This piece ran in the Business Post magazine in late August, as more and more media outlets rallied to engage with the climate emergency and its vast implications for all life on Earth, humans included.
AT EXACTLY 1.18am, on June 24th last, the pool deck at a beachfront condominium in Surfside, Florida, collapsed. Seven minutes later, the entire 12-story building crashed down, instantly killing around 100 residents.
Three years ago, a simple yet crucial design error was discovered in the 40-year-old building. This had led to rainwater pooling and gradually eroding the supporting concrete slabs.
The 2018 estimate for repairs was $9 million, but this rose to $12 million two years later. Owners faced bills of $100,000 per apartment to fund the repairs and many simply dismissed the findings of the engineering report. In April, just two months before the disaster the condominium president complained that discussions about the fixes had gone on for years, yet action still hadn’t been taken.
Repair works had still not commenced when, on the night of June 24th, the building’s structural integrity finally failed and it quickly collapsed under its own weight.
The Surfside disaster was manifestly a tragedy for those involved, all the more so, given that many of the victims of the disaster paid a terrible personal price for having rejected the advice of experts.
According to noted 20th century US physicist, Dr Albert Bartlett, “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is the inability to understand the exponential function”.
Put simply, in a world of hard limits governed by the laws of physics, anything that expands at an exponential rate, whether it is economic activity, resource consumption or a crack in a concrete slab will, in time, fail. Under sufficient pressure, even the most complex and seemingly resilient systems will crumble.
Despite this, all our current economic models not alone assume endless exponential growth, they actually depend on it to stave off economic collapse.
Consider the new era in human history, known as the Great Acceleration, that kicked off only around 1950. The 70 years since then has seen an explosive growth in the global use of energy, fertilizers, water, transportation, tourism, aviation and land clearance for agriculture. In today’s values, the global economy has grown 12-fold since 1950 to over $108 trillion.
In the same time frame, emissions of the powerful and long lasting heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) have increased six-fold, to over 36 billion tonnes today. Global atmospheric CO2 levels are now at their highest in at least three million years.
Human actions have fundamentally altered the chemistry of the entire planet in the span of a single lifetime. Scientists have long known that we are playing with fire when it comes to the global climate system. It has in the past lurched dramatically, and with devastating consequences for life, most markedly during mass extinction events.
This is not exactly news. In 1989, UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher delivered a famous address to the United Nations. “What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate – all this is new in the experience of the Earth. It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways”.
This unprecedented rate of change is, she added, “more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto…leading in turn to change in the world’s climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all”.
Thatcher, a champion of free market economics, noted that these markets were “a means to an end. They would defeat their object if by their output they did more damage to the quality of life through pollution than the well-being they achieve by the production of goods and services”.
That warning, along with countless others from the scientific community, went unheeded. Governments, including ours, promised to cut emissions but these promises, like eaten bread, were quickly forgotten in the headlong race for economic growth.
Now, the cruel summer of 2021 may at last be the moment when our hopes and dreams for the future we thought was ours are turned to ashes in our mouths. We have become Generation Incineration. And, as the recent IPCC report confirmed, climate breakdown is only warming up.
Given all the warnings, why did nobody act? Have we a collective death-wish? One intriguing explanation was explored by Robert Pirsig in his classic 1972 novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
He warned presciently of value traps, which occur due to an inflexible belief system, rendering us unable to adapt to changed circumstances and novel threats because we reject new facts alien to our existing values or beliefs.
To illustrate the hazards of value rigidity, Pirsig looked at the curious case known as the South Indian Monkey Trap. Developed by indigenous hunters to catch valuable but elusive monkeys, it usually consists of a hollowed out coconut chained to a stake, with a small hole bored in it and rice place inside – just wide enough for a monkey to reach its arm inside.
However, once the monkey grabs the rice, it can no longer withdraw its paw. “The monkey reaches in and is suddenly trapped…by nothing more than his own value rigidity. He can’t revalue the rice. He cannot see that freedom without rice is more valuable than capture with it”.
The hapless primate, committed to its prize, is unwilling to cede it, even at the risk of its own freedom or even life. The monkey continues to pull and twist to no avail, and even the sight of the hunter returning to the trap is not enough to persuade it to abandon the rice. The trap in this case is entirely of the monkey’s own construction.
That inability to accept a modest, temporary loss of something seemingly within its grasp, even when weighed against the infinite loss that such stubborn tenacity entails might suggest that our cousins are just not that clever.
Primates are in fact powerfully programmed by evolution to search relentlessly for food, and to hang onto it for dear life – in this case, literally. What this monkey is suffering from is an extreme example of short term reasoning – a fatal weakness in an otherwise skilled scavenger and survivor.
Of course, the wisest of apes, the highly evolved genus homo sapiens on the other hand would never trade certain future disaster for the possibility of avoiding moderate losses in the here and now?
Science makes it clear that we have no choice but to drastically constrain our energy and pollution-intensive economies and personal lifestyles in order to live within planetary boundaries. This is unequivocal, yet still we equivocate. Put in context, the average Irish person accounts for over 12 tonnes of CO2 a year, mainly as a result of our emissions-intensive transport, home heating, electricity production and livestock sectors.
Living within planetary limits probably means around one tonne per person. Yes, efficiency and waste reduction can help, but only a revolution in our human values can deliver the radical change needed. Against this, marketeers spend billions every year convincing us that we are entitled to fly as often as we choose, to eat red meat routinely and to drive a hulking diesel SUV if we can afford the finance.
This consumerist treadmill is largely operated by sociopathic transnational corporations whose business model is in turn predicated on exploitation and endless expansion.
Among the better off, extravagant lifestyles and consumption signal their high status to others, who in turn aspire to ‘live the dream’. The problem with dreams is that, sooner or later, we all have to wake up.
The ecological monkey trap is a self-constructed snare into which humanity, in its relentless rush forwards, has stumbled. Persisting in the belief that once the world wakes up to the certain fact that we’re in the process of wiping ourselves out we will step back from the brink appears little more than wishful thinking.
US journalist and author Chris Hedges explored this painfully when he wrote: “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity”.
The pathways to avoiding catastrophe are few and treacherous. All the easy options are long gone. It would require drastically ‘powering down’, switching to low-carbon sources, and making do with much, much less; a likely return to the modest material expectations of our grandparents’ generation. Yet, for any mainstream politician or economist to even hint at accepting this self-evident truth would mean electoral or career suicide.
We believe what we choose to believe, and in turn follow leaders who indulge rather than challenge our delusional thinking.
And this remains, perhaps the greatest challenge of all. Homo sapiens, the ‘wise ape’, having struggled to overcome all natural foes, is now facing the most intractable evolutionary conundrum of all – learning and accepting our own limitations as but one species among many, which together form the web of life on Earth.
Only by letting go can we hope to escape the trap our ingenious rapacity has sprung for us.
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator