A Response to “Climate Change Activism: A Post-Mortem”

The permafrost of Siberia is literally liquidating. Coral reefs right across the world are bleaching, as water temperatures reach a record high. Kuwait saw temperatures the other week that are the hottest ever recorded. In response, Archdruid of Ancient Order of Druids in America, John Michael Greer, has pronounced the Climate Movement a failure. For Greer, the agreement forged at COP21 last year is too little, too late. This, he claims, shows that the movement to combat climate change is a complete failure.
Having called time on climate activism, Greer reviews the course it has taken: “It’s not inappropriate to ask what happened to all the apparent political momentum the climate change movement had ten or fifteen years ago, and why a movement so apparently well organized, well funded, and backed by so large a scientific consensus failed so completely.” He says.
It’s a good question, one that’s already attracted significant commentary, from Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2014) to Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009), to name but two authors. The question of why action to protect our living world has been neither swift nor sufficient is extremely important, especially as the conditions in our seas and atmosphere worsen. But though a good question lies at the heart of what Greer writes, the answers he provides are dubious.
His central claim – that the movement has failed – is something he doesn’t actually provide much evidence for, beyond the facts that emissions are still increasing, and that temperatures are too. But claims of a fait accompli of this kind should ring alarm bells; to judge a mass movement a “failure” is normally only possible with hindsight. As COPs are still ongoing, large NGOs are still campaigning for climate action, millions of communities, and entire countries (like Denmark, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, to name a few) are mobilising to become more sustainable, at the very least it seems a bit premature to declare all this as moot. The bottom line is bad now, but there could be other things going on that could change things completely in a couple of years (for good or ill). As described in the work of economists like Thomas Schelling and Mark Granovetter, or historians like Thomas Kuhn, historical change is not a gradual process, but happens in fits and starts – moments of relative stability; punctured by revolution. Things stay the same; until they don’t. If these models are taken on board, social movements will look like failures in terms of impact – until they reach a certain critical mass of public support, and society is transformed quite rapidly. This could yet be true of the climate movement; a possibility Greer doesn’t account for.
Even worse, Greer doesn’t actually specify how “success” for the climate movement should be defined. Is it in terms of adaptation? Mitigation? Resilience? Transition? Greer’s use of rising temperatures and emissions as a sign of failure only makes sense if the one goal of the climate movement is to prevent climate change and control CO2. But this hasn’t been the case for over a decade – we are already locked in to about 1.5 degrees of warming already, and so the goal of keeping temperatures at pre-industrial levels would be impossible. As such, policymakers, planners, activists and academics now spend a huge amount of time and energy fostering resilience through adaptation – an area in which significant successes have been made.
Some of the points Greer makes – that scientists suck[ed] at politics, and scare-mongering prompted apathy or antipathy – are widely understood within the green movement already, and this knowledge is prompting a shift in how activists and scientists are engaging with the rest of society. He overstates the importance, too, of “intolerance and demonization”. On the contrary, the green movement has been far too willing to get into bed with rich, powerful corporations and millionaires – such as Al Gore and Richard Branson – who cast themselves as saviours of the planet in launching floods of green initiatives, only to quietly mothball them once the cameras have gone.
Greer’s claim that there was credible scientific support for global cooling in the 1970s, though, is false – note he quotes popular science authors and SF authors, not actual scientists (with the exception of an ecologist, not a climatologist). There was conjecture at that time that global cooling was imminent, but it was advanced in the context of more general speculation, that frequently referred to anthropogenic climate change as a more likely outcome. Speculation makes for excellent science-fiction and pop-sci; but it doesn’t necessarily reflect accurately the informed view of academics.
Where Greer makes an excellent point is in pointing out that middle class environmentalists have tended to prefer policies that don’t inconvenience them personally, and that this has alienated the poor in many developed countries, as the polluting heavy industries that traditionally provided them with stable jobs are phased out. But the impact of Capital on environmentalism extends far further than a simple matter of personal preferences amongst the causes picked by rich eco-activists. As Naomi Klein has described, commercial interests have been quick to harness climate change as an opportunity to turn a profit, all the while actively sabotaging the radical potential of the green movement. It’s also instructive to note that Greer doesn’t mention developing countries, where the dynamics are quite different. In such contexts, the poor are actually very willing to engage with green initiatives.
This reveals one of the key deficiencies in Greer’s article – it labours under a heavy atmosphere of parochialism. Greer bases his conclusions on his own experience of the continental USA, and gives little consideration to trends unfolding in other parts of the world.
The biggest issue here is that Greer doesn’t actually explain *why* so many people in the developed world – of all classes – have found it so difficult to adapt and take on truly sustainable lifestyles. Human beings are intensely mercurial and behaviour change is our killer adaptation. Change is normally constant, so why aren’t we changing now? Although Greer doesn’t develop a properly argued case for why people have failed to act, he infers quite strongly in his conclusion that it’s basically a matter of moral failure on the part of affluent environmentalists – they have failed, in his view, to “lead by example”. If they did so, then everyone else will follow suit.
Moral failure, however, is merely a different way of saying what we already know – that the world’s rich are using too many resources for the planet to sustain, that we believe this to be bad, and so it is a moral failing. This neither explains the persistence of the behaviour in the face of its suicidal consequences, nor gives us any idea over how to challenge it.

I’m not convinced that “leading by example” would help particularly, either. The world is not short of eco-ascetics, who like Greer reject many of the benefits of modernity in favour of a minimum-impact existence. “Back-to-the-land” movements have been a part of Western societies since the nineteenth century, and yet they have not managed to win over the majority to their cause. I am also dubious that such exemplary lifestyles would even be truly sustainable anyway. Given the rising population, it’s actually very hard to calculate on a per-person basis what we can expect to use within our current set-up – the basic figures keep changing. A good friend of mine went to Bedzed in London and asked them about whether anyone there had managed a one-planet lifestyle. At Bedzed, they had one person there who tried ardently to cut their environmental impact. They swore off flying, ate a strictly vegan diet, lived in a densely packed, sustainable redevelopment, biked to work and wore only second hand clothes. They reduced their impact to 1.25 earths.


A better model for transition is looking at the whole of society together; seeking to reform every aspect of our way of life – the way we generate our energy, farm, manufacture goods, and travel. This is what academics at Stanford have been doing recently for the USA, and what the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales has already developed for the United Kingdom. Rather that suggesting the solution is that individuals should change their lifestyles piecemeal, what is needed is for the whole of society to seek a sustainable future together.

This should indicate the scale, and the nature of the challenge before us. But only when every human being on Earth has died due to famine, flood, and fire will the climate movement be a failure.

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