Transforming social movements for promoting long-term global and local sustainability

The book Crisis of Global Sustainability concludes in Chapter 9 that environmentalists, many scientists, and other scholars have spoken for a long time about an impending runaway climate change, the most urgent global issue that needs to be addressed by politicians, corporate leaders, and consumers. A good proportion of media and civil society actors, as well some statesmen, green politicians and businessmen, have become concerned about our planetary future as well. But the book concludes that the combined voice of the above forces has so far been too weak to move mainstream politicians, corporations and institutions for a radical change on a world scale.

Environmental NGOs were very active before the Copenhagen climate conference in 2007-2009, but the movement lost steam after a global deal was not reached. A new phenomenon is the protests in the developed world against austerity measures, socio-economic conditions, and inequality, in addition to food riots in the developing world. But the book concludes that a global emergency has not yet been embraced by social movements, mostly consisting of young people—although they will be the true victims of any future crises. So far proposals for a major change come from the older generation. Some 18 eminent scientists and scholars described the situation in early 2012:

Considering the stakes involved, it is disquieting that young people have not become more involved in the planet’s future and more insistent on intergenerational justice. The tentative efforts to pursue legal redress, for which our present paper provides scientific rational and qualification, are an effort of adults on behalf of young people…College-educated youth are equipped to understand the predicament and articulate their case, but their numbers so far have been too modest for their voice to compete against special financial interests.

The book Crisis of Global Sustainability says that the situation should change as young people become the decision-makers of the future. Understanding a global emergency and solving it at all levels—local, national, and regional, as well as global—would be the natural outcome of the evolution of the above-mentioned social forces, as long as they gradually move toward a shared agenda. Solving future global threats will require a bottom-up process. The Club of Rome that is described in detail in Chapter 1 of the book, was originally a non-organization—a network of people thinking and acting together, without bureaucracy, but with certain overarching concerns in mind and a determination, even a passion, to do good, finding solutions benefitting us all. And although small in number, they were able to achieve a lot, as described in the book. This kind of idealism could spread more widely and motivate various movements, initiatives, and projects taking place at a grassroots level but also inspire the younger generation working in international, governmental, national or local organizations as well as in the private sector.

The book Crisis of Global Sustainability focuses on creating new types of organizations and networking as tools for change as well stressing that voluntary coordination of action at all levels is another key ingredient for success. Using new methods of communication—mobile and smart phones, the Internet—could provide rapidly advancing technologies, tools, and platforms for change.

Proposed global and regional institutions—such as the Global Crisis Network (GlobCriNet), discussed in Chapter 8 of the book—have not yet been instituted. GlobCriNet should ideally be connected to village- and city-based sustainability centers or similar virtual initiatives that could be established at any time as further elaborated and discussed in this blog. Although we need new institutions, we also need people who think differently than those in past generations. Each individual could find his or her contribution at one or more levels. But all actions should ideally have a cumulative impact contributing towards a common and shared goal.

In a presentation at the Royal Society of Arts/Baltic Sea Region, on 6 February 2012 in Helsinki, Tapio Kanninen, the author of Crisis of Global Sustainability, concluded his talk with the following suggestions regarding the future and the role of social movements in shaping that future:

  • The globe will soon hit its limits, or has done so already, as the policies of governments and corporations have not changed much over the last decades
  • Early warning was given already some 40 years ago, e.g. in the “The Limits to Growth” study presented to the Club of Rome, and recent scholarly articles have reassessed that its projections were largely accurate
  • Some scholars are pessimistic, like James Lovelock, that no major policy change will come – and some are hopeful like Paul Gilding but in his view we need a Pearl Harbor moment, an event of the magnitude of Hitler’s invasion to Poland to really awaken humanity to the severity of the crisis
  • I believe the youth are the real victims of future crises – and using the social media will be the key; the “Occupy Wall Street” movement changed the presidential debate in the US in a matter of weeks – things can really change quickly
  • Occupy Wall Street and similar social movements should in my view refocus their ideology on the survival of the human race and enlarge the scope of their activities to embrace environmental and climate change action, in a peaceful way
  • Initiating green projects at the grassroots level is also essential as well as networking throughout the world.

Some leading climate scientists like James Hansen are convinced that with “business-as-usual” trends that both the governments and corporations alike are pursuing, a global sea-level rise would reach some 5 meters (18 feet) within a century or so (see Hansen’s March 2012 TED talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWInyaMWBY8 ). In Chapter 5 of Crisis of Global Sustainability a former Shell executive and the head of the climate change panel established by the Australian Federal Government, Ian Dunlop, cited even higher estimates for sea-level rise. If this kind of sea-level rise does take place, coastal cities like New York, London, Tokyo and Shanghai would be potentially wiped out as estimated by Dunlop. Increased monster storms with higher intensity and other environmental calamities would precede that kind of sea-level rise. For social movements the key question should no longer be how long to occupy Wall Street but – as Wall Street in New York is next to the ocean – how to save them together with numerous other communities from ultimate destruction, and this might indeed need a fundamental business change in Wall Street. The hurricane and tropical storm Sandy, in late October 2012, showed how vulnerable Wall Street, New York and the whole coastal area of the US really are to climate change and extreme weather.

So far this issue has been a taboo subject, unthinkable and too distant in the future, but with many failures in official climate change talks (discussed in Chapter 4 of the book) this is becoming a rapidly approaching reality which will affect the generation in their 20s and 30s and certainly their children. As governments of the disappearing generation would not wish to acknowledge the implications of their decisions, it is high time that the true victims of such a sea-level rise – the youth , students and people at the beginnings of their careers and working lives – started to act and mobilize themselves.

What could be done? Concrete action now:

An American talk show host, David Letterman, asked James Hansen in December 2009 why the young people are not demonstrating on the streets to get governments to change the course of climate change talks as they did during the Vietnam War (see the interview at http://angrybirdsmission.com/video/KiJJgC7B_KY/James-Hansen-on-David-Letterman.html ). The answer was that at that time the Draft (compulsory enrollment for military service) made the war a very concrete phenomenon to all American families. But a sea-level rise of 5 meters or more will affect your life and your children’s lives very concretely as well – as concretely as the Draft. Those living on higher ground will also be affected, as the people in lower areas will migrate to higher-altitude areas. So here’s what you can do:

1. Start spreading awareness of the potential sea-level rise (see Chapter 5 in the book). If you listen to the above TED talk by Hansen, you’ll see a map of Florida after the 5 meter sea-level rise – half covered by water. Create your own map of your community if you are located close to the sea and post it on the Internet and on social media. Ask advice from specialists how to create such a map or create a study group on the matter. Maps could be for different sea-level rises of 2-3 meters, 4-5 meters, 6-7 meters and so on.

2. Create a “Sea-level tracker” like the “Climate active Scoreboard” that is tracking success in climate change negotiations (see http://climateinteractive.org/scoreboard; see also the entry in this blog on games). If climate change talks and following commitments succeed (or do not succeed) to limit the world temperature rise to 2°C, 3°C or 4°C, what kind of sea-level rise would this mean according to the latest science? Then transform the results for your community.

3. Ask how your community authorities are prepared for different levels of sea-level rise. Do they have contingency plans?
If you have other ideas on how “Occupy Wall Street” and other social movements could be transformed from a short-term focus of inequality to longer-term concerns for the survival of the human race, write to this blog, post it on your own blog or become otherwise socially active to promote the idea.

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