Is it too late to stop the end of the world?
Is it too late to stop the end of the world?
As we move towards a breaking point, should we prepare for the end of society? This is the question behind the theory of ‘deep adaptation’. The theory is becoming popular very quickly. Richard Swift writes about what our possibilities for the future are.
Activists demand climate action in Quezon City, Metro Manila, the Philippines, 25 September 2020. This was one of many climate protests around the world on that day. But the message was close to their home, as the Philippines now has more and more violent hurricanes and typhoons. Credit: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters
In 1947, scientists started the Doomsday Clock to see how much closer we are getting to climate collapse each year. The first threat was nuclear war, and the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight. Midnight is the time of the end of humans. The clock has moved backwards and forwards 24 times. It was further away from midnight after the end of the Cold War, and much closer to midnight with the threat of the climate crisis. Today it stands at just 100 seconds to midnight!
For most of us the idea of the end of the world is impossible to understand. Years ago, you saw ‘It’s the end of the world!’ in cartoons in magazines like The New Yorker. A crazy man with a long beard dressed in white, carrying a sign with ‘It’s the end of the world!’ on it. No more. In this time of Covid-19, with nearly six million lives lost, death is never far from the headlines or our thoughts. This shows that we are understanding our own weaknesses – that is a good thing and also worrying. It is time for us to think carefully about our addiction to growth with its dangers to our physical and mental health and to other species.
The new normal
After all, there is a lot of evidence – for example, extreme weather getting worse and worse every year. In 2021, northwestern North America and Australia had a record rise in temperatures, with wildfires and flooding. There have been bigger and stronger tornados throughout the US midwest. Overall, July 2021 was the hottest month in world history. 240 people died in floods in eastern Belgium and western Germany and the floods caused $43 billion of damage. This was one of a record four $20 billion-plus weather disasters in 2021.
As usual, the climate crisis is worst where people are weakest - mostly in the Global South. It is difficult sometimes to see the effects of climate change on the important jet streams that make our weather. In the industrial North we could, until recently, ignore the effects because change is slow and causes very little problems in everyday life for most people. In the Global South, it is the opposite. Problems with the food supply or natural disasters are common.
But it is getting worse. Extreme weather in 2021 brought record typhoons. They hit the southern Philippines and southeastern Africa, killed hundreds of people, and many lost their homes. Then the worst sand storm in ten years hit Beijing, it made the air almost impossible to breathe, and it showed again that China depends on deadly coal. Then there were flash floods in Asia with $30 billion damage in China and forest fires from Argentina to the Amazon.
Think, too, about the non-stop threats to low-lying islands in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, and heavily populated Bangladesh at the head of the Bay of Bengal. We think that one in seven Bangladeshis will have to move from coastal areas because of climate change. The nearly 170 million people of the country produce just 0.56 per cent of the global carbon emissions. And the carbon emissions cause the sea rise. This is not something for the future – in 2020 one of the worst storms to come from the overheated waters of the Bay of Bengal, Cyclone Ampram, hit India’s Bengal coast, south of Bangladesh. It killed nearly 100 people and caused $13 billion of damage.
Then there is the population of the Sahel, a region across 13 countries from Sudan in the east to Senegal in the west. It relies on dryland agriculture. A recent study said: ‘In the Sahel, more than in other places, these natural disasters are taking away the natural resources important for agriculture and the economy. Drought and floods mean land is losing its fertility. Not enough rain means that crops fail or are destroyed, and livestock find it difficult to find water for drinking and enough pasture to eat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that agriculture will fall by 20 per cent every ten years by the end of the 21st century in some areas of the Sahel.’
Billionaires and the world’s militaries have climate change plans. The militaries’ plans are more serious than the plans of Jeff Bezos of Amazon and others to escape on their space ships. The Pentagon has plans for defending their 750 military bases around the world. Many of them, such as those in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean or Guam in the Pacific, are under threat from the climate. With war, like in Ukraine, faster climate collapse is more or less certain. During the 1991 Gulf War, oil well fires added more than two per cent of global fossil fuel emissions that year.
There is a link between the military and the fossil-fuel industry. In the US, the military use more than a fifth of our energy. Only 35 states burn more oil per day than the Pentagon. The COP4 negotiations in1998 decided that the carbon budget of the US military worldwide does not have to include its carbon emissions or reduce them. This is now the same situation for the militaries of all countries. Globally, the military, even in peacetime, is the largest creator of carbon pollution, about six per cent of all emissions.
The US military is changing to renewables like solar where possible but modern militaries depend on carbon and use a lot of energy. But most of their climate planning for the future is about global conflicts caused by climate breakdown - struggles over water and other resources, environmental refugees, collapsed state systems, terrorism, and local resistance to the US or other great powers. People see the biggest impact of climate change as something that is happening ‘over there’ to ‘other people’, mostly in the Global South. But this is not true. For hundreds of years, colonizers thought that ‘the natives’ were not ready for ‘civilization’ and its many ‘advantages’. Of course, we now know that the colonizers are responsible for the problems of climate change.
We should learn from Covid-19 and the extreme weather that we all live on the same planet. But we are slow to learn these lessons. Plans in Washington DC, Beijing, Moscow, or Brussels are about power and not ways to stop climate collapse.
The end of the world is popular!
Scientists and other serious people are talking about the idea that the collapse of society might happen in our lifetime. The idea is also there in popular culture, including the 2021 Netflix film Don’t Look Up, with actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep. The film has Trump-like men and billionaires as the bad people, and a few scientists trying to stop a meteor from destroying the planet before it’s too late.
