I will never forget my friend Justin giving me a copy of No Logo to read. It was in my second year at university, and suddenly here was the young activist’s bible. I must admit that even though Justin gave me the book in my second year, I only finished it 3 years later in 2002 while on my travels around South East Asia. Why? Perhaps because there was no telly in the jungle.
She was a hero for a generation of activists, and now Naomi is back and talking fossil fuels and climate change.
This Changes Everything is her take on the environmental crisis that for many of us is the most pressing concern of our times. In her live talk for the Guardian on Monday she showed her mental agility, discussing this complex area with her trademark subtlety and breadth of knowledge.
During the talk she highlighted the challenges of dealing with this international problem in ways I haven’t often heard the mainstream media tackle or truly understand. Having worked in the environmental sector for 8 years, these ideas became second nature to me, but I often debated with my colleagues whether people outside the eco-bubble would understand them. I’ll try and sum them up! And naturally refer you to her talk, articles and book for a better analysis.
Production vs Consumption
The talk featured the you-go-first stand-off between the Europe, US and China. It’s often argued that in Europe our emissions are so low that there is no point bothering to do anything about them, because in the global context it won’t make much difference.
However, is it really fair to measure our emissions in terms of the amount that we produce on home soil in a globalised economy? Many of the goods that China and other developing countries produce are exported to UK consumers and companies. Shouldn’t we take responsibility for our consumption?
This is why many environmentalists argue for a consumption-based model of calculating country-wide carbon emissions.
We also have a much smaller population, which is why our emissions are so low, so to further level the playing field, carbon footprints are often measured per person.
This more fair way of measuring carbon emissions puts the UK on 11 tonnes of carbon per person; US consumption is 19 tonnes of carbon per person; China is 4.5 tonnes. A sustainable level, if current populations trends continue, is 1 tonne per person. As Naomi said at the start of her talk, this puts us at the forefront of bearing responsibility and showing leadership in changing the way we live.
The Procrastination Principle
Naomi talked about the latest science coming from outfits like the Tyndall Centre in the UK, which helps to understand why all that procrastinating since the Kyoto talks in 1997 has been such a big deal.
Leading think tanks and academics have modelled that, in the most generous scenario, we need to cut carbon emissions by 25 to 35% by 2020 and 80 to 90% by 2050 to stay within a 2 degree temperature rise (any more and we will seriously struggle to adapt). This has also been modelled as us needing to stay under 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere.
Unfortunately global carbon emissions have risen every single year since 1997. This not only makes the target harder to reach, because the speed at which we now have to change is phenomenal (we now have to cut carbon by around 8% a year); the more we delay, the bigger the problem we have to deal with.
I find the procrastination principle tricky to explain. I remember my ex-colleague and carbon expert Jane saying, it’s the area under the graph that counts. But rather than bending your mind with charts and stats (not that Jane bent my mind), let me turn to an analogy borrowed from my friend Sam.
Imagine you want to keep a bath’s water at a certain level, the tap is running and the plug is out, so water is flowing in and out of the bath. At the moment the water is coming into the bath faster than it drains out, so it’s filling up and some point soon will overflow.
Now, do you think, "I know I need to do something about this but I’ll just have a cup of tea first"? Well you could do, but do you want a flooded bathroom? No - most people would turn the tap down as soon as they could.
In our analogy, the running tap is our human-based carbon emissions and the open plug draining out is the earth’s ability to absorb carbon back into seas, soils and trees. The longer we wait, the greater the risk of the climate spinning out of control, causing unpredictable and perhaps irreversible damage.
Make sense? Hope so!
Just in case it doesn't here is a video illustrating the bath analogy!
If you understand this, you’ll see why Naomi says This Changes Everything. We have to stop finding excuses to put climate change at the bottom of our to-do list - it doesn't matter if we need to also worry about massive problems ISIS, Ebola or a global recession, we have to stop procrastinating on climate change.
This can all sound a bit bleak. When you are bombarded with doom and gloom stories, like the one last week about 35,000 walruses stranded on an island, how does it make us feel? We’re only human and this can stir up bad emotions and sometimes even despair. What sort of world are we going to leave our children?
It’s easy to be overwhelmed and not know what to do.
This is why it’s so important to be part of a grass-roots movement like Transition Town.
Naomi talked about her admiration of Transition Towns, their ability to tackle the emotional aspects of facing climate chaos. Events like film screenings can educate, but the most import thing is to get people talking, get people sharing ideas and discussing what this means, and doing something positive in our communities.
Perhaps our contribution to this global problem is small, but the essential factor is that we haven’t given up, we’re showing that things can be done. Our projects can inspire people to value nature and community, and be ready to face the challenges of the future together.
No Logo questioned consumerism and showed us that there is a different, ethical way to live that doesn't exploit people. This time Naomi Klein is talking about the status quo lifestyle of consuming more and more being incompatible with respecting and protecting the natural world. Climate change is one side of the coin, but deforestation, biodiversity loss, and pollution are all consequences of our unsustainable rate of growth.
I’m sure not everyone in the Transition Town would agree with Naomi’s prescription of more public ownership of our economy, but what she also argues for is a mass movement; a collection of people that acknowledge that there is a different, successful, hopeful alternative future and that is us!
Transition Towns offer hope, that a community can come together, know each other, trust each other, be resilient and do our bit to cut our carbon and change the way we live.
The talk left me feeling reinvigorated and ready to get on with it!