Greta Thunberg Is Right. Fairy Tales of Endless Growth Will Destroy Us

Growth is driving climate change. But news media ignore the clear connection.

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Greta Thunberg: ‘We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.’ Photo by campac Creative Commons licensed.

It has been just over a year since 16-year-old Greta Thunberg started her “school strike for climate” outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm. Since then, she has spoken to increasingly large crowds — including Friday in Montréal.

There are many reasons why people are still talking about Thunberg’s speech on Monday at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. She spoke with knowledge, clarity and passion well beyond her years.

What I find especially significant about the talk is her inclusion of a critique of economic growth in the climate change story frame. “We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” Thunberg said.

Scholars and activists share Thunberg’s concerns about the current system of endless economic growth. For example, professor David Barash powerfully equates endless growth to a Ponzi scheme. It is a system, he says, “predicated on the illusion that it will always be possible to make future payments owing to yet more exploitation down the road.”

Economist Juliet Schor similarly warns about the resource depletion implications for economic growth. She highlights that endless growth will lead to “blowback… which is now happening with the climate system, oceans and forests.”

Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon succinctly offers that “it’s becoming increasingly clear that endless material growth is incompatible with the long-term viability of Earth’s environment.” And writer Naomi Klein refers to the “god of economic growth,” powerfully proposing that “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.”

Thoughtful and well-researched scholarship makes clear that economic growth and environmental crises are related. And yet non-academic writing linking endless growth economics and climate change is almost non-existent.

I have conducted a content analysis on the Canadian Major Dailies database. In the 12 months prior to Thunberg’s talk there were 850 newspaper articles (including opinion pieces, editorials and letters) with “climate change” in the headline.

Of these, 372 — or 44 per cent — were related to the economy. And yet only one letter to the editor raised concerns about economic growth in the era of climate change.

This is what makes Thunberg’s mention of “eternal economic growth fairy tales” so remarkable — she put economic growth and climate change into the same frame.

It is easy to think that economic growth is essential — that we have always had growth at the core of economic policy. But scholars point out that this is not the case. Bill McKibben and Peter Victor point out that our “fixation” on economic growth as an “explicit object of government policy” began in the mid-20th century.

McKibben highlights that since then economic growth has not only devastated the planet, but also fostered inequity, insecurity and “is no longer making us happy.”

Cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff offers that “all of our knowledge makes use of frames, and every word is defined through the frames it neurally activates. All thinking and talking involves frames.”

In other words, we understand and act upon climate change based on what has been framed with the climate change stories we are told.

The good news is that climate change stories can change. Not that long ago, there were few stories about climate change. Today, the number has dramatically increased.

Until recently, there were not many stories that linked climate change to extreme weather events. Increasingly, these stories are being told.

Now it is time to question economics and foster discussions about the hard decisions and changes that need to be made. It is clear that we cannot simply consume differently — we must consume less. MORE

 

Bill McKibben: To Confront the Climate Crisis, We Need Human Solidarity, Not Walls & Cages

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Bill McKibben, the longtime journalist and co-founder of 350.org, talks about climate migration, the 2020 Democratic candidates, the Green New Deal and more. McKibben’s latest piece for The New Yorker is titled “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns,” and his cover piece for Time magazine is headlined “Hello from the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different.”

BILL McKIBBEN: It was so much fun to get to back up Fridays for the Future and all the youth organizers here who were doing this, just to be able to watch how good they are at doing this and to really try and build a multigenerational climate movement, which is precisely what we need.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we are here, yes, right after the Climate Action Summit, though there are protests around climate that are happening all over in the next weeks, but also in a presidential primary season. Some eyes might glaze over. How is it possible that for more than a year now we’re going to go through this primary season with these candidates? But others might say, and I think you’re among them, who say, “No, no, no. This is an incredible opportunity.” Candidates are often senators or governors, politicians who are very insulated, in fact, in between times when they have to run. And now there’s this window where they have to respond to the public. And you are certainly using this moment. So I’d like to ask you, of the, what, 20 presidential Democratic presidential candidates that are still out there, the kind of work you’re doing, pressing these candidates to formulate their positions on the climate crisis.

