human rights media

Remembering what matters

I closed yesterday’s post with a series of questions about what matters, about what kind of a world we are creating and who we are serving. I was interested to read a similar from George Monbiot today. This is from the new introduction to his personal website:

While my opinions about particular issues have changed and become more complex, my underlying principles have not. These are that we should stand up for the victims, whoever they might be, and against the aggressors, whoever they might be. We should defend the poor against the rich, the powerless against the powerful, the defenceless against the armed. We should defend the biosphere that gives us life: both because it is wonderful and because those of us who possess agency (who are alive today and have money) have no right to deprive others (who are not yet born or who are poor) of their means of survival. We must treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

None of these aims can be passively achieved. All involve confrontation. Among other forms of conflict, they require confrontation with denial – our own and other people’s – and with the falsehoods of those who possess power.


  1. Here;s an interesting piece i found about George Monbiot on Peak Oil. It is from 07 so perhaps his views have become more “complex” on the topic of peak oil since then.

    This could really be relevant on either the “Why i write about Climate Change” thread and the Transition town topic, as well as the “Peak Oil” thread.

    The threat of Peak Oil seems to be a prime motivator for the Transition Town Movement.

    Another interesting concept is the local currency.

    ” I’m not sure if you are aware, but with your Totnes Pound you seem to have reinvented Stamp Scrip, first pioneered by Silvio Gessell in Austria in the late 1920s, which was incredibly effective at revitalising local economies which were more or less completely finished at the time.”

    With the EU experiment of a single currency, multi-national free trade zone under pressure. The idea of going back to national or even local currency as a means of insulating your self from the economic illness of the larger body. Almost like a quarantine.

    How will these conflicting ideas square? A massive multi national single currency free trade zone vs the local micro-economy.

  2. Yes, an interesting address. Peak oil is the short term scare that could lead us into “solutions” that are the worst possible options on the climate front. As I understand it, the Transition Movement combines peak oil and climate concerns with more or less equal intensity. But of course, there is much variety in the movement (as you would expect in a deliberately de-centralised grassroots localist organisation) and some places will place greater emphasis on one or other of these problems. In many ways, there are large areas of overlap in how to respond to them, but in certain places (like tar sands and non-conventional fossil fuels more generally) they are directly opposed.

    Monbiot’s more recent views on peak oil are indeed more complex than this five minute clip can illustrate. Some of his more recent pieces are here.

    1. Transition Towns was initially started as a response to peak oil, climate change was added afterwards, and groups are now recognising that they can tackle economic recessions too. It’s about building community resilience, which leaves you better prepared for any problem. I think it’s vital that peak oil and climate change are addressed together, as it doubles the reasons for action. If you don’t keep both in mind, you end up with solutions to one that make the other worse, like tar sands.

  3. BTW, one thing I appreciate about Monbiot is that he is an excellent communicator and the quote in the post above is a good example.

    Though I am fairly sure he is not a believer, the ethical principles he outlines are deeply shaped by the Christian message and the above passage would be quite unsurprising in a sermon. (Perhaps I might even steal it myself one day for one.)

  4. Although I disagree with him about the dangers of both climate change and “peak oil”, I wholeheartedly agree with Monbiot’s underlying principles. Yes, they involve confrontation with denial and falsehood. But my interpretation of these evils is rather different from his.

    I also agree with you, Jeremy, about building community resilience – and especially the need to be prepared for any problem. But, as I keep saying, that means facing reality. And most especially facing the harsh reality that humanity is doing nothing to “address” climate change, assuming that means ensuring an urgent and substantial reduction in GHG emissions. This article puts it well:

    Four extracts:

    “ … over the past decade, Vietnam’s carbon dioxide emissions grew by 136%. And Vietnam’s explosive growth looks like it will continue for years to come. Indeed, the country … stands as a proxy for many of the countries in the developing world. And as those countries grow their economies, their energy use, and their carbon dioxide emissions, the hope for any hard cap – or tax – on carbon becomes ever more remote.”

    “ … Vietnam’s huge appetite for energy is part of an ongoing surge in the developing world to escape energy poverty. Vietnam represents a whole class of fast-growing, populous countries where energy use is growing ferociously and that’s resulting in more carbon dioxide emissions – 33.1 trillion tons in 2010 alone, an increase of 28% over 2001 numbers.”

    “Coal use is soaring. Over the past decade, global coal use is up 47%. That’s faster growth than what was seen in electricity generation (up 36%), natural gas use (up 30%), and oil consumption (up 13%). Environmentalists around the world love to vilify coal. But for countries like Vietnam, Pakistan, China, and others, coal keeps the lights on.”

    “Since 2001, global energy use is up by 27% and carbon dioxide emissions are up 28%. … Energy use is soaring as more people from Hanoi to Hangzhou move into the modern world. And that means that huge cuts in carbon dioxide emissions … simply will not happen. Like it or not, the world economy runs on hydrocarbons … And that will remain true for many decades to come. Countries like Vietnam, China, and India, will never agree to any tax or limit on carbon dioxide.”

