Jeremy Williams in his blog today features fossil fuel companies that are finally transforming their business ambitions away from oil and gas extraction and its consequent CO2 emissions. Whether it is too late to go all the way to leaving these energy resources in the ground is the big question, given the continuing expansion of demand as population and affluence continue to grow rapidly. In Poland the explosion of car ownership continues and the prevalence of SUVs is particularly noticeable. This is just one of many indicators of the apparent lack of awareness of or concern for the long-term consequences of the use of cheap fossil energy that has brought so many advantages to the present generations but that threatens the very existence of generations to come.
This video from Robert Reich deals with the rarely discussed domination of the US economy by giant corporations that, unlike in the EU, are unchallenged by anti-trust legislation to ensure open competition that tends to keep prices lower and wages higher. The fact that media outlets are also corporate-owned and increasingly monopolies of fewer and fewer corporations, may have something to do with the low profile in the media of the trend towards this concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands.
On a recent holidat trip tp the Netherlands to see the height of the tulip season, we drove 2500 kms on the return journey. While on Noordvijk’d extensive beach, it was impossible not to notice the large number of con-trails from jets criss-crossing the blue sky at high altitudes, some heading for nearby Schiphol Airport. We had driven rather than flown from Poland because the cost of petrol was siginificantly lower than two air fares. Thus, like most travellers, we placed a higher priority on costs than n the impact of our journey on the environment. The carbon footprint of our choice of transport, let alone all other supply chains that underpinned a pleasant holiday, was not even calculated. Such other impacts include accommodation, food and beverages, souvenirs, clothing, cosmetics and other goods. “Let them that be without sin cast the first stone” as the Bible says!
A new study reported here concludes that tourism contributes 8% of global carbon emissions when the supply chains involved are calculated. Tourism is expanding at a much faster rate than GDP growth. The researchers identified carbon flows between 160 countries from 2009 to 2013. Their results show that tourism-related emissions increased by around 15% over that period, from 3.9 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO₂-e) to 4.5Gt. This rise primarily came from tourist spending on transport, shopping and food. They estimate that our growing appetite for travel and a business-as-usual scenario would increase carbon emissions from global tourism to about 6.5Gt by 2025. This increase is largely driven by rising incomes, making tourism highly income-elastic and carbon-intensive.
This very personal article by a professor of geography who specialises in Arctic studies describes, with an accompanying satellite time-lapse images video, the thinning and retreat of Arctic sea ice over the last few decades and the related effects on the adjacent permafrost and tundra regions on land of the warming causing these rapid effects. Prof. Mark Serreze, DIrector of National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, was initially sceptical that human activity was behind the rise in temperatures in the Arctic but he writes:
Sometime around 2003, I accepted the overwhelming evidence of human-induced warming, and started warning the public about what the Arctic was telling us. … Today it seems increasingly likely that what is happening in the Arctic will reverberate around the globe. Arctic warming may already be influencing weather patterns in the middle latitudes. Meltdown of the Greenland ice sheet is having an increasing impact on sea level rise. As permafrost thaws, it may start to release carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, further warming the climate.,,, Scientists are trained to be skeptics, but for those of us who study the Arctic, it is clear that a radical transformation is underway. Indeed, the question is no longer whether the Arctic is warming, but how drastically it will change – and what those changes mean for the planet.
Evidence that the Arctic is warming rapidly extends far beyond shrinking ice caps and buckling roads. It also includes a melting Greenland ice sheet; a rapid decline in the extent of the Arctic’s floating sea ice cover in summer; warming and thawing of permafrost; shrubs taking over areas of tundra that formerly were dominated by sedges, grasses, mosses and lichens; and a rise in temperature twice as large as that for the globe as a whole. This outsized warming even has a name: Arctic amplification.
