To Live and Die in the Anthropocene

The debate over whether or not it is too late to “save the planet” from the human industrial-consumer juggernaut misunderstands the issue of the role of humanity and our future into the Anthropocene. An important flaw in the thinking of traditional “environmentalists” is that they partake in the errors of the culture they seek to reform.

Many would apply technological fixes like “geoengineering” to the symptoms of the system they cannot give up. They hold to the mostly unconscious image of humans separate from a thing called “our environment.” They fail to think in terms of the actual complex adaptive systems that comprise the entire Earth System, of which we are all a part. We are not “in” the environment; we are active agents within the Earth System.

Death is more Certain than Taxes

Regardless of the odds of human species survival in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world, the human predicament remains the same. Will we live and die with some semblance of dignity as one of the many species engaged in the dance of life? Or will we go down in a spiral of denial and resistance to the very forces that give us life, insisting on human, even American, “exceptionalism” to the end?

To avoid the latter path of self and system destruction, a major transformation in consciousness and practice must sweep across humanity and lead us toward ecological harmony. Yes, that does seem unlikely, especially in the short time we have to stave off at least some of the worst consequences of our former and current destructive practices.

Can we live and die well, as individuals, communities, and societies? Can we find ways to live well in the context of approaching societal collapse? Can we live well in the face of extinction? Only with courage and realism can we shape our lives well in the face of death.

Living Well instead of Denying Death

What, after all, constitutes living well in a deadly post-affluenza world? Moderns define living well by their consumption and by the accumulation of wealth, as a means of denying death. The post-modern predicament of impending collective death reminds me of the prophetic words of the old Plains Indian chief, Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie, “Little Big Man,” just before a big battle,

“Today is a good day to die!”

It is not that one intends to die now. Some say we begin to die right after birth. Yet, the inevitable outcome is always a matter of timing. The advocates of “deep adaptation” recognize the grave prospects for human survival into the Anthropocene. They would have us accept our species extinction now in order to mourn properly our collective passing as new swings of Earth System instability make life increasingly intolerable. However, even the strong possibility is not a certainty. We must live until we die.

I am also reminded of Chris Hedges statement, “I do not fight fascists because I will win; I fight fascists because they are fascists!” The will to go on in the face of likely defeat or death has formed an important human value for centuries. Samurai warriors took it to the extreme, glorifying self-inflicted death itself as a respectable way to protect their honor.

Roy Scranton draws on his experience facing death on a daily basis deployed in Iraq and finds hope in living as if already dead, expressed in his book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Scranton reflects on how we might live best in facing the grim realities of impending societal collapse as climate chaos increases the likelihood of human extinction.

I fight for the survival of human and other species not because I will succeed; I fight because I am still alive.

The Sustainability Conundrum

Sustainable This, Sustainable That; Green This, Green That. What exactly is the point? The “sustainability” meme seems to have gone culturally viral. Promoters use it to give any action or proposal at all a sheen of environmental respectability. But what does it actually mean?

I am afraid that “sustainability” has come to mean nothing at all, other than functioning to evoke a politically correct gloss over whatever the speaker (or advertisement) is promoting. It has gone the way of “green” as an emotionally evocative signal that everything will be just fine, as long as you do not look behind the curtain, behind which you may find the shocking truth. (One notable exception is “The Green New Deal.”)

Talk is cheap

Most “sustainability” talk is constrained by assumptions it deeply embeds in the very same extractive industrial consumer culture and practices that can no longer be sustained. “Sustainable” usually implies that a practice can continue indefinitely because it relies on renewable resources, energy and/or “responsible” methods of extraction, harvest, or production.

Open Pit Mining-in-Tazania1

Open Pit Mining ~ Tanzania

However, industrial-consumer economies cannot sustain current levels of extraction, production, and consumption without forcing extreme levels of climate chaos, ecological destruction, and resource depletion. The industrial-consumer economy will no longer be able to sustain the overgrown populations that depend on it. The limits of growth have arrived; economic growth itself is no longer sustainable.

Words and Deeds

The global industrial-consumer economy can sustain some practices for a long time, yet contribute significantly to climate chaos, ecological destruction, and eventually societal collapse. More broadly, the “technosphere” itself (the techno-industrial complex that sustains and is driven by the endless growth economy) is not sustainable simply because it is destroying the core living Earth systems upon which we all rely for survival.

