Brave new world – or dystopian wasteland? Visions from 2100

CT_tUVGUsAAIN8O.jpg-largeEver stop to ponder what kind of a world might await our
descendants by the end of this century? Irish-Australian entrepreneur and author, John O’Brien has spent more time than most gazing towards the year 2100 through the environmental prism. The fruits of his labours were published earlier this month in his book Visions 2100 – Stories From Your Future.

Visions assembled a panel of 80 environmental writers and thinkers from around the world and from a wide range of backgrounds, each of whom was asked to contribute a short précis of the kind of world they expected – or perhaps hoped – might come to pass at the beginning of the 22nd century.

Two Irish contributors were included – former president Mary Robinson and myself. In the introduction, writer Donella Meadows is quoted as follows: “Environmentalists have failed perhaps more than any other set of advocates to project vision. …The best goal most of us who work toward sustainability offer is the avoidance of catastrophe. We promise survival and not much more.”

Nobody could accuse Mrs Robinson of lacking in optimism. Her contribution to Visions reads as follows:

“My great-grandchildren share the world with over nine billion people; they truly share the planet. They know the reality of their interconnected dependence on their fellow human beings and therefore they respect each other and the planet.

The decisions my generation took in 2015, to set the course for transformative change for a safe world for future generations, have been realised.

So now, poverty is eradicated. Every child goes to school regardless of sex, race, religion or place of birth. Every woman enjoys equality with every man. Every household has access to energy; energy sourced from renewables that has enabled the development of nations, communities and families while protecting our planet.

In 2100, the world is just.”

Nothing would make me happier than to imagine that Mrs Robinson’s vision for a just, equitable future had come to pass. A future where the scourges of poverty and inequality have been eliminated, and 9 billion people have, in the space of eight decades, set aside everything we know about human nature for at least the last 10,000 years and somehow agreed to live in broad harmony with one another and with the ecological systems upon which all depend.

No evidence is advanced to support exactly how a cure was at last found for the human condition, but that is perhaps beyond the scope of such a short, hopeful, contribution. Cynics might dismiss the above as utopian. As philosopher Immanuel Kant put it: “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can ever be made.”

I’m still struggling with the notion that humanity might somehow compress 100 millennia of neurological evolution into less than a century. Maybe we will have moved beyond greed, egotism, status-seeking, paranoia, xenophobia, tribalism, religious hatred and toxic neoliberalism by then.

Maybe along the way we will also, somehow, have tip-toed through the ecological minefield of climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity collapse, freshwater depletion, resource exhaustion, desertification, deforestation – and a host of related systemic crises drawing ever closer as we move towards the second half of the second decade of the 21st century. Maybe.

Then again, maybe not. Here’s my slightly more dystopian take on the same assignment, entitled ‘The Age Of Madness’.

“First, the good news. Against the odds, we made it to 2100. Only fifty years ago it looked like it was game over for homo sapiens. It sounds crazy now, but back in my grandparents’ time they really did carry on for a while like there was no tomorrow: tearing down rainforests, flattening mountains, poisoning the seas, waging war on nature – all in pursuit of this strange idea they called ‘growth’.

There aren’t that many books now, but our teachers describe the Age of Madness, as it’s called, when the scientific community repeatedly warned that Earth systems were in extreme danger. But nobody listened, and few chose to act.

How could this have happened? Everyone, it seems, was competing with everyone else for money, resources, status. No one seemed to notice that this spree couldn’t last forever. Even the revelation back in 2015 that half of all the world’s wild animals had been wiped out failed to ring the alarm bells. And as for all the warnings about climate change, they always seemed to be about someone else, or some time in the future…

Well, that future is now. This generation has learned the hard lesson of hubris – and humility. There’s barely fifty million of us now globally. Life is tough, but we’re managing. This time, we’re keeping it simple. They say the Earth is healing, maybe they’re right. Maybe we can at last live in a world where, in the words of the poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme”.

Given the gloomier tenor of my piece, O’Brien initially planned to run it in the chapter covering ‘Fears’ but instead My contribution was included in Chapter 21, intriguingly entitled ‘The Journey To Letterfrack’. He explains it as follows:

“John Gibbons is an Irish journalist and environmental activist and he does not see “things going so well. His vision could easily sit with our pessimists in Chapter 5, but he is included here for a very specific reason. John has run a successful medical communications business for over twenty years and is a regular commentator in the Irish media on environmental issues, including a weekly environment column in The Irish Times between 2008 and 2010. John is a virulent critic of the media’s lack of responsibility in the reporting of climate change and this is why he is included in our chapter about setting off from here.

