Is it too late to stop climate collapse?
Back in 1947, a group of scientists associated with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started up something called the Doomsday Clock to measure how much closer the human species is getting to perilous catastrophe each year. The original threat was nuclear war, and the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight – midnight being the hour of human annihilation. The clock has moved back and forth 24 times – further away after the end of the Cold War, and much closer with increased awareness of the inevitability of the climate crisis. Today it stands at just 100 seconds to midnight.
For most of humanity the idea of planetary doom remains ‘incomprehensible’. Back in the day, ‘It’s the end of the world!’ would have been a line you might have found in cartoons in magazines like The New Yorker. Some idiotic guy (women had better things to do with their time) with a long beard dressed in a white robe, carrying a sign proclaiming our collective demise. No more. In this era of Covid-19 (with its toll of close to six million lives, and counting) death is never far from either the headlines or the human psyche. Our usually rambunctious and self-assured species is showing an awareness of its own frailty that is both refreshing and alarming. The situation cries out for modesty on our part, given the mounting discontents of the human-dominated Anthropocene era with its addiction to growth no matter the cost to our physical and mental wellbeing – to say nothing of the fate of other species.
The new normal
After all, it’s not like there is no evidence of impending doom – with extreme weather events mounting year on year. In 2021 alone, northwestern North America and Australia have had a record rise in temperatures, resulting in alternating – and equally deadly – wildfires and flooding. Strange weather events like killer tornados have increased their range and intensity throughout the US midwest. Overall, July 2021 was measured as the hottest month in world history. Floods in eastern Belgium and western Germany drowned 240 people and caused $43 billion worth of damage – one of a record four $20 billion-plus weather disasters in 2021.
As usual, the planetary crisis is at its sharpest where human frailty and vulnerability join hands, by-and-large, in the Global South. It is difficult sometimes to identify the effects of climate shifts and their impact on the all-important jet streams that shape weather patterns. In the industrial North we have, until relatively recently, been able to ignore them because change is incremental and without significant disruption yet of everyday life for most people. In the Global South, the problem is somewhat the opposite. Disruption caused by vulnerability, whether it’s the food supply or natural disasters, has been commonplace for decades.
But it is definitely getting worse. Extreme weather in 2021 brought together typhoons of record intensity hitting the southern Philippines (Ria) and southeastern Africa (Eloise), killing hundreds and displacing thousands. Then there was the worst sand storm in a decade to hit Beijing, making air in the Chinese capital almost unbreathable and calling attention yet again to the country’s dependence on deadly coal. Add in flash floods in Asia ($30 billion damage in China alone) and runaway forest fires from Argentina to the Amazon, and the picture is far from pretty.
Consider also the longer-term persistent threats to low-lying islands in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, and to heavily populated Bangladesh at the head of the Bay of Bengal – where agriculturally rich but storm-surge vulnerable delta land is under imminent threat. Estimates have it that one in seven Bangladeshis will be forced to relocate from coastal areas due to climate violence. (The nearly 170 million people of the country produce just 0.56 per cent of the global carbon emissions behind the inexorable sea rise.) This is not an event of the distant future either – in 2020 one of the fiercest storms ever to come from the overheated waters of the Bay Of Bengal, Cyclone Ampram, pounded India’s Bengal coast, south of Bangladesh, killing nearly 100 people and causing some $13 billion of damage.
Then there is the population of the Sahel (a region spanning 13 countries from Sudan in the east to Senegal in the west) which is overwhelmingly reliant on vulnerable dryland agriculture. A recent study concluded:
‘In the Sahel more than elsewhere, these natural disasters are degrading the natural resources that are essential to the agropastoral livelihoods that underpin the economy in much of the area…Under the combined effect of drought and floods, land is deteriorating and losing its fertility. Insufficient rain-fed irrigation means that crops fail or are destroyed, while livestock struggle to find water for drinking and sufficient pasture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that agricultural yields will fall by 20 per cent per decade by the end of the 21st century in some areas of the Sahel.’
