Being David Brooks in the Bowels of the Green New Deal

Many consider David Brooks the voice of conservative reason In America. After all, he has even published some almost sociological books on matters of character, family, and progress toward ‘the American dream.’ And, he presents himself as a soft-spoken empathic analyst on the Sunday talk shows and in his New York Times column.

David.Brooks_New-articleInline_400x400Brooks may even entertain a valid point about the craziness of Trump or some of his extreme white nationalist supporters being a bit off target. He always seems to be concerned about protecting basic American values. That is why his entry into the surge of right-wing sniping at the persons and policies behind the congressional Green New Deal (GND) resolution might seem plausible to some. After all, most folks have not read its 14 pages.

Democracy of the GND

Offered up in the House of Representatives, the Green New Deal stands out as a unique document in the history of the Congress. It is a call to the U.S. government and the American people to mobilize on a scale analogous to the mobilization of American society to fight World War II. It is the first statement I have seen from any branch of the federal government that directly confronts the urgency of the crisis of impending climate collapse.

Brooks’ objections come off as almost objective comments on the failures of a few naïveAOC idealists. He fears they would attempt to solve the nation’s and the world’s problems by dictates from newly centralized government authorities. If we are to believe Brooks, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ed Markey, and the dozens of other congressional sponsors must be a bunch of old Stalinists. He claims that “the left” has “embraced elitism” by using the GND to centralize power.

Reactionary Elitism in Freedom’s Clothing

That is not only a complete misrepresentation, but it entirely misses, or should I say dodges, the main point of the Green New Deal. The climate crisis is real and it is now. Only by abandoning the elitism of the corporate Democrats and the plutocratic Republicans can we achieve social and economic justice. Congress can achieve that by initiating a Green New Deal that mitigates many of the disastrous consequences of the neoliberal corporate global economy they have fostered.

They may mouth platitudes of social concern like David Brooks does, but the corporatist right in both parties has always objected to the government doing anything to solve the nation’s problems, claiming “the private sector” can do a much better job. (Just take a look at privatized prisons, education, and the tortuous internment of the children of asylum seekers for an answer to that question.)

When it comes to assessing the potential impact of the Green New Deal, David goes right off the rails. He falls flat into the swamp of corporatist objections to any government involvement in efforts at achieving social progress. After all, that might impinge on his faith in the trajectory of the corporate state and its extreme fantasies of staying the course of business as usual.

Far more importantly, however, Brooks’ character assassination of the GND and its supporters implicitly denies not only the validity but the overriding urgency of the climate crisis we all face, like it or not. Instead, he reverts to the classic redbaiting of the past in his vain attempts to silence the voices of concern with people and planet.

Hopeful Realism vs. Political Climate Denial

How can Brooks characterize a call for community proposals for reducing carbon emissions based on the science and funded by the federal government, as a play for centralized power? Oh, there you have it. Government funding means taxing the rich and the giant corporations since the concentration of wealth leaves everyone else with marginal incomes. The top 100 corporations cause the majority of carbon emissions. And AOC would dare to institute a 70% marginal income tax rate, almost as high as we had in the 1950s, the most prosperous era for everyone in the USA.

For Brooks, the climate crisis is not even an issue. He denies it by omission. Instead, he focuses on political semantics. He dodges the question of whether the GND is “socialist” or not, embarrassed by his fear of the comfortable acceptance of the democratic socialist ideas embedded in the original New Deal. He shapes his inferences about the GND’s broad provisions to fit the terrifying characteristics of a dictatorial socialist state. Never mind that the sponsors of the resolution are all staunch decentralists, social democrats, and plain old fashioned liberals, who are just as concerned with overbearing bureaucracy as David ever was.

David Brooks would rather vilify the new hopeful realists in Congress than face the fact that the corporate state he equates with individual freedom is unsustainable. A New Great Transformation has begun and we need to take charge of our fate within the conditions that our profligate waste has created. The Green New Deal is merely a tiny step forward, or more accurately, a recognition of necessity. Wake up, David.

Communication, Contagion, and Conspiracy

Social contagion is an age-old process of collective behavior. It has been studied by sociologists in the U.S. for decades. In the economic sphere, stock market bubbles that end in a furious crash that reflects the contagion of panic. Economists cite the infamous

Tulipomania

A tulip, known as “the Viceroy,” 1637

collapse of the “Tulip Mania” in Holland in 1637 as the classic example of stock-market contagion gone suddenly reversed. The U.S. financial crash of 2008-9 had elements of contagion, but calculated actions by financial elites artificially drove the market in mortgage derivatives to collapse.

The New Contagion

Today, socio-political contagion has achieved new heights of both intensity and extension through social media. When life is relatively stable, most people behave in routine and mostly traditional ways. They find comfort in the predictability of everyday life supported by a regular paycheck, manageable debt, and hope for a better future. Only when things get dicey do conspiracy theories proliferate and extreme political movements grow contagious and threaten the established order.

Of course, we can always find social outliers in society. Dreamers, artists, and explorers of the unknown chafe at the constraints of social habit. They are restless seekers of new ideas, new images, new frontiers, and vindication for their fertile imaginations. Most of us live in a world where our habitual behaviors are far more important to us than any deviation from social norms. However, that is rapidly changing. As “normalcy” disintegrates and economic and social stability dissipates, fear of the other rises, resentments follow growing instability, and many more people become subject to manipulation by political demagogues.

Conspiracy of Concordance

Today’s socio-political contagion does not result from the imagination of dreamers. Instead, it results from increasingly unstable conditions of life in the last stages of the industrial era. Most people in the industrialized societies of Europe and North America know in their guts that things are not exactly as claimed by the economic culture or dominant institutions. Opportunists such as Steve Bannon quickly exploit the chance to use fear and resentment to their advantage.

The rise to power by neo-fascists, white nationalists, and outright political scam artists rides on the hatred they can generate toward the scapegoats they blame for the conditions brought on by extractive capital and its agents. The societal failures of an industrial system designed to concentrate wealth and power by exploiting land, air, water, and people provide the grist for their mill of hatred. The real conspiracy is between these political opportunists and the super-rich who bankroll them, not among refugees or racial minorities. The political elite rewards their benefactors by tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy and de-regulation for their corporations, then find scapegoats to blame for the painful consequences.

Science and Sanity

The evidence of increasing instability mounts, as the average citizen’s ability to make a living and avoid danger, grows ever more difficult. The evidence of reaching the limits of

highwaterline_miami1

High water coming to Miami soon.

plundering Nature becomes more obvious as the health effects of polluted air, water, and land reach new heights. More frequent and more intense extreme weather events penetrate our emotional shields even as many cognitively deny their human causality. Active suppression of scientific findings by the Trumpists and their financial backers attempts to hide the solid evidence of growing planetary danger. The absurdity of “climate denial” grows with each new report of accelerating glacier melt, drought, superstorms, and species extinction.

It really does not matter whether we prefer to attribute “conspiracy” to the forces of extractive capital, political demagoguery and the culture of hate. These forces need not meet in a smoke-filled room to plot strategy and coordinate their behavior. Their cultural beliefs and economic interests result in coordinated action to gain more and more power.

It is up to the rest of us to find ways to turn our lives away from the destruction they foment and shape a world in which we can live. Little time remains to resist hatred, restore ecosystems, and re-establish our resilience. We must combine human civility with scientific rigor to take the drastic steps needed to dampen the chaos that grows daily.

Civility and the Climate Impacts of Denialism

Yesterday, I read an article in the Scientific American discussing a key dilemma that stymies climate action. No standards exist that could provide firm measures of how much carbon emissions reduction is necessary by what date to avoid the worst climate chaos. The article asked the difficult question of how much CO2 we must remove from the atmosphere to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The tendency of political elites to dodge such specific targets results from their avoidance of any basis for judging political policies for having failed.

The article also raised the issue of whether science could develop new techniques of carbon sequestration – “negative emissions” technologies – soon enough to use them to avoid catastrophic climate change. It also questioned whether deployment of such technologies might detract from direct mitigation efforts. Those are interesting and difficult questions.

