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After Paris: Making the Case for a People-Powered Transition to a New Climate Culture

It’s time to rethink the climate movement and devote ourselves to making our own communities sustainable.

The Eiffel Tower, covered by a green visual forest as part of the UN climate change conference in Paris, France, December 2, 2015. (Photo: Elfred Tseng /

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Fact: If we stopped burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, the earth would continue to warm at an alarming rate for many decades to come. Chemically intensive agribusiness and factory farming of livestock are responsible for 30 to 50 percent of global warming, and are enough in themselves to seal our collective fate.

Fact: If we converted all agribusiness and factory farming to regenerative agriculture and family farming, we would see a reversal of global warming immediately – even if we continued burning fossil fuels at current levels.

Fact: Nearly one-third of the world’s food-producing land has been lost in the last 40 years. If we do not transition away from the agribusiness model of industrial monoculture, which has the effect of sterilizing the very soils upon which our life depends, experts with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate that the land will no longer support growing crops before this century is out.

Conclusion: It is time to rethink the climate movement. We the people already have all the tools and know-how we need to solve the climate crisis among ourselves, working in community on health-based initiatives, without any need for treaties, laws, regulations or corporate altruism. And if everyone who has been working so hard to instill a conscience in global politicians would simply choose to devote the same amount of time and energy to acting on their own conscience in ways devoted to bringing about healthy changes in their own communities, we could probably achieve this transition to a “climate culture” in less time than governments and corporations have been “talking” about the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The Paris accord mirrors President Obama’s own climate legacy of saying all the right things while doing all the wrong things.

To intelligent observers of climate negotiations who’ve been watching the can get kicked down the road year after year, it comes as no surprise that our governments have utterly failed us in the recent climate conference in Paris, which was widely acknowledged as our last chance to secure a livable future for us all. With catastrophic climate impacts still decades in the future because of the inconvenient lag time between emissions and climate uptake, politicians’ principal concern is with finding ways to save face on the world stage before an unprecedented global audience of religious leaders, scientific experts, concerned global citizens, disappearing species and future generations.And so, while we are supposed to be placated or comforted somehow by an unenforceable agreement that aspires to somehow limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsiusabove preindustrial levels, science tells us that 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] is already baked in by the carbon dioxide emitted since the 1970s – which has yet to be taken up into the climate change system – and the devilish details of the agreement itself set forth nonbinding “intended nationally determined contributions” that would result in an average rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius. In other words, the accord mirrors President Obama’s own climate legacy of saying all the right things while doing all the wrong things.

Professor Steffen Böhm, director of the Essex Sustainability Institute, pointed out on the eve of the climate talks that “[n]othing significant has changed since Rio 1992 or Kyoto 1997. Paris 2015 will be no different … Nobody who sits at the negotiation table in Paris has the mandate nor inclination to ask fundamental, systemic questions of the logic of the dominant economic system and the way we consume the resources of this planet.” The world’s leading climate scientist himself, James Hansen, lent gravitas to this sentiment by pointing out that the parameters established for the talks were woefully inadequate scientifically to address the threat, while readily available, “shovel-ready,” market-based solutions are excluded from consideration. In essence, as Hansen points out, politicians are unwilling to upset the historically low fossil fuel prices on which their wars and economies now depend, thus ensuring devastation of future generations as “collateral damage” in our war on the environment.

One of the fundamental, systemic questions politicians refuse to ask is how we can transition from the current, environmentally destructive model of agribusiness being foisted on the world to benefit Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, John Deere and their ilk, to a more sustainable, ecologically based system of agriculture that favors family farms at home and abroad. To put the climate talks in perspective, ask yourself this: If the UN’s FAO is telling us that we have only 60 years of fertility left in our soil due to chemically intensive monoculture that releases carbon to the atmosphere, and we know that ecologically based agriculture produces more real food per acre while taking carbon out of the atmosphere, before it can be taken up into the climate, then why wouldn’t the COP21 negotiations be focused on converting agricultural practices worldwide before soils are rendered inert? Isn’t losing the ability to grow food in 60 years at least as urgent as the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy? Especially if solving the soil issue has the potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere before it gets taken up by the climate?

Perhaps an even better question is this: Why do we continue to look to our broken, unresponsive political institutions for answers on the most important issue of this or any other time?

There is a groundswell of climate activists interested in creating a platform for people power to prevail over political inertia.

