A fresh awareness of system-failure and resource-constraint draws on the experience and ideas of the 1970s. But this time the vision of radical change is real possibility as well as urgent necessity.
(This article was first published on 1 December 2011)
The United Nations conference on global climate change in Durban on 28 November - 9 December 2011 is so far showing minimal signs of progress. The reality of global climate change is not waiting but forging ahead. The World Meteorological Organisation finds that the earth is nearing a threshold that may bring irreversible movement; that 2011 may be one of the hottest years since records began to be kept in the mid-19th century; that the thirteen hottest years on record have been in the past fifteen years; and that Arctic sea-ice in 2011 was at a record low volume (see "Irreversible changes for Earth are feared as warming rises", WCTV, 1 December 2011).
The evidence of climate change is overwhelming, yet governments are in denial when faced with the massive economic and cultural transition needed to bring it under control. The denial is aided by powerful groups of sceptics linked by free market ideology and often funded by fossil fuel companies. Some richly funded think tanks and institutes have escalated their campaigning; the Heartland Institute's new report, Climate Change Reconsidered, is but one example.
A core issue regarding climate change is that radical change must happen in the next ten years to prevent overwhelming problems over the next forty. The scale of the response needed requires governmental action and sustained public pressure; this runs directly against the free-market mindset which abhors such an approach as unwarranted statism.
There is a compelling logic at work here. Climate change is a fundamental problem facing humankind; the free-market approach, unable to address this and thus accept its own obsolescence, can only deny the reality (see Naomi Klein, "Capitalism vs. the Climate", Nation, 9 November 2011).
The lost certainty
An intriguing twist in the current situation is its echo of the early 1970s when the response was, as it has been so far this time, the opposite of that needed. The main difference is that the pereceived problem then (though a few analysts already anticipated the climate crisis) was Opec's steep oil-price hikes of over 400% between October 1973 and May 1974. The result was hitherto unimaginable "stagflation" - a combination of rapidly rising prices and increasing unemployment. This crisis in turn provoked some innovative and often radical thinking and action, including (from the mid-1970s) the growth of an environmental movement dedicated to renewable energy and low-impact living, prepared to campaign rigorously on key issues.
Some of today's best-known movements, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have their origins in that period; the pioneering Centre for Alternative Technology in mid-Wales (founded in 1973) and the radical science journal Undercurrents were similarly ahead of their time in making arguments that are even more pertinent now (as perusal of their early literature shows).
The reaction of governments and establishment economists was to ignore the early indicators of environmental constraints. The path they chose instead, of neo-liberal Reaganomics and the Washington consensus, led ultimately to the financial implosion of 2007-08. Again, they would reinforce the same dogmatic free-market approach, while imposing an even greater burden on the weaker countries and communities.
The problem for the enthusiasts of this course is that, more than three decades on, it is becoming ever harder to oppose an urgently needed transition. This helps explain the degree of desperation among defenders of the status quo in search, against all evidence, of signs that the system can indeed cope.
The late flowering
There is still a very worrying danger that the mistakes of the late 1970s will be repeated. The outcome then had a doubly damaging consequence: three lost decades in responding to the basic challenge of environmental constraints, and the evolution of a world economy dominated by a huge and growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a transglobal minority.
Yet awareness of this very precedent can become a source of hope. Many of today's more progressive responses - from climate-change activism to transition towns, from the Occupy movement to innovative think-tanks - are informed about and enthused by the campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. In many countries there is an intergenerational connection between those (often among people over 50) with experience of the earlier period and those of a much younger generation with a fresh determination and commitment (see "The crisis and the change-makers", 24 November 2011).
The combination is reflected in a level of self-confidence that could prove to be both powerful and sustained. In that case, radical change - however it may come about - is more feasible than even its proponents may think. Such an outcome would mean that the 1970s, even as the decade recedes into history, after all contained seeds of change whose belated flowering came just in time to save the world from catastrophe.