Jess Berentson-Shaw: It’s never too late for climate protection



Every time a different climate limit is crossed without action being taken at the scale or speed we need, people feel that any action has become pointless. Jess Berentson-Shaw explores how we can avoid fatalistic, short-term thinking.

In the intervals between the feeling of helplessness that another Monday is approaching me and I have no idea what I’m going to cook for the children for dinner, or the question of whether I can manage the mountain of project tasks this week or whether this strange headache is me have had something more sinister for a few days (and maybe I should have income insurance right?), I’m worried about the destruction of our biosphere. This remarkable veil of complex systems that sustains our life on this planet.

Pasta two nights in a row? Or the rapid decline of our life support system. Ha.

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I do not miss the ridiculousness of commuting between the everyday worries that characterize parenting, work and aging, and the somewhat less everyday worries about the existential crisis that threats to our life system have brought with them. Although I think even in a crisis someone has to walk the supermarket and hang up school uniforms.

Helpless. Yes that is the word. That’s the feeling when I look at the people who have the power to make the biggest difference without redesigning our systems. I also find it angry that those who claim to be pragmatic, responsible managers and executives do not responsibly get out of the paper bag when we face our greatest challenge. That they always fall back on small and less courageous optimizations on the edge of a failed system. Worse still, some of them still spend time arguing whether the problem is even real and whether action could “harm the economy”. This answer fails particularly on the most basic tests of common sense: there is literally no economy without a functioning biosphere.

And as I get to the end of this paragraph, I am angry now. Very angry. As we say in our house, there are some great emotions.

So in all this helplessness and anger, where is there room for hope? Where does hope live between everyday worries and existential threats? Because we need hope, shit, we need it. To come together and act. To do something is possible what we know can to do.

Draw hope from Covid-19

Lately, some hope has crept in from an unlikely source: Covid-19. Ironically, actually, as it is the mess we made in our natural systems that created the pandemic in the first place (destruction of animal habitats and ecosystems to build patio furniture; overpopulation of farms to improve short-term yields; wild and domestic cramming animals together and making them sick – and consuming them at the same time in large numbers because this is a “productive food system” – creates the optimal conditions for animal diseases such as Covid-19 to spread to humans.)

Where was I? Oh yes, hope and deeds from Covid-19.

In our Covid-19 response, I saw people do three things that we also need to do to clean up our ecological chaos. They were not done consistently or without problems. But the fact that they were even made gives me the feeling that we can react to the climate.

  1. Some political leaders (and their representatives) have acted to follow the best of evidence, even after previous inaction or insufficient – or nonsense – action seriously clogged things up with their Covid-19 response. Other countries that used to act effectively, like China and us, also made mistakes. Still, they changed tact, refocused, reset, and responded when needed. We can draw hope from this “never too late to act” approach.

  2. People from all communities including business, research, and government have done so all the things (or at least many of them). Covid-19 would never be overcome with just one vaccination (and it still won’t get the mutations that make it much more contagious). It is slowly overcome by doing all the things. From personal to collective. Hand washing, social distancing, border closings, contact tracing, and vaccinations. With the technology in place, we had evidence that it would work, apply it to a new challenge, make people collaborate across borders, and collaborate between business, government, and research. By no means perfect here either, but pragmatism is rare.

  3. People have used the power of the collective to influence better responses to Covid-19. People in government have been pushed into action (albeit imperfectly) by people who banded together to work to do better for the people with the greatest needs. Be it equitable access to vaccines for people in the global south or ensuring that those at greater risk from the effects of Covid-19 are vaccinated first. People are connected to one another and to our planetary systems, it makes sense that we approach our major challenges in a networked manner.

We can apply these three Covid-19 responses to environmental measures

Take a posture that is never too late

The interconnected climate and environmental crises are urgent. The best time to act was 50 years ago, 20 years ago, yesterday. And those decades have passed without action in the manner that would be most effective in both reversing the damage and creating a whole new set of systems. Previous actions would also have made it a lot easier to adjust our way of life: changes made yesterday are easier than tomorrow’s and so on.

Since we have failed to act, we have moved at a pace towards much more serious harm. What science is now suggesting is that significant damage to one type of life sustaining ecosystem is going to have a knock-on effect – it’s going to set off a chain reaction that leads to the collapse of other ecosystems – it’s a hell of a scary reality. So many lines have been drawn in the sand to help us act and prevent these “tipping points”. Many have passed. We have crossed many planetary boundaries, passed certain temperature points. It’s important, really important, that we know the risks of not acting, but the line in the sand also means that every time another line is crossed without acting at the rate or pace we need Making people feel like acting has now become pointless. Such fatalistic thinking is deadly.

We need a new narrative that tells people that there is never any point in taking action. This earlier action will mitigate more serious effects, but we can improve the situation at any point in time through action. Climate change is like a chronic disease. Act early and the long-term benefits are much greater than acting late, but acting late is still beneficial compared to not acting at all, no matter how much we screwed up. This is especially important when we focus on the needs and hopes of the next generations.

To do all the things

The next pragmatic thing we need to do is move on from limited cost-effectiveness analysis and other “return on investment” models to try to predict the payoffs of trading. The attempt to use decision-making models that are not suitable for saving the entire life-sustaining biosphere of the planet is long gone. Good for deciding which technocratic tweak we need for a social or financial policy – totally ridiculous for dealing with the collapse of multiple ecosystems.

Now is the time to capitalize on the knowledge we have about harm reduction and alternative lifestyles and apply them in new ways without being constrained by short term return thinking. Experimenting a lot and bravely and hoping as hell that some of it works. This means that people rise in politics and move beyond short-term political amortization thinking and talking and pushing themselves into planning and talking about intergenerational collective returns across the board. Some of which we still have no idea how to predict or measure. Less risky than the status quo thinking and acting in the current scheme of things. Simply the pragmatic and responsible thing.

Create strategic moves across multiple settings.

It makes little sense to act as individuals unrelated to others, for example hoping that we can buy a way out of it, or just continuing to work in our own little areas, shouting on the internet (or in comments), makes little sense . If collective external pressure acts on people in power, then we need a broad and broad base of different people from all settings and institutions. We need to revive collective movements.

Having a broad base of collectively acting people in their own areas of expertise enables more effective movements. For example, a collective movement of people in the construction industry may act to take advantage of building systems while a movement of people in the media understands our information and narrative environment. Nobody can do this work alone, not if the status quo bias sticks to existing systems. The lawyers get it by using their collective power to take legal action.

In addition, people gain a sense of hope and effectiveness when we see how people act together in relation to climate and the environment to the extent and at the level that we know is necessary for this challenge. Nothing is more daunting than to learn that a different type of grocery bag will save the biosphere. What is empowering is to see a group of lawyers from different countries use their skills and positions to sue people in their governments for doing better.

There is something to be hoped for even if there is pasta for dinner again.

Are we getting our answer right the first, second, or third time? No way. We will get through this, make mistakes, and suffer setbacks and failures. But we will do it because common sense and responsibility will prevail. When COVID-19 shows us something, it shows us that we are able to roll up our sleeves and respond to problems in our own creation.

Interesting reading and listening

Ministry for the Future: Kim Stanley Robinson

The questions podcast on geoengineering

Mission-oriented innovation


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