Our Burning Planet


We are all desperate to go back to normal, but can we or should we, if we are to address the climate crisis?

We are all desperate to go back to normal, but can we or should we, if we are to address the climate crisis?
Illustration: Leila Dougan (Original Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach) / Earth drawing and hearts: Pexels)

Humanity has entered a profoundly consequential decade. What we do in the next 10 years will determine what kind of future will be faced by future generations. The reality is, we are a few minutes to midnight with regard to climate catastrophe. Considering what science has been saying loudly for a long time and the prevalence of frequent extreme weather events, it is clear that we are very, very close to the cliff of runaway, irreversible climate change.

See: We’re all desperate to get back to normal. But should we?

Just to be clear, the planet that we live on does not need saving. It is humanity that does. If we continue on our current path we will further destroy our soil, we will further deplete water resources, temperatures will rise making agriculture even more difficult, and essentially, our food production capability will go down worldwide. The planet will still be here, but we might not be. The forests will grow back and the oceans will recover, but we should be aware that the struggle to avert disastrous climate change is about protecting our children and their children’s future.

Therefore, it is scandalous that the overwhelming majority of governments and businesses have primarily paid only lip service to the problem. In fact, many governments and businesses continue to make policies and decisions that take us closer to the climate precipice. A range of voices from the business community and other parts of society, such as religious institutions, trade unions, and others, have now started speaking out more forcefully on climate change. However, we may have already left it too late; the ecosystem will not wait for us to get our collective act together, and with climate change, we are running against a clock that is ticking mercilessly. A 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made it clear that emissions need to have peaked and started coming down drastically by the end of the decade if we are to stand a chance of avoiding ruinous climate change.

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting to get different results. For climate activists, his words are challenging: why has sincere and dedicated campaigning failed to deliver the necessary changes?

The climate challenge does not exist in isolation. I would argue that it is inextricably linked to our unjust economic system. This system has driven us to a point where we have destroyed our biodiversity and ecological integrity in pursuit of profit. When we look at what happened in 2008/9 after the global financial crisis, we saw system protection, system recovery and system maintenance when what was needed then, and more urgently now, is system innovation, system redesign and system transformation.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the deep inequalities within our society and shown up the weaknesses in our systems of governance, and the lack of vision of our political leaders. Although this historical moment is one of extreme anxiety, fear and confusion, it also offers greater potential for substantial structural and systemic change at local and global levels than at any point in the past 40 years. To capitalise on this moment and make the massive changes we need a fundamental rethink of how we approach campaigning and activism.

The scale of the structural and systemic change we need is massive. The principles for transitioning from where we are to where we need to be are well captured in the Climate Justice Charter. This charter emerges from six years of campaigning by the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre during the worst drought in this country’s history. It has been informed by grassroots input from water-stressed communities, the media, labour, faith-based communities, young people, climate scientists, academics, women’s organisations, environmental and social justice organisations, as well as by leading thinkers and activists. A conference held in November 2019 consolidated a draft which was then placed online for public comment. A final round of public input was provided at a Climate Justice Assembly on 16 June 2020. The charter is the outcome of this process of dialogue and climate justice resistance.

Principles for deep, just transitions outlined in the charter: Every community, village, town, city and workplace has to advance the deep and just transition to ensure socioecological transformation. The following principles were developed as alternatives, plans and processes in the effort to head towards a deep just transition in our society:

  1. Climate justice: Those least responsible must not be harmed or carry the cost of climate impacts;
  2. Social justice: Climate justice is social justice;
  3. Eco-centric living: To live simply, slowly and consciously;
  4. Participatory democracy: All climate and deep, just transition policies must be informed by the voices, consent and needs of all people, especially those facing harm;
  5. Socialised ownership: In workplaces and communities, people’s power must express itself through democratic control and ownership;
  6. International solidarity: Everyone’s struggle is a shared struggle to sustain life;
  7. Decoloniality: We will actively delink from this system as we affirm an emancipatory relationship between humans and with non-human nature rooted in our history, culture, knowledge and the wider struggle of the oppressed on planet Earth; and
  8. Intergenerational justice: Care for our planetary commons and ecosystems is crucial for intergenerational justice; to secure a future for our children, young people and those not yet born.

These criteria reflect the urgency of where we find ourselves right now and should be pursued by all organisations that are committed to reverse the suicidal path we are currently on.

Often activism is focused on what people lack, but we also need to focus consciously on the power that people do have. We have to put people at the centre of our solutions and be aware that we cannot rely on government or business leaders if we are to mitigate climate change. They will need to be pushed into action from the bottom upwards. People need to organise themselves to take a diverse range of actions based on their skills and interests, from tree-planting campaigns, to setting up community renewable energy initiatives. We will need to take private action for public good without government support, while pointing out that this is what our leaders should be doing.

Opportunities to mobilise people into “bottom-up” action can be identified in four areas. First, we need to harness people’s autonomy as agents of change, as freethinking individuals, and as people with the ability to make differences. People have power as voters and citizens in societies engaging in democratic elections, even though many election systems have been captured, poisoned, and don’t deliver the genuine will of the people anymore. To abandon that space without a fight would be reckless. We must not rely on voting once every four or five years; we should ask: what do we do between elections to hold power to account?

