The signs are inescapable. They still take many of us by surprise. A lot of us can't or desperately seek to avoid having to connect the dots but that does nothing to keep those dots from growing in number and intensity.
We've been put on notice that this is "last call." We must choose whether we shall succeed or we shall fail. The default option, the one our leaders are following, is failure. We haven't figured out yet that it's in their immediate personal interests to stay on this nihilistic course.
Guardian enviro-scribe, George Monbiot, says it's time we stopped swallowing the swill our leaders dish out.
Only shifts commensurate with the scale of our existential crises have any prospect of averting them. Hopeless realism, tinkering at the edges of the problem, got us into this mess. It will not get us out.
Public figures talk and act as if environmental change will be linear and gradual. But the Earth’s systems are highly complex, and complex systems do not respond to pressure in linear ways. When these systems interact (because the world’s atmosphere, oceans, land surface and lifeforms do not sit placidly within the boxes that make study more convenient), their reactions to change become highly unpredictable. Small perturbations can ramify wildly. Tipping points are likely to remain invisible until we have passed them. We could see changes of state so abrupt and profound that no continuity can be safely assumed.
Only one of the many life support systems on which we depend – soils, aquifers, rainfall, ice, the pattern of winds and currents, pollinators, biological abundance and diversity – need fail for everything to slide. For example, when Arctic sea ice melts beyond a certain point, the positive feedbacks this triggers (such as darker water absorbing more heat, melting permafrost releasing methane, shifts in the polar vortex) could render runaway climate breakdown unstoppable.
I don’t believe such a collapse is yet inevitable, or that a commensurate response is either technically or economically impossible. When the US joined the second world war in 1941, it replaced a civilian economy with a military economy within months. As Jack Doyle records in his book Taken for a Ride, “In one year, General Motors developed, tooled and completely built from scratch 1,000 Avenger and 1,000 Wildcat aircraft … Barely a year after Pontiac received a navy contract to build anti-shipping missiles, the company began delivering the completed product to carrier squadrons around the world.” And this was before advanced information technology made everything faster.It's not climate change that holds a knife to our kids' throats. It's our political and corporate leadership.
The problem is political. A fascinating analysis by the social science professor Kevin MacKay contends that oligarchy has been a more fundamental cause of the collapse of civilisations than social complexity or energy demand. Control by oligarchs, he argues, thwarts rational decision-making, because the short-term interests of the elite are radically different to the long-term interests of society. This explains why past civilisations have collapsed “despite possessing the cultural and technological know-how needed to resolve their crises”. Economic elites, which benefit from social dysfunction, block the necessary solutions.
The oligarchic control of wealth, politics, media and public discourse explains the comprehensive institutional failure now pushing us towards disaster. Think of Donald Trump and his cabinet of multi-millionaires; the influence of the Koch brothers in funding rightwing organisations; the Murdoch empire and its massive contribution to climate science denial; or the oil and motor companies whose lobbying prevents a faster shift to new technologies.We may not have oligarchy in Canada yet, not openly, but our political leadership has shown itself incapable of freeing our country from the dominance of the giant oligarchy next door. We slavishly and, yes, obediently follow their economic policy, their military policy and in our bizarre fidelity to Netanyahu their foreign policy. When Saudi Arabia resorts to butchery of its own and slaughters women and children in nearby Yemen we wouldn't dream of stopping the supply of armoured vehicles to the monstrous monarchy. It's General Dynamics, FFS, a Canadian subsidiary of one of the giant US defence contractors. Right up there with Raytheon, Boeing and Northrop. No, American foreign policy dictates what our branch plant is going to do.
The Failure of the Academics
Even the bodies that claim to be addressing our predicament remain locked within destructive frameworks. Last Wednesday I attended a meeting about environmental breakdown at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Many people in the room seemed to understand that continued economic growth is incompatible with sustaining the Earth’s systems.
As the author Jason Hickel points out, a decoupling of rising GDP from global resource use has not happened and will not happen. While 50bn tonnes of resources used per year is roughly the limit the Earth’s systems can tolerate, the world is already consuming 70bn tonnes. At current rates of economic growth, this will rise to 180bn tonnes by 2050. Maximum resource efficiency, coupled with massive carbon taxes, would reduce this at best to 95bn tonnes: still way beyond environmental limits. Green growth, as members of the institute appear to accept, is physically impossible.
Yet on the same day, the same institute announced a major new economics prize for “ambitious proposals to achieve a step-change improvement in the growth rate”. It wants ideas that will enable economic growth rates in the UK at least to double. The announcement was accompanied by the usual blah about sustainability, but none of the judges of the prize has a discernible record of environmental interest.
Those to whom we look for solutions trundle on as if nothing has changed. As if the accumulating evidence has no purchase on their minds. Decades of institutional failure ensures that only “unrealistic” proposals – the repurposing of economic life, with immediate effect – now have a realistic chance of stopping the planetary death spiral. And only those who stand outside the failed institutions can lead this effort.
Two tasks need to be performed simultaneously: throwing ourselves at the possibility of averting collapse, as Extinction Rebellion is doing, slight though this possibility may appear; and preparing ourselves for the likely failure of these efforts, terrifying as this prospect is. Both tasks require a complete revision of our relationship with the living planet.
Because we cannot save ourselves without contesting oligarchic control, the fight for democracy and justice and the fight against environmental breakdown are one and the same. Do not allow those who have caused this crisis to define the limits of political action. Do not allow those whose magical thinking got us into this mess to tell us what can and cannot be done.