Facing Human Extinction, Activist Wants to ‘Go Down Swinging’

New Green Deal
Text from The New Green Deal by Randy Hayes. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Eduardo il Magnifico / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Reading Time: 18 minutes

As Democratic leaders offer their “Green New Deal” modeled on FDR’s “New Deal,” veteran environmental leader Randy Hayes has drafted the “New Green Deal,” a seven-point plan to address what he calls “a deep planetary emergency.”

While Hayes supports all the goals of the Democrats’ proposal, he focuses more intently on the essential requirements to sustain human life on the planet.

Hayes wants to shift to 100 percent renewable energy and ecological farming with a plant-food focus. He wants to end subsidies for carbon-based energy to reach a “true cost economy.”  And he calls for a plan to restore healthy ecosystems to half the earth, to offset the impact of humans on the other half.

We discuss the recent “eco-spasms” that have flooded large parts of the Midwest and produced more than 500 tornadoes over a 13-day period in May.

We talk about the recent launch of a misleading “astroturf” campaign funded by Big Oil. Its front organization, Americans for Carbon Dividends, dangles a carbon tax and dividend scheme as bait for an indemnification of the very industries that have profited from environmentally disastrous resource extraction.

When asked about the practicality of his plan, Hayes says that, given the grave threat facing the planet, he intends to at least “go down swinging.”

Randy Hayes, the founder of Rainforest Action Network, is an author, filmmaker and environmentalist. He is executive director of Foundation Earth and a consultant to the World Future Council, based in Washington, DC.

