To save lives, we must first abandon hope

Below, my article, as it appears in the latest edition of ‘Village’ magazine:

Is it a biscuit? Or is it a bar? Does the convergence of a range of environmental, energy and resource crises compound a problem – or a predicament? The question is neither trite nor trivial.

For the last several decades, environmentalists and scientists alike have attempted to frame our ever-intensifying ecological crises in terms of problems that, with a combination of better technology and increased efficiency, could be managed successfully. Hence the oxymoronic ‘green growth’ and ‘sustainable development’.

Self-help books along the lines of ’50 ways to save the planet’ sell alongside volumes on everything from homeopathy and astrology. As long as we define our existential crux in terms of a series of problems that can be managed, this is a perfectly rational approach.

In a crisis, being able to distinguish between a problem and a predicament can mean the difference between life and death. In simple terms, problems have solutions, predicaments have outcomes.

“When faced with a predicament, seeking a solution isn’t just a useless thing to do; it is the wrong thing to do”, 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”.

The recent sinking of the Costa Concordia is a case in point. The failure of the captain and senior crew to recognise their predicament (i.e. this ship has a giant hole in it) led to fatal delays in evacuating the vessel. Time that might have been spent getting people to safety was instead frittered away in fruitless discussions between the ship’s crew and its owners. Given the botched evacuation, had this disaster happened further from the shore, the death toll could have run into thousands.

All of which brings us to where we now find ourselves. Unsurprisingly, the world has arrived at precisely the position projected by scientists as far back as the late 1950s, but subsequently established beyond any reasonable doubt: Earth is being rapidly forced into a new, hotter, state.

A massive energy imbalance has been accumulating for decades, like a giant rubber band being stretched ever further. System inertia means that, in the shorter terms, these effects are dampened. At a certain point, however, the system either snaps entirely or recoils with a wallop. When that precise moment will occur is impossible to predict; that it will occur is a mathematical certainty.

What that will mean for those of us living in the era of environmental consequences is difficult to predict accurately; we do know it will be deeply unpleasant and quite irreversible. The fuse that is lit and is now fizzing towards the keg is atmospheric CO2. When instrumental measurement of global atmospheric carbon dioxide began back in 1958, CO2 levels stood at 315 parts per million (ppm). By 2011, levels had climbed to 392ppm – that’s an astonishing 25 per cent rise in a little over 50 years. In Earth’s history, only rare events on the scale of meteor impact have so profoundly altered the composition of the atmosphere in such a short timescale.

These CO2 levels are now higher than at any time in at least the last three million years, and the needle is climbing fast.

On the other hand, the freight train that is industrial civilisation needs to run at ever-increasing speeds, burning ever more resources and spewing out ever more pollution – simply to stave off economic collapse. That’s the predicament. All the wishful green thinking and lightbulb-changing in the world counts for naught when set against these realities.

This April marks the centenary of another famous sinking, that of RMS ‘Titanic’ in 1912. It remains a potent metaphor for hubris and nemesis, and an apposite reminder of the hazards of melting ice.

In that disaster, to save lives, passengers and crew alike had first accept the painful fact of their predicament, and then abandon ship. To save lives, we must first abandon hope, for hope is the mortal enemy of resolve, holding out the chimera of easy fixes to our fathomless predicament.

The battle to ‘save the environment’ has ended. The long campaign to save our own skins has now begun in earnest.

John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator and is online at Twitter: @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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5 Responses to To save lives, we must first abandon hope

  1. Econroy says:

    Very good article, John. Like you I’m not sure what we mean by green growth and sustainable development. Everything in society is geared to economic growth and increased consumption. When I read that oil finds off our coasts are good news, that farmers can massively increase meat production in new CAP and fishermen should aspire to catching more fish etc.I despair if we will ever resolve the crisis of climate change and resource depletion. Climate change is with us now and all I hear is pleasure at the unseasonable weather this week. Nobody is tumbling to the bigger picture, despite clear warnings from thousands of scientists and commentators like you. Therefore I’m quite despondent that we will ever address the issue head-on in a timely manner.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks Eric, feedback appreciated, as always. I’m afraid the die is cast in terms of humanity’s very limited ability to stand back and perceive the true nature of the sustainability and climate crises coming down the line. And even for those who do, the awareness of just how deep trouble we’re in can be paralysing. Resolving this crux would take all the nations and peoples of the world coming together to act unselfishly to address an existential planetary crisis. Nothing like that has ever happened before. What are the odds this time?

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Good point, Jo16, you really got me there…. followed link back to your website, and was interested, though unsurprised, to see the the Holy Bible informs your, er, insights into climate science. Personally, I find said old book more than a little worrying, especially when it repeatedly commends, among other things: slavery, torture, murder, rape, incest, mass slaughter, indiscriminate vengeance, the murder of ‘witches’ (i.e. women) and a whole host of other Iron Age nonsense. But don’t let me put gobbledygook in your mouth, when your website (short, weird extract below) does such a good job for you:

     “This website aims to show that climate change, despite the claims of advocates, is not anything new. The Bible states clearly that ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). The climate system did not just, evolve, is not just a glorified accident. It was spoken into existence by God. Even those with a simple grasp of Scripture understand this. As Creator, therefore, God can be trusted to take care of this planet. Colossians 1:17 states ‘And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist’. Despite the views of extremists like Al Gore, the climate is not an inconvenience, because it is the product of a holy God. Evidence has shown that the earth has warmed and cooled before, at times even warmer than the current temperatures. If man cannot control the climate, he declares the climate out of control. But God is in control of the Climate. Genesis 8:22 states ‘While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease’. Every 12 months the summer and winter come around. Day and night religiously follow a set pattern. Here we see the perfection of God’s Creation. By Him all things are kept together.Our climate is simply not out of control, but following the divine order in which it was created. Of course man does have a tiny effect on the CO 2 concentration in our atmosphere, but this concentration is ridiculously small for all the attention it gets. Don’t be duped by media programming – The Climate system is maintained by the Almighty God who created it.  He controls all things.”

    Amen and hallelujah Jo16 – see you in Hell! (or is it Purgatory. Or Limbo? Hard to keep up, they keep changing the makey-uppy rules)

  4. Mícheál says:

    Very good article. Every now and again it can be some what comforting  to come onto websites like this and realise that there is a handful of sane people out there who actually see the bigger picture. But of course we shouldn’t worry, as the experts keep telling us the only solution to our growth caused problems, is eh, more growth, but of course it will be sustainable, which of course makes me despair at how ludicrous a suggestion this is. Unfortunately, given the general fixation with growth and how unpopular a controlled contraction would be, the only thing  that I can see saving us from the worst of climate change is a (disorderly) collapse of the global economic system brought about by the permanent decline in production of oil and other fossil fuels, which all indications suggest is only be around the corner. But I suspect that even long after this reality our many so called ‘experts’ will be praying to God’s of growth. 

  5. John Gibbons says:

    Micheal, feedback appreciated. I suspect if you removed the word ‘growth’ from the language, RTE, Dáil Eireann, the ESRI and economists everywhere would struggle to complete a sentence. It’s repeated so often, it’s beginning to take on the qualities of a mantra, an incantation to quieten the angry gods. The word itself has lost all meaning. The climate juggernaut is coming down the tracks alright, but system inertia means we’re only feeling the breeze rather than the hurricane thus far. But I do believe you are correct: electromagnetic civilization is as fragile as it is complex, and it will most likely collapse in an ugly, dangerous mess well before the full impacts of climate change come home to roost. For most of humanity, getting through the next 5, 10, 20, 30 years is, I suspect, going to be tougher than it’s been for centuries.

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