Physics is not negotiable. Faith in technological innovation and economic growth as the drivers of human progress is no longer a viable belief system. Physical Earth System parameters constitute impassible boundaries to reckless techno-industrial economics. Those who live in the ephemeral world of such utopian dreams hold to their untenable beliefs, but cannot persuade the Earth System to passively accept the plunder and pollution we have put upon it. We have set in motion self-amplifying processes that we have little if any remaining ability to control.

Deadly Decisions

Continuing on our present path of impossible endless economic growth will force the collapse of society itself following both the destabilization of the complex dynamic living Earth systems on which it all depends. Also, the internal major sub-system breakdowns we have already experienced, such as in the 2008 global financial meltdown, all indicate growing system instability leading to an accelerated collapse.

A New Great Transformation, vastly more complex than the industrial revolution that started the now-dying industrial era, is upon us. Yet, we have done little to mitigate or adapt to the catastrophic disruptions of economy, ecology, and climate that it has caused.

The dominant concept of “sustainability” fails to consider the limits of extraction-production-consumption and waste on our finite. The globalized corporate economy has overshot the Earth System’s capacity to carry the ecological load of a

ecological-community-18

population of industrial consumers. What is actually sustainable is so different from the pseudo-sustainable industrial-consumer practices still promoted, that it is hard for most to imagine. Survival of the human species will depend on our ability to shape new local/regional ecological communities that embed their economies within and harmonize with the ecosystems they inhabit.

Asking how to assure “sustainable development,” or worse, “sustainable growth,” is a way of denying the fact that the current trajectory of political economy is itself unsustainable.

Overcoming Trumpery and the Technosphere

~ Another entry in the Mad Jubilado series ~

Palpable fear, justified if misdirected anger, and xenophobic demagoguery have Trumped American democracy, even in its degraded form within the corporate state.

With the powerful influence of the fossil-fuel industry, largely through Koch-brothers’ and similar front groups, neo-fascists and white supremacists have penetrated the U.S. politics and that of other industrial nations as well. Driven by extreme racist nationalism, they are manipulated by the corporate powers that dominate democratic institutions at national and state levels of government. These extremists have made significant inroads.

What’s a Mad Jubilado to do? What is anyone with a semblance of democratic values to do to redirect politics to serve the public interest when the corporate elite has exerted so much power across the nation? Citizens remain all caught up in the oppressive if comfortable industrial consumerism that supports what Dmitri Orlov calls the “technosphere” in his book, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-Sufficiency, and Freedom.

The Technosphere and its Illusions

Orlov writes with biting sarcasm and stark realism about the global techno-industrial system run wild. The technosphere is an “anti-Gaia,” self-perpetuating artificial non-organic complex adaptive system. It is driven by its own growth imperative and the need to replace the biosphere with itself. Of course, unless we overcome the technosphere it will destroy the biosphere and its human creators and slaves as well, as its growth surges toward collapse.

Tech.MeaningCredit: Zooky World – WordPress.com

 Orlov grew up in Leningrad, USSR, and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, so he has a special sense of oppressive systems. Combined with his experience in computer engineering, linguistics, high-energy physics, internet commerce, network security, and advertising, his mindfulness of human-produced self-aggrandizing systems is unique.

Some artificial intelligence (AI) experts believe that AI-controlled automated systems can eventually reproduce, eliminating the need for their human inventors. Famed technologist Ray Kurzweil even asserts an inevitable technological transcendence of human biology in his book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Such minds live entirely in the technosphere. In contrast, Orlov hopes that humanity can gradually shrink the technosphere to bring it back under control so that the biosphere, including us, can survive.

Grounding Communities in the Biosphere

National politics is now a pawn of Trumpery and all the Earth System plunder that entails. Even liberal opponents retain their faith in the technosphere as a harbinger of progress. Therefore, to realize Orlov’s hope and our own, we must turn to the remaining spheres of power over which we can exert some control. Many who fear the growing tyranny of the technosphere, as well as its political anti-Nature enabler, Trumplandia, are turning to local electoral politics and civic action.

Their efforts focus on influencing the passage of local ordinances that can protect communities and ecologies from the destructive actions of the technosphere. Their efforts would replace extractive industrial high-energy technologies with human-scale appropriate technologies that can work in harmony with the ecosystems they inhabit.

More on asserting the rights of community and Nature over destruction by the technosphere in a subsequent post.

