On energy systems and worldviews

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world has just 5 years in which to radically transform its carbon-intensive energy infrastructure before the “lock-in” effect will make runaway climate change inevitable. A rather somber and urgent warning from one of the world’s most respected – and conservative – energy bodies.

Given the scale and design of our industrial energy infrastructure, high-carbon energy generation – coal plants, oil refineries, natural gas fracking wells, and “unconventional” tar sands mining – will continue to emit large quantities of CO² for many years after they are built. This “lock-in” effect means that the emissions of already existing or newly built carbon-burning energy sources will persist in the environment for years – centuries in fact – even once switched off. All of this makes the recent debate over whether to further exploit dirtier, more carbon-intensive forms of energy such as tar sands all the more ludicrous.

The message from scientists and energy experts could not be clearer: according to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, “if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum [for safety]. The door will be closed forever.”

An opportune time then, for the global Occupy Movement to focus on the links between a violent, unsustainable economic system and the continued exploitation and pollution of our environment. On Friday the general assembly of Occupy LSX reached preliminary consensus on an official acknowledgment of this link, adding a tenth point concerning climate change to the Occupy LSX Initial Statement. Along with the recent commitment to installing renewable energy sources such as solar panels and bicycle generators at the St. Paul’s camp, these actions go a long way towards emphasizing that it is the same underlying worldview which results in increasing concentration of wealth, corruption of the democratic process, and degradation of the one earth which all else relies upon.

People are starting to question and speak out against this entrenched economic materialism in increasing numbers. In a major victory, sustained non-violent actions against the Keystone XL pipeline in the US and Canada has resulted in the Obama administration delaying approval of the pipeline until at least next year, effectively killing the project according to Bill McKibben and 350.org. A network of activists and ordinary citizens worried about the health affects of fracking are currently organizing a large protest in New Jersey on November 21 to prevent fracking in the Delaware River Basin, the source of drinking water for 16 million people. And of course, the global Occupy Movement has galvanized action against the pervasive corporate influence that has so entrenched the fossil-fuel and finance industries perpetrating these crimes against the earth.

A solidarity action in front of the US Embassy in London protesting the Keystone XL pipeline (Nov 6)

What the mainstream media misses though, is that opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and other similar projects is not simply about avoiding potential environmental and economic disasters like oil spills; it’s about preventing inevitable environmental and social disasters like irreversible climate change and increased privatization of the commons. Even if the pipeline does its job perfectly, ‘safely’ transporting crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the US gulf coast, in simply consuming the resulting oil we will knowingly and consciously do more harm to the environment than any single oil spill could ever do.

It is the fundamental set of assumptions behind this pipeline – that the earth is for our exploitation, that increasing consumption will lead to higher wellbeing, that neoliberal economic policies are what is best for all – that people are beginning to reject in critical numbers.

The fact that this pipeline, like all other carbon-intensive energy projects, is painted as a savior for unemployed workers proves how untenable our current economic system really is. Yes, millions of people desperately need jobs – but not ones that will systematically destroy job opportunities and the potential to flourish for all future generations. In fact, the rapacious and extractive capitalist economy which depends on these types of massive projects necessitates systemic unemployment to keep labor costs down and maintain a surplus of workers willing to compete for any task offered to them.

Ultimately, long-term solutions designed to prevent climate change and restore the environment are also the only long-term solution to the systemic unemployment embedded in our industrial economy. And more crucially, they are solutions that restore the intrinsic dignity and meaning of work.

The transition to local, distributed, and restorative energy systems will not only drastically reduce carbon emissions and reduce environmental degradation, it will also redistribute economic and political power away from corporations and large-scale bureaucracies to communities and bioregions. Already several Transition Towns across the UK, including an ongoing project where I live in Totnes, have funded and built their own community power stations using entirely renewable energy sources. This simultaneously frees communities from dependence on fossil fuels and gives them complete autonomy over their energy supply.  The installation and maintenance of small-scale, community-owned energy systems also keeps jobs and money in local communities.