I have to disagree with the continuing search for new technologies as the answer to the climate crisis. We must cut carbon emissions by reducing the energy we use and waste. Trying to capture the emissions from excessive use and waste cannot solve the underlying problem. However, I appreciated the thoughtful analysis and difficulty in finding and optimizing strategies for slowing, stopping, and reversing global warming before we reach a tipping point beyond which collapse of climate and ecosystems forces societal collapse.

Climate Discussion, or Not

I read that article right after participating in some “discussions” on a Facebook group called, Climate Change Discussion. Discussions of Climate change are not often actual discussions. On this Facebook group, responses to posts frequently devolve into rather juvenile name-calling and nasty shouting matches. On the one hand, some occasionally interesting and informative posts appear there. Too often, however, so-called skeptics attack the person offering such information or opinion as “alarmists,” and use far more hostile epithets. Well, that may be tolerable as far as it goes, but the “alarmists” become targets for a wide range of abusive accusations. Both terms, “alarmists” and “denialists,” are more accusatory than descriptive, with one exception. “Alarmist” implies unjustified panic, while “denialist” implies resistance to facts. The difference is not trivial.

It strikes me as peculiar that those who claim to have “sound reservations” about climate models become so angry with those who present facts that contradict their “skepticism.” Facts, of course, are denied or ignored. The so-called skeptics have no problem denigrating large numbers of scientists who have no other ax to grind other than seeking accurate measures of reality and projecting trends within reasonable parameters. Yet “skeptics” take extreme offense at the idea that insisting on being blind to obvious and demonstrated facts contributes to the delay of any action that might mitigate the devastation that Bangladeshis and others already feel, and some call criminal because the delays cause great suffering and death.

Rising Tides in Ghana

Rising Tides in Ghana

Climate scientists base their findings and projections on vast amounts of time-series data gathered by many field researchers and recording stations around the world. The duplicitous sanctimonious denial of fact and science are puzzling on the surface. Such behavior is at least callus and indifferent to the plight of others who suffer from what we participants in the carbon economy do that causes such suffering. It is understandable that some call it criminal for contributing to a political climate of do-nothing-ism that causes many more deaths than if people just faced reality and our own complicity in its path — and did something about it.

Refined Climate Models and Worsening Crisis

New data have repeatedly confirmed the predictions of climate science models as correct, except that they have repeatedly UNDER-estimated the effects of global warming because various amplifying feedback processes were not at first incorporated into their complex models. Arctic water exposed due to melting sea-ice absorbs more heat than the ice that melted due to atmospheric warming. Melting tundra releases methane, which is a far more damaging greenhouse gas than the CO2 we release directly, which caused the tundra to melt in the first place, etc., etc.

What that all means is that climate science is far beyond the initial hypothesis testing stage; it is at the stage of refining models that have already effectively described the trends in the data and do so more accurately as more data on feedback variables are added to the predictive models. The sad truth is that the improved models consistently forecast a very dire immediate future and are entirely consistent with current climate disruptions. That is why the situation is much worse than initially thought by climate scientists and why denialist politics is so ABSURD.

When a prediction underestimates an outcome that it predicts, that does not mean the ‘theory’ is wrong; it means the theory is incomplete. It might seem unfortunate that climate models did not over-predict the effects, in which case, we would have a little breathing room. As it stands, we do not. On the other hand, over-prediction would have generated far more skepticism and denial than we must overcome now.

The intersection of denialism and science has its roots in complex relations between mainstream (corporate) economics, political corruption, and social-psychological processes within particular groups. But that discussion awaits another post.

Small World, Big Change: Chasing the New Great Transformation

The cliché, “the world is getting smaller,” sometimes jumps right out at you in an incident or experience that is entirely unexpected. That happened to me one cool fall evening. My wife sat at a table at the entrance to the Torreon Marriott Hotel (a small part of a global story of transformation in itself), as I retrieved my jacket from the car. She introduced me to the gentleman with whom she was talking. Georg is some sort of international executive with BMW, who was considering an extended stay in Mexico to help establish certain BMW business interests there. He had just completed a seven-year stint in China. Georg speaks five languages and owns a home in the U.S. One crosses interesting paths in unexpected places in the small world of international travel. I sat down, anticipating an interesting conversation.

