The Myth of Human Progress

5 06 2016

After reading this excellent article, you will know why I admire Chris Hedges so much……

Posted on Jan 13, 2013 on the Truthdig website

 

 

 

 

By Chris Hedges

chrishedgesClive Hamilton in his “Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change” describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward, as the draft report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee illustrates.

Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress” have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.

“There is a pattern in the past of civilization after civilization wearing out its welcome from nature, overexploiting its environment, overexpanding, overpopulating,” Wright said when I reached him by phone at his home in British Columbia, Canada. “They tend to collapse quite soon after they reach their period of greatest magnificence and prosperity. That pattern holds good for a lot of societies, among them the Romans, the ancient Maya and the Sumerians of what is now southern Iraq. There are many other examples, including smaller-scale societies such as Easter Island. The very things that cause societies to prosper in the short run, especially new ways to exploit the environment such as the invention of irrigation, lead to disaster in the long run because of unforeseen complications. This is what I called in ‘A Short History of Progress’ the ‘progress trap.’ We have set in motion an industrial machine of such complexity and such dependence on expansion that we do not know how to make do with less or move to a steady state in terms of our demands on nature. We have failed to control human numbers. They have tripled in my lifetime. And the problem is made much worse by the widening gap between rich and poor, the upward concentration of wealth, which ensures there can never be enough to go around. The number of people in dire poverty today—about 2 billion—is greater than the world’s entire population in the early 1900s. That’s not progress.”

“If we continue to refuse to deal with things in an orderly and rational way, we will head into some sort of major catastrophe, sooner or later,” he said. “If we are lucky it will be big enough to wake us up worldwide but not big enough to wipe us out. That is the best we can hope for. We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.”

Wright, who in his dystopian novel “A Scientific Romance” paints a picture of a future world devastated by human stupidity, cites “entrenched political and economic interests” and a failure of the human imagination as the two biggest impediments to radical change. And all of us who use fossil fuels, who sustain ourselves through the formal economy, he says, are at fault.

Modern capitalist societies, Wright argues in his book “What Is America?: A Short History of the New World Order,” derive from European invaders’ plundering of the indigenous cultures in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries, coupled with the use of African slaves as a workforce to replace the natives. The numbers of those natives fell by more than 90 percent because of smallpox and other plagues they hadn’t had before. The Spaniards did not conquer any of the major societies until smallpox had crippled them; in fact the Aztecs beat them the first time around. If Europe had not been able to seize the gold of the Aztec and Inca civilizations, if it had not been able to occupy the land and adopt highly productive New World crops for use on European farms, the growth of industrial society in Europe would have been much slower. Karl Marx and Adam Smith both pointed to the influx of wealth from the Americas as having made possible the Industrial Revolution and the start of modern capitalism. It was the rape of the Americas, Wright points out, that triggered the orgy of European expansion. The Industrial Revolution also equipped the Europeans with technologically advanced weapons systems, making further subjugation, plundering and expansion possible.

“The experience of a relatively easy 500 years of expansion and colonization, the constant taking over of new lands, led to the modern capitalist myth that you can expand forever,” Wright said. “It is an absurd myth. We live on this planet. We can’t leave it and go somewhere else. We have to bring our economies and demands on nature within natural limits, but we have had a 500-year run where Europeans, Euro-Americans and other colonists have overrun the world and taken it over. This 500-year run made it not only seem easy but normal. We believe things will always get bigger and better. We have to understand that this long period of expansion and prosperity was an anomaly. It has rarely happened in history and will never happen again. We have to readjust our entire civilization to live in a finite world. But we are not doing it, because we are carrying far too much baggage, too many mythical versions of deliberately distorted history and a deeply ingrained feeling that what being modern is all about is having more. This is what anthropologists call an ideological pathology, a self-destructive belief that causes societies to crash and burn. These societies go on doing things that are really stupid because they can’t change their way of thinking. And that is where we are.”

And as the collapse becomes palpable, if human history is any guide, we like past societies in distress will retreat into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” The powerlessness we will feel in the face of ecological and economic chaos will unleash further collective delusions, such as fundamentalist belief in a god or gods who will come back to earth and save us.

“Societies in collapse often fall prey to the belief that if certain rituals are performed all the bad stuff will go away,” Wright said. “There are many examples of that throughout history. In the past these crisis cults took hold among people who had been colonized, attacked and slaughtered by outsiders, who had lost control of their lives. They see in these rituals the ability to bring back the past world, which they look at as a kind of paradise. They seek to return to the way things were. Crisis cults spread rapidly among Native American societies in the 19th century, when the buffalo and the Indians were being slaughtered by repeating rifles and finally machine guns. People came to believe, as happened in the Ghost Dance, that if they did the right things the modern world that was intolerable—the barbed wire, the railways, the white man, the machine gun—would disappear.”

“We all have the same, basic psychological hard wiring,” Wright said. “It makes us quite bad at long-range planning and leads us to cling to irrational delusions when faced with a serious threat. Look at the extreme right’s belief that if government got out of the way, the lost paradise of the 1950s would return. Look at the way we are letting oil and gas exploration rip when we know that expanding the carbon economy is suicidal for our children and grandchildren. The results can already be felt. When it gets to the point where large parts of the Earth experience crop failure at the same time then we will have mass starvation and a breakdown in order. That is what lies ahead if we do not deal with climate change.”

“If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny, nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea,” Wright said.

