Economic Growth or Societal Development: a Matter of Survival

For most “moderns” the role of economic growth in assuring human progress appears necessary, whatever problems it may cause. Yet, the evidence has grown to such undeniable levels that continued economic growth, at least as we practice it now, is simply unsustainable on this small planet. Climate scientists, ecologists, environmentalists, and Earth system scientists have accumulated and analyzed a steady stream of data that clearly point to the accelerating destabilization of the entire Earth system.

Emissions of greenhouse gases continue unabated, produced by a globalized techno-industrial growth economy. Meanwhile, corporate CEOs, corrupt politicians, pundits of denial, and dreamers of wealth and fame fight over who gets more of the pie that is already burning, still in an overheated oven. Nobody is willing to turn down the heat.

No Time for Illusions

Even more important, time is running out. For too long, most of those who even noticed have treated climate change as some future problem to deal with later. It is certainly not something I should have to do anything about now. The ordinary citizen is in no position personally to do anything significant about a global problem that international negotiations struggle to come to terms with.

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Industrial Pollution in Ukraine

As I have said in other posts, every report from the IPCC has shown that predictions of previous reports seriously underestimated the changes they analyzed. The IPCC is an inherently conservative international body. All the governments that support it must approve the content of its reports. Until now, IPCC reports on current understandings of climate change have made certain optimistic assumptions about potential technological developments, such as geo-engineering, which are simply not justified. Things are not as bad as the IPCC would have us believe; they are far worse.

So far, political and business elites have constrained all international, as well as national, discussions of climate action within the assumption that responses can effectively reduce carbon emissions within the context of continued economic growth. So-called leaders have assumed that “technology will save us.” We have plenty of history to look back upon where new technology solved many problems of industry and commerce. That has usually allowed continued economic growth, creating new jobs while destroying old ones. Henry Ford hired many workers to build his cars while the makers of buggy whips went out of business. But that old logic no longer applies.

Cautious Science Reaches Critical Mass

A new special report by the IPCC has begun to face the hard facts of Earth system disruption and necessary human response. An Oct. 7, 2018, New York Times article By Coral Davenport summarized the situation by saying: “The authors found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels by 2040, inundating coastlines and intensifying droughts and poverty.”

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Simulated Sea Rise in Miami

Now, even that was an understatement. They might have said, more accurately, “if we reduce emissions of greenhouse gases enough to keep global average temperature to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels by 2040, sea rise inundating coastlines, intensifying droughts and superstorms disrupting agriculture and causing poverty worldwide, may be slowed enough to allow human survival.” The IPCC is, after all, a conservative organization.

Nevertheless, the IPCC took a major step in recognizing the social implications of significantly reducing global carbon emissions. From its Summary for Policy Makers, it is clear that industrial nations need to achieve almost unimaginable economic contraction to minimize the most serious damage and irreversible trends toward complete climate chaos. Industrial nations would have to transform the world economy drastically in the next few years. What national leaders are talking about that?

Politicians Prevent Progress

Of course, U.S. President Trump has mocked climate science and vowed to withdraw from the Paris agreements to reduce carbon emissions. He wants to increase coal production and use. Extreme right wing candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, the likely winner in the Brazilian presidential election, has also said he would withdraw from the Paris climate accords. The IPCC report concludes that what is necessary to mitigate climate chaos appears politically impossible.

To quote the Times article again, in summary: “To prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, the report said, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. It also found that, by 2050, use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent. Renewable energy such as wind and solar, which make up about 20 percent of the electricity mix today, would have to increase to as much as 67 percent.” The facts require extreme economic contraction and therefore societal transformation, which political demagogues and economic plutocrats proactively deny.

Conventional notions of progress as economic growth are no longer physically viable, yet they persist politically worldwide. Discussions of how to mitigate climate chaos and the devastation, poverty, and death it will surely bring within the next couple of decades, must now shift to focus on societal development by shrinking the technosphere and reallocating resources to human needs rather than capital accumulation by financial elites. That seems impossible within the current political context. But the necessity for survival will soon motivate large numbers of people to mobilize to form a very different kind of society in order to survive.

So Much More than Warming: Misunderstanding Climate Change

The words we use to describe the world tend to “frame” our understandings by bracketing the range of images and meanings that make sense to us. Our reasoning builds on deep emotions. Moral reasoning also rests on an emotional sense of right and wrong and the beliefs and personal relationships we hold dear.