Naturally, topics ranged from cars – especially those “ultimate driving machines” – to international agreements on climate action. Georg confirmed how terrible the smog has been in Beijing. However, he assured us that it is getting much better since the government forced the move of over a hundred companies out of the city. Of course, that does not change the total carbon pollution resulting from Chinese industry, but it does provide a bit of relief to Beijing residents. Georg confirmed my impression that the Chinese, despite their massive current levels of carbon emissions, are taking a number of positive steps toward carbon constraint.

china-bad-pollution-climate-change-7__880-boredpandacom

Beijing Smog. Source: BoredPanda.com

I asked Georg if he knew of any incentives for conversion to electric cars in China. He replied that in Beijing today, a license for a fossil-fuel driven car is more expensive than the car itself, and it is very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. If you want to buy an electric car, the license is free and immediately available. Since a charging infrastructure is not yet built, electric vehicle drivers in Beijing can rely on mobile charging units simply by calling a company that will come and charge their electric car for a modest fee, while they work, shop, etc., at a particular location.

Like so many, Georg affirmed his bafflement over the U.S. election of Donald Trump. He indicated how ambiguous the consequences seem for implementing international agreements on climate action. We didn’t dwell on “The Donald.”

I suggested that development of battery technology seems to be progressing well. Georg confirmed my thought, stating that 250-mile range is available now and 350-mile range configurations are coming on line for production. For the U.S. that would eliminate the issue of range if we built a recharging infrastructure soon. However, in the U.S., the political climate remains dominated by climate denial, despite the incontrovertible science and growing public awareness. Politicians of all stripes talk of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, but they usually refer to roads and bridges for our fossil-fueled vehicles. Trump likes to assert that our airports are “terrible, terrible,” and need to be “modernized.” Airlines make public relations gestures around reducing carbon emissions, but no real plan to do so exists. Established economic interests dominate political decisions.

Mexico’s transportation sector is much like the U.S. Crowded cities with similar traffic jams punctuate vast open spaces. Neither have adequate rail transportation, except for industrial transport. In both, conversion to electric vehicles would require a deliberate government policy of establishing a network of recharging stations and incentives for conversion to electric vehicles. Of course, that will be a problem in the U.S. with its continued political culture of climate denial and fear of “liberal conspiracies” to control everyone by programs of climate action. Do we really have to leave climate progress up to Elon Musk?

The fundamental underlying fact is that humanity is now undergoing a New Great Transformation, much larger than the industrial revolution and vastly more crucial to our prospects on this planet. In 1944, Karl Polanyi, in his prescient book, The Great Transformation, predicted many of the problems that have resulted from the industrial revolution and subsequent proliferation of industry. The ecological consequences of globalization of the industrial system have reached far beyond anything he could have imagined.

Today we are already witnessing the early stages of a New Great Transformation that will change the role of humanity on earth forever. We must take action globally now if we are to make the big changes necessary for our own survival in the context of the converging crises that are leading to global chaos. We must act or suffer the consequences. The actions required themselves constitute a great social transformation.

We have already changed the world in entirely unanticipated ways. Vested interests in our increasingly suicidal path resist Big Change, seeking short-term profits while ignoring the obvious signs of a catastrophic future. Failure to take the extreme corrective actions needed to re-stabilize both the climate and ecological systems worldwide will be disastrous. We must take charge of the New Great Transformation; it is a matter of survival or extinction.

The world may be getting smaller, but its problems are getting much bigger than ever before imagined. We live within complex living ecological systems, long ignored by our economic and political elites. Our actions have destabilized those systems, yet we are utterly dependent upon them. That is the essence of our problem. Big Changes are already the reality we have inadvertently created. Our situation now calls upon us to change our behavior in ways that are unprecedented and very hard to imagine. The New Great Transformation is for humanity the point of no return. We must imagine a future that our world can tolerate.