This latest bulletin from the Ecological Footprint Network raises the question of whether the impact of humans on the natural world’s carrying capacity, measured by the metrics of the Ecological Footprint researchers, has peaked. They calculate that human impact overload is currently 68% above sustainable carrying capacity, but that this figure has finally levelled off. At the same time, there has been an increase in human happiness around the world according the the Index used to make such a huge generalisation! Amidst all the gloomy prognostications that fill our days. these admittedly human constructed metrics offer some modicum of comfort!
The 2016 Human Development Report (the latest published) found that the U.N. Human Development Index (HDI) improved significantly across all regions from 1990 to 2015. HDI is a composite index based on three components: education, longevity, and income.
In Russia Madness on the Eve of Destruction: Hegemony Trumps Survival, from the independent on-line news source ‘Truthdig’, the following observation is offered:
The fact that the world stands at the eve of ecological self-destruction, with the Trump White House in the lead, elicits barely a whisper in the commercial news media. Unlike Stormy Daniels, for example, that little story—the biggest issue of our or any time—is not good for television ratings and newspaper sales.
The article comments on the press obsession with Russia’s recent conduct that is returning the international political situation into dangerous territory once more, but points to the failure to report on the far more dangerous trajectory of climate change:
We have 20 to 30 years (to be generous) to get off fossil fuels and curb mass consumption or it’s curtains. We are currently on pace for 500 atmospheric carbon parts per million—a level of warming likely to melt much of the world’s life-supporting Antarctic ice sheet—within 50 years, if not sooner.
The author offers public ownership as a solution, quoting a Marxist analysis:
The potentially disastrous effects from higher temperature, rising sea levels, and extreme weather formations will be hugely damaging especially to the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet. But industrialization and human activity need not produce these effects if human beings organized their activities in a planned way with due regard for the protection of natural resources and the wider impact on the environment and public health. That seems impossible under capitalism. … What is really needed … require[s] public control and ownership of the energy and transport industries and public investment in the environment for the public good. …
Previous societal collapses illustrate how weathy and powerful elites remained blind to the impending disaster that impact first upond the common people:
[T]he Elites—due to their wealth—do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners. This buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe. It … explain[s] how historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases). This buffer effect is further reinforced by the long, apparently sustainable trajectory prior to the beginning of the collapse. While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory ‘so far’ in support of doing nothing.
There is much more to contemplate in this attack on elites, profit-driven capitalism, mainstream press neglect of top news, the US assumption of its right to ‘rule the world’. I find it hard to disagree with the main thrust of the analysis, but find the ‘solution’ of a swift enough transformation to global public ownership and socialist planning highly unlikely.
A fascinating Guardian article from its ‘Overstretched Cities Series’ on urbanisation, as population pressure on the planet continues in the least economically developed parts of the wo rld:
What happens to those cities over the next 30 years will determine the global environment and the quality of life of the world’s projected 11 billion people. It’s impossible to know how exactly how cities will grow, of course. But the stark fact, according to the United Nations, is that much of humanity is young, fertile and increasingly urban. The median age of Nigeria is just 18, and under 20 across all Africa’s 54 countries; the fertility rate of the continent’s 500 million women is 4.4 births. Elsewhere, half of India’s population is under age 25, and Latin America’s average age is as high as 29.
The flow of evidence and dire projections about human impact on the planet continues amid the distractions of the daily news dominated by US politics, Brexit negotiations, China’s emerging global ambitions, suspected Russian nerve agent poisoning, Facebook abuse of personal data and endless fascination with celebrities, to list but a few. Probably a small portion of the public engages with sources such as those featured on this website, despite the alarming trajectory that they reveal.
The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and Biosphere (MAHB) from Stanford University is one of the sources providing crucial analysis of what is happening to our planet. In its latest on-line post from which the following conclusion is taken, maps and graphs of ice loss and sea level rise are provided. They show how rapidly ice is turning into water on our planet
“The average global sea level is already 82 mm above the 1993 average and is continuing to rise at the rate of around 3 mm/year.
the temperature at Antarctic is rising more quickly than the global average, and it is losing about 118 gigatons of ice per year since 2002.