What we are talking about is not simply a matter of reconfiguring our energy infrastructure or reforming the financial system though. In the words of Joanna Macy, this is about shifting from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society – a shift in values which places people and planet over profits and recognizes the intrinsic value of all life. This is the shift at the heart of the Occupy Movement because it represents the deepest challenge to the status quo. When our energy systems (and all other social systems) reflect a different, life-sustaining worldview, we will live in a much more just and healthier world.

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Towards an economics of non-violence

The continuously evolving Occupy Movement, if nothing else, has stirred up great debate about the nature of capitalism and the failings of the current global economic system. While labeled as an ‘anti-capitalist’ protest by the mass media, the true identity of the movement is far more subtle and multi-faceted.

Anti-capitalist or not, there has been remarkable consensus on the disastrous impacts that the current economic system has wrought – across nations, generations, social classes, religions, people from all walks of life are beginning to speak out against the appalling concentration of wealth, the corruption of the democratic process, and the inherently violent nature of free market fundamentalism.

The roots of non-violence

As I and many others have already argued, the Occupy Movement is not about creating a list of demands for someone else to carry out. The systemic failings are many and creative, collective responses are what is needed more than anything else. However, there seems to be at least one fundamental ideal which has the potential to unite all the diverse occupations around the globe: non-violence.

Non-violence (ahimsa), in this sense, is more than the mere absence of violence and more than a tactic for social change. As understood by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Thich Nhat Hanh and others, non-violence is a moral imperative, a way of being, a way of understanding and relating to the world. It is not simply a means towards some desired outcome; it is a principle to be expressed in everything one does, an end in itself.

J.C. Kumarappa, Gandhi’s lesser known but highly-influential economist, developed the idea of a economic and social order based fundamentally on non-violence in the 1930s and ’40s. Seeking a middle way between the violence of market-dominated capitalism and state-dominated communism, Kumarappa spent his career weaving a vast and interconnected web of small village economies across India, based on the decentralized and localized production of crafts and agricultural products. The separation of the worker from his land and from the creative impulse, as well as the endless accumulation of capital, exploitation of non-renewable resources, and undemocratic system of taxation practiced by the British Empire, represented fundamental forms of violence to Gandhi and Kumarappa.

Response to a violent system

While the current global financial crises are far more complex and pervasive than the economic problems of colonial India, Kumarappa’s economic and moral philosophy offers profound insights – and extremely relevant suggestions – for addressing our current problems. The true significance of the global Occupy Movement lies not in a list of demands or proposed solutions, but in the very reorganization of human relationships based upon an egalitarian – and essentially non-violent – form of consensus democracy. And while the organizing principles of co-creation, self-organization and consensus-based decision-making have been clearly articulated and put into practice in General Assemblies across the globe, the underlying principle of non-violence (ahimsa) has been less thoroughly developed.

To be sure, the Occupy Movement is a peaceful one which encourages non-violence “to maximize the safety of all participants.” But the use of non-violence as a tactic is significantly different from non-violence as a deeply-held worldview. We have all seen the immense power of non-violence in the face of violent and repressive police action – in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, in the anti-war protests of the 1970s, in the Arab Spring of 2010-11, and more recently in the Occupy demonstrations in New York, Oakland, and Atlanta. But ‘tactical’ non-violence seeks a revolution through various means, while true non-violence is a revolution in and of itself.

In response to a fundamentally violent economic, political, and social system which objectifies people and the natural world, which commodifies human relationships and labor, which endlessly exploits the earth for unjust and unequal private gain, the most radical rejection of this system is a vow of true non-violence. Implicit in the practice of this form of non-violence is a demand for rights along with a recognition of responsibility. If we, the 99%, are to demand change, we must actively practice that change – which is precisely what Occupy camps are doing. However, if ahimsa does not underlie this practice, true and lasting change within ourselves, within our societies, and across our globe may not be possible.

Particularly in places like London, where the camp is facing possible eviction measures by St. Paul’s Cathedral and the City of London Corporation, a commitment to non-violence as a core principle will ensure that, whatever the actions of the authorities, we remain steadfast in our way of living.

