The Chasm between Environmental Theory and Human Imagination

Reading [and writing] about climate disruption and social change is disturbing enough. But the unabated climate-disrupting and society-disrupting economy of extractive wealth concentration, keeps me wondering whether we have much chance at all. Lately, I have a growing sense that something very fundamental is missing in the discussions of most environmentalists. Well, maybe more than ‘something’ – some things.

For one thing, too many environmentalists are too tuned to simplistic solutions, most of which are tied to some profitable enterprise. Another thing, most of the solutions that dominate the public discussion are about competing methods of energy production. Little is said about reducing energy use – something the Europeans are far better at than we are. A third missing element is that discussions of climate change almost entirely exclude consideration of emerging social chaos.

Chaos Ignored

Various forms of chaos related to climate disruption and social breakdown seem to be rapidly accelerating. Most analyses of the situation continue down a multi-lane road of refining conceptual understandings and defending tightly held misunderstandings. But the discussions, however insightful, provide little “on the ground” development of lines of action that reflect the urgency of the human condition.

Having a better understanding of the collision course of the extractive-growth economy with the earth systems it disrupts is more and more important. But movement toward viable science-based and practical counter measures is not merely imperative, it is urgent. Every imaginable countermeasure would likely involve such major social change that avoiding chaos seems unlikely.

Discussions of climate action tend to be global in scope and vague on specifics. Yes, it’s a global problem, but actions must be taken in concrete ways in particular places – both geographic and institutional places. That can only happen when urgency aligns specific carbon emissions suppressing actions with practicality to yield optimum effects.

Some emissions-reducing actions are theoretically great, until all the “overlooked” energy inputs and risk factors are considered. But such strategies are often far too lengthy in implementation. Even if adding nuclear power plants were a viable option, it would simply take too long to accomplish. With nuclear power, the theory has worn very thin and honest total-cost and ongoing risks vs. benefit calculations yield very negative results. But time makes it irrelevant anyway. Climate chaos will already have caused economic and social chaos.

Imaginative Practicality

The time it would take to implement an action and the magnitude of its relative impact are critical variables in any attempt to determine priorities. For the most part, actions that can be taken quickly will also require less energy inputs to accomplish. That is a good thing. For example, a comprehensive program to retro-fit insulation and weather stripping in homes, office buildings, and factories could significantly reduce carbon emissions. The “built environment” consumes 40% of all energy produced in the U.S. A program to reduce that could be implemented quickly.

Production of insulation materials would of course need to be ramped up. Needed materials will have to be produced in much greater volume in existing factories and begun in new or previously abandoned factories. Training of new employees could be accomplished fairly quickly. Much of the work is not all that complex. Energy-efficiency evaluators could be fully trained in a few months. Unemployment, of course, would plummet if such a program were nationally implemented.

Here – and in many other examples of potentially quick and feasible carbon emissions suppression programs – is where human imagination seems to falter. I hate to use the term, “political will,” but there it is. The political-economic forces that dominate our society, polity, and media, do not have the imagination to recognize the potential of the most important strategies for carbon-emissions suppression. A program of massive reduction in emissions from the “built environment” alone presents huge business opportunities.

Dangerous Distractions vs. The Real Deal

Total social mobilization is required for many of the less sexy but more effective actions to suppress carbon emissions to very low levels. Whatever the net benefits of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources, their levels of reduced carbon emissions are far too insufficient in the short run. “Winning too slowly is the same as losing…” as Bill McKibben put it.

The production of ethanol as an “alternative fuel,” for example, is driven almost entirely by dominant political and economic forces – special interests – not by any motivation to reduce carbon emissions. It is not a viable climate stabilization strategy; it is a good strategy for agri-business to make a lot of money. Ethanol production will never contribute to carbon emissions suppression, but it will suppress food production. It is a dangerous distraction, the exact opposite of an evidence based rational priority.

If we expect to get anywhere in the attempt to restraint global warming and the catastrophic consequences of planetary thermal overload, somehow a societal cost-benefit based comprehensive strategy must be implemented. Good grief! That would require large-scale science driven setting of carbon-emissions suppression priorities and their implementation at scale.

The current political climate leaves little room for wide-eyed hope. Necessity demands collective creativity. It seems that only a broad and committed social movement demanding the most effective actions can actually force a comprehensive carbon emissions reduction strategy to be undertaken.