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Global Warming ~ Source: Wikipedia

The terms used to describe the effects of human induced emissions of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, are a good case in point. The facts are quite simple, though their implications are very complex. We gradually changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere over the 200 years during which we accelerated the burning of fossil fuels. In doing so, we humans have caused climate patterns to change.

 

The Rise of Civilization…and Danger

So much of what humans do depends on climate conditions that remained relatively stable during “the ascent of man.” The discovery of fire, the invention of cooking, the advent of agriculture and growing populations they supported, all occurred within the Holocene, the geological epoch of stable climate during the past 11,000 years or so. Some scientists now conclude that the Holocene is over and we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, a period when the activities of humans have so disrupted complex Earth systems that the changes will likely last thousands of years.

Yet we continue to frame our understanding of the changing climate conditions brought on by the industrial era in very strange ways, which stem from our emotional attachments to the past and current course of economic growth. We identify with the utopian dreams of economists who project endless growth of resource use and energy expenditures in a finite world. Such illusions directly conflict with the facts resulting from diverse scientific research findings. The current trends in resource depletion and global warming have already destabilized many of the living Earth systems that we depend upon to survive. Clive Hamilton illuminates these forces in his book, Defiant Earth. Those trends are accelerating as political ‘authorities’ around the world bicker over what reductions in carbon emissions are necessary and who is responsible to achieve them.

Utopian Dreams and Political Power

In the U.S., political debates rage on. Now we have a federal political administration, riddled with Trumpery, which denies the facts of science in order to further its aims to consolidate political power and to enrich the rich ever more. Yet, we all live on the same planet. Even though the initial damage caused by global warming has already begun to affect the most vulnerable populations, ultimately everyone is at risk, even the super-rich. Everything is moving faster than expected.

Scientists frame the processes that are changing the conditions on the planet in ways that reflect the best available data. Unfortunately, the facts challenge long held assumptions about the ability of humans to control nature. Yet, people identify with those who have achieved ‘success’ in the past, before we reached the natural limits of economic growth.

Social Illusion or Hopeful Realism

Propaganda encourages people’s emotions to align with the interests of those who bribe politicians through campaign contributions, personal “expenses,” and various lobbying strategies. As political scientists have demonstrated, most of what passes as “legislation,” consists of actions that favor the economic interests of the rich and powerful, both individuals and corporations. What the public wants or believes in pretty much does not count, except for pandering to the misunderstandings of reality that politicians encourage among their “base.”

So, what about “global warming,” or the current analgesic, “climate change”? Only when deteriorating conditions sufficiently infuse enough people with fear and anger, will direct political action, both locally nationally, take place. Will it be too late? Nobody knows. We can only find hope in realism.

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.

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.

Climate Imperative, Freedom, and Democracy

We are so used to the idea that we must each have the freedom to choose, well, just about everything in our lives. We imagine that we are independently constructing a “life of our own.” We have, in our minds at least, an inalienable right to choose and to live our own unique “lifestyle.” That privilege is seen from within the American consumer culture as a fundamental, even constitutional, right of every “consumer.” With the development of consumerism, the idea of “the consumer,” seems to have replaced the concept of citizen. Many people’s understanding of freedom has narrowed considerably as a result.

Democracy, on the other hand, is an inherently social concept; it refers to a people fully engaged in the decisions that affect their collective lives. Humans, like all other living species, are interdependent for their survival and well-being. As individuals become more dependent on the corporate state, the freedom that is made possible by democracy begins to fade.

Freedom to Consume

Our concept of lifestyle is closely related to our consumer behavior; in fact, each seems to embody the other. Our consumer behavior is our lifestyle. The pursuit of consumer lifestyles has itself become the defining element of our “freedom.” It is hard to imagine that this is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind in shaping the Bill of Rights. Political freedom seems to have receded into a background abstraction – another consequence of the ascendency of the corporate state.

Of course, much of our so called “freedom” is actually conformity to some mass-media generated image of our personal uniqueness and “individuality.” Any potential authenticity in that image is transformed by the corporate mass media to maximize consumption, profit, and, incidentally, waste and pollution.