Jem Bendell, like many people, thinks it is too late to save the planet. He is a UK-based ‘Professor of Sustainability Leadership’. He has twenty years experience in sustainable business and finance. He has lived and worked in six countries. He wrote ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’. It is now in translation in a number of languages and he has over a million readers. Bendell says that we are facing the collapse of society soon because of climate change caused by us. He writes mostly about rising temperatures and carbon emissions, particularly in the polar regions. He thinks it is already too late to change the situation. He says it is not possible to predict how the collapse will come. But he does say methane release from the seafloor will lead to a fast collapse of societies and many meltdowns of some of the world’s 400 nuclear power-stations. This will lead to the end of humans.
Hurricanes. Credit: NOAA (public domain), NASA (public domain)
Discussion and disagreement
Bendell has the most influence possibly because of his sensitive treatment of climate grief and how to move beyond it. People compare this to the 12-step programmes followed by alcoholics. Also, he talks about why so many people still refuse to recognize the terrible planetary crisis we face. Bendell hopes that his call for deep adaptation will bring together a community of people to share their grief.
Some people disagree with Bendell’s opinions for one or two reasons:
1) The negative effects his ideas may have on the fight against climate change. For example, people may think, ‘It’s already too late so why do anything, because it’s out of our control?’
2) Different ideas about the evidence for climate change.
Carbon and the resource curse
Increasing carbon emissions and their climate effects are just a recent sign of an older attitude to the natural world. It is an attitude that comes from modern capitalism. Amitav Ghosh in his book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, sees the ‘resource curse’ as the reason for our ecological crisis. He dates it back at least as far as the Dutch killing Indonesia’s Banda islanders in the early 1600s. They wanted to take their nutmeg trees. At the time, a few nutmegs were so valuable you could use them to buy a ship or a house.
Big business has used natural resources, particularly in mining and agriculture, to exploit the Global South. The resource curse has many negative effects. These include exploitation of mostly non-unionized local workers and poverty. For example, mining for gold in Guatemala or extracting petroleum in the Gulf lead to inequality and ecological destruction.
Other impacts on our political lives of the resource curse are different forms of authoritarianism. Perhaps the biggest modern form of this authoritarianism is organized around the carbon capitalism of the petro-states. Such states have different political forms, from the monarchies of the Arabian Gulf to the Islamic absolutism of Iran, the petro-nationalism of Russia and Iraq, or the authoritarianism of the Left, like Venezuela, and the Right, like in US states such as Texas and Louisiana, and the Canadian Province of Alberta. The resource curse connected to carbon is perhaps the worst as it causes climate problems we are starting to find deadly. And, of course, we mustn’t forget the international petroleum group - China National Petroleum Corporation, Esso, Shell, BP, and a few others. They control much of the exploration, refining, and transport of petroleum and its products.
These carbon capitalists have known for a long time about the deadly effects their ‘business model’ was having on the planet and its peoples. As long ago as in1959, the physicist Eduard Teller spoke at a petroleum conference at Columbia University. He said, ‘When you burn fuel, you create carbon dioxide… and it causes a greenhouse effect.’ He said that fossil-fuel use would cause the melting of ice caps, raising sea levels until ‘all the coastal cities would be covered’.
Other warnings followed. In 1965, Frank Ikard, President of the US Petroleum Institute, said that we are adding carbon dioxide to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas so fast that by the year 2000 there will possibly be changes in climate.
But they did nothing. Why? There are the usual reasons like greed and profit and there is the link between the control of carbon as an energy source and the domination of the global economy. We can control fossil fuels in a centralized way. We cannot control renewable energy like wind, water, and solar in the same way. To give up fossil fuels also means giving up power. The companies controlling carbon capitalism are not in a hurry to do that even with the threats to humans. The link between fossil fuels and military power leads those in charge to lie to keep the carbon situation as it is – they are the private petroleum bosses, the military bosses, the bosses of national oil companies, and politicians. Hypocrisy is now a form of government.
What goes around…
For too long the carbon emissions and the temperature rise that the international COP climate negotiations worry about have stopped many environmentalists from seeing the bigger picture. Can we keep to the 1.5° Celsius temperature increase? If not, will it go higher and make big parts of the world less and less possible to live in? All of this is important but we need to change our attitude towards nature, often as in indigenous thought. We are learning that the earth is not like a machine but it bites back with extreme weather and uncomfortable climate change. The rule is: ‘What goes around comes around.’
We need to work with natural cycles to be successful. We cannot build our houses on flood plains or exposed coastlines. We cannot build in areas with possible landslides increased by storms. Storms threaten houses downstream from dams and the ponds from mining with their mixtures of water, sand, clay, and tar. We cannot practise deforestation that encourages wildfires. We must be careful about local water sources and the most fertile of top soils. People living downstream from melting glaciers will face new problems.
We cannot continue to ‘mine’ the world’s fisheries using technology that sweeps the ocean clean of marine life. We must think again about chemical meat-centred agriculture. We need to think again about what we produce and how we produce it. The carbon-intensive petrochemical industry with its endless plastics can no longer be the way hundreds of thousands of workers. many in China and the Global South, earn their living. This is urgent. Jeremy Lent writes for www.resilience.org:
‘One way or another, we are moving towards the third big complete change in our history, after the agricultural and industrial revolutions, in the form of global collapse or a change to a new way of sustainable living. An ecological civilization offers a way forward. It may be the only hope for those who come after us to live well on Earth and into the distant future.’
Is it too late?
So, is it too late? There is no right or wrong answer to this. Our attitude here may depend on our position in society and our attitudes towards pessimism or optimism. It may be that it has always been too late and that as humans we have tried to dominate nature from the beginning. So maybe it is in the human DNA or God’s Will, depending on our philosophy.
NOW TRY THE ORIGINAL:
(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)