Two Views of the Climate Emergency: David Wallace-Wells and Bill McKibben

Acknowledging the Climate Emergency opens one up to all sorts of intellectual struggles with a reality that confounds even great minds. The industrialized nations and most of their intellectuals seem either unwilling or unable to face the magnitude of the hard facts. They do not know how to take action to ameliorate the immediate and extreme existential threat to humanity inherent in growing climate chaos.

One peculiar but not entirely surprising result is the bickering over what goals to seek, not what we must do to achieve them. At least, the Green New Deal points in the right direction. Another is the problem of how consistently experts have underestimated the growing impacts of climate chaos and overestimated the impact that climate action may have.

Extreme Realities

Accusing those who promote “extreme” climate-action of fascist tendencies results from adhering to the illusion of a non-existent democratic political process that is really what Sheldon Wolin calls “Democracy, Inc.” — that is, “inverted totalitarianism” in democratic sheep’s clothing. Extreme emergencies usually call for extreme measures to counter catastrophe. However, the corporate state refuses to acknowledge the emergency, treating the global emergency as just another “issue.”

Neither our corporate-state nor the laws of physics are democratic, even though the solution to the climate crisis if we can actually pursue it, will most likely arise from DIRECT DEMOCRACY initiated by people in local/regional contexts. Necessary climate action derives not from traditional political pluralism but from understanding the physically DETERMINATE processes of the complex dynamic systems of ecology and climate.

climate chaos is globalDavid Wallace-Wells’ wakeup call, “Time to Panic,” in the New York Times, argues persuasively for immediate climate action. His new book, Uninhabitable Earth, piles on the latest evidence fully justifying existential fear and immediate action. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) was the first public warning of the impending climate crisis. In his new book, Falter, he urges greater collective resistance to the fossil-fueled corporate state. He argues for the adoption of renewable energy technologies and divestment from fossil-fuel related investments. He also points out the futility of individual action alone. Recycle all you want, but the problem is that so much recycling has become necessary.

Extreme Emergency requires Extreme Action

Useful and important in substantiating the emergency, neither McKibben nor Wallace-Wells addresses any clear vision of major climate action beyond civil resistance and technological replacements. I am sure they endorse the Green New Deal as a starting point, since it is a significant departure from existing national gradualism and denial, though a political longshot. Looking at the whole thing sociologically, the big barriers become clear.

Resistance may bend the neo-liberal corporate state somewhat, allowing some moderate “green” reforms, which in the U.S. will depend on who controls the Senate and presidency after 2020. However, time is our enemy now. Neither resistance alone nor eventual political victory can result in the kind of precise strategic action we need from national governments now. Also, no amount of technological replacement will suffice within the neo-liberal corporate global political economy, which is incapable of a massive reduction of carbon emissions. Achieving resilience is really a matter of how well we restrain the endless growth economy, which most ideas of mitigation and adaptation fall short of doing. See https://thehopefulrealist.c…

Optimism is a flat out illusion; so is pessimism. They both traffic in fatalism. The facts offer no basis for optimism while pessimism excludes the possibility of concerted action to reduce the existential threat that now confronts us ever more directly. However, my hope will die when I do.

Action is always possible until we can no longer move. Moreover, we cannot predict exactly how well extreme climate action can mitigate surging climate chaos until we take such action. But the evidence overwhelmingly confirms that extreme action now is necessary for the survival of a much smaller ecologically integrated human population after industrial civilization collapses.

As Ugo Bardi points out in relation to the early dismissal of the findings of Meadows, et al (1972) in The Limits to Growth, that it is folly to treat forecasts, regardless of the quality of data, as predictions — actually, they are WARNINGS. Because we know a lot about the diverse trends implicated with carbon emissions and global warming, we CAN forecast approximate outcomes depending on how those factors play out.

The Time is Now.

HOW AND TO WHAT EXTENT HUMANS TAKE ACTIONS to counter the destruction that WILL prevail IF we do little or nothing, will determine our survival. To what extent will we alter the parameters that determine whether, in the case of climate chaos, the planet heats to 1.5 degrees C., 2.0 degrees C., or more? That is the key question because we know with certainty that failure will lead to more ecological and climate tipping points beyond which societal collapse is inevitable and survival is threatened.

The underlying problem is not solved by trying to convert to renewable energy (though that does help) to power the continued extreme extractive-industrial-consumer global economy. The real problem is how to stop that economy in its tracks while rapidly transforming society to operate on a vastly lower level of energy consumption. At this point, that will not result from government or corporate policy change, nor civil resistance to their current failures.