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Thorsten Veblen described the status-enhancing behavior of the “leisure class” of the booming U.S. industrial society at the end of the nineteenth century as “conspicuous consumption.”[i] Today, conspicuous consumption is no longer limited to displays of excess by the very wealthy. The ever growing productivity of the industrial system requires mass consumption to generate enough demand for its ever-growing supply of products. The desire for consumption beyond need has to be stimulated for demand to keep up with production. The consumer culture is driven by the need of capital investment to expand production and sales so that principle and interest can be paid back and a profit made. The agent of that culture is mass-media propaganda.

Ultimately, in an endless-growth economy, demand cannot keep up. Nor can the supply of raw materials for ever more efficient production.

Illusions of Freedom, Denial of Necessity

The debt and growth driven economy has no viable boundaries within its own operating model. It admits to no natural or environmental boundaries to its growth. But there are limits to growth on this finite planet and they have been known for decades.[ii]  The contemporary dilemma of political economy is of an entirely different order than that framed by conventional economics. We are faced with two directly related imperatives, one economic, the other physical-environmental. The growth economy has reached its natural limit and the expanding consumption of earth’s resources is surpassing the carrying capacity of the planet. Together these two elements of industrial society have come a long way in destabilizing the living earth systems upon which we depend, as well as the climate system upon which their stability depends.

Put aside for a moment the climate deniers — a good idea in itself. Fundamentalist deniers would dead-head us into an earth-bound “end times” in order to retain their faith that only God controls the weather. The more secular deniers won’t give up the corporate largess they enjoy or seek; they are not going to be convinced of scientific facts by rational argument. They want the economic growth of the industrial era to continue forever, or at least while they grab all they can. However, neither the material facts of resource depletion, pollution and waste, nor the climate disruption caused by industrial society will allow continuation on this path. magical thinking cannot overcome the laws of physics nor the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate disruption. Science is not a matter of political opinion or religious fervor.

Ironies of Democracy and Science

The more important issues are found in questions of how to respond to the scientifically verified facts of impending human crisis, knowing their truth. Those facts include a rapidly destabilizing climate, an increasingly unstable overly integrated world financial system, a debt-driven overproducing intolerably unfair corporate dominated economy, and growing cultural chaos and political violence.

Climate destabilization involves an incredibly wide range of variables in an extremely complex system over which humans have had very little control. Diverse human actions, all involving the burning of carbon, inadvertently disrupted that system for two hundred years until the consequences became obvious to those who observed, measured, and analyzed them.

The first major evidence of an impending climate crisis was hidden by the petroleum industry, enabling it to grab a couple more decades of undue profit while the problem grew far worse and now threatens humanity itself. Along the way, it funded large scale climate denying propaganda using the same marketing that the tobacco industry used to delay acceptance of the facts of damaged health from smoking cigarettes. The damage done, however, is global, not just to a single sector of the population.

The scientific ethic of accepting socially verified evidence in the face of prior contrary beliefs has led to countless advances in knowledge and technological innovation. The ability of NASA to land a man on the moon, etc., resulted from the same basic scientific processes that produced the findings of climate science.

Once clear trends from vast amounts of data are confirmed, “theory” is no longer a matter of opinion. The math of verified laws of physics and the evidence of repeated observation that produced aerospace program success were never subject to denial propaganda. And they involved a very focused goal and the development of very specific technologies to achieve it. This allowed an incredibly high degree of control over a very narrow range of variables with highly predictable outcomes. In that respect, climate science is very different. Any attempt to achieve climate restabilization will require the mobilization of entire populations to change their institutions and behavior.

The democratic processes of science have produced knowledge verified by countless data sets and analyses.[iii] Unlike the behavior of nations, those facts are not negotiable. Physics, in that sense, is objective. It is up to humans to respond to reality in a way that improves our chances as the chaos grows. But the formally democratic institutions of the industrial societies have completely failed to take actions to counter the deadly trends we know are occurring. The only chance to overcome the moribund political institutions and achieve the necessary will come from the diverse social movements now building around the world, demanding climate action that goes far beyond COP21 platitudes and international empty promises.

Freedom is Survival

How do we retain our consumerist illusion of unbounded personal “lifestyle” freedom in a new situation that calls for massive social change? We do not. We simply do not have that luxury, even though the corporate state would have you believe you do. If we want to survive without global extreme climate chaos and collapse of society along with the failed-growth economy and climate-destabilized agriculture, we must act collectively and quickly.

