13 July 2015

After the encyclical, lessons for climate activism?

by David Spratt
Note: This blog is based on and extends a short presentation at a Lighter Footprints climate action group monthly meeting in Melbourne on 24 June.
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When I first heard early this year about the forthcoming papal encyclical on nature and climate change, my first reaction was that this could be one of the biggest moments so far in climate politics but, like many scientific "tipping points", that can only be judged well after the fact. That Pope Francis will be addressing the UN General Assembly and the US Congress on consecutive days in September 2015, the drawing of his title from Francis of Assisi (patron saint of nature), and his training as a chemist all suggest that this issue is a core concern and his advocacy is far from over.

Laudato si, on the care of our common home was issued on 18 June and described by an editorial in The Guardian as "the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years…[it] sets out a programme for change that is rooted in human needs but it makes the radical claim that these needs are not primarily greedy and selfish ones".  Some key points:

  • It is addressed to everyone, to “every person living on this planet", and not just to Catholics: "Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone."
  • Nature is not separate from us: "When we speak of the 'environment', what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature…"
  • It is savage in its critique of the human impact on the planet and of "throwaway culture": "The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth".
  • The causes are identified primarily as the current models of production and consumption. The Guardian says the Laudato Si "may be the most explicit break with the liberal and broadly optimistic consensus of the consuming world". It also warns against faith in quick techno-fixes to solve the problem: "Technology… sometimes solves one problem only to create others."
  • "To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues."
  • The key theme of the encyclical is the relationship between concern for nature and global social justice. It says that a true "ecological debt" exists, particularly between the global north and south and that foreign debt has been used as a method of controlling poor countries. Wealthy nations hiding behind the "magical conception of the market" owe it to the world's poorest three billion people to clean up their mess. It condemns international carbon trading because it does not “allow for the radical change” which is necessary and “may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption”.
  • Coal and oil (to a lesser degree gas) need to be “progressively replaced without delay": "There is an urgent need to develop policies [for] substituting fossil fuels and developing sources of renewable energy."
  • The document is rigorous and forthright on the science of climate change, for example giving significant emphasis to carbon cycle feedbacks: "Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more… the decomposition of frozen organic material can further increase the emission of carbon dioxide. Things are made worse by the loss of tropical forests which would otherwise help to mitigate climate change. Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain… A rise in the sea level can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas."
  • One commentator described the encyclical as "unforgiving and far from uplifting". A good example is para 59: "We can note the rise of a false or superficial ecology which bolsters complacency and a cheerful recklessness… Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen."
Laudato si is a call for cultural revolution (and perhaps an economic one, too?). But the terms are vague. I will return to this topic below.

Impact of the encyclical

First and foremost, Laudato si frames questions of sustainability and climate change and the human relationship with nature as moral ones. Why do we act this way? What is the purpose? What are the consequences?  What are the deep causes of our distress? Is our behaviour conscionable? For whom and what should we care and protect? What is our moral and practical response?

We should not underestimate the impact of the encyclical in asserting a primarily moral case for action in a climate discourse that has been too much about economic, technological and technocratic questions. Climate has been seen too much as an environmentalists' issue, contributing to framing it as a "green" or left-right issue. By putting a powerful moral case for concern and action from the church, Laudato si challenges the left-right framing and helps open the issue to conservatives and to more faith organisations of many kinds.

It has initiated a discussion amongst Catholics worldwide, but also more broadly, that will echo for many years. It has provided an opportunity for faith organisations to start, reinvigorate or strengthen their conversations and advocacy on climate issues. It will certainly be significant in places like the Philippines which is predominantly Catholic and where awareness of climate impacts is already high due to events such as Cyclone Haiyan.

Laudato si should help to isolate and diminish the power of climate denialists, who were noticeable by their bitter and abusive complaints before and after its release. It will bring people who have been sitting on the fence into support for strong climate action. But it was never going to change the minds of the hard-core contrarians and denialists, who are not concerned with the moral case for care. For the hard core, including Catholic denialists like Tony Abbott, the Pope is either wrong on this issue, or worse a greenie-leftie in disguise, and some have said so.

But it should have a positive impact on many Catholics in politics, some of whom have been reticent on the climate issue. Half of the federal cabinet is Catholic, and so are the Victorian premier and deputy premier, for example. Framing climate as a social justice issue will be powerful for many Catholics in Latin America and Africa, and amongst labour and small-l liberal politicians. It should strengthen their hand over the forces of denial and delay within their own political circles. That effect will be influenced by how public the church is prepared to be in the months and years ahead.

