Any lingering sense, however slight, that humanity could shake itself from its collective somnambulation in time to arrest the coming twin ecological and resource catastrophes was finally snuffed out this month in Durban.
Here, the nations of the world in essence agreed to defer commencing discussions to frame a roadmap leading to some more discussions that would begin as a matter of the greatest urgency…sometime in the next seven or eight years. Unless of course there is a Republican back in the White House in the coming years, or the Chinese, Indians or Indonesians decide that Kyoto, or son-of-Kyoto is definitely not for ‘developing’ nations.
And on and on the farce goes. Canada’s Environment Minister, Peter Kent explained earlier today that “Kyoto is not the path forward for a global solution for climate change’”. The alternate path proposed by the right-wing government led by Stephen Harper is to ape the Bush-era US position of making vague promises about future commitments, then walking away when these mean actually confronting the issue of limiting carbon emissions.
Canada has had an extraordinary backwards voyage over the last decade or so, from being vocal proponents of strong actions to limit climate-wrecking carbon emissions to joining the ranks of the energy industry’s most vociferous glove puppets.
What changed Canada so utterly was its decision to intensively exploit the massive Athabasca tar sands for oil production. This at a stroke made Canada global player in the energy market, with proven reserves of ‘unconventional’ (i.e. incredibly filthy) oil greater than Saudi Arabia. The IEA estimates Canada to have 178 billion barrels of recoverable oil buried beneath over 140,000 sq km of once-pristine boreal forests and peat bogs. All the wishful thinking and earnest diplomacy in the world will not alter the simple fact that this oil will be extracted and it will be burned, and let the devil take the hindmost.
The reason I labour the obvious is this: the time for optimism has passed. In truth, that light did not go out in Durban; it has in fact been in a death spiral for decades. It’s almost 20 years since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. The 27 Principles enunciated in the ‘Rio Declaration’ and signed up to by the nations of the world read, in hindsight, like an elaborate prank. Sustainable development, ecosystem protection, poverty eradication, compensation for victims of pollution… the list goes on and on.
The section dealing with the precautionary principle is worth repeating (Principle 15): “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
I nearly skipped past Principle 8: “To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies”.
If you harbour any remaining doubt as to the capacity of the world’s political leadership to talk pious claptrap, even in the face of imminent disaster, the Rio Declaration is as good a place as any to revisit.
“When faced with a predicament, seeking a solution isn’t just a useless thing to do; it is the wrong thing to do”. So argues Chris Martenson, author of ‘The Crash Course’. “Critical time and resources should be devoted to managing the outcome, not trying to do the impossible…by failing to appreciate the nature of our collective predicament, we place ourselves at greater risk, because the longer we dither, less time and fewer options remain”.
Lest this sounds defeatist, let me put it in an oh-so-familiar analogy: you’re on a luxury liner in mid-ocean. It hits a large object, and is badly damaged, but remains afloat, though there are reports of some flooding in the distant lower decks. The ashen-faced chief engineer reports that the ship will in fact sink, even though it may take several hours.
He is rounded on by the drunken financiers and economists at the bar. “Look around you, man, everything’s fine. This ship is too big to fail. Besides, what if you’re wrong, and you frighten all these good people for nothing. Besides, it’s bloody freezing outside, and I’ll be dammed if you think I’m getting into one of those rickety lifeboats…”
To save lives, they must abandon ship. To save lives, we must first abandon hope, for it is hope that is the enemy of resolve, holding out the chimera of ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’ fixes to a fathomless predicament we have, clinging to the guard rails of hope, mistaken for a series of manageable problems.
If only. If only most economists weren’t ideologically blinkered morons (“anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist” – Kenneth Boulding, 1933).
If only governments didn’t consist of spineless politicians badly advised by careerist civil servants and beholden to special interest groups and corporate cash. If only gross income inequality wasn’t so especially toxic to society (“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics” – Plutarch (46-120 CE).
“It could be said that we (in the developed world) all live like kings, but truthfully, even the wealthiest king of times past couldn’t click on a link, order an item made halfway around the world and have it in his hands the next day”, writes Martenson. “That ability is something the ancient Greeks would have recognised as the power of a god, and so it is”.
The folks at Feasta, the Dublin-based foundation for the economics of sustainability draw their analogy not from Greek but rather ancient Roman tragedy. The fruits of much of their recent labour have been drawn together in a powerful volume entitled ‘Fleeing Vesuvius – overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse’.
The Vesuvius analogy is apt. The volume would have sounded rather odd if instead it were titled: ‘Stopping Vesuvius Erupting In the First Place’, since any rational analysis would quickly realise the folly of such an undertaking. And so it is with industrial civilisation. We cannot alter its trajectory in any meaningful way. We can however, make some pretty accurate estimates about that trajectory, if we choose to be guided by the abundant available scientific knowledge.
I wrote about a Feasta paper, ‘Tipping Points’ in the Irish Times in April 2010 and found myself quite convinced by author David Korowicz (his chapter on energy in ‘Vesuvius’ is equally compelling). As I read and re-read ‘Crash Course’, Korowicz’s words about industrial civilisation being propelled along by an ever-expanding consumption of readily available, easily affordable high grade (i.e. fossil) energy were ringing in my ears.
What both sources have in common is the belief that the unravelling of our wholly unsustainable exponential debt-based global economic system is likely to be the trigger factor that sets of the shock waves of cascading failures that ripple, then tear apart, the fabric of a system that is both unknowably complex and self-organising.
“What we now require is rapid emergency planning coupled with a plan for longer term adaptation,” counsels Korowicz. It has been one hell of a ride, but the fact remains that this pleasure cruise is over. It’s time to let go of the comfort blanket of false hope and instead make our way, with great reluctance and resolve, towards the lifeboats, while there is still some time, and while relative calm still prevails.
Adjusting to this predicament is counterintuitive; the temptation to continue trying to wish and will this away is overwhelming but, as I’ve argued here, both unhelpful and futile. Once you accept that the coming storm cannot be headed off, then you start planning to seek shelter and learn to survive the storm and its aftermath, in the best way you can, ideally in the company of other ‘early accepters’.
The fact that I desperately want to be wrong about all this only reinforces my conviction that no, this is indeed how it is. Psychologist John Sharry, also writing in Vesuvius, put it thus: “when we consider the scale of the problems we face, it is easy to retreat into denial or wishful thinking or feel despair, helplessness or hopelessness about change”.
Sharry offers us ‘the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will’ in confronting what lies ahead. It’s not a bad way of squaring up otherwise crippling contradictions. “When we take collective, concrete and constructive action, in the process we generate hope and a sense of movement and possibility.” This can also, Sharry concludes, “counterbalance the cynicism, despair and inaction that could hobble the next generation”.
The hour is late, the road ahead unmapped and uncertain. Let us begin.