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.

Controlled Burns: Misallocation of technology and labor

Once the extractivist culture began plundering the forests of North America for construction materials and fiber for paper and other products was well underway, the threat of major forest fires grew. A number of factors were involved.


Trump orders FEMA to withhold funds for California Wildfires

The ideology and practice of forest-fire suppression to protect the property and sometimes lives of those who encroached on the forests caused a deep disturbance of the role fire played in the natural cycle of the life of forests. Because of fire suppression, increasingly dense undergrowth became more common in forests not decimated by clearcutting. That made them increasingly vulnerable to exceedingly hot, intense, and rapidly moving wildfires, such as the Camp Fire in Butte County, California, far more difficult to restrain or control than a century ago.

An Unnatural Relationship

Various forestry authorities deploy so-called “controlled burns” with the intent of eliminating the massive amounts of fuel (dry underbrush produced by alternating climates of heavy precipitation and drought) accumulated because of human fire suppression. In the past, the occasional forest fire did that job until the official forestry policy implemented the policy to “prevent forest fires.” Now it became a matter of “Man against Nature,” so typical of the industrial-consumer culture, which frames forests as just another source of materials to draw upon for industrial production.

In their natural state, forests are huge carbon sinks. That is not so when they are disturbed by massive intense wildfires and insect infestations and become net carbon emitters. Here is the problem. Never mind the risk of such “controlled burns” getting out of control due to rapid change in weather, such as high winds. What is the primary consequence of burning sections of a forest? Obviously, burning fuel of any kind adds carbon to the atmosphere – precisely the opposite of the most urgent need today. This counterproductive effect results from a misallocation of labor and technology as well as a misunderstanding of the Nature of the Earth System we inhabit.

Technology and Labor

We can accomplish many tasks more easily and efficiently by applying the power of fossil-fuel burning equipment than by the use of labor and hand-powered tools. Controlled burns use a mix of both. While the long-term effect may be to dampen the power of today’s super firestorms, the immediate effect is to increase the emission of carbon into the atmosphere. That, of course, is something that we simply cannot afford, especially when we see so little progress (as in NONE) by national and international authorities to reduce carbon emissions.

Given the situation and the growing probability of firestorms of unprecedented intensity and speed, it certainly makes sense to thin the forests of the excessive fuel (dried undergrowth) that poses a great risk of catastrophic forest fires. The fires themselves contribute much to the carbon in the atmosphere, forcing more global warming and consequentially more climate chaos. In either case, controlled burns or firestorms, the result is catastrophic in one way or the other. That is because both involve burning fuel. But wait, here’s another contradiction.

The global corporate free-market economy drives more people into low-wage jobs and/or poverty every day. The corporate economy cuts labor costs through automation and outsourcing. We live with the myth that American workers will not do the backbreaking work that we assign to illegal immigrants. Oh, what a difference a living wage would make.

Restoring the Forest Ecosystem

Like so many other ecosystem restoration necessities, we should restore the natural state of the forests in a way that allows sequestration of all that carbon contained in the underbrush that we need to remove. The process of pyrolysis can convert carbon from forest undergrowth into Biochar through thermal decomposition of biomass without oxygen (preventing combustion). Biochar can be used as a soil amendment, sequestering the carbon potentially for thousands of years.

However, the focus of controlled burns remains fixed on traditional ideas of protecting property from near term risk of conflagration. This ignores the bigger picture. In the context of our climate emergency, the first priority of any public policy must be the restriction of carbon emissions. Period.

When it comes to removing fuel from forest floors, the solution must be labor intensive, which has a very small carbon footprint. How can we accomplish that? Pay high wages for hard work and workers will come – they do so for the oil extractive companies. Remove the material and subject it to composting or biochar production and sequester it in agricultural soils. Win-win.

This is just one small example, well, not so small, of how proper climate action and economic justice can converge. Let’s get over that obsession with “labor-saving devices.” In many other ways, human labor can become a path to reducing climate chaos by increasing economic opportunity for all people.