We need an environmental revolution

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Al Gore has been a vocal proponent of swift, deep changes to combat climate change (image by The U.S. National Archives via PICRYL).

The time for action on climate change is now. Only widespread change can save us now.

Our present crisis of civilisation is unique

Does history repeat itself? Is it cyclical or travel down a straight path?

Certainly many aspects of history are repetitive — the rise and fall of empires, cycles of war and peace, cycles of construction and destruction. But on the other hand, if we look at the long-term history of human progress, we can see that it is clearly unidirectional.

An explosion of knowledge has created the modern world. Never before has the world had a population of seven billion people, to which a billion are added every decade. Never before have we had the power to destroy human civilisation and the biosphere with catastrophic anthropogenic climate change or thermonuclear weapons. 

Our situation today is unique. We cannot rely on old habits, old traditions or old institutions. To save the long-term future for our children and grandchildren, and for all the other creatures with which we share the gift of life, we must overcome the inertia of our institutions and our culture.

Harmony between human society and nature must be restored

Among the many global leaders who have pointed to the need for fundamental change are Pope Francis and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

In June, 2015, Pope Francis addressed the climate crisis in an encyclical entitled “Laudato Si”.  

He said:

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principle challenges facing humanity in our day.”

In his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”, Pope Francis wrote: 'Just as the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say thou shalt not to an economy of exclusion and inequality.'

For very many years, Al Gore has struggled to call public attention to the existential dangers of catastrophic climate change. These efforts were recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize, which Al Gore shared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The October 2018 report of the IPCC shocked the world. The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C  would require 'rapid and far-reaching' transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.

Another conclusion of the report was that humanity has only 12 years in which to act if tipping points are to be avoided, beyond which uncontrollable feedback loops would be set in motion.

This situation caused 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, addressing the 2019 Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland, to say, “Our house is on fire. I am here to say that our house is on fire. According to the IPCC, we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes. In that time, unprecedented changes in all aspects of society need to have taken place, including reductions of our CO2 emissions by at least 50 per cent.”

Fundamental changes are needed

Fundamental changes are needed in order to give our economic system both an ecological conscience and a social conscience. In many countries, economics and politics are linked, because excessive inequality in wealth has meant that corporate oligarchs control our political systems.

To restore democracy, we must decrease economic inequality. Furthermore, reformed economic systems must prioritise ecological goals, especially the replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy, reforestation, and the drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Since rapid and fundamental changes are urgently needed to save the future, it is perhaps not an exaggeration to speak of the need for an ecological revolution, but it must be a nonviolent revolution.

Strong reasons for avoiding violence in situations of conflict have been given by Mahatma Gandhi.

To the insidious argument that “the end justifies the means”, Gandhi answered firmly:

“They say that "means are after all means". I would say that "means are after all everything". As the means, so the end. Indeed, the Creator has given us limited power over means, none over end ... The means may be likened to a seed, and the end to a tree; and there is the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree. Means and end are interconvertible terms in my philosophy of life.”

Trained as a lawyer, Gandhi fought his battles in the court of public opinion. In this court, violent methods fatally weaken one's case, besides being futile if one is opposing overwhelming military strength.

Today, our case for the need to make rapid and fundamental changes must be fought in the court of public opinion. This is made difficult by the fact that the mass media are firmly under the control of powerful oligarchs. However, the internet is still relatively uncensored and this gives us the opportunity to create our own media.

We give our children loving care, but it makes no sense to do so unless we also do all that is within our power to give them a future in which they can survive.

None of us asked to be born at a time of crisis. But we have been born at such a time and history has given us an enormous responsibility. If we do not work with courage and dedication to save our beautiful world for future generations, all of the treasures that past generations have given to us will be lost. You and I, all of us together, can save the future if we work hard enough.

Let us join hands and save the earth for our children and grandchildren.

John Scales Avery is a theoretical chemist at the University of Copenhagen.  He is noted for his books and research publications in quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, evolution, and history of science. Since 1990 he has been the Chairman of the Danish National Group of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (Nobel Peace Prize, 1995).

His book, We Need an Ecological Revolution, can be accessed here. Other writings and books are available here.

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