Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’ — and a few responses

“Telling the Truth,” as per Extinction Rebellion’s first rule, turns out to be a bit complicated.  It’s easy to tell the “We’re probably fucked” part of the story. The hard part is imagining a way forward.

Back in January, a group of 17 ecologists and environmental scientists — prominently including Paul Ehrlich — published Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

It’s a must read, and a grim one. And can’t hope to improve on the summary ecologist Carl Safina gave in Yale Environment 360 when he said that it reads “reads less as an argument than as a rain of asteroids encountered in the course of flying blind on a lethal trajectory,” or his summary of its findings, which only begin with biodiversity loss. Here (minus the links) is a sample:

“Major changes in the biosphere are directly linked to the growth of human systems. While the rapid loss of species and populations differs regionally in intensity, and most species have not been adequately assessed for extinction risk, certain global trends are obvious. Since the start of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, the biomass of terrestrial vegetation has been halved , with a corresponding loss of >20% of its original biodiversity, together denoting that >70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by Homo sapiens . There have been >700 documented vertebrate and ~600 plant species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more species clearly having gone extinct unrecorded . Population sizes of vertebrate species that have been monitored across years have declined by an average of 68% over the last five decades, with certain population clusters in extreme decline , thus presaging the imminent extinction of their species . Overall, perhaps 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the near future out of an estimated 7–10 million eukaryotic species on the planet, with around 40% of plants alone considered endangered . Today, the global biomass of wild mammals is <25% of that estimated for the Late Pleistocene , while insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions.”

But I’m not writing to ask you to read the “ghastly” paper. I’m writing to ask you to read it, and then to read Safina’s review of it, and then to read Notes from a 1.2C world, a response the emerging critic Laurie Laybourn-Langton wrote of it, and my own response, below, though with the stipulation that is an it’s an “insider” document I wrote to the folks at The Omega Network after attending the webinar they organized to discuss it. And I’m asking you, after doing all this reading, to up your game.

What’s the problem? That this paper, brilliant though it is in describing the deterioration of our planetary home, it is not equally brilliant when it comes to helping us work out how to respond. Which was to be expected back in the old days, but this is 2021 — the eye of the storm — and the second wind is approaching, and what matters now is what we’re going to do.

Not that Ghastly’s description of the problem is bad . . .

“Simultaneous with population growth, humanity’s consumption as a fraction of Earth’s regenerative capacity has grown from ~ 73% in 1960 to 170% in 2016, with substantially greater per-person consumption in countries with highest income. With COVID-19, this overshoot dropped to 56% above Earth’s regenerative capacity, which means that between January and August 2020, humanity consumed as much as Earth can renew in the entire year. While inequality among people and countries remains staggering, the global middle class has grown rapidly and exceeded half the human population by 2018 . Over 70% of all people currently live in countries that run a biocapacity deficit while also having less than world-average income, excluding them from compensating their biocapacity deficit through purchases and eroding future resilience via reduced food security. The consumption rates of high-income countries continue to be substantially higher than low-income countries, with many of the latter even experiencing declines in per-capita footprint. “

. . . but there is nothing about why all this is happening. Do note that the paper ends with a call to . . .

“experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges ahead and ‘tell it like it is.’ Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.”

. . . but the fact is that the biological sciences simply don’t give us the tools we need to get out of here.

In fairness, the authors tell us that . . .

“The gravity of the situation requires fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, which include inter alia the abolition of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing externalities, a rapid exit from fossil-fuel use, strict regulation of markets and property acquisition, reigning in corporate lobbying, and the empowerment of women. These choices will necessarily entail difficult conversations about population growth and the necessity of dwindling but more equitable standards of living.”

I should have read that more charitably, but having just seen . . .

“Even the USA’s much-touted New Green Deal has in fact exacerbated the country’s political polarization, mainly because of the weaponization of ‘environmentalism’ as a political ideology rather than being viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation and planetary protection that ought to transcend political tribalism”

. . . I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable. Nor did reading Safina’s review change my mind, for unlike Ghastly’s authors, he reverts to a classic populationist frame. . .

“Population growth causes crowding, joblessness, friction, and conflict. Managing the heat of friction as population grows and the economy is under pressure to keep up makes it more difficult to cool it. It becomes less likely that leaders will recognize cooling, rather than fueling, as the more urgent need. This is evident as near-universal policies focus on getting “more” — more food for more people, for instance, rather than easing the crises by policies incentivizing population flattening and de-growth.”

. . . that, just for the record, Ehrlich abandoned long ago.

The dangers here are many, and include not only populationism but also “apocalyptic fatalism”. See below (my public letter to the Omega folks) for more on that.

Tom Athanasiou


Public letter to Omega

Dear Omega;

First, this is a note of appreciation.  The Ghastly paper (Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future) is quite a piece of work, and your webinar did a good job of framing it.  It got me to read the paper closely, rather than just skimming it, which is a lot to say these days.

Second, this isn’t a comment on the paper itself, but rather on its framing, and on the webinar and what I saw in it, and what I didn’t see.  This might seem unfair, but I don’t believe it is.  I’m a full time climate justice policy activist, and have a particular interest in environmental despair.  Thus, I found the political / cultural milieu Omega presented during the webinar to be as interesting as the Ghastly paper itself. 

Alas, my comments are less than enthusiastic. 