Thus there is no lack of evidence that not only are we in a planetary crisis of major proportions, but also that its effects are unevenly spread: with those least responsible bearing the heaviest burden.
The billionaire class and the world’s militaries are not without their climate change contingency plans. The latter’s are far more serious than the schoolboy fantasies of Bezos et al to escape to a ‘new frontier’ on their space ships. The Pentagon has elaborate plans for defending their system of 750 military bases spread around the world, many of which, such as those in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean or Guam in the Pacific, are under immediate threat from the deteriorating climate. In case of actual conflict – the most recent being unleashed upon Ukraine – the acceleration of climate collapse is a virtual certainty. During the 1991 Gulf War, oil well fires contributed more than two per cent of global fossil fuel emissions that year.
There is a ‘primal link’ between the military and the fossil-fuel industry. In the US, the armed forces alone account for more than a fifth of energy consumption. Indeed, the US is burning fossil fuels at a greater rate than entire countries. Only 35 states burn more oil per day than the Pentagon. Under a special deal made during the COP4 negotiations (1998) that led to the Kyoto Protocol, the carbon budget of the US military worldwide is exempted from both carbon emission measurement or reduction – an exemption advocated by ‘climate guru’ Al Gore. This was then extended to the militaries of all countries under a national security provision. Globally, the military (even in peacetime) is the largest single sector of carbon pollution, accounting for an estimated six per cent of all emissions.
While the US military is shifting to renewables like solar where feasible, by the very nature of their operations modern militaries are carbon dependent and highly energy intensive. But most of their climate-related planning for the future is devoted to dealing with global conflicts provoked or exacerbated by climate breakdown: struggles over water and other resources, environmental refugee flows, collapsed state systems, terrorism and any local resistance to the US or other great powers. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the largest impact of climate deterioration is seen as something that is happening ‘over there’ to ‘other people’, mostly in the Global South. Colonial history, tinged with racism and condescending arrogance, has set up the Anglosphere and Europe for a hard fall. For centuries the discourse of colonial authorities had it that ‘the natives’ were not acquisitive enough to grasp civilization and its many ‘advantages’. Turns out now that that very acquisitiveness is proving the undoing of a humanity too big for its ecological boots.
The Covid-19 virus and extreme weather events that know no borders should be teaching us that we all live on the same planet. Yet such lessons are slow to be learned. Indian writer Amitav Ghosh draws this alarming conclusion:
‘To look these facts in the face is to recognize that it is a grave error to imagine that the world is not preparing for the disrupted planet of the future. It’s just that it is not preparing by taking mitigatory measures or by reducing emissions: instead, it is preparing for a new geopolitical struggle for dominance.’1
Ghosh has put his finger on it. Instead of the drastic international measures needed to halt climate collapse, the main calculations still being made – whether in Washington DC, Beijing, Moscow or Brussels – have more to do with maintaining position and power than saving the planet.
The end of the world goes mainstream
Now a range of scientists and other serious folk are actually discussing our impending frailty and marshalling evidence that societal collapse might actually happen in our lifetime. It is even infiltrating popular culture, including the 2021 Netflix blockbuster Don’t Look Up with a cast that included everyone from Hollywood heart-throbs like Leonardo DiCaprio to serious actors such as Meryl Streep (in a barely believable role as a narcissistic populist President). The film tries for the unlikely combination of humour and terror, with a predictable cast of Trump-like villains and techno-creep billionaires as the ‘baddies’, and a few noble scientists trying vainly to rally support to stop a planet-destroying meteor before it’s too late. The parallels with climate-change deniers and their ilk pretty much slaps the viewer in the face. Audiences have been divided between those glad for any reflection of real-life dilemmas even from thin Hollywood satire, and others appalled by what they see as a disempowering and depoliticizing message at a time when serious thought and action are in such short supply. But, make no mistake, ‘the essential movie of the moment’ is now the third most-watched film in Netflix history.
