The Steffen Manifesto

This looks like an eye opener and a game changer. I’m inclined to shout “Game over, man, game over!”, but I’ll leave that for some other post (the title “Relocation, Separation, Isolation, Amputation” has been crying to be used for far too long anyway). And it does have the properties of a Manifesto so maybe spreading it around isn’t such a bad idea.

A tiny bit of background: even though Alex Steffen is a prolific writer, this particular thing came from his Twitter account. Relatively brief, considering the topic, and painfully to the point.

I care deeply about rolling back this tide of fascism, racism & corruption, and building far more just, honest & fair democracies for everyone. This is the time for that fight.

That said, I have never been more worried about another, larger threat.

Our planet is in crisis.

This crisis is inarguably the largest present threat to human well-being around the world, right now, and it’s getting worse fast. It ought to be the main focus of human attention, everywhere. Huge numbers of scientists who study the Earth’s climate, oceans and ecosystems — and experts who study food, water, public health, migration and international security — are warning us that these systems are plunging into crisis, with each crisis impacting the other crises. I call this interwoven set of crises “the planetary crisis” precisely because even problems as big as climate change are not anything like the totality of the emergency we face.

The planet is one enormous, interconnected set of systems, and they’re all in upheaval now.

I’ve been working on the planetary crisis—and exploring the solutions we use to respond to it—for more than 25 years now. That’s a long time to live with catastrophic threats, and to keep doing work this traumatic, you have to grow a thick skin. So, if I say that things have me worried, please understand that I’m not new to these problems, nor easily flustered by them. Indeed, when I say I’m worried, I say it as someone who believes that it is our duty keeping our courage and calm in times like these.

That said, I’m worried to a degree I haven’t been before. I’m worried for a few reasons:
a) the science is coming back with more dire findings than many people seem to realize;
b) opponents of change are mobilized as never before;
c) time is of the essence.

That last part, time, is the most important. Time is short. Time is way shorter than most people understand. Time is even shorter than most advocates for climate action understand.

Time is short for two reasons. The first is that every day we delay action on the planetary crisis is a tragedy. Every day we lose, we draw closer to tipping points and breakdowns. We lose opportunities forever; we make the problems we have to face more dangerous ones.

The second reason time is short is that our solutions need time to spread. There has never been more reason for optimism about our capacity to build a carbon-zero world. Our clean technologies, designs, policy ideas and business models get more powerful by the day. Part of what gives them their growing power is that as we build more of the clean economy, we learn and improve. The faster we build, the faster we learn, the better our solutions get and the more able to out-compete the dirty economy they become. In addition, even many of our solutions that are on slower technical learning curves return much greater benefits the earlier they’re implemented. The sooner, for instance, that girls everywhere have the opportunity for quality education, the better off humanity will be. Almost everything we know how to do to tackle our planetary crisis works better the the faster we scale. Speed is everything. But at this moment when we need to go fast, we are surrounded by predatory delay. Predatory delay is the blocking of change to squeeze profits from unsustainable practices, regardless of the cost to others.

And here’s what worries me the most: I fear that far too many people are blind to the degree to which waiting to solve our planetary problems until we win our political aims inevitably means waiting for too long to solve them at all. We are out of time. If the order of our actions is
a) defeat facism, b) tackle the planetary crisis
a) anything, b) tackle the planetary crisis
it will be too late.

On climate, sustainable development, ecosystems and a host of interconnected issues, failure to act boldly in the next few years means a massive failure for all humanity. The 2020s will be the last decade in which we can choose a bright future for humanity. That means—especially on climate change—our next steps are the most important of all. And the kind of action we need has to be not only smart and good, but actively disruptive to the forces of predatory delay.

Given that in the U.S. this action cannot happen in the time we have available through the normal politics of national policy, we need a new kind of politics, using different levers and new strategies. Because we have to win fast, we have to fight different. I worry that way too many of us see addressing the planetary crisis as an “issue”—something to care about on our list of things to care about. And so when we hear about the need for climate and sustainability action, they add that need to a list of other priorities. All to often, this means thinking of planetary action as something that has to be done in balance with—or even subject to the prior demands of—other economic, social and political priorities. This is understandable. It’s also the most certain route to planetary catastrophe. Why? Because all of the pathways open to us in this crisis demand disruptive changes, deployed immediately, accelerated fast. There are no pathways that are slow, measured, balanced and non-catastrophic. Here’s the hard truth: Delay is the enemy of humanity’s future, but some delay comes in the form that demands other problems be solved BEFORE we can move forward with disruptive solutions. Some of that delay is even predatory, done to protect older advocacy establishments.

The problem: the speed of action needed demands discontinuous, sudden changes. These will certainly alter the shape of the economy, our cities and our societies. Yet we simply do not have time to wait until we’re certain of those impacts before we act. Demanding we wait until we’re certain of the outcomes of these changes is a demand for catastrophic failure. Recklessness is the only responsible course. That’s really screwed up. We should never have found ourselves in this position. Yet here we are.

At the same time, we know that societies in the grips of rapid transformation need to become MORE progressive to succeed. We need more education, better social safety nets, more democratic governance, stronger protection for human rights—more real solidarity. Here’s the hardest part, to me. If we choose to delay disruptive sustainability action to meet other present needs, we likely lose massively on both fronts. An unfortunately plausible outcome here is lurching, desperate last-minute schemes taken as a profound ecological catastrophe unfolds, which then combine to cause serious declines in human prosperity, widespread erosion of human rights, and spreading civil conflict.

A more likely outcome involves taking just enough action to stave off the worst of the catastrophes, but acting too slowly and too timidly to avoid increasingly dire problems… and *still* winding up with the profound economic dislocation some say they wish to avoid, today. I don’t think there’s any future where we avoid wrenching changes. As far as I can see, every future in which we focus on trying to avoid those changes leads to worse outcomes for almost everyone. We don’t talk about this nearly as much as we should.

As far as I can see, this means that all our best choices involve not resisting those changes or even mitigating the impacts of changes, but leveraging as much change as we can get to accelerate into a new economy with more forceful commitments to human progress.

In other words, as far as I can see, there’s no way out but through.

Our best shot is changes whose speed and impact are outside the current window of acceptable political debate. (That they are un-discussable does not, of course, make them impractical.) To win, we need to shift our focus from gradualism to speed, yes, but also from the idea we’re protecting people from change to the reality that we need to protect folks from delay. What worries me most of all is that I don’t see a movement for progress based on overcoming delay, a movement that understands that speed is justice.

The storm is coming. Every day it draws closer. And I worry more than I ever have that when it hits, we’ll still be arguing.

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