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Fighting against ourselves

Fighting against ourselves

By George Monbiot

Ours is the luckiest generation of all that there has been and will be. We live in the brief historical interval between ecological violence and ecological catastrophe.

I want to take a moment to remind you of where we came from.

During the first three million years of human history, we lived according to circumstances. Our lives were governed by the coincidences of ecology. We lived, like all animals, in fear of hunger, predators, the weather, and disease.

Then, for a few thousand years, when we had understood the rudiments of agriculture and crop storage, we enjoyed greater food security, and we soon destroyed many of our non-human predators. But our lives were ruled by swords, axes, and spears. The main fight was for the land. We needed it not only to plant our crops but also to provide us with sources of energy (grass for our horses and oxen, wood for our fire).


Then we discovered fossil fuels and everything changed. We were no longer constrained by the need to live at the mercy of ambient energy; we could sustain ourselves by sunlight stored for 350 million years. New sources of energy allowed the economy to grow, enough to absorb some of the people driven out by the old land disputes. Fossil fuels allowed both industry and cities to expand, allowing workers to organize and force despots to lessen their abuse of power. Fossil fuels helped us fight wars of never-before-seen horror, but they also reduced the need for wars. For the first time in the history of mankind, even for the first time in the history of life, there was a surplus of energy available. We could survive without having to fight anyone for the energy we needed. Agricultural productivity increased 10 to 20 times. Economic productivity multiplied by 100. Most of us could live like no one had ever lived before.

And everything you see around you is the result of that. We have been able to gather here from all corners of the country thanks to fossil fuels. The rulers do not charge us a commission or restrict our consumption (or in any case not yet) thanks to fossil fuels. Our freedoms, our well-being, our prosperity are due to fossil fuels.

Ours is the luckiest generation of all that there has been and will be. We live in the brief historical interval between ecological violence and ecological catastrophe.

I don't have to remind you of the two forces that converge in our lives. We are faced with a looming shortage of a difficult-to-replace energy source: liquid fossil fuels. And we are faced with the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels that have made it possible for us to get to where we are.


The structure, the complexity, the diversity of our lives, everything we know, everything we took for granted, everything that seemed solid and non-negotiable suddenly seems contingent. All of this is like a huge wobbly pile balancing on a ball about to start rolling down the mountain.

I hear people talking about the reduction they would like to see in carbon emissions. I'm not interested in what people would like to see. I'm interested in what science says. And science speaks clearly. We do not need a 20% reduction for 2020, nor a 60% reduction for 2050, but a 90% reduction for 2030. Only in this way would we be able to keep the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere below 430 units per million, which means that only this way we would avoid some of the dreaded consequences. If we let it exceed that index there is nothing to do. The biosphere is the primary source of carbon. It gets out of hand.

The idea that we can achieve this by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy is a fantasy. It is true that we have untapped sources of energy in wind, waves, tides and sunlight, but they are neither concentrated enough nor consistent enough that we can use them and continue as before.

A reduction like that requires a great restriction on our energy use. Some technologies are available, but they surely won't get us very far. If you want to reduce carbon emissions by 10%, energy use will have to be restricted by 50%. The only method to achieve this is a national rationing accompanied by global decline and convergence.

We are in an extraordinary position. It is the first mass political movement to ask for less, not more. We are the first to take to the streets asking for austerity. The first to ask that our luxury, our comfort, be reduced.

These are the biggest political challenges that no movement has ever faced. But we are catching up with them. We are reaching them. But don't let anyone tell you that it will be easy. If it was just about putting George Bush green, we would have done it by now. But we not only have to fight against him, not against our own government, not among ourselves; we also have to fight against ourselves. The fight against climate change is the fight against much of what we have become. It is a fight against some of our most basic urges.

We cannot ask others to stop flying if we keep flying. We cannot ask the government to force us to change if we are not prepared for change. The most important battle of our lives will be fought not only out there, but also within us.

Original title: Struggle Against Ourselves - Origin: Znet Science; Monday December 05, 2005 - Translated by Genoveva Santiago and revised by Felisa Sastre


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