To be clear, I don’t contest the overall argument of the paper.  Its authors gathered together a mountain of data and citations and, modulo a few quibbles, I found it persuasive.  But I can’t say the same about the “Underestimating the Challenges” framing.  I do take the point, but would argue that the days when scientific reticence was a defining problem (say 2007, when Jim Hansen published Scientific reticence and sea level rise) have decisively passed.  The IPCC’s recent special report on Global Warming of 1.5C is a fine example, and an excellent marker of the shift.  Its warnings were taken very seriously; indeed they landed like bombs.  There’s a lot to say here, but my basic point is that we no longer live in a world where the systematic underestimation of environmental risk is taken seriously.  The positive attention the Ghastly paper received may itself be evidence of this.  Also note Thomas Homer-Dixon’s “Fighting a Scarcity of Hope” chapter in his Commanding Hope—I mention this because he was featured in another of your recent webinars, and he seems to agree that such a shift has taken place.  He dates it back to 2015. 

I should say that I’m deliberately ignoring the epistemological nihilism of Trump and his people.  What I’m rather talking about is the danger that many reasonable folks – who live in a reality-based world but have resisted acknowledging that we’re now facing a true emergency, in terms of, say, wanting to balance their concern with environmental destruction with their desire to just get on with their lives – are now admitting to themselves that things are worse than they’d thought.  But rather than pivoting to any kind of positive activism, they’re turning to despair and (I’ve stolen the term from one Lajos Brons) “apocalyptic fatalism”.  More succinctly, they’re going directly from denial to despair. 

My precise claim is that as denialism has been generalized (Paul Krugman: “A party starts out complaining that taxes are too high; after a while it begins claiming that climate change is a giant hoax; it ends up believing that all Democrats are Satanist pedophiles.”) despair has become the defining mood, the lurking presence, the specific danger.  This mood was evident at your webinar, in the presentations and especially in the chat stream, wherein I read a good bit of fatalism, apocalyptic and otherwise.  I didn’t see Jonathan Franzen in the audience, but he was there in spirit. 

Is “underestimating” still the defining problem?  I don’t think so.  I’m sure there’s still an optimism bias, but my sense is that even the solar revolution people, who these days aggressively present as being quite optimistic, tend to see their optimism as strategic.  They think it will help open doors and create a sense of new possibilities, and I think they’re right, or at least that they could be.  This is an important and challenging point, particularly for those of us who have long been critical of techno-optimism.  But given that the dogs of fascism are again in the streets, I don’t think this is something to be blithely dismissive of. 

In any case, it didn’t seem to me that the folks at your webinar needed to be told how bad things are.  What they very much did need was help believing, visualizing, and creating, an alternative to fatalism that does not soft-pedal the science.  And I don’t believe they got what they needed. 

The real question—as any young climate activist will tell you—is “What are we’re going to do”?  In that regard, I was quite alienated by a bit of snide webinar chat about the Green New Deal (someone called it a “big can kicking fest”).  And there was also something worse, as I recall.  Something reminiscent of Rees’s aggressively tone-deaf reference to “humanity’s plague phase”.  I got the impression of a sprawling, sometimes incoherent community that prides itself on its hard-nosed refusal to believe that any future in which we’re not doomed to the ghastly is still actually possible. 

Such a certainty is absolutely self-defeating.  At the domestic level, the Green New Deal is the most promising organizing framework we’ve had in a very long time, and at the international level, the climate justice movement is working hard to develop a new politics of radical inclusion and fair shares.  At your webinar, catching a glimpse of a very different milieu in which goals like inclusive justice and sustainability are supported in the abstract, but also dismissed as pointless and delusional . . .  Well, let’s just say the combination struck me as being unhealthy, if not twisted.   

One obvious step forward would be to clarify the distinction between apocalyptic fatalism and humanistic, science-based warnings.  It seems to me that they tend to run together, including in Northern California circles, and that the resulting blur does not at all serve our purposes.  Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the bearers of (scientific) bad news should go out of their way to *explicitly* distance themselves from the voices of misanthropy and apocalyptic fatalism, whether they be in the audience or in their own heads.  This means, among much else, a commitment to greater precision when it comes to teasing apart the impacts of population and consumption.  The consumption of the rich has reached altogether exterminist levels, and I propose a moratorium on references to “growth” than do not spotlight this fact. 

We only need two things to save ourselves and our civilization.  The first is a grand green-technology revolution, though as noted above, this is challenging to discuss in a disciplined manner because the tech we need is actually showing up, and we absolutely must embrace it, but it’s hard to do so without flirting, or appearing to flirt, with techno-optimism.  The second is a high-trust, high-cooperation world and this (and not technology) is our great challenge.  I’m not going to go off on this in any detail, but I will note that no highly cooperative world is possible at today’s levels of extreme inequality, and that unless our political projects center this rather obvious fact they are going to fail.  Deservedly. 

Anyway, that’s about it.  I’ll stop now, though I do want to repeat my core point, which is that environmental despair is now a greater danger than optimism.  More pointedly, we need a positive transition story we can actually believe, and it seems we’re going to have to cut away a bit of dross it reveal it.  I’d particularly like to see an end to suggestions, like that made by Nate Hagens, that “massive money creation by governments” would, ipso facto, be part of the problem.  Just the contrary is true.  We’re going to need a good deal of creative financing if we honestly intend to find a way forward, just as we’ll need international mobilization and hefty wealth taxes.  These are challenging topics that need real time in the spotlight.  If we can’t handle them, we had best step aside and let the justice-first stories of the young take the stage.