- This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.
What institutions will be required to create a new public sphere, what social relations to foster a new ecological sensibility, what forms of work to render human practice playful and creative, what sizes and populations of communities to scale life to human dimensions controllable by all?
Reviewing a string of climate change-related things in rapid succession has given me a reason to assess where I stand. I will do that here.
I am very aware that I am not a climate scientist. I know more about history than I do about the implications of two-degree global temperature rises. As a result, when Winning presents the statistic that 97% of climate scientists believe the climate is changing, I can’t help but feel like I’m being told that 97% of womens’ studies scholars believe in the Patriarchy, or 97% of Silicon Valley techbros believe technology holds the solution to all our problems. One presumably does not become a climate scientist without believing there is something of note happening to the climate. With that level of unity of opinion, my natural instinct (as an frustratingly inveterate advocate for the Devil) is to consider heterodox views as potentially Galilean. However, as my friend pointed out, it was not always this way, so the early climatologists issuing warnings are perhaps more accurately described as the Galileos in this case. I think that sounds likely; it’s easy for me to view what is now the dissenting view as potentially revelatory, but that view has only been a minority view during my own lifetime. Conclusion: Earth’s climate does appear to be changing at an unprecedented rate.
The second point at which views diverge is in the attribution of climate change. Here, again, the consensus is overwhelming that human activity is to blame, and unprecedented temperature increases do seem very well correlated with the Industrial revolution. Fringe views include the possibility that recent temperature rises are a part of normal climatic activity or that the Earth has moved closer to the Sun. These do not appear to be likely, and funding behind many of them seems incredibly suspect. Conclusion: Recent climate change is predominantly the result of human activity.
The third point of divergence is on the likely impact of this climate change. Again, the consensus seems to be that it will be very disruptive at the most optimistic, and positively catastrophic at the least, with less-developed nations taking the brunt of the impact. Fringe views suggest that humanity will be able to adapt, but this only seems like a possibility for the wealthy in developed nations, who are better able to externalise their costs. It may be true from a nationalist perspective that climate change need not be unduly feared, but I prefer to take an internationalist view. Conclusion: Climate change will be highly disruptive or possibly destructive, and we should try to retard it if we can.
The bit where I tend to waver is on just what to do about climate change, which is quite handy as it appears this is the part that’s generally considered a valid topic for debate. It seems like proposals generally fall into three camps: acceleration; restraint; or contraction.
I’ll start with contraction. This line of thought states that maintaining current levels of everything—population size, energy demand, renewable usage growth—will not be enough, and that we must actively seek to contract the size and scale of civilisation to a more sustainable level. It is often commented on, most recently in regard to Extinction Rebellion, that many environmental activists have explicitly anti-capitalist views and primitivist views, and seem to have simply rebranded their activism under the guise of environmentalism—greenwashing of a different kind. Worries about the need to reduce the population to such a level that the Earth can support it has been going on since Malthus in 1798, since the Erlichs in 1968 and since the Club of Rome in 1972. Every time, alarmist predictions have not come to pass.
Groups like Extinction Rebellion call for a massive, hugely disruptive overhaul of the global order and drastic reduction in the Earth’s population. This article lists eleven responses that are needed, including
[a]cknowledgement that, as long as we remain in overshoot — exploiting essential ecosystems faster than they can regenerate — sustainable production/consumption means less production/consumption and
[a] global population strategy to enable a smooth descent to the two to three billion that could live comfortably indefinitely within the biophysical means of nature.
I mentioned my interest in history before, I think it is worth noting that top-down attempts at societal transformation tend to go very very badly, and that attempts that involve food production tend to go even even even even even worse. As Norman Borlaug, who we’ll get to in a moment, said:
…some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.
Thankfully, that author of the eleven-point manifesto concludes that it is
clear that H. sapiens is not primarily a rational species, and that a deliberate contraction is unlikely to happen. Conclusion: An enforced contraction in population and consumption would, based on a mountain of historical precedent, lead to widespread hardship and mass deaths. Even if this would avoid climate change, and future generations would thank us for our sacrifice, it is not a price I am willing to pay.
