“Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality”, Doing Nothing While the World Burns and Extinction Looms


A wildfire on the Greek island of Evia, August 6, 2021 (Photo: Sotiris Dimitropoulos/Eurokinissi via Reuters).

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It’s too hot.

Three weeks since the UK experienced its hottest weather ever, with temperatures hitting 40°C, it’s become clear that that was just a spike in a long hot summer in which, for the first time ever in my 37-year history of living in London, the weather has turned hostile.

“It’s just summer”, the right-wing tabloids and right-wing politicians say, as though it isn’t the hottest year on record, as though the ten hottest years on record haven’t all been since 2002, and as if temperatures exceeding 50°C in India and Pakistan, and exceeding 40°C in France, Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain are nothing to worry about.

We are led by liars, mostly in the service of the oil and gas companies who have been lying about the catastrophic impact of man-made climate change, through the profligate use of fossil fuels, ever since they first discovered the awful truth in the early 1980s. This took place though their own research, but they then deliberately suppressed it, as was recently spelled out, in agonising detail, in the BBC’s excellent three-part documentary series, ‘Big Oil v. the World.’

Slowly, however, the people of the world have woken up to the truth — either through increasingly alarming reports by climate scientists, through the consciousness-raising activities of activists, or, increasingly, through the evidence of their own senses, as more and more people experience the devastating effects of climate change first-hand.

A recent study by Cornell University established that over 99.9% of climate scientists now agree that man-made climate change is real, based on a study of research into climate change from 2002 to 2020, consisting of nearly 90,000 peer-reviewed academic papers and reports. Speaking about how, as the Guardian described it, “scepticism among experts is now vanishingly small”, Mark Lynas, the lead author of the study, said, “It is really case closed. There is nobody of significance in the scientific community who doubts human-caused climate change.”

Ordinary people, moreover, are also taking the crisis seriously — and in significant numbers. As the Guardian reported last November:

[T]he biggest ever opinion poll on climate change, for the UN Development Programme, found two-thirds saying it is a “global emergency”. Across 50 countries, a majority in every one agreed. Both the young and the old agreed: 69% of those aged 14-18 and 58% of those over 60, indicating there is not a huge generational divide.

Another large poll, for the BBC, showed most people (56%) across 31 nations want their governments to set stronger targets to address climate change as quickly as possible, with 36% backing more gradual action, and just 8% opposing action.

In the UK, Ipsos Mori found that 80% of people think the climate crisis is a global emergency, with the same proportion blaming human activity. Concern is rising fast: between 2016 and 2020, the proportion of people very or extremely worried about climate change jumped from about 20% to almost 60% among UK citizens over 35 years old, with those younger going from 30% to 70%.

A howling void where there should be action

And yet, where there should be leadership, there is a howling void. 30 years of international climate summits have finally led to agreement that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, but still nothing is happening.

There are a number of reasons for this. One, undoubtedly, is media misinformation. In the UK, broadcast media rules aimed at ensuring impartiality — defined by OFCOM, the regulator, as “not favouring one side over another” — require differing points of view to be aired on any given topic. For decades, this has allowed climate change deniers — generally, if not always funded by the oil and gas industry — a platform for their dangerous lies, but when scientific agreement on the existence of, and reasons for catastrophic climate change is essentially unchallenged, no one should be allowed to debate it as though it is still just an unproven theory.

A useful analogy would be the tobacco industry, which, like the oil and gas industry, spent decades denying what they knew, from their own research, to be true — in their case that smoking was a major cause of cancer. No one would now realistically argue that apologists for the tobacco industry should be allowed to question the science, and climate change deniers should now, similarly, be prevented from airing their views.

In the British broadcast media, to be fair, climate change denial has now largely been marginalised, although the same cannot be said of the print media, where prominent newspapers — particularly the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun — continue to peddle climate-related lies. To be blunt, it should be possible for them to be prosecuted for doing so, along with social media organisations that continue to provide a platform for climate change deniers.

In addition, politicians in the pay of oil and gas companies should also be banned from airing their views, and, as the activist Donnachadh McCarthy recently explained, the revolving door between the corrupt media and the government also needs to be exposed and shut down.

