Findhorn Fellow and developer of the Zero Carbon Britain project, Paul Allen, responds to questions about climate change in the lead up to the climate talks in Paris in December 2015….
What do you personally feel about climate change?
First and foremost, I feel we must recognise climate change is not the root problem; it is a symptom of much deeper problems. If we dig a little, we see that one level its driven by our collective addiction to fossil fuels. Our external (physical) and internal (psychological) have been deliberately and cunningly re-shaped to compel us to use more energy and more stuff – and so maximising returns on investments in the business model which shapes the retail consumer society in which we find ourselves.
Modern business corporations, their boards and CEO’s are systematically compelled by the neo-liberal free-market system within which they operate, to maximize short-term returns to shareholders by compelling us to spend. They do this, not necessarily through deliberate malice, but because once shareholder capital has been deployed in developing factories, shops, products, pipelines, mines, oil wells or refineries and it is their legal obligation to maximise return on this investment. To make matters worse, in the energy sector, the valuation of oil and gas companies and in turn large their investors such as pension funds are based on the premise that all the fossil fuel reserves on their books are burnable. As the energy companies are very profitable with turnovers in excess on many nations, highly skilled lobbyists can deploy vast resources to influence both across our media and in our democracy.
However if we dig even deeper, I see the addiction to fossil fuels as a symptom of more fundamental drivers. To me, perhaps the core driver is the belief and world-view that we are, as a species, separate from nature and separate from each other. This allows us to shut down any feelings and rationalise our behaviour when we know our lifestyles are underpinned by activities that are effectively raping/plundering/destroying humanity’s stable living platform on planet earth. We are held fast, sleepwalking through the shopping malls, distracted, paralysed and overloaded in a continuous barrage of information, but firmly rooted in our social and ecological isolation.
The overwhelming consensus in our science is clearly pointing the way forward, and we have all the technologies this transition requires – but our vested interests are dragging us in almost the opposite direction. We see this, we know this, we realise the consequences but have developed tools to deal with it. Society has created taboos against the public expression of such emotion and anguish; it has become culturally acceptable to passively observe in ‘ironic detachment’.
As more and more of us piece together this alarming big picture; the collective human violation of our ‘planetary life-support platform’ becomes one of the deepest and most pervasive sources of anxiety in our time. Yet it is so easy to put it away in that locker, just out of our conscious thought, where smokers keep the knowledge about lung cancer and get on with the immediate challenges of the day. Yet if we do not deal with such feelings they manifest deep in our physical or mental condition.
Over recent decades such collective fear and disempowerment have transformed the way we think about future; from that exciting 1950s vision of progress and excitement – to a dark and uncertain world of fear. Every time our contemporary culture looks a decade or two ahead, we now paint ecological collapse and zombie-ridden dystopia. Be it a novel, theatre, film, a TV series or even a computer game, the setting is always dark. From Blade Runner to The Road from 28 Days Later to World War Z – the list seems endless, and a whole new generation are now growing up within this vision. If we are unable to imagine a positive future, we won’t create it. In order for people to process this perspective of reality they need to have fairly robust tools and techniques, otherwise they simply go into overwhelm and then denial – which is pretty much what we know is happening. This motivates me to help catalyse positive visions, driven by robust numerical models, rooted in the science, but capable of firing our wild imagination and giving us the courage to re-connect.
What are you doing about climate change?
Business as usual will undoubtedly take us to the point of removing the stable platform humanity has enjoyed for many thousands of years. Our current global and national climate change targets, even he promises ahead of the UN summit in Paris do not offer a good enough chance of avoiding what is now considered extremely dangerous climate change. Clearly it is time to re-think the future; our only option is ‘doing the numbers’ and reducing emissions fast enough to prevent the serious problems.
I have worked to develop the Zero Carbon Britain project to offer the hard data and confidence required to visualise what such a zero emissions future might actually be like – to remove fear and misunderstandings and to open new positive conversations. Through linking-up a smart approach to food production, diet, buildings, transport, energy or land-use and backed by ten years of real weather data modelled on an hourly basis, it shows now have an incredible array of ultra-modern technologies capable of capturing enough renewable energy to meet our needs. To add weight and offer a wider perspective I have been part of the team which has just launched the new “Who’s Getting Ready for Zero” report, compiling over 100 rapid decarbonisation models, plans and practical projects from across the globe. We hope this will be a useful tool for those pressing for change.
However, despite their increasing prevalence, such scenarios still remain beyond the boundaries of what is currently ‘politically thinkable’ and so change become as much a challenge for our democracy and culture as they are for our technology. We need to catalyse a cultural shift. Science tells us things; but it is art that helps us take them on board at a deeper level. Creative practice has shown how we can break through our prejudice, apathy and blind spots to catalyse a transformation of culture, attitudes and behaviours. Over just a few decades, our collective creativity has radically transformed entrenched attitudes to gender, race, religion, class, smoking, health and safety, exploitation and equity.