It is people who have power as enforcers of transparency and accountability. Without independent journalism, without the work of anti-corruption organisations, and some courageous foundations like the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, we would not have the possibility to hold those who have stolen billions of rands from the South African people accountable for their crimes.

People also have power through social movements, NGOs, trade unions, newspapers and other organisations. All civic organisations today need to recognise, regardless of their core interests, that if they don’t make climate a key part of their agenda, they’re not going to be around much longer.

People also have power as volunteers taking action for the public good. If not for the acts of immense generosity, citizenship and goodwill on the part of those who supported the people most badly affected and desperate during the pandemic, we would have seen even more hardship, pain and suffering.

The second area we need to consider is how can we harness our creative participation? Colonialism sought to destroy whole bodies of indigenous wisdom and knowledge, like how to live in a mutually interdependent relationship with nature. Custodians of this knowledge among indigenous people who have survived genocide and conquest continue to fight, and encourage others to join them. Western orthodoxies and colonial approaches over a long period have decimated Earth’s ecological integrity and biodiversity. In the process they have also given us one of the most unequal realities ever imaginable. Today we’re seeing a resurfacing of the wisdom of indigenous peoples from around the world. It is the teachings, practices and thoughts of these communities that we must lift up right now because they present a critical part of the solution to our climate conundrum.

Importantly, people have power as shapers of values, ethics and beliefs. This is seen in the small spaces outside of where power really resides, every day in every community around the world. Whether one agrees with the beliefs and views or not, they are applicable on a regular basis.

Vitally, people also have power as makers of culture and all forms of art. One of the reasons we are failing is that activism has placed a disproportionate focus on the repressive state apparatus such as the military, police and legal system. Of course, this is not something we should take lightly because it constrains and determines the space for political life. However, the biggest threat we face is from the ideological state apparatus. That is why fascist-leaning politicians like Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Viktor Orbán get elected; not necessarily because they needed to use the repressive state apparatus to gain office, but because the ideological state apparatus is available to them – the framework for education, schooling, religion, most social norms and customs, and crucially, the media in all its diversity. Activism must also realise, more strongly, that culture drives politics, not the other way round.

The third area, which we tend to overlook, is harnessing our wealth. Many people hold bank accounts, even if we don’t have much in them, and that gives us power. People have power as holders of insurance policies and other similar financial products, and people have power as owners of capital and assets. It is true, poor people don’t have these things in huge quantities, but when we harness what we have collectively, the power we accrue is immense. Whether you have R5 or R5,000,000 in the bank, if we organise ourselves and go to our banks saying, “We do not want you to invest in the destruction of our children’s future”, I believe we could bring about substantial change. Already some of the banks are moving in that direction globally, whereas South African banks have been good on public relations but weak on substance.

In Australia in 2015, for example, campaigners were able to get every single bank to agree to refuse funding to one of the largest coal mines yet proposed, even though it had the backing of the government. The banks were persuaded not to lend because ordinary account owners picketed their banks until they declared that they would not support the mine. We need to organise ourselves and say to our banks: “We do not want you to fund oil, coal, gas, deforestation and other economic activities accelerating climate catastrophe.” It’s worth noting that banks have had low public trust since the global financial crisis and are not impossible campaign targets.

Last, how do we harness our consumption power? People have power as consumers of everything – energy, food, transport and much more. We learnt during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa that consumer boycott campaigns can have material results. The mobilisation of a large number of consumers to boycott certain products has been successful in a number of campaigns. Today, business leaders must realise that they cannot rely on conventional capital alone and that reputational and relational capital is just as important. A failure to take into account reputational capital can cause enormous damage to big companies.

People have power as consumers of information, but also disinformation. How do we ensure that we have a diverse media environment presenting a broad spectrum of views so that we can make informed decisions? In this context, business is critical. In my time at Greenpeace, if I were to have a meeting with the CEO of a big company, I would have my research team find out whether this CEO had children. I would ask: “What are you going to say to your children when they ask you, ‘what did you do when the world was saying that you need to change?’” Right now, virtually no leader of a fossil fuel company or a company driving deforestation and other forms of excessive consumption can look their children in the eye today, let alone 20 years from now, saying: “What I’m doing and what I did is right.” We have to say to the business community that they must offer us products that will help combat the climate crisis, and stop producing products that are destroying the planet.

Every big business must recognise that they have culpability historically, and must do the right thing to reverse these transgressions other than simple greenwashing, like most do, but actually change their business model fundamentally. Part of that is identifying the fact that today the worst disease we have in the world is not Covid-19, but a disease that we could call Affluenza. The marketing industry in collusion with its various corporate partners has driven a culture of infantilising the old and corrupting the young in terms of consumption patterns, and quite often generating demand for things that we don’t need for our survival.