Dumbing Down America Degrades the Nation and More

An article in Psychology Today, posted by Ray Williams on July 7, 2014, delineated a long list of indicators of the decline and fall of culture and education in the U.S. in recent decades. Diverse measures of that decline led the author to conclude that, as I would rather put it, “American Exceptionalism” is in fact a particularly degraded concept describing the downwardly spiraling status of our culture.

The loss of respect for education, teachers, science, and intellect, contrasts sharply with the cultures of Japan and Europe, for just two examples, where these cultural features are highly valued. Ridicule of intellectual accomplishment is quite popular. This has led to the fall of the U.S. in its ranking on various measures of competence in science and the humanities. Even more important, the anti-intellectualism and anti-science mentality that accompanies the insecurities of ignorance, can have a disastrous effect on our chances for survival as a species. No small problem.

Training for Exclusion

For many decades now, the education of Americans has been transformed into the training of potential workers for the degrading dull jobs with little creativity that remain available. At the same time, the outsourcing of well paid jobs to poor nations with extremely low wages, has forced many middle class workers into the ranks of the poor. This causes a great deal of personal insecurity and anger, especially among the formerly privileged class of white male workers.

A few bright software engineers and developers create products with increasingly meaningless connection to actual life in the modern world. It is all about distraction and disorientation to life with any intellectual content. The young are taught to respond impulsively to images and emotions in the online game culture and social media. Who now reads books and contemplates their meaning?

Among the many implications of the turn away from intellect and toward impulsive response to images and associated emotions, the reality of politics has detached itself from the reality of life in the nation and on the planet. Shocking percentages of the population hold beliefs that contravene massive evidence that they either fail on the facts or simply have no particular connection to reality. This cultural situation is ripe for demagogic exploitation.

Political Degradation

Trump.Huff.Post

False Front

Despite the flaws of Hillary Clinton, the attraction to the demagoguery of the certifiable megalomaniacal sociopathic business cheat that is Donald Trump boggles the imagination of any modestly informed citizen. The man maintains a vast store of ignorance of most matters related to national security and domestic government, with the possible exception of how to work the income tax system. His international entanglements and personal nature of his business and political connections with disreputable characters in Russia and elsewhere, make the concept of putting his financial interests in a blind trust (administered by Ivanka!) something less than laughable.

It is difficult to grasp the extent of ignorance out there. Nor is it easy to understand the widespread indifference to information in favor of impulse and emontion. No point in going on about all that; either you are paying attention to basic verifiable facts or you are a victim of confirmation bias — the common defense mechanism where any evidence that contradicts prior beliefs is simply ignored in preference to self-delusion consistent with beliefs held closely.

Ignorance or Survival

More importantly, the fate of the nation, and possibly the planet, hinges on the necessity of immediate and comprehensive actions to stave off the very worst impacts of climate destabilization. Things are so bad that not even the feigned climate-action promises of Hillary Clinton could make a significant difference in responding to this global crisis.

Species Extinction and Human Population_USGS_1451324_650954518277931_1616731734_nWhich ever U.S. presidential candidate “wins” the election in November, little hope for the kind of change we must have seems to be in the offing. The probability of adequate societal response to the emerging crises of global financial collapse and global climate collapse is very low indeed. Something very different from conventional politics or its current deranged deviations must arise in some form of broad social mobilization demanding the actions not even conceivable by our distorted, corrupt, “politics as usual.”

Is California BERNing?

California could be the turning point. Or not… Growing numbers of Americans seek to live a parallel life by limiting their consumption as much as they can to low and no emissions products. But so much more is needed. California has led the nation in some of the steps it has taken against global warming, but giant steps lie ahead.

Californians are caught in an exceptionally severe drought. Water tables continue dropping. Its great cities depend on water from declining snowmelt and the oversubscribed Colorado River. At the same time, agriculture uses the vast majority of the state’s water, much in the wasteful manner it always has. The once fertile San Juaquin valley is polluted and under severe strain from over-use by industrial agriculture.

If any state epitomizes both the potential and the dangers we all face, it is California. Many trends of industrial consumerism begin and are fully realized in California, perhaps most notably the car culture. Much of the digital revolution, which has led to vast consumption of electricity by Internet “cloud” services, began and continues there.

