A recent report painted a terrifying picture of our coming future: within decades, for every 1°C increase in the global temperature, a billion people will be forced to live in unbearable heat. Without change, we are on track for catastrophic global temperature increases of 3.5°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. This crisis is here, now.
It goes beyond the already deadly climate crisis. While temperatures rise, forests are also being felled, soils are depleted by overuse, and biodiversity is collapsing. Ours is the age of environmental breakdown, a new era of mounting instability brought about by human destruction of the natural world. This crisis isn‘t a result of all humans’ innate short-termism and greed: it is a crisis of power, of an extractive and exploitative economic system that is generating vast inequality and unsustainable environmental harms. What’s worse, these harms fall most on those least responsible for the crisis.
Too often the story has been focused on what individuals can do to make a difference: the limited politics of recycling and plastic straws. Making more sustainable consumer choices matters. But the crisis facing us is driven by huge social and economic systems beyond the control of individuals alone. So only an approach that can reimagine our economies will suffice.
That is the vital story that the climate strikers and Green New Dealers tell: only a deep reimagining of how our economies are built and run can build a future that works for people and the planet. In an age of environmental breakdown, the boldest measures are the safest. Yet even with the burst of optimism following Trump’s defeat, with the impact of movements and activists of recent times, many leaders still fail to grasp the scale of the emergency and how it interconnects crises across nature. They are still too slow to act, and when they do, they often fail to put justice at the heart of the process.
That gap – between what must happen if we are to thrive, against what passes for bold action in the status quo – is the starting point of our new book, Planet on Fire. In it, we draw on the inspiring ideas of campaigners, thinkers and doers from across the world, bringing them together to set out a vision for the transformations we need and how, against the odds, we can win a future fit for life.
We must start with a new purpose for our economy. Instead of unequal and damaging GDP growth, we measure success by lowering environmental impacts while expanding wellbeing. Things will still grow, but of a different kind: new forms of creativity, joy, and resilience. Such a vision requires bringing finance under democratic control. A Green New Deal can do this, delivering the transformative investment we need to build the sustainable infrastructures and industries we need. This is an economy that is democratic and sustainable by design. The environmental and inequality crisis is rooted in the enclosure and exploitation of the natural world, an alternative future depends on its opposite: a 21st century commons. From restoring the Amazon rainforest to leaving fossil fuels in the ground, our future depends on leaving parts of the world alone, managing our shared resources for the common good. ‘Public luxury for all’ should be the slogan of a post-carbon age. Carers shouldn’t just be clapped but put at the heart of a green recovery from Covid-19. And fighting the environment emergency should be understood as inextricable from ending ongoing forms of empire, and repairing the harmful legacies of colonialism.
All this and more is needed. And now is the time to do it; you are alive at just the right moment to change everything. But how do we get there? It can be overwhelming to consider your role, as one person, in such a huge challenge. Right about now you might be thinking that those paper straws are enough or feeling like giving up. Instead, try some of the ideas below, for how you and those around you can play a part in realising huge changes across society.
And these are just some of the things you can do and places you could go. There are so many more, with others joining all the time. You are in good company. As the storms grow and the temperature rises, remember that so much is and must be possible.
1. LEARN ABOUT THE INSEPARABLE HISTORIES OF CAPITALISM AND ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE
The environmental emergency isn’t a new story. For centuries, the priorities of profit-making have impelled people to exploit others and nature across the world. Colonisation, slavery, formal empires, and the global economic power imbalances we see today have developed in step with environmental destruction on an ever greater scale. Without facing up to this past, we can’t hope to understand the present or prepare for the future. So, read up about empire, global economic injustice, and the connections to the environmental emergency.
2. AMPLIFY THE PERSPECTIVE OF THOSE ON THE FRONTLINE
The inequalities at the heart of the environmental emergency are profound. Internationally, those countries and communities who contributed most to the destruction of nature and who became wealthy in the process are often less exposed and vulnerable to destabilising environmental consequences than those who contributed little – and who and still suffer under the legacies of the imperial past. Many of those communities disproportionately suffering under economic injustice and the consequences of environmental destabilisation – such as indigenous peoples, women, and poorer groups – have done so for centuries. Mustering an effective collective response to this global problem demands that we understand and prioritise their experiences – and their ideas for what should happen next.
