It is as sad as it is fascinating to observe the complete disconnect between the assumptions behind current emerging trade wars and those behind the current pretensions of nations to taking climate action.
On the one hand, news reports of steps taken on either side in the escalation of Trump’s trade war with China assume that human progress depends on extensive international trade. They portray such steps as damaging imports and exports and therefore “the economy” itself. That, of course, results from the near-universal belief in the value and necessity of expanding the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy.
Perpetuating the Impossible
On the other hand, it is eminently clear from the overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence that the global economy is the primary source of the disruption of ecosystems around the world. Industry not only destabilizes local and regional ecosystems by aggressively extracting materials for production. That global system of extraction, shipping, manufacture, more shipping, promotion, sales, consumption, and waste – what Dmitry Orlov calls the “technosphere” – is the driving force behind climate chaos and destabilization of the entire Earth System. Yet, global economic and political elites continue to deem it necessary and good.
Of course, while China and other nations recognize the existential threat of climate chaos for their societies, the U.S. remains hog-tied in a political struggle. The know-nothing, anti-science, fossil-fueled corporatists battle the climate activists who respond to the scientific facts of climate chaos, ecological destruction, and impending societal collapse. Even as China begins to turn away from coal as a major source of energy production by reducing the number of new coal-fired power plants, the sheer momentum of its growth adds significantly to global carbon emissions. Despite the international agreement to limit carbon emissions to achieve global warming no greater than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – which is itself an inadequate goal – global carbon emissions continue to grow.
System Dynamics in the Real World
Everyone who pays attention to the growing body of scientific evidence understands the destructiveness of the trends, especially in the self-amplifying feedback mechanisms that accelerate climate chaos. The two obvious examples are: 1) methane release from melting tundra adds to the warming that caused it (an arctic expedition recently discovered that tundra-melting is already 70 years ahead of recent predictions), and 2) greater heat absorption by deep blue arctic waters than by the reflective arctic ice that is melting into the seas. The evidence is now clear that even if we were to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – which is increasingly unlikely – significant climate chaos will result.
The sad fact is that no government in the industrial world has made any serious effort to curtail emissions to an extent anywhere near the level required of all nations to avoid societal collapse within the next couple of decades. To reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” will require dismantling the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy and replacing it with local and regional ecological societies that embed economic activity within the parameters needed to restore ecosystems and restrain climate instability. The implications for social change are nearly inconceivable.
Societal Transformation for Survival
Clearly, pulling off such a New Great Transformation of societies is a long shot. Nevertheless, it is the only chance we have to avoid extreme destabilization of climate and the destruction of ecosystems and species upon which humanity depends for survival. Global, regional, and local collapse of societies will follow as ecosystems and climate further destabilize. Fighting or resolving trade wars, in this context, is the global equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Forget international trade, except for limiting it to exchanges that assist devastated nations to survive. The industrial and industrializing nations must abandon the entire culture of industrial consumerism and the extraction, production, and trade that it perpetuates. Unfortunately, national governments and the corporations that control them continue in exactly the wrong direction. Trade wars are part of the old global industrial-consumer political economy, which dominates national governments and their policies. That is why it is now up to the people to find a new path out of the death dance of extractive industrial consumerism.