Assumed growth and apocalyptic thinking

The following is adapted from a post to an email discussion list:

Regarding last week’s post to this list on ecological economics, I alluded to but didn’t go into detail on a fundamental concern about a basic assumption – growth – in the anthropogenic climate change models (source for the quotation below – http://ourfiniteworld.com/2013/05/23/oil-limits-and-climate-change/). The following quote is from a writer who is also an actuary, Gail Tverberg, and she outlines the concerns about this assumption in the models thus:

One of the implicit assumptions in the IPCC report is that continued growth in a finite world makes sense, and can be expected to continue until 2100. In fact, we are reaching limits of many kinds.

Figure 5. Various types of limits we are now reaching

Figure 5. Various types of limits we are now reaching

In fact, modelers should be considering all of the limits simultaneously. Modeling any one limit on Figure 5 by itself will produce results that will suggest that that limit is a huge problem, that perhaps can be fixed. To a significant extent, there are workarounds for many of these problems, including more research on antibiotics, desalination of water, and intermittent renewables to substitute for some fossil fuels. The problem with each of these workarounds is that they all involve higher cost, and thus tend to create financial problems, especially for governments that try to fix the problems. Thus, the real issue is a likely near-term financial problem. This financial problem can be expected to lead to economic shrinkage which will by itself help mitigate several of the problems, including climate change.

Given the multiple limits we are reaching, I think we need to step back. Energy is truly needed to create products and services of all kinds. The IPCC is claiming that with a few tweaks, economic growth of the type we have grown to expect can continue until the year 2100.  This assertion is clearly false, with or without the tweaks they are advocating.

We need to be figuring out how to live with a world that is rapidly changing for the worse, in terms of energy availability. I am not sure climate change should be our Number 1 concern, because the CO2 part of the problem is likely to mostly take care of itself. Instead, we need to be looking at how we can make the best use possible of energy sources we have. We also need to be cutting back on the real source of demand–population growth.

Perhaps we need to be thinking about different options than we have been thinking about to date–for example, making supply chains shorter and bringing production closer to the end-user. We might want to make such a change in an attempt to sustain production for longer, whether or not this has an adverse CO2 effect, viewed from today’s peculiar perspective: Only manufacturing which results in local CO2 production seems to be viewed as “bad;” exporting coal to China, or importing goods manufactured using coal from China/ India is not viewed as a problem.  Having economists with a mindset of BAU forever and helping businesses get ahead, doesn’t necessarily produce the best results from the point of view of taking care of the existing population. Perhaps we should be looking at our current problems from a broader perspective than the IPCC report suggests.

The predictions that climate science makes may yet prove false, as financial crisis and peak everything put the brakes on our consumption. To be clear, I am NOT denying that if the emissions continue to rise in the way they predict, catastrophic anthropogenic climate change will occur, or that action needs to be immediate given what we don’t know about methane hydrates, emissions contributions from loss of soil biomass, etc. The question is, are we looking at a long term challenge and missing the much more threatening nearer term threats of financial crisis and peak supply of several key components of industrial civilisation? Note that the acceptance (or not – it’s not optional to reduce emissions in light of this understanding) of the limits implied by ecological economics suggest a resolution of the financial and resource crises will have the same net effect that the climate change agenda suggests is needed…

If we accept the reality of these multiple crises, and the probable outcome, then we have to face some tough questions. I liked the article I quote from below, as it gives a new perspective on ‘apocalyptic’ – http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/love-and-the-apocalypse/radical-is-the-new-normal:

Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity. Speaking apocalyptically, in this sense, can deepen our understanding of the crises and help us see through the many illusions that powerful people and institutions create.

We are staring down multiple cascading ecological crises, struggling with political and economic institutions that are unable even to acknowledge, let alone cope with, the threats to the human family and the larger living world. We are intensifying an assault on the ecosystems in which we live, undermining the ability of that living world to sustain a large-scale human presence into the future. When all the world darkens, looking on the bright side is not a virtue but a sign of irrationality.

In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage. A deep grief over what we are losing—and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered—is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work.

But there is an ending we have to confront. Once we’ve honestly faced the crises, then we can deal with what is ending—not all the world, but the systems that currently structure our lives. Life as we know it is, indeed, coming to an end.

Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading? 

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using ever more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction).

Oh, did I forget to mention the undeniable trajectory of global warming/climate change/climate disruption?

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson has written, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.

We do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life. “Apocalypse” need not involve heavenly rescue fantasies or tough-guy survival talk; to get apocalyptic means seeing clearly and recommitting to core values.

First, we must affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society. We take on projects that we know may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.”

There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

Here’s another cliché to jettison: Necessity is the mother of invention. During the industrial era, humans exploiting new supplies of concentrated energy have generated unprecedented technological innovation in a brief time. But there is no guarantee that there are technological fixes to all our problems; we live in a system that has physical limits, and the evidence suggests we are close to those limits. Technological fundamentalism—the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always appropriate, and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences can be remedied by more technology—is as empty a promise as other fundamentalisms.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Adopting this apocalyptic framework doesn’t mean separating from mainstream society or giving up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination.

I am apocalyptic, but I’m not interested in empty rhetoric drawn from past revolutionary moments. Yes, we need a revolution—many revolutions—but a strategy is not yet clear. So, as we work patiently on reformist projects, we can continue to offer a radical analysis and experiment with new ways of working together. While engaged in education and community organizing with modest immediate goals, we can contribute to the strengthening of networks and institutions that can be the base for the more radical change we need. In these spaces today we can articulate, and live, the values of solidarity and equity that are always essential.

To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm life. As James Baldwin put it decades ago, we must remember “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.” By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability.

As Baldwin put it so poignantly in that same 1962 essay, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

I wonder if we pointed out that finance is a much more immediate and direct existential threat to the general public (i.e. upped the fear levels in a calculated PR spin), we might get more of a response?

Nathan

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