(Firstly published in Spanish at Ctxt.es. Translated by Amelia Burke / Fabricants de Futur.)
El Rastro (Madrid), 2019/03/18
Last Friday I was demonstrating, as you were, in the streets of Madrid. Even though it seems a long time past, it was not even ten years ago that I said goodbye to a High School very much like the ones you walk through every day. A school which you decided to absent yourselves from on the 15th of March in order to demonstrate, in the street, your commitment to the struggle against climate change. During those ten years, which separate me from many of you, I have dedicated most of my time to trying to comprehend how we have arrived at the present situation. A situation which today causes you such alarm. I am also trying to clarify in my mind what is the actual problem we are facing.
As you can see I find myself in an unusual situation. I am close to you, but at the same time separated. I’m young enough to share in the conviction that climate change is a problem which will affect me and my life, yet far enough away not to see myself as one of you, although I can see my little sister as one. (My sister, who I can remember feeding and changing her nappies, is now fifteen years old).
And from this place, from this rather undefined point, is where I am writing you this letter. If you have managed to read up to this point, don’t imagine that I am planning to give you a lecture. This is your movement, and it will be yourselves who will have to decide what to do with it. It is clear, moreover, that you are already forming your own questions. You are searching for answers which, at least in my experience, have the unhappy tendency of being pretty elusive.
What I do hope to achieve within these words is to share with you what I would have wanted the big brother that I never had to tell me, when I set out to transform this world. I am writing, in fact, thinking of what I would have said to my little sister, if we had come across eachother in the streets of Madrid the other day. And they are only three things; personal conclusions borne of these ten years of struggle and questioning. Conclusions which, of course, are not unquestionable. For me, however, they have been fundamental and they inform nearly everything that I do.
The first is that climate change is neither the only nor the most serious problem which we are facing at the start of the 21st Century. I’m not going to give you facts, nor send you reports, nor scare you with urgent action deadlines. All I want to show you is that the process which we are now immersed in, more than being a specific crisis, a climate crisis, seems to be a kind of multiple failure of almost everything which we have based our lives on, within societies like ours in the last centruries. And within this is a crucial factor, which is energy, and oil in particular.
Amongst other things, what has made our societies a true historical exception, has been the possibility of making use of a fuel like oil. Basically, it is what is behind the construction of our cities. It allows us to live in them as we do. It has made the opportunity to travel often and far away, commonplace. It has allowed the economy to grow. It has supported a tremendous growth in population and many other things besides. However, as you well know, it has been the root cause of climate change. And not only that.
The way in which human societies have expanded over all the corners of the globe has had a really bad effect on the rest of the living things on our planet; both animals and plants. Our way of life has demolished enormous tracts of land within a few decades and has cast doubt over the functioning of many ecosystems. In fact, today people are already saying that we are experiencing a Sixth Great Extinction, that our mere presence on the planet is comparable to the impact on the Earth of the meteorite which finished off the dinosaurs. And this does not only mean that many plants and animals are going to disappear, but that in order to live, (have water, breathe clean air, feed ourselves, etc.) we are directly depending on the whole entirety of lives on our planet, on Gaia. The destruction which we are generating looks a lot like slowly cutting through the branch on which we are sitting, and at a considerable height.
And so, our addiction to fossel fuels puts the climate at risk, destroys our planet and finally sends us up a deadend road. And the oil, gas and coal (like any other material you might think of) is finite. The idea that our consumption of these materials could grow indefinitely, in order to support a similar growth our economy, is simply absurd. Today we already know that the availability of oil is starting to decline (as well as other materials…) and that is why we say that we have passed the oil peak.
Look at the sum of the disastrous consequences of oil use, the devastating effects it has already produced, and which will continue to produce in the future, and its scarecity. This is what permits us to say that, as well as a climatic emergency, we are now immersed in a social and ecological crisis. It is a crisis which really calls into question the possibility of maintaining the kind of lifestyle which you and I have known throughout our entire lives.
This brings me to the second thing which I wanted to share with you. This is my conviction that, considering the problems we are facing, it will not be enough to just make slight legislative changes and technological transformations. To justify this idea would probably require much more space than I have allowed myself in this letter. So after a certain point, you will probably have to make your own analyses, in order to decide whether to believe what I am saying or not.