3. BECOME A POLICY NERD
There’s a whole host of groups developing and promoting policy ideas that could get governments, companies and other powerful organisations on the right track to tackle the environmental emergency and build better societies. You could study for an environmental policy degree, attend Green New Deal events, apply for a policy job in an environmental organisation, and join the campaign for a specific bit of legislation, such as the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. Crucially, tackling the environmental emergency also requires advocating for policies that in the first instance don’t seem related. For instance, we need to ditch the myth that governments act like a household, which artificially allows them to hold back the huge investments we need right now. It’s also crucial – as highlighted by the recent acceleration of the Torygovernment’s new Policing Bill – to oppose bills that could limit protests against the emergency.
4. GET ON THE STREETS
Policy advocacy is only one part of the equation and is nothing without social movements pushing politics forward. In the years before the pandemic, a host of environmental campaigns exploded onto the scene, raising awareness and moving the conversation up a gear. While Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future grabbed many of the headlines, there are hundreds of campaigning groups and social movements for you to join, each catering to a diversity of communities and interests, from direct climate action to renters unions to social movements fighting oppression.
5. ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES IN THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
Hundreds of communities across the country are already taking the future into their own hands by building a new economy from the local level. Community projects making a difference right now range from local people installing renewable energy, through to community banks that provide funding, to nature restoration projects that improve everyone’s wellbeing. Join them or collaborate with others and reap the benefits for you, your local community and the world.
6. HELP YOUR LOCAL COUNCIL
Many local councils are doing a lot to make communities more sustainable, making up for the failures of national government, and doing so while struggling against austerity. This includes setting up council-owned energy companies that prioritise affordable green energy, reclaiming streets from traffic jams, and restoring nature in every nook and cranny. They’re also increasing citizens’ control over their local economies, such as by taking formerly outsourced public services back in-house or using their spending to prioritise local businesses, all of which can make communities cleaner and more prosperous.
7. BRING IT TO WORK
Ask your boss what your workplace is doing to tackle the emergency. This isn’t just about recycling and compost bins in the kitchen or LED lights, it’s also about providing spaces to discuss with all staff what the company or organisation can do and what its obligations are. Joining a union provides a space to campaign directly to tackle the emergency and organising worker power to push companies and governments to make bigger change. And organise for a 4-day working week without loss of pay, which has been shown to improve your wellbeing and company productivity, and reduce environmental impacts.
8. MAKE THE PENNY DROP
Each year, trillions is invested in businesses and projects that are destroying the environment. Some of this money might be yours, invested through your savings, pension or any assets you hold. There are many campaigns to ‘divest’ this money and divert it into sustainable investment – what’s more, they’re working, with universities, local governments, and the UK national pension fund getting out of fossil fuels and other destructive investments. Join them and demand that your money helps, not hinders, the response to the environmental emergency.
9. RUN FOR OFFICE
It’s easy to become depressed about politics and it’s understandable if you feel cynical about politicians. But it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if some of us don’t run for office, leaving this to those who don’t prioritise action on the environmental emergency. So support, campaign or try and work for those who are already charting a new course, MPs like Caroline Lucas or Nadia Whittome, down to the legions of local councillors who passed climate emergency declarations. Or be inspired by a new generation of politicians, such as US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and run in your local parish, for your council, or for parliament.
10. SET UP AN ECO-ANXIETY DISCUSSION GROUP
The environmental emergency is horrifying, overwhelming, and scary. Psychologists have long recognised that eco-anxiety, encompassing a range of grief, fear and depression, are natural responses to the situation. Groups like the Climate Psychology Alliance provide resources and support and people across the country are organising informal chats, often called ‘climate cafes’, that offer a safe space to discuss these feelings. Exploring and living with these feelings is possible and important, as is learning from those communities that have grappled with existential fear and loss for generations.
This article was written with Mathew Lawrence and originally published in Dazed Magazine.