By Alex Steffen, The Last Decade and You, 5 June 2017
We all know that at the very center of that crisis is growing climate chaos. Most people living on Earth know this now. What fewer of us know — and even fewer have deeply explored — is the spring driving the mechanism of our greenhouse disaster. That tight-wound spring is time; specifically, how little of it we have left.
When we think of the climate crisis, we think of the causes and the consequences: belching smokestacks, roads packed with cars. cracking ice sheets, burning forests. What few of us think enough about are the curves.
We all know about climate budgets — estimates of how much carbon pollution we can release and still keep the planet within a given temperature range. Most of us understand that when you have a budget, and you’re depleting it at a steady rate, it becomes a deadline. The only way to extend that deadline is to curve downwards the rate at which you are exhausting your budget.
Every day that we continue filling the sky with greenhouse pollution, the curve back towards sanity grows steeper. At a certain point, that curve grows so steep that the actions we need to take are no longer connected to the actions we might have taken before. We are compelled to attempt large, headlong changes. We are forced to spring forward at a tempo we wouldn’t previously have considered.
To cut to the chase, I believe we have passed that point, and everything is moving rapidly now, except for our thinking.
It’s no big mystery why our thinking is so outdated. For more than two decades, many people tried to sell climate action — especially here in America — by arguing that it wouldn’t really demand much change, at all. Small steps, we were told, could add up to big impacts. Innovation would whisk away the most polluting parts of our lives, leaving us with green SUVs, McMansions and big box stores. Abstract and distant mechanisms — like cap-and-trade schemes — could do the remaining heavy lifting, and we’d barely even know they were working. Saving the planet might not be exactly easy — this argument went — but it could be slow, gradual, a barely noticeable transition.
It was a nice idea. The problem is more systemic change was needed, even then. There once was a time when steady incremental actions could have staved off planetary catastrophe. That hasn’t been the case, though, for more than 20 years (at least the mid-1990s and Exxon and the government’s first estimate was the 80s or 1990). As the years have passed this vision of slow climate action without large scale transformation has gone from unworkable to a downright dangerous delusion, part of the crisis itself.
The destruction of planetary stability is not some ancient curse. Instead, it’s the momentum of choices made by people who are largely still alive. Between roughly 1990 and now, half of all greenhouse gasses humanity has ever emitted were poured into the sky. Go back to the end of World War Two, and the percentage rises past 85%. Now, even as the natural world is spiraling into wider (and wilder) chaos, the energy, transportation, manufacturing and agricultural systems we built in the years since World War Two are still revving at doomsday machine velocities.
There’s some evidence climate emissions are leveling off but we’ve yet to turn the curve sharply downwards (we need 8-10% annually and a halving decade by decade). Emissions are still so dire that every year that goes by forecloses some of humanity’s options. Business as usual leads directly, quickly, inexorably to total catastrophe. It cannot go on, and what cannot go on, comes to an end.
The world we were born into is coming to an end. That’s the good news. The bad news is, it’s not coming to an end fast enough.
Remember those curves? We are coming to the moment where smart actions delayed become smart actions made impossible. If we miss the next decade, the 2020s, those curves become steep enough that the options we have left will be tragic and desperate, even forlorn hopes.
All good work now keeps in mind when we are. It also acknowledges that the kind of action now called for are different than the ones from earlier, gentler curves — and that the ways they’re different require us to embrace new thinking.
Real sustainability only comes in one variety, now: Disruptive.
All sensible people are rightly appalled at the climate denialism and carbon cronyism we see in Congress and the White House. Having been forced to turn from the national stage to other approaches, though, we will now discover that the greatest barrier to bold climate action is no longer denialism, but delay (or small steps and small thinking).
Predatory delay is everywhere. Corruption erodes the very foundations of our democracy. Disinformation floods our media. Civic sabotage and broken governments slow progress to a crawl. Outdated thinking clouds our sense of what’s truly possible. The Carbon Bubble looms. Many who claim to also desire climate action throw up fierce hostility in defense of a destructive status quo. Denial is now denying what science tells us about the need to act quickly. Delay is doom, but delay has many champions.
The curve we’ve been forced onto bends so steeply, that the pace of victory is part of victory itself. Winning slowly is basically the same thing as losing outright. We cannot afford to pursue past strategies, aimed at limited gains towards distant goals. In the face of both triumphant denialism and predatory delay, trying to achieve climate action by doing the same things, the same old ways, means defeat. It guarantees defeat.
What we need now is a movement to unmake and rebuild the world we were born into. That work must be disruptive to the dirty systems around us. It must be achieved in the face of direct political opposition. It must accelerate itself through cascading successes. If climate action doesn’t aggressively out-compete and replace fossil fuel production, fossil-fuel-dependent industries and high-carbon practices, it’ll fail. We need strategies for working together that can actually win.
Fighting to win, and win fast, can open up new opportunities for millions of people — especially young people — that cannot exist where change is slow and timid. Those opportunities, in turn, give us a shot at not only solving longstanding problems — housing, jobs, health, food — but gaining the political power to win bigger changes on wider scales. Remaking the world can give us the power to go on remaking it, despite the powerful enemies we face.
Millions and millions of us are ready. We want to not only build carbon-zero cities and regions but to live the lives that will make them thrive. We want clean energy, sure; indeed, we demand all energy be clean energy. But generating more clean energy — vital as it is — is only one part of making the world we need. We also need to imagine, design and rapidly build cities where prosperity demands much less energy to begin with and ends up shared with far more of our neighbors: cities of abundant housing in super-insulated green buildings; of walkable neighborhoods, effective transit, shared vehicles and abundant bike lanes; of circular flows of resources and frugal excellence; of breakthrough technologies and worldchanging designs; of lived innovation and community creativity — of more adventure, more fun, and more beauty.
Beauty matters. The sheer ugliness of the old industrial way of life all around us is something we’re taught not to see. We’re taught not too see its aesthetic ugliness, sure, but even more we are taught to ignore its ugliness of soul, it’s ugliness of purpose, its ugliness of effect. Look away, numb yourself, never speak of it again.
Millions of us do not want to spend our brief spans on Earth contributing to these systems of catastrophic ugliness. We want to live in systems that are beautiful to be a part of, beautiful in their workings, and beautiful for future generations.
We need to demand the freedom build the beautiful. If a new movement today is going to be about anything meaningful, it must be at its very core a fight to build the beautiful, at the scale of the necessary, in the very short time we have left.
Which brings me to the last part, the critical power of positive and practiced imagination. We can’t launch a movement we can’t imagine.
As I’ve said for years, protesting the things we oppose may slow disaster but it doesn’t build a new world. We must also imagine the future we want, and in times when only heroic actions will do, we’re called on to imagine a heroic future. We need an explosion of creativity in the next couple years. We must see ahead with fresh eyes. That kind of seeing demands creative exploration, prototypes and experiments, cultural events and experiences, tinkering and invention, trying new things at scale.
Everywhere in the world, we desperately need to re-imagine radically better lives but the advocacy and enterprises that can make them possible. We not only we need to imagine them fast, we need to imagine them as fast. We need to imagine undertakings that can out-compete the world we were born into through political uprising, economic disruption, risk-taking innovation and above all else, speed.
Headlong speed, my friends, is the only way left to say yes to the world.
Speed, you see, means everything. Speed means planetary sanity. Speed means justice. Speed means prosperity. Speed means a future for our kids. For potentially hundreds of millions of people, speed means survival itself. Speed is beauty.
We are about to begin the last decade. The time has come to become the people who can first re-imagine and then remake the world in the time we have left.