ACU theologian Prof Neil Omerod challenged Tony Abbott: “As I read it, the Prime Minister has a choice. As a Catholic, he can listen to Pope Francis who is the spiritual leader of his faith tradition or, alternatively, he can continue to operate as an ally to extractive industries”, and “At root, this is a choice between caring for Creation and and protecting vested interests". The impact on Abbott so far appears to be negligible and we can expect him to continue to act as "an ally to extractive industries" protecting vested interests. At heart he is a culture war warrior and will not be deterred even by Pope Francis.

The effect on the laity will take some time to see. One poll before the encyclical found one-third of Catholics surveyed said they would change their lifestyle for climate reasons if the Pope said so. In the US, only 35-45% of evangelicals say human actions affects climate change, but 60% approve of Pope Francis, so the encyclical could be significant in changing attitudes in this group, for example.

What to do?

In one sense, Laudato si is a critique of 21st century capitalism and as a consequence also of the philosophical underpinnings of the industrial revolution.

The industrial revolution (1760-1830) heralded coal and steam and mechanisation and made displaced farm labourers into exploited workers, early if impoverished consumers in the cash economy. It herald the triumph of production for the market. It signified the capacity and willingness to dominate nature in ways hitherto unavailable, and was preceded by the necessary cultural and  scientific revolutions (Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Newton) of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was the assertion of reason and individualism over the superstition and the traditional authority of church and feudalism. That was a huge step forward: liberty, fraternity and democracy shattered absolutism and the Inquisition as modes of social relationship.

But the Enlightenment also imposed reason and progress on nature. It was said that the capacity to dominate nature and improve living standards could avert the human species hitherto lifelong battle against the threat of extinction. But contained with the notion of economic process and the technological domination of nature as a salvation from extinction was the paradox of self destruction. In thinking we were ensuring our survival, we created the conditions for our own destruction, as is now obvious in the actuality of climate change and of unsustainable production and consumption.

The movement to conserve and protect nature only arose after the industrial revolution and the inevitable "march of progress" had already gripped human society. In the latter decades of the 19th century, romanticism and a return to nature built a conservation movement which understood that  human culture (including economy)  and nature cannot principally be opposed. The Guardian noted that: "The environment, in the pope’s use of the word, is not something out there: nature as opposed to the human world. The term describes the relationship between nature and humans, who are inextricably linked and part of each other. It is that relationship that must be set right."

Laudato si distinguishes need and appetite (greed), and provides a moral path away from post-modern identities of extreme individualism and isolation constructed through consumption: "I shop therefore I am". Or perhaps even: "I tweet, therefore I am".

That the Pope is calling for a cultural revolution – for the overturning of the destructive relationship between human culture and nature – is hardly novel in content. From 19th century conservationism, through the national parks movements, alternative cultures of self sufficiency, modern environmentalism, James Lovelock's Gaia thesis, and the paradox of "sustainable development", this understanding has developed and found many forms,

The question is how do we respond, exactly? Having asserted a moral case for the integration of nature protection with care for people and a global socio-economic justice, what exactly is to be done?

Naomi Klein's work proffers answers to this question. On the one hand she raises the need for emergency action and to "pretty much change everything" which many have interpreted as the need to end market-dominated capitalism:
…I began to understand how climate change – if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters – could become a galvanising force for humanity, leaving not only all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well… So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about the world, or pretty much change everything about our economy and avoid that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us. Gentle tweaks to the status quo stopped being an option when we super sized the American Dream in the 1990s, and then proceeded to take it global. (pp 7, 22 of This Changes Everything)
But she also seems to suggest that some tweaks back towards Keynesian intervention, the capacity to "shift the cultural context even a little" could provide some "breathing room":
So this book proposes a different strategy: think big, go deep, and move the ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy to planetary health. If we can shift the cultural context even a little, then there will be some breathing room for those sensible reformist policies that will at least get the atmospheric carbon numbers moving in the right direction." (page 26 of This Changes Everything)
Revolution or getting the atmospheric carbon numbers moving in the right direction? I am uncertain as to what meaning to draw from these two passages.

