World War One, we are told, began with the shooting of an Archduke. Within four years, eight million men were dead. It was a clash of empires, fought over coalfields and colonies, there was no good side, despite what the chaplains on both sides said. The men and boys from a hundred thousand villages were poured into the grinder because they were available, the surplus harvest of empire.
The Second World War arose from the injustice of the first. Poverty and shame drove people to Fascism. This time the whole planet was a battlefield. 40 million died. The Cold War that followed hung in the balance through thirty years of nuclear threat, which we carefully and gradually stepped back from. We are learning.
The Third World War will not be fought with guns. It’s the battle for the earth, not its ownership this time, but its existence. Who would have thought that of all the shortages our profligate living would lead to, it would be the very coolness and calmness of our planet’s skies.
Today unprecedented storms, droughts, fires, floods and famines, have begun to stalk the earth. Both the Russian, and American wheat crops have failed in two consecutive years. (The Arab Spring was driven not by democracy but by hunger - food prices worldwide have doubled, and the poor are the ones who take the brunt). Farmers are right now walking off West Australian wheat farms through endless drought. There is a single cause to all of this; atmospheric carbon is now higher than for millions of years. We have passed the safe point of 350 ppm, at which temperature growth can be contained, and are headed for 400 and beyond - there isn’t an upper limit. The result is that the radiative cooling power of the atmosphere is being lost. It’s called “greenhouse” for a reason. Shut the doors on a greenhouse, let it broil in the sun, and you will know what that means.
Economic experts, global banks, world agriculture bodies, even firefighters, are adding their voices to the alarm that was first raised by the scientific community. Councils and cities are studying maps of inundation risk and recalibrating flood precautions. Every season brings its dangers now; the TV news is like a disaster movie. And fortunately, finally, people are starting to wake up.
A conflict of massive proportions has already begun. Fossil fuel industries are the most powerful industries in the world, and they aren’t going to be stopped by legislation or negotiation - at least - not in time. So we need a new, different kind of war. The Third World War will be fought not with guns, but with people putting their finances, their energies, their arguments, their boycotts, and probably their bodies in the way of the coal trains and ships and the mines that feed them. It will be a war of the little against the big. Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Food, and Big Media. All have grown fat while we fed at their table. Not realizing the cost of our holidays in Bali, our kid’s school trips to Paris, our commutes to football matches interstate or jobs two thousand miles from home. Our tank-like cars and airconditioned McMansions broiling in the sun. Our agriculture that is nothing more than oil turned into fertilizer turned into food.
Its such a revolutionary moment. Everything that anyone cares about - animals, wilderness, farming, refugees, peace, safety, freedom from terrorism, health, culture, heritage, but most of all - our children’s and their children’s ability to eat, breathe, support themselves, and not die in chaos, depends on this one single cause. If you are reading this and aged under forty, you may see billions of needless deaths in your lifetime, including perhaps your own. Because of the inescapable reality of this, almost beyond our cognitive powers to absorb, we have to stop the carbon madness. We have to stop using fossil fuels for our energy, transport, and food.
There has to be a transition, considered, phased, and rational, but above all planetary and radically fast. We have to execute a 180 degree turn in how we run the world’s machine.
As an individual, I have no more idea than anyone else how we do this. But there is a concept I like, which comes from progressive theology (of all places). Its called Living the Questions. Just by asking - how can I, individually, work to peaceably end the mining and export of Australia’s coal? Since the best, cheapest and really only practical form of carbon sequestration of all is simply to LEAVE IT IN THE GROUND. It is, after all, pure carbon.
This is what I am asking: Which organizations should I join, and raise and donate money to? Should I drive an electric car? Should I change where I live, how I live? How much of my bank account or superannuation is backing coal or coal seam gas or oil exploration? How much time should I give to this? An hour a week? A day a week? The rest of my life?
What is morally right when so many lives are at stake, when not just a forest but all forests and all oceans and ecosystems may be damaged beyond repair? What would Gandhi’s truth-force mean in this context? What would Jesus do? What must our generation do, who hold in their hands the final fate of the green earth?
My generation has seen and created change. We’ve stopped wars, we’ve faced down corporations and won. We’ve gotten rid of bad politicians and consigned the two party duopoly to the garbage bin of history. Like many of my activist friends I am old, and feel the freedom of not overly caring about my own comfort. Future generations becomes more and more the centre of our concerns.
I believe that nonviolence is essential, that gentle means must always be used first, and second and third. But gentle means can also be powerful, and absolute. We would not stand by and let murder happen without stepping in. Thats exactly what is happening when coal ships sail from our shores on their journey to creating famine, fire and flood. I don’t know what to do. But I am starting to ask around. The Third World War will be for the earth, and I know whose side I am on.
Steve Biddulph is an Adjunct Professor of Counselling at Cairnmillar Institute, Melbourne, and author of Raising Girls, Raising Boys, and The New Manhood. He lives in the Tamar Valley.
Pics:* The Oklahoma tornado horror. Mains image: from here