By John Scales Avery
Only immediate climate action can save the future. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.
A new book
I have written a 396-page book about the steps that are urgently needed in order to save the future for our children and grandchildren. The book makes use of articles and book chapters that I have previously written on our current crisis, but much new material has been added. I urge readers to download and circulate the pdf file of the book from the following link:
Other freely-downloadable books and articles on global problems can be found at the following address: http://eacpe.org/about-john-scales-avery/
Immediate action is needed to save the long-term future
Here is a recent statement by Jakob von Uexküll, founder of the World Future Council:
“Today we are heading for unprecedented dangers and conflicts,up to and including the end of a habitable planet in the foreseeablefuture, depriving all future generations of their right to life and thelives of preceding generations of meaning and purpose.
“This apocalyptic reality is the elephant in the room. Current policies threaten temperature increases triggering permafrostmelting and the release of ocean methane hydrates which would make our earth unliveable, according to research presented by theBritish Government Met office at the Paris Climate Conference.
“The myth that climate change is conspiracy to reduce freedomis spread by a powerful and greedy elite which has largely capturedgovernments to preserve their privileges in an increasingly unequal world.”
Similarly, 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, described our present situation in the following words:
“When I was about 8 years old, I first heard about something called ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. Apparently, that was something humans had created by our way of living. I was told to turnoff the lights to save energy and to recycle paper to save resources.I remember thinking that it was very strange that humans, whoare an animal species among others, could be capable of changingthe Earth’s climate. Because, if we were, and if it was really hap-pening, we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. As soon asyou turn on the TV, everything would be about that. Headlines,radio, newspapers: You would never read or hear about anythingelse. As if there was a world war going on, but no one ever talkedabout it. If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened ourvery existence, how could we just continue like before? Why were there no restrictions? Why wasn’t it made illegal?”
Why do we not respond to the crisis?
Today we are faced with multiple interrelated crises, for example the threatof catastrophic climate change or equally catastrophic thermonuclear war,and the threat of widespread famine. These threats to human existence andto the biosphere demand a prompt and rational response; but because ofinstitutional and cultural inertia, we are failing to take the steps that arenecessary to avoid disaster.
Only immediate action can save the future
Immediate action to halt the extraction of fossil fuels and greatly reduce theemission of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses is needed to save the long-termfuture of human civilization and the biosphere.
At the opening ceremony of United Nations-sponsored climate talks inKatowice, Poland, (COP24), Sir David Attenborough said “Right now, we are facing aman-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest in thousands of years.Climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations andthe extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon. The world’speople have spoken. Their message is clear. Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now.”
Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, said climate change was already “a matter of life and death” for many countries. He added that the worldis “nowhere near where it needs to be” on the transition to a low-carboneconomy.
Swedish student Greta Thunberg, is a 15-year-old who has launched aclimate protest movement in her country. She said, in a short but very clearspeech after that of UN leader Antonio Guterres: “Some people say that Ishould be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ‘solve the climate crisis’. But the climatecrisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions.”
She added: “Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be nomore, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is thepoint of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothingto our society?”
Thunberg continued: “Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every singleday. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oilin the ground. So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Becausethe rules have to be changed.”
She concluded by saying that “since our leaders are behaving like children,we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”
Our collective failure to respond adequately to the current crisis is verylargely due to institutional inertia. Our financial system is deeply embeddedand resistant to change. Our entire industrial infrastructure is based on fossilfuels; but if the future is to be saved, the use of fossil fuels must stop. International relations are still based based on the concept of absolutely sovereignnation states, even though this concept has become a dangerous anachronismin an era of instantaneous global communication and economic interdependence. Within nations, systems of law and education change very slowly,although present dangers demand rapid revolutions in outlook and lifestyle.
The failure of the recent climate conferences to produce strong final documents can be attributed to the fact that the nations attending the conferencesfelt themselves to be in competition with each other, when in fact they oughtto have cooperated in response to a common danger. The heavy hand of thefossil fuel industry also made itself felt at the conferences.
Until the development of coal-driven steam engines in the 19th centuryhumans lived more or less in harmony with their environment. Then, fossilfuels, representing many millions of years of stored sunlight, were extractedand burned in two centuries, driving a frenzy of growth of population and industry that has lasted until the present. But today, the party is over. Coal,oil and gas are nearly exhausted, and what remains of them must be left inthe ground to avoid existential threats to humans and the biosphere. Huge coal and oil corporations base the value of their stocks on ownership of theremaining resources that are still buried, and they can be counted on to useevery trick, fair or unfair, to turn those resources into money.
