Can we get there from here? That is an open question. It all depends on what we do, and if we do. So far, we have done almost nothing in comparison with what we must do to retain a livable world into the Anthropocene.
Overwhelming evidence on global warming and its effects destabilizing the key components of the Earth System – the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the geosphere, and the biosphere – requires that humans cut our carbon emissions to net-zero in the next decade or so. Otherwise, increasingly erratic and extreme weather will destroy food production around the world and cause extreme destruction to coastal cities, island nations, and lowland farms everywhere.
The End of the Industrial Age
Unless the extractive industrial consumer global corporate-growth economy is severely constrained, anthropogenic ecosystem destruction will undercut the very sources of sustenance that humans have always depended upon for survival. To achieve this, a New Great Transformation of industrial-consumer societies is necessary. Neither political authorities nor environmentalists will talk about that. It is too big a challenge for them to contemplate.
So far, international agreements to constrain carbon emissions have focused on idealistic limits on global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels and the relative responsibilities of fully industrialized and not so industrialized nations to achieve them.
How can we reach targets for limiting the heating of the planet? Most put their faith in new technologies for sequestering carbon while continuing business-as-usual economic growth. That will not work any better than applying a Band-Aid to a compound fracture. We must close the barn door before all the horses escape.
We must stop unrelenting carbon emissions at the source – the extraction of industrial materials and fossil fuels from the Earth. Extremely constrained extraction, of course, means that the technosphere – that complex adaptive system whose sole purpose is to grow – must shrink radically, as Dmitri Orlov argues. Yet, abandoning that complex of extractive, industrial, transport, and consumption, will throw the entire society into chaos through the collapse of the corporate global economy that we are all a part of, and that the planet can no longer tolerate.
At the same time, the growing institutional disorder seems driven by instabilities in the globalized growth economy itself. Climate and ecological destabilization will only exacerbate the growing political-economic instabilities around the world.
Facing the Trauma of Societal Transformation
These documented destructive forces lead to some seemingly untenable but inevitable conclusions. First, a New Great Transformation, far more complex than the industrial revolution that caused humanity to overshoot the capacity of the Earth System to carry the load of human expansion, is ending the industrial age.
Second, societal collapse is inevitable unless we rapidly constrain climate chaos and ecological collapse by radically reorganizing our relations to the Earth System and with each other.
Third, the faint gestures toward constraining carbon emissions without fundamental societal transformation are futile. Business-as-usual platitudinous United Nations’ “sustainable development goals” are unattainable. The global neoliberal corporate-growth economy is the problem. Therefore, we must replace it with local-regional ecologically restorative communities that exclude fossil-fueled technologies in favor of human-powered means of sustenance.
Globalized economic and population growth drive species extinction, climate chaos, and ecological destruction, and will soon force depopulation and societal collapse. Refusing to give up on economic growth, aspirational Earth-heating limits of “climate policy” fail to consider how to achieve extreme carbon-emissions reductions. This existential predicament requires an entirely new political-economic regime. That has not yet reached the level of public discussion.
These uncomfortable conclusions rest on the facts of complex-systems science, global trends, and social analysis. For decades, political and economic elites have denied the facts and avoided facing the existential threat caused by their expansionist compulsion. For that reason, now only the “creative destruction” of unprecedented societal reorganization driven by globally networked indigenous and local-regional movements offer humanity a chance for survival. We must transform communities for ecosystem restoration by deploying appropriate technologies to form ecologically sustainable economies.