Monday, August 31, 2009

The fallacy of climate activism by Adam D. Sacks

In the 20 years since we climate activists began our work in earnest,
the state of the climate has become dramatically worse, and the change
is accelerating—this despite all of our best efforts. Clearly
something is deeply wrong with this picture. What is it that we do
not yet know? What do we have to think and do differently to arrive
at urgently different outcomes?[1]

The answers lie not with science, but with culture.

Climate activists are obsessed with greenhouse-gas emissions and
concentrations. Since global climate disruption is an effect of
greenhouse gases, and a disastrous one, this is understandable. But
it is also a mistake.

Such is the fallacy of climate activism[2]: We insist that global
warming is merely a consequence of greenhouse-gas emissions. Since it
is not, we fail to tell the truth to the public.

I think that there are two serious errors in our perspectives on
greenhouse gases:

Global Warming as Symptom

The first error is our failure to understand that greenhouse gases are
not a cause but a symptom, and addressing the symptom will do little
but leave us with a devil’s sack full of many other symptoms, possibly
somewhat less rapidly lethal but lethal nonetheless.

The root cause, the source of the symptoms, is 300 years of our
relentlessly exploitative, extractive, and exponentially growing
technoculture, against the background of ten millennia of hierarchical
and colonial civilizations.[3] This should be no news flash, but the
seductive promise of endless growth has grasped all of us civilized
folk by the collective throat, led us to expand our population in
numbers beyond all reason and to commit genocide of indigenous
cultures and destruction of other life on Earth.

To be sure, global climate disruption is the No. 1 symptom. But if
planetary warming were to vanish tomorrow, we would still be left with
ample catastrophic potential to extinguish many life forms in fairly
short order: deforestation; desertification; poisoning of soil, water,
air; habitat destruction; overfishing and general decimation of
oceans; nuclear waste, depleted uranium, and nuclear weaponry—to name
just a few. (While these symptoms exist independently, many are
intensified by global warming.)

We will not change course by addressing each of these as separate
issues; we have to address root cultural cause.

Beyond Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The second error is our stubborn unwillingness to understand that the
battle against greenhouse-gas emissions, as we have currently framed
it, is over.

It is absolutely over and we have lost.

We have to say so.

There are three primary components of escalating greenhouse-gas
concentrations that are out of our control:

Thirty-Year Lag

The first is that generally speaking the effects we are seeing today,
as dire as they are, are the result of atmospheric concentrations of
carbon dioxide in the range of only 330 parts per million (ppm), not
the result of today’s concentrations of almost 390 ppm. This is
primarily a consequence of the vast inertial mass of the oceans, which
absorb temperature and carbon dioxide and create a roughly 30-year lag
between greenhouse-gas emissions and their effects. We are currently
seeing the effects of greenhouse gases emitted before 1980.

Just as the scientific community hadn’t realized how rapidly and
extensively geophysical and biological systems would respond to
increases in atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations, we currently
have only a rough idea of what that 60 ppm already emitted will mean,
even if we stopped our emissions today. But we do know, with virtual
certainty, that it will be full of unpleasant surprises.

Positive Feedback Loops

The second out-of-control component is positive (amplifying) feedback
loops. The odd thing about positive feedbacks is that they are often
ignored in assessing the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions. Our
understanding of them is limited and our ability to insert them into
an equation is rudimentary. Our inability to grasp them, however, in
no way mitigates their effects, which are as real as worldwide violent

It is now clear that several phenomena are self-sustaining, amplifying
cycles; for example, melting ice and glaciers, melting tundra and
other methane sources, and increasing ocean saturation with carbon
dioxide, which leads to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
These feedbacks will continue even if we reduce our human emissions to
zero—and all of our squiggly lightbulbs, Priuses, wind turbines,
Waxman-Markeys, and Copenhagens won’t make one bit of difference. Not
that we shouldn’t stop all greenhouse-gas emissions immediately—of
course we should—but that’s only a necessity, not nearly a sufficient

We need to find the courage to say so.


The third component is non-linearity, which means that the effects of
rising temperature and atmospheric carbon concentrations may change
suddenly and unpredictably. While we may assume linearity for natural
phenomena because linearity is much easier to assess and to predict,
many changes in nature are non-linear, often abruptly so. A common
example is the behavior of water. The changes of state of water—solid,
liquid, gas—happen abruptly. It freezes suddenly at 0°C, not at 1°,
and it turns to steam at 100°, not at 99°. If we were to limit our
experience of water to the range of 1° to 99°, we would never know of
the existence of ice or steam.