Despite the claims that technological innovation within the industrial system can reduce carbon emissions enough to thwart climate catastrophe and all the chaos that entails, only major constraint of industrial production and consumption themselves will be enough. That is not a welcome fact. The power elites are still in denial about the necessity of transformative change, as they seek piecemeal profitable technological fixes. But another way is not only possible, it is undeniably necessary. It must come from people and communities organizing themselves for the change that the large institutions deem impossible. Reorganizing society from the bottom up must happen because the top-down institutions are strangling any serious initiative from the top. This is not a lifestyle choice. Rather, it is the necessity of collectively choosing complex and massive social actions to improve the chances for the survival of our species.

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[i] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure class. (1899) New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

[ii] Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update (New York: Chelsea Green, 3rd ed., 2004), confirms the projections of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth, based on computer models of resource depletion by MIT scientists. Simply put, humanity has overshot the environment’s ability to physically and biologically sustain human life at the scale to which it has grown. This will lead to the collapse of civilization unless radical changes are instituted to reduce the human load on the planet’s carrying capacity.

[iii] The scientific consensus on climate change, while continually being refined, includes some very clear and uncontested trends. Many of these have accelerated faster than predicted. The intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), made up of scientists from around the world, has consistently under-predicted changes. Perhaps that is because its reports are mediated by the nation states that it reports to. The trends are nevertheless clear and increasingly disturbing. Any mitigation efforts that hope to be adequate must also be comprehensive and complex, resulting in significant “lifestyle” changes, mostly in fully industrialized nations where carbon emissions continue to be vastly larger than in non-industrialized regions.

False Hopes and Disingenuous Agreements: COP21 and Climate Catastrophe

The corporate mass media were briefly all agog about the agreement reached in Paris for the world’s nations to reduce green house gas emissions and save the planet.[1] COP21 was widely declared a success, then quickly ignored. But really, what was accomplished? A very slick propaganda pitch by the world’s political elites, that’s what. Yet, it must be acknowledged that the unanimous agreement among the leaders of all nations at the conference was impressive in itself.

After several decades of consistent scientific consensus confirmed by massive planetary evidence, the politicians were forced to admit the obvious. That was a major step toward serious climate action. Yet it was embarrassingly similar to a bunch of alcoholics admitting their addiction at their first 12-step meeting. Unfortunately, it is far too little and it also may be too late. Global warming is a threat to humanity now and the addiction of corporations, governments, and people to fossil-fueled global economy remains fundamentally unchanged. In covert denial, major media reports buried the facts of failure deep in their glowing descriptions.

Indigenous earth advocates and leaders of island nations – as well as major climate organizations such as 350.org and Friends of Earth – objected that the “agreements” have no teeth. The agreed goals of the negotiating nations fall far short of targets demonstrated by the scientific evidence to be necessary to avoid planetary climate catastrophe. The science-based targets must be reached very soon. In contrast, the carbon-emissions cuts the politicians pledged to make do not add up to a total that is sufficient to keep global warming to even the insufficient goal of an increase of no more than 2º C.

Denial as Affirmation

Working toward the 1.5º C. the climate science consensus deemed necessary to avoid climate catastrophe is presented in the Paris accords as a vague wish. On the positive side, the agreement is a universal political acknowledgement that there is indeed a climate crisis. The nations present agreed that something must be done. That’s all – hardly a plan of action. COP21 produced an agreement of concern; none of its targets for governmental action are enforceable or adequate. Most importantly, virtually nothing is said about how nations can achieve the agreed goals. Yet the praise pours forth.

In the U.S., the mass shooting at a community center in San Bernardino, California, interrupted any scant coverage of the UN conference. Every last detail of the terrorist shooters’ lives was covered over and over by CNN, MSNBC, and other cable outlets. Given the apparent inspiration given them by ISIS and the immigration security failure in the case, the attention given it is certainly understandable. Yet over the two-week span of the conference, the U.S. corporate media gave coverage to COP21 at a level implying its relative unimportance to Americans. One might wish that it had been given the level of coverage of Donald Trump’s latest offensive utterance, and with greater honesty. However, the mass media are deeply implicated in the fossil-fuel addiction of the corporations that control it.

