The problems posed by the human impact on the environment are huge and extremely urgent and we have no previous experience in solving problems of this type or magnitude. The means at our disposal are not only essentially incapable of solving these problems but they are inherently inclined to make them worse. Yet there is no time to create new systems. Therefore the only realistic option is to learn to manage these systems far more radically and on a far larger scale than we do at present. But so radical are the necessary changes that they are likely to be heavily resisted, and resisted by some of the most powerful forces on the planet.
The problems posed by the human impact on the environment are huge and extremely urgent. We need to reduce the impact we are having on the environment radically. In the leading industrial countries we need to reduce our collective carbon footprint by 90% or more, or perhaps even shift to a carbon-negative economy, in which we compensate for past excesses by absorbing more carbon than we emit. We are starting to move, but even the most ambitious national and international targets commit us to probably failing to halt this process. Meanwhile, almost every worst-case scenario – Arctic melting, climate damage, habitat loss – is turning out to be the best case. At this rate, we may well be living in the last century – if not the last few decades – of industrial civilisation.
At the same time, many strategic materials on which our current economic system relies – not only oil and natural gas but many metals and minerals – will become scarce to the point that they will start to disrupt our current economic systems within the foreseeable future. A number of absolutely basic resources such as fresh water and fertile soil will also come under threat within the same timescale, affecting so many people (especially in developing countries) that their effects are imaginable only if you are prepared to imagine the very worst.
But we started to exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity about a quarter of a century ago, and we have already started to witness the consequences.
We have no previous experience in solving problems of this type or magnitude. Pundits like to compare the impending crisis with the Second World War. As the next couple of chapters will make clear, if we do not take vigorous actions quickly enough, the fall of the Roman Empire may well turn out to be a better comparison – if not the last Ice Age. We are already losing – in many cases, actively destroying – the means to solve our problems. Within a few decades the losses will trigger a sequence of environmental implosions in which the collapse of this or that area – the Amazon forests, the Siberian tundra, vast undersea methane hydrate reservoirs – will release enough additional carbon to change the question from ‘How do we manage this?’ to ‘How do we survive this?’
Other events will be equally devastating. The melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets alone will make some of the world’s most heavily populated areas uninhabitable and flood many of the world’s greatest cities. The droughts that inevitably follow the final melting of most of the world’s glaciers (which feed many of the most important rives) will turn many of the world’s most densely populated – and nuclear-armed – regions to scrublands capable of supporting only the most meagre of populations. In the same timescale we can expect some of the world’s most fertile and productive agricultural areas to fail, including the American Midwest and California’s Central Valley, several of China’s rice-growing regions$$ and the Ganges valley.
Taken together, these processes will combine to ignite civil and political conflicts on an unprecedented scale even while massively damaging the social and political systems we rely on to manage such conflicts.
Meanwhile, the means at our disposal to solve all these problems are not only essentially incapable of solving these problems but they are inherently inclined to make them worse. Faced with any global problem, our most important resource is our economy. It is this that produces the means to do anything else, especially create the new systems and technologies we will undoubtedly need to deploy to escape our predicament. More than three decades after the first credible warnings of what would happen if we continued with unabated industrial growth and almost two decades since global targets and agreements on climate change were first promulgated, we have failed to meet practically every target we have set ourselves.
The fundamental reason for this is, straightforward enough. A capitalist economy relies absolutely on the continual expansion of profits. Without continuing the cycle of profit, investment and profit, it has no rationale and will cease to function. With that, all the remainder of society that relies so entirely on capitalist relationships – employment, consumption, taxation, government – will also collapse. With such a large proportion of all capital tied up in industrial machinery, global transport systems, vast retail networks and an enormous advertising and marketing industry – not to mention an almost official post-ideology ideology of consumerism – not only is our current economic system not designed to help us cut back, but it positively demands endless expansion. Although industry as such is not a problem – any machine can be turned off – capitalist industry is an absolute catastrophe. Under a capitalist regime, turning off the machines would put an end not only to the profits but also to the only system we possess that is capable of creating the means to solve our current environmental problems. Even replacing them with more environmentally friendly alternatives before they had recouped their original investment would cripple businesses.
Yet there is no time to create a new economic system. The problem is Now, and every past transformation as radical as the replacement of capitalism has taken literally centuries. Therefore the only realistic option is to learn to manage these systems far more radically and on a far larger scale than we do at present. The famous ‘turning on a penny/dime’ at the start of the Second World War is encouraging, but the changes needed now are far more fundamental. We have longer to complete them, but there is scarcely an area of everyday life they will not touch, and unlike the changes wrought at the start of the Second World War, this is not a transient change to be made in the face of a clear and present danger. If we are to succeed, we must take far more radical steps than anything ever contemplated before, forcing an extraordinary level of change (and perhaps disruption).
But so radical are the necessary changes that they are likely to be heavily resisted, and resisted by some of the most powerful forces on the planet. The situation is essentially that the next century will be by any standards the most expensive century in human history. That is, we will be investing not so much in grow as in change – often accompanied by shrinkage. Faced with such a situation, most governments and practically all businesses will try to deal with this problem by either evading their responsibilities or making someone else pay for them. Given that at least a significant fraction of governments and businesses have demonstrated a willingness to obtain economic resources and avoid social obligations by a combination of force and fraud, this may well prove to be the most violent century in human history too.
Yet there is a great deal we can do. But only if we are prepared to face up the reality of the situation, and only if we are willing to take action. Now.