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 . . .

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future”

I have, as per my demographic and political / cultural leanings, been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate novels since he started writing them. But I’ve never been moved to review one before The Ministry For the Future.

Read this book, and not just because it imagines a successful path forward. Read it because it does so without down-playing the climate danger, and because it holds the vision of a “post capitalist” world in proper equipoise with the defining necessities of crash decarbonization. Robinson may be just a wee bit optimistic about the manageability of the climate system tipping cascades that now seem to be on the horizon, but in the context of this book, I think this is OK. When you’re done with the opening scene, you will not feel moved to claim that the arc of The Ministry is in any way based on soft-pedaling.

This is not a proper review. Just three points.

1) Read this book, particularly if you’ve been underwhelmed by “Climate Fiction”. In this regard, note this recent opinion piece on Cli Fi. I cite it because it’s erudite in a useful sort of way, and because it gives me a chance to suggest you might be better off reading The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh’s non-fiction book on the challenge the climate crisis poses to literature, than Gun Island, the Ghosh novel it cites and discusses.  And because, when it comes to Robinson’s work, it references only New York 2140, which allows me to quickly opine that The Ministry is a more important book.

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Climate Change is not World War

I am no fan of Roy Scranton’s 2015 book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (which sported the fashionably dark subtitle “Reflections on the End of Civilization.”) But, as Bob Dylan says, Things have Changed. At least a bit. Scranton’s still doggedly dark, but these days his lessons are more useful. 

In mid-September, just before Climate Week in Manhattan’s UN districts, he published an excellent piece in the Times under the title Climate Change is not World War. It should be required reading, especially by those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of incanting the phrase “World War Style Mobilization” when talking about what a true climate mobilization would be like. As if it would somehow be win / win all the way down the line:

Here’s a sample:

“[M]uch of this rhetoric involves little or no understanding of what national mobilization actually meant for Americans living through World War II. As a result, the sacrifices and struggles of the 1940s have begun to seem like a romantic story of collective heroism, when they were in fact a time of rage, fear, grief and social disorder. Countless Americans experienced firsthand the terror and excitement of mortal violence, and nearly everyone saw himself caught up in an existential struggle for the future of the planet.”

Here’s another

“[M]obilization during World War II was a national mobilization against foreign enemies, while what’s required today is a global mobilization against an international economic system: carbon-fueled capitalism. It took President Franklin D. Roosevelt years of political groundwork and a foreign attack to get the United States into World War II. What kind of work over how many years would it take to unify and mobilize the entire industrialized world — against itself?”

Here’s a third:

“Finally, national climate mobilization would have cascading unforeseen consequences, perhaps even contradicting its original goals, just like America’s total mobilization during World War II. Looking at the myriad ways that World War II changed America, for better and worse, suggests that it’s difficult to know in advance the ramifications of such a sweeping agenda. “

There’s more, and not saying I agree with all of it. In particular, I think  anything like a true climate mobilization would have to be accompanied by a profound turn towards economic justice, which I’m betting Mr. Scranton would consider naive. But if we want to be tough minded about the realities we’re now facing, and it seems we do, there are insights here that have to be reckoned with. 

This is not going to be easy. 

Great Transitions roundtable on Global Capitalism

The Great Transition Initiative, of which I am a member, just held a roundtable debate of an interesting new paper by William I. Robinson called Global Capitalism: Reflections on a Brave New World.

It’s an interesting paper, by a smart guy, about the current state of the capitalist world system. The roundtable is here, and at it you will find my comments, the whole of which are here.  The key general interest bit, which is to say my view on the Big Question of climate and capitalism, is as follows:

“The real question is if a properly constituted transformational movement, working within the rolling crisis that is now our certain future, can help to shape a new form of capitalism that is capable, minimally, of making an extremely rapid transition to an essentially zero-carbon economy. Does this require “ecosocialism”? Yes, I think so. But at the same time, I fear that many people will read the word to denote something that is already beyond capitalism. The problem is that, once you have reached such a conclusion, you really are done. Your only paths forward from there are optimism (which is increasingly a form of denial) and despair. If, on the other hand, you want honest hope and strategic thinking, you have to start by asking what, exactly, we are going to do to leverage the immense disruption that is now on the horizon, and drive towards a crash program of global decarbonization that is fair enough to actually succeed.

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This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

This review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was first published in the Earth Island Journal, here.  See this notice on Klein’s own site. 

The first thing to say about Naomi’s Klein’s latest book is that its title makes a grand promise — This Changes Everything – and that’s before you even get to the subtitle, which sets up a face-off between capitalism on one side and the climate on the other. The second thing to say is that no single book could ever meet such a promise. Klein, with careful aplomb, does not attempt to do so. Rather, she offers a tour of the horizon upon which we will meet our fates. Or, rather, the horizon upon which we will attempt to change them.

book cover thumbnail

In the face of such huge topics, Klein’s strategy is a practical one. She defers the problem of capitalism-in-itself (as German philosophers used to call it) and focuses instead on our era’s particular type of capitalism – the neoliberal capitalism of boundless privatization and deregulation, of markets-über-alles ideology and oligarchic billionaires. Her central argument is not (as some have insisted) that capitalism has to go before we can begin to save ourselves, but rather that we’re going to have to get past neoliberalism if we want to face the greater challenges. Klein writes:

Some say there is no time for this transformation; the crisis is too pressing and the clock is ticking. I agree that it would be reckless to claim that the only solution to this crisis is to revolutionize our economy and revamp our worldview from the bottom up – and anything short of that is not worth doing. There are all kinds of measures that would lower emissions substantively that could and should be done right now. But we aren’t taking those measures, are we?

At the outset Klein asks the obvious question: Why haven’t we, in the face of existential danger, mobilized to lower emissions? There are lots of reasons, but one stands above all others. We have not mobilized because “market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.” In other words the climate crisis came with spectacularly “bad timing.” The severity of the danger became clear at the very time when “there-is-no-alternative” capitalism was rising to ideological triumph, foreclosing the exact remedies (long-term planning, stricter government regulation, collective action) that could address the crisis. It’s a crucial insight, and it alone justifies the price of admission.

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