Corporations wield more political power than ever before, verging on super-sovereignty from trade agreements currently being negotiated. The US government, meanwhile, has amassed total surveillance capacity that allows them to neutralize political movements like Occupy and to engage in espionage of foreign companies on behalf of US corporations. And, thanks to the massive World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, we now have a militarized police force that equates climate protests, demonstrations and direct action with terrorism. And so now we’ve reached a point where the only protest permitted is leaving shoes in an empty public square under cover of dark. While this may seem clever, even poignant, how effective was it?

There is one overriding, undeniable success that the climate movement can build upon going forward, however. And it should not be underestimated. With real leaders like Bill McKibben, Pope Francis, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Vandana Shiva and even Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” the climate movement has enlisted impressive numbers of people around the world to its cause, and built real momentum and resolve in the process. But a lifetime of activism has taught me that it is so much more effective to be for something than against, and if the response to Paris is just going to be more of the same – more letter writing, marching, settling for the lesser of two evils and repeatedly shouting “FIRE” on a crowded planet – then our movement is as doomed to failure as the political agreements it decries.

But there is another way. There is real, positive hope for a timely solution.

The way to really succeed in the climate movement is to focus on what we already have, rather than allow ourselves to be sucked into a black hole of embittered self-pity. Building on what power we actually possess can yield positive, workable plans and unexpected successes, rather than predictable defeats.

Now is the time to redirect all the heartfelt activism and momentum that has been generated in the years leading up to Paris into a more constructive, hopeful direction that leads instead to thriving communities, a vibrant culture and a healthful future. Fortunately, a very good beginning for this kind of collaborative, synergistic social transformation emerged from the ashes of the climate conflagration in Paris. There is now, thankfully, a groundswell of sobered-up climate activists interested in creating a platform for people power to prevail over corporate-sponsored political inertia.

Global Climate Quest 2.0: Harnessing the Energy of the People’s Movement

In the darkened light of this politically polarized, increasingly terrorized age, the time is ripe for a decidedly non-political “climate culture” movement, a movement grounded in earth-based, healthy living and community values, a social movement that empowers people and communities to reshape human culture and resurrect human nature in response to a natural world that is clearly in distress.

“Non-political” here means not worrying so much about transnational global government, not waiting for labyrinthine institutions built on greed and power to suddenly transform into altruistic servants of the people, and remembering instead that we already have all the power we need to reverse climate change.

It’s time to take over the food chain by transforming the means of consumption.

Indeed, while the food industry accounts for at least one-third and as much as half of all greenhouse gas emissions, regenerated healthy soils have the potential to sequester (absorb from the atmosphere) 111 percent of all carbon dioxide currently being emitted. Think about this for a minute. From these two pieces of information alone we can fashion a cultural solution to the climate crisis – a new “climate culture” that is not dependent on political reform or corporate benevolence.

To succeed, we’ll need to think and act outside the cramped box of polarized political action that has been constructed by the corporatized political power structure to contain and marginalize people’s movements. Survival in the coming era of increasing climate chaos is not a Democratic or Republican issue, in spite of the best efforts of corporate media and divisive political opportunists to portray it that way. Instead, as Naomi Klein points out, the climate crisis is perhaps the best community-organizing tool on the planet right now. Indian physicist and social activist Dr. Vandana Shiva makes the same point more forcefully:

If governments won’t solve the climate, hunger, health, and democracy crisis, then the people will … Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the health crisis, the climate crisis and the crisis of democracy.

What will it take for the people of this planet to wrest control of our shared climate from political and corporate interests? Nothing less than a cultural insurgency. As Ronnie Cummins, the longtime director of the Organic Consumers Association rightly points out, what we now need more than anything is “a global, supercharged grassroots movement … mobilizing a vast corps of farmers, ranchers, gardeners, consumers, climate activists and conservationists” to the cause of transforming our relationship to food, by which we are all connected to earth, into a healthy, restorative relationship with one another and nature itself.

What might such a movement look like?

Fortunately, Cummins and Shiva have shown the way, combining forces to found the new group Regeneration International. Shiva is already deserving of a Nobel Prize for her dedicated efforts promoting soil over oil, and standing up to Monsanto’s evil plans to obtain patents over life and corner the global market on seed production, and she speaks from a place of profound love, wisdom and compassion. We can find additional moral authority, inspiration and spiritual succor for this burgeoning social movement in Pope Francis’ profoundly moving encyclical, Laudato Si’, as well as a growing force of thoughtful spiritual leaders from other cultural traditions, the likes of which include Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Chief Arvol Looking Horse, Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi and Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.