This is where we stand in relationship to many aspects of the global
climate. We don’t know where the tipping points—effectively the
changes of state—are for such events as the irreversible melting of
glaciers, release of trapped methane from tundras and seabeds, carbon
saturation of the oceans. Difficult to pin down, tipping points may
be long past, or just around the corner. As leading climatologist Jim
Hansen has written, “Present knowledge does not permit accurate
specification of the dangerous level of human-made GHGs. However, it
is much lower than has commonly been assumed. If we have not already
passed the dangerous level, the energy infrastructure in place ensures
that we will pass it within several decades.”[4]

Evidence of non-linearity is strong, not only from the stunning
acceleration of climate change in just the past couple of years, but
from the wild behavior of the climate over millions of years, which
sometimes changed dramatically within periods as short as a decade.

The most expert scientific investigators have been blindsided by the
velocity and extent of recent developments, and the climate models
have likewise proved far more conservative than nature itself. Given
that scientists have underestimated impacts of even small changes in
global temperature, it is understandably difficult to elicit an
appropriate public and governmental response.

Beyond the Box

We climate activists have to tread on uncertain ground and rapidly
move beyond our current unpleasant but comfortable parts-per-million
box. Here are some things we need to say, over and over again,
everywhere, in a thousand different ways:

Bitter climate truths are fundamentally bitter cultural truths.
Endless growth is an impossibility in the physical world, always—but
always—ending in overshot and collapse. Collapse: with a bang or a
whimper, most likely both. We are already witnessing it, whether we
choose to acknowledge it or not.

Because of this civilization’s obsession with growth, its demise is
100 percent predictable. We simply cannot go on living this way. Our
version of life on earth has come to an end.

Moreover, there are no “free market” or “economic” solutions. And
since corporations must have physically impossible endless growth in
order to survive, corporate social responsibility is a myth. The only
socially responsible act that corporations can take is to dissolve.

We can’t bargain with the forces of nature, trading slightly less
harmful trinkets for a fantasied reprieve. Geophysical processes care
not one whit for our politics, our economics, our evening meals, our
theologies, our love for our children, our plaintive cries of
innocence and error.

We can either try to plan the transition, even at this late hour, or
the physical forces of the world will do it for us—indeed, they
already are. As Alfred Crosby stated in his remarkable book,
Ecological Imperialism, mother nature’s ministrations are never gentle.

Telling the Truth

If we climate activists don’t tell the truth as well as we know it—
which we have been loathe to do because we ourselves are frightened to
speak the words—the public will not respond, notwithstanding all our
protestations of urgency.

And contrary to current mainstream climate-activist opinion, contrary
to all the pointless “focus groups,” contrary to the endless
speculation on “correct framing,” the only way to tell the truth is to
tell it. All of it, no matter how terrifying it may be.[6]

It is offensive and condescending for activists to assume that people
can’t handle the truth without environmentalists finding a way to make
it more palatable. The public is concerned, we vaguely know that
something is desperately wrong, and we want to know more so we can try
to figure out what to do. The response to An Inconvenient Truth, as
tame as that film was in retrospect, should have made it clear that we
want to know the truth.

And finally, denial requires a great deal of energy, is emotionally
exhausting, fraught with conflict and confusion. Pretending we can
save our current way of life derails us and sends us in directions
that lead us astray. The sooner we embrace the truth, the sooner we
can begin the real work.

Let’s just tell it.

Stating the Problem

After we tell the truth, then what can we do? Is it hopeless?
Perhaps. But before we can have the slightest chance of meaningful
action, having told the truth, we have to face the climate reality,
fully and unflinchingly. If we base our planning on false premises—
such as the oft-stated stutter that reducing our greenhouse-gas
emissions will forestall “the worst effects of global warming”—we can
only come up with false solutions. “Solutions” that will make us feel
better as we tumble toward the end, but will make no ultimate
difference whatsoever.

Furthermore, we can and must pose the problem without necessarily
providing the “solutions.”[7] I can’t tell you how many climate
activists have scolded me, “You can’t state a problem like that
without providing some solutions.” If we accept that premise, all of
scientific inquiry as well as many other kinds of problem-solving
would come to a screeching halt. The whole point of stating a problem
is to clarify questions, confusions, and unknowns, so that the problem
statement can be mulled, chewed, and clarified to lead to some
meaningful answers, even though the answers may seem to be out of

Some of our most important thinking happens while developing the
problem statement, and the better the problem statement the richer our
responses. That’s why framing the global warming problem as
greenhouse-gas concentrations has proved to be such a dead end.