The Encyclical's key moral conundrum – what to do about the destructive character of the globalised economy – also occupies Prof. Ross Garnaut. In his 2013 book Dog Days: Australia after the boom,  Garnaut comes to realise that the end point of the industrial revolution in the form of an international, deregulated and hegemonic late capitalism is at heart immoral and threatens our society's future:
Moral philosophers and sociologists have long drawn attention to the social underpinnings of modern economic and political institutions. Capitalism stands on the shoulders of pre-capitalist ideology – a system of beliefs and moral precepts that constrains the greed and ambition of individuals in areas where they will be damaging to order and prosperity, but allows them loose rein where this is productive for society as a whole. But the widening scope of the market economy corrodes old constraints. The democratic capitalist order is in trouble unless we renew old or build new alternative sources of constraint on individual ambition and greed, and do so in a way that retains the dynamism of individual initiative expressed through the market. These moral and social constraints… means that limits are placed on the use of corporate wealth to exercise power over policy in a democracy."
However the problem is formulated, we seem stuck between choosing a gradualist tweaking of the market to price carbon etc to decarbonise the economy, or the proposition that we must "pretty much change everything" which some take as a call to the anti-capitalist barricades. 

Yet as I have demonstrated in Recount: It's time to "Do the math" again and other writings, we have no carbon budget left for the 2-degree Celsius limit to climate warming, the 2-degree Celsius boundary is considered by perhaps the world's most eminent climate researcher James Hansen as a "recipe for disaster", and really deep, rapid and disruptive action needs to be initiated right now if we have any hope of avoiding a climate catastrophe. Time has run out for gradualism and solutions that take decades to implement. There is not the period of time available it would take to "pretty much change everything" as a condition for big-scale climate action.

Given the continued powerful but deadly march of globalisation through more free trade deals, deregulation and integration, and the assertion of global financial power and institutions over democratic states, and the current balance of social forces, there is little to suggest suggest that "changing everything" would necessarily be fast or victorious.

The only option is to postpone the final resolution of this existential "what to do" question – of capitalism: yes, no or maybe – and work pragmatically towards emergency action akin in scale to the war economy or the Marshall Plan simply because it is absolutely necessary, and right now the only way to get action at the scale and breakneck speed required. In the United States, figures including the leading climate scientist Michael E Mann (of "hockey stick" fame) have endorsed The Climate Mobilisation's call for an emergency response.

Such a path would of course require a huge amount of public regulation and economic intervention and planning and would only work if most of society – perhaps for many different reasons – accepted that this style of emergency-speed action was the last, best hope and required shared sacrifice. And many, many things would have to change radically to achieve an emergency response, but because it has proponents across the political spectrum it seems more likely to succeed in the near-term than putting the resolution of capitalism's future as the key strategic focus.

Klein seems to be advocating such a climate emergency strategy in these comments in Rome on 1 July:
Indeed we could still keep warming below 1.5 degrees if we made it our top collective priority. It would be difficult, to be sure. As difficult as the rationing and industrial conversions that were once made in wartime. As ambitious as the anti-poverty and public works programs launched in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War. But difficult is not the same as impossible. And giving up in the face of a task that could save countless lives and prevent so much suffering – simply because it is difficult, costly and requires sacrifice from those of us who can most afford to make do with less – is not pragmatism. It is surrender of the most cowardly kind. And there is no cost-benefit analysis in the world that is capable of justifying it.
Rocks and balloons

A recent activist handbook called Strategy and Soul has produced some spirited discussion around a single paragraph which some people found to express a new idea, or at least an idea expressed more clearly:
Politicians are like a balloon tied to a rock. If we swat at them, they may sway to the left or the right. But, tied down, they can only go so far. Instead of batting at them, we should move the rock: people’s activated social values. When we move the rock, it automatically pulls all the politicians towards us — without having to pressure each one separately.
My response was that in my own political activism and that of my social-political cohort we had been primarily concerned with rocks, not balloons. The history of social movements in the second half of the 20th century including civil rights, anti-war, social justice, solidarity and liberation movements was one of first giving primary attention to "shifting rocks" – of changing the story and public perceptions across society – as a necessary precondition to "swatting the balloons".

Slow patient work to win over particular sectors and demographics built strong and diverse "bottom-up" movements which accumulated the political power to force change. This deep organising work was done amongst faith organisations, the labour movement and the left, minorities and migrant communities, amongst special interest groups, amongst students and on campuses, in local areas, with public intellectuals and so on.  By engaging in specific and concrete actions, broader layers became engaged and social attitudes changed.

