All the policy talk around the “climate emergency” is either technical with reference to the effects of carbon pollution, emissions-reduction goals, or political with reference to cost, employment, or other policy matters. But the predicament we face in confronting the climate emergency is far greater and more complex than usually imagined.
Public climate-change policy leaders debate carbon-reduction ‘targets,’ sign unenforceable agreements to meet those targets, do nothing to reach those abstract goals. Instead they pursue investment opportunities for utopian techno-fixes. Meanwhile, they ignore the inevitable complex societal factors involved in actually decarbonizing the economy as we reach planetary limits to growth.
However, Earth-System stabilization requires extreme and comprehensive yet unexplored societal-economic transformation. We have lost our connection to Nature, the complex living system some call Gaia. The resulting predicament is not discussed in policy circles, where the climate crisis is treated as a mere “problem” within a narrow linear mindset.
The Human Predicament
First, a predicament is not just a problem. Conventional thinking imagines climate change to be a problem that new technology and materials can fix within the worldview of the industrial-consumer economy. Ecomodernists—promoters of extending the techno-industrial status quo—think that by merely applying technical knowledge to “fix” carbon emissions by applying new technology to existing processes and products of the industrial-consumer economy will “solve” the “problem.” Wrong.
Second, the global predicament that produced the climate (and ecological) emergency runs so much deeper than a “problem” because the global corporate industrial consumer economy itself continues to upset the relative stability of the last 11,000 years or so of the Holocene Epoch. That is what leaves humanity with its current monumental predicament. Modern industrial civilization arose because of the conditions and opportunities provided by that stability. That happened at a time when humans occupied a very small portion of the planet. Now, the planet is overrun by our profligate production and waste.
Furthermore, our complex industrial economy requires constant growth to keep functioning; that is how it was designed. In an infinite world that might go on forever. But we live on a finite planet that has limited resources and sustains livable conditions only so long as its elements remain in balance. Today, we live in a world out of balance.
Visualizing Life Out of Balance
Most folks viscerally know that something is wrong. But they cannot quite visualize just how unstable our world has become. “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance,” an experimental film produced in 1982, remains a powerful flow of images that some consider a tone poem expressing the destructive effects of urban-industrial society on Nature and on the balance of life that existed before industrial civilization. Its power comes from the imagery itself rather than narrative. It remains relevant because four decades later we are much further down the same path of destruction. You can watch it online.
Koyaanisqatsi is the first in the qatsi trilogy of films, which together offer a visceral experience of the transformation of life in Nature to the struggle of life near the end of the industrial era. We can discuss the global corporate extractive industrial-consumer economy and its growing danger for life and the entire Earth System. But it is also important to feel the consequences of the New Great Transformation of life in the habitat of humans. That is made possible by the incredible artistry of the qatsi trilogy.
This New Great Transformation of the Earth System (Gaia) and its impact on humans is reflected in the great upheavals of modern life. These upheavals include the COVID-19 pandemic, the destruction of ecosystems, the destabilization of climate around the world, and even the new rise of fascism and the demagoguery of politicians in the context of growing societal chaos in many nations today. The January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol proved how ugly that can become and how blind or indifferent politicians can be to the threat to democracy. Each of these trends constitutes an existential threat to humanity. The only viable solution is to engage in a New Great Transformation of society itself to find new ways to harmonize with Nature and the only habitat we will ever have.
“Have a nice day.”