    Perhaps a Transition Hanoi is needed?

        1. Hmm … it might help to create some nice vegetable gardens (with useful tips re compost etc.). But I rather doubt if it would make much of a dent in those burgeoning CO2 emissions.

      1. Is this not exactly the form living they are transiting away from? The crushing poverty of an agrarian lifestyle?

  5. You both deny peak oil, so it’s irrelevant to you, but think about it. You’re a country that is not yet “developed” enough to have a crushing fossil fuel addiction. Do you acquire one just in time for high oil prices to stunt your economic growth, or do you leapfrog fossil fuels and create a sustainable infrastructure first time round? You build a rail network instead of highways, and solar thermal instead of gas power plants. Plenty that a Transition initiative could do.
    But there’s no point arguing about solutions with you, since you don’t accept the problems.

    1. Again, as so often, you’ve missed my point. It may well be that Vietnam – and all of Southeast Asia – is making a terrible mistake. I’m not arguing here for or against that. What I’m pointing out is the fact that this part of the world, together with the rest of the developing world, is rapidly expanding its GHG emissions. As a direct result, global emissions continue to increase. That fact is continually ignored by those in the West who keep pretending that “we” (i.e. Humanity) are/is interested in “fighting climate change”. And BTW the bulk of that increase comes from coal (up 47% over the past decade) not oil (up 13%).

      Maybe it would be a wonderful thing if the developing economies were to leapfrog fossil fuels – build rail networks not roads and instal solar not gas power plants. But the reality is that they plainly have no interest in doing so. Would a Transition Town movement make a difference? Well, I suppose it might if it were a massively powerful influence with the ability to rewrite established policy and get governments to take the huge step of changing course from fossil fuel dependence to a vast new infrastructure. To achieve that it would have to be a very powerful political force.

      But a “bottom up” organisation based on permaculture and interested, in particular, in the creation of community gardens, recycling, repairing instead of throwing away and “raising awareness” of “sustainable” living and local resilience is as far removed from being a powerful political force (especially in Southeast Asia) as the boy scout movement.

    2. Peak oil is not peak energy. Markets react to price increases by naturaly seeking alternate sources and solutions.

      You just highlighted the problem with a centraly planned reaction to higher energy costs. The Alternatives you mandated are not cost effective or reliable. You made poor choices that could have been made better, by the millions of individual minds solving their own micro problems, all with a vested self interest in survival. Economic darwanisim if you will. The ideas that work will survive and be passed on to others, the ideas that fail will not. It’s how markets work.

        1. A highway network is not an example of a centrally planned reaction to a comodity shortage. I’m not sure how roads are built and maintained in the UK, but here the construction and maintenience work is done by tender. Private corporationsrun by self-interested individual minds bid on these. It’s been found that private enterprise is much more flexible and cost effective than government.

          Self-interested individual minds did pick the most effective means of utilising those highways. The first cars were three competing visions. Steam, Electric and Benzine.

          Today we have many more competing visions, letting the hive mind of the market decide which is best through experimentation instead of some bureaucrat picking a winner, is always preferable. The government always seems to pick stinkers like the Volt.

          1. And who chose to build the highways, plan them, and commission those tenders from private construction companies? Millions of people making their own self-interested decisions works for which gas station you use or which car you drive. It doesn’t work for infrastructure.

  6. If a terrible mistake is being made, than anything that speaks the truth and attempts to re-direct society is worthwhile. And Transition Towns are, as the name would suggest, about transitioning away from fossil fuels. If there’s a handful of you in a village, then community gardens might be the extent of your reach. But let’s not forget that the UK has nationwide ‘low carbon transition plan’. It’s not without a voice on the bigger stage.

    1. It would need more than a “bigger voice” to get the Southeast Asian economies to make a total change of course – a course to which they are utterly committed. It would have to become an overwhelmingly powerful political force. It may be heartwarming to imagine that happening. But I’m afraid it’s ridiculous.

      1. I’m not for a second imagining it, you’re the one who brought it up. As I’ve said before, we (yes, we) need action at every level – government, community, business, families and individuals. Transition towns may or may not be a culturally relevant idea for Southeast Asia, but just because something isn’t the solution doesn’t mean it can’t be part of the solution.

        1. The trouble with that view is that the “we” (yes the we) in Southeast Asia doesn’t think there is any such need for any such action at any such level. They don’t think there is a problem. Therefore they’re not looking for a solution.

          1. Robin – I am as pessimistic as anyone about the likelihood of transformative political/economic change occurring in a timeframe relevant to avoid very significant disruptions from climate change. I realise that you don’t accept the premise of the problem, but if you did, what you suggest as a more realistic strategy?