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. So, 350 Action, which is the (c)(4) political part of our operation, has been doing its best to turn them all into climate candidates. We set up the kind of original climate scoreboard for the various presidential candidates. And there have been young people out bird-dogging every event, every rope line, or making sure that these guys understand what the bottom line for the climate movement is.

And the bottom line is not having someone say, “I care about climate change. It represents an existential risk.” The bottom line is: Are you signing on to something that looks like the Green New Deal? Are you signing on because it’s within your power as president to do it to announce that there will be no mining and drilling on public lands? And are you saying we’re going to stop fracking around the country?

It’s been incredibly impressive to watch how far this field has moved. Look, four years ago, Bernie broke down this door, you know? He started talking in really serious terms about climate change. You’ll recall in the 2016 debates, in the primaries, at one point they asked, “What’s the most important issue facing the planet?” And Bernie just looked up and said, “Well, I mean, that’s obvious. It’s climate change.” That was something that no American politician really had enunciated before in quite that way.

As with many things, it’s spread across the field now, and so we’re getting remarkable commitments from everyone, pretty much everyone, down the line. Elizabeth Warren, the week before last, said she would stop fracking across America. That’s big deal. It’s all big deal. And it’s all because people are out there making this demand.

We’re not — I mean, assuming that a Democrat wins this time, an assumption on which my future mental health is entirely predicated, because I cannot — I don’t know about the planet, but I can’t take another four years of Trump, OK? Assuming a Democrat wins, we’re not really going to have an open primary next time, you know. There will be an incumbent and whatever. This is our chance in the political system for the next eight years to get these guys fully on the line and as committed as it’s possible to be.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you said making sure they sign on to the Green New Deal. Explain what that is?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, it’s not at this point a solid, fully fleshed-out piece of legislation, but everybody knows what it means now. It means a commitment to systemic change in order to cut in half the emissions that we’re producing over the course of the next decade. That requires things like a federal jobs guarantee, to allow anybody who wants to be part of this transition to do it. You know, it requires real commitments to environmental justice and climate justice in the most hard-hit communities. It requires a hell of a lot of work.

And so, the people who are saying, “Yeah, we’ll do it,” are, I think, signing up for that. At least they’re saying it in public, so we can hold them responsible once they’re in office. It’s worth remembering that politics doesn’t end on Election Day. In fact, that’s just the beginning. After that, it’s the job of — and you’ll recall, I mean, I worked hard for Barack Obama to get elected, and then we organized the largest demonstrations outside the White House during the whole Obama administration in order to make him live up to his words around things like the Keystone pipeline. MORE

‘Everyone Should Mobilize’: Climate Leaders Urge Massive Turnout for Global Climate Strikes

“Our house is on fire—let’s act like it,” says a call-to-action for September 20th and 27th strikes.

Students take part in a climate rally in Parliament Square on May 24, 2019 in London. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Students take part in a climate rally in Parliament Square on May 24, 2019 in London. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Organizers of upcoming global climate strikes hope their demands for a rapid end to business as usual and a swift start to climate justice will be too loud to ignore.

The strikes, which are set for September 20th and 27th—with additional actions slated for the days in between—are planned in over 150 countries thus far, and over 6,000 people have already pledged to take part.

It has the potential to be the biggest climate mobilization yet, said organizers.

“Our house is on fire—let’s act like it,” says the strikes’ call-to-action, referencing the words of Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. “We demand climate justice for everyone.”

Thunberg echoed that call in a just-released video promoting the upcoming actions.

“Everyone should mobilize for the 20th and 27th of September,” said Thunberg, “because this is a global issue which actually affects everyone.”

It’s been the world’s youth, though, that have played a driving force in recently calling attention to the climate crisis with protests and school strikes.

