If we don’t fix the climate, Beacon Hill will be an island

As Boston’s Climate March turned left and headed up Beacon Hill, a woman to my left improvised a marching chant: “If we don’t fix the climate, Beacon Hill will be an island”. After a few rounds, she stopped to laugh, saying “hey, I’m trying to be creative”. She succeeded. Beacon Hill is a large hill in Boston’s downtown section, some blocks away from the harbor. If the sea level were to rise enough, the harbor would reach inward, surround Beacon Hill, and turn it into an island. The imagery was completely appropriate for the moment.

As a Pirate, I spend a lot of time talking about transparency, policy, technology, and the ways in which the internet can be a tool for social change. We spend less time talking about climate and environment. That’s not to undermine the importance of climate, because it is an extremely important issue. We recognize that there are many amazing people working on climate justice, we trust them to take the lead, and we’ll come out in support when we can.

There are commonalities to these struggles, and I think it’s worth pointing out a few. Let’s take US copyright law as an example. Our first copyright law granted a 14 year term, with the option for a 14 year extension. Today, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, which we like to call the “Micky Mouse Protection Act”. (The name comes from the notion that copyright terms will continue to be extended so that Micky Mouse never enters the public domain.) How did we get here? It boils down to selfishness on behalf of a few large rightsholders. A few companies make lots of money from old copyrighted works, and they’ll be dammed to see those works pass into the public domain. They’re concerned with their revenue stream, rather than what the public might want.

Fossil fuel companies aren’t any different. During the last hundred or so years, they’ve been purveyors of “black gold”. Black gold has been a source for great profit, and these companies will be dammed before they let that revenue stream diminish — even with the risks and harms associated with the continued use of fossil fuels. The climate deception dossiers are full of examples of how the fossil fuel industry was fully aware of the link between CO2 and global warming, while they waged active campaigns of disinformation. To
quote:

… [F]ossil fuel interests closely mimic the strategy pioneered by the tobacco industry when it surreptitiously funded misleading public health research that questioned the health risks of smoking.

Remember big tobacco? It’s the same story: if people think that smoking is bad for their health, then they might stop smoking, and we’ll make less money; therefore, we have to make people question the health risks associated with smoking.

Sometimes we put too much emphasis on profit. That’s not a blanket statement saying “all profit is bad”; profit is merely one thing, and it has to be taken in balance with other factors.

Clean energy is something we can do (open innovation anyone?), and something we must do. Besides the obvious benefits to the environment, there are potential fiscal benefits: once you’ve set up the infrastructure to capture energy from renewable sources (wind turbines, solar panels, and so forth), there’s not a lot of cost needed to keep that infrastructure going. Even if there were no cost savings, the environmental benefits would be worth it.

Petroleum companies are very profitable; one would think that they could invest some of those profits in clean energy research, to position themselves for a time when energy production relies less on carbon. This would make sense, even if it were only done as a hedging strategy. Unfortunately, large corporations are generally interested in sticking with what they know, and with what’s worked for them in the past. For example:

  • Kodak did early research in digital imaging, and invented the digital camera in 1975. They chose not to market digital cameras, for fear that they’d cut into the company’s core business: film. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
  • James Dyson developed a set of clever vacuum cleaner designs. Companies like Hoover weren’t interested because Dyson’s designs didn’t use bags, and vacuum bags were a $500m/year market. Dyson started his own company instead.
  • For decades, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was a highly respected manufacturer of mainframes and minicomputers. DEC didn’t take the personal computer market seriously, and predicted it would “fall flat on its face“. Today, the only surviving remnant of DEC is Digital Federal Credit Union.

That’s not to say humanity had a crisis of digital imaging, bagless vacuum cleaners, or personal computers. I’m simply noting that people have a remarkable ability to innovate and invent. Often, the big innovations don’t come from entrenched interests.

This brings me to another similarity: the Mass Pirate Party organizes cryptoparties, to teach people about encryption and privacy enhancing technologies. Protecting your privacy isn’t hard, but it takes a little work, and it does require people to change habits they’ve gotten used to. Likewise, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will require people to change existing habits. Sometimes, you have to give something up to get something in return.

Collective action is important, it’s something we can all do, and it’s something that works. You don’t need permission to do the right thing, or to vote with your feet.

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