            One of the things that I appreciate about the Transition Movement is that it also doesn’t assume that it is going to “succeed” at a global level. Sure, some parts of it are tinged with utopian optimism, but as a whole, my impression of the movement is that there is enough humility to recognise that it is not necessarily going to change the global geopolitical stage within a timeframe relevant to avoiding serious repercussions from peak oil and climate change (and peak debt, which is gaining more recognition in some parts of Transition). It is not putting all its eggs into the basket of attempting to achieve the impossible but is seeking to take some of the steps that are available at the local level to improve resilience for coming decades that may well prove considerably more “bumpy” than the last handful. When times turn tough, wouldn’t you rather be living in a neighbourhood where people already know and trust each other, and have already begun thinking about how to get along with less? I’m not claiming it is any kind of complete solution, far from it, but it is a worthwhile and appropriate step to take if you perceive plenty of dark clouds on the horizon.

          2. Thanks, Byron, for your thoughtful post. I may not accept your analysis of the problem but that doesn’t mean I don’t think that humanity faces significant risks in the twenty first century. Therefore, I hope you will not mind if I answer you by setting out – in the very broadest terms – the strategy I consider best suited to that. Interestingly enough, it’s probably precisely the strategy I would recommend if I were sure (as I assume you are) that we faced significant disruption from the effects of global warming.

            So what are the risks we face? Well, as I’ve said to Jeremy many times, we don’t know – any more than people in 1911 knew what risks they faced in the twentieth century. They may include climate change, brought about for example about by global warming or – far more worrying and, I suspect, just as likely – global cooling. They may include other natural disasters such as a massive earthquake or significant volcanic eruption – or even asteroid strike. Or perhaps we will have to deal with a major pandemic – or nuclear disaster, increased terrorism or economic collapse. Or some combination of some of these. No one knows: and a disaster may well be something totally unexpected.

            So, yes, there appear to be “dark clouds on the horizon”. And the only logical strategy is to prepare for the uncertain and for the unexpected – that, I believe, means developing Resilience and preparing for Adaptation. I accept incidentally that the Transition Movement has a part (in my view, a rather small part) to play in this – especially if it can shake off its white middle class, utopian, lefty, “green” image. But no more and probably less than other non-political community and special interest based voluntary and charitable groups that are already doing a great deal of practical and valuable work.

            Greater focus on and more support for such groups are in my view aspects of how should be preparing for uncertainty – especially at the local level. But more important is how countries should prepare for it at the national level – because it’s at the national level that the most can be done to strengthen the ability to adapt to and cope with whatever problems may be encountered. Here I think Southeast Asia has the right overall approach: its priority is, above all, to strengthen its economy and to do so on the foundation of strong, reliable energy supplies. We in the West should, in my view, adopt precisely that priority – again based on strong, reliable energy supplies. Of course, unlike the so-called developing world, the West is in a ghastly economic mess – so change will be painful and probably unpleasant. But that’s no reason for failing to do the right thing and to do it the right way.

            I could develop all this in much more detail. But I hope this very broad outline will suffice for now.

          3. Another factor in trying to convince people in the developing world to go hydrocarbon free is that they do not have the same romantic view of the agrarian life style we in the developed nations have. They know it is a hard, short and brutish life. They have not had several generations of utopian sugar coating applied.

            My grandparents began clearing land and farming by hand and with horses. They went to Caterpillar dozers and tractors as fast as they were able. I never heard them wax nostalgic about returning to the carbon fuel free, back breaking, unproductive, romantic past.

  7. Agreed, now show me where anyone was suggesting that the developing world should be fobbed off with an agrarian lifestyle. It certainly isn’t my view.

  8. “And who chose to build the highways, plan them, and commission those tenders from private construction companies? Millions of people making their own self-interested decisions works for which gas station you use or which car you drive. It doesn’t work for infrastructure.”

    I never claimed it would work for infrastucture. And once again your Highway System is in no way relevant to how a market reacts to a shortage of a particular comodity. You did touch on a good point though. The market will rapidly react to a shortage of F-150 pickups. They will seek alternatives without needing the Government to choose for them.

    “Agreed, now show me where anyone was suggesting that the developing world should be fobbed off with an agrarian lifestyle. It certainly isn’t my view.”

    Words of Transition movement leader Rob Hopkins: “The Transition response, where we prepare ourselves for life without oil and sacrifice our luxuries to build systems and communities that are completely independent of fossil fuels.”

    “Sacrifice our Luxuries”? Grow our own food and live without reliable power or transportation? Sounds pretty much like an agrarian utopia to me.

    The Transition movements holding up of Cuba as a shining example? A tough sell to people who just “Transitioned” away from energy poverty and still remember what it was like.

  9. Not what Hopkins is saying, and if it was, I suggest you take it up with him and don’t put words in my mouth. Remember you’re talking to a transition towns activist. I didn’t get involved to create an agrarian utopia.

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