 

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All people are not equal…in terms of climate

19 02 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Another guest post from Mark Cochrane who this time speaks up on the touchy issue of population.  And economics.  It’s refreshing to see anyone tying all the loose ends together and seeing the big picture, which is why I love Mark…  we need more Mark Cochranes, and his musings need to go far and wide.

The population issue is a contentious predicament. Few people would argue that we don’t have a population problem but there are even fewer willing to do anything about it. Who dies or loses the rights to procreate? Our exponential population growth fits right in with our crazed economic model of infinite exponential growth. Our economy needs exponentially increasing consumption of resources to support the exponential increase in money and that requires exponentially more consumers to drive the process. Look at those places where populations aren’t keeping up their end of the growth curve (Japan, Italy) and you see major economic problems. Nobody talks about this little predicament. For now, developed countries can import needed consumers (immigration) as their populations slow their procreation rates but if this ever becomes a global problem where human beings are a globally limited resource our house of economic cards is going to collapse, assuming any number of other problems don’t bring it down first.

Since we are debating Anthropogenic Climate Change (i.e. human-caused climate change) it goes without saying that the number of us on the planet is one of the root causes of our current dilemma. However people are not all equal or exchangeable in terms of their impacts on the planet.

A few years ago, I provided a book review for “Developing Ecological Consciousness” and the author posed an interesting question. Which country is more overpopulated, the United States or India? At the time, a typical American used 20 times as many resources as a typical Indian. Therefore, our 300 million strong population is equivalent to 6 billion typical Indian people. India has over 1.2 billion people right now. We need less people everywhere but the US is heavily responsible for driving our global environmental problems.

I recently read the 30-yr update for Limits to Growth and had the good fortune to spend time with Dennis Meadows when we were both presenting at last years Age of Limits conference. As Les reports, Dennis doesn’t see intervention as being plausible at this point. We were warned, but instead of preparing we turned up the music and partied harder. We’ve vastly overshot the reasonable carrying capacity of the planet and will have to face a reckoning at some point. Our fears are of a catastrophic collapse of famine, disease and zombies with massive death over a short period but it doesn’t have to be that way.  We could string things out by working it such that our death rate exceeds our birthrate in any number of ways to get there but it doesn’t have to happen suddenly. We can even grow populations more (stupid) or soften the downward slope to coast down to a more sustainable population by simply using less resources per capita (gasp). If Americans all suddenly shifted to Indian consumption rates it would be the equivalent of dropping 285 million people from our resource-use population draw-down rate on the planet. Unfortunately, instead of doing something sensible like this, we are instead trying to lift the consumption rates of the 1.2 billion Indians to American living standards. That will be equivalent to having an additional 22.8 billion previous Indian consumers joining us on the planet! Nothing could go wrong with that…

The incentives of our misguided economic system are what is driving us off the resource cliff in the Limits to Growth graph and we will soon meet the population cliff too if we don’t start planning for a serious transition to reduced energy, resource and food use.





‘Sleepwalking to Extinction’: Capitalism and the Destruction of Life and Earth

23 11 2013

Reblogged from http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/11/15-3

“even if we immediately replaced every fossil-fuel-powered electric generating plant on the planet with 100% renewable solar, wind and water power, this would only reduce global GHG emissions by around 17%.”

When, on May 10th, scientists at Mauna Loa Observatory on the big island of Hawaii announced that global CO2 400ppm
emissions had crossed a threshold at 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in millions of years, a sense of dread spread around the world and not only among climate scientists. CO2 emissions have been relentlessly climbing since Charles David Keeling first set up his tracking station near the summit of Mauna Loa Observatory in 1958 to monitor average daily global CO2 levels. At that time, CO2 concentrations registered 315 ppm. CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have been rising ever since and have recently passed a dangerous tipping point: 440ppm.

For all the climate summits, promises of “voluntary restraint,” carbon trading and carbon taxes, the growth of CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations have not just been unceasing, they have been accelerating in what scientists have dubbed the “Keeling Curve.” In the early 1960s, CO2 ppm concentrations in the atmosphere grew by 0.7ppm per year. In recent decades, especially as China has industrialized, the growth rate has tripled to 2.1 ppm per year. In just the first 17 weeks of 2013, CO2 levels jumped by 2.74 ppm compared to last year.

Carbon concentrations have not been this high since the Pliocene period, between 3m and 5m years ago, when global average temperatures were 3˚C or 4˚C hotter than today, the Arctic was ice-free, sea levels were about 40m higher and jungles covered northern Canada; Florida, meanwhile, was under water along with other coastal locations we now call New York, London, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Sydney and many others. Crossing this threshold has fuelled fears that we are fast approaching converging “tipping points” — melting of the subarctic tundra or the thawing and releasing of the vast quantities of methane in the Arctic sea bottom — that will accelerate global warming beyond any human capacity to stop it.

“I wish it weren’t true, but it looks like the world is going to blow through the 400 ppm level without losing a beat,” said Scripps Institute geochemist Ralph Keeling, son of Charles Keeling.

“At this pace, we’ll hit 450 ppm within a few decades.”

“It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster,” said Maureen E. Raymo, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a unit of Columbia University.

Why are we marching toward disaster, “sleepwalking to extinction” as the Guardian’s George Monbiot once put it? Why can’t we slam on the brakes before we ride off the cliff to collapse? I’m going to argue here that the problem is rooted in the requirement of capitalist production. Large corporations can’t help themselves; they can’t change or change very much. So long as we live under this corporate capitalist system we have little choice but to go along in this destruction, to keep pouring on the gas instead of slamming on the brakes, and that the only alternative — impossible as this may seem right now — is to overthrow this global economic system and all of the governments of the 1% that prop it up and replace them with a global economic democracy, a radical bottom-up political democracy, an eco-socialist civilization.