“Young people have been leading here,” 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben said in the Thunberg video, “but now it’s the job of the rest of us to back them up.”

The two Fridays of action, according to organizers, will bookend a “Week for Future” to sustain the climate call. Nestled between is the United Nations Summit on Climate Change on September 23rd in New York.

“Because we don’t have a single year to lose,” said Luisa Neubauer of Fridays for Future Germany in a press statement Wednesday, “we’re going to make this week a turning point in history.” MORE

The Fight against Climate Change Must Become the New Abolitionism


Activist Greta Thunberg made headlines last week after she traveled to a UN climate summit in a zero-emissions sailboat

The planet continues to fry. Yet, America is pumping more fossil fuel than it has in decades. And the U.S. government does nothing to slow the damage. Just the opposite — Washington is now promoting oil, gas and coal while attacking clean energy.

We’ve fought against climate change for at least thirty years. Yet, it seems that activists have failed to reverse or even slow the flow of the greenhouse pollution that’s destroying the world’s climate.

Why has it taken so long for the climate movement to accomplish so little? And, since the clock is ticking to curb runaway global heating, how can we do better in the future?

To answer these questions, leaders in the fight against climate change from Al Gore to Bill McKibben to Naomi Klein have gone back to history.

They’ve compared today’s campaign to cut greenhouse gas pollution to the trans-Atlantic movement in the nineteenth century to abolish slavery.

It’s about politics, not science.

The idea is that fighting climate change today is going to be as hard politically as it was to free millions of enslaved people in the nineteenth century. So, we should accept just how big a political and social movement we’ll need to save our climate. And then we should learn how the abolition movement attacked the equally big problem of slavery in the past–and how they won against great odds.

For example, in This Changes Everything, Klein writes that abolition was a social movement that “succeeded in challenging entrenched wealth in ways that are comparable to what today’s movements must provoke if we are to avert climate catastrophe”:

The movement for the abolition of slavery in particular shows us that a transition as large as the one confronting us today has happened before — and indeed it is remembered as one of the greatest moments in human history. The economic impacts of slavery abolition in the mid-nineteenth century have some striking parallels with the impacts of radical emission reduction.

Klein recommends a 2014 essay by MSNBC on-air personality Chris Hayes, “The New Abolitionism: Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth,

I agree that Hayes’ essay is brilliant and that it should be required reading for anyone who cares about the climate crisis. So let me summarize his argument in some detail below on the assumption that it’s well worth hearing what Hayes has to say.

So Much Goddamn Money

Unlike famous social movements in American history such as women’s suffrage or LGBTQ rights, abolition was about much more than religious values or personal prejudices about people who seemed different from the dominant norm.

For Hayes, what makes climate change much harder to deal with than other social issues is the amount of money that powerful people would stand to lose by abolishing fossil fuels. This makes them fight harder against outlawing their product, just as southern slaveholders fought hard against abolition in the nineteenth century.

When it comes to political economy, abolition was about very big money. That’s the problem.

“So much goddamn money,” as Hayes puts it. Since abolishing fossil fuels is also about very big money, Hayes contends that it’s “impossible to point to any precedent other than abolition”:

The leaders of slave power were fighting a movement of dispossession. The abolitionists told them that the property they owned must be forfeited, that all the wealth stored in the limbs and wombs of their property would be taken from them. Zeroed out. Imagine a modern-day political movement that contended that mutual funds and 401(k)s, stocks and college savings accounts were evil institutions that must be eliminated completely, more or less overnight. This was the fear that approximately 400,000 Southern slaveholders faced on the eve of the Civil War.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” — abolitionist Frederick Douglass

Hayes estimates the value of slave “property” (it’s obscene to refer to human beings as property today, but that was indeed the issue to slaveowners in the nineteenth century) at $10 trillion in today’s money. Just before the Civil War, that represented 16% of the total value of the U.S. economy and fully 50% of the economy in the southern states.