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Peter Collins: Welcome to another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. Today we’re going to flip the words around a little bit and talk about Randy Hayes’ ideas for a New Green Deal. Randy Hayes is a long time environmental activist. He founded the Rainforest Action Network here in San Francisco. He relocated to Washington almost 10 years ago where he is the executive director of Foundation Earth. Randy, thanks for joining me today.
Randy Hayes: Yeah, pleasure to be on the phone with you.
Peter Collins: Always good to talk with you. You’re a smart guy who has deep thinking. I always like to engage with you and see what you’re thinking about. Now, you’ve written a seven-point plan for the deep planetary emergency that we are confronting and you and I are speaking after a 13-day string of devastating tornadoes hit in the Midwest all the way from Ohio to Oklahoma. There were 500 tornadoes and the flooding continues in the Mississippi River Basin. This is a remarkable year for climate extreme weather events. Do you think that it’s waking up any people in the country who have been led to believe that climate change is not a threat?
Randy Hayes: I would have thought that, but then about 10 years ago I thought the extreme weather events of the last 10 years would create the political will context for tougher action. You know, category five hurricanes, you know, the Katrina’s and the Sandy’s and various droughts and floods. But they were short-lived. So I don’t think we’ve felt enough pain yet, even from this recent round of tornadoes.
Peter Collins: Well, at the President’s suggestion, we have been raking the forest here in California, but the devastation of the wildfires of the past two years have really hit home. I think many Californians now recognize that sea level rise in the future is a reality and that the impacts of human activity and the carbon that we have generated are really hitting home. You have a term that you refer to it as ecological spasms. Explain that, please.
Randy Hayes: Well, what’s going on is this, planet earth, what we really care about, about planet earth is the biosphere. You can think of that from the depths of the fertile soil to the top of the breathable air. It’s a very thin coat across the planet. But the biosphere is what gives us life and it’s getting spastic, plain and simple. That’s what extreme weather events are. The biosphere is getting spastic on us. So we have eco spasms, ecological spasms, we understand economic spasms. Most people were hurt by the 2008 economic spasm. But I worry even more so about the ecological spasms.
Peter Collins: And, Randy, as we look at this picture, I believe that we’ve actually sustained some losses in momentum in promoting awareness of the threats of anthropomorphic, human based climate change. And also we are seeing the deniers develop some really crafty approaches and we’ll talk about that in a little bit. In front and center we have the Democratic plan advanced by congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey, which they call the … and these terms get a little complicated, but the Green New Deal, and their language references FDR’s New Deal for the American people after the Great Depression of 1929. You consciously flipped the order of the words and explain why you talk about a New Green Deal instead of a Green New Deal.
Randy Hayes: Well, the New Deal has a lot to do with, you know, human prosperity and we’re all in favor of human prosperity. But that’s not the entirety of the situation because there is no vibrant economy, there’s no social justice on a near-dead planet. So we’ve got to all put this in the context of the planet’s ability to support life, the life support systems of the planet, and that’s the biosphere. So what we really need is not an anthropocentric or human centered New Deal. We need a Green Deal. We need to look at nature’s needs. We need to address nature’s needs because, again, there’s no vibrant economy on a near-dead planet.
Randy Hayes: So I think we need a Green Deal and the seven point plan that I synthesized from a bunch of smart people that I get a chance to hang out with and learn from is much more aggressive and broader and doesn’t just focus on climate change. Climate change we refer to as the great problem of consequence that we have to resolve, but to me it’s not the biggest issue. It’s not the biggest threat to the planet.
Randy Hayes: There are about nine life support systems in the biosphere, one of them is our global weather patterns, or climate, but there’s the hydrologic cycle, the health of the oceans, and several other things. They’re all in trouble, frankly speaking. And biodiversity loss, you know, people don’t tend to put that up as a top tier environmental issue. But if we were to lose the pollinators, that’s, you know, a third of the food supply for planet earth in the 7.7 billion people on this planet. So these things all have to be thought of in an integrated, holistic system. We have to solve for pattern, and that’s what I try to do in the Green Deal
Peter Collins: Randy, you cite, for example, the IPCC. We have less than 12 years left to radically transform our economies, technologies, and lifestyles to avoid a planetary catastrophe. And in the extreme scenario, Guy McPherson, who is a retired professor from Arizona, University of Arizona, I interviewed him recently and he makes a pretty credible case that we could see human extinction starting as soon as that 12 year mark in 2030. He cites the warming of the oceans, the melting of the ice, the collapse of reefs, and the melting of permafrost, which will produce, in his view, an accelerating momentum that could be irreversible. Do you share that worst case scenario view?