The problem with the film, and arguably much of the other ‘doomism’ that is taking hold, is that what is intended to rally us to action may indeed have the opposite effect. Are fear and terror by their very nature reactive and de-politicizing? But even if they are, the question still hangs in the air and understandably haunts us – is it too late to effectively stop climate degradation and the powerful lobbies of carbon capitalism that militantly defend it?
Among the most widely read and influential of those who fear it’s just too late is Jem Bendell, a UK-based ‘Professor of Sustainability Leadership’ who describes himself as someone with ‘twenty years of experience in sustainable business and finance, as a researcher, educator, facilitator, advisor and entrepreneur, having lived and worked in six countries’. His essay ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’ has been translated into a number of languages (mostly European, although Chinese, Japanese and others are rumoured to be in the works) and has gained a readership of probably well over a million by this point. Bendell’s central claim is that we are facing near-term societal collapse due to anthropogenic (or human-caused) climate change. His paper hangs on a reading of the scientific literature with a focus on rising temperatures and non-linear (ie out of control) feedback loops of carbon releases, particularly in the polar regions. His belief is that we have already reached a tipping point (or several actually) and that amelioration efforts will inevitably be too modest to pull us back. Unlike other ‘doomsday’ theorists he comes across as modest and humanistic in his prognostications, at many points asserting that it is simply not possible to predict how the inevitable impending collapse will play out. He eschews the kind of ‘lifeboat’ ethics all too common among the gated-community middle class or the populist bunker mentality of the white supremacists set on guarding their own racial purity.
Oddly, Bendell devotes fewer than three of the 26 pages of his essay (discounting the references) to weigh up the evidence on which his thesis of near-term societal collapse hangs. He devotes most of ‘Deep Adaptation’ to giving permission to mourn for what he feels we are about to lose, and to the psychological resources necessary to overcome that loss and carry on. His desire is that we emerge by embracing a humanitarian survivalism, which, going by this paper, is pretty vague in its details. Bendell does not kid himself or his readers that it is possible to know with any certainty the speed and variable effects of climate degradation based on levels of vulnerability and the economic wherewithal to adjust. Yet at times he is given to frightening predictions, verging on collapse pornography, as when he postulates: ‘Inevitable methane release from the seafloor leading to a rapid collapse of societies will trigger multiple meltdowns of some of the world’s 400 nuclear power-stations, leading to the extinction of the human race.’
This kind of doomist prognostication can come across as emotional manipulation dressed up in scientific garb. It is not clear from the text why these nuclear power stations should go into meltdown. Bendell is hardly alone in his perspective, finding company in a growing crowd of ‘collapseolologists’, including Guy Macpherson, Rupert Reed, John Michael Greer and Richard Heinberg. To some degree their perspective is shaped by a pessimistic frame of mind; others looking at the same evidence might draw different conclusions. This of course does not mean they are wrong. Certainly, their perspective speaks eloquently to the complacent failure of political elites around the world to meet even the too-modest goals for climate amelioration they have set out for themselves.
Debate and dissent
One suspects that Bendell has had the most influence due to his sensitive treatment of climate grief and how to move beyond it – which has provoked comparisons with the 12-step programmes followed by recovering alcoholics. Also, the paper thoughtfully frames the reasons so many still refuse to recognize the terrible planetary crisis we must face. Bendell hopes that his call for deep adaptation will bring together a community of identities structured around shared grief that is as much a spiritual movement as it is a social one.
Those who dissent from Bendell’s pessimistic outlook do so from two sets of criteria: 1) the perceived negative effects on the fight against climate degradation; and 2) a different reading of the evidence. A trio of climate activist/scientists writing in a long article published on the excellent UK-based openDemocracy website don’t hold back when they claim that:
‘In fact, Deep Adaptation consistently cherry-picks data, cites false experts, puts forward logical fallacies, and disregards robust scientific consensus. Bendell defends himself by offering unsupported reasons for activists and the public to distrust mainstream climate science. In all of these regards, deep adaptation mimics the practices that deniers of global warming have wielded for decades.’