John’s vision includes more bad news than good news and he recalls the ‘Age of Madness’ where people decided not to act and not to listen to the scientists. Even the news, published in 2014 by WWF, that ‘half of all the world’s wild animals had been wiped out’ was not enough to gain attention. The fifty million survivors have experienced ‘hubris and humility’ and in their redesigned world, they are ‘keeping it simple’.

On his website, John sets out this position: ‘Like it or not, we live in the Era of Consequences. Neither ignorance nor cynicism is a defence. For those armed with the “the facts, doing nothing is no longer an option.’ This is our starting point. If you have read this far then, for you, ‘nothing is no longer an option’.

He views the media as a critical tool in enabling the community to gain a greater understanding of the problem and the ways we can resolve it. The media tells us that climate change does not sell and is not of interest to their audience. This challenge however may be due to a lack of imagination on the part of the media and those advocating action and is not a valid reason to omit meaningful coverage of a critical issue.”

Having considered the many contributions on the world of 2100, O’Brien, an unapologetic optimist, concludes with his own vision, which he calls ‘Free At Last!’:

“It is hard to believe that less than 100 years ago, organisations used to speak proudly of ‘human capital’ being its ‘best asset’ as if employees were property. Life is 2100 is far removed from this shortsighted approach.

Our natural and social capital are now also treated with more respect. The circular economy is in full swing. Everything is fully recyclable or able to be repurposed. Most things are shared.

The world is changed in other ways beyond recognition. The climate migrations and water wars changed what was valued and how the world was run. Lives are cherished with most people now focussed on building a better world and not running a ‘rat-race’. Our leaders succeed because of their authenticity. Complex societal problems are assigned to the Innovation and Creativity Programs at the many Complexity Institutes. Education is entirely based around systems thinking, common wealth and emotional comprehension. Medics better understand human physiology and can finally control chronic pain effectively.

Of course we still have problems. Human greed is still there and people abuse the system. Criminal convictions for Avarice are however starting to decline as the new global culture gets bedded down. Equity and justice remain primary concerns for our global authorities.

Humans have emerged from the chrysalis of the industrial revolution and are at last starting to reap the real benefits of progress. Our culture of sharing dreams and creating one’s own future has finally given people the freedom of being human – of being ‘Free at last!”

What I labelled ‘The Age Of Madness’, another contributor, Rohan Hamden, an Australian climate risk specialist, segued into ‘The Century of Awakening’, a century in which humanity awoke from its zombie-like consumerist trance. “It turned out that 99% of people just wanted to live happy and purposeful lives. Values they realised they shared with almost everyone on the planet. Democracies suddenly found they could not be elected on fear-based policies. Even autocracies found little support for hatred and protectionism.”

This Century of Awakening, he added, was: “the time when we finally shook off our fear of the natural world, and our fear of each other, and became the real stewards of the planet. Instead of cursing us for the world we left them, those born in the twenty-second century looked back and praised us for the peace and sustainability we had created”.

Hamden’s outline, though necessarily still sketchy, offers a bridge towards how the vision of humanity choosing, against the odds and evidence, to leave behind boom-and-bust and instead collectively opt to survive and thrive could, however improbably, come to pass. Maybe, just maybe.

I think the estimable Bill McKibben may have got it about right in this book when he wrote:

“Looking back on the century, the only real thought is: why didn’t we do this sooner? The technology we’re using – solar panels, windmills, and the like – were available in functional form a hundred years ago. But we treated them as novelties for a few decades – and it was in those decades that climate change gathered its final ferocity. Now we live in a low carbon world and it works just fine – except that there’s no way to refreeze the poles, or lower the sea level, or turn the temperature back down to a place where we can grow food with the ease of our ancestors. Timing is everything, and it hurts to think we blew it.”

It does indeed hurt to think we may have blown it, and blown it big time. There’s plenty to agree and even more to disagree with in the many voices assembled in Visions 2100, but it is undoubtedly a useful addition to the ever-expanding canon of books on the subject of the collision of human aspirations with the uncompromising realities of the physical world.