Randy Hayes: I was talking to David Suzuki up in Montreal, Canada a couple of years back. He delivered a keynote speech at a conference called Degrowth, looking at a planned reduction of the footprint of the human economy. And his talk was: is it too late? His bottom line answer to that question is: we humans aren’t smart enough to know if it’s too late. So McPherson could be correct, but we don’t know that, we don’t have a crystal ball. And at the very least we want to go down swinging with plans that are commensurate with the scale of the problem and the timing of the problem.
Randy Hayes: To me that really means we need to be looking at a planned reduction of the human footprint of our global economy, like a 70% reduction of overall energy use. Even if we went to 100% renewable energy overnight, if we had a magic wand, I don’t think that’s a good idea. All of that energy that we use, or much of that energy that is used is for mining and logging and destructive activities that are undercutting the biosphere’s life support capabilities. So we need a much more dramatic plan and we need to begin to live quite differently under a different economic model, and that’s the work at hand.
Peter Collins: Let me thumbnail your seven-point plan. You talk about promoting a true cost economy, the end-to-end costs of materials that we use: a shift to 100% renewable energy, a shift to 100% ecological farming with plant based food as the focus, protecting the web of life, restoring damaged natural systems to halt the extinction crisis, a shift to low impact lifestyles of ecologically literate citizenry with declining population – that’s a challenge! – ensure appropriate technology policy, then a kind of a catch-all, number seven, of all the other things that we have to contemplate to address this very significant crisis.
Peter Collins: One of the primary kind of divisions that you offer is that we ought to carve up the earth into two basic groups. One that is preservation of the planet and the other that is responsible communities for humans. Talk about that a little bit. I think that’s a very important way to focus our attention.
Randy Hayes: Well, there’s some science out these days does essentially say if you look at an ecological zone that has unique flora and fauna, right? Unique species. If you can save half of that, 50% of that zone, you can save maybe 90% of the species. Right? And some of the projections right now is that with the amount of destruction we’re doing to the natural systems, both terrestrial and in the oceans, we’re going to lose 90%. Well, I’d far rather save 90% than lose 90%, so half earth is … nature needs half is the campaign that I chair of the steering committee of this emerging campaign, and it’s to set aside 50% of the land area on earth and 50% of the oceans. The strategy there is to save 90% of the web of life. You know, the real stock market for planet Earth.
Peter Collins: Randy, you talk about one of the fundamentals here, which is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. And you know, we do have quite a bit of energy production right now. The US is at a peak in its recent history, and there seems to be no interest in dialing that back and leaving even some of the, you know, most noxious energy sources like tar sands fuels in the ground permanently.
Randy Hayes: Now, as long as you can make a profit hurting the earth you’re going to. So we’ve got to shift the economic model itself, the very rules. I like the phrase a true cost economy because right now you can externalize the pollution costs. Tar sands is the classic example up in Canada. But even if we were to exploit that entirely, we’d shift to shale oil in Northwestern Colorado. There’s more oil in Northwestern Colorado than in the entire Middle East, that’s locked up in shale rock. Right? But it’s there. It’s just expensive to extract. More expensive than tar sands, you know? So the economic model itself has to shift. Now we know there isn’t a current political will to do so.  I mean, we can’t even get a bold hard-hitting carbon tax, right? – to begin to internalize those pollution externalities.
Randy Hayes: But it’s not really so much about putting a price on this damage to the earth, pollution, externalities. It’s about eliminating them, and a lot of activity simply should be just banned. I mean, I believe we should ban the production of all nonessential plastic. You know, you want to stop the gyres of plastic swirling around the oceans and undercutting the fish populations as they engulf it and killing so many sea birds? Quit making plastic. Right?
Randy Hayes: If you need a plastic heart valve or something, well, okay, that can be essential plastic, we can have that. But if it’s throw away toys from China or anywhere else, it’s time to just say no. We banned the above ground nuclear testing. We banned the production or use of DDT in the United States. A ban can really radically affect things for the better. They banned above ground nuclear testing because the atmospheric radiation levels were going off the charts, and that’s been able to be held up globally. Even North Korea, when they do their nuclear tests, they do it underground. Well, we wish no one did nuclear tests anywhere, but at least underground is better than above ground. So at any rate, these bans need to occur and shifts that are not politically feasible right now, but it’s time at the very least to start talking about a 6% per year reduction of energy and material use in society globally.
