey since July 28th, and they’ve been going through Greece since August 3rd, but already it feels like the fires have been burning there forever. If that’s not enough, in the USA there’s still a massive wildfire in California that’s been going on for close to a month, since July 13th, and I almost forgot that it was happening. That’s the scary part, isn’t it? It already feels like we’re at a point where what we’re seeing now, in terms of nigh-apocalyptic destruction of the land, is the new normal, and additionally that we are in some ways powerless to stop it. The image of seemingly eternally burning land, the sky constantly covered in ash and smoke, I can’t help but imagine certain images of living in Hell that we’re used to in Christian culture, but then if that’s the case, it’s quite strange how life in Hell feels a lot more depressing than torturous, at least for the present. How fitting, in either case, for the findings that recently been presented by the IPCC.

The IPCC has found that, at our present rate, global temperatures are set to rise by 1.5°C, which is higher than the target set out by the Paris Agreement, that the rapid increase in extreme weather and melting ice caps are, without any room for doubt, the cumulative result of well over a century of human industrial activity, and that many of the destructive changes that our environment is experiencing are probably going to irreversible. It also suggests that there is still time for humans to change course, and we may still prevent total disaster if we drastically reduce CO2 emissions within the next 20 years, but even if we did, it is too late to alter some changes to the climate and destruction to our ecology, meaning that, no matter what we do, our world looks set to change for centuries and life on Earth will be much less hospitable for humans and other organism, assuming organized human society or many other life forms even survive. The report is being described by world leaders as “code red for humanity”, and they’re not wrong to put it that way. But to be quite honest, it was already obvious that human activity has been at the root cause of the way that the world’s climate has been dramatically altered, but not many people have actually been listening. And, to be quite honest, even now I don’t think anyone’s really listening. I don’t just mean the usual climate deniers who were only ever going to cover their ears, I also mean the world leaders who claim to be on the right side of the issue.

Everyone’s still talking about how we need to think about how everyone can do their part to reduce our carbon footprint. That’s nice and all, but haven’t we literally been talking about that for years and then Madagascar, a country with basically no carbon footprint, suffered its worst famine in decades? Not to mention, I don’t think that simply focusing on individual lifestyle changes that aim for the reduction of carbon emissions really gets to the heart of our relationship to the land, and I don’t see how it allows us to overcome the idea that nature is a tool for humans to use and dispense with. In fact, our leaders still see the instrumentalist view of the natural world as the answer. Patrick Vallance himself, the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, took to The Guardian to publish an op-ed outlining his response to the IPCC report. A sure sign of how serious The Guardian takes this, and how much the government wants you to think it takes things seriously, but in all reality Vallance doesn’t actually say too much. The gist of his solution is that we need to reach net zero emissions through a “systemic approach”, which for him just means “emphasis on science and innovation”, which just means assessing technologies, monitoring progress against intermediate targets, identify research targets, and make climate change conferences all about the wonders of science and innovation. What this entails is not elaborated, but what we get is this sense that we can engineer our way out of problems within capitalism through faith in technological solutions, probably produced by profit-seeking capitalists if we’re being honest.

Of course, without knowing precisely what those solutions are, or what their potential drawbacks are, we simply cannot say anything about them. But, in the broader picture, I get the sense that this does not strike at the heart of why we are where we are. Capitalism is central to that question, but also central is the view that we have accrued to arrive at and justify the commodification of the natural world that is leading up to its destruction. That is why it is not enough to simply implement socialism only to reinstate the sort of ecocidal productivism that dominated the 20th century. Ever since the age of inclosure, the systematic seizure of common land into the hands of private owners to be owned, bought, and sold as property, and ever since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the already present idea that Man was the sovereign master of nature, initially bequeathed by Christianity and still implicit with religious expectations, morphed into a secular doctrine built on the idea that industrial civilization was to conquer nature through the domination of productive forces. This idea was obviously part and parcel of capitalist expansion, but it pervaded much of the political thought of the 20th century, and persists in a merely embarrassed state today. We see the natural world as a thing, the planet as nothing but a treasure trove whose gifts are there precisely for us to take. We see ourselves as subjects separate from the natural world, rather than profoundly enmeshed within it. Dismantling capitalism represents one of the most important steps that we need to take on a systemic level. But even if we did that, history shows that a socialist society built on productivism has not been much better for ecology. Indeed, after the collapse of Marxism-Leninism, China is a large-scale polluter known for a smog problem in major cities and Russia couldn’t even guarantee clean water for the Sochi Olympics. That’s not something that just pops up out of the blue, but is rather the cumulative result of rapid and extreme industrialization undertaken at the expense of the natural environment.

Almost nothing will suffice if we do not incorporate a radical re-imagining of our relationship to the world itself. Simply handwringing about individual lifestyle choice is meaningless, if it is not geared towards an alternative community and way of life built on harmonious relationships with the natural world, and even systemic change, though it is absolutely indispensable, alone will not bring us to a better and more harmonious relationship to nature unless we actively commit ourselves to such a project. On an interpersonal level, I believe that cultivating a kind of religious reverence for Nature is essential to this, and that part of the rammifications of that consists in embracing Paganism in some form or another, and abandoning the reactive anti-religious bias that secular humanism has cultivated as the inevitable outgrowth of Christian tyranny. As strange as that must seem to many, taking the reality of climate change seriously means coming to terms with the idea that we are part of something larger than ourselves, not because of a “higher power” (read: God/Yahweh) but because of nature.

Evia is burning