No thinking person will say confidently: “I’m sure we can adequately address the climate crisis right now and everything will be fine.” There are many behind the scenes saying we’ve left it too late and we’re not going to survive. We have to be looking at how we can accelerate progress and I believe that the way forward is in harnessing all of this power at our disposal and creating the maximum level of unity and resistance to those in government and business dragging their feet. It is astonishing to see the horrific, backward thinking in the Ministry of Energy. The Karpowership disaster is just one example of a combination of corruption and backward thinking. The idea of going back to nuclear energy is also a crazy option when all the studies highlight the capability of addressing all our needs with the cheapest electricity available in the form of renewable energy. Why would we risk any further options that are too expensive, too dangerous, and as proposed solutions to climate change will deliver too little, too late? Perhaps because the supply chain of corruption in renewable energy is nowhere near as long and far-reaching as those to be found in oil, coal, gas and nuclear?

The Climate Justice Charter provides several bold and appropriately ambitious actions, but to make these critically needed changes:

  1. Develop Democratic and Deep, Just Transition Plans: Top-down approaches to the deep just transition assume people cannot think for themselves and do not have answers. We do and we must make sure we are taken seriously;
  2. Create Socially Owned and Community-Based Renewable Energy through a Rapid Phase-Out of Fossil Fuels: Our dependence on coal, oil and gas has to be ended;
  3. Feed Ourselves through Food Sovereignty while pushing back on the current industrial food system: Every community must prioritise small-scale, agroecological farming to meet local needs;
  4. Democratise the Water Commons: Water is controlled by a few while many are in desperate need. A water-conscious society has to be promoted;
  5. Enjoy Life through Working Less: Decent, zero-carbon climate jobs must be guaranteed and supported by collective, values-based and ecocentric approaches to production, consumption, financing and ways of living through the solidarity economy;
  6. Fund Eco-mobility and Clean Energy Public Transport Systems: The car industry carries a major responsibility for undermining clean energy public transport systems and for wasteful investment in expensive road infrastructure. Non-electric cars based on fossil fuels must be phased out. Air and sea transport must also be decarbonised or limited;
  7. Creating Zero Waste while Living Simply: Mass consumption of commodities and “celebrity lifestyles” are resource-intensive, wasteful and carbon-centric. Together with simple living, we can live with minimal resource and carbon footprints;
  8. Providing Eco-Social Housing, Buildings and Transition Towns: Our housing infrastructure must be redesigned to have minimal impact on the environment and provide for the eco-social land needs of individuals as part of a community;
  9. Going Beyond Mainstream Economics: The assumptions that economics makes about human behaviour, nature, profits, markets, commodities and growth are destroying everything. Our economies have to serve our needs as socioecological beings and the needs of ecosystems;
  10. Ensure the Rich Pay their Ecological Debt: The wealthy in our societies have consumed resources excessively, negatively affected ecosystems and have huge carbon footprints. They owe us all an ecological debt and have to carry the financial burden of the deep, just transition;
  11. Understand that Knowledge is Crucial for Survival: We have to draw on different knowledge systems to raise public awareness and survive. Indigenous knowledge has powerful resources to assist us and it has to be retrieved, learnt and respected;
  12. Provide Emergency, Holistic and Preventative Healthcare: We need workable, accessible and responsive public healthcare systems to meet people’s needs and address the health challenges that come with climate heating;
  13. Recognise the Rights of Nature and Natural Climate Solutions: Community-led biodiversity registers are crucial to protect and advance natural climate solutions; and
  14. Create Climate-Conscious Media: Climate news has to be mainstreamed in radio, television and print media.

The reality of our predicament is upon us and we have to decide where we place our trust – the obvious answer being in ourselves. If we refuse to rectify our mistakes, Mother Nature will do it for us, and she will not be forgiving or discerning. We must realise that nature does not negotiate, and we cannot change the science, but we can change political will. And, thankfully, political will is a renewal asset since we should be able to toss such failing leaders out of power. Hopefully, the consequences of not making these changes to our food, transport and primarily our economic system as they become clear, will spur humanity to take up the highest level of moral courage yet seen, and government and business will be pushed into taking up the urgent action required to secure our children and their children’s future. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Beulah Thumbadoo says:

    What if humanity doesn’t need saving? Premises for arguments are important.

  • RICHARD Worthington says:

    Eloquently articulated, thank you; but one quibble, re: “What we do in the next 10 years ….” – That was our window of opportunity back when SA hosted the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to UN Climate Convention in Durban in 2011.
    If we do not collectively pivot within about 2 years, the demise of diverse humanity will (‘most likely’ – in scientific parlance) be irreversible. While the detailed principles and demands in the Climate Justice Charter provide a coherent account of what is necessary and what should become a foundation for our Parliament’s response to the existential threat of accelerating planetary heating, we must not overlook the recent conclusions of the very pragmatist International Energy Agency: avoiding climate catastrophe requires no new investments in fossil fuel exploration or resource development.

  • Nan Jackson says:

    The above (and all similar articles) are replete with sensible proposals to save the world but none seem brave enough to suggest we stop stuffing the planet with more and more people. We seem to be the primary drivers of all our problems! We’re too busy converting the planet to suit ourselves and nature is now responding by reducing the available landmass. We are too many, at the expense of everything else.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz