With the talks in Copenhagen now under way, nearly everyone in the environmental movement must be hoping for a deal. In order to be struck, the deal will have to be politically acceptable. In order to be politically acceptable, it will have to be fairly close to 'business as usual'. For these reasons, I cannot feel cheerful about the future of our planet in the hands of our leaders.
Yet as some have pointed out, almost any deal to bring on board the world's two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases can be seen as a turning point. The new multilateral thinking in China and the United States will bring multiple benefits, as actions taken by one country are repeated in 191 others. Yet outside any deal it is important for states to act unilaterally too. It would be wonderful if all in my city agreed to switch to low energy light bulbs, but I shouldn't wait for such an agreement before changing my own bulbs. That would be crazy. Unfortunately, the 'logic' of realpolitik and gamesmanship means crazy is the norm for international actors.
Perhaps history will see Copenhagen as the moment the supertanker began to turn. It will take more than two weeks to turn it away from the rocks. It may take decades. It is thus important to keep the pressure on and not let our governments retreat into the old modes of selfish nationalism.
States, on the whole, act more selfishly than individuals. Perhaps this is because decision-makers at the helm of states represent groups, divisions within the human community, and place the interests of that group above all others. We expect the President of France to try to forge a deal that is in the interests of the French people. He sees it as his job to be selfish on behalf of his constituency.
If this is the case, it's important we tell our politicians they've got it wrong on two counts. First, don't think making us richer will make us happier: we'll happily pay more taxes and accept a lower material standard of living if it will make the world a safer, more equal, more harmonious place. And second, don't think we'll be content to thrive at someone else's expense: we want a deal that's fair for the poorest people in the world, the ones who are least to blame for climate change and most at risk from its effects – even if those people happen to have been born abroad.
All this campaigning might work if we lived in democracies. Unfortunately, none of us do. Instead 'our' politicians are owned by the rich and, even more, by powerful corporations. Corporate money ensures they are elected and corporate lobbyists ensure they toe the line – or else. Even without direct lobbying, a policy which displeases the corporations is quickly destroyed by falling markets, leaving politicians more concerned with pleasing the stock exchange than pleasing the voters.
What to do about it? Luckily the corporations gain their power from us. If we stop buying the plasma televisions and Caribbean holidays we don't need, the corporations lose power. We'll also need less money so can work fewer hours for those same corporations. If we sacrifice less of our precious time following corporate orders – orders which amount to inducing folk to buy things they don't want, made from resources the planet cannot spare – the corporations lose more power. And eventually 'we the people' might be able to take control of our destiny.
It sounds utopian only because the current system is an engine driving us toward dystopia. When advertisers and politicians exhort us to work harder and spend more, to fuel the processes that are killing our planet, almost any alternative has to be an improvement. It's time we realised it's in our hands.