As difficult as it seems, the only viable way to “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it, is through direct local/regional RESTRUCTURING of communities to align their economic behavior with the requirements for restoring the ecosystems upon which they depend. That is possible only by a massive turning away from the globalized growth economy.

Trade Wars and Climate Chaos

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 very same 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, it is deemed necessary and good.

Global.Air.Temps.Summer.2019

Global Air Temperatures, June 2019

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 between the know-nothing, anti-science, fossil-fueled corporatists and climate activists. Even as China begins to turn away from coal as a major source of energy production, 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; 2) deep blue arctic waters absorb more heat than did the reflective white Arctic ice that has melted 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, 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 a 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 shot we have to avoid extreme destabilization of climate and the destruction of ecosystems upon which humanity depends for survival. Global, regional, and local collapse of societies will follow as ecosystems and climate destabilize, causing massive crop failures, violence, and loss of life. 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 economy, which dominates national governments. That is why it is now up to the people to find a new path out of the death dance of industrial consumerism.

Resilience Redux: Revisiting Mitigation and Adaptation as Climate Chaos, Ecosystem Collapse, and Extinctions Accelerate

The term “resilience” has become a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it projects the idea of humanity being able to do what we must to survive long term by changing human behavior. On the other hand, too many perceive the term to mean only our ability to adapt to conditions of life as they change. If it prevails, the second definition may be the undoing of our species.

When in October 2018, the IPCC finally proclaimed the global necessity to change radically the way humans do business in order to reduce global warming to 1.5◦ C. above pre-industrial levels within the next dozen years, a bit of a media stir ensued. But nobody followed-up with any kind of plan as to how that might be accomplished. Most governments were still absorbed in an international death dance around relative responsibility and power distribution. The media: characteristically out to lunch.

The Official Crisis

The IPCC Special Report (2018) said little about how to reduce carbon emissions beyond asserting various technical “pathways” to limiting global warming to 1.5◦C “with no or limited overshoot.” The media noted report’s assertion that the goal, “would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence).” [p.17] Then came the qualifier: “These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options …” [p. 17]

2 deg.vs.1.5 deg. global temp. limit_1_FS0UrraLgvnTmbnHOs_ucg

A 2◦ target = societal collapse. A 1.5◦ target = struggle to adapt with continued mitigation. Graphic credit:  https://picswe.net/pics/gcp-2000-f6.html 

One must ask, how does any of this translate into climate action at any real level, from national down to neighborhood? Well, it does not, for one simple reason, and that is the elephant in the middle of the room.

“These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options …Pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot … but there is no documented historic precedent for their scale…” [p.17]

Unprecedented Transformation Required

Of course there is no precedent for a global transformation of societies capable of reigning in global carbon emissions to pre-industrial levels. If accomplished “in all sectors” of the global industrial-consumer economy, such a transformation would be vastly greater than the industrial revolution. The report rather blandly qualifies the implication for societal transformation: “…but their scale depends on the pursued mitigation portfolio. [p.18].

Well, “the pursued mitigation portfolio” has to be the understatement of the century. In his definitive study of the industrial revolution, published in 1944, Karl Polanyi characterized the industrial revolution — which began the modern process of the human species overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet — as The Great Transformation. He could not have imagined how far that transformation would take us, although he hinted at potential environmental damage that unfettered industrial capitalism might produce.

All you have to do is think for a minute about what a “system transition” that entailed global deep restrictions on carbon emissions from transportation, buildings, land use (industrial agriculture and industrial deforestation), “resource-intensive diets” (meat-eating), and all the other elements of industrial-consumerism, would mean for the “lifestyles” we take for granted.

The New Great Transformation

Humanity cannot accomplish such “deep restrictions” on carbon emissions within the framework of the globalized fossil-fueled economic system in which our societies are currently so deeply embedded. That is why I call the path we are on The New Great Transformation. Depending on our actions we are headed to either total societal collapse or a somewhat softer landing characterized by massive mitigation and societal transformation under very harsh conditions.  Even if we achieve the carbon-emissions restrictions needed to allow us to adapt to the changes already “in the pipeline,” some form of New Great Transformation is inevitable. To become resilient, that is, able to adapt to the emerging chaotic conditions of a world at 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, society itself must undergo a great transformation the likes of which humanity has never experienced.