While the book has already had a number of launch events in Australia, its formal European debut takes place in Paris on December 5th next, right in the middle of COP21 – and since it doesn’t involve marching or placard-waving, I’m working on the assumption that the French authorities won’t be shutting it down.

All other things being equal, I look forward to joining John O’Brien and a good number of fellow contributors at the event. Along the way, I’m hoping to persuade them to come to Dublin in February/March of 2016 for a launch event here.

Visions 2100 can be bought from the iTunes Store at this link. It’s also available from Amazon, either as a paperback or Kindle download, at this link. It’s also on the Easons website at this link.

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“Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour are fast becoming the Laurel and Hardy of environmental regulation, with chaotic, contradictory and just plain wrong statements emanating from the government parties as they attempt to talk their way out of their shambolic non-position on tackling climate change.

Last week, Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes announced that ‘Ireland can meet 2020 emissions targets, according to the EU Commission’. Hayes claimed to have been told by EU Climate Commissioner Arias Canete that, allowing for flexibility mechanisms under EU rules, “Ireland is on course to meet its (2020) obligations”.

This statement may have come as a surprise to Commissioner Canete, whose actual report stated that while the EU overall would beat its 2020 emissions targets, “the report warned that Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg and Austria would miss the 2020 target”, according to Euractiv. Continue reading

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Microbeads – tiny pollutants with a fearsome impact

Below, my article, as it appears in the Sept/October 2015 edition of Village magazine:

THERE ARE some products, notably tobacco, that are only tolerated by dint of having been around for a very long time. These days, no one in their right might would expect to deliberately bring such a toxic product to the market in western countries and be allowed promote and sell it to the public.

Or so you would think. Back in the late 1990s, the product development team in a cosmetics company came up with a brilliantly simple – and cheap – solution for how to add texture to personal hygiene products, such as exfoliants.

Until then, the industry used natural materials, including dried coconut, crushed and finely ground walnut shells to add an abrasive touch to cosmetics. Continue reading

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We’re in a war with the Earth where no one wins

Below, my article, as it appears in the September edition of Forum, journal of the Irish College of General Practitioners

BY ALMOST any measure, climate change poses the greatest threat to human health and well being in the 21st century. An international scientific consensus attributes the same level of certainty that climate change is both extremely dangerous and primarily anthropogenic in origin as exists linking tobacco and a range of life-threatening conditions.

There are, of course, those who disagree. That a handful of historians continue to dispute that the Holocaust actually occurred, or that a tiny minority of doctors oppose all vaccinations hardly weakens the consensus evidence, accumulated over decades, supporting both the terrible reality of the Holocaust and the enormous health benefits that have flowed from vaccination programmes. Continue reading

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We mourn for Cecil while ignoring destruction of natural world

Below, my article, as it appears in this weekend’s Irish Times.

WITH modern technology and firepower, it takes little courage and even less skill to kill wild animals. This week US dentist and recreational ‘big game hunter’ Walter James Palmer found himself squarely in the crosshairs as an international controversy exploded over his casual slaughter of an iconic Zimbabwean lion known as Cecil.

Palmer had paid $50,000 for the privilege of killing a lion for ‘sport’, an activity that is technically legal in Zimbabwe. Cecil was, however, based in the protected Hwange National Park, but was lured out using bait and inexpertly shot by Palmer with a crossbow.

The semi-tame lion, which had been fitted with a GPS tracking device as part of a long-term Oxford University study, fled, wounded, and survived for 40 agonising hours as the weekend warrior and his guides stalked it across the savannah. Continue reading

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Challenging Ireland’s climate contrarian-in-chief

Back in May 2014, UCD meteorologist, Prof Ray Bates penned a heartfelt plea for continued inaction on climate change, under the lurid headline: ‘Warning of over-alarmist’ stance on climate risk’. It was a weak, poorly argued exercise in that most unscientific of pursuits, namely cherry-picking. The piece was duly taken apart on this blog and elsewhere.

The most comical aspect of Bates’ stirring call to climate inaction was that, as far as we could tell, the reason this scientist was demanding that we low-ball the real and rapidly accelerating risks from climate change was his passionate desire to ensure that the expansionist agenda of the Irish agricultural sector not be in any way constrained by such irksome burdens as our legally mandated requirements to cut GHG emissions in the near and medium term. What, you might ask, has exporting beef and milk powder got to do with climate science? Yes, precisely nothing.