We must integrate our arts and sciences, to offer an urgently needed mirror that can shine a light on that 1950s fossil-fuelled dream which is still quietly being injected into the global subconscious and create spaces, both real and virtual, where inspiration, optimism and the possibility of positive change can be nurtured and explored. We know from history that once a cultural shift can be catalysed, legal, political and administrative frameworks follow suit. Rather than playing a comforting piano in the bar of the Titanic, our collective creativity can join the dots between those replicating beacons of a positive future we can see dappled here in the present and help us see the world anew.
What do you think “we” can do about it?
Joanna Macy talks about the three equally important elements of ‘the work that needs doing’. Once clear element is that we must develop robust alternatives like sustainable energy, conflict resolution and mediation models etc. The news from the technology sector is clear: Zero Carbon Britain plus our new report “Who’s Getting Ready for Zero” clearly demonstrate that we can reach zero emissions with existing technologies.
Such positive scenarios offer a powerful tool to those working on the next element – the frontline campaigning and protesting work. This is perhaps the hardest, the most challenging element, and therefore has the most burnout. But having a range of robust positive visions means you can campaign for what you actually want as well as what you against. This removes the easy boxing off of campaigners as ‘naysayers’ who are against everything. It helps the campaign win, whilst also empowering and psychologically supporting those at the front line.
The third vital element is the spiritual practice that touches our hearts and teaches us, by direct experience, that human beings are deeply connected both to nature and to each other, and ripples this out across society. None of these elements are likely to singularly bring about the change that is needed on their own; they all fully complement each other. From my observation, it is possible to develop a ‘deluded place’ allowing us to hide behind any one of them as the ‘single answer’. So in the same way as you get spiritual seekers who jet around the earth, completely disconnected from their impacts on physical world, yet believing they have the whole truth, there are also environmental activists who believe they have the whole answer.
So why is there no major progress? This leads me to the question “how do we overcome the social, political, economic barriers to actually make it happen” I plan to spend the next year with the ZCB team trying to piece together a picture to address this question, drawn from all three elements, in the hope that we may perhaps be able to offer a new tool to the many people who are getting ready to act. Our aim is to integrate cutting-edge thinking from experts and practitioners from each of these three elements, working across many disciplines, opening new conversations and catalysing new thinking, to identify the barriers to action and the means by which we overcome them.
We want to engage with sociology, psychology, law, democracy, media, arts, nature, history and not least with those exploring the inner–path. I am confident the ‘New Story Summit’ network will collectively have a good grasp of how this question relates to the ‘inner work’. After all, providing we don’t all continually jet off around the globe to do it, the inner work we seek to nurture offers an amazing ratio of ‘bliss per unit of carbon emitted’ (our candle flame & incense stick emissions?).
How can a re-vitalisation or re-orientation of the spiritual path help us find increased wellbeing and happiness and so help re-connect the inner-void created by conspicuous consumer lifestyles, whilst also emboldening and empowering us to take the practical actions demanded of us at this important time (as described by Jakob) in our democracies, homes, communities and places of work.
In the spiritual world there is much talk about an evolutionary shift happening at the moment, and a vital part of that process can serve to strengthen our capacity to face not only the distress, the anxiety and the ‘letting go of the fossil fuelled consumer dream’, but also to embrace the wider deeper truths that will guide us in the necessary action. This is where I see the essential role of spirituality – it offers practices and perspectives that build inner the connections and strength which can enables us to deal with the deeper truths about our true obligations of being one with all of life, but to be truly effective it must embrace and work in harmony with these other two key elements.
Change is now. Peter Russell is right when he points out to us the accelerating is the rate at which change is occurring. Originating from the rate at which new species came into being, to the rate at which those species (mostly us humans) are evolving new characteristics, behaviours, tools and techniques. But predicting what will emerge from the accelerating wave of ‘s-curves’ is impossible. There is every chance the new emergence will be damaging perhaps even terminal, but there is also every chance it will take us so far beyond what we perceive as ‘life today’ that it may reveal new ways of being beyond our current imagining. But perhaps our ‘entry exam’ is to show we can steward a stable ecological platform for it to emerge onto.
As we link the key elements which can transform our culture, technology and lifestyle we begin to glimpse the next chapter in the extraordinary story of human beings, energy and happiness, embracing what it could actually be like to live and love in a world were we are rising to our global challenges – and in the process discover a sense of collective purpose and creative power we have been craving for a very long time.