Their critique is extensive and detailed, focusing on rates and impact of methane release and arctic sea ice. They tend to be particularly agitated by the controversial claim that soon (if not already) human-caused carbon emissions will be outstripped by ‘a tipping cascade’ of natural releases that will carry climate heating out of human control. Their main concern is that focusing on non-linear tipping points and feedback loops (while ignoring their complexities and ambiguities) takes away the responsibility – from humans in general and states in particular – to challenge the powerful lobbies of carbon capitalism and rethink the politics and economics of growth. An attitude of: ‘It’s already too late so why bother, it’s out of our control anyway.’ This is obviously not Bendell’s intention but it is a plausible consequence of his position.
The politics of deep adaptation
It would be unfair to lump deep-adaptation supporters in with climate-change deniers on the basis of ignoring the scientific consensus. Bendell, and many of the others who believe in near-term collapse of human society, have much more in common with more sober climate activism, differing mostly in the time frames involved and the unwillingness to speculate on the details of collapse. There is a big difference between exaggeration and denial. The impending-doom narratives are more allied with a broader consensus of climate scientists and activists that we are in a deep planetary crisis of our own making. But the question is: ‘When?’ While they may differ in future projections, there is a shared sense of urgency. Here Bendell is at his best, with his claim in favour of what he calls the ‘four Rs’ which he feels should underpin his notion of deep adaptation.
‘“What do we most value that we want to keep and how,” is a question of resilience. “What could we let go of so as not to make matters worse,” is a question of relinquishment. “What could we bring back to help us in these difficult times,” is a question of restoration. “With what and with whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our common mortality,” is a question of reconciliation.’
Hard to disagree with any of this. But its political and social implications are more radical than Bendell’s sober language allows. At one point in ‘Deep Adaptation’ he castigates the neoliberal obsession with markets and individualist ethics as the root of the failures of public policy almost everywhere to seriously tackle climate degradation. So far so good – but not nearly far enough.
One gets the sense that Bendell wants to set aside the differences of Right and Left to gather a broad tent of ‘radical adapters’ to face a new reality of impending societal collapse. It feels like he has muted much of his criticism of the capitalistic commitment to profit-driven growth in order to achieve this. But one also senses a baby and bathwater problem here. The justifications for his radical adaptation position are narrowed down to focus pretty much exclusively on carbon releases and temperature rises.
Carbon and the resource curse
Runaway carbon emissions and their climactic effects are just recent manifestations of an older more all-encompassing attitude to the natural world – one that is deeply embedded in capitalist modernity as a whole. Amitav Ghosh in his superb recent book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, identifies the ‘resource curse’ as the tap root of our ecological crisis.5 He dates it back at least as far as the Dutch genocide of Indonesia’s Banda islanders, which aimed to get at their precious nutmeg trees in the early 1600s – at the time a handful of nutmegs were so valuable you could use them to purchase a ship or a house.
What in conventional economic terms is an advantageous natural endowment has been utilized through corporate predation (particularly in the mining and agricultural sectors) to undermine the healthy development and ecological integrity of the Global South. This historical process has led to a perpetual ambivalence among some peoples on the receiving end about natural resources that have been turned against them for the narrow benefit of outsiders. The resource curse has myriad negative effects. These include: exploitation of mostly-nonunionized local workers; a lack of spin-off economic activity compared with more integrated forms of development; corruption as large private extractive industries use their financial largesse to obtain favourable access from local powerholders; and poverty as tax and royalty giveaways suck economic surplus overseas. Whether it’s mining for gold in Guatemala or extracting petroleum in the Gulf, inequality and ecological devastation are baked in.