Perhaps the scant news coverage has to do with the fact that the U.S. is unique in its political stance toward global warming. Everyone knows that the climate-crisis denying Republican-controlled Congress will never ratify any climate-action agreement with its present membership. First, nothing President Obama attempts to accomplish will be accepted by this racist radicalized Tea-Party dominated gang of corporatist obstructionists. Obama’s efforts to shape the agreement so that it does not require congressional ratification will not significantly change U.S. political stagnation over the issue. Second, the blatantly racist hostility to Obama in Congress is merely amplified by the climate-denial fossil-fuel industry funding of so many legislators. It is a lose-lose situation for climate action in the U.S., and it is a disaster for the planet.

Major national news outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, reporting at the end of the conference, have at least implicitly proclaimed victory for the environment. Despite the failures of content and commitment evidenced by the document itself, it is widely praised for the hope it brings to the deepening climate crisis. Agreement in principle, however, is entirely different from any commitment to specific climate actions. What can we realistically hope will be accomplished as a result of the COP21 accord?

Affirmation Diverting Attention to Wrong Policies

A compilation of actions taken and not taken by the various nations that have contributed in extremely different degrees to climate destabilization would be book-length. The global fossil-fuel industry and its connections to governments and corporations is highly complex and differentiated. In the U.S., federal efforts to constrain emissions from coal-fired power plants remain ambiguous at best. The Environmental Protection Agency attempts to impose stricter emissions standards on power plants. At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management continues to virtually give away coal mining leases in the Powder River Basin without competitive bidding. The price of coal is thereby held down in a “giant subsidy” to the coal industry.[2] The social costs of burning coal – pollution driven health damage and the climate destabilization – remain unaddressed. The coal problem is only one of many contradictions in government action in relation to emissions reduction. Most are driven by the demands of industry upon the state. The culture of unrestrained fossil-fuel driven economic growth remains unscathed.

The corporate agenda of industrial growth not only continues unabated, but has permeated talk of how to limit carbon emissions. Research and development of exotic new technologies for energy production dominate governments in the industrially developed Western nations. The Bill Gates’ coalition of billionaire “venture philanthropists” has convinced governments to spend on new high-tech energy production. Even if the research and development efforts for such exotic strategies as Bill Gates’ new technology for nuclear power generation could be guaranteed viable, they are misdirected.

Right Action Threatens Corporatism, and Must

Instead, public authorities should be investing in more difficult to organize but absolutely necessary immediate actions to conserve energy and cut carbon emissions directly. Existing means for energy conservation and near zero emissions production – solar and wind – are immediately available. Their immediate deployment should be maximized. But that would seem to require structural changes in the economy of global extractive capital. Actually, their gradual deployment is already forcing change in energy investments, as is the divestment movement. If sufficient investment shifts to renewable energy, the fossil-fuel industry cannot continue to drive governments of the “advanced” industrial nations to continue down the path of destruction.

Those who have contributed most to the problem have contributed least to its solution. The corporatist model of new industrial technology for reducing carbon emissions merely serves to take us further down the path of wrong action. Those who can instigate real change away from the corporatist model of over-production and over-consumption toward an ecological economy, must take action now. Given the intransigence of federal policies subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry, the contradictions between abstract federal climate policy and the continued support for extractive capital will become more obvious.

Local and regional efforts to protect aquifers, farms, local drinking water, and indigenous lands from their destructive effects are making extractive investments more difficult. Communities, municipalities, and regions must reassert their innate rights to self-preservation by direct actions replacing fossil-fuel based energy production, instituting comprehensive energy conservation programs, and restricting the carbon emissions allowed. The false hopes of abstract international agreements must be replaced by the realistic hopes of direct actions by people where they live.

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[1] Prime examples include: Chris Moody, “Paris climate deal: 5 big issues,” The Washington Post, December 12, 2015. Accessed at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/paris-climate-deal-5-big-issues/2015/12/12/2bb2ba8c-a107-11e5-8728-1af6af208198_story.html?wpisrc=nl_pwrainbow and Coral Davenport, “Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris,” New York Times, December 12, 2015. Accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/13/world/europe/climate-change-accord-paris.html.

[2] James Surowiecki, “The Financial Page: Money to Burn,” The New Yorker, December 7, 2015, p. 28.

Romancing the End Game: Do We Want to Gamble Our Lives?

Opinions vary. We don’t really know exactly how little time is left before humanity must mount a massive campaign to reconfigure our relationship to the planet before it’s too late. But I would be willing to bet that we have next to none.