When we do balloons, our conversation is primarily with and for policymakers. When we do rocks, our conversation is with and for the community. Whilst leading advocacy organisations have often "ticked the box" on alliance building, it has often been shallow and temporary, for the purpose of swatting balloons.

A strategic review in 2014 by Australian climate NGOs found that balloons had taken precedence over rocks, and the movement lacked political power.  After the 2013 federal election results, it was hard to conclude otherwise.

NGOs have started implementing "community organising" strategies, almost as if it were something magic, newly discovered. The big idea is the power of "face-to-face" and community conversations. The Greens in Melbourne and Lock the Gate led the way in making these old methods new again, because these methods were the ways of the Franklin campaign, the peace and anti-uranium movements, of the womens' movement and of the civil and land rights movements.

Did the digital age take us down a rabbit warren of distractions?  Before digital – in the era of monopoly media – there were few options for conversations that were not face-to-face and in the community. No social media, no email, no texts, no crowd funding, no petition ticking, no internet, no mobiles, no google docs, no digital images, no apps.  People had conversations (yes, face to face!) in workplaces, in churches, in homes, at streets stalls, at community meetings, in parks and on the street. Perhaps we are uncovering age-old methods that have become obscured by clicktivism and broader social forces of globalisation and fragmentation driving hyper-individualism and the breakdown of collective identities? Facebook or face-to-face?

At a local level, how have climate action groups done at building networks within the community? The general reaction to news of the encyclical was: "How do we find the local priest and start a conversation?" (Almost an echo, at death's door, of "Call the priest, quickly"?) The power of a local community organisation is the way it intersects with other local networks, finding common cause and common actions. Faith organisations have a strong institutional presence across almost every Australian local community, but my guess is that links with climate activists are poor to non-existent in most cases.

The same is true of work with the migrant sector. Last year I had the opportunity to share the platform with a visiting Catholic nun from Tacloban in the Philippines at a Filipino community meeting in western Melbourne on Cyclone Haiyan and its aftermath.  Common cause has been made with visiting activists from low-lying Pacific islands. Climate change is wreaking social havoc across many places from which Australia has drawn its immigrant communities: from the horn of Africa to the extreme drought and desertification in Syria that triggered social dislocation, unrest and now civil war. Forty per cent of Australians, or their parents, were not born in Australia. But if you went to one of the climate rallies over the last three years, you would have witnessed what one observer sharply described as "a white blob". Diverse the movement is not; there were few "unlikely suspects".

Yet there are stories to tell and share, issues for common campaigning and education. In the Middle East the deepening water crisis is creating water refugees, and farmlands are becoming desert across Iraq, Syria and southeast Turkey. Water availability per person is expected to decrease by one-third to one-half by 2050. The Egyptian Nile delta bread basket is slowly salinating; in Lebanon the country's famous cedars and national symbol faces extinction; rising sea levels threaten Gulf communities; and coral systems in the Red Sea tourist area are dying. Some natural habitats are particularly vulnerable, such as mangroves in Qatar, marshes in Iraq and the major river systems. Oases are also being affected by the fall in the water tables. These are also stories of tragedy for Australians of Middle East origin.

In southern Greece, including the Athens area, the climate will become hotter, drier, and more likely to suffer drought as global warming intensifies. It is estimated that between 2030 and 2060 rainfall in Greece will decrease by 25%. Some water supplies could become unusable due to the penetration of salt water into rivers and coastal aquifers as sea level rises. A University of Athens study says if the level of carbon dioxide in the air doubles, then in Greece there would be a one-third decrease of agricultural output. All of this is grounds for common concern, common action.

In Australia sporting club facilities are under threat: surf clubs and ramps collapsing into rising, stormy seas; grassy ovals turned to dust bowls; weather too extreme to safely play tennis. A Surf Lifesaving Australia report says 63% of surf clubs were vulnerable to extreme tides and weather conditions.

The Australian and all military and intelligence communities pay keen attention to climate change, much more so than their political masters. Intelligence think tanks are working in the issue, reporting, analysing the antecedents of the Syria conflict, wondering whether wartime mobilisation methods are relevant to today's challenge.

What is our common cause with local migrant communities, and what would conversations with them look like? What is our common cause with local faith communities, or with local sporting associations? What is our common cause with local councils, and their responsibility for care of the elderly and the vulnerable during heat waves?  In rural areas, what is the common cause with landowners, if there is no coal or gas?   What is our common cause with local birdwatchers?

How do we move the rocks, at a local level?