As McCarthy described it, “Polls consistently show overwhelming public support for on- and offshore wind, solar and insulation/energy efficiency. Over three in five (63%) British adults support the UK government redirecting spending allocated to North Sea oil & gas extraction to renewable energy technologies such as wind/solar/storage and low carbon industries such as energy efficiency. The government’s own 2021 Public Attitudes Tracker showed 87% support for renewable energy, with only a tiny 1% opposing it. Onshore wind specifically had 80% support, with only 4% opposing [and] by a majority of two to one, the public opposed fracking for natural gas. In a YouGov poll, 49% of people put investment in renewables at their top priority for government investment, compared to just 7% for nuclear power.”

And yet, when it came to the government’s own Energy Security Strategy, introduced in April, the public’s concerns were overridden by the government’s adherence to the diktats of the Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun, calling for the expansion of nuclear power, maximising new fossil fuel extraction in the North Sea, sidelining the creation of new onshore wind farms, reopening the possibility of fracking, and refusing to consider a major insulation programme to reduce the cost of energy bills.

Profound system change is needed

Even more sweepingly, however, an even more fundamental obstacle to change is that the crisis is so severe that only profound system change can address it, and give humanity a chance of surviving the climate apocalypse that, it is now clear, is happening far quicker than even the most pessimistic climate experts expected.

If we lived in a sane world, all new fossil fuel extraction — of coal, oil and gas — would stop overnight, as would all single-use plastic production. The construction industry would end its devastating love affair with concrete, and our obsession with dirty vehicles — cars, planes, container ships and cruise ships — would also be severely curtailed.

We don’t, however, live in a sane world, and all these changes would spell electoral disaster for those who tried to implement them, even if any genuinely visionary leader could be found.

They could, however, start with eduction, relentlessly telling the truth via broadcast media, social media and advertising, pointing out that the emergency is so severe that it will soon be impossible for any political opposition to sweep to power by cynically telling people that “business as usual” is still viable, and that everyone should be allowed to continue doing whatever they want, regardless of its environmental cost, because doing what you want — so long as it involves selfish consumption within a capitalist framework — is what they’ve all been selling us for 40 years since they so effectively began dismantling a socialist alternative in the 1980s.

Instead, however, we have that total collapse in leadership noted above — in the UK, a rudderless government, in which the most irresponsible Prime Minister in history, Boris Johnson, swept to power in December 2019 by promising to fulfil an impossible and poisonous dream — unleashing anything but economic disaster through leaving the EU — will be succeeded by either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss, both inadequate to the task, in large part because of their refusal to engage with how disastrous Brexit has been and will continue to be, but also because their only focus is on persuading 200,000 of the most selfish and deluded people in the UK — the Conservative Party’s members — to vote for them.

Generally white, elderly, well-off and living in the south east of England, these people — just 0.0033% of the population — care only about immigration and tax cuts to enrich them further at everyone else’s expense, and seem to be thoroughly marinaded in misery and hate, despite being amongst the most fortunate and economically comfortable people in the whole of human history.

We have set the world on fire

And yet, in spite of all these obstacles, the blunt truth is that what we do today, tomorrow, next week, throughout the rest of 2022 and into 2023 is going to determine our very survival. We’ve never faced a crisis like this before. Money can’t save us, and nor can turning a blind eye and hoping it will all go away. Even in war, in an occupied country, at least a percentage of the population has generally been able to survive by keeping their heads down, and, often, through cooperating with whichever warmongering lunatic is in charge, but with catastrophic climate change there is no escape. We are at war with ourselves. Our home, our mother, our planet, us turning against us, directly as a result of us having set her on fire.

So who will step up to address this void where unprecedented system change needs to be? We can’t count on the political opposition, as the underwhelming Keir Starmer hopes only that, by standing still and saying and doing almost nothing, the inevitable anti-Tory backlash will swing his way.

More likely is that civil unrest will be triggered this autumn by what is being euphemistically described as the “cost of living crisis”, driven by the failures of Brexit, Covid-related economic collapse, the war in Ukraine and the greed of the energy companies, completely unchallenged by the government.

With inflation at 9.4% (the highest rate in 40 years), and fears that it will reach 15% by the start of 2023, and with the average household’s energy bills also set to rise to £4,266 a year next year as OFGEN, the energy regulator, plans to yet again lift the price cap that dictates what can be charged — with, apparently, no concern whatsoever about who, along the supply chain, is nakedly profiteering from rising fuel costs — tens of millions of people are set to be unable to afford to live this autumn and winter, making some kind of widespread civil agitation seem inevitable.