As the urgency of achieving ecological sustainability grows, politics just gets crazier. The pundits babble over Trump’s brash buffoonery, including his pandering to climate deniers, as well as his peculiar popularity. Talking-heads question Hillary’s character as she waffles on various issues, including the climate, as she feigns a false populism and holds exclusive fundraisers for super-rich donors. They all try to ignore the exploding popularity of Bernie Sanders.  Yet we “feel the Bern.”

AParallelWorld.com (APW) is a website that brings environmentally conscious consumers together with vendors of minimal carbon-emissions products and services. It has avoided involvement in political conflicts or campaigns. But APW has now endorsed Bernie Sanders, the only candidate who publicly calls for major climate action. APW members are typically “sustainability voters” who want politicians to make urgently needed climate policy. Fear of the consequences of global warming has grown among all voters as climate facts have overcome climate denial propaganda.

Bernie_Slate.photoDespite media denial, the surge of public support for Bernie reflects an even broader public concern about global warming as well as social and economic justice. Bernie’s consistent record on diverse social justice issues has resonated with a growing number of voters. As the only candidate who refuses corporate contributions has become more widely known, so has his popularity.

Yet, because of the strange party politics of primaries, especially the DNC “super delegates,” pre-committed to Clinton, the increasingly clear preference of voters may not be realized. That is why the California primary is so important, with the large number of delegates at stake. The “political revolution” Bernie calls for must be achieved to move the nation anywhere near the halt to global temperature rise necessary for climate stabilization.

California at the Crux

Bernie supports local organic farming, which uses less water and does not use dangerous petroleum-based chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Industrial agriculture has so damaged California’s Central Valley – the bread basket of the nation – that only a revolution in farming practices can save it. Under the extreme growing conditions of severe drought, California agriculture is at great and growing risk; its productivity has already started to fall.

Californians have a very big stake in achieving the political revolution that Bernie Sanders calls for. California agriculture uses far more water than the cities or suburbs. Far deeper change than not-watering-your-lawns is needed to avoid the food production failures that agriculture-as-usual will allow to happen. The changes needed to seek a “future we can believe in” where the food chain is sustainable, require a political revolution.

The most important prospect right now to stabilize the climate and achieve economic sustainability is to realize Bernie Sanders’ political revolution. That, as Bernie regularly points out, is not just about Bernie becoming president. It is about mobilizing a broad public movement for change. If Bernie does not get the nomination, that will be much more difficult to achieve. That is why the California primary is so important.

Getting the nation to “feel the BERN” has been a long up-hill battle. Starting with very low name recognition, Bernie’s straight-forward message has resonated with voters as more people listen. If his views and policies had been as well-known at the beginning, he would probably have enough delegates now to clinch the nomination.

Overwhelming victories in the remaining states, especially in California with its large number of delegates, will place Bernie in a very strong position at the convention. Democrats know that in poll after poll, Bernie beats Trump be wide margins. At the same time, Hillary’s marginal lead over Trump has narrowed to a statistical draw.

With all her ethical and policy vulnerabilities, Clinton could very possibly lose to Trump. He is vulnerable too. Do we really want a president whose key business strategy is to file bankruptcy to avoid paying investors? With every appearance of being a narcissistic sociopath, the dangers of Trump’s unpredictability surpass even HRC’s risky neo-conservative interventionism and subservience to her Wall Street donors. Neither of them is capable of leading the kind of political revolution that is necessary to mobilize the people to make the fundamental changes required to mitigate climate disruption.

BERN, California, BERN

As Bernie has often said, this is not about Bernie Sanders; it is about all of us. The fight will go on, yet be so much harder if Bernie is not nominated. But go on it must, and it will not be easy in any case. Much of the work that needs to be done will involve the reestablishment of local and regional sovereignty over all matters of public health and welfare, including fracking, mining, and electricity generation.

At some point, early on, national-level policy transformation must be put in place to radically reduce carbon emissions nationally. No president can make Congress move on that, given the influence of corporate lobbyists, without a mobilized public consensus demanding action. The massive climate action that must be launched immediately, will not happen without a prescient president with a mass social movement to back him up.