Here is the problem statement as it is beginning to unfold for me. We
are all a part of struggling to develop this thinking together:

We must leave behind 10,000 years of civilization; this may be the
hardest collective task we’ve ever faced. It has given us the
intoxicating power to create planetary changes in 200 years that under
natural cycles require hundreds of thousands or millions of years—but
none of the wisdom necessary to keep this Pandora’s Box tightly shut.
We have to discover and re-discover other ways of living on earth.

We love our cars, our electricity, our iPods, our theme parks, our
bananas, our Nikes, and our nukes, but we behave as if we understand
nothing of the land and water and air that gives us life. It is past
time to think and act differently.

If we live at all, we will have to figure out how to live locally and
sustainably. Living locally means we are able get everything we need
within walking (or animal riding) distance. We may eventually figure
out sustainable ways of moving beyond those small circles to bring
things home, but our track record isn’t good and we’d better think it
through very carefully.

Likewise, any technology has to be locally based, using local
resources and accessible tools, renewable and non-toxic. We have much
re-thinking to do, and re-learning from our hunter-gatherer forebears
who managed to survive for a couple of hundred thousand years in ways
that we with our civilized blinders we can barely imagine or

Living sustainably means, in Derrick Jensen’s elegantly simple
definition, that whatever we do, we can do it indefinitely.[9] We
cannot use up anything more or faster than nature provides, we don’t
poison the air, water, or soil, and we respect the web of life of
which we are an intricate part. We are not separate from nature, or
above it, or in any way qualified to supervise it.[10] The evidence is
ample and overwhelming; all we have to do is be brave enough to look.

How do we survive in a world that will probably turn—is already
turning, for many humans and non-humans alike—into a living hell? How
do we even grow or gather food or find clean water or stay warm or
cool while assaulted by biblical floods, storms, rising seas,
droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, snow, and hail?

It is crystal clear that we cannot leave it to the technophiliacs. It
is human technology coupled with our inability to comprehend, predict,
and prevent unintended consequences that have brought us global
catastrophe, culminating in climate disruption, in the first place.
Desperate hopes notwithstanding, there are no high-tech solutions
here, only wishful thinking—the tools that got us into this mess are
incapable of getting us out.[11]

All that being said, we needn’t discard all that we’ve learned, far
from it.[12] But we must use our knowledge with great discretion, and
lock much of it away as so much nuclear weaponry and waste.

Time is running very short, but the forgiveness of this little blue
orb in a vast lonely universe will continue to astonish and nourish us—
if we only give it the chance.

Our obligation as activists, the first step, the essence, is to part
the cultural veil at long last, and to tell the truth.



[1] Many thanks to Richard Grossman, who posed that question fifteen
years ago with respect to corporate domination of governance and
culture when he founded the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy
(POCLAD). He understood that we must take the time to stop and
penetrate beyond the obvious if we are to think outside of the
cultural prescriptions that constrain our ability to act differently.
Many thanks as well to Ross Gelbspan, a courageous and ground-breaking
journalist, who early on investigated the forces driving the fossil
fuel machine and has been sounding the alarm for almost two decades.
See his excellent article, “Beyond the Point of No Return,” December
2007, which inspired many of the ideas in this piece.

[2] I would like to express deep gratitude to John A. Livingston,
pioneer environmentalist, preservationist, teacher and writer. In
1981 he wrote “The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation,” which inspired
the title of this piece. The fallacy that Livingston was referring to
is well-described in the foreword by Graeme Gibson: “The Fallacy of
Wildlife Conservation, as a statement of belief, is one of the
fiercest and most uncompromising of John Livingston’s convictions.
Had he entitled it ‘The Failure of Wildlife Conservation,’ we might
have tried again—without having to think too much about it. But he
didn’t. ... As a result of the word fallacy, we are confronted with an
insistence that we rethink everything.” From The John A. Livingston
Reader, McClelland & Stewart, 2007, pp. xiv-xv. So it is, with the
fallacy of climate activism, that we must rethink everything.

[3] Endless (exponential) growth is an impossibility in a finite
physical system (planet earth), and we have a wealth of examples of
overshoot and collapse, non-human and human, all of which are fully
predictable. Our cultural inability to grasp such an obvious reality
is a primary obstacle to progress in addressing climate change and its
root cause. Indigenous cultures tend to have much better
understandings of these things. See Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N.
Townsend, “Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” from Valuing
The Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics, MIT Press, 1993, p. 267 ff.
For a wide-ranging discussion of the demise of civilizations, see
Jared Diamond, Collapse, Viking, 2005.