Scientist at Potsdam Institute have found by modeling that for every five years climate forcing emissions are not reduced –as is happening at present– between 2020 and 2035, we could experience an additional 20 centimeters of sea level rise.
… humans are using up the world’s resources and causing distress to animals and plants on this planet at a staggeringly faster rate. At the same time, we are destroying our own civilization. In the end it all comes to the fact that we are overpopulated at 7.6 billion, which is projected to rise to 9.8 billion by 2050. What human society is doing at present is unsustainable and as a consequence we are mindlessly using up resources leaving little for our future generations. It is time we wake up and reverse our course.”
This lecture by Prof Nate Hagen is among the best I have recenty watched. It was presented in Saudi Arabia in early 2018, entitled “Energy, Money and Technology”. He brings together, in an hour, a wide range of ideas from many disciplines to show how our species is acting like a super-organism that is out of control and is bound to exceed the limits to the economic, money and debt-driven economic growth to which all nations are currently dedicated. He exposes the great error of the Cobb-Douglas conventional production function model of economics as seriously flawed. The model fails to factor in the true role of cheap fossil energy that has enabled exponential increases in human population and environmental impact on the planet. The conventional model also fails to incorporate the sources of economic activity and the sinks into which its wastes are discarded. Unusually, he deals with the evolved psychology of our species to explain why large-scale adaptation is not likely to avoid major socio-economic breakdown as cheap carbon rises in price and as money and debt creation spiral out of control.
Hagen is a former Wall Street financier who took a ten-fold cut in income to teach and research at university once he saw the trajectory fired by cheap energy and cumulative debt upon which global systems are moving. As a taster, here are four “can’t haves” from one of his many slides:
- Economic growth and the end of climate disruption.
- Carbon-sourced energy replaced by sufficient renewables.
- Achieve agreement to leave fossil fuels underground.
- Get governments to recognise and act to avoid the limits to growth before collapse of cheap energy-based modern life ensues.
The lecture condenses a whole course into a rapidly surveyed set of key concepts and is worthy of careful study.
By Richard Heinberg (Museletter No. 309 Feb 2018)
People grow old and die. Civilizations eventually fail. For centuries amateur philosophers have used the former as a metaphor for the latter, leading to a few useful insights and just as many misleading generalizations. The comparison becomes more immediately interesting as our own civilization stumbles blindly toward collapse. While not the cheeriest of subjects, it’s worth exploring.
A metaphor is not an explanation.
First, it’s important to point out that serious contemporary researchers studying the phenomenon of societal collapse generally find little or no explanatory value in the metaphorical link with individual human mortality.
The reasons for individual decline and death have to do with genetics, disease, nutrition, and personal history (including accidents and habits such as smoking). We are all genetically programmed to age and die, though lifespans differ greatly.
Reasons for societal decline appear to have little or nothing to do with genetics. Some complex societies have failed due to invasion by foreign marauders (and sometimes the diseases they brought); others have succumbed to resource depletion, unforeseeable natural catastrophe, or class conflict. Anthropologist Joseph Tainter proposed what is perhaps the best general theory of collapse in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, which argued that the development of societal complexity is a problem-solving strategy that’s subject to diminishing marginal returns. Once a civilization’s return on investment in complexity goes negative, that civilization becomes vulnerable to stresses of all sorts that it previously could have withstood.
There is a superficial similarity between individual aging, on one hand, and societal vulnerability once returns on investments in complexity have gone negative, on the other. In both cases, what would otherwise be survivable becomes deadly—whether it’s a fall on an uneven sidewalk or a barbarian invasion. But this similarity doesn’t provide explanatory value in either case. No physician or historian will be able to do her job better by use of the metaphor.
Nevertheless, as long as we don’t fall into the trap of seeing it as an explanation, the comparison may still be useful. Explanation isn’t everything. We naturally want to know how to deal mentally and emotionally with both personal and societal mortality, and it’s in this pursuit that we may find usefulness in the metaphor.
