All three levels of the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford were packed out to hear Naomi Klein speak about her new book “This Changes Everything”. A slightly ironic, grandiose setting to discuss challenging the political and economic elite to halt the truly breath-taking effects of climate change, but perhaps it helped drive home the message more.
Klein certainly lived up to the name of her book, offering a sweeping indictment of the current economic system and just how perilously close it has brought us to the brink. As she said herself, all that’s needed for climate change to utterly destroy anything vaguely resembling civilised society is for us to do what we’ve been doing every day. To wipe ourselves out we need merely to continue down the path set 300 something years ago when the Sheldonian was built- business as usual will destroy us all.
People know about climate change. People have all heard of the devastating effects that it will reap upon the earth if left unchecked, and yet it consistently slips down people’s list of priorities.
It’s seen as a single issue, like the NHS or pensions- but it shouldn’t be. See how your ‘cost of living crisis’ fares when food prices soar and energy sources are depleted. Worried about immigration? Watch what happens to that when developing countries are engulfed in floods and internal conflicts. The NHS will be stretched far beyond what it is now when dealing with the potent combination of ill health and extreme weather that result from our warming world. Watch our precious economy come grinding to a halt when oil runs out, electricity, water, and food networks are destroyed, and it’s simply too hot for people to work outside. Climate change changes everything.
In her talk Naomi pointed out that our realisation concerning climate change (the late 80’s) came at the worst possible time. With the spectre of neoliberalism stalking the Western world, notions such as market regulation, state intervention, or focussing on how we divvy up the pie rather than exponentially growing it were about as welcome as Mark Reckless at the Conservative Party conference. Yet these are exactly what are needed to tackle climate change. Oddly it was Thatcher herself who inadvertently diagnosed the problem: we have been suffering from the illness of ‘no alternatives’. We live in an ideological vacuum that is entirely hostile to alternative visions. History has been declared to be over, sadly just as it’s about to get interesting.
With almost three-quarters of Tories not believing that climate change is happening (with similar levels reported for Republicans as well), the Coalition reneging on almost all attempts at being the ‘greenest government ever’, and UKIP promising in their 2010 manifesto to remove climate change completely from the curriculum, answers clearly aren’t coming from the Right. But there’s a deeper, more fundamental barrier to climate change that strikes right at the heart of right-wingers ideology and our current economic system: infinite growth.
Unregulated markets obsessively pursuing unlimited growth, burning incredible amounts of fossil fuels as they go is quite literally a system that is destroying itself. We are slowly committing suicide, but dragging all manner of fauna and flora with us as well.
The 80’s may have been the worst time to realise it, but now is the best time to actually do something about it. The worst global recession since the 20’s has hit us and hit us hard because the damned economy won’t stop crashing, fringe far-right parties are cropping up all over Europe and stealing the show, and voting turn-outs and trust in politicians are declining in almost all liberal market countries. Put bluntly, Westminster is crumbling and the elite haven’t a clue what to do about it.
They react as they have always done, by offering a few tax cuts and wheeling Boris out to prattle on about a brick. They simply don’t understand the magnitude of the situation: people are realising the system isn’t working anymore and that the air is ripe for change. What we are witnessing isn’t the usual disgruntlement with a government’s performance, but a slow realisation that the whole damned system is broken.
What is the biggest threat to our species in history has the chance to become our greatest opportunity. Democratic control of markets whose rewards are equitably distributed; local control of renewable power sources; a fairer power balance between employers and employees; removing the poisonous obsession with growth that lies at the heart of our system- all of these are needed to tackle climate change and bringing them in requires tearing up the Right’s play book.
Many have known, known since Thatcher derided society as a fiction in that infamous speech, that there is something deeply, deeply wrong about an economic system propped up by continuous consumption and obsessive greed. Well, now planet earth itself has joined in the crescendo crying out for an alternative, and it’s one cry that cannot be ignored, for it will quite literally drown all others out if not heeded, and heeded soon.
To steal and age-old axiom, if we are to save our planet and ourselves, we really must smash the system.