There is just no way around it. The population will have to be mobilized to take the actions necessary to stabilize global temperatures. We must also undo much of the damage already done to the earth’s living systems upon which we all depend. But with Bernie Sanders in the White House, having trounced Trump, the political revolution to achieve national sustainability will be at hand. That is why we must hope that California is BERNing.

To build a sustainable world, academics need to tear down the Ivory Tower

Avoiding societal collapse means building bridges between science and the rest of the world.

[Please note: This article is republished with permission from the site, ensia.com. It was accessed at: http://ensia.com/voices/to-build-a-sustainable-world-academics-need-to-tear-down-the-ivory-tower.]

Anthony D. Barnosky
@tonybarnosky Professor of integrative biology, University of California, Berkeley

Elizabeth A. Hadly
@LizHadly Stanford professor and global change scientist

Paul R. Ehrlich President, Center for Conservation Biology and Bing Professor of Population Studies, Stanford University

Elementa wordmarkEditor’s note: This Voices piece is published in collaboration with the academic journal Elementa. It is based on “Avoiding collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050,” a peer-reviewed article published March 15 as part of Elementa’s Avoiding Collapse special feature.

Until recently, Earth was so big compared with humanity’s impacts that its resources seemed limitless. But that is no longer the case. Thanks to rapid growth in both human population and per capita consumption, we are now on the edge of irrevocable damage to our planetary life support systems. If we want to avoid locking in long-lasting impacts, it is imperative that we quickly solve six intertwined problems: population growth and overconsumption, climate change, pollution, ecosystem destruction, disease spillovers and extinction.

The Challenges

Most pressing among these today is climate change. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have produced most of the energy we need by burning fossil fuels. This has added carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at a pace 200 times faster than what was normal for Earth’s pre-industrial carbon cycle. As a result, we are now changing climate faster than people have ever experienced since our ancestors became Homo sapiens. Already the changing climate is manifesting as more frequent floods, wildfires and heat waves that kill thousands of people annually; rising sea levels that displace communities and cost hundreds of billions of dollars for coastal infrastructure building and repair; and increasingly acid oceans, which in some places are becoming so acidic that oyster and scallop fisheries are beginning to collapse.

Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world.

With no change in course, present emissions trajectories will likely, by mid-century, heat the planet to a level that humans and most other contemporary vertebrate species have never experienced, inhibiting food production and greatly multiplying other climate-change problems, including exacerbating global conflict and national security concerns. Indeed, if the present climate-change trajectory continues to 2100, Earth will be hotter than it has been in at least 14 million years, and large regions will be too hot to support human life outdoors.

Meanwhile, human consumption of natural resources is creating a plethora of other types of pollution as well. More than 6 million people die each year from the health effects of air pollution from burning fossil fuels. Our solid waste — increasingly plastic and electronic — has created burgeoning landfills and massive trash gyres in the middle of the oceans. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and trash have contaminated even the most remote environments of the world. Whales and polar bears harbor toxins in their tissues; Arctic lakes far from any human settlements exhibit elevated nitrogen levels.

The harm we’re doing to nature is coming back to haunt us in the form of infectious disease risk as well. Increasing encroachment of humans into previously little-touched ecosystems is leading to more frequent and severe “spillovers” of disease from nonhuman to human communities. Climate change is further increasing the odds that novel diseases will crop up in humans and the plants and animals on which we depend: Many of the world’s diseases are tropical in origin, and as we build roads and destroy habitats in the tropics, we increase the probability of exposure. Reverse spillover from humans to animals is an issue as well — an increasing number of animals are afflicted with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria.

Finally, meeting human demand for food, housing, water and other goods and services has transformed more than half of the planet into farms, cities, roads and dams. This ecosystem transformation, along with poaching, overfishing and generally exploiting nature for short-term profit, has accelerated the extinction rate of wild animals and plants to levels not seen since the dinosaurs died out. The result has been tremendous loss of ecosystem services such as water filtration, pollination of crops, control of pests and emotional fulfillment. Should present rates of extinction continue, in as little as three human lifetimes Earth would lose three out of every four familiar species (for example, vertebrates) forever.