[4] James Hansen et al.(2007), “Climate change and trace gases,” Phil.
Trans. Roy. Soc. A 365: 1925–1954 (2007).

[5] Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion
of Europe, 900 - 1900, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 92. The
actual quote, referring to population, is, “Mother nature always comes
to the rescue of a society stricken with the problems of
overpopulation, and her ministrations are never gentle.”

[6] A word here about the skeptics, with whom we are also obsessed:
Forget about them. They may appear to have control of the public
discussion, but they are babbling into the abyss. Our enemy is us.
By our own unwillingness to face the profound implications of climate
change—that we have to reject civilization as currently conceived and
come up with something completely different—we are doing far more
damage to the cause of preserving life on earth than the deniers could
ever do.

[7] “One of the more peculiar traits of our society is its assumption—
its insistence—on solutions. Just as there are reasons for all
things, so there are solutions for all things. Always there are
ultimate answers; there is no problem that is not amenable to logical
reduction. This, as we have seen earlier, in spite of such
bewildering enterprises as ecology. I have no ‘solution’ to the
wildlife preservation problem [read ‘global warming problem’]. There
may not be one. But given the somewhat shaky assumption that one
exists, I sense that I can at least feel the direction.” John A.
Livingston, The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation, p. 151.

[8] Our culturally skewed and defensive view of pre-hierarchical
societies, seeing only lives that were “nasty, brutish and short”
struggling to survive in “nature, red in tooth and claw,” has
distorted earlier human experience beyond recognition. See, for
example, Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade, Harper & Rowe, 1987;
and Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, Tavistock Publications,
Ltd. (London), 1974.

[9] Jensen is one of our most passionate and incisive cultural critics
and environmental writers. His words are, “For an action to be
sustainable, you must be able to perform it indefinitely. This means
that the action must either help or at the very least not materially
harm the landbase. If an action materially harms the landbase, it
cannot be performed indefinitely ...” From Derrick Jensen and Aric
McBay, What We Leave Behind, p. 56.

[10] Although, as I indicate in footnote 12 in a brief discussion of
holistic management of grasslands, we can and must repair enough of
the damage so that the infinitely complex self-organizing systems of
nature—the systems that gave life to all living creatures—can begin

[11] For example, consider hare-brained schemes from very smart
scientists, some of whom know that the schemes are hare-brained but in
their desperation see no other way. A recent article in Rolling
Stone, “Can Dr. Evil Save The World?,” has an interesting overview of
the geo-engineering debate. The bottom line seems to be that we
currently are able to do and think anything except changing the way we
live, and risking the existence of life on earth is simply a chance we
have to take (although 100 percent odds of failure is hardly a bet one
should want to take, assuming there are any rational moments left).
See also Ross Gelbspan’s article, “Beyond the Point of No Return,”
footnote 1.

[12] Glimmers of hope lie in the remarkable restorative powers of the
earth. One such phenomenon is ancient pre-history but new to us.
That is the relationship between grazers and grasslands. Whereas
conventional grasslands management destroys soils and diversity,
nature’s way sequesters vast amounts of carbon in soils, with
photosynthesizing plants as intermediators along with fungi, micro-
organisms, insects, animals and birds—and creates productive and
healthy land that, unlike forests, can bind carbon for thousands of
years. We have the potential to remove gigatons of carbon from the
atmosphere, reducing greenhouse gas concentrations by many parts per
million with proper land management. Beyond grasslands, the planet’s
power of regeneration, despite our assaults, remains extraordinary.
See the Holistic Management International website.

Another example is the dramatic restoration of denuded rainforest in
Borneo after only six years: “Planting finishes this year [2008], but
already [Willie] Smits [the Indonesian forestry expert who led the
replanting] and his team from the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation
charity claim the forest is ‘mature’, with trees up to 35 metres high.
Cloud cover has increased by 12 per cent, rainfall by a quarter, and
temperatures have dropped 3-5°C, helping people and wildlife to
thrive, says Smits. Nine species of primate have also returned,
including the threatened orangutans. ‘If you walk there now, 116 bird
species have found a place to live, there are more than 30 types of
mammal, insects are there. The whole system is coming to life. I knew
what I was trying to do, but the force of nature has totally surprised
me. ... The place became the scene of an ecological miracle, a
fairytale come true,’ says Smits, who has written a book about the

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Broad Formation Mounts Mobilization for G-20 Summit Fight Over First Amendment Rights Ensues

Pittsburgh, PA – Since learning of White House plans to hold the next G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh on September 24-25, scores of activists and organizations from multiple sectors of society have been quickly gearing up for a mobilization. They are simultaneously fighting to safeguard their right to free speech and assembly. The mobilization is expected to be the largest expression of political dissent in Pittsburgh in more than a generation.

