On sacrifice

The word sacrifice is bandied about by both sides of the debate on climate action. Shall we unpack this loaded shuttlecock?

Photo Julia Steinberger.png
Julia Steinberger
15 August 2019, 1.04pm
The Sacrifice of Isaac by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin.
Image: LACMA, CC0

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
-Leonard Cohen

Raising the spectre of sacrifice is the all the vogue in current climate denier and delayer circles: it is representative of our current moment in time. Having comprehensively been routed on the denial of science, the minions of fossil fuel lobbies have moved on to delay the onset and diminish the scope of action. “Sacrifice” is one of their preferred bogeymen: any reduction in the use of fossil fuels is presented as unacceptably curtailing the standards of living of — well — anybody, really. They’re not fussy on that count. Rich people, poor people, people in developing countries or well-beyond-industrialized ones — it’s all much the same to them, as long as combustion of their products is in the supply chain. “Fine, fine, there is a climate crisis, indeed, we totally did lie about that part,” goes their narrative, “but are you really sure you want to sacrifice all the convenience brought to you by burning gas, oil and coal?” By equating action on climate with discomfort, they hope they can buy a few more deadly years for their business model. And they may well be right in this cynical calculation; goodness knows they’ve succeeded in the past.

What the climate delayers are sneakily drawing attention away from are the very real sacrifices of escalating climate breakdown: extreme weather events and damage, monster storms hitting areas never before affected, massive flooding, land lost to the sea, water shortages, extreme and unprecedented deadly heatwaves coupled with air pollution, losses in crop yields leading to hunger for millions, disease spread, ecosystem and biodiversity damaged and lost forever. Somehow, these very real, predicted and already occurring forms of harm caused by the fossil fuel industry’s insistence on producing their deadly products are never portrayed as a sacrifice, despite the fact that they will impoverish, harm or kill hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Pushing back against the fossil industry narrative, the green growth camp replies by stating that significant action on climate change will not require sacrifice (measured in terms of economic growth), or at least not very much, compared to the alternative of inaction. Their vision centres around shifting technologies: from fossil-fuelled energy to renewable generation, from internal combustion engine powered cars to electric ones, and so on. The technologies that can’t now be shifted (aviation, parts of agriculture) will be compensated for by negative emission technologies, somehow. The shift will require some up-front costs (investments), but ever afterwards pay back for itself in a greenly-growing low-carbon society. The fact that technologies are unequally distributed is not a concern, since growth in the future should enable all to access them eventually — maybe. “No sacrifice in sight!” is their mantra, “Just invest in modern technology. Our ways of life are not under threat by action on the climate crisis.” In this way, they hope to convince (non-fossil-based) business leaders, politicians and consumer/citizens, and make action on climate breakdown palatable to all, without much fuss.

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Unfortunately, extirpating fossil fuels from every corner of our economies and politics is proving to be, well, quite the fuss. “Everything can continue as usual!” is not the rallying cry we need to dislodge king coal, oligarch oil and grasping gas. This is not incidental: protecting growth protects mostly those who profit, and fossil fuel companies, thanks to their decades of market manipulation through lying and deception, have to date been very profitable. In this context, upholding consumption against any sacrifice ultimately serves the purpose of protecting producer profits at all costs.

In contrast, the degrowth camp believes that halting the climate crisis is worth changing our ways of life: not just the technology underlying our consumption, but our consumption itself. They welcome alternative technologies, but refuse to rely upon these alone. They question our systems of production and consumption: who governs them, who makes decisions along supply chains, and, crucially, who profits, and propose radical, democratic and egalitarian alternatives. They emphasize that human needs are satiable – that there exist levels of consumption which are sufficient, and beyond which we do not benefit in terms of our fundamental well-being. They point out that human wants are not infinite (as mainstream economics would have us believe) but rather are products of advertising and hyperactive capitalist production. This group is willing to call openly for the fall of our secular deity, economic growth.

The proponents of degrowth have often been considered unrealistic, beyond the pale, heretic, almost insane. Prosperous economies grow! It’s just what they do! Remember, though: Copernicus was so certain of being considered heretic & insane that he delayed until his death the publication of his work demonstrating that the Earth orbits the Sun, rather than the reverse. Indeed, degrowth is attempting a modern Copernican revolution: this time placing the Earth and its stable climate and life support systems at the centre of our world, and demanding that our societies orbit within limits around it.

As we learn to see the world according to this new Copernican revolution, something very strange happens. We no longer view reducing consumption as a sacrifice – we see it as normal. Necessary. Something just obviously worth doing. And something else happens. We see the overproducers, the fossil fuel industries and their associates, as attacking the real heart of our world: we see them not as purveyors of beneficial products, but as death-bearing destroyers. This reversal of perception, more than anything else, contains within it the promise of a mobilizing force strong enough to face down the fossil fuel industry.

Shall we go back to the idea of sacrifice? How about this: the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, day by day, year by year, can be seen as the building up of an immense altar. Like Abraham ordered by angels to sacrifice his only son Isaac, we heed authoritative voices – the angels of growth ordering us to consume ever more. Obediently, each day, we build the emissions altar higher. Upon this altar, almost unseen and unheard, countless creatures, ecosystems and species have already been sacrificed by our fevered dream of growth-based holiness. Today, someone’s child will be on it, torn from their parent’s arms by floods and storms. Tomorrow, yet another child, a bit closer, will succumb to heat or air pollution. After-tomorrow, it will certainly be mine, or yours. At our current rate of building this altar, it will devour all around it. At four degrees and more of warming, an unimaginable level we are on track to reach by the end of this century, human civilization itself will be consumed.

So the next time someone, from Exxon-Mobil perhaps, or Shell or BP, or Saudi Aramco, or Gazprom, or VW or Audi or Land Rover, or British Airways or Easyjet, comes to whisper in your ear that reducing consumption of fossil fuels and energy is just too much sacrifice, remember the altar they have been cajoling us to build so high in the sky. In the story, Abraham stops short of murdering his child when he looks around and sees a ram, the real object of sacrifice. Perhaps, if we look around at this late and desperate hour, rather than sacrificing our own children, we might finally see the fossil fuel industries for what they are – and decide to sacrifice them instead.

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