Peter Collins: Randy, the military industrial complex is a heavy user of carbon based energy sources, and Senator Elizabeth Warren has said she wants to charge the Pentagon with addressing climate change. Tulsi Gabbard also running for President, the Congress woman from Hawaii says she wants to cut the Pentagon budget and divert that money into climate change initiatives. I see the latter as a more useful approach, but somewhere I read, maybe even in your document, that we have this cycle where the US military fights wars over oil so that they can get more oil to fight more wars over oil.
Randy Hayes: Well, it’s a sinister scenario and we’ve got to break that cycle. How to do so and guarantee some level of security is no easy feat, but the situation is getting deeper and deeper in that deep planetary emergency. And the military has some semblance of appreciation of science and rational thinking. They know what supply lines are. They know what  logistics are, they know what they need to address a war. But they also know that climate change is bringing on more civil unrest.
Randy Hayes: We’ve all heard for the most part, most of us have heard that the droughts in Syria and the food price rises kind of was the straw that broke the camel’s back to foster the disruption over there. That’s going to happen. There’s going to be more failed states around the world. You know, it’s no easy problem to solve, but at some point the military has got to help lead a solution to the protection of the biosphere. We’re not seeing that yet, but I have some crazy level of hope that there’s some rational thinking there with some of these at least retired generals and admirals that sent … You know, a few years back they sent a letter to every member of Congress saying that Congress needed to take climate change very serious because it was disrupting global security.
Peter Collins: What about the agriculture sector? We know that methane from cows is a major source of carbon in the atmosphere and we also are seeing farming heavily impacted by these extreme weather events. How do you envision a future for agriculture that improves the health of the planet?
Randy Hayes: Well, a couple of years back Paul and Anne Ehrlich from Stanford University wrote an essay, Can We Avoid Collapse? And they really showed in that essay how vulnerable we are to industrial agriculture globally. In aggregate, it’s a major source of greenhouse gases, of course, but it’s also the major cause of the disruption of natural systems and the extinction of species and the toxicity from the pesticides and herbicides and artificial fertilizers that run off into the streams and the rivers and into the ocean. They’ve created 600 dead zones in the rivers that dump into the oceans around the planet from industrial, agricultural, toxic runoff, right?
Randy Hayes: So we cannot save the planet unless we shift industrial agriculture to 100% ecological farming. Fortunately, studies have been done that show that we can actually grow more food and better feed the planet from ecological farming than industrial agriculture. And we can grow our soils instead of eroding our soils and sequester a lot of carbon into those soils as part of an attempt to stay below two degrees centigrade average temperature rise. So that’s a major focus. Those people that, particularly the silicon valley types who send out a message that 100% renewable energy will save the planet, it’s the wrong message. It’s a really insufficient, misleading message. You know, it’s probably more important that we go to 100% ecological farming than 100% renewable energy. But of course we want to do both.
Peter Collins: That’s interesting. And we are seeing the extinction of species already underway. At what point does that become critical? And you know, can we write off a certain species and say, well, it was nice to have him here on earth, but they’re not central to human survival, so we’re not going to restore habitat or make other moves to try to avoid extinction of certain species that scientists may consider to be non-essential.
Randy Hayes: Of course many species are essential to human life. We can start with the fact that what is an individual human? It’s a set of systems embedded in other systems, right? You have a nervous system, you have a digestive system, you have a circulatory system. We are systems embedded in systems, and no individual human would live without the gut bacteria in our digestive tracks, right? So we are fundamentally dependent on the web of life itself in so many different ways.
Randy Hayes: As I mentioned, you know, the pollinators account for about a third of the food that’s grown globally has to be pollinated. And many people have heard about the bee colony collapse. In the last 18 months there’ve been several reports on what people call insect Armageddon, a radical decrease in the number of insects and just many aging boomers like myself can recall the number of splattered insects on a windshield as a kid driving through the countryside. That, you know, feels quite different because it is quite different.
Randy Hayes: So we have got to protect the web of life, and that means a dramatic shift in the strategy. There hasn’t been a plan on paper to stop the sixth great extinction, but there is now and it’s called Nature Needs Half, setting aside half of the planet, half of the oceans and half of the lands. With a team of conservation biologists we did a study year and a half ago published in