“Anyone who has lost a job, a home, a loved one to war, or lived without adequate healthcare, water, or food has been directly affected by policies set by the G-20,” says Jessica Benner of the Thomas Merton Center Antiwar Committee, which is organizing a “Peoples’ March to the G-20,” on Friday, Sept. 25.

An extraordinary array of groups from peace & justice, women’s, religious, environmental, Indigenous, African-American, anarchist and student movements – from Pittsburgh and around the globe – are planning marches, rallies, civil disobedience, direct action, educational forums and “tent cities.” (See attached summary of events.)

“Our week-long tent city will represent the millions of refugees who have been displaced by war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza, and for whom the G-20 turns a blind eye,” says Edith Bell, a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

As in recent summits and political conventions in the U.S., the Dept. of Homeland Security has claimed jurisdiction. The authorities are delaying or attempting to deny permits and proposing restrictions on free speech, while securing $18 million dollars for 4,000 police and weaponry as well as waging an information warfare campaign that equates protest with terrorism.

Organizers have launched a campaign to protect the public’s 1st amendment rights and have called on the Mayor and City Council to stand up to the Federal takeover of Pittsburgh. “We invite all those who believe in free speech and civil liberties to join us to fight for the right to demonstrate,” says Michelle Gaffey, a Duquesne University graduate student. “Free speech and dissent are the foundation of a democratic society.” Lawyers from the ACLU, Center for Constitutional Rights, and National Lawyers Guild are preparing lawsuits.

“The State’s attempt to suppress dissent calls to mind why we’re protesting in the first place,” says David Meieran of the 3 Rivers Climate Convergence, which is planning an environmental justice camp and protests focusing on the coal industry as the International Coal Conference directly precedes the G-20 Summit. “The closed-door G-20 Summits make policies that benefit corporations at the expense of people, democracy, and the planet.”

Future releases will contain updates around developing stories about the G-20 summit mobilization as keynote speakers are confirmed, organizations announce plans to mobilize, etc.

For more information visit

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Resist the Ninth Year of War on Afghanistan: Join Us on October 5 in DC

By Pete Perry
As the present co-convener of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, I want to invite and encourage you to join us again on the week the Afghanistan War will enter its 9th year of lost lives, lost hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and lost direction and morality. This is a war that cannot be won, yet the escalation continues. What are our troops fighting and dying for? Even President Karzai has said during his recent campaign that he wants to sit down at the negotiating table with the Taliban. It is time the war and occupation end, it is time to end indefinite detention at places like Bagram prison and begin the process of building p eace and rebuilding infrastructures.
Eight years ago on October 7, 2001, the U.S. and Britain invaded Afghanistan -- and the war on Afghanistan continues today, with President Obama, the “anti-war candidate,” increasing the number of troops. On Monday, October 5, 2009, the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance (NCNR), working with Witness Against Torture, Peace Action, The War Resisters League, Atlantic Life Community, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, and Veterans for Peace, will mark the anniversary and speak out against the war with direct action risking arrest at the White House.
On October 5th, we will gather at 10 AM at McPherson Square for a permitted rally and to hear lifelong war resister and widow of Phil Berrigan, Liz McAlister. From McPherson, we will march to Pennsylvania Avenue. Around noon, the various affinity groups will visit the White House calling for withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and demand an ending of the illegal bombing in Pakistan with US drones and other forms of violence, the closing of the Bagram prison, and an ending to indefinite detention and torture. We are calling for an end to these wars and occupations, including that of Iraq, so that our resources can be used for life-sustaining actions including the funding and the rebuilding of Afghanistan’s and Iraq's infrastructure and medical assistance to Afghans and Iraqis, in addition to poverty reduction programs in the United States and world wide. We are also calling for accountability for those who have committed war crimes.
The White House action is a key component of a number of complimentary actions planned for October.
For more information: or
To sign up:
For the latest death toll:
For other events and an ongoing campaign:
In Peace and Resistance,
Pete Perry
Co-Convener, NCNR