A new movement, Don’t Pay UK, has already arisen to challenge this disastrous predicament, demanding “a reduction in energy bills to an affordable level”, and a promise by members to cancel their direct debit payments from October 1, if they are ignored, and if they can secure the support of a million people (they are currently close to 100,000).

However, while this resistance is understandable, recalling the mass non-payment of the Poll Tax by 17 million people in 1989-91, it still needs to be undertaken in the wider context of catastrophic environmental collapse. Being unable to afford food or to heat your home is a pretty devastating scenario in one of the richest countries in the world, but it’s still taking place in a world on fire, in which immeasurably worse conditions are imminent unless we also take action to dismantle the entire ecocidal economic system. Imagine dwindling food supplies because of drought, and water supplies drying up. That would kill us in just a couple of days, and yet it’s no longer a far-fetched dystopian scenario.

On the political front, a new centre-right political party, the Climate Party, has just been formed to address the Tories’ failure to tackle the crisis, set up by Ed Gemmell, a former army officer and city lawyer, who, as the Guardian explained, “plans to challenge the Conservatives in 110 marginal seats in the next election”, and whose aim is “decarbonising the economy by 2030.” As the Guardian added, “Gemmell’s vision is for the UK to become a global leader in the energy transition by stopping all subsidies for fossil fuel companies, implementing polluter-pays policies to stimulate the circular economy, and investing in renewable infrastructures and technologies.”

This is an interesting development, but realistically, in our broken first-past-the-post electoral system, the party will struggle as much as the heroic Green Party to turn urgent political concerns into electoral success.

Fundamentally, then, we the people — the majority of us, who aren’t part of the delusional, largely geriatric Brexit fantasy — are alone, in a burning world that is making clear to us, on a daily basis, how our home is on fire like never before, in which extinction looms, and yet the tools for necessary change remain largely locked up and inaccessible by those who have so often conspired to make life wretched, but who, never before, have threatened our very existence — greedy, embittered old white men (and sometimes women, and occasionally people of colour) who, this time, will kill us all unless we stop them.

Take action

To take action, please consider getting involved with Extinction Rebellion, whose next actions begin on September 10, and Just Stop Oil, who are currently holding up to 30 public meetings a week, online and in person, to build their direct action movement, committed to “immediately halt[ing] all future licensing and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK.”

If we all get involved, change is possible, perhaps through these existing groups, or perhaps through another, even more successful disruptive organisation, not yet imagined. Whatever we do, however, we have to be aware that, if we do nothing, we are signing our own death sentence, and I’m pretty sure that none of us want that.

Over to you. 

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    It’s three weeks since, over the course of two days, we experienced 40°C temperatures for the first time ever in the UK, and yet, although temperatures are now only the high 20s, the humidity is nearly 50%, and I’m finding it impossible, here in London, to do very much at all.

    There is, moreover, a burning edge to this heat, and it’s this that troubles me the most, as it seems, very clearly, to indicate that we have already reached a tipping point, and that the very atmosphere that we rely on to enable life to survive on this extraordinary planet has turned hostile.

    This is also, it seems apparent to me, a premonition of what lies ahead — an increasingly hostile environment that will, if we don’t swiftly curb our greenhouse gas emissions, make the earth uninhabitable.

    To combat this, our countries are all supposed to be committed to reducing our emissions by 50% by 2030, and yet, instead of swift and visionary system change, what we’re seeing in the UK right now — and, I’m sure, in many other countries around the world — is absolutely nothing.

    In the UK, instead of leadership, we have what I describe in my article as a howling void — an absent, discredited Prime Minister, and two leadership contenders who are as out of touch with the urgency of the situation as it is possible to be, drifting ever further to the right in increasingly desperate attempts to woo the Tory party’s 200,000 members.

    By autumn, however, it seems pretty clear that some sort of civil unrest is inevitable in the UK, as the “cost of living crisis” — driven by inflation and a crippling, and unchallenged increase in energy costs — makes life unaffordable for tens of millions of people.

