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In Close Proximity: Bailing out the climate-change Titanic

“The needs of capital accumulation and the market in land determine land use, not the needs of people.”

— “No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World” by Greg Sharzer

The disappointing ritual of doing nothing at U.N. conferences on climate change has been covered by Democracy Now — but not the network news. Scientists are giving us five years to avoid the worst impacts of unrestrained CO2 emissions and only not-for-profit alternative news has anything to say about it. Climate change wasn’t even mentioned in the three presidential debates.

The principal antagonist at the U.N. Doha conference was the U.S.—the world’s largest economy — dramatically highlighting the death wish of the global capitalist economy which requires growth at any cost — even if unsustainable. Rather than reducing carbon, the U.S. is defiantly accelerating environmental destruction by promoting the Keystone pipeline and fracking for gas. It is clear that this government is allied with corporate capitalism — leading to environmental devastation.

At the local level, however, people have long understood the need for environmental preservation. Indeed, the very first land conservation trust in the nation, The Trustees of Reservations, was founded in 1891 in Massachusetts. There were many to follow, including the Kestrel Land Trust here in Amherst. These trusts are powered by inspired land owners, the monetary and labor contributions of individuals, and by provisions at the town and state levels of government. Their efforts are inspirational and invaluable.

Yet the scientific consensus — that time is running out— remains despite proliferating local conservation efforts throughout the nation. We must ask ourselves whether local efforts can be enough to save us — particularly limited, as they are, by the rules of the neoliberal economy and its legal structure of private property, profit taking and speculation-induced value accretion.

It is clear that there will never be enough local capital to buy out the interest of profit over people. How could there be when the top 10 percent of households owns 75 percent of all wealth? Local land preservation is extremely valuable — but it’s like bailing water out of the Titanic of global climate change.

Everywhere, water deposited during past glacial ages is being overexploited by wealthy countries, sparking expanding land grabs in Africa, Latin America and Asia to grow biofuel crops, stimulate production of meat, cushion weather-related crop failures and enrich commodities speculators driving prices up when shortages occur. These ancient waters are renewable only over eons, far slower than the rate of exhaustion.

In 1932, the consequences of short-sighted commercial agriculture became starkly apparent in the United States. Having stripped away the native grassland, massive dust storms carried tons of Great Plains topsoil east across the continent, shading the sun in Chicago and dusting ships miles off the Atlantic coast. Today, massive agro-business expands on the high plains, fed by the Ogallala Aquifer. When drained, it will take over 6,000 years to refill naturally.

Some 10 percent of the world’s population is responsible for 60 percent of global consumption, and primarily responsible for the depletion of nonrenewable resources and for rising atmospheric carbon. A goodly proportion of this commercial and individual consumption is in North America and Europe — and is increasingly sustained by resources in other lands. Receiving flowers, bananas, rare earth elements, copper, oil, etc. from out-of-sight places, the middle class can easily imagine that local farms, electric cars and saving local lands can dam the rush of capital’s relentless growth imperative.

However, the bourgeois lifestyle cannot be sustained, and personal or even town-wide and regional efforts only disguise that reality. Local efforts at conservation are powerful and ecologically valuable tools of demonstration and protest, but of themselves cannot arrest climate change. Obviously, systemic economic and political changes are needed — an immense and daunting challenge.

Given our limited window of opportunity, we’ll need to get out of our comfort zones and embrace bold — even radical — ideas.

Steve Randall, Rob Crowner and Larry Ely are the writers for the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project: www.masschc.org/PVRP.html.

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