What I personally consider to be a conclusion drawn from what I said in the first point, is that the problem we have is not partial. It affects nearly all of the elements which today form part of the normal functioning of our societies. Think for a moment how a world where we did not use fossel fuels would be. In the first place, we could not have a private car. Not you, nor me nor anyone. Life in cities like ours, which depends on consuming a lot of energy and products coming from places very far away via our transport systems, would not be maintained. Nor could the economy grow as it has been. I believe we all recognize in what form the most recent episode of the blocked (in reality decelarating) economy appeared: it was that famous economic crisis which has followed you like a dark shadow during almost your entire conscious lives.
Moreover, if everything I have mentioned up till now is correct, neither will we be able to maintain our hopes and expectations without changes. Without combustible fossel fuels we will have to say goodbye to hopping on an aeroplane whenever we feel like it. If we cannot depend on food produced in other continents, wrapped in plastic in giant factories, and which arrives at our home in the city via the supermarket, then what will we do to feed ourselves? Perhaps we would have to think seriously about learning how to grow food ourselves, and also move to places where it would be possible to do so (and the centre of a large city would not exactly be the right place…).
And what would you say to me about the enormous consumption of electricity which our entertainment and work depends on these days? Mobiles, computers, televisions… They all consume enormous quantities of electricity which is mainly produced by oil (when it isn’t produced by worse things, like the Uranium from nuclear power stations. I imagine you all remember Fukushima…).
So what we need to do, in order to face the social and ecological crisis, is to completely change our lives, our economy, our desires, our way of living, our way of eating… And this is not dependent on any laws or taxes, or on some occasional ban or decree. In fact, if the law forbade the use of fossel fuels from one day to the next, then all the problems which you are talking about would still be there. The drama is that our world may have to self-destruct in order to function, and to stop the destruction implies re-thinking how we do almost everything.
I am sure that many of you, on reading the above, will think that I am exagerating. Or perhaps you think that I have forgotten about the existance of many technologies which would mitigate the radical nature of the changes I have proposed. Perhaps you think that technology would make it possible for many things to carry on working almost in the same way as they do today with the electric car, renewable energies, robots which produce foods and goods, etc.
My experience and my research have led me to the conclusion that it is a mistake to believe that we can struggle against this crisis simply through the invention of new technologies – and for two reasons. The first; no technological innovation exists which could reconcile an end to the social and ecological crisis with the type of productive and economic system which we have today. Renewable energies cannot replace oil because they do not produce the same quantity of energy. Neither can they be used for many of the important things which depend on oil (for example, chemical fertilizers). Electric cars continue to be dependent on materials which are scarce and do not, for example, face up to the problem of the destruction of Gaia, etc.
And if this is the situation then technologies alone would not be enough, simply because some of our problems are not technical. Can technologies automatically change our expectations, transform our economies, or get us to agree to a reduction in consumption? I think not. Moreover, what history has shown us is that every problem resolved generates other unexpected problems, and sometimes even more serious ones. Think of the case of nuclear energy, which claims (falsely on the one hand) to have the energy problem all sewn up. In reality it generates the enormous problem of nuclear waste and accidents, not forgetting nuclear proliferation (that is, the spread of nuclear weapons all over the planet).
And, talking of weapons, I will finish now with the third thing. It is perhaps the most unpleasant thing, but never-the-less, very important. We cannot forget that any struggle to transform the world, a struggle like yours (or rather, ours), is deeply and irrevocably interwoven with conflict and violence.
I imagine that you have often wondered (at least I often wonder) how it is possible that we have reached this situation. A situation where people are doing practically nothing in the face of problems which, these days, are either relatively evident or extremely well-known and studied. One point which is very important in my opinion, is simply to be aware that this self-destruction of the world is beneficial (in the limited sense of economic benefit) for a very large number of people.
The basic situation is relatively simple. Just as no boss has historically had much difficulty with consciously degrading the lives of their employees with the goal of getting richer, the largest companies and international speculators do not appear to have much difficulty in continuing to fuel this real destructive madness, because with it, they can maintain their increase in wealth.
And when you put it this way, it may seem unpleasant but relatively innocuous, but actually encompasses an enormous amount of violence. The violence of the slavery in Chinese factories, the towns and countryside devastated in order to obtain specific raw materials, the so-called climatic migrants (those people who have to abandon their lands due to the transformations suffered under the effects of climate change), a hollow and empty life based solely on consumption… time has demonstrated that the only name for it is suicide.