The Next Great Transformation

Most of us tend to see the world in fairly stable terms.  Our own daily routines, as well as those of the world around us have a consistency that is predictable and thus comfortable.  Yet over extended periods of time, human history has been punctuated by many major upheavals, revolutions, and transformations of the way we live.  In a book by that name, Karl Polanyi characterized the massive changes of the late Nineteenth Century expansion of the industrial revolution and its impacts on the early twentieth century as The Great Transformation.  Today, we sit at the cusp of the Next Great Transformation, and in some ways perhaps the last, as the accelerating climate disruption, resource depletion, financial, water and food crises, and the end of the era of the limitless-growth economy, all converge as the single greatest crisis to ever confront humanity.

The Next Great Transformation is undoubtedly in its initial stages now.  It is likely accelerating beyond expectations, just like climate chaos has.  But its character and direction are not easy to predict, since they will rely on the human response as well as on biophysical trends already in play.  Some of the key factors in determining its shape and trajectory include:  1) whether sufficient massive social mobilization will occur to reduce carbon emissions to a degree that will slow the headlong rush into ever more devastating climate disruptions; 2) the degree of resiliency of human populations in responding to radically changed environments, and in creating massive changes in the way we live; and 3) the extent to which the fossil-industrial and financial world political economy can be dismantled and transformed into a ‘planet-friendly’ localized ecological economy.  These factors will determine whether the Next Great Transformation will be of a kind that will sustain human life on the planet through the end of this century and beyond, or will extend beyond human intervention toward mass extinction.

In The Great Transformation, Polanyi analyzed the “free-market” economic ideology of nineteenth century unfettered capitalist development as the cause of the economic crises of the Great Depression and two world wars.   Revolutionary changes in technology and geographic expansion had been initiated in an era of great economic growth, but the ensuing crises resulted from distortions brought on by what Polanyi saw as a utopian image of a self-correcting market.  The nineteenth century civilization based on classical economic doctrine had collapsed, as evidenced by the Great Depression and the world wars, but the society was subsequently rescued by the expansive growth of World War II and the booming consumer economy that followed.

After FDR failed to follow through with his New Deal reforms, the massive economic and social mobilization of World War II ended the economic crisis of the 1930s.  A similar but much larger crisis complex is playing itself out today with much the same utopian economic “free-market” images being used to justify unsustainable growth to feed an ever-greater concentration of wealth and unprecedented corporate power over both economy and politics.  The emergent corporate state still pays little heed to the resultant burgeoning planetary crisis that knows no political boundaries.  The headlong clash of this political economy with the physics and chemistry of the biosphere will either be averted by rapid social mobilization to transform society, or it will result in a massive extinction of many species due to inability to adapt to changing ecologies, including the human species.  Elizabeth Kolbert describes these processes vividly in her new book, The Sexth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  Five great extinctions have occurred in earth’s history, including the greatest, the Permian-Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago, likely caused by an asteroid-impact and killing seventy percent of terrestrial vertebrates.

The Next Great Transformation will likely involve a catastrophic plunge into the sixth mass extinction, if total mobilization to curtail climate chaos is not achieved rapidly.  Or, if we create new modes of collective survival – most likely based on building local resilience and international cooperation – they must involve a huge reduction in fossil-fuel driven economic activities, which have for over two centuries focused on growth but which now must massively reduce activities that emit carbon into the atmosphere.  Here’s where human creativity and innovation come in.  To achieve a workable, livable Great Transformation will require us to come up with a full range of new economic forms, locally, regionally, and nationally.  But this time, we will have the advantage of drawing upon all the [appropriate] knowledge and technology from both our history and our latest innovations.  For this, we will have to start making decisions on the basis of science, not magical thinking.

To achieve all this will require total mobilization toward converting carbon-based activities to carbon neutral activities.  That will require the populations of the “advanced” fossil-fuel economies of the world to drastically change the way we live.  Remember, the per capita emission of carbon is vastly greater in the first-world nations than in third-world nations.  And, of course, most of the emissions so far have come from the fully industrialized nations.

Either path of the New Great Transformation will entail huge human displacements and comprehensive reorganization of human life – it cannot be otherwise.  Nor can I imagine how this will be easy, either way.  But one path will lead to species extinction [or near extinction] for humans as well as many other species; the other path will lead to some new level of survival as a result of humans re-organizing their relations to the biosphere and each other in ways that will dampen the plunge into further climate chaos.  The right path, if chosen, will be the one previously less traveled.