Although we are fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world we are witnessing a near simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening” — as the Brazilians call it — from Tahir Square to Zucotti Park, from Athens to Istanbul to Beijing and beyond such as the world has never seen. To be sure, like Occupy Wall Street, these movements are still inchoate, are still mainly protesting what’s wrong rather than fighting for an alternative social order. Like Occupy, they have yet to clearly and robustly answer that crucial question: “Don’t like capitalism, what’s your alternative?” Yet they are working on it, and they are for the most part instinctively and radically democratic; in this lies our hope.

Capitalism is, overwhelmingly, the main driver of planetary ecological collapse

From climate change to natural resource overconsumption to pollution, the engine that has powered three centurieshttps://i0.wp.com/www.newscientist.com/data/images/archive/2605/26051202.jpg of accelerating economic development, revolutionizing technology, science, culture and human life itself is, today, a roaring out-of-control locomotive mowing down continents of forests, sweeping oceans of life, clawing out mountains of minerals, pumping out lakes of fuels, devouring the planet’s last accessible natural resources to turn them into “product,” while destroying fragile global ecologies built up over eons of time. Between 1950 and 2000 the global human population more than doubled from 2.5 to 6 billion. But in these same decades, consumption of major natural resources soared more than sixfold on average, some much more. Natural gas consumption grew nearly twelvefold, bauxite (aluminium ore) fifteenfold. And so on. At current rates, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson says that “half the world’s great forests have already been levelled and half the world’s plant and animal species may be gone by the end of this century.”

Corporations aren’t necessarily evil, though plenty are diabolically evil, but they can’t help themselves. They’re just doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their shareholders. Shell Oil can’t help but loot Nigeria and the Arctic and cook the climate. That’s what shareholders demand. BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and other mining giants can’t resist mining Australia’s abundant coal and exporting it to China and India. Mining accounts for 19% of Australia’s GDP and substantial employment even as coal combustion is the single worst driver of global warming. IKEA can’t help but level the forests of Siberia and Malaysia to feed the Chinese mills building their flimsy disposable furniture (IKEA is the third largest consumer of lumber in the world). Apple can’t help it if the cost of extracting the “rare earths” it needs to make millions of new iThings each year is the destruction of the eastern Congo — violence, rape, slavery, forced induction of child soldiers, along with poisoning local waterways. Monsanto and DuPont and Syngenta and Bayer Crop Science have no choice but to wipe out bees, butterflies, birds, small farmers and extinguish crop diversity to secure their grip on the world’s food supply while drenching the planet in their Roundups and Atrazines and neonicotinoids.

This is how giant corporations are wiping out life on earth in the course of a routine business day. And the bigger the corporations grow, the worse the problems become.

In Adam Smith’s day, when the first factories and mills produced hat pins and iron tools and rolls of cloth by the thousands, capitalist freedom to make whatever they wanted didn’t much matter because they didn’t have much impact on the global environment. But today, when everything is produced in the millions and billions, then trashed today and reproduced all over again tomorrow, when the planet is looted and polluted to support all this frantic and senseless growth, it matters — a lot.

The world’s climate scientists tell us we’re facing a planetary emergency. They’ve been telling us since the 1990s that if we don’t cut global fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions by 80-90% below 1990 levels by 2050 we will cross critical tipping points and global warming will accelerate beyond any human power to contain it. Yet despite all the ringing alarm bells, no corporation and no government can oppose growth and, instead, every capitalist government in the world is putting pedal to the metal to accelerate growth, to drive us full throttle off the cliff to collapse.

Marxists have never had a better argument against capitalism than this inescapable and apocalyptic “contradiction.” Solutions to the ecological crisis are blindingly obvious but we can’t take the necessary steps to prevent ecological collapse because, so long as we live under capitalism, economic growth has to take priority over ecological concerns.

We all know what we have to do: suppress greenhouse gas emissions. Stop over-consuming natural resources. Stop the senseless pollution of the earth, waters, and atmosphere with toxic chemicals. Stop producing waste that can’t be recycled by nature. Stop the destruction of biological diversity and ensure the rights of other species to flourish. We don’t need any new technological breakthroughs to solve these problems. Mostly, we just stop doing what we’re doing. But we can’t stop because we’re all locked into an economic system in which companies have to grow to compete and reward their shareholders and because we all need the jobs.

James Hansen, the world’s preeminent climate scientist, has argued that to save the humans:

“Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty … Yes, [coal, oil, gas] most of the fossil fuels must be left in the ground. That is the explicit message that the science provides. […] Humanity treads today on a slippery slope. As we continue to pump greenhouse gases in the air, we move onto a steeper, even more slippery incline. We seem oblivious to the danger — unaware of how close we may be to a situation in which a catastrophic slip becomes practically unavoidable, a slip where we suddenly lose all control and are pulled into a torrential stream that hurls us over a precipice to our demise.”