In general corporations represent a strong force resisting change. By law,the directors of corporations are obliged to put the profits of stockholdersabove every other consideration. No room whatever is left for an ecologicalor social conscience. Increasingly, corporations have taken control of ourmass media and our political system. They intervene in such a way as tomake themselves richer, and thus to increase their control of the system.
Polite conversation and cultural inertia
Each day, the conventions of polite conversation contribute to our sense thateverything is as it always was. Politeness requires that we do not talk aboutissues that might be contrary to another person’s beliefs. Thus polite conversation is dominated by trivia, entertainment, sports, the weather, gossip,food, and so on, Worries about the the distant future , the danger of nuclearwar, the danger of uncontrollable climate change, or the danger of widespreadfamine seldom appear in conversations at the dinner table, over coffee or atthe pub. In conversations between polite people, we obtain the false impression that all is well with the world. But in fact, all is not well. We have to act promptly and adequately to save the future.
The situation is exactly the same in the mass media. The programs andarticles are dominated by trivia and entertainment. Serious discussions of thesudden crisis which civilization now faces are almost entirely absent, becausethe focus is on popularity, ratings and the sale of advertising. As Niel Postman remarked, we areentertaining ourselves to death.
Further growth implies future collapse
We have to face the fact that endless economic growth on a finite planet is alogical impossibility, and that we have reached or passed the the sustainablelimits to growth.
In today’s world, we are pressing against the absolute limits of the earth’scarrying capacity, and further growth carries with it the danger of future collapse. In the long run, neither the growth of industry nor that of populationis sustainable; and we have now reached or exceeded the sustainable limits.
The size of the human economy is, of course, the product of two factors:the total number of humans, and the consumption per capita. Let us firstconsider the problem of reducing the per-capita consumption in the industrialized countries. The whole structure of western society seems designedto push its citizens in the opposite direction, towards ever-increasing levelsof consumption. The mass media hold before us continually the ideal of apersonal utopia, filled with material goods.
Every young man in a modern industrial society feels that he is a failureunless he fights his way to the “top”; and in recent years, women too havebeen drawn into the competition. Of course, not everyone can reach the top;there would not be room for everyone; but society urges us all to try, andwe feel a sense of failure if we do not reach the goal. Thus, modern life has become a competition of all against all for power and possessions.
When possessions are used for the purpose of social competition, demandhas no natural upper limit; it is then limited only by the size of the humanego, which, as we know, is boundless. This would be all to the good ifunlimited industrial growth were desirable; but today, when further industrialgrowth implies future collapse, western society urgently needs to find newvalues to replace our worship of power, our restless chase after excitement,and our admiration of excessive consumption.
If you turn on your television set, the vast majority of the programs thatyou will be offered give no hint at all of the true state of the world or of thedangers which we will face in the future. Part of the reason for this willfulblindness is that no one wants to damage consumer confidence. No one wants to bring on a recession. No one wants to shoot Santa Claus.
But sooner or later a severe recession will come, despite our unwillingnessto recognize this fact. Perhaps we should prepare for it by reordering theworld’s economy and infrastructure to achieve long-term sustainability, i.e.steady-state economics, population stabilization, and renewable energy.
Our responsibility to future generations and the biosphere
All of the technology needed for the replacement of fossil fuels by renewableenergy is already in place. Although renewable sources supplied only9 percent of the world’s total energy requirements in 2015 , they supplied 23 percent of ekectrical generation energy in 2016, and they are growing rapidly. Becauseof the remarkable properties of exponential growth, this will mean that renewableswill soon become a major supplier of the world’s energy requirements, despitebitter opposition from the fossil fuel industry.
Both wind and solar energy can now compete economically with fossilfuels, and this situation will become even more pronounced if more countriesput a tax on carbon emissions, as Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, CostaRica, the United Kingdom and Ireland already have done.
Much research and thought have also been devoted to the concept of asteady-state economy. The only thing that is lacking is political will. It isup to the people of the world to make their collective will felt.
History has given to our generation an enormous responsibility towardsfuture generations. We must achieve a new kind of economy, a steady-stateeconomy. We must stabilize global population. We must replace fossil fuelsby renewable energy. We must abolish nuclear weapons. We must end the institution of war. We must reclaim democracy in our own countries when ithas been lost. We must replace nationalism by a just system of internationallaw. We must prevent degradation of the earth’s environment. We must actwith dedication and fearlessness to save the future of the earth for human civilization and for the plants and animals with which we share the gift of life.
Here is what Greta Thunberg says about hope:“And yes, we do need hope. Of course, we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope iseverywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Thenand only then, hope will come today.”
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., University of Copenhagen