The Nature of Revolution

It’s common to hear the word ‘revolution’ associated with combating the current and future perils of global climate change. It is arguably no longer controversial for the influential among us to insight a call to arms, a radical change to our daily practices, to face the greatest environmental (and, according to Kevin Rudd circa 2007, moral) challenge of our time.

Even the Pope used the term, two years ago, in a manifesto aimed at rousing immediate action, addressed to the world’s Catholics (and aimed well beyond, to its leaders). Al Gore, who is no stranger to revolutionary speak, just this year compared action on climate change to the great global movements of slavery abolition, the defeat of apartheid and the inclusion of women in the democratic process. In his opinion, the sustainability movement is happening faster than the rampant digital revolution and will be comparable in depth and breadth to the Industrial Revolution.

The word ‘revolution’ can evoke feelings of both anticipation and unease – it implies, of course, a major upheaval, a shake up to how we do things, to how our lives operate on a daily basis. We’re often hesitant to embrace even initial discussions of what a modern day revolution might look like (this is certainly the case for the vast majority of our politicians stuck in the race for re-election and the cycle of short-term governance). It’s a difficult prospect, to radically change, when the lucky among us are entirely comfortable.

It’s certainly a challenge to draw upon our highest level of reasoning and intellect in order to act not just for our capitalistic benefit now, but for the planet that sustains our life, in the present and future.”

One of the most notable times that humanity executed such a feat of global acumen was during a revolution; an industrial revolution that saw an awe inspiring scale of advancement; and which, we now know retrospectively, started climate change. The industrial revolution was a manifestation of genius; a putting into practice the superior brainpower of the human being. And yet there was and is a cost to our rapid and impressive progress that we didn’t anticipate 250 years ago but can now measure with accuracy. As a consequence of the extension of our potential, we have changed, and continue to alter, hour by hour, day by day and year by year, the very elemental structure of the planet that supports us to a tipping point where it no longer can.

For the most part (and there are commendable, inspirational exceptions) we seem to be ploughing forward with our old-school techniques – our love affair with fossil fuels, industrial scale farming and deforestation – despite the certainty of their contribution to the demise of our species. It’s big stuff, the consequences of not changing course, of not strategically adapting to our new circumstances. The stuff, in fact, of dramatic, apocalyptic movies, which we eagerly watch for the purposes of entertainment (and ironically, escapism). Ours is a predicted future that at the least, makes most of us deeply uncomfortable and uncertain; and at the most, invokes in us a pervasive fear for the lives of our families of the next generations.

For all the cause for despair, there is, many argue, even more reason to galvanise. If climate change was started by radical transformation, it makes perfect sense that it will be a revolution, another updated display of the brightest and best of human creativity and potential, that stops it.

A green revolution, driven by a collective intent to preserve the natural world in order to preserve our species, would be propelled and popularised by notions that go well beyond the limitations of politics, and a sense of moral duty.”

It would be fashioned from a similar force of inevitability and innate global shift as the industrial revolution; from an understanding that we can experience both sacrifice and great benefit at the same time, and that disruption and transformation is a symptom of the natural expression of human potential.

However, instead of talkin’ bout a revolution, the rapidity and widespread saturation of change required to meaningfully deter the worst effects of a warming climate is oft-compared with the impressive and orderly mobilisation of wartime. The rhetoric here is that of great sacrifice and hardship, of a relinquishment of pleasure and convenience; a resigning to one’s limited fate in the name of survival.

Conversely, in an interesting essay in The New York Times on the use of the language of war to tackle climate change, Eric. S. Godoy and Aaron Jaffe explain why they back the rhetoric (and action) of revolution instead: ‘While world wars aim to decimate enemies and their capacities for violence, “revolutions” aim to transform violence and oppression by empowering people. Instead of a war against physics, a revolution in the control and direction of climate, natural resources and energy policy could enable democratic participation to redress past harms and guide environmental goals of the future. Such a revolution would affirm the right to a clean, healthy environment for all people; it would transform the relationships that regulate our metabolism with nature, relationships that now allow some to profit by denying this right to others.’

Godoy and Jaffe’s sentiments of empowerment may lead us to consider whether or not this revolution has actually started, if its initial rumblings are being heard and felt. What if there is an unspoken eco consciousness movement happening within ourselves, that will ultimately translate into a broader social trend? What if some of us are already subconsciously rejecting the excesses of consumerism in order to live clearer, simpler, more meaningful lives? What if our intuitions are telling us to experience and protect the realigning sanctity of nature, to see its rhythm as a crucial and foundational part of ourselves?

A modern-day revolution would mean an enlightened choice – at the personal, cultural and political level – to take ownership of our every action, purchase and energy source, and our individual and collective relationship with the natural world.”

It would require an empathetic wisdom; a lack of fear of radical action; and an intrinsic appreciation of the notion that change is part of the human story. As the activist and anarchist Abbie Hoffman said: ‘Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit.’

If history is anything to go by, revolution is unavoidable. Improvement on our practices as we learn better is part of our human inclination. It’s in our nature.