BioScience where we laid out that there were 846 ecological zones with unique flora and fauna and we assessed how many of them have 50% of each zone already protected. I’ll round off the numbers, but say that over 100 of those 846 ones already have half protected and another couple hundred have at least half of the original flora and fauna in there and could be protected.

Randy Hayes: Then the third category were another couple hundred of those zones that only have maybe 20% of the original flora and fauna but with conservation biology could be restored 50% and give us a fighting chance to stop the extinction of so many species in the web of life. Last point on the web of life is that when a species goes extinct, that’s of course a tragedy in some ultimate sense of thinking. But additionally, we lose its function in the web of life. We don’t just lose the species, we lose its function. So if it’s a pollinator of our food and we lose that function, we’re in trouble.
Peter Collins: And it can be part of a food chain for some significant species that humans rely on, so I do understand the interconnection. Randy, you also have points in here about shifting to low impact lifestyles. And I shared with you an introduction to a woman named Vanessa Keith. She is a Brooklyn-based architect who has published a book called 2100 and she looks at a four degrees increase in the heat of the planet, Celsius, by 2100. She and architects devise plans for human adaptation. In a quick thumbnail, Vancouver and Moscow are projected to be the most livable cities in 2100 and so they design areas for resource extraction, renewables, and high density population centers in the livable zones.
Peter Collins: While, you know, you can quibble with many aspects of it if you wish. I think it is a vision for, as you say, going down swinging and it gives us some ideas of ways that we can adapt and in particular change the buildings that we live and work in and adapt to the expected changes in ways that we might find confining or socially limiting, but they do offer us a clear path forward to survive as we face possible extinction.
Randy Hayes: We do face possible extinction. So how does one think about that? How do you maintain some semblance of hope? Well, a friend of mine, Dianne Dumanoski, once told me, “Sometimes you need to change what you hoped for,” and that makes a lot of sense for me. I used to hope for an elegant transition from industrial madness to a more socially just and ecologically sound society. Then I started hoping for a semi-elegant transition because I could see it wasn’t going to happen in some pretty and sweet way. Now I don’t even think there’s time for a semi-elegant transition, but collapse of different systems does not necessarily mean extinction of us as a human species.
Randy Hayes: So maybe what I hope for at this point is how do we rebuild post collapse through that more socially just and ecologically sound society. And the work of the woman, the architect that you mentioned, is a visionary and appropriate. The fact that she’s gearing it already towards a four degree average temperature rise, Celsius, is quite interesting to me. I sent it around to a group of collapse thinkers around the planet and they found her work quite important. So again, if we go down swinging, it’s still towards building a better world, and at this point I think that may quite likely be post collapse, but we still need to get that job done for future generations of all life.
Peter Collins: One of the big points that you make in your white paper here, Randy, is that we need to make significant adjustments in the heavy industry and other technology that we currently employ. How do we approach that and how do we get buy-in from the very profiteers who seem to want to extract every last dime from the status quo before they are, you know, dragged kicking and screaming into the future?
Randy Hayes: In the 70s and early 80s in the environmental and social change movement there was a lot of talk about appropriate technology, but it seemed to have been dropped for a couple of decades. We now hear of course about wind and solar as … that’s not even often called appropriate technology, need technology policy on planet earth because of a number of reasons.
Randy Hayes: But let’s take a look at the problem of climate change for a moment. Right? And people say, “Well, climate change is perhaps the biggest problem that we have to face, and if we don’t solve that, nothing else matters.” Right? Well, I don’t think of climate change as a problem. I think of it as the result of technology choices. In the late 1700s we invented the steam engine and powered it with coal. In the early 1800s we invented the internal combustion engine and powered it with oil and gas. We made technology decisions back then that provided short term convenience. Virtually no one at that time thought that this was going to have an unintended consequence of changing the atmospheric chemistry such that all life on earth was threatened. Right?
Randy Hayes: So what is climate change? It was bad technology policy, so I think we need to set up institutes on every continent that analyze the carrying capacity of the continent biologically and analyze the unintended consequences of new technologies. Jared Diamond, who wrote the book Collapse, has a wonderful quote where he essentially says that all of our current environmental problems are unanticipated, harmful consequences of our existing technology. Then he goes on further to say, “There is no basis for believing that technology will miraculously stop causing new and unanticipated problems while it’s solving the problems that it previously produced.” Right? If you take that literally that means we damn well better take a look at technology policy.
Peter Collins: Yeah. Fascinating. Randy, I shared with you before we started talking a newly published report from an outfit called LittleSis, and LittleSis is an arm of the Public Accountability Initiative. They’re a nonprofit journalism group based in Buffalo, New York, and they report on a new development. Industry, including the oil extractors BP and Shell, are contributing money to support the Baker-Shultz plan which would put a $40 per ton tax on carbon emissions.
Peter Collins: Now, this appears to be the most brazen act of greenwashing that I’ve seen in a while. The entity that’s promoting this is called the Climate Leadership Council and it includes BP, Exxon, ConocoPhillips. Baker and Shultz are the former Secretaries of State, George Schultz and William Baker I think was his name. Anyway, they are promoting a tax and dividend scheme and they’ve hired some high powered lobbyists, former senators Trent Lott and John Breaux, Joe Crowley, who was defeated, the congressman defeated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is now lobbying for the group at Squire Patton Boggs. They are promoting this, I believe, as a way to counter the New Green Deal that you propose, the Green New Deal that the Democrats are promoting, and it really is, to my view, a pretty sinister and cynical approach to the issues.
Randy Hayes: Yeah, I’ve taken a look at that because I know Ted Halstead is also behind that leadership council. He started the group in the bay area some years ago called Redefining Progress and did some good things coming up with the genuine progress indicator as a way to replace the GDP, gross domestic product as an indicator. So, you know, he is not a person who’s trying to do harm. On the other hand, I think we’re getting out maneuvered, and part of what their package, their carbon tax and dividend has another provision that would indemnify the oil and gas industry from lawsuits. I think that’s the real agenda.
Randy Hayes: You know, we saw what multi-billion-dollar successful lawsuits did in the tobacco industry, right? Because of their heinous crimes of misleading the public. The oil and gas industry is involved in the same level of heinous crimes only it’s even larger than the tobacco problem. They realize that would sink their ship. They’re sinking collectively our global ship, you know, ship Earth. I think that’s what’s really going on with that initiative, and you’re indeed right that it’s a scary and sinister development.
Peter Collins: Randy, where can I direct people to get more information on Foundation Earth and on the seven point plan, your New Green Deal?
Randy Hayes: Well, we have a website, you know, and we abbreviate foundation FDN, so it’s FDNearth.org and when you first open it up you’ll see our pledge of allegiance to the Earth that we developed for children. Then you can go beyond that to the website and you’ll find the work of Foundation Earth. The tagline for this little think tank is rethinking society from the ground up. That’s what needs to be done. It’s time for a new way of living on this planet and a new economic model.
Peter Collins: Randy Hayes, thanks for joining me today. Always a pleasure to talk with you.
Randy Hayes: My pleasure too. Thank you.
Peter Collins: Thanks for listening to this radio WhoWhatWhy podcast with Randy Hayes. Send your comments to peter@peterbcollins.com, and I’d appreciate any contributions you can make to support the great work we’re doing here at WhoWhatWhy.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Luis Mata / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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