Despite the long overdue groundbreaking tenor of the IPCC Special Report, with all its technical jargon and unspoken catastrophic implications, the report still frames its assertions within the assumption that societies, as they exist, must take these drastic steps, restricting carbon emissions to mitigate global warming. However, societies as they exist now remain under the control of the globalized political economy that lies at the heart of the problem. That is the elephantine dilemma at the center of the room, to which analysts, politicians, economists, pundits, and the public remain blind. Their blindness is probably due to the fact that they cannot even contemplate the totally transformed society necessary to achieve the 1.5°C goal.

In this context, contemplating adaptation becomes a meaningless gesture unless it is adaptation by mitigation. That is, only by keeping global warming to within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will we inhabit a world to which we are capable of adapting. We can achieve that kind of resilience only by a New Great Transformation of society itself. The resulting new societal formations must be locally and regionally sovereign to be capable of continued mitigation of ongoing degradation of ecosystems and climate in the hope of restoring some semblance of a stable world.

Cascading Consequences of Terminating Trust

Trust. Who do you know that you know you can always trust? How much does it matter to you? Do you trust your money to buy today’s value next year? Probably not. You know that several presidents have taken “executive action” to tweak the official calculation of inflation to make it look smaller than the increase in the prices you suffer at the grocery store. Now, with the current occupant of the White House caught in over 10,000 lies, how can you trust anyone anymore?

Some things are highly predictable. Others are not. As a general pattern, where I live the weather is quite hard to predict beyond the next few hours. Some days I can predict that it will not rain for the rest of the day. That happens when I have seen the voluminous data compiled into an electronic weather map that shows Santa Fe in the middle of a big high-pressure system. Easy, no rain today.

Predictability and Trust

Rain squallOn other days, I know with a high degree of certainty that it will rain in the area, but whether it happens at my house is a roll of the dice. I can look out west toward the Jemez Mountains and see scattered rain squalls. Whether they reach my garden is subject to a number of factors most of which change as the storm clouds approach or turn north. At that level, the weather at my house is unpredictable. It has nothing to do with trust.

Trust clearly involves predictability, but that is not all. We do not trust or mistrust the weather; we just know it is only partially predictable. When we trust a person, something more is involved – moral motivation. We can predict friends or enemies’ behavior without necessarily trusting them. We may predict an enemy’s behavior without trusting them at all.

Why? Because trust is an integral part of a relationship. The weather does not predict or trust us at all. We try to predict the weather with very limited success, not because of trust but only because of past patterns that we know are often consistent, in general, if not in any specific case. We have certain expectations of politicians, but generally, we do not trust them.

Presidential Prevarication

We can trust some politicians some of the time. That happens when we know that they hold certain values and stick to them when it comes time to vote on a bill put before the legislative body. Various politicians trust each other because they have long-standing relationships involving moral commitments some of which cross party lines. Despite the general untrustworthy character of national politics, it seems clear that politicians have to trust each other to some extent to get anything done. That, of course, is one of the reasons politicians get so little done in this era of political acrimony.

Then, throw into the mix a president who nobody trusts and who trusts nobody. Demanding total allegiance by subordinates but “throwing them under the bus” at the slightest impulse not only causes a great deal of staff turnover. It also eliminates trust as subordinates scramble to predict the next impulsive absurdity or policy blunder devoid of any expert consultation. The sycophants struggle to make sense of their own boot-licking.

Predictable Mistrust

Commentators have recently pointed out, in response to the latest act of trust violation by the pretend-autocrat, that back when impeachment threatened Nixon, he continued to sign legislation the parties considered important for the nation. The parties involved had retained a sufficient level of institutionalized trust to “work together in the nation’s interest.”

In the present instance, however, where prevarication prevails and the only value demonstrated by the president is the self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement of the modern icon of sociopathic narcissism, trust is simply out of the question.

Pelosi and Schumer

Pelosi and Schumer ~ Vox

I doubt that Pelosi and Schumer trusted Trump to negotiate an infrastructure bill in good faith. Yet, they were duty bound to make the attempt. I get the distinct feeling that Pelosi in particular is playing the self-described ultimate player. Cornered by continued failures and court decisions upholding the constitutional separation of powers against his blanket assertion of total executive power, the would-be dictator flails out with increasingly erratic impulse. Even his impulse to be unpredictable is predictable. However, that is no basis for trust.