As I wondered aloud at the time: “What I am curious to know is why Prof Bates – a meteorologist – spends so much time lobbying for agriculture, and much less time taking about the very real threats that climate change poses to us all – and that very much includes our agriculture sector”. Continue reading

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Francis speaks frankly on the crisis of civilisation

Below, text of my article that first appeared on last night, just ahead of the unveiling of the eagerly awaited Papal Encyclical. Thus far, it has been read over 48,000 times, with well over 1,000 shares via Facebook and solid pick-up on Twitter too. What this suggests is that, contrary to the prevailing view within our mainstream media, there is indeed a keen public appetite to be told the unvarnished truth about the unfolding climate and ecological crises.

Ironically, the last time the Irish Times published an article of mine, it attracted almost 700 online comments, and was the ‘most read’ article on for most of the day it was published. So, while the public wants journalism to be honest and forthright, editors remain fearful, uncertain, indifferent and distracted; this is masked, I suspect, by hard-boiled cynicism. Continue reading

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A Climate Bill that’s built to fail?

The confirmation earlier today that retired ESRI economist, Prof John FitzGerald has been given the plum job of chairing the Expert Advisory Council on Climate Change has hardly been greeted with universal applause.

The first question is what exactly qualifies FitzGerald for the gig? Many people were wondering the same thing last week regarding Patrick Neary, our one-time Financial Regulator, or The Dog That Didn’t Bark, as he is better known.

What’s the connection between Neary and FitzGerald, you may ask? Well, during his pitiful presentation on the multiple failings of his tenure as regulator, Neary was at pains to point out that while he was a humble civil servant doing a difficult task for which he was ill-equipped and with zero political backing, he took his cues from the real experts, specifically those highly polished top-drawer economists over at the ESRI. Continue reading

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Europe’s air pollution crisis brings climate reality close to home

Below, my article as it appears in this month’s Village magazine…

WHILE global pollution crises, from climate change to plastics in the oceans, are showing no signs of abating, the worst effects are, we in the ‘developed world’ are reassured to believe, clustered in poorer countries and distant ecosystems.

One of the many environmental paradoxes is that, while global ecological indexes are in freefall, we in the more prosperous parts of the world have never had it so good. The outsourcing of heavy industry from much of Europe and the US to the Far East over the last two decades has been a win-win for the west. The cost of manufactured goods plummeted thanks to the vast new pools of cheap labour, leading to the last decade and a half turning into greatest shopping spree in human history.

While we shopped, they dropped. China today burns nearly half the world’s coal. Air pollution is now so severe that Chinese scientists have described its effects as being akin to a nuclear winter, with photosynthesis in plants being disrupted – potentially wreaking havoc on China’s food supply. A 2104 report from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences stated that that Beijing’s pollution levels made the city “almost uninhabitable for human beings”. Continue reading

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Guardian seeks to rouse media from its climate torpor

Below is my article as it appears in the current edition of Village magazine:

THERE is nothing new about newspapers striking poses over climate change. On December 7th, 2009, some 55 major newspapers from all over the world (including the Irish Times) ran a joint editorial just ahead of the opening of the Copenhagen UN climate conference.

Who could forget the dramatic call to arms from some of the world’s most respected newspapers, which began: “humanity faces a profound emergency”.

“Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting… In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.

“Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness. The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.” Continue reading

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An economic analysis that just doesn’t add up

I was pleased to spot economist Prof John Fitzgerald among the audience at the recent EPA lecture in the Mansion House, Dublin, presented by Prof Myles Allen. As it transpires, Fitzgerald was doing some field work for an opinion article that appeared in the business section of the Irish Times earlier this week, under the headline: ‘Solution to global warming is technology’ (authors rarely get to write the headline, so we won’t hold that one against him).

