Do the Math (documentary)

July 20, 2013

Bill McKibben is one of the greatest environmental writers and activists of our time. In 1989 he wrote The End of Nature, which is considered by many to be the first book on global warming written for a general audience. Since then he has written countless articles, given hundreds if not thousands of public lectures, and is the main organizer of the movement to solve the climate crisis.

One year ago McKibben published an influential article in Rolling Stone magazine entitled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” The thesis of the article is that there are three significant numbers that everyone needs to be aware of: 2 degrees Celsius, 565 Gigatons, and 2795 Gigatons. The first number is the global temperature increase that scientists and world leaders believe must not be exceeded if we are to avert catastrophic climate change. It is the number that was overwhelmingly endorsed by participants at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009. The second number is the amount of CO2 that can be put into the atmosphere while staying within a 2 degrees rise in global temperature. The third number is the amount of CO2 that will be released into the atmosphere if the fossil fuels that the oil and coal companies already have in their reserves is used. The terrifying point to take away from these numbers is, quite simply, that unless these fossil fuel companies are stopped, they will destroy human civilization.

More recently a documentary has been made to highlight and publicize the thesis of the Rolling Stone article and the social movement that has sprung up partly in response to it. The film, shown below, is called “Do the Math.” It is one of the clearest and most powerful films on the topic of global warming and well worth watching. There is, however, one weakness in the film, as well as the movement, that deserves attention.

Among the various positive steps that people can take to tackle the climate crisis, the main one focused in this film is a divestment campaign modeled on the campaign that helped to end apartheid in South Africa. University students and church-goers are encouraged to put pressure on their institutions to take their investments out of fossil fuel stock. McKibben makes the argument for this divestment campaign with a simple moral principle: if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s wrong to profit off of the wreckage.

This principle seems fine, as does the divestment campaign that it justifies. However, it also seems that that there are deeper ethical principles at play, principles that justify far more radical action than divestment–and much more radical action is needed in order to truly solve the climate crisis. If it’s wrong to wreck the planet (and surely it is), then it is not only wrong for institutions to invest in oil companies, but it is also wrong for individual consumers to purchase the products of these companies. If oil companies and their investors have become insanely rich (and they have) it is only because people like you and I are consuming their products at an ever accelerating rate. We can criticize universities, churches, and other institutions or businesses for investing in Exxon and BP, but ultimately the profits of those companies are being paid by the those who drive cars, or fly in planes, or use cell phones or computers or any of the vast array of consumer products made with plastics derived from fossil fuels.

So the criticism of McKibben’s article, the film below, and the movement is not that any of them are wrong, but that they don’t seem to go far enough. What is needed is a campaign that not only pressures institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies, but one which encourages or induces people to stop consuming the products of those companies. What is needed, in other words, is not just a divestment campaign, but a boycott and divestment campaign. Sanctions wouldn’t hurt either. But of these three strategies or types of action, the first–consumer boycotts–seems to be the most important. Fossil fuels companies may be public enemy number one, but it is the public that is paying that enemy to continue doing what it’s doing. Without public participation, fossil fuel companies would cease to exist. Conversely, as long as people continue to buy fossil fuels and products made of materials derived from fossil fuels, then there is little hope for an improvement in the climate crisis. So what is needed is more than a transition to an economy based on renewable energy sources. What is needed is ultimately a transition to a post-consumerist society. Only when that begins to happen can we be optimistic about averting catastrophic climate change.


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