“In 1860, slaves as property were worth more than all the banks, factories and railroads in the country put together,” Civil War historian Eric Foner told Hayes. “Think what would happen if you liquidated the banks, factories and railroads with no compensation.”

Keep It in the Ground

To have any hope of a livable world in the future, according to Bill McKibben’s calculations in “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” the world’s governments must limit average worldwide temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). McKibben published those numbers in 2012, and things have gotten worse since then.

Even more so today, to hope to keep the climate under any safe limit of temperature rise, most of the remaining known fossil fuel reserves around the world will have to remain in the ground, unburned. In 2012, McKibben estimated 80%. Today, the number will surely be higher. Whatever your figure, asking oil, gas and coal companies to take most of their product off the market is going to be a very hard sell, as Hayes explains:

Proceeding from this fact, McKibben leads us inexorably to the staggering conclusion that the work of the climate movement is to find a way to force the powers that be, from the government of Saudi Arabia to the board and shareholders of ExxonMobil, to leave 80 percent of the carbon they have claims on in the ground. That stuff you own, that property you’re counting on and pricing into your stocks? You can’t have it. MORE

RELATED:

The New Abolitionism

Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth.

 

 

Why Won’t the Democrats Hold a Climate Change Debate?

“The longer I think about @DNC insisting no-one hold a climate debate, the sillier it seems. We’ve literally never talked about this issue in a presidential debate, and we literally have to deal with it immediately. I don’t understand why we shouldn’t devote a night to it.” — Bill McKibben

Democratic National Committee faces backlash after it rejects calls to highlight climate crisis

Tom Perez, Chairman, Democratic National CommitteeNational Action Network convention, New York, USA - 03 Apr 2019Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez is facing a backlash for rejecting the idea of a 2020 primary debate focused on climate change. Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

Last week, the DNC not only dismissed the idea of hosting a debate on the existential threat of our time but vowed to bar any 2020 candidate who participates in a non-DNC climate debate from participating in future official debates, according to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who was the 2020 Democratic candidate to call for a climate-only debate. Inslee called the DNC’s decision “extremely disappointing” and the blacklist “totally unacceptable.”

Confronted by party activists in Florida over the weekend, DNC Chair Tom Perez defended the committee’s decision by saying that it was “not practical” to hold a debate on a “single issue” like climate change. He said the candidates knew the rules going in at the start of the campaign, which included not devoting any of the DNC’s 12 sanctioned debates to a single topic.

But Perez’s justifications have only inflamed an increasingly agitated group of liberal activists, environmental leaders and several 2020 candidates who say Perez is badly misguided.

Climate change and other environmental issues received a pathetic five minutes of discussion in the three 2016 general-election debates and pressure has been building since the start of the 2020 race to elevate the issue, especially as more and more voters (of all parties) rank climate change as an issue of great importance to them.

Before Perez’s latest comments, 53 of the DNC’s voting members — a group that includes nine state party chairpersons — sent the chairman a draft resolution to force the DNC to host a climate-specific presidential debate. And more than a half-dozen 2020 contenders (and counting) have backed the idea: Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet; ex-Obama cabinet secretary Julián Castro; and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. MORE

 

Bill McKibben Talks About “Falter”

“One of the most positive things that’s happening now is the Green New Deal work, and also the school climate strikes—which I hope will spread to adults before long. The spread of the idea about the Green New Deal is a good thing. The more people talk about it and consider it and think about it, the closer we’ll get for people to understand the scale of action that we need. This is a crisis, as big as World War II or the Depression, and so the means that we need to fight it are going to be on the same scale.” — Bill McKibben


The climate action pioneer’s new book explores what it means to be human COURTESY OF NANCIE BATTAGLIA

Journalist and activist Bill McKibben is back with another book about the crushing realities of climate change.

The author of 1989’s The End of Nature, often acknowledged as the first book for a general audience about what used to be known as “the greenhouse effect,” McKibben has been writing about climate issues for three decades.