Is the world getting old, or is it just me?
In order to locate that usefulness it’s probably best to start by acknowledging our context. Our own civilization is circling the drain. I won’t bore readers already well versed in the literature by rehearsing evidence that modern industrial society is past its sell-by date. For those new to the discussion, perhaps the most concise text I can recommend is William Ophuls’s tiny book, Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. Ophuls surveys the best previous writings on the subject and offers a summary of the stages through which every civilization seems to pass on its inexorable journey toward collapse. It’s up to the reader to decide at which stage our own civilization has arrived.
Those of us who have spent years or decades drinking from the well of ecological literature on climate change, resource depletion, species extinctions, and limits to growth need no reminder of the existential threats to our society. The global industrial civilization that currently supplies us with everything that is necessary for life is coming apart—politically, socially, economically, and ecologically. Our leaders are incapable of acknowledging, much less reversing, industrial society’s progress toward oblivion.
This realization can be as at least as devastating as that of our personal mortality, though only for those who actually pay attention to the warning signs and have a historical perspective regarding past instances of collapse. (We haven’t talked about a third level of death—the extinction of the human species. This is eventually inevitable, but it obviously hasn’t ensued from previous civilizational crises, and probably won’t do so this time around either. Very few people give this ultimate mortality any thought whatsoever.)
Personal mortality is harder to deny than societal or species mortality. It’s true that, when we’re young, we know theoretically that our lifespan will be limited, yet somehow that knowledge tends not to sink in. But then, as decades pass and as we see ourselves age, our parents die, and our friends disappear one by one, death gradually becomes a constant if unwelcome companion. If we’re practical, we make plans for old age and write a will. If not, we may persist in denial, living as though nothing will ever change. But even then, moments when denial is impossible become more frequent. And in those moments the awareness of mortality is an inescapable psychological burden. However happy, unhappy, fulfilled, unfulfilled, privileged, underprivileged, eventful, or boring our life is and has been, it is in any case fleeting. In a few years our personal window into the world will no longer exist.
If it is mostly older people who viscerally understand and grapple with mortality, it may also be the deeply mature who are more likely to contemplate societal decline. At environmental lectures it’s hard not to notice that the average age of audience members tends to be 50 and above. That’s not to say there are no young people who understand that our civilization is fragile and self-destructive. In fact, some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated environmental activists I know are in their twenties and thirties. Perhaps most in their age cohort are simply too busy just getting by to bother attending lectures.
Is there a natural tendency for old people to yearn for the good old days and to complain that the world is going to hell? Certainly it is possible to think of examples of the stereotype—from biblical prophets like Jeremiah to elderly contemporary environmental writers such as Paul Ehrlich. But the key authors of The Limits to Growth were in their twenties when the book was released, as was Bill McKibben when he penned his bombshell New Yorker articles about climate change, which became the bestselling book The End of Nature. And Paul Ehrlich was only 35 when The Population Bomb was published.
Further, in traditional societies the role of elders was not so much to foresee calamity as to offer guidance and encouragement to younger people, in return for which they earned respect. Perhaps it’s only in societies that are at risk of decline and collapse, and in which the traditional role of elders is largely unacknowledged and unfilled, that old codgers tend to turn prophetic.
It’s the end of the world but I feel . . . how?
Nevertheless, our relative personal age may tend to make us feel somewhat differently about the end of civilization.
Young people are naturally concerned with career, partnering, reproduction, and parenting. They are likely to regard information about dire environmental trends as a distraction from these genetically and socially driven interests. Their incentive for denial is strong. Optimism sells: it helps one get ahead in the job market and it’s attractive to potential mates. However, if denial is overcome for whatever reason, a young person is likely to feel that societal decline is something she or he will personally have to deal with. One response might be to engage in activism to counter trends leading toward collapse; another would be to spend time and effort developing skills that are likely to be useful in a society that is downsizing and simplifying.
