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

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

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

The Official Crisis

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

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

A 2◦ target = societal collapse. A 1.5◦ target = struggle to adapt with continued mitigation. Graphic credit: 

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

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

Unprecedented Transformation Required

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

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

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

The New Great Transformation

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

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

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

Water Wells and Appropriate Technology

When my well failed a while back, I had just begun re-reading E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. It is a remarkable book, even more relevant today than in 1973, and available in many newer editions. Schumacher’s perspective of “Buddhist Economics” emerged from his experience as an economic development expert in Burma and his time spent in a Buddhist monastery there. The viewpoint he expressed was more profound than recent, though valuable, critiques of neo-classical economics and the endless-growth economic ideology.

5e47df09c0fca445cf795801139960aa--water-well-drilling-rigsI watched Daniel and his helper set up the big well-repair rig with its crane and other equipment required for such jobs. The engine was running, supplying the power for the hoist and crane. Several other mechanical devises allowed them to raise then secure the pipe, wiring, and connectors, holding them in place. That allowed them to disassemble the wellhead components to make their repairs. Fortunately, the problem turned out to be an intermittent short in a wire not adequately secured, allowing friction to produce a sporadic failure of the pump to maintain water pressure. The fix was relatively cheap, far better than having to deal with an exhausted well.

Work and Energy

It was interesting to watch the merging of manual labor with fossil-fueled powered equipment. I started thinking of how they might accomplish such work without burning so much fossil fuel. Clearly, the men needed a lot of power to leverage their work with the manual tools. Electrical motors powered by lead-acid batteries recharged by the truck’s engine drove the equipment.

If an electric motor drove the truck itself, powered by its own batteries, the whole operation would have been relatively free of carbon emissions. However, if the battery charging system back at the shop got its electricity from the grid, powered mostly by coal-fired and nuclear power plants, such a system would still contribute carbon to global warming.

If an array of photovoltaic solar panels charged all the batteries, however, the whole system would be mostly free of carbon emissions. All of the necessary technology for such a setup exists today. Like any system, it would require new investment. As far as I know, nobody has set up such configuration yet although the technology is available.

In order to achieve a low carbon footprint, we do not need to give up the necessities of modern life, though we will have to curtail significantly our profligate “consumer lifestyle”. After decades of delay in taking significant climate action, recent research findings demonstrate that we have reached the tipping point where only radical societal transformation can constrain the most severe climate chaos, ecosystem collapse, and species extinction.

Transforming Energy and Society

No minor “ecomodernist” tweaks of green consumer products will be enough. Nor can risky illusions of geoengineering the atmosphere address the deeper problem of the “technosphere” overshooting the Earth System’s capacity to carry its destruction. We must redirect current massive investments of capital into the doomed financialized globalized economy of growth toward replacing it with appropriate technology locally applied.

We need to convert our power generation to emissions-free technologies that are available today, and not waste energy on the pursuit of high-tech trivia. We have the knowledge; we need the action, now. We will have to give up the excessive consumerism and the reckless waste of the growth-at-any-cost global economy. Fewer ephemeral consumer products, replaced by carbon neutral, higher quality necessities, and a refocusing on human values as their measure, are all necessary. That will mean that society will have to run the economy, not the other way around. For more on carbon emissions, ecological overshoot, and the costs of affluence, see other posts at