But how can we do this under capitalism? After his climate negotiators stonewalled calls for binding limits on CO2 emissions at Copenhagen, Cancun, Cape Town and Doha, President Obama is now trying to salvage his environmental “legacy” by ordering his EPA to impose “tough” new emissions limits on existing power plants, especially coal-fired plants. But this won’t salvage his legacy or, more importantly, his daughters’ futures because how much difference would it make, really, if every coal-fired power plant in the U.S. shut down tomorrow when U.S. coal producers are free to export their coal to China, which they are doing, and when China is building another coal-fired power plan every week? The atmosphere doesn’t care where the coal is burned. It only cares how much is burned.

Yet how could Obama tell American mining companies to stop mining coal? This would be tantamount to socialism. But if we do not stop mining and burning coal, capitalist freedom and private property is the least we’ll have to worry about. Same with Obama’s “tough” new fuel economy standards. In August 2012 Obama boasted that his new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards would “double fuel efficiency” over the next 13 years to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, up from 28.6 mpg at present — cutting vehicle CO2 emissions in half, so helping enormously to “save the planet.” But as the Center for Biological Diversity and other critics have noted, Obama was lying, as usual.

Four tonne Ford Excursion

First, his so-called “tough” new CAFE standards were so full of loopholes, negotiated with Detroit, that they actually encourage more gas-guzzling, not less. That’s because the standards are based on a sliding scale according to “vehicle footprints” — the bigger the car, the less mileage it has to get to meet its “standard.” So in fact Obama’s “tough” standards are (surprise) custom designed to promote what Detroit does best — produce giant Sequoias, mountainous Denalis, Sierras, Yukons, Tundras and Ticonderogas, Ram Chargers and Ford F series luxury trucks, grossly obese Cadillac Escalades, soccer-kid Suburbans, even 8,000 (!) pound Ford Excursions — and let these gross gas hogs meet the “fleet standard.” These cars and “light” trucks are among the biggest selling vehicles in America today (GM’s Sierra is #1) and they get worse gas mileage than American cars and trucks half a century ago. Cadillac’s current Escalade gets worse mileage than its chrome bedecked tail fin-festooned land yachts of the mid-1950s! Little wonder Detroit applauded Obama’s new CAFE standards instead of damning them as usual. Secondly, what would it matter even if Obama’s new CAFE standards actually did double fleet mileage — when American and global vehicle fleets are growing exponentially?

populationCO2In 1950 Americans had one car for every three people. Today we have 1.2 cars for every American. In 1950 when there were about 2.6 billion humans on the planet, there were 53 million cars on the world’s roads — about one for every 50 persons. Today, there are 7 billion people but more than 1 billion cars and industry forecasters expect there will be 2 to 2.5 billion cars on the world’s roads by mid-century. China alone is expected to have a billion. So, at the end of the day, incremental half measures like CAFE standards can’t stop rising GHG missions. Barring some technical miracle, the only way to cut vehicle emissions is to just stop making them — drastically suppress vehicle production, especially of the worst gas hogs.

In theory, Obama could simply order GM to stop building its humongous gas guzzlers and switch to producing small economy cars. After all, the federal government owns the company! But of course, how could he do any such thing? Detroit lives by the mantra “big car big profit, small car small profit.” Since Detroit has never been able to compete against the Japanese and Germans in the small car market, which is already glutted and nearly profitless everywhere, such an order would only doom GM to failure, if not bankruptcy (again) and throw masses of workers onto the unemployment lines. So given capitalism, Obama is, in fact, powerless. He’s locked in to promoting the endless growth of vehicle production, even of the worst polluters — and lying about it all to the public to try to patch up his pathetic “legacy.” And yet, if we don’t suppress vehicle production, how can we stop rising CO2 emissions?

In the wake of the failure of climate negotiators from Kyoto to Doha to agree on binding limits on GHG emissions, exasperated British climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows at the Tyndall Centre, Britain’s leading climate change research center, wrote in September 2012 that we need an entirely new paradigm:

Government policies must “radically change” if “dangerous” climate change is to be avoided “We urgently need to acknowledge that the development needs of many countries leave the rich western nations with little choice but to immediately and severely curb their greenhouse gas emissions… [The] misguided belief that commitments to avoid warming of 2˚C can still be realized with incremental adjustments to economic incentives. A carbon tax here, a little emissions trading there and the odd voluntary agreement thrown in for good measure will not be sufficient … long-term end-point targets (for example, 80% by 2050) have no scientific basis. What governs future global temperatures and other adverse climate impacts are the emissions from yesterday, today and those released in the next few years.”

And not just scientists. In its latest world energy forecast released on November 12, 2012, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that despite the bonanza of fossil fuels now made possible by fracking, horizontal and deepwater drilling, we can’t consume them if we want to save the humans: “The climate goal of limiting global warming to 2˚C is becoming more difficult and costly with each year that passes… no more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2˚C goal…” Of course the science could be wrong about this. But so far climate scientists have consistently underestimated the speed and ferocity of global warming, and even prominent climate change deniers have folded their cards.

Still, it’s one thing for James Hansen or Bill McKibben to say we need to “leave the coal in the hole, the oil in the soil, the gas under the grass,” to call for “severe curbs” in GHG emissions — in the abstract. But think about what this means in our capitalist economy. Most of us, even passionate environmental activists, don’t really want to face up to the economic implications of the science we defend.

That’s why, if you listen to environmentalists like Bill McKibben for example, you will get the impression that global warming is mainly driven by fossil fuel powered electric power plants, so if we just “switch to renewables” this will solve the main problem and we can carry on with life more or less as we do now. Indeed, “green capitalism” enthusiasts like Thomas Friedman and the union-backed “green jobs” lobby look to renewable energy, electric cars and such as “the next great engine of industrial growth” — the perfect win-win solution. This is a not a solution. This is a delusion: greenhouse gasses are produced across the economy not just by power plants. Globally, fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation accounts for 17% of GHG emissions, heating accounts for 5%, miscellaneous “other” fuel combustion 8.6%, industry 14.7%, industrial processes another 4.3%, transportation 14.3%, agriculture 13.6%, land use changes (mainly deforestation) 12.2%. This means, for a start, that even if we immediately replaced every fossil-fuel-powered electric generating plant on the planet with 100% renewable solar, wind and water power, this would only reduce global GHG emissions by around 17%.

What this means is that, far from launching a new green-energy-powered “industrial growth” boom, barring some tech-fix miracle, the only way to impose “immediate and severe curbs” on fossil fuel production/consumption would be to impose an EMERGENCY CONTRACTION in the industrialized countries: drastically retrench and in some cases shut down industries, even entire sectors, across the economy and around the planet — not just fossil fuel producers but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions — autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations.

Of course, no one wants to hear this because, given capitalism, this would unavoidably mean mass bankruptcies, global economic collapse, depression and mass unemployment around the world. That’s why in April 2013, in laying the political groundwork for his approval of the XL pipeline in some form, President Obama said “the politics of this are tough.” The earth’s temperature probably isn’t the “number one concern” for workers who haven’t seen a raise in a decade; have an underwater mortgage; are spending $40 to fill their gas tank, can’t afford a hybrid car; and face other challenges.” Obama wants to save the planet but given capitalism his “number one concern” has to be growing the economy, growing jobs. Given capitalism — today, tomorrow, next year and every year — economic growth will always be the overriding priority … till we barrel right off the cliff to collapse.

The necessity of denial and delusion

There’s no technical solution to this problem and no market solution either. In a very few cases — electricity generation is the main one — a broad shift to renewables could indeed sharply reduce fossil fuel emissions in that sector. But if we just use “clean” “green” energy to power more growth, consume ever more natural resources, then we solve nothing and would still be headed to collapse. Producing millions of electric cars instead of millions of gasoline-powered cars, as I explained elsewhere, would be just as ecologically destructive and polluting, if in somewhat different ways, even if they were all run on solar power.

Substituting biofuels for fossil fuels in transportation just creates different but no less environmentally-destructive problems: converting farm land to raise biofuel feedstock pits food production against fuels. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas or grasslands to produce biofuels releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than the fossil fuels they replace and accelerates species extinction. More industrial farming means more demand for water, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And so on. Cap and trade schemes can’t cut fossil fuel emissions because business understands, even if some environmentalists do not, that “dematerialization” is a fantasy, that there’s no win-win tech solution, that capping emissions means cutting growth. Since cutting growth is unacceptable to business, labor and governments, cap and trade has been abandoned everywhere.

Carbon taxes can’t stop global warming either because they do not cap emissions. That’s why fossil fuel execs like Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (the largest private oil company in the world) and Paul Anderson, CEO of Duke Energy (the largest electric utility in the U.S.) support carbon taxes. They understand that carbon taxes would add something to the cost of doing business, like other taxes, but they pose no limit, no “cap” on growth. ExxonMobil predicts that, carbon tax or no carbon tax, by 2040 global demand for energy is going to grow by 35%, 65% in the developing world and nearly all of this is going to be supplied by fossil fuels. ExxonMobil is not looking to “leave the oil in the soil” as a favor to Bill McKibben and the humans. ExxonMobil is looking to pump it and burn it all as fast as possible to enrich its shareholders.

Hansen, McKibben, Obama — and most of us really — don’t want to face up to the economic implications of the need to put the brakes on growth and fossil fuel-based overconsumption. We all “need” to live in denial, and believe in delusions that carbon taxes or some tech fix will save us because we all know that capitalism has to grow or we’ll all be out of work. And the thought of replacing capitalism seems so impossible, especially given the powers arrayed against change. But what’s the alternative? In the not-so-distant future, this is all going to come to a screeching halt one way or another — either we seize hold of this out-of-control locomotive, or we ride this train right off the cliff to collapse.

Emergency Contraction or Global Ecological Collapse?

If there’s no market mechanism to stop plundering the planet then, again, what alternative is there but to impose an emergency contraction on resource consumption?

This doesn’t mean we would have to de-industrialize and go back to riding horses and living in log cabins. But it does mean that we would have to abandon the “consumer economy” — shut down all kinds of unnecessary, wasteful and polluting industries from junkfood to cruise ships, disposable Pampers to disposable H&M clothes, disposable IKEA furniture, endless new model cars, phones, electronic games, the lot. Plus all the banking, advertising, junk mail, most retail, etc. We would have completely redesign production to replace “fast junk food” with healthy, nutritious, fresh “slow food,” replace “fast fashion” with “slow fashion,” bring back mending, alterations and local tailors and shoe repairmen. We would have to completely redesign production of appliances, electronics, housewares, furniture and so on to be as durable and long-lived as possible. Bring back appliance repairmen and such. We would have to abolish the throwaway disposables industries, the packaging and plastic bag industrial complex, bring back refillable bottles and the like. We would have to design and build housing to last for centuries, to be as energy efficient as possible, to be reconfigurable, and shareable. We would have to vastly expand public transportation to curb vehicle use but also build those we do need to last and be shareable like Zipcar or Paris’ municipally-owned “Autolib” shared electric cars.

These are the sorts of things we would have to do if we really want to stop overconsumption and save the world. All these changes are simple, self-evident, no great technical challenge. They just require a completely different kind of economy, an economy geared to producing what we need while conserving resources for future generations of humans and for other species with which we share this planet.

The spectre of eco-democratic revolution

Economic systems come and go. Capitalism has had a 300 year run. The question is: will humanity stand by and let the world be destroyed to save the profit system?

That outcome depends to a great extent on whether we on the left can answer that question “what’s your alternative?” with a compelling and plausible vision of an eco-socialist civilization. We have our work cut out for us. But what gives the growing global eco-socialist movement an edge in this ideological struggle is that capitalism has no solution to the ecological crisis, no way to put the brakes on collapse, because its only answer to every problem is more of the same growth that’s killing us.

“History” was supposed to have “ended” with the fall of communism and the triumph of capitalism two decades ago. Yet today, history is very much alive and it is, ironically, capitalism itself which is being challenged more broadly than ever and found wanting for solutions.

Today, we are very much living in one of those pivotal world-changing moments in history. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that this is the most critical moment in human history.

We may be fast approaching the precipice of ecological collapse, but the means to derail this train wreck are in the making as, around the world, struggles against the destruction of nature, against dams, against pollution, against overdevelopment, against the siting of chemical plants and power plants, against predatory resource extraction, against the imposition of GMOs, against privatization of remaining common lands, water and public services, against capitalist unemployment and precarité are growing and building momentum.

Today we are riding a swelling wave of near simultaneous global mass democratic “awakening,” an almost global mass uprising. This global insurrection is still in its infancy, still unsure of its future, but its radical democratic instincts are, I believe, humanity’s last best hope.

Let’s make history!

This article is an excerpt from Smith’s essay, “Capitalism and the destruction of life on Earth,” published in the Real-World Economics Review.





The magic number: 23 million?

7 10 2013

Another guest post by Matt Moran…..

Matt Moran

Matt Moran

During Australia’s last major drought, our wheat production dropped to enough for around 28 million.  Yet, here we are at 23,239,000 and increasing by nearly 400,000 a year (i.e. a city the size of Adelaide every three years) according to the ABS population clock.

In 1994 the Australian Academy of Science published its findings on population.  In considering the resource needs of our cities, and Australia’s supply of water, minerals and arable land it concluded: “In our view, the quality of all aspects of our children’s lives will be maximised if the population of Australia by the mid-21st Century is kept to the low, stable end of the achievable range, i.e. to approximately 23 million.”

Noting that 60% of our population growth comes directly from immigration, and we have the decidedly daft baby bonus to try to encourage educated people to have more children than they consider responsible – interestingly, only the irresponsible i.e. those dependent on welfare or those too young to understand the responsibility in having a child would be tempted by the paltry few thousand to have a baby), one does wonder what level of economic and ecological destruction and decreasing freedom it takes for the majority to become motivated.

Surely, having seen 98% of our manufacturing off-shored due to increasingly hostile local conditions (driven by pro-populate politics), having sold off the majority of our primary assets and put most of our production into foreign hands, one would think that there would be some rejection of continuing with what might be considered a policy of reckless endangerment.

Indeed, it doesn’t take much research at all, to get a grasp of Australia’s geography – this page for instance, offers a great overview (albeit, our food-growing capacity of 50 million is now very much over stated)
https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/boundless-plains/

It’s arguably quite clear that as the major parties have dumbed down our economy to housing and holes, so have they dumbed down the political discourse to the point where people either have switched off or the side taking more closely resembles die-hard sporting fans.

Interestingly, the majority of migrants that I’ve met arguably get it better than those who’ve lived here long-term. Perhaps those coming from the frying pan can more readily recognise slowly boiling frogs?

So, what are we to do? Even with the opportunity to once and for all reject the Lib/Lab Big Australia which repeatedly in polls, 70% of Australians reject by voting for the Stable Population Party which argues for a local and global policy on population through family friendly policy, people still made sure their major preference was for Liberal and Labor.

Perhaps the hope is that we may soon see a double-dissolution as Australians at last are confronted by the reality that the problem as it’s been all along, economies that reside on endless population growth cannot work and all we will get by not paying attention is misery.





How to face the inevitable…….

11 09 2013

How to talk about the likely death of billions of people

I found this at Guy McPherson’s site……..  I don’t think Guy will mind.  This really resonates with me, because I have the exact same thoughts and relatives to deal with.  In fact I could’ve written it as is (apart from the teaching bit, because I’m not a teacher…)

by SanJoseMike

Talking about climate related deaths in the billions is not an everyday conversation. I thought I would share with you some successes I have had, and some occasions where I have no idea how to proceed. I am sure someone reading this will have some insight. Here are the three situations I face:

Teacher/student. I teach SAT biology and AP biology and AP environmental science. At the SAT level, the coverage of global warming on the test is very minimal, just how does the process work, and a brief (and very understated) list of consequences. I always go ‘beyond the book” in every class I teach, so I expand on the theme of ocean acidification, sea level rise, and droughts/floods. Several times I have gotten the question, “How bad will it get?” I use the example of carrying capacity, and explain how populations that exceed the carrying capacity always crash, and then briefly mention that we (humans) have far exceeded the carrying capacity, and human population will crash to a much smaller number. This seems to work well for high school students with some basic knowledge of ecology. I can tell by looking at the faces that most “get” it, intellectually, but not at the gut level. A few clearly think I am delusional, and maybe one or two in each class seem to begin the process of really internalizing it. I haven’t yet had any bad reactions from parents. It seems that since this is a logical extension of the “official” lesson, it doesn’t come off as trying to “indoctrinate” the students.

My daughter and 3 grand children. Here, I really feel at a loss as to where to go. My daughter is 38, the two girls are 15 and 17, the grandson is 5. My daughter knows the basics of global warming, but is at the stage of “we can come together as a species and pull through.” Part of me wants to show her the mounting evidence that society will move backwards, and rapidly, as billions die. I want to treat her as an intelligent adult who should know the facts…but I can’t. Perhaps I feel that if I lead her to a deeper knowledge, then I am responsible for the stages of Denial, Anger, Grief, and possibly Acceptance. It’s one thing to stand outside and say, this is what a mature adult should do. But, how do I tell my own daughter that her children will face a world growing more and more hostile to life every year? How does that knowledge change the way she raises her kids, my grandkids? My current thinking is, to very gradually bring up the results of scientific studies, step by small step, and see how she integrates the information. Not talking about the imminent chaos is like pretending it isn’t real, and I have always been poor at pretending. No option here seems good. I am sure some of you have been in this situation; What did you do? And, what were the results?

Adult friends with families. I have two people in particular that I am thinking about. Both are seriously religious (I am an atheist), both have made enormous personal sacrifices to help family members who had absolutely no one else to turn to. Both have so much else on their plates that keeping up with climate change studies is impossible. My thought here is, when the topic of global warming comes up, just to say something true, but not even coming close to the full depth of the problem. These good, moral people are stretched to the limit as is, and I don’t see that trying to confront the full reality of what we face is even possible for them.

There is a common thread to these situations. I have accepted, fully and deeply, the reality of my own death for many decades. I can imagine without rancor a world without me, because I always said to myself, “Life will go on. Humans will go on. When I die, it leaves a spot so someone else can live, and grow, and flourish.” In other words, one can make a meaningful life by being part of a larger whole … humankind as a species, or even life in general. Now that we know that humanity is going down (how far down is still unsure), and taking much of the natural world down as well, what do you look to in order to make life worth the effort? One reason I am reluctant to talk about the impending collapse is that people will ask me that same question: What do I do now? How do I go on? I don’t have a real answer.

You probably noticed this is my first posting here at Nature Bats Last. I’ve previously neither written an essay nor posted a comment.

____________

SanJoseMike is a 61-year-old, self-employed tutor/teacher of biology, chemistry, and environmental science, at the high school and early college levels (SAT, AP, and higher). He is actively involved with 350.org working against the Keystone pipeline. He has decided that, even though a major eco crash is unavoidable, he still has a moral obligation to do all he can to work against it.





Our sustainability crisis didn’t start and doesn’t stop at climate change

9 09 2013

The Conversation

An extraordinarily timely article from the Conversation……  why don’t ideas like these win elections…?

What would happen to the world if, with the snap of our fingers, we shifted all our energy supplies to renewable sources overnight? You might be surprised at the answer: not much, at least for biodiversity and ecosystems. Certainly, it might solve the climate problem, but I have canvassed this question…
Author

Steb Fisher

Steb Fisher

Sessional Lecturer in Environment and Sustainability at Monash University

 

What would happen to the world if, with the snap of our fingers, we shifted all our energy supplies to renewable sources overnight? You might be surprised at the answer: not much, at least for biodiversity and ecosystems.

Certainly, it might solve the climate problem, but I have canvassed this question in a number of different places, and the answers usually converge on this: we would still wreck Earth’s ecosystems. And what’s more, we’d still wreck them on a timescale similar to the trajectory that we’re on already.

The reason is that climate change is a problem, not the problem. At the moment much of the focus is on climate and there’s no doubt this is a problem that requires emergency action now to see if we can avoid the worst of the tipping points. But there are many “showstoppers”, any and all of which can bring humanity and biodiversity to a sticky end.

Without biodiversity in all its forms, which creates the complex web of interrelated systems that hold the biosphere in homeostasis, things that we take for granted such as temperature, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere or the even concentration of salt in the sea, will no longer support the life we know.

Something other than climate change is driving the current mass extinction. The impacts of climate change, though potentially catastrophic, are in the main yet to come – albeit sooner than we have previously expected.

The current trajectory of biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse is being driven by cutting down forests, over-fishing, chemical pollution, soil degradation and erosion, habitat destruction, desertification and so on. These activities are all a function of the vast amount of energy we have at our disposal. We have too much and, as we use it, we damage ecosystems.

We are well outside the reasonable limits of our energy and material use. Globally about 51% of all energy use is industrial, 20% is transport, 18% residential and 12% commercial. But all is interconnected and almost all demands over and above our basic needs lead back to increased physical and chemical destruction of ecosystems.

So what are the reasonable limits within which we can operate? I think that there are four main factors to consider.

First, according to the Global Footprint Network, we are already consuming 1.5 times more than the earth is able to renew each year. To bring our material and energy credit card back into balance we need to reduce our resource draw by 33%.

Second, world population is almost inevitably going to increase by another 25%. To accommodate these newborns, we must reduce our resource draw by a further 25%.

Third, on a scale of wealth, the top 20% of humans are 40 times richer than the bottom 20%. This is morally and geopolitically untenable. It would seem reasonable for the top 20% to reduce consumption by a factor of 4 and the bottom 20% to increase by a factor of 4. The gap between rich and poor would then be a more reasonable factor of 2.5 times. The reduction associated in resource draw for countries like Australia would be a further 75%.

Finally, we need to build in safety margins. When we build a bridge, we build in a resilience factor. According to the New South Wales government, the safety factors for the steel in the Sydney Harbour Bridge ranged from 1.9 to 2.5.

The steel chosen by Dorman, Long & Co. Ltd. for the main beams of the arch was silicon steel. In compression these beams were between 2.2 and 2.4 times stronger than the expected stress on them. Equally, we should not consider using Earth’s resources with no margin for the unexpected. If we were to choose a factor of 2 for planet Earth, then this implies a further reduction in resource draw of 50%.

Multiply these factors together and we end up with a reduction to about 6% of what we currently consume in energy and materials in Australia. That is 16 times less than we now use.

This is the goal we need to set, without which we have little chance of hitting the target – survival. I hope that survival is what most people want.

Suppose we, humanity, survive the current planetary sustainability crisis relatively unscathed and, in 100 years time, can say that we have stabilised global ecosystems. By this I mean: biodiversity has ceased its dive into mass extinction; CO2 is under control; global population is in a manageable decline; chemical and physical damage to ecosystems is being reversed and healed; and we are living within our planetary means.

To countenance such a deep and radical change requires us to rethink the entire way we organise humanity, politically, economically and socially.

I am sometimes asked where to start; I don’t think the problem is technical. It lies deep within us. At present we have adversarial systems of governance – both political and economic. These work in an open system, a world with few humans, where wounded places and populations can be abandoned for new territory.

But in a closed system, full of humanity, these wounds must be healed. Only cooperative systems of organisation, both political and economic, can achieve this.

We need to be talking about what might work and experimenting with different ideas. We don’t have long to do this, but it does offer the opportunity of an extraordinary renaissance.





On completely missing the point….

20 07 2013

Dr Richard Oppenlander

I’ve just watched this one and a half hour video discovered on Facebook…….  it is certainly thought provoking, and I encourage you to watch it if you have the bandwidth (we, astonishingly, had ours increased FIFTEEN FOLD by our provider free of charge this month…  and I’m sure making the most of it!)

However, I am not endorsing this as the simple solution Dr Richard Oppenlander (a dentist) obviously seems to think it is.  Because he gobsmackingly omits to mention the real reasons all the depressing stuff in his presentation occur……..

I warn you, you may feel like slashing your wrists on occasion as you watch this……

When his 7 billion/70 billion slide came up, I instantly didn’t think of the 70 billion animals we allegedly keep for our consumption, I immediately focused on the smaller number……  because, obviously, if there were only one billion people here, then there would only be the need for ten billion animals…..  and if the numbers were indeed that small (and I stress, kept that small..) then climate change would not even be an issue (Oppenlander claims that our animal herds are responsible for perhaps as much as 50% of greenhouse emissions…)  At no time does Oppenlander question population growth.  He even says near the end that Americans apparently eat less red meat, but the production has not fallen.  Hello…..  of course if more people individually eat less meat, collectively the amount won’t fall, it may even grow.  Worse, he even mentions a future “nine billion” without batting an eyelid….  like it’s all OK.  All we have to do is change our diet!

For me the most shocking aspect of this long video was the fishing.  What is happening in our oceans is truly frightening, but what I saw and he fails to see (he certainly never mentions them) are the FOSSIL FUELLED fishing boats.

Now he may be right about animals producing more than double the emissions of our use of fossil fuels; BUT, and it is a very very big but, all this fishing, on the monumental scale depicted, is only possible because of fossil fuels.  In fact, fossil fuels are entirely to blame for everything.  Fossil fuels allowed our population to grow beyond one billion, and allowed agriculture to grow fast enough to feed most of us on the planet.  He seems totally unaware that 90% of the calories we all eat (unless we grow our own ‘sustainably’, come from fossil fuels.  Yes, even the vegetarian calories he eats.  Furthermore, sustainable agriculture without animals is pretty well impossible.  Fertilisers have to either come from hydrocarbons, or animals.  Period.

As I write this, I did some more research on Oppenlander and found another interesting video you may also want to watch…

To his credit, he does grow his own food.  And he has several animals there, so hopefully (no mention here) he uses their manures to make his own compost.  Disappointingly, he also has three children, so he has contributed to population growth.  Am I being over critical?  Here we have someone who is himself very critical of the way the world is run, and let’s not beat around the bush, I totally agree with that….  there are not many things on this planet we have not screwed up.  Furthermore, he is obviously well off.  How many people could afford to buy a large farm like his and lock it up away from feeding the hordes outside?  He and his family are just as much part of the problem as me and mine are….  and I would be far more impressed if he actually admitted it.

On top of that, we can’t eat grass (and there’s no shortage of that);  but the animals that can turn it into protein which we can eat…  I thought his attitude to the word protein was a bit childish, especially for someone like him who likes to call a spade a spade!

I hope he gets to see this.  The real problems are not so much what we eat, they are population growth, growth in general, fossil fuel use, and of course the Capitalist system he exists in that utterly relies on the above to grow and grow.  The growth monster is eating the planet.

Even after all that, there is but one solution, and that’s collapse.  Only collapse will end fossil fuel use and fishing, and fish farms, and growing grains to feed cattle, deforestation to grow soy and palm trees for oil and sugar, etc etc…..  but you who read this blog already knew that.