Older people are naturally more concerned with personal maintenance (failing vision and hearing, failing joints, failing memory). They want to ensure that they have made some lasting contribution to community and extended family. Though there are plenty of elderly activists, on the whole the attitude of the aged toward societal decline tends to be more that of an observer: there is the belief that although the world is going to hell, I personally will be gone by the time that destination is reached. Nevertheless it’s my duty to tell everyone who will listen what I think is happening and why.
Often, when denial of societal decline is no longer tenable, young and old alike jump straight to cynicism. Here I am not referring the teachings of the ancient Cynic philosophers such as Diogenes, which had many good points, but to the modern meaning of the term—which refers to concern only with one’s own interests, and the belief that society is inherently corrupt and irredeemable. Cynicism offers some minimal psychological self-immunization to utter despair, but this comes at the expense of connection with others—which is an essential ongoing source of emotional vitality.
Those who get beyond denial and cynicism often arrive at an attitude of compassionate engagement. We may not be able to prevent collapse, but we can still make life better for ourselves and other potential survivors as events unfold. We can make our community more resilient, protect vulnerable people and other creatures, and devote ourselves to creating places and moments of beauty.
May we have a good death; civilization too.
We each wish to die painlessly and well, with dignity, with our faculties intact, and with loved ones close by. It often doesn’t work out that way. But there are things we can do to improve our odds, such as to eat carefully, exercise, and treat others with respect and generosity.
What would a good civilizational death look like? It would be relatively slow rather than sudden; the distance of the fall would be manageable (people would be able to adjust to the reduction in societal complexity); and the casualties would be few. In the best instance, the death of a civilization is merely the “release” phase of the adaptive cycle, clearing the way for new growth of more diverse, simpler human cultures.
Achieving a “good” civilizational death would entail minimizing damage to ecosystems and exhaustion of natural resources, so that human survivors would have the biophysical basis for recovery. It would also require minimizing human births prior to collapse so as both to conserve resources and reduce the sum total of human suffering during the decline and fall, since collapse always entails a reduction in carrying capacity.
Sadly, a good individual death is easier to achieve than a good civilizational death: personally, we have a wide range of behavioral choices, whereas great civilizations are denial machines that, at least in their latter stages of development, always reward excess and penalize modest sufficiency. Civilizations grow as big as they possibly can, given their energy sources, their technologies, and the available ecological bounty. And ours has grown the biggest of all as a result of having fossil fuels as energy supplies.
Nevertheless, our personal choices make a difference for ourselves and for those in widening circles around us, potentially expanding our survival and recovery options within a civilization whose overall trajectory toward dissolution is already set. By pursuing sufficiency in the face of excess, conservation of the natural world, and connection with others, we can have as good and meaningful a life as possible within a civilization that is both itself dying, and dealing death to creatures great and small.
These are not entirely new thoughts. Joanna Macy has for years sounded many of the themes explored above in her “Work that Reconnects.”
Carolyn Baker does the same in her book Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times. And The Dark Mountain Project pursues “uncivilization” as a collective creative project, having acknowledged that “It is . . . our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality.” The effort to seek and provide hospice care for the inhabitants of a dying civilization is never likely to go viral on social media or spark a movement. But it makes as much sense as any other activity I can think of.
According to tradition, the Buddha’s awakening began with his realization that sickness, old age, and death are inevitable. Perhaps our own realization that civilization’s demise is just as certain can lead to still another level of awakening.
Here the metaphor may show its highest usefulness. Old age teaches us the preciousness of everything—friends, nature, and ordinary moments in ordinary days. Truly ancient people, aged 85 and above, often attain a level of happiness that belies their physical frailty.
Maybe a society that’s on the verge of collapse provides the perfect incubator for an experience of reassessment, reconnection, and renewal. Whatever time we have left is valuable beyond measure. Let’s make the most of it.