For the economic guidance needed in this urgent transition, we can turn to the considerable global expertise and focus of the UK’s Share the World’s Resources. To work out the vital distribution networks connecting growers and consumers who see the climate crisis as both an opportunity and a personal moral imperative (72 percent of Americans), we now have PlantPure Nation, which also possesses the dietary health expertise necessary for appealing to people’s selfish interests in living longer, more active lives without a toxic soup of pharmaceuticals.

To spread the word in our own communities, we can all start by organizing climate cafes, setting up booths at our local farmer’s markets, promoting community gardens and working with local restaurants, co-ops and grocers to meet the growing demand for unadulterated food. To help people process the challenging emotions that come up around climate issues and neutralize our avoidance, denial and despair, we can tap Joanna Macy’s amazing worldwide network Work That Reconnects, as well as my forthcoming self-help manual, Climate Sense: Changing the Way We Think & Feel About Our Climate in Crisis. Climate cafes afford opportunities to spawn affinity and support groups, working at the local level toward ecological sustainability and building networks of resilience in a time of increasing climate chaos. Social visionary Paul Hawken estimates that there are already over 2 million such groups meeting regularly worldwide.

This is just scratching the surface of available tools for eco-sustainable community organizing. With the advent of social media, it should be easier and faster than ever to build an integrated, cohesive, global community-organizing network. We are, after all, interconnected in a way that makes governments and corporations shudder. As the chant rising up from the streets says: “The people, united, can never be divided.”

2020 Vision

While the Paris accords will not be effective for at least another five years, the International Energy Agency estimates that five years is all the time we have left to avert an irreversible ecological catastrophe. Which is why it is incumbent on all climate activists and organizations to forget Paris, combine our forces and begin building eco-resilient communities now. It’s time to take over the food chain by transforming the means of consumption – our own consumption, that of our family, and our friends and neighbors as well.

In building a community-based cultural movement from the ground up, we need look no higher than city councils and county commissions for mutual aid and support, with an occasional nod to statehouses. As the wise cultural icon and eco-savant Wendell Berry notes in his latest book Our Only World:

Over the last two or three decades, there has been a growing national and international movement toward local economies, starting with local economies of food. This has been little noticed and poorly understood by the news media, and mostly ignored in the state capitals and in Washington, D.C. Some city and county governments, however, have taken notice of this movement and understood its importance … This project involves food production in cities as well as around them, and it is fostering a necessary urban agrarianism among gardeners and consumers.

Fortunately, the conversion of large industrial monoculture land factories to restorative agriculture farms has already begun, driven by the rapidly increasing preference consumers are showing for healthy food options. Those consumers (45 percent of American shoppers already search out organic alternatives) are largely driven by health concerns, which happen to be a compelling motivation for reducing meat in our diets as well. These preferences can be greatly reinforced when these same consumers make the connection between their family’s health today and their grandchildren’s health tomorrow – the future of our planet. This synergy between self-interest and altruistic motivation has only begun to be tapped.

By the deceptively simple act of reconnecting citizens to nature and to each other via healthy food grown in community gardens and on local, family owned and operated farms, and by educating people about the planetary and personal health effects of high-meat diets and the moral depravity of factory farming, we can expedite the necessary conversion of unsustainable, climate-destroying agribusiness land abuses to productive, climate-restoring, soil-enriching land uses. And in the process, we can strengthen our communities by changing the culture.

People of every political stripe agree that our culture needs to be transformed. Emphasizing a transition back to healthy lifestyles and connected communities supporting family farmers and local economies will have universal appeal. If every activist and environmental organization redirected even half of the time and energy that we are currently putting into the fight against fossil fuels to building a global, eco-resilient climate culture instead, we could probably meet the International Energy Agency’s five-year deadline. Certainly, we’d have a better chance of succeeding than world government, which isn’t even trying to stem accelerating emissions until after that “dying time” line has been passed.

It’s up to us now. If it is true, as they say, that every war is won on the stomachs of the infantry, then let us partake in a sacrament of living food that honors plants, animals, people, communities and the earth we are so privileged to walk upon. Let us dedicate ourselves to the service of life with every meal we prepare, and cultivate this same ethic in community.

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