Trade Wars and Climate Chaos

It is as sad as it is fascinating to observe the complete disconnect between the assumptions behind current emerging trade wars and those behind the current pretensions of nations to taking climate action.

On the one hand, news reports of steps taken on either side in the escalation of Trump’s trade war with China assume that human progress depends on extensive international trade. They portray such steps as damaging imports and exports and therefore “the economy” itself. That, of course, results from the near-universal belief in the value and necessity of expanding the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy.

Perpetuating the Impossible

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International Shipping sustains the Technosphere

On the other hand, it is eminently clear from the overwhelming abundance of scientific evidence that the global economy is the primary source of the disruption of ecosystems around the world. Industry not only destabilizes local and regional ecosystems by aggressively extracting materials for production. That global system of extraction, shipping, manufacture, more shipping, promotion, sales, consumption, and waste – what Dmitry Orlov calls the “technosphere” – is the driving force behind climate chaos and destabilization of the entire Earth System. Yet, global economic and political elites continue to deem it necessary and good.

Of course, while China and other nations recognize the existential threat of climate chaos for their societies, the U.S. remains hog-tied in a political struggle. The know-nothing, anti-science, fossil-fueled corporatists battle the climate activists who respond to the scientific facts of climate chaos, ecological destruction, and impending societal collapse. Even as China begins to turn away from coal as a major source of energy production by reducing the number of new coal-fired power plants, the sheer momentum of its growth adds significantly to global carbon emissions. Despite the international agreement to limit carbon emissions to achieve global warming no greater than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – which is itself an inadequate goal – global carbon emissions continue to grow.

System Dynamics in the Real World

Everyone who pays attention to the growing body of scientific evidence understands the destructiveness of the trends, especially in the self-amplifying feedback mechanisms that accelerate climate chaos. The two obvious examples are: 1) methane release from melting tundra adds to the warming that caused it (an arctic expedition recently discovered that tundra-melting is already 70 years ahead of recent predictions), and 2) greater heat absorption by deep blue arctic waters than by the reflective arctic ice that is melting into the seas. The evidence is now clear that even if we were to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels – which is increasingly unlikely – significant climate chaos will result.

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Sea Rise and Urban Collapse

The sad fact is that no government in the industrial world has made any serious effort to curtail emissions to an extent anywhere near the level required of all nations to avoid societal collapse within the next couple of decades. To reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” will require dismantling the Global Extractive Industrial Consumer Economy and replacing it with local and regional ecological societies that embed economic activity within the parameters needed to restore ecosystems and restrain climate instability. The implications for social change are nearly inconceivable.

Societal Transformation for Survival

Clearly, pulling off such a New Great Transformation of societies is a long shot. Nevertheless, it is the only chance we have to avoid extreme destabilization of climate and the destruction of ecosystems and species upon which humanity depends for survival. Global, regional, and local collapse of societies will follow as ecosystems and climate further destabilize. Fighting or resolving trade wars, in this context, is the global equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Forget international trade, except for limiting it to exchanges that assist devastated nations to survive. The industrial and industrializing nations must abandon the entire culture of industrial consumerism and the extraction, production, and trade that it perpetuates. Unfortunately, national governments and the corporations that control them continue in exactly the wrong direction. Trade wars are part of the old global industrial-consumer political economy, which dominates national governments and their policies. That is why it is now up to the people to find a new path out of the death dance of extractive industrial consumerism.

Some Right Things Done in All the Wrong Ways for All the Wrong Reasons

Free Trade, Fair Trade, Tariffs, Trade Wars, and all such matters reflect a complex of political-economic issues that will soon become mostly irrelevant. Yet pundits persistently pontificate on their putative principles and pitfalls – within the bubble of business-as-usual.

The problem is that all the parties disputing matters of international trade envision the future as an ideal version of the already fading present. They wallow in utopian dreams of a world that cannot be. They argue over the arrangement of secular deck chairs on the Titanic of endless-growth economics, ignoring the iceberg of Earth-systems transformation just ahead.

Utopian dreams continue in an increasingly dystopian world. “Increase our speed! The Titanic must make headlines when we reach port.” Headlines indeed! There is no port in the emerging geological era of the Anthropocene for grand-scale corporate international trade or today’s global industrial consumerism

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Fossil-fueled International Trade

International trade is a very complex system of exchange founded in conditions that no longer exist and assumptions that conflict with the new reality so widely denied or ignored. Corporate utopian dreams promote never-ending economic expansion of the global industrial-consumer economy in a finite world.

We have already exceeded natural limits. Yet economists and politicians continue to routinely deny or ignore them. They try to hold onto the only system they have ever known, as it continues to destabilize the living Earth systems from which it draws its power.

Earth Systems Transformed

The current global system of neo-liberal economic growth at any cost must grow, but it cannot. Like a cancer, it grows until it kills its host, and then must die itself. Neither the dwindling supply of raw materials nor the growing instability of climate and ecological systems can sustain the technosphere much longer. ALL forms of life on the planet, including global political-economic elites, depend on living Earth systems for survival. Yet, we have destroyed the stability of these systems. They remained constant for most of the 11,000 years of the Holocene, allowing humans to “inherit the Earth.” Yet the global industrial system has broken Earth-system stability. The Holocene is over. The Great Acceleration since World War II has rapidly destabilized the entire Earth System.

Anthropocene-GreatAccelerationSocioEconomicTrends-1750-2010From the perspective of mainstream (neoliberal) economics, Trump’s arbitrary imposition of tariffs on European allies and Chinese trading partners is rather stupid. It may very well stifle growth and foment a full on global trade war. International capital has begun to run scared. That makes sense from within the assumptions of that system, but that system becomes increasingly unstable as its foundations crumble. So, the establishment critics are right within their bubble, but wrong in the context of global, or I should say, planetary conditions. The very system within which the argument rages is unsustainable.

Trump is wrong to say that starting and winning a trade war is easy. Well, it’s not hard to start if you ignore allies and “competitors” alike. But win or lose, if international trade continues to contribute massive amounts of carbon into the already destabilizing biosphere, then neither trade alliances nor trade wars will matter.

Anthropocene Rising

Clive Hamilton put it clearly in his book, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. The continuation of the global consumer-industrial system beyond natural limits led humanity to cause a deep rupture in the geological evolution of the entire Earth System. Our actions have now propelled the planet into a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, which has already transformed Earth’s living systems and its climate in ways that will intensify for centuries, and likely persist for thousands of years.

Going forward, life on planet Earth will change radically, regardless of the human response to human-caused Earth’s destabilization. We cannot stop the planetary forces we have set in motion. However, we can mitigate the effects of continuing down the path of destruction so many still deny.

To reduce superfluous international trade – even by Trumpist blundering into trade wars that constrict imports and exports – would significantly reduce total planetary carbon emissions. International trade is a major contributor to global warming. Only by transforming the ways humanity relates to living Earth systems – by radically reducing the disruption of ecosystems and climate – can we minimize the damage and perhaps find ways to adapt to the new harsh conditions we now face in the Anthropocene. Doing all the right things, especially for all the right reasons, will be very difficult to achieve.