If indeed we do seek a non-violent and non-exploitative economic system, we cannot seek it in a violent way. This division of means and ends is a hallmark of the old, violent paradigm of Pure Rationalism and Objectivism. Practically speaking, a truly non-violent economic system founded on participatory and non-hierarchical democracy, cooperation and mutual aid, respect for all life and deep connection with the earth, non-extractive and zero-waste resource use, and more sustainable levels of consumption is the best way towards a just and sustainable future.

Occupy LSX: Thoughts from the ground

This past weekend, I had an opportunity to participate in some direct democracy in action as part of the Occupy London movement. As a student in the newly-created MA in Economics for Transition at Schumacher College, the opportunity to contribute to – not simply study – the co-creation of new forms of social, political, and economic organization was fantastically empowering.

Now entering its second week, Occupy LSX – just one of over 950 related Occupy movements across the globe – is continuing to grow and thrive based on a non-hierarchical, consensus-based model of organization. Everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, socio-economic status, religion, nationality, etc, is encouraged to participate in the decision-making processes which affect the camp. With several hundred ‘permanent’ campers (now at two sites!) and up to several thousand visitors, sympathizers and tourists interacting on a daily basis, this is quite a dynamic, evolving, sometimes lengthy, but collectively empowering process.

Roughly 200 tents occupying the square in front of St. Paul's Cathedral in London

And as several representatives of Occupy LSX beautifully expressed in the Guardian, this participatory democratic process is exactly what the movement is about. It’s not about merely producing talking points for the media to regurgitate or politicians to ignore, it’s about collectively creating an alternative way forward. It’s not solely thinking and talking about change, its about living that change.

To be sure, there is quite a lot of fruitful thinking and talking taking place at St. Paul’s as well. The Tent City University hosts a varied array of lectures and discussions on a daily basis – I participated in talks on political philosophy and practical reforms of the financial system on Sunday – and completely self-organizing working groups are exploring everything from the health and safety of the camp to recycling and waste collection to climate change to land reform.

The newly occupied Finsbury Square in London

But this is a movement built from the ground up by people taking action. As an example of how easy it is to contribute, I showed up on Saturday afternoon just after the second occupation site had been established at Finsbury Square, about a mile away from St. Paul’s. By Sunday afternoon, I had physically helped build a giant public kitchen and construct a yurt for a second Tent City University at Finsbury Square, joined a newly formed working group now called ‘Energy, Equity, and the Environment’, and helped write an environmental statement that will soon be added to the official Occupy LSX Statement.

In true democratic form, all voices are respected and given space. At the general assembly on Sunday, two members of the St. Paul’s congregation expressed anger and sadness at the Cathedral’s closure. Indeed, there has been an unfortunate lack of communication between the camp and the Cathedral in recent days, but the Cathedral’s decision to close their doors is simply not a response to health and safety concerns posed by the camp. City officials themselves have confirmed that the camp poses no direct fire threat and all entrances to the Cathedral have been kept clear.

Expressing solidarity with the movement, a retired reverend from St. Paul’s came forward on Sunday to criticize the Cathedral’s decision to close. Speaking to the general assembly, he said, “I had no difficulty whatsoever in getting to the door [of the Cathedral on Sunday]. The only difficulty I had was getting into the Church because the doors were locked.”

While these global actions may have coalesced around corporate greed, unacceptable levels of inequality and a destructive financial system, ultimately this is a revolution in how we choose to relate to one another. The communities growing up in St. Paul’s, Zuccotti Park and elsewhere are demonstrating how we can organize our relationships around something more meaningful than monetary transactions, that we can choose to base our relationships on cooperation instead of competition, generosity instead of greed, creation instead of consumption.

While it may not appear to be causing any change at the highest levels just yet, this is definitely a threat to the status quo as more and more people begin to see themselves as co-producers of their world, not just passive consumers of it. It is a non-violent and egalitarian response to a fundamentally unjust and violent system. Whether it changes the entire economic system or not, there is no doubt that it is changing people on a daily basis. And it is just one part of a much larger process of change.

These are my thoughts from the ground in London. Have you participated in other Occupy actions? Have thoughts on the movement as a whole? If so, please share them below!