Sustainability Requires Resistance

By Greg Mello

For the Solar Times, Fall 2016

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

(Abraham Lincoln, 1862)

And save our communities.

We aren’t doing that. What’s stopping us? In emergencies citizens usually respond rapidly, with surprising selflessness and skill. But our biggest emergencies are hidden in plain sight. Even most committed activists don’t really understand the urgency of the crises we face, or how quickly they are unraveling our communities.

The other big thing we don’t understand is our own power. We must “disenthrall ourselves” to find it.

We are taught that our main democratic power lies in voting. The truth is otherwise. Voting accounts for only a tiny fraction. Our real citizenship lies latent, for the most part.

To unlock that agency we need to summon some passion, reach out to like-minded others, develop new skills, and above all allow ourselves to act. Any action we take will provide new leadership, which is desperately needed. This will take many forms, matching personalities and circumstances. No special qualities are required, beyond putting one foot in front of the other, and keeping on. The scenery will change. We will change. Neither our communities, nor we and our families in them, are sustainable in their present form.

What’s just ahead for all of us is a very deep change indeed, a revolutionary change on par with a very great natural catastrophe or world war, which is already starting. We want to use our freedoms while we can, but regardless we are headed into a storm of crises, which are already confounding our reference frames.

It will be difficult for most people to stay fully sane, let alone understand what is happening. Our “experts” are themselves increasingly confused, since they are the ones most committed – intellectually, and in their careers – to the vanishing status quo.

Overall, our lack of resilience is dominated by a few key facts.

First, global warming and especially arctic warming, if not halted and reversed within a very few years, may enter a runaway thermal condition as vast natural stores of methane and carbon are released. Even without this ultimate catastrophe, global warming could destroy half the world’s species, render vast areas largely uninhabitable (including New Mexico), and submerge low-lying coasts and cities within living lifetimes.

Second, global industrial civilization and its growth-based financial system require not only undiminished fossil fuel consumption, but also plenty of one particular fuel: crude oil, which has to be cheap. Supplies of this fantastic substance are limited.

Cheap oil is necessary to acquire other energy resources (renewable and otherwise) and for commerce generally. For long-haul trucks, airplanes, and ships there are no scalable substitutes. Production of conventional crude oil plateaued in 2005. The world’s liquid fuel supply has since been extended by more expensive and inferior fuels, but supplies of these are now falling. “Peak oil” is in the rear-view mirror, obscured by falling demand.

What many do see (and more will, intimately), is economic and social decline. Capital – real capital, not debt and its counterpart, electronic wealth – is disappearing, right along with the cheap oil it depends upon.

The upshot is that we can’t wait for a more propitious time. There won’t be one. What were once separate problems amenable to gradual reform have converged into a “perfect storm” – political, economic, social, and environmental.

The unsustainability of our economic life may be the best climate news we have at the moment.

We who are awake to these existential dangers find we must make new commitments just to stay awake, and to be human. Knowledge without action, especially given these dangers, is a paralyzed, twilight sort of existence not useful to man, woman, or beast. There’s no dignity in it, just despair.

Even so, many of us may wonder how we, who are so small, can really act in any meaningful way in the face of such huge events. Aren’t we basically helpless?

Not at all!

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead’s statement is quoted so often it seems like a cliché, but how many of us have really tested its truth ourselves? Or tried Whitman’s on for size: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Change always begins with a small group. Conditions have to be ripe, but more often it is we who are hanging back. The usual state of affairs is the canonical, “The harvest is ready but the laborers are few.”

Are conditions ripe, then? We can’t know what is ripe until we get into the field, a fact never understood by parlor generals and sidewalk spectators.

What exactly do we have to lose by trying to saving our families and communities?

In renewable energy, the harvest is very ripe indeed. You can live on it. There are plenty of solar jobs to be had for those with the right fire in the belly.

In Henry V, Shakespeare’s Archbishop of Canterbury uses the analogy of a beehive to illustrate how an undirected diversity of actions can serve a common purpose.

Therefore doth heaven divide the state of man in diverse functions…Many things, having full reference to one consent, may work contrariously… [and] a thousand actions, once afoot, end in one purpose, and be all well borne without defeat.

For us, “one consent” refers not to a king, but to the pressing facts at hand bearing on the survival of human and natural communities. We depend on those communities, and they on us. Their survival is our first duty, quite apart from any altruistic notions. Our consent, our mature acceptance of reality and responsibility, is signaled by our “all-in” action.

We discover the community around us with this consent. It is our microcosm, with the whole world in it. To update the cliché, we think locally and globally, and we act locally and globally as the occasion arises.

Communities have conflicts. They are ideologically diverse, with plenty of ignorance, structural malformations, and the occasional sociopath. They often make bad decisions. Some, perhaps most, will fail in the coming storm.

In such a time, like-minded friends you can count on, and who can count on you – revolutionary friends, by definition – are essential. With them, great deeds are possible – and pleasant.

Forsooth, brothers, fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell: fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death: and the deeds that ye do upon the earth, it is for fellowship’s sake that ye do them, and the life that is in it, that shall live on and on for ever, and each one of you part of it, while many a man’s life upon the earth from the earth shall wane. (William Morris, A Dream of John Ball)

We will not find this kind of fellowship within the constraints of a post-democratic consumer society, which passed its ecological and economic sell-by dates a long time ago. Consumer society, as such, is antithetical to community in any case. It requires and creates social atomization. From the beginning it evolved to maximize profit, not fellowship. Its one-way mass communication system corrodes any social contract, and undermines every tradition.

Nor can we find real fellowship in the dream of a renewably-powered consumer society. Why? Because such a society is a fantasy, an oxymoron. As discussed in the last issue of Solar Times, thermodynamics, climate science, and resource limitations will not allow it. As Gandhi understood back in the 1930s, it would take a whole other planet’s resources to reproduce worldwide even the modest prosperity of England at that time.

The illusion of a green utopia is delaying action and awareness. It is also hiding and abetting an all-too-real class war. It is postponing and distorting the transition we need. To be realized even a little, those utopian dreams must quickly mature into something far simpler, less implicitly violent in their use of resources, and more communal.

A society of “consumers” first of all needs to be replaced, in our thinking and then in reality, with producers. What we consume, in affluent countries, must drop a long way. And it sooner or later will – but when? With what wars, and with what justice, or peace?

George W. Bush was right when he said, “You are either with us or against us.” He was describing the reality of Empire. His words also fit our climate and justice situation, as it happens.

Renewal energy advocates and climate protectors are against empire and militarism. If the war-mongers and imperialists win, communities and the climate will lose. Right now, they are winning.

They think global aggression is necessary to extend the present economic and political order. The war juggernaut, ensconced at the pinnacle of U.S. power, is growing. More wars are coming. Militarism locks society into a death orientation. It will take everything if we let it, including our children’s lives. It has no political space and no financial resources to spare, least of all to prevent climate collapse or to provide a social safety net. Its energy plan is very simple: war. We know how that ends.

From here on out, sustainable communities will necessarily be communities of resistance as well as exemplary of sustainable production, consumption, and justice. “Transition,” “resistance,” and “occupation” necessarily converge, and they will. We need to discover and use coercive, nonviolent power and abandon the notion that we can buy our way to sustainability.

Summer 2016 Solar Times here

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