About 10 years ago, he cofounded 350.org, the first “planet-wide grassroots climate change movement.” 350.org has organized more than 20,000 rallies across the globe in protest of fossil fuels and has promoted the growing fossil fuel divestment movement.

In Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, out last month from Henry Holt, McKibben surveys the state of havoc caused by climate change, identifies those institutions and individuals that ignore or actively abet it, and turns his attention to new technologies poised to change the very essence of what it means to be human. He also finds a measure of hope for the future, relying on the power of cheap energy and nonviolent resistance.

Sierra recently called up McKibben to discuss climate change, Ayn Rand, and artificial intelligence. MORE

 

Bill McKibben on how we might avert climate change suicide

Canadians, pleasant and conflict-averse, can’t bring themselves to say to Alberta, ‘you simply can’t dig up all that oil and burn it, it by itself will use up a third of the planet’s carbon budget.’  So they’ve never been able to really grapple with climate change. Look at the tragic positions that Justin Trudeau has gotten in trying. – Bill McKibbon

The author argues the pipeline to B.C. is folly and Canada risks being ‘a great source of destruction’


Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and author of “DRAWDOWN: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming”. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Thirty years ago, Bill McKibben wrote the first book on climate change for general readers, The End of Nature; it didn’t save the world, but McKibben hasn’t stopped trying. The Vermont-based author and activist’s new volume, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, explains, in compelling prose and with devastating detail, the magnitude of the risks posed by carbon emissions—and also unregulated genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. He acknowledges the difficulty of making change when vested interests in fossil fuels and big tech have so much leverage.

However, McKibben does offer a scintilla of hope, based on the widespread adoption of green technology, the acceptance of regulation, and the power of non-violent protest movements. On the phone from San Diego, where he was fundraising for his grassroots environmental organization, 350.org, McKibben spoke with Maclean’s about how the human species may be able to survive its suicidal impulses.

Q: In April, you were in Toronto, delivering the Robert Hunter Memorial Lecture, and you spoke in Vancouver. What are your impressions of how Canada is prepared—or unprepared—to help stop the human game from playing itself out?

A: Canada’s got some of the very best climate activists, experts and policy people in the world. And it has a government that’s rhetorically, and in certain respects actually, committed to being a leader on climate change and carbon taxes. But Justin Trudeau said in Houston a couple of years ago, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil [in the ground] and just leave them there.” And so, Canada is committed to using up about a third of the remaining carbon budget [we can emit before what] the scientists say is a catastrophe. If Canada’s determined to dig up the oil underneath the oil sands and ship it around the world to people who will burn it, then Canada is inevitably going to be a great source of destruction. We can’t afford to have Canada do that, any more than we can afford to have the U.S. dig up all the coal in the Powder River Basin or have Brazil cut down all the trees in the rainforest. MORE

Bill McKibben likens climate change to Second World War

Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben calls climate change the most important issue facing the world today and likens the struggle against it to the Second World War.

McKibben told a packed house at the University of British Columbia’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts that they should consider it an honour and a privilege to be part of the battle.

“Not very many people in any given moment of history get to say they are doing the most important thing they could be doing right now in the world,” said McKibben, who is the author of 12 books including 1989’s The End of Nature. He’s also the founder of 350.org, an organization that campaigns against new coal, oil and gas projects and supports building 100 per cent clean energy solutions. His newest book, Falter, will be released on April 16.

McKibben appeared with Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who is also Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf-Islands.

May said if people get depressed about climate change, they should “shake it off and keep working. If the people who understand the problem start to despair, it’s just as bad as apathy,” May said.

McKibben encouraged everyone in the audience to get involved, specifically mentioning protests against the Trans Mountain pipeline as one way to change the world by keeping millions of barrels of oil in the ground.

“It has been so powerful and beautiful to watch people fight against the Trans Mountain pipeline coming across British Columbia,” McKibben said. “That pipeline, like everything else coming out of the tar sands is a global warming machine.” MORE