Among the persistent impacts on our political lives of the resource curse are various forms of authoritarianism, dating from colonial office directives to present day military-influenced forms of rule prone to dictatorship and inequality. Perhaps the most prominent modern form of this authoritarianism is organized around the carbon capitalism of the petrostate. Such states have a range of political shadings, from the semi-feudal monarchies of the Arabian Gulf to the Islamic absolutism of Iran, the petro-nationalism of Russia and Iraq or the populist authoritarianism of Left (Venezuela) and the populist Right (in US states like Texas and Louisiana as well as the Canadian Province of Alberta). The resource curse connected to carbon is perhaps the most pernicious these day, as it also enables climate degradation on a scale our species is starting to find deadly. All of this of course underpinned by the international petroleum cartel (China National Petroleum Corporation, Esso, Shell, BP and a few others) which controls much of the exploration, refining and transport of petroleum and its derivatives.
These carbon capitalists, whether private or parastatal, have known for a long time the deadly effects their ‘business model’ was having on the planet and its inhabitants. As far back as 1959, the renowned physicist Eduard Teller, addressing a petroleum conference at Columbia University, warned that: ‘Whenever you burn conventional fuel, you create carbon dioxide… Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect.’ He said that persistent fossil-fuel use would eventually 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, noted that ‘carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate.’
Yet they did nothing. Why? Aside from the usual mundane reasons of corporate greed and profit there is the tight connection between the control of carbon as an energy source and the domination of the global economy. Fossil fuels are controllable in a centralized fashion – in a way that renewable energy sources rooted in the commons (wind, water, solar) never can be. To give up fossil fuels would also mean giving up the power they are enmeshed with. This is not something those who control the levers of carbon capitalism are in any rush to do, whatever the costs in terms of species survival. The interdependent symbiosis between fossil fuels and military power positions those in charge (private petroleum executives, military brass, the parastatal bureaucrats who run quasi-public national oil companies and political elites across the ideological spectrum) to lie and dance in order to maintain the carbon status quo. Hypocrisy has become a form of government. Ghosh is eloquent in his description of all this, providing the essential historical dimension: ‘Fossil fuels have from the start been enmeshed with human lives in ways that tend to re-enforce the power of the ruling classes. This dynamic is perfectly expressed by the dual meaning of the English word “power” which combines the idea of “energy” as in “a force of nature” and “power” as in a relation between humans, an authority, a structure of domination.’1
What goes around…
For too long the carbon emissions and temperature rise that the international COP climate negotiations are preoccupied with have also prevented many environmentalists from seeing the bigger picture. Can we make the ‘manageable’ 1.5° Celsius cut-off in temperature advance or will it spill over, making large sections of the world less and less habitable? While these indicators are certainly important, the preoccupation with them simplifies the more profound changes in structures and attitudes we need if we intend to live within our ecological means. To do this we need to embrace a more profound environmentalism (often reflected in indigenous thought) that changes the entire human attitude towards nature. We need to reject the notion of nature as a passive storehouse of resources that we can use as fuel for our growth economy. We need to replace this passive notion of nature with a vitalist sense – still held by indigenous people and other folk – of a nature that is an active participant in sustaining life or, as we are learning at our peril, not sustaining it. We are learning that the earth is not inert and machine-like (as much enlightenment science from Descartes onwards would have it) but that Gaia bites back with extreme weather and inhospitable climate shifts. The central rule of our ecological survival is not all that dissimilar to that of much of human interaction: ‘What goes around comes around.’
Even in the worst-case scenario, where all we can do is adapt to climate deterioration, we need to work with the knowledge of natural cycles to be successful. We cannot build our dwellings on flood plains or exposed coastlines. Neither can we build homes or infrastructure in areas subject to landslides provoked by increased storm activity. Storm intensity threatens human habitation downstream from dam infrastructure and the huge tailings ponds associated with largescale mining projects. We cannot engage in the practices of deforestation that encourage wildfires. We need to be conscious of carefully managing local water sources and the most fertile of top soils. Those living downstream from melting glaciers will face an entirely new set of challenges. There are a whole host of baseline ecological practices that we need to adopt in order to survive, whatever the pace of temperature rise.