All of the above ought not to put us in the position of evading any responsibility, however. We cannot just blame the elite and sit back and watch. The most priviledged ones, and therefore the ones responsible up to a certain point for what happens in the world, are you and me, especially in a country like Spain. A large part of the violence we see in the world does not appear spontaneously out of nowhere. It does not appear out of the barbaric or ignorant behaviour of peoples who are killing eachother for pleasure. The reality is that the greater part of these conflicts is related to geopolitical interests. Basically they reflect one very simple thing: in order for us to be able to maintain our life style it is necessary that war, violence and poverty exist in many parts of the world (where, paradoxically, they put up with with all this misery under the promise that one day, and in some way, they will also be able to live like us).
How can we not connect the presence of fossel fuels, the struggle to control it, and all of the wars which have taken place in the Middle East? Do we really believe it is a coincidence that the Congo, a country which has spent decades submerged in perpetual war, possesses one of the world’s largest deposits of coltán (a mineral which is fundamental to the construction of all these new technologies)? There are a multitude of examples. And though I will not go into this question, what we are seeing is that our world has truly entered into a kind of dynamic which does not seem to give much room to maneuver. A dynamic which imposes itself equally over both the winners and the losers of its cruel game.
None-the-less, it is important to keep the above point in mind. What it is telling us is that any necessary change will be violent in one degree or another. We can start from the basic idea that it will not be possible to have a general, worldwide and simultaneous consensus regarding what to do in the face of the social and ecological crisis, and there will always be someone in opposition. Perhaps entire groups would oppose the transformations which called their interests into question. And I am not only thinking of the giant oil multinationals, but also each and every one of us, if we had to give up 90% of our consumption with the aim of building a framework which was both fair and sustainable in time.
We only have to remember the explosion which the yellow vests iniciated in France. Although, like all social phenomena its nature is complex, we cannot forget that one of its basis was an increase in the price of petrol. This increase simply acted as a step to limit consumption, but was taken as a brutal imposition on the liberty and asumed priviledges of French society.
This is important. Even in the situation where a State decided to implement measures designed to face up to the present crisis, we cannot forget that both the merchants and the average citizen might see them as an enormous exercise of violence, and would therefore not hesitate in rising up to oppose them. So, what should we do? Impose measures by force, using the police or the army? Today people are fined for not respecting the restrictions around Central Madrid, but what level of repression would be required in order to impose the giving up of fossel fuels or the reduction in consumption? And on the other hand, knowing what we know about corruption and the State, why not let us consider whether the people in offices of power would limit the priviledges of the majority by force, but might maintain or increase, in the worst of cases, their own priviledges?
All of the above leaves us in the zone of questions with no answers. These are questions which movements like yours, and like many others who are working towards the same objectives, must respond to through the practice and in the theory of their daily lives. In my opinion there is only thing which is not difficult to see. It is that the violence generated by the desire to maintain priviledges, or by the imposition from above of what we we need in the case of a lack of agreement, will force us to remember that managing to stop climatic emergency, or the social and ecological crisis in general, will mean struggle and resistence.
As for me, I concluded a long time ago that to struggle and resist means working collectively (alone we will always be weak). It also means questioning myself and my expectations (an exercise which can be extemely challenging). It means to achieve, within the range of my possibilities, the transformation of my life and my surroundings right here and now. It means making them compatible with what I believe we need, and may avert the violence of the forced imposition of something which we can all build voluntarily by working together. And of course we will have to defend ourselves, now and in the future, from those who do not have any interest in us being autonomous.
And this has already been understood by, for example, the original peoples in Latin America or Africa who risk their lives to defend their lands and their autonomy (political and material) against mining, against the destruction created by the anxiety to obtain more materials, more oil, or more drinking water… Never-the-less, the response that each person gives, individually or collectively, to the question of what struggle and resistence means, is up to them. No-one should take away their right to find it for themselves. And I, of course, could not do it, nor would I try to. I simply hope that these words be joined, as one more contibution, onto the larger conversation which belongs to all of us. I, for my part, will continue to read your words with care and attention.
Thank you Adrian for your excellent letter – and thanks too to your translator so I can read it. My wife and I have a daughter, 20, who works hard for “climate justice” in an activist group. Your letter, and that by Margarita Mediavilla, fit into the huge hole in the climate change movement, that is a frequent conversation amongst our family. The promise of technological fixes floods the cultural airwaves, distracting and confusing our young activists. As you say, any productive way forward requires that we abandon the dreams of our past and imagine new aspirations that fit into our circumstances.
I have tried to communicate similar ideas in my blog post: https://bruceteakle.blogspot.com/2019/07/getting-cool-with-getting-poor.html
Perhaps you will find it interesting.
Best wishes from Bruce Teakle