Rioting for Austerity

<March '09>

This item was written as a column for my local paper [the North Renfrew Times] & has just finally been published there. So, here it is here, too!

I read George Monbiot’s excellent book Heat – How to Stop the Planet from Burning recently & was powerfully struck by the author’s many insights. In fact, I could easily devote this column to a thorough review of the book, which is well worth reading for its explanation of the climate crisis denial industry alone! Monbiot is a very capable, clear writer & his book is full of well-reasoned and practical proposals. Since it’s available at most libraries, I hope readers will consider diving in & reading it for themselves!

Monbiot contends it’s going to be necessary to cut our greenhouse emissions by 90%. What this column is really about is his comment early in the book that “nobody ever rioted for austerity.” His remark inspired writer/activist Sharon Astyk and her friend Miranda Edel to do the very thing he’d said no one was likely to do.

In June 2007, they instigated an on-line ‘Riot for Austerity’ challenge – the goal being to get as many people as possible to reduce their personal carbon emissions by 90%. As Astyk comments in Depletion and Abundance – Life on the New Home Front or, One Woman’s Solutions to Finding Abundance for Your Family while Coming to Terms with Peak Oil, Climate Change and Hard Times (New Society Publishers, 2008), this optimistic goal would be much easier to achieve if governments were actually working to improve public transportation, subsidize small-scale agriculture and invest in renewables. In spite of the lack of these obviously necessary initiatives from our “leaders,” those who “rioted for austerity” made huge reductions in their household emissions. People from 15 countries took part, & as Astyk says in her book, “Instead of a sense of loss, we’ve found joy.”

She’d already stated, “Our terrible affluence is at the root of our current crisis.” Hearing this was no great surprise to me, having many years ago read economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s eye-opening book The Culture of Contentment. Galbraith argues persuasively that, as the middle class has expanded, we’ve become…well… more than a little selfish, complacent & greedy.

Monbiot & Astyk certainly do throw down the gauntlet! Monbiot contends that our governments know perfectly well we citizens don’t really want them to succeed at halting climate change by instituting tough measures. He comments, “They know that inside their electors there is a small but insistent voice asking them both to try and to fail. They know that if they had the misfortune to succeed, our lives would have to change. They know that we can contemplate a transformation of anyone’s existence but our own.”

Yikes! He’s nailed us, hasn’t he?

Astyk quotes Wendell Berry (senior citizen writer, poet, Christian farmer, environmental activist), who has said: “The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and less wasteful.”

Astyk points out “This is not about fighting but about regeneration.” She cites examples of people who took part in the ‘Riot for Austerity’ making “their own beer…passive solar heaters and …a bicycle-powered washing machine.” She understands well that affluence does not necessarily bring happiness, and that, in fact, we can indeed “live more with less.” You could do worse than to check out Ms. Astyk’s blog at There is a real wealth of very practical information there…

Monbiot quotes from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.: “Thou shalt not be a victim. Thou shalt not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”

He asks, “Do we want to be remembered as the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?”

I say, fossil fuels may be a finite resource, but human psychic potential is infinite. If we really decide to “blow the lid off” & face the climate change challenge head on, we are entirely capable of doing it.

What do you think?

Relevant words seen on a sign at a Massey-Ferguson dealership: “Those who say it can’t be done shouldn’t interrupt those doing it.”