    Hopefully, the primary urgency of the already unfolding climate catastrophe won’t be overshadowed by all this suffering and anger, because, as I explain in my article, “while this resistance is understandable … it still needs to be undertaken in the wider context of catastrophic environmental collapse. Being unable to afford food or to heat your home is a pretty devastating scenario in one of the richest countries in the world, but it’s still taking place in a world on fire, in which immeasurably worse conditions are imminent unless we also take action to dismantle the entire ecocidal economic system.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, my friend George Kenneth Berger shared it, and wrote:

    A must read by Andy Worthington in the UK. I have been getting increasingly pessimistic. When Omicron showed up all governments in Europe except Germany followed orders from industry and stopped acting as protective organisations. Everywhere! We are now close to nuclear war and economies are collapsing. Given the global stakes, nothing like this has happened since 476 CE, when Rome fell in the West. Finis Europa – Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, right before his suicide.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for appreciating this, and for sharing it, George.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    It has all been on my mind these past few months, Andy.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s impossible to avoid for anyone paying attention, George. I’ve been constantly troubled for five weeks now. First, Dot and I went to Turkey for a week, where I expected it to be crushing hot, although it was only the first night (we arrived at the end of a heatwave) that was unbearable. However, when we got back London was just as hot, and had been while we were away, apparently, so it’s now been five weeks of above-normal (or ‘new normal’) heat here, and it’s genuinely troubling. We already face unprecedented droughts, and the international picture is no less alarming – particularly with regard to what’s happening to the ice sheets.

    We clearly need to transform society immediately, and yet there’s no will for it from our leaders, who are now, it is apparent, caught in an old world paradigm that is suddenly no longer relevant. They all need to be swept aside if they prove unequal to the task ahead, and swiftly too, as the next few years are going to be crucial for clear-sighted and significant change to the entire way humanity operates.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Ed Calipel wrote, in response my introductory notes on Facebook:

    Unfortunately, quite the contrary; we’ve seen commitment to fracking from the absolute morons, one of whom will be the next British Prime Minister and an obvious dereliction of duty by everyone in “government” in the UK.

    It’s as if there were no tomorrow…

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Whoever inherits the poisoned chalice of Brexit PM won’t last long, I suspect, Ed, as events will swiftly overwhelm them. Even in just a year’s time, I suspect, the emergency will already be so severe that only those with a viable vision for the future will have credibility. It will be interesting to see who rises to the challenge.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Fauzy-Ackroyd wrote:

    Thank you for writing about this. I also have a terrible sense of foreboding about the current period of heat combined with drought. And yet it is barely touched on in the news. The dissonance is disturbing. And the desperate need for urgent system changes away from run-away capitalism as our ‘government’ couldn’t be more blindly trying to uphold it using whatever corrupt means they can get away with. And all the repressive laws being passed I suspect are preemptive of the unrest that will follow as this model breaks down and climate change squeezes resources evermore.

    Education would be the most effective route to bringing about support for lifestyle & system change which could influence shifts in the ‘social norms’ as they exist under capitalism. It could effectively expose the ‘insanity’ of the current economic model and offer inspiring alternatives. However, its very effectiveness is one of the reasons why, corporations, governments, military complex, Hollywood etc ensure these subjects are swept under the carpet and the public distracted by divide and rule issues that are insignificant in comparison to the devastation of climate change. As a former primary school teacher, I was aware that children this age were completely sensitive and compassionate with regard to the flourishing of our planet but then it becomes too difficult to flow against the tide without a huge amount of support from family, friends, teachers the community, local and nation government, etc. One personal example is writing repeatedly to the local council to reduce or stop mowing parks during drought and prioritise watering recently planted trees in order for them to survive the drought. And nothing changes – the contractors mow on with scarves round their faces to protect them from dust … and the trees die. But there’s no giving up. We continue to chip away!!!

    P.S. Also, I now water the trees myself with 5L containers as there is fortunately a stand pipe in the park! And the trees were planted with piping into the ground so the water can reach their roots …

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    I know that many of us have a terrible and understandable sense of foreboding, Anna, and I can only hope that, as the crisis continues to escalate, and the old order is ever more thoroughly discredited, people will arise who can articulate what needs to be done, and who will secure support for the necessary system change. Perhaps that seems optimistic, but I think Covid lockdown compliance showed that people can adapt, and do so swiftly and in great numbers, if the threat is articulated well enough.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Neill Le Roux wrote:

    I’m in Northern Spain and this year for the first time, I’m seeing well established trees die. What happens when all the trees die? It’s almost certain that in the not too distant future it won’t be possible to grow crops anymore? Yet instead of immediate action, almost everywhere we see countries beefing up the defence budgets? It’s frightening.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    We’re collectively so out of touch with nature, aren’t we, Neill? If trees are dying, those who live close to the land will be aware that something apocalyptically bad is happening, but political leaders don’t live close to the land, and no longer have any meaningful connection to it, along with the majority of the people they represent. City living has removed us so much from nature.