Examples of such human folly abound. The historical/archeological record shows that a number of human groups have collapsed by failing to recognize their peril. They defiled their local ecology to the point where they could no longer survive as a group within their environment. It is interesting to note that in many cases, the elites engaged in excessive programs of self-aggrandizement, monument building, and lavish privileged religious rituals and festivals. They finally crossed the point of no return and were essentially doomed by their failure to act in a way that would lead to their survival.*  Take away the cultural garb and our own elites look the same.

Yet, as an industrialized people, we don’t seem to believe it can happen to us, no less to all of humanity. Wall Street, Pentagon, and media corporate elites seem to be mimicking in their actions those historical failed elites. They have far more power, but can hardly be excused for ignorance. The world’s political “leaders” have diddled and dodged for decades since the first clear indicators of impending climate disruption became widely known. World “leaders,” after all, follow the dictates of their corporate benefactors.

Failure to Respond

We don’t know exactly even if enough time remains to avoid collapse. What we do know is that the little time left is rapidly shortening and the task ahead is increasingly monumental. Yet, we face several very serious psycho-social and political-economic barriers to major movement down the right path.

We need neither romanticize nor demonize any former or currant culture to realize that each has its strengths and weaknesses — in various proportions. Jared Diamond and others have demonstrated the folly of very different groups that have ignored the requirements of the relationship they had with their micro-environment. In some cases they could have continued to sustain themselves if they had not ignored the problem. In some cases, such as the Vikings in Greenland, invaders failed to take lessons from the indigenous people and simply died off. The self-absorbed character of today’s industrial-consumerist culture is a study in not taking lessons from the real world in which our economy operates. Our economy is, as they say, unsustainable.

With today’s industrial-consumer culture, we are so estranged from the natural world that we have become extremely vulnerable to large scale system failure. The cult of “science will save us” as we continue down the same consumerist path, will only distract from the hard facts of the massive changes already clearly necessary. Today, it is no mere micro-environment that we are contaminating; we have already seriously disrupted the homeostasis of most major earth systems.

Inconvenient Science

Much of Western science has been corrupted by its subordination to the corporate growth machine. That machine perpetuates the myth that all we need to do is come up with some new [profitable] “technological breakthrough” and all will be fine. Only independent scientific research and analysis will have a chance of pointing to the specific material changes that are necessary to stop the lemming-rush to societal collapse.

Climate science has been relatively untainted by corporate corruption, since its subject matter was of little political importance until recently. Its findings were either generally practical or merely academic. Farmers, airline pilots, and many others benefit from weather information and understanding of climate processes. Academics pondered the nature of earth systems. But now, the facts of climate change have major political implications for many economic policies and practices. The most powerful institutions and people will be profoundly affected. Climate science has been supported by governments around the world for decades because the knowledge gained is of general economic benefit. But now, that knowledge is poised to change the course of history.

Whatever his shortcomings may be, Al Gore certainly picked an appropriate title for his film on climate change: “An Inconvenient Truth.” The realities of climate disruption could not be any more inconvenient for the political-economic elites that operate the corporate state. The continuation of the growth economy is of prime importance to them – it is the source of their ability to continue extracting wealth from the rest of us. The elites who run the largest institutions are not unaware of the impending crisis of climate and economy. Yet the financial/corporate elites remain addicted to their various money-power trips no matter how much they understand. Their expansionist extractivist industrialist ideology maintains them on their fiscal drug habit until the next quarterly report and their next obscene ‘bonus’. Death is inconvenient, but it happens anyway. The extinction of a species is far more tragic.

Ending Illusions

In this light, the unabated accelerating consumerism and productivism we see today are much like a gambling addiction. Facts, timing, and probabilities are easily distorted just to get that next fix. But the marker will be called in. It has been said that the greatest satisfaction in buying a new [fill in the blank] is at the point of purchase, not in its ultimate use. It’s the addict’s brief rush. That is because so much of what is produced and consumed is not useful. It is only an image of some form of satisfaction, but is fundamentally waste. Many things can be both useful and beautiful. But most of them do not emerge from the marketing of industrially produced “consumer products.”

Only by re-establishing a collective awareness of the roots of human existence will we be able to find a balance in our relationship to the earth systems that have sustained us, until now.


*  The best known documentation of ecologically failed societies is Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.