This is one of only a handful of articles the otherwise prolific Fitzgerald has dedicated to the topic of climate change. It is always welcome to see a senior Irish economist to turn his quill to this vast, challenging topic (two fairly strong critiques of Fitzgerald’s piece, by Profs Barry McMullin and John Sweeney appeared in the Letters Page a week after publication)

To be fair, it started well enough, with phrases such as: “If urgent action is not taken the world’s climate will get worse at an accelerated pace”. That’s as good as it gets, alas. “Governments rarely choose to go to their electorates and tell them they are going to make life more expensive and that there will be no go financial reward for their pain” is how Fitzgerald sums up moves to address climate change. Continue reading

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sceptics | 13 Comments

Come back, Liz McManus – your country needs you!

In case you haven’t heard, our current Minister for the Environment is a Labour party TD called Alan Kelly. He is the man who brought us the no-lobbyist-left-behind Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015, a piece of draft legislation that has been warmly welcomed by the IFA, ICOS, IBEC, etc., i.e. by the folks who have worked tirelessly over the last several years to ensure that no meaningful climate legislation ever found its way onto our statute books. In that regard, the Climate Bill looks like ‘Mission Accomplished’.

Kelly was interviewed by Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio yesterday. It was, in a sense, revealing. Kelly is “a person of conviction”, we learned. We know this because he told us he was. We also learned that Kelly’s proudest boast is that Ireland has the “highest growth rate in Europe” (again), and that he pursues what he calls a “progressive agenda”. Kelly is also deputy leader of the Labour party, therefore the proverbial heartbeat from being Tánaiste.

To wind him up a bit, O’Rourke played a clip of former minister, Eamon Ryan describing Kelly as “an anti-green Minister for the Environment…he reads the political tea leaves and sees there isn’t a constituency (in tackling climate change)”. Ryan went on to describe Kelly as “our greatest electoral asset, every time he goes out, he saying Labour doesn’t give a damn about that vision of the future”. Continue reading

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Breaching our planetary boundaries, one by one

Below, my article, as it will appear in the latest Village magazine:

BACK IN 2009, some months before the ill-fated UN climate conference in Copenhagen, an Earth system framework was proposed by an international collaboration of environmental scientists. Their aim was to establish a measurable set of ‘planetary boundaries’ with a view to identifying a “safe operating space” for humanity.

The research team, involving scientists from a range of disciplines, developed a set of nine key boundaries, beyond which lay the risks of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”. In January 2015, the team published an in-depth update on their investigations in the journal Science, and it was discussed in depth at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos. The findings took even seasoned environmental commentators and observers by surprise.

The paper confirmed that humanity has already breached four of the nine key boundaries, namely biodiversity loss, deforestation, atmospheric CO2 levels and the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus used in agriculture into the world’s waterways and oceans. Continue reading

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Milking the (climate) system, Irish-style

Below, article as it appears in the current edition of ‘Village’ magazine. (I co-authored this piece with Paul Price).

“IT IS DIFFICULT to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. Novelist Upton Sinclair’s famous observation could well have been describing Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, a rare ambitious and ascending star on an otherwise jaded Fine Gael front bench.

Coveney’s understanding of the most basic of scientific facts will clearly not encumber his possible trajectory towards the goal of being Cork’s first Taoiseach since Jack Lynch. So, when Coveney appeared on a recent edition of RTE’s PrimeTime, only the thinnest of smiles betrayed the fact that he was selling a series of fat porkies on national television.

Coveney’s claim that the Irish dairy herd could be expanded by over 300,000 cows in the next five years “while maintaining the existing carbon footprint of the agriculture sector” is, he must well know, nonsensical.  To defend it, he engaged in some unconvincing waffle about higher yields per animal somehow magically offsetting the massive increase in our national herd. Continue reading

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The Dream (A Fantasy at Christmas)

It was still dark when Enda Kenny fell awake from a fitful sleep. He rose unsteadily, exhausted, almost stumbling as he made his way to the bathroom. With the light on, he noticed his pyjamas were almost completely soaked in sweat; beads clung to his forehead and over his upper lip. He washed his face, changed his clothing and sat silently in near-darkness in the kitchen for around twenty minutes.

“Jesus H. Christ”, he muttered almost inaudibly, his thoughts interrupted by the ring of his mobile phone. It was Leo Varadkar. “Sorry boss to call so early, but there’s something really strange going on. My phone has been ringing since just after six am. People are freaking out”, said the Health Minister. “Slow down Leo, for feck’s sake”, said Kenny. “Who’s freaking out, what’s this about?” Continue reading

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