Here Be Dragons


The Long Read – New Philosopher Writers’ Award XXVIII:

Here be dragons. These words were written on old maps that contained uncharted territory where dangerous serpents possibly lay in wait. They served as a warning to the map’s original users, indicating the end of the known world and, as a flourish by the drawers, marked the dangers of going too far.

Today’s dragons lurk at the edges of nine planetary boundaries identified by Johan Rockstrom and a renowned team of researchers. Knowledge of these boundaries is vital but in itself may have limited impact in changing our behaviour. It does not provide solutions. Knowing there is a boundary we should not cross is often an invitation to get as close to the edge as we think we can go. We have already strayed beyond four of these boundaries: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (an indicator for climate change), the extinction rate (an indicator for loss of biodiversity), deforestation, and nitrogen and phosphorus flows. How much longer can we continue to exceed any one before large, irreversible changes become unavoidable? We don’t really know.

Climate change and loss of biodiversity are first among these existential red lines, as the two core boundaries are connected to all the rest. Either one can drive the Earth system into a new state. Climate change plays its part in devastating the web of life that in turn is fundamental to absorbing greenhouse gases. We cannot reduce biodiversity loss without mitigating climate change, and we cannot mitigate climate change without reducing biodiversity loss.

What can we do about our current predicament? The good news is that the systemic change needed requires leadership at all levels. However, too much emphasis has been placed on us as consumers and not enough on us as citizens. It turns out that we have much more impact collectively if we engage fully in civic life.

We are building cities for over two billion more people during the next thirty years. This urban momentum is potentially earth-shattering. However, one of the biggest causes of our planetary overshoot – the urbanisation of humanity – is potentially one of the most effective solutions. Cities are integral to a revised narrative of growing deeper roots locally to address global challenges: mending the broken link between people and places is the path to a sustainable future.

This shift in outlook from passive participants in a national agenda to protagonists in our own story is propelled by the irreversible mega trends of increasing urbanisation, devolution and empowerment. As modern societies steer away from government towards governance, and from hierarchical control to co-operative networks, power is inexorably shifting from being concentrated in the past to becoming diffuse in the future. The locus is where citizens live.

Why does so much latent civic power turn into nothing? One story of Nasreddin, a satirical wise man from the thirteenth century, tells of the time when he lost a precious ring. When his wife asks why he is searching for the ring outside when he lost it in his room, he replies that the room is too dark to see and the light is much better outside. In looking for answers to the climate crisis we act like Nasreddin and search in the more convenient places. Turning away from civicism, we look instead towards technology, global solutions and large corporations.

We have a chronic habit of expecting technology to solve non-technical problems, from obesity (“Let’s use sensors to help consumers track their activity levels!”) to education equality (“Let’s have iPads in every classroom!”) to climate change (“Let’s suck carbon dioxide out of the air!”). Grandiose geo-engineering ideas – such as reflecting more sunlight back into space or fertilising the oceans to increase absorption of atmospheric carbon – ignore the fact that the biosphere is a participant and not just a responder in whatever we do, with its own emergent properties we cannot predict.

Today, the likes of Alphabet’s secretive research lab X (formerly Google X) are seeking technology solutions to some of society’s bigger problems. But wait and look again. What if this direction is missing the mark because taking action on climate change is not fundamentally a technical problem? What if the moonshot thinking we really need does not sound like science-fiction but instead has a more human narrative with the power to dispel the myths that lock in our collective behaviour? Technology is an enabler for something bigger that is civic led.

Another favourite is to look for a global solution to a global problem. This is a logical fallacy as, to paraphrase Albert Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking that created them. There is a natural limit to all organisations and forms of governance, a certain size and relative proportion that facilitates proper social, economic and civic functioning. The political thinker Leopold Kohr claimed that our problems are not caused by a political system per se, but by building the system beyond the human scale. Individuals can no longer play a meaningful role in the society that shapes their lives. In other words, the problem is not the thing that is big, but bigness itself.

The cult of bigness holds sway over our thinking on climate action. The UN’s global climate change conference is no exception, where international partners are charged with working together on an ambitious roadmap for global climate action. The appeal is clear enough: we don’t need to do anything locally until strong policy action at the super-national level has been decided. Such thinking is not merely a distraction; it is a moral hazard.

The notion of a global plan seems palatable until we dig deeper and understand the kinds of actions that could be imposed from above. Messrs Randers and Gilding drafted “The One Degree War Plan” with concrete steps that global society would need to take to keep global warming below 1°C over pre-industrial levels. In the first five years alone, the plan calls for cutting deforestation and other logging by fifty percent; closing 1,000 dirty coal power plants; rationing electricity and cars that run on fossil fuels; building a wind turbine or solar plant in every town; stranding half of the world’s aircraft; moving away from climate unfriendly protein, and more. You get the picture. What is most striking is the dissonance between talk of a global roadmap and the nationalist rhetoric of populists across the globe. We are looking in the wrong place again: implementing local change everywhere is not the same as implementing global change. It starts with people on the ground, not politicians or policies.

Large corporations are a third place to look and, in particular, at one hundred companies that have been responsible for over seventy percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions since 1998. One third of these emissions come from public investor-owned companies (Exxon Mobil, Shell, etc) and over half can be traced back to just twenty-five state companies and entities (China Coal, Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, Pemex, Russia Coal, etc). This must be the place!

However, the emissions directly produced by these oil, gas, and coal companies amount to about ten percent of fossil fuel emissions: ninety percent are from their products. It’s the consumers that produce most of the carbon dioxide from these fuels – other corporations, airlines, shipping lines, households, utilities. The emissions and the responsibility for them are distributed more than we care to admit.

In a report on Cities and Climate Change, the World Bank looked at the combined clout of the fifty largest cities in the world. In total, the GDP of these cities ranked second in the world compared with countries, ahead of such nation states as China, India and Germany. Together, these fifty cities also emitted more greenhouse gases than any other nation in the world except the USA and China. As citizens (in the literal sense, as inhabitants of a particular place) our focus should be on places, where we can make change happen through collective responsibility.

Cascading our learning and actions across hundreds of towns and cities mimics nature’s genius for encouraging diversity and multiplicity. Each place is a unique combination of the same universal elements, and so different solutions to common climate challenges multiply. Instead of national goals consolidated on a gigantic scale, civic goals are intensely local and diverse. The power of proliferation is two-fold: where local initiatives succeed, the solutions are quickly copied and adapted; where they fail, they do so on a manageable scale with a multitude of backups already established.

Humanity pushes further into the uncharted territory beyond our planetary boundaries at its peril. Dragons are there that we cannot slay or tame. Meaningful climate action today does not wait for technology innovators or national politicians or captains of industry to chart a new course. It happens much closer to home. It is civic led, people powered and place based.

Our future will not be conceived or implemented as a single, super-national plan; it will be invented piecemeal by different communities in multiple local areas. The only place where you are truly needed is in the town or city you call home. This has always been the starting point for our collective climate action and nowhere else.

If you enjoyed this long read, then please listen to ‘Civic Revolution’; a new three-part audiobook – hosted by the Carbon Copy Podcast – about the power of belonging and collective action. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts!

Part 1 – Jeopardy

Part 2 – Opportunity

Part 3 – Connection

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