On a wider basis, preserving the means of our survival would require a move beyond such local deep adaptation. We need to stop our ecological overshoot, stop ransacking the earth of rapidly diminishing natural resources. This carries us into the choppy waters of competing states and multilateral negotiations. The globalized trade system is not serving us well. Neither is the endless search for stockholder value. We cannot continue to ‘mine’ the world’s fisheries using trawler technology that sweeps the ocean clean of marine life. We must rethink chemical meat-centred agriculture with its size and expensive inputs and globalized markets. We need to reconsider the stuff we produce and how we produce it. The carbon-intensive petrochemical industry with its endless flow of plastics (many single use) can no longer be a major source of the livelihood for hundreds of thousands of workers (many in China and the Global South). There is an urgency to all of this that is underlined by Jeremy Lent writing for resilience.org:
‘One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history [after the agricultural and industrial revolutions]: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.’
Is it too late for politics?
All the destructive power residing with the carbon-military complex demands a political challenge. But the notion that we face near-term societal collapse would probably make such a challenge unlikely. The doomster narrative is embedded in the idea that it is all too late because: 1) the tipping points and feedback loops have taken the decision out of human hands; and 2) the forces of the carbon economy and the cheerleaders of growth are just too powerful for any meaningful challenge. It seems at times that Bendell & Co. are also retreating from any kind of political struggle into a survivalist mode out of a distaste for the cynicism and betrayal that shape the world of political realism and pragmatism. Yet the degradation of the climate is so interwoven with the inequalities of growth capitalism and an autocratic state based on militarism and privileged racial exclusion that not challenging them feels a dereliction of duty.
So, is it too late? There is no right or wrong answer to this. One’s attitude here may vary depending to some degree on your position in the social order and personal inclinations towards pessimism or optimism. It may be the case that it has always been too late and that the human proclivity to try and dominate nature was there from the get-go. By this reckoning it is down to species DNA or God’s Will, depending on your philosophical proclivities.
In another sense the answer doesn’t seem to matter much. If we want to ensure our equitable survival, what we need to do doesn’t change whether it’s a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Differences will have more to do with the scale on which we operate – do we give up the big fights and pull back into small enclaves of possibility?
Still, we would have a better chance if we had a vision of how to organize society in a way that valued our ecological context rather than treating nature as a set of passive, free resources to be exploited to underpin an unsustainable consumer lifestyle. Many of the elements of such an alternative, based on equality and degrowth, are already in place as part of various versions of a Green New Deal to restart the human adventure as an ally of nature rather than its conqueror. The projects and the ideas associated with them have drawn a wide range of adherents from Andean Latin America to the fledgling décroissance (degrowth) movement centred mostly in Europe. But they spread far beyond identifiable social movements to a widespread unease, particularly among the young, with our growth obsession and where it is taking us.
It is not so hard to figure out the philosophical points of debarkation that any eco-socialist Green New Deal will need as a starting point. A championing of the local and a radical decentralization of human affairs for a start. Building from the local would allow a much more immediate appreciation of how to sustain ecological health. Another key is the rebirth of a vibrant commons in managing vital resources like forests, renewable energy, water and urban green spaces to replace the acquisitive regime of private property that the resource curse feeds off. Those who believe that new technologies alone can save us are in for a rude awakening. We need a much more significant rupture from the status quo. A tall order, but the stakes have never been higher.
Human frailty has seldom seemed so obvious, at least in modern times. These days we wear it on our sleeves. Whether we retreat into enclaves of deep adaptation or attempt to mount a political challenge to carbon capitalism, we are destined to be ‘put into our place’ as far as the natural cycles that sustain life on our planet are concerned. Again, it’s not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when’ and hopefully ‘how’.
1 Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, University of Chicago Press, 2021.