Sunday, June 02, 2019

How to Size Up Our Chances of a Viable Future

By now we're pretty much clear on climate change. We've done a mountain of research, experimentation and analysis. There's plenty of science at our fingertips. We even know, with remarkable precision, what we must do if we're to avert catastrophic, runaway global warming. That's a little too optimistic. I should have written, "if we're to have a reasonable chance of averting catastrophic, runaway global warming." At this point a 'reasonable chance' is the best we can do.

We know that we have to slash man-made greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030. We know that, if we manage that, then we'll have to eliminate the remaining half by 2050. There's no second prize. You either do it and avert it or you don't. Think of it as 'pass-fail' on a guillotine.

Recently we got a powerful report on collapsing biodiversity. A million species facing extinction, ours among them. There's another layer, a second existential threat to our future.

But there are more layers, other existential threats. One of them that I've been writing about for years is over-consumption, what's called "Overshoot." This is the factor (currently at 1.7) by which our species over-consumes Earth's life sustaining resources. We're at 1.7 times the planet's ecological carrying capacity and we've reached the point where we're degrading that once robust and stable carrying capacity. The more we take, the less Earth can provide, the fewer of us and other life it can support. That is a candle burning fiercely from both ends.

There are other threats, other forms of pollution and excess. The contamination of surface water and exhaustion of groundwater is borderline existential. Population is another. 2.5 billion when I was born. Nearly 8 billion today, possibly heading to 10 or even 12 billion in a couple of generations.  Here's the thing. The hen house was full to capacity at 3 billion. 8 billion gives rise to problems, existential problems.

It's like juggling live grenades, the pins pulled on all of them. The longer you keep juggling the more likely you'll lose something.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond in his book, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," notes that, when it comes to existential threats the rule is you either solve then all or you won't solve any of them. It will do us little good to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions if we continue to pillage biodiversity or if we so degrade the Earth's life sustaining resources (think topsoil) that we lose most of our agricultural production or if we run out of fresh water.

I recently stumbled across a paper by British anthropologist, Dr. Jason Hickel. I've requested free access to the paper, "Is it possible to achieve a good life for all within planetary boundaries?" I hope to file a post on it by the end of the week. The abstract is intriguing:
...this paper argues that it is theoretically possible to achieve a good life for all within planetary boundaries in poor nations by building on existing exemplary models and by adopting fairer distributive policies. However, the additional biophysical pressure that this entails at a global level requires that rich nations dramatically reduce their biophysical footprints by 40–50%. Extant empirical studies suggest that this degree of reduction is unlikely to be achieved solely through efforts to decouple GDP growth from environmental impact, even under highly optimistic conditions. Therefore, for rich nations to fit within the boundaries of the safe and just space will require that they abandon growth as a policy objective and shift to post-capitalist economic models.
Wow, if everybody is to have a fair share, we of the developed world, will have to trim our waistlines by 40 to 50 per cent. We're going to have to abandon the growth paradigm, the Holy Grail of neoliberalism.  We will have to embrace what James Lovelock, many years ago, called "sustainable retreat."

I'm less interested in whether Hickel's math is right or wrong as I am in whether the idea he pitches would have the remotest chance of being accepted by the most privileged nations, ours included.

Remember the title of Jared Diamond's book, the part about "how societies choose to fail or succeed."  What he demonstrates is that societies have a common tendency to favour today even knowing they'll beggar the future. That's when they "choose to fail."

How altruistic would you or your neighbours be if you were told you would have to shrink your standard of living by nearly half? How would we even do that? That would require a widespread consciousness we don't have today.

From commentaries on Hickel's paper I have the impression that he's almost going Marxist. That may sound alarming but, for years, I've been discussing  the world as a spaceship or humanity in a lifeboat.  When you're in a lifeboat it doesn't matter if the guy on the bench beside you dined last night on filet mignon while you made do with fish fingers. In the lifeboat you're all one and the same. You ration the water supply. You ration the survival gear and food.  The Spaceship Earth metaphor is similar. We've grown the economy so far beyond the finite capacity of the ship that to keep it going we have to stay outside which is not great if your priority is to stay alive. To have a future you must shrink the economy so that it fits safely within the spaceship.

Do you think there's any chance the First World will come to the rescue of the Third World if it requires such a monumental sacrifice? I don't see it. What if the alternative was that all those disadvantaged die in a true apocalypse? Would that change our minds?

I hope to see how Hickel imagines we could do this - if we wanted to make such enormous sacrifices for people we might quickly learn to despise. Wish me luck getting my hands on that paper.


Rural said...

A good post Mound, I tend to not fully read your ongoing but accurate summary's of where we are and where we are going as a human race, its simply too depressing. I admire your ability and perseverance to continue to educate us on the path we are all on.
That said it strikes me if the current resources were equally shared and not squandered by the mostly western desire for more, more , more AND tomorrow there was a world wide edict of one child per couple perhaps in 20 years we might have a chance... off course neither thing will happen ….... until said resources start running out, oh wait, they already are!

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't fault you for that, Rural, it is depressing. Some days it hits me very hard and yet there's nothing to be gained from avoiding it. As you have documented, there is much change happening beneath our feet and most of it is not good.

Trailblazer said...

From commentaries on Hickel's paper I have the impression that he's almost going Marxist. That may sound alarming but,

No it does not.
Our only way out is with the collective not the competitive.
The collective beat the oppressors during WWII.
Why have we ostracized socialism and co operation?
FFS; united we stand divided we fall!