  12. Doing Nothing While the World Burns and Extinction Looms, by Andy Worthington – Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Andy Worthington Writer, Dandelion Salad Andy Worthington website, Aug. 10, 2022 August 14, […]

  13. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, had been planning for some time to write to you on various subjects, but was feeling somehow deflated, no energy. Loss of smell was the final factor which confirmed Covid. Hope it will not end up being the ‘mild’ but long version. And at least it is not transmissible through internet :-).

    We’re dancing on a vulcano – is what I’ve been feeling for many years now. First & formost the climate but also what is directly or indirectly connected to it. The ruthless race of survival of the fittest, aka the most (financially) powerful ones, democracy increasingly an empty shell with frustrated masses going out into the streets to claim their due. But masses are easily manipulated – and then crushed by militarised ‘police’. The lofty speeches and photo-ops with fat smirks made by the usual suspects in luxury resorts, followed by zero action. My esteem for Guterres is rising, but he has no real power. The Ukraine war is the starkest reminder if any was needed, that any excuse to return to the most polluted energy sources will immediately be pounced upon.

    The only positive development seems to be a long overdue acknowledgment of the value & rights of indigenous populations. Irony or a logical consequence of the fact that they always have been and still are by far the best guardians of our eco-systems, as they respect nature and cooperate with it rather than trying to conquer and own it ? If anyone, they can provide answers, provided we stop treating them as inferior simpletons or condescendingly as ‘noble savages’ at best.

    For many years in several sub-saharan African countries I have witnessed first hand the toiling of exhausted people, working bone dry soil with only hand tools, lacking clean drinking water, proper food or even the – absolutely essential – salt & sugar to sustain them. Now watching on my computer European dried corn fields, parched soil and people (with fridges, some even airco) incapacitated by the heat, I was hoping it might finally bring some understanding that perhaps those ‘lazy’ Africans are not any lazier than we are, just exhausted ? But so far no luck.

    As for us ever managing temperature levels mentioned in those lofty speeches, let alone doing it before it is too late, I’m afraid I’m not optimistic. For far too long we have been concentrating attention (if any) on CO2 emissions without acknowledging that that is merely the starter motor for the main overheating engine of methane, released from melting permafrost and ice around the Arctic. That unfortunately cannot be stopped by human intervention once it has passed a critical level, as it is a self-fuelling process, spiralling out of our control. The more methane is released -> the hotter that region becomes -> the more permafrost melts -> the more methane is released -> etc …
    No wonder temperature increase in that region already is much higher than in the rest of the world. So tipping point might already have been reached or looming any day now – long before 2030 or even 2050. I do hope I’m wrong and no excuse to just give up the battle.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Anna, but sorry to hear about you getting Covid. Dot recently had it for the second time – nowhere near as severely as the first time – but it doesn’t seem to be interested in me.

    I share your concerns about methane – and particularly because of that cycle you mention. Most reporting on methane notes that it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but is 80 times more significant than carbon dioxide in heating the atmosphere over its first 20 years, and it certainly seems, from this long and appallingly hot summer, that we’re now trapped in an atmosphere that is heating up like it never has before. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/methane-emissions-are-driving-climate-change-heres-how-reduce-them

    I’m trying to be optimistic about how the extent of this year’s heat and droughts are making so many more people than before wake up to the urgency of the situation, but unless it’s sufficient to remove all our tired old leaders from office it won’t make the difference required. But on the other hand I honestly don’t see how they can pretend that “business as usual” is anything more than a bitter joke now, and with more extreme weather reinforcing that notion on an ongoing basis. Perhaps it helps to be in the UK, where the absence of leadership is so acute, and where the 40-year model of privatising everything is being pretty relentlessly exposed as a devastating failure.

    Perhaps, as the tipping point for the climate manifests itself even more clearly and horribly, the tipping point for the criminals who have led us here will also become apparent. We’re certainly running out of time for the necessary and massive changes that are needed.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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