Overarching Challenges

Contributing to all of these are two overarching challenges: the number of people in the world and our ecological footprints — especially the excessively large per capita ecological footprints in high-income countries.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea.

Human population has nearly tripled in just one lifetime, and almost a quarter of a million more people are being added every day. Best-case scenarios indicate that by 2050 the planet will have to support at least 2 billion to 3 billion people more than it does today.

To feed that many more people under business-as-usual food production, distribution and wastage would require converting even more of Earth’s lands to agriculture and overfishing more of the sea. There simply isn’t enough productive land left to accomplish that, or enough of the species we like to eat left in the ocean, especially in the face of climate stresses that agriculture and aquaculture have not yet witnessed.

Maintaining present rates of consumption — let alone raising standards of living for billions of poor people today — is similarly problematic. Continuing currently accepted norms of manufacturing goods and services into the future would dramatically increase what already are dangerous levels of environmental contamination worldwide and deplete water and other critical natural resources we depend upon today.

Beyond Breakthroughs 

How can science and society solve these intertwined problems and avoid environmental tipping points that would make human life infinitely more difficult?

Solutions will require scientific and technological breakthroughs — but breakthroughs will not be enough. On a global scale, obstacles include political, economic and social factors, including inequalities in economic opportunities and land tenure rights, or poor distributional infrastructure — problems science alone can’t solve. In addition to science, solutions will require effective collaboration of environmental and physical scientists with social scientists and those in the humanities.

In other words, we must recognize the interrelated facets of seemingly distinct issues. We must actively exchange information among practitioners in academics, politics, religion and business and other stakeholders to connect different pieces of the solutions puzzle that are emerging from different specialties.

In addition, people outside the scientific community must recognize and accept that the problems are serious and that solutions are at hand.

That means we within academia must link our work with stakeholders in ways that elicit significant action. This is especially important, since guiding the planet for the future will likely require some fundamental changes — not just in human economic and governance systems, but also in societal values. Engagement with religious leaders, local communities and businesses, subnational groups, and the military and security sectors of society is critically important to further these necessary conversations and impel action.

It is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable.

The good news is we are already making progress in both areas. Scientists and others are coming together to propose and pursue solutions. And three initiatives have been constructed specifically to bridge the science-society divide. The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere was founded specifically to connect scientists, humanists, activists and civil society in order to foster positive global change. The Consensus for Action provides a venue for policy-makers to quickly digest why it is essential to immediately address the issues described here; for scientists to communicate to policy-makers throughout the world the importance of dealing with these key environmental issues; and for members of the public to voice their support to policy-makers for taking action. And Mapping the Impacts of Global Change: Stories of Our Changing Environment as Told By U.S. Citizens provides rapid and locally relevant information to everyone, from the general public to political leaders, about how these threats to humanity’s life support systems play out.

In summary, it is no longer enough to simply do the science and publish an academic paper. That is a necessary first step, but it moves only halfway toward the goal of guiding the planet toward a future that is sustainable for both human civilization and the biosphere. To implement knowledge that arises from basic research, we must establish dialogues and collaborations that transcend narrow academic specialties and bridge between academia, industry, the policy community and society in general.

Now is the time to rise to these scientific and communication challenges. The trajectories of population overgrowth, climate change, ecosystem loss, extinctions, disease and environmental contamination have been rapidly accelerating over the past half-century. If not arrested within the next decade, their momentum may prevent us from stopping them short of disaster. View Ensia homepage

Comment:

Robert M. Christie  Mar. 19th, 2016
This is the most precise and concise delineation of the elements of the contemporary human-planetary predicament I have yet heard. If allowed, I will republish it on my little blog, TheHopefulRealist.com. My only qualification is that the ultimate obstacle to the solution is the global political economy and its power over culture and consequently public and political awareness. We are confronted with the necessity of performing the next, and perhaps final, Great Transformation of humanity’s relationship to the earth systems upon which it depends and which it is destroying. All that is said here is true, but moot if a path to the transformation of the extractive system of industrial growth to a truly ecological economy is not found and rapidly pursued.