On to acceleration. This is the view that the degree of societal change needed to avert disastrous climate change is not going to happen, and that our only salvation lies in the continual refinement of existing technologies and the development of as-yet-unimagined ones. This does have some quite convincing historical precedent, however. I mentioned Malthus, the Erlichs and the Club of Rome earlier, all of whose apocalyptic predictions failed to come to pass due to technological advances allowing for larger and larger populations to be supported. For example, the Green Revolution in agriculture—spearheaded by Borlaug, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work—hugely increased crop yields in the 1960s, saving millions from starvation. An example of this view is Nobel Prize in Economics-winner Peter Nordhaus, who apparently believes that we should
[f]ocus on GDP growth now even if it means locking in future climate catastrophe…because future generations will then be much richer than we are and therefore better able to manage the problem, and that
that from the standpoint of
economic rationality it is
optimal to keep warming the planet to about 3.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.
The issues with the accelerationist view are twofold. First, as any stock broker will tell you,
past performance is not an indicator of future performance. Just because we have discovered technological solutions in the past, does not guarantee that we will find one this time. It may be that we make things worse in the pursuit of a solution that does not exist, and then are left with our dicks in our hands and water halfway up Big Ben. Secondly, it again takes a nationalist and economically-blinkered rather than an internationalist and ecologically-aware view:
…the Nordhaus model tells us that even the worst catastrophes will not really hurt the global economy all that much…[b]ecause if climate breakdown ends up starving and displacing a few hundred million impoverished Africans and Asians, that will register as only a tiny blip in GDP. After all, poor people don’t add muchvalueto the global economy. The same goes for things like insects and birds and wildlife, so it doesn’t matter if global warming continues to accelerate mass extinction. From the perspective of capital, what most of us see as tremendous ethical and even existential problems literally don’t count.
I think we must be careful to balance any attempts to retard growth (which I’ll get to in a moment) with the risk of impeding technological progress that may hold a solution. That said, the precautionary principle requires that we not attempt to pursue unfettered growth in the hopes of it providing a solution, as this will cause irreversible damage if we are found to be wrong. Conclusion: Technological advancement may hold the solution, but we can’t guarantee this in advance.
So, finally, restraint. Echoing The Green Lie, Winning suggested a few lifestyle changes that everyone would have to take if we wanted to reverse course: having fewer children; not having pets (hence the bit about killing dogs for the planet); only flying once per year; etc. Luckily, these are all things I was doing anyway—how convenient! I do try to pay attention to my lifestyle choices and their potential impact, but (again echoing a point my friend made) on balance I believe I am already doing better than many others in the developed world: I generally buy things with the intention of making them last; I generally only travel by foot, bike or public transport; and I endeavour to buy as much food as possible from my local markets. However, these were not conscious choices made for the benefit of the environment. I make things last because I am too lazy to replace them, I don’t drive because a car seems prohibitively expensive for my current needs and I buy locally out of a political preference for localism.
To conclude, then: I suspect I am fairly indicative of a lot of people when it comes to climate change. I’m not sure quite what to believe, yet I’m not capable of interpreting the raw facts themselves so have to rely on others; I’m aware of the overwhelming consensus in support of certain ideas, yet paradoxically somewhat put off by it; but I am nonetheless trying to do what I can to minimise my impact, yet not quite willing to tear down capitalism and drastically reduce the world population even if that is the only way. Again, I subscribe to the precautionary principle here: one should take the least irreversible path in situations where the correct choice is not obvious. If we make changes to our lifestyles and it turns out the threat was overblown, we can all start flying and firing out babies again. If we don’t make changes, though, and it turns out the warnings were correct, then it’s a bit late to do anything about it.
2020-06-02: I still broadly agree with what I’ve said here, but I’m aware that I could have perhaps devoted more time to discussing the way in which passing the burden of lifestyle changes onto consumers is used